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Roads of Oku: Home


Inspiration ...

Matsuo Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa / Google Map: Bashō's Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Road to the Deep North")

Journeys ...

Spring 2004: On the Road in Kansai / Google Map
Summer 2005: Roads of Oku / Google Map
Fall 2006: Where Gods Alight / Google Map
Summer 2007: Hōkūle‘a in Yokohama / Map
Winter 2008: Snow Country / Google Map
Spring 2008: Full Bloom & Festivals / Google Map
Summer 2009: Fireflies & Sweet Fish / Google Map
Fall 2009: North Country Colors / Google Map
Summer 2010: Legends of the Land / Google Map
Spring 2011: On the Far Side of Disaster / Google Map
Summer 2012: Travels in the Fifth Moon / Google Map
Summer 2013: Far Roads: Finishing Touches / Google Map
Summer 2015: Saké-Tasting in the Kingdom of Local Brew

Memorable ...

Roads / Seacoasts & Coastal Roads / Bridges / Ferries / Walks & Hikes / Mountains / Ropeways / Rivers / Waterfalls / Lakes / Trees / Rocks / Caves / Hot Springs / Sakura / Fall Colors / Archaeology and History / Castles / Shrines / Temples / Gardens / Festivals / Food / Drinks
Photography: Dennis Kawaharada and Karen Ono

Note ...

On Driving in Japan

Roads of Oku: Journeys in the Heartland

A collection of essays on Japanese culture, history and literature. Available at Amazon.com. (Far Roads Press, 2015).

Travels in the Fifth Moon: Japan in June, 2012

(Posted: July, 2012)


Summer lacks the glamor of spring’s sakura bloom; it’s also the start of the rainy season, the typhoon season, and muggy weather. But one thing you can do in summer that you can’t do in spring is drive the Hakusan Super Rindō ("Forest Road”), which opens in early June each year, when the mountains are arrayed in vivid shades of green.

The Super Rindō turned out to be one of the most spectacular roads we’ve traveled in ten road trips over the last eight years.

The twenty-mile road winds up a river valley north of Hakusan (“White Mountain”), a centuries-old pilgrimage site for mountain ascetics. The peak of Hakusan appears over other mountains near the top of the road, which includes bridges, tunnels, hairpin turns, steep cliffs, and roadside waterfalls.

While the road is considered at its best in autumn colors, the greens of summer have their own special beauty, and the road is less crowded in June. We were the only car going up, in mid-morning; we passed other cars and buses as we were heading down.

Ubagataki, which can be seen from the road, is more impressive viewed close up after a walk down a steep stairway and along the river bank.

The end of the walk offers both a public outdoor hot spring, if you don't mind getting naked in public, or for the modest, a foot bath.

We drove up to the ridge boundary between Ishikawa and Gifu prefectures from the Ishikawa side; the road continues down to Shirakawago in (Gifu), famous for its traditional houses with high-pitched thatched roofs. A road barrier prevented us from going down that way, but we had visited Shirakawago on a previous trip, in the summer of 2010, and the road on the Gifu side is less scenic than the road up from Ishikawa.

Satsukl: Fifth Moon

Our travels took place in the fifth moon (Satsuki) of the lunar calendar, which was from May 21 (day after the new moon) to June 19 (the next new moon). In Japanese tradition, the fifth moon is noted for its rains (the samidare). The haiku poet Bashō describes the rains, muddy roads, and swollen rivers as he traveled in Oku (northern Japan) during Satsuki in 1689.

The weather, as it turns out, was not bad – mainly partly cloudy, with enough sunshine to make driving, walking, and hiking enjoyable. The trip covered 2000 miles. (Clck on the image for an active Google Map.)


June 1: To Shimoda via Enoshiima

After a night flight into Haneda, we headed for Shimoda, on the Izu peninsula. On the way we stopped at Enoshima, a small island at the mouth of the Katase-gawa near Kamakura. The island, less than half a mile from shore, is linked by a bridge.

