The Other JapanJuly 15, 2009 By: Joe Pike Travel Agent
Tourists walk along the snow corridor leading to Mount Tateyama
So, there I was on a full tour bus inching its way up a steep, narrow road on Japan’s main island of Honshu, and all I could see out of my window was fog.
After a good 15 minutes of this, I thought my only opportunity to see Mount Tateyama in the Chubu region of Japan was going to be a failure.
And then...There it was!
In a matter of seconds, I went from wondering how the bus hadn’t already ended up in a ditch to being mesmerized by the sudden presence of one of the greatest mountains I have ever seen.
Mount Tateyama, covered from top to bottom in snow, welcoming snowboarders, skiers and hikers alike, awoke from its slumber and popped out to say, “hello.”
This was the second day of Travel Agent’s recent journey to the remote regions of the Land of the Rising Sun. Much like Mount Tateyama, this lesser-known portion of Japan, the northern and central areas of Honshu, has remained hidden.
Allow us to lift the fog and introduce you and your clients to the Hokuriku and Chubu regions or, simply put, the other Japan.
The Hokuriku region, lying along the Sea of Japan, is in the northeastern part of Honshu. The main cities of the Hokuriku area are Toyama, Takaoka, Fukui, Kanazawa, Komatsu and Niigata. Of these, Kanazawa is the largest, with a population touching 500,000. The Chubu region, in the center of Honshu, had an estimated population of nearly 22 million as of 2008. It includes the major city of Nagoya as well as long coastlines on the Pacific and Sea of Japan, extensive mountain resorts and Mount Fuji.
The first day of our trip took us to the Kenrokuen Garden, one of the most famous floral nurseries in Japan. We hopped on a quick two-hour flight from Haneda Airport to arrive at the Komatsu Airport. After a superfast bus ride, we arrived at the garden in Kanazawa.
Tateyama National Park
Words are a waste when it comes to describing this land, which feels like a real-life painting. And I was walking through it! I am not much of a flower expert so I’m not exactly sure what species I was looking at, but I can tell you the colors were something out of a Pink Floyd video. There were purples and pinks all over the place, and streams pretty much every inch of the way. The air was so crisp I felt like I had all the oxygen I needed to walk through the garden 10 times without losing my breath.
The beauty about most tours I went on, including this one, was that they were just long enough to get my fix, and none of them dragged on. A tour of the garden would take about an hour or so.
Agents looking to secure tickets for clients in advance can call the Kanazawa Castle Park and Kenrokuen Garden Management Office at 011-81-076-234-3800.
Next up was the old Higashi Kuruwa, a high-class, eastern pleasure quarter where geishas used to perform many Japanese fine arts. We saw several tea houses, or ochayas, where the geishas entertained. The houses may all look the same to the untrained eye or an inexperienced Japan traveler like me, but the history woven into each of them evokes a different emotion.
The Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is filled with flowers of nearly every variety
I wrapped up the first day with a visit to the old Samurai district and checked out a few historic houses where these warriors once lived. It was a surreal experience to be in the same building where they once slept. I won’t be able to watch The Last Samurai again without thinking of these magical houses.
A stroll through the old Samurai district allows tourists to see where Japan’s great warriors once lived
On the second day, prior to the Yokoso! Japan Travel Mart, I visited the Tateyama National Park, home to Mount Tateyama and a snow-covered mountain landscape that offers the country’s famed Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
You can imagine my delight when I learned we would be visiting some mountain scenery. I was probably more pleased than everyone else on the trip when our guide said we needed to bundle up. I love snowy mountains, I love hiking and I love finding something that no one else knows about.
For your adventurous clients, I urge you to pitch this excursion. A bus takes you on a nearly one-hour journey (as I mentioned above) through the alpine route where you first see incredibly robust trees that have been around for centuries.
When you least expect it, the Tateyama Mountain pokes its head out of the fog and from then on, you are hypnotized by its size and beauty.
A historic, gassho-style house in the village of Shirakawa-go
The final lap of the trip takes you through the famous snow corridor, which is basically a road dug out through snow—and I’m not talking about a few inches to the left and right. Try about five stories of snow piled to the left and right of the road. If this thing ever collapsed, say goodbye. But no worries, the snow was as hard as cement.
We walked along the corridor, leaned against the immense blocks of snow, scribbled messages on the snow walls with our fingers and then watched as hikers made their way up the mountain and snowboarded down. This wasn’t the Japan I had always heard about, but it is the Japan I will be dreaming about for the rest of my life.
