Travel: Japan – discovering the delights that await Scotland’s rugby fans
The Japanese bullet train delivers on the promise of a punctual as well as dynamic entrance at Shinagawa. The morning began with a relaxed three-hour journey to Shin-Kobe station, after displaying the essential Japan Rail Pass I was able to relax on a bright, clear morning which offered incredible views of Mount Fuji in all its splendour. The only activity was a trolley offering snacks and drinks as well as the occasional smoker leaving their seat to enter designated rooms for a cigarette. There wasn’t a sound from the trains and passengers sat silently allowing a nap before I arrived in the centre of Japan. You immediately experience a gentler, slower pace in the port city of Kobe as you look out into the untroubled waters of the Setouchi Sea against the spectacular Rokko Mountain range. Japan’s sixth largest city is part of the Nada-Gogo which translates as the five areas of Nada encompassing Kobe and other Sake producing regions. Kobe has a lot to offer travelling supporters at the Rugby World Cup later this year where Scotland will play their second match of the tournament on 30 September against Samoa at Misaki Park Stadium. An essential experience while here is to enjoy a sample of the world famous Kobe Beef. I met my Japanese guide Haruka, a native of the city at Teppanyaki KITANO located in ANA Crowne Plaza which is a short walk from the station. Bags and belongings can be stored in lockers here if you are travelling in for the day. After being presented with a cool bottle of craft beer from the Rokko Brewery I was introduced to the head chef who sharpened his knife before slicing through the marbled meat (muscle fibers) like a lump of butter, cutting it into small bite-sized cubes to cook in front of me. The hotel manager explained the complex farming process where much time, labour and care is dedicated to the prize cattle. I was even shown a chart of information including the birthday of the cow I was about to eat followed by a viewing of the raw chunk of meat that remained. Haruka expressed how seriously the process is taken: “The beef is held to an incredibly high-standards as the meat must satisfy very strict requirements in order to be called Kobe Beef.” By the time the delectable dish was ready the smell was making my mouth water and stomach rumble, the beef immediately melts in the mouth with a sweet, savoury taste and tender texture which is best-served medium with a dash of salt, soy sauce, and mustard. To have this exquisite dish prepared in front of you at source in the atmosphere of a popular, thriving restaurant is an essential treat if visiting this part of Japan. My next stop was the Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum which presents a colourful history on entry by displaying evocative billboards and posters of the alcoholic beverage from a bygone era. Similar to the Kobe Beef experience we are introduced to every aspect of the ancient brewing process. The creation of the clear liquid made from fermented rice is regarded as something of an art-form in itself requiring patience and commitment. In the Meister Factory, we watched artisans craft the large Yoshiko-cedar wood barrels where Taru Sake is fermented. The challenge today is finding a new generation of skilled workers willing to dedicate themselves to the stoic process involved in the creation of Japan’s national tipple. It was soon time to bid farewell to Kobe and make my way to Osaka, this time to the Hotel Monterey near Osaka station. The classic European style hotel was an ideal location for a planned day trip to Kyoto. A month before the trip I organised a visit to the Moss Garden temple. Known locally as Kokedera a visit here requires a hand-written letter and modest payment at least one month in advance, shortly before leaving Scotland an envelope arrived confirming my appointment which was appropriately arranged for a peaceful Sunday morning. After being asked to remove my shoes and light a candle at the Zen temple we were asked to sit and pray or reflect for a moment before being invited to walk beside 120 varieties of lush green moss. The Japanese appreciation of the plant, that many of us would overlook, is viewed as indicating the silent and determined development within nature. These green plants are admired for their quiet resolve, beauty, and imperfection which suggests much about the Japanese way of life. The ancient design of the gardens was to encourage finding a sense of peace as well as appreciation. After a hedonistic time in America during the mid-1970s, David Bowie spent some time here absorbing the otherworldly surroundings capturing a sense of it on the second side on his 1977 album “Heroes” which featured the instrumental track Moss Garden. After relaxing the quiet, natural atmosphere and feeling well rested in the near solitude of Kokedera I decided to visit the Shoden-ji Temple. Admittedly this was a bit further off the beaten track but not an unreasonable journey. With the freshness of the morning providing inspiration I jumped on the first of two buses arriving in the centre of Kyoto by lunchtime. I paused to watch a live band playing on a small makeshift stage outside McDonald’s that had something familiar about them, the sound and aesthetic was very Glaswegian and it wasn’t a surprise to discover they were influenced by the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub and Orange Juice. After watching a few songs and full of mirth from the unexpected detour I persisted on my journey to Shodden-ji. Situated in a quiet but friendly suburban area, I had a warm welcome from a local monk who welcomed me into the temple and left me in peace to look out over the mostly dry garden and at the splendour of Mount Hiei as the day’s light began to fade. Undoubtedly this was a place with much charm and presence, significantly Bowie also travelled here exactly 40 years ago to film an advert for Sake and was reduced to tears by the tranquil surroundings, the advert featured another Japanese inspired track Fujimoto San, later retitled Crystal Japan.
