Same route. Less money. More ad­ven­ture. We shadow Ja­pan’s new lux­ury rail through Hon­sho’s lit­tle-ex­plored western reaches – and get more bang for our buck...

Wanderlust Travel Magazine (UK) - - Contents - WORDS & PHO­TO­GRAPHS MARK STRAT­TON

Travel in the plush shadow of the new lux­ury rail route and get more bang for your yen in the lit­tle-seen west of Hon­sho

Rail travel in Ja­pan is a joy. It's about grab­bing ek­iben boxes chock­ful of de­li­cious treats from sta­tion con­courses, smil­ing as blue-uni­formed con­duc­tors de­liver 45º bows, and then lev­i­tat­ing in­ter­nally to the g-forces of Shinkansen bul­let trains that blur rice-fields and maple forests into ab­stract shades of green­ness. It's about fast, modern trains with timeta­bles you can set your watch to.

Un­til re­cently, in fact, it was im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine how the joy of trav­el­ling by Ja­pan Rail­ways (JR) could be en­hanced. But then, in June 2017, along came the Twi­light Ex­press Mizukaze.

Op­er­ated by JR West, this über-lux­u­ri­ous train fea­tures art-deco style suites (with bath­tubs, nat­u­rally) and meals de­vised by Miche­lin-starred chefs. The food's eaten with golden chop­sticks. Prob­a­bly. The Mizukaze uses Ky­oto as its base and makes three-night ex­cur­sions into the less-vis­ited western re­gion of Ja­pan's most pop­u­lated is­land, Hon­shu. But there's a catch. It gets booked ahead six months in ad­vance and costs up­wards of £1,900 per night (with a two night min­i­mum).

Yet this new ser­vice shouldn't give the im­pres­sion that rail travel in Ja­pan is pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. Ja­pan's best train bar­gain is the em­i­nently af­ford­able JR Rail Pass: a one-week pass cost me £187. Thus armed, I made do with wooden chop­sticks and spent six free­wheel­ing days trail­ing the route of the Mizukaze through Western Hon­shu.

At Kan­sai In­ter­na­tional Air­port, which serves Osaka and Ky­oto, I col­lected my JR Pass and a hired ‘pocket-wifi' router, let­ting me plan my jour­ney on the hoof via JR'S hy­per­dia.com web­site. Lit­tle over an hour af­ter touch­ing down, I'd boarded the 09:46 Haruka Lim­ited Ex­press, bound west­wards.

It left on the dot. For any long-suf­fer­ing com­muters fa­mil­iar with de­lays and over­crowd­ing, the punc­tu­al­ity and com­fort of Ja­pan's rail­ways is tonic for the soul.

Track­ing back in time

Af­ter I'd trans­ferred onto the Shinkansen Sakura 533, Kan­sai's ur­ban mega­lopo­lis dis­si­pated rapidly. The sleek metal­lic ser­pent hur­tled me – at more than 300km/ h – into ru­ral Western Hon­shu, trac­ing the south­ern coast­line that fringes the Seto In­land Sea. From here I made use of slower lo­cal trains, which al­lowed more time to ad­mire a coun­try­side crum­pled into forested hills, and rounded val­leys con­gested with towns and wasabi-green rice fields.

Mizukaze's first sight­see­ing stop is Kurashiki, 3.5 hours west of Osaka. Its pas­sen­gers spend their first night on the train here, sip­ping cham­pagne cock­tails. I dis­em­barked, and ex­plored.

Kurashiki's Bikan His­tor­i­cal Dis­trict could have am­bled off the easel of an Edo pe­riod (1603-1868) can­vas. The area was once con­trolled by samu­rai shoguns, and its past wealth is pre­served in the form of large white­washed rice barns and wooden houses, topped with black-ter­ra­cotta tiled roofs, built for wealthy mer­chants. I mo­seyed around its high-walled lanes, vis­it­ing shops sell­ing sweet bean paste cakes and drink­ing matcha green tea by the weep­ing wil­lows of Taka­hashi canal, where fe­male Ja­panese tourists dress in ki­monos and paint their faces white, geisha-style.

Kurashiki still bears signs of the coun­try's abrupt mod­erni­sa­tion af­ter the Meiji Restora­tion (1868), a pe­riod that re­con­nected it to the western world. My ac­com­mo­da­tion, Kurashiki Ivy Square, oc­cu­pied what was once the red­brick com­plex of an 1889 tex­tile fac­tory; the in­dus­trial wealth of the era also en­abled fac­tory owner Magos­aburo Ohara to open the nearby Ohara Mu­seum of Art, the finest pri­vate art mu­seum I've ever seen in a pro­vin­cial town. Es­tab­lished in 1930, it show­cases a stel­lar col­lec­tion, with twin Rodin bronzes out­side and an in­te­rior crammed with Pi­cas­sos and Renoirs, as well as El Greco's mas­ter­piece, The An­nun­ci­a­tion.

