Travelers to Japan may never stray from the urban comfort of Tokyo and
, deeming the back roads too mysterious and awkward. But I wondered how an American would fare off the beaten path, where road signs are in Japanese characters and driving is done on the left.
The answer came with the exploration of the Tango Peninsula in the Sea of Japan due north of Kobe, when I was offered a chance to ride with three Australians. They planned to sleep in two remote fishing villages, including one night on a Japanese houseboat. As an extra treat, we might visit the seaside village of
Easing the way was Diane Tosh, one of the Aussies. She had lived in Japan for nine years and spoke and read the language well enough to be extremely helpful, so we were able to rent a car with GPS in Japanese.
We escaped the noise of Kobe and cruised north, exploring the pastoral countryside, getting to know one another on our way to our hotel, or ryokan, the Sen Matsu Inn in the seaside town of Amino. We arrived at 5 p.m., left our street shoes at the door, and slid into generic-size slippers.
We were escorted to our rooms of wall-to-wall tatami mats. Diane and her friend Darinka Copak shared one room, and Darinka's husband, Brian Nott, and I shared another.
Leaving slippers at the door, Brian and I had time to dump our bags, put on yukatas, the light robes for guests in Japanese inns, and head down the hall for a communal hot bath before dinner.
Many Japanese-style hotels have two or three baths — one for women, one for men, one for couples. There should have been one for inhibited Westerners unaccustomed to disrobing in public, but hey, it's all part of the journey.
Brian seemed as awkward as I. We sat in a large pool of steaming water filled with Japanese men comfortable in their surroundings, each of us with a small washcloth perched on his head. We felt a little foolish while exchanging banalities for 15 or 20 minutes, then stepping out, drying off, rewrapping our robes and shuffling back to the room.
Timing was important, because meals are served at precise times in Japanese hotels. It's not dinner between 6 and 9 p.m. but precisely at 6:30. Brian and I flip-flopped down the hall to a small private dining room, where we met up with Diane and Darinka.
None of us was prepared for the magnitude of the meal. We sat on the floor with our legs stretched out beneath a low, lacquered, 6-foot-long table. A few dishes of food surrounded a beautifully cut, 4-foot-long, wedge-shaped hole in the middle of the table — an interesting but impractical design, we thought. We began dining on raw fish, rice and soup. Very good, we thought, but why the hole?
Just then, two men with mischief in their eyes came into the room, carrying a 6-foot-long, carved wooden ship, which, of course, fit snugly into the hole. The boat was crammed with an amazing array of delicacies, most of which were unfamiliar, but ranged from teriyaki meats and vegetables, sushi and soup to many items of unfathomable origin.
That meal alone was worth the half-day drive from the Kobe we'd left only that morning but, oh, so long ago. As we chowed down, one of the men returned, carrying a net that held a flapping fish. He set it on the floor for us to appreciate, then left with it. Twenty minutes later he returned, the delicacy now browned and crusty — cooked to perfection. Now that's fresh!
He returned twice with more food. Amazingly, we had room for it.
The next morning we were hungry again but dreamed of a breakfast without fish as we swept along the coastal highway. As much as we love Japanese food, the redundancy of fish at every meal is difficult for a Western palate. OK, there may be occasional Kobe beef, but we had something like oatmeal or eggs and bacon in mind.
As we drove past waves crashing in from the Sea of Japan, this gratifying sign appeared on the side of a building: "patisserie Croq-mille." Twenty years earlier, a Frenchman had come to Japan, married a Japanese woman, raised a family and opened this patisserie. We gorged ourselves with European goodies filled with sweet custards. Merci!
Back on the road to our second fishing village and the houseboat hotel, we stopped at the "bridge to heaven," one of what the Japanese consider the three natural wonders of their country. A chairlift carried us halfway up a mountain for an overview of the "bridge," actually a mile-long skinny peninsula that bisects an inland bay.
To see the magic of the bridge, visitors traditionally stand facing away from it, bend over and look through their legs spread wide. Not only do you get a memorable peek and a feeling that this truly is a bridge to heaven (blood rushing to your head will do that), but your pals have fun snapping away at your oddly shaped human triangle.
