- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

I had heard the rumors. “Japan is soooo expensive.” “Hotel rooms are no more than shoe boxes.” “My sister’s cousin’s ex-wife spent $53 for an egg, a piece of toast and a cup of coffee.” Were these true tales of traveling to the Land of the Rising Sun or mostly urban legend, related by Americans afraid to leave their hotels? It was time for me to take the plunge, and I did, but into a Japan rarely seen by Western travelers: the islands of Shodoshima, Shikoku and Kyushu.

Japan is full of contradictions: In one block, you can find antique tea cups worth $100,000 next to vending machines filled with a sports-drink concoction called Pocari Sweat that tastes like a cross between Gatorade and tonic water.

I spotted my guide, Ken Takenaga, at Tokyo’s Narita Airport by his mustache, a rare thing in Japan. “Japan is a country of contradictions,” Mr. Takenaga said. “It is either modern, or it is ancient. Japanese are born Shinto, married in Christian style because of the beautiful white gowns, and die as Buddhists. We make sure someone is right.”

After checking into the Meridien Hotel, we took the subway to have dinner in an alley filled with yakitori restaurants below the elevated tracks of the bullet train. Red paper lanterns advertising each establishment’s fare swung in the evening breeze above swarms of Japanese salarymen drinking beer and sake and making a dinner of sushi, grilled veggies, chicken and fish.

Many of these eateries are just a counter with a couple of stools, others have a handful of tables; all are inexpensive. That is one legend debunked.

We drank ice-cold mugs of beer, then switched to the smoothest of sakes. Dinner was skewers of chicken, chicken wings, a sort of chicken meatball with edamame, seared bonito, eggplant and ripe tomatoes with Japanese mayonnaise. We had a coffee at the lounge in the Imperial Hotel after dinner.

According to Mr. Takenaga, the coffees probably were more expensive than the dinner, which cost about $150 for six hungry persons.

“Americans think Japan is expensive because they often don’t venture out of their hotels, which are very expensive for food and drink,” he said.

After 11 p.m., we followed the trails of tipsy salarymen and -women back to the subway station for the last train of the evening. Jet lag had me wide awake at 6 a.m., and I passed the Western-style cafe on the way to the Japanese restaurant in the hotel.

I knew I was in the right place when I saw that I was the only blue-eyed redhead. The restaurant was beautiful, with wooden tables set along a glass wall overlooking a garden with Japanese maple trees, flowers and serenely raked gravel. Bowing waitresses in kimonos warmly greeted me and served me a lacquered tray filled with lots of little dishes: rice, fish, pickles, veggies, tofu, brown rice porridge and, of course, green tea. I cleaned every plate, and the breakfast myth was shattered.

TOSHODOSHIMA

The flight to Takamatsu on Shikoku Island takes just an hour, but the island is a world away from Tokyo. From there, the ferry to Shodoshima motored through the Seto Inland Sea, about 250 miles long, filled with more than 800 islands and littered with sunken ships from the days of pirates.

If captains paid a 10 percent duty, they were given a flag to fly assuring their safe passage. If they didn’t pay, the pirates would tie up the crew, toss them overboard and sink the ship. With no pirates in sight, we headed to Shodoshima, or the Island of Well Being.

Mr. Takenaga said that Shodoshima Island, with its pollution-free, untouched nature; serene hot springs; and focus on delicious, healthy food, embodies very feminine nature — “smooth, like women’s skin” — and that Kyushu Island, with its active volcano and mountains, embodies masculine nature.

My home for the next three days would be the Hotel Olivean, so named for olive trees that were brought to the island from Greece in 1908 and have flourished in the Mediterranean-like climate. Last year, it didn’t have any Western visitors; this year, it had 157 enjoying the Western- or Japanese-style rooms.

Hotel Olivean features one of the greatest of Japanese inventions, the onsen, or Japanese baths. The custom is quite simple, really; men and women bathe separately. This is no place to be modest; it is poor form to wear anything other than your birthday suit, and never, ever use soap in the hot spring.

Guests sit on ankle-high stools while they soap up, scrub and rinse, then enter the hot spring. The stool thing can feel a little awkward, but after a little clumsiness, I got the hang of it, and it felt really good to glide into steaming water with other people who were actually clean.

I did not travel 9,000 miles to sleep on a Western bed, so I chose a traditional Japanese room and crossed the shoe-box hotel-room myth off my list.

Remove shoes

The first rule is to leave your shoes at the door and slip on the sandals left for you. The room is simple — tatami mats, rice-paper screens, low tables and chairs, TV, phone and electric tea kettle. Futons and bedding are folded in the closet and will be brought out by a maid while you are enjoying dinner.

A nice touch was a comfortable pair of colorful striped pajamas set out for me to wear to and from the onsen.

