The offbeat, as with beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. All of Japan itself is considered a bit otherwordly to most Americans, only a few hundred thousand of whom come here as tourists (just 445,840 in 2004), nearly matched in numbers by business visitors from the USA (313,913). But within Japan, where the usual top spots are Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, much of the rest of the nation is less-visited but alive with seemingly secretive and strange cultural activities -- some even offbeat to the Japanese.
If you have checked out the big three cities noted above (and any of the popular side trips to places such as Nikko, Fuji Hakone Izu, or Kamakura), you should consider any of dozens of other fascinating areas from the Japan Alps to Nagasaki, from the Sea of Japan looking towards Russia to the Seto Inland Sea, nestled between all four of the nation's major islands. Really getting away from it all for many means leaving Japan's main island, Honshu, for its lesser-known sisters, the other three big islands -- Shikoku, Kyushu and Hokkaido.
Most of all, in these spots you have a chance to experience Old Japan, including customs that are highly endangered, some quite unworldly, perhaps so much so that they are not likely to be around for long. In search of what may soon be lost, I looked at two of Japan's other major islands, Kyushu and Shikoku, recently.
In June, the rainy season (but blessed this year by as many dry days as wet ones), I visited Shikoku; one of its biggest cities, Takamatsu; as well as neighboring Shodoshima, which means "Small Beans Island." (It's nicknamed Island of the Olives by local boosters, however.) Shodoshima, the second largest in a chain of over 800 islands, lies in the Seto Inland Sea, home to such cities as Hiroshima, Kobe and Osaka. It can be reached only by ferry or hydrofoil in as little as 30 minutes from Takamatsu (not counting helicopter if you can afford to charter one).
Shodo Island Highlights
Since the main reason to visit Shodoshima (pop. 40,000) is to get away from the frantic pace of Tokyo or Osaka, your first objective here may well be a resort, such as the splendid 111-room Hotel Olivean (tel. + 81 879/65-2311; e-mail email@example.com; www.hotelolivean.com), perched high up in the green hills of the island, and calling itself a Sports Resort and a place for Well Being, with such facilities as a beautiful indoor/outdoor hot springs spa (open 24/7), a mini putt golf course, a pitch n' putt golf course, 19 tennis courts, a big pool and four restaurants (French, Japanese, sushi and teppanyaki, plus a fifth, barbecue, in summer).You have a choice of big western or Japanese accommodations, with rooms starting as low as ¥7650 ($75) and ranging up to suites at ¥44,650 ($440) , without meals or tax. You can reduce those rates by 5% when you reserve online via the hotel's website. There's a courtesy bus from ferry terminals on the island. The hotel boasts of the island's Mediterranean-like climate, the weather being just right for the growth of sumptuous groves of olive trees, imported here from Greece (via America) in 1908 and flourishing ever since.
Sightseeing on the island might include the gigantic and modern Dai Kannon figure you can see from your Olivean window, depicting the Goddess of Mercy as a Buddha. The height is said to be a secret (hint, there are more than 14 flights of stairs to the shoulder level), but there is an elevator to the top, from which you can look out on the countryside. It's open daily from 8:30 to 5, admission ¥500 ($5). You can get here by bus from Tonosho port (to Fukuda, get off at Umagoe.)
Perched high atop a hill, Emonnotaki is just one of the 88 Buddhist temples here (actually 40 temples and 48 "smaller worshipping sites") -- all magnets to hiking pilgrims. At the site you can write your wishes or prayers and name on a wooden tablet and participate in a ceremony where the friendly priests burn the tablets, offering up your hopes to Buddha while "feeding his mouth" in the fire with sesame oil, spices and incense. Helpfully, some tablets are already stamped with prayers for good health, harmony in the family, long life, prosperity and the like, or you can just write your own.
When I asked the priest in charge what might happen if you wished for something evil, perhaps to befall another, he replied that Buddha would ignore such requests, and "they might come back to bite you." (So beware!)
In larger temples in major tourist areas, you are unlikely to be able to commission such a ceremony, much less find one on your own, and in bigger places, you won't be just a few feet away from the priests in their sacred grotto where the fire burns away your worries or speaks to your hopes.
To participate in this ceremony, ask your hotel concierge to arrange one for you. The monks will perform the exercise even for a couple of people, and there is no charge. However, a wooden tablet is ¥300, a candle ¥100 ($3 and $1, respectively). Any further donation you make would be greatly appreciated, of course, to keep the temple in repair. You get there by hiking with your interpreter (and climbing the steps at the end), or asking your hotel to arrange a car/driver and an interpreter. The Hotel Olivean charges $70 per person, for instance.
Of the other 87 places of worship, Nishinotaki (Western Waterfalls) is notable for its calm atmosphere and its imaginative roof tiles, some of which represent phoenixes, dragons or flowers. It's also said to be the oldest temple on the island, opened by famed Shobo Daishi (also known as Kukai, tel. 774-835), the great Japanese priest who founded the Shingon Sect. Legend says Kukai tricked a dragon into a jar back then, and the beast remains inside the same jar that stands inside a cave at the temple to this day. For info on all or any of the temples, contact (in Japanese only) the Shodoshima Pilgrim Association at 0879-62-0227.
