Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

More than Tokyo: Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

When you think of visiting Japan, the images that probably come to mind most are the leaning skyscrapers, glistening neon lights, and busy road crossings of Tokyo is like any other major city in the world. But head out of the county’s most famous city and you’ll find well-preserved monuments against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. In the countryside are temples, shrines, markets, and places to indulge in Japanese culture.

Spend a couple of days in Tokyo,  but if you want to see the real Japan head to these small towns.


Nikko is a charming hill station, located only two hours to the north from Tokyo by train, with clean fresh mountain air. It has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries, and is designated a World Heritage Area. There are oak and cedar forests nearby where you can walk, hike, or simply take a bus to the entrance of the temple complex. On the way, you may pass by hot springs and wild monkeys!

Nikko has important significance in Japanese culture. Here you can see one of the largest wooden tori gates in Japan and the most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese military government from 1600-1868.

Nikko National Park is a good place to visit any time of the year, but it is especially magical when the leaves turn colors in autumn.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/


Kamakura is a seaside town an hour and half south of Tokyo with resorts and apartments overlooking sandy beaches. Japanese and foreign tourists come here during the summer to swim, sail, and surf.

Kamakura is also home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee.

No visit to Japan is complete without a stroll through a bamboo forest. At Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai, you can soak in the beauty of the groves and have a cup of tea overlooking the forest at the café located inside.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/


Hakone is a popular weekend getaway on the Sagami Bay (southwest of Tokyo). The area attracts golfers and those looking to relax at one of the natural hot springs. It’s also a great place to get a good view of Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan.

Be sure to book a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on tatami floors and bathe in an onsen, communal hot spring water. The food is exceptional at the ryokans and assortment of fresh sushi, salad, rice, and soup is artfully served in dozens of intricate bowls.

Hakone is home to Lake Ashinoko, which offers some of the best vistas of Mount Fuji; and Owakudani Boiling Valley, with active sulfuric vents and hot springs caused by volcanic activity. Take the Hakone Ropway to catch aerial pictures of mud pools and smoke.


Over 300 kilometers to the west of the Tokyo, Takayama is home to the oldest sake breweries in Japan. So it’s a must-stop for sake lovers. Head over to Sanmachi Street, lined with old merchants’ houses from the Edo period, where you can witness old wooden houses and busy tourist markets.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

Here you can find several breweries offering all-day sake tastings. A clear fermented rice wine with about 15% alcohol, sake (like wine) can range in flavor from dry and fruity, to smooth and vinegary. Some places give couple of free samples, others charge $2 for up to 12 tastings.

For dinner, head to one of the local restaurants serving Hoba miso, a specialty of this region. Hida beef or chicken is mixed with miso paste, placed over dried a magnolia leaf and cooked over charcoal. It pairs well with a glass of sake.


This Gassho-style village close to Japan’s west coast (Tokyo’s on the eastern shores) is a scene filled with thatched roofs, belled cows, rice paddies and surrounding snowcapped mountains. It looks like a Japanese version of Swiss countryside. The village has about 350 unique triangular shaped homes to allow snow to shed during winter, and has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

Start your visit at Shiroyama Observatory to get the best panoramas of the village and then walk your way down. There are few historic homes open to the public, as well as few restaurants and souvenir shops.


This historic city right on the northwest coast is home to the Kenrokuen castle garden, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens from Edo period and one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. Here you can see over 183 species of plants, a teahouse, stone lanterns, pagoda, and the oldest water fountain in Japan, which still operates today.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

Stroll through Nagamachi, a beautifully preserved historic Samurai district to see where the aristocracy once lived. Still you can find wealthy homes with expensive cars maneuvering narrow cobblestone streets and canals. You can visit some of the former Samurai residences and private gardens.

Spend the evening at one of Kanazawa’s three chaya districts. A chaya (teahouse) is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by Japanese Geisha (better known as Geiko) who perform song and dance. Most of the original structures are still intact, and many are converted into cafes and shops. You are likely to spot a Geisha while walking through one of these districts, but you can also purchase tickets to attend a Geisha evening at one of the public teahouses.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2016. 

