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A Setouchi Sojourn

A Setouchi Sojourn

entering Minakuchi Shuzo - a local sake, gin and beer brewery in Matsuyama -(bottles of sake) tasting award winning sake

Lesser known and secret Japan

Kylie at Miyajima Tori gate
Kylie at Miyajima Tori gate

Step into a world of a mythical, ancient story in Japan

Our first day in Miyajima is like stepping onto a Japanese film set; the opening scene of a mythical, ancient story, with mist swirling, a vermillion Tori gate rising from the steel-coloured sea and light snow flurries falling intermittently on cue.

If a camera panned wide, in the shot would be a solitary deer walking on the pebbled path that hugs the sea with ice-capped mountains as the backdrop.

Such is the charm and mysticism of the island of Miyajima, located a short ferry ride from Hiroshima in the south-western part of Japan’s main island Honshu.

The Tori gate is a striking part of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine and has withstood the erratic regional forces of nature since the sixth century (it was remodelled in 1168). While the island is busiest in Autumn – as predominantly domestic and Asian tourists flock to see the burnt oranges, startling reds and vibrant yellows of the famed maple trees – winter is more subdued. 

Deer wander through the township of Miyajima
Deer wander through the township of Miyajima

We take a quiet, peaceful walk through the vermillion wooden shrine buildings of the UNESCO listed site while our generous guide Hiro explains the Shinto religion.

“There are no statues of deities here. In Shinto, there are no deities,” he says.

Shikoku’s 88 temple pilgrimage - for 100 yen you can lucky dip your fortune!
Five storey pagoda in Miyajima

The easiest way to explain Shinto is a “nature religion”, which is indigenous to Japan and was the state religion from the eighth century until 1945. It centres around kami, a sacred power that is present in inanimate and animate objects. Ancestors and nature spirits are worshipped with offerings (such as sake) and shrines kept clean with attentive care.

During our visit to the shrine, the temperature plummets to zero and instead of walking out to the Tori gate in low tide, we opt for food on nearby Machiya Street, a row of centuries old stores and houses (called machiya) that make up the traditional shopping arcade. It becomes apparent quickly what the local delicacies are – oysters and lemons.

- Oysters are abundant in Miyajima, and the fried are excellent
Oysters are abundant in Miyajima, and the fried are excellent

Lunch is at one of the many oyster restaurants that dot the street. We are taken to Kakiya (Kaki means oyster, ya means restaurant) and are treated – and it is a treat- to a beautifully presented Japanese-style lunch of nothing but oysters. There’s baked oysters, smoked oysters, fried oysters and a miso soup with a hidden oyster. They’re big fleshy oysters, bigger than our Pacific kind, and are accompanied by a local draft beer which has chunks of Setouchi lemons at the bottom. After a 10 hour plus red-eye flight, a one-hour car ride and a ferry, local Japanese fare couldn’t go down better.

Anyone who has been to Japan knows the shopping is exquisite. Local artisans and craftspeople dedicate their lives to an artform. In Miyajima it is traditional woodwork, most notably rice scoops that dominate souvenir stores. It is said as you scoop the rice, you are scooping good luck.

In addition to local oysters and lemons, sampling momiji manju in Miyajima is a must-do.
In addition to local oysters and lemons, sampling momiji manju in Miyajima is a must-do.

In addition to local oysters and lemons, sampling momiji manju in Miyajima is a must-do. It’s a maple, deep fried biscuit that has a variety of fillings – matcha, custard, chocolate and the local favourite, red bean paste –  and with a pot of green or matcha tea, is the perfect afternoon tea. Or you can take a box (or three) home; with its elegant packaging, they are a lovely souvenir or gift.

On the cable car (or ropeway) heading up to Mount Misen during a snowfall- red building is a pagoda in the shrine grounds
On the cable car (or ropeway) heading up to Mount Misen during a snowfall – red building is a pagoda in the shrine grounds

The snow picks up, but we forge on to the summit of Mt Misen via cable car, or “ropeway” as the Japanese call it. The ascent is like being inside a snow globe; flakes drift on a gentle, but cold, wind and fall onto the fir and pine trees in the Misen Primeval Forest below. For a Sydneysider who rarely sees snow, this is magical.

At the summit, we disembark and escape the cold in the visitor’s centre which has two Japanese essentials – heating and a vending machine. The ubiquity of vending machines in Japan cannot be underestimated. Later in the trip we are driving through a regional town and standing alone on the side of the road is a vending machine.

