Exploring Japan: Discovering the 7 wonders of Kyoto

Exploring Japan: Discovering the 7 wonders of Kyoto

by Nano Betts

An early, two-hour ride on the bullet train brought me to one of the most postcard-worthy cities in the world. After hastily dropping off the bags at the hotel, I set off to enjoy the first rays of sun sipping through the bamboo forest of Arashiyama and wrapped up the day savoring matcha in a tea house of Gion. As I imagined walking alongside the footsteps of graceful geisha and brave shoguns, Kyoto unfailingly fired up my imagination and beguiled me with its old-world charm.

Yet, as fascinating as it was to immerse myself in the world of Memoirs of a Geisha for the umpteenth time, I knew it is nothing but a quintessential image on a cover of the centuries-old book which has far more complex stories to tell.

Next morning, I set off on a journey to the hinterlands of the Sea of Japan. A trip past the atmospheric alleys of Gion, verdant tea plantations of Uji and deer-trodden forests of Nara brings you to the northern part of the prefecture dubbed Kyoto by the Sea. This untapped region is home to seven sleepy towns that weave along the coast of Tango Peninsula and exude rich rural heritage.

Here is an overview of the region’s most fascinating and off the beaten path wonders and experiences you should not miss.

Maizuru City

The port city of Maizuru has been a navy town since 1901 and played a key role as a navy base during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05. Currently, it serves as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Maizuru navy base, and is home to the Hyuga helicopter carrier, Aegis ship, and other intimidating navy ships. Admittedly clueless and somewhat ignorant about the grandeur of its present military equipment, I had but a quick glance at it all and pursued to explore something that never fails to spark joy in me: food.

Shoeikan is a local institution in Maizuru. This century-old restaurant is a perfect place to explore how the town’s unique military history influenced its cuisine. The former inn was built to host the high-ranking military personnel like Admiral Heihachiro Togo, who led the Japanese navy during the Russo-Japanese War. Shoeikan embraces the military history of the town and features navy cuisine. Every dish is cooked using recipes from an old navy cookbook titled Naval Cooking Reference Book, which was used to train navy galley staff in the Imperial Japanese Navy. It has about 200 recipes for Western dishes and confections, some of which are now featured on the current menu. To further emphasize its culinary history, the restaurant uses the same dishes that were used to serve the navy contingency.

After thoroughly enjoying my platter of the curry rice, cabbage roll, stewed hamburger, and meat stew, I headed out to walk off my lunch at Maizuru’s iconic Brick Park which gave Maizuru the name of the Town of Red Bricks. Dating back to 1901, this eerie collection of 12 red-brick warehouses was used to store military munition (torpedoes, depth charges, and mines). The expansive space has now been successfully adopted into a museum, art exhibition hall and recreation area where locals love to spend their idle days.

Location: Hama 18, Maizuru-shi, Kyoto. About 1 km from JR Higashi Maizuru Station. Parking available. Also within 1 km to Maizuru Brick Park.

Amanoshodate in Miyazu City

Stretching along the east side of Tango Peninsula, Miyazu City is home to Amanoshodate, or Bridge to Heaven, one of the three most scenic spots in Japan alongside Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture and Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture. The poetic name was inspired by the sweeping view enjoyed from the observation deck of Kasamatsu Park. On a clear day, as the sky is mirrored in the Miyazu Bay, the sandbar connecting the two shores creates an illusion of a bridge floating up the air. The legend has it, a ladder, named Amanoukikashi, was placed so that the male God, Izanagi, could visit the earth to meet the goddess he was in love with. Only, the ladder collapsed due to his carelessness and formed the sand bar we can see today.

The sandbar might not be your direct gateway to heaven, but a leisurely stroll (or a bike ride) along its dirt path to the opposite shore undoubtedly makes for a memorable and somewhat therapeutic experience. Lined up with matsu pine trees and punctuated with rocks and shrines, with a white sand beach on one side and blue water on the other, this geographical oddity has, in fact, served as an inspiration for traditional Japanese garden landscaping.