Though most of Japan follows a certain mannerism in the way they greet, dress, eat and live, the touristy areas are more forgiving of westerners “trying” to assimilate in the culture. Once you get to the small towns, language is a huge barrier, and not knowing the customs can cause a lot of frustration even to an expert traveler. Japanese people can be very particular about proper manners and doing a little homework won’t just save you some embarrassment, it will also make your experience more enjoyable.

Here are a few things I learned during my 10-day countryside hike with Walk Japan Tours…

Know Your Hotel Etiquette

My first night in Oita offered many learning experiences. The only accommodations in the Japanese countryside are traditional hotels or inns, known as ryokan. Most ryokans charge an all-inclusive price per person, not by room. So you can get a single room and pay $100, or a shared room and pay $200, which goes to show that Japanese culture encourages inclusiveness. Many hotels are small with 5-12 rooms, therefore during peak season, sharing is common. Breakfast, dinner and gratuities are included in the price, though there is a bathing tax of 150 Yen ($2) per night per person, whether or not you use the bath during your stay.

Tip: Be prepared to share a room and pay a per head price. 

Japanese ryokan

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

When I walked into my room, I saw nothing but a table and cushions on the floor. I was confused if this was my living room or my bedroom. There was a television, phone, air conditioner, refrigerator and tea set, but no bed. At dinner that evening, I asked my guide where I was going to sleep. He informed me that the tatami section of the floor has multipurpose use as living and dining rooms during the day and at night, it is converted to a bedroom. When we returned to the rooms at night, beds were made by laying futons on the tatami floor. The pillow provided was hard and beady, something Westerners may find difficult getting used to.

Tip: Bring your own pillow if you need extra comfort. 

Japanese ryokan

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

Find the Proper Lounge Wear

Proper attire must be maintained inside a ryokan. This means wearing the appropriate pair of slippers for outdoors and indoors. Only socks or bare feet are permitted in the bathroom and sleeping areas. Most luxury hotels around the world offer bathrobes to their guests. When I saw two cotton robes in my closet, I thought they must serve the same purpose. Thankfully, my fellow travelers educated me that the light cotton kimonos, called yukata is actually supposed to be worn in the evening as lounge wear. Both men and women wear yukata (gown) with belt, and tanzen (a padded jacket to wear over). Always dress the right side over the body, and pull the left side over the right. Of course, I didn’t get this the first time. As soon as I walked into the lobby, one of the hotel attendants pointed out that I was dressed like a corpse and took me aside to fix it.

Tip: No need to pack evening attire when staying at a Ryokan. 

dressing in japan

Image via Sucheta Rawal/

Bathing in Public

After a long day of hiking, I was looking forward to a nice long shower at my hotel. To my surprise I found out that very few hotels in the countryside have private toilets or baths attached to the rooms. There are only onsens, common hot spring bathhouses for the guests, and sometimes even open to the locals for a charge. Bathing with a bunch of strangers is not something I look forward to on a vacation, but the only other option was to stay unbathed for the entire trip.

The bath houses are separated for men (marked with a blue flag) and women (red flag). When you enter the onsen, you need to leave your slippers at the door and clothes in bins provided (no lockers). You must go in the bathing area completely nude. No swimwear is allowed. Also, you must first clean yourself before stepping in the tub, by squatting on a low stool and bathing with a hand shower. Soap, shampoo and conditioner is provided. Hair dryers are also available. Then soak in the hot tub (still naked) along with the other guests, and try not to be conscious of it. It is believed that the water of the onsen contains healing minerals from the surrounding Kyushu mountains. When I walked out of the bath area and looked for a towel to dry myself, I only found washcloth-sized towels. Note to self: bring a bath towel to the ryokan.

Tip: Leave the bathing suit at home and go all natural.

Drinking in Company

Sake is the most common drink choice at dinners, though some places may offer limited selections of beer and wine. It is polite to serve all of your fellow diners first, and then allow them to serve you. If you did happen to serve yourself (I did several times by accident), the Japanese will feel a sense of shame.


pic by Sucheta Rawal/

Eat Everything!

