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Roads of Oku: Travels in Japan: Journeys ...

Describes a series of road trips in Japan begun in spring 2004.

Roads of Oku: Travels in Japan

Dennis Kawaharada

Inspirations for Travel in Japan...

The Poetry of Matsuo Bashō: The poet Bashō with his companion Sora traveled to northern Honshū in 1689 and wrote his classic travel narrative Narrow Roads of the Deep North (Oku no Hosomichi). We first followed in his footsteps on our road trip in 2005, stopping to see some of the famous places he visited, then continued to explore his route in subsequent trips. By 2018, we had visited and photographed practically all the places he mentions. That year, I finished and published a translation of the narrative entitled Summer Grasses, Autumn Wind (available in print at; I also marked the route on a Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Roads of the Deep North).” (Below: Departure. “Friends lined the road to bid us farewell and stood there for as long as they could see the shadows of our backs.” From an illustrated scroll of Oku no Hosomichi. Yosa Buson (1716–1784). Itsuo Art Museum, Ikeda, Ōsaka)

The Woodblock Prints of Utagawa Hiroshige and Keisei Eisen: Another inspriration for our travels was the nineteenth-century woodblock prints in Utagawa Hiroshige’s Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō and Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen’s Sixty-nine Station of the Kisokaidō (Nakasendō) depicting travel on the two main roads between Edo and Kyōto. We drove along the Tōkaidō and Nakasendō in spring 2008, and in subsequent road trips. By 2020, we had visited and photographed almost all the stations on the two roads and posted the photos in Scenes Along theTōkaidō and Scenes Along the Kisokaidō (Nakasendō). We also started visiting and photographing the places depicted in Hiroshige’s Collection of Prints of Famous Places in the Sixty+ Provinces. (Below: “Satta Peak,” Station 16. Yui, depicts travelers descending toward Yui along a cliff called Satta Pass, with Suruga Bay and Mt. Fuji in the background.)

Other Historic Roads: We also went to photograph scenes along two other historic roads, the ancient Yamanobe-no-Michi in Nara Prefecture and the pilgrimage routes known as Kumano Kōdō (Old Roads of Kumano).

My Grandparents: My grandparents emigrated from Hiroshima Prefecture to Hawai'i in the early twentieth century. Their stories are told in “Child of History” (in Roads of Oku: Journeyʻs in the Heartland) and in Makisō (1887–1953) and Harumi (1899–1999) Kawaharada. My mother, Matsuko Kawaharada (21925–2020), took us to visit the ancestral hometowns and my grandparents’ families in Mukaiharamachi, Gōnomura, and Tomomura in Hiroshima Prefecture in 1970.

Fleeting Scenes: Road Trips in Japan is a more recent website at with photos of road trips from this website and more recent trips. The website contains photos from the 46 prefectures we were able to drive to. See Touring the Prefectures.

Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

On the Road in Kansai

Ancient Capitals, Ise Shrine, and Beyond / March 17-28, 2004

Updated: July 22, 2010
[Note: This article is a revised version of “On the Road through Kansai: Scenery and Shintō Shrines,” which originally appeared as a travel article in the Honolulu Advertiser on June 6, 2004.]


At the center of Japan's main island of Honshu is the region of Kansai, known for its ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara and the modern metropolises of Osaka and Kobe. But beyond these cities, Kansai offers the visitor areas of scenic wonders and cultural sites.

I wanted to visit places off-the-beaten path, particularly sacred sites associated with Shinto, Japan's still-active native religion, and its nature and ancestral deities called kami.

The best way to get to these places, it seemed, was by car. Friends warned me about the challenges of driving in Japan – e.g., you drive on the left, signs are often only in kanji characters, city streets are a maze, and city parking is diffcult to find; but the Lonely Planet guidebook assured me that "Driving in Japan is quite feasible, even for the just mildly adventurous."

I chose two routes, one that went east from Nara to Ise, the shrine of the sun kami Amaterasu, then south to Kumano San Zan, the three Great Mountain Shrines of Kumano, a destination of pilgrimages since the tenth century. After visiting the three shrines on the southeast side of the Kii Peninsula, we drove back to Nara through the central mountains.

The other route went north from Kyoto to the Tango Peninsula at the east end fo San-in Coast National Park and Amanohashidate, considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan; then east to Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, and back to Kyoto.

Between the two driving tours, we stayed in Nara and Kyoto to visit the famous sites in and around those cities, where getting around on public transportation is more convenient than driving.


Map by Honolulu Advetiser. Click on the image for a Google Map.

I wanted to avoid driving in the complex expressways and streets around the airport and Osaka, so we caught a bus from Kansai International Airport to Nara.

We spent a morning walking around Nara's Deer Park and Todaiji, a temple consecrated in A.D. 752, a couple of hundred years after Buddhism was introduced from China via Korea. Todaiji ("Eastern Big Temple") served as the headquarters of a complex of provincial temples built throughout Japan in order to pray for the protection of the nation against epidemics, famines, and natural disasters.


Todaiji is the world's largest wooden building, housing the world's largest bronze Buddha, fifty-three feet high.


Nearby, Kasuga Grand Shrine, also dating from the eighth century, was under renovation. Noted for its three thousand stone lanterns, the shrine is dedicated to Futsunushi, an ancestral deity of the Fujiwara clan and a kami of swords who played a role in founding the nation.


Ise Shrine

That afternoon, we rented a car and drove to Ise, the location of Shinto's most sacred site: Jingu ("Kami Palace"). The shrine was established 2,000 years ago for Amaterasu Omikami, the sun kami, from whom the Imperial family traces its genealogy. The ceremonies for Amaterasu (twenty major ones per year) mirror the seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting rice. The ceremonies are conducted to ensure good weather and a bountiful harvest.

To avoid crowds, early the next morning, as the sun rose above the low hills, we drove to the shrine and entered through its large torii and across the Uji bridge over the Isuzu River.


On the pathway to the shrine was a temizuya, a water-basin where visitors wash their hands and rinse their mouths. There is also a place for ritual purification on the banks of the Isuzu River. Cleanliness and purity, inner and outer, are at the heart of Shinto.

Ise TemizuyaIsuzu

The immaculately-kept gravel pathways shaded by hinoki (Japanese cypress) led to wooden buildings associated with keeping Amaterasu happy and content — a house for food preparation and a house of sacred music and dance. Other structures enshrine deities associated with her, such as the kami of wind and weather.


Amaterasu lives in a house which can be approached, but not entered, by ordinary visitors. Worshippers stop at a gate to pay their respects to the kami or offer prayers. The entrance had a white cloth hanging in front of it. The morning breeze lifted the cloth to reveal another gate. The high roof of one of the shrine buildings is visible above a side fence.

Ise shrinesFence

Built on pillars of hinoki and thatched with kaya grass, the unpainted dwelling looks like a well-kept cottage rather than a palace. To keep it fresh, the shrine is rebuilt every 20 years in its original form on an adjacent lot; after the kami is moved into her new house, the old house is taken apart, and the beams reused at Ise and other shrines.

Ise shrine

Ise Shrine, © 1910. New York Public Library

When we got back to the parking lot, visitors were arriving by the busload. We stopped for lunch at Oharai-machi, a reconstructed Edo-era street lined with shops and restaurants just outside of the main torii gate. The lobster udon was excellent. From one of the shops, we bought a bottle of saké made with the water of the Isuzu River.

Before leaving the Ise area, we took a short drive to Futami to see Meoto Iwa ("Wedded Rocks"), two rocks separated by water at high tide, but joined by a thick rope braided from rice stalks. The rocks are named Izanagi and Izanami after the brother and sister who descended from Heaven and gave birth to the islands of Japan. The rocks are just offshore from a frog shrine dedicated to a kami of food.


South to Kii

From Ise, we headed ninety miles south to the city of Shingu, the location of one of the three sacred shrines of Kumano.

From ancient times, three pilgrimage routes went south to Kumano's three shrines. The one from Ise, on the east side of the Kii Peninsula, was used by commoners. The second route, from Yoshino through the rugged central mountains, was used by mountain ascetics seeking enlightenment and supernatural powers through the practice of Shugendo ("way of discipline and training," a syncretic sect combining elements of Shinto, Buddhism, and Taoism). The third route, used by the Imperial court, went from Kyoto along the west side of the peninsula through Wakayama. Sections of the stone-paved pilgrimage trails still remain.

The watershed of the Kumano is within the Yoshino-Kumano National Park, a region of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, gorges, and hot springs.

An ancient tradtion connects the region with the Taoist search for the elixir of eternal life. In the third century BCE, fearing death, Qin Shi Huang, who unified China and built the first Great Wall, sent Jofuku (Xi Fu) to find this elixir, rumored to be in the Land of Happy Immortals in mountains in the eastern sea.

Jofuku crossed the Sea of Japan with five hundred ships. One version says the ships were destroyed by a typhoon, and only Jofuku survived to reach Kumano; another version is that he arrived with 3000 men, women, and children. Kumano was paradise for Jofuku. He believed that the elixir would be found among the abundant herbs growing in the verdant mountains, and he spent the rest of his life there searching for it.

Although he ever found the elixir, a medicinal plant he discovered called “Tendai Uyaku” is used to treat kidney disease and rheumatism. The plant is made into both a tea and a wine. Jofuku is remembered for introducing Chinese farming, fishing, and papermaking techniques to the area. A park and a gravesite in Shingu are dedicated to him. (Other traditions say Jofuku landed on Kyushu or Okinawa.)

We took Route 42 from Ise to Shingu. The road winds through mountainous terrain down to the sea, then straightens out for twelve miles along pebbly Shichirimihama ("Long Beach"), the longest beach in Japan. The beach is a breeding ground for loggerhead sea turtles. The eggs laying and hatching season extends from May to September.


At the north end of Shichirimihama is Onigajyo, or Ogre's Castle, an eroded volcanic headland full of caves and crevices, with a cliff trail along its ocean front.


Just south of Onigajyo, on the beach, is Shishi Iwa, a large rock shaped like a crouching lion.


Just past Shishi Iwa near the side of the road is Hana no Iwaya, a 150-foot-high monolith. This rock is said to be the rock that Izanagi used to block the exit of the Underworld to prevent his sister from pursuing him into this world and killing him. She was angry that he had seen her as a decaying corpse.

RocksHana No Iwaya Rocks

At the base of the rock is an altar. Rice-straw ropes suspended from the top of the rock are used in rites to honor Izanami. One website notes that “Hana no Iwaya no Otsunakakeshinji is still observed in February and October in relation to the Hana no Iwaya, as a festival retaining the content of ancient rites described in the myth of Japan.” The festival is described in the eight-century account of the gods and early emperors Nihon shoki ("Chronicles of Japan"):

When Izanami no Mikoto gave birth to the Fire-God, she was burnt, and died. She was, therefore, buried at the village of Arima in Kumano, in the province of Kii. In the time of flowers, the inhabitants worship the spirit of this goddess by offerings of flowers. They also worship her with drum, flutes, flags, singing and dancing.

In Shingu City, in a grove of trees along the Kumano river, is one of the three Kumano shrines. Called Shingu ("New Shrine") or Hayatama Shrine, it's dedicated to Hayatama-no-okami, the first kami to be born from Izanagi’s spittle after Izanagi returned from his Underworld visit to his sister Izanami. In the tradition of Shinto-Buddhist syncretism, Hayatama-no-okami is identified with Yakushi, the Buddha of medicine and healing. The shrine is also dedicated to Izanagi.

ShinguShingu Shrines

Nearby, on a cliff of Mt. Gongen is a shrine called Kamikura, associated with Hatayama Shrine. At the top of a steep stone stairway, the small shrine has been built to worship a large spherical rock called Gotobiki.

Gotobiki ToriiRocks

Locals climb the stairs for exercise and prayer in the morning. The shrine offers a view of Shingu City below.

Kamikura View

We spent three days touring the Kumano area. Up a mountain road a few miles south of Shingu is Nachi Taisha, another of the Kumano San Zan shrines, founded in the fourth century and dedicated to Fusumi no okami, who is an avatar of the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon and also identified with Izanami. A hollow camphor tree at the shrine has an altar inside of it where visitors can place ofuda (small wooden plaques) on which they write their prayers.

Nachi shrinesNachiNachiKusunoki nachi trees

Behind Nachi Shrine is a section of the old Kumano pilgrimage trail.

Kumano trail signKumano pathKumanoTrail shrine

Near Nachi Shrine is the tallest waterfall in Japan – the 400-foot high Nachi no Taki. The waterfall is worshipped as a kami called Hiro, whose shrine is situated in front of the falls. He is an embodiment of its life-giving waters, said to confer longevity if you drink it.

Nachi falls

The waterfall was a site for one of the famous austerities practiced in the tradition of Shugendo. In the winter of 1160, the wandering monk Mongaku vowed to remain standing under the waterfall for twenty-one days while reciting three hundred thousand invocations to his god Fudo-myo-o:

It was past the Tenth day of the Twelfth Moon [around January]. The snow was deep, the ice was thick, the valley streams had fallen silent, a freezing gale blew from the peaks, icicles had formed in the waterfall, and all the surroundings were perfectly white, even to the branches of the trees. Mongaku entered the pool below the torrent, submerged himself to the neck, and set about reciting a fixed number of invocations to Fudo. (The Tale of the Heike)

Fudo is a fierce guardian who converts anger into salvation, subdues demons and frightens unbelievers into accepting Buddhist law.

Mongaku endured the icy water below the falls for several days before losing his footing and floating downstream, where a young man pulled him to shore. After regaining consciousness, he was angry at having failed and returned to the waterfall to continue his recitation. On the second day, two divine messenger of Fudo floated down from the top of the waterfall to warm him and give him strength, and he was able to fulfill his vows.

At an izakaya (saké and food bar) in Shingu, a friendly patron recommended we go south to Kushimoto, describing the drive as "Sugoi!"("Awesome!"). We took his advice and went there the next day. On the way, we passed Hashigui Iwa ("Bridge Post Rocks"), an row of rock columns jutting up near shore like the remnants of a giant bridge.

Bridge Post Rocks

Just south of Kushimoto is Shiono Cape, the southernmost point of Honshu, with a view up the east and west coasts of the Kii Peninsula and ships entering and exiting Osaka Bay. At this relatively warm southern site, the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom.


Kawayu: Steaming River

The next day, we left Shingu on Route 168 to see the third Kumano shrine, Hongu ("Original Shrine") and to stay overnight at Kawayu ("Hot-water River"), a nearby hot spring village.

On the way, we stopped at Shiko and rode a jet boat up Doro Gorge, cut into forested slate and sandstone hills by a tributary of the Kumano River. The long, narrow flat-bottom boat skimmed up gentle rapids in the shallow, meandering riverbed to a scenic spot in the gorge. Cranes, cormorants and hawks fishing along the river.

Doro GorgeDoro Gorge

West of Doro Gorge, approached by a long tree-lined pathway is Hongu, dedicated to Ketsumiko no mikoto, a kami considered to be a manisfestation of Amida Buddha and also identified with Amaterasu’s brother Susano-o .


The storm god Susano-o, like Amaterasu, was born from the washings of Izanagi's body as he purified himself in a river to remove the pollution caused by being near his sister's corpse in the Underworld. Amaterasu is said to have been born from the washing of Izanagi's left eye and Susano-o from the washing of his nose. A third sibling, the moon kami Tsukiyomi, came from the washing of his right eye.

Unpainted and roofed with cedar bark, Hongu is the most traditionally constructed of the three Kumano shrines. It embodies the simplicity, purity and natural harmony of the original Shinto architecture before continental influences introduced images and bright red paint.

Hongu shrineShrine

We arrived at Kawayu on a chilly afternoon, ideal for soaking in the naturally-heated pools dug into the stone-and-pebble river bank. The rising steam gave the village a feeling of mystery as evening fell.


Like the mineral waters of the numerous other hot springs in the mountains and along the coasts of the Kii Peninsula, Kawayu is said to have medicinal qualities, in particular, curative of nervous disorders and internal diseases.

The next morning, we continued on to Nara via Routes 168 and 24. On the map, Route 168 looks like a squiggly line drawn by a child. It has countless curves, twisting along deep river valleys and through one-lane mountain villages.

Construction work to protect the road from falling rocks and to widen and straighten it with tunnels and bridges created delays. It was slow going at times, but the scenery was grand: green rivers reflecting mountain forests, and ridges fading one behind another in the misty spring rain.


From Nara we took a train to Kyoto and spent a couple of nights at a hotel near the station. We visited the tomb of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who rose from a farming family to become regent and chancellor of Japan in the sixteenth century. He died at the age of 63 in 1598 at Fushimi Castle and was buried, by his request, in a tomb at the top of a Amidagamine hill. The current tomb, up a flight of 500 stairs, was extensively reconstruction in 1898 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of his death. Walking distance away are Kiyomizu Temple, Chion Temple, and Yasaka Shrine.

ApproachTombKiyomizuderaThe waterTemple bellYasaka

North to Tango

The next day we rented a car and drove seventy miles north via routes 9 and 176 to Amanohashidate ("Standing Bridge of Heaven"). This two-mile-long sand spit lined with pine trees stretches across Miyazu Bay at the eastern base of the Tango Peninsula.


The sand spit is said to be the remnant of Ama-no-uki-date (“Floating Bridge of Heaven”), where Izanagi and Izanami stood and stirred the brine of the empty sea with the tip of a spear. The brine dripping from the spear-tip formed the island Ono-goro (“Self-Condensed”). The two gods descended to this island and while living on it, procreated Oho-ya-shima-kuni (“Land-of-the-Eight-Great-Islands”), known today as Japan.

You can walk or bicycle across the spit. On the sunny but chilly day when we were there, the path was deserted, though I read the area can get very crowded in the peak summer months. The best view of the spit is via chair lift or cable car to an amusement park at the top of a hill. From there, if you bend over and look between your legs, the sand spit appears to be afloating in the sky.

The fifty-mile drive around the Tango Peninsula runs along the coast past islands and offshore rocks and fishing villages.

Tango coastFishing town

At Kyoga Cape – the northernmost point of Kyoto prefecture – a forty-minute hike up to and down from the lighthouse was a welcome stop along the winding road. Wild monkeys were foraging on the road to the parking lot. The view of the coast from the lighthouse was breathtaking.


The town of Ine was particularly picturesque, with boats parked beneath the shoreline houses.


Drying fish

That night we stayed at Refre Kayanosato, a small hotel with modest rooms and a herb garden, a healing herb spa, a good restaurant and a gift shop selling herbs and herbal teas.

OnsenRefre Kayanosato

Across the street was an arts and crafts colony. The rice-farming town is also known for its dyed silk.

Near the hotel was the reconstructed site of an ancient burial mound, or kofun, dating from 1,600 years ago. These tumuli built for local and regional chieftains were originally encircled with clay cylinders called haniwa. A well-kept museum displays the haniwa and burial goods found at the site.

Burial moundHaniwa

Returning to Kyoto, we took routes 178 and 27 east to Kaminaka, 303 through the mountains, then 161 along the western shore of Lake Biwa. These routes are used by big, slow-moving trucks and go through some not particularly attractive small cities and towns. To take a break from the traffic, when we got to Lake Biwa, we stopped at Shirahige Shrine, which features an offshore torii.


We could see across the glassy lake until it grew misty and the distant shore disappeared.

Biwa shoreMist

Lake Biwa is famous in poetry and art, for example, as the subject of Hiroshige's Eight Views of Omi (the old name of the province of Shiga prefecture), which included a print of geese descending above boats at Katata on the western shore of the lake:

Fishing boats

Thirty-six miles long, the lake was formed almost four million years ago. The lake provides drinking water for the surrounding region. It has over four hundred in-flowing streams. The main outlet, at southern end of the Lake, is the Seta (or Uji) River, which flows southwest into the Yodo River, which empties into Osaka Bay. The lake is home to fifty-eight endemic species of plants and animals (more than any other lake in Japan), including fifteen unique species of fish (catfish, chub, carp, salmon, sweetfish, trout); but non-native black bass and bluegill, introduced for sport-fishing, have multiplied so abundantly, they are reducing the biodiversity of the lake.

Back in Kyoto, we returned the car and took the local buses and trains to day destinations in the city and nearby. One day we caught a train to Osaka to visit its castle and its aquarium, next to which is a giant ferris wheel. Both ferris wheel and castle offered views of Japan's second largest city, after Tokyo.

Ferris wheelCastle

View from ferris wheelView from castle

The sakura bloom we saw beginning at Cape Shiono was coming into fullness at Osaka Castle:

Osaka sakura

The next day we went south by train to Fushimi to visit the Gekkeikan saké brewery and museum. The town also has a shopping arcade and a canal offering boat rides.


With an all-day bus pass we continued to visit the famous sites of Kyoto (counterclockwise from top left): Ginkakuji, the Philosopher's Walk, the rock garden at Ryoanji, and Kinkakuji.


Philospher's walkRyoangi

The sakura bloom at Osaka Castle was a highlight of our spring journey; but the sacred rocks of Kumano were just as impressive.

SakuraSacred rocks

Cherry blossoms and rocks figure into one of Shinto's central myths:

When Ninigi, the grandson of Amaterasu, descended to earth and proposed marriage to Kono-hana saku-ya-hime (“Princess who blossoms like the flowers of the trees”), her father, O-yama-tsu-mi no Kami (“Great-mountain-possessor kami”), agreed to the marriage, but also sent his older daughter, Iha-naga-hime (“Rock-long-princess”). Ninigi married the beautiful flower princess, but sent back the ugly older sister. O-yama was shamed. He told Ninigi that thereafter, Ninigi’s offspring, instead of living as long as rocks, would have frail, short lives, like blossoms.

It was Ninigi's mistake not to marry both. In reality, the Japanese revere blossoms and rocks: sakura remind us of the transiency of our lives; iwa of the enduring spirit of the land.

Roads of Oku: Travel in Northern Japan

In the Footsteps of Basho and Beyond / May 19-June 8, 2005

Last Edited: August 30, 2010.
[Note: This article is a revised version of ““Poetry in Motion: Travels in Northern Japan in the Footsteps of Bashō and Beyond,” which originally appeared as a travel article in the Honolulu Advertiser on June 26, 2005.]

BashoAt the end of spring of 1689, the haiku poet Basho traveled from Edo (now Tokyo) to Oku — a term that referred to the northern provinces of Honshu, then the northern border of Japan. Today, “oku” has taken on a broad and, for the traveler, alluring meaning — variously, deep north, far province, remote, out of the way.

I read Basho's travel narrative Narrow Road to the Deep North 35 years ago, and it has remained a favorite. As I was planning a trip to northern Japan, I reread it, hoping to locate and visit a few of the utamakura (storied places) that inspired some of his best poetry.

Travel was more difficult in Basho's time: his journey on foot and horseback over unpaved roads and paths without signs took five months. The 45-year-old poet got only as far as Hiraizumi and Kisakata before returning south along the Sea of Japan.

Today, we travel faster and farther, on wider roads. We rented a car for three weeks and drove as far north as we could, past Hiraizumi, to the end of Honshu. Then, since we had come so far north and didn't know when, if ever, we would be here again, we caught a car ferry and continued on to the northern tip of Hokkaido island before returning to Narita Airpot via the backside of Japan.


Map by the Honolulu Advertiser. Click on the image for a Google Map.

Nikko to Hiraizumi

One of Basho's first stops was Nikko ("Sunlight"). Still fresh on his journey, the poet inked a celebratory haiku:

glorious! / green leaves, young leaves / in Nikko

We arrived in mid-May, like Basho, when Nikko is still bright green-gold with new leaves and rice shoots sprouting in mirror-like ponds.


Over breakfast at dawn, the innkeeper praised his hometown for its clean air and abundant water. When I told him we planned to see Urami Falls and Kegon Falls, he told us about a third waterfall, Kirifuri ("Falling Mist"), a 5-minute drive from the inn. A walk through a forest with blossoming azaleas took us to a lookout below which Kirifuri tumbled down a sun-lit mountainside.


We visited Nikko National Park's most famous site, Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617 as a mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the shogun who established a unified nation and a dynasty that ruled for two- and-a-half centuries.

ToshoguToshogu lions

On our way up to Lake Chuzenji, we hiked a short ways to see Urami no Taki ("View from behind Falls"), which appears as it did when Basho saw it:

a waterfall ... came pouring out of a hollow in the ridge into a dark green pool a hundred feet below. The rocks behind the waterfall were so carved out that we could enter behind the falls and see out from it, hence its name.


A road known as the Iroha Slope, full of S-turns, goes one way up to and one way down from Lake Chuzenji, with a view of Kegon Falls on the way up.

Kegon fallsChuzenji road

From Nikko, Basho descended to the plain of Ibaraki and headed for Sendai and Matsushima through Nasu, Shirakawa, Nihonmatsu, and Fukushima. We took a less-traveled road through the mountains to the town of Ashinomaki and through Bandai-Asahi National Park. (In fall 2009, we followed Basho's route through Nasu, Shirakawa, Nihonmatsu, and Fukushima, to Sendai, to see some of the utamakura we missed in 2005.)

Two odd sights along the road: a miniature replica of Mt. Rushmore carved into a low stone cliff; and a disabled BMW, with one front tire stuck in a narrow concrete drainage ditch next to the road. At Ashinomaki, hot-spring inns are built along the Aga River flowing north to Aizu Wakamatsu.

InnsAga River

After a quiet night and an early morning walk along the Aga River, we headed for Yamagata Sendai via Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan. We stopped to walk at Goshikinuma ("Five Colored Marshes") near Mt. Bandai.


In the afternoon, we reached Yamagata, where the poet visited Risshaku ("Standing Rock") Temple, perched on a rocky hill dotted with caves. Basho describes the temple as quiet, remote and lonely:

tranquil hush / a cicada's voice / permeates the cliff

At 3 pm, Risshaku was bustling; no cicadas, just the chirping of visitors (some of cell phones) going up and down the 1,100 stone steps leading up to the temple. But the tourist day was nearly over, and by the time we reached the top, the crowd had thinned, leaving a peaceful view from an observation platform.

Tour busesRyushakujiWalkwayView

As the afternoon waned, we drove the winding Route 286 over the mountains to the city of Sendai, hoping to see the moon over nearby Matsushima, as Basho had. This bay with 263 pine-covered islands was (and still is) considered the most scenic spot in Japan.

Instead, we saw the moon over Sendai Station above an avenue filled with cars and sidewalks crowded with businessmen and young shoppers garbed in a 60s fashion-warp. Our car was trapped in a vertical elevator car park, which was what the hotel meant by "parking available." O little Tokyo of the north!

Early the next morning, we got the car back, drove to Matsushima and walked around Oshima Island, which was once a place where Buddhist recluses meditated in caves. In spite of the millions that have described and photographed it, Matsushima appeared fresh and beautiful to our eyes.

Oshima bridgeIsland viewMatsushimaCaves

We looked for the former site of Taga Castle, which Bashō visited, to see Tsubo no Ishibumi, the stone monument whose ancient inscription brought "joyous tears" to Basho's eyes. The castle, actually an administrative outpost, was built during the Nara period (circa 800 A.D.) to bring the northern frontier peoples called Emishi under the control of the imperial court.

We ended up at the former site of Taga Castle Temple, a nice park-like area, where local residents were out for their morning walks.

Taga castle site

Tsubo no Ishibumi was harder to find. We were going to leave without seeing it, but noticed a photo of it on an overhead sign and asked an elderly man on his morning walk where it was. He said he would take us there, jumped into the back seat, and directed us to a park a few hundred yards and several turns away. The stone was housed in a small wooden building.

Stone monument

We offered to drive our guide back to where he got in, but he declined, bid us farewell and continued on his walk. It was the kind of civility Bashō and Sora encountered on their journey. On their way from Nikkō to Kurobane, in Nasu, they were unsure about the way and asked directions from a farmer cutting grass with a sickle:

As rustic as he was, he wasn’t without sympathy. “Let’s see,” he said, “What’s the best way? The roads around here branch off in every direction. I’m worried travelers new to the area may get lost. Here, I’ll loan you this horse. When he stops, let him find his way back.” ... Before long we reached a village and let the horse return, with payment tied to the saddle.

North of Matsushima is Hiraizumi, where in the 12th century the heroic warrior Yoshitsune took refuge from his rivalrous brother Yorimoto, Japan's first shogun, and committed suicide rather than allow himself and his family to be killed when his brother attacked.

For a hundred years, Hiraizumi had been the cultural and economic center of northern Japan under the Fujiwara clan. It never recovered from Yoritomo's attack. When Basho visited the area in the 17th century, fields of grass grew where mansions once stood:

summer grasses / all that's left / of warriors' dreams

The area is now the site of Motsuji Temple Garden. The day we were there, a Heian poetry festival was in progress.

Motsuji Temple GardenHeian festival

What remains from Basho's time, a little north of the park, is Chusonji, a temple complex established in 850. A modern protective hall at the end of a manicured path houses the Konjikido, or Golden Hall, a beautifully gilded mausoleum inlaid with mother of pearl and jewels, housing the mummified remains of three generations of Fujiwara rulers.


No photos are allowed of the Golden Hall, but a photo of it (right) appeared in the online Japan Times (Kyodo/Cultural Affairs Agency, Yoshiaki Miura), when Hiraizumi was being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in June 2011.

Nearby is a statue of the wandering poet.

Basho statue

Beyond Hiraizumi: Northern Honshu

From Hiraizumi, Basho headed west, to Sakata and Kisakata on the Sea of Japan. We drove northeast instead, to see Rikuchu Coast National Park, which extends 110 miles along the Pacific Ocean, and get to Oma from where we planned to take the car ferry to Hokkaido. (In fall 2009, we traveled west of Sendai to see some of the utamakura of Basho's narrative like the Narugo Gorge, the Shitomae Barrier, Obanazawa, and the upper reaches of the Mogami river.)

As we headed north, the rugged coastline was shrouded in mist and rain.

Rugged coastlineView of coast

After a morning hike up and down ridges along the coast, we visited Ryusendo ("dragon spring cave"), 2,500 meters long, with an underground lake and a stream running through it.

RyusendoView of cave

We spent the night in Mutsu, at the base of the Shimokita Peninsula, so that the next morning we could visit Osore-zan ("Terrifying Mountain"), a volcanic crater and lake, with Bodai Temple inside the crater.

Bodai templeOsore-zan

The sulphurous crater is said to be a borderland between the realms of the living and the dead, where spirits can be contacted through mediums called itako who gather there in the summer. The cawing of crows and a cold drizzling rain created a melancholic atmosphere. We were the only ones there.


Scattered over the sulphurous landscape are small shrines dedicated to children who have died before their parents. The shrines feature statues of the Mahayana Buddhist deity Jizo, adorned with hats and bibs. Among the shrines and along the shore of the lake are small piles of rocks.

Osore jizoPiles of rocks

Jizo pledged to wander the six realms of existence to help all suffering creatures toward salvation. According to Buddhist folklore, the souls of the aborted, the miscarried and the stillborn (mizuko) are placed in limbo because they haven’t done anything bad and can’t be sent to Hell, yet they haven’t accumulated any good deeds that would allow them to reach the river Sanzu and cross to the Western Paradise. They end up at a dried-up river called Sai-no-kawara. Here their spirits stack stones and pebbles into pagodas as a way to attract the attention of and worship Jizo.

Others say the children are praying for salvation and building small stone towers in order to climb out of limbo into Paradise. Parents stack rocks to assist the spirits of their children in this task to shorten the spirits' stay in limbo. Visitors may also add stones to the piles as a good deed.

Stone towersBoys day

After nightfall, demons with iron clubs, under Shozuka no Baba, come to scatter the rocks, strip the children of clothing, and beat them. Jizo protects the children from these demons by hiding them in his glowing robe and driving the demons off with his staff. Articles of clothing are sometimes left by parents to replace any clothing taken.

The bibs, kerchiefs, and hats (often red) found on the statues of Jizo are gifts to thank him for his protection of the children and to encourage him to continue to take care of them. Pinwheels are placed along the pathways as toys for the children or perhaps like Tibetan prayer wheels to spread prayers abroad and invoke the benevolent attention of Jizo.


North of Mutsu and Osoresan, at the tip of Shimokita Peninsula, is the fishing town of Oma. The town is noted for its catch of maguro (bluefin tuna), schools of which come in the winter to feed on schools of sanma (mackerel) in the Tsugaru strait. The fatty belly meat of maguro is the most prized cut of sashimi.

The car ferry from Oma crosses the strait from Oma, Honshu, to Hakodate, Hōkkaido, arriving in a little under two hours.

Car ferryView from ferry

Hokkaido: Under the North Star

In Basho's time, all of Hokkaido, except the southern tip, was not Japan, but the homeland of the people the Japanese called Ezo, later Ainu, who refer to the island as Ainu Moshiri (“land of the people”). The island was unilaterally annexed by the Japanese government in 1868 and renamed “Hokkaidō,” or “Northern Sea-Road,” indicating the direction of Japanese colonization.

When the first Japanese settlers arrived on Hokkaido is not documented, but by the end of the twelfth century, there were settlements on Oshima peninsula, which extends south into the strait.

By the mid-1400s, the Japanese had extended their territory over the Oshima Peninsula. Matsumae and Esashi were the main settlements. Tensions between the Wajin and Ezo increased, until in 1457, Koshamain, the Ainu chief of Oshamanbe, attacked Japanese towns, including Matsumae. The tide of battle ebbed and flowed, but the Japanese held off the Ainu and remained in their settlements.

Sporadic fighting continued for almost a century until an agreement was signed in 1550 to establish a territorial boundary at the line between the towns of Shiriuchi and Kaminokuni, reducing the Japanese-controlled area to the southwestern tip of Oshima, around Matsumae.

In 1617, gold was discovered in a river eleven miles north of Japanese settlement of Matsumae and gold prospectors came. Their digging polluted rivers and interfered with salmon migrations, so tensions again grew between the two groups. The Ainu consider running streams sacred and did not wash soiled objects in it.

From 1669 to 1672, the chief Samkusaynu (Shakushain), with a thousand Ainu followers, led an uprising against the Japanese. But their poison-tipped arrows were no match for guns, and the Ainu were routed at Oshamanbe. Because of the loss of their hunting grounds and salmon streams and the loss of population due to the spread of diseases such as syphilis, smallpox, measles, cholera, and tuberculosis, Ainu control over Hokkaido gradually weakened.

Japan began systematically colonizing Hokkaido in the 19th century. Matsuura Takeshiro (1818-1888), who explored Hokkaido and Chishima (Kunashiri Island), exposed the forced labor with pay one-seventh to one-fifth of the prevailing wage for Japanese. Kayano recalls that his grandfather, Totkaram, was one of those forced into labor, with his mother and father, when he was eleven years old. In hopes of being sent home, the young boy cut off his left index finger; but his overseer told him to put salt on his wound, and it would soon heal. Finally Totkaram painted himself with blowfish bile from, which turned his skin yellow-gray; fearing that he had a contagious disease, his overseer finally sent him home.

Matsuura advocated against the practice of forced labor, arguing that the Ainu should be seen as people rather than “primitives.” Although his expose (written between 1854-1859) was banned, the Meiji government put a stop to forced labor. Matsuura was appointed Ezochi Development Commissioner in 1869 oversaw the annexation of their lands and promoted the settlement of Hokkaido by the Japanese.

The Meiji government brought in American advisors and experts in surveying, engineering, geology, mining, and agriculture to speed up economic development in Hokkaido. Experimental farms introduced Western agricultural equipment and practices to produce wheat, potatoes, beets, soybeans, onions, pumpkins, and corn, as well as raw milk and beef. In 1879, Hokkaido was declared part of the emperor’s lands. Today the island, a major food-producing and forestry region.

Best known for its Sapporo Snow Festival in February, Hokkaido is also home to six national parks, four at the corners of the island and two in the center. In a week and a half, we drove to all six, so we see the geographical and cultural diversity of the island.

Our first stop was Shikotsu-Toya National Park, named after its two lakes. Along the shore of Lake Toya is a small hot-springs town. In late May the cherry blossoms were falling along the lake.

SakuraLake Toya

Rising above the lake is Mount Usu, a volcano which last erupted in 2000; nearby is Showa Shinzan, a steaming volcanic cone created by a 1944 eruption.

Mount UsuVolcanic cone

On the way to Kushiro at the east end of the island, we went up the Saru River valley where Ainu culture originated: Here the god Okikurmikamuy taught the people to build houses, fish, and raise millet. Farms line both sides of the road that follows the river upstream.

The traditional Ainu culture emerged from a blend of the indigenous Jomon culture and Japanese culture. In the thirteenth century, this proto-Ainu culture appeared on Hokkaido, marked by shifts from pit-dwellings to houses on pillars and from pottery to iron cooking ware. Although the Ainu shared some cultural beliefs with the Japanese and traded goods with them, they are more closely related genetically and linguistically to the Jomon than to the Japanese. Also, they were traditionally not rice-farmers (rice did not grew well in the cold north); they lived as hunters of deer, bear, and rabbits; fishers of trout (summer) and salmon (fall); gatherers of wild plants; and cultivators of grains and vegetables.

The Japanese government's repressive policy of assimilation in the 19th century destroyed the Ainu language and culture. In recent decades, due to a more tolerant policy and the work of Ainu elders and scholars, the language and culture have begun to be preserved and somewhat revived, albeit in a modern context.

We stopped in the town of Shiraoi, which promotes a reproduction of an Ainu village and a museum. Before entering visitors have to walk a gauntlet of stores selling curios and just past the entrance, there was a cage of bears, which were worshiped as gods. The “iyomante,” or bear-sending ceremony, which was central to Ainu religious beliefs and cultural identity involved setting a captive bear cub free, before killing it in order to send its spirit back to the spirit world, with dancing, offerings, and an invitation for more bears to return. The slain cub was consumed at a communal feast.

The grounds of the village were deserted when we arrived, but a tour group showed up to half-fill the seats in a traditional house where young Ainu performed traditional songs and dances, a reminder of the culture that had been loss.

ShiraoiAinu performance

From Shiraoi we drove to Kushiro, an industrial town and fishing port on the east side of the island.


Kushiro is noted for its fresh, delicious seafood, for sale at Washo Market and in restaurants:

Washo marketCrabs

North of Kushiro is Kushiro Marshlands National Park, with Japan's largest wetland. In late May, the landscape is colored in shades of grays, browns, and dull straw, with greens emerging.


The reedy marsh is home to the tsuru, or Japanese crane, known in Ainu as sarorun chikap, or “the bird among the tall grasses.” Their nests are lined with down, which the Ainu believe brings prosperity and abundant life, so when they find a nest, they take the lining home, wrap it in whittlings of willow and carefully put it away in a box at the northeast corner of the house (a protection from evil, which was thought to come from that direction).

We walked through the marsh on a boardwalk trail, but saw no cranes, only small birds.


The best time to see the cranes is winter, when they perform their mating dance. Even then, there’s no guarantee of a sighting. There was a stuffed crane at the park museum, with other stuffed animals that live in the marsh, none of which we saw in the wild.

North of Kushiro wetlands is Akan National Park with three lakes and forested mountains. Lake Akan is noted for its marimo, an algae that grows in round balls.

Akan National ParkAlgae

A legend about the origin of these algae balls is told in Takahashi’s Folktales of Hokkaido, a thin book published by the author, an English teacher at Hokkaido University: two lovers were separated by class, the girl a chief’s daughter and the boy a servant who grew up with her. A jealous suitor attacked the sleeping servant boy, but the boy killed his attacker. The distraught servant boy then drowned himself in the Lake. The girl, unable to overcome her grief, drowned herself as well. The marimo are said to be their offspring, which are cherished by the people of the lake. The gift shops are filled with marimo souveniors.

The gem of Akan National Park is Lake Mashu, a crater filled with possibly the clearest water in the world. Looking west from Mashu, we could see the central mountains and highest peak on Hokkaido, Asahidake, rising above the clouds.

Lake MashuAsahidake

From the lookout along the rim of the crater, the oblong lake appears far below, with a small island in it. Takahashi’s Folktales includes a story about the island in the lake: in a war between two villages, the son of the chief of the losing side escaped in the care of his old nurse. They were separated, and she waited for him at the shore of the lake, where she prayed to the mountain gods to transform her into an island so she could stay awake all to watch for her ward. Her wish was granted. When someone lands on the island, it rains or snows, which is a sign that the old nurse is weeping for joy thinking the boy has returned to her. From the crater-rim lookout, looking to the west, you can see all the way to the central plateau and the high mountains at the center of the island.