From the centre, it’s possible to walk further to the peak to the Mt Misen temple, but it’s an hour plus round trip and we are warned in parts it’s more of a “climb”. The story of the temple is fascinating. It was founded by Japanese Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi who began the Shingon school of Buddhism. In 806, he lit the Kiezu-no-hi (the eternal flame) which still burns today, and holy water boiled by this fire is used to treat diseases. It was also used as the pilot light for the Flame of Peace in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to commemorate the 129,000 lives lost in the US atomic bomb blast in 1945.

The local delicacy - momiji manju which are maple fried biscuits filled with matcha, custard, chocolate or red bean paste
The local delicacy – momiji manju which are maple fried biscuits filled with matcha, custard, chocolate or red bean paste

By the time we leave Miyajima we are well-fed, slightly frozen and fatigued. Back in Hiroshima, our first evening meal is local okonomiyaki – a Japanese savoury pancake dish cooked teppanyaki style, accompanied with sake, beer or as I was encouraged to try, lemon flavoured alcoholic soda. Our restaurant, Otafuku Borderless Happiness is typical of many in Japan, with its bold branding, character icons and cute English translations.

The following day we leave the island of Honshu for Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, via the Sea Paseo ferry. If there is any salve for a busy first day of travel, it is a very comfortable two-hour ferry trip on a sparkling winter’s day across the Seto Inland Sea. The ferry costs around $50, relatively cheap for what you get – warmth, comfortable and spacious seating, wifi, lovely bar/café, incredible views and, as ubiquitous as vending machines, the cleanest bathrooms on the planet.

the luxury private ferry Sea Paseo, a relaxing two hour boat ride between Hiroshima and Matsuyama on Shikoku
The luxury cruise ferry Sea Paseo, a relaxing two hour boat ride between Hiroshima and Matsuyama on Shikoku.

(Sidenote: if you haven’t been to Japan, the toilets almost need a manual, with buttons for music, water spray and others I couldn’t quite work out. Oh, and every toilet seat is set to a warm temperature).

We arrive at Matsuyama, the capital of the Ehime Prefecture to start our tour Shikoku tour. Most Australian tourists would be more familiar with the three other islands – Honshu (Tokyo/Kyoto), Hokkaido (Sapporo) and Kyushu (Fukuoka and Nagasaki) – but skipping Shikoku on a trip to Japan is a missed opportunity.

Exterior of Dojo Onsen Annex-no-u
Exterior of Dogo Onsen Annex-no-Yu. Forecourt painting of the local flower, camelia.

The city hums with liveliness, though not quite the on-steroids vibe of Tokyo, and only  10 minutes’ drive away is the quaint Dogo Onsen town, which at 3000 years old is famed for being the oldest onsen (natural hot spring baths) in the country. One of the local mascots (the Japanese love animal characters as regional representees) is the white heron. Hiro relays a beautiful myth that the hot springs were discovered by a white heron that injured its leg. The heron soaked itself in the water until it was strong enough to fly away, signalling to the local people that the hot spring waters had healing properties.

The main building, or honkan, was built in 1894 and may be recognisable to those who have seen the 2001 acclaimed animated movie Spirited Away. This led to a surge in visitors and up to 800,000 people a year visit Dogo Onsen Honkan. For those who haven’t visited an onsen, you are completely nude but men and woman are separated. It is odd at first but after 10 minutes of luxuriating in the 40 plus degrees spring water (which is direct from source), you’re too blissed out to care.

Exterior of Dogo Public Onsen - the oldest onsen in Japan
Interior of Dogo Public Onsen – the oldest onsen in Japan.

The Japanese are also relaxing their no tattoos in onsens stance (enforced to prevent Yakuza mafia members entering public onsens) and some even provide sticking plaster to cover up or allow entry (it’s best to be courteous and let them know!) Alternatively, book a private room at the Dogo Onsen Annex Asuka-no-Yu which is more expensive than the $5 entry fee but has private and exclusive baths and resting rooms reserved for visiting Japanese royalty. It’s hard to miss – the entire forecourt is painted with vibrant coloured camellias (tsubaki), the official flower of Matsuyama.