Sushi lovers will find themselves in heaven when traveling through Kunisaki. Every night, we feasted on fresh and delicious meals of local seafood, silken soft tofu, seaweed salads, miso soup, steamed rice and more, served in an assortment of colorful little plates and bowls. Japanese chefs believe you taste the food with your eyes first, so much importance is given to presentation.

As soon as we sat down, the food would just keep coming. More than often, you will never see a menu when dining in the countryside. Only a few touristy hotels and restaurants offer menus. It is the chef’s choice to prepare platters of food served in a set of beautifully arranged plates and bowls. You can always tell them if you have any allergies or dietary preferences beforehand.

We began by saying “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) as a short grace, and concluded the meal with the phrase “gochisōsama deshita” (“thank you for the feast”) which meant we were grateful to the chef, as well as the ingredients for feeding us.

Typically, a Japanese breakfast will include miso soup, rice, salad, egg custard, tofu, fruit and tea. You will see many of the same things for dinner as rice, soup and salad are staples at practically every meal. Your host may present fresh slices of sashimi, fried shrimp and vegetable tempura, or a hot pot with meat and vegetables, known as shabu-shabu.

You must eat with chopsticks and place them on a chopstick rest between bites. When eating from small bowls, it is correct to pick up the bowl with hands and keep it close to your mouth when eating from it; however, larger types of dishes should generally not be picked up. When eating from shared dishes (as it is commonly done at some restaurants), it is polite to use the opposite end of the chopsticks or dedicated serving chopsticks for moving food.

After finishing a meal, it is generally good manners to return all the dishes to how they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in its paper holder.

Tip: It is rude to waste rice in Japanese culture. Your server will probably ask you if you want rice half way through your meal, when you can decide whether you are full, or can finish an entire bowl. 

Speak Politely

Whether or not you speak any Japanese, certain etiquette must be followed while interacting with others. Never shake hands or hug someone unless you know them extremely well. Also, making direct eye contact while talking is considered rude. Instead, look at the person’s nose to avoid coming on too strong. Weather is the most common opening conversation Japanese people expect to have. They will nod all the time, many will bow as a mark of respect, and smile if they don’t understand you. Speak slowly and avoid raising your voice at all costs.

A friend of mine gave me a tip that in order to loosen up a shy Japanese person, just have a drink with them!

Note: Japanese people avoid confrontation. If you have a complaint, address it delicately.

Published in CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2016. 

Following Japan’s Buddhist Trails


Khabar magazine. Print issue. October 2015

A thousand years ago, the Kunisaki Peninsula, tucked away on the western end of Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, was one of the country’s main centers of Buddhism. Even today, life in Kunisaki is a drastic contrast from Tokyo, with its sleek skyscrapers, neon lights, and high-end luxury malls. Time stands still in Kunisaki, where people in sparsely populated hamlets live a quiet life surrounded by mountains, sprawling farms, and picturesque valleys.

Even the type of Buddhism that thrived in Kunisaki is different from that in the rest of Japan. Strong influences of Shintoism, an ancient religion founded in the belief of shrine worship towards a multitude of gods, can be traced alongside the Buddha’s teachings. A famous monk named Nimom founded the Rokugo-manzan complex in the 8th century, which with its 28 temples and three sub-groupings of temples reflected the Lotus Sutra’s 28 chapters. The Kunisaki Peninsula was considered the mandala of the Lotus Sutra, and for many East Asian Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra contains the ultimate and complete teaching of the Buddha, and the reciting of the text is believed to be very auspicious. On the pilgrimage paths connecting the temples were 69,380 Buddhist statues, one for each Chinese character of the Sutra. Therefore, a monk walking the Kunisaki was essentially reciting scriptures from the Sutra.


My journey with Walk Japan tours begins in Fukuoka, the seventh largest city in Japan, and a famous port known for its Yatainight food stalls. From here, I take one of the award-winning fast trains to Usa, passing lots of industrial areas, matchbox houses, the hills of Kyushu, and even a nuclear reactor. The tiny open-air train station is my first brush with rural Japan. No one here speaks English and all the signs are in Japanese. Thankfully, I have an American guide, Ted Taylor, who has been living in Kyoto for many years. Ted is a historian and writer, accustomed to Japanese traditions. We take a short cab ride to Yamaga, which appears to be a popular hillside resort among the locals.