On the third day we headed to the World Heritage Site of Ainokura, where we learned to make paper and saw some more historic homes. Durable and elegant Japanese paper from Gokayama, together with paper from Yatsuo and Birudani, has been designated under the name Etchu as traditional craft industry products by the Japanese government.
I can’t explain the technical aspects of it but basically it was a magical arts and crafts class where you place your own designs in a tray dipped in a wax-like formula until it hardens. It is then placed on a hot, iron-based slab where it dries, becomes thin paper and is peeled off and given to participants as a souvenir.
We then took a stroll along some incredible, traditional thatched roof houses that are maintained every 10 years or so. Following the mountain trip, this was a great day for some light activities and sightseeing.
On the final day, we made our way to Gujo Hachiman where we had another arts and crafts exercise. At the Sample Village Iwasaki, our group learned how to make wax replicas of food. We were shown how to make lettuce and tempura shrimp. As usual, I needed the directions read to me about three extra times, or, if you’re including the English translation, six times. But with the assistance of the employees at Sample Village Iwasaki, I successfully made a wax sculpture.
Our Tour Guide
I’ve had a lot of great tour guides in my time at Travel Agent magazine but none can beat the guy I had for my Hokuriku & Chubu fam trip in Japan. Yoshi Sadamatsu is a certified, freelance tour guide registered with the Japanese government. He is a native of Japan, fluent in English, funny, smart and is like everyone’s lovable dad. He handled our group of more than 20 people, mostly from different countries, with ease and had fun doing it. This guy was hilarious and truly enjoyed every moment and every site he showed us.
When your guide is truly excited and passionate about his work and his country, it rubs off on the group. He made arrangements to show us some sites that weren’t on the itinerary and worked his hardest to make sure all our needs were met. It is not custom in Japan to tip your tour guide, and may even come across as an insult if you do. So, this is my tip to you, Yoshi, an introduction to some of America’s best travel agents. When booking a group to Japan, recommend Sadamatsu. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A Flight to Remember: All Nippon Airways
There’s no such thing as jet lag when you’re flying business class on All Nippon Airways.
I arrived in Tokyo on a 15-hour nonstop flight from New York and I didn’t feel the least bit fatigued. Perhaps a little hung over on wine, but that’s about it.
This is how you treat a passenger. I was greeted with a glass of champagne—and it wasn’t one of those one-and-done teases that most airlines usually do. After the first glass, the stewardesses come around with the bottle looking to top you off or fill you back up. The ladies of All Nippon were armed with a chilled bottle of Champagne Drappier Carte Blanche Brut. According to the menu, “nuances of nuts and honey can be detected in the sweet fragrance redolent of peaches.”
Fine Dining Experience
There were three flight attendants working business class at all times, waiting to bring you something or, if you are as pathetic as I am, looking to show you how to work the reclining features on your seat. The TV is also located inside your armrest, much like your seat tray. It comes out and then can be adjusted to the left or right, which was great when trying to avoid glare.
For dinner, I went with the pan-fried beef tenderloin with morello cherry sauce. This was not your typical airport meal but rather something you’d thought you’d ordered from an upscale steakhouse.
Then I was ready for the dreaded airplane nap. I reclined my seat all the way back, used two pillows (and not those purse-sized cushions most airlines give you), and I was out cold.
The clinging and clattering of spoons stirring coffee cups woke me the next morning. For breakfast, I reluctantly ordered the bowl of rice topped with Japanese-style barbecued pork tenderloin. Now I don’t plan on making barbecue a part of my regular breakfast routine, but this was actually quite good and gave me the energy I needed to start the day on the right note. The Korean-style marinated vegetables and fresh fruit cocktail added the finishing touches. One cup of OJ and four coffees later, I was ready to tackle the day.
Bottom line: If you are flying to Japan, or anywhere longer than 10 hours for that matter, fly business class. Your body will thank you when you get to your destination.
By The Numbers
The Japan Tourism Agency announced projections for 10 million visitors overall by 2010 and 20 million by 2020. During our trip to Japan, we were on hand for a press conference held by the Hokuriku-Shin’etsu District Transport Bureau, in which retiring baby boomers were called out as the number-one targeted market out of the U.S.
Besides the 2010 and 2020 projections, other goals by the Japan Tourism Agency include increasing the duration of Japanese domestic tourism to four nights per person annually by 2010 and increasing the number of international conferences held in Japan by more than 50 percent by 2011.