Perfect Bliss in Western Japan
Article and photography by Michael Morcos
It would be difficult to find enough time to see all that Japan has to offer, even in a lifetime there would still be endless things to see and experience and then re-see and re-experience. This is how deep and diverse the culture is, and my one week of discovery was but a drop in the ocean – but a meaningful one with wonderful fond memories.
So packed was my time that I must leave out the visit to amazing Kyoto for our next issue and devote the whole article just for this really incredible city. For now, we will visit the Akiyosido limestone caves, the Kintaikyo arch bridge in Iwakuni, the Itsukushima shrine, Hiroshima, Kurayoshi city, the Tottori sand dune, Osaka and experience traditional kaiseki meals, seafood markets and meals including seasonal crab dishes, onsens in natural hot springs and “kagura” traditional dance performance.
Our first day of discovery would bring us from Fukuoka to the Akiyosido limestone caves, but first we would stop at the Karato Fish Market which would offer quintessential understanding of the Japanese people’s love of the ocean and seafood. We found a multitude of seafood that was as fresh as it could be as the ocean and harbour were right in front of us. Our favourite was the freshly made sushi. This would be unlike what we would find at home and it included rare cuts of fish including the very expensive Fugu. Not even hungry, we would still devour the delicacy. Throughout our trip we would have fresh seafood and on one occasion an all crab meal as it was in season and the catch was abundant.
Akiyosido limestone caves would be a marvellous way to see Japan from under it. These caves were enormous and went on forever- so much so that it felt like a city of its own. The whole complex is well laid out and well lit with colourful lights, paved walkways and educational stations.
A bridge so close
The Kintaikyo arch bridge is a historical and marvel of technology and consists of five different wooden arch bridges on four different piers. This specific bridge is located at the foot of Mt.Yokoyama, which boasts the Iwakuni Castle on top of it, which is a major tourist attraction and especially during the cherry bloom and the maple tree festivals. I personally enjoyed the natural views of the surrounding areas and a stop for some wonderful Japanese ice cream in the main town square.
After a short ferry ride to the island of Miyajima, we would be mesmerised by what is known as the floating Torii that jetted out of the water and glimmered in the morning sun. Here we would wonder around the impeccably restored complex that is built on stilts and looks like it floated on water. The Itsukushima shrine is dedicated to the Shinto god of seas and storms. To our delight, we would witness a holy ceremony by many monks and priest. I was in Bliss.
After a wonderful Japanese style meal we would head for kagura theatrical dance/play put on by locals. Not sure what to expect, all I can say is this was a spectacular performance put on by a small cast and included some magic and delivered plenty of laughter including seven bigger than life snake costumes that changed themselves into many different shapes and forms that took over the whole stage. Even though the play was in Japanese, the story line was easy to understand and finished with a standing ovation.
Hiroshima Memorial park and museum
I was expecting a very sombre visit to Hiroshima but, on the contrary, our visit here was uplifting and the museum and park perfectly addressed this very sad point in our humanity. Of course, there were some disturbing images in the museum, but after this visit I took a walk in the beautiful and exceptionally well designed memorial park that made me feel that this now a thing of the past and hopefully will be a lesson for all to be sensible.
In this sleepy town we would partake in traditional Hakota doll face painting. This would be a fun experience as we felt like school kids. We would be given ready-made paper Mache dolls, paint and brushes. All that was left to do was paint faces on the dolls, and we all drew many different looking eyes, noses and lips. Truly a Japanese experience!
Unusual sand formation
The Tottori sand dunes stand out like a sore thumb. Not even knowing they existed, they are a major tourist draw throughout the year. Our time here was short but still long enough to enjoy the fresh air and walk along what could be mistaken for the Sahara. Somewhat physically demanding, we would reach the outer edge of the dune and from up high would get a magnificent bird’s eye view of the whole area, including the ocean and natural surroundings. There were even camel rides available that would rival any in the Middle East.
Our stay at a ryokan style Misasa Onsen hotel was a highlight to our trip. This is a destination on its own. Guests come here to experience Japanese relaxation and rejuvenation and this was what we had in the hot springs, among the wonderful Japanese style gardens, during the wonderfully prepared dinners and excellent and attentive service by the staff.
My room had very little furniture, and it sure did settle the mind and gave a refreshing view of how much we have in our modern life. My bed when set up by the hotel staff was on a futon in the middle of the room. I slept like a baby.
The piece de resistance was the all-natural hot springs. This I would learn much more about, such as it is frequented at least three times a day and usually before meals. I would also learn the proper ethics of preparing for an Onsen. It would include dressing in a traditional Japanese robe (provided by the hotel) and washing thoroughly Japanese style on a stool and keeping quite during the time in pools. Clothing is optional but it would be unfashionable (pardon the pun) to wear a bathing suit.
Japan’s second largest city does not play second fiddle to Tokyo, as it is a major cosmopolitan area by its own rights and is filled with love of life its citizens. Life is generally slower here, and people like to get out socialize and eating in restaurants. With all its sites, my most memorable time is going to the ebisuhigashi district. Here in the shadow of the Osaka tower you will be in neon heaven with a lively atmosphere and a wide choice of restaurants and bars. The street entertainment is everywhere and always free. Our choice of food was endless at this Izakaya style tavern, only thing is you would have to cook it yourself on one of the grills found at each table. What a meal, what a time!
Fine dining Japanese style
Kaiseki meals are a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. On our trip we would be feast like kings at many occasions. Our meals would be nothing short of magnificent and include a multitude of exquisite and nutritious small servings of fresh fish, tender meats and delicious vegetables. The table settings alone looked so elegant that is seamed a shame to move anything around or disturb the impeccably displayed dishes. If the meal was not enough, the general restaurant decor and atmosphere would create a lasting memory of traditional Japanese dinning.
My trip to western Japan was both fun and educational, I relearned the basics of Japan – that it is welcoming, very humble, holds on to the best of its traditions, it is both unbelievably clean and safe and is truly a one of a kind culturally and socially in the world. It is a must see destination. If you have been you will know what I am saying, if it is your first trip then be prepared, you will go back. You will be absorbed by wonderful, beautiful, mystical Japan!
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