The bathroom has a deep tub, shower, modern toilet and plenty of fluffy towels, soap, toothbrushes, shampoo, etc. There even is a special pair of toilet-room-only sandals.

Which brings me to one of my favorite Japanese contradictions: the Japanese toilet. I have experienced the Cadillac of commodes, complete with warm seat, bidet with spray or stream, a dryer — and the other kind of Japanese toilet. In public bathrooms, toilets are a tiled hole in the floor with a back that looks like a short urinal.

I was in a quandary my first time; I didn’t know which way to face. After returning from Japan, I noticed that my guidebook said to have your back to the door. (Read your guidebooks, folks.) If anyone on the street offers you a pack of tissues advertising a business, take it because Japanese bathrooms don’t usually have paper towels or even soap. People bring their own.

So far, every meal in Japan had been an adventure, and dinner at the Hotel Olivean was a masterpiece. The 14-course Kyoto-style kaiseki feast was served in a private room at a low table on tatami mats. The first thing we were served was a hot, damp towel to wipe our hands and, if we pleased, our faces. With the sake and beer flowing, the parade of little dishes started, each more a work of art than the last.

Japan is not a good place for picky eaters; to assure us it was fresh, the chef served us an ice bowl full of sashimi from a fish that was still moving. My favorite was a grilled fish about the size of a large sardine.

“Cuisine grilled as Main dish 3,” said the menu — ayu fish, with Japanese ginger and beans boiled in soy sauce. I sat next to a Japanese man who showed me how to fillet my whole fish by massaging it with chopsticks until I could just pull the flesh off the bone in one smooth motion.

After a three-hour dinner, there is nothing like a good soak. When I arrived at the onsen, two Japanese girls were leaving, wearing the yellow striped hotel pajamas. Freshly scrubbed, I sank into the steaming water under the moon and stars. Back at my room, the maid had set out my futon on the tatami mats, topped with a large fluffy quilt.

Shodoshima is home to 35,000 people, and 20,000 of them live in Tonosho town. There used to be two police stations on the island, but the police didn’t have enough to do, so they closed one. Even now, the cops mostly just catch people for speeding.

Gray monkeys could be seen along the side of the road as we drove through the misty and cloudy mountains heading for the Marukin Soy Sauce Museum. As soon as we got out of the van, we were hit with a wonderful smell, sort of like fresh bread baking, with soft undertones of soy sauce.

The museum visit was a quickie — old ledgers, soy sauce order books, photographs and machinery. The real highlight of the visit was soy sauce ice cream. Delicately sweet, soft-serve cones with sort of a creamy, faintly chocolate, coffee flavor. The shop was filled with all levels of soy sauce products.

The tour took us from one extreme to the other, from soy sauce to monkeys to temples. Mr. Takenaga had warned me that the gregarious monkeys at the Choshi-kei Ravine and Monkey Reserve would grab a purse or anything else they could reach. Cute hand-painted signs of happy monkeys lined the path. There were some monkeys in cages, but around back, the monkey keeper was feeding them lunch as he walked through a rocky area, throwing handfuls of grain from a bucket with a swarm of monkeys following him.

He stopped and kept telling me, “Monkey show, monkey show,” gesturing to the front of the building, but I could not resist the wild scene out back. The chattering monkeys were gray, lots had babies, and one was chained to a bench. Apparently, he is the only one that will let you touch him.

Topping another nearby hill is the Emonnotaki Temple, the 81st stop on a Buddhist pilgrimage, a miniversion of the 88-temple pilgrimage on Shikoku Island to honor the great Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi, known as Kukai, the founder of the Shingon branch of Buddhism.

The ride to the top is a hair-raising trip up steep hills and around hairpin turns that lead to a red temple built into the side of the mountain. The monks were waiting to have a Goma ceremony, blessing us.

Monks in saffron robes showed us how to write our names on wooden sticks that signified a variety of things such as good health and prosperity. The bemused monks watched the pile of spiritual requests grow.

CAVECEREMONY

We then went into a cave, and the ceremony began with drumming and chanting while the lead monk, Hidehiko Mihono, who became a monk when he was 29 and holds a doctorate in Buddhist literature, manned the fire. I felt the heat on my face as he built up the flames and started reading the prayer sticks, stacking them on the fire. The ceremony was moving and ended with lots of bowing and thanks from the monks.

A Westerner can live in Japan for years and not be invited to a private home; it took me just two days. Katsuyo Oka’s house sits in the hills of Shodoshima next to rice paddies. One wall of the home had a Shinto shrine, the other a Buddhist altar; the table in the middle was set for sukiyaki.

