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Jamie in the gardens
Jamie in the gardens
In the hot springs
Okayama City

Jamie Durie's Japan

Thursday, March 4, 2004
Jamie finds a very different side to Japan ... and it's quite a hidden treasure.

Mention of Japan conjures up images of the metropolis of Tokyo with its 12 million citizens crowding the streets. The neon city exudes energy and noise and is a place of unexpected experiences.

Seeking something a little different, Getaway took Jamie Durie on a Lost Japan Tour, travelling to one of the country's three hidden regions. The Iya Valley, 10 hours southwest of Tokyo on Shikoku Island, is a calm, green oasis for over-worked city dwellers.

The trickle of tourists who make it there love to cross the famed kazura-bashi (vine bridges) spanning its deep river gorges. The main bridge is 45 metres long, two metres wide and 15 metres above the river. It's very safe, though the faint-hearted or agoraphobic may be content to watch others take the walk!

The bridges, which are replaced every three years, provided great protection during times of threat. Scouts would call from "yelling rocks" when enemies were approaching and the bridges were simply sliced away. Those yelling rocks are still there.

During the civil war of the 12th century, the Iya Valley was a safe haven for the Keike clan when they fled the rival Genji clan. Eight hundred years later, some Keike descendants still call it home.

The mountainsides are dotted with tiny rural hamlets where residents are bent on preserving traditional ways, despite economic pressures to move to the cities or take construction jobs.

A hot spring visit is a necessity, but there are strict rules which must be adhered to. Modesty is non-existent and partakers must be naked. You must also scrub yourself like crazy, as being spotlessly clean before entering the tub is an absolute must. Yukatas, or bathing kimonos, are worn for the post-wash meal, which might consist of fried and locally-grown lettuce, bean curd, mushrooms and chicken.

Another must-see is the Chiiori Project, a meticulous restoration of a 300-year-old farmhouse. Volunteers are encouraged to help with the work and are rewarded with the gentle experience of Japanese country life.

Yuki, the in-house caretaker, gave up a law career to manage the house. His duties including planting crops, roof thatching and co-ordinating tasks for volunteers.

A visit to the Korakuen Garden in Okayama City is an awe-inspiring experience. One of Japan's three most-famous gardens, it was completed in 1700 after 14 years of work. It is 133,000 square metres of garden glory, opened for public visits in 1884.

Careful planning gives the garden a totally different look with each season. Stepping stones and pathways take you meandering at your own pace through the surrounding beauty.

Another architectural wonder is Japan's most splendid and acclaimed castle, Himeji-jô. Built in 1580 and enlarged 30 years later, it is known as Shirasagi, the white egret, as it has a stately form reminiscent of that bird. It has one of the world's most comprehensive castle layouts and has changed hands from lord to lord no less than 48 times. Sadly, when the wife of Himeji, the builder, pointed out a not-quite-straight turret the day construction was completed, his shame drove him to suicide.

Guesthouses, or ryokans, are reasonably priced and offer the authentic way of Japanese life, complete with tatami mats, futons and other customs.


The island of Shikoku


Intrepid Travel's Lost Japan 14-day tours from Tokyo to Kyoto cost $3490 per person. Some accommodation, most entry fees, some meals and some activities are included.

Qantas flies daily to Tokyo, starting at $1978 from Darwin, $2130 from Perth, $2133 from Melbourne and Brisbane, $2149 from Sydney and $2166 from Adelaide, per person. Prices include charges/taxes and are current at time of writing, but may vary at time of booking.
Please note prices are valid at time of filming.

More information

Intrepid Travel
11 Spring Street
Fitzroy 3065
Ph: 1300 360 667 (03) 9473 2626
Fax: (03) 9419 5878>

Qantas: 13 13 13

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