Throughout history, local citizens have lived in spiritual harmony with nature and been devoted to protecting the environment. Before the Edo period, the locals gathered fallen leaves, cut branches for fuel and worked towards reforestation after wind and snow damages. Even though the environmental protection is now regulated and overseen by state laws, locals continue to plant Japanese black pine seedlings to minimize pine wilting damage, maintain the shoreline and give names to the pine trees as a token of care. Alongside myriads of meticulously preserved gardens and dozens of festivals celebrating every single blooming flower, this story served as yet another example of an inborn love and respect for nature which pervades and influences the entire life of Japanese people.

Location: Short walk from Amanohashidate Station (Kyoto Tango Railway). More details on their official website.

Farm Lodge Stay at Ayabe City

The greater city of Ayabe has a lot to offer to the visitors, from ancient temples that date back to the 6th century to waterfalls, fireflies and relaxing hot springs. And when you have done and seen it all, you have a chance to tap even deeper into the laid-back life of rural Japan by staying at one of the farmers’ guesthouses.

There are a total of 14 farmhouse lodges in Ayabe. I stayed at Iwan No Sato (イワンの里). I made it to their village well after dark and the hostess Hiroko Hideo picked me up on the side of the road, equipped with a flashlight and a big, welcoming smile. We made a few twists and turns along the narrow road until coming to her humble yet spacious abode that her family generously opens to tourists visiting the area. She introduced me to her husband Hideo and daughter and then escorted me to my tatami room. In the next three hours I was pleasantly smothered by heartwarming Japanese hospitality as Hideo treated me to a delicious home-cooked dinner paired with locally brewed sake, engaged in a cheerful conversation as we exchanged our life stories, and then tucked me in a comfortable futon bed making sure my feet were warm all night thanks to a piping hot yutanpo – an ingenious gizmo which is a staple in Japanese household to counter the universal absence of central heating.

Next morning, I was treated to yet another bountiful meal. The family lived in Kyoto before shaking off their urban selves and moving up north to pursue a simpler life: farm sustainably and organically, drawing on centuries of rural Japanese wisdom. “The rich local soil yields exceptionally tasty produce. So, everything we serve is sourced locally, either in our own or the neighboring farms,” Hiroko shared as she put a plate of mushrooms and mountain vegetables on the table. We maintain a balanced diet of mostly vegan, natural ingredients eaten in season, she said. The family goes the extra mile to accommodate dietary requests of their guests too.

Their hospitality was as soothing and satisfying as the miso soup I slurped to finish off the breakfast. Even though these families consider themselves to be on the receiving end, farm-stay experiences like these are what opens your horizons as a traveler and grants a deeper appreciation and understanding of the culture and people of your host country.

Location: visit this website for a list of 14 farmhouse lodges in Ayabe. Contact should be made in Japanese in most cases. You can also book this tour of Kyotango City that takes you on a visit to vegetable farms, introduces you to the life of local farmers and gives you the opportunity to harvest and cook organically grown, fresh produce in a relaxing rural atmosphere.

Kurotani Washi Papermaking Village

This seemingly unassuming village hides the secret to the longstanding craft of washi papermaking kept alive by a handful of local families and made by hands of its tenacious women. Now part of the bigger Ayabe city, the history of Kurotani started roughly 800 years ago when the surviving soldiers of the defeated Heike Clan picked the secluded, steep valley as their hide-out spot.

Today, Kurotani is firmly pinned on the world map as one of the leading producers of authentic, 100 percent hand-made washi which has earned it a status of intangible cultural property of Kyoto prefecture. Eager to spread the word about their traditional art, the locals welcome tourists, who can now not only observe but also partake in the centuries-old washi-making process at Washi Craft Training Center (Traditional Arts School of Kyoto), located in the former Kuchikanbayashi Elementary School.

Read my full article for the details about Kurotani’s longstanding washi-making tradition, and directions to the village and available workshops.