Across the bridge are shops, inns, and restaurants along a narrow lane. A stairway goes up to a shrine where three goddesses from Munakata, Kyūshū (Tagitsuhime, Ichikishimahime and Tagirihime) were enshrined in 552 by Emperor Kinmei (510-571). Later Hadaka-Benten, the naked goddess of entertainment, was also enshrined at Enoshima by the first shogun of Kamakura, Minamoto-no-Yoritomo (1147-1199).

We walked across the island from the north end (there are toll escalators up the steepest parts, no vehicles allowed), past the tropical botanical garden, to Enoshima Iwaya, on the south side, where two sea caves are located. Traditions associate the caves with the mediations of the monk Kōbō-Daishi (Kūkai) as well as with Yoritomo, who is said to have trained and prayed for victory there.

At Shimoda on the south end of Izu Peninsula (where we had gone in Spring 2008), we stayed at a hot spring ryokan overlooking the bay. The next morning we went for a walk around the small island of Ebisu at the end of on Suzaki Peninsula.

June 2-3, Mt. Fuji and Shizuoka

The next day, we drove to Fuji Port, stopping at the historic one-lane Amagi Pass tunnel, the longest stone tunnel in Japan, completed in 1905, when rickshaws still provided public transportation along with buses.

From Fuji Port, south of Mt. Fuji, we planned to hike the Hoei Crater trail on its eastern flank. (In spring 2011, we discovered it was closed until summer, so we were back for another try.) We left our hotel at 6 am the next morning because rain was forecast for the afternoon, and we hoped to complete the relatively easy hike before it started to rain. As we approached the Fujinomiya 5th Station, the summit was clear, but clouds were moving over the east side, with intermittent drizzling.

When we got to the trail head, the conditions looked fair; by the time we got to the Hoei Crater viewpoint, clouds and mist obscured the view.

That afternoon we drove to Shizuoka, stopping at Satta Pass, on a one-lane road along a cliff ...

...which led to a lookout, above the expressays and train tracks:

Clouds in the distance hid Mt. Fuji. Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Satta Pass (Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaidō) shows where it would appear in the view above on a clear day:

June 4: To Toba

On the way from Shizuoka to the ferry terminal at Cape Irago, we went to Akihasan Hongū Akiha Jinja, a Shintō shrine located above the Tenryū river valley, near the summit of Mount Akiha, on the southern slopes of the Akaishi Mountains. The primary kami of the shrine is Hi-no-kagutsuchi-no-Okami, a kami associated with protection against fires. The main festival of the shrine is held annually over three nights in December, and features ceremonies using huge flares and fireworks. Its front gate is adorned with exquisite animal carvings:

The shrine offers a panoramic view to the south from its golden torii.

We arrived at Cape Irago (below) in the afternoon and caught the ferry across Ise Bay to Toba, a 55-minute crossing.

June 5: Ise Jingu, Shima, and Pearl Road

After a night at Toba hotel, where we tasted Matsuzaka beef for the first time, we drove to Ise shrine on the Ise Skyline toll road. The view of Ise bay was obscured by mist and clouds. After visiting the shrine (which we visited in Spring 2004), we drove south to Shima stopping at the small Ama no Iwato Cave, where the sun goddess Amaterasu is said to have hid until the other gods drew her out. (Another cave in Takachiho, Kyūshū, which we visited in Fall 2007, is also said to be the mythic cave.)

On the way back to Toba, we had lunch at the roadside Kuroshio fish market, which sells live seafood and sashimi. The maguro and uni bowl was delicious.

June 6: To Nagoya, via Ibuta Temple

On the way from Toba to Nagoya, we stopped at Ibuta-ji, in the Suzuka Mountains above Matsuzaka. Ibuta-ji is a Buddhist temple where mountain ascetics train. I saw it on an episode of Extreme Japan (NHK) and located it on a Google Map, then used our GPS to navigate to it. At the beginning of a trail to the top of the 1300-foot Mt. Ibuta is a fifteen-minute climb up a steep cliff, which, with the help of a chain in one section, takes you to a hilltop shrine on a ledge beneath an overhang.

June 7: To Yunoyama

Mt. Gozaisho is another peak in the Suzuka Mountain Range. We caught the ropeway up to the top from Yunoyama hot spring, where we spent the night.

