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Exploring southern Japan's samurai towns, stunning seascapes and ancient temples

The i logo The i 12/02/2019 Pascale Hughes
a close up of a hillside next to a body of water © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd

Until quite recently, all shades of blue and green were described by the same Japanese word, ao or aoi. The modern Japanese word for green, Midori, has been widely used only for 80 years. Here on the blustery Nagato Coast, where there is little sense of division between the land, the sea, and the sky, the concept makes sense. Turn to the ocean and the Japanese Sea stretches cobalt to the horizon. Turn inland and the rustling forest fades quickly into the misty blue hill after hill, melting into the sky.

a small island in the middle of a body of water with Faraglioni in the background: Parts of the coast are protected for their scenic natural beauty.Photo: Visit Japan © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd Parts of the coast are protected for their scenic natural beauty.Photo: Visit Japan

Towns are few and far between on this southern stretch of the Japanese coast, but, with a couple of domestic tourists, I am visiting the Motonosumi Inari Shrine. Its 123 bright red torii gates, all built by one man in the 1950s, wind up a steep rock face leading away from the sea. I climb the roughly hewn staircase that takes you under each wooden gate, up to the shrine at the top, dedicated to the white fox that is considered lucky in the area. An offertory box is mounted at the very top of the shrine and pilgrims take turns to try to throw coins inside, hoping the fox will grant a wish when they land them in the box with a clang.

Out to sea, pockets of pink krill swirl, dividing and reforming around the occasional fisherman's trawler. I am 1,000km southeast of Tokyo, almost as far south as you can go on Honshu, the largest island in the Japanese archipelago. South Korea is 200km away further east.

a large body of water surrounded by trees: Rurikoji Temple, a five-storied pagoda built in 1442. Photo: Visit Japan © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd Rurikoji Temple, a five-storied pagoda built in 1442. Photo: Visit Japan Neon skyscrapers or the distinctive slopes of Mount Fuji might be the images of Japan that spring to mind first, but the south is a haven of wonders too. Here, a compelling culture brims with history and the landscape is staggeringly beautiful. The region has received a boost as it prepares to host some Rugby World Cup matches in Fukuoka this summer. I flew into Tokyo Haneda from London and then took a bus across the city to fly down to Yamaguchi from Narita, Tokyo's other airport. It would have taken four and a half hours by bullet train. On my way out of Yamaguchi to the coast, I stop at Rurikoji Temple, a five-storied pagoda built in 1442. 'It is one of the three most famous pagodas in Japan, alongside Daigoji and Horyuji Temple,' says Mariya Noguchi, who is travelling with me for a couple of days as a translator and guide. 

Iconic Chureito pagoda during cherry blossom season with mt. Fuji, Fuji Five lakes, Japan © Matteo Colombo Iconic Chureito pagoda during cherry blossom season with mt. Fuji, Fuji Five lakes, Japan

We walk around the lake filled with the pagada's shimmering reflection to stand underneath its layers of intricately slotted wood. 'Many shrines are made of wood that the builders know younger generations will need to replace,' says Mariya. 'Barely any of the original materials remain, but we still view the pagada as the original. 'The paths take us further through the gardens, into the temple courtyard. It is filled with statues, doorways, uneven steps, and hanging twists of rope. I slip a 100 yen coin into a tin machine that spurts out my luck on a scrap of paper. I am moderately lucky, it says. Those who draw bad luck can tie it to a statue of a tree and leave it behind at the temple.

Onsen culture

a dining room table in front of a window: Onsens, traditional hot spring baths are very popular. Photo: Visit Japan © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd Onsens, traditional hot spring baths are very popular. Photo: Visit Japan

I tuck the paper into my pocket and find it later when I change into a yukata robes to go to an onsen, a traditional hot spring bath, in Hotel Nishinagato on the Nagato Coast. 'Robes are always tied left over right,' says Mariya when I tell her where I am going. Japanese houses tended to be small, with no space for a bathtub. Instead, people went their local sento, or communal bathhouse, which are often fed by a hot spring. Today, Japanese families drop into their local sento as much for a chat as a wash. Onsen provision is often taken into consideration when booking a holiday. 

Japanese hot spring, open-air bath Japanese hot spring, open-air bath

I follow the clink of wooden sandals to the baths. Inside, two women lit by the chiaroscuro of a single beam of light from the ceiling sit by the water's edge, leaning against the wooden slats of the floor and talking in muted voices. Beyond twists of steam rising from the warm water, is a velvet sky filled with bright stars through the open wall of the onsen. The hushed sound of the ocean, meters away, fills the room. The weirdness of dipping into a bath full of naked strangers evaporates by the end of my trip.