“It's still owned by the Ohara fam­ily,” a ste­ward ex­plained. “But now we buy lo­cal artists be­cause Renoirs are so ex­pen­sive”.

Food for the soul

Af­ter a del­i­cate break­fast of grilled mack­erel, yuzu pick­les and egg poached in spring wa­ter – all served in a neatly com­part­mented tray – I boarded an early train to make the most of the next stop that the Mizukaze vis­its. My morn­ing's 180km train jour­ney via Hiroshima took me to Miya­jimaguchi Sta­tion, where a JR ferry, cov­ered by my pass, was pre­par­ing for the 15-minute cross­ing to the is­land of Miya­jima.

The ferry sails near to Ja­pan's most pho­tographed icon: the It­sukushima Shrine. This torii gate, a 16m-tall, red-lac­quered, dou­ble-barred wooden struc­ture, sits off­shore and sym­bol­ises Shin­to­ism's thresh­old be­tween the hu­man and spirit worlds. There has been a shrine here since the 12th cen­tury.

I would re­turn to view the It­sukushima Shrine at high tide later that day, but first I hiked through hem­lock and pine forests to Miya­jima's high­est sum­mit, the 535m Mount Misen. It gave far-reach­ing views across the Seto In­land Sea's frag­mented ar­chi­pel­ago. I ar­rived at the sum­mit with a cer­tain smug­ness: the Mizukaze pas­sen­gers wouldn't be swap­ping their silk slip­pers for hik­ing boots to do this.

Misen is a par­tic­u­larly aus­pi­cious moun­tain as it's where the 8th-cen­tury monk Kūkai, founder of the Shin­gon school of Bud­dhism, resided for some time. He is hon­oured at an eclec­tic tem­ple here called Daisho-in, home to a com­pen­dium of Bud­dhist iconog­ra­phy in­clud­ing re­clin­ing Bud­dhas, Sasquatch-sized im­prints of Bud­dha's feet and prayer wheels in­scribed with su­tra phi­los­o­phy. When spun, they of­fer cheap and easy karma. Call me shal­low, but my spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment in­stead ar­rived at a nearby tea­house with slid­ing wooden screen walls, in the form of a dish of conger-eel in a green-tea broth served with soba noo­dles.

In late af­ter­noon I re­turned to the World Her­itage-listed It­sukushima Shrine. By now, high tide flowed be­neath a raised zigzagged board­walk and lapped around the py­lons prop­ping it above the seafloor. Off­shore, the flooded torii ap­peared to float on the sea, and a nearby pier was over­loaded with Ja­panese vis­i­tors queu­ing to take self­ies.

Cui­sine to die for

I was back rolling west­wards next morn­ing on a slow train to­wards Shi­monoseki, at the edge of Western Hon­shu. Ja­pan's rail net­work of­fers a num­ber of themed pri­vate trains, some of them fea­tur­ing cos­tumed guides and karaoke singing. One hour

‘I hiked through pine forests to Miya­jima's high­est sum­mit, Mt Misen, for far-reach­ing views across the Seto In­land Sea's ar­chi­pel­ago. The Mizukaze pas­sen­gers wouldn't be do­ing this'

down the Sanyo West Line, the Mizukaze pauses at Iwakuni to savour Hon­shu's wildest river scenery. My ver­sion was to grab an ek­iben box with tem­pura prawns and board the pri­vate Nishi­gawa Line for an hour-long shut­tle along­side the tur­bu­lent Nishiki River, on a pow­der-blue train adorned with mu­rals of sala­man­ders and king­fish­ers.

There was no karaoke (or in­deed, any fel­low pas­sen­gers), just the sound of ham­mer­ing rain as the heav­ens opened and wa­ter­falls cas­caded across the track from the forested val­ley sides. The heavy storm rum­bled on that af­ter­noon as I train-hopped to Shi­monoseki, where the Mizukaze hits the buf­fers be­fore re­turn­ing to Ky­oto. Here the Seto In­land Sea squeezes through the nar­row Kan­mon Straits, which sep­a­rates Hon­shu from Kyushu, an­other of Ja­pan's four main is­lands. It had been a long day and I was grate­ful my sim­ple B&B (just £32 per night) was a two-minute walk from the sta­tion. In early evening I strolled along the prom­e­nade, warmed by an out­break of late sun and get­ting a sense of Shi­monoseki's strate­gic cos­mopoli­tanism as Ja­pan's one-time gate­way to the Western world. There is still a me­mo­rial to the first Chris­tian mis­sion­ary, Fran­cisco Xavier, who came here in 1550, as well as the first Bri­tish Con­sulate built in Ja­pan, a red­brick con­struc­tion dat­ing to 1906.

