Beauty spots

Spring and sum­mer are the sea­sons to en­joy the bounty of Ja­pan’s nat­u­ral at­trac­tions

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - ALIS­TAIR JONES JU­DITH ELEN RICK WAL­LACE

IT’S spring in the moun­tains east of Ky­oto and our vin­tage bus is bar­relling along a val­ley floor. I’ve had to put my faith in Ja­panese pre­ci­sion as the driver dodges on­com­ing traf­fic and whips around nar­row bends. An el­derly woman is whis­per­ing prayers, ac­knowl­edg­ing the kami of pass­ing land­marks, and I hope she adds an ex­tra bit about safe pas­sage.

The scenery is strangely fa­mil­iar; I recog­nise it from tra­di­tional screens and scrolls. And there’s a soft­ness, al­most a feath­ery qual­ity to the veg­e­ta­tion that’s at odds with Ja­pan’s of­ten volatile to­pog­ra­phy. The il­lu­sion is timely be­cause we’re off to see a wizard, or rather his work — ar­chi­tect IM Pei’s sub­ter­ranean Miho Mu­seum, which in­volved lop­ping the top off a peak to con­struct and then re­plac­ing the land­scape af­ter­wards.

The restora­tion is more ide­alised than the orig­i­nal, with new rare shrubs and beam­ing staff shut­tling visi­tors in golf bug­gies up a man­i­cured drive­way lined with per­fect cherry blos­soms. Gar­den­ers crouch like hob­bits among the trees, whisk­ing the earth. The mu­seum is im­pres­sive, but most com­pelling is the vista of the Peach Blos­som Val­ley viewed through the rear wall of glass. In Ja­pan, to gaze out a win­dow at na­ture in­vari­ably can be sub­lime. More: CHERRY blos­som gaz­ing is not the only way to cel­e­brate na­ture in Ja­pan. Off to the east of Ok­i­nawa (at Ja­pan’s southerly tip) is tiny, sa­cred Ku­daka Is­land (cir­cum­fer­ence 7.5km). This re­mote, sparsely in­hab­ited na­ture re­serve of un­touched wood­land, farmed crops and kobe beef (raised for main­land mar­kets), is where cre­ator god­dess Amamikiyo ar­rived from the east to spread the agri­cul­tural arts.

Var­i­ous sa­cred be­liefs orig­i­nate here and, though the last noro (priest­ess) was ap­pointed in 1978, an­ces­tor wor­ship and shaman­is­tic rit­u­als ven­er­at­ing the nat­u­ral world are still prac­tised by vis­it­ing main­lan­ders. If you see any­one here at all, it will be a lo­cal farmer, some­one pray­ing at a sa­cred site (please re­spect their pri­vacy) or the lady who runs a lit­tle shop and rents bi­cy­cles at the ferry stop. Ku­daka is a short ferry trip (six ser­vices a day) from Azama Port on Ok­i­nawa main­land. Car fer­ries al­ter­nate with the 15-minute ex­press, but cy­clists and walk­ers are true re­specters of this rus­tic na­ture. I con­fess to driv­ing, but walk among j agged rocks on sandy beaches and along stretches of rut­ted, dirt road with noth­ing around me but wav­ing corn and, out of sight, the sounds of cat­tle low­ing. More: vis­i­tok­i­; ok­i­ WEAussie skiers and snow­board­ers know all about the charms of the Ja­pan Alps in win­ter. Lesser known is that Ja­pan is a great desti­na­tion to visit in warmer months. The forests, marshes and mead­ows of Ja­pan’s moun­tains are a hiker’s dream and one sim­ple way to ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty of the high coun­try is to take the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine (‘‘Alpen’’) Route on the main is­land of Hon­shu. This 90km scenic trail, open from mid-April to the end of Novem­ber, takes trav­ellers from the Pa­cific Ocean side of the range to the Sea of Ja­pan coast. Set­ting off from the Pa­cific side, visi­tors are likely to head for the city of Mat­sumoto and then on to Shi­nano Omachi, both start­ing and fin­ish­ing point for the route. From here, it’s up a hill by bus to a tun­nel, where an elec­tric trol­ley bus takes you through the moun­tain to the mas­sive Kurobe Dam, and the first of many spec­tac­u­lar views.

You walk across the dam wall and take a cable car and then a rope­way to the high slopes of Mount Tateyama. Another trol­ley bus takes you through the moun­tain to Murodo, where even in sum­mer the road runs through a cut­ting formed by mas­sive walls of ac­cu­mu­lated snow. The rest of the jour­ney to the sta­tion at Tateyama, the of­fi­cial end of the route, is by bus. You can get off and see wet­lands at Mida­ga­hara or the for­est at Bi­jo­daira.

The route takes about six hours, but there is ac­com­mo­da­tion along the way and it’s easy to take strolls and side-trips from any point. More: OKAYAMA Ko­raku-en is one of the ac­knowl­edged ‘‘three great gar­dens of Ja­pan’’. It’s early morn­ing when I visit and a group of men in white gloves and over­alls are wad­ing through a pond, sweep­ing away the moss that has set­tled on its bed dur­ing Okayama’s long, icy win­ter.

They swirl their grass brooms, un­set­tling the win­ter growth and re­veal­ing as they go stones that shine like baubles be­neath the crys­talline sur­face.

Spring has ar­rived and the men are spruc­ing things up in time for sum­mer, when the city’s abun­dant sun­shine will draw even the most re­luc­tant win­ter her­mits from their caves.

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