Platters of local Sanuki beef, less rich and better — they say — than the more famous Kobe beef, along with platters of vegetables and tofu, soy sauce, sugar and iron pots to cook it in. Our dishes in front of us had a raw egg in which to dip our cooked beef. I finally, but barely, got into the rhythm of holding my dish close to the pot as I grabbed beef with my chopsticks, trying not to make a mess.

After the temples, monkeys and dinner, I almost fell asleep at the table, but I had to be awake for my 10 p.m. massage back at the hotel. Massage in Japan is not to be missed and is not in a pretty little room with candles and New Age music like you get in the States.

The massage area at the Hotel Olivean is screened off near a lounge, and one is completely clothed. Mr. Takenaga told me a tale of a Westerner ordering a massage in her room and having the horrified massage therapist scream and run out when the woman appeared naked for her rub.

GUARDIANOFTHESEA

The next stop was Shikoku Island, mostly rural and off the trail of most Western tourists. It also is home to Kotohira-gu, the most famous of Shinto shrines, also known as Kompira-san or Guardian of the Sea. A visit is supposed to reward seafarers and fishermen with good luck.

Four million visitors a year, including Buddhist pilgrims, huff and puff their way up 785 steps on this stairway to heaven. We cheated and paid a taxi driver — wearing white gloves like elsewhere in Japan — for a ride halfway up the steep hill in his pristine cab.

Elaborately robed Shinto priests walk the grounds, and young women known as temple virgins work the kiosks where you can buy good-luck charms for a variety of ills and wishes.

Visiting Shikoku is like going from one punctuation mark to the next. Driving through the mountains, there are views of river Yoshino one minute, a view of a giant parking structure under construction the next. The region is famous for fresh, clean water and the vine suspension bridge over the rushing Yoshino at Shikoku-mura, an open-air museum. People were yelling at me until I realized I was headed in the wrong direction on the one-way bridge. I got off, ran down the road and crossed another bridge to get back to the proper direction on the suspension bridge. I got the hang of walking on the bridge — along with the other white-knuckled people.

I rewarded myself at the end with a real mandarin from a street vender.

Waiting for a train at Kotohira Station, I explored the wonderful vending machines where you can buy Pocari Sweat or hot soup and hot coffee in cans. On the train, “ideal for enjoying scenery,” I headed off to learn to make noodles at the udon school upstairs from a souvenir shop.

Instructor Matsu-chan, 53, is from Shodoshima, where she was a midwife. When her husband, a policeman, was transferred to Takamatsu, she got a job in a noodle factory teaching 20,000 students a year. She makes it fun with dancing, music and mood lighting, presenting her students with diplomas in a graduation ceremony. Lunch is served with the udon the students have made.

At the other end of the island is Matsuyama, a town filled with hot springs and hotels. Each hotel features a unique pattern of yukata, or cotton kimono, that guests wear all over town. The only bummer is that they aren’t sold in the hotel gift shops.

The Dogo Prince Hotel features comfortable Japanese-style rooms and floor after floor of indoor and outdoor onsen. A woman was moving from one tub to the next in a room with three large metal tubs on a beautiful outdoor terrace. Another room had amazing massage chairs, the closest treatment I have felt to human hands. There even were private bathhouse rooms for couples.

We wore our yukatas to dinner in a private tatami room at our hotel where Isami Yamaguchi served us an amazing, ornate, multicourse dinner on several thousand dollars’ worth of dishes hand-painted in gold and vivid colors. There were gorgeous plates of fish, grilled beef and vegetables on a small hibachi and rice cooked with fish in its own little cooker. I later tried to buy similar dishes but found that they cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

After dinner, hotel guests stroll along the streets in their yukatas, dipping their toes in hot springs in the town square. It was time to leave all of that serene female energy for the fiery male version on Kyushu, and I barely made my flight to Kumamoto because I was too relaxed from the massage chairs at the Dogo Prince Hotel.

An hour later, I was flying over a steaming volcano on Kyushu, then driving through a landscape of vivid green countryside, rice fields, large houses and farmland in a valley that is actually a volcano crater. Kyushu is birthplace to those amazing $50 cantaloupes and watermelons sold in Tokyo department stores. The government strictly regulates the sugar content of the fruit here, usually demanding that there be just one melon per plant, assuring the finest-tasting fruit.

Valleys turned into hills as the bus headed into mountains to the Hanamomiji ryokan. A ryokan is a Japanese Inn. Think beautiful setting, outdoor onsen, traditional Japanese rooms, incredible food and the best of Japanese charm.

Shinobu Tatae, 36, owns the six-year-old inn on 71 acres and gets about three Western couples a year. The Japanese-style suite was large: the dining area with a welcoming tray of pineapple, little grapes, mandarins, sweets and little pickled vegetables; the sleeping area, a room with desk, massage chair, separate toilet, bath area with double sinks, shower and wooden tub.

