Green light for way less travelled
Goes off the beaten track in the Far East
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