A Week+ Road Trip in Hokkaido, Japan

I spent 8 days driving around Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japan archipelago. A total of more than 2,200km.

Below is my road trip story, day by day. Some tips on practicalities and logistics are provided at the end.

If you’re planning a trip to Hokkaido, please feel free to ask me any questions, via the comments section below or just send me an email.

Itinerary

Approximate Itinerary

Day 1: Chitose Airport > Shiraoi (Ainu Museum) > Noboribetsu Onsen > Lake Toya > Muroran. 200km.

The trip actually started the evening before, at Kansai Airport in Osaka. Because my flight left at 7am, I decided to sleep at the airport.

Newly opened is the “First Cabin” hotel, which is basically a capsule hotel, slightly upgraded. Two types of rooms cells are available: “business class”, which is a room the size of a bed, and “first class”, which also gives you space to take your luggage with you into the room. This being Japan, the facilities include a well-equipped public bath. You get pajamas, towels, a toothbrush and there is even a big-screen TV. Keeping the silence is essential as there are no doors to the room, only screens. Also, no cell phone alarms, but no worries: staff will come personally to your room to wake you up. For a few hours’ sleep at around 5,000 Yen it’s more than adequate.

I flew to Sapporo with the successful Japanese low-cost airline Peach. The one where the flight attendants, women and men, are all dressed in pink (or, to be exact, fuchsia).

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After picking up my Times rental car at Chitose airport, I drove to my first stop: the Ainu Museum on the shores of lake Poroto in Shiraoi. The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido and Sakhalin, Russia. The museum is known as Porotokotan, which means “large lakeside village” in the Ainu language. It is a replica of a typical Ainu village, with several thatched houses, and an actual museum building. There are Ainu folk dancing performances throughout the day.

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I found the museum to be a bit sad, not least because of several bears and dogs being held in small cages for display, but also because the Ainu people are almost all gone. They’ve been discriminated against for so long, then assimilated into Japanese society to such an extent, that only a handful of people today (estimated 10,000-20,000) can trace their origins to the Ainu. In fact, only in 2008 did the Japanese government recognize the Ainu as indigenous to Japan.

From Shiraoi I drove to Noboribetsu Onsen, an hot spring town famous for its “hell valley” (Jigokudani). Hot underground steam, sulfur streams and ponds and general volcanic activity. It was raining a bit when I visited, which somewhat dampened the effect, but it was still pretty hellish-looking. It reminded me of the “Hells” in Beppu, Kyushu.

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Noboribetsu has several hotels with in-house onsens, and they are open for daily use by non-guests. I chose the Sekisui Tei because it was the cheapest. Surprisingly, it wasn’t crowded and I had all 5 baths (2 of them outdoors) mostly to myself. Sitting in an onsen in the rain is an unbeatable experience.

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From Noboribetsu I drove on to Lake Toya (Toyako), which is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. There was a slight drizzle so the promenade along the lake shore was rather empty. Some Chinese tourists (of which there are tons in Hokkaido) braved the drizzle and venture out in small, duck-shaped, motorized boats to explore the lake. I decided against it, so instead I just walked around and took in the scenery. One of the inexplicable features of such places in Japan is the absence of coffee shops and restaurants. Almost anywhere else in the world, such lakeside promenades offer many opportunities to take in the views while drinking or eating. For some reason, this is not very common here.

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As the sun was setting it was time to call it a day. I headed to Muroran, a sleepy port town, to turn in for the night.

Day 2: Muroran > Otaru > Yoichi (Nikka Distillery) > Sapporo. 260km.

Getting up early on Friday I drove up the hill on Muroran’s east side to Cape Chikyu and the Tokkarisho Lookout. Although the weather was cloudy, the views were still pretty awesome and being alone at the summit it felt a bit like the edge of the world.

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The plan was to drive again to Lake Toya and take the ropeway up Mount Usu, to take in the views, especially of Showa Shinzan, the youngest volcano in Japan. This volcano formed as a result of earthquakes in 1945, climbing to a height of almost 300 meters. It was named after the Emperor era of the time: Showa. But as it was very foggy I decided against it and instead started the drive northwards to Otaru.

Otaru is one of the most visited cities in Hokkaido. To put it simply, it was me, a few local Japanese residents, and roughly half the population of China. Sakaimachi Street, the main tourist attraction, is pretty but it has turned into a money-making machines off Chinese tourists. For example, at the Music Box Museum at the south end of the street, you need to look very hard to find the “museum” itself. This two-floor building has transformed into a huge shop for music boxes, gilded jewelry boxes and other tacky souvenirs, which the visiting masses were purchasing en masse. Only in a side room on the second floor was I able to find an impressive collection of mechanical music boxes.

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Escaping from this shopping madness, I walked down Sakaimachi Street looking for a sushi restaurant. Otaru is famous for its seafood, and every few steps one can find a restaurant with fish tanks and pictures displaying an impressive array of fish. I didn’t want to join the masses for lunch, so instead I walked a few minutes northwards to Sushiya Dori (literally, sushi restaurant street). The street itself looks very drab and unimpressive, but it is dotted with unassuming sushi eateries. Not cheap, but definitely some of the freshest and best sushi I’ve had. The pieces were so big and covered the rice so completely that at first I thought I had ordered sashimi by mistake…

From there I walked to another famous touristy spot: Otaru Canal, passing along the way the old railway of the Temiya Line, a narrow gauge railroad. The canal itself is not very impressive, but for some reason there were multitudes of Chinese tourists elbowing each other to get a picture taken at one of the bridges. Someone told me there was popular TV show in China filmed at this location.

