Tono is one of the few places in Japan that still maintains its natural agrarian atmosphere. Rolling hills, rice fields, old Japanese houses and a never-ending forest make you feel you've gone 100 years back in time. So why was I surprised to see ‘Beware of bears’ signs as I explored by bicycle? Fortunately, I never had to test if the warning was real, or risk becoming a meal on wheels :-)
Japan is one of those countries that takes time and patience to navigate. Extreme politeness, homogeneous thinking and a billion customs create barriers for even the most engaged foreigner. But there is a point were you feel that you have gained just a bit of acceptance, and are a part of the culture and society. For me in August, in Hiroshima after an afternoon drinking sake, that moment came; and I will never forget it.
You ever hear of a dish so weird, so bizarre that you just have to try it? In investigating my Italian roots and watching way too many episodes of The Iron Chef, I came across the fact that in Venice squid ink pasta exists. So when my host mother took me to a fancy and slightly romantic Italian restaurant in Hiroshima and I found it on the menu, I could not turn down the chance. To be honest, there is no real way to explain this dish. The taste and texture are definitely unique. Was it good? I don’t know, I would definitively not eat it again... but, I will never regret I tried it.
Love how everything in Japan represents regional festivals and folklore. Where else in the world will you see a demon phone booth?
Okayama Prefecture is famous in Japan as being the birthplace of one of their national heroes: "momotaro", or the Peach boy. This hero was sent to earth by the gods to defend his loving parents and save his village from evil demons. Since inception he has been seen on war propaganda, has a high-end jeans brand named after him and a popular bean dessert. But I have to say the best contribution to the Momotaro cult has to be this museum in Kurashiki. Part fun house, part museum and part souvenir shop, there is nothing quite like it. Don't miss the house of horrors on the top floor… the owner did a great job creating edo-period “misemono”, or freak shows!
I love the novelty of Japanese tourist towns; how they take an idea such as Old Edo, a forgotten trade or a local dish and make it the theme in the entire village. The Town of Kurashiki is no different – these perfectly maintained buildings from the early 1900's showcase sake demonstrations, hand made soba noodles and hundreds of souvenir stores selling trinkets from Japanese folk lore. A definite highlight is the Toy Museum, where the owner showcases a variety of toys from all over the country dating back hundreds of years. Spend the time to request an English guide, and you won’t regret it!
As I was walking I got a sudden chill, as if a 100 faces were watching me... Then I looked behind me...
Nao-shima is a small island in Shikoku, Japan, that is most easily reached by ferry from Takamatsu, the capital of the region, which is famous for its Udon noodles (rightfully so by the way). Nao-shima was part of a huge re-beautification project where once a sewage treatment plant existed; and extreme poverty for locals now has become a sight of art nouveau. Bathhouses with mammoths inside, decorative pumpkins, old houses converted into artist instillations (I love the building with the Statue of Liberty inside). It is a bit pricey, at almost $200 to see everything, but this garbage dump turned wonderland is a not to be missed. BTW, don’t miss the James Bond museum near the ferry station!
Japanese towns are famous for their ability to incorporate local ingredients into any food, even if the mixture should not exist! As I was being guided around Oga in Akita, my guide suggested we stop for the salt ice cream. I should've known better, but my curiosity got the best of me. To this day I'm not sure if I actually like this ice cream… all I can say is if you’re in Oga and someone offers you ice cream, be ready for salty surprise!
One very valuable lesson I learned about Japan is that every town has tourist potential; so should I have been surprised when my host in Akita suggested going on a toilet adventure? To be honest though, Japan's oldest toilet was very cool. Leave it to a samurai to come up with the first steps to indoor plumbing!
I love Japanese folklore, with its stories of Samurai, demons and spirits. One of my favorite characters from Japanese lore is the Tengu, a mountain nymph of sorts, who likes to tempt Buddhist priests into breaking their vows and to teach devoted Shinto warriors to become masters of the sword. In Kamakura, there is a famous temple with over 40 Tengu statues and about a billion stairs. I guess if you want to meet the gods you need to pass the trials to get there?