Japan – A return; shrines, spas and trails

Sixteen years ago I spent some time living in Japan, and every day since I’ve been trying to make it back. It’s the kind of country that won’t let you go even when you put an entire ocean or two between you, and I quickly became one of “those guys” who drove his friends crazy with incessant babble about “one day” making it back to Japan, or how “this year” I’d take that trip “for sure.”

Stairs to a Japanese shrine on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Just a few stairs

So, under the very real threat of losing all my friends over this, I finally managed to save the necessary money to put where my mouth is and started preparing for my long-delayed journey back to Japan. Despite having lived there, though, I was more than a little nervous about it. After all, over the last 16 years my only ongoing exposure to the language was in the form of anime and manga, which – let’s face it – is less than ideal. I would also be making this trip on my own, so in an emergency there would only be me to rely on – and that’s a questionable decision in the best of times.

The Trip

My original plan for Japan was to buy a plane ticket and a JR Rail Pass (a special pass that gets you on almost any train for the duration of your stay) and then wander aimlessly around the country. The problem, I realized, was that this left me in charge of my own accommodations, and I didn’t want to waste my time just looking for hotels. Eventually I swallowed my pride and started looking for a travel agency.

Shrine in Japan on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Visiting one of the many shrines

The ultimate goal of the trip was simple: do something that most tourists don’t. I had already seen and done all the traditional touristy things in Japan 16 years ago. I wanted something different. So I thought: everyone talks about backpacking across Europe – why not backpack across Japan. So with an idiotic grin on my face, I hit the search engines to explore my options.

I soon found exactly what I wanted. A company called Oxalis Adventures specialized in walking tours and hikes in Japan. Perfect! Even more perfect was the option for independent tours because I was not interested in guided tours – I wanted to do things on my own – and didn’t like the idea of being surrounded by other tourists who thought they knew everything about Japanese culture… when clearly I’M the one who knows everything about Japanese culture.

So I worked out the details of my custom trip with Oxalis Adventures, paid for the tour, and then sat down to find an affordable flight. It took a little bit of nervous comparison shopping, but I finally found the right one and purchased the tickets on March 10… the day before the earthquake and tsunami.

I looked into going over as a volunteer, but after that devastation they needed people with skills, and a writer would just get in the way. They needed people who could save lives – cleanup volunteers could come later. And while the hotels and other services along my planned route all said that they were fine, and that they really depended on new customers to keep their business going, it just wasn’t the right time to go. It had been 16 years – I could wait a couple more months.

Pilgrim trail in Japan on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

The trail is popular with ‘pilgrims’

Kumano Kodo

When things finally settled a little, my final itinerary included a couple days in Kyoto, a five-day hike across the Kii Peninsula, and then a couple days in one of my old stomping grounds. The hiking trail is called the Kumano Kodo, and it is a quiet pilgrimage that included the three Grand Shrines of Kumano and stops in some remote villages and towns.

The trail is well-marked and well-maintained, and along the trail there were occasional markers of ancient sites – old tea houses and lodgings – but there was nothing left of them. Not even a hint that they had been there. You just had to trust the sign that said something was, in fact, there.

Sightseeing in Japan on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

My lovely viewpoint

My time in Kyoto was spent in a western-style hotel, but on the hike I got to stay in more traditional Ryokans (travel inns) and Minshikus (kind of like a family-run bed and breakfast). My first night was in the Kiri-no-sato ryokan – which was a little unfortunate. Not because it was bad, but because it was too incredible! I still had four more days to go on this hike, and there was no way any other accommodation could live up to this place (but they did make a pretty good effort). Kiri-no-sato featured organic foods that were all grown locally, a wonderfully relaxing Onsen (public bath/spa), smooth jazz pumped in over the speakers while we ate, and friendly staff and guests that made the entire experience fun and memorable.

On a quick side note: yes, this trip involves the occasional use of the public bath. Do not fear the public bath. In fact, I submit that if you go to Japan and skip the public bath, you have not really gone to Japan at all. This is an experience you won’t find in any other country, and after a long day of hiking up and down the mountains, a little time soaking in natural mineral water that’s just this side of scalding will loosen those muscles and prepare you for the next day.

The rest of the accommodations were all nice, and Yunomine Onsen in particular offered a great experience. This is a little town that sprung up around a natural hot springs, so there is a slight smell of sulfur that permeates the area, but the baths were nice, and the water is hot enough to boil eggs. Literally. There’s a small pool near the stream that they maintain especially for that purpose.

Forest trail in Japan on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Wow that’s my trail

I finally made it to the port city of Kii-Katsura – a smallish town but with plenty to see. I was tempted to try some of the local cuisine, which is to say I was tempted to try the whale meat that many of the restaurants in the area served (mostly because I knew that would upset some people back home), but after five days and ten meals of delicious but strange foods, all I really wanted was a good curry. Maybe some ramen.

My thumbs up!

This is a trip I would recommend to anyone who wants to see a different side of Japan. A trip like this will expose you (not a public bath reference!) to a side of the country that most westerners will never see. You don’t need to know Japanese (though I was surprised at how much my anime and manga managed to preserve) because even the most remote signs include English translations and most the people you meet will do everything they can to help you out.

I spent the entire trip waiting for something to go wrong, but everything went exactly right. That probably means Karma is saving up to really let me have it down the road somewhere (the Universe needs to be put back into balance, after all), but for now I’ll just hold onto these memories and start planning to go back – hopefully before another 16 years go by.

About the Author – Andy Eliason

Andy Eliason is a writer, gamer and traveler. Aside from travelling to Japan and writing a novel in 30 days (two of his most recent projects) you will find Andy online writing for companies like Hotels.com and Hapari.com, DigitalStormOnline.com and climbing the Rock Band 3 leaderboards.

Isolated shrine in Japan on Mallory on Travel adventure photography

Incredible place for a small shrine

*All photography Andy Eliason

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Comments 6

  1. rules

    Very Awesome! I love your story, and you have already convinced me that I have to go as well someday, though I don’t know the language.

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      Author
      Iain

      Thank you Cornelius yes the pictures came out quite well after a little editing, Andy claims not to be a very good photographer but he did fine I think. No I guess teaching is not the first priority at such times.

  2. Cori

    Great article and nice to see one which highlights a different side of Japan. Writing about Japan helps tremendously since it shows people are very still visiting this wonderful country. I’m heading there this May and hope to visit an onsen in the Kyoto area. Cheers!

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      Author
      Iain

      Thank you Cori I am glad you liked the article, he did a great job describing his experience and suggesting some different places to visit. It is also gratifying to hear people are returning to Japan.

  3. jon

    just one thing about onsen – that’s an outdoor public bath, usually associated with hot spring (else why outdoor?)

    of course, the water is not 100% spring water.

    however, when it comes to public baths, that’s pretty much available in some other asian countries, just in different forms. the closest to Japanese ones are the Taiwanese ones, since Taiwan was run by the Japanese for awhile. China has some, and so does South Korea (jimjibang).

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