As a successful first-grade Aussie rules footballer for many years, Dermott Brereton knows all about being competitive. He's not someone who settles for second, but a trip to Japan showed him it's not all bad, in the world of travel anyway.
Japan's First Golden Route takes in Mt Fuji, Tokyo and Kyoto. Scenery is spectacular and everyone knows it. It can be very, very crowded and that can take away from enjoying it.
The Second Golden Route takes in Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa. These towns allow you to step back in time and experience traditional Japanese culture at its best.
Public transport between towns is cheap and reliable, and with the assistance of Mr Yamachan, Dermott's journey began.
A castle town at the foot of Takayama
Castle, it has delightful old wooden merchant houses, vibrant morning markets, small museums, tranquil temples and hillside clusters of shrines. It's retained the charm of the 17th century Edo period.
Takayama Castle was established at the end of the 16th century and was the origin of the present town and its culture. It was destroyed in 1695 when the region came under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate. Military dictators installed a strict class system and separated the population into four groups: samurai, farmers, craftspeople and merchants. During that period, unique traditions evolved and, being isolated from other areas, Takayama developed its own culture.
It has a twice-yearly festival where teams of men pull brightly coloured floats decorated with mechanical dolls. Most things of interest are in the centre of town so it's easy to explore on foot or bicycle.
Takayama is blessed with perfect conditions necessary for producing sake. Locally grown rice and pure mountain water are combined at Hirase Sake Brewery to produce some of Japan's best. It's been operating since 1623 and is in its 14th generation of ownership. Dermott really enjoyed the sweet sake jelly.
Around an hour further on the road, Shirakawa-go
is entrenched in Japanese history. The small village is famous for its A-frame farmhouses known as gassho-zukuri
. They resemble two hands together and there's not a nail or screw to be seen.
Dermott visited Magoemon, one of the larger gassho-zukurisi. The hosts are the eighth generation to welcome guests to the six-room 270-year-old house. There's an open hearth and they serve fresh, seasonal food. If you love snow, there is more than 2m of it in January and February.
A trip to Japan just wouldn't be complete without a soak in a piping-hot mineral bath. They are found all over Japan and Dermott visited one called Shiramizu-no-yo in Shirakawa-go. About 600 litres of 92.5°C spring water flows every minute. It is cooled to a more comfortable 60°C. It contains natural sulphur, sodium and chloride. Bathers are usually naked, and should you choose to wear a small towel for modesty, it cannot be taken into the water. Rules vary at each spring but they will be very clear to you.
Another 75 minutes on the bus and Dermott was in Kanazawa
, which is known for its gardens, samurai and geishas. It's like any other modern Japanese city but its traditional culture is just below the surface. Next to Kyoto, it has Japan's largest old-style geisha-training establishment. The girls are trained in traditional arts, such as playing instruments, singing and dancing, conversation and other social skills.
Dermott met Yukiko, previously a geisha in the 180-year-old Kaikaro tea house. Now that she is married she is an okami, or manager. Tourists are welcome during the day to take tea, and at night it becomes a private residence where geishas perform for those who can afford it.
Not only geishas, but Kanazawa has ninjas as well. Myoryuji Temple, known as Ninjadera, is a building full of tricks and traps. It has false floors, hidden corridors and a room of death with a revolving door that won't open from the inside. That one was used for harakiri, the act of suicide when it's considered the only "honourable" thing to do. The room has four tatami mats, something shunned elsewhere because the Japanese words for "four" and for "death" are pronounced the same way.
From the outside it looks like a two-storey building but has four storeys, seven layers, 23 three rooms and 29 staircases. It was built by the very clever Shogun Maeda lords as a disguised military outpost.
Dermott's guide, Mr Fujio, found a traditional temple on the town's outskirts where, for a small donation, he received a luck poem. Dermott's poem was translated into "falling rain and with fine weather, you'll be very happy with seven-coloured love" and he's still trying to find out just what that means!
Japan's Second Golden Route starts at Nagoya, a three-hour drive from central Japan.
Magomen is around $122 per person a night between April and September and $130 between October and March. Dinner and breakfast are included.
Shiramizu-no-yu Hot Springs entry is around $8 for adults and $5 for children. It is closed on Wednesdays.
Kaikaro geisha house tours are around $9 for adults and $6 for children.
Ninjadera, or Myoryuji Temple, entry is around $10 for adults and $8 for children.
Bus fare from Takayama to Shirakawa-go is around $30 one-way.
Singapore Airlines has early-bird flights to Nagoya from:
- Perth $1218
- Melbourne $1220
- Adelaide $1234
- Sydney $1240
- Brisbane $1242
On sale until October 31, 2010, for travel between March 1 and September 30, 2011. Conditions apply.
From October 31, 2010, Singapore Airlines will launch its new twice-daily route to Haneda, Tokyo. Early-bird introductory fares start at $1214.
Prices correct at October 21, 2010.
For further information
Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)
Suite 1, Level 4, 56 Clarence Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Ph: +61 9279 2177
Ph: +81 57 732 5021
Ph: +81 57 732 0120
Oshirakawa Onsen Shiramizu-no-yu
Ph: +81 57 695 4126
360 Ogimachi Shirakawa-mura
Ph: +81 57 696 1167
Ph: +81 76 253 0591
Ph: +81 76 241 0888
Visas: Visitors from Australia are issued with a 90-day tourist visa on each entry to Japan. Foreign tourists are required by Japanese law to carry their passports with them at all times.
Electricity: 100V with two flat-pin plugs.
Time: GMT +9.
Currency: The yen.
International dialling code: +81.