Travellers looking for an off-the-beaten-track destination in Japan might consider a boat trip to Tomogashima, which is the collective name for a group of four small islands called Okinoshima (the biggest island) Jinoshima,Torajima andKamijima located off the small town of Kada in Wakayama Prefecture.
Shugendō Buddhist monks once used the steep hilly terrain of these islands as part of their ascetic mountain training.
This coastline was for centuries a haven for pirates who preyed on ships passing through the narrow entrance to the Inland Sea between Awaji Island and Honshu. One famous pirate was named Tsumujikaze Goemon and he was rumoured to have buried a stash of his loot on one of the islands which has never been found.
During the Meiji period the Japanese military fortified the islands with a number of brick-built gun batteries, powder magazines, bunkers and support facilities to defend the strategically important approach to Osaka Bay against foreign naval attack. Up until the end of World War II, access to the islands was strictly prohibited and their existence was removed from maps, hence the use of the word ‘hidden’. The gun emplacements are now overgrown and damaged by coastal erosion but you can see that they would have had a great view of any approaching invasion force.
Some say that the ruined defences bear a resemblance to those in the Studio Ghibli film Laputa, Castle in the Sky and may have inspired the artist.One of the ferries to the island is even called Laputa, obviously aiming to attract Ghibli fans.
Nowadays the islands, which form part of Seto-naikai National Park, are a popular place to visit for both Japanese and foreign tourists (mostly Chinese and Koreans). There are a number of well marked hiking trails around the island and in addition to the military remains there is a lighthouse, some quiet stony beaches, bbq and camping spots and lovely coastal views.
A noticeboard on the island says this about the lighthouse:
Viewing the beautiful scenery of the Seto Island Sea from the white, western style lighthouse is sure to lighten the heart of even the most downtrodden spirit.
There is some accommodation on the main island – Uminoie guest house.
Camping is free but you need to register at the office first.
We noticed a few warning signs about snakes and it was not long before we spotted a small one on the path which slithered away after a tense standoff (possibly a non-venomous rat snake?).
How to get to Tomogashima
A ferry service operates from Kada Port.
There are four sailings per day in each direction as you can see on this photo.Two additional sailings at 10am and 3pm during the peak holiday season.
The boat trip takes about 20 minutes.
The cost is JPY2000 return for adults and JPY 1000 for kids.
To get to Kadayou can take a train from Wakayama City, Wakayamashi station.
Kada is famous for sea bream and there is a special pink coloured, fish-themed sightseeing train called Medetai at certain times of the day but our train was just an ordinary one.
Dazaifu is a small town just 15km from Fukuoka and a popular half-day destination for visitors to this part of Kyushu.
The town’s main highlight is its Tenman-gu Shrine, dedicated to a ninth century scholar, poet and court official named Michizane who was exiled to Dazaifu from Kyoto after falling victim to court intrigues. He died here in 903, in misery, and the shrine was built on his grave, although the current building is a more recent construction dating from 1591.
Among other things Michizane, or Tenjin, to use his deified name, is said to be a Shinto deity of education and today high school students (and their ambitious mothers) come to pray for good examination results and leave their hopes and wishes attached to trees in the shrine garden.
The gardens are beautiful though rather crowded with coach loads of Chinese tourists on the day of our visit. To avoid the crowds we walked up a small hill where a procession of red torii gates leads up to a small shrine and cave-like altar.
Elsewhere in the shrine grounds is a lake with an island spanned by two gracefully curved bridges. There are 6,000 plum trees here which burst into colour in early Spring.
Other attractions in Dazaifu include the Komyozenji temple with a dry stone Zen garden and a tree-planted moss garden renowned for its autumn colours.
There are also a couple of museums here including the ultra modern Kyushu National Museum.
The street leading from the railway station is lined with interesting shops selling souvenirs, snack foods and, a family favourite, Totoro merchandise.
Dazaifu is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not sitting for your exams.
It is the summer holiday season and the family wanted to go somewhere with a European flavour so I opted for this place, Huis Ten Bosch.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is in the Netherlands but it is actually a Dutch-themed resort park near Sasebo City on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
Huis Ten Bosch was conceived during the bubble period when Japan’s economy seemed unstoppable. It was a hugely ambitious project built at vast expense, intended to be not just a theme park but the hub of a whole new city to be created on scenic Omura Bay. Timing was poor however and it opened in 1992, just as the Japanese economy was entering its post-bubble recession from which it still hasn’t fully recovered.
Huis Ten Bosch’s creators intended to attract 5 million visitors annually (13000 per day) but it never reached that level and on our trip the number of visitors probably numbered in the hundreds or low thousands.
The park was loss making from the start and by 2003 it filed for bankruptcy with debts exceeding US$2 billion. But somehow it has survived, perhaps too big and too expensive to fail, and new backers have been found to keep it going.
By 2010 the park was starting to look desolate but since then new investment from H.I.S., a travel agency company, has seen a revival of fortunes, and now it appears to be in good repair and most of the attractions are operating, albeit well below capacity.
The park’s remote location on the western extreme of Japan has been another handicap. It is two hours by train from Fukuoka and a whopping 960km from Tokyo (nearly 8 hours by train). Since the park is closer to Seoul or Shanghai than it is to Tokyo the park’s operators are hoping that Korean and Chinese tourists will help to fill the void. However the recent strong Yen might deter foreign visitors – I paid US$100 per person for two-day admission tickets which includes free access to most attractions.
Lack of visitors might be bad for the investors but it was good for us since it felt at times as though we had this huge theme park to ourselves.
