Spring and summer are the seasons to enjoy the bounty of Japan’s natural attractions
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: miho.or.jp. 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: visitokinawa.jp; okinawastory.jp. 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: alpen-route.com/en. 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.