There’s an inherent contradiction to the way I like to travel, in that I love the energy in big cities but I am also someone who kinder people might call a ‘PG-friendly traveller’ and who ruder people may call ‘boring’ because what I enjoy about travel seems to fly in the face of what seems to be The Thing That Young People Do When Travelling; give me 5AM sunrise hunts for best photography locations over nightclubbing into the AM on most days of the week, art gallery tours over pub crawls, early nights, good food and wholesome activities.
I am, in fact, sixty years old at heart and I am okay with that.
So really, I was quite intrigued at the prospect of travelling to Japan’s smaller cities, which ended up being a study in countryside nature, sleepy towns tucked in between mountain valleys and, interestingly, a study in where the Japanese travel in Japan - I would hazard a guess that almost 90% of other tourists we saw on this journey were Japanese so if the hipster life calls out to you, this is definitely the way to go.
If you’re like me and Studio Ghibli films run in the lifeblood of your youth, I can confirm that the entire experience of travelling in these locations is imbued with that slow, slightly nostalgic simplicity that I adore about movies set in the Japanese countryside. And not just Studio Ghibli - Mamoru Hosada’s Wolf Children and Summer Wars, the countryside in Kimi no Na Wa; in short, the essence of Totoro’s world.
If there is a town that perfectly integrates itself with Japan’s shinto religion, Onomichi is it, and with a love of cats to boot. Making our way down from the top of the mountain, through the shrine built into the side and through the narrow winding streets and beautifully traditional houses, which reminded me of a more nature-filled Bukcheon Hanok Village. If you want the more practical rundown of things to do, my IAMWT article goes into more detail.
What really struck me about Onomichi was the beauty of the layers to this town - tunnels running under the train tracks, steep stairs and houses tapering off - and the little bits of idyllic life existing everywhere: two old Japanese tourists resting at the base of an old temple who laughed at how we ascended the stairs with all our cameras out like paparazzi, an old man feeding a group of stray kittens with indulgent familiarity, two shiba inu just chilling with their owner outside a tiny shop.
The set of photos I took inside Johdo-ji (Johdo Temple) are some of my favourites I’ve ever taken. Sometimes things just come together and take your breath away - here, it was a smoky room, light pouring through a single direction light source illuminating our head priest just so, and hot iron stamps being heated in the boilers. Honestly, I’m kind of annoyed I didn’t take more photos.
What I love about Japan’s spiritual culture is how integrated they feel to daily life but have a particular set of rituals and rules about them that starts from the way you enter the temples and cleanse your hands, to how you pray, to the omikuji and various souvenirs you can find at every temple. It doesn’t demand anything of you, it’s just...calm.
BITCHU MATSUYAMA CASTLE
Bitchu Matsuyama Castle was definitely a destination we had to work for. Pro tip: if you see a bunch of walking canes at the start of a mountain trail, brace yourselves because it’s going to be a trek. But again, there’s definitely worse things you can do than hike up a Japanese mountain for 40 minutes, especially if there’s considerate public cold hojicha waiting for you on the other end.
We reached Fukiya Furusato Village after a long drive because it's a village tucked in the high mountains, there was a sense of complete removal that could alternately be the source of many Japanese horror movies (alone in an old ryokan deep in the mountains…) or also the source of complete relaxation. And excellent, painstakingly prepared (and no doubt transported) food.
What more to say about Fukiya?
It's a beautiful little village, isolated and slow-moving but impeccably neat and well-preserved, dotted with vividly yellow flowers. You can forget your troubles, just wandering through these hills.
I also cannot describe how much the early morning mist of the mountains was catnip to my photographer lizard brain.
There was an old, faded bus stop along the side of the road and someone had put two umbrellas - 'Satsuki' and 'Totoro' and I just about died. The essence of Ghibli indeed.