Chan Siew Lian
Last November, I travelled to Northern Kansai in central Japan on a sponsored group tour. Getting to our first stop took a while: six hours on a red-eye flight from Singapore to Kansai international airport, three-and-a-half hours aboard two trains — and it wasn’t over yet.
We still had a boat to catch and a cable car ride, after which the plan was to take in Amanohashidate — one of Japan’s top Three Views — upside down, our heads between our legs.
Smell: Pining for nature
Ah, my legs. They felt like chunks of Virginia ham marinating in inactivity. But as I stepped off the train at Amanohashidate Station, the fresh scent of 8,000 pine trees in the surrounding forest revived me.
Clean, sharp. It travelled up my nose and down my lungs as I breathed it all in.
“More! more!”, my oxygen-starved lungs yelled as I stopped to inhale deeply. “A breath of fresh air” wasn’t a metaphor in these parts, it was therapy.
Running after my travel companions, I realised that my legs had regained their feeling.
Sight: In search of the green dragon
Ask the locals and they will tell you that the god who created Japan once travelled back and forth between heaven and earth using a ladder. One day, the ladder fell and became Amanohashidate (“bridge to heaven”), a 3.6km-long sandbar that resembles a bridge over heaven from the north side, and a dragon flying to the heavens from the south side.
To unlock the best views, however, you will need to perform matanozoki — the crotch peek.
How this unconventional viewing method started here is hazy, but according to one account, it dates back to the 18th century, when an enterprising ship captain named Yoshida used matanozoki to promote Amanohashidate to tourists.
Ever willing to test the hype, I ascended the viewing platform at Kasamatsu Park and bent over, wary that there was no railing behind me.
Blood rushed to my head as the silver sea switched places with the grey sky. It was as if an optometrist had handed me corrective glasses: the vista cleared while colours became more pronounced.
All those nights spent stargazing surely taught Yoshida-san a thing or two about navigating the heavens.
Sound: It squeaks!
At the Kotohikihama beach in Kyotango, tourists run on the sand not for exercise, but to hear it squeak.
The Japanese call it naki-suna, or singing sand.
Mr Kazuo Okada, local guide and beach conservationist, demonstrated a range of sounds when he thumped the ground like a cajon, then “clapped” the sand between his hands to get that signature squeak.
Intrigued, I tried mimicking him, but there was only silence on my first attempt.
Sensing my disappointment, Mr Okada explained that the sand at Kotohikihama doesn’t always squeak. Singing sand results from the friction between dry, clean sand and tiny quartz beads present in it. Japan has about 30 singing sand beaches.
I continued my naki-suna education at the Kotohikihama Singing Sand Museum. It was fun and enlightening, yet sombre. In particular, an exhibit on items stranded on Japan’s shores — toys, fishing nets, cigarette lighters, syringes and microplastics — left a mark on me.
The local community organises clean-ups regularly to keep the beach pristine, and smoking is banned. Memories of a black sea remain — a Russian oil tanker ran aground in the Sea of Japan on Jan 2, 1997, spilling 6,000 kilolitres of heavy oil into its waters, triggering a crew of volunteers determined to clean up Japan’s coast.
In a country where the sand’s squeak is a precious natural heritage, I left Kotohikihama wondering if I would be able to listen to the sand’s stories on my next visit — not just the rolling waves.
Taste: All crabbed out
“Winter is coming” can only mean one thing in Northern Kansai: snow crab season.
Many hotels and ryokans will give you the option of adding a crab kaiseki (multi-course) dinner to your stay. A hearty appetite is advised, as a line-up of fresh crabs comes your way: raw, steamed, grilled, tempura-style, for shabu shabu and in claypot rice. You may end up walking sideways after the feast, especially if you pair it with some locally brewed sake.
If you like your meals meaty, then Tajima beef deserves a place on your to-eat list. Purebred Tajima cattle are born, bred, and fattened for slaughter in what is now the northern Hyogo prefecture, an area surrounded by mountains.
While the world-famous Kobe beef represents the pinnacle of Tajima beef, locals love the latter so much, you might find Kobe beef being sold as Tajima beef. Tender and buttery smooth, it was the best beef I had ever tasted.
Feel: Being boiled alive
“Dig a hole anywhere in Japan, and you’ll eventually find a hot spring,” joked our translator earlier.
I studied the illustrated guides provided, internalising the steps. Donning a yukata, clogs and some borrowed courage, I shuffled to the hotel’s private onsen (hot spring) bath and cautiously ventured in.
Thanks to its volcanic activity, Japan has over 27,000 naturally occurring hot springs, of which 3,000 have been converted into onsen resorts.
For thousands of years, these springs have been used for healing and de-stressing.
Admittedly, “stressed” was closer to what I was feeling. Entering the room marked “Women”, I was greeted by two rows of lockers and a naked woman. I pretended not to see her and proceeded to remove my clothes.
Wearing only a locker key around my wrist, I entered the onsen via a sliding door.
Steam rose till it hit the ceiling and turned to water droplets, giving the effect of a perspiring cave chamber. On my right were shower stalls for guests to clean up before entering the bath.
That done, I was ready for my first dip. I lowered myself slowly into the bath, mimicking Rodin’s The Thinker, as the heat numbed my thermoreceptors.
Minutes of awkward posing passed before I decided to head to the outdoor onsen. The cool night air made a lovely contrast to the bath’s 40-deg C water.
Entering it, with gentle music in the background, I finally felt my muscles relax.
SPOTS THAT SPARK JOY
You know this place takes bathing seriously when there is an app that shows how busy its seven public hot springs are. Guests walk the willowlined main street in traditional yukata and geta (wooden clogs), armed with a one-day pass that allows entry into any of the public onsen, and a small basket for the bare essentials.
Midway up the Kinosaki Ropeway lies the temple’s main building. What draws visitors is its 2m-tall, 11-headed Kannon Buddha that is currently on display until April 24, 2021. It is unveiled once every 33 years, for a period of three years. The next time you can see the statue would be three decades from now.
Genbudo Cave Park
Fans of natural patterns will find the hexagonal rock columns at Genbudo a sight to behold. Formed from a volcanic eruption 1.6 million years ago, the basalt structures bend and flow like bands of rock improvising to jazz.
Izushi Kabuki Theatre
Kabuki is synonymous with elaborate costumes, exaggerated make-up and dramatic acting. A guided tour (albeit in Japanese) at the oldest Kabuki theatre in the Kansai region takes you through hidden trap doors, rotating floors and a slice of Japan’s performing arts history.
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