An unexpected Japan
Step outside the cutting edge modernity of Tokyo and you’ll discover a Japan you probably didn’t expect. My recent journey to the northern region of Japan revealed a land of striking scenic beauty, Shogun history and ancient temples. Add to that Japan’s amazing foodie culture and unfailingly charming people, and there is plenty to be excited about in this new eastern hot spot.
Japan is a country of very distinct seasons, each offering its own delights. Winter is serious, but brings with it incredible skiing and ice sculpture festivals, followed by stunning Cherry Blossoms of spring. Summer can be hot, but that’s when you’ll see the myriad of colourful flowers grown in the rolling hills of Hokkaido. Northern Japan is also one of the best places in the world to witness autumn colours. The transformation of vast green forests of beech, maple and gingko trees into glowing flashes of red and orange was a little late this year, but there were flashes enough to satisfy our needs. Who knew you can’t “book” mother nature?
Sapporo is the gateway to Hokkaido, and a great introduction to Japanese cities – spotlessly clean, well-ordered with tree lined streets, and extensive underground walkways to deal with the winter cold. Not far from Sapporo is the town of Otaru, with its picturesque canal, lined with restored Victorian warehouses, now home to cafes and art galleries.
Travel by train in Japan is a delight. On time, clean and comfortable, you just need guidance at some of the sprawling stations. Whatever you do, don’t hop on a train that pulls in a minute before yours is due to depart – they are so on time it is more likely to be the train before yours! I took a train between the islands of Hokkaido and Honshu via an ‘under the sea’ tunnel linking the two islands – just one example of Japan’s impressive engineering – the roads and tunnels through the mountains also put ours to shame. Of course the bullet train is a ‘must do’ experience. I must admit I didn’t get the sensation I was travelling at over 300km per hour as it was so smooth!
Another ‘must do’ experience in Japan is the ‘onsen’ or public spa. Particularly in the geothermal regions, you’ll find hotels with their own hot spring spas. The etiquette surrounding an onsen is quite extensive, but it does involve public nudity (albeit men and women bathe separately) and a lot of pre-soak scrubbing. Don’t be daunted by the prospect, dive into it (not literally) and you’ll realise how unnecessary our self-conscious body image issues are. The snow monkeys have no such issues as they soak blissfully in the hot pools of Yudanaka. In warmer months they have to be lured out of the forests with food, but if it’s really cold they need no encouragement!
Hotels in Japan often offer a “Japanese style” room option – which I can highly recommend. The rooms are stylishly minimal like only the Japanese can do, with a tatami mat on the floor, a low table, and low legless chairs. The striking thing missing is a bed! All is revealed as you return from dinner to find your futon mattress has been laid out on the mat awaiting your return. Surprisingly cosy and comfortable, you really know you’re in Japan.
Tokyo is a world in itself. I had expected to feel overwhelmed by an urban jungle, I was more taken aback by the tranquil gardens and green spaces that dot the city. Walking through the grounds of the Meiji shrine, I could have been in remote forest! Get yourself up an observation tower – there are plenty to choose from – to get the lay of the land, and venture onto the Metro system, it’s easy once you figure out the system.
Delicious cuisine, stunning scenery, ancient culture and enough ‘quirk’ to keep it interesting, I would return to Japan in a flash, perhaps spring next time…