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Interestingly, the city seal of Otaru looks like it belongs to a Jewish basketball association…

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From Otaru I drove westwards to the small town of Yoichi, for one purpose: visiting the Nikka Whisky Distillery. The founder of Nikka, Masataka Taketsuru, traveled to Scotland in the early 20th century to learn the process of Scotch whisky distilling. He returned to Japan with a Scottish wife, Rita, and established the Nikka distillery. Their adopted son now continues to run the business. The tour is free, but you are asked at the entrance if you’re driving today, and if you answer yes, you get a sticker that says you can’t sample any whisky, only apple juice.

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It was starting to get late on Friday afternoon, so I headed to Sapporo, the biggest city in Hokkaido, to return the car and start a peaceful and quiet Shabbat.

Day 3: Sapporo. 0km.

On Saturday I walked around the city, taking in the main sights: Odori Park, the TV Tower (a small replica of the Eiffel Tower), the old Clock Tower, Nijo Seafood Market. Weather again was not on my side so it was a relatively short walk. (This being Shabbat, no photos…).

Just south of Sapporo Station is the former Hokkaido Prefectural Government Building, now a museum. Admittance to this impressive-looking, European-style building is free, and the history and culture of Hokkaido is explained in various exhibition rooms (mostly in Japanese). One interesting room describes the Russo-Japanese dispute over the Northern Territories, a group of tiny islands which were taken over by the Soviet Union at the very end of World War II. The Russians deported the Japanese and settled the islands, and to this day this dispute remains unresolved.

After Shabbat ended I went out again to take in the Beer Garden sights at Odori Park. On the way I passed a Kit Kat store, Japan’s favorite chocolate snack.

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I turned in relatively early as a long drive was scheduled for the following day.

Day 4: Sapporo > Yubari > Furano > Blue Pond > Biei > Wakkanai. 500km.

Today I was headed to Wakkanai, the northernmost town in Japan, so it was mostly a driving day, with a few short stops along the way.

Leaving Sapporo early Sunday morning, after picking up another rental car, I headed first to Yubari. This small, decrepit town fell into financial problems after a couple of accidents that brought about the shutdown of the local coal mines. The town is trying to reinvent itself around the melon industry. Even the local post office has a melon on top of the mailbox…

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The only reason I stopped at Yubari was to visit Melon Dome, a shop I had read about that sells all kinds of melon-based products. But the shop was closed for the month of August; a strange decision for a place that is trying to attract tourism. Instead I stopped by a local melon stand to eat a piece of one of the most delicious melons I’ve had in my life.

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From Yubari I headed to Furano. This area of Hokkaido is known for its flower farms, particularly lavender. The scenery is beautiful, with rolling hills and valleys reminiscent of Switzerland and Germany. I stopped at a couple of farms, the most famous and toured one being Farm Tomita, to walk around the flower beds and take some photos. My colorblindness did not interfere (I think) with the amazingly vivid colors around me. Here too was a “melon farm” with tons of melons ranging in price from $15 to $150.

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From Furano I drove through a winding road to the Blue Pond. This man-made lake, built to prevent erosion, is famous for its eerily blue water, apparently a result of some unplanned accident with chemicals. The place was never a tourist spot, but then someone decided to make lemonade from the lemons of this accident, and started promoting it. Now tourists flood the place and walk the path around the lake.

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Biei was my last stop for the day. This peaceful town nestling among the green hills offers mainly scenic lookout spots. A couple of these are Patchwork Road and Panorama Road. I visited the former. Very peaceful. I had a quick late lunch here before starting my long drive north.

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In hindsight, perhaps it would have been better to stay the night somewhere between Biei and Wakkanai. It’s a 250km drive, most of it through country roads where the speed limit rarely exceeds 60kph, so it’s a l-o-n-g drive. But I made it, arriving in Wakkanai around 9:30pm and heading directly to my hot spring hotel, where I soaked in the hot water to wash off the weariness of this long driving day.

Day 5: Wakkanai > Cape Soya > Sounkyo Onsen > Asahikawa. 380km.

After the long drive yesterday, I took it easy this morning exploring Wakkanai.

I walked around the port area and then drove as north as possible to Cape Noshappu. From here one can see the two small islands just off Wakkanai: Rebun and Rishiri. Weather was again mostly cloudy and foggy, so visibility wasn’t that good. There are ferries that can take you to these islands, which I’m told are a good spot for nature watching and hiking. I was headed in the other direction, to reach the northernmost point of Japan.

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But before getting there, I stopped at Minato no Yu Onsen in the center of Wakkanai. This is a small but delightful hot spring, with two internal baths (one hot, one not so hot), and one outdoor bath (very hot) overlooking the harbor. I shared the waters with a few old Japanese men, which were idly passing their time before lunch soaking and chatting. I couldn’t resist asking two of them which language they were speaking, and they replied: Japanese! It didn’t sound like Japanese to me… They explained it was some sort of local dialect. They asked me if I was Russian, which is understandable as Wakkanai is home to many Russian visitors, mainly fishermen. The onsen even had instructions in Cyrillic, as did many establishments around the city.