Onsens are the perfect way to prepare for (or recover from) a visit to a local sake and beer factory. Our visit to Minakuchi Shuzo is on a freezing and blustery afternoon that makes award-winning sake sampling all the more welcome. The Minakuchi family has run the shuzo (sake brewery) since 1895, taking advantage of the pure local water that flows from Mount Izhizuchi and Mount Takanawa and using the local Ehime rice. Top of their range of premium sake is Nikitatsu, which means “port filled with joy of benevolence”. With a moniker like that, we simply had to give it a go and unlike some of the sake I’ve had at home, it is far smoother.

Cute Japanese sweets and biscuits
Cute Japanese sweets and biscuits

The tasting doesn’t stop with sake. The brewery has been producing Dogo Beer since 1996 and while I’m not sure if it is excellence in marketing, or the translation from Japanese, but the slogan is “one gulp of beer taken just after a bath is the time when you feel the most refreshed”. That being said, the correct order should be sake, onsen, Dogo beer.

Despite the Dogo township being small, it has an excellent shopping arcade that focuses on local specialities. I adore shopping in Japan, not just for the exquisite craftsmanship and packaging, but also for the quirkiness.

Beautiful are the organic Imabari towels. Named after the Ehime town, the towels are coveted worldwide for their softness (due to the purity of the local water) and absorbency, and come in a spectrum of colours, designs and sizes. The company has been going for 120 years and I dare anyone to leave Japan without a few stashed in their luggage!

-Dogo shopping arcade is filled with shops selling Local specialities- Such as the popular Imabari towels- and quirky food items like cake in a can!
Dogo shopping arcade is filled with shops selling Local specialities – such as the popular Imabari towels

Quirky are some of the food choices. As healthy as sashimi, lean waygu and miso soups are, the Japanese desserts are alarmingly sweet. For instance, cake in a can, dango (skewered sweet rice dumplings) and Ichiroku tart (jam roll). The latter two as local delicacies are found everywhere,  as are mandarins and oranges. The region is well-known for its citrus fruits, even having a mascot that appears on food packaging and as food. Called Mikyan, he is a tangerine dog and competes for cuteness and prominence with Rilakkuma, which is translated as relaxing bear. Hiro says the proliferation of cute characters is “for the children” but I suspect it resonates with the adults too.

While Dogo is charming, one of the best parts of our visit is the hotel. The Funaya is a ryokan –  a traditional Japanese hotel that features tatami (mats on which shoes are not allowed), private onsen, futons, zabutan (sitting cushions), low wooden tables and shoji (sliding paper doors).

at ryokans it is acceptable to wear traditional Japanese attire for dining and outside the premises. The yukata is a very comfortable cotton kimono.
At ryokans it is acceptable to wear traditional Japanese attire for dining and outside the premises. The yukata is a very comfortable cotton kimono.

The rooms – and the hotel in general – have an elegant, distinctly Japanese aesthetic and it’s acceptable to walk around and dine wearing the traditional yukata (cotton kimono) which are very comfortable, particularly after imbibing in many courses at a local izakaya (casual dining, like a pub). As lovely as the Dogo public onsen is, the one in Funaya one is superb. It has a number of hot spring baths, including two set outside surrounded by a small Zen garden. Visiting an onsen is not to be rushed; bathing is a sacred ritual in Japan and after the hot spring soak, the tradition is to sit on a small plastic stool in front of taps and shower head and wash thoroughly. Then sleep.

Another little-known fact about Shikoku is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage (or Shikoku Henro) which is not for the faint-hearted. At 1200km, it is longer than the Camino de Santiago and is a circular shaped pilgrimage that includes 88 temples and sacred sites where Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi is believed to have trained or spent time in the 9th century. Not only is it a spiritual journey, but the trail takes in some of the natural beauty of Shikoku, particularly the coastal parts with views of the Seto Inland Sea.

Ishite-ji temple in Matsuyama. One of the temples on - (the tree with white papers tied on the branches) if you’r fortune isn’t a good one, tie it to the tree and leave it behind
Ishite-ji temple in Matsuyama.

We visit Ishite-ji, the 51st site on the pilgrimage and a Shingon Buddhist temple. Having a guide was invaluable, not only to explain how to make offerings and pray at the temple, but to interpret our fortune papers. At many temples in Japan, its costs 100 yen (about $1) to pick a fortune from a “lucky dip”, however there is no English interpretation. Our very kind Ehime hosts translated our fortunes and for 2024, I will have “moderate” luck – which is a far better proposition than bad luck. But all is not lost – if your fortune is rotten, you simply tie it to one of the trees in the temple and leave it behind.   

Part two of Kylie’s Shikoku journey will be published soon.

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