“Which country do you not mind revisiting repeatedly?” my editor asked. “Japan,” I answered in quick seconds.
This island nation is huge, but what makes it even more special to me is the unique experience it offers in every region during each season. Hence, Japan is ultimately one of the top destinations on my travel list.
As such, it was a no-brainer ‘yes’ from me when my editor asked to free my schedule and pack my bags for another trip to Japan courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) Kuala Lumpur office. This time around, we covered Osaka, Kyoto, Tottori, Shimane, and Okayama.
Universal Studios Japan
Opened in March 2001, Universal Studios Japan is a must when visiting Osaka, especially for first timers. Besides numerous exciting attractions, this most famous theme park in the Kansai region promises a never-ending fun with your partner, family members or friends that spending a day will most probably be, like in our case, not enough. Its reputation guarantees long queues at almost every ride so a fast-lane ticket might be a better idea. If time is limited, be sure to not miss the world’s number one ride for five consecutive years such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter; Mario Kart: Koopa’s Challenge at Super Nintendo World; and The Flying Dinosaur at Jurassic Park, which was the craziest ride I have ever experienced in my whole life!
After 13 years of being demolished due to fire, the current Tsutenkaku Tower in Shinsekai was rebuilt in 1956. At 108 metres in height, the observation tower offers a myriad of amusing attractions suitable for all ages. One of the main highlights is the light observation platform that is lit up in various colours during the night, adding more enjoyment while admiring the city view. I strongly recommend travellers to climb up higher to a platform called Tembo Paradise (extra charge is imposed). It is an outdoor platform so travellers can enjoy a 360-degree, unobstructed view of Shinsekai. It even has a transparent glass floor dubbed ‘Tip of Tsutenkaku’ for travellers to experience feeling like floating in the air! Another recommended activity is the thrilling yet fun Tower Slider, where travellers can slide down the 60-metre-long slope around the perimeter of the building from 26 metres above ground!
Recommended place to stay: Hatago Inn Kansai Airport
This is one of Japan’s three most scenic views. It is a pine-covered, 3.6-kilometre sandbar located near Miyazu Bay in northern Kyoto. Literally translated as ‘bridge in heaven’, this sandbar is best viewed from the nearby place, at the top of the mountain called Amanohashidate View Land. The sandbar has been iconic since ancient times, so strolling around the sandbar under the shades of towering pine trees is an enchanting experience.
Ine Fishing Village
Considered as one of the most beautiful villages in Japan, Ine is notably known for its boathouses (funaya) in which the lower level is used as a garage for boats while the upper level is where the owner lives. The unique overwater boathouse is believed to have existed since the Edo period (1603 – 1867). This five-kilometre stretch of bay has been designated as a National Traditional Building Preservation Area, where around 200 boathouses are still intact. Walking around this area by foot is absolutely recommended as it portrays the serene atmosphere just like the animations by Studio Ghibli!
Along the quaint street of Ine, one can find this small, humble restaurant owned by an affable local, Alex Takahashi. The restaurant is best known for its warm, delicious, dried abalone porridge, a pride delicacy around here, according to him. The multilanguage-speaking owner and his wife, Naomi, welcome travellers of all backgrounds, including Muslims and vegetarians. It is wonderful to learn that they have Halal ingredients to cater Muslim customers as well as vegetarian options. For Malaysians, do not get shocked that you might even see Bak Kut Teh listed on the menu!
Did you know that the styles of Japanese swords define which era they come from? At this workshop run by three ambitious young men, travellers not only learn about the history of Japanese swords at the gallery but also see for themselves the art of sword-making live. If lucky, travellers can even participate in the forging process such as hammering the searing metal.
It is also heartwarming to know that these three swordsmiths, Kuromuto, Miyagi and Yamazoe, are not only forging the metal, but also the future of Japanese swords. To keep the heritage alive, they are on the mission to produce swords that define the modern Reiwa era (2019 until present) while remaining true to the Japanese swords’ core values.
Recommended place to stay: Ine no Funaya Miyabi Villa
Tottori Sand Dunes
Nope, this is neither Sahara Desert nor Namibia. Japan, too, has its own sand dunes that have been in existence for more than 100,000 years! The sand comes from the nearby Sendaigawa River, washed out to the sea but eventually redeposited along the 16-kilometre-long coast of Sea of Japan. The strong wind and tides movement result in the formation of the ever-changing sand dune making it the most visited attraction in Tottori. At its highest point, which is 50 metres in height, travellers can take in the breathtaking view of the great sea.
Designed with a concept of ‘Native Japanese’, the blue-coated sightseeing train gives travellers a unique experience, both from its meaningful interiors and the natural splendours along the journey from Izumoshi to Tottori such as Mount Daisen, Lake Shinji, and the Sea of Japan. The name Ametsuchi, meaning ‘heaven and earth’, was derived from the oldest book in Japan, Kojiki, which tells the story of how the nation was founded, so it is only fitting that the train is well-designed with all the Japanese elements, from the heavy use of wood to the local crafts- and nature-inspired decorations.
Tottori Nijisseiki Pear Museum
Pear fruit is synonymous with Tottori and hence, this children-friendly museum is built as the only museum in Japan that is dedicated to the sweet fruit. Besides learning about its history and cultivation process, travellers can taste three varieties of pears year-round and even take part in the fruit-picking activity. The main highlight of the museum must be the gigantic pear tree right at its centre, deemed the largest in Japan!
