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Navigating your way around Japan

by Amy Chavez

Special To The Japan Times

Ever since I moved to Japan I’ve heard the Japanese say, “Nihon wa chiisai kuni desu” (Japan is a small country), with the underlying meaning that this fact is responsible for many of Japan’s weaknesses. Foreigners are quick to point out that England is also a small country, yet has historically been very powerful. But hey, let’s not even go there!

But you can’t deny that this “small country” mentality is coming back to bite Japan. It’s no wonder foreigners are not coming to visit Japan this year after the events of March 11. With Japan often described as an “island nation” or, “with a landmass equal to the state of Montana,” it’s easy to see why people outside Japan would be surprised to find that Japan is actually over 3,000 km long. That makes Japan more similar to the Mississippi River than Montana.

How well do you know Japan? Could you tell someone, for example, that Japan is 880 km off the coast of China and 215 km off South Korea?

Let’s do a virtual trip around the country. You’ll go places you’ve probably never ever been in Japan. Ready?

Pull out your smartphone, which gives a GPS reading of: 35° 41′ North, 139° 44′ East. Where are you? You’re in Tokyo. This is a good place to start since most foreign tourists start their Japan trip in Tokyo and head west.

Next, get out your Japan Rail Pass and take the bullet train west, getting off 545 km later. Where will you be? In Osaka. Spend a few days visiting Osaka Castle and then hit Dotonbori Street, the entertainment district of Osaka since 1662. Here you can “ruin yourself by extravagance in food.” Be sure to fill up on takoyaki octopus balls and takoyaki-flavored snacks.

Now let’s explore the Seto Inland Sea. Get on a ferry in Osaka Bay and head to Okayama, where I have invited you to “couch surf” at my house. Your ferry will pass Kobe, Awaji Island and the famous whirlpools of Naruto. You’ll pass under the 13-km Seto Ohashi Bridge (actually a series of six bridges) that connects Honshu and Shikoku. By the time you get to Okayama, you will have travelled 87 nautical miles, or 160 km.

After a couple of days hiking, kayaking and hangin’ with the locals on Shiraishi Island, you decide to go next to Miyajima and Hiroshima. You figure you can make the distance kayaking, since it is only 120 km. But I tell you you’re crazy and I offer to take you on my sailboat. Since Miyajima is an island, we can disembark there without having to go to Hiroshima on the mainland first to catch the ferry. We pick a favorable tide and leave the next morning. It takes us two days to sail there. We sail under another great bridge system, the Shimanami Kaido bridge system that spans six islands between Honshu and Shikoku.

You spend the next day sightseeing on Miyajima, touring Itsukushima Shrine and taking pictures of the giant torii gate in the sea. If you’re quick, you can still make the A-bomb Museum before it closes, so you hop on the ferry to Hiroshima. After the museum, you walk around the Hiroshima Peace Park and take time to pray for world peace.

The next day you’d like to go to Kitakyushu to tour the TOTO toilet manufacturing plant. You take a train from Hiroshima to the top of Kyushu, where you are now 875 km from Tokyo.

From there, you decide to go much further south, first to the bottom of Kyushu and then over to Yakushima Island. You take the train down through Nagasaki and stop for a few days to explore some islands in Nagasaki Bay. You continue by train to Kagoshima. You are now over 1,000 km away from Tokyo, and it sure feels like it!

You catch a hydrofoil to Yakushima, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a completely different world. It is raining, but nonetheless, you get pleasantly lost among the ancient yakusugi trees that are thousands of years old. You spend a couple days hiking through the forests and talking to loggerhead sea turtles on the beach.

From Kagoshima, you continue south until you are 1,550 km from Tokyo. Where are you? In Naha, Okinawa Prefecture! After swimming and scuba diving in the clear, tropical waters, you can make the donation to help the endangered Dugong (a distant relative of the manatee). Lastly, you take a trip to Iriomote Island to find out more about the mysterious Iriomote cat. By now you have run out of time and must go home.

Although you managed to travel over 1,500 km of Japan, almost the distance from New York to Miami, you have still only traveled half the country.

Where will you go visit next time you have a holiday in Japan? How about 1,000 km north of Tokyo? That will put you at the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And the Japanese people think Japan is small?