Japanese cuisine

a bowl filled with different types of food on a table: A bento box. Photo: Pascale Hughes © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd A bento box. Photo: Pascale Hughes

As many visitors to Japan find, the food is a highlight. There is a lot of raw fish. The contents of one bento box are almost too pretty to eat. Divided into nine small compartments, it is filled with morsels of sushi, sashimi or shiitake mushrooms, spored in the trunks of sawtooth oaks, each laid on a delicately handmade piece of handmade pottery. Mariya shows me how to mix spicy wasabi into the bowl of soy sauce, trying not to laugh at my chopsticks technique. I have never met anyone so kind and polite who simultaneously made me feel so lumbering, large and uncouth. 

Close up on salmon sashimi texture Close up on salmon sashimi texture

I try fugu, the pufferfish which is more than 200 times more poisonous than cyanide and can only be prepared by a highly trained and licensed chef. Cooked tempura style it tastes like something that's been sitting around in a chip shop for too long, but in raw sashimi style, or cooked on the table in a bubbling hot pot, it is a mild, slightly rubbery, white fish that leaves a tingle on the tongue.

Sumurai towns

a group of people in a garden: The 400-year-old Kikuya residence in Hagi Castle Town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd The 400-year-old Kikuya residence in Hagi Castle Town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Some 23 people have died from eating fugu since 2000, but I am still alive the next day to travel to Hagi Castle Town, a well preserved port town from the Edo period that prospered between the seventh and nineteenth century as center of politics, administration, and economy. Samurais, merchants, and craftsmen used to walk its street, but now they are filled with tourists visiting its temples, houses, and countless pottery shops. A group of schoolgirls in neat pleated uniforms cycle over the cobbles, ducking under the low hanging branches of the orange trees that lean over white stone walls. The fruits are still green - they ripen in December - but the stepped paddy fields in the distance are yellow and ready for harvesting. The maple is starting to turn. Soon, the trees will blaze red and orange for a few days, an event celebrated every year across Japan.

Kanazawa, Japan at  the historic Nishi Chaya District. Kanazawa, Japan at the historic Nishi Chaya District.

An unassuming gate is the entrance to the 400-year-old Kikuya residence, a medieval mansion that was built by a wealthy merchant family, and is now maintained by their descendants. It is open to visitors and filled with objects from the town's heyday: kimono washing boards, pipes, shells, handmade wallets and a samurai's arrows. After looking around, Mariya and I sit on the aromatic tatami mat floors. The paper screen doors have been pulled open to reveal a tranquil inner garden, filled with carefully place rocks, manicured plants, maples and cedar trees.

Fukuoka city

As gorgeous as the countryside and small towns are, I have been hunkering to explore the bright streets of a city and am pleased I can spend some time in downtown Fukuoka before flying out of the city. We leave Konshu by driving over the Kanmon suspension bridge to Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu, reaching its biggest city as dusk falls and the wide streets are coming to life.

a group of people standing in front of a store front at night: Foodstalls in Fukuoka. Photo: Yoshikazu Takada © Provided by Johnston Publishing Ltd Foodstalls in Fukuoka. Photo: Yoshikazu Takada

The pavements are filled with foodstands under red gazebos serving up sizzling gyoza dumplings with crisp, lacy edges and bowls of Hakata ramen in fatty pork broth, both local specialties. Neon signs gleam and reflect through the light drizzle that has started fall as people make their way home from work. Bikes, almost always unlocked, are parked everywhere and flat fronted K-cars, the smallest vehicles allowed on the highway, trundle through the streets. I duck under one of the steam-filled stalls to escape the rain and catch the scent of hot oils, onions, and miso. Like the hot onsens, the pagodas or the traffic cones that have cute male and female heads with long lashes and hard hats, it's another quintessentially Japanese experience - unfamiliar but fascinating. I know I have only scratched the surface of this part of this extraordinary country.

When to go

Fukuoka will host to Ireland, Samoa, and Italy in the Rugby World Cup this September and November.  The 2020 Olympics are in Tokyo.

The flowering of the cherry blossom from late March to early April is an important, heady event every year. In Fukuoka, the Fukuoka Castle Sakura Festival celebrates among 1,000 cherry trees with food booths and picnickers under trees in full bloom. Autumn is also considered very beautiful, and a bit less crowded.

How to get there

Fly from London to Fukuoka via Tokya Haneda, Seoul or Shanghai from around £600, or to Yamaguchi Ube via Tokyo for the same price. Within the country, a rail pass will cover most airport transfers, local train rides, bullet train rides, some inner-city lines and buses, as well as a ferry in Hiroshima. Passes must be bought before arrival in Japan and start at £203pp for seven days. 

Where to stay

Hotel Nishinagato has spectacular views of the Nagato Coast, indoor and outdoor onsen, and traditional Japanese rooms that sleep whole families on futons on the floor. Half board form £121 pp. No website?

Capsule rooms in the centrally located Well Cabin Nakasu in Fukuoka come with a flat-screen TV and a safe. Staff are eager to help. From £26. 

The JR Kyushu Hotel Blossom Fukuoka has clean and spacious rooms and is just a couple of minutes away from Fukuoka's JR Hakata station. Doubles with breakfast from £80.  

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