After two years of closure to tourists, Japan will welcome visitors from 10 June. Steve Hogarty takes a trip from Osaka into the ancient Japanese countryside.
Osaka’s main entertainment district, Dotonbori is a kind of psychedelic, neon circus. Brilliant, colourful lights bounce off the glass-fronted buildings, and below they transform the surface of the canal under the famous Ebisu Bridge into a shimmering sequin ribbon stretching out into infinity. After a few too many drinks, it would be easy to lose your mind here, somewhere between the animatronic crab the size of a Ford Transit, which looms over the main thoroughfare like some escaped Cthulian horror, and the surrounding maze of closet-sized heavy metal bars, karaoke rooms filled with crooning salary men with loosened ties, and inexplicably British-themed pubs serving warm ale and fish and chips.
One day later, and what feels like one million miles away, I’m soaking in a natural hot spring in the river Oto, in the earlobe-shaped Wakayama prefecture a few hours south of the city. The town of Kawayu Onsen is almost too perfect an illustration of the whiplash in contrast between Japan’s bustling, claustrophobic urban sprawl and the utter calm of its vast, spectacular and varied countryside. At the secluded Kawayu Midoriya hotel, visitors can choose between traditional rooms or western style, the former a picture of ascetic Japanese minimalism, with low tables, tatami mats and a futon bed that appears as if from nowhere during the turndown service.
Onsens in this part of the country are of the traditional sort. Nudity as well as a thorough pre-dip scrub down and rinse off are compulsory rituals before stepping a toe in the rock pool baths, the purity of the spring water far more important than any one visitor’s timidity. Though you are allowed a modesty flannel should you require one, it must be whipped away at the final second and neatly folded atop the head before stepping into the spring. No actual onsen police were around to enforce these unwritten rules, but it still seemed rude to nature itself to disobey them.
Get there just before the sun sets and you’ll experience what must surely be the most serene moment on the planet. The river Oto cuts a sharp ravine through the forest, the trees rising sharply on either side so that the golden light races up them before departing and giving way to lurid purple skies. There is no sound but the burbling of the water as it traces its wide curve through the woods. Above, bats wake up and flit from one side of the channel to the other. Below all of this majesty is you, quietly poaching in the spring like a cosy egg, happy to remain there for the rest of existence.
It’s impossible to fail to immediately and intimately appreciate why this region is considered sacred, to recognise that it may represent some thinning of the boundary between this reality and the one of every Miyazaki film you’ve seen, every Murakami book you’ve read. For more than a thousand years, Shinto, Buddhist and miscellaneous pilgrims have made the trek along the 70km Kumano Kodo trail, beginning at Tanabe and winding through peaceful mist-filled woodlands, up countless steps formed from the gnarled roots of maple trees, and across mountainsides dotted with shrines large and small. The route ends near the 34 metre tall torii gateway at Hongu, the largest in the world, situated in the bottom of an enormous bowl shaped valley and visible for miles around. It’s tempting to imagine the pilgrims of centuries past cresting the valley’s ridge to see it and knowing that their journey was coming to an end, though the gate itself was only built in the year 2000.
The old shrines face a peculiar threat. Since the late 1970s invasive raccoons have been making their homes inside their wooden structures. First brought to Japan as pets, they promptly escaped into the wild and now chew and claw at the facades, pillars and ceilings of centuries-old buildings to nest in their arched roofs. Byōdō-in, the ancient Buddhist temple in Kyoto which appears on the ten yen coin, has become a favourite haunt of the raccoons, but such are the efforts to mitigate their impact that you’d hardly notice. The buildings are grand spectacles, the central Phoenix Hall housing a giant buddha statue which peers out of a roof box above the entrance and into the harmonious gardens which surround.
A little less serene are the thousands of iconic orange torii gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, which snake through the Inari mountain and bustle with shuffling tourists during the day, but can be visited in the small hours of the night if your jetlag compels you. Similarly crowded is Nara Park to the south of Kyoto, home to a 15 metre tall Buddha as well as an infamous population of tame deer, who have learned to bow for a reward of special deer crackers, or to simply snatch them from your pockets while your back is turned.
Navigate the deer gauntlet to the Daibutsuden hall housing the giant bronze buddha, and you’ll find him flanked by a shimmering collection of religious artefacts. One pillar features a hole in its base the same diameter as the Buddha’s own nostril, and anyone who can pass through it, according to legend, will be granted enlightenment.
The key to enlightenment, it turns out, is simply to dive in hands first and wriggle as hard as you can. Just as you’d always suspected.
- Abercrombie & Kent 01242 386 483) offers a 14 night trip to Japan from £4,445pp based on two sharing, including international flights to Osaka with British Airways, accommodation, transfers and some guiding.
Japan will reopen to foreign tour groups from June 10. More than 100 countries and regions outside of Japan, including the UK, will be placed on a tier system – red, yellow and blue – which will determine if visitors are allowed to bypass quarantine measures. It is vital you check the UK status before you travel or consult your tour operator.