It’s doubtful that I would have traveled to Japan just to be a tourist. It’s too far outside of my comfort zone. And the older I get, the less I like long flights.
But our Japanese exchange student of 12 years ago was getting married, and we always said we wanted to be there whenever that happened.
The wedding was in Minamata City, about as far south in Japan as you can get. It’s a small town, just over 25,000 residents on the shores of the Shiranui Sea. With a wedding one day and a reception the next, we were left with three days to squeeze in as much sightseeing as humanly possible. We chose to stay rural. We stayed in a guesthouse on a farm one night and in a cabin in the mountains another night. We saw some breathtaking scenery, experienced Japanese country living, soaked in natural hot springs, ate things I thought I would never eat and had the time of our lives.
Before I continue, I want to stipulate that five days in Japan doesn’t make me any kind of authority on Japan or Japanese culture. I suspect that the regional differences within the country as well as personal preferences mean my experience may not be remotely close to typical. As a result, my observations are fairly narrow in application to any other traveler.
Still, I think they are worth sharing.
As an additional disclaimer, I should point out that my wife Karen and I traveled with my youngest daughter (the same age as our exchange student) and her husband. He drove the rental car and she navigated. They are both adventurous. (Our son-in-law actually got a kick out of trying to extend our car rental by one day in a three-way phone conversation with an interpreter and a Japanese agent at Budget.) Had we been traveling on our own, we likely would have made more conservative plans. I arranged the more traditional lodging in Fukuoka and Kumamoto, while my daughter researched and booked the out-of-the-way Airbnb lodging. It was the willingness of our younger counterparts to explore and take some chances that contributed greatly to the variety and adventure that made this trip so memorable.
Getting there and getting around
The flight to Japan is, well, long.
For us it began in Phoenix with a flight to San Francisco, then on to Tokyo and another flight to Fukuoka, followed by a train ride to Kumamoto. By the time we checked into our Kumamoto Hotel, we had been traveling more than 24 hours. The next morning we rented our car and drove a couple of hours to Minamata City. With a couple of missed turns and an address for the temple where the wedding would occur that our maps app wouldn’t recognize, we arrived at the wedding with only 15 minutes to spare.
I’m told that most people choose to travel by rail in Japan. I can see why. The trains are fast and efficient. But we chose to go the rental car route, which allowed us the freedom to roam around the countryside. And it solved the what-to-do-with-the-luggage problem. When you’re attending a wedding and wedding reception, it’s tough to pack light and the thought of keeping track of our luggage on public transportation was daunting. From a financial perspective, four travelers splitting the cost of a rental car was far more economical than four rail passes.
To drive in Japan, you need an international driver’s permit, which you can obtain through the Prescott office of the AAA. In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, which means it takes more concentration to drive. Many streets are narrow, but drivers in Japan, at least in the part we visited, were courteous and controlled. Compared to driving in France, for example, it was fairly tame. Based on my experience, I would never try to travel by car in Japan without renting a hotspot. We rented ours from a vending machine in the San Francisco International Terminal. It costs about $10 a day and assures that mapping apps will work to guide you through even fairly remote areas.
The kindness of strangers
Before we left for Japan, when I expressed concern about navigating our travels without knowing the language, I was told not to worry. You can always find someone who speaks English there.
But what we lacked in compatible language was made up with the amazing kindness of the Japanese people. When we were trying to figure out the system for buying tokens for the subway in Fukuoka, a kind woman offered to help and through mostly exchanged gestures, figured out what we needed and showed us the correct route, cost and stop. Another time, when we were trying to negotiate the baggage re-checking system while on a tight connection schedule in the Tokyo airport after clearing customs, an airline employee pulled us out of line, took us behind the counter and expedited the process.
I have never been treated with such courtesy. I have never been honored with so many bows. After less than a week in Japan, coming through customs in San Francisco was a bit of a shock as the officials there moved us through like a bunch of cattle.
Embracing the culture
We spent our first night in Japan in Kumamoto at a hotel a mile or so from the train station. It was a 15-minute trip by taxi, including the time the driver invested in figuring out how to fit four people and their luggage in his fairly compact vehicle. As expected, at the hotel we encountered the obligatory slippers that replace shoes the instant you enter the room, plus a separate pair for wearing only in the bathroom. Also as expected, we had our first experience with the more enlightened Japanese version of a toilet. The hotel breakfast buffet the next morning was mostly traditional Japanese fare, with fish, rice, marinated meat and several things I didn’t recognize. It was all surprisingly good.
Our second night’s lodging had been arranged by the family of our newlywed exchange student. The room was traditional Japanese style. Tatami mats covered the floors and there were sliding rice paper panels between rooms. Although there was a bathroom sink/counter area, there was no shower or bathtub in the room. Instead, there were six choices of hot-spring-fed public and family baths. It’s the get-clean-first by soaping up and rinsing off routine followed by soaking in the very hot mineral water baths. The oldest of the baths was in a cavern and covered in ancient mineral deposit formations.
We shared a sit-on-the-floor, low table dinner and breakfast the next day with the bride’s family in a large room in the seaside hotel. The variety of food was impressive, with several items you could cook at the table in small heated pots. We ate octopus, snails, seaweed, crab, shrimp and more. And of course, rice.
We had a similarly spectacular meal at the B&B where we stayed our fourth night in Japan located in the Taragi-machi region, about an hour from Minamata City. We were lodged in a three-bedroom guesthouse on a small farm in a fertile valley. The next morning, our host, Katsuchi, a former international businessman who had become a gentleman farmer in retirement, ended up becoming our impromptu tour guide. He had us follow him to the top of a nearby peak to see the checkerboard farmland below as the morning fog burned off. He made a phone call and arranged for a shrine that was usually open only twice a year to be opened for us. It contained carved images of a religious icon and his warrior guardians that date back to the 13th century. He took us to a temple and explained the difference between a temple and a shrine and the difference between Buddhism and Shintoism. The tour guide thing was free and the lodging was less than $100 a couple.
Our fifth night was spent in a cabin located in a mountainous area of Minamioguni-machi. The sunset behind the many mountain ranges was breathtaking. There were both public natural hot spring baths and a private one in each of the dozen or so cabins. The next morning we found the Nebegataki Waterfall an hour away, where it’s virtually impossible to take a bad photo. That same day, we managed to squeeze in a trip to Mount Aso, where steam rises from the active volcano before making our way back to Kumamoto and a quick tour around the perimeter of the famous Kumamoto Castle, which was badly damaged by the April 2016 earthquake.
After a quick train ride from Kumamoto to Fukuoka, we spent our last night at a large hotel just a block from the train station.
Shamefully, we ate pizza that evening.