Text and photos by Yusuf Abdol Hamid
Think Japan and a few classic images spring to mind – the flashing lights and hubbub of Tokyo’s infamous Shinjuku district, the soft powdery slopes of a Hokkaido ski resort, or a herd of speckled deer, supposedly the messengers of god, nuzzling a tourists’ hands in Kyoto’s Nara Park.
But consider that the archipelago has nearly 7,000 islands – and is bursting with fresh delights, you’ll miss it if your focus is Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hokkaido.
The Golden Route through the Hokuriku region is an under-explored gem on Honshu’s west coast that, while geographically far from the urban centres of Tokyo and Osaka, is a mere five hours by train (from Tokyo to Osaka), and passes through the dragon-shaped collection of prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui, Niigata, and Toyama.
A Hokuriku Arch pass (24,000Y Adults / 12,000Y Children; SGD 245 and SGD 290) allows for unlimited travel between Osaka and Tokyo along the Golden Route (http://shop.westjapanrail.com/). The trains are punctual, spotless, and comfortable to a fault – a perfect environment to admire the changing scenery through the region, from the coastline up to the rugged mountains of the Tateyama mountain range in Toyama.
Each prefecture is littered with remnants – physical or in the form of ancient traditions – of Japan’s hallowed Edo period, an era of unprecedented peace and innovation. Stone castles, unspoiled lush gardens, ancient wooden postal villages along old highway routes, and numerous hot springs resorts make this region perfect to gaze upon a slightly slower, older face of Japan – rich with songs and dances from an ancient time, and natural wonders.
What is travel without the luxury of tasting something new? Those who think they know sushi may have to think again – the Sea of Japan has many surprises, which fishermen and chefs along the coastline have been refining into gorgeous cuisine for centuries.
Awana-onsen, about two hours from Osaka by Thunderbird (all covered under the Arch Pass), is a quiet introduction to your Hokuriku experience. There’s none of the busy thrum of the major cities – instead the stop feels provincial and overwhelmingly underpopulated.
Locals have long admired the town for its collection of over a dozen hotels with natural onsen facilities – far more relaxing to dip in a pool in nature than within the confines of gymnasium-style walls of the public pools.
Mimatsu (Tel: 0776-77-2600) takes your comfort a step further – by piping the hot, mineral rich onsen water directly into large tubs in the balcony of your room. There are 28 of these luxurious balconies that face a Japanese garden – trickling water and wind sounds only – to complete your sense of a natural immersion.
Tojinbo – a kilometer-long stretch of scraggly, dramatic coastline draws locals by the thousands during the summer months, who regardless of age, scramble up and down the dangerous cliffs to get a better view of their mortality – over 80 metres down to the sea.
It’s an interesting contrast – the severe, eroded cliffs, jutting out from the mainland where visitors meander up and down a road lined with restaurants and ice-cream shacks.
The legend holds that an evil monk called Tojinbo was summarily murdered – pushed off the edge while drunk – by other well-meaning monks. His spirit still causes some mysterious phenomena – none of which seem to happen while tourists are around, unless the legend refers to the squid ink ice-cream on offer at nearly every stall.
The cliffs themselves are a marvel – volcanic rock that hardened about half a million years ago – but the easily eroded sedimentary layers on top of the rocks give Tojinbo its distinctive, cathedral-like visage.
Embrace the relaxed, provincial spirit of Fukui and challenge yourself to a cliffside hike – starting closer to the wind turbines south of Tojinbo, passing Tojinbo itself, and then the end of the 4km route at a small island just off the coast.
The cliffs are best viewed from the sea itself – flash your Hokuriku Arch Pass for a 200Y (SGD 2.40) discount off the Tojinbo Excursion Ship – tickets sold right at the main entrance of Tojinbo.
If you’re planning a few days in the prefecture – the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum (51-11 Terao, Muroko, Katsuyama City) is a vivid trip back in time – all housed in a massive silver dome perched on a hill like an observatory.
There are 44 full-scale replicas – including the 22m long Brachiosaurus, which somehow doesn’t seem so large in the cavernous hall of the museum. More stunning are the exhibits that feature dinosaurs dug up right in Fukui (and 18 other prefectures) and bear the prefecture’s name like the Fukui Raptor. There are still live digs happening in and around the museum, and children especially will love to watch the researchers work at grinding away rock to get to the fossils underneath.
Still on the Thunderbird, the Golden Route then bends towards Ishikawa Prefecture – and the capital Kanazawa City. Kanazawa thrived during the Edo period and historical sites are littered within the city, none of which are further than a few bus-stops from each other.