Recommended place to stay: Hotel New Otani Tottori or Kaike Seaside Hotel
Ejima Ohashi Bridge
This 1.7-kilometre length bridge crossing over Lake Nakaumi, connecting Sakaiminato in Tottori and Eshima in Shimane, has been famous since it was built back in 2004. It is the largest rigid-frame bridge in Japan and the third largest in the world! If a photo is taken from afar, the bridge appears impossibly steep with the gradient of 6.1 per cent. Adding to its reputation, the bridge is often described as the world’s ‘craziest’ or ‘scariest’ bridge!
This national treasure has one of the 12 remaining, original castle towers. Constructed in 1611, the castle remains a proud representative of the Keicho era (1596 – 1615) as it interestingly escaped many calamities like earthquakes, fires, and anti-feudalism. It almost being dismantled and destructed like many other castles across Japan by the official order during the beginning of Meiji era (1868 – 1912), but by the virtue of a wealthy local farmer named Takagi Gonpachi who also happened to be a former retainer of the Matsue Domain, the castle was able to be saved and preserved.
The castle is still open to the public where travellers can take a deeper look into its splendid architecture, including period arms and artefacts. It consists of five storeys with a basement and among prominent features include defensive fixtures in the form of loopholes, openings for shooting, and stone shelves for dropping stones. Travellers are recommended to climb up to the highest floor to gain a bird’s eye view of the picturesque surroundings. Another notable feature is the ornament called shachihoko (Japanese folklore sea monster with the head of a dragon and body of a carp) at the very top of the building, which is the biggest among the dozen castles. The original shachihoko had been dismantled and placed at the tower basement when the repair works were carried out during the Showa era (1926 – 1989).
Horikawa Pleasure Boat
This laidback boat river cruise brings travellers along the 400-year-old moat surrounding Matsue Castle, including the narrow canals of Horikawa River. Some of these canals are not high enough for the boat to fit in. So how to get through? The boat may look vintage from the outside, but it is actually equipped with a modern system whereby the roof can be mechanically lowered when passing through those tight canals, thus requiring passengers onboard to follow the movement of the roof by bowing down their heads as it is lowered, even to the extent of nearly touching the boat’s floor at one of the canals! The amiable boatmen explain the interesting key places during the 50-minute trip such as the Matsue Castle and the former residence of Anglo-Greek writer, Lafcadio Hearn. Don’t worry as English audio translation is available. The boatmen also sing a folk song or two, making the whole experience relaxing and memorable.
Known as the ‘Village of Peonies and Unshu Ginseng’, this garden is where travellers can see the 250 types of Japanese peonies and many other flowers. Some of them include autumn leaves like osmanthus and sasanqua; azaleas, Japanese peonies and rhododendrons during spring; winter peonies, coral bush, and camellia during winter; and sweet flag, hydrangea and crape myrtle during summer. The garden is centred around a pond, giving a more dramatic vista for travellers to enjoy. If you were expecting to see the peonies during autumn or summer, head to the Japanese Peony House where the flowers bloom all year round.
Izumo Taisha Shrine
This sacred shrine is one of the most ancient and important Shinto shrines in Japan, believed to have existed since the early 700s. It is here where the main deity, Okuninushi no Okami, who is also believed as the creator of the land of Japan, is enshrined. For that reason, the countless number of deities across the land will gather for a meeting from 10th to the 17th day of the 10th lunar month, which usually falls in November. During this time of the year, the shrine organises the Kamiari Festival.
Adachi Museum of Art
Founded by Adachi Zenko, the gardens of this 165,000-metre squared museum have been ranking number one in the Japanese Garden Ranking by The Journal of Japanese Gardening since 2003. Like a living canvas, the gardens, such as The Moss Garden, The Dry Landscape Garden, The Pond Garden and The White Gravel, and Pine Garden charmingly evokes the sense of tranquillity that heal one’s mind. The museum houses 2,000 artworks by great artists such as Yokoyama Taikan, Takeuchi Seiho, and Kawai Gyokudo. A special exhibition is held here every season. For an immersive experience, travellers should admire some of its incredible exhibits such as the Living Hanging Scroll and the Living Framed Painting that cleverly bring the concept of a living canvas to life. The museum also has a tea house, two museum shops and two coffee shops called Midori and Taikan, which come with grand views of the gardens for travellers to feast their eyes while sipping coffee or tea.
Recommended place to stay: Hotel Ichibata, Matsue Shinjiko Onsen
Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter
Travellers will surely be enchanted when entering this area, eminently characterised by 17th century granaries and early modern Western-style architecture distinguished by its white walls and stone tiles. Most of them have now been converted into retail shops, museums, and cafes. A river lined with willow trees evokes a more nostalgic vibe. Some activities that travellers can experience here are riding the rickshaw or the boat, or renting and donning the denim kimono along the street.
Hitori Nabe Megu
Not only one of the best places to eat shabu-shabu (Japanese hotpot dish in the form of thin-sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water and served with dipping sauce) in Okayama, this restaurant is also proud of serving Halal meat for their Muslim customers, which is made obvious from the Halal sign right at its entrance! It is alcohol-free and all dishes are prepared using Halal seasoning. This eatery is serious in providing a pleasant experience that even the tools and plates are separately dedicated for Muslims’ usage!
Good to know: Okayama Prefecture has ‘Peach Mark’ on certified restaurants, hotels and retail shops to indicate the premises are either Muslim-friendly or Halal. For Muslim foodies, there are more than 40 restaurants with this mark in the prefecture! Recommended place to stay: ANA Crowne Plaza Okayama
Gaya Travel Magazine extends our heartfelt gratitude to Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) Kuala Lumpur office for making the writer’s trip to Japan smooth-sailing.