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Feeling refreshed from the onsen, I drove northwards to the tip of Japan. Technically, there is a tiny island of Bentenjima is more to the north, but is uninhabited so Cape Soya is it. This point is marked by a distinctive triangular monument, a popular photo opp spot. There are various other monuments around the area, including one in memory of Korean Air flight 007, shot down by the Soviets in 1983 (they thought it was a US spy plane), and one in memory of USS submarine Wahoo, sunk by the Japanese in 1943. On a clear day one can see the Russian island of Sakhalin from here, a mere 40km north of Hokkaido. Cape Soya was, appropriately for its location, very cold and windy, so after the requisite photo at the monument, I was back on my way south.

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My destination was Sounkyo Onsen, a hot spring town in the Daisetsuzan National Park, in the center of Hokkaido. My hopes were high, as the weather seemed to be improving somewhat during my long drive south. But when I reached the area of Sounkyo Onsen, it was pouring. What was an annoying drizzle in the last few days turned into heavy rainfall. Initially, I was determined not to let the rain stop me from taking the ropeway up to Mount Kurodake. The lady at the ticket office confirmed the ropeway was operating, but she apologetically explained that it’s very foggy and gently enquired whether it was worth my money to go up anyway. That’s Japan for you: she could have stayed silent and taken my money, but she wanted to ensure I had the full information and was not disappointed. I thought for a second, thanked her, and walked away.

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Not wanting to wander around the town in the rain I decided to call it a day and drove back to Asahikawa, Hokkaido’s second largest city and my home for the night.

Day 6: Asahikawa > Abashiri > Shari > Utoro. 280km.

Today marked a turning point in my trip. I headed east and finally got away from the rainy weather and into blue skies. I actually managed to watch the sun set for the first time!

Before leaving Asahikawa in the morning I checked again, just to make sure, whether there was anything I should see in this city (reminder: second biggest in Hokkaido). In the “top ten things to see” I found things like the train station, the mall in front of the train station, a roadside rest area… you get the idea. So instead I headed out, eastwards. Sounkyo Onsen and Mount Kurodake were on my way but as it was still very foggy I didn’t stop.

I drove straight to the northern shore of Hokkaido, to the town of Abashiri. The reason for stopping there was the excellent outdoor Prison Museum. It is rare to find an historical museum in Japan, especially off the beaten path, that is so well-designed and informative and… in English. Even the video show had an option for several languages.

In the late 19th century, as Russia was encroaching on Japan’s northern territories (eventually leading to the Russo-Japanese war in 1904), the Japanese government decided to settle Hokkaido and thus protect the island against this threat. And who can be easily moved to live in frozen, uninhabited Hokkaido? Prisoners, of course. Several prisons were built around the island. This outdoor museum tells the story of the Abashiri prison, reenacting the life of inmates and guards in the harsh environment they were forced to share. The prisoners were also tasked to build the main road traversing Hokkaido, and many of them died in the process. Today the museum grounds are beautiful and enchanting, so despite all the exhibits it is hard to imagine how absolutely awful it must have been here.

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I had lunch at a popular sushi restaurant in Abashiri, on the main road. Sushi was good and inexpensive.

From Abashiri I drove along the coast to Shari. The drive is a very pleasant one. The landscape was very different from what I was used to so far: a large flat plain stretching from the sea for miles inland, dotted with farms and grain fields with huge hay bales. This is clearly Hokkaido’s “wheat belt” (or one of them). I stopped several times along the way to take photos of either the coastline or the farmlands.

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Shari itself is a non-descript small town. It’s only claim to fame seems to be its position as the gateway into the Shiretoko Peninsula, the last “big” town before the wilderness of the northeastern corner of Hokkaido. I stopped to see the local shrine and temple. Both pleasant, but unremarkable. The tombs all had fruit and drink cans on them, this being the week of Bon, when most Japanese visit their families and go together to their ancestors’ graves, a practice known as haka-mairi.

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I continued from Shari my final destination of the day: Utoro. But on the way I stopped to take a short climb up to see the Oshinkoshin Waterfall, designated as one of Japan’s best 100 waterfalls. It is about 80m tall and the water falls dramatically from the rocks. The stairs lead to about half way up the waterfall.

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Crossing the short tunnel beyond the Oshinkoshin Waterfall, I entered the tiny town of Utoro, the last inhabited point before the Shiretoko Peninsula. I checked into my Japanese-style hotel (hot spring included of course) and then headed back down the mountain to watch the sunset. The Oronko Rock, a 60m tall and rather huge rock jutting out at the edge of the harbor (named after an ethnic people), provides a beautiful setting for watching the sun set into the Sea of Okhotsk.

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Day 7: Utoro > Kamuiwakkayu Falls > Shiretoko Five Lakes > Rausua > Utoro. 130km.

Not a big driving day today, as I wanted to spend some time seeing the Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The two main attractions in this mostly inaccessible reserve are Kamuiwakkayu Falls and Shiretoko Five Lakes.