One of the oddest experiences of our trip: as we were leaving Mashu, a scrawny fox stepped out from the roadside brush and walked directly at our car, so we had to stop to avoid hitting it. Then it walked up to the side of the car, as if to ask for food.


It was the first fox I had ever seen. Luckily, we didn’t feed it because Karen’s mother told us later that if you feed a fox, its spirit will follow you home.

The Ainu, like the Japanese, believe in the magical, mischievous and wily qualities of the fox, capable of possessing people and causing illness, insanity or even death. An Ainu belief is that if you kill a fox while hunting, its spirit will go around and warn other animals away; so a hunter who takes a fox ties its mouth shut to prevent its spirit from leaving its body.

A skull of a dark-colored fox, considered good, may be posted outside a house to ward off evil spirits; it may also be consulted for oracles; a red-colored fox, on the other hand, is considered demonic, the kind that possesses people. They stay in their burrows during the winter because they can’t stand the cold, and come out only in warm summer weather. They are said to dig up human corpses and feed on them.

The fox is also known as a shape-shifter, appearing as a human to play tricks on people. Ainu scholar Shigeru Kayano says that a fox disguised as a human can be discovered by offering it a snack consisting of a bladder full of dried salmon eggs; a human will eat one egg at a time, but a fox will stuff its mouth.

At the far northeast tip of Hokkaido is Shiretoko ("End of Earth") National Park, noted for waterfalls plunging off cliffs into the sea, and abundant wildlife, including deer, bears and eagles. We wanted to hike to Kamuiwakka, a hot spring-fed waterfall, but the trail was closed, perhaps due to a bear sighting. So we drove up to Shiretoko Pass, from where, in a sea of mist off the east coast, we could see the mountaintops of Kunashiri, one of the Kuril Islands, which have been occupied by Russia since World War II and claimed by Japan.

ShiretokoShiretoko Pass

We decided to go down to the fishing village of Rausu on the Pacific side of the peninsula. There was not much to see in the town, except fishing boats and seagulls. Kunashiri was clearly visible across the Nemuro Strait.

Fishing boatsSeagulls

We were going to continue up the coast to a couple of hot springs in the rocks by the sea, but it was getting late, so we turned around and headed for Abashiri. By the time we got to our ryokan on Mt. Tento, it was late afternoon and the sun was setting over Lake Notoro, with sun rays breaking through horizon clouds, followed by sunset and a lingering twilight.

Sunset above Lake Abashiri / Dawn, with sakura in bloom in late May

An early morning walk to the lighthouse at Cape Notoro was enjoyable.

Cape Notoro

When we got back to the ryokan, we visited the Ryuhyo (“Drift Ice”) Museum, which was a short walk away and more interesting than its name suggests. The museum documents a winter phenomenon called drift ice: fresh water from the Amur River in Russia freezes and drifts in an icy sheet south across the sea of Okhotsk to northeastern Hokkaido. The ice reaches Hokkaido in January and melts by April.

There has been less ice recently due, apparently, to global warming. There was no ice in late May during our visit, but the museum had a wide-screen theater, empty except for us, featuring a documentary about drift ice and exhibits of the wildlife (e.g. tiny shrimps) that live on, in and under the ice, with a large freezer room that is supposed to give the visitor the experience of a Hokkaido winter. Cold-weather jackets are provided.

Ice museumFox

The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, also near the ryokan, featured artifacts of the Inuit (Alaska, Canada, Greenland), the Siberian peoples, and the Sami (northern Europe and Russia), all of whom share cultural practices and beliefs with the Okhotsk people, who migrated to Hokkaido from Sakhalin in the fifth century and settled the north coast of Hokkaido, including the islands of Rebun and Rishiri and the Kuril Islands. Hunters of sea-mammals (whales, porpoises, and seals), they inhabited Hokkaido until about 1300, when they disappeared as a distinctive group, pushed out, absorbed, or killed off by the Ainu.

According to a tale recorded by John Batchelor in the nineteenth century, the Ainu believed that the original inhabitants of Hokkaido were a race of tiny people who lived in pit-dwellings and who were exterminated by the Ainu. A legend suggests that the Ainu admired these tiny people for their abilty to fish for herring (five or ten men were needed to pull in a single fish) and to take whales: “Surely these pit-dwellers were gods.”

We drove past the Okhotsk archaeological site called the Moyoro Shell Mound, near the fish processing warehouses and harbor (not much to see), but didn’t have time to visit the Municipal Museum or the Shell Mound Museum where the artifacts uncovered are displayed.

On the way to Asahikawa and Taisetsuzan (“Great Snow Mountains”) National Park, we caught the ropeway at Sounkyo Gorge to Mount Kurodake, on the north side of the park.

To AsahikawaRopewayKurodake viewPath

The park, encompassing the central mountains of Hokkaido, features sixteen tall peaks, including the tallest on the island, Asahidake ("Morning Sun Peak") at 7,513 feet. The Ainu name for the area is Kamui-mintara, “Garden of the Divine.” We stayed at an onsen at the foot of Asahidake. In late May the ground was still snow-covered, though the snow was melting. Cross-country skiing is possible, but the hotel was nearly deserted.


A ropeway to hiking trails and a small alpine pond on Asahidake was closed for maintenance, in anticipation of summer crowds.

After watching the morning sun light up snow-capped Asahidake, we left for Wakkanai, 156 miles to the north, via Asahikawa, where we stopped at the Otokoyama (“Man Mountain”) Brewery.


This brewery was originally established in Itami, in Hyogo prefecture, near Osaka, over three hundred years ago. During the Edo Period, Otokoyama was a drink of choice for the Tokugawa household. Utamaro Kitagawa (ca. 1753 - 1806) and other eighteenth and nineteenth-century woodblock artists were fans of the saké and produced prints featuring casks of Otokoyama in the background of portraits of beautiful women, samurai, and kabuki actors. The prints are featured in the brewery museum, along with brewing equipment and utensils and saké bottles and cups.

The brewery in Asahikawa inherited the trademark and brewing techniques as an official successor to the original brewery in Itami. Otokoyama’s move to Hokkaido took place as Asahikawa grew from a village to a town in the early twentieth century.

Traditionally, saké is brewed in cold weather, from October to March, when the last batch of the rice used in brewing is steamed. Low temperatures make it less likely that undesirable microbes will get into the open fermentation tanks to affect the process; the cold also slows the brewing process, making it easier to control. Thus, one reason for Otokoyama’s move to Hokkaidø was the fact that Asahikawa is the coldest city in Japan (most days of snow, lowest temperature on record). After a brief autumn, storm clouds sweep in from the Sea of Japan bringing heavy, deep snowfalls. During the brief summer, the rain and melted snow in this mountainous region filters down through granite to underground reservoirs, and emerges in springs and rivers. A second reason for locating the brewery in Asahikawa is this excellent water, one spring at the entrance of the Otokoyama brewery.

Spring water

We tasted some saké at the bar in the museum and bought a bottle of daiginjo to take on our journey to Wakkanai.

Sake tasting

Route 40 to Wakkanai follows the Teshio River, between the Teshio and Kitami mountain ranges. Wakkanai is noted for its excellent seafood, and the hairy crab we had for dinner that night was delicious. Twenty-four miles across the Soya Strait is Russia's Sahkalin Island, visible on a clear day.


A ferry service connects Hokkaido and Sakhalin and signs in Wakkanai are written in Kanji, Roman characters, and Cyrillic. While strolling through the town, we passed a few Russians, mainly businessmen.

There is a plan to build a bridge across the relatively shallow Soya Strait (196 feet, or 60 meters, deep) and another one at the north end of the Sakhalin, across the narrower and shallower Tartar strait (3.6 miles wide and 65 feet, or 20 meters, deep). If the bridges are built, one could drive from Hokkaido to Spain. As trade between Russia and Japan expands, the probability of the bridges being built increases.

West of the town is Rebun-Rishiri-Sarobetsu National Park, which includes the islands of Rishiri and Rebun and an onshore area called Sarobetsu. We caught a ferry to Rebun and hiked up the hill at the southern end from where you can see Mt. Rishiri (5636 ft.), rising from the sea. It’s called Rishiri Fuji due to a faint resemblance to Japan's most famous mountain. Rebun is noted for its hiking trails and its small, brightly colored summer wildflowers, which were just starting to bloom, in white, yellow, and, purple.

RebunMt. RishiriYellow wildflowersViolet wildflowers

The harbor was filled with fishing boats. Uni, or sea urchin, from the waters around Rishiri, called Ezo Bafun, is said to be the sweetest in Japan.

Cape Soya, the northernmost point in Japan, 19 miles east of Wakkanai, is marked by a monument to the North Star (Hokushin or Hokkyokusei), a symbol of Hokkaido, marking the direction of Japanese colonization. (Hokushin is also worshipped as a Buddhist-Shinto deity named Myoken, a special protector deity of the land and country of Japan.)

Cape Soya

At the cape was a statue of Mamiya Rinzo, an explorer who, along with Matsuda Denjyuro, was sent to explore Sakhalin in 1808 to determine whether it was an island or a peninsula and also to assess the Russian presence there.

Mamiya Rinzo

Mamiya traveled up the east coast of Sakhalin while Matsuda went up the west coast; Mamiya eventually met Matsuda on the west coast, and they returned together to Shiranushi, a Japanese trading post on the south end of the island. The southern half of the island was occupied mainly by Ainu, and the north half by the Nivkh people, who were under Chinese rule.

In 1809 Mamiya went north again, this time alone, traveling in the winter and eating grass to survive. He learned of the presence of Russian hunters on the island. He accompanied a village chief across the Tartar Strait to Asia, then up the Amur river to Delen, a Chinese trading post in Manchuria, where the chief presented gifts for the Chinese emperor. Arriving in 1810, Mamiya saw various peoples of the region gathered to exchange goods, speaking different languages and using gestures and shouts to communicate with each other.

After a couple days in Wakkanai, we drove down the west coast to Sapporo on routes 232 and 231. Wind farms lined on portion of 232. A small town featured traffic displays reminding drivers to be be careful of children walking along the road.

WindmillsRoadside display

Approaching Sapporo, there was a waterfall next to the road, with the stream going under the road and into the sea. A crow flew down from the cliff and posed on the sign.


With 1.9 million people, Sapporo is Hokkaido’s largest city and the fifth largest in Japan. We checked into a hotel near the university (which grew from an agricultural college founded in 1876) and walked from there to the station and the park where Sapporo’s famous snow festival with its giant ice sculptures is held each year.

An area near the station is well-known for its ramen shops, and we stopped at one for lunch. We also couldn’t pass up a visit to the Sapporo brewery the next day, for some German sausages and a couple glasses of cold fresh brew. The brewery was established in 1869, as part of the movement to develop in Hokkaido industries based on Western technology and processes.

Sapporo breweryTasting room

Also worth a visit was the Sapporo Historical Village, where buildings from the colonial era have been brought together from various parts of the island and reassembled next to a park outside of downtown Sapporo. Modern Japanese have begun to romanticize the settlement of Hokkaido in a way similar to how European-Americans romanticize their settlement of the so-called Wild West; in Japan’s case, the Wild North.

Sapporo village

The story of the Hokkaidō colonization is woven into such recent movies as Hidden Blade (2004), about a samurai who renounces his status after learning of the corruption of his lord and realizing the changes brought about by Westernization. He plans to leave with his girlfriend, a farmer’s daughter, for Ezo. “Year One in the North” (2005) tells the story of a clan sent from Awaji Island to settle new lands in Hokkaidō at the beginning of the Meiji era, only to be abandoned there by their lord after clans are abolished. The clan overcomes all hardships to start farming and ranching on their new land.

We spent our last night on Hokkaido in Hakodate. On the ways south, we passed Mt. Yotei, called the Ezo Fuji:

Mt. Yotei

In 1853, Commodore Perry’s warships steamed into Hakodate to pressure the Shogunate to open ports to foreign trade and re-supply of American ships. Soon after, the British, French, and Russians also arrived. Along with Nagasaki, which had been previously open only to the Dutch, Hakodate and Shimoda (on the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo) were designated as ports for foreign ships. These port were isolated (which is why they were chosen), so the foreigners eventually demanded and obtained the rights, starting in 1858, to enter the ports of Yokohama, near Tokyo; Kobe, near Osaka; and Niigata, on the sea of Japan.

The night we arrived in Hakodate, we wandered the area around our hotel near the waterfront looking for a place to eat. There were dozens of seafood restaurants; we ended up at a small restaurant near the hotel where the crab, abalone, squid, scallops, and other seafood were keep alive in tanks and prepared raw or grilled when customers place their orders.

Hakodate restaurant

The next morning, we took advantage of the early northern summer sunrise to tour the town at 6 a.m. We drove through the deserted foggy streets of Motomachi, at the foot of Mt. Hakodate (1095 feet), where Meiji-era Western-style clapboard houses and stone buildings are located – including the Old British Consulate, a Russian Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic church, the Chinese Memorial Hall, the former office building of the Prefectural Government, and the old Public Hall and Post Office.

There is a ropeway to a lookout on Mt. Hakodate, but it was too early for it to be running, so we drove up the winding and narrow road instead. The morning mist hadn’t lifted, so there wasn’t much of a view. Below us, past the trees, was Motomachi, with its steeples and rooftops barely visible in the fog, and the rest of the city fading into the near distance.


We went back to the small restaurant where we had dinner and ordered abalone sashimi over rice for breakfast.


With some time to kill before driving onto the ferry, we walked around the morning market, where four hundred or so stalls were selling Hokkaido’s wealth of fish and farm produce.


It was easier to drive on Hokkaido than on Honshu — the roads are wider and straighter, and the streets of Sapporo and Asahikawa are laid out in numbered grids.

The Backside of Japan

Back on Honshu, we drove on an overcast day down the west side of the Shimokita Peninsula, which turned out to be the wildest experience of the trip. Route 338 winds in and out and up and down a largely uninhabited mountainous coast. When we stopped at Hotokegaura ("Buddha Bay"), with limestone pillars which vaguely resemble statues of Buddha, the wind was gusting down the mountain at 25 knots, moving in dark patches across the sea below. This area facing the setting sun is said to a leaping off place Amida’s Western Paradise; a place is reserved for dead children. Thus Buddhist geography is fixed on the peninsula, with the limbo for the souls of children in the east at Osorezan and the departure point to Paradise on the west side, at Hotokegaura.


On one stretch of road, as the mountainside switched from left to right and a fog rolled in, I had a "Twilight Zone" feeling that I was going back in the same direction I had come from, even though there was only one road and we hadn't turned off of it.

The area is a preserve for wild monkeys, and a troop appeared in the fog, foraging in the trees, with a couple of them scampering along the electric wires overhead.

After a night in the very attractive small city of Aomori, we headed south for Tsuruoka via the Oyu Stone Circle, south of Lake Towada. The two stone circles, with diameters of 45 m and 40 m, werediscovered in 1931 and date from about 4,000 years ago during the Jomon era. Burial pits discovered beneath clusters of large stones within these circles suggests the circles mark cemetery boundaries. What looks like a sundial within one of the circles has given rise to speculation that the sites may have also had some sort of astronomical use.

Sundial?Stone circles

The Oyu stone circles are the largest of about thirty similar stone-age sites, distributed from Hokkaido in the north to the Chubu Highlands in the south, the oldest dating from the Early Jomon period (6000-5000 BCE)

The Jomon, named for their distinctive cord-imprinted pottery, were hunter-gatherers whose ancestors arrived in Japan from South and East Asia and thrived in the rich natural environment for 10,000 years. They were absorbed and/or displaced by rice cultivators from the Korean Peninsula who migrated to Kyushu and southern Honshu around 400 to 300 B.C. and spread gradually to eastern and northern Honshu, developing complex political units and a culture shaped by Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.

Farther south, along the coast, we rejoined Basho's route at Kisakata ("shellfish lagoon"). In his time, Kisakata bay, like Matsushima, was filled with islands covered with pine trees. It was considered one of the most picturesque bays in Japan. He stayed at Kanmanju Temple, which is still there, in rice fields near shore, just off the coastal highway. According to one tradition, the temple was so named because the empress Jingu, wife of Chuai, the legendary fourteenth head of the imperial family, is said to have dedicated two jewels here, the kanju (ebb-jewel) and the manju (flow-jewel), which together control the tides of the bay.

KanmanjuRice fields

In 1804, an earthquake raised the floor of the lagoon so that what once were islands are now hummocks surrounded by low-lying rice fields.

I was curious as to whether you could see Mt. Chokai from the temple, as Basho describes it while sitting at the temple: "to the South, holding up the heavens, its shadow reflected in the bay." However, it was too cloudy, and the bay no longer filled the land between the temple and the mountain. We visited the temple again in the fall 2009 and saw the mountain from the cemetery at the back of the temple.


When Basho got to Kisakata, the weariness of his journey and the muggy, rainy summer began to darken his writing: "Whereas Matsushima seemed to smile, Kisakata droops in dejection. The lonely, melancholy scene suggests a troubled human spirit."

At Sakata, we crossed the Mogami River, where Basho wrote a poem expressing relief at the end of a long hot summer day:

a scorching sun / enters the sea / Mogami River

Mogami River

We spent two days in Tsuruoka, near Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains of Dewa: Haguro-yama (“Black-Feather Mountain,” 1,358 feet), Gassan (“Moon Mountain,” 6,509 feet) and Yudono-san (“Bath-Chamber Mountain” 4,934 feet). Sites of worship for shugendo (a Buddhist-Shinto sect practicing mountain ascetism), each mountain was identified with a Buddha and a Shinto kami:

Haguro-yama: Kannon, goddess of mercy / Tamayorihime, “Divine Bride”

Gassan: Amida Buddha / Tsukiyomi, the moon kami

Yudono: Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha / Oyamatsumi ("Great mountain possessor")

Like other pilgrims, Basho climbed all three.

coolness / faint crescent moon / Haguro-yama

cloud peaks / countless, collapsing / Gassan

words prohibited / Yudono / sleeves wet with tears

Pilgrims still climb the three mountains to go through a symbolic death and rebirth through ten successive realms – the six realms of suffering and the four realms of enlightenment – to become bodhisattavas ready to return to the everyday world to assist others along the path toward enlightenment. They visit sacred sites around Gassan, including praying before a rock pinnacle and crawling through a rock cave. Enlightenment is said to come from understanding the sounds of wind, birds, and insects as voices of the kami and buddhas.

In a light mist and drizzle, we climbed the 2,446 stone steps to the temple atop Haguro-san. (The road and trail to Gassan are closed until the end of June. Yudono closes for the winter at the end of October and opens in May.)

Cedar trees2446 steps


The temple atop Hagurosan was founded in the seventh century by Nojo Taishi. He was led by a mystical three-legged crow into a small valley with a waterfall at its far end, where he performed his first ascetic training and discovered a statue of Kannon.

The mountainous area around Dewa Sanzan is one of the traditional centers of shugendo. In times past, some ascetics practiced an extreme form of self-mortification: self-mummification through an increasingly restrictive diet and the drinking of a tea and water whose contents killed off bacteria and after death, maggots. The practitioner had himself sealed in a cave to mediate before passing on. The practice was outlawed in the 19th century.

The mummified remains of two priests from the 18th and early 19th century are worshiped at temples south of Dewa Sanzan. Out of curiosity we went to see Tetsumon-kai (1768-1829) at Churenji temple, half wondering if it was a hoax.


To my surprise, a mummy was on display, sitting in the lotus position in a glass case on an altar, dressed in a hood-like cap and red cape, his aged skin shiny black, as if lacquered, and clinging closely to his skull and bones, his eyelids drawn over hollow sockets.

I felt awkward not being of the faith. The woman at the shop where Buddhist items are sold, reacted somewhat coldly when we told her we were "just visiting" (i.e., not there to pay for a worship service). She appeared somewhat more pleasant after we bought two omamori, or protective amulets, at $10 apiece. Somehow, I felt our road luck might run out if we didn't.

For a more light-hearted experience, down the hill, there is a tourist center with Yamagata souvenir shops, a bungee-jumping operation, and an Amazon River nature museum. The area is known for its June-July ski season, when the access road to the glacier-based ski area on Gassan opens.

South of Tsuruoka, we traveled the coastal route through Niigata. The leg from Tsuruoka to Kanazawa was the most difficult part of the poet's journey: "During nine long days we endured heat and rain, which afflicted my spirit. I became ill."

Twenty miles offshore is Sado Island, about which Basho composed this haiku:

rough seas / leaning above Sado / the River of Heaven

About Sado, he later wrote a prose piece:

From the place called Izumozaki in Echigo, Sado Island is eighteen li [twenty-seven miles] away on the sea. With cragginess of its valleys and peaks clearly visible, it lies on the side in the sea, thirty-odd li [40 miles] from east to west. Light mists of early fall not rising yet, and the waves not high, I feel as if I could touch it with my hand. ... from past to present, a place of exile for felons and traitors, [Sado Island] has become a distressing name. As the evening moon sets, the surface of the sea becomes quite dark. The shapes of the mountains are still visible through the clouds, and the sound of waves is saddening.

The tranquil River of Heaven overhead, as if sheltering this island of exile, suggests the compassion of Amida Buddha and Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

As we drove down the coast in early June, the weather was in the low 70s, though warming. Stopping at sandy beaches lined with pine trees and rocky headlands overlooking coves, we searched the horizon for Sado but couldn't see it in a haze between the calm ocean and the blue sky.

HorizonNiigata coast

Crossing Japan Alps to Mount Fuji

At Joestsu we left the poet's route and turned inland for the castle town of Matsumoto in the Japan Alps. (In winter 2008, we went south from Kanazawa to Tsuruga to see some of the Basho utamakura we missed in 2005.) The next morning, before heading for our last stop at Lake Kawaguchi, one of five lakes on the north side of Mount Fuji, we drove up to Utsukushigahara ("Beautiful Fields") to see some summer mountain scenery.


The expressway goes from Matsumoto to Kofu, then a road takes you over Misaka Pass to Fuji. Confused by the signage, I got off the expressway too soon and had to use the GPS to navigate through some ricefields, then up and down the narrow, winding Shoji Blueline Road, ending up at Lake Shoji, west of Lake Kawaguchi. Fujisan was suddenly there, but shrouded in clouds.

As the center of population and political power in Japan shifted from western to eastern Japan in Tokugawa times, Fuji-san, a near-perfect volcanic cone and the tallest mountain in Japan, emerged as the piko (navel) of the nation, marking the start and end of journeys for the Edo traveler.

As Basho left for Oku, he noted the faint outline of Fuji-san at the dawn horizon 75 miles southwest of the capital.

The mountain is said to be shy: On the first day we were there, only a small portion of her snowy summit peeped through the clouds. The next day, the clouds around the summit had dissipated.

Fuji in cloudsLake Sai

In early June, the flowers at Kawaguchiko Music Box Museum and Garden are in full bloom.

Kawaguchiko gardenFlowersMusic museumGarden cart

At 3 a.m., the next morning, we drove 18 miles to watch the 4:30 sunrise at the fifth station. When we arrived, no one was there. Some tourists arrived a little before sunrise and departed before us.


We said goodbye to Fujisan from a gas station before heading back to Narita Airport.


Journey's End

Five years after returning from his journey to Oku, Basho set out on another journey; he fell ill and died. His failing health had intensified his awareness of the passage of time: Not only was his own life fleeting, but the ancient sites themselves were changing and disappearing:

Many utamakura (storied places) have been passed down to us; but mountains collapse, rivers flow, roads change, stones are buried and hidden beneath the earth ... and the traces of what once was are now uncertain ...

Driving on Route 16 in the outskirts of Tokyo through the heaviest traffic on the widest roads (six lanes) of our trip, the changes that had occurred since Basho's time were obvious.

Not only is Japan Westernized, industrialized and high-tech, its northern borders have expanded and its past extends way beyond the sites that Basho visited, into prehistory, through archaeological finds like the ones at Moyoro and Oyu.

What Basho considered ancient is no longer as ancient as it once was; what was remote, no longer that remote. But his poems about a fleeting human life still speak to us today, and his metaphor of life as a journey is timeless.

Where Gods Alight: Sacred Sites in Western Japan

November 16-December 4, 2006

Updated: July 17, 2010
[Note: This article is a revised version of “Where Gods Alight: Sacred Sites in Western Japan,” which originally appeared as a travel article in the Honolulu Advertiser on January 7, 2007.]

Every fall, from all over Japan, the eight million kami, or divine spirits of Shinto, gather at Izumo Taisha (Grand Shrine of Izumo), in western Honshu, where the storm god Susanoo arrived in mythological times. The gathering, to review the state of the nation, is set by the lunar calendar – 10.10, or ten days into the lunar cycle of the tenth moon after the first moon cycle following winter solstice.

Karen and I plan a three-week journey to arrive in Izumo to witness the kami gathering. To confirm the late November date, I call the branch of Izumo Taisha in Honolulu, where we go with her family on New Year’s Day for the annual blessing.

We also plan to visit another sacred site of Shinto: Mt. Takachiho, in southern Kyushu, where the grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu descended from heaven to assume political control of Japan. The relationship between the storm god and his sister, the sun goddess, is at the center of Shinto nature worship.

Getting to the two sites by car will take us across four islands and four straits, via three bridges and a ferry. There’s a lot to do, see, and taste along the way.

Map of route

Map by Honolulu Advertiser. Click on the Image for a Google Map.

Shikoku: Narrow Roads to Far Towns

After navigating the maze of stacked and dividing roadways in Osaka and Kobe, we emerge into darkness from the Maiko Tunnel and onto the Akashi Strait Bridge, a two-mile straightaway, dim-lit and dream-like, suspended from twin 924-foot towers, its vertical cables flitting by like celestial harp strings on both sides.

It’s the longest suspension bridge in the world, connecting Honshu to Awaji Island.

We spend a night at a newly-built onsen (hot spring) hotel in the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea) National Park, with a view of the bridge across the Naruto Bridge to Shikoku, Japan’s fourth largest island.


Attached to the bottom of the bridge is a walkway for viewing whirlpools that swirl in the narrow, rocky strait below as the tide flows in or out of the Inland Sea. Visitors also take sightseeing boats to see the whirlpools close up.

BridgeSwirling waters

Shikoku is best known for its 900-mile, clockwise-around-the-island Buddhist pilgrimage, with 88 temple stops, to free the devout from 88 evil desires—a bridge to bliss. (Going counterclockwise, according to folklore, can raise the dead.)

Buddhism arrived in Japan after Shinto, in the sixth century. The two religions have coexisted peacefully for most of their history, performing different, but complementary functions. Shinto offers protection, good fortune, health, and productivity for the land, sea, and people while Buddhism promises deliverance from suffering and death.

Temples and shrines are often located next to each other, and Bodhisattvas were worshipped as kami until a separation of the two religions was decreed during the Meiji period.

Ryozenji, the first temple of the pilgrimage, is in Naruto. At its shop, we buy an omamori (protective amulet) for traffic safety and head west toward Kyushu, following the Yoshino River through the mountain gorges of Koboke and Oboke.


In recent literature and film, Shikoku is portrayed as the antithesis of urban Tokyo and Osaka, a place where wilderness and traditions linger. The heart of its wildness is its sparsely-inhabited central mountains, where spirits dwell and roads cling precariously to steep slopes and wind through narrow river valleys.

River valleyRoadway

In the seaport of Kochi on the southern coast of Shikoku, we stop overnight and taste its katsuo and utsubo tataki (lightly roasted bonito and moray eel), served with ponzu sauce, onions, and garlic, topped off with jizake (local sake). Before leaving the next morning, we visit Katsura Beach.

Katsura beach

We continue west along Tosa Bay past picturesque coves and a long sandy surfing beach.

Tosa bayBeach

Past the town of Ashizuri-misaki is the cape, Shikoku's remote southwestern point, with a lighhouse on its headland.


Near the lighthouse is Kongofuku-ji, pilgrimage temple 38. Along the road, we pass pilgrims in black outfits and straw hats, mostly alone, sometimes in pairs. Large groups also do the pilgrimage by bus.

A cold front is sweeping through southern Japan with rain and gusty winds. Still, when we walk to the temple from the onsen hotel, a busload of pilgrims is chanting in the gloomy, wet courtyard, where a large stone sea turtle greets visitors. Rubbing its head is said to bring good luck.

Sea turtle

Across the street from Kongofuku-ji is a statue of local hero Nakahama Manjiro, aka John Mung.

John Mung

In 1841, when Nakahama was 14, he was marooned on an island off Japan and picked up by a US whaling ship, which took him to Honolulu, then New Bedford. He studied English, math, and navigation, traveled the world, and returned to Japan in 1851, where he became a teacher and an interpreter for the Tokyo government – quite an adventure for a boy from a poor rural village.

The next day, after stopping at the wave-eroded rocks of Tatsukushi (Dragon’s Skewers), we head north to Matsuyama where we plan to catch a ferry to Kyushu.

TatsukushiRock formations

Route 441, sometimes just a one-lane road, snakes along the Shimanto River, the last undammed major river in Japan, offering mountain scenery and sites for camping, fishing, and kayaking. A bridge across it lacks railings so that the floodwater will flow through and over it without sweeping it away

Shimanto bridgeRoute 441BoatsRiver valley

We stop in the fishing town of Uwajima for lunch. Its specialty is tai, or sea bream, served as sashimi over hot rice, with a raw egg. The symbol of town is a bull, since the town features bull fights (two bulls butting heads until one gives up). The road to Matsuyama goes along the mountainous east coast of Shikoku.

UwajimaRoad to Matsuyama

Matsuyama is Shikoku’s largest city. It promotes itself as the setting of the beloved nineteenth century novel Botchan, even though the author, Natsume Soseki, from Tokyo, portrays the town as Hicksville: “What a barbaric place!” the hero exclaims upon arrival and in the end leaves, vowing never to return. Today visitors come to see Dogo onsen, featured in the novel, and a mechanical clock tower from which, on the hour, diminutive Botchan characters appear. Visitors enjoy a hotspring footbath while they wait for the characters to appear.

FootbathMechanical clock

Other attractions include the city’s striking hilltop castle and Ishite-ji, pilgrimage temple 51.

CastleCastle wall

When we arrive at Ishite-ji, the courtyard is crowded and hazy with incense smoke pouring out of a large censer. A ceremony is taking place, culminating in the torching of a large boat made of paper, straw, and branches, the flames and smoke lifting prayers skyward and connecting the living to the spirits of the dead.


East of the city is Mt. Ishizuchi ("Stone Hammer"), at 6,502 feet, is the tallest peak in western Japan and one of Japan's Seven Holy Mountains, where kami alight to restore vitality to the land. It is said to protect the city of Saijo to its northeast from typhoons.

A winding road leads to a ropeway. Mist drifts up the mountain ridges above a rushing stream.


The ropeway goes halfway up the mountain, noted for its red and orange foliage in autumn. A 20-minute walk from the top station take you to Ishizuchi-Jojusha Shrine and a longer, steeper climb ends at a small shrine near the summit; but it’s cold and late, with darkness falling early, so we skip the walk and catch the second-to-the-last car down.

Dedicated to gongen (deities with both Shinto and Buddhist forms), Mt. Ishizuchi is a pilgrimage site during the summer climbing season. The five-hour climb up and back is arduous. Near the summit, a series of chains aids the hiker in getting up the steep slope. Called Kusari Zenjo, this is the most important ritual site, symbolic of the difficult climb to enlightenment, represented by Ishizuchi’s highest peak, Tengudake, which is home to a long-nosed mountain goblin (tengu) called Hokibo. The deities of the mountain are depicted in statuary at the base ropeway station.


Kyushu: Hot Mountains, Hot Springs and Mud

Early he next morning, with a group of students going on an interisland excursion, we catch the ferry from Matsuyama to Oita, Kyushu, a three-hour ride.

Leaving ShikokuStudents

The divine energy of the third largest island of the 6000 in the country is expressed in its active volcanoes and numerous hot springs.

The road from Oita climbs into the hills to the west, then descends to the Yamanami Highway, which goes south through Kuju-Aso National Park, past the smoldering Mt. Kuju and across rolling hills and gullies covered with pampas grass and groves of evergreens and leafless deciduous trees, to Daikanbo (“Big-view peak”), a lookout with a panoramic view into the caldera of Mt. Aso.

Road from OitaYamanami HighwayPampas grassDaikanbo

Aso is the world’s largest active caldera, 12-15 miles across, with rice fields, towns inside, and a cluster of five volcanic cones inside: to the west, Kijimadake (“Pestle-island peak,” 4,334 ft.) and Eboshidake (“Hat-peak,” 4,387 ft.); to the east, jagged Nekodake (“Root-child peak,” 4,620 ft.); and in the middle, Takadake, the highest (“High-peak,” at 5,223 ft.) and Nakadake (“Middle peak,” 4,341 ft.) Nakadake is the only cone still active, last erupting in 1993.

After a night at a hot spring resort in Aso town, we planned to take the ropeway to the rim of Nakadake’s crater to see the lake inside, but the toxic gas level was so high, with the air reeking of sulphur, the ropeway was shut down.


Mt. Aso is the setting of Nastume Soseki’s 210th Day (1906), which consists mainly of a dialogue between two men climbing the mountain in a storm, with its volcano rumbling and ready to erupt. The 210th day of the lunar calendar, the end of the seventh moon, in August, is associated with typhoons. As the two men are discussing class inequities in Japanese society, the storm and impending eruption seem to portend some cataclysmic change in Japanese society. One of the two friends, Kei, the son of a tofu manufacturer, preaches social equality, a concern of many who witnessed the growing gap between rich and poor in industrialized Japan: “If we live in this world our foremost aim should be to defeat the monsters of civilization and give some little comfort to the lower classes without money or power; do you not think so?”

Just south of Aso is Takachiho town, where the most famous event of Shinto mythology is said to have taken place: after a contest in which Amaterasu refused to admit defeat, her storm god brother destroyed her rice fields and desecrated her weaving house; the goddess went into a cave and refused to come out. The other kami got her to reappear by throwing a boisterous party featuring a comic, lewd dance. For his outrageious behavior, the storm god was banished from heaven.

These events took place in the high heavenly plain, not on earth, but a little mythology never hurt the tourist trade. The dance to bring the sun goddess out is reenacted nightly at Takachiho shrine. The cave into which she retreated is said to be located across the stream from the main building at Ama-no-Iwato Shrine on Iwato Stream. A short walk along the Iwato stream from the shrine is Ama no Yasukawara, the cave where the kami met to decide how to entice Amaterasu out. Inside is a small shrine, and around the cave entrance, worshippers have erected numerous stacks of small rocks.

Foot bridgeIwato streamAmeratsu caveView from cave

(Some travel sites say that Ama no Yasukawara is the cave where Amaterasu hid.)

Takachiho town is also noted for its picturesque gorge, where we rent a boat and rowed a short ways between cliffs and waterfalls.


A hundred and forty miles south of Takachiho town is Mount Takachiho, in Kirishima National Park. Ninigi, the sun goddess’ grandson, alighted here to pacify and rule the islands. Ninigi’s great-grandson, Jimmu, was Japan’s first emperor, from whom the current emperor traces his ancestry.

On the way to Kirishima is Saitobaru, an archaeological site dating from 300-500 A.D. Its 311 ancient burial mounds (kofun) represent the highest concentration in Japan. The Yamato culture (the foundation of Japanese culture, with roots in the Korean Peninsula and China) developed on Kyushu before Jimmu trekked north to Honshu and, led by a magical three-legged crow, arrived in the area where the imperial capitals of Nara and Kyoto and the holy shrine for Amaterasu at Ise were eventually established.

SaitobaruBurial mounds

The shrine that houses the spirit of Jimmu is in Miyazaki, a port city just south of Saitobaru, on the east coast of Kyushu.

Miyazaki shrine

South of Miyazaki, in a cave above the sea, is Udo shrine, dedicated to Jimmu’s father, who was born in the cave to a sea goddess with a dragon form; rocks on the ceiling are said to be her breasts, left behind to feed the infant after she returned to the sea.

The morning of our visit, another cold front is passing over southern Japan. We wait in the car for the rain and wind to let up, but they don’t, so we walk to the shrine with rain jackets and umbrellas. As we descend the pathway toward the cave, waves are surging against the sea-sculpted rocks.

Udo shrineView from shrine

To our surprise, the shrine in the cave is decorated with offerings of rice, sake, and fruit, and a group of mostly men in suits are sitting on chairs on one side of the cave. Soon priests appear in full regalia to offer thanks to the kami for a bountiful harvest and healthy food, with chanting, music, and children performing stately dances, sheltered by the cave as the storm god, who also rules the sea, rages outside. Like us, the kami will soon be heading north for Izumo.

Udo cavesPriestsGiftsChildren

On the way back to Miyazaki, we spot a lobster sign and stop to taste the city’s specialty, Ise lobster, along with escargot-like sea snails, in a tatami-matted room overlooking the sea. Across the street is another shrine, where dancing and drumming are going on under rain-tarps.

The next day, we drive up to the Ebino Plateau and Kirishima (Misty Islands) National Park. In a sea of clouds, we hike up to Ohnami pond, in an extinct crater, and wait for the clouds to lift. After half an hour, a circular pond appears under the mist, mirroring the bare trees inside the crater rim, with ripples of light winds moving across the surface, like the breaths of spirits. The lake is said to be inhabited by a water-dragon who became the beautiful daughter of a village headman who prayed for a child. She leapt back into the lake on her eighteenth birthday.

Ohnami pond

On the way down to Kirishima Shrine, we stop at Maruo falls to take photos of the fall leaves.

Fall leavesMaruo falls

Mount Takachiho, capped by wispy clouds, is at the southern end of a chain of six volcanic peaks. Located near its summit and pointing upward from a pile of stones is a three-pronged weapon called Ama-no-Sakahoko, which commemorates the place where Ninigi descended to earth.

Mt. TakachitoGate at Takachiho

Below the mountain sits Kirishima shrine, where Ninigi’s spirit is housed, its bright vermilion paint matching the autumn foliage.

Entrance to shrineKirishima shrine

When we return two days later for a clearer view of Takachiho, the mountain is completely hidden by clouds and rain, as a third cold front sweeps over southern Japan. We wait for an hour, and after a loud roll of thunder, the rain abates, and the front of the lower crater rim appears above the torii (gateway to a sacred place).

From Kirishima, you can see Kagoshima city in the distance, on the plain below, and on the opposite side of Kinko Bay, the active volcano, Sakurajima (“Cherry blossom island” at 3,665 feet; 1,117 meters). In 1914 it erupted violently and the lava flow was so heavy, it joined the former volcanic island to the mainland on the east side of the bay. The last major eruption took place in 1994.


What Scotland is to whisky, Kagoshima is to shochu brewed from sweet potato. Kurobuta (black pig), Kagoshima beef, and seafood (crab, whole-fish tempura, flounder) are specialties. We sample the excellent cuisine and shochu at restaurants in Tenmonkan (a shopping street) and Kishaba (the university district). The restaurant in Kishaba offers a wasabi root and grater so we can produce fresh paste for our sashimi.

Doors to the Outside World

From Kagoshima, we turn north for Honshu and Izumo, via Kumamoto, Shimabara, Nagasaki, and Fukuoka. After a short stop in Kumamoto to see its castle, we catch a half-hour ferry from Kumamoto to the Shimabara peninsula and Unzen-Amakusa National Park.

Kumamoto castleFerry

Mt. Unzen (4,921 feet) rises above the onsen resort town of Shimabara.

Mt. UnzenShimabara

In 1792, one of Mt. Unzen's volcanic domes collapsed and slid into the sea, causing a tsunami that killed 15,000 people. In 1991, a sudden outburst of lava pouring down the mountain killed forty-three people.

The Shimabara peninsula and the Amakusa islands to the south were the sites of a rebellion against the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1637-38. Due to high taxes and famine conditions, discontent had grown in the region among peasants and masterless samurai (who had lost their social status and jobs when the shogunate replaced the former lords of Shimabara and Amakusa with lords allied to it). Many of the rebels were converts to Christianity, which was introduced in Kagoshima by St. Francis Xavier in 1569. Considered a threat to the established social order, the religion had been banned in 1614 and converts were persecuted, some boiled alive in volcanic mud. These ban and persecution increased discontent in the region.

The rebels made their final stand against the shogunate forces at the site of the former Hara Castle at the south end of the Shimbara peninsula. After a long siege that lasted from autumn through spring, and with the aid of the Dutch, who provided cannons and gunpowder, the shogunate forces overran the fortified castle site. An estimated 37,000 rebels were beheaded. The towns in the area were so depopulated that immigrants from other parts of Japan were brought in to resettle them.