My mis­sion, how­ever, was to sam­ple the fish you can lit­er­ally die for. Fugu (puffer­fish) is a del­i­cacy re­quir­ing skilled prepa­ra­tion be­cause it con­tains a neu­ro­toxin vastly more poi­sonous than cyanide. Across Ja­pan's ma­jor cities it's an ex­pen­sive del­i­cacy, yet Karuto Fish Mar­ket is the hub of fugu fish­ing and I tried a £5 dish of raw slith­ers washed down with cold sake. It was gelati­nous and, I'd say, a lit­tle un­der­whelm­ing, but I sur­vived the meal to train-hop an­other day.

Shinto, ser­pents & sashimi

Be­gin­ning its re­turn trip, the Mizukaze then veers along West Hon­shu's north­ern coast­line, trac­ing the Sea of Ja­pan. I hoped to also fol­low a scenic coastal route, but flood­ing had closed the line. Yet with seem­ingly dozens of train op­tions from

every sta­tion, I di­verted from ShinYa­m­aguchi and made up time in­land on the bal­lis­tic mis­sile-con­toured Sakura 540, shad­ow­ing the beau­ti­ful Taka­hashi River through the moun­tain­ous Chū­goku re­gion. It still al­lowed me to in­cor­po­rate the Mizukaze stopover that day: Izumo-taisha, said to have ex­isted since 659AD and ar­guably Ja­pan's most im­por­tant Shinto shrine.

Ev­ery­thing is gi­gan­tic about Izu­moTaisha. A long walk­way of lofty pines leads to the coun­try's tallest hon­den (prayer hall), a 24m-high, bark-roofed wooden struc­ture in­hab­ited by priests in flow­ing white and aqua­ma­rine robes. Shin­to­ism has no for­mal code of wor­ship­ping gods but reveres sa­cred spir­its in na­ture, such as rocks and trees. Devo­tees here clap four times, to alert the re­sid­ing kami deities into bless­ing them with good for­tune.

From here, it was a short ride into Mat­sue, where I con­nected to a small moun­tain town called Ta­mat­sukuri On­sen, in­cised by a pretty stream banked by cherry trees and hy­drangeas. The town's hot springs were first writ­ten about in the 8th cen­tury, and its ryokans (inns) are to­day a zen ex­pe­ri­ence. I spent the night at one, KAI Izumo ryokan, and couldn't imag­ine the Mizukaze's pas­sen­gers feel­ing any more in­dulged.

It had 24 rooms ar­ranged around a cen­tral gar­den fea­tur­ing bon­sai top­i­ary. Obey­ing eti­quette, I re­moved my shoes be­fore slid­ing back my room's pa­per-thin slid­ing screen and step­ping onto mat­ted tatami floor­ing. Don't be sur­prised to not see your bed im­me­di­ately, by the way – the fu­ton is stashed away and un­rolled by staff later. A yukata (robe) is sup­plied to wear for wan­der­ing around the inn.

Be­fit­ting cus­tom­ary hos­pi­tal­ity, I was greeted with a tea cer­e­mony. The kneel­ing host­ess, dressed in her ki­mono, poured me matcha, a thick pow­dered green tea sweet­ened with a sug­ary candy called wa­gashi. The tea­room was ar­ranged with

‘My cul­tured evening in Mat­sue ended with a cos­tumed per­for­mance of a clas­sic Ja­panese mytho­log­i­cal dance, Iwami Ka­gara, fea­tur­ing Prince Su­sanoo de­feat­ing a princess-eat­ing ser­pent’

⊳ flow­ers and cal­lig­ra­phy. “The ob­jects change with the sea­sons and are pro­vided to start conversation,” said Jun Tateyama, one of the ryokan staff.

Later I purred over a multi-course din­ner called kaiseki. Petite dishes pre­pared with ex­quis­ite artistry con­tin­u­ously ar­rived dur­ing my two-hour meal. The heav­enly on­slaught be­gan with an oys­ter in ponzu vine­gar and a serv­ing of win­ter melon soup. This was fol­lowed by sashimi, tem­pura as­para­gus and strips of beef cooked at a table burner in a shabu-shabu pot. Typ­i­cally, the rice ar­rives last, like an af­ter­thought.

The evening ended with a cos­tumed per­for­mance of the clas­sic Ja­panese mytho­log­i­cal dance Iwami Ka­gara, fea­tur­ing Prince Su­sanoo de­feat­ing a princess-eat­ing ser­pent called Orochi.

Train to on­sen heaven

I re­turned to Mat­sue on Cloud 9, but be­fore trav­el­ling on­wards I vis­ited the city’s fa­mous cas­tle, de­posit­ing my ruck­sack for a few hours in one of the cheap coin-lock­ers of­fered at all Ja­panese sta­tions; such a re­fresh­ing change from the over-pric­ing and queues of our own left lug­gage stor­age fa­cil­i­ties.