The starting point is the Shiretoko Nature Center, a short drive north from Utoro. Most of the year, cars can drive up all the way to Kamuiwakkayu Falls, but during the high season in August, one needs to leave the car at the Center (or at the Five Lakes entrance) and take a bus. No worries, it’s a convenient and efficient system. I left early to avoid the crowds, and took the first bus (08:40) from the Nature Center.

First, I rode the bus all the way to Kamuiwakkayu Falls, about 40 minutes, most on a winding mountain dirt road. The “falls” are really just a shallow river flowing over rocks, because the upper part has been closed down due to falling rocks. The interesting point about these falls is that they are water sprouting from an onsen (hence the “yu” in the name). Because only the lower part is now accessible, the water is only tepid. Still, it’s a nice experience, walking up the rocky surface and dipping feet in the shallow pools. I walked barefoot, no problem. Most Japanese wore special grip socks, so as not to slip.

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Then the bus back, this time stopping at the entrance to the Shiretoko Five Lakes. This grouping of lakes is the main attraction in this peninsula, not only because of the beauty of the scenery, but also because it is home to brown bears. This last fact means that before going in one needs to fill out an “application form” and watch a 10-minute safety video, followed by the requisite 5-minute repeat of the video by a staff member to make sure we all understood (look up the word kakunin online). There have been some bear sightings, and very occasionally, people got attacked by bears (not on the trail, but let’s not be picky). But safety first! One of the safety tips is to clap and make sounds, so as to scare the bears away, so many people walk the train constantly clapping and making funny noises. In addition, many carry small “bear bells” on their backpacks, which supposedly scare the bears away. In short, it’s a hilarious cacophony.

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There are two trails. One is a short, elevated boardwalk, less than 1km long, going only partially through Lake 1. The second is a proper trail through the forest, about 3km long, passing by all 5 lakes. Unless you are disabled, don’t take the short trail. Lake 1 is the least impressive of the lakes, and the elevated walk ruins the nature experience. I think the photos say it all, although they do a disservice to the real beauty of this place.

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After taking the bus back to the Nature Center I took another walking trail, which goes from the Center to Furepe Waterfall, on the western coast of the peninsula. About 15-20 minutes. The peculiar thing about this waterfall is that it originates from underground water, so there is no river, just water flowing out from the rocks. The waterfall itself is quite disappointing. It is tall, but the flow of water is weak, maybe because this is summer. The views out to the ocean are beautiful though.

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From Shiretoko National Park I drove back to Utoro and, after a quick lunch, drove across the peninsula to the eastern coast. The drive, only possible in summer, goes through the Shiretoko Pass, about 750 meters above sea level. The road is, as expected, winding and stunning, with beautiful views of Mount Rausu. When I drove through the pass (in both directions) the summit was completely fogged out and visibility very poor.

On the other side of the pass lies the town of Rausu, with its rather large port. An observation platform above the city provides a great view of the town and the harbor. Not much to do here, except visit the local shrine…

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On a whim, I decided to drive up the coast because I saw there was an outdoor onsen – Seseki no Yu – on the very shore, a rare occurrence in Japan. Turns out this “onsen” is a small concrete bathtub, in the backyard of someone’s home. There was a sign saying “no entrance today”. I can understand the owner not always happy with naked people bathing under his kitchen window.

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I was about to turn back, disappointed, when a young family with a bright little boy, stopped just as I was pulling out. I told them the onsen is closed, and they said they’re continuing a bit north as there’s another one, also on the shore. We drove together for a couple of minutes and arrived at Aidomari no Yu, a public outdoor bath on the rocky shore, almost touching the water (if you ignore the tsunami concrete blocks…). There are two tiny baths, about 3x2m each, one for men and one for women, separated by a thin wooden wall. As I was dipping in the pleasantly warm water, trying to chat with my newly found young friend, more people joined. Five is a crowd in this bath…

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Time to head back to Utoro for the night. On the way back I stopped just north of the town at a point called Cape Puyuni, to capture the stunning sunset.

Day 8: Utoro > Lake Mashu > Mount Io > Lake Kussharo > Obihiro. 300km.

My last day started early in Utoro. I set out southwards towards the Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido. Akan National Park is an active volcanic area and as such has several crater lakes. The three major ones are Akan, Kussharo and Mashu. I decided to visit the latter two.

Lake Mashu, the mid-sized lake, is probably the most visited one for its spectacularly clear blue waters. Some say it is Japan’s most beautiful lake (my friends call it the “deep blue”). As promised by the online guides, it was foggy around the lake so views of Mount Mashudake were limited, but the views were still pretty awesome. One cannot go down to the lake, but there are three observatory platforms around the lake. I first stopped at Observatory Number 3, on the western side, and then at Observatory Number 1, on the southern side. Observatory 1 has paid parking (500 yen) but the ticket includes parking at Mount Io, which was my next destination.

