I can best describe the few days after Naoshima as an immersion into Japanese history and into the “real” Japan. Shorter buildings. Fewer foreigners. Less English. While the towns I visited during the last few days certainly have well-known attractions, the journey became more about discovering Japanese history and understanding Japanese identity, rather than about ticking the most exciting boxes on my list. Well, except for Nara – Nara was a very exciting box to tick.
By the way – this entry’s going to get a little story-telly, so bear with me.
It was not easy to get from Naoshima to Hikone on Thursday, but I made it after a little over five hours of using myriad trains. Once I had arrived in Hikone, I again had some difficulty finding my place of stay due to its low-profile nature and it not having any English signs. An older Japanese woman, who was working in the fish market directly across from my ryokan, witnessed my plight and came up to me when I had come back from wandering the street. “Tobaya?”, she asked. I responded with a sigh-of-relief-tinged “hai” (yes). She then pointed towards the small enclave that I probably passed by about four times in an effort to find it. Yet another instance of a complete stranger being willing to help a stubborn and clueless foreigner. I was amazed and thankful.
Tobaya Ryokan was my first experience staying in a traditional ryokan, or Japanese guest house. Through a misunderstanding on the booking website, I didn’t pay for the meals offered, but I still got the whole rest of the shebang in terms of the tatami flooring, futons, and the shared onsen/bathroom facilities. The entire atmosphere, however, was most notable. At any given time, there was always a staff member up and about onsite, greeting me with a jovial “Ohayo!” or “Konnichiwa!” as they passed me by. I didn’t actually get to see any of the other guests, but the thin walls allowed me to faintly hear the arrival of a family, a group of Japanese travelers having a discussion in their room, or some of the proprietors gathering downstairs for tea. Despite being in an entirely new place where I was probably one of the few foreigners in the city, let alone the ryokan, it felt like a home.
My most notable dinner on the trip so far occurred on Thursday night. As might be expected, there is not a whole lot going on in this quaint castle town after dark. So, when I saw a hilariously-named-yet-promising-looking European-fusion restaurant called “Bustian Cuntrari”, I stepped in.
I was immediately seated right next to the window near a serene, intimate Japanese garden. My server spoke almost no English and the restaurant had no English/picture menu, so I went straight ahead for what appeared to be a kaiseki-style meal based upon the 3,900 yen price tag. I had no idea what I was ordering and what was to come, but this was the fun part. While I was correct in my assumption that it was a multi-course meal, the food was slightly more Italian than Japanese. It did, however, have enough of a hint of Japan for me to not feel like a complete traitor. After the meal ended, my server brought another server who spoke substantially more English. She was delighted to have a foreign guest and asked me why I had chose Hikone of all places to come. When I told her that I was just as interested in seeing smaller places as I was the larger ones, she said she was surprised, as most tourists and many Japanese never go to Hikone. She said, in fact, that they were utterly shocked when I walked through the door, as they could not even recall the last time they dealt with a foreigner. We all ended up talking for around 20 minutes before I headed back to Tobaya.
This was a prime example of how rewarding just going for things can be, and why choosing to be adventurous is an amazing thing. What seems like the unknown might just become an incredibly memorable experience. It’s also illustrative of the fact that most of Japan, despite being frequently visited by foreigners, sees most of its foreign interaction in places like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. If you truly want to feel like you’re in a foreign country, head outside of these comfort zones.
I set out for Hikone Castle the day after arriving in Hikone. Built during the Edo period (which lasted from 1603 to 1868), the grounds around this castle alone are incredible, as is the building’s exterior. However, I was just a little underwhelmed by the inside and a little overwhelmed at all of the gift shops on the premises. This is where I realized that Japanese castles are not supposed the invoke a medieval, “knights of the round table”-type feeling. That said, the fact that it is one of the only castles in Japan that has retained its original keep is impressive, due to the emperor at the time putting in a special request to not dismantle it at the beginning of the Meiji period (which lasted from 1868-1912). In effect, it is the history behind this castle that makes it so special.
