COVID-19 has limited the ability to travel, but it hasn’t stopped us dreaming. In the midst of planning our next trips, some of The Japan Times’ regular Escape contributors write about where they want to go in Japan once we see the back of the coronavirus.
Michinoku Coastal Trail, Tohoku
The gym where I used to work out closed in February. Now my daily exercise is a solitary walk along the river near my Tokyo apartment. As I push upriver, my mind often drifts to the treks I’ve made on the Michinoku Coastal Trail, a hiking route that runs 1,025 kilometers along the Pacific Ocean from southern Aomori Prefecture all the way down into Fukushima Prefecture.
Memories of the stretch I did in 2018 are particularly poignant because I walked it with my son. He works in the U.S. and, as things stand now, is not permitted to enter Japan. Nor can I visit him. This morning, I thought that when all this is over, I’ll return to the trail. This time, I’ll do the section between Kamaishi and Ofunato that will take me over the Kuwadai Pass. The trail there follows the old Sanriku Hamakaido, an ancient trade route that cuts through deep forests and meadows abloom with woodland flowers. And I’ll invite my son to walk with me again. — Alice Gordenker
Noto’s kiriko festivals, Ishikawa Prefecture
I’ve been to a lot of festivals in Japan — some staid and traditional, others wild and wacky. But none have touched me as much as the Noto kiriko (lantern float) festivals in Ishikawa Prefecture.
The kiriko festivals retain much of the nostalgia associated with Showa Era (1926-89) Japan, summoning back the prefecture’s scattered sons each year to carry their respective neighborhood’s massive kiriko.
I first saw Nanao’s Issaki Hoto Festival in the summer of 2015. For hours I stalked the parade of men from each neighborhood, in color-coordinated happi jackets, hoisting 15-meter-tall, 2-ton kiriko through their streets to a cacophony of flutes, drums and chanting. By nightfall, participants were drunk, and the kiriko started to sway precariously close to buildings and telephone wires.
It was raucous and electrifying, cheering in the street under the kiriko’s aegis. Voices were hoarse; sweat and sake flowed with equal abandon. At 1 a.m., delirious with fatigue, I was allowed to step in and brace the well-worn wood of a float, heaving at full strength for a few strenuous meters. What a feeling of collective achievement! I can’t wait to experience it again. — Claire Williamson
Kita Ward’s backstreets, Tokyo
Backstreet Stories has allowed me to explore every corner of Tokyo, so it’s crazy difficult to choose where to head first once the coast is clear.
The backstreets of Kita Ward, though, have my vote. Exiting Nishigahara Station, I’ll zip past the National Printing Bureau, wave to the heroic firefighters of Takinogawa Fire Station, then duck into wagashiya (traditional sweets) shop Hiratsukatei Tsuruoka. This tiny family-run shop outlasted World War II, so I’m confident the Tsuruokas will survive this moment, thanks to their brilliant grilled skewers of slightly crispy, savory dango.
Supposing that it’s early summer, the scent of roses blooming in Kyu Furukawa Teien will be at the gates to copper magnate Toranosuke Furukawa’s former estate. I’ll greet the roses by name — hello Maria Callas, hello Ingrid Bergman — before heading down mossy dark steps to the core of Jihei Ogawa’s (1860-1933) magnificent Japanese garden. Colossal lanterns, fanned branches of Japanese maples, a waterfall and gem-colored kingfishers make this living masterpiece sublime. It has never surprised me that the garden’s central pond was designed to resemble the Japanese character for “heart.” Part of mine lingers there. — Kit Nagamura
Streetside yatai, Fukuoka Prefecture
Every evening at around 5 p.m., as the day crowd begins its switch into the night one, small food stalls known as yatai pop up across the city of Fukuoka, crowding the spaces outside train stations, the corners of major intersections and the banks of the Nakagawa river that flows through Nakasu, the city’s infamous pleasure district.
The food these stalls serve is mixed — many focus on tonkotsu ramen, Fukuoka’s most well known culinary export, but others serve up yakitori, snails in garlic and wild game meat.
What is shared among them is the atmosphere. Yatai are designed to be crowded, and any evening spent at one is a mixture of maths and magic as the tenchō (manager) squeezes in as many patrons as they can around the stall’s tiny counters.