We check into a Ryokan, and move to a different one each night. These are traditional Japanese inns with 5-20 rooms, oftentimes run by a local family. While staying at the inns, we have to follow certain Japanese customs. Similar to some South Asian homes, guests in Japan are required to take off their shoes at the entrance to the hotel’s reception and use only the provided slippers. My room number is marked in Japanese and when I walk in, there is no “bedroom” furniture in it, barring a television, refrigerator, a very low tea table, and a cushion placed on the tatami floor. I sleep on a thin mattress (known as futon), and use a comforter and a buckwheat pillow. It appears that the rooms are multifunctional—they could be used for sleeping, dining or meetings, depending on the occasion and capacity. Bathing is only allowed in the nude at the geothermal hot springs or public bathing houses, separated for male and female. After the evening bath, everyone dresses in a Yukata, Japanese dressing gown with a belt and jacket, which is provided to all guests.


Since there are no restaurants around for miles, the innkeepers prepare scrumptious family style Japanese dinners. We eat endless amounts of fresh sashimi of sea bream, tuna, and salmon, accompanied by miso soup, silken tofu, steamed rice, seaweed salad, and vegetable tempura, washing it down with cups of cold sake. Japanese cooking emphasizes fresh ingredients, no spices, simple preparations, yet elaborate presentations. We have dozens of small bowls placed in front of us, each one with only a bite or two, looking like a piece of art. The Japanese diet is perhaps the healthiest on the planet, ensuring lack of diseases, sharpness of mind, and a long lifespan.

My guide Ted, an elderly couple from Australia, and I begin our trek around the Kunisaki Peninsula at Kumo-ga-take, or Cloud Mountain, as it starts to pour. We go up steep muddy slopes using walking poles. An hour later, we catch sight of the first of many ancient Buddhist statues that are a vivid indication of the rich history of Kunisaki. Our destination is Usa Jingu’s interior shrine, located in the middle of the mountain. A simple rustic building on the peak stands in startling contrast to the scale and opulence of Usa Jingu, which is far below us on a farming plain at the foot of Omoto-san. The shrine deifies the protector god of Japan, Hachiman, who was also instrumental in the development of Buddhism on Kunisaki. Most tourists arrive at the outer shrine by bus or car, while we trek about eight miles on foot in the footsteps of the monks.


The lakes surrounding Usa Jingu’s beautiful orange gates are adorned by bridges and ducks. The scenery is breathtaking. I recall a recent photo of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe feeding fish in a special ceremony thought to bring prosperity and good fortune, as Ted purchases a pack of fish food from a self-serve kiosk and starts feeding the carp from the bridge. “A wise man once told me that in order to have a good life, I must feed all the carp fishes I find,” he tells me.

The following day, we stay at an inn right next to a Tendai temple, Fuki-ji, the oldest wooden structure in Kyushu circa 718 AD and designated a national treasure of Japan. Tendai Buddhism was brought to Japan from China in the 8th century. Its philosophies are rooted in Mahayana Buddhism that preaches Dharma and the ability to attain Buddhahood. One of the innkeepers is a priest at the temple, while his mother does the cooking and cleaning. They have been running the inn for generations, as most families in the area. 

From here we take a 10-minute taxi ride to Makiodo temple, which looks more of a tourist attraction, as there is even a ticket booth. We see the largest statue of Daiitoku Myoo, the Wisdom King of Great Awe-inspiring Power, and a sitting statue of Amida Nyorai, the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. The statues at Makiodo look like they could have been brought in from a temple in southern India. With fiery eyes, multiple arms holding warrior armor, and a seat on a cow, there is a strong resemblance to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Then we climb a steep but small peak to get a nice view of the charming village of Tashibu-no-sho. I take a panoramic shot of farmlands, peaks, river and houses—some of the most beautiful landscapes in the area that have not changed much in 1200 years.


