The head priest walks over to the center of the main shrine room to offer the daily morning prayers. Chanting, clapping, singing and a specific protocol of procedures, for passing the blessed offerings on to other members of the party, follow. Drumbeats declare the end of the ceremony and the assistant to the priest, in full regalia, invites guests to a sip of sake.
This is the daily scene at the Shinto-Buddhist shrine resting atop a long series of stone steps on Mt. Haguro-san, where you can visit while touring the northern parts of Japan. With Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka being the more familiar tourist destinations in the country, the northerly regions afford a unique travel experience, far-removed from the fast-paced fancy cars and lit-up signboards synonymous with city life depicted in movies and shows.
There are many ways to explore the Land of the Rising Sun, authentic among them being a journey with Walk Japan, hiking and trekking through smaller villages and towns, indulging in the beautiful and iconic scenery of the Tohoku region, wandering along the rugged Sea of Japan coast and all the while, enjoying encounters of the friendly kind. The Japanese are thrilled when foreigners visit to learn about their culture and lifestyle, and take great pride in sharing their home and country with others. English is not very widely spoken outside of the large cities so a tour guide is highly recommended.
Much of Japan is mountainous and hilly, and most areas made accessible with an intricate web of walkways, stairs, trails and more. Coastal areas like Matsushima and the island of Sado-ga-shima are accessed through the waterways – jetfoil and ferry being common modes of transport. You will be inspired by some of the greatest scenery to be found in Japan including this, one of the classic Three Views of Japan – the pine-clad islands of Matsushima are a delight. The bustling port brings in visitors and tourists alike.
Sado-ga-shima, on the other hand, once a place of exile for enemies of the land, today gives guests the opportunity to enjoy quiet coastal life and local delicacies as well as a chance to understand its past glory when it was a booming gold mining town. The crested ibis, once found here in abundance, is now no more a common sight but locals hold it in high esteem, and its likeness is seen on products in the area.
Another aspect to the tourism in these areas is the historic relevance of local sites. Hiraizumi, Japan’s latest UNESCO world heritage site, featuring the Chuson-ji and Motsu-ji temples, provides an inkling of the area’s past splendor, once considered to rival that of Kyoto. Motsu-ji has been restored to its 12th century grandeur and Chuson-ji includes the Golden Hall – one of the most elaborately decorated Buddhist structures in Japan. The gardens here are simply spectacular, and the chrysanthemum festival is a must-visit.
Traditional inns, called ryokans, are a great way to experience Japanese culture. When you enter your room, only a desk and floor-level chair sitting on a series of mats covering the floor greet you. Closet space along the walls of the room hold all the furniture required in creating the space you want. When at dinner, staff put out a bed for you to sleep in – this is the Japanese style of space-saving furniture.
Casual robes known as yukatas are provided at most inns, especially those that offer a thermal hot spring bath or onsen. They are colorful, patterned and tied together with a belt, sometimes even featuring a jacket that goes over. It is acceptable to stroll around the premises in this outfit, whether dining at the restaurant or heading for a bath. The onsens are public bathhouses and the relaxing hot water baths here are said to have healing powers because of their mineral-rich composition.
Although sushi, sashimi and many other Japanese dishes have become staples in America, regional Japanese cuisine is strongly influenced by seasonal ingredients including many pickled vegetables, raw and broth-cooked meats, and seafood. Red bean snacks and desserts are commonly found, and a favorite. A formal dinner spread usually consists of multiple courses, with each course offering an array of bite-sized to personal-size portions. You will love eating and walking your way through Northern Japan!