Yunoyama hot spring along the Mitaki-gawa Rive, is said to have been discovered from a sighting of bathing deer in the 8th century and is thus also known as the Deer Hot Spring. From the top of nearby Mt. Gozaisho, on a clear day, you can see Ise Bay on one side and Lake Biwa on the other; but the views were obscured by clouds on the day we were there.

June 8-9: To Kyoto

The next morning we drove on the Suzuka Skyline road down to Lake Biwa to visit the ruins of Oda Nobunaga’s Azuchi castle, completed in 1579. The castle was lavishly decorated, with a gold-leafed tea room and its standing screens, sliding doors, walls, and ceilings painted by Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590), one of the foremost artists of the period. It was also a fortress, with thick stonewalls and a eight-story tower from which to keep watch over the surrounding countryside. In 1582, in Kyotō, Nobunaga died in an attack on Honno temple, and Azuchi castle was looted and burned down. Today, only its stone stairways and walls remain.

A nearby museum houses a replica of the 7th and 8th floors:

Gichū-ji:

In Spring 2008, we stopped at Gichū-ji, where Bashō is buried, but it was too early in the morning, and the temple was closed. A long drive ahead, we left, with the thought that we would return one day to pay homage to the poet who inspired our Roads of Oku journeys. The temple is in Otsu, on the south shore of Lake Biwa:

After Bashō’s death in Ōsaka in 1694, his disciples carried his remains to Gichūji. A disciple describes the area in Bashō’s time (it is much more developed today):

Our master had a particular love for scenic places. His grave is graced by Mount Nagara [to the west, near Miidera] and Mount Tanokami [to the southeast] and the waves of Lake Biwa that come right up to the temple gate. The boats going out leave their traces on the water, reminding us of the short span of our life. Deer on the woodcutters’ paths, wild geese flying over farm houses, the moon shining over the lake – all these add beauty to his grave.

We also visited Ishiyama (“Stone Mountain”), located just south of Gichū-ji on the west bank of the Seta river. The thirteenth temple in the tour of the thirty-three Kannon temples in the Kinki region, it’s depiected in a Hiroshige wood-block print, “Autumn Moon over Ishiyama,” in Eight Views of Ōmi (1834).

Oku no Hosomichi includes a poem Bashō composed comparing the stones of Ishiyama temple to those of Natadera (see “Temples”):

whiter than Ishiyama’s stones: autumn wind
ishiyama no / ishi yori shiroshi / aki no kaze

During our 2012 summer stay, we went to places we missed on the first two trips to Kyotō (Spring 2004 and Spring 2008):

Nishi Honganji: built in the Momoyama-era (1568-1598), the headquarters of the Jōdō-Shin sect of Buddhism, which has the largest number of adherents of any religious sect in Japan. The orginal temple founded in 1272 by the daughter of Shinran, the founder of Jōdō-Shin, was located in Higashiyama (eastern Kyotō).

Sanjusangendo, which houses an image of Kannon bodhisattva, a masterpiece attributed to the sculptor Tankei, along with a thousand statues of Kannon, carved out of cypress wood covered with gold leaf, flanking the main image in fifty columns, each ten rows deep. There are also 28 statues of guardian deities with intense expressions and impressive detail.

Nijo Castle / Ninomaru Palace: In 1601, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, ordered all the feudal lords in Western Japan to contribute to the construction of Nijō Castle, which was completed during the reign of Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1626.

Tenryū-ji: "Heavenly Dragon Temple" was named for a dragon rising from a river in a dream, which was taken to mean that the recently-deceased Emperor Go-Daigo was not resting peacefully. To placate his unhappy spirit, the temple with its Zen garden was built in 1339 by shogun Askhikaga on the former site of Go-Daigo's villa. It is now the headquarters of the Rinzai School of Zen Buddhism.