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Mount Io (Iozan, meaning “sulfur mountain”) is an active volcano with sulfurous vents. With the steam, the strongly pungent smell of sulfur and the glowing sulfurous rocks which look to be on fire, this is a truly surreal experience. I felt as if I was at Mordor, and I looked up the mountain to search for Sauron’s watchful eye…

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The biggest lake, Lake Kussharo, is almost 60km in circumference. There’s tons of outdoor activities around it for nature-minded travelers: hiking, camping, kayaking, cycling, etc. But for me the biggest attraction of this lake as its numerous outdoor hot spring baths. I headed for Ike no Yu, only to find out it was closed due to “algae outbreak”. So I continued further south to Kotan Onsen, which turned out to be the loveliest hot spring I visited. It is a small, rocky bath, which fits probably no more than 5-6 people, but it sits literally at the edge of the lake. So as you soak its wonderfully hot waters, you can take in the entire views of Lake Kussharo. An absolutely stunning experience.

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Jutting into Lake Kussharo is the Wakoto Peninsula. There are walking trails around it. I didn’t go all the way round, just a few minutes into the forest and back out. The views, needless to say, are well worth the walk. The silence inside the forest is bliss. Here too is an outdoor hot spring, with a foot bath.

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The Akan area concluded my trip. I drove east to Obihiro, the fifth largest city in Hokkaido. It was a pleasant place to stay at for my last night, before driving the 160km to the airport in Sapporo the next morning.

Tips

  • Some may find 2,200km to be a lot of driving for one week. I was by myself so I could pace things as I wished. You might want to consider a shorter itinerary if you only have one week.
  • If you fly an LCC like Peach, invest a little extra and get an exit row seat. The seat pitch is really tight.
  • If you use the sleep at the First Cabin hotel at Osaka Airport, invest a little extra and get the “First Class” cabin. This way you’ll have some space for your luggage.
  • Before your trip, write down the Japan Mapcode for all your destinations (use this website). It will save you a lot of time, no need to input the address or phone number.
  • All the major car rental companies in Japan (Toyota, Nissan, Times, etc.) offer English support on their websites, so you can book directly with them if you have a preference for a specific company.
  • If you want an aggregation website in English, there are two options: ToCoo and Tabirai. I used them both because I rented two cars. My recommendation is Tabirai. They don’t charge you a “mandatory” fee for English support (which you won’t need), and you can get the ETC card with the car, not mailed to you separately (which is what ToCoo does).
  • Make sure you get a car with cruise control. My second rental car didn’t have it, and those long stretches of empty roads can be a little taxing.
  • Make sure your rental car comes with an ETC card. Not only it will save you time going through the toll gates. It will also save you some money on tolls.
  • You don’t need a 4×4 car, unless you plan to so some serious off-road driving. The roads, even the dirt ones, are all well-maintained.
  • Come ready with patience and music/podcasts. Speed limits in Hokkaido are really low. The 100kph limit on the expressways is a myth, because most stretches have electronic signs limiting the speed to 70-80kph. Most roads I traveled on had very long stretches of 50kph.
  • Take advantage of the Machi-no-Eki stops (roadside rest areas) to go to the restroom or buy food/drinks.
  • Don’t worry about public toilets. They are everywhere and they are clean.
  • If you plan a long drive (e.g. to Wakkanai), make sure you fill up your car before. The further out you go, the less often you’ll see gas stations.
  • If you want a hassle-free gas filling experience, look out for gas stations with attendants (they will be standing there waiting for customers, so you can’t miss them). You give them your credit card and they’ll take care of everything, including cleaning your windshield. Sometimes they will also give you a wet towel to freshen up.
  • If you plan on visiting onsens, especially outdoor ones, make sure you pack two towels. A small one to use at the bath, and a medium one to dry yourself.
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Kyushu Trip, Days 4&5 – Beppu & Yufuin

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

On day 4 I crossed the Kyushu island to the eastern side, to visit the hot springs areas of Beppu and Yufuin. Most of the rest of the trip, days 4 and 5, I spent immersed in hot onsen waters 🙂

Suizenji Garden

Before leaving Kumamoto, I took a morning stroll through Suizenji Garden. This oasis of calm in the middle of the city is a medium-sized Japanese landscape garden built in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family, the samurai who ruled Kumamoto at the time.

The route through the garden is a circular one. The features of the garden re-enact milestones on the Tokaido road, the road between Japan’s two historic capitals: Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo). This includes a mini Mount Fuji. Inside the garden is Izumi Shrine. This being the 4th of January, the first working day of the year in Japan, there were many groups of Japanese employees at the shrine. Traditional Japanese companies take their employees this week to shrines at the beginning of the year, to get a blessing for a successful business year.

Although Suizenji is not Japan’s most impressive garden (Konrokuen in Kanazawa comes to mind as a leading contender), it is definitely worth a visit. Admission is 400 Yen, and a leisurely stroll through the garden takes less than 1 hour.

 

From Kumamoto I headed eastwards to the other side of Kyushu island. I wanted to take the direct, and slower route, through the center of the island and Mount Aso, but the trains in that area are still not operating due to last year’s earthquake. So I took the Shinkansen to Kokura, and then the Sonic train down to Beppu.

Upon arriving in Beppu, I left my luggage at the train station and headed straight to hell.

Beppu “Hells”

Well, not literally hell, but rather “the Hells”, or Jigoku in Japanese. These are hot springs for viewing, not for soaking in. There are two groups of Hells: 5 in Kannawa and 2 in Shibaseki. I took a bus (no. 5) to the Kannawa district and visited all 5 Hells there. Admission is 400 Yen per Hell, or 2,000 Yen for a combo ticket to all 7.