We walk alongside farmlands growing buckwheat, rice, soba, and a few other crops. The farmers here don’t use any chemicals and don’t believe in rotational farming. A lady farming by herself on her small patch, wearing denim overalls and rain boots, says that she feels the land should be allowed time to heal and replenish its nutrition. In the middle of nowhere, we stop at a house converted to a cafe that is run by three enterprising women who bake breads, brew herbal tea, and offer some snacks to passers-by. Today, they make a special vegetarian farm-to-table lunch buffet for us. We fill our bellies with organic steamed bamboo shoots, glassy seaweed noodles, boiled Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach), dirty rice with white and red lentils, a salad of daikon radish, and soba noodle and mushroom soup. The ladies tell me that this style of eating raw and vegetarian foods is gaining popularity within health conscious households in modern day Japan.

On the fifth day, we take a short ferry to Himeshima (Princess Island). We leave behind the ridges of Kyushu dotted alongside the clean blue waters of Seto Inland Sea. There are a few attractions noted on the board at the ferry terminal, but hardly any people to be seen around. Every August, there is a Shinto religious ceremony, Kitsune matsuri (Fox Marriage Festival) featuring dancers dressed as foxes that attracts many visitors, and October is the season for Kuruma ebi(Prawn Eating Festival).

As I walk along the crescent shaped, white sand beach, I run into a group of four elderly ladies covered from head to toe to protect against the sun, riding on their bikes. We talk briefly with the help of a Google translator, as they giggle every time they hear the sharp voice of modern technology.

Once we return to the mainland, we make a long ascent to the fortress rock peak of Mt. Fudo-san, from where we can see panoramic views across Kunisaki to Himeshima, and beyond to Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu. After a trek through the forests and climbing a long flight of stairs, we arrive at Monjusen-ji, a Buddhist temple where we rest for the night. The resident priest, wearing a white robe, welcomes us and takes us into a cave room that towers over the temple, for an evening ceremony. Here he beats a large drum and chants in Sanskrit. He lights a bonfire in the middle of the room, offering the Gods wooden plaques with inscribed prayers. He blesses each of us with good health, luck, and safe travels.

As a typhoon looms over us, the wooden doors and windows of the temple rattle against the strong winds. I ask the priestess if the building would survive and she offers me little consolation, “Well, it has stood here for the past 200 years, so we shall see tonight.” She serves us a simple vegetarian dinner with beer, and shows us her family photos. Her fore- fathers have served as priests at the grounds where we sit for the past thousand years. After dinner, each of us occupies a temple altar room, sleeping on mattresses placed directly in front of the shrines. The main altar has a captivating blue statue holding an upright sword that could easily be mistaken for Lord Shiva. Golden statues of Buddha, Japanese lanterns, drums, white handkerchiefs, and bottles of sake—all depict the intermingling of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures that have come about in Kunisaki. Although we have only followed the pilgrimage walk of Buddhist monks, it feels like we have witnessed its evolution over centuries and across borders.

Hidden Japan: Atlantan Walks Small Villages Beyond Tokyo’s Glitter

Global Atlanta. July 2015

Often Tokyo overpowers our images of Japan. The automotive and electronics capital boasts sleek skyscrapers, busy intersections with neon lights, and high-end luxury malls dotted with hundreds of Michelin-star restaurants. But there is another face to the country that offers pristine landscapes, ancient history and a rapidly fading culture.

During my recent visit to Japan, I traveled to several small towns that even many Japanese people living in Tokyo have never heard of. On a tour offered by Walk Japan, a local operator that advertises hiking and cultural tours around the country, I spent 10 days exploring the Kunisaki Peninsula located in the southwestern part of the country.

Our small group of four stayed at traditional Japanese inns, known as ryokans, throughout the tour. A far cry from my luxurious room on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental in Nihonbashi business district of Tokyo, these bare-minimum lodging facilities offer comfort, cleanliness and personalized service. I had to learn to sleep on tatami mats, bathe nude in common baths (called Onsen), wear a Yucata (dressing gown) every evening, and eat a regimental diet of raw fish, miso soup and steamed rice three times a day. All of this was very strange at first, nevertheless an experience that I learned to enjoy.