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Atami is gateway to the Izu Peninsula which sits on the Philippines tectonic plate and was originally a volcanic island that has drifted north and collided with the Japanese mainland from the peninsula. This explained the subtropical climate which was already in the low 30s on the morning of my visit. Atami translates as “hot ocean” and is a popular seaside and holiday resort going through something of a resurgence. One reason for that is access to natural hot springs and on arrival, I discovered there is even a hot spring foot-bath available for worn-out travellers spilling out onto the street from the station. I found it a revitalising and refreshing experience before meeting up with my guide for the day Tony Everitt. From the port, we sailed to Hatsushima Island which translates “First Island” and is the first in a long chain of largely volcanic islands that string southwards. Hatsushima was a major domestic holiday destination during the high growth and bubble economic periods between the 1950s and 1990s. After a journey of about 30 minutes, we arrived on Hatsushima and watched local fishermen catch a haul of fresh fish to supply the various restaurants on the island. It is best to eat when you arrive, we worked up an appetite after an enjoyable walk to the island’s lighthouse but found ourselves waiting in a lengthy queue as the ferry’s passengers had filled every eatery in sight. When we eventually sat down for some noodles and a cool beer Tony explained he has found paradise here after much travelling. He arrived in Japan from New Zealand back in 1987: “I lived here for about 7 years and learned the language. I came back in 2015 because after having worked in tourism and lived in many places around Asia/Pacific I had decided that Atami was just the perfect spot — hot springs, Pacific Ocean, great food, wonderful people, scenic mountains, nature and just 40 minutes by bullet train to Tokyo.” After lunch, we returned to Atami where we visited the MOA Museum of Art situated in the plush surroundings of the Zuiunkyo Garden. The museum has over 3,500 items including paintings, crafts, sculptures and 3 national treasures including Red and White Plum Blossoms by Ogata Korin. When I visited Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Boden Sea was on display (a photographic image used as the cover art for No Line On The Horizon by U2) along with a selection of other images from his Seascapes collection. The artwork has a lot to compete with as the natural views of Atami’s beautiful ocean and mountain range makes this a unique space for viewing art, the futuristic space includes the world’s largest kaleidoscope, a theatre to enjoy traditional Japanese performances, a tea room, shop and cafe where you can sit and look out over the Sagami Bay. Before heading back to Haneda Airport for the long journey home I visited Atami’s Kinomiya Shrine where, for over 2,000 years, people have come to pray and seek spiritual guidance. Here resides the largest tree in Honshu where, as tradition dictates, every nationality, ethnicity and those of all faiths and none take a traditional lap around the trunk of the tree. Watching the ritual of people walking around the thick trunk while praying or expressing some form of hope for the future felt like a fitting way to end my Japanese odyssey.
The leading JAL fares from London to Tokyo start from £774 for indirect flights via Helsinki, Paris, Frankfurt; and from £852 on direct flights between London and Tokyo.
Domestic flights in Japan on both outbound and inbound are included in the fare at no extra cost (apart from airport taxes changes)
To obtain a Japan Rail Pass please visit https://www.japan-rail-pass.co.uk
For more information on Hotel Monteray Osaka please viisit https://www.hotelmonterey.co.jp/en/osaka/
For travellers looking to explore further with the Japan Rail Pass please visit https://exploreshizuoka.com
For more infomation on Kobe Beef please visit the official website www.kobe-niku.jp
To visit the Kiku-Masamune Sake brewery please visit www.kikumasamune.co.jp
For more information on MOA Museum of Art please visit: http://www.moaart.or.jp/en/