The Hells (and much of Beppu and Yufuin, as I found out later) are very touristy. There are more shops and food stalls than actual Hells… But the natural phenomena are quite impressive to watch. Some are natural mud pools that constantly bubble; others are big ponds of boiling water, some blue some white; others are huge steam clouds billowing up from the ground. The air is permeated with a strong smell of sulfur. One of the Hells features statues of demons, presiding over the boiling ponds of water. Another is a small zoo, with an impressive collection of crocodiles.

With the bus ride there and back, a visit to the Hells takes 2-3 hours.

 

Takegawara Onsen

Back in Beppu city I checked into my hotel and then headed straight for the nearest onsen: Takegawara. This is one of the oldest onsens in the area, built in 1879, and it looks the part. I guess it’s kept this way in order to provide an authentic experience of the past. The attraction at this onsen is the sand bath. You lie down in dark sand and a lady uses a shovel to cover you in sand. It’s heavy, it’s hot, and frankly, it’s somewhat claustrophobic. I can now understand people who have a fear of being buried alive… After a few minutes, and some self-relaxing mind exercises, one can actually start to enjoy the experiend. Maybe. It’s all over in 10 minutes, after which you spend a while washing all the sand off and heading to the actual hot spring for a long soak.

If you go to any onsen in Beppu, don’t forget to bring a towel with you. Many of them do not supply towels, or do so for a fee.

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Takegawara Onsen in Beppu

 

Yufuin

On day 5 I headed westwards to Yufuin, another famous hot spring town. The ride there by bus (no. 36) from Beppu station takes 50 minutes, along a winding road up and down a mountain. But it’s well worth the ride, because Yufuin is a real gem.

Unlike Beppu, which has a rundown look to it, Yufuin is much better looking. Yes, it’s very touristy (it seemed like the town was invaded by Koreans overnight, as I saw thousands of them roaming the streets), but it’s not too “pushy-touristy”. It’s a very quaint town, with many shops offering local foods and products. In some parts it looks like a place out of a fairy tale, with small, immaculate houses and small museums. A leisurely walk from the train station westwards through the main street takes about 30-40 minutes, depending on how many shops you stop at to take a look.

 

And then of course, there’s the onsens. I soaked in two of them.

The first was Nurukawa Onsen. Here I decided to take a private bath. They have a big public and a few small private ones, which you can book for 1 hour (cost about 2,000 Yen). I bathed in the Sakura onsen, and almost fell asleep as it was so quiet and peaceful. The second was very different: Shitanyu Onsen. This is a basic, small public bath under a thatched roof, with two small pools (indoor and partially outdoor). Nobody’s there, so you put 200 Yen in a box at the entrance and go in. Apparently this is a mixed-bath, one of the few left in Japan.

 

At the end of the road in Yufuin is a pond-sized lake called Kinrin Lake. It’s very scenic, with a small shrine on the south shore, complete with a small Torii gate in the water. It is a fitting end to a visit to this serene town.

Back to Beppu I bid Kyushu goodbye by taking the bus to Oita Airport and catching a flight back to Osaka. Kyushu certainly is a place I intend to visit again when I get a chance.

Kyushu Trip, Day 3 – Shimabara & Kumamoto

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Today was mostly a traveling day – train, bus and ferry.

I left Nagasaki in the morning to go to Kumamoto. First I took the train to Shimabara, east of Nagasaki and on the shore of the inner Ariake sea. You take the JR Kamome Line to Isahaya (20 minutes) and transfer to the local Shimabara Tetsudo Line (1 hour), a quaint yellow local train that ambles around the Shimabara peninsula stopping at many deserted stations along the way.

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Tetsudo Shimabara Line

Shimabara Castle

I stopped at Shimabara to visit the local castle, a 10-minute walk from the station. This castle was built in the early 17th century, along with the surrounding village. In 1637 it suffered a massive attack during the Shimabara Rebellion, led by Christians tired of being persecuted. Then, in 1792, a powerful earthquake followed by a giant tsunami wave, as well as a volcano eruption (the so-called Shimabara Catastrophe, 15,000 dead), hit the castle. During the Meiji Restoration the castle was deserted and only in the 1960s was the castle was reconstructed and it now dominates the sleepy town of Shimabara.

A visit to the castle is similar to visits to any castle in Japan: a few floors of the typical exhibits: swords, samurai armor, paintings, written scrolls, pottery, etc. And then the requisite observation deck at the top. To the west rises Mount Unzen, an active volcano, ominously shrouded by clouds, that last erupted in 1991. To the east is the inner Ariake sea, which I am about to cross with a ferry to get to Kumamoto. On the castle grounds is an exhibition of statues by a local sculptor, Seibo Kitamura, some of them rather disconcerting.

Admission to the castle is 520 Yen, and it takes 30-40 minutes to visit it.

Shimabara-Kumamoto Ferry

There are a couple of companies operating ferries between Shimabara and Kumamoto. The port (Shimabara Gaikou) is 3 stops away from Shimabara Station.I took the Ocean Arrow ferry, which runs six times daily. It takes 30 minutes and costs 1,300 Yen, including the bus ticket from Kumamoto port to the city (another 20 minutes).