Christianity was introduced in Kagoshima by St. Francis Xavier in 1569 and banned in 1614. The religion was apparently too alien to be accepted into the Shinto-Buddhism complex, but its historical presence here reminds us that Kyushu once served as Japan’s door to the outside world—to ideas, innovations, and technology from Korea and China and later, the West. Although Christianity wasn’t embraced, Western technology was. Kagoshima boasts the first factory, telegraph, and gas lighting in Japan.

After a night in Shimbara, we drive over Mt. Unzen and around Tachibana Bay to Nagasaki.

During the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) Nagasaki was the only Japanese port open to foreigners, and only Dutch and Chinese ships were allowed to trade. The city features an old Dutch district called Dejima and a Chinatown.


Megane-bashi, “Eyeglasses bridge,” was built by a Chinese Buddhist monk in 1634. (The bridge’s two stone arches, reflected in a canal, resemble a pair of round eyeglasses.)

Eyeglass bridge

Nagasaki was the target of the second atomic bomb in World War II. It's Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park are dedicated a world without nuclear weapons or wars.


At the northern end of Kyushu, in Fukuoka, we stay at a seaside onsen hotel on Shikanoshima island, where a 2,000-year old gold embossed emblem given by the emperor of China to the “King of Japan, tributary of China” was unearthed in the nineteenth century. The seal is on display at the stylish city museum, along with artifacts left behind by the movement and interaction of peoples from Japan, Asia and beyond, from prehistoric times to the present.

SeacoastCity Museum

Western Honshu

Thirteen days into our journey, we cross the 712-meter-long bridge over the Kanmon strait and arrive back on Honshu.

Kanmon straitPufferfish

At Shimonoseki, below the bridge, the line for the town’s specialty, sashimi of fugu (poisonous puffer fish), is too long, so we settle for a tasty meal of deep-fried fugu. According to one aficionado, tourism has degraded Shimonoseki into a market for the lowest quality fugu imported from China or farmed and served mainly to tourist. If you want the best fugu sashimi, he writes, you have to go to Tokyo (and pay more).

East of Shimonoseki, we stop in Yamaguchi and Hiroshima, from where Karen’s and my grandparents immigrated to Hawai’i in the early twentieth century. Back then, these prefectures were mainly rural farmlands and poor, so emigrant laborers were recruited from them.

Karen’s mother’s cousin’s daughter and her husband take us on a whirlwind afternoon tour of Yamaguchi, including Ruriko-ji Pagoda, built in 1404, and a garden designed by the fiftenth century sumi-e painter Sesshu.  The next morning they drive with us as far as Iwakuni to the 200-meter-long Kintai Bridge—five graceful arches spanning the Nishiki River. The bridge was built from wood, without nails, in 1673, and most recently rebuilt, with steel reinforcements, in 1953 after it was destroyed by a typhoon.

GardenKintai bridge

On the way Hiroshima, we stop at the island of Miyajima, with its iconic offshore torii and Itsukushima shrine, founded in 593 A.D. and dedicated to a kami who protects against sea disasters and wars.

MiyajimaItsukushima shrine

The ropeway to Shishiiwa peak is closed due to windy conditions, so we hike up the steep slope for a panoramic view of Hiroshima, Shikoku, and the Inland Sea. After the long hike to the top, the ropeway starts operating again, so we catch a ride down.

WalkwayPanoramic viewAnother viewpointRopeway

In Hiroshima, we visit the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) have recovered remarkably well since 1945, when America pioneered the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) against civilians to terrorize an enemy into surrender.

Aioi bridge, the target of the first Atomic Bomb, has been restored; next to it, the gutted ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall, known as the A-Bomb Dome, has been left as a reminder of the tragedy of imperialistic wars.

Aioi bridgeIndustrial Promotion HallMemorialPaying respect

Kami-ari: The Gathering of the Gods

A hundred miles north of Hiroshima is Matsue, famous for its sunsets over Lake Shinji and its 400-year old Plover Castle. Twenty miles west is Izumo, whose Taisha is the oldest shrine built in the traditional grand-style and Shinto’s second most important after Amaterasu’s shrine at Ise.

Banished from heaven, the storm god Susanoo descended to Silla, a kingdom in southern Korea, then traveled east across the sea of Japan (the direction of storm clouds) to Izumo. Here he slew an eight-headed dragon that was devouring the daughters of an old couple and married the daughter he saved.

His grandson Okuninushi (Master of the Country), a god of healing, agriculture, and marriage, made peace with the sun goddess, by allowing her grandson Ninigi to assume secular power over the nation, in exchange for control of religious affairs. Pleased, Amaterasu built the shrine at Izumo for Okuninushi.

As we drive to Izumo to witness the gathering of the kami, the sun is setting over Lake Shinji, Amaterasu’s splendid rays giving way to the storm-cloud forms and wintry darkness of Susanoo.

Lake Shinji

At Inasa Beach, a few hundred of the faithful gather, soon to be vastly outnumbered by the visiting kami, who like the storm god, arrive from the sea. Beneath the tenth-day moon, four fires are lit behind four cones of sand. A drum and flute play. The priests march through the crowd to the fires, clap their hands four times, and chant.

Full moonFestival

A gust of cold wind blows down from Yakumo Hill to welcome the invisible guests. The crowd holds up wands with folded paper to attract the mana of the kami and take it home with them.

The priests clap four more times to finish, then accompany the kami in procession back to the shrine, holding leafy branches of the evergreen sakaki tree, on which the kami have alighted. The branches are screened off by black cloth from the crowd, which follows the procession back to the Taisha. For the next week ceremonies are held at the shrine while the kami meet.


A massive shimenawa (rice-straw rope) marks off sacred space and wards off evil spirits at Kaguraden, Izumo Taisha. Visitors, especially couples, throw coins at the ends of the rope facing the ground because embedding a coin in the straw is believed to bring good fortune and happiness. Couples clap four times (instead of the standard two times) when calling on the deity at Izumo Taisha--twice of oneself and twice for one's partner.

Izumo shrineRice straw rope

Mountains Shadows Along the Coast

The route we take back to the airport goes east from Matsue, through Daisen-Oki National Park. Snow-capped in a pale yellow mist, Mt. Daisen, another of Japan’s Seven Holy Mountains, rises high over the coastal plain.


East of Mt. Daisen are the sand dunes at Tottori, where the film version of Kobo Abe’s novel Woman in the Dunes was shot.

Horse cartDunes

The most spectacular scenery of the coast is in San-in Kaigan National Park, with its isolated beaches and fishing villages; sea cliffs and small islands, their dark gray rocks awash with waves; and shadowy valleys, orange, russet, and rust with autumn.

Sea cliffsSea coast

The weather changes quickly in the brisk winds, patches of sunlight giving way to periods of rain. Suddenly, in the late afternoon, a hail storm breaks out, ice particles pelting the car and road.

Hail storm

We spend a night at an onsen in Takeno, a fishing town known for its black sand beach and abalone and crab. November is crab season, and the onsen serves crab raw, deep-fried tempura-style, roasted, and boiled, finishing with a risotto-like dish made from the crab broth.

CrabCrabs in boxes

With one night to go, we head south to Himeji. Hilltops are frosted pale black after last night’s storm. In Toyooka we visit a park dedicated to reviving the Kono-tori (Oriental black Stork), which went extinct in Japan 1971 due to pesticides in its food supply of frogs and fish, the loss of wetland and river habitats, and the felling of large pines, where it nests. Storks gifted by Russia in 1985 have been successfully bred. The plan is to recreate and restore the stork’s former habitat and release birds into the wilds to symbolize the return of harmony between the community and nature.

Toyooka snowfallStorks

South of Toyooka, at Asago, is the Takeda Castle Ruins. Here on a mountain overlooking a river valley, the castle was built in 1585 and abandoned in 1600 after the defeat and suicide of its lord. There are few visitors and no amenities except for a parking lot and a bathroom at the top of a winding access road. Only the stone foundations remain—like the A-Bomb Dome, a reminder of a tragic period of history.

Takeda castleView from castle

In Himeji, famous for its 300-year-old black Egret Castle, we are back in the crowded, urbanized coastal region of the eastern Inland Sea. It’s a good place to shop for omiyage (travel gifts) for home.

Egret castle

On the highway back to the airport the next morning, we stop at the Akashi Strait Bridge. In this nation of kami, this modern engineering wonder, which withstood the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, is a descendant of the sacred mountain and the oldest shrine, as well as the Megane Bridge, the Kintai Bridge, and all that was marvelous, magnificent, beautiful, and delicious along the way.

Akashi Strait bridge

Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama

On a Hawaiian Voyaging Canoe from Uwajima, May 30 - June 13, 2007

Updated: April 17, 2011

In the summer of 2007, I traveled to Uwajima, a fishing town in Ehime prefecture, on the west coast of Shikoku, to join the fifteen-member crew of the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a, which was on a cultural exchange and goodwill tour in Japan. The canoe was headed for Yokohama on the final leg of a journey that had taken her from Hawai‘i, through Micronesia, to Japan, its first time in Asia.

Map of route

Famous for its revival of traditional voyaging and navigation by the stars, ocean swells, and seabirds, Hōkūle‘a was welcomed warmly at each of its stops.

Welcome in Uwajima

Hōkūle‘a Approaching Uwajima Dock

The crew in Uwajima was hosting visitors on canoe tours, waiting for a summer storm front to pass.


Before I arrived the crew had participated in a memorial for nine crew members of Ehime Maru, the training ship for Uwajima Fishery High School, which sank off Le'ahi (Diamond Head), Honolulu, in February 2001 after being rammed by the USS Greeneville, a nuclear submarine performing a rapid ascent maneuver with two civilian guests at the controls. Four students were among the dead.

In March 2001, the Hawaiian community came together to help with healing the tragic loss for the families of those who drowned.Hōkūle‘a participated in a ceremony at Maunalua Bay, to the east of Le'ahi, leading a flotilla of mourners, including a vessel with the families on board, to place lei on the spot where the Ehime Maru sank. A spiritual connection was forged between Hōkūle‘a and Uwajima.

When the families in Uwajima learned thatHōkūle‘a was coming to Japan, the father of the one students, the only crew member whose body was never recovered, expressed his belief that arriving in Uwajima,Hōkūle‘a would bring his son’s spirit home.

At the ceremony, the crew presented to the families of those lost at sea kahili, or feathered standard, representing aloha from the people of Hawai'i.

The ceremony

The crew also visited Taihei (“Grand Peace”) Temple in Uwajima and Hōkūle‘a navigator Nainoa Thompson and the crew were also presented with a miniature peace bell modeled on the bell at the temple.

Peace bell

The first modern peace bell was made from coins from countries all over the world and given to Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant, of Burma. More miniatures were made and distributed to promote world peace. During the Cuban crisis in 1954, which threatened to precipitate a nuclear war, one was given to USSR premier Khruschev and another to US President John F. Kennedy. The priest of Taihei also had a miniature, which was in the keeping of the mayor. Both the priest and the mayor, on hearing of Hōkūle‘a coming to Uwajima, decided that the canoe should carry the bell on its journeys, in appreciation of its work in healing the sadness of the loss of the crew members of the Ehime Maru, and as a symbol of hope for a safer, more peaceful world for all.

The night after I arrived, JapaneseHōkūle‘a fans sponsored a gathering at a mountain campground above Uwajima to celebrate the canoe’s visit. They were also planning, after the canoe’s departure, to travel south to the Toujin Stones, megaliths in the hills above Cape Ashizuri on the remote southwestern tip of Shikoku, to pray for the safe passage of the canoe as it rounded the cape on its way to Yokohama. One web writer offers a hypothesis that these stones had been used as navigational aids in Jomon times: the reflection of sun and moon light off the giant stones allowing them to served as lighthouses that could be seen by vessels traveling in the Kuroshio, or Black Current, that flows eastward past the cape.

I had visited Ashizuri in 2006, in late November, hoping to see these stones. We never found them, because a storm front moved slowly over Shikoku during the two days we spent at the cape, and I didn’t think it was a good idea to be driving around unfamiliar mountain roads in the rain looking for them.

Stormy coast

Hōkūle‘a left Uwajima just as the storm front passed, to make it to Yokohama on time for a ceremonial welcome. Kama Hele, Hōkūle‘a’s motor-sailing escort boat, towed us into the brisk winds and 8-10 foot swells. We would never have made it to Yokohama in time for the planned arrival if we had to sail there.

Ahead of us, the Kama Hele’s mast swung from side to side, rhythmically, like the arm of a metronome, and her hull bucked up and down as each swell rolled beneath her. Even the seaworthiest of Kama Hele’s crew bunked down for the night, were feeling seasick. The crew on the canoe, with its more stable double hull construction, was fine.

As we moved past Ashizuri, we could see the beam of lighthouse at the cape flashing beneath a cloudy night sky. I wondered if the Japanese fans had actually made it to the stones to pray for our safe passage, or if they had melted back into the nation.

Captain Bruce Blankenfeld didn’t want to cross the busy Kii strait at night so after traveling along the southern coast of Shikoku in the dark, we pulled into Muroto, at the southeastern tip of Shikoku. The weather and sea had calmed down.

Hokulea carps

The next day we were invited to the Bade Haus, a public bath with saltwater jets to massage each area of the head, neck, torso, and legs down to the soles of the feet. It was located next to the Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Center, the world’s first deep-sea water spa, established by make-up artist Shu Uemura, which had just opened in March. The deep sea water is supposedly pollution free below 3,200 feet and also rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, and other salutary trace elements missing from surface water, therefore having a therapeutic value. Japan has six places where slow ocean currents allow a lower layer of water to rise toward the surface; one of these places is offshore of Muroto, from where it is pumped to land.

Uemura extols the benefits of his spa: “We come from the sea originally. Deep-sea water contains all the elements our bodies need.” He believes that the water benefits digestion and the skin. He may have gotten the idea for this spa from the desalinated water from the deep ocean off Kona Hawai’i which was selling for $5 a bottle that summer.

The restaurant at the Bade Haus uses the water in cooking, and the water fountains dispense free desalinated deep sea water.

We departed Muroto at 1:30 a.m. in the morning and crossed the Kii Strait by 12 noon. The shipping traffic was relatively light. A highlight of the crossing was sighting a pod of small whales. As we rounded Cape Shiono on Honshu, pilot Kazu Nishimura took us under the bridge connecting Kushimoto (a fishing town) and an offshore island.

NishimuraUnder the bridge

Just after the bridge, we passed a fishing boat towing a large aquaculture cage. Beyond Kushimoto we could see Hashigui Iwa (“Bridge Post Rocks”), an distinctive row of rock columns jutting up along the shoreline, like the remnants of a giant bridge.

Hashigui Iwa

We traveled all night and the next day, arriving at Cape Iro on Izu peninsula at about 3 p.m., then on into the sea of Sagami, past Izu-Oshima and Toshima, two volcanic offshore islands. We looked for Mt. Fuji all afternoon, but a haze over Honshu, a combination of clouds, smog, and dust from the Gobi desert reduced visibility, and only the coastal mountains were visible, fading into the haze.


At the entrance to Tokyo Bay, we encountered more ships and boats than we saw earlier in the Kii Strait, with dozens moving in and out of view in all directions, including giant tankers and cargo ships and sleek, fast fishing boats. A couple of fishing boats changed course to get a closer look at the first Hawaiian voyaging canoe ever to sail into their waters. A couple of pods of dolphins appeared, along with piles of shearwaters.

As the sun set at 7 p.m. the temperature dropped and everyone bundled up in warm gear.

We pulled into Miura, a small fishing town at the tip of Miura Peninsula at night, where a small crowd greeted us.

The next day we traveled north to Kamakura, on Sagami Bay, to honor Hōkūle‘a crew member, big-wave rider, fisherman, and cultural expert Tiger Espere, who spent time in Kamakura teaching Hawaiian culture and exploring “the ancestral connection between Japan’s pre-Buddhist settlers and native Hawaiians” – a mission given to him by Tahitian elders. He established the Japan-Hawaiian Voyaging Society and was planning to build a voyaging canoe that would sail to Hawai‘i and reconnect the two cultures. He passed away in 2005 before this project was completed.


Photo by Jin Takuma

On board Hōkūle‘a for the visit to Kamakura was Loui Kaninau-Cabebe, Tiger’s brother who wanted to carry on Tiger’s dream of building a voyaging canoe for Japan. Hōkūle‘a anchored off Yuigahama, the beach in front of Kamakura city. The vessels were greeted by a couple of jet skis, dozens of surfers and paddle boarders, and six outrigger canoes. Loui chanted from the canoe, and a halau, formed by Tiger and under the direction of Misa Nakatomi, chanted and danced on shore. A hundred or so well-wishers lined the coastal road.


It was Tiger’s dream that one dayHōkūle‘a would visit Kamakura to inspire the people to build his dream voyaging canoe. For Tiger, Loui explained, a canoe was not just a physical artifact, but a spiritual way.

Tiger steering

The celebration in Tiger’s honor was blessed by warm, sunny weather; most of the crew took advantage of this time to jump in for a swim or a paddle with the locals. The water was chillier than in Hawai’i, but refreshing.

When we arrived in Yokohama the following day, a crowd of several hundred greeted the canoe, including city officials, Japanese hula groups, and Miss Yokohama, in a kimono.

YokohamaHokulea arrivingGreetersMiss Yokohama

Photos by Jin Takuma and Kato Kosei

Hōkūle‘adocked at Minato Mirai 21, a futuristic twenty-first century development of high-rise condos and hotels, shopping malls and restaurants, an amusement park, and transportation facilities (subways, buses, trains). Nearby, along the waterfront, are Western buildings dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, spared along with the port facilities from American bombs in 1945 for use by the occupation force when the war ended.

Minato Mirai 21

Photo by Jin Takuma

A Hawaiian voyaging canoe was not out of place in Yokohama and the other Japanese cities she visited, where internationalism and multiculturalism are trendy, and cross-cultural events and exhibits are no longer mainly American and European, but increasingly, non-Western as well. During the summer festival season in 2007, the line-up at remote Sado Island off the coast of Niigata included Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain, Puerto Rican percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, and French Guianese tap dancer Tamango.

With the recovery of the Japanese economy after World War II and Hawai‘i’s becoming a top vacation destination for Japanese tourists, Hawaiian culture, particularly music and hula, developed a strong following in Japan. There are more hula halau (schools) in Japan than in Hawai‘i, and Hawaiian musicians and dancers regularly tour Japan. Surfing, outrigger canoe paddling, and other Hawaiian ocean sports have grown in popularity, and driving along the coast one sees surfers in wet suits at almost every spot with breaking waves.

At a welcoming event the next day in Yokohama, we were greeted by a new-age hula group led by a woman of Japanese, Spanish and American ancestry, who goes by Sandii and who teaches Tahitian and Hawaiian dance in Tøkyø and Yokohama. The performance opened with a conch shell blown by a performer in a yamabushi outfit (the conch is traditionally carried by such priests); the performance included a didjeridoo, an instrument of Australian aborigine origin. The dance music on her CD features keyboards, guitars, flutes, accordion, ukulele, piano, Tahitian banjo, Polynesian percussion (pahu, puniu, toere), and Brazilian percussion (zabumba and marimba).

Blowing the conchDancers

Photos by Jin Takuma

A Spaniard who was playing in Yokohama gave me his card and offered to play Spanish music for the crew.

The be-in at Uwajima and the new age hula and Spanish music in Yokohama were not exactly what I had imagined when I heard that there would be cultural exchanges in Japan. In Hiroshima, high school cheerleaders were part of the welcome. But there were also traditional folk dances and taiko drumming, especially in the smaller towns; and an excellent high school taiko ensemble performed at the welcome in Yokohama.


Photo by Na‘alehu Anthony

Snow Country: Winter Travel

January 8-17, 2008

Last Edited: August 30, 2010
[Note: This article is a revised version of  “Snow, saké, and [hot] springs warm soul,” which originally appeared as a travel article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on March 9, 2008.]

To mark the New Year, the forty-two-year old men of Nozawa village sit in a nest of pine boughs on a sixty-foot shrine made of beech logs lashed together with rice straw rope.

Fueled by sake, the villagers attack, trying to set the shrine on fire, while the twenty-five-year old men, now considered adults and guardians of their elders, ward off the attacks. It’s all in fun – the forty-two-year olds climb down a ladder before the fiery finale, a huge bonfire, symbolizing their escape from the dangers of a critical year in their lives (shini means both “forty-two” and “to die’).

Nozawa shadenFiery finale

Left: afternoon blessing of the Nozawa hi-matsuri shaden, or shrine. Right: mountain shrine.

A hot spring ski resort village in a mountainous region known as Snow Country, Nozawa is about an hour by car from Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. This hi-matsuri, or fire festival, established in 1863 based on ancient Shinto tradition, is held annually on January 15.

Route map

Click on the image for a Google Map

When we arrived in the early afternoon, a priest was blessing the shrine, and the twenty-five and forty-two year olds were gathered around to honor Dosojin, to whom the festival is dedicated. Dosojin is the village protector, a dual male-female kami of fertility, marriage, family, harvest, and health portrayed as a man and a woman standing together.

Shrine blessingDosojin statues

Left: Blessing the shadden. Right: Dosojin statues, made from logs.

At the blessing, the participants took their first sips of sake, a drink sacred to the gods. They continued drinking throughout the night, while villagers with 1.8 liter sake bottles wandered through the crowd, pouring cups and urging the spectators to down them.

Taking sake

At seven p.m. the sacred fire was lit. Lantern poles were erected for first-born sons in the preceding year (two this year). At around eight, aerial fireworks went off, and taiko drumming began.

Sacred fireFireworks

Father and son Nozawa toro

Then, armed with flaming bundles of reeds, the villagers moved down a lane through the crowd and thrust their torches at the guards to drive them off and ignite the shrine.

AttackersFighting the guards

Holding onto short ropes attached to the shrine, the guards knocked the torches down with their free arms or with pine branches and beat out the flames. Full of bluster and sake, the forty-two years olds egged on the attackers from above by tossing down unlit bundles of reeds to fuel more attacks. The flames from the reed bundles were too weak to burn their nest of pine boughs, which symbolize strength and longevity.

42 year olds

It’s the twenty-five year olds who are tested: their faces were blackened with soot and burning reed-ash landed and glowed in their hair; after an hour of defending the shrine, they began to look exhausted.

25 year olds

Meanwhile a couple of hundred spectators pushed forward against a barrier of rope and crowd-control officers to get a closer look at the action, then moved back whenever the attackers waved them off with their torches. With all the pushing, a couple of young Japanese men started fighting with each other and had be restrained. A drunken tourist got upset at being shoved about and started swearing at the Japanese in English.

Last year, according to the Snow Japan website, “there were some problems with tourists trying to take part in the fire attacks and getting into fights with locals.” This year, a flyer passed out at the inns emphasized that only villagers were allowed to participate; outsiders should remain spectators.

Around ten, the attacks subsided, and the forty-two year olds declared victory, chanting and clapping, their leader waving a pine bough. Then they climbed down, and the villagers pushed a pile of burning logs under the shrine, using poles as levers. The shrine and lantern poles were consumed in the bonfire as offerings to Dosojin.

Starting the fireShrine and poles on fire

OnlookersConsumed by fire

Snow Country, the novel by Yasunari Kawabata that made the region internationally famous, concludes with a tragic fire blazing into the starry night, taking the life a beautiful young girl, a sacrifice to the gods of winter, an emblem of fragile beauty embodying the Buddhist belief that an individual’s life is a transient illusion doomed to extinction.

By contrast, Nozawa’s annual hi-matsuri is a comedy, a Shinto celebration of life maintained through family, community, and generations. Only the beech trees are sacrificed. As the bonfire died down, the merry townspeople, full of sake and feeling blessed, headed home through the dark snowy streets, while we visitors went back to our inns to warm up in sulphuric hot spring baths. A soaking is said to be good for fatigue and rheumatism.


Between Nozawa and Nagano is Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”), a hot spring in Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park. Here a troop of 250 snow monkeys comes down from the mountains during the day in winters to warm up in and around the steaming waters. Japan is the northernmost habitat for these macaques, whose range stretches from North Africa to East Asia.

A one-mile walk through a wintry forest led from Kanbayashi hot spring to the Jigokudani. A few of the monkeys were in the water while others were frolicking or foraging for rice grains scattered by a park employee.

One mile walkFinding riceFrolicking monkeysBathing monkey

On our way to Nozawa we stopped at Obuse, a small town on Highway 403, with an excellent Hokusai museum and Masuichi Ishimura Sake Brewery. Winter is the season of sake, when kanzukuri (cold brewing) after the harvest produces shibori-tate (“freshly pressed”) rice wine. That morning there was a street fair, with businesses offering visitors specialties of the town – cups of hot amazake, a sweet low-alcoholic drink made from the leftovers of the sake-brewing process; chestnut and mochi soup; and tea and cookies.

ObuseSampling amazake

The Hokusai museum displayed selections from the artist’s waterfall, bridges, and Mt. Fuji wood-block print series, as well as his ink drawings and paintings and his works on the ceiling boards of two festival carts. Hokusai (1760-1849), who moved quite frequently, lived in Obuse during the last years of his long life.

In Nagano, we stopped at Zenkoji, founded in the seventh century and today, the city’s most visited site. It features a tunnel, completely dark, down a stairway under the main temple. Visitors grope along the walls, symbolically searching for enlightenment. The temple also contains what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist statue in Japan, brought from Korea. The statue isn’t shown, though a replica is, every six or seven years, in a special ceremony.

Zenjoji streetTempleZenkoji statuesZenkoji sensor


Our first stop in Snow Country was the town of Yuzawa (“Hot Spring Valley”), twenty miles east of Nozawa. Yuzawa promotes itself as the unnamed village in Kawabata’s Snow Country. On the Shinkansen from Tokyo, when we emerged from the darkness of the thirteen-mile long Daishimizu tunnel, the landscape was magically transformed, from a cold, but sunny and snowless plain, into a snowy mountain valley in early afternoon twilight.

Yuzawa’s no longer the remote, rustic village of Kawabata’s pre-war Japan. The bullet train has brought urban development, and skiers and snowboarders from Tokyo come to ride the winter slopes above the town.

While snowfall as deep as fifteen feet has been recorded in Snow Country, this year, after the first week of January, Yuzawa had only one to two feet, and it was melting. In neighboring Gunma Prefecture, ice-fishing on a lake was postponed by three weeks, awaiting the hardening of the ice. Hokkaido, known for its long, frigid winters and annual ice festival, had days when it rained rather than snowed.

Yuzawa streamSlopes above Yuzawa

Left: melting snow in Yuzawa. Right: the slopes above Yuzawa town, accessed by ropeway.

Yuzawa has a snow country museum and an inn where Kawabata stayed, but what we most wanted to visit was the sake-tasting room at the train station, where for five dollars you can sample five shots, then buy what you like at the shop next door. The samples are dispensed from coin-operated units in a wall housing over a hundred local varieties. We tasted ten and decided on a bottle of Manotsuru, a smooth daigingyo from Obata Brewery on Sado Island in Niigata.

The alkaline water of Yuzawa hot spring is said to be especially soothing for aches and pains, perfect after our nine-hour flight from Hawai‘i and two train rides. Pink and white camellia were blooming beside the small rotemburo (outdoor hot spring); the shrubs around the camellias were trimmed with snow.


After Yuzawa, and before going to Nozawa, we spent five days touring the sites in and around Kanazawa (“Gold Marsh”), the largest and wealthiest city in Hokuriku (North Country) since feudal times. The entrance to its train station blends the traditional and the modern: a towering wooden gate whose pillars resemble a giant pair of hand drums (tsuzumi) in front of an aluminum-and-glass dome.

Entrance to train station

Facing east, the gate greets the morning sun, and the reddish wood adds warmth to a city that is often dreary and rainy in the winter. A foot of rain falls on average in both December and January. On a coastal plain, Kanazawa gets less snow than Yuzawa and Nozawa.

We arrived a week after the New Year, when the twenty-year old women in elegant formal kimono and fur collars were out and about town celebrating Adulthood Day and their coming-of-age year. The twenty-year old men also celebrate this day, though in suits rather than traditional kimono.

The city boasts one of the best gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en, across the moat from a gate of its former castle, which burned down in 1881.

Kenroku-enKanazawa Castle

The Maeda lords were patrons of the arts, and regional artisans continue to produce traditional works – gold-leaf, lacquer ware, pottery, and painted silk – displayed and for sale at numerous museums and shops. Geisha and samurai houses and a ninja temple with hidden doors and passageways have also been preserved in districts with narrow streets east and west of the castle grounds.

Omicho Market, between the station and the garden, houses sushi bars; we stopped at one for dinner to taste the region’s fresh winter seafood: snow crab, sweet red shrimp, and fatty yellowtail.

Noto Peninsula: Wave Flowers

Jutting out into the Sea of Japan north of Kanzawa, Noto Peninsula is known for its wave-battered coast with unusual rock formations.

Noto PeninsulaOffshore rocksRock formationsNoto pillars

During winter storms, a phenomenon called nami no hana, or “wave flowers,” occurs. As the temperature drops below zero, sea spray freezes in the air and is blown onto shore and tossed about, like falling petals.

The morning we drove up the west side of the peninsula, a light snow storm swept in, and wave flowers and snow flakes swirled across the road and lined the shore. The weather cleared by afternoon.

SeacoastRough waters

Noto wavesWave flowers

Noto cliffsNoto wave flowers

Photos: left: snow falling on the Noto Kongo coast; right: wave flowers – frozen ocean foam – piled up on the coast of Noto Peninsula after a winter storm. The piles look like soap suds.

On the north side of the peninsula is the fishing town of Wajima, noted for its morning market. We spent so much time sightseeing on the way up, we arrived just after noon, when the vendors were putting their goods away. We wandered down the empty main street and had some delicious fresh soba noodles, dipped in a sesame sauce.


Also on the street was Hiyoshi Sake Brewery, with fragrant steam pouring out the side of the building. We bought a bottle of Shirakoma daigingyo. Shops were also selling Wajima’s famous lacquer ware.

East of Wajima is Senmaida ("Thousand Rice Fields") – small rice terraces on a slope overlooking the sea, especially beautiful in the winter when the fields are lined with snow. The smallest paddy is the size of a hat, suggesting the need to cultivate the least bit of soil on this rocky coast.

Rice terraces

Beyond Senmaida are the Oku-Noto Salt Fields, where salt is produced in evaporation ponds using a five-hundred year old method called “agehama.” You can learn about the process and purchase bags of salt (said to make food tastier) at a small education center and shop.

We kept going to Rokkosaki, the northernmost tip of the peninsula, before turning south on the lee side, where the seas were calmer.

Noto Suzu coastSnowy fields

We traveled back to the west coast along snow-covered beaches and through forested hills, to Chirihama, where we stayed overnight at a hot spring inn to warm up with a bath, sake, and a crab dinner. (The waters of Chirihama are good for stress and muscle and shoulder pain, among other ailments.)

South of Kanazawa

Twenty miles south of Kanazawa is Natadera, a temple founded in 717 by the priest Taicho, in a small valley that features a rocky hillside with caves.

A legendary ascetic with powers to fly and to disappear and appear elsewhere, Taicho climbed Hakusan (“White Mountain,” 8,865 feet) and at a crater lake near the peak, had a vision of its mountain goddess emerging from the waters and becoming the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon. He enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed goddess in one of the caves.Today, Natadera is dedicated to world peace and natural harmony. Visitors can enter one of the womb-like caves to light a candle in worship, wash away the impurities of life, and be symbolically reborn.

Natadera gatePanorama

The garden with a swan pond is said to represent the Bodaraku mountain of the Pure Land of Kannon. There were very few people when we visited, and the spiritual aura of the valley was intense.

SwanNatadera cave

TempleNatadera cave

Photos: left: the gate at Natadera; right: the rocky caves and pond. The tent-like ropes around the trees protect them from heavy snowfall, but there was no snow when we visited in mid-January.

Five miles south of Natadera is Yamanaka, a hot spring town built along Kakusen Gorge. A pleasant one-mile walk along the Daishoji stream from one end of town to the other features two bridges: the traditional wooden Korogi (Cricket) Bridge and the Ayatori (Cat’s Cradle) Bridge, a modern steel structure with an S-curved path inside an inverted triangular frame, designed by ikebana master and film-maker Hiroshi Teshigahara (“Woman in the Dunes”).

Yamanaka stonesAyatori Bridge

Left: the path along the stream. Right: Ayatori Bridge.

Eight miles south of Yamanaka, at the end of a narrow alley, on a small hill off Highway 8, is Maruoka Castle, which dates from 1579 and lays claim to being the oldest castle still standing in Japan.

Maruoka Castle

Farther south, tucked up in a mountain valley among cedars is Eiheiji, an active monastery, founded in 1244 by the famous Zen master Dogen, who studied Buddhism in China and returned to establish Soto Zen in Japan. The complex of seventy buildings is a mecca for pilgrims from all over the world who come to meditate. The road up to the valley wound through a snowy forest.

Eiheiji streamParting for meditation

Left: Snowy scene. Right: Monk parting for meditation at Eiheiji.

To tour the region south of Kanazawa we stayed near Natadera, at Katayamazu hot spring on the west shore of Lake Shibayamagata, where ducks spend the winter. The waters, with low sodium and calcium chloride content, is said to benefit chronic joint and muscle rheumatism and gout. Nearby is Dainichizakari Brewery, which uses water from the Mt. Hakusan to make sake.

Lake ShibayamagataDucks

The sixty-mile drive from Lake Shibayamagata to Tsuruga on a narrow coastal road (in one place, boats brought up on shore are close enough to be touched from the car) takes you through the Echizen-Kaga Coast Quasi-National Park, which, like the Noto Peninsula, is known for its and winter wave flowers. The day we drove along the coast, it was snowless, with cloud cover, and the sea was calm. Winter daffodils were blooming.

Echizen-Kaga coastRock formations

In Tsuruga, we visited Kehi Jinja, a Shinto shrine established in 702, and Kehi-no-Matsubara, a park with 17,000 red and black pine trees, along the sandy shores of Tsuruga Bay.

Kehi ToriiPine forest

The poet Basho stopped at a shrine at Kehi to view the full moon at the end of September in 1689, on his way home from a five-month long tour of northern Honshu. The night was rainy and the moon hidden, so he wrote, "Full moon? North Country weather is unpredictable."

Full Bloom & Festivals

Sakura Enchantment on the Tokaido & Nakasendo / April 1-16, 2008

Last Edited: August 30, 2010

To be in Japan in the spring when sakura are in full bloom (mankai) is a traveler’s dream.

Sakura at Odawara CastleSakura at Hikone Castle

Sakura at Odawara Castle / Sakura at Hikone Castle

Planning a visit can be somewhat tricky, though, as sakura doesn’t bloom by the calendar, but by weather and location – earlier in warmer years, at lower latitudes and elevations, and in sunnier places; and later in cooler years, higher latitudes and locations, and in shadier places. Full bloom occurs within a week after opening of the first flowers (kaika) and lasts about a week.

To complicate matters, there are dozens of varieties, from white to deep pink, in clusters and sprays, upright or weeping, each blooming on a different cycle (a couple even in winter). And daily weather (wind and rain) may affect the quality of the bloom.

The ideal hanami, or flower-viewing, is at places where a lot of trees are in full-bloom, grouped together or in rows, usually in parks, around castles, temples and shrines, or along rivers and roadways.

Four years ago, we were in Japan in the last week of March and early April and caught the beginning of the blossoming in Osaka and Kyoto, but left before full bloom. This year we scheduled a trip from April 1-16, which on average is best time for hanami in the lower elevations of central Honshu.

Sakura season is also a great time to visit Japan for matsuri, or festivals, celebrating the coming of spring. Festivals occur on different days in different places, but often on set dates.

We planned to follow the old Tokaido (Eastern Sea Road) along the southern coast, from Tokyo to the ancient capital of Kyoto, where the sakura bloom on average three days later than in Tokyo; then to return to Tokyo via the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Road) to the north and into higher elevations for later blooming.

Map of route

Click on the image for a Google Map

These two roads were part of the road system established by the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu after he unified the country in 1602. The Tokaido, the most traveled road, was 300 miles long; the more rugged, less traveled Nakasendo, was 310 miles.

Stations along the roads provided inns, teahouses, restaurants and entertainment quarters as well as  porters and horse stables. At selected stations were barrier gates where travelers were interviewed, permits were checked and goods inspected, as the government attempted to control travel and trade.

Between 1831-1834, woodblock artist Ando Hiroshige produced a series of prints with scenes from the fifty three stations of the Tokaido; between 1834-1842, he finished a series started by Keisai Yeisen depicting the the sixty-nine stations of the Kiso-kaido (another name for the Nakasendo, which went through the Kiso Valley, between Gifu and Suwa). As these prints spread to the West after the opening of Japan in 1854, they provided glimpses into a country closed to the rest of the world for 250 years; the prints visually defined “Japan” for generations of Westerrners.


When we flew into Narita, the news from aficionados was that the best day for hanami in Tokyo was the day before, as some wind and rain had already started the petals falling. The blossoms had begun opening about a week earlier than predicted.

We had planned to skip crowded Tokyo anyway, nad headed for Kamakura, to see the sakura along the walking path of Danzakura Avenue to Hachiman Shrine. The trees were in full bloom, but petals were swirling down with each gust of wind.

Dankazura Avenue Path Sakura along Dankazura Avenue
Danzakura Avenue Path
Sakura along Danzakura Avenue
Gempei Pond at Hachiman Shrine
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine
Gempei Pond at Hachiman Shrine
Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine

Hachiman (“Eight Banners”) was originally worshiped by fishermen who found a mysterious object washed up on shore. Believing it was divine for having survived a long sea journey, it was prayed to for safety at sea.

“Eight Banners” refers to eight banners that fell from heaven before the birth of Emperor Ojin (270-310), the fifteenth head of the imperial family, who was believed to be Hachiman incarnate.

The original Hachiman Shrine in Kamakura was at Zaimokuza, on the beach. It was moved farther inland, to its present location by Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the head of the Minamoto family (Genji) who defeated the ruling Taira family (Heike) in the Gempei War (1180-1185). Yoritomo was appointed as the first shogun of the Kamakura Bakufu, or military government, which was formally recognized by the imperial family in 1192. Hachiman became the guardian of the Minamoto family and government.

On the way to our hotel just west of Kamakura town, the late afternoon traffic was heavy, the line of cars moving very slowly. As we crawled around Inamuragasaki, we could see Mt. Fuji ahead against the evening sky.

Mt. FujiMt. Fuji

The next day we went to see a memorial to Japan's first shogun, Yoritomo Minamoto; Shakado Kiritoshi, path cut through limestone rock leading down to Kamakura town; the great Buddha at Kotoku-in temple; and Hasedera remple.

Yoritomo Memorial Shakado Kiritoshi
Yoritomo Memorial
Shakado Kiritoshi
Buddha Statue at Kotoku-in
Rows of miniature Buddhas at Hasedera
Buddha Statue at Kotoku-in
Rows of miniature Buddhas at Hasedera


Later that morning, we drove to Odawara Castle, where the sakura was in full bloom. In the square in front of the castle grounds were a flea market and food booths and the area was crowded with visitors to the castle enjoying hanami.

Odawara bridgeSakura

Odawara castle was originally built in 1495 as the headquarters of the so-called “late” Hojo clan, founded by a warlord who had married into a branch of the Hojo family that had survived the mass suicide in 1333. The castle was captured in 1590 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who cut off the food supply and starved the defenders into surrender, completing his campaign to unite Japan under his rule.

Hideyoshi gave the castle to his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu, who agreed to exchange five provinces in central Japan, including his home province of Mikawa (Aichi prefecture), for eight provinces to the east, including Sagami, which included Odawara, and Musashi, the largest province in the Kantø region, which included Edo. Hideyoshi’s strategy was to move his powerful ally away from Kyøto, the old capital, but the move eventually backfired: it made Ieyasu the largest landholder in Japan. After Hideyoshi’s death, Ieyasu defeated his rivals, including Hideyoshi’s son, to become shogun.

Odawara castle, on a hill at the eastern base of the Hakone mountains, was used by the Tokugawa shogunate to watch movements along the Tokaido, as daimyo came to and left Edo in alternate years. This requirement for daimyo to spend time in Edo was established to discourage anti-shogunate plots from developing in the provinces.