Ine Fishing Village

The north end of Tango Peninsula is home to a picturesque seaside village of Ine, where fishermen have continued to preserve their unique way of life and live in a harmony with the sea for centuries. Spectacularly set against the thickly-forested mountains, Ine boasts a collection of 230 funaya, fishermen’s homes built centuries ago on stilts over the water. The first floor doubles as a workspace and a garage where the fishermen haul their boats, while the second floor is a living space for their families. These unique Japanese structures are now considered Important Cultural Properties, have served as a backdrop for numerous local dramas and are the main tourist draw to the area.

The community has successfully developed and implemented a marine ecotourism program which has allowed to revive Ine without compromising the integrity of its heritage. Fifteen families in the village renovated their funaya and converted them into guesthouses. Guests can indulge in home-cooked meals prepared using seafood fresh out of these waters, partake in village activities, take a boat tour or customized fishing trip, hike cliff paths or rent a bike for a leisurely ride to the nearest secluded beaches. There are quaint local craft shops and restaurants, as well as Mukai Shuzo Sake Brewery, which has been distilling sake since 1754, and now offers brewery tours and sake tastings.

More details about the traditions of Ine village and stay at the local funaya lodging is in this article.

Yosano’s Silk Road

Did you know that Tango Peninsula has it’s own silk road? The favorable humid climate made this region a perfect place for textile and silk production. Tango became famous for chirimen technique, which yields high quality and delicate silk crepe introduced here from China in the 18th century. While the industry enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s, the region continues to supply roughly 60% of the silk all over Japan, mostly used for tailoring high-end kimonos and obi belts.

Chirimen Kaido street in Yosano is a time capsule of the region’s former glory and a pleasant place to explore. The former residence of the Bitou family, which had 12 generations of Tango chirimen wholesale merchants, and Tango-chirimen History Museum, a remodeled silk factory dating back to 1935, both provide a closer look into the history of local silk production.

You can try your hand at making silk crepe at one of the local handloom weaving or Yuzen Dyeing workshops offered to visitors (subject to advance reservation, please check official websites). More details are in my article about Yosano’s silk production heritage.

Hot Springs, Gourmet Dining & Stunning Coastline

Kyoto by the Sea is known to be the hometown of Toyouke-no-okami, the God of Food and Textiles, marking this region as the birthplace of Japan’s food culture. A few of the local specialties include taiza crab, the highest quality winter delicacy; fatty ine buri yellowtail; bara-zushi, rice topped with sweet and savory toppings like braised mackerel and shredded omelet; nikujaga, a local take on stewed meat and potatoes; and Fukuchiyama confections such as Tamba kuri, a chestnut pound cake.

There is no better place to enjoy the region’s delicious cuisine than one of the historic ryokans which punctuate the area in abundance. I had a blissful stay at Shorenkan Yoshinoya. Opened in 1928, the ryokan is located in a hot spring neighborhood of Taiza in Kyotango city. The hot springs in this town are said to have therapeutic effects, lowering your blood pressure and relaxing your body. The inn features beautiful washitsu rooms with tatami floors and floor-to-ceiling windows with an ocean view. I took full advantage of its two onsens: an indoor bath featuring the high ceiling and wooden barrel bathtub, as well as the outdoor wooden tubs overlooking the ocean. I also thoroughly enjoyed the kaiseki dinner and breakfast, both featuring freshest local seafood and produce.

Perhaps the most scenic spot to end your journey in this beautiful part of Japan is its coastline. Yuhigaura has a great beach and offers fantastic sunsets, while Kotohikihama Beach has silky white sand and turquoise waters.

To say I was impressed by this stunning part of Japan would be a very big understatement. I truly believe Kyoto by the Sea makes for a perfect weekend getaway for families and solo travelers alike. It is best explored by a private vehicle, but can also easily be accessed by train and bus system. The main gateway to northern Kyoto is Fukuchiyama Station in Fukuchiyama. You can get there on trains from JR Osaka Station (via JR Fukuchiyama Line) and JR Kyoto Station. Fukuchiyama Station connects to Kyoto Tango Railway and JR San’in Line. The former is the dominant train network in this area and will get you to most of the places listed above. I highly recommend you look into JR-West Rail Pass, which might save some funds during your travels. Most importantly, never forget to check with local tourist information centers who are there to recommend efficient transportation and even arrange cost-effective lodging for you.

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