Kumamoto Castle / Katou Shrine

Most of the sightseeing spots in Kumamoto are now closed to the public, following the two strong earthquakes that hit here last April (50 dead, 3,000 injured). Kumamoto Castle was heavily damaged, so it is fenced off, including the other sites within the castle grounds, such as the samurai Hosokawa Mansion. I took a walk around the castle grounds, and into the adjoining Katou Shrine – with its beautiful white Torii gate – which provided views of some of the castle buildings.

It seemed like many Japanese heeded the call to come to Kumamoto to support the local economy after the earthquake, because there were thousands of tourists on the castle grounds. Many food stalls, as well as the customary shrine stalls, were erected to help raise money. Kumamon, the local mascot, is everywhere you look. For those of you not familiar with Japan’s fascination with mascots, suffice it to say that after the earthquake the first reaction of many Japanese was: “Is Kumamon OK?”.

I’m staying at a business hotel near Kumamoto Station. Convenient for leaving with the Shinkansen, but if you plan to stay longer than one night in Kumamoto, a better location would be downtown, in the Shimotori area, where the alleged “longest shopping arcade in Japan” is located.

 

Kyushu Trip – Days 4&5 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 2 – Nagasaki

Kyushu Trip – Day 1 is here.

Day 2 in Nagasaki, exploring the sights south of Nagasaki Station. I did a lot of walking today…

Glover Garden

The morning was planned for a cruise tour of Gunkanjima (see below), but as I arrived early at the cruise ship terminal, I decided to do Glover Garden first.

The garden – a collection of western houses set on the Minami-Yamate hill overlooking Nagasaki Harbor – is named after Thomas Glover, a Scotsman who came here in the mid-19th century, aged only 21, and proceeded to build a fortune in coal mining, shipbuilding and tea trade. He is known as “the father of Japanese beer”, and myth has it that the creature on the logo of Kirin beer sports a mustache in his honor… Glover married a Japanese woman, and the family is buried in a special plot in the Sakamoto International Cemetery, which I visited yesterday. The Glover house is apparently reminiscent of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and a statue of the opera master is on display.

Glover’s is not the only western residence in Minami-Yamate. Other colonial-looking houses belonged to foreigners, mainly Brits, who also lived here. These residences were restored in the 1970s and are surrounded by beautiful, immaculately maintained, gardens. The views of Nagasaki from the hilltop are also beautiful.

Admission is 610 Yen, and it takes 40-50 minutes to properly see the entire compound.

Oura Cathedral

Adjacent to Glover Garden is Nagasaki’s most imposing Catholic Church – the Oura Cathedral. Last year it celebrated its 150th anniversary. The church was dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597 (I visited their memorial site yesterday). It is not allowed to take pictures inside the church, but it is exquisite. It lacks the grandeur (and the height) of the big European cathedrals, and it’s more wood than brick, which in my mind makes it less awe-inspiring but more welcoming. Next to the church is the former school of divinity, itself an impressive building.

Admission to the church is 600 Yen.

Gunkanjima (Battleship Island)

It was time to head back to the wharf to catch the cruise to Gunkanjima, also known as Hashima Island. Coal was discovered here in the early 19th century, and after Mitsubishi bought the island, a full-scale coal mining operation began. In the 1950s the island was home to more than 5,000 people. It had a school, a hospital, a post office, a shrine… everything required to support the families that called Hashima their home.

When the last mine closed, in 1974, the island was abandoned. Left to the forces of nature – the sea, the winds and, most devastatingly, the typhoons – the buildings on the island were slowly destroyed. Its eerie silhouette earned it the nickname “battleship island”. It became famous worldwide after the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall” was shot here.

There are several companies operating cruises to the island; I used Concierge. They have two tours daily, each about 3 hours long, costing 4,300 Yen. The journey to the island takes almost an hour (faster on the way back), and the guides constantly bombard the passengers with information about the island and its history (audio guides in English are available, but do not provide much information). On the island itself there are 3 observation posts; wandering around the island is forbidden due to danger of collapse. This cruise is an interesting, and very different, aspect of visiting Nagasaki. I realize it’s not for everyone, especially as the tour is all in Japanese.

Holland Slope / Misaki Road

Getting off the cruise I headed to Oranda-zaka (Holland Slope), which is nearby Glover Garden. This is a steep, stone-paved road that was the center street of the foreign settlement in Nagasaki. It is named so because many of the residents along it were Dutch.

Frankly, this famous road is somewhat of a disappointment. It’s OK, but after Glover Garden it’s an anti-climax. It’s no big deal to walk it so no harm done as it’s on the way to the center of Nagasaki anyway.

While in the neighborhood I looked for the Nagasaki Synagogue. I didn’t have much information and none was available at the tourist office (and very little online). I knew it was in the Umegasaki-Machi neighborhood, so I walked there from Oranda-zaka. This unplanned walk led me to one of the most charming areas of Nagasaki: Misaki Road, which is basically a slope of stairs leading down from Orandazaka to Chinatown. The tiny alleys and old houses along this quiet street were quite the unexpected gem of the day.

The Nagasaki Synagogue, the first in Japan, was called Bet Shalom (House of Peace), and was established in 1894. I didn’t find it because it’s no longer there. After the Jews left Nagasaki (most of them following the Russo-Japanese war, and others after World War 1),  the building was sold and later demolished to make way for houses. I found a signpost with some information on the street that the synagogue used to be.