After the shogunate fell in 1868, Odawara castle abandoned. The castle was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. It was rebuilt as a cultural attraction in 1960.


From Odawara a winding mountain road goes up to Hakone, which is noted not for its sakura, but for its Lake Ashi and a view of Mt. Fuji rising over the lake.

HakoneMt. Fuji

In Hakone, a stone-paved section (ishidatami) and a cedar-lined path of the old Tokaido are preserved.

Stone paved pathCedars

Along the lake are walking paths and a reconstruction of the barrier station where travelers were once requied to show permits.


After a quiet night at a small pension on Lake Ashi, we drove up to the steaming sulphur fields of Owakudani ("Big Boiling Valley") early the next morning from where Fujisan appears over a low range of mountains.


Before leaving Hakone, we bought a bottle of Odawara sake (Gin-no-Mai, “Singing Dance”) that turned out to be excellent. We drove up Hakone Pass, and detoured off the Tokaido, on our way to Izu.

Now and Then

A view from Hakone Pass Travelers through Hakone Pass above Lake Ashi (Hiroshige)
A view from Hakone Pass
Travelers through Hakone Pass above Lake Ashi (Hiroshige)

Two years later, in the summer of 2010, when we drove the Hakone Skyline road, I recognized the view on which Hiroshige based his print: Mt. Mikuni, which is north of the Hakone Pass. The artist steepened the mountain considerably to create a more dramatic scene.

Mt. Mikuni

Izu Peninsula

On the road south to Izu Peninsula, at Himenosawa Park, the mountain sakura had not fully bloomed, but a tree with large white flowers and red camellias had.

White flowersCamellias

Along the road to Shimoda in central Izu is Joren Falls.

Joren Falls

Wasabi was being planted below Joren Falls, where you can also fish for ayu, or sweetfish (smelt). We had ayu, roasted over coals, and wasabi ice cream for lunch.

Fishing at Joren Falls Roasting Ayu
Fishing below Joren Falls
Roasting Ayu
Planting Wasabi at Joren Falls
Planting Wasabi at Joren Falls
Wasabi Roots for Sale

Farther south are the seven falls of the Kawazu river, where visitors can walk along a path following the stream bed to view all seven. A circular ramp goes down from the highway to the river:

Along the walk are statues of the student and the dancing girl from Yasunari Kawabata's short story, "Dancing Girl of Izu."

WalkwayFallsDancing Girl of IzuKama Falls

At the southern end of Izu is Shimoda, a picturesque seaport, where Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” anchored in 1854 to force Japan open to trade with the West.

A modest row of trees along the Inozawa River was in prime bloom.

Inozawa River sakuraBoats

The Shimoda Museum is a museum in itself, housed in two adjacent buildings connected by a second-floor walkway. The “namako-kabe,” or “sea-cucumber walls,” feature dark slate tiles overlaid with white plaster cross-hatching, a building technique developed to prevent wooden houses from burning down. It’s a low-tech, small-town museum, with displays of the Shimoda festival floats.

Shimoda MuseumFloat display

The museum also featured artifacts of the American and Russian visitors during the 19th century, including a sea-weathered canvas and leather bag of the Russian admiral who was shipwrecked off the Izu peninsula and built a new ship at Heda, introducing Western shipbuilding techniques to Japanese craftsmen. When we told the the man selling tickets that we were from Hawai'i, he told us not to miss the Princess Ka‘iulani memorabilia in the second building; although the princess never visited Japan, King David Kalakaua, her uncle, had once proposed a marriage between her and a Japanese prince in hopes of forming an alliance between Hawai‘i and Japan that would protect Hawai‘i from Western intruders.

We also visited the hilltop park where Shimoda castle was once located and from where there was a view overlooking the town.

Shimoda parkView

Like the castle at Odawara, Shimoda Castle (also called Ujima Castle) was a stronghold of the Hojo clan, whose fleet was kept in the harbor. Before capturing Odawara Castle, Hideyoshi sent a naval force of 14,000 to besiege the hilltop castle overlooking the harbor. The six hundred defenders held out for fifty days before surrendering. The castle was destroyed. All that remains today, in Shimoda Park, are traces of the dry moat.

We spent the night at a ryokan at Tatado Beach, outside of town, where surfers in wetsuits were catching waves.

Tatado BeachSurfer

As we drove up the west coast of Izu the next day, we passed a field of stunning yellow rape flowers bordered by sakura, and farther north along a winding coastal road, sakura formed tunnels of flowers.

Rape flowersSakura tunnel

The road on westcoast of Izu runs along Suruga bay past the Sanshiro Islands, where visitors can wallk out at low tide to a nearby island or take excursion boats.

Nearby islandsExcursion boat

The cliffside road is scenic, and at the north end of the bay, Fujisan appeared above the Akashi Mountains.

Cliffside roadMt. Fuji


Back on the Tokaido west of Izu, we arrived in Shizuoka for its spring festival, held on the first Saturday of April and featuring a flower-viewing procession to Sengen Shrine, a tradition started by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), who became shogun of Japan in 1603 and retired in 1605 to Shizuoka, where he was brought up. His family ruled Japan for 250 years. The procession, with colorful floats and groups costumed as lords, ladies, and samurai, culminated in traditional dances in front of sakura blooming along the moat and outer walls of Ieyasu’s castle, Sumpu, which is the site of a park today.

ProcessionLadies on a floatFloatsDancers

Just east of Shizuoka are Nihondaira and Miho Beach, two of the best viewpoints for Mount Fuji. We drove to Nihondaira in the early morning to catch the faint glow of the rising sun on the sakura and the near-perfect, snow-covered cone that seemed to float above Shimizu harbor in spring mist (or was it smog?).

Fujisan in the spring mistFujisan from the beach at Miho

Fujisan in the spring mist / Fujisan from the beach at Miho

Also on Nihondaira is Tosho-gu, or “Eastern-Shining Shrine” at Kunozan, where Ieyasu’s remains were housed after his death, before they were moved to the more famous and elaborate Tosho-gu at Nikko the following year. We climbed the 1159 stone steps zigzagging up a steep hill to the immaculately maintained, elaborately carved, and colorfully painted shrine. There is also a ropeway down to the shrine from the top of Kunozan, but walking up is considered a form of purification. Visitors included groups of businessmen paying respect to and gaining inspiration from Japan’s greatest shogun.

WalkwayKunozan walkway


Strawberry farms lined along the coastal highway below Nihondaira, and in payment for a parking space we spent ¥2000 ($20) in a shop that sold delicious fresh strawberry juice and strawberry wafers.

West of Shizuoka, on the shore of Lake Hamana, is Hamamatsu Flower Park, where sakura and red, yellow, and white tulips were blooming. The brackish-water lake is known for its abundance of seafood. When we arrived, the locals were digging clams along the shore. The hot spring inn we stayed at served lobster sashimi for dinner and offered a free shuttle to the park for hanami at night, with floral pathways lit to magical effect.

Lake Hamana, with boats and people digging for clams Sakura
Lake Hamana, with boats and people digging for clams
Yozakura (Night sakura viewing) at the flower park)
Hamamatsu Flower Park: Tulips and Sakura Gardens
Hamamatsu Flower Park: Tulips and Sakura
Water Fountain, with Music

On the way to Hamamatsu, we stopped at the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, where loggerhead turtles nest in the early summer to fall; and the barrier gate at Arai, which was established in 1601 by Tokugawa Ieyasu to restrict guns and girls from the capital. The barrier gate was destroyed by waves in 1708 and moved to a more protected spot inland.The structure at the site is the interview room, built in 1855; and the museum next door houses artifiacts from the era.

Now and Then

Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige)
Families visiting the Nakatajima Sand Dunes, just east of Hamamatsu
Travelers on the beach at Hamamatsu (Hiroshige)
Building where Tokaido travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana (Hiroshige)
Building where Tokaido travelers were interviewed, at Arai Barrier Gate
Travelers for Kyoto caught a ferry to the Arai barrier, on the western side of the inlet into Lake Hamana (Hiroshige)

 West to Yoshino and Asuka

On the way west to Kansai, we stopped in Nagoya to visit Atsuta Shrine, founded 1900 years ago and considered the second most venerated shrine to the sun goddess Amaterasu, the first being the Grand Shrine at Ise where she resides. Atsuta houses one of the three Imperial regalia of Japan given to the ruling family by Amaterasu – the sacred sword Ama-no-Murakumo-no-Tsurugi (“Sword of the Gathering Clouds of Heaven”), later renamed Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (“Grasscutting Sword”) after its possessor, Yamato Takeru, used it to escape death in a burning field by cutting a space in the surrounding grass. The sword is said to control the winds, and Yamato used it to direct the winds to blow the fire back at the treacherous lord who had set the field afire. (The other two Imperial regalia are a mirror, housed at the Grand Shrine at Ise, and a jewel, housed at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.)

Torii at Atsuta Shrine Atsuta Shrine
Torii at Atsuta Shrine
Atsuta Shrine

Continuing toward Kyoto on the expressway through Nagoya with its modern bridges (Edo-period travelers on the Tokaido used to avoid the dangerous river crossings by taking a boat from Mina to Kuwana), we detoured off the Tokaido at Seki and headed for Yoshino. On the way, we planned to spend the night at the Menard Aoyama Resort in the mountains of Iga-Ueno. After driving on narrow roads through mountains and valleys, we turned onto what looked like on our map the most direct way to the resort, Route 755, which turned out to be a winding, deserted single-lane road through the forest. It was raining hard and the road was littered with fallen cedar twigs, with small dirt slides on the mountain side. I was wondering if we were lost, but the GPS indicated we were headed toward the resort so we kept going. After emerging from the forest, we came onto a two-lane road, and the resort was a short ways off, in a very pleasant location among rolling hills, with a golf course and an excellent restaurant and onsen. There were very few guests, since it was the off-season, but the service, kaiseki dinner and onsen and rotemburo were a delight after the cold rainy drive.

Expressway Bridge in Nagoya Route 755 through the mountains to Aoyam
Expressway Bridge in Nagoya
Route 755 through the mountains to Aoyama
Menard Aoyama Resort Onsen
Menard Aoyama Resort

The next day, after inquiring at the front desk about the best way to get to Yoshino, we took Route 29 down from the resort to Route 165. Yoshino is considered the best site in Japan for hanami. The more trees, the more glorious the effect, and Yoshino has 30,000 of them. We were either early or late for the full bloom of the main body of trees, but there were groves and single trees in full bloom. Buses and cars were lining up to get on the road that goes up to the viewing sites, and the street to Kinpusen-ji, the main temple at Yoshino, was closed to traffic and full of visitors. Kinpusen-ji was established in the eighth century by En-no-Gyoja, a mountain-ascetic who was a founder of Shugendo, a mystic blend of Buddhism, Shinto, and Taoism. The cherry tree was sacred to this sect, which is why so many are planted in the area.

Kinpusenji, by Tomikichiro Tokuriki (Sept. 1941)

Hillside with sakuraTravelersSakuraKinpusen-ji

Just north of Yoshino, in Asuka we visited Ishibutai, the stone tomb of Soga no Umako (551-626), a nobleman who promoted Buddhism and government reforms introduced from China and Korea during the formative years of the nation. Visitors are allowed to walk into the empty underground chamber below the stones.

IshibutaiStone tomb

Just north, in Kashihara, we stopped at the mausoleum of Japan’s first emperor, Jimmu, a fifth-generation descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Tsukubai, or basin for water purificationTorii to Emperor Jimmu’s Mausoleum

Tsukubai, or basin for water purification / Torii to Emperor Jimmu’s Mausoleum

Jimmu migrated to Kansai from the Miyazaki area in southern Kyushu, where the sun goddess’ grandson Ninigi descended to earth. After defeating the local tribes, Jimmu established the rule of what became the imperial family. His mausoleum is behind a fence and a gate, in the woods; visitors can approach the gate but not enter.

North to Kyoto and Lake Biwa

We spent a night in Sakai, near the kofun, or keyhole-shaped burial mound, of the emperor Nintoku, the sixteenth emperor of Japan. This is the largest kofun in Japan, situated in the middle of a suburb of Osaka, in an area that also contains 20 keyhole-shaped tombs, 21 round tombs, and 5 square tombs.


Nintoku’s kofun, over five football fields long (1600 feet), 1000 feet wide, and 118 feet high is surrounded by a moat and an outer fence beyond which visitors are not allowed. The mound itself is so huge, you can’t see the whole thing in its entirety except from the air.

From Sakai, we drove to Otsu, on Lake Biwa, the junction town where the Tokaido and the Nakasendo meet.

On the way we stopped at the Inari Shrine at Fushimi, where a rice goddess is worshiped, now prayed to for prosperity in business as well. The shrine is noted for its tunnel of torii and its statues of foxes who serve as the goddess' messangers.

Inari ShrineFoxes

Near Fushimi was the mausoleum of emperor Meiji (1852-1912), who guided Japan through the opening of trade with the West and modernization after 250 years of isolation under the Tokugawas. A thousands steps lead up to the mausoleum.

Mausoleum steps


Later in the day, one of the current emperor’s son was scheduled to participate in a ceremony at his great great grandfather’s mausoleum.

Kyoto is just north of Fushimi. This was our second visit to Japan’s ancient capital, and we went to sites we missed on our first visit: our first stop was Gosho, the old imperial palace.


North of Gosho is Kamigamo shrine, the oldest shrine in this ancient city and guardian of the northeast, the primary direction from which evil sprits are thought to come.

Kamigamo shrineKamigamo

The sakura along Kyoto’s Kamo river and its other sites were past prime, but still in bloom.

Now and Then

Kamo River, with tourists Bridge over the Kamo River (Hiroshige)
Kamo River, with tourists
Bridge over the Kamo River (Hiroshige)

Kamo RiverVisitors

That night, in the pouring rain, we went to see the trees Otsu’s Miidera temple, which, like the park at Hamamatsu, was lit up for visitors.

Miidera temple treesEvening lights

The next day the rain continues. We drove up the Mt. Hiei toll road (there’s also a train) to Enryakuji, the famous monastery of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. The temple grounds were shrouded in mist. Inside the main hall, unseen priests were chanting, their voices echoing eerily from the dark recesses.

EnryakujiRinging the bell

The next morning, at sunrise, Lake Biwa was spectacular as storm clouds from the night before hung low, but allowed the sun to light the lake and its Western shore.

Lake Biwa

Now and Then

Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds Otsu, with Lake Biwa (Hiroshige)
Otsu in dawn light; Mt. Hiei below the clouds
Otsu, with Lake Biwa (Hiroshige)

Full Bloom in Hikone

On the way from Otsu to Gifu, at Hikone, a small town on the northeast side of Lake Biwa, far enough north and cold enough to be blooming later than Kyoto, the rows of white trees along the outer side of the moat and large pink trees hanging over the inner walls of the moat were in full bloom, forming long and lofty hills of pink.

Hikone moatHikone castle

There was a small fair below the castle, with booths selling food and local products. We bought an bottle of “Golden Turtle” sake, which turned out to be delicious. Below the castle was also a garden and a museum. Senior artists were out painting along the moat.

Hikone gardensArtists

We stayed a couple of nights in Gifu, noted for its cormorant fishing (May 11 through October 15 only) on the Nagara River and its castle atop Mt. Kinka.

Gifu Castle on Mt. Kinka Statue of the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, Gifu Park
Gifu Castle on Mt. Kinka
Statue of the daimyo Oda Nobunaga, Gifu Park

Originally completed in 1204 and rebuilt and renamed Gifu-jo by the daimyo Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the castle was destroyed by American warplanes in 1945, and rebuilt out of concrete in the 1950s. It offers a 360-degree view of Gifu city.

Gifu-joGifu City

We caught the ropeway up, then walked down the hill to a park that includes the site where the Nobunaga once lived.

Gifu ParkNobunaga's residence

Nobunaga hailed from Owari province (western Aichi prefecture), which includes the area occupied by Nagoya today. After gaining control over Owari in 1559, he began his campaign to bring Japan under his rule.

He had a reputation for ruthlessness – during his rise to power, he killed an uncle and had a rebellious younger brother assassinated; later he torched Enryaku-ji on Mt. Hiei and slaughtered its militant monks and their families for opposing him. Early on, he saw the advantage of firearms introduced by the Dutch over Japanese swords and bows and arrows, so he acquired guns to gain a military advantage over his rivals.

In 1582, while in Kyoto, Nobunaga was attacked at Honno-ji by the soldiers of one of his vassals and either committed suicide or burned to death in the temple. His corpse was destroyed in the fire. He never achieved his dream of unifying the country. At his death, he controlled thirty-one of the sixty-six provinces, all of them on Honshu.

Spring Fireworks Festival at Tejikarao Shrine

Just outside of Gifu, at Tejikarao Shrine, we went to a 300-year old spring fireworks festival held on the second Saturday in April. Here the twelve surrounding towns carry their kami, housed in mikoshi (portable shrines) hoisted on the backs of young men, to celebrate the arrival of spring. Each town erects two forty-foot tall poles, one with a triangle of ten lanterns and the other topped with a pack of gunpowder. The lanterns are ignited as the mikoshi enter the shrine grounds; then, as the young men, some bare-backed, dance with the mikoshi on their backs beneath the second pole, its gunpowder is ignited, showering sparks down on them. The omikoshi, packed with powder on their roofs, spew fountains of flames through pipes upward into the cascading sparks. Fire crackers, roman candles, and strings of cascading sparks accompany each dance.

Tejikarao street Portable shrine

Stage festivities Carrying the mikoshi

Gunpowder sparks Shower of sparks

This festival features booths along a narrow street in front of the shrine, selling grilled foods, toys, and small golden fish. Children and parents and teenage boys and girls in groups or on dates walked up and down the street. The atmosphere recalled for me the small town bon dances in Hawai’i in the 1950’s.

We almost missed the festival. That morning, after the hotel desk clerk told us that there was no parking at the shrine and advised us to catch the local train, we drove out to look at the site and locate parking nearby. We were walking around Tejikarao Shrine taking photos when an old man who had come for a morning prayer began talking about the shrine. We asked him where the festival grounds were, and he told us that we were at the wrong Tejikarao Shrine, that the festival was held at another shrine of the same name, over a mile away to the southwest, near the local train station of the same name.

We drove there, and found the townspeople erecting the lantern and gunpowder poles, packing tubes with gunpowder, and preparing a wide stage with nearly life-sized figures from Shinto mythology. We also found an empty lot and parked there that evening for the festival.

Tejikarao stageSetting the stage

PreparationsGunpowder poles

The festival was spectacular yet intimate, with spectators crowded into the limited space at the perimeter of the small temple grounds, which were roped off for safety. That night, there were a couple minor unplanned fires that sent fire fighters scurrying about with extinguishers.

On the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley

From Gifu, we drove through the Ena Valley and up the Nakasendo through the Kiso Valley, noted for its waterfall and sculpted river rocks and for two old post towns, Magome and Tsumago, between which you can still walk the historic road up to and down from Magome Pass.

Ena Valley Nezamenotoko Gorge, Kiso Valley
Ena Valley
Nezamenotoko Gorge, Kiso Valley
Repaved Nakasendo
Magome Pass
Repaved Nakasendo; 1.0 km from Magome; 6.7 km to Tsumago
Magome Pass: 2.2 km from Magome; 5.5 km to Tsumago
The Nakasendo near Tsumago (Hiroshige) he Nakasendo near Magome Pass (Hiroshige)
The Nakasendo near Tsumago (Hiroshige)
The Nakasendo near Magome Pass (Hiroshige)

Now and Then

Ono Falls Eight Scenic Spots of Kiso (Hiroshige)

Above: In the Edo era, the Nakasendo crossed a foot bridge in front of Ono-no-Taki, considered one of the Eight Scenic Spots of Kiso (Hiroshige).




Left: Ono Falls, on the roadside of Route 19 in Agematsu, Kiso Valley; a train bridge passes overhead today.

We spent the night in the castle town of Matsumoto, before backtacking off the Nakasendo to see the Takayama Spring Festival. Before we left early the next morning to get to Takayama by 9 am, we stopped by the castle.


The castle, an original construction, belonged to the Ogasawara family. the It’s nicknamed Karasu or Crow Castle because of its black walls and roofs.

Takayama Spring Festival

At Shiojiri, we turned off the Nakasendo for Takayama, which puts on one of the best spring festivals in Japan, held on April 14 and 15 each year. This festival features twelve exquisitely-made floats, beautifully lacquered, carved, and embellished with metal ornaments, and hung with banners and paintings on silk. Three of the floats house 21-string puppets that perform dances to traditional music.

Takayama floatsFloatPuppets on floatPuppet with fanPuppeteerDrum on cart

Takayama is a great tourist town, with morning markets along the Miya River and an old town with narrow streets lined with traditional houses and shops, including eight sake breweries.  We bought some spices at the morning market and a bottle of daiginjyo from Harada brewery; we had a delicious lunch of ten-zaru, tempura and buckwheat noodles, for which the area is known.

Miya River Morning Market
Miya River
Morning Market

In the morning the floats were put on display around town; after the puppet show, several hundred residents dressed up in Edo-style costumes and paraded through the town, stopping to perform a lion dance before the shrines along the way and ending up at the center square.

Lion Dance Procession
Lion Dance

There is a lantern festival at night, but we didn’t stay because the town was packed, and we weren’t able to book a hotel for that night (people start making reservations a year in advance); so we headed into the still-snowy Hida Mountains, to Hirayu Onsen, to relax in a rotemburo (outdoor hot spring). The specialty in these mountain towns is beef, served with mountain potatoes, ferns and freshly-picked bamboo shoots.

Between Takayama and Hirayu is Hida Limestone Cave, which features miniature stalactites and stalagmites. Ten miles north of the onsen is the Shinhodaka Ropeway, which ascends in two stages to the top of Mt. Hodaka, over 7000 feet above sea level, for a spectacular view of the Japan Alps. Near the onsen is Hirayu falls, thawing out with the season (it’s frozen in the winter); a signboard tells of the legend of the discovery of the onsen: a white monkey (shirozaru) led some exhausted samurai warriors to the site.

Hida Limestone Cave Ropeway to Mt. Hodaka
Hida Limestone Cave
Ropeway to Mt. Hodaka
Hirayu Falls Rotemburo at Hirayu Onsen in Morning Light
Hirayu Falls
Rotemburo at Hirayu Onsen in Morning Light

The next morning, I was relaxing alone in the rotemburo, my body afloat just below the surface, images of spring festivals, melting ice, and sakura blooming, adrift in a pool of memories. The steam swirling rhythmically in the chilly mountain breeze over the hot water entranced me, the glowing swirls rising and vanishing into sunlight.

With the morning sun peeping up over the snowy mountains, I felt deeply and with a pure heart the reverence sun worshippers have for the rising sun. Was it Amaterasu (“Heaven Shining”)? The goddess of that name was so interwoven into the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of the Imperial Family, I now think otherwise. It was a more primitive goddess, nameless, embodied in the sun that farmers and fishermen have worshiped on mountain summits and eastern shores since the dawn of human awareness of our dependence on the sun for bringing forth all that’s radiant, robust, and beautiful in this world.

Its light and warmth is a blessing on the land and people, calling forth the bloom of sakura that sweeps across the ancestral homeland, in the third moon of the year, the culmination of spring. The young leaves, the green leaves of forests and rice fields are awash in a golden glow. And through summer rains, droughts, and fierce winds of the year, with the care and toil of farmers, the rice fields flower and bear grain:

At their tips, which waited patiently in the rain,
tiny white flowers glisten
and above the quiet amber puddles reflecting the sun
red dragonflies glide.
Ah, we must dance, dance like children
and that’s not enough.....
we must dance, clapping our hand,
like the innocent gods of the past,
and that is not enough.
(Kenji Miyazawa, “The Breeze Comes Filling the Valley”)

The rice ripe and for three festival days
The whole sky clear.
(Kenji Miyazawa, "Last Poems")

East to Karuizawa

On the way to Karuizawa, our last stop, we drove around Lake Suwa to reconnect with the Nakasendo and follow it east to the Kanto plains, past Tokyo, to Narita. The sakura around this mountain lake, like the sakura in Takayama, were just starting to open.

Now and Then

Lake Suwa A frozen Lake Suwa, from Shiojiri (Hiroshige)
Lake Suwa
A frozen Lake Suwa, from Shiojiri (Hiroshige)

Beyond Wada Pass (we drove through the new Wada tunnel rather than over the old winding road through the highest pass on the Nakasendo) and down at Kasadori, the snow-covered peak of Mt. Asama appeared in the distance, an active volcano which dominates this mountain valley as Fuji-san does the southern coast.

Now and Then

Mt. Asama above Naka Karuizawa Mt. Asama at Oiwake (Yeisen)
Mt. Asama above Naka Karuizawa
Mt. Asama at Oiwake (Yeisen)

Karuizawa, at the foot of Mt. Asama, has become a resort for the upper middle class from Tokyo, with two-story Western-style summer houses and mansions on relatively large lots, surrounded by birches, larches and cedars. The town has a modern shopping street and plaza, as well as an old town (Naka-Karuizawa), where we had an excellent sushi dinner.

The highlights of this stop were the lava fields of Mt. Asama; the falls of Shiraito (“White Threads,” so called because water seeps out from the side of a steep hill in thin white streams); and the look-out above Usui pass, where the eroded ridge tops to the south were like none others I’ve seen in Japan.

Shiraito Falls Look-out above Usui Pass
Shiraito Falls
Look-out above Usui Pass

By the time we got to Karuizawa, the hanami season was almost over in the coastal areas of south-central Honshu. But in mountain towns like Suwa and Takayama, buds were still opening, and spring would continue to bloom, sweeping north for Hokkaido, where the season lasts into May.

Note: Woodblock prints of the Tokaido and Nakasendo, are from these two websites:

For historical background on the Nakasendo, see Nakasendo Highway: A Journey to the Heart of Japan.

Summer Delights: Fireflies & Sweet Fish

Shikoku and Chugoku / May 18-June 3, 2009

Updated: August 18, 2010

Early summer – mid-May by the traditional lunisolar calendar – is a good time to visit Japan for touring, walking along streams to waterfalls and hiking on mountain trails. The forest foliage is a refreshing light green; the days are getting longer, the weather warmer; it’s not yet the rainy season (starting around mid-June) and not yet hot and muggy (July-August). The weather is uncertain, between spring and summer, alternating between sunshine and rain, especially on the windward (western) side of the central mountains of Honshu (the san'in, or “mountain shadows” side). Even when it’s cloudy or rainy and cool, you may be able to walk around comfortably in shorts during the day.

Daisen shrine

Researching mountain worship in Japan, I wanted to walk the trails and visit the shrines at two famous mountains of Western Honshu: Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain on Shikoku, in Ehime; and Daisen, the tallest mountain in Chugoku, on the border of Shimane and Tottori.


I also wanted to see the Hii River, which flows down from the Chugoku mountains and into the western end of Lake Shinji in Shimane. The town of Izumo is built on the river’s delta and rice fields line the banks. Along one of the tributaries is a walking trail through an area called Oni ga Shitaburui, “demon’s trembling tongue” perhaps the reason for rocks having tumbled down into the river bed.

Hii river

In Shinto mythology, Susano-o, the kami of storms, fertility, and agriculture, landed in Japan near the Hii River after leaving the heavenly homeland. (Susano-o is the brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu.) He learned that an eight-headed serpent, Yamata-no-Orochi, was eating the daughters of one of the farmers, who asked Susano-o for help. Susano-o lured the serpent from the hills with eight vats of sake, one for each head, and after the snake was drunk and asleep, he slew it, cutting of its heads. The grateful farmer and his wife offered their last daughter for Susano-o’s wife and he accepted.

Susano-o found in the dragon’s tail a sword. One website associates this sword with the iron manufacturing that developed in the upper reaches of the Hii river. Its iron-rich reddish sand was melted down into pig iron in a furnace, then further refined into a high quality steel, used for making swords and knives. The town of Yoshida in Oku Izumo has a mining museum that documents the process.

As it was summer, I also wanted to see ukai, the practice of river-fishing at night for ayu (sweetfish) with trained sea cormorants on leashes. The fish are attracted with fires burning in metal baskets attached to the front end of the shallow-water boats.

Comorant fishing

The cormorants are released to dive for the fish. A metal ring around their necks prevents them from swallowing any large fish, which the handler induces the bird to disgorge after pulling the bird back to the boat. There are three crew members, two to maneuver the boat and one to handle the birds. The handler manages up to a dozen birds, so part of the art is to make sure the leashes don’t get tangled.

On leashes

Ayu, a genus of fish related to the trout but unique to Japan, are said to smell sweet, like watermelon, hence their name. They have a life cycle of a year: adults spawn then die in the fall, near the mouth of a river; the fry live at sea until spring, then swim upstream where they feed on lichen and mature during the summer; finally, in the fall, the adults swim downstream to spawn and die. Ukai takes place in the summer, as ayu fatten themselves before heading downstream.

Originally from China, ukai is described over 1300 years ago in Japan: using this method, fishermen provided ayu to the imperial court. Ukai became popular among the daimyo or provincial lords as well, but eventually declined to near extinction when it was no longer economically viable. Since 1890, to encourage the traditional art, the imperial household agency has authorized fishermen in Gifu to provide the emperor’s household with ayu from the Nagara River.

Ukai takes place in twelve other towns and cities in Japan. In Iwakuni, in Yamaguchi, upstream of the five arches of the Kintai Bridge, the practice is said to be 370 years old.

Nishiki river

The bridge was the ideal setting to watch this traditional art, which opens in Iwakuni on June 1 and continues till August 31. I scheduled a stay at a ryokan on the banks of the Nishiki river overlooking the bridge, on the opening night.

So the itinerary for our trip took shape around these points: Mt. Ishizuchi on Shikoku; and, in Chugoku, Daisen, the Hii River, and Iwakuni.

Route map

Click on the Image for a Google Map.


We landed in the evening at Kansai International and spent a night in Wakayama, from where a car ferry to Tokushima, Shikoku, leaves, according to a website, at 11:30 am. Since we were in the habit of getting up before dawn, we went to see Koya-san before catching the ferry. This mountain religious complex, in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula sixty miles east of Wakayama, was founded in 816 by Kukai (774-835 CE, posthumously Kobo Daishi, or Great Teacher), one of the most famous religious figures in Japanese history. He was born in Sanuki province on Shikoku, and after becoming a Buddhist and attaining enlightenment, he studied in China for two years, then returned to establish the esoteric Shingon sect based on the teachings he received in China.

The winding mountain road to Koyasan ended at the top of the ridge where the red Daimon, “Great Gate,” stands.

Great Gate

The road down into the valley from there leads to a small town with shops and restaurants around the buildings of the monastery complex.


The morning air was chilly. The painted screen doors at Kongobu-ji were impressive, but even more so was Okunoin, said to be the largest cemetery in Japan. A walking path goes up to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (No photography allowed: the woodblock print below is by Tomikichiro Tokuriki [Sept. 1941]).

The path to the Mausoleum is lined with towering cedars and tombstones of the numerous worshipers buried near the Great Teacher.The warlord Oda Nobunaga, who laid the foundation for a unified Japan in the sixteenth century, is enshrined at a memorial there (though he was killed in Kyoto and his body was never found in the burnt-out building where he died.) Companies like Nissan and Panasonic have burial sites.


Okunoin imagesMemorials

It’s not clear whether the body of the Great Teacher is actually in the mausoleum, as one tradition says that he is in eternal meditation in a cave in one of the peaks surrounding the town, assisting the faithful to achieve enlightenment, which is why so many have chosen to be buried near him.


We got back to Wakayama at 11 am for the ferry to Tokushima, the dock worker waving us on just before the door was shut and the lines cast off. (The information I had from the website was apparently old and the ferry was leaving half an hour earlier.) The crossing took about two hours.

From Tokushima, before heading to Mt. Ishizuchi on the northside of the island, we went south to Muroto to visit places associated with Kobo Daishi, who was said to have gone through religious training there and achieved enlightenment while meditating in a cave called Mikura-do when he was just 24 years old.

On the way to Muroto, we stopped in Hiwasa at Yakuoji, the twenty-third temple on the 88 temple pilgrimage around Shikoku, established after Kobo Daishi’s death in the ninth century as his followers made the rounds of memorial places at the temples around the island. The pilgrimage starts in Tokushima and goes clockwise around the island. Walking the 745 mile route takes around 1-2 months, the most popular seasons spring and fall. When we visited Shikoku in fall 2006, we stopped at temples 1, 38, and 51. (The serious pilgrims begin and end the pilgrimage at Koya-san, paying homage to the Great Teacher.)

On display in the front gate of Yakuoji are straw sandals six feet tall, symbolizing the pilgrimage.

Straw sandalsYakuoji

The stairs leading to the temple on Yakuyoke hill has 42 steps on the men's side and 33 steps on the women's side. Walking up the steps, which contain the sutra of Yakushi written on pebbles embedded in them, provides protection for men at 42 (“shini,” a homonym for “death”) and for women at 33 (“sanzan,” a homonym for “disaster”). Yakushi is the Buddha of medicine and healing.

The town also has a roundish turtle rock offshore of a sandy beach where sea turtles come ashore lay their eggs. (The rock looks more like a snail to me.) On the beach is a turtle museum, and outside of it a turtle-shaped phone booth.

Turtle rockTurtle phone booth

That night our ryokan in Muroto served us odd-looking pieces of meat as part of the kaiseki. It was gamey and very chewy. I suspected it was whale, and the waitress confirmed it. I looked out the window: one of the banners along the road was advertising “kujira” – whale. I finished chewing and swallowing it. It’s an acquired taste, not something I would order again. Karen didn’t eat hers.

The next morning we walked along the short coastal trail to Cape Muroto, from where it ascends to a view of the coast and Hotsumisaki temple.

Cape MurotoWalkway

Along the way was Mearai-no-ike Pond, where Kobo Daishi is said to have purified the water of the pond and cured people of their eye diseases. The pond was green with algae. And near on entrance to the trail was a fig tree spreading its roots like a octopus over a rock.

Pond Fig tree

We hiked up the hillside trail to Hotsumisaki-ji, temple 24 on the Shikoku 88 temple tour.


Back down on the highway was the cave where Kobo Daishi meditated and “until the Morning Star appeared” (i.e., achieved enlightenment).

Cave entranceInside cave

On the roadside was a gigantic statue of Kobo Daishi – one of the many oddly tacky-looking gigantic Buddhist statues found in Japan, appearing to be made of white plaster.

I arrived by sea in Muroto in the summer of 2007, with the crew of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a, on our way from Uwajima to Yokohama, part of a cultural exchange tour. In Muroto I remembered the Bade House, a deep ocean water spa with a turtle shaped dome made of wood, housing a pool lined with water jets that massage different areas of the body, from the head down to the feet as you circled the pool. The deep ocean water, which wells up just offshore, is said to contain restorative minerals and to be free of pollutants. After our hike up to Hotsumisaki-ji we went for a water-jet massage and lunch at the Bade Haus before heading to Kochi.

Near Kochi that afternoon, we stopped at Ryugado. Billed as one of the three largest stalactite caves in Japan, the cave is not spectacular, but offers a pleasant half-mile walk. The one known for long-tailed roosters. I assumed the roosters would be displying their tails in an open yard, but after exiting the cave, we walked through a tourist shop where the roosters were in a narrow glass case, immobilized, so tourists could view their tails. It was a ploy to get you to walk through the souvenir shop. Depressing.


In 2006, we spent a night in downtown Kochi, near the station, and walked around the shopping arcade near the castle, visited the castle and drove at to Katsurahama Beach. This time we stayed outside the city, at Auberge Tosayama, in a small rural valley. It turned out to be an excellent stop.

Auberge Tosayama

As its name implied, the hotel had a Japanese-European decor. The new-age kaiseki served for dinner was excellent, made from local produce, with a selection of local sake.

Tosayama kaiseki dishesTosayama kaiseki disheTosayama kaiseki disheSake

The next morning, before heading to Takamatsu, we walked along a country lane, with an freshwater channel running alongside. Small crabs were crawling at the edge, with a few crushed on the road by vehicles.

To get to Takamatsu, we detoured off the expressway near Oboke and Koboke Gorges, to go through the Iya Valley, a remote mountainous region. We wanted to see the famous pissing boy statue, set on a steep cliff and pissing into a stream far below. It’s said to represent a courageous traveler. We turned around a couple of times trying to figure out which road to take. At one parking lot, there was a group of four or five elderly men on motorcycles, including one or two Harleys. You could tell from their ages and outfits that they had grown up in the fifties, and their identities were shaped by watching Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One.

On a winding road past the town of Ikeda we found the statue. The motorcycle riders showed up after us.

Pissing boy statue

We headed to the famous vine bridge at the east end of Oku Iya. There is a more frequented vine bridge near Ikeda, but it’s visited by large tour buses packed with tourist, so we skipped it. (Both bridges are reinforced with steel cables today, for the safety of tourists.)

The road up the Iya River valley was narrow and winding. The GPS icon for “closed in winter” (a snowman with an X over it) began to look to me like a skull and crossbones telling me we shouldn’t have taken this route. When we got to the vine bridge after a long drive, it was deserted. Then the bikers showed up. The bridge was a pleasant stop, not necessarily something to drive 20 miles to see, unless you have the time and enjoy driving into remote areas on narrow roads.

Vine bridgeView of vine bridge

From the bridge, we headed north, down the mountainside to Takamatsu. This road was also an adventure, winding through small villages, and in places fogged in, with visibility of a few yards.

Before going to our hotel in downtown Takamatsu, we looked for the Isamu Noguchi Museum, but couldn’t find it at first. We drove up and down various narrow winding roads in an upper middle-class neighborhood. The GPS was not giving us an exact location. I decided to park in a dirt lot and ask the residents out and about for directions. We apparently took a wrong turn, as the museum was down at the bottom of the hill. When we got there, it was closed. It didn’t look like there was much to see there, other than a yard full of large stones.

Back at the car, the owner of the dirt lot we had parked in, who lived across the street and happened to be sweeping her driveway, began a nasally whining in the inimitable tone of a certain type of middle-aged Japanese woman, voice rising and falling with indignation, like the interminable wailing of a civil defense siren warning of imminent danger in a bad dream. She was upset that our car was parked in her empty dirt lot. She reminded me of bird cheeping and flapping its wings in defense of its nest. What else could we do, but leave, which we did. Later a gaijin who had lived in Japan for nine years laughed at my experience and explained to me that (1) parking tickets are more expensive than speeding tickets in Japan; and (2) the Japanese are very protective of private property. Someone else told me that you can't buy a car in a city unless you have a certified parking space for it.

Up the ridge on the next peninsula to the west, toward Takamatsu was Yashima. The road up overlooks a 12th century battleground of Genji-Heike to the east, as the Genji chased the Heike out of the Yamato region. On the other side of the ridge was a great view of Takamatsu, now in the setting sun, and the islands of the Seto Naikai (Inland Sea). At the top is Yashima-ji, temple 84 of the 88-temple pilgrimage.

TakamatsuYashima temple

After checking into our hotel, we caught the local train to the shopping arcade in Katahara-machi, billed as one of the things to do in Takamatsu. By the time we got there, in the early evening, most of the shops were closed; as shopping arcades go, it was nothing special. We decided to have dinner there and ended up at a restaurant that served the worst sushi we’ve ever had in Japan. As we left the restaurant, I was still chewing the gristle from a piece of maguro and spat it out once we got outside.

Next morning, early again, we went to Ritsuin Garden – a delightful garden with pines, ponds and intricate walking paths. Other early risers were there, engaging in their morning walks and exercises as soon as the garden opened.

Ritsuin garden bridgeTree branchesPinesStone formation

After our morning walk, we were on our way westward to the ropeway at Mt. Ishizuchi. The road up was narrow and winding.

Ishizuchi road

We had gone up the ropeway in fall 2006, but it was late in the afternoon, and we had time only to look around the station at the top and catch the next to the last car back down. This time, I wanted to hike farther up. From the top station, we took the ski lift up to a lookout with a good view of the summit

Summit view

Dedicated to gongen (deities with both Shinto and Buddhist forms), Mt. Ishizuchi is a pilgrimage site during the summer climbing season. Near the summit, chains aid the pilgrims in getting up the steep slope. Called Kusari Zenjo, this is the most important ritual site, symbolic of the difficult climb to enlightenment, represented by Ishizuchi’s highest peak, Tengudake, which is home to a long-nosed mountain goblin (tengu) called Hokibo.


