– by Sam Anna Lee
Think Japan, and it’s hard not to instinctively conjure images of flashing commercials and a neon blitz of foreign signs; long queues snaking about the best restaurants; cutesy character paraphernalia in window displays; shopping for confectionary too-pretty-to-eat. Despite its reputation for being homogenous, this country of 47 prefectures offers much more beyond its customary offerings of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Step off the well-trodden path, shake off the caricatured images, and venture into these underrated havens.
A small, round, subtropical island off Japan’s southern coast, Yakushima has dazzled imaginations — including acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki’s, who was inspired by the ancient cedar forests and ghostly green landscapes to create ‘Princess Mononoke’. Home to some of Japan’s oldest living trees — the most ancient of which are over 7,000 years old — trees more than a thousand years old are affectionately called yakusugi — a combination of Yakushima and sugi, the Japanese word for cedar.
This undiscovered rural paradise offers a glimpse into a wilder, primeval Japan, and it’s easy to slip into a childhood fairytale while ambling through these misty moody forests. As you make your way through the otherworldly foliage and mossy trails, keep a watchful eye for the Yakushima macaque and the Yaku deer — real-life creatures no less magical than the best of Miyazaki’s imagination.
Fret not if you feel significantly underdressed after seeing local hikers decked out in expedition-level hiking gear. True to Japanese ethic, the local hikers prefer to be over-prepared than caught unawares, and such attire is not usually an accurate reflection of a trail’s difficulty. Wind down at one of the island’s many onsens and enjoy the staple cuisine of seafood — as fresh as it comes.
Access the island via its airport (a 1.5-hour flight from Osaka) or hop on a ferry from Kagoshima. It is often said that it rains 35 days a month in Yakushima, but autumn is probably the driest season and offers stunning weather after the typhoon season from July to October.
Photo credit: Atlas Obscura
Somewhere on the east coast of Japan, where the Sea of Japan meets the Pacific, art lovers have found a new mecca to make their pilgrimage to. The islands in the Seto Inland Sea found new life under the auspices of Soichiro Fukutake and his Benesse Corporation — the crown jewel being Benesse House on Naoshima, a dual hotel-museum property which seamlessly blends guest rooms and displays of contemporary art.
The rest of the island is space for the whimsy and unexpected, and the best way to enjoy the journey is by cycling. Outdoors, sculptures sprout about the island — the most iconic of which is Yayoi Kusama’s larger-than-life ‘Yellow Pumpkin’ at the end of a pier. Indoors, the Chichu Art Museum and Lee Ufan Museum — both artfully designed by famed architect Tadao Ando — are testaments to his masterful touch of emphasising nothingness and empty space in song to the beauty of simplicity. Both museums are thoughtfully curated and harmoniously incorporate the natural elements of their surroundings. Immerse yourself in some of contemporary art’s finest offerings — memorialise a sunset at James Turrell’s ‘Open Sky’, and catch your breath at the superb display of Monet’s immortal ‘Water Lilies’.
To get here, take the Shinkansen to Okayama and head south by local train or private car to the small port town of Uno. From here, hop on a short ferry ride to Naoshima’s port. When visiting, note that most exhibits are usually closed on Mondays but may remain open during holidays (3–day weekends) and close on Tuesday instead. Art devotees should calendarise the Setouchi Triennale, with three showings in spring, summer and fall.
Photo credit: CNN
Okinawa breaks the mould of Japan’s homogeneity — some parts American, some parts Chinese, but yet still distinctively Japanese. Geographically located closer to Taipei than to Tokyo, Okinawa’s proximity to the Chinese shows up in subtle ways. Soba is made with the classically Chinese yellow noodles instead of the traditional buckwheat noodles used everywhere else in Japan.
The American influence — emanating from Okinawa’s long history of housing US military bases — shows up more conspicuously. Burger diners line up the beach-facing boulevards, and American classics play off jukeboxes. The Mihama American Village transports you to an entirely different time zone and continent — indistinguishable from a big mall found anywhere in the US, with many American soldiers relaxing and passing time in this sprawling entertainment complex.
It’s almost impossible to reconcile the Okinawan take on life with the hustle and bustle of Japan’s maddest cities. Formal wear is a Hawaiian-flavoured tropical shirt, which comes in black or grey in the event of funerals. Tans are all year round, dreadlocks are commonly seen, and life moves… slow. By day, the crystal clear waters and colourful coral reefs are a playground for snorkellers and scuba divers alike, home to marine creatures like the majestic manta ray. By night, locals and tourists pack into the dim woody restaurant-bars, many of which get drunk on the local liquor awamori and indulge in folk songs while dancing.
Enter the islands via the capital city of Naha, which has flights from all major cities in Japan. Alternatively, fly direct to Ishigaki’s regional airport. Ferries run between most islands. Avoid the rainy season mid-May to mid-June, and marine sports are best enjoyed between July to October; but may be disrupted by several days of heavy rains and ferocious winds during typhoon season between July to September.
On a smaller island like Taketomi, afternoons can be easily whiled away on a bicycle between picnic stops and a cool dip. The bigger islands like Ishigaki can easily be explored with a rented car. Driving, like the pace of life, moves along slowly. There is simply no need to rush on Okinawa.
Photo Credit: Kosu Blog