The afternoon brought me Nara, one of Japan’s early capitals from 710 to 794. This was one of the few things on my agenda from early on in the trip, and not for the history. There just so happens to be a herd of wild and unusually friendly deer roving around the park near the station. The best part about Nara is how close everything is to the train station, including the famous deer park, Kofukuji Temple, Todaiji Temple, the Nara National Museum, and the Kasuga-taisha Shrine. Overall, this did turn up the touristy vibe a bit more, but it was a dream in my animal-loving little heart to get to interact with the deer. I also got to try takoyaki for the first time at a small stand near the Nara Kintetsu station, which further widened my breadth of experience with Japanese cuisine and may have introduced me to my new favorite Japanese food.
After returning from Nara and spending another night in Hikone, I made a two-hour journey up north to the small city of Kanazawa the following day. While significantly more metropolitan than Hikone, it still had elements of a traditional feel. This, I later found out, was due to its condition of being spared the USAAF fire bombing during World War II. It is primarily known, however, for housing the Kenroku-en garden, which I was fortunate enough to visit during my stay. The garden is one of those places that would be absolutely heavenly to stroll through when there are few-to-no people there, but it was fairly crowded by the time I had arrived in the late afternoon. Still, it was hard to not go through it and feel refreshed by the stunning balance of light, nature, water, and small monuments sprinkled throughout it. The garden and its neighboring castle (Kanazawa Castle) were what I wanted to see here, followed by the chaya (tea) district of Higashi. While I knew I missed some other important things here, I felt that my time in the garden and Higashi was worth it.
Matsumoto was my next two-day stop and allowed me to see what is probably Japan’s coolest-looking castle (Matsumoto Castle). Built during the uneasy Sengoku period (1467 to 1603), it sadly did not retain as much of its original structure and the outer castle was completely torn down during the aforementioned Meiji period. Nonetheless, the keep maintains its original wood and stonework, making it similar to Hikone Castle in the regard. An odd thing I loved about visiting this castle is that while the castle itself is this big, imposing, dark-as-night structure that probably intimidates the heck out of its other castle buddies, it’s situated against a lovely moat filled with koi and a few beautiful white swans. The juxtaposition of these two scenes is something most art and design dorks can appreciate. I even met one of the swans personally!
Another gem of the Matsumoto area is the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, which boasts the art of the one-and-only Yayoi Kusama as part of their permanent collection! As you may recall from my previous entry, Ms. Kusama is the creator of the Naoshima Spotted Pumpkin and, as I learned in the museum, is an overall awesome human being.
At the end of these few days, I felt invigorated with a greater understanding of Japanese history and culture. I felt blessed to have been able to see some places off the beaten track, to have met people who rarely get to encounter someone like me. I even imagined, briefly, what it would be like to actually live here. On the road less traveled, you don’t get as bogged down with the the crazy visuals and novelty of the touristy places. You have more time to think about the everyday. You see the middle-aged woman peeling a potato in her garden. You see the teenagers walking around the shopping center and eating ice cream. You see the men at the izakaya, smoking cigarettes and talking about what could be politics, business, or baseball. Don’t get me wrong, the novelty of being here has not worn off – every day here is still like Disneyland to me. But it’s funny how quickly you recognize, once you’re here, how similar we are despite whatever distance we maintain geographically.
Places Stayed/Places Seen/Places Eaten
Hikone Accommodation (2 nights): Tobaya Ryokan – follow the link for a description/review. Note: Hikone itself was a great place to stay, but with everything there is to see in Osaka/Kyoto, Hikone is best done as a day trip from one of those places, rather than a base. However, if you are like me and find yourself in a situation where there is literally nowhere to stay in the bigger cities (i.e., during cherry blossom season, Golden Week, Obon, New Year’s, and the like), this is a great alternative.
