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Discovering the Less-Known Paradise of Japan

Photo by kuro3 from Shutterstock

Rail travel in Japan is a joy. It’s about grabbing ekiben boxes chock full 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, modem 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 fiber-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 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 sewed in a neatly compartmented tray -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 Kukai, 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 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 Shin-Yamaguchi and made up time inland on the ballistic missile-contoured Saturate, shadowing the beautiful Takahashi River through the mountainous Chugoku region. It still allowed me to incorporate the Mizukaze stopover that day: Izumo-Taisha, said to have existed since 659 AD and arguably Japan’s most important Shinto shrine.

Everything is gigantic about Izumo-Taisha Along 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 dap 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 flowers and calligraphy. “The objects change with the seasons and are provided to start conversation,” said Jun Tateyama, one of the ryokan staff.

Later l 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 Mat sue on Cloud 9, but before travelling onwards I visited the city’s famous castle, depositing my rucksack fora 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 everyone 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 80°C 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 get a sandal 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 l 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.

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