Kanazawa City is just two and half hours from Tokyo – and the cities share a similar vibe, albeit with a fraction of the population crush. But when you peel away the modern face of Kanazawa, there are little pockets of history that balance out the soul of the city.
The Higashi Chaya district looks how historians imagine an Edo castle town was – and escaped most of the destructive air raids towards the end of World War II. Chaya is a teahouse, where traditionally, Geisha’s would entertain their clients with a song, dance, and sophisticated discussions that wives of the 18th century were unable to provide.
If you rub your eyes, it seems like nothing has changed. Geisha are still tottering down the street daintily, arm in arm with a sprightly young man dressed in kamishimo. But while the people are still Japanese, they are mostly tourists from other prefectures, doing a little cosplay of their own history.
For another dose of nostalgia for the Edo period, walk over to the Nagamachi Samurai District – a stunningly well-preserved residential district at the foot of the former Kanazawa Castle. The narrow lanes and water canals are accessible on foot – which bring you closer to the aged earthern walls blocking off these private museums from the rest of the world. But some houses remain open to the public – like the restored samurai residence of Nomura-Ke.
The Samurai’s lost their power and fortune at the end of the Meiji-era, but a wealthy merchant called Takada bought the home at Nomura-Ke, and the home remains as it was hundreds of years ago – with expensive Koi placidly circling in the pond of the stunning garden of bonsai and ancient stone artefacts.
After a few hours of cultural immersion – a few bus-stops away is the Kenroku-en Gardens (1 Kenroku-machi, Admission: Y310), designated as one of the three most beautiful in Japan. The former outer garden of the Kanazawa Castle, it somehow sits below a natural river system – which drives hydraulic pumps for non-mechanised fountains, and gentle waterfalls.
The grounds have been open to the public for the last 150 years and is the ideal garden to stroll in and get your bearings – whether you’re in a Meiji, Edo, or post-war frame of mind – since some of the trees are well into their 300th year. Some trees are weighed down with dramatic histories – like a cherry tree that was hauled over from a neighbouring city – but required the destruction of hundreds of homes in its path to Kenroku-en.
With an ice-cream in hand (and mouth), ponder the true meaning of Kenroku-en, or “six attributes garden”. The attributes were held in high-regard by garden designers, and many aimed for all six – though perhaps only Kenroku-en managed to achieve them all. Spaciousness, seclusion, water courses, panoramas, artifices, and antiquity – the garden seems to challenge you not to find these attributes at every turn.
There’s 12 hectares of unique flora and fauna to explore, along with a large, contemplative statue called the Meiji Monument ringed by maple trees. Sit with your soft-serve and watch Japan go by – there’ll still be occasional young ladies in Geisha-wear strolling by to emphasise the timeless nature of Kenroku-en.
Toyama prefecture is unique for its topography – miles of flat farmland stretching out to Toyama Bay, famous for bio-luminescent squid, and then a sudden ascent up the Japanese Alps to an altitude of 3,000m and heavy snowfall. This happy marriage of climates results in some of the freshest water, and subsequently some of the best rice and sake in Japan.
But there is a region, up in the mountains, that has for centuries been locked away due to its remote location and harsh environment – resulting in a unique and resilient culture that is now common amongst the people of Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go.
These are centuries-old villages, some supposedly stretching back 800 years, that are still occupied by descendants of the original inhabitants. Tourists, both local and international, make the long drive up the winding mountain slopes for panoramic views of the villages – distinct because of their Gassho homes, inverted-V shaped structures that look like hands clasped in prayer
The roofs are thatched with thick straw from their crops – the perfect insulation against the biting winter cold that can insulate residents of these valleys for up to half a year.
It has been possible for some time to stay in these villages at several of the guesthouses – run by families who still practice farming and other aspects of their traditional lifestyle.
Ainokura in Gokayama is a smaller collection of about 20 homes – far smaller than the village of Shirakawa-Go but affords a more intimate experience for a homestay.
The Yomoshirou home is run by Higashiyama Kunihiro, 62, and the 13th generation of residents in the original structure – a two story Gassho house. (9200Y (SGD 112)/person/night, dinner and breakfast included).
The rooms are spacious tatami chambers with warm comforters suitable all year round – at this altitude the night gets chilly even in summer. But the highlight is the personable treatment by Kunihiro-san and his family, including a painstakingly-made dinner of soft and chewy Iwana – a river fish cooked gently over coals gently for two hours until utterly soft and chewy right down to the bones.