Ja­panese cas­tles are fairy­tale-like, multi-tiered pagodas built on solid stone plinths. The home of feu­dal war­lords dur­ing the Edo pe­riod, Mat­sue’s dates from 1611 and is one of just 12 sur­viv­ing Ja­panese cas­tles. I climbed a steep in­te­rior hard­wood stair­case up seven sto­ries for views from where 19th-cen­tury Greek travel writer, Laf­ca­dio Hearn, who set­tled in Ja­pan, en­thused, ‘the whole city can be seen at a sin­gle glance, as in the vi­sion of a soar­ing hawk’.

I swapped be­tween four trains that af­ter­noon along the San-in Line, with every one of those con­nec­tions punc­tual and well sign­posted. The jour­ney via Tot­tori shad­owed the Sea of Ja­pan’s coast­line, dart­ing past sandy coves and through Shi­mane, one of Ja­pan’s least vis­ited pre­fec­tures.

This 4.5 hour jour­ney brought me to Ki­nosaki On­sen Sta­tion, where new wrought-iron gates wel­come Mizukaze pas­sen­gers, although I never once clapped eyes on these lux­ury trav­ellers. Ki­nosaki On­sen’s fame is thanks to 19th-cen­tury on­sen bath­houses, fed by the sul­phur-rich wa­ter that gushes at a scorch­ing 80ºc from the sur­round­ing vol­canic hills. Quirk­ily, vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to wan­der be­tween on­sen wear­ing only yukata robes. “It’s rather taboo in Ja­pan to walk out­doors in your yukata, but quite nor­mal here,” said Colin Fukai, the Ja­panese-amer­i­can who wel­comed me to Nishimu­raya Honkan.

Back­ing onto a pine and maple for­est, this was a beau­ti­ful ryokan with the old­est bath­house in Ki­nosaki On­sen. Colin ex­plained the ryokan was a 19th-cen­tury jin’ya, an ad­min­is­tra­tive res­i­dence dur­ing the Edo pe­riod. “A man named Mr. Nishimu­raya lived here in the 1860s, and the place has re­mained in his fam­ily for seven gen­er­a­tions”.

Af­ter an­other sump­tu­ous kaiseki ban­quet I wel­comed night-time’s anonymity (I’m hardly sar­to­ri­al­ism per­son­i­fied in a yukata) to ven­ture around town per­form­ing an on­sen me­guri cir­cuit of its bath­houses. I clip-clopped around like a drunken carthorse in plat­form wooden geta san­dals that are noth­ing less than im­ple­ments of po­di­atric tor­ture.

Still, guests stay­ing here have free ac­cess to any of the seven tra­di­tional on­sen. My favourite was Goshono-yu, where I bathed un­der the full moon in an out­doors pool fed by a ther­mal water­fall. Just bliss.

Last train out

Some­thing of a world-first maybe, but I was ac­tu­ally rel­ish­ing my fi­nal night at Kan­sai In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Af­ter a few more morn­ing baths, the time-hon­oured pace of rus­tic Ja­pan abruptly tran­si­tioned to Osaka’s sky­scraper cityscape, as I was borne back to Kan­sai in a speed­ing bul­let.

At the air­port, the in­no­va­tion in­cli­na­tion that so pleas­ingly dove­tails with Ja­pan’s tra­di­tion­al­ism con­tin­ued at its new First Cabin cap­sule ho­tel. Cap­sule ac­com­mo­da­tion has evolved over the past decade, and no longer sug­gests the sen­sa­tion of sleep­ing in a cof­fin. The cap­sules them­selves are set in rows that re­sem­ble a sci-fi space­ship deck fit­ted for deep space travel, but I could stand up­right in mine, which had slid­ing doors and a tele­vi­sion built into the wall. The ho­tel even has an on­sen for guests. The air­port, mean­while, has fan­tas­tic Ja­panese food courts with fine restau­rants.

Away from the usual first-timers’ hotspots of Tokyo, Osaka, and Ky­oto, I found in Western Hon­shu a tena­ciously main­tained rev­er­ence of cul­ture and calm­ness that was per­fectly com­ple­mented by my free­dom to roam with a JR Pass. Apolo­gies if I sound like an anorak but I’d rid­den 23 trains over 1,850 kilo­me­tres and saved £87 on rail jour­neys, us­ing my pass in pur­suit of the Mizukaze. I can’t think of any bet­ter or more af­ford­able way to ease one­self into this ex­tra­or­di­nary coun­try than to see it by rail.

‘I clip­clopped around Ki­nosaki On­sen like a drunken carthorse in plat­form wooden geta san­dals that are noth­ing less than im­ple­ments of po­di­atric tor­ture’

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