Travels June 2006

How Not to Travel in Japan

Our correspondent flouts the Three Laws of Tourism there— and has a spectacular trip

Within moments of our arrival we realized why the place still had openings when we were planning our trip, two months before Golden Week (the very last minute by Japanese standards). Located above the intersection of two busy truck routes into the mountains, the minshuku vibrated through the night like a gigantic Magic Fingers bed. Until that night I had believed that Japanese guesthouses were universally clean and welcoming. The hotelier here, however, trained as an opera singer, was profoundly disappointed by his current occupation. We guests were not spared his moods. Nor were we spared the three-inch poisonous centipede that crawled out of the shower drain.

Matters scarcely improved in the small city of Matsuyama, which sits at one end of the staggeringly long—and staggeringly expensive—toll bridge across the Inland Sea. Because the minshuku we would be staying in had faxed us a map, we spent only about two hours finding our accommodations after we hit the city. Our hosts were much nicer than in Bitchu-Takahashi, but the rooms were even worse, with paper-thin futons. Waking up with back spasms, our friends saw the kanji on the wall. They announced that they were done with travel during Golden Week and decamped for Kyoto, where they had other friends.

My wife and I were too stubborn to quit. Besides, we wanted to see Chiiori. Co-owned by the expatriate writer and critic Alex Kerr, Chiiori (the House of the Flute) is a nearly 300-year-old thatch-roofed farmhouse in a tiny hamlet in the Iya Valley, one of the least-developed places in technophiliac Japan. The house is intended to exemplify a traditional balance between mankind and nature, a balance Kerr believes Japan has lost. It is heated entirely by a smoky irori hearth, a square hole cut into the floor in the middle of the room. People sleep communally, ten or more at a time, around the irori.

The staff had suggested we not go there by car, because we would get lost. We ignored their advice, and got lost. Part of the reason was that even our detailed road atlas didn’t have enough detail. But another part was that in the Japanese countryside, nobody seems to know where anything is—the flip side of the wonderful national propensity for staying in the same place for generations. (Once we went to a children’s-book museum—the Japanese have a penchant for small, idiosyncratic museums—near the common tourist destination of Kanazawa. When we finished our visit, we asked half a dozen people, all locals, how to get to the highway to Kanazawa, a road we knew was within a mile. None could tell us. “Nobody goes there,” one said.)

When we finally found Chiiori, darkness had long since fallen. The Chiiori Web site describes the accommodations as “primitive.” One definition of the word might be “reachable only by a long, narrow path with no lights.” Wrangling our wheeled suitcase over a stone, I inadvertently stepped off the path. In this way I discovered that the path was on the edge of a six-foot drop. Fortunately, I landed in a big thorn bush.

In the morning we were glad we had made the journey. Chiiori overlooks a steep valley that was mysterious with morning fog. When the mist cleared, the big sleeping room had a view of mountains as black and spiny as those in ink drawings. That evening we went to a country onsen (a public bath in a mineral hot spring), blissfully uncrowded even during Golden Week, from which we could see the stars. (The steaming water felt good on my cuts and bruises, too.)

But my favorite part of Shikoku wasn’t actually on Shikoku itself but on Naoshima, a little island in the strait between Shikoku and the mainland. Access is via a short ferry ride. The ferry docks at a former fishing village, from which visitors can take a bus to Benesse House, one of the best of Japan’s innumerable private art museums.

Tadao Ando, arguably Japan’s most prominent architect, designed the museum, using the polished concrete that is his signature. The collection is small, wholly contemporary, and carefully selected, as if the guiding principle were “Choose only two works from each artist, and make them both count.” Visitors can stay in an attached hotel or, as we did, in big pao (Mongolian-style yurts) by the beach. The museum extends into the village, where four old houses have been transformed into art installations, of which our favorite was Tatsuo Miyajima’s “Sea of Time,” from 1998. In an elegant move, Miyajima built a large reflecting pool inside the house and created a reflected “starscape” by placing small, softly blinking neon numbers beneath the surface.

Watching the numbers wink on and off, I imagined the installation as emblematic of Japan’s fascinating simultaneous embrace of tradition and high technology. In a few hours we would be driving back to Okayama, and then returning to Tokyo. When we left, after a walk on the beach, we promised ourselves we would come back to Shikoku—but not during Golden Week.

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Charles C. Mann is an Atlantic correspondent and the author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

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