Green light for way less trav­elled

Goes off the beaten track in the Far East

Middleton Guardian - - TRAVEL -

JA­PANESE peo­ple never, ever jay­walk.

It sounds like a small thing. No big deal. But ac­tu­ally, for some­one who’s spent most of his life in Eng­land, it feels weird. Like, prop­erly bizarre.

As the lights pass each other from green to red, small crowds of small, neat peo­ple, neatly start to form at cross­ings, all pa­tiently wait­ing for per­mis­sion to go.

No one crosses any­where but at a pedes­trian cross­ing, and no one moves with­out be­ing told it’s OK by the lights.

At first you barely notice, and then you can’t NOT notice.

And af­ter my 12 days trav­el­ling around the truly unique, awein­spir­ing place Ja­pan is, I can’t help think­ing about this phe­nom­e­non. Be­cause this small act of pa­tient penance seems to sum up Ja­pan and its peo­ple pretty well...

It’s dif­fi­cult to visit Ja­pan and re­sist the urge to hike along the tourist trails to Tokyo or Ky­oto.

But re­ally the most amaz­ing mo­ments I ex­pe­ri­enced on my trip were when I ven­tured to places that weren’t chock-full of other tourists and the trin­kets and traps that go along with them.

There isn’t a much bet­ter feel­ing than travers­ing up an al­most ver­ti­cal slope on a bike, only to be greeted with dev­as­tat­ingly gor­geous views of the crys­tal clear wa­ters of the Seto In­land Sea – the vista punch­marked with an ar­ray of vast, fauna-filled is­lands.

It’s at times like these you’re forced to en­gage fully with Ja­pan and its unique cul­ture – to try to master some of its lan­guage and dis­cover more about its mys­te­ri­ous in­hab­i­tants.

And these are un­doubt­edly the times when you’ll feel like you’re re­ally mak­ing mem­o­ries.

Though I start my jour­ney in Tokyo and ab­so­lutely adore the city – my first taste of a more tra­di­tional Ja­pan comes when I travel down to Mie pre­fec­ture, a re­gion on the mid-south coast that boasts three small but quite dif­fer­ent cities – Toba, Shima and Ise – hud­dled next to each other.

The area wel­comes very few for­eign tourists, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of Ja­panese trav­ellers make a pil­grim­age here each year to visit the Grand Shrine of the Ise-Jingu, which is the most sa­cred place in the Shinto re­li­gion (widely fol­lowed in Ja­pan but al­most nowhere else).

The ac­tual Ise-Jingu spreads around a re­gion the size of Paris, but at its cen­tre is the Grand Shrine, ded­i­cated to the sun god­dess Amat­erasu, and it’s be­lieved she’s ac­tu­ally en­shrined there.

Here jour­ney­ers can catch a glimpse of life in old Ja­pan, as rows of in­cred­i­bly well main­tained his­toric build­ings house shops and restau­rants craft­ing and cook­ing tra­di­tional goods and dishes.

And when you’re sit­ting cross-legged on a tatami mat in a lo­cal tea­house sam­pling some of the lo­cal brew, it’s al­ways good to have a chat with some of the other trav­ellers who’ve made their way to Ise with of­fer­ings for the gods.

I end up meet­ing a stu­pen­dously drunk Shinto priest who tells me all about the two geishas he is very keen to marry at some point in the fu­ture (he doesn’t mind which one).

Shima also hosted the G7 sum­mit in 2016, and on a glo­ri­ous cy­cling trip or­gan­ised by the guides at bi­cy­cle-jour­ney.com we pass by the ho­tel where politi­cians met to dis­cuss the fu­ture of our planet.

Along the way we also get the chance to take in the beau­ti­ful beaches, where surfers spread around the wa­ters and try to take con­trol of the ver­tig­i­nous waves, and even stop by a theatre that prac­tises Bun­raku, a form of tra­di­tional Ja­panese pup­pet theatre founded in Osaka in the begin­ning of the 17th cen­tury.

