Sunday, March 04, 2007

The JR Sanin Honsen line - The Sea of Japan coast


In November/December of 2005 I spent two weeks in Japan; my wife had left 10 days earlier to spend time with her parents and friends, shop for CDs and books, etc. and after I arrived soon enough we left for the trip we had planned for that vacation. We both had a Japan Rail pass and this time I had suggested visiting the Sea of Japan coast. We had come by shinkansen to Kyoto and our first stop would be Kinosaki. We found the platform for the JR Tokkyuu Kinosaki Express at Kyoto station, had time to buy some onigiri and we were off enjoying the long ride which brought us via the JR Sanin Honsen line passing the mountainous area to the other side of Japan. The views from the train were pretty but the weather changed before we arrived in Kinosaki and the rain started to pour down violently. From the station, the courtesy bus took us to our ryokan and it seemed that all the elderly people from the train had come to bathe in the onsen too.

Kinosaki had been famous in the beginning of the 18th century with many well known artists, writers, and calligraphers having come and stayed there. Kinosaki still has the feeling of the past about it and is very picturesque with the Ootani River flowing through the town flanked by willows and cherry trees. Our ryokan provided us with free tickets for the outside baths and we donned our yukatas and geta and visited Gosho-no-yu, Icho-no-yu, Yanagi-yu and Mandara-yu that evening. It had stopped raining and it was very pleasant walking through the narrow streets and along the river to hop from bath to bath just as the other visitors. On a street corner, a foot bath with hot water awaited the weary traveller and we made extensive use of it watching the other visitors stroll by.

The food in the ryokan was plenty and included the delicious local crabs.

(Kinosaki is listed in A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs by Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro)

Izumo Taisha and Matsue

The next morning we got up early at 6 o'clock to be able to catch the early train from Kinosaki to Tottori. The courtesy bus was not running at that time and the people from the ryokan were very kind and drove us to the train station. Quite a lot of high school students got on as well and it was amusing to see how the boys got their pocket mirrors out and started fussing with their hair endlessly while the girls just chatted away appearing much more masculine than the boys.

It was quite windy and the JR Sanin Honsen line passes close to the sea and the occasional peek of the sea with the spray from the waves battering the black rocks resulted in a most stunning view. From what I have seen from the Pacific coast, it has mostly been paved with concrete blocks and it had been far from exciting. However, the mountainous Sea of Japan coast was spectacular and it must be the area where the old samurai films were made.

Izumo TaishaWe ate a surprisingly nice breakfast in Tottori station and continued our trip to Izumo. From Izumo station we took the bus to the Izumo Taisha, the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan and still an important shrine dedicated to marriage. We had a nice walk over the grounds, took some pictures but I didn't feel the same romantic atmosphere that I was soon to experience at the Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara or had experienced already at many other shrines I had come across during earlier trips. The atmosphere was much more businesslike which was amplified by the loads of souvenir shops and fast food-like restaurants outside the shrine grounds.

Matsue castleWe got back to the station and travelled a little back to Matsue where we were staying that night. We had booked the Hotel New Urban which had an onsen at the 4th floor with a view over beautiful Lake Shinji. While looking for a restaurant that appealed to us, we had wandered almost back to the station and in a little shabby area with several soap land parlours we found an izakaya style restaurant called Rokumonsen that served the type of food we had been looking for and it turned out to be a very nice restaurant with an own style and not just another franchise of a big restaurant chain.

Lafcadio Hearn's house in MatsueThe next day we bought a multi-pass and visited the castle which is one of the few remaining original medieval castles in Japan and from there we walked over to Lafcadio Hearn's residence. Lafcadio Hearn is better known in Japan as Koizumi Yakumo and is especially well-known to the Japanese for his collections of Japanese legends and ghost stories. The residence is very well kept and has a nice garden which doesn't date back from the time Lafcadio Hearn lived there but was created by the father of the current owner as exercise. Finally we visited the samurai house which is just a short walk from the Lafcadio Hearn residence. It was worth the visit, but not exceptionally interesting to either of us at least.

The local specialities include the tiny shizimi shellfish caught in Lake Shinji in the early morning.

Tawarayama Onsen

Later that day we continued our trip south via the JR Sanin Honsen line via Masuda where we changed trains to Nagato. The scenery from the train was still very dramatic when the train passed close by the sea.

From Nagato we took the bus to finally arrive in Tawarayama Onsen which had been the main target for us. It is virtually unknown onsen town, a backwater literally, with great baths and nice ryokan. I had the feeling that not many foreigners had preceded me here as people would stop to look and an old man almost fell off the roof trying to catch a glimpse of us. This had also a drawback as they were about to refuse me access to the town's public bath and only my wife's explication that I understand Japanese and know the Japanese onsen habits thoroughly made them change their minds. The famous Kawa-no-yu was closed the day we visited much to our chagrin. The next day we went to the new bath which featured a spa for dogs which was just too cute. The temperature of the baths was much lower than I was used to but I had a great time chatting with two men who had driven up from Kyushu to visit the onsen of southern Yamaguchi. Often the male baths can be awfully quiet, almost grim, with everybody enjoying the hot water silently with only occasionally some people whispering while the female baths often are much noisier. I always sort of envy the women as it sounds like they are having much more fun. This time, with only the three of us in the bath, they could not contain their curiosity and it was very enjoyable chatting and answering their questions.

MarakannonApart from the onsen, Tawarayama is also famous for the tiny Marakannon temple dedicated to the phallus which is a short walk from the town and is a great place to buy some interesting souvenirs. From there is a small walk along the river which featured vibrant autumn colours and lots of orange kaki (persimmon) fruit. If you want children but have not been successful yet, this is the place to worship.

The local specialities include fugu which was served in the ryokan.

The next day we took the bus to Nagatoyumoto station on the JR Minesen line which took us to Asa where there is a Sanyo shinkansen station.

Camera: Pentax *ist DS, lenses: Sigma 18-50mm - 1:3.5-5.6 DC and Sigma 28-300mm - 1:3.5-6.3