Roads less traveled: an exploration of tranquil Kyoto, Hyogo and Tottori

The classic route across Japan typically sticks to the big cities. Start off in Tokyo with the never ending hustle and bright neon lights of the city, head over to Kyoto for some tranquil culture, Osaka for vibrant food and vibrant shopping, and maybe mix in a little Hiroshima for some tradition and history. It's a great trip and will give you an awesome experience of Japan. But the country also has a lot to offer those who are willing to get off the beaten path and venture beyond where a world of sleepy fishing villages, rural countryside and forested mountain towns await.

Over the last few days, I did just that and headed out to explore the less visited parts of northern Kyoto, northern Hyogo and Tottori prefectures, with the goal of discovering some of the hidden beauties and secret spots that exist away from the typical tourist gaze.

Takeda Castle Ruins, aka Castle in the Sky (Asago, Hyogo)

Kyoto

Everyone visits Kyoto, but few get out of the city to forested mountains and sweeping coastlines of the northern parts of the prefecture. At the far north end is Amanohashidate, an exquisite, three kilometer long isthmus that spans the mouth of Miyazu Bay. Famous as one of Japan's three most scenic views, the land bridge is not unknown to tourists. Yet few foreign tourists make the two-hour train journey from Kyoto to see the town's iconic "bridge to heaven", which appears when you bend over and look at the land bridge upside down through your legs. Taking in the view from such an awkward position is an exercise in humility (and humorous to spectators), but the view is well worth any embarrassment.

Most visitors enjoy a stroll down the path that runs the length of the land bridge through a forest of nearly 8000 pine trees that grow there. The walk takes around an hour as many people stop for breaks along the way to take in the scenery or pop out of the woods to explore the sandy beaches that line the seaward side. Others, like myself, opt to rent a bicycle to make the leisurely crossing to the far side of the bay from where you can check out Kasamatsu Park high up on the mountain to the north and get a spectacular vantage point over the bay.

Amanohashidate from Kasamatsu Park (Miyazu, Kyoto)

Along the Amanohashidate sandbar (Miyazu, Kyoto)

After touring Amanohashidate, I took a quick drive up the coast to Ine, a small little bayside fishing village known for its unique wooden funaya boathouses, built shoulder to shoulder along the coast like row houses floating on the high tide. The funaya are built right up at the edge of the water and act as a sort of garage where the fishermen can easily dock their boats and do their work from the shelter of their homes.

The narrow lane that defines the village runs all the way around the bay, flanked by over 200 boathouses and wooden residences packed so close together that it was almost impossible to tell that you're only a couple of meters away from the ocean. After Amanohashidate, the tranquil street through Ine was quite a change since I was virtually alone as I strolled about the quaint old buildings. I would have loved to spend hours exploring, but with sunset quickly approaching I had to head back to Amanohashidate for the night.

The funaya boat houses of Ine (Miyazu, Kyoto)

Hyogo

With the intention of taking some pictures of the famous Takeda Castle, I made my way to the Ritsunkyo Valley the next morning. It was still pitch black when I arrived, and the valley was so thick with morning fog that I was beginning to worry about the visibility. It would have been a shame to have traveled all the way to central Hyogo and woken up so early only to have my view obscured by the clouds. But there was no turning back now, so I grabbed my bag and turned on my headlamp for the hike up to the first viewing point.

Thirty minutes later I was setting up my camera gear and could only wait as the sky grew brighter and brighter. Finally the clouds broke and I could just start to make out the outline of the Takeda Castle Ruins, the so-called Castle in the Sky, as it grew more visible across the valley.

Takeda Castle Ruins break through the morning clouds (Asago, Hyogo)

Takeda Castle was built over 570 years ago at a bend in the valley with a commanding view of the area. When the conditions are right, billowy white clouds roll in to fill the valley below and the ruined foundations of the mountaintop fortress appear to float on an ocean of roiling foam. The phenomenon, which is most common in autumn, is known as "the sea of clouds" and has earned the castle the nickname "Castle in the Sky" for the mysterious floating castle of Miyazaki's film of the same name. When dawn arrived, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief as the fog that had been covering the valley finally lifted and I was able to take some memorable pictures. Afterwards I headed down the valley and climbed up to the mountaintop castle to check out the ruins up close. The ruined foundations at the peak are also known as the Machu Picchu of Japan, as the view of the terraced baileys high up in the mountains remind many of the famous South American site Machu Picchu. The views alone were well worth the steep hike up to the top, and as I gazed out over the valley I could only imagine what it must have felt like for the ancient samurai who may have enjoyed the same view from that very spot.

Modern mining techniques of Ikuno Mine (Asago, Hyogo)

Descending the mountain took no time at all and soon I was off to Ikuno Mine, not too far away from the Takeda Castle Ruins. Operated for approximately 1,200 years Ikuno Mine was one of the most productive silver mines of its day and was directly controlled by shoguns throughout much of its history. The silver, gold, copper and other valuable metals mined there contributed greatly to the wealth of the Tokugawa Shogunate and funded a large portion of the Edo Government. In later centuries ownership of the mine passed to the Imperial Government, and was eventually contracted to Mitsubishi who ran modern mining operations until the 1970s.