Dinner in Hikone: Bustian Cuntrari – follow the link for a description/review. Please note that due to the lack of foreign exposure, I am the only reviewer thus far. 🙂
Hikone Castle (approx. 1-2 hours to tour both the keep and the exterior; allow 1 hour for the keep alone) (Hikone). The surrounding grounds and the exterior of the castle itself are well worth a visit. There is a small tea shop where you can grab a high-quality (and slightly expensive) cup of powdered green tea and a tiny Japanese treat, but I don’t necessarily recommend that as you can get a better “tea” experience in one of the chaya districts in Kyoto, Kanazawa, etc.
Nara Park (Nara) (spend as much time as you want). Outstanding. I may be a little biased as there is nothing more enjoyable to me than interacting with animals, but this really is a great place for people-watching, too. Packs of crackers to be fed to the deer are sold for only 150 yen, so bring some coins just for that.
Nara National Museum (Nara) (approx. 1 hour). If you’re interested in Buddhist art and sculpture, go for it. This wasn’t the most interesting museum I’ve visited in Japan, but there were definitely some beautiful Buddhist paintings. I’d skip over the free “Bronze” exhibit if you’re in a hurry, as these are primarily bronze cooking/bathing vessels from China. Not the most thrilling group of items. No offense.
Kofuku-ji Temple (Nara) (approx. 30 minutes). A great temple near the park. Note: The largest part of it (Central Golden Hall) is under construction until 2018. It is still quite beautiful and fun to see.
Todaiji Temple (Nara) (approx. 1 hour). WOW. This temple trumps all of the other shrines and temples that I’ve seen in Japan. The enormous buddha on the inside is only part of its splendor, as even the gates leading up to it are amazing.
Kenroku-en Garden (Kanazawa) (approx. 1-2 hours). The wide range of panoramic views and picturesque settings you will see will enrapture you and enchant you. Go early when there are fewer people (the garden opens as early as 4:00 am from April to August for “early admission”) and you are sure to feel transported in time.
Kanazawa Castle (Kanazawa) (approx. 1-2 hours). For me, the most notable part of this castle was its expansive grass-field near one of the corner turrets, as well as its views of Kanazawa and the surrounding area. The castle is right next to Ken-Roku-En, so it’s worth it to stop along either before or after. It’s also free, so it doesn’t hurt to check out regardless.
Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto) (1-2 hours to tour both the keep and the exterior; allow 1 hour for the keep alone). Again, the grounds and exterior are impressive. The interior of this castle actually does have a small museum that appears interesting, but nearly all of the descriptions are in Japanese, making it difficult to understand the context of everything that’s in there. Thus, this castle may be best explored with the help of an English-speaking guide.
Nawate-dori (Matsumoto) (little street near Matsumoto castle) (can be seen in about 15 minutes + shopping time). A cute little place to stop next to the shrine and on the way to the castle. In terms of what’s available, this place runs the gamut and is great for everything including souvenirs, crafts, and gardening tools.
Yohashira Shrine (Matsumoto) (approx. 15 minutes). A fun little stopover/photo op next to Nawate-dori.
Matsumoto City Museum of Art (Matsumoto) (approx. 1 hour). Truly spectacular art here, including the works of Yayoi Kusama and Kazuo Tamura forming part of the permanent collection. The current temporary exhibit also has an impressive range of works that appear to focus on (in my opinion, at least) using classical art techniques mixed with modern ones to covey humanistic concepts and emotions.
Things to See Next Time
Kasuga-taisa Shrine (Nara). From its many lanterns leading up to it to its beautiful color, this was a Nara stop that I should not have missed.
Ski Resorts in Nagano Prefecture. I actually knew coming here that my budget and time were not going to be allocated to skiing, because I’ve realized that I when I do go skiing, the entire trip gets devoted to that. However, it’s worth noting that Japan as a whole has some of the world’s finest skiing and is worth a trip back just for that. While I’m pretty set on making my next Japan trip during a warm time to visit the Yaeyama Islands, I would absolutely do skiing in Nagano or Hokkaido during my third trip back.
Stayed tuned for Episode 7, a special feature for those interested in “monkeying around” in Japan!