Entering the second fishing village, Ine, was akin to driving through the open pages of a Hemingway novel. Beside the road at the edge of town, a deeply tanned, barefoot old fisherman sat repairing his nets, holding them tightly between strong leathery toes while using a needle to close a tear.
Farther on, old women walked cheerily down the narrow main street, turning back to laugh at strange Western intruders with cameras.
Now we were in for yet another surprise. Even well-planned trips offer unexpected experiences and occasional misunderstandings. And Japanese translations to English are notorious for that. Thus we learned that the houseboat we were to sleep in that night was — oops — a boathouse. Though perhaps less romantic, we slept well on a solid foundation rather than being rocked gently into slumber.
The Yozasou Ryokan, or as the plaque in English says, The Water Front Inn, is a redesigned boathouse on the bay, situated in a row of working boathouses. It is a simple Japanese inn, not large and flashy like Sen Matsu the night before.
One entire floor is designated for sleeping. It has the usual wall-to-wall tatami mats but was divided into rooms by paper walls conducive to visual if not aural privacy. There are shared individual bathrooms on the floor below, and no public baths. It's a clean place to eat and sleep, a nice spot from which to explore this quiet, prosaic village.
The inn is a notch above a Japanese Motel 6, which makes it special in its own way — an inexpensive inn on the bay, catering mostly to Japanese travelers in a small town not overrun by tourists.
On the way back to Kobe, we went out of our way to see another seaside village, Obama — a neat, pretty fishing village with no tourist attractions. That's the attraction. But the citizens may be missing the boat by not promoting the town over the next three or seven years, selling Obama trinkets. I'd buy one just for a conversation piece.
Even after all this time among fishermen, the most extraordinary fishing experience came on my last night in Japan. Friends and I took a couple of trains one hour outside Kyoto to Arashiyama to watch an unusual fishing tradition called Ukai, a method of fishing with birds that dates back more than 1,000 years.
At dusk, we boarded a long, narrow flat-bottomed boat and were pushed off into the bay. As our pilot poled us into the middle of the water, we watched the fishermen in two boats light a wood-filled caldron that hung out over the bow of each boat.
The fishermen then threw their cargo of half a dozen tethered cormorants into the water to go to work. With wings splashing and beaks gnashing, the birds started grabbing flopping silver fish, then were pulled back into the boats, relieved of their prey and tossed back into the sea.
This went on for an hour before their catch was completed and the boats headed back to shore. The only down side to this spectacle was that we weren't offered the fresh fish for dinner. It seemed after two weeks in Japan, we were not tired of fish after all. But I would recommend taking along a box of granola, just in case.
: There isn't a lot of traffic on country roads, but speed limits are low: 31 to 37 mph on country roads and 50 on freeways. (Be sure to have plenty of change for tollways.) Thus, it takes longer than expected to reach destinations. Drivers are polite and generally follow the rules, though they usually drive a bit over the speed limit. Flag-waving construction workers take delight in their choreographed performances as they signal you to stop, then bow and wave the flag to proceed. Watch out for speed cameras. There are decipherable international warning signs, some in English. There are many places to stop for gas and food. Food costs vary. It's easy to spend more than in Chicago but possible to get by with moderate prices. The quality is good, and it's unlikely you would eat something that makes you sick.
Car rental with GPS is about $100 a day, but check out options. Unless you are good with the language, you must have an English GPS, because it's difficult to find English speakers in small towns. The GPS operates slightly differently than it does here. You enter the phone number of your destination. Then it guides you with clear maps and a polite English voice. The current gas price is about $4.25 a gallon.
You need an international driver's license from
What things cost
Cormorant fishing, $19 A cup of
coffee in Kobe, $4 A cup of
coffee in Kobe, $2.50; egg burger $4.50 Night at Sheraton Bay Kobe, $113 (breakfast not included); coffee, $8; lunch in Garden Cafe, $20 Night at Sen Matsu Inn, Amino, $849 for four with ship dinner and breakfast Night at Water Front Inn, Ine, $552 for four, including dinner and breakfast
: Japan National Tourism Organization; 212-757-5640;