Exploring Central Japan’s ‘second cities’
By Cathie Arquilla
“When people come to Japan they are very humbled.” Said Pawel Sewera of Luxury Escapes, a Japan-focused tourism company. “They feel a sense of respect, and it’s a sophisticated traveler that notices this,
and appreciates it.” I’d say that anyone visiting Japan would feel a sense of dignity and artfulness in almost everything– every encounter, excursion, temple, and bento box!
First-time visitors to Japan will usually do the “Golden Route,” Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, but visiting a country’s secondary cities, and countryside, force visitors to dig a little deeper into the culture.
A secondary route; Tokyo to Takasaki – Minakami – Yuzawa – Sado Island and Niigata City, can be done in a 200 mile stretch over six days.
BUT, unless you want to feel like a bowl of slimy seaweed after, take longer.
The best part about this “second-time-to-Japan” itinerary is that you’re on your own. You won’t see any westerners. It’s vacationing the way the Japanese do.
Long Wave Goodbye
I first noticed “the long wave goodbye” when we were visiting the Daruma Temple in the city of Takasaki. We were hosted at a service officiated by Seisi Hirose, the temple elder monk.
Removing our shoes, we were invited into the temple and directed to sit on low benches in front of the altar layered with Buddhas, flowers, Darumas (a Buddha descendant), and a ton of symbolic mystic stuff.
Seisi began the service facing “the altar” with his back to us, chanting in prayer. Prior, we had given him our names, and he was praying for our wellbeing and safe travel.
Eventually, Sensi faced us sitting on a cushion and explained how to meditate, “Sit up straight, relax the shoulders, listen to your breathing, clear your mind.”
I’ve been meditating for about a year, and this was such an easy explanation. Facing the layered, elaborate altar, with a bronze half smiling Buddha gazing down at me, I felt my mind clear, like he was taking on my thoughts. If he could have spoken, he might have said, “I’ve got you.”
Following our meditation, Seisi went back to the altar and took a rectangular sacred looking book, and with a practiced motion, repeatedly fanned it out like a magician with a deck of cards, left and right. It made a fluttering slapping sound, like birds taking flight and abruptly landing. The book is the sutras–the wisdom of the Buddha–and the practice represents reading and receiving the “wind of wisdom.” Cool!
After walking around the temple grounds, it was time to go. We said thank you with bows and smiles. Once we were in the van, we were told with some urgency to wave at Seisi from the car. We all smiled, and waved, and smiled again, saying, “Thank you very much, arigato, bye, thank you very much, goodbye, bye,” from the car. Sensi stood there bowing and waving to us. I watched him, he did it again and again, until he could see us no more.
A symbol of Takasaki, The Kannon, is a gigantic white concrete statue of the Kannon, Buddha. To be sensitive to the worshiper’s supplications and prayers, the Kannon appears as female but is considered to be male. He and the adjoining Jiganji Temple overlook Takasaki city.
A young monk–Our Young Monk–gave us an explanation of the temple’s history and benefactors, he said, “When a friend leaves Takasaki, he is welcomed back by the Kannon up on the mountain.” The temple, Kannon, and the surrounded park is a peaceful setting for friends and lovers to appreciate city views.
Our Young Monk invited us inside the Kannon and up 150 stairs for an even better view out the Kannon’s, eyes or arms? The climb was disorienting, and I’m not sure which!
While inside the Kannon, Our Young Monk explained (through our guide and interpreter Yongpin Tan) that the Kannon for him represents a spirit of flexibility and openness to the teachings of Buddha. The Buddha’s teachings, “Are good ideas and not meant to be rigid law.”
As we left, Our Young Monk watched our car pull out of the driveway and down the road. Waving, bowing, and waving again. Having been schooled, we waved back until we could see him no more.
A Hotel Wardrobe Lesson in Minakimi
Arriving at Hotel Jyurku in Minakami, tourism hosts Ellen and Mayumi gave me a tour of my room and explained to me that it was customary to wear the cotton robe provided when you leave your room. Guests were encouraged to wear these prettily patterned robes going to dinner, the spa (onsen), the lobby, anywhere in the hotel!
You wrap the robe left-over-right and tie the sash around your waist. (A right-over-left wrap means someone has died.) The “look” was complete by wearing an over-vest which provided modesty and was expected for dining.
I left my hotel room in this get-up, and I was not alone. Just as Ellen and Mayumi had said, everyone wore their robes. We were a cohort of comfortable hotel guests, and like kids in school uniforms, we were all on equal footing.
Outdoorsy in Minakami
Minakami is smack in the middle of Japan, and there you can do everything from kayaking to glassblowing. It was a sunny fall day, autumn colors in full swing.
After a barbeque picnic with views of the lake, we went kayaking. Once outfitted, it was time to head down to the shore.
I’m a beginner, so I needed a brief explanation on how to get in the boat. Ellen, interpreting for our kayaking instructor said, “move your ass from the wood (she meant the dock) to the boat.”
I was so focused on not falling into the lake, I just quickly explained you really wouldn’t say “move your ass” to me. Later, laughing through tears, we gave Ellen alternative ideas about when it was appropriate to say “move your ass.”