Matsuo Taisha: One of Japan's oldest shrines, founded in 701, this shrine is dedicated to the deity of water, which sake-brewing families have worshipped since the Muromachi Period. Pure spring water spews from the mouth of the "Kame-no-ido" (turtle well). The shrine was founded by the Hata clan, an immigrant clan that was instrumental in bringing sake brewing techniques from Korea. The Hata also founded the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine south of Kyotō. (See “Shrines.”)

Arashiyama Bridge: Near Tenryū-ji and Matsuo Taisha, Arashiyama bridge (Togetsukyō) spans the Katsura river. The area is crowded on weekends.

June 10: To Makino, Okubiwako

Before leaving Kyotō for Makino, we drove the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway, a winding toll road into the mountains northwest of the city.

It was Sunday, and there was a sports car rally at an amusement park, so a line of cars was waiting for the gate to open at 8 am. Back in Kyotō, we rode the cable car and ropeway to Mt. Hiei. The rides up and down were enjoyable, but the view of Lake Biwa was obscured by clouds and mist.

On our way to Makino at the northern end of lake Biwa, which is less developed than the southern end around Otsu, we drove the Rainbow Line, an 7 mile-long toll road with views of the Sea of Japan and the five lakes of Mikata in Wakasa Bay National Park. The views of the lake were partially obscured by clouds. We continued up the Tsuruga peninsula to see Ironohama (“Many-colored beach”).

A poem on Ironohama by Bashō from Oku no Hosomichi:

between wave and wave / mingling small shells / hagi dust

The next morning, the weather had cleared, and the sunrise over lake Biwa was beautiful.

Since the weather was sunnier, we went back to the Rainbow Line road to see the five lakes.

June 11-12: To Kanazawa

From the Rainbow Line, we drove up the Echizen-Kaga coast to Kanazawa. (See Winter 2008 for sites along this road.)

At the fishing port of Kuriya, we had a lunch of sashimi (ika, aji, saba). The town is famous for its crab, which is a winter speciality not served in summer.

June 13: To Suzu, Noto.

After a couple of nights in Kanazawa to drive the Hakusan Super Forest Road, we followed the coast up and around the Noto Peninsula. (We went around Noto in Winter 2008 to see its wave-flowers.) Near the northernmost point of Rokkozaki are the narrow ricefields of Senmaida, already planted.

South of the cape, on the east coast, is Mitsuke-jima, a monolithic rock in Iida Bay.

June 14-15: To Toyama, via Tateyama

After an overnight stay at Suzu Beach, we drove south to Tateyama, which, along with Mt. Fuji and Hakusan, is considered one of the three most sacred mountains of Japan and the site of pilgrimages by mountain-climbing ascetics. Tateyama, like Mt. Fuji and Hakusan, is still snow-covered in June. From the Tateyama train station we took a cable car up to Bijodaira, from where a bus transported us to Murodo, just below the highest peaks. (To protect the environment, private cars aren’t allowed on the road.)

In a ravine below Tateyama is Shōmyō-daki, the tallest waterfall in Japan, falling over 1148 feet. The water flow is heaviest in early summer due to the snow melt and fifth-moon rains; as we approached, the thunder of falling water filled the ravine and gusts of wind blew swirling mist around us:

Overnight in Toyama, at One’s Heart, an izakaya, we had a plate of delicious fatty tuna, along with cheese-yakitori, kim chee yakitori, yaki nasu, ika geso, tofu with natto and kim chee, and a ham salad, with Toyama daiginjyo sake and a glass of Tomi Hozan (shochu from Kagoshima).

June 16: To Matsumoto via Kamikochi

On the way to Matsumoto the next day, we caught a bus from Hirayu Onsen to Kamikochi, famous for its nature walks.

We spent the night in Matsumoto, a castle town we had visited in Summer 2005 and Spring 2008.

June 17-18: To Kofu

We drove south to Kofu and stopped at Haramo Winery, Katsunuma, Koshu, which was featured in an NHK special on spirits in Japan. This winery was constructed 130 years ago. The restaurant serves local dishes using seasonal produce to complement its wines. We ordered a plate of sausages, bread, vegetables green, potatoes, cheese, and tofu, with red and white wine.