The trail from the lookout led to Joju shrine, and from there, hikers pass through a gate to a trail with a torii along a fairly easy ridge walk. When we got to the point where the trail got steeper, and a sign indicated that the rest of the way was really steep, we turned around and walked back down to the ropeway.

Ishizuchi gateTrail

After coming down the mountain, we headed for Saijo, where an Asahi beer factory with a beer hall is located. The sausages and beer were a delight after the hike.

Asahi brewery

Judging from the guidebook entry about Imabari, where we planned to spend the night, there isn’t much to do there. The hotel was near the castle, so we strolled around its moat as evening fell.

Imabari castle

Yakitori is said to be a town specialty, so we were looking forward to a good dinner. There were several yakitori restaurants marked on the map we got at the hotel. We asked the front desk for a recommendation. It turned out to be an izakaya, not a yakitori restaurant; the food was tasty, but nothing to go back for.

Back on Honshu

The next day we crossed back to Honshu via the Shimanami Kaido, which island-hops (eight bridges, nine islands) between Imabari and Onomichi.

Shimanami Kaido

The industrial towns of the Inland Sea don’t have much to offer the visitor looking for nature and culture, so after driving around Onomichi and Fukuyama, we headed north to the hot spring town of Maniwa, where I had booked a hotel with the intriguing name of Mori-no-Hotel Rochefort. It was raining off and on, more frequent and harder the farther we got into the Chugoku mountains. On the way to Maniwa was Atetsu Gorge, which sounded like an interesting route, but turned out to be just a small river valley, with a one-lane road along the north side.

Ikura Cave was worth the drive and the visit. Just outside the cave is a tall slender feathery waterfall plunging over a 240 meter cliff.

the cliff gazes up into the sky with such dignity, even the maple leaves are awe (tanka on Ikura Falls by Akiko Yosana, 1929)

Ikurado fallsFalls

Water was dripping from the ceiling for part of the walk in the cave, and there were three waterfalls inside as well, with streams running alongside. The umbrella we picked up on the way in came in handy.


The Mori-no-Hotel Rochefort, like the Auberge Tosayama, had a European flavor, and provided a comfortable and cozy respite from the rain. We stayed in all night. The food was good, as it usually is at ryokan; and the onsen was perfect relaxation.


The next day the weather cleared, so we hiked to the two-stage Daisen falls, upstream on the Kaseichi River, on the southeast side of this mountain. It was a pleasant hike up and down stairs and across a steel-cable bridge.

Pedestrian bridgeDaisen falls 

After the hike we drove around to the north side of the mountain, had a quick lunch of soba at a restaurant in the town, then visited the temple, Daisen-ji, founded by the Tendai sect in 718 and Ogamiyama shrine above it, dedicated to the mountain god, at the top of a long flight of stone stairs.

Daisen templeDaisen gate

The mountain kami is considered a protector of livestock, so horse and cattle fairs are held in villages around its base on the twenty-fourth day of the fourth moon. The mountain itself is worshipped as a water and agricultural kami and rice-planting festivals are held in the spring.

We drove down to the coast at Yonago, a hot springs/beach resort town. The beaches of Japan are generally not much to look at, especially if you are from Hawai’i, and the water is too cold to swim in. The weather was sunny, but chilly. On the beach, looking south, we could see Daisen ("Big Mountain") rising above the coastal plain.


From the west, Daisen looks conic like Fuji-san, but the other sides of the mountain have eroded, with ridges, cliffs, and valleys. The highest peak is Kengamine (“Sword Peak”), at 5,700 feet. As climbers have fallen to their deaths from the narrow ridge leading up to it, climbing is prohibited. But shrine priests still ascend nearby Misen to bring down herbs and water on the fourteenth day of the sixth moon (6.14, usually in July). This ritual may have originated in a rite to bring the fertility god down to the fields to ensure a good harvest.

The manager of the ryokan came out to greet us in the parking lot and help us with the luggage. The hotel and the area around it were fairly deserted, partly because it was off-season and partly because of the recession.

The next day we headed for Matsue, stopping at Fudoki no Oka, an archaeological park where artifacts dating to the first century have been excavated.

Fudoki no Oka

Near the park are two shrines, Kamosu and Yaegaki. Kamosu, dedicated to the creation kami Izanami, is said to be the earliest examples of a Taisha-style shrine, with a floor raised high on wooden pillars.

Kamosu shrine

Yaegaki is known as “the shrine of happy marriages” and commemorates the storm god Susano-o’s marriage to Kushi Inada Hime ("rice field princess"), whom he had saved from Yamata no orochi, an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent. On the shrine grounds is a small sub-shrine flanked by phalli, one wooden and one stone, symbolic of male fertility.

Yaegaki shrineShrine

As we were leaving, a group of elementary school students arrived. I wondered if they were brought before the subshrine and phalli by their teachers and allowed to ponder the mystery of procreation.

Matsue, the capital of Shimane prefecture with a population of 150,000, is noted for its castle, originally built in 1611 and since reconstructed. We saw the castle in Fall 2006, but didn't go in. The keep offers a view of the city.

Matsue castleView of city

We walked around the castle moat along a well-kept street lined with museums and shops and crowded with tourists and traffic. We ended up at the Shimane products store and bought bottles of saké, then headed west to Izumo for the night.

The next day we drove along the Hii River into Oku Izumo ("Remote Izumo"). The river flows down from the Chugoku mountains and empties into the west end of Lake Shinji.

River mouth

The Hii River valley is where Susano-o slew the eight-headed, eight-tailed dragon and saved the rice field princess he married.

In Oku Izumo, we hiked to Oni no Shitaburui ("Trembling Tongue of the Ogre") along O-maki stream. This narrow gorge is full of large boulders that have fallen from the grantie cliffs along the river.


Fallen rocksGreenery

Origin of Oni no Shitaburui, according to Izumo-Fudoki (local history of Izumo): a beautiful princess, Tamahime-no-mikoto, lived in this valley. A crocodile which lived in the Sea of Japan fell in love with her and went up the river every evening to visit the princess. However, the princess disliked the crocodile and placed a big rock in the river to block his visits. It is said that these rocks of Oni no Shitaburui are the remnants of that rock.

We also stopped at the Yoshida Iron Manufacturing Museum, which has good displays and a DVD on the traditional techniques of iron manufacturing from the iron-sand in the Hii River.

MuseumTraditional technique

On the way back to Izumo, we drove up Tachikue Gorge.

Tachikue gorge

We got back to Izumo earlier than expected, so we went to the Taisha (“Grand Shrine”), where we had witnessed the annual Kamiari ("Gathering of the God"), in fall 2006. The main hall was being rebuilt; we visited the treasure house, then had some soba at a restaurant across the street.

From there, we drove out to Hinosaki Lighthouse, one of the tallest in Japan, with a view of the rocky coast below.

Hinosaki lighthouseRocky coast

The next day, on the way to Hagi, the largest city on the Sanin Coast, we detoured up to Mt. Sanbe, thinking we might hike up one of its peaks and see mountain irises in bloom. But the weather was drizzly and the peaks, though not high, looked steep and muddy, so after stopping at the mountain iris pond (not in full bloom yet), we continued on to the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine.

Mt. SanbeIris pond

Established in the early 16th century, Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine was once the most productive silver mine in Japan and one of the top producing silver mines in the world. During the 16th and early 17th centuries, the large production of silver by the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine resulted in commercial and cultural exchanges between Japan and the trading countries of East Asia and Europe. It was mined for nearly 400 years. In 2007 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mine entranceMines

We stayed at a ryokan in the fishing town of Yunotsu, where the sashimi was excellent at a restaurant for lunch and dinner at a ryokan.

Yunotsu harborTown

The next morning, up early again, on our way to Tsuwano, we stopped at Tatami ga Ura, just past Iwami Seaside Park. The entrance is via a tunnel from a small fishing town. Inside the tunnel is a memorial. The knobby rocks on a flat rock shore are like nothing I’d seen anywhere else in Japan.

Entrance to Tatami ga UraRocksShrineExitCoastBeach

Tsuwano is a tourist town sometimes called the Kyoto of Chugoku, but it’s much smaller and in no way comparable to the ancient capital. It’s noted for carp in narrow waterways along its main street, sake breweries, Taikodani Inari Jinja Shrine (one of the five great Inari shrines) and its castle ruins.

Tsuwano streetCarps

For lunch, we had the town's speciality: uzume meshi, a dish of tofu, mushrooms, mountain vegetables over rice.


Then we drove up the hilllside to visit the Inari shrine built in 1773 by Tsuwano’s seventh feudal lord Kamei Norisada to enshrine a share of the kami worshipped at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. The Tsuwano Inari Shrine has a hillside torii tunnel similar to (but not as long as) the tunnel at the Fushimi shrine.

Tsuwano Inari shrine Torii

Just down the road is a chair lift to the top of a steep hill, where the trail to the castle ruins starts. It was a drizzly day, so no other visitors were at the lift. The castle, built around 1325 and used until the Meiji Restoration (around 1868), offered a view of the town and valley shrouded in mist. We passed a lone gaijin woman on the trail.

Chair liftRock path

Castle ruinsView from castle

From Tsuwano we drove to Hagi, a seaport on the Japan Sea at the western end of Honshu. Hagi is known for the leading role of its lord and samurai in the nineteenth-century movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, restore the Emperor as the head of the nation, and expel Westerners. Photos clockwise from top left: 1. beach at Hagi; 2. remains of the outer wall and moat of Hagi Castle, built at the base of Mt. Shizuki and destroyed in 1874; 3. squid drying near the fishing port; 4. lava cave on Kasayama; 5. Stone Buddhas at Tokoji; 6. rows of stone lanterns at Tokoji; 7. a street in the samurai district east of the castle; 8. the reconstructed outer gate of the castle.

Hagi castle

GateDrying squid

Street in samurai district

The next day on the way to Yamaguchi, we stopped at Akiyoshi-do, the largest, most impressive cave in Japan, with a high ceiling and pathways along an underground stream. It was very crowded when we got there in the early afternoon; maybe it would have been better to arrive earlier in the day. The other two caves we had seen on the trip Ryugado, in Kochi, and Ikurado, Okayama, and the caves on previous trips (Hida, in Takayama, and Ryusendo, in Miyagi) have very narrow passages; Akiyoshi-do, by contrast has a huge cavern.

Akiyoshi-doCave entrance


We spent that night in Yamaguchi. Karen’s cousin Keiko and her husband Satoru met us at the hotel and we had a sashimi dinner in the basement restaurant. A couple of Japanese men came in with younger foreign women. It was a reminder that there was a Western presence in the area, a US air force base in Iwakuni. Judging from their clothing and hair, the women were call girls.

Satoru discovered that there was a Hotaru Matsuri, or Firefly Festival, that night, at Ichinosaka Stream, which was less than half a mile away.

We caught a taxi to the stream, where parents with children and groups of teenagers were walking to watch the bioluminescent tails of the hotaru darting about the reeds along the bank, before disappearing.

Hotaru matsuriFestival goers

One landed on Karen’s jacket and lit up as it crawled up her sleeve. It was smaller than I had imagined. Hotaru (“Lantern insect”) comes in two sizes in Japan, a smaller Heike variety and a larger Genji one, named after the two families that battled it out for supremacy during the medieval period of Japanese history. The Genji frequent rice paddies; the Heike streams.

Hotaru appear for two weeks in early summer to mate, lay eggs in the river, and die. Their larvae live in the stream during the year, feeding on a river snail called kawanina. Around May they crawl out of the river and develop into chrysalides. In June, they emerge from their cases as fireflies. Their glowing tails attract mates.

The recent decline in fireflies is attributed to the widespread use of pesticides, which kills the snails on which the larvae feed during the year.

Fireflies, like sweet-fish, are a sign that summer has arrived. They are thought to be the souls of the departed, or symbols of the brevity of life. Basho composed the following haiku after going to see the fireflies at Seta, a river flowing flows south from Lake Biwa:

these fireflies, like the moon, in all the ricefields (kono hotaru tagoto no tsuki ni kurabemin)

my eyes recall yoshino’s sakura in Seta’s fireflies (me ni nokoru yoshino o seta no hotaru kana)

falling from a blade of grass and flying off – a firefly (kusa no ha o otsuru yori tobu hotaru kana)

When we got back to the hotel, we had a discussion in the lobby about what to do the next day. Keiko had brought along some readings about an early twentieth poet named Nakamura Chuya, who hailed from Yamaguchi. His museum was nearby. Satoru (quite astutely) told her that Karen and I probably wouldn’t be interested in it because we couldn’t read any of the text of the exhibits or the poetry.

I mentioned to Satoru that I was thinking of hiking up to Sandan Falls, which was a ways off in Hiroshima prefecture. I had researched the hike on the internet. Sandan-taki (“Three stage waterfall”) is on the upper end of Sandan Gorge, carved out by the Shibaki River.

Sandan-taki waterfall

From the visitor’s center, it’s something like a 7.5 mile walk, one way, 15 miles round trip. I knew we weren’t up to walking fifteen miles, but I had read that there was a parking lot much closer to the falls, like a mile or so away. My only hesitation was that I wasn’t sure how drivable the road was. It’s hard to tell on a Google map. We had been on some narrow winding roads that had we known that they were so narrow, we might not have attempted to drive on them. The back roads of Oku-Iya and Iga-Aoyama come to mind.

I showed Satoru the maps I had printed out before the trip. He did some research on his cell phone and decided what I had in mind was doable, and said that he would drive with us to Sandan Gorge the next day. What he planned (but couldn’t explain to us) was that we would park at the center, and he would drive us in his car up to the lot closer to the falls and join us on the hike. Later I found out that part of the reason he wanted to go was that he had hiked to the falls with his children a long time ago, and now they were grown up and had children of their own.

The weather was sunny. The falls is not the most spectacular we’ve seen, maybe ranking with Daisen Falls or Urami no Taki in Nikko, but it was a pleasant walk along the banks of the stream.


We parted with Keiko and Satoru after the hike, they returning to Yamaguchi and we going south to Hiroshima. At the expressway junction I made one of those “fatal errors” which put me in a bad mood for about 30 minutes: I entered the wrong lane, which forced me to drive 18 miles in the wrong direction before I could get off to turn around. When we got off, I got out to let Karen drive so I could read the GPS, maps, and street signs without having to worry about driving.

Before heading into the city, we detoured to Tomo, the town where my father’s mother hails from. I had visited the town 30 years earlier, and wanted to see if I could find the farmhouse, family graves, shrine, and Buddhist temple we visited back then. We found the temple, which I recognized from a faded photo from that trip – Sennenji, right below Tomo Station. I remember it being on a dusty road in a small town. Now there was a modern electric train line overshadowing it and the buildings on the well-paved street looked new, like they had been built in the last ten or twenty years. We drove into the hills among the rice fields; the landscape looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't recognized anyplace that looked like our family farmhouse, graves, or shrine.

SennenjiStatue of monk

After spending the next morning on Hondori Shopping Street and at the Peace Park in Hiroshima, we drove Iwakuni for the opening of ukai.

From the ryokan at Iwakuni, as evening approached, we watched the fisherman with their boats and birds gather below Kintai Bridge for the opening ceremony. Earlier, when I asked the front desk where the best place to view the fishing, he replied “from your room.” But we wanted a closer look, so we went down to the river. After a ceremony on the river bank, the crew began poling upstream in the twilight. Motorized tour boats went after them. I hadn’t thought about going on one of them, which would have given us a close-up view of the fishing.

Iwakuni boat

After the boats had gone upstream past the highway bridge over the river and stopped there for a while to prepare for fishing, we walked up to the bridge, so we could watch the boats pass under the bridge on the way back to Kintai bridge. The vantage point was excellent and we watched the boats with their fires and birds drift downstream below us.

Night fishingComorants

After the boats landed near the Kintai bridge, we walked back to see them unload. One of the boat owners gave Karen two fish and told us to take them back to the hotel as the staff would have them cooked for us for breakfast.

Fish catch

The next morning, when we arrived in the dining room, the two fish, roasted with salt, were on the table along with the rest of breakfast.


We had eaten ayu before, once after hiking down to Joren Falls on the Izu peninsula, and my recollection was that it was that tasty: it was a little mushy, slightly bitter tasting, and cold; perhaps it had been sitting on a stick over a weak charcoal fire for too long. The freshly roasted ayu we had for breakfast was delicious.

The next day, we headed back to Kansai Airport via Saijo, Hiroshima’s sake town; Okayama, famous for Koraku-en (a garden); and Ako, a resort on the Inland Sea.

Saijo has eight breweries around its station. We went sake tasting. One of the breweries offered us a taste of nama ("raw," or unpasterurized, sake), which needs to be refrigerated. It had a refreshing taste.

Saijo brewery

Korakuen, the garden in Okayama considered one of the three best in Japan, offered an enjoyable walk, with winding paths among hills and ponds.

Korakuen gardenTopiary birds

LotusGarden plants

Our last night was at Ako, famous for its castle and its lord who was ordered to commit suicide after a breach of protocol at Edo Castle (the shogun's residence) in Tokyo in 1701. Forty-seven of his samurai took revenge on the lord who had provoked the protocol breach. The incident, romanticized, has been told in novels, plays, and films. The ruins of Ako castle are one of the town's main tourist attractions.

The ryokan overlooking the Inland Sea had a view of the ocean from its rotemburo.


North Country: Fall Colors

October 26-November 11, 2009

Revised: April, 25, 2013

Exploring the countryside of Japan in winter 2008, spring 2008, and summer 2009, we planned an autumn journey for November 2009 to close out the seasonal sequence with momiji or koyo (crimson maple leaves), yellow ginkgo, and russet hills and ricefields. Adding to the fall colors are the chrysanthemums festivals for which shrines and castles produce elaborate displays of yellow, orange, red, purple, lavender, and white flowers.

Kiku colors

We couldn’t predict when the foliage would be changing in any particular place at any given time, so we planned to head north from Narita to Tohoku, to meet the changing season at wherever it happened to be. The foliage dons their fall colors first in the Hokkaido mountains in mid-September and moves to lower elevations and southward from there.

Momiji: Lake Chuzenji / Lake Towada

Persimmons (Akiu) / Gingko Tree (Mogami River)

We traveled to Tohoku in summer 2005, using Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North as a partial guide, but skipped many of the places he visited because we took different routes or we didn’t have time to find the places. This time, I located on a Google map the poetic places we missed, many still there after over 300 years. Particularly helpful in the research was a website by an anonymous retired construction manager who had walked the entire route, in various segments, between 2006 to 2008, and posted narratives, photos and maps of each site on his webpage.

I also wanted to complete two sets of “the three best” that the Japanese are so fond of: we had visited Kenroku Garden in Kanazawa and Koraku Garden in Okayama; Kairakuen in Mito, Ibaraki, would complete a set of “three best gardens.” We had gone to Nachi Falls in Wakayama and Kegon in Nikko; Fukuroda, north of Mito, would complete a set of “three best waterfalls.”

Then there were the famous mountains of the north that we had missed on the last trip to Tohoku, either because they were too far off or hidden by clouds: Bandai, Hakkoda, Iwaki, Chōkai, Gassan and Yudono; and two famous northern lakes, Towada and Tazawa.

The itinerary put us at Lake Towada on November 1, a prime spot for viewing momiji. The Japan Guide website indicated that late October was on average a good time for viewing fall colors there. A report on October 29, 2008, noted that the foliage was just turning color: “While there was a fair share of green, most of the trees have turned yellow and red by now.” The report also noted, “With waterfalls enhanced by autumn colors at practically every turn I would say that Oirase Stream [which flows northeast out of Lake Towada] during fall is one of the best photo spots in Japan.”

Route map

Click on Image for a Google Map

The week before we left, I checked momiji report at the Japan Guide website: on October 19 at Lake Chuzenji, our second stop, the foliage in the mountains around the lake above Nikko, was already ablaze and at its peak color, which meant that by the time we got there, the colors would be past prime. Fall had arrived earlier this year than last.

From Narita Airport, we headed north for Mito, and the next morning visited Kairakuen, created in 1841 as a public garden by the local lord Tokugawa Nariaki. It’s famous for its ume, or plum blossoms in February. We were there when the rows of ume trees were bare, but beautiful nevertheless, in their starkness.


Momiji was starting to appear around the garden’s ponds. There are walking paths through groves of cedar and bamboo as well. A winter blooming sakura (with much fewer flowers than in spring) was also a surprise.

Winter sakura

Outside the east gate, a small shrine was adorned with a modest kiku display in its courtyard.

We headed for Fukuroda Falls next. Walking out from the pedestrian tunnel to the falls, we came upon whitewater rushing down a long rock face at the bottom of the falls – an impressive view. The trail crosses a bridge and goes up above the falls or back to the row of shops down to the parking lot. We bought some dango at one of the shops and drank tea.

Fukuroda Falls Visitors

On the way to Lake Chuzenji, we stopped at Kurobane where Basho spent two weeks and also visited Unganji, a Zen temple.


Behind the temple in the forested hillside, he found the meditation hut of his teacher Butcho:

even a woodpecker can’t damage his hut in a summer grove

That night we stayed at an onsen on Lake Chuzenji. The foliage around the lake, as we already knew, was in a late stage of autumn, but we enjoyed walking along the shore as the sun set in mountain clouds and early the next morning as the mist was lifting.

Lake ChuzenjiShoreline

A few maples in town, near Kegon Falls, were brilliantly red in the morning sun.

 The trees in Nikko, below the lake, were just starting to change colors, and along the winding roads (Irohazaka) up and down the mountainside was bright russet and orange. The maples at Shoyo Garden, built around a pond, at Rinnoji Temple next to Toshogu Shrine, had turned red, orange, pink, and yellow.

Nikko ShoyoenFall trees

From Nikko, we went down to the Abukuma river valley, the route Basho took on his trip. In Nasu, we found Sesshoseki, the killing stone, in a sulphurous gulch below Mt. Chausudake.


The poet describes the rock, said to be the congealed spirit of an evil fox spirit, surrounded by dead insects. The stone is no longer toxic after the evil spirit was exorcised by a Buddhist priest.

Sesshoseki rock

East of Nasu, we found the site of the Shirakawa Barrier, the symbolic gateway to the north country. The barrier is no longer there (and was gone in Basho's time): the site is indicated on a marker along a country road in a valley off the main highway, at the foot of hill on top of which is a shrine to the mountain god Ōyama.

ShirakawaShirakwa shrine

In Nihonmatsu, we found went to see the rocky shelter where a cannibal woman (Onibaba, or "Old Demon Hag") is said to have lived, ambushing and eating travelers, until a priest discovered her secret and drove her evil spirit away with prayer. The rocky shelter is in the compound of Kanze-ji (Adachigahara Temple).


An eerie experience: as I was photographing the pond of blood where the cannibal woman is said to have washed her bloody knife, a black cat emerged from behind a rock. (Several other cats were wandering around or sunning themselves in the temple grounds.)

Pond of blood

A short walk from the temple is Kurozuka ("Black Mound"), where Onibaba is said to be buried, under a lone cypress tree. (See "In Search of the fearsome Onibaba," The Japan Times, Oct. 21, 2012).

A short drive away from Kanze-ji is Kasumi Castle where, in the waning afternoon, we went to see its elaborate kiku festival, with displays of award winning flowers and historical figures shaped from flowers over bamboo and wire frames.

Kiku festivalHistorical figures

After a night at a ryokan on the Bandai-Azuma skyline road, we descend to Fukushima. Across the Abukuma River was the Mojizuri Stone, used for creating a pattern on fabric by placing the fabric on the stone and rubbing it with wheat grass or leaves. Basho reports a young boy told him that the stone used to be at the top of the hill nearby, but the villagers, fed up with people pulling up grass and rubbing the stone, rolled the stone down the hill.

Mojizuri stone

Just west of Fukushima, in Iizaka, was the site of Sato Shoji’s Otori Castle, on a hilltop overlooking the town. No walls, only a monument – it was a ruin in Basho’s time.


Below the castle site is Ioji temple, where the mausoleums of the Sato family are located. Sato’s two sons served and died in the service the warrior Yoshitsune, who had led the Minamoto family to victory over ruling Taira family in the twelfth-century Gempei Wars.

Ioji templeSato family statues

Basho wept at the graves of the wives of the two sons. The story goes that the wives dressed in the armor of their deceased husbands in order to console their mother-in-law, Otowa. The (camellia) tree at the back end of the temple is called Otowa because tsubaki flowers drop suddenly from their stems before their petals wither.

Otowa Tsubaki

At Shiogama Shrine, north of Sendai, was the lantern donated by Izumi no Saburo, whom Basho praised as “a brave and righteous soldier with filial dedication.”

Shiogama lantern

After a night in Sendai, we took the boat ride into Matsushima Bay to see up close the various islands we had seen from shore on our summer 2005 trip. Crowded and very touristy, the boat ride is the thing to do when visiting; and tourists are encouraged to feed the seabirds, drawing a swirl of birds around the boat (and taking away from serious viewing of some of the 263 islands in the bay). Basho’s poem on the bay was visually accurate:

islands on islands — a thousand shattered pieces in a summer sea.

Matsushima BayIsland

The town of Mastushima is small, walkable: we visited the Godaido, an old temple on a small island near shore; Zuiganji (under repair, so we walked past the caves near the entrance but didn’t go in); and Fukuura Island, the site of a botanical garden.

On the way back to Sendai, we stopped at the same restaurant in Shiogama where we had lunch the day before: the fresh seafood was great (sea urchin, oysters, and sashimi).


The restaurants in Sendai, the largest city in Tohoku, was excellent: a crab house featured steamed and roasted hairy crab from Hokkaidō and at a tempura bar, the chef at the counter served a sequence of fresh seafood and mountain vegetables.

The next day we headed west into the Natorigawa River Valley to see Akiu Great Falls and Rairai Gorge. The foliage along the way and at both sites was in various stages of fall colors. A huge yellow ginkgo tree stood at the entrance to the falls at Akiu shrine; the falls was a short walk away.

Gingko treeWaterfall

Rairai Gorge:

Rairai gorgeWalkway

Farther north, at Narugo Gorge, the hills were just past prime colors, but still beautiful. After visiting the National Kokeshi Doll Museum, we walked along the gorge.

Narugo gorgeView of Narugo

Nearby was the memorial to the Shitomae Barrier marking the border between the old provinces of Mutsu and Dewa. Basho spent three days there, waiting out stormy weather:

fleas, lice, a horse pissing near my headrest.

Next to the memorial was a teahouse serving soba (buckwheat noodles) with mountain vegetables, steamed and tempura-style. The dishes were excellent. The waiter and cook, apparently husband and wife owners, might have stepped out of the Edo period.


Past the Shitomae barrier, we crossed the Narugo Bridge and hit the main viewing spot, which was crowded with buses, cars, and visitors and a row of vendors selling food from tents.

Narugo bridge

After a night at a ryokan next to a stream in Mogami, we headed up to Lake Towada. On the way was Lake Tazawa, a dark blue, round lake, the deepest in Japan, said to be inhabited by a dragon which was once a beautiful woman who prayed for immortality to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The woman was instructed to drink water from a spring, which transformed her into the dragon.

Tazawa LakeLakeside view

Walking along the lake, whose waters are noted for their clarity, past a lone torii, to a statue of Kannon, I felt tiny snowflakes brushing my cheeks. The night before, the evening news reported that the first snowstorm of the season had swept into Hokkaidō.

As we drove north, the mountains around Mt. Iwate and Mt. Hachimantai were snow-capped, the grays, browns, and dark greens of the forest trimmed with white. By the time we got to the hotel, down a winding road to the shore of Lake Towada, a light snowfall was swirling around us. A brilliant red maple tree in front of the hotel was dusted with snow.

"Here in our mountains the snow falls even on the maple leaves." (From a kabuki play, quoted in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country)

The snow kept falling all night. The rotemburo opened onto a snowy scene.

OnsenMaple forest

We were planning to drive north around the lake the next morning to a lookout above the lake, but the front desk clerk told us the road was closed, as was the mountain route past Mt. Hakkoda, which we were planning to take to Hirosaki.

But the road along Oirase stream was open. After watching sunrise on the lake from across a snowy lawn, we headed for the stream. The sky was beginning to clear, but the northwest wind was bone-chilling cold. Along the stream, the deciduous trees were mostly leafless, only a few stragglers dangling from branches. Instead of walking leisurely among the autumn leaves, as we had imagined, we drove and parked at the most famous falls and rapids of the stream and walked a few yards in to photograph them. The traffic was relatively light. I imagine it would have been way more difficult to park and less pleasant to walk along the stream if we were there in good weather at peak momiji, with lines of buses and cars going down and up the narrow road.

Oirase walkWaterfall

We stopped at Towada village to walk along the lake, out to the iconic two maidens statue, erected in 1953 to commemorate the National Park’s fifteenth anniversary. The sky had cleared and its blue was reflected in the lake and the snowy hills, a gorgeous winter scene.

Lake shoreIsland lake

We past a couple of other pairs of visitors braving the morning cold.

To get to Hirosaki, we left the way we came since that route was still open. We arrived on the last day of the kiku festival at the castle’s botanical garden. The displays of life-sized chrysanthemum figures and award-winning blooms were not as elaborate as the display at Kasumigajo in Nihonmatsu. Still, it was impressive. There was a contemporary musical group playing near the castle moat, featuring a young songstress and an electric shamisen player, the stringed instrument associated with the traditional music of Aomori.

Kiku festivalMusicians

In spite of the wintry winds of the northland, it was a pleasant stay. In the twilight that night, we visited two shrines, Iwakiyama and Tatekaru, at the foot of Mt. Iwaki, Tohoku’s most famous mountain, designated as the guardian of Japan’s northern borderlands.

Iwakiyama shrineShrine entrance

From our hotel window near Hirosaki Station, we could see Iwakisan, cloud-capped. The next morning the moon was setting above the mountain. We drove west on Apple Road, through the apple orchards and ricefields, to photograph Mt. Iwaki. The clouds gradually lifted from the summit.

We headed for Aomori via the mountain road that crosses Jogakura Bridge and goes down from Mt. Hakkoda, the route that had been closed the day before. We were planning to ride the ropeway up to the top of Mt. Hakkoda, but it was closed: although the sky had cleared and good weather was returning, the wind was still occasionally gusty, making the ropeway dangerous.

Jogakura BridgeMt. Hakkoda

On the way to Aomori, we stopped at Neputa no Sato, where the famous floats of Aomori’s autumn festival are on display all year round. The floats, celebrating the victory of the Yamato state over the northern barbarians, were impressive.

Neputa no SatoAomori float

On the south side of Aomori is Sannai Maruyama, a reconstructed Jomon village, with a museum. That night in Aomori, we found a yakitori restaurant we had enjoyed in the summer 2005 and ate another delicious dinner of grilled chicken meat, skin, gizzard, and tendon.

Yakitori restaurant

We walked a couple of blocks to the bay front, to see close-up the bridge lit up, in changing colors, blue my favorite.

Aomori bridgeNight view of bridge

The next morning, after buying gifts at the Aomori Product Center in a distinctive triangle shaped building (both it and bridge symbols of modern Aomori), we drove to Cape Tappi, at the northwestern tip of Honshu. Bands of rain and wind from the west alternated with sunshine and blue skies. The cape was windy, and the horizon cloudy, so we couldn’t see Hokkaido across the Tsugaru Strait. We skipped the museum about the Seikan railroad tunnel, which allows trains to run back and forth between Honshu and Hokkaidō.

Cape TappiSeacoast

After a night at a hotel on the north slope of Mt. Iwaki, we circled the mountain, planning to hike to Anmon Falls. The weather had cleared, so the walk along a tributary of the Anmon River was pleasant. We made it as far as the first of three falls, which was not particularly spectacular, but the brisk walk in the child mountain air was good exercise and invigorating.

Ammon riverFalls

Farther along the unpaved mountain road, at Tsugaru Pass, is the Mother Tree, a four-hundred year old beech tree, considered the oldest in the forest, hence its name.

Mother TreeVisiting the tree

The shortest, most direct route to where we were headed next, Juniko (Twelve Lakes), is the Shirakami Line Road – 36 miles long, mostly unpaved, and winding, but according to the sites on the internet, offering impressive views of the Shirakami Mountains, which have been designated a World Heritage site for its primeval, pristine beech forests. Given my general principle of moving forward and not going back over the same route unless we hit a dead end, the route looked driveable on the maps and in the photos of the road posted on the web. I decided we should go if the weather was good. (An alternate route was to go back to the inland road and take a more roundabout route to the lakes.)

Past the Mother Tree and Tsugaru Pass, I realized the road was in worse condition than I expected, rutted due to water constantly flowing out of the mountainsides and using the road as its streambed. It was slow going at 20 kph (about 12 mph). Occasionally a few hundred feet of pavement appeared and we picked up speed before having to slow down again.

Shirakami Line RoadRoadway

The drive took about three hours. The views were not that impressive because it was late fall (actually early winter in the north) and the beech forest was bare and gray. The main diversion was wild monkeys that appeared occassionally in the trees along the road.

As we drove along I recalled appreciatively the smooth asphalt-paved road system that is the norm in Japan. It’s a mountainous country with hundreds of rivers and streams, so the road system includes numerous tunnels (the longest almost 6.9 miles long), narrow roads dug into hillsides lined with concrete to prevent rock slides, and bridges (the longest suspension bridge in the world, over the Akashi Strait, 1.2 miles). Constant roadwork is needed to maintain the generally good condition of the roads.

Toward the coastal highway a sign pointed to Juniko, “Twelve Lakes,” where the hillsides were russet, and trees reflected in the calm waters. The gem of this site is Blue Pond, whose water is mysteriously dark blue.

JunikoBlue pond

South of Juniko, in Kisakata, we picked up Basho’s trail. After a night a ryokan, we spent the early morning photographing Mt. Chōkai and the Nakajima Beech Forest. (We were planning to drive up the mountainside to a lookout, but the road was closed.)

When we passed through Kisakata in the summer of 2005, it was cloudy, so we never saw Mt. Chōkai. I wondered if you could actually see the mountain from Kanmanji, as Basho said he did. The answer is yes, but not reflected in the sea, since the land around the temple rose during an 1804 earthquake and is no longer a bay.

Near the coast, Mt. Chōkai is noted for casting its shadow at sunrise onto the Sea of Japan. Omonoimi (“Great Abstainer”), the kami of Mt. Chōkai, is the protector of farmers and fishermen of the region.

The mountain was formerly a site of religious pilgrimages. Although these have been discontinued, mountain-worshipping rites are still performed in the towns around the mountain. For example, at the beginning of May, at a shrine in Fukura, a town on the Japan Sea, Omonoimi is celebrated in a flower-gathering ceremony in which men dance wearing hats decorated with flowers brought down from the mountain and thought to embody its kami’s spirit. After the dance, the townspeople gather the flowers and take them home.

To the north of Mt. Chōkai is the Nakajimadai beech forest.

South of Chōkai, we visited Misaki park, with its coastal trail, to get a sense of the rugged terrain Basho had traversed, walking from Sakata to Kisakata.

Misaki trail

The next stop was the swan park in Sakata near the mouth of the Mogami River. I read that the swans would be there by November, having arrived from Siberia to spend winter in the relatively milder climate of Japan. I was expecting to see white swans floating on the river; but when we got close to the riverbank, only ducks and dark-colored young swans (“ugly ducklings”) were there, a lot of them.

Swan park

Where were the white adult swans? They must be out feeding somewhere, maybe returning to the swan park at sunset? We headed up the Mogami River to take the boatride down it as Basho had. As we were driving through the harvested ricefields we saw white objects in them. The swans! I thought that perhaps they were feeding on bugs, insects, and worms, but I read later that they are herbivores, eating roots, tubers, stems and leave. A small flock flew above.

Flying swans

When we got to the Mogami river, the boat terminal was crowded, with more gaijin than we'd seen since we landed at Narita. The boat ride itself was touristy, with a guide monologuing with a continuous stream of facts about the river, then singing Yamagata boat songs. The other passengers, a tour group, seemed to be more concerned with finishing their lunch and drinking beer than looking at the river scenes described by the guide.

The boatride goes downstream only, for twenty dollars. It makes a stop to allow for buying from food and souvenir vendors. After the boat dropped us off downriver, we caught a local bus back upriver to the car (the bus ride back not included in the $20). It was a once in a lifetime experience – the kind you feel is worthwhile because you know you won't do it again.

We were going to visit Yudono shrine, another Basho site on the southside of Gassan, but after driving fifteen miles to get around Gassan, we hit a road closure sign; the road was closed for the winter. So we circled back around the north side of Gassan to Tsuruoka.

The Mogami is very picturesque near the town of Motoaikai, where Basho boarded a boat for his ride downstream.

Determined to see Yudono and visit the shrine, we changed our route the next day. Instead of heading south from Tsuruoka to Niigata along the coastal highway, we detoured east on the south side of Gassan, on the road that would take us past Yudono. When we got to Yudono, however, we discovered the road up to the shrine was also closed for the winter, at the end of October. So we never got to see the shrine, but we saw the mountain itself, above it. (In summer 2010, we made it to the shrine.)

Gassan mountainsYudono mountans

Gassan / Yudono

We continued on to Tendo to visit Dewazakura brewery, which makes one of my favorite saké. No tasting room, just a shop selling saké.

Sake shop

We bought a couple of bottles and drank the bottle that night at the hotel in Niigata.

The last time we drove along the Echigo Coast, in summer 2005, I looked for Sado Island offshore. Basho says he saw it from Izumozaki: “With the cragginess of its valleys and peaks clearly visible, it lies on its side in the sea ....” In the evening, the River of Heaven (as the Milky Way is called in Asia) appeared in the night sky in the direction of the island:

leaning sideways over Sado, the River of Heaven!

Although it was a clear, sunny day in summer 2005, and we stopped at several places along the coast, we couldn’t see anything but haze at the horizon.

This time I was determined to see Sado, by sea if not from Honshu, so the next day we caught a jetfoil to Ryotsu, the main town on the island, and rented a car. Another reason for wanting to go to Sado (besides, of course, visiting its famous gold mine and picturesque Senkaku Bay) was that in winter 2008, I had tasted some very good saké from Sado Island’s Obata Brewery and now I wanted to see where it was brewed and buy some bottles.

The day we arrived on Sado was drizzly and chilly: we visited the gold mine, which has life-sized figures set up in an old mine shaft to illustrate the various phases of mining; then drove up to Senkaku Bay.

Gold mineSenkaku

After lunch at a good sushi bar, we found the Obata brewery in Mano town, and tasted saké – a ginjo, a daiginjo, and a special daiginjo made with just 30% of the rice kernel. (As usual, only the person not driving was served.) All three were tasty, with the last and most expensive, of course, the best. We bought one bottle of each.

Obata brewery Sake shop

There was another brewery on the east end of the island that I wanted to get too, but we ran out of time. As the chef at the sushi shop told us, “You need to spend at least two days on Sado to see it.”

After a second night in Niigata, we headed out at sunrise for Yahiko Shrine via the skyline road on the seaside of Mt. Yahiko. Near the shrine was a park famous for its momiji. The skies were clear that morning, a great day for momijigari (“momiji hunting/viewing”). A lookout on the skyline road offered great views of the Echigo Coast; and in the distance, Sado! Maybe the air was clearer in the evening or Basho had seen Sado from the coast on an exceptionally clear day; or in his time the air was clearer than it is today.

Yahiko peakYahiko cloudsSadoYahiko echigo

We spent some time walking around Yahiko Shrine, which had chrysanthemums on display.

Yahiko ToriiKiku

Then we went looking for Momiji-dani (“Crimson Maple Valley”). It turned out to be the highlight of our trip: the maples were in brilliant fall colors – deep red, crimson, orange, pink and yellow. A handful of photographers had set up their tripods and expensive cameras to shoot the leaves. We wandered around the park in awe.

Yahiko pondFall colorsYahiko parkYellow maple

On the way down to the coast, on south side of Mount Yahiko is Saishoji, which enshrines the remains of Kochi Hoin, who self-mummified and went into eternal meditation in 1363. South along the coast, at Izumozaki, Mount Yahiko appeared in the disance.


At Joestsu, we turned east toward Tone, where we would spend our last night. On the way, we stopped at the train station at Echigo Yuzawa, where the wall of saké dispensers had introduced us to Niigata saké in the winter of 2008 and where we had tasted Sado Island saké for the first time.

Wall of sake

We undersood better now why Niigata is called “The Kingdom of Jizake" ("Local Saké"). It has more breweries than any other prefecture in Japan, and the saké are noted for their excellent taste. At the station, we bought more bottles saké for the trip home.