Kayaking on Lake Akaya in Minakami, Japan was not originally on my bucket list. But rowing through a sheered rock corridor and up to hidden waterfalls, while beams of light reflected off the water, put it on the list and checked it off!
Saying farewell to Ellen and Mayumi just after experiencing the Mt. Tanigawa Ropeway, was a little different. They allowed us a big western hug, just before we got in the van, but still, they gave us a much-appreciated long wave goodbye.
Every Inn Should Have an Onsen
Both Minakami and Yuzawa are known for their outdoor activities and hot springs. Japanese style inns, or ryokans, in the area have onsens, which are bathhouses or spas. They lack treatment rooms, saunas, and steam rooms, but have the most delicious hot pools and bubbly Jacuzzis.
The Toei Hotel in Yuzawa has an outdoor hot spring pool made from rock, shrubs, and trees. On this chilly fall morning, I felt like I had found Shangri-La.
The Slow Life on Sado Island
“May, just before planting season, the moon reflects on the water covering the rice fields. The mountain above is still, with snow still on it. It’s very beautiful.” Terue Willoughby of Sado Tourism waxes poetic of her native island.
Sado is a two-hour ferry ride from the central west coast of Japan, off the mainland shore of Niigata City. It’s a quiet, unpretentious island with low-cost housing, divided by two high mountains.
There is plenty to do and see on Sado; views at Senkakuwan Bay, Sado Gold Mine, Ogi Port’s Taraibune Tub Boats. But with only one day, and one thing to do, visit Shukenegi.
Caught between a fishing village of the mid 19th century, and a quiet, hip, neighborhood of today, Shukenegi is pure fishing village charm, without the smell.
It is the Japan of TV mini-series and movies. It’s your mind’s landscape when reading parts of James Clavell’s epic novel Shogun. Indeed, beginning in the late 17th century, Sado was under the direct control of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Shukenegi became a village of shipbuilders and merchants, prosperous through the discovery of gold on Sado Island.
There are places to stay and eat in Shukenegi and some residence. But recently Shukenegi was declared a national historic site, and these days it’s more about walking around and “trying on” ancient history.
Shokoji Temple is Shukenegi’s hidden treasure, a mystic place where stone grave deities seem to calm and protect their charges. The beauty of the carvings, the sheer number of them, lent a feeling of quiet and respect. From the outside, the temple looked reverential, yet not overly grand–an excellent place to talk to God and your ancestors.
Saying Goodbye to Sado
The night I stayed on Sado Island there was a typhoon off the eastern shores of Japan. Sideways rain and crashing waves slammed Sado. We kept warm and dry at the Osado hotel.
In our hotel robes, we sat down to a Sado dinner of inventive bites arranged in small to tiny porcelain bowls; fried blowfish, vinegary scallops, steamed abalone, grilled crab (in the shell) with cream sauce, red snapper with rice, pickled vegetables, and frozen persimmon.
And that was about half the dishes consumed. Thank you, Master Chef Tsuyosi Nishida.
The next morning, we loaded into the van, and I thought, surely, they aren’t going to wave goodbye to us in this weather!? BUT they did.
There, with wind and rain punishing their uniforms, two older hotel ladies charged with maneuvering luggage, and the GM, stoically, bowed and waved goodbye until our van was out of sight.
Niigata City in Kimono
My friends thought it would be fun to dress me up in a Japanese Kimono and march me around Niigata’s old town, known as the Furumachi area.
They found the right person! We went to the Kimonist. Here, you can purchase or rent a Kimono (men and women’s), complete with toe socks and shoes, and they do the work of dressing you in it as well.
No small feat, there are at least a dozen pieces to a kimono with complicated ties and blousing. My dresser was the epitome of Japanese refinement and artistry. Only lacking fairy dust, she transformed me into a Niigata Geiki.
The same such Geiki we saw at the Northern Culture Museum. This museum, once a mansion of the wealthy Ito family of Niigata, is outside the city proper, but it is a worthy excursion that should be on any Niigata itinerary.
It was our good fortune to see a lovely Geiki performance, which began with flute playing in the historic garden.
Saitou Villa, another historic home in Niigata City, also hosts Geiki performances and cultural experiences. It too has a traditional Japanese garden, but from a more recent era than the one at the Northern Culture Museum. The garden, viewed from the banquet room of the villa, embodies peace and tranquility.
The Ito family descendants still live in one section of the Northern Culture Museum. The museum director invited us to view their private temple. It was the first anniversary of the death of the eighth Bunkichi, the Ito family elder who developed the museum into a world-class historic home.
So, the temple was smothered in flower arrangements. However, the resplendent Buddha and sacred ornaments surrounding it were not outdone by the flowers! Witnessing the offerings to the man and the Buddha, I felt honored and prayerful.
In Japan, The Long Wave Goodbye Comes Too Quick
From Takasaki through Minakimi onto Sado Island and Niigata City, this part of Japan, for me, was grace and beauty, made more so by the gentility of its people. And yes, I was humbled.
At the airport, there was a committee of new friends to see us off. No less than six people, watched me cross through security, waving and bowing, “Goodbye, thank you very much, arigato, goodbye.”