The original concept was to create a theme park for adults, with beautiful gardens, museums, fine food and authentic Dutch architecture. While this is fine for older tourists like me, the lack of thrill rides and amusements did not really draw in the crowds so a lot more attractions have since been added such as a zip line, bungee jumping, a water park, haunted house type exhibits, virtual reality games, hologram theatre and much more.
What they have created is a Japanese idealised version of Europe, specifically Holland. It is like old Amsterdam minus all the grubby bits. So there are clogs, canals, windmills, cheeses and Dutch gable houses but no traffic, litter or impolite foreigners who can’t speak Japanese.
The management wanted some European faces at Huis Ten Bosch to add authenticity to the visitor experience. When the park first opened it employed 100 Dutch staff to entertain and dress up in Dutch costumes. Due to cost constraints they have since been let go but there are still a few western singers and dancers who appear to be from Romania and presumably cost less. They were good musicians.
There are four hotels within the park, including Palace Huis Ten Bosch which is a copy of a Dutch royal palace. Just outside the park perimeter are another three official hotels, the most recent of which is the Henn-na Hotel, the world’s first robotised hotel where most of the staff are robots. I considered staying there but with my fear of technology I envisaged being locked in my room forever and unable to communicate with Japanese robots. I needn’t have worried, the dinosaur robot speaks English.
You can even live at HuisTen Bosch. The residential community of Wassenaar (red roof tops in the middle distance of this photo) comprises 130 traditional Dutch style houses and 10 apartment blocks lining the banks of a network of canals. They look very nice and are not too expensive by Japanese standards. They are mostly second homes for weekend use and are popular with boat owners who can moor their yachts in front of their houses. The only problem that I can see is that residents would have to put up with the constant replaying of Huis Ten Bosch’s Disney-like theme tune which would be clearly audible from the houses and would be likely to cause insanity after a few days of residence.
I’ve been to a lot of theme parks over the past few decades. I find them rather tiring with far too much queuing. Huis Ten Bosch is different. There was no queuing at all. It may lack roller coasters and other thrill rides but there is plenty to do for the whole family. I would recommend it.
I have just returned from a family holiday in Japan (Kobe and Tokyo). We are quite familiar with Japan, having lived in Kobe from 1993-1996. This was our first time back since those days and we wanted to show our sons where they spent their early childhood years and to take our daughter to visit Japan’s many child friendly attractions, including Tokyo Disneyland.
One of our first stops was Arima Onsen, a popular hot spring resort just beyond the Mt. Rokko hills which overlook the city of Kobe. One of our sons was born in Arima just over 20 years ago at the Adventist Hospital, one of the few hospitals with fluent English speaking doctors at the time.
For over 1500 years Arima’s natural hot springs have been attracting Emperors, monks and the health conscious seeking the curative and restorative benefits of their mineral rich waters. Most of the private spas are contained within hotels and require an overnight stay to enjoy the full experience but there are a couple of public bath houses catering for day trippers.
Not wishing to bother ourselves with the formality and strict rules of Japanese bathhouse etiquette we made do with the free and scalding hot footbath located in the street in front of the Arima Toy & Automata Museum. After feeling suitably invigorated we took a look around the museum which is in a 6 storey modern building.
It has a good selection of wooden and metal toys, mostly from Europe, and play areas have been set aside for children to play with some of the wooden games and puzzles. The model train layout is attractive but serious modellers would probably complain that they have mixed up some of the scales.
Elsewhere in Arima’s quaint narrow streets there are a number of temples, cosy restaurants and curious gift shops worth exploring.
I have visited a number of Reclining Buddha statues over the years and I thought it would be interesting to find out how many more are out there. The answer is a lot!
I have trawled the internet to see if there is a definitive list but there doesn’t seem to be one. That could be because there are so many of these statues. I started to piece together a list but gave up when I reached 30 as I kept finding new ones. The following is as far as I got, ranked in order of size (length). Needless to say there are very many omissions and errors.
I shall be in Europe for the next few weeks, an area which is outside the scope of this blog.
In my absence I though I would share with you some images of old Japanese picture postcards from my collection. These postcards were originally owned by a British Royal Navy captain who was seconded to Japan in the early 20th century to help develop and train the Imperial Japanese Navy. With hindsight he might have done too good a job!
This postcard is one of a series of twelve, one for each month, portraying Japanese festivals and ceremonies from a hundred years ago.
In case you cannot read the caption, it explains that these girls in traditional costume are playing the game of battledore and shuttlecock which is played during the first seven days of the New Year (pine decoration season).
There is no date on the postcard but judging by the car, I would guess it dates from the 1920s.
Battledore and shuttlecock is an ancient game which has largely been superseded by badminton in most countries. The object is to hit the shuttlecock to each other and prevent it from touching the ground for as long as possible. The record number of hits, achieved in 1830 in England, apparently stands at 2117. That does not sound unachievable and is a record waiting to be broken for anyone interested in getting a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
This game was introduced to Japan hundreds of years ago and is played with a wooden paddle called a hagoita and a shuttlecock made from a seed with feathers attached (hane).
A battledore fair called Hagoita-Ichi is held from 17th –19th December annually at Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo during which wooden paddles are sold. Over the years these paddles have become more elaborate, usually padded rather than plain wood and bearing pictures of kabuki actors, girls in kimonos, TV personalities and comic book heroes. Nowadays the paddles are just for ornament or good luck charms and are no longer used to play the game.
The Pine Decoration season refers to the practice of placing pairs of kadomatsu (traditional New Year decorations made from pine, bamboo and other plants) in front of homes to welcome ancestral spirits. After January 15th the kadomatsu are burned to appease and release the spirits them.