Also on the way to Tone was Ikaho, an onsen town I had stayed in for almost four weeks in fall 1971. I wanted to go there to see how it had changed.

We had lunch near Ikaho at an udon restaurant featuring hand-made noodles, near the entrance of Mizusawa Temple. The noodles, made from wheat, and tempura were delicious!

Udon shopTempura

Mizusawa temple

Memories of Ikaho

We arrived in Ikaho in the afternoon. Thirty-eight years had past since I had last been to this town in Gunma prefecture, on the slopes of Mt. Haruna, seventy miles northwest of Tokyo. It took me a while to get oriented but it all came back to me – the ropeway and bus station (both rebuilt) where I had arrived by taxi from the train station in Shibukawa; the steep street past the ryokan where I stayed for a couple of nights; the town’s signature stone staircase leading up to its shrine; the hillside path I walked daily from the house I was staying at to the town and back.

Ikaho ishidanTrail

My mother had taken us to Japan in December 1970, when I was nineteen. The next fall, I decided to take the semester off from college to make a solo trip. I had some naively romantic notions about travel, writing, and identity. I thought that if I stayed in some remote town, I would somehow be transformed into a writer and philosopher. From a guidebook, I picked Ikaho, a town I knew nothing about, simply because it looked quaint and vaguely European.

I arrived not sure where I would be staying. After a couple of nights at a ryokan, the woman who brought dinner and breakfast told me that the ryokan would be too expensive if I would be staying for a while. One of the workers, Uwukata-kun, about my age, helped me move to a room in a small house on the outskirts of town at $35 for two months. (The yen-dollar exchange rate was set back then at ¥360 to $1.)

The room was unfurnished, about six tatami mats in size. (A tatami mat is about six feet by two feet.) I bought a few appliances: a toaster, a pot and a kotatsu (a table with a heat lamp attached underneath the table top, so you could sit with your legs under the table to keep warm). I rented a futon, a sleeping mat, and a hot-plate.

The toilet was a hole in the wooden floor with a receptacle for “night soil” below, used as fertilizer since traditional times. There was no bath, but down the gravel road along a stream was a public onsen, where I went every evening to bathe. The house is now gone and a modern six-story bathhouse has replaced the one story bathouse.


An old man named Shimizu lived in the farmhouse alone. His wife had passed away, and he chanted Buddhist sutras for her several times a day in the room next to mine. Shimizu used to stroll along the road in the evening; whenever I passed him, he would cock an eye and ask, “O-furo?” to which I would nod.

People at the onsen were friendly: the woman at the front desk gave me a bag of kaki (persimmons), which were in season. I met a baseball umpire, who turned out to be the assistant mayor. One day, one of the regulars invited me to a meeting of Soka Gakkai (“Value-Creation Society”), a religious organization derived from Nichiren Buddhism. There were about 30 people at a private home, some seniors (a couple of them fell asleep during the meeting), some adults, some middle and high school students. The group listened to recorded speeches, read quotations, and discussed social and political issues of the day. They also sang a couple of songs.

The guy who invited me to the meeting also drove me to Lake Haruna which was the main tourist attraction in the area, offering boating, fishing, camping, cycling, horseback riding, and hiking. Around the lake are two mountains, Haruna Fuji and Eboshi. The drive up a winding road in late October drizzle took about 15 or 20 minutes. Hardly anyone was around in the cold autumn rain. The experience of Haruna came back to me as Karen and I drove up the road to the lake.

Haruna roadHaruna Fuji

Uwukata-kun liked baseball, and invited me to play “kachi-baru” (catch ball) with him during his lunch breaks. His younger brother Masaharu stood in as batter as I pitched, and Uwukata caught. I took a photo of the street where we played.

On one of his days off, Uwukata took me by bus to Shibukawa where he lived. On the way to his apartment, he bought me dango (soft mochi balls on a stick, covered with sweetened shoyu). What I remember of his apartment was that it was very small and so were the appliances like the washing machine and stove. That night, I played ping pong at a community center with Masaharu and one of his friends, and lost badly. The next morning I walked around the city, buying a notebook and sketch pad at a bookstore before heading back to Ikaho.

In my room, I set up the portable typewriter I brought from Hawai‘i and tried to write something meaningful each day. On Sundays Masaharu came over with two young girls, Yoshie and Yuko, who wanted to learn English. They typed English words they had learned in school on my typewriter and I pronounced them for them and explained their meanings.

Toward the end of my stay, the harvest festival took place, with young men carrying down the steep stone steps an omikoshi (a portable shrine housing the kami of the shrine at the top of the stairways).

After about a month, I was getting bored. The transformation I had hoped for was not taking place. No longer sure what I was doing there, I decided to leave. At the hot spring office, I sold at half price the appliances I had bought.

Today the town is more modern and more crowded with tourists than when I was there. Almost four decades had passed. I was in my second year in college when I was first there; now I was white-haired and fifty-eight. The proverb that Basho alludes to in his travel narrative came to mind: a generations pass in a brief nap!

By the time we got to Tone, it was dark and pouring rain. After dinner and a soak in the rotemburo, we had a good night's sleep.

Tone onsen

Just past our ryokan was Fukiware Falls. It was still raining the next morning when we walked along the Katashina River to the falls: it was impressive, the water pouring from two sides into a narrow crevice in the streambed, then downstream beneath high cliffs. The fall colors were muted in the rainfall.

Fujiware fallsMist


I changed our route for the drive back to Narita. Instead of going through the suburban sprawl around Tokyo, I thought the drive through the mountains via Chuzenji and Nikko would be more scenic. We could stop at Chuzenji to catch the elevator down to the base of Kegon falls, which we had skipped earlier in the trip because we were on the road before it began operating.

After our stop at Kegon, if we went by expressway from Nikko to the north end of Lake Kasumigaura, we would still have time to visit Kashima Shrine (at the south end of the lake) and then return the car by 4:30 pm.

Kashima is one of the three great shrines of Kanto, dedicated to Takemikazuchi, the warrior sent by Amaterasu to pacify the land before her grandson Ninigi arrived to rule over it. Takemikazuchi marched from Izumo in western Honshu to Kashima, where he established the shrine to guard the Kanto region. He is worshiped as a kami of martial arts.

Kashima means “Deer Island.” (The low area near the coast may once have been an island with deer on it.) During the reign of the tenth head of the imperial family, Suijin, disasters caused suffering among the people. He consulted with the kami and was told to bring deer to the imperial capital at Nara. (Deer are thought to be the messengers of the kami.) He brought deer from Kashima. Later, the Kashima deer died off from disease and were restocked from Nara.

The inner shrine at Kashima, Okunoin, the original one, was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1605; the main hall was built by his son Hidetada in 1615. Also on the grounds are a sacred pond for washing before worship, and a stone, said to be the top of a pin holding down the head of the giant catfish who lives in an underground pond and whose movements are believed to cause earthquakes. The stone was driven into its head by Takemikazuchi.

Basho had traveled from Edo to the shrine in 1687 to view the full moon and left a journal translated as "A Visit to the Kashima Shrine."

When we got to the elevator station at Kegon, it was pouring rain and very crowded. As we were heading back up, a class of twenty or so school children rushed out of the elevator and down the tunnel to the falls. Still, it was worth the stop.

Kegon waterfallVisitors

As we drove along the Nikko bypass road, the momiji were brilliant and beautiful. The drive was going as planned until we hit the Mikawa interchange. I was expecting the expressway to continue past it on the Joban Expressway to the north end of Lake Kasumigaura, but the blue line of the expressway disappeared from the GPS map. I had drawn the route by hand from a Google Map. Did I read the Google Map incorrectly? Not sure what to do and remembering the time we took a wrong turn an the expressay near Hiroshima and had to go in the wrong direction for 18 miles before we could get off, I told Karen to exit. We spent an hour navigating toward Kashima on two-lane roads, sometimes behind slow-moving delivery trucks.

At Sakuragawa, we saw a sign for an expressway entrance and got back on. There was still no indication of an expressway on the GPS map; according to it, we were driving across blank space.

We made it to Kashima shrine at around 3:30. We walked through its huge red gate as far as the main shrine with the towering cedar trees. We purchased a charm as a gift.

Kashima shrineDeer sculpture

Because of the unexpected detour, we couldn’t stay long and left without seeing the sacred pond, the stone pin, and the treasure house with its ancient weapons. The next time we fly into Narita, I plan to drive back to Kashima to see what we had missed.

Legends of the Land:

More Travels in Northern and Central Japan /May 19 -June 2, 2010

(Last Revised: February 6, 2011)

On our last journey to Japan in Fall 2009, we entered the front gate of Kashima Shrine then turned around and left to make it to Narita Airport for our flight home.

The shrine is considered one of the most important in Eastern Japan, dedicated Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, a patron deity of martial arts, who helped unify the country for the rulers of Yamato. Legend also has it that he used a stone spike to pin down an earthquake-causing catfish who lives in an underground pond on the grounds of the shrine.


So after landing at Narita in summer 2010, we headed back to the shrine to see the stone.

Kashima stone

After a night in Mito, we headed north to spend more time at another legendary place we had visited only briefly on the last trip: Lake Tazawa, home of Princess Tatsuko. And to visit a place we missed as we ran out of daylight (the sunset at 4:37 pm in early November): Shinzan Shrine on the Oga Peninsula, where each New Year's Eve a festival features Namahage demons.


Click on the Image for a Google Map.

On the way to Lake Tazawa were several other beautiful lakes. In Mito was Lake Senba, a popular walking spot for locals. The sun is up before 5 am in May, and walkers were out by six:

WalkwayLake Senba

After a walk around the lake, we drove via Expressways to and over the Bandai Mountains, around Mt. Adatara, on routes 459, 115, and 70 to the lake country of Mt. Bandai. In summer 2005, we walked the trail to Goshikinuma (“Five-colored marshes”) and wanted to go back to spend a night at nearby Lake Hibara. The lakes, ponds, and marshes in the area were created by the eruption of Mt. Bandai in 1888.

Yoroku marshHibara walkTreesFishing

Our next stop was Yamagata, near Mt. Zao and Lake Okama. We crossed Funasaka Pass between Lake Hibara and Yonezawa on Route 2, with views of Lake Hibara behind us and, on the other side of the pass, the mountains along the borders of Fukushima, Yamagata and Niigata prefectures.

Winding roadBlue mountains

Lake Okama was at Katta Pass, at the top of the winding Echo Line road:

Echo lineLake Okama

After a night in Yamagata, we drove north to Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan. Despite the frigid winters of the northland, its waters never freeze over.


The lake is known for the legend of Princess Tatsuko who lives in the lake. Her story is this: she prayed to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, for eternal life. The goddess directed her to a spring and told her to drink its water. The princess did so and turned into the dragon who lives immortally in the lake.

A golden statue of the princess on the southwest side of the lake, across from Mt. Komagadake, is well-known; another statue, at Gozanoishi Shrine, on the opposite side of the lake, presents a less glamorous image of the princess:

Golden statueSeated princess

The next day a storm front swept in from the west, and it was raining heavily as we drove to the Oga peninsula. The view from Mt. Kanpu (360-degree panorama of the Sea of Japan and Hachiro-gata Lagoon) was obscured by the low clouds and rain.

Mt. Kanpu

Down from the mountain, we used our umbrellas to get from our car to the Namahage Museum.

Namahage are demons said to visit homes on New Year's Eve, looking for naughty or lazy children or mothers who haven't disciplined them and threatening to take them back to the mountains with them.

Today fifteen villagers dressed in masks and straw outfits and carrying knives and torches reenact the Namahage visits (both on December 31 and on the eve of the traditional lunar New Year in February).

The family reassures the Namahage that everyone in the household has worked and studied hard during the past year and offer the visitors food and sake, in exchange for "purification to prevent disaster, ... bumper crops, good catches of fish and auspicious events through an invocation [the Namahage] chant as they march: Namakemono wa ine ga. Nakuko wa ine ga (meaning No lazy people. No crying children)" (Namahage Museum website).

The museum displays the outfits and masks on life-size forms.

NamahageNamahage with sickle

Its theater shows a film of the New Year's Eve events. As the Namahage march down the mountain with knives and torches and enter the houses chanting and reaching out to grab children, the children are terrified. No doubt, at least on that night, they vow to be obedient for the coming year.

Some say the Namahage are traditional "messengers of the gods enshrined at the two mountains of Mayama and Honzan, who come once a year as spirits who visit each house and warn against doing wicked deeds."

Oga’s Namahage are associated with a legend of demons from China:

Legend has it that the Han emperor brought five demonic ogres with him to Japan a little more than two millennia ago. These oni stole crops and young women from Oga's villages. The villagers decided to trick these ogres, promising to give up all their young women if the demons could build a stone staircase of one thousand stairs in a single night. If the oni failed to reach the local temple to which the stairs were to be built, they would have to leave Oga never to return again. The ogres accepted, and had reached 999 stairs when a quick-witted villager imitated a cock crowing for the arrival of down. The surprised and dismayed oni fled, never to be seen again.

Near the museum is Shinzan Shrine, where the Namahage festival originates. A sacred tree is located in its precincts.

Shinzan shrineSacred tree

The February Namahage visit is combined with the annual Sedo Festival, when "a big rice cake is toasted on the Sedo fire in the precinct and dedicated to the god of Mt. Shinzan in the hope of rich harvest and safe navigation." A "boiling water dance" (yu no Mai) accompanied by a ceremony of pouring the boiling water is carried out to calm the rough sea," which surrounds the peninsula on three side, and threaten the lives of the fishermen of the areas.

From the museum we drove out to Cape Nyudo in the driving rain, and had lunch at the deserted tourist stop.

Cape NyudoTourist shop

Rain swept down the mountainsides in gusts and the sea was white-capped as we drove down the rugged Nishi Kaigan (West Coast).

LookoutRain storm

The sights along the coast are best viewed from an excursion boat from Oga Aquarium. At one parking area a sign marked a trail down to see a bell rock, but it was raining too hard to make the hike appealing.

After a night in Akita City, we left for Tsuruoka City. On the way south, we drove up the road to Mt. Chokai, which was closed for snow the last time we passed by (Nov. 2009).

Road to Mt. ChokaiSnowNear the top

Near the top, the road crosses from Akita prefecture to Yamagata.

Tsuruoka was holding its Tenmangu Shrine Festival. Billed as "one of the Three Biggest Festivals in the Shonai region," it's a modest small-town festival, with a parade from the shrine to the city center, where food and game booths and an Obake (ghost) house were set up.

FestivalObake house

The festival is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane. The origins of the parade, which , which featured locals with their faces hidden by large straw hats and hand towels, serving sake. The costume and sake originated in the events of Sugawara’s life.

A political figure who lived from 845-903, Sugawara was falsely accused of plotting against the throne and banished from Kyoto to Kyushu. According to legend, his followers offered each other sake to commiserate over their lord’s exile, but had to disguise themselves, so the authorities wouldn’t recognize them.

After Michizane’s death in exile, a series of disaster attributed to his angry spirit struck the capital, and a shrine was erected in Kyoto to placate his spirit. The Tenmangü Shrine was built in Kyushu over his grave two years after his death, and branch shrines spread to other parts of the country. His spirit was worshiped for protection against natural disasters. As he was a noted scholar and poet, his spirit was also identified during the Edo period as Tenjin, kami of scholarship, so he was prayed to for success in school.

The festival in Tsuruoka is also called “Obakemono” or “Ghost” festival, perhaps a vestige of the origins of worship of Michizane as an angry spirit which had to be placated to prevent disasters.

The parade is led by a entourage reenacting Michizane’s procession into exile from Kyoto to Kyushu, flanked by two men in masks of the Tengu (“Heavenly Dog”), a mythical patron of martial arts, who is said to be a warrior and trickster, who targets misbehaving Buddhist priests and those who misuse their knowledge or authority to advance themselves, as did those who slandered Michizane.

Tusruoka Tengu

The Michizane procession was followed by folk dance groups, then locals in straw hats and towels covering their faces and children carrying mikoshi, or portable shrines.

Folk dancingProcession

It's said that if you pray at Tenman-gu in this costume (or pour sake without being recognized) for three years, a wish you make will come true.

While the festival might once been an event of sake-fueled, drunken revelry, when we were there for the afternoon parade, it was a family affair, without much sake-pouring going on except at a stand in front of the Tsuruoka local products store.

Stranger than the Tenmangu Festival was Yudono Shrine, in the mountains to the southeast of Tsuruoka. We had visited Tsuruoka twice before (Summer 2005 and Fall 2009) but had never got to Yudono. When we tried to drive there in November 2009, we discovered the toll road and shrine were closed from November to April.

One of three sacred mountains of Dewa that includes Hagurosan and Gassan, Yudono is considered the holiest of the three. It is the end of the pilgrimage route that begins at Hagurosan, ascends Gassan, and descends to Yudono, a spur of Gassan:

During the ritual period known as natsu no mine (Summer Peak) when shugenja traveled between the various sacred sites in the three mountains, they prayed for peace and tranquility in the present at Haguro, attained assurance of buddhahood in the future at Gassan, and reached the Mitsugon Pure Land, the paradise of Dainichi, at Yudono, traversing the barriers of the everyday and the sacred realms, experiencing the unity of the everyday and the sacred, and achieving the enlightenment of buddhahood in this very body. (Encyclopedia of Shinto, “Dewasanzan Shinto”)

Photos are prohibited inside the shrine, but here is what the shrine complex looks like from the parking lot:

Shrine complex

The object of worship is a triad of conic, ochre-colored rocks that mirror the three sacred mountains, with the tallest rock, twelve-feet high, flanked by two lower rocks, just as Gassan is flanked by the Haguro-san and Yudono-san. Water from a hot spring flows down from the side of the ravine over the three rocks and into a stream rushing by. The water’s mineral content (perhaps limonite, or hydrated iron oxide) has coated the three rocks, giving them their ochre coloring. As Pilgrims walk over the rocks bare-footed, the warm water soothes their feet and cleanses them from the dust of the world.

It's one of the eeriest sites in Japan. Shugenja (mountain ascetics) are forbidden to speak about the rituals that take place here. Photos are prohibited at the shrine, but a search of the Japanese internet yielded the following image of the rocks, taken from above the shrine, on the trail up to Gassan:


Ochre stones at Yudono / Gassan ("Moon Mountain") at dusk.

After a rainy night at a ryokan near Yudono, we headed for the town of Tsugawa, Niigata, noted for its sake breweries and the legend of kitsune-bi ("fox-fire") on Mt. Kirin.

The town is located where the Agano and Tokonami Rivers meet. Because the water temperature of the Agano is lower than that of the Tokonami, mist forms, and on misty nights, fox-fire, lines of glowing lights, were often seen on Mt. Kirin, which overlooks the river:

Mt. Kirin

The locals came to believe that the lights were lines of paper lanterns used for a wedding procession of foxes and that in a year when a lot of lights were seen, the rice harvest would be good. They began the tradition of enacting kitsune no yomeiri ("fox-bride procession") at the traditional beginning of summer in early May.

The townspeople paint fox features on their noses and mouths, with whiskers, and hold a fox wedding parade. A couple who intends to marry play the groom and the bride.

Fox wedding

Photo from (2006/12/13)

Both the wedding parade and the wish for a good rice crop suggest that the tradition was rooted in an old agricultural fertility rite.

The town is filled with reminders of the fox wedding: one set of statues across from Mt. Kirin depicits the fox-bride with other forest animals joining the procession.


You can also buy a saké called "Bride of the Fox" from the Kirin brewery.

Kirin showroom

Heading back to Niigata for the night, we stopped at Mikawa, the next town downsteam to see Shogun Sugi, said to be the oldest cedar tree on Honshu, 1400 years old. The top of its trunk was lopped off, with side branches growing out from its ancient base:

Shogun Sugi

It continued to rain as we headed down the coast for Tateyama the next day. We got off the Expressway for a picnic at Takada Park in Joetsu, with some leftovers from dinner at an izakaya the night before. I had seen some photos of the park during springtime, with its cherry trees in full bloom. It was still raining.

Takada parkTakada pond

We continued south along route 8 to see the coast between Itoigawa and Ichiburi, known for its steep cliffs and rough seas.


Near Oyashirazu were an odd shaped rock and sea-turtle statue:

Coastal rocksSea turtle statue

We spent the night below Tateyama, one of the three holy mountains of Japan, along with Fujisan and Hakusan. The plan was to see all three mountains on this trip. However, we discovered the road to Tateyama was open only to buses. The Tateyama Ohashi (Big Bridge) over the Joganji River offered a spectacular view of the valley:


We left for Hakusan the next day. On the way we stopped at Tada Shrine in Komatsu, at Natadera, and at Yamanaka Onsen. All three sites are uta-makura, famous places, mentioned in Basho's travel narrative "The Narrow Road to the Deep North."

Tada Shrine is a couple of blocks from Komatsu Station.

Tada shrineWalkway

It was still early, no one was around and the buildings were closed. I'm not sure if the helmet Basho wrote about was still on display at the shrine:

pitiful / under Sanemori’s helmet / a cricket

Saito no Betto Sanemori (1111-1183) first served under Minamoto no Yoshitomo, head of the Genji, who gave him the helmet, but later switched sides, joining the Heike against the Genji in the Gempei War. A native of Echizen, Sanemori rode into battle when he was seventy-three, intent on dying a warrior’s death in his homeland. He dyed his white hair black so he wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of being dismissed as an over-the-hill warrior by a younger opponent. After he was slain and beheaded, one of Minamoto’s warriors recognized the head and cried out “Ana muzan ya” (“How pitiful!”), and the narrator comments, “How pitiful that his empty name alone should have survived, impervious to corporeal decay, while his mortal remains have become one with the northern soil!” (The Tale of the Heike).

We had gone to Natadera in the winter of 2008. However, in our rush, we neglected to enter the hall to see the famous Kannon Statue; so we went back to see it, then strolled around the valley again and revisited the caves.

NataderaCavesCave entranceAltarMonkBaisho's haiku

Basho's haiku on Natadera is inscribed on one of the stones (bottom right above):

whiter than stones of Ishiyama, autumn wind

The wind – both its sound and its coldness – evokes, through synesthesia, a color, white, which in Asian tradition is associated with death. In another haiku, the poet used synesthesia with the color white to express loneliness:

sea darkens / wild duck’s voice / faintly white

Basho's haiku on Yamanaka Hot Spring mentions the smell of the hot spring water:

Yamanaka: chrysanthemums unpicked; redolent water

I was curious what the redolent water smelled like: I suspected it was sulphuric, as the water is said to have sulphates in it, but wasn't sure, as the last time we were in Yamanaka, we walked along the Daishoji River and skipped the onsen. This time, after tenzaru for lunch at a small soba shop, we stopped at the footbath at the center Yamanaka.


The "redolent" water smelled of sulphur.

When Basho was in Yamanaka, September 12-18, chrysanthemums were not in season yet (and thus, "unpicked"). The Kiku or Chrysanthemum Festival, the seasonal festival of the year, is held on 9.9 (ninth day of the ninth moon, October 22 that year). Traditionally, in China, celebrants climbed a mountain and drank rice wine infused with the fragrance of chrysanthemum petals to ward off evil and promote longevity. Tz’u-t’ung is said to have lived for seven hundred years by drinking only the dew of chrysanthemums.

In his haiku, Basho associates the chrysanthemum with Buddhist purity and enlightenment:

white chrysanthemum / holding it up to the eye / not a mote of dust
shiragiku no / me ni tatte miru / chiri mo nashi!

chrysanthemum’s fragrance /in Nara, ancient / buddhas
kiku no ka ya / Nara ni wa furuki / hotoke-tachi

The gist of his humorous poem on Yamanaka is that in the absence of chrysanthemums (enlightenment), Basho and Sora must turn to the smelly sulphate waters of the onsen to soothe their ailments – aching muscles, fatigue and digestive problems, all of which the onsen claimed to cure.

While the redolent bath water is no substitute for enlightenment, it brings welcome relief from the cold autumn wind, and thus can be associated with the compassion of Kannon.

That afternoon we drove to a ryokan in Ichirino, on a tributary of the rustic Tedori River Valley to spend the night.

Tedori valleyonsen

Just past the ryokan was the entrance to the scenic Hakusan Super Rindo (“Forest”) Road to Shirakawago, a village famous for its traditionally-built houses, with thatched roofs, high-peaked so snow and rain slide off, keeping both the house interior and the thatching dry.

We were planning to visit Shirakawago the next day, just 20 or so miles from Ichirino by the Super Lindo Road, which also offers a view of Hakusan, a holy mountain. Unfortunately, I found out about the road after making our travel reservations, and also learned that it was closed to car traffic until June 1, two days after our May 28-29 stay.

On the weekend before the road opens, a 14-kilometer community walk takes place on the road. The ryokan staff gave us a flyer and asked if we wanted to join the walk, but we were planning to leave early the next morning to Shirakwago.

Since we couldn't take the Super Lindo to Shirakawago, we drove a hundred or so miles around the rugged mountain terrain around Hakusan to get therew. I was initially disappointed we had to make the long drive, but it turned out to be a scenic and enjoyable route.

Heading south from Ichirino we passed a long lake formed by the massive Tedorigawa Dam. We were looking for Hakusan Panoramic Park, which the ryokan staff told us offered a good view of the sacred mountain. They printed a map for us from the internet. There was no signage for the park along Route 157, but in the approximate area indicated on the map, we found a winding road that looked like it went up to a scenic look-out. Near the top was an excellent view of Hakusan.


This holy mountain is associated to Natadera, twenty miles to the WNW. Taicho, the legendary monk who founded Natadera in 717 is said to have climbed Hakusan and at Midorigaike, the pond at the top, had a vision of Shirayama-hime ("White Mountain Princess"), the goddess of the mountain, emerging from the waters and turning into Kannon. Taicho later enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed bodhisattva in one of the caves at Natadera.

Hakusan is worshipped by fishermen, seafarers and farmers of the surrounding region. It’s said to be inhabited by suijin, or water gods, and dragon kami, as well as spirits of the dead.

Pilgrimage routes (zenjo-do, or paths of meditation) ascend Hakusan from the three surrounding prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui, and Gifu, with seven shrines along the ridgeway. Women are allowed to go only as far as the middle shrine. Those who make it to the top and drink the snow-fed waters of Midorigaike are said to be rewarded with longevity.

Along the south side of Hakusan were scenic areas along the Mino Highway, which follows the Kuzuryu River to a narrow lake formed by Kuzuryu dam. The Kuzuryu flows westward then north to the sea of Japan, entering it at Fukui. At Lake Kuzuryu, we passed Yume no Kakehashi, "Dream Suspension Bridge," a famous sight of Fukui prefecture.

Kuzuryu damBridge

We got onto the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway at Mino-Shirotori and headed north for Shirakawago. On the way, we stopped at Hirugano-kogen Service Area for lunch. I had read that cuisine at these expressway stops had a following among roadies, with publications on the best places to eat. As it was Saturday and sunny, the parking area and restaurant were packed with young people and families. We ordered tonkatsu and shoyu pork, which were okay, nothing special.

Between Hirugano-kogen and Shirakawago, we passed through the Hida Tunnel, the second longest road tunnel in Japan at 10,710 meters (6.7 miles). (The longest car tunnel is the Kan-Etsu Expressway tunnel in Gumna prefecture, 11,055 meters or 6.9 miles long; we drove through it in Fall 2009.)

Shirakawago, one of the most famous spots in Japan, was crowded tourists, many from China and Europe:


After walking around the village that afternoon, we drove to Takayama, which we visited in 2008 for its famous Spring Festival. Takayama is a great walking town, especially the morning market along the Miya River and the shopping streets in the old town. Odd statues abound.


Sake shopStatue

Street signsStorefront statue

We also enjoyed an early morning walk up Shiroyama to the ruins of the old castle.


The next stop was Suwa, famous for its lake and its Onbashira festival. The festival, established 1200 years ago, involves the cutting down of onbashira ("honored poles"), four of which are set around shrines of the Suwa Taisha sect, which currently numbers around 3000.

The four shrines of Suwa Taisha are located around Lake Suwa, two to the south of the lake (Honmiya, or Main Shrine, dedicated to Takeminakata no kami; and Maemiya, or Front Shrine, dedicated to Yasakatome no kami) and two to the north (Haru-miya, or spring shrine, and Ak-imiya, or autumn shrine, both dedicated to the same two gods as Honmiya and Maemiya).

Suwa dragonMasumi mirror

According to journalist Hiroko Yoda, the poles must be replaced every six years -- "in the Chinese zodiac's Year of the Tiger and the Year of the Monkey." She describes the festivals as follows:

Yamadashi, in April, literally means "coming out from the mountains." After a Shinto purification ceremony, 16 massive and carefully selected fir trees are felled by hand with special axes and saws. Then select groups of local men haul the logs off the mountain, again by hand, to the four shrines of Suwa Taisha. The most dramatic moments, called Ki-otoshi ("tree-drops"), occur on slopes too steep to carry the logs. Instead the men clamber atop and ride them downhill like massive toboggans. The sight of these massive, multi-ton timbers plunging down steep hillsides and into rivers is almost as breathtaking to watch as it must be to participate. Many times riders are seriously injured and sometimes even killed in the process.

Later, in May, the pole raising takes place:

Satobiki ... involves parading the logs through narrow streets to the four shrines that comprise Suwa Taisha: Hon-miya, Mae-miya, Haru-miya, and Aki-miya. Accompanying the logs are huge parades of dancers, horseback riders and other performers.

The Yamadashi and Satobiki had already taken place when we arrived, and the events were being shown on television. Yoda reports, "This April, more than half a million people gathered to watch the first half of the festival -- the largest recorded attendance in the history of Nagano prefecture."

At the shrines, the new poles had been erected:

New pole

The famous soba shop in front of Akimiya Shrine was packed, so we ate a more modest udon shop nearby.

The next morning, we stopped at an Onbashira display.

Onbashira display

Suwa is also famous for Masumi Sake Brewery. According to its website, Masumi (Miyasaka Brewing Company, Ltd.), founded in 1662, "has been dedicated to brewing in Suwa, in the Shinshu region, under the brand name "Masumi no Kagami" (Masumi Mirror), named after a national treasure in the Suwa Taisha Shrine." The tasting room was elegant.


For $3 for a glass tasting cup, you can sample a range of six brews. When the hostess realized I was a serious sake drinker, she brought out a seventh bottle, one of their best, which we bought.

Our last stop was Lake Yamanaka, at Mt. Fuji. On the way was Shichiken Sake Brewery, which made one of my favorite sake in Hawai'i. But only the ginjo is sold in Hawai’i. I wanted to get a bottle of its daiginjo, named after the founder, Ihei Kitahara, who became enchanted by the Hakushu water in Daigahara-juku, a station town on the old Koshu highway that connected Edo with what is now Yamanashi province. The town is in the valley of the Kamanashi River which flows south, joining the Fuefuki River to become the Fuji River, which flows into Suruga Bay.

The historic building has an interesting interior and a modern tasting room.

Shichiken waterShichiken tree

Tasting room

We ended up buying an awarding winning daiginjo called Oonakaya.

I was hoping to drive to Lake Yamanaka via the famous Misaka Pass, but the old road was closed and the new road went through a tunnel instead.

The last time we visited the lakes of Fujisan (Summer 2005), we missed the ropeway up to Mt. Tento, so we went up for the view of Lake Kawaguchiko and the short hike to the summit.

Lake Kawaguchiko

We had also missed the famous Sengen Shrines for worshipping the kami of Mt. Fuji, Sengen, or Asama, also identified with the princess of flowering trees, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto. On the way to the ryokan at Yamanaka we stopped at Kitaguchi Fuji Hongu Sengen Taisha, the northern entrance to the mountain. A fire ceremony to placate the mountain goddess is held on August 26, based on a five-hundred-year-old ceremony. During the ceremony, the street leading up to the shrine is lined with towers of wood holding burning torches.

Fujiyoshida toriiFujiyoshida mikoshi

The next day we drove around Fujisan, stopping at various sites, starting with Gotemba Fifth Station, which was shrouded in clouds.

Gotemba stationMisty road

Down from the Fifth Station is Fujinomiya Sengen Shrine, constructed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the 17th century as the main shrine for Fuji worship. The Kanda River flows from the Wakutama Pond at the shrine, fed by spring water from the snowmelt of Mt. Fuji. People come to fill their water bottles from the spring.

Fujinomiya Sengen shrineWakutama pond

Fujinomiya spring

We also visited the lava caves, with year-round ice, on the northside of Fuji.

Lava cavesIce cave

But what I really wanted to see were two sites associated with the sixteenth century ascetic-mystic Kakugyo, one of the founders of Fuji-ko, societies for worshipping Fuji as a god and savior of Japan. Kakugyo promoted summer pilgrimages to the summit and climbed the mountain over 100 times himself.

One site was a waterfall called Shiraito, just north of Fujinomiya, where Kakugyo performed purification rites:


North of the waterfall was the second site, Hitoana, a cave where Kakugyo meditated until he had a vision of the spirit of the mountain as a dual god that was both the female Asama-Sengen and the Buddha Dainichi.

Just when we found the road to the cave, a school bus showed up. The teacher gave her talk to the students just outside the cave, getting them to stand on tiptoe to imitate Kakugyo, who is said to have performed his mediation while standing tiptoe on the five-inch square block.


We left because I didn’t want to be looking inside the cave when the teachers were there, not sure what the protocol was. I couldn’t read the sign posted outside.

After driving up to Motosu Lake, we went back to Hitoana. It was deserted. We went down to the bottom of the steps (no barriers) and peered in. The cave was dripping with water from the ceiling, pitch-black inside. A small shrine off to the left at the entrance was where worshipers left coins in homage to the god.

Hitoana caveSmall shrineHitoana altarHitoana stairs

The flash of the camera revealed a triangular rock enshrined farther back and a passage off to the left. Sensing that we weren't supposed to go any farther in (it was dark, wet, and eerie), we left. (Later, with a dictionary, I read the sign, which I had photographed: it said due to the dangerous conditions, not to touch or approach the shrine or enter the cave.)

Lake Yamanaka was a delight, much less developed than Lake Kawaguchi, where we had stayed in 2005. On the first morning, I walked along the shore at dawn. Fujisan was her shy self, shrouded by clouds, but I spent some time photographing swans at sunrise.


When we got back to the ryokan that night, it was still daylight, as sunset was at 6:52 pm. As we headed down to dinner, the hotel staff pointed out that the clouds had lifted around Fuji. From the lobby, we could see the summit. I wanted to get a photo of the mountain, but the staff wanted to serve our dinner, so we ate quickly, then drove out to the other side of the lake. With only minutes of evening light left, I took quick photos as the mountain faded into darkness.

Twilight Fujisan

The weather prediction for the next day was sunshine. After breakfast, we went to the other side of the lake again, to wait for the morning mist over the lake to rise.

Fujisan in mistFujisan

We had the day before us as our flight from Narita didn’t leave till 10 pm. We were going to spend the day at the Gotemba Outlet Shopping Mall, a huge complex south of Yamanaka, to pick up omiyage (travel gifts); but the mall opened at 10 or 11, so we decided to drive to Hakone to get a bottle of Ginnomai, brewed by Nakazawa Shuzo in Matsuda, a sake we enjoyed the last time we were in Hakone in spring 2008.

The Hakone Skyline road was scenic, with views of Mt. Fuji and Lake Ashi:

On the Hakone Skyline roadLake Ashi

Along the way, I recognized the spot depicted in Hiroshige’s famous woodblock print of Hakone Pass and Lake Ashi. The artist had made the slope of Mt. Mikuni much steeper than it is, creating a more dynamic composition:

Hakone PassHiroshige's print

When we got back to Hawai’i, we drank the bottle of Ginnomai. It was as smooth and tasty as I remembered it.

On the Far Side of Disaster:

Travels in Southern Japan A Week after the Great Tōhoku Earthquake

Late March 2011

(Last Updated: January, 2012)

A week before our spring 2011 trip to southern Japan, a 9.0 earthquake shook Tōhoku (northern Honshū), followed by a tsunami that devastated coastal communities. The wave also cut power to the cooling systems at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, which exploded due to a build up of hydrogen gas, and began leaking radiation.

We had to decide whether or not to cancel our trip. The Hysterical News Network aired non-stop coverage about the dire straits Japan was in, including the possibility of a meltdown at the nuclear plant. HNN's reporters didn't seem to know what a meltdown was or how it might affect the population center around Tōkyō or the rest of the country. HNN was committed to boosting hysteria to keep viewers hooked on its coverage, rather than to providing information.

The US State Department contributed to the hysteria by advising Americans against "non-essential" travel not just to the Pacific Coast of Tōhoku, the most heavily damaged area, but to the entire country. I wouldn't have flown into Tōkyō in the week after the disaster: Narita and Haneda were hectic for a couple of days with an estimated 160,000 foreign residents fleeing the country. And although the capital was unaffected by the tsunami and radiation, rolling blackouts to protect the Kantō power supply could make travel inconvenient.

Not surprisingly, our families were concerned about our travel; I was concerned. But I knew enough about the geography of Japan to know that the areas of western and southern Japan where we planned to travel (see the map below) were far from, and not affected by, the earthquake and tsunami.

And because NHK (Japan) and the BBC (London) provided useful information, I was able to figure out that even if there were a meltdown at the Fukushima plant, Tōkyō would be safe. (The BBC streamed a reassuring interview with Britain's Chief Nuclear Scientist, who explained what a meltdown was and the size of the area that would be affected.)

The Japanese government evacuated residents from a 12-mile (20 km) zone, then a 19-mile (30 km) zone, around the plant. (The US nuclear agency recommended 50 miles.) Tōkyō was 140 miles to the SW, well beyond the danger zone.

The nearest point on our itinerary to the damaged plant was Mt. Miwa, in Nara prefecture, 230 miles west of Tōkyō and 370 miles from the damaged Fukushima plant. With the prevailing winds blowing eastward out to sea and the Kuroshio flowing north along the Tōhoku coastline, there was little chance that significant amounts of radiation would reach the areas in which we would be traveling, in the time frame in which we would be traveling.

While HNN reporters and some of the English-speaking foreigners listening to their reports looked panicky on TV, NHK reporters expressed concern, but remained calm.

Localized food and water shortages occured in Tōkyō and Tōhoku, but the shortages were mainly due to distribution problems, not to a lack of food or water; Japan had more than enough food and water.

In Tōkyō, the problem was getting supplies on the shelves of local convenience stores fast enough for residents stocking up on toilet paper, bottled water, instant ramen, and batteries (the top four shortage items, none of which we needed); and along the Tōhoku coast, distribution was a nightmare because the airports, railroads, expressways, and ports were damaged or clogged with debris, electricity was out, and gasoline supplies were limited. Clean-up would take months or years, rebuilding years and decades.

I considered the issue of traveling in a country after an earthquake and tsunami, with the death toll likely to go well above 10,000. It was hard to watch the scenes of utter devastation on TV.

My sense was that people in the unaffected areas in Japan, while watchful and caring about the dire situation up north, were going about (had to go about) their daily lives in a normal way. Japan travel websites posted notices that southern and western Japan was unaffected by the disasters in the north. In other words, they were open for business. If I were traveling for pleasure, I might not have gone; but my travel was for research, so we decided to go.

Where We Planned to Go

On this trip we planned to search for the hometown of my mother's parents (Kuwahara and Kiyokawa), where my mother took us in 1970. On recent trips through the area (2006 and 2009), I couldn't find the town, which my mother referred to as Mukaiharamachi. In 2010, I discovered from immigration records that her parent's hometown was actually Gōnomura, which was northwest of Mukaiharamachi, in another river valley, near Aki-Takata.

We also planned to research Karen's father's father (Ōno) at the Museum of Hawaii Emigration on Suo-Ōshima Island, southwest of Hiroshima.

In southern Kyūshū, I wanted to see Mt. Takachiho and Cape Kasasa, two sites associated with the descent of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi, grandfather of the first emperor of Japan. There were also a number of sites we had missed on our earlier trips to western and southern Japan: on Kyūshū, the shrines of Hetsugū-Munakata, Dazaifu Tenmangū, Usa Hachiman, and Hikosan; and the stone buddhas of Usuki, near Oita; on Shikoku, Konpira shrine, which has a branch in Honolulu; and Zentsū temple, the birthplace of Kōbō Daishi; in Kansai, Mt. Miwa and Kashihara shrine.

To get to Shikoku we would drive over the Seto Grand Bridge, between Kurashiki and Sakaide, the last great bridge of Japan that we had yet to cross.