I stayed at the To­daya ho­tel (to­daya.co.jp/ english), which sits on the Toba coast­line and of­fers a truly unique Ja­panese ex­pe­ri­ence, a range of open-air baths to soak in, as well as mag­nif­i­cent views out to sea. Plus it’s just a three-minute walk to Toba rail­way sta­tion, mak­ing it an ideal base to explore the lo­cal area from.

Cy­cling is a great way to get around Ja­pan’s cities and coun­try­side, al­low­ing trav­ellers to take in as much as pos­si­ble of a place while not feel­ing like you’re rush­ing through ev­ery­thing. And I can’t imag­ine there’s any­where bet­ter in Ja­pan to cy­cle than along the Shim­i­nami-Kaido high­way. It’s a 60km route which spans the Seto In­land sea, and sees jour­ney­ers rid­ing across gi­gan­tic bridges which con­nect each of its in­di­vid­ual is­lands, pass­ing by shrines and stretches of stun­ning sea views, cas­tles and coast­line.

In­ter­mit­tently you’re greeted by groups of ly­cra-clad Ja­panese cy­clists test­ing them­selves on its most dif­fi­cult routes, though those not look­ing to chal­lenge them­selves too much can eas­ily ride along its eas­ier paths with­out trou­ble.

Tatara, a pho­to­genic cable-stayed bridge, is the third of six on the route, while the spec­tac­u­lar Ku­rushima-kaikyo is Ja­pan’s long­est sus­pen­sion bridge, span­ning an amaz­ing two-and-a-half miles.

Each of the is­lands con­nected by the cy­cle route has its own spe­cial­ity, rang­ing from cit­rus fruit to sea salt.

You can pick and drop off bikes at a num­ber of way sta­tions along the route, and if the weather is good even stop off at var­i­ous beaches and sea­side restau­rants and cafes along the way. A great place to stay and start a trip along the high­way is at the Onomichi U2 Ho­tel Cy­cle (www.onomichi-u2.com) – a for­mer mar­itime ware­house that has been con­verted into a com­plex of stylish rooms, a crack­ing restau­rant and bar and a bike shop.

If you’re plan­ning a trip to Ja­pan and not think­ing of tak­ing on Tokyo, then the city of Osaka is the per­fect place to sam­ple Ja­pan’s unique po­si­tion at the fore­front of tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion.

Plus it’s renowned for its in­cred­i­ble food scene, in­clud­ing ar­rays of street food ven­dors spread across the city of­fer­ing de­li­cious dishes that can be bought and con­sumed as you delve fur­ther into the city. I stayed at the beau­ti­ful five-star Im­pe­rial Ho­tel Osaka, which of­fers guests a choice of de­light­ful din­ing op­tions, lux­u­ri­ous rooms and enough space so that you’re al­ways able to find a corner or cranny to re­treat to with a cock­tail and watch the world go by. It’s not slap bang in the cen­tre of Osaka, but that might be for the best, as it’s only a short walk to the near­est Metro sta­tion and of­fers guests a shut­tle bus ser­vice to and from Osaka’s main sta­tion.

And Osaka’s place al­most equidis­tant from Tokyo and Hiroshima means you can base your­self there for the du­ra­tion of your stay and still explore most of the coun­try’s best sights and set­tings. There’s noth­ing like fuelling up on an amaz­ing break­fast at the Im­pe­rial be­fore set­ting off to, say, feed the tame deer who bow for crack­ers in Nara, or to see the stun­ning float­ing Tori (shrine gate) at Miya­jima Is­land – reg­u­larly voted one of Ja­pan’s most cap­ti­vat­ing sights.

Af­ter two weeks spent trav­el­ling around Ja­pan, I wouldn’t dream of telling peo­ple not to take on Tokyo, or spend some time see­ing the in­cred­i­ble shrines and sights Ky­oto has to of­fer.

But my ad­vice would be to try to voy­age off the beaten path, and take in some of those sights that fewer peo­ple see, but more should. Just re­mem­ber; al­ways wait for that green light.

Cy­cling the Shim­i­nami-Kaido high­way

The Im­pe­rial Ho­tel, Osaka

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