Small nuances made me realize the strong feeling of community that Japanese people share, which probably explains why Japanese tourists are always seen traveling in large groups.

For example, a room at the Ryokan is charged on a per-person basis. You may pay $400 for four people staying in each of their own rooms, or $400 for four people sharing one room. The Japanese tourist would prefer the latter. Most of the rooms at a Ryokan don’t come equipped with private toilets, and even outside guests come to bathe at the hotel’s hot springs and baths communal-style for a nominal fee. I never saw anyone dining alone at a restaurant in this area. There were always friends, families and guests sharing elaborate platters of homemade specialties prepared by the innkeeper, and very rarely any menus.

During the day, we discovered the rich history of Kunisaki, trekking through steep hills, dense forests and open fields. As we traced the paths of monks who had been through these areas for over a thousand years, we paid respects at rarely frequented Shinto shrines, stone carvings, statues, caves and Buddhist temples.

I found out that majority of Japanese people consider themselves Buddhist, as well as Shinto, an ancient religious belief that focuses on shrine worship towards a multitude of gods. Around the 12th century, when Buddhism flourished on this peninsula, there were more than 50 temples with 800 buildings here. We spent a night at a ryokan adjacent to Fukiji Temple, the oldest wooden structure on the island of Kyushu (circa 718 AD).

While some of the hikes were quite strenuous (8-10 miles each day), what I saw and learned during the day was priceless. Among other things, were shrines dedicated to Hachiman, protector God of Japan; Kumano Magaibutsu, the largest Buddha relief carvings in Japan; and Nyushutsu-nimon-ge’s resting place. Nimon was the monk that is reputed to have first brought Buddhism to Kunisaki approximately 1,100 years ago.

We ascended steep, slippery paths to Kumo-ga-take (Cloud Mountain) rising above the mists, to catch a glimpse of the lush green valleys below and Kyushu Mountains surrounding the horizon. Everyone took panoramic snaps of Tashibu-no-sho, a charming village with some of the most picturesque countryside found in Japan. A scenic drive through what looked like rolling hills of Switzerland, ended in Yufuin, a beautiful town where Mount Yufu (aka Yufu-dake) towers above a river cutting through the valley, scenic lake, paddy fields and temple bells.

As we walked through the rice paddies and farmlands growing buckwheat and soba, we rarely encountered anyone below the age of 70. An elderly lady tending to her vegetable farm wearing tall rubber boots and a peasant hat stopped us when she saw Ted, our guide, and invited us over for tea and cookies. We sat on the floor of her tiny cluttered room overlooking a coy pond, chatting about her grandkids and younger days.

She informed us that all of the villagers move to “the big city” in search of better education and work, leaving behind the elders to tend to the farms. When they pass, the kids end up selling or abandoning the family homes, since they no longer can take care of them. The government has started to offer free historic houses and a stipend to anyone who commits to moving to the village and restoring the properties, as well as actively participating in the community’s affairs. Although we saw hundreds of such homes collapsing, a few individuals disenchanted by the busy lifestyle have brought their families to raise their kids in the country where the air is fresh and life is simple and slower paced.

I noticed that the Japanese fascination for beauty was present whether one was shopping at Mitsukoshi, the oldest luxury retail store in Tokyo, or living in a remote island village.

One of the most pristine places on the trip was Himeshima (Princess Island), a sleepy town only 20 minutes ferry ride from Imi Port. There was a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach close to the harbor that was completely unoccupied on a Sunday afternoon. I spoke to three Japanese women in their 60s and 70s biking past. They were covered from head to toe in baggy pants, oversized long-sleeve shirts, and wide hats with built in scarves that covered their faces and necks. It was a far cry from the other beach destinations I am used to. The women couldn’t stop admiring my wheatish skin and couldn’t believe my age. With the help of Google translator (since we couldn’t converse in English/ Japanese), they were curious to know what kind of make up I was wearing.