And we wanted to continue our research on saké. After the governor of Tōkyō called for "self-restraint" after the earthquake, hanami or flower-viewing celebrations, which feature generous amounts of saké, were canceled. Tōhoku saké brewers counterattacked on YouTube with a plea for people to continue drinking saké and celebrating sakura: "Supporting saké in these hard times is the right thing to do," Etsuko Nakamura declared in a Japan Times interview. "Stopping (the spring festivities) would take away the little signs of recovery that we're starting to see in Tokyo."

Click on the Image for a Google Map.

Into KIX

When we arrived at the Kansai International Airport (KIX), its terminal was eerily uncrowded, like a small town airport at night. There were only three people in front of us in the foreign arrivals line and four or five came in behind us. Gone were the long, snaking lines of Chinese, Korean, Russian, and American visitors.( In April, The Japan Times reported that the foreign arrivals were down 75% in Tōkyō for the post-earthquake month of March; and down 50% in Kansai for the week we were there. Tourism, both domestic and international, were hurting (though for different reasons), and so were retailers that depend on tourism.)

We checked into a hotel overlooking the Akashi Strait Bridge, my favorite bridge in Japan, with the longest suspension span of its time, completed in 1998, a marvel of late 20th century engineering. Its simple, elegant form represents for me what was great about modern Japan.

akashi strait bridge night

High school soccer teams were hanging out in the lobby, and the hotel was crowded. We found out later that hotels in Kansai were packed because many had fled temporarily to Kansai from Tōkyō for safety during the days following the quake.

The next morning, we watched from our balcony as fishing boats crowded under the bridge; apparently fish were running with the tide.

akashi strait bridge morningakashi strait bridge

After photographing the bridge, we headed west to Yubara hot springs, in Okayama prefecture, where we planned to spend a night at Hakkei, a ryokan that owns Hakkei restaurant in Honolulu. Masao, the Hawai‘i restaurant manager, had introduced us to the ryokan owner, Hiroko, when she was in Honolulu with her sons.

On the way to Yubara, we stopped at the castle town of Tsuyama city, which was established as the capital of Mimasaka province in 713. In 1603 after Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country, he awarded Mimasaka to Tadamasa Mori (reigned 1603-1634), who built the castle. It was considered one of the most magnificent castle in Japan, rivaling Himeji castle.

On a hilltop overlooking the city and the Yoshii river, only its massive walls and a small turret (rebuilt in 2004 on the castle's 400th anniversary) remain.

tsuyama castletsuyama_city

There's also a small, depressing zoo with a few animals – white peacocks, a boar, rabbits, and a tanuki. The boar was butting his head into a metal door at the back of his tiny enclosure.

The castle grounds are planted with over 5,000 sakura trees; it's considered the best place in the Chūgoku region for hanami, or flower viewing. I was hoping some trees would be in bloom, but the weather was still chilly, and the trees were still in bud. Some elderly workers were building temporary stalls along the walkways for the hanami celebration, to be held April 1-15.

Small Town Japan

Before reaching Yubara we stopped at Katsuyama, just south of the onsen, noted for a street of over ninety Edo-style samurai houses and merchant shops. Many of shops are decorated with noren (door hangings) in front of their entrances, with artful modern designs. Yoko Kano started making noren there in 1995.

katsuyama norenkatsuyama noren

The street houses Gozenshū, where the Tsuji family brews saké in a building established 200 years ago, using the water from beneath the Asahi River, which flows through the town. We enjoyed its daiginjō, Kei, at a hotel in Maniwa in 2009 and picked up a brochure for Katsuyama; since we were headed away from Katsuyama at the time, I made a mental note to find it on a later trip.

gozenshū sake breweryasahi river

North of Katsuyama is Kanba-no-taki Nature Park, which features a waterfall (361 feet/110 meters high and 66 feet/20m wide) that thunders over a steep cliff and flows down a narrow valley. The park is also a nature preserve, inhabited by some 200 wild monkeys.

Yubara Onsen, north of the park, is famous for its open-air mixed bathing area open 24-hours a day, noted for its healing waters with baths named Kodakara-no-yu ("blessed with children bath"), Bijin-no-yu ("beautiful woman's bath") and Choju-no-yu ("longevity bath").

yubara onsenyubara rotemburo

The giant salamander is the symbol of Yubara, and the town hosts a Salamander Festival in August. A local legend tells of how this river-dwelling animal came to be worshiped in the town:

Some four hundred years ago at a spot in the Asahi river called Ryuto-ga-fuchi ("Dragon's Head Abyss") lived a giant hanzaki that measured nearly 11 meters in length, with a body some 5.5 meters around. 

All in the village avoided Ryuto-ga-fuchi, for when disturbed, the giant hanzaki would flail its tail wildly and swallow the offender, whether man or beast. One day, a young man named Hikoshiro Mitsui decided to defeat the creature. He dove into the abyss with a tanto blade gripped between his teeth. Before long, the surface of the river roiled with blood, and the dead hanzaki floated up. After it had swallowed Mitsui, the hero had used his blade to cut his way out of its stomach, from chin to bowels.

But his triumph was short-lived. Mitsui's home was beset night after night by howls and pounding; before long, the entire family had died. To appease the angry hanzaki spirit, the villagers decided to erect Hanzaki Daimyōjin, a shrine to the enormous salamander-god, near the spot where the hanzaki was killed; and to this day, every year on the Eighth of August, a celebration is held to venerate and placate its powerful spirit. (Translated from the Hanzaki Center website; posted on the blog of Matt Alt)

The salamander's nickname, Hanzaki ("split in half"), is perhaps an allusion to the giant creature being cut open by Hikoshiro.

The giant salamander lives in streams from Oita in Kyūshū to Gifu on Honshu. Its eyesight is poor, so it uses its sense of movement in the water around it to hunt trout, frogs and insects. When threatened, the slow-moving reptile protects itself by excreting a milky substance that smells like Japanese pepper, hence its other name, "Sansho-uo" (mountain-pepper fish).

We walked to the Hanzaki Center to see the two hanzaki festival floats (a dark gray male and a reddish female), stored in a shed outside the center. The center features live salamander in tanks. One over 130 centimeters (4 feet) died recently, so the largest on display was 100 cm (a little over 3 feet).

hanzaki floathanzaki floathanzakihanzaki shrine

After a relaxing stay and an excellent dinner and breakfast at Hakkei, Hiroko saw us off the next morning with a bag of rice crackers freshly roasted over a fire near the ryokan entrance and two eggs cooked in hot spring water.

hakkei dinnerhakkei owner and chef

We headed west to see two more local sites of Maniwa. The first was Daigo Sakura, a 1000-year-old cherry tree, in Iwaiune. I found it on a Google map before we came, but we got lost in the back country roads. We almost gave up the search, until I noticed an elementary school on the GPS map that matched the location of a school on the Google map I had printed out. We backtracked a couple of miles and found a one-lane road into the mountains, with a sign pointing the way to the tree. As we drove up a slope, the sakura appeared at the hilltop above us: stark and still in bud, but magnificent.

giant sakurabuds of giant sakura

The next stop was Makidō, a 1476 feet/450 meter deep limestone cave. Smaller than the nearby Ikura Cave, which we had visited in 2009, Maki Cave features a narrow opening and illuminated underground ponds with small red-lacquered bridges at its far end.

makido cave bridge in makido cave

The disaster in northern Japan put my thoughts on small town Japan in a different context. There was no looking back with nostalgia to a time of innocence: in ancient times and now, there have been disasters, if not earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear reactors spewing radiation, famine and wars. In 2011, small coastal towns were reduced to rubble by the gigantic tsunami, and many of the residents were missing, swept out to sea or buried in the mud and debris. I thought of the people and the volunteers who were rebuilding lives and eventually would rebuild the towns, and the men fighting to bring the damaged nuclear reactor spewing radiation under control. These men were willing to risk their health for what they are willing to die for: just these small towns and their local traditions and special places that they love.

Hometowns: Hiroshima and Yamaguchi

From Maniwa, we took the expressway to Aki-Takata to find my grandmother's hometown. When we arrived there, I recognized the valley and the river, the Gōnokawa, which is the longest river in the Chūgoku region at 120 miles (194 km). From its headwaters in the Chūgoku Mountains of Hiroshima, it flows north and then west, entering the Sea of Japan at Gōtsu, in Shimane.

On a hilltop above the river, we visited the Shintō shrine I had visited forty years earlier. I identified the shrine and its location by looking at photographs of shrines on a Google map to find a match with a photo I had taken of the shrine in 1970.

gonomura shrine stairsgonomura shrine

We drove around looking for the town where we had spent that winter night so long ago, but couldn't find it.

That night we stayed at a hotel across the river from Hiroshima station. The next morning, I was planning to visit Shukkeien, a well known garden near the hotel. I had visited the garden in 1970, so thought it might be interesting to see what I remembered of it, but it opened at nine, and we had to meet Karen's cousins in Ōshima at 10:30 am, so after peering into the front gate and over a back fence, we drove up to Hijiyama Park, which offers views over the city and the Inland Sea (not particularly spectacular, since the lookout is only 230 feet above sea level). Over a thousand cherry trees make this park a popular spot for hanami parties, but the sakura was still in bud.

We arrived at 10 am on Sūo-Ōshima (Yashiro Island), 80 miles away, and drove up Mt. Iyino, just above the bridge from Honshū. The road up was narrow and winding, and the weather was rainy and windy. The tower at the summit offered a view of the bridge across Obatake strait, where boats fish for tai (sea bream).

To the west is the Museum of Japanese Emigration to Hawaii, which opened in the town of Nishiyashiro on February 8, 1999, to coincide with the arrival date (February 8, 1885) in Hawai‘i of the first boat load of Japanese workers who were contracted to work on sugar plantations. The emigration continued until 1894, many of the migrants from the impoverished small towns of Ōshima. The museum is in a house donated by the family of the late Mr. Choemon Fukumoto, who lived in the U.S.A. during the Meiji and Taishō eras. He built the house in his hometown in 1928 after returning to Japan.

In the museum data base, with the help of the museum guide, Karen found out her father's father was from Heigun, an island south of Ōshima, and emigrated to Hawai'i in the last group of government-sponsored contract laborers in 1894. We met a distant cousin of Karen's at the museum, along with her husband and her daughter and had lunch at a ramen restaurant overlooking Obatake strait.

After lunch, we drove to the east end of the island to visit the Mutsu Memorial Museum.

The battle ship sank off Suo-Ōshima after a mysterious explosion in 1943. It must have been a bad omen for the Japanese fighting in World War II. A salvage operation after the war brought up parts of the ship, some of them on display, along with photographs and belongings of the thousand crew members who were lost. The museum, which was more interesting and moving than I thought it would be, was created to honor the dead and to commit to world peace.

That night we stayed at a hotel on a beach nearby. Suo-Ōshima styles itself "Big Island of Hawai'i in the Inland Sea" and holds hula performances in the summer and plays Hawaiian music in its restaurant. It has a photo display of the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a, which visited Suo-Ōshima in 2007.

The next morning, we drove down the east coast of Suo-Ōshima to check out the local scenery: the coastal road is noted for cherry trees that form a tunnel called "the 1000 cherry blossoms of Gojyo" when they are in full bloom (which they weren't). Farther along, right next to the road is Tateiwa or standing rock, about 132 ft. high; and Ganmon, a rocky arch, which requires a short hike over a small hill down to a sandy beach.

oshima beachoshima coastal road

standing rock rock gate

From the southern coast, we could see Heigun island offshore.

heigun island

On to Fukuoka

In the afternoon, we drove over the Shimonoseki Bridge to Kyūshū. Our first stop was Hetsugū-Munakata, dedicated to Ichikishima-himekami, one of three daughters of Amaterasu, all three worshiped as kami of navigation, seafaring, and fishing.

munakata lionmunakata temizuyamunakata shrinemunakata tree

The shrine in Munakata is joined by two shrines on offshore islands dedicated to the other two daughters of Amaterasu:

    1. Tagorino-himekami, enshrined in Okitsu-Miya shrine on Oki Island
    2. Tagitsu-himekami, enshrined in Nakatsu-Miya shrine on Chikuzen Island

Fishermen and sea merchants pray at the three shrines to for safety at sea. There are 8,500 branch shrines in Japan today.

Just south of Hetsugū-Munakata, on a conic hill overlooking the Genkai Sea, is Miyajidake shrine, dedicated to Empress Jingū, Katsumura Ōkami and Katsuyori Ōkami; like Hetsugū-Munakata, Miyajidake is associated with seafaring and trade. People come to pray for business success, transportation safety and family safety.

miyajidake toriimiyajidake stairs

The shrine is said to have the largest shimenawa (rice straw rope) in Japan, though the one at Izumo Taisha on Honshū looks larger to me. When we got to Miyajidake shrine, the ume (plum) trees in the courtyard were in bloom, and some seniors on a field trip came to sit under the trees to enjoy the flowers.

miyajidake shrinemiyajidake sakura

Miyajidake also features a giant bell and a giant Japanese drum, and at Oku-no-miya Fudo Shrine, at the very rear of the site, a large ancient tomb, a 75 feet (23 meter) long cavity lined with large stones, where 300 pieces of horse-related apparatus, swords, ornaments, and jewelry have been excavated.

In Fukuoka, we checked into a hotel in Canal City (a downtown complex with two hotels, 50 shops and restaurants and movie theaters) and went walking and shopping at night in the district of Tenjin. Along the Naka river, the streets were lined with food stalls. A group at a major intersection was collecting money for the Tōhoku relief effort.

The next morning we went to two of Fukuoka's famous parks. Ohori Koen is at the center of Fukuoka, built around a lake.

Ohori ParkOhori Park bridge

Nishi Koen is on the hill overlooking Hakata Bay. Three thousand sakura trees are planted in the park, and it's considered the best place for hanami in Fukuoka City, but we were too early for the full bloom. We drove around the road that loops through the park.

nishi park sakkura

South to Kagoshima

We headed south for Kagoshima via Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine, dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, a poet with a pure heart who served the emperor and was wrongfully exiled to Kyūshū from Kyotō. His miserable life away from his family is legendary. After his death his angry ghost was thought to be causing disasters in the capital, so he was deified and worshiped to placate him. He later became identified with Tenjin, the kami of scholars, and is prayed to for success on entrance examinations and job applications.

As we walked up the shop-lined street to the shrine, a group of pre-school kids on an excursion passed by.

kids on excursion

Today there are over 10,000 branch shrines in Japan. Dazaifu Tenmangū, built over Sugawara's grave site, is the headquarters of these shrines and one of the most popular visitor's site in Fukuoka Prefecture. During the New Year season (1-7 January), the shrine is especially crowded because many visit as part of their New Year’s tradition and also the period is right before school entrance exams are given.

dazaifu toriidazaifu unicorndazaifu shrinedazaifu tree

The shrine is also known for its 6,000 ume (plum) trees. One tree, known as Tobiume, stands to the right of the main hall.

dazaifu plum tree

Legend has it that after Michizane left Kyoto in exile, he yearned so much for this tree that it was uprooted and brought to Dazaifu Tenman-gū.

Kōmyō-zenji, next to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, is a Zen temple founded in 1273 by the pries, Tetsugyu Enshin, a former nobleman of Sugawara clan. The temple is known for its rock garden, said to be the only one in Kyūshū.

komyo-zenji rock garden

Driving down the inland expressway toward Kagoshima, we exited at Yatsushiro and drove down the west coast of Kyūshū, to see what we might discover along the way.

The coastal highway went through the town of Minamata, the site of an environmental disaster: one of the most advanced chemical factories in Japan was allowed to dump mercury in its wastewater into the bay from 1932 to 1968. The mercury accumulated in fish and shellfish, poisoning the town's seafood supply, resulting in a condition called Minamata disease: muscle weakness; impaired vision, hearing, and speech; and in extreme cases, paralysis, insanity, coma, and death. It also affected fetuses and led to infants born with deformities.

South of Minamata, in Izumi, is the world's largest wintering grounds for cranes: an estimated 10,000 migrate from Siberia in the middle of October and stay there until the end of March every year. One website describes the the scenery as "spectacular" when the cranes storm up in search of food early in the morning." We followed the signs to a crane rest area, in an estuary near the sea. It was still March, but the estuary was deserted, except for a lone heron and a few ducks.

(A few days later, on our way up to Hikosan in northern Kyūshū, I saw a young crane flying along the Yamakuni river perhaps on its way to the Asian continent for the summer; it was the first crane I've seen in the wild.)

Farther south, past the town of Afune, we pulled over at a scenic lookout. An old resident began telling us the story of the area, which we couldn't completely understand, although he seemed to be saying something about sea turtles nesting on the beach nearby and that we should walk along the beach, which we did. We discovered Ningyō Iwa (Doll Rocks), which is probably what our earnest guide was telling us to go and see:

beach sceneningyo iwa

We drove past the nuclear power plant on the coast at Satsuma-Sendai, then turned eastward at Ichiki to catch the expressway to Kagoshima. (A month after the Great Tōhoku Earthquake and tsunami, which damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, The Japan Times reported that the governor of Kagoshima requested that Kyūshū Electric put on hold its plan to build a third reactor at the Satsuma-Sendai plant, scheduled to start generating power in 2019; in the same article, Prime Minister Kan expressed a willingness to review the national plan to build fourteen new reactors by 2030, citing safety concerns.)


After arriving in sunny but chilly Kagoshima, we had a good meal at Shana, an izakaya that we went to on our last trip south in 2006. The shōchū, Kiccho Hozan, came a large bowl (soup-size) from which we poured the tasty alcoholic brew into ceramic cups.

The next day, we drove to the southern end of the Satsuma Peninsula, to Cape Nagasaki-bana, then west to Cape Kasasa. At Nagasaki-bana are Mt. Kaimon, known as the Satsuma Fuji, and Flower Park Kagoshima, where 400 kinds of plants are displayed in their natural environment.

Kagoshima flower parkKagoshima flower park

Kagoshima flower parkKagoshima flower park

We were considering a hike to the top of Mt. Kaimon (3031 feet/924 meters), which offers a panoramic view that includes Cape Sata to the east, on the other side of Kinko Bay, at the southern end of Ōsumi Peninsula (Kyūshū southernmost point); and islands to the south (Tane-ga-shima, Yaku-shima, and the volcanic Io-jima). But the hike up and down takes four hours, so we skipped it and continued on to Lake Ikeda, the largest lake on Kyūshū (not particularly impressive) and to Cape Kasasa.

On the way to Cape Kasasa is the port town of Makurazaki. As we had only a light breakfast, we were looking for a place to eat, but didn't pass any restaurants that looked interesting along the highway; we were thinking of picking up some food at a supermarket and having a picnic, when we saw a sign for a fish products store. We found it at the dock of Makurazaki and had a delicious meal of katsuo (bonito, in season) and ebi-fry.

By early afternoon, we were at Cape Kasasa, famous as a reference point in the legend of Amaterasu's grandson Ninigi's arrival to rule the Eight-Islands of Japan:

This place [Mt. Takahicho; see below] is opposite to the land of Kara [Korea]. One comes straight across to the august Cape of Kasasa; and it is a land whereon the morning sun shines straight, a land which the evening sun's sunlight illumines. So this place is an exceedingly good place. Having thus spoken, he made stout the temple-pillars on the nethermost rock-bottom, and made high the cross-beams to the Plain of High Heaven, and dwelt there. (Kojiki 135-136)

Here at the cape, Ninigi also met his wife, Konohana Sakuyahime no Mikoto, the famous “Princess who blossoms like the flowers of the trees,” daughter of Ōyama-tsu-mi-no-kami (“Great Mountain Possessor”), child of the creation couple Izanagi and Izanami. (Kojiki 138-139; Nihongi 70-71).

looking back at Mt. Kaimoncape sata

South of the cape, in a protected bay, is the port of Bōnotsu, which prospered through trade with Korea, China and countries to the south. The Chinese monk Ganjin landed here when he brought the monastic Ritsu Buddhism to Japan in the 8th century. Ganjin was prevented from crossing the ocean from China five times due to typhoons and shipwrecks, but finally succeeded after twelve years. During his attempts at crossing, he lost many disciples and was blinded. After landing, he and his disciples traveled to Nara, where Ganjin presided over Tōdaiji, and his disciples introduced Chinese scriptures to Japan.

On the Way to Kumamoto: Road Closed Due to Recent Volcanic Eruptions

The next morning at dawn, we caught the ferry from Kagoshima to Sakurajima and drove up to the Yunohira lookout to see the volcano up close: its craggy face is much more dramatic up close than seeing it from across the bay.

sakurajima at sunrisesakurajima close-up

We drove around backside of the volcano and saw the crater that was the source of a smoke and ash plume we saw from Kagoshima the day before.

volcanic plumesmoking crater

Beneath the crater was a torii buried in a 1914 eruption and across the street an ashen graveyard. That eruption caused the island to shift up against the Ōsumi Peninsula, so that Sakurajima is no longer an island.

buried toriigraveyard

We drove north to visit Mt. Takachiho, about a mile high, on the southern end of the Kirishima mountain range. Here Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun-goddess Amaterasu, descended from heaven:

So then Amaterasu and Takami-musubi commanded Ninigi-no-Mikoto; and he, leaving the Heavenly Rock-Seat, pushing asunder the eight-fold heavenly spreading clouds, and dividing a road with a mighty road-dividing, set off floating shut up in the Floating Bridge of Heaven, and descended from Heaven onto the peak of Kuzhifuru which is Takachiho in Tsu-kushi [Kyūshū]. (Kojiki 133-134)

When we visited Kirishima in Fall 2006, Mt. Takachiho was cloud-capped; and the morning we were going to hike to its summit, it was pouring rain, so we skipped the hike. When we arrived in 2011, the road to the trail head was closed because Mt. Kirishima to the north had erupted violently in late January:

kirishima erupting

So hiking to the Takachiho summit was out. it was chilly anyway, with wind gusting to 20-25 mph and traces of snow on the slopes. We stopped at a roadside restaurant and gift shop near the mountain, had lunch, and waited for clouds to lift to photograph it.

mt. takachiho in mistmt. takachiho

We detoured west around Mt. Kirishima and the Ebino Highlands to our next stop, Kumamoto, where we visited Suizenji park, which is laid out to represent the fifty-three post stations of the Tokaidō, with a grass-covered replica of Mt. Fuji. A wedding was going on:

SuizenjiSuizenji wedding

After checking in at the hotel, we walked across the street to Kumamoto Castle, where a sakura tree was in bloom. Since the last time we were at the castle in 2006, an impressive new building has opened, with art work from the castle on display.

kumamoto castle with sakuracastle display room

From Kumamoto to Beppu Bay

The next morning, we drove into the hills north of Aso Crater to see Nabegataki, a waterfall with a cave behind it. We had seen the falls on NHK's "Journeys in Japan" and pinpointed it on a Google map.


The road down to Oka-Taketa castle, our next stop, went through the rolling hills of Aso-Kujū National Park, between Aso Crater in the distance to the south and the Kujū mountains to the north.

aso craterMt. Kuji

The extensive ruins of Oka castle, built in 1185 on a hilltop surrounded by cliffs and ravines, are impressive. Fifteen hundred sakura are planted around the castle, a weeping sakura just beginning to bloom. Along the trail down is a shallow cave with a freshwater spring.

taketa castletaketa castle

oka-taketa castleoka-taketa castle trail

After lunch at the restaurant below the castle, we headed west to Usuki to the stone buddhas carved into volcanic tuff during 12th-14th centuries.

usuki stone buddhausuki stone buddhasusuki stone buddhasusuki stone buddhas

In Beppu, we caught the ropeway up to Mt. Tsurumi for its views of the surrounding valleys, mountains, and bay. The temperature at the top was below zero.

Beppu RopewayMt. Tsurumi

We stay overnight at a hotel on Beppu Bay and ordered the local specialty, tempura chicken, at the hotel's izakaya – very tender and tasty.

Beppu Baytempura chicken

The Way to Hikosan

Before driving into the mountains of northern Kyūshū the next morning to visit the shrine on Mount Hiko, west of Beppu, we went to Usa Hachiman, the headquarters of the 25,000 Hachiman shrines in Japan. These shrines are dedicated to Emperor Ōjin (thought to reign in the 4th century), who was deified as Hachiman, the kami of military power. Hachiman appeared at this place around the beginning of the 8th century. Subsequently, he was recognized as a guardian of Buddhism and his bunrei (divided spirit) was transported to Nara in order to protect the giant Buddha at Tōdaiji and the Imperial Capital. Since then, Hachiman shrines have enjoyed the close protection of the Imperial family, and the grounds and buildings were in splendid condition.

usa hachiman toriiusa hachiman shrine

From Usa, we drove up the Yamakuni River to Hikosan, through Yabakei Gorge with its rocky cliffs.

Along with Kumano Sanzan on the southern end of the Kii Peninsula and Dewa Sanzan in Tōhoku, near Tsuruoka, Hikosan was considered one of the three main centers for training in shugendō (mountain asceticsim). Formerly, 3,800 yamabushi (mountain monks) lived here. The mountains around Hikosan are noted for their medicinal herbs, which the yamabushi gathered and sold around Kyūshū. Women were not allowed at the shrine until 1800.

From the shrine's famous copper torii, a stone pathway leads to steep stairs up to the main shrine. Temples and shrines on either side of the steps contain ancient Japanese gardens dating back to the early Muromachi Period (1392-1573). From the shrine, through a torii to the right of it, the trail continues up to another shrine at the top of Hikosan (3,937 feet/1,200meters high). A slope car (a car on a track) takes visitors up to and/or down from the main shrine, for those not wanting to walk.

 mt. hiko mt. hiko torii

 mt. hiko pathway mt. hiko stairway

 mt. hiko temizuya mt. hiko shrine

From Hikosan we drove down to the Shimonoseki bridge, crossed back to Honshū, and headed back to Hiroshima. On the way, we stopped at Yanai Station, near the hometown of Karen's mother's family (Yanehiro). The ferry leaves from Yanai for Heigun, from where her father's father emigrated to Hawai'i in 1894.

yanai train stationyanai ferry

That night we walked to Hondori arcade from our hotel to dine on Hiroshima oysters, raw, fried, and baked with miso.

hiroshima oystershiroshima oysters

Crossing the Seto Ōhashi (Grand Bridge)

The next day we drive eight miles (13 km) across the Seto Ōhashi (Seto Grand Bridge) between Honshū and Shikoku for the first time. The Grand Bridge is actually six bridges (three suspension, two oblique suspension, and one truss) spanning five islands in the Seto Inland Sea (Hitsuishi-jima, Iwaguro-jima, Wasa-jima, Yo-shima, and Mitsugo-jima).

Before crossing the bridge we stopped at the park at Mt. Washu, at the tip of the Kojima Peninsula, from the summit of which you can see the six bridges and the city of Sakaide on Shikoku.

Mt. Washuseto ohashi

In Sakaide, we went to Marugame Castle. The current castle was built in 1641, on an ancient site, by Yamazaki Ieharu, who was granted the small fief of Western Sanuki. The castle is noted for its stone walls and its view of Mt. Iino, known as Sanuki Fuji.

marugame castlemt. iino

Four miles south of the castle is Zentsūji, temple 75 of the 88-temple pilgrimage around Shikoku. Kūkai (Kōbō Daishi), the founder of Shingon Buddhism and the pilgrimage, was born in the temple precinct in 774.

zentsujistatue of kobo daishi

Three miles south of Zentsūji is Kotohira-gū, established during the first century. Located halfway up Mt. Zōzu, up a stairway with 785 steps to the main shrine and 583 more to the inner shrine, Kotohira-gū was dedicated to a local kami of seafaring, navigation, fishing, and water for agriculture.

stairway to konpiramore stairs to konpira

During the age of Shintō-Buddhist syncretism, the local kami was identified with Kubira, one of the twelve guardians of Yakushi, the medicine Buddha. Kubira's name is Konpira in Japanese, and Kotohira-gū is also known as Konpira shrine. In 1165, the spirit of Emperor Sutoku (1119-1164), who visited the shrine in 1163, was identified with Konpira. During the Edo period, visiting Konpira became very popular, a lifelong dream for some, like visiting Ise Shrine. A Shintō scholar of the Edo period identified Konpira as a manifestation of Ōmononushi, the kami worshiped at Mt. Miwa. (See below.)

Having walked up two hills that morning (Mt. Washu and Marugame Castle), the stairway up to the shrine looked daunting. Before heading up, we had hearty bowls of famous Sanuki udon, topped with a shrimp tempura and beef.

sanuki udon bowludon noodle shop

We climbed as far as the main shrine, which overlooks Marugame, with Mt. Iino in the distance.

konpira shrine

A pavilion near the shrine is hung with photos and illustrations of ships and features the solar-powered 31-foot "Malt's Mermaid," made from 22,000 recycled aluminum cans. Sailor / environmentalist Kenichi Horie used this boat to travel across the Pacific, from Ecuador to Tōkyō, in 138 days in 1996.

malt's mermaid

We stayed in Tokushima for the night, a city known for its canals and a fascination with King Kong.

king kong climbing a tokushima building

Mounains in Kansai: Miwa, Unebi, and Katsuragi

The next morning, we drove back to Kansai via Awaji Island, crossing the Naruto Bridge and Akashi Strait Bridge, which we crossed in the opposite direction in Fall 2006.

We left early so we could get to places south of Nara (we had missed on previous visits: in Sakurai, Ōmiwa Shrine, an early shrine, whose worshipers includes saké brewers; Kashihara Shrine, dedicated to the first emperor of Japan, Jimmu, the grandson of Ningi and descendant of Amaterasu; and the Katsuragi Mountains, the home of the legendary founder of shugendō, En-no-Gyōja.

Mt. Miwa (1532 feet, 467 meters) is not physically impressive, but located near the original capital of established by Emperor Jimmu, it's recognized as one of the first shrines established by the Yamato state.

mt. miwamt. miwa

Ōmiwa Jinja is dedicated to Ōmononushi, the sun kami who entered the mountain in ancient times. The mountain is said to be his sacred body; he also takes the form of a white snake which lives at the shrine.

miwa toriimiwa snake

As we missed climbs to the summits of Mt. Kaimon and Mt. Takachiho earlier on the trip, I wanted to make it to the top of Miwa. This seemed doable, as the trail is a little less than a mile long. According to a travel article I read before the trip, "The trail starts steep, but flattens quickly, so the more short-breathed among us needn’t worry much." This turned out to be inaccurate. The trail starts steep and while it flattens out for short stretches, it has five more steep slopes after the first one, the last one being just before reaching the top. (One wonders if the travel writer actually made the hike.)

After paying the ¥300 yen entry fee and donning our white neck sashes, we set out like pilgrims. Along a relatively flat stretch, next to a small stream flowing down a narrow ravine, the only sounds were the flow of the water and the tinkling of the bell attached to my neck sash. Once we reach a ridge, we could hear the sounds of cars and trains rising from the town below. Along the trail are sacred rocks and trees marked by shimenawa. At the very top is Okitsu-Iwakura, a jumble of stones, where Ōmononushi is said to have entered the mountain.

miwa stairmiwa trail head

Photos are not allowed, but I found two on the web, one of the trail along the stream and one of the shrine at the top of the mountain.

miwa trailmiwa summit

Ōmononushi is the kami of cultivation and the guardian deity of human life and marriage. In the age of the gods, cooperating with Sukunahikona-no-mikoto, he cultivated the land, developed industry, including saké brewing and medicine manufacturing, and cured diseases. So today he is prayed to for help in industry, medicine, prosperity of fortune, and longevity. The shrine sells Yakuyoke (talisman against evils) and Hoyoke (talisman against directional curses).

On the way back to Kansai International Airport, we stopped at Kashihara shrine, dedicated to Jimmu, four miles west of Ōmiwa, at the base of Mt. Unebi.

kashihara shrine gatekashihara shrine

Then we headed for Gose, six miles to the west of Kashihara, to ride the ropeway up to Mt. Katsuragi, famous as the birthplace of the mystic En-no-Gyōja, founder of the syncretic sect of mountain asceticism known as shugendō. The ride up is short—just five minutes.

On a clear day, which it was, the mountaintop offers views of the Yamato (Nara) plain to the west. From the ropeway station, we could see Mt. Miwa and Mt. Unebi in the distance.

katsuragi ropewaykatsuragi mountains

To see the Kawachi plains and Osaka requires a hike to the summit; as we were running out of time, we skipped it, went back down and headed for the airport.

When we got back to Hawai‘i, the US and its allies were bombing Libya, so HNN was obsessing on that story (including the story of a female lawyer alleging rape by Colonel Kaddhafi's soldiers), leaving NHK and BBC to cover the less dramatic recovery efforts in Tōhoku.

In a letter published to the world, Prime Minister Kan said it was his top priority to bring the damaged nuclear plant under control, and added "I have not a single doubt that Japan will overcome this crisis, recover from the aftermath of the disaster, emerge stronger than ever, and establish a more vibrant and better Japan for future generations."

The nation has endured for 2000 years with faith in its kami, through numerous calamities: earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, famines, wars. Certainly, if Japan was able to rebuild after the catastrophic devastation of the fire-bombings and atomic bombings of World War II, it wouldn't be done in by the current crises.

A survivor of the Hiroshima atomic blast once said, “… they told us no plants or trees would grow in Hiroshima for ten to fifteen years. … But the next year the grass grew just the same and the trees bore leaves again.”

Sacred sites, along with lives and homes, have disappeared, swept away by the giant wave. Bashō noted over 300 years ago: “mountains collapse, rivers flow, roads change, stones are buried and hidden beneath the earth ... and the traces of what once was are now uncertain ...” Still, an ancient spirit lives on. It was late March when we left Kansai: the sakura were starting to bloom.

Travels in the Fifth Moon: Japan in June, 2012

(Posted: July, 2012)

Summer lacks the glamor of spring’s sakura bloom; it’s also the start of the rainy season, the typhoon season, and muggy weather. But one thing you can do in summer that you can’t do in spring is drive the Hakusan Super Rindō ("Forest Road”), which opens in early June each year, when the mountains are arrayed in vivid shades of green.

The Super Rindō turned out to be one of the most spectacular roads we’ve traveled in ten road trips over the last eight years.

The twenty-mile road winds up a river valley north of Hakusan (“White Mountain”), a centuries-old pilgrimage site for mountain ascetics. The peak of Hakusan appears over other mountains near the top of the road, which includes bridges, tunnels, hairpin turns, steep cliffs, and roadside waterfalls.

While the road is considered at its best in autumn colors, the greens of summer have their own special beauty, and the road is less crowded in June. We were the only car going up, in mid-morning; we passed other cars and buses as we were heading down.

Ubagataki, which can be seen from the road, is more impressive viewed close up after a walk down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

The end of the walk offers both a public outdoor hot spring, if you don't mind getting naked in public, or for the modest, a foot bath.

We drove up to the ridge boundary between Ishikawa and Gifu prefectures from the Ishikawa side; the road continues down to Shirakawago in (Gifu), famous for its traditional houses with high-pitched thatched roofs. A road barrier prevented us from going down that way, but we had visited Shirakawago on a previous trip, in the summer of 2010, and the road on the Gifu side is less scenic than the road up from Ishikawa.

Satsukl: Fifth Moon

Our travels took place in the fifth moon (Satsuki) of the lunar calendar, which was from May 21 (day after the new moon) to June 19 (the next new moon). In Japanese tradition, the fifth moon is noted for its rains (the samidare). The haiku poet Bashō describes the rains, muddy roads, and swollen rivers as he traveled in Oku (northern Japan) during Satsuki in 1689.

The weather, as it turns out, was not bad – mainly partly cloudy, with enough sunshine to make driving, walking, and hiking enjoyable. The trip covered 2000 miles. (Clck on the image for an active Google Map.)

June 1: To Shimoda via Enoshiima

After a night flight into Haneda, we headed for Shimoda, on the Izu peninsula. On the way we stopped at Enoshima, a small island at the mouth of the Katase-gawa near Kamakura. The island, less than half a mile from shore, is linked by a bridge.

Across the bridge are shops, inns, and restaurants along a narrow lane. A stairway goes up to a shrine where three goddesses from Munakata, Kyūshū (Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime) were enshrined in 552 by Emperor Kinmei (510-571). Later Hadaka-Benten, the naked goddess of entertainment, was also enshrined at Enoshima by the first shogun of Kamakura, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo (1147-1199).

We walked across the island from the north end (there are toll escalators up the steepest parts, no vehicles allowed), past the tropical botanical garden, to Enoshima Iwaya, on the south side, where two sea caves are located. Traditions associate the caves with the mediations of the monk Kōbō-Daishi (Kūkai) as well as with Yoritomo, who is said to have trained and prayed for victory there.

At Shimoda on the south end of Izu Peninsula (where we had gone in Spring 2008), we stayed at a hot spring ryokan overlooking the bay. The next morning we went for a walk around the small island of Ebisu at the end of on Suzaki Peninsula.

June 2-3, Mt. Fuji and Shizuoka

The next day, we drove to Fuji Port, stopping at the historic one-lane Amagi Pass tunnel, the longest stone tunnel in Japan, completed in 1905, when rickshaws still provided public transportation along with buses.

From Fuji Port, south of Mt. Fuji, we planned to hike the Hoei Crater trail on its eastern flank. (In spring 2011, we discovered it was closed until summer, so we were back for another try.) We left our hotel at 6 am the next morning because rain was forecast for the afternoon, and we hoped to complete the relatively easy hike before it started to rain. As we approached the Fujinomiya 5th Station, the summit was clear, but clouds were moving over the east side, with intermittent drizzling.

When we got to the trail head, the conditions looked fair; by the time we got to the Hoei Crater viewpoint, clouds and mist obscured the view.

That afternoon we drove to Shizuoka, stopping at Satta Pass, on a one-lane road along a cliff ...

...which led to a lookout, above the expressays and train tracks:

Clouds in the distance hid Mt. Fuji. Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Satta Pass (Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaidō) shows where it would appear in the view above on a clear day:

June 4: To Toba

On the way from Shizuoka to the ferry terminal at Cape Irago, we went to Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja, a Shintō shrine located above the Tenryū river valley, near the summit of Mount Akiha, on the southern slopes of the Akaishi Mountains. The primary kami of the shrine is Hi-no-kagutsuchi-no-Okami, a kami associated with protection against fires. The main festival of the shrine is held annually over three nights in December, and features ceremonies using huge flares and fireworks. Its front gate is adorned with exquisite animal carvings:

The shrine offers a panoramic view to the south from its golden torii.

We arrived at Cape Irago (below) in the afternoon and caught the ferry across Ise Bay to Toba, a 55-minute crossing.

June 5: Ise Jingu, Shima, and Pearl Road

After a night at Toba hotel, where we tasted Matsuzaka beef for the first time, we drove to Ise shrine on the Ise Skyline toll road. The view of Ise bay was obscured by mist and clouds. After visiting the shrine (which we visited in Spring 2004), we drove south to Shima stopping at the small Ama no Iwato Cave, where the sun goddess Amaterasu is said to have hid until the other gods drew her out. (Another cave in Takachiho, Kyūshū, which we visited in Fall 2007, is also said to be the mythic cave.)

On the way back to Toba, we had lunch at the roadside Kuroshio fish market, which sells live seafood and sashimi. The maguro and uni bowl was delicious.

June 6: To Nagoya, via Ibuta Temple

On the way from Toba to Nagoya, we stopped at Ibuta-ji, in the Suzuka Mountains above Matsuzaka. Ibuta-ji is a Buddhist temple where mountain ascetics train. I saw it on an episode of Extreme Japan (NHK) and located it on a Google Map, then used our GPS to navigate to it. At the beginning of a trail to the top of the 1300-foot Mt. Ibuta is a fifteen-minute climb up a steep cliff, which, with the help of a chain in one section, takes you to a hilltop shrine on a ledge beneath an overhang.

June 7: To Yunoyama

Mt. Gozaisho is another peak in the Suzuka Mountain Range. We caught the ropeway up to the top from Yunoyama hot spring, where we spent the night.

Yunoyama hot spring along the Mitaki-gawa Rive, is said to have been discovered from a sighting of bathing deer in the 8th century and is thus also known as the Deer Hot Spring. From the top of nearby Mt. Gozaisho, on a clear day, you can see Ise Bay on one side and Lake Biwa on the other; but the views were obscured by clouds on the day we were there.