Surrounding this savoury delight are bowls of various mountain vegetables and mushrooms that grow wild like bamboo shoots, young ferns, nameko mushrooms in miso soup – all of which have a bright, springy texture.
In broken, halting English, Kunihiro-san explains the hunting and gathering techniques of his forefathers, and a brief but lively exhibition of a local song and dance routine.
The mornings are ideal for a stroll up to the higher slopes where nearly the entire village of Ainokura is visible – a sleepy hamlet gently kissed by the early morning rays of the sun.
Some old industries are still running – like Washi (rice paper) making – and tourists are encouraged to make their own prints. It’s a surprisingly simple process, although the souvenir shop holds some beautiful and complicated prints – including an entire wedding dress.
In the Yusuke house, explore the second-floor gallery with exhibits on silk-worm growing and gunpowder manufacturing – typical industry for the Gassho villages from the 1800s onwards. But the proprietor of Yusueke house, Ikehata San, adds a personal touch to the gallery with a priceless collection of his photographs of Ainokura spanning the last 50 years or so. It’s a unique window into life far away from regular civilisation – yet their appearance and mannerisms seem utterly similar to the Japanese you meet anywhere else.
Ainokura is about an hour-drive from Toyama City, or 50 minutes from the larger, more touristy Shirakawa-Go – so plan to arrive in the afternoon, stay the night and explore more in the sunlight the day after. There are regulations against night-walks as a courtesy to the residents of the town.
The Shinkansen on the Golden Route ends its curve at the heart of Japan’s largest city – and the contrast from the quieter regions of the last few days can make quite an impression.
The busy parts of central Tokyo are a whirlpool of people in gray suits and cardigans, padding their feet from one office to another – while delicious aromas waft from any number of restaurants or snack stalls that seem to crowd any available retail space either underground or by the roadside.
Yet despite its overt modern face, Tokyo is actually the source of much of the culture you would have appreciated throughout the Hokuriku region. The influential Edo period is named after the former name of Tokyo, Edo, a name and era that lasted for a momentous 260 years.
There’s no better authority on the subject than the Edo-Tokyo Museum (1 Chome-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida), which celebrates the history and culture of Tokyo from the 1600s to the modern day.
The allure of the museum lies in its vast permanent exhibition on the fifth and sixth floors – which spans about 20 basketball courts worth of life-sized replicas of daily life across the different ages.
The trip back through time begins at the mouth of the Nihonbashi bridge replica on the sixth floor. The same bridge still stands today, though rebuilt countless times, in Ginza – which was historically a commercial district. There’s a helpful blend of physical and digital displays – like map overlays on screens that show the distribution of properties over time. Amazingly most of metropolitan Tokyo was once owned by Samurai families – and 1:30 models show in intricate detail the Daimyo residences and former Edo Castle – the scale helps you understand that these residences would have been massive even by modern standards.
Don’t miss the original wooden prints – a process invented in the Edo era – which resulted in wonderfully detailed graphic novels, mass-produced as far back as 200 years ago.
Another joy of Tokyo is hopping into a simple, fuss-free ramen place for a bowl of steaming noodle done in a variety of similar but complementary styles. The locals may chug this soupy concoction without much emotion – but since you won’t be in a rush to go back to work, have a leisurely meal at Kyushu Jangara (3 Chome-11-6 Sotokanda, Chiyoda) in Akihabara.
This popular joint is mobbed on weekends and during meal times – with most customers crying out for their pork bone, Tonkotsu ramen. The mild soup is easy to drink – almost too easy – which is why they offer refills of both soup and noodles if you’re running low on energy and high on desire. The most luxurious combination includes chunks of marinated pork and seasoned cod roe, which leaves you with an entire bowl rich with umami flavor.
Also good for a quick and fuss-free meal is Memory Lane or known to locals by a less savoury nickname involving a lack of toilets. This narrow lane is just outside the west gate of Shinjuku station and is a packed collection of small bars, food stalls and yakitori grills which date back to its illegal roots in the 1940s.
Come late, toss back some sake with a stranger and while the night away with some sticks of grilled chicken skin – and let the smell of Tokyo’s ancient and modern history wash over you at the end of your journey on the Golden Route.
This trip was supported by the GCP (Grand Circle Project) – comprised of the Tokyo, Saitama, Gunma, Niigata, Nagano, Gifu, Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui Prefectures. Find out more at http://hokuriku-arch-pass.com/explore_japan