For gourmets and gourmands, a visit to the Marukin Soy Sauce factory might be appealing, but a taste of soy sauce ice cream at the shop in front certainly will. To me, the mixture of cream, sugar and soy tasted like a delicate chocolate, and I came back for seconds. They say it is sold only here (and at the Olivean Hotel), nowhere else in the world. Open daily except Tuesday from 9 to 4, admission ¥210 ($2).
If you are mad for monkeys, you could visit the Choshikei Monkey Park and watch a couple perform a few tricks, but otherwise, give it a pass. Open daily 8 to 5, admission ¥370 ($4). The "narrowest strait in the world" (30 feet wide) is here, certified in the Guinness Book of World Records. It's in downtown Tonosho, the biggest port city, and you can get a Dofuchi Strait Certificate of Crossing from the town hall for ¥100 ($1).
A five-minute ropeway ride (one way ¥700, about $7) in the Kankakei Ravine affords nice views in good weather, or you can tramp the distance (I recommend starting at the top and walking down, of course, about an hour). You could get to the ropeway's top on a Kountei-bound bus from Kusakabe. And if you can't get to Paris to see the Venus de Milo, there's a replica of the statue here in Olive Park (Shodoshima is a sister city of the island of Milos).
Movie buffs may want to visit the set (Eiga Mura) of Twenty Four Eyes, first filmed in 1954 and remade twice since. Hailed as a great anti-war movie and "one of the best Japanese movies of all time," the plot dwelt on a teacher and her 12 students in the prewar and wartime period. Of special interest is the rebuilt schoolroom, directly on the waterfront. Open daily 9 to 5 except Christmas-New Year period, admission ¥630 ($6), www.24hitomi.or.jp.
On the neighboring big island of Shikoku (one of Japan's four main islands), the must-see in Takamatsu is Ritsurin Park, said to be one of the three best parks in all Japan. I have visited it over a period of many years, and it remains unchanged to this garden-loving eye, as it is intended to remain the same (except for additions until 1725) as it was when first built in the Edo period (in 1625, to be exact). It boasts six ponds (one full of 3,000 gorgeous koi) and 13 miniature hills, all backed by the green mountain slopes of Shiunzan. You can buy a cup of traditional tea-ceremony tea here, too. Open daily, 8:30 to 5, admission ¥400 ($4).
In one of Japan's most famous festivals, worshippers carry a portable shrine (mikoshi) up the 785 steps of Kompira Shrine (present buildings date from 1878), an hour outside Takamatsu by train. Participants are garbed in traditional costumes for this Kotohiragu Reitaisai, October 9 to 11, 2005. From August 14 to 14, you can take in the Sanuki Takamatsu Summer Festival, with parades, fireworks and dancing in the street.
I've already mentioned the elegant Hotel Olivean, but if that is full or you want to stay down near the port, try the Shodoshima Kokusai, with rates from ¥13,000 ($130) per room. Nice restaurant. Contact them at 0879 62-1441 or 0879 62-2111.
On Shodoshima, you'll see olive trees almost everywhere. Eat the fruit or get facial massages with the oil. Local delicacies also include somen (thin noodles, which come in red, white or green colors) and, on Shikoku itself, Sanuki udon, flat white noodles.
The Hotel Olivean on Shodoshima has a three-night special package costing just $625, which includes transfer from Takamatsu airport or train station to the hotel (road and boat), three nights in a Sunset View room, three breakfasts, two dinners, an island tour, welcome drink, tax and services, and daily 24-hour use of the Onsen Spa (hot springs).
On arrival in Takamatsu, you will be met by a hotel rep, then accompanied to the island (30 minutes by high speed ferry), where you check into your Inland Sea view room. First night includes an authentic, many-course authentic kaiseki meal at the hotel. On the second day, you tour the island, visiting a viewing plateau, the Kankakei Gorge (foot or cable car), a soy sauce museum in a former factory (with soy sauce ice cream), and Nishinotaki Temple. Following an afternoon at leisure, you will have sukiyaki in a private home. On Day 3, you are at leisure, but there are optional tours to the Emonnotaki Temple or a visit to Takamatsu's Ritsurin Park. On Shikoku, you can also learn how to make noodles and eat your work for lunch after the "graduation" ceremony. On Day 4, you depart.
This tour can be had through ANA Hallo Tours, JALPAK, JTB USA, Kintetsu International or the Nippon Travel Agency America.
On your own, fly into Takamatsu from Tokyo or Kansai, get yourself to the pier, then take a regular ferry (one hour, ¥510 or about $5) or hydrofoil (30 minutes, ¥1020 or about $10) to Tonosho, the biggest port on Shodo Island. 15 or 20 trips daily. You can also reach Takamatsu by bus or train from anywhere in Japan.
For more information, visit www.japanwelcomesyou.com, the website of the Visit Japan Committee, or www.jnto.go.jp, the official site of the Japan National Tourist Organization, or its site for potential visitors, www.japantravelinfo.com.
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