June 8-9: To Kyoto

The next morning we drove on the Suzuka Skyline road down to Lake Biwa to visit the ruins of Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi castle, completed in 1579. The castle was lavishly decorated, with a gold-leafed tea room and its standing screens, sliding doors, walls, and ceilings painted by Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590), one of the foremost artists of the period. It was also a fortress, with thick stonewalls and a eight-story tower from which to keep watch over the surrounding countryside. In 1582, in Kyotō, Nobunaga died in an attack on Honno temple, and Azuchi castle was looted and burned down. Today, only its stone stairways and walls remain.

A nearby museum houses a replica of the 7th and 8th floors:


In Spring 2008, we stopped at Gichū-ji, where Bashō is buried, but it was too early in the morning, and the temple was closed. A long drive ahead, we left, with the thought that we would return one day to pay homage to the poet who inspired our Roads of Oku journeys. The temple is in Otsu, on the south shore of Lake Biwa:

After Bashō’s death in Ōsaka in 1694, his disciples carried his remains to Gichūji. A disciple describes the area in Bashō’s time (it is much more developed today):

Our master had a particular love for scenic places. His grave is graced by Mount Nagara [to the west, near Miidera] and Mount Tanokami [to the southeast] and the waves of Lake Biwa that come right up to the temple gate. The boats going out leave their traces on the water, reminding us of the short span of our life. Deer on the woodcutters’ paths, wild geese flying over farm houses, the moon shining over the lake – all these add beauty to his grave.

We also visited Ishiyama (“Stone Mountain”), located just south of Gichū-ji on the west bank of the Seta river. The thirteenth temple in the tour of the thirty-three Kannon temples in the Kinki region, it’s depiected in a Hiroshige wood-block print, “Autumn Moon over Ishiyama,” in Eight Views of Ōmi (1834).

Oku no Hosomichi includes a poem Bashō composed comparing the stones of Ishiyama temple to those of Natadera (see “Temples”):

whiter than Ishiyama’s stones: autumn wind
ishiyama no / ishi yori shiroshi / aki no kaze

During our 2012 summer stay, we went to places we missed on the first two trips to Kyotō (Spring 2004 and Spring 2008):

Nishi Honganji: built in the Momoyama-era (1568-1598), the headquarters of the Jōdō-Shin sect of Buddhism, which has the largest number of adherents of any religious sect in Japan. The orginal temple founded in 1272 by the daughter of Shinran, the founder of Jōdō-Shin, was located in Higashiyama (eastern Kyotō).

Sanjusangendo, which houses an image of Kannon bodhisattva, a masterpiece attributed to the sculptor Tankei, along with a thousand statues of Kannon, carved out of cypress wood covered with gold leaf, flanking the main image in fifty columns, each ten rows deep. There are also 28 statues of guardian deities with intense expressions and impressive detail.

Nijo Castle / Ninomaru Palace: In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of Nijō Castle, which was completed during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1626.

Tenryū-ji: "Heavenly Dragon Temple" was named for a dragon rising from a river in a dream, which was taken to mean that the recently-deceased Emperor Go-Daigo was not resting peacefully. To placate his unhappy spirit, the temple with its Zen garden was built in 1339 by shogun Askhikaga on the former site of Go-Daigo's villa. It is now the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

Matsuo Taisha: One of Japan's oldest shrines, founded in 701, this shrine is dedicated to the deity of water, which sake-brewing families have worshipped since the Muromachi Period. Pure spring water spews from the mouth of the "Kame-no-ido" (turtle well). The shrine was founded by the Hata clan, an immigrant clan that was instrumental in bringing sake brewing techniques from Korea. The Hata also founded the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine south of Kyotō. (See “Shrines.”)

Arashiyama Bridge: Near Tenryū-ji and Matsuo Taisha, Arashiyama bridge (Togetsukyō) spans the Katsura river. The area is crowded on weekends.

June 10: To Makino, Okubiwako

Before leaving Kyotō for Makino, we drove the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway, a winding toll road into the mountains northwest of the city.

It was Sunday, and there was a sports car rally at an amusement park, so a line of cars was waiting for the gate to open at 8 am. Back in Kyotō, we rode the cable car and ropeway to Mt. Hiei. The rides up and down were enjoyable, but the view of Lake Biwa was obscured by clouds and mist.

On our way to Makino at the northern end of lake Biwa, which is less developed than the southern end around Otsu, we drove the Rainbow Line, an 7 mile-long toll road with views of the Sea of Japan and the five lakes of Mikata in Wakasa Bay National Park. The views of the lake were partially obscured by clouds. We continued up the Tsuruga peninsula to see Ironohama (“Many-colored beach”).

A poem on Ironohama by Bashō from Oku no Hosomichi:

between wave and wave / mingling small shells / hagi dust

The next morning, the weather had cleared, and the sunrise over Lake Biwa was beautiful.

Since the weather was sunnier, we went back to the Rainbow Line road to see the five lakes.

June 11-12: To Kanazawa

From the Rainbow Line, we drove up the Echizen-Kaga coast to Kanazawa. (See Winter 2008 for sites along this road.)

At the fishing port of Kuriya, we had a lunch of sashimi (ika, aji, saba). The town is famous for its crab, which is a winter speciality not served in summer.

June 13: To Suzu, Noto.

After a couple of nights in Kanazawa to drive the Hakusan Super Forest Road, we followed the coast up and around the Noto Peninsula. (We went around Noto in Winter 2008 to see its wave-flowers.) Near the northernmost point of Rokkozaki are the narrow ricefields of Senmaida, already planted.

South of the cape, on the east coast, is Mitsuke-jima, a monolithic rock in Iida Bay.

June 14-15: To Toyama, via Tateyama

After an overnight stay at Suzu Beach, we drove south to Tateyama, which, along with Mt. Fuji and Hakusan, is considered one of the three most sacred mountains of Japan and the site of pilgrimages by mountain-climbing ascetics. Tateyama, like Mt. Fuji and Hakusan, is still snow-covered in June. From the Tateyama train station we took a cable car up to Bijodaira, from where a bus transported us to Murodo, just below the highest peaks. (To protect the environment, private cars aren’t allowed on the road.)

In a ravine below Tateyama is Shōmyō-daki, the tallest waterfall in Japan, falling over 1148 feet. The water flow is heaviest in early summer due to the snow melt and fifth-moon rains; as we approached, the thunder of falling water filled the ravine and gusts of wind blew swirling mist around us:

Overnight in Toyama, at One’s Heart, an izakaya, we had a plate of delicious fatty tuna, along with cheese-yakitori, kim chee yakitori, yaki nasu, ika geso, tofu with natto and kim chee, and a ham salad, with Toyama daiginjyo sake and a glass of Tomi Hozan (shochu from Kagoshima).

June 16: To Matsumoto via Kamikochi

On the way to Matsumoto the next day, we caught a bus from Hirayu Onsen to Kamikochi, famous for its nature walks.

We spent the night in Matsumoto, a castle town we had visited in Summer 2005 and Spring 2008.

June 17-18: To Kofu

We drove south to Kofu and stopped at Haramo Winery, Katsunuma, Koshu, which was featured in an NHK special on spirits in Japan. This winery was constructed 130 years ago. The restaurant serves local dishes using seasonal produce to complement its wines. We ordered a plate of sausages, bread, vegetables green, potatoes, cheese, and tofu, with red and white wine.

A short drive from our hotel in Kofu is Shosen Gorge on the Arakawa River, which flows down from the Chichibu mountain range. The gorge is noted for its oddly shaped rocks (given names like "monkey rock" and "cat rock"), steep cliffs reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings, and senga-taki, a 30 meter high waterfall. Like Hakusan Super Forest Road, Shosen Gorge is noted for its fall color, but is less crowded in summer.)

Kofu to Hakone, June 19, Tuesday

We drove to Hakone via the five lake of Mt. Fuji.

Lake Motosu

As we drove along the shore of Lake Yamanaka, we could feel the approaching Guchol, the first typhoon of the season: the lake was darkened by clouds and swept by wind and rain.

By the time we got to Hakone, heavy rain was falling, with stronger gusts of wind. Most of the Motohakone looked closed when we went for dinner, but Kunibiki-no-sato was open on the main street, and we had some delicious sesame-flavored soba and tempura smelt, a local specialty, with beer.

That night, we could hear the winds roaring through the mountains between 10 pm to 2 am. The typhoon was moving so fast, it had passed Tōkyō by morning and was out at sea off the coast north of Iwate, in Fukushima.

June 19: To Haneda, via Boso Peninsula

Heavy fog blanketed the road as we drove down from Hakone, and gusty winds whipped the trees along the expressway back to Tōkyō, with saucer-shaped clouds overhead, remnants of the storm, their edges glowing in the bright rising sun. Our plan was to catch a ferry across Tōkyō Bay, from Miura Peninsula to Hama-Kanaya on the Boso Peninsula. When we got to the Miura ferry terminal, however, there was no ferry at the dock and the building was deserted. The counter girl told us what was obvious: the ferry was cancelled for the day due to high winds.

Our alternative route across the bay was the Aqua Bridge: a six-mile long undersea tunnel goes from Kawasaki Ward in Tōkyō and emerges in mid-bay at Umihotaru, an artificial island with parking, restaurants, souvenir shops and viewpoints, then continues on as a two-mile long bridge to Kisarazu on the Boso Peninsula. You can see Mt. Fuji and the Tōkyō Sky Tree from Umihotaru on a clear, calm day, which this one wasn't. The 20-30 knot winds churned up the water with white caps and the horizon was hazy with sea spray.

Our destination was Mt. Nokogiri, near the town of Hama-Kanaya, where the ferry docks. I had never heard of this site until I did a web search of sights of Ibaraki to visit on our last day. Mt. Nokogiri looked the most interesting: above a mountain temple and a giant statue of the medicine Buddha Yakushi Nyorai, up a walkway of steep stairs and cliff-side trails are 1,500 arhat sculptures set in shallow caves, a towering bas-relief of Kannon carved into a cliff, and a lookout. When we arrived, the mountain top was shrouded in mist, but it wasn't raining, so we walked to the lookout.

The statue of Buddha was carved out of volcanic tuft in 1783, 102 feet high, more than twice as tall as the huge bronze Buddha statues at Tōdaiji, in Nara (49 feet high) and at Kōtoku-in, in Kamakura (44 feet high).

Near the ferry terminal at Hama-kanaya is a modern tourist center, where we had an lunch of sashimi and local dark beer.

We drove back over the Aqua Bridge, returned the car, and caught a bus to Sumida Ward to see Tōkyō’s newest attraction, the 2,080 feet Sky Tree, the tallest broadcast tower in the world. A new symbol for Tōkyō, it opened on May 22 of this year and attracted 5.8 million visitors in the first month, not all of whom could catch the elevator to the observation platfrom, due to the limited number of tickets sold each day.

The skies over Tōkyō were clearing, and the wind was dropping. During our three-week journey, there were a couple of rainy days in Kyotō, a couple of muggy days, and the typhoon, but overall the weather was not bad: clouds obscured the views from mountaintops, but overall, we went where we planned to go, saw what we wanted to see. Even the typhoon didn't modify our schedule: our flight left Haneda for Hawai‘i at midnight, on-time. (In early July, however, two weeks after we left, heavy rains pummeled central Kyūshū for five days, causing major flooding, evacuations, and 22 deaths.)

Far Roads: Finishing Touches

June 7-21, 2013

(Posted: July 22, 2013)

We returned to Hokkaidō and Tōhoku in mid-June to visit sites and do things we skipped or missed, for one reason or another, on our three previous trips to northern Japan (Tōhoku-Hokkaidō in summer 2005 and Tōhoku in fall 2009 and summer 2010). If anything, we had learned on previous trips that what you can see and do and what you eat and drink is as dependent on what season, or even what month, you go in, as on where you go.

In particular, we wanted to see up-close the summits of three famous mountains of the north, Mt. Hakkoda and Mt. Iwaki on Honshu, and Asahidake on Hokkaidō; Lake Shikotsu, on Hokkaidō; and two scenic coastal areas of Honshu, Kitayamazaki on the Pacific coast and Fukaura on the Sea of Japan, where a ocean-side onsen is located. We also wanted to revisit a few special places in Aomori—Ōma at the north tip of Honshu; the Ōyu stone circles south of Lake Towada; and Aoike ("Blue Pond") at Juniko.

Starting our travel in Chitose, Hokkaidō, allowed us to tour at a more leisurely pace than on previous trips, since we didn't have to make the long drive north from Narita Airport: we traveled in a smaller area, with shorter distances between stops, and could focus more time on eating and drinking saké rather than on long drives to the next destination.

Click on the image for a Google map.

We flew into Chitose around sunset (7 pm) on one of Hawaiian Air's last direct flights from Honolulu. (Sendai would be added as a stopover at the end of June to increase passenger loads.) On the approach to the airport, the mountains of Hokkaidō appeared below:

After an overnight stay at the airport, we drove to Hakodate, from where we planned to catch the ferry to Ōma on Honshu. We had been to Hakodate and Ōma in the summer of 2005. But our overnight stay in Hakodate was brief: we arrived in the late evening after a 170-mile drive from Sapporo and left on the first morning ferry back to Ōma, on Honshu. By the time we arrived, Hakodate was dark, foggy and cold, even though it was early June. After eating at Kuishinbō, an izakaya near the hotel, we went back to the hotel, without seeing much of the city. Early the next morning, we drove up to Mt. Hakodate for a view of the city; but the city was blanketed by fog, visibility almost nil.

In 2013, we wanted to spend more time in this seaport known for its great seafood. We arrived from Chitose before lunch, in sunny weather. We had lunch in the Red Warehouse tourist district, where our hotel located, below Mt. Hakodate.

After lunch, we drove the winding road up to the summit for a wide view of the city and its harbor.

Back down, we found a local saké shop, where we bought four bottles for the road. At dinnertime, we walked to Uni Murakami, a small restaurant on the border of the morning market district; the uni and squid (Hakodate specialties) and grilled hokke (Atka mackerel, in season), with local saké, were delicious.

The next morning we caught the 9:10 ferry to Ōma. We passed through Ōma twice in 2005, without stopping, driving out of and into the ferry terminal. We knew nothing about the town and were on our way to other destinations. Since then, we learned that Ōma was famous for its catch of the best bluefin tuna (hon-maguro) in Japan. We saw a TV special about the fishermen who went out, sometimes alone, to harpoon huge maguro in the straits of Tsugaru, between Hokkaidō and Honshu, where the maguro feed on mackerel. The fatty cuts of Ōma maguro are considered the holy grail of Japanese cuisine. Incredibly, on our 2005 drives in and out of Ōma, we didn't stop to eat.

This time, after driving off the ferry, we headed north into town to look for a restaurant serving maguro. At Cape Ōma was a seaside promenade, with a lighthouse offshore.

Across the street was a restaurant where a bowl of maguro over rice was $25, with the slices layered from the fattiest to the leanest, the difference in quality of taste was amazing, as we ate through the layers.

Outside the sea wind was whipping fishing boat flags:

Also on the promenade was a monument to Ishikawa Takuboku (1886-1912), a famous poet of Tōhoku (Iwate), who once taught school in Hakodate.

Each stone features a poem by Ishikawa:

  • Alone facing the ocean / for seven or eight days, / I wished to weep / and departed from home.
  • On the white sandy shore of a small island, / Far in the Eastern Sea, / Weary of weeping, / I play with crabs.
  • After writing the kanji for "ōkī" [big, great] / More than one hundred times on the sand / I forsook the thought of dying and returned home.

We headed south from Ōma to the next destination, Mt. Hakkoda, a mountain just south of Aomori, the largest city in northern Japan. In fall 2009, we planned to go up the ropeway to the summit, but when we got there, the ropeway was closed due to gusty winds trailing the first snow storm of the year that had swept through the night before. This time, the skies over northern Japan were blue, and we caught the ropeway up; a short hike led to the marshlands below the summit, still snowy.

Twelve mile south of Mt. Hakkoda, we stayed at an onsen on a tributary to the Oirase River, which flows out of Lake Towada to the Pacific Ocean.

The next morning, we drove to Kitayamazaki, a scenic Pacific seacoast in Rikuchū Kaigan National Park. Driving north from Narita to Hokkaidō in 2005, we stayed overnight in Miyako, on the southern end of the park, but had to choose between the inland route, to see Ryūsendō ("Dragon Springs Cave"); or the coastal road, to see Kitayamazaki. Mutsu, our next overnight stop, was 170 miles away, so we didn't have time to go to both places; Ryusendō (a deep limestone cave with a stream and ponds and stalactites in it) sounded more interesting back then, so we went inland.

From Oirase, we headed for the Pacific Ocean. Past Kuji, the road follows the steep coastline. Before Kitayamazaki, we stopped at Kurosaki Lighthouse, where a monument inidicated we were standing on 40˚ N latitude line.

A couple of miles south of Kurosaki was the park and lookout for Kitayamazaki. A 360-step walk from the observation deck at the top of the cliff went down to a second observation deck with a better view. The stairs continued down to the coast, but the way was roped off to prevent visitors from descending farther. A boat tour from a local village goes along the coast for a view from the sea.

We drove back north to spend a night in Hachinohe. On our way to Hokkaidō in 2005, we drove through Hachinohe without stopping. I knew nothing about Hachinohe back then. Last year, however, we saw an NHK travelogue on the yokocho (side alleys) lined with izakaya in Hachinohe, so we wanted to eat at one. We booked a hotel just across the street from the izakaya district and had some good food and saké at one whose menu was posted on the internet.

The next morning we toured some of the local attractions: the Tanesashi Coast to the south; the seagull shrine on the way there; Hachinohe saké brewery, where we bought a bottle of daiginjō; and the fish market, where we spent $12 on sashimi for two (amaebi, salmon, maguro, tako, and squid). The bowls of rice were free.

The shrine was a mystery: we noticed some tour buses gathered there as we drove by. The area was teeming with seagulls. The smell of bird dung is intense. At the bottom of the steps to the shrine was a stand with umbrellas, offered to protect visitors from droppings from above.

I found some information about the shrine on the internet that night: Kabushima Shrine serves as a habitat for forty thousand black-tailed gulls (umineko).

The gulls are regarded as kami because they help fishermen find schools of fish at sea. June is in the middle of their nesting season, so the gull colony was at the shrine, caring for their young. They depart in August.

Our next stop was Lake Towada, which we visited in 2009. My one disappointment was not being able to drive along the cliffs on the north side of the lake for a view from above; on November 2, 2009, the first snow storm of the season (the one that caused the closing of the Mt. Hakkoda ropeway) came blowing in as we drove down the winding road at the southern end of the lake. The next morning, the landscape was snow-covered, and the road to the north was closed.

In 2013, we we arrived at the lake from the east side; the sky over the lake was clear and sunny. From the northern cliff, the lake appeared below, in summer mist.

Cicadas had emerged from underground for mating, and their shrill, intense chorus saturated the landscape. The next morning, clouds rolled in.

The next morning, we checked out of the hotel and went west for a drive around the Oga peninsula. On the way, we stopped at the Ōyu stone circles, a Jōmon archaeological site just south of the lake. The last time we were there in 2005, we arrived in the early morning from Aomori; I was amazed that we had found the site using road maps from the internet, with little knowledge of roads or driving in Japan. The stone circles are from a time before classical Japanese culture developed in Nara and Kyōto and spread north; from another world, they seem dream-like.

From the stones, on the way west to Oga, we stopped at the Kodama saké brewery The last time we stopped there, it was late afternoon, after our 2010 drive around Oga, and by the time we found the brewery, the shop had already closed. This time we arrived before lunch and bought three bottles of award-winning Taiheizan daiginjō. (Taiheizan is a sacred mountain with a shrine on top of it, 11 miles NE of Akita city.)

The last time we drove around the Oga Peninsula, in Summer 2010, it was pouring rain. We visited the observatory at Mt. Kanpu, stopped at the Namahage Museum and Shinzan shrine, then quickly drive down Nishi Kaigan, the scenic western coast, which was shrouded in mist and drizzle. The drive that day was 180 miles, from Ajigasawa to Nikaho, so our visit to Oga felt rushed. This time the drive along the Nishi Kaigan was more leisurely and we stopped at lookouts to enjoy the scenery.

We went up a backroad to the lookout at Hachibodai, which offered a view of a crater lake and the coast below.

At Nyudōzaki, we walked down to the 40˚ N latitude stones, on the Japan Sea, on the opposite side of Honshu from the 40˚ N latitude monument at Kurosaki on the Pacific coast.

Oga and the west coast of Honshu are noted for sunset over the Sea of Japan. From the dining room at our hotel in Ogata, we watched the sunset over the coastal rice fields.

After a night in Ogata we drove to Iwakiyama, the tallest mountain in Tōhoku. After Noshiro, we turned north on route 317, which went straight through the beech-covered Shirakami mountains (a UN World Heritage Site); we were making good progress on the deserted road, but about halfway to Iwakiyama, a locked metal gate blocked our way: closed for repairs, apparently. We turned around and drove back out to the Ushu highway to circle around to the east, via the Tōhoku Expressway.

We visited the shrine below Iwakiyama in fall 2009. It was late in the afternoon; in the rain and darkness, the visit felt rushed. This time, the walk up to the main shrine was leisurely.

On the last visit, in early November 2009, we weren't able to drive up the Iwakiyama Skyline Road a few miles past the shrine because the road is closed from October 15 to mid-April.

The road, with 69 hairpin turns, goes up a ridge on the southwest side of the mountain, to a parking lot from where a ski lift goes to a platform near the summit.

From the ski lift station, a rocky trail leads up to the summit.

In Fall 2009, we also skipped the famous ocean-side onsen at Fukaura in order to drive the Shirakami Line Road to see the Mother Tree (an ancient beech tree). The road came down to the coast highway just south of Fukaura, near Juniko ("Twelve Lakes"); after stopping to see Juniko, we had a long way to go, to Oga and Nikaho, so backtracking was out of the question.

On this trip, the plan was to see Fukaura and revisit Juniko.

Our room at the Fukaura ryokan overlooked the onsen by the sea.

Hotel guests can sit in the hot spring waters and watch the sun set over the Sea of Japan. But in the late afternoon, the waters felt lukewarm, so we went back to our room for the sunset.

The kaiseki dinner featured sazae (turban shellfish) and abalone, gathered on a small island offshore by the owner's brother, who is one of three fishermen with exclusive fishing rights there.

As we left the ryokan the next morning, we could see mares' tails above, the leading edge of a cold front, with rain, moving in from the west.

We went to Juniko, ten miles south of Fukaura, to see Aoike ("Blue Pond") again, in the morning sunlight. The last time we were there in the afternoon, when it was relatively crowded with cars and buses. This time, we were the first ones on the path to the pond. (We past a couple of other early risers on our way back down.)

Aoike ("Blue Pond"), along with the Ōyu stone circles and the ochre-colored stones at Yudono shrine in Yamagata, is one of the most mysterious sights in our ten years of travel in Japan. The blue tint is due to an algae.

We headed back north to Aomori along the Fukaura coast, which is noted for its rock formations.

North of Ajigasawa, we stopped at Takayama Shrine, dedicated to the rice goddess Inari. We had visited the famous Inari shrines at Fushimi, Kyōto, and Tsuwano in Yamaguchi, with their tunnels of red torii and were curious about this northern outpost of Inari. The massive administrative building was well-kept, but the shrine itself and tunnel of torii were weather-beaten.

After a night in Aomori, we headed back to Ōma. In 2005, after catching the ferry from Hakodate, we drove south on the winding route 338 on the west side of Shimokita Peninsula, from Ōma to Mutsu, then on to Aomori, a 150-mile journey that took us all day. Most memorable were a troop of wild monkeys and Hotokegaura, coastal rock pillars which we saw from a distant, from lookout on the road. The pillars are called "hotoke" or Buddhas because they resemble statues of Buddhas. This time, I wanted to see if we could walk out to the rock formations for a closer look.

From Mutsu, we took route 46 through the central highlands of the northern Shimokita Peninsula, then down 253 to the coast near Hotokegaura, a more direct route than the route along the coast; my hope was routes 46 and 253 were well-paved. They were, offering a more pleasant drive than the road on the west side. But the skies were overcast from the evening before, and when we got to the parking lot for the trail to Hotokegaura, it was raining, and the coast was fogged in.

The parking lot was deserted. As I approached the trail head, I noticed a large beware-of-bears sign. A little farther in was a shuttered tourist facility (food and souvenirs) that looked abandoned rather than just closed for the day. Not knowing how long the trail was and imagining bears lurking the rainy forest, I decided against continuing on. A glass-bottom boat goes to Hotokegaura by sea from a local village.

We continued on the coastal road and stopped at the lookout from where we had seen Hotokegaura in 2005; the rock pillars below, shrouded in mist, appeared ghostly.

Back in Ōma, we went back to the restaurant where we ate maguro-don just six-days earlier, and ate another bowl. The worker was grilling a maguro head outside the restaurant.

After lunch, we waited at the ferry terminal for the 2:10 pm departure to Hakodate. (Vayu, the ferry we rode in 2005, has been replaced by a new ferry, Daikan Maru.)

Despite the rainy weather, the strait of Tsugaru was calm; after an hour, the headland of Mt. Hakodate appeared in the sea mist.

We checked into our hotel, and we went back to Uni Murakami for dinner, but the restaurant was full, so we went to the nearby Kuishinbō, the restaurant where we had dinner and breakfast in fall 2005. We ordered uni (not as fresh as at Uni Murakami) and amaebi and ika (fresh, caught live from a tank).

The tail was the tastiest part.

We ordered shochu neat (no water or ice), and the tumbler came with two inches of liquid, not the half inch served in Hawai'i restaurants.

The next morning we went for a walk at Goryōkaku, a former western-style fort built to defend Hakodate from foreign invasion. The azaleas and wisteria planted around the well-kept grounds, now a city park, were past their peak bloom.

In 2005, we spent our first night on Hokkaidō at an onsen on the shore of Lake Toya, near the two volcanic peaks of Mt. Usu and Showa Shinzan, on the southeast side of the lake. This time we stopped at southwest side, near Toya town, for a lakeside walk to see sculptural pieces we missed on the last trip. The southern lake shore features outdoor sculpture.

We ate lunch at a roadside diner (Chinese noodles and buta-don, pork over rice), then continued on to Lake Shikotsu, which we skipped in 2005 because from Toya, we had an all-day, 235-mile drive to Kushiro, on the east side of Hokkaidō.

On the way to our ryokan at Lake Shikotsu, we stopped to see Koke no Domon, a protected gully where varieties of rare mosses grow. (Walking into the gully is not allowed.)

Lake Shikotsu is less developed than Lake Toya, more of a recreation area than a tourist destination.

The elegant ryokan, Mizu no Uta ("Water Song") was in a small tourist village.

Farther north than Hakodate, at Lake Shikotsu, the azaleas were in full bloom.

The next day we drove north to Sapporo, with a stop at Mt. Moiwa to get the panoramic view of the fourth-largest city in Japan (after Tōkyō, Ōsaka, and Nagoya).

Summer solstice was approaching, and city workers were preparing flower displays in Odori park:

For dinner, we went to Sapporo Kani Honke for hairy crab. The crab is less meaty, but more delicate and sweet than king crab:

The next day, we drove to Asahidake in Taisetsuzan National Park.

In 2005, we came south to Asahidake from Asahikawa, and from Asahidake went north to Wakkanai, so we missed Furano. This time, we wanted to see this area famous for its farms and fields of flowers. On the way, a roadside park featured Sandantaki ("Three-Stage Waterfall"). To stretch our legs, we made the short hike to the falls.

After a bowl of ramen for lunch in Furano, we stopped at a lavender farm. We were a couple of weeks too early for the full bloom of lavender and other flowers.

A hothouse featured an early bloom of lavender Most of the tourists were from China.

The lavender ice cream was a highlight of this stop.

The hotspring town of Asahidake and the mountain itself had less snow now, in mid-June, than in 2005, at the end of May. The town was less attractive, too, with dark brown mud and decayed vegetation appearing after the snow melted. The skunk cabbage were blooming.

In late May 2005, we planned to catch the ropeway to see the mountain ponds and wildflowers below the summit, only to discover that the ropeway doesn't open until June 15. June 16 was still early. There were few tourists in town or on the ropeway when we caught the first car up. Only one of a pair of "married" mountain ponds was visible, and only a few wildflowers bloomed along the trail; still my curiosity about what the summit looked like close-up was satisfied.

On the way to Asahidake we planned to walk the trail to Hagoromo falls at Tenninkyō ("Heavenly Being Gorge"), but as we approached Asahidake, I realized we had missed the turn-off. On our way back to Sapporo, we went to check it out; the road to the gorge is lined with basalt cliffs:

When we got to the parking lot for the hiking trail, we found barriers across the entrance and a sign explaining that the trail was closed due to mud slides. In the distance, we could see the cliff down which the waterfall tumbles.

Oh well. We decided to stop at the lavender farm for another taste of lavender ice cream.

Back in Sapporo, we went looking for sausage and beer for lunch. We had a tasty meal at the Sapporo Beer Factory in 2005, but when we got to the restaurant we recalled it was a smoky room where most of the customers were grilling lamb at their tables. Having an aversion to smoky rooms, we found beer and sausage restaurant at Sapporo Factory, a shopping complex about a mile away. Crab pizza was an added bonus.

After checking into a downtown hotel, we went shopping for omiyage (gifts), then to a yakitori (grilled chicken) bar for dinner; the saké, whitebait tempura, and grilled thighs were delicious.

On our last full day, before driving to Otaru, we went saké hunting at department stores and shops to buy bottles to carry back to Hawai'i. We picked up six bottles, including Otokoyama daiginjō, which I had tasted in 2005 at the Otokoyama brewery in Asashikawa. (When we got back in Honolulu this sumer, I saw a bottle of Otokoyama daiginjō for $130 at a Japanese food store; we paid $55 for it in Sapporo.)

We passed through Otaru in 2005, but we were pressed for time and didn't stop. This time, we booked a a hotel just outside of town on a cliff overlooking the sea.

After checking in, we drove back to town to have dinner at a sushi restaurant, since Otaru was a seaport known of its fresh seafood. I made the mistake of not doing enough research on the town. I read one American tourist's blog recommending a sushi restaurant along Otaru's famous canal and assumed that that's where the best restaurants were located. As it turns out the main highway through Otaru that runs along the canal is not the best place to look for a good sushi restaurant. The one we ended up at was a generic diner for tourists—nothing outstandingly fresh or well prepared. In fact the grilled crab legs were cold and tough.

At least the canal was pretty at night.

The next day, we discovered that the street up from the canal was lined with small shops and restaurants. We found a small izakaya where a couple of Japanese tour guides were having lunch at the counter – a good sign. The uni-don we ordered was excellent. I was happy that I didn't leave Otaru with my only food memory that of the generic sushi we had the night before.

On the way to the airport, we swung past Lake Shikotsu for a last glimpse.

The new Chitose airport turned out to be a pleasant place to hang out while waiting for a flight. It offers an onsen and a restaurant with an excellent selection of saké from around Japan. Along with saké from Niigata, we had tasty soba with crab tempura and udon with shrimp tempura for dinner.

This trip to the far north allowed us to fill in some blanks from earlier trips; not surprisingly, it created a couple of new blanks. If we wanted to see the lavender fields of Furano or the mountain flowers on Asahidake in full bloom, we would have to visit later in the summer, when the weather would also be hotter, and the tourist sites more crowded.

We also missed Hagoromo falls: the memory of the distance cliff down which it spreads its water is a motivation to go back. That miss reminded me of another falls on Hokkaidō we missed, in 2005. On the Shiretoko peninsula, we planned to hike to Kamuiwakka, a hot spring-fed waterfall, where you can soak your feet; but a ranger was standing in front of a gate across the road, blocking access to the trail. I didn't understand what he was saying, but I assumed it was something about a bear sighting.

It's hard to believe a decade has passed since our first road trip in 2004. We plan to continue to travel in Japan, but our trips will be different: having driven so many far roads, from Wakkanai and Shiretoko in northern Hokkaidō to Cape Kasasa in southwest Kyūshū, with stops at so many cultural and natural sites along the way, I no longer feel the need to travel with the intense pace of the last ten years. We can slow down now, stay longer than one or two days in a city or town to get to know it better and explore more deeply a local area and its food and saké.

Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Niigata prefecture, a hundred miles north of Tōkyō, is called the kingdom of jizaké, or local saké, because of its many family-run breweries marketing relatively limited quantities of well-crafted, unique-tasting products.

The ninety-seven breweries in the prefecture offer a range of saké, many of them not widely available outside of Niigata or Japan. In late May, 2015, we traveled to Niigata, from Echigo Yuzawa to Sado Island, to taste and buy its high-grade saké—favorites that are hard to find in Honolulu, as well as saké we've never tasted before.

niigata map

The highest quality saké, called daiginjo (very carefully brewed), uses rice polished down to 50% or less of the grain. The polishing removes outer layers of proteins and fats that give ordinary saké a harsh taste. What's left after polishing is the shinpaku, or "white heart" of starch that's converted to sugar and alcohol in the brewing process.

Mid-quality saké, called ginjo (carefully brewed), uses 50-60% of the grain; ordinary saké uses more than 60%.

Other factors affect how saké tastes: the type of rice used, the mineral content of the water, brewing techniques, and aging. Niigata brewers aim for tanrei karakuchi, a light, smooth, and dry taste, with subtle, complex flavors.

A visitor can get an introduction to the range of Niigata saké at a wall of 120 dispensing boxes at Echigo-Yuzawa station, the first stop in the prefecture on the train lines and expressway through the mountains from Tōkyō. For ¥500 ($4), you can sample five saké with a small porcelain cup. A chalkboard lists the ten most popular, and a shop next door sells bottles of the brews.

But to sample the best Niigata saké requires traveling farther. Fifteen miles north from Yuzawa, down the Uono River valley, is the brewery that produces Hakkaisan, a saké that may be familiar to Honolulu drinkers because its ginjo (but not its daiginjo) is on the menu in Japanese restaurants here. The name, "Eight-seas Mountain," comes from a nearby peak that is the brewery's source of water.

The setting is rustic: a field of bright yellow nanohana was blooming, and rice paddies in front of the brewery had just been planted.

The weathered Isurugi Shrine watches over the area in a cedar grove on a low hill next to the parking lot. (Saké is revered as a gift from the Shintō gods.)

We purchased two bottles of a favorite, Hakkaisan daiginjo, one to drink on our journey and one to bring home. It's made from grains of Yamada Nishiki (polished to 40%), the most widely used rice for daiginjo because the shinpaku dissolve quickly in the brewing process and produce a layered, fragrant flavor.

Before leaving Hakkaisan, we had a soba lunch at an old house converted into a restaurant. (There is also an udon restaurant, a gift shop, and a bakery selling baumkuchen.)

The next day we visited Asahi ("Morning Sun"), a brewery thirty miles north from Hakkaisan, in Nagaoka. Asahi produces Kubota, whose gingo (Senjyu) and daiginjo (Manjyu) are served in restaurants outside of Japan.

The brewery also offers three other daiginjo, under different names, as well as five seasonal daiginjo. At the tasting bar, I compared an Asahiyama daiginjo produced with Gohyakumangoku, a favorite saké rice of northern Japan, polished to 50%; and two daiginjo labeled Esshu (an old name for the region), brewed with Senshuraku, a rarer saké rice, low in protein and resistant to breakage during polishing.

One daiginjo, Roku no Esshu, was brewed from grains polished to 40%; and second, Go no Esshu, polished to 50%. Of the three, Roku no Esshu had the most nuanced, beguiling flavors. (Taste, of course, is highly subjective and difficult to describe or justify; as a connoisseur noted about high-quality saké, "Each taste asks the drinker more questions than it answers.")

After a night in Niigata city, we caught a jetfoil to Ryōtsu on Sado Island and rented a car to drive to two breweries. The Sea of Japan, known for its stormy weather, was sunny and as calm as a lake, making for a pleasant hour-long, 39-mile crossing at speeds of over 40 miles per hour.

On the southeast side of Sado, in the fishing port of Akadomari, is Hokusetsu, which produces the saké served at Nobu restaurants around the world, including the ones in Waikīkī and on Lāna‘i.

Hokusetsu means "Northern Snow," a reference to the snowy winters of Niigata, which, before refrigeration and sterile, air-conditioned rooms, helped brewers control the brewing process. (Traditionally, saké was brewed in the winter.)

Restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa was introduced to Hokusetsu saké by a friend in 1987 and was so enchanted by its taste, he persuaded the small, remote brewery to supply it to his first American restaurant in Beverly Hills.

Hokusetsu produces ten daiginjo. I sampled the gold medal winning YK35, made from Yamada Nishiki polished to 35%.

I also compared two daiginjo made with Gohyakumangoku polished to 40%—one labeled junmai, the other not. Junmai, or "pure rice," refers to saké whose alcohol content is only from the converted glucose of rice; the other daiginjo had distilled alcohol added in the brewing process to retain components of flavor and fragrance.

For another comparison, the bar host poured a daiginjo labeled Nobu, brewed with Koshitanrei, a hybrid of Gohyakumangoku and Yamada Nishiki (40%) developed in Niigata to blend the clean taste of former with the layered flavors of the latter.

I preferred the Hokusetsu daiginjo; undecided whether the junmai or non-junmai tasted better, I bought a bottle of each.

The second Sado Island brewery we visited was Obata, on the main street of the small town of Mano on the west side of the island. Its saké is called Manotsuru ("Crane of Mano"). The brewery offers daily tours in Japanese or a video in English, followed by a visit to the tasting bar.

Obata produces eight daiginjo; we sampled its gold-medal Maho (Yamada Nishiki, 35%), named after a brew master of a generation ago.

We also tried a ginjo nama. Nama refers to "raw" or unpasteurized saké, which contains active enzymes and has a mildly fruity zestiness. It must be refrigerated and is drunk chilled—very refreshing in the unseasonably hot (upper 80s) weather. (High quality saké tastes best when slightly chilled or at room temperature.)

Rumiko Obata, the fifth-generation owner of the brewery, writes, "… jizaké is truly appreciated when one has tasted it in the region where it was produced. It would be an honor if one day people from across the globe would set foot on Niigata's soil and enjoy our jizaké paired with traditional regional cuisine."

Back in Niigata city, we made reservations at Kitayama, a 38-seat restaurant run by Ishimoto Brewery, which produces the legendary Koshi no Kanbai ("Winter Plum Tree of Koshi"), considered one of the pinnacles of the brewer's art. ("Koshi," like "Esshu," is an old name of the region that includes Niigata.)

The restaurant offers a full range of Ishimoto products to go with a course of seasonal, regional foods: an otōshi, or starter dish; an appetizer, which included steamed soy beans, a sea snail, konnyaku (yam cake) topped with miso, and a sushi made with pickled mioga (ginger shoot).

A traditional food set followed: a raw dish (squid, with seared tuna), then a grilled dish (sea bass, garnished with lemon and a pickled ginger stalk) and a simmered dish (bamboo shoots and snapper, with yuba, or tofu skin, and fu, or wheat gluten). (See "Food" for photos of the dishes.)

The dessert was a sorbet flavored with kasu, or saké lees. You can add to the course, or order à la carte. We added a salad of greens, radish spouts, seaweed, and tiny sakura shrimp over soba noodles, dressed with a light ponzu-yuzu-sesame-wasabi sauce.

The most intriguing dish was the otōshi, made with small leaves and stems of water shield, an aquatic plant, floating in a lake-like clear, chilled dashi (soup) around a center of foamy tororo (mountain yam)—a cool summer treat.

We ordered two flasks of daiginjo: a junmai (Yamada Nishiki, 38%); and a non-junmai (Yamada Nishiki, 30%). The junmai was slightly sweeter and fuller, but both complemented the seafood well. The friendly server-host also brought us small glasses of Ishimoto shochu (distilled liquor) and plum wine to finish the meal, a fitting end to our four-day excursion in the domain of jizaké.

Other adventures await: at the wall of saké in Echigo-Yuzawa, we tasted three summer-limited daiginjo with unfamiliar names—Koshi no Hatsu Ume ("First Plum of Koshi"), Koshi no Homare ("Pride of Koshi"), and Megurogorosuke. On a future summer trip it would be fun to locate the breweries and see if they have tasting rooms.

And Asahi Brewery offers Tokugetsu in September, a junmai daiginjo brewed for moon-viewing in autumn and hard to find in May. The saké uses Yukinosei, a rice grown in Niigata, polished to 28%, each grain a pearl, like a tiny full moon. I tasted it several years ago and hope to taste it again, under an October moon.

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