Introduction: Journeys in the Heartland
Last Updated: Summer, 2012
In Spring 2004, Karen and I began a series of road trips in Japan. Our journeys took us as far north as Wakkanai, on Hokkaidō, and as far south as Kagoshima in Kyūshū, through every prefecture in between, through the four seasons, into areas of oku, the rural heartlands, logging over 20,000 miles.
I first went Japan in 1970 with my mother, brother and sister to visit our relatives in the hometowns in Hiroshima prefecture from where my grandparents left in the early twentieth century to settle in Hawai‘i. We also visited the major tourist spots in Kyōto, Nara and Tōkyō.
Thirty-four years later, when I was past fifty, I decided to see the rest of the ancestral homeland while Karen and I were still young enough to enjoy traveling on a fairly robust schedule, driving to a new town or city every day or two and stopping at sites in, around and between them.
Driving in the Four Seasons
Spring 2008: The coastal highway on Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka, during sakura season.
Summer 2012: Hakusan Super Lindo ("Forest Road"), Ishikawa
Fall 2006: At Maruo Falls, Ebino Highlands, Miyazaki, Kyūshū.
Winter 2008: Leaving Nozawa, Nagano, after the Fire Festival.
I was inspired to travel by Oku no Hosomichi ("Narrow Roads of Oku"), a narrative by the haiku poet Bashō describing his 1689 journey to northern Honshu, an area called Oku. In his time Oku was a rustic backwater, far from the twin capitals of Kyōto and Tōkyō; but it was also a region where he could feel the presence of the people of old, where memories of ancient battles and agricultural and folk traditions endured. The "Oku" in his title has been translated as “Far Towns,” “Far Province,” “Deep North,” and “Interior.” Geographically, the term can be applied to any area that is "remote" or "deep within" a region (e.g., Oku-Iya, Oku-Noto, Oku-Izumo).
In industrialized, urbanized, globalized Japan, these "backwaters" are where the modern traveler can still find the small towns and rustic and natural scenery of old Japan. We visited utamakura, or storied places, of Bashoʻs journey in summer 2005, winter 2008, fall 2009, summer 2010, and summer 2012.
The notion of driving around Japan had been planted on my 1970 family trip, when a cousin let me drive his Mazda compact one night in Hiroshima. Driving on the left side of the road was not difficult. (See On Driving in Japan.)
By the 21st century, online maps like Mapion and Google (coupled with an ability to read kanji for place names) made finding places we wanted to visit and planning routes manageable. The GPS unit in rental cars made navigating easy, especially after we learned we could input the phone numbers of our destinations to prompt the GPS to draw the route to it on its screen. Online hotel bookings in English made reservations convenient as well.
Our road trips (and one I made by sea, on the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a, from Uwajima to Yokohama) were all intense, fascinating, full of memorable experiences. Among my favorite memories:
- the New Year winter fire festival in Nozawa
- spring fireworks and sakura festivals along the Tōkaidō and Nakasendō
- summer opening of ukai (fishing with cormorants for sweetfish) in Iwakuni
- the three sacred mountain shrines of Kumano
- autumn in Tōhoku around Lake Towada, Mt. Iwaki, and Cape Tappi
- the utamakura of Basho’s 1689 journey to Oku, especially the mountain temples of Yamadera (Ryūshaku-ji) and Natadera and the mountain shrines at Mt. Haguro and Mt. Yudono
- the Oyu stone circles south of Lake Towada
- sacred sites of western Japan associated with Amaterasu and her descendants
- Amaterasu's shrine at Ise
- the winter wave flowers of Noto Peninsula
- the mountains, rivers, islands, blue seas, and sakura of Izu in the spring
- the five lakes of Mt. Fuji