Ikuno Mine's tunnels stretch for 350 kilometers underground, and I set off to explore the kilometer or so of tunnels that are open to the public. A chill went over my body as I entered the mines, but it wasn't fear washing over me. It was the air-conditioned-like atmosphere of the tunnels which sit as much as 1000 meters below the earth. At that depth they stay a fairly constant 13 degrees Celsius.

Venturing through the mines was like a history lesson, with lifelike mannequins posed to act out the tasks performed by the miners. Actual mining equipment was used to demonstrate their work and emphasize the dangerous lifestyle of a miner. I especially enjoyed learning about the different mining techniques used from the Edo Period to nowadays; from the claustrophobic, hand-chiseled "raccoon holes" to dynamite and pneumatic tools used to create huge open rooms deep in the mountain.

Yanagiyu bathhouse in Kinosaki Onsen (Toyooka, Hyogo)

Afterwards, I headed to my accommodation for the evening over in Kinosaki Onsen, an atmospheric hot spring town built along a willow-lined river in northern Hyogo. The charmingly old-fashioned town is a popular hot spring getaway, and in the evenings guests of the local traditional inns stroll about in yukata, a sort of cotton kimono, as they visit the local baths and nostalgic smart ball games that line the central lanes.

After checking in I donned a yukata and headed out into the streets to explore. My first task was to get something to eat, and I easily found a lively little restaurant specializing in rice bowls topped with local seafood from the Sea of Japan. I ordered one with crab and raw sweet shrimp and paired it with an ice-cold beer!

I headed back into the night with a full stomach to try out some of the seven public hot spring baths that dot the area and are free to enter to those who are staying at a local accommodation. The pleasant atmosphere of the town was on full display as I wandered the streets accompanied by fellow yukata clad travelers strolling about in groups. Every now and then I'd come across one of the baths, and would quickly slip into the hot hot water to unwind a little before heading on to the next one. I visited three wonderfully relaxing baths before deciding to head back in for the night.

Along the willow lined river of Kinosaki Onsen (Toyooka, Hyogo)

Tottori

The final leg of my journey took me across the coast of Tottori Prefecture, to visit some of the rocky cliffs, expansive beaches, and towering sand dunes of the Sanin Kaigan National Park. My first stop was the rugged, sea worn shores of the Uradome Coast of Eastern Tottori, known for its rocky inlets and isolated beaches lined by gnarled scrub pines. The most scenic parts of the coast can only be reached on foot, so I parked my car and hiked down to the water's edge.

An overgrown trail connects the beaches and inlets along the coast, heading inland up and down the steep slopes from time to time when the coastal route becomes impassable. Those who make it are rewarded with the beach practically to themselves save for the occasional sightseeing ferries that pass by as they ply the coast.

The rocky Uradome Coast (Iwami, Tottori)

Heading further west brought me to the Tottori Sand Dunes, the largest sand dunes in Japan and Tottori's best known landmark. The towering piles of sand, which reach upwards of 50 meters high and stretch out for more than a dozen kilometers along the coast of the Sea of Japan, form an ever-changing landscape that has been shaped over thousands of years by wind and water.

Setting out across the dunes, I kept getting passed by groups of college-age kids, the boys often breaking off from the pack in a show of bravado, attempting to sprint up the steep slope. Most never made more than a dozen meters before giving up and assuming a more plodding pace. But everyone eventually made it to the top where they would pause to take in a breathtaking view of the seaside dunes.

The Tottori Sand Dunes (Tottori, Tottori)

Most would stay a few minutes before heading off again. Some went back towards the parking lot, while others set out in either direction along the coast. But when the time to start heading back came, it was me who took off running down the sandy slope, taking huge, leaping strides as I went and feeling the thrill of flying down the hill in mere seconds. Once at the bottom, I dusted myself off and plodded back toward my car.

Nearby the sand dunes is The Sand Museum, a unique art museum featuring huge sand sculptures. This year's theme is Germany, and many amazing scenes from the country's history and folklore were recreated in sand with amazing amounts of detail; from the faces of the people to the delicate spires of the castles. Walking through the exhibits, I couldn't help but admire the artistry that the team put into their work. And to think that all of this was created out of just sand and water.

The Sand Museum exhibition currently features Germany (Tottori, Tottori)

And so with that, my journey came to an end. These three areas of Japan are jointly promoting tourism in the region under the title "LEGEND JAPAN" (http://www.legend-japan.jp/). The "LEGEND JAPAN" region is the perfect place to enjoy local delicacies, hot springs, stunning scenery, unique culture influenced by ancient Chinese traditions, and geological history, which gives glimpses of a time when Japan was still attached to the continent.
For a taste of the real Japan, and for experiences that just can't be had on the Golden Route (the typical tourist route in Japan), take some of the roads less traveled, and head to northern Kyoto, northern Hyogo, and Tottori prefectures.

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