Often Tokyo overpowers our images of Japan. The automotive and electronics capital boasts sleek skyscrapers, busy intersections with neon lights, and high-end luxury malls dotted with hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants. But there is another face to the country that offers pristine landscapes, ancient history and a rapidly fading culture.
During my recent visit to Japan, I traveled to several small towns that even many Japanese people living in Tokyo have never heard of. On a tour offered by Walk Japan, a local operator that advertises hiking and cultural tours around the country, I spent 10 days exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula located in the southwestern part of the country.
Our small group of four stayed at traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokans, throughout the tour. A far cry from my luxurious room on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo, these bare-minimum lodging facilities offer comfort, cleanliness and personalized service. I had to learn to sleep on tatami mats, bathe nude in common baths (called Onsen), wear a Yucata (dressing gown) every evening, and eat a regimental diet of raw fish, miso soup and steamed rice three times a day. All of this was very strange at first, nevertheless an experience that I learned to enjoy.
Small nuances made me realize the strong feeling of community that Japanese people share, which probably explains why Japanese tourists are always seen traveling in large groups.
For example, a room at the Ryokan is charged on a per-person basis. You may pay $400 for four people staying in each of their own rooms, or $400 for four people sharing one room. The Japanese tourist would prefer the latter. Most of the rooms at a Ryokan don’t come equipped with private toilets, and even outside guests come to bathe at the hotel’s hot springs and baths communal-style for a nominal fee. I never saw anyone dining alone at a restaurant in this area. There were always friends, families and guests sharing elaborate platters of homemade specialties prepared by the innkeeper, and very rarely any menus.
During the day, we discovered the rich history of Kunisaki, trekking through steep hills, dense forests and open fields. As we traced the paths of monks who had been through these areas for over a thousand years, we paid respects at rarely frequented Shinto shrines, stone carvings, statues, caves and Buddhist temples.
I found out that majority of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist, as well as Shinto, an ancient religious belief that focuses on shrine worship towards a multitude of gods. Around the 12th century, when Buddhism flourished on this peninsula, there were more than 50 temples with 800 buildings here. We spent a night at a ryokan adjacent to Fukiji Temple, the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu (circa 718 AD).
While some of the hikes were quite strenuous (8-10 miles each day), what I saw and learned during the day was priceless. Among other things, were shrines dedicated to Hachiman, protector God of Japan; Kumano Magaibutsu, the largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan; and Nyushutsu-nimon-ge’s resting place. Nimon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki approximately 1,100 years ago.
We ascended steep, slippery paths to Kumo-ga-take (Cloud Mountain) rising above the mists, to catch a glimpse of the lush green valleys below and Kyushu Mountains surrounding the horizon. Everyone took panoramic snaps of Tashibu-no-sho, a charming village with some of the most picturesque countryside found in Japan. A scenic drive through what looked like rolling hills of Switzerland, ended in Yufuin, a beautiful town where Mount Yufu (aka Yufu-dake) towers above a river cutting through the valley, scenic lake, paddy fields and temple bells.
As we walked through the rice paddies and farmlands growing buckwheat and soba, we rarely encountered anyone below the age of 70. An elderly lady tending to her vegetable farm wearing tall rubber boots and a peasant hat stopped us when she saw Ted, our guide, and invited us over for tea and cookies. We sat on the floor of her tiny cluttered room overlooking a coy pond, chatting about her grandkids and younger days.
She informed us that all of the villagers move to “the big city” in search of better education and work, leaving behind the elders to tend to the farms. When they pass, the kids end up selling or abandoning the family homes, since they no longer can take care of them. The government has started to offer free historic houses and a stipend to anyone who commits to moving to the village and restoring the properties, as well as actively participating in the community’s affairs. Although we saw hundreds of such homes collapsing, a few individuals disenchanted by the busy lifestyle have brought their families to raise their kids in the country where the air is fresh and life is simple and slower paced.
I noticed that the Japanese fascination for beauty was present whether one was shopping at Mitsukoshi, the oldest luxury retail store in Tokyo, or living in a remote island village.
One of the most pristine places on the trip was Himeshima (Princess Island), a sleepy town only 20 minutes ferry ride from Imi Port. There was a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach close to the harbor that was completely unoccupied on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s biking past. They were covered from head to toe in baggy pants, oversized long-sleeve shirts, and wide hats with built in scarves that covered their faces and necks. It was a far cry from the other beach destinations I am used to. The women couldn’t stop admiring my wheatish skin and couldn’t believe my age. With the help of Google translator (since we couldn’t converse in English/ Japanese), they were curious to know what kind of make up I was wearing.
Sucheta Rawal is an Atlanta-based food and travel writer and founder of the nonprofit organization, Go Eat Give. She has traveled to 55+ countries and visited Japan in May 2015 through Walk Japan tours.