A short drive from our hotel in Kofu is Shosen Gorge on the Arakawa River, which flows down from the Chichibu mountain range. The gorge is noted for its oddly shaped rocks (given names like "monkey rock" and "cat rock"), steep cliffs reminiscent of Chinese landscape paintings, and senga-taki, a 30 meter high waterfall. Like Hakusan Super Forest Road, Shosen Gorge is noted for its fall color, but is less crowded in summer.)

Kofu to Hakone, June 19, Tuesday

We drove to Hakone via the five lake of Mt. Fuji.

Lake Motosu

As we drove along the shore of Lake Yamanaka, we could feel the approaching Guchol, the first typhoon of the season: the lake was darkened by clouds and swept by wind and rain.

By the time we got to Hakone, heavy rain was falling, with stronger gusts of wind. Most of the Motohakone looked closed when we went for dinner, but Kunibiki-no-sato was open on the main street, and we had some delicious sesame-flavored soba and tempura smelt, a local specialty, with beer.

That night, we could hear the winds roaring through the mountains between 10 pm to 2 am. The typhoon was moving so fast, it had passed Tōkyō by morning and was out at sea off the coast north of Iwate, in Fukushima.

June 19: To Haneda, via Boso Peninsula

Heavy fog blanketed the road as we drove down from Hakone, and gusty winds whipped the trees along the expressway back to Tōkyō, with saucer-shaped clouds overhead, remnants of the storm, their edges glowing in the bright rising sun. Our plan was to catch a ferry across Tōkyō Bay, from Miura Peninsula to Hama-Kanaya on the Boso Peninsula. When we got to the Miura ferry terminal, however, there was no ferry at the dock and the building was deserted. The counter girl told us what was obvious: the ferry was cancelled for the day due to high winds.

Our alternative route across the bay was the Aqua Bridge: a six-mile long undersea tunnel goes from Kawasaki Ward in Tōkyō and emerges in mid-bay at Umihotaru, an artificial island with parking, restaurants, souvenir shops and viewpoints, then continues on as a two-mile long bridge to Kisarazu on the Boso Peninsula. You can see Mt. Fuji and the Tōkyō Sky Tree from Umihotaru on a clear, calm day, which this one wasn't. The 20-30 knot winds churned up the water with white caps and the horizon was hazy with sea spray.

Our destination was Mt. Nokogiri, near the town of Hama-Kanaya, where the ferry docks. I had never heard of this site until I did a web search of sights of Ibaraki to visit on our last day. Mt. Nokogiri looked the most interesting: above a mountain temple and a giant statue of the medicine Buddha Yakushi Nyorai, up a walkway of steep stairs and cliff-side trails are 1,500 arhat sculptures set in shallow caves, a towering bas-relief of Kannon carved into a cliff, and a lookout. When we arrived, the mountain top was shrouded in mist, but it wasn't raining, so we walked to the lookout.

The statue of Buddha was carved out of volcanic tuft in 1783, 102 feet high, more than twice as tall as the huge bronze Buddha statues at Tōdaiji, in Nara (49 feet high) and at Kōtoku-in, in Kamakura (44 feet high).

Near the ferry terminal at Hama-kanaya is a modern tourist center, where we had an lunch of sashimi and local dark beer.

We drove back over the Aqua Bridge, returned the car, and caught a bus to Sumida Ward to see Tōkyō’s newest attraction, the 2,080 feet Sky Tree, the tallest broadcast tower in the world. A new symbol for Tōkyō, it opened on May 22 of this year and attracted 5.8 million visitors in the first month, not all of whom could catch the elevator to the observation platfrom, due to the limited number of tickets sold each day.

The skies over Tōkyō were clearing, and the wind was dropping. During our three-week journey, there were a couple of rainy days in Kyotō, a couple of muggy days, and the typhoon, but overall the weather was not bad: clouds obscured the views from mountaintops, but overall, we went where we planned to go, saw what we wanted to see. Even the typhoon didn't modify our schedule: our flight left Haneda for Hawai‘i at midnight, on-time. (In early July, however, two weeks after we left, heavy rains pummeled central Kyūshū for five days, causing major flooding, evacuations, and 22 deaths.)