It is an atmosphere that is designed for times of communality and togetherness, not pandemic and social-distancing, and I can’t wait to be able to visit one again and rub shoulders with my neighbor, for it’ll mean this whole nasty business is behind us. — Oscar Boyd
Iya Valley, Tokushima Prefecture
Being stuck in Tokyo during springtime and not being able to travel has been hard. When it’s safe to head off on an adventure again, the first trip I’ll take will be to the magnetizing beauty of Iya Valley in the heart of Shikoku.
A few years ago I caught a train through the valley, but I didn’t have the chance to stop off and explore it for myself. Instead I had to be content with staring down at rafters paddling the glistening turquoise waters through the train window, the sun streaming across the lush mountainsides; countryside school children got on and off the train while Tame Impala blared through my headphones.
Now the adventures, rafting, hiking and low-key lodgings will be the place I go to recharge and feel free again. The area offers the chance to see remote, mountainous Japan with the addition of thatched farmhouses in the hamlet of Ochiai, traditional vine bridges and the hikes of Shikoku’s 88-temple pilgrimage. — Rebecca Saunders
Kerama Islands, Okinawa
Almost every holiday when I was younger was spent somewhere remote, invariably on an island. Owing to my parents newfound “YOLO-ness,” school holidays often meant I found myself on remote Pacific or Caribbean islands with my family, instead of hanging out with friends in England. My earliest memories of trips abroad are not usual.
When I visited the Kerama Islands in 2016, it was the first time I had been to a tropical place in years. The 25-hour voyage by ferry from Kagoshima sparked my imagination. There are faster ways to get to the island, but the journey was transformative: Each stop along the way at islands such as Okinoerabujima and Tokunoshima, each time on deck, humid air whipping around me, took me into a familiar unknown.
Whether it’s getting a lift in the back of a pickup to Tokashiku Beach — snorkeling with green turtles just offshore — on Tokashiki Island, or hiking, sweat-drenched, the abandoned roads of Zamami Island and witnessing fluorescent coral at Furuzamami Beach, or if it’s just the insectoid whirr of night, my compass points here. — Russell Thomas
Restaurant Miya, Hiroshima Prefecture
In these long weeks of confinement, thoughts drift back to a golden day in a more freewheeling Golden Week. Back to a roadside restaurant named Miya, a couple of kilometers past Miyajimaguchi ferry terminal on the road from Hiroshima to Iwakuni. The restaurant rises out of the seashore opposite Miyajima, looking close enough to touch just across the water.
This astounding view reveals the island without its famous torii and shrine, just mountainsides carpeted in dense primeval forest. Beyond Miyajma, you glimpse an endless labyrinth of misty islands. Today, locked down far from such natural wonder, I hear those islands beckon, like in Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”: “Sail to me, let me enfold you.”
The restaurant is nearly all glass, so wherever you sit, this serene panorama follows you like Mona Lisa’s eyes, while the salty tang of a sea breeze caresses your skin. Then comes the food: a tantalizing Italian-Japanese fusion. I had a spaghetti with uni (sea urchin) in cream sauce. It bordered on the mystical; the perfect place for that post-pandemic treat. — Steve John Powell
Northern Culture Museum, Niigata Prefecture
In these most pestilential of times, my mind returns to the end of last summer: a 30-minute bus ride from Niigata to the Northern Culture Museum in the village of Soumi.
The former mansion of the Ito family, the residence and garden were turned into a private museum after the war. A 100-mat tatami reception room faces the main landscape design and a rear courtyard garden. It took renowned landscaper Taiami Tanaka five years to complete.
To the unschooled, gardens like this, with their waterfalls, stone lanterns, wisteria trellises and miniature bridges, can look like horticultural theme parks. To the informed, they gyrate with symbolism, giddy with an abundance of form.
There is no place for anxiety or neurosis in gardens like this, healing spaces that restore equipoise, decelerate the process of time and promote wellbeing. There is no concern that, on returning, I will find the garden irretrievably altered, provincial gardens such as this represent that most precious of things: age bestowing beauty, not decay. — Stephen Mansfield