Outside the door was a sunken stone tub on a terrace with mountain views. Wearing the beautiful yukata set out for me, I put on a pair of geta, picked up an umbrella and toddled through the rain to the open-air ladies’ onsen.

It was like a movie setting. A gentle rain fell on the knee-deep stone bath overlooking the hazy mountains.

I was becoming used to sitting down in my yukata to a 14-course dinner. The meal featured strawberry wine made at the ryokan — delicious but not for sale — gorgeous platters of sashimi and fanned shrimp. Horse-meat carpaccio with garlic, ginger and shogu; raw pork sushi; yellowtail snapper cooked 24 hours in akazake, a red sake rice wine.

I ate things in Japan that I never thought I would, but then, millions of Japanese cannot be wrong about what they’re eating. Guests returned to their rooms to find futons set up, and I drifted off to sleep with the sound of just the wind in the trees and an occasional bird.

LOTS OF LITTLEDISHES

Breakfast was a lot of little dishes of fish, veggies and rice. There is nothing like a motherly Japanese woman wearing a kimono, serving you tea and helping you cook your own egg over your own little hibachi. They even brought out coffee. I hated to leave the ryokan, but I had a volcano to visit.

Mount Aso is surrounded by beautiful green fields and bamboo forests. At the top are open-sided concrete bunkers that are supposed to shield visitors in case of an eruption. The volcano erupted in 1997, and two persons died from the sulfur gas, so I gladly took the mask the bus driver offered.

Ladies wearing large bonnets sold such stuff as little painted shoes and other souvenirs. Stern, not quite friendly men sold bags of yellow sulfur that had been gathered from the crater for people to use in their gardens and baths. Many of the visitors walked around wearing masks and handkerchiefs as they looked into the crater, a large hole with pungent steam rising from it.

We left and headed down to the volcano museum and later learned that the viewing area at the volcano was closed a few minutes after our departure because the sulfur fumes were too strong.

Kumamoto is the sister state of Montana and home of Kumamoto Castle, one of the largest castles in Japan and site of the Southwestern Rebellion, Japan’s largest and last civil war. In 1877, thousands of invading rebels were unable to take the castle, surrounded by a wide moat.

Visitors must remove their shoes to enter the original section of the castle to see exhibits and holes in the stone walls that soldiers used to stone and shoot their enemies.

Another bloody relic of the civil war is Tabaruzaka Memorial Park. On 11 of the 17 days of battle, it rained as samurai fought each other. Casualties were very high on both sides. Government soldiers were buried, rebels left to rot, and it is said the place is haunted.

At the park, I was presented with the most beautiful peach I have ever seen. It felt kind of odd enjoying the juicy fruit dripping down my chin in a place of such bloodshed. The area also produced the strongest, most fearless soldiers during World War II, men who fought at Saipan and Iwo Jima.

It seemed fitting to visit Otsuka Koretada, an eighth-generation sword maker, as he crouched in a room between a raging fire and a vise to hold the red-hot iron as he pounded and folded the sword blade in an arc of sparks. It takes about a month to make just one blade from the iron sand that he cures himself from the shores of the Kikuchi River. He charges about $2,500 for a short blade and about $10,000 for a long blade. The completed sword would cost about $15,000. They are bought for decoration or as a treasure. The artisan’s only son, however, will not continue the sword business.

My final night in the islands ended with my last Japanese feast in Matsuya, a beautiful 100-year-old-restaurant. The lovely owner, Hana Yamaguchi, wore a 100-year-old kimono, greeted visitors and helped serve sake and dishes that looked like works of art.

The dinner was built around a sake tasting using a variety of tiny porcelain cups. Miss Yamaguchi served us slices of prized Kumamoto melons for dessert. As I left, she pressed a little sake cup wrapped in white paper into my hand as a memento.

The flight back to Tokyo was highlighted by a view of snowcapped Mount Fuji reaching through the clouds, the final punctuation to a great trip to a country rich with contradictions and myths waiting to be shattered.

• • •

American Airlines offers its new gourmet meal services on the carrier’s daily nonstop flights between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. ANA operates nonstop flights between Washington Dulles International Airport and Tokyo’s Narita Airport.

From Haneda Airport, there are frequent daily flights to Takamatsu, where high-speed ferries depart frequently — often every half-hour — for the quick ride to Shodoshima.

Hotel Olivean resort on Shodoshima has 111 rooms and suites, 19 tennis courts, a golf course, an onsen spa, five restaurants and two bars overlooking the Seto Inland Sea. Visit www.hotelolivean.com. The Web site also includes information on tour operators.

For more information on Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 33 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020; phone 212/757-5640; or visit www.japantravelinfo.com.


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