Chinatown

Nagasaki’s Chinatown is one of the largest in Japan, and the oldest one, as the city was open to Chinese trade even during the period of isolation. It still retains a strong Chinese influence, but looks like most other Chinatowns: many restaurants, campon and udon sellers, and many tacky toy shops. It is packed with tourists, so I left it in an hurry and walked to the nearby old Chinese quarter.

This area, known as Taijin-Yashiki, is a rundown area of Nagasaki. There are several buildings and shrines from the time when it was a bustling quarter of Chinese merchants and vendors, but even these look somewhat shabby and under-maintained compared to other sights in Nagasaki.

Central Nagasaki

The central area of Nagasaki is composed of several neighborhoods, predominantly Hamano-Machi (long shopping street), Shian-Bashi (nightlife area) and the surrounding area. There is not much to see here besides window-shopping and people-watching.

One of the attractions in the area is Megane-Bashi (Spectacles Bridge), which stands out from the other bridges because of its two arches. When reflected in the water they make perfect circles resembling spectacles. Many Japanese couples come here to tread carefully on the stepping stones to the middle of the river and take a selfie with the bridge in the background.

Sofukuji Temple and Kofukuji Temple

These two temples are a little off the beaten track, but well worth a visit.

Sofukuji Temple is an impressive Shinto shrine, southeast of central Nagasaki. It has imposing red gates framing the steep staircase leading up to the temple. As this was January 2nd, there were many Japanese there for their Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year).

Kofukuji Temple is north of the central area, and is a Chinese Buddhist temple. It dates back to the 17th century and is Nagasaki’s oldest temple and the first Zen temple in Japan. Built by merchants from China’s Ming dynasty, it was home to famous Zen masters and many monks flocked here for their training. It was different, in appearance and even in smell, from the the many Shinto temples around the city.

That’s it for Nagasaki. I’m off to Kumamoto tomorrow morning.

Kyushu Trip – Day 3 is here.

Kyushu Trip, Day 1 – Nagasaki

I took a morning flight from Kobe to Nagasaki, a 1-hour flight on Skymark Airlines (a Japanese LCC), arriving in Nagasaki just after 10:30am. A limousine bus (900 Yen) takes you from Nagasaki Airport to Nagasaki Station, with several stops in central Nagasaki on the way. After checking in to the hotel (JR Kyushu Hotel, inside Nagasaki Station; it doesn’t get more convenient than this), I set out – on my first day here – to explore the sights north of Nagasaki Station.

Nagasaki Trams

Getting around in Nagasaki is easy, as most tourist sights are covered by trams (120 Yen per ride, you pay upon exiting, exact change only; or a 500 Yen day ticket). The central area of Nagasaki is not very big, so walking – my favorite mode of transportation when exploring a new place – is also an option. The Nagasaki trams take you back in time several decades, if not longer. Apparently the city collects trams from other cities in Japan that have moved on to more modern forms of transportation (i.e. subways), so the eclectic mix of these single-carriage trams are a unique feature of the city. Old but functioning. Even the 1950s speakers announcing the stations, and playing background music in between, still work!

 

Peace Park

Most people know Nagasaki as the second – and, to date, last – city to have been obliterated with an atomic bomb. Nagasaki was not the first target of the Americans on that fateful day, August 9, 1945. Captain Charles Sweeney’s mission was to bomb Kokura, a city in northern Kyushu, but smoke prevented him from visually confirming the target so he headed south for the secondary target: Nagasaki. (By the way, Kokura was lucky twice, as the city was itself the secondary target on August 6, 1945, after Hiroshima).

The Nagasaki Peace Park is reachable by the trams traveling north from Nagasaki Station (lines 1, 2 and 3), and the closest stop is Matsuyama-Machi. The park consists of two main areas: one is the park itself, with the famous Peace Statue and other memorials; the other is the epicenter memorial and the Atomic Bomb Museum.

If you’ve seen the museum in Hiroshima, the Nagasaki one might be somewhat underwheming. For me, because I recently read Susan Southard’s excellent book on the Nagasaki bombing, many of the exhibits (and the names of the Hibakusha, atomic bomb survivors) were familiar, making it a moving experience. I was also touched by the minimalistic, yet powerful, epicenter memorial: a black pillar surrounded by wide circular steps, a symbol of the bomb’s outward-radiating power.

The park is free; admission to the museum is 200 Yen. It takes a couple of hours to walk through the park and visit the museum.

 

Jewish Cemetery

Nagasaki was home to the first Jewish community in Japan. After Commodore Perry forced Japan to end its isolation and open up for trade, the port cities in Japan saw an influx of foreign merchants – chiefly among them them Nagasaki, which already had a long history of foreign settlement (mainly Dutch and Portuguese). Among these were Jews, mainly Russians, who established a community here in the late 19th century, numbering at around a 100 families. The first synagogue in Japan, Bet Shalom, was built in Nagasaki.

Unlike the Jewish cemetery in Kobe (which I wrote about here), the Jewish one in the Sakamoto International Cemetery – called Bet Olam (“eternal home”) – is a very small one; I counted about 30-40 tombstones. Most of the dates on the tombstones are around 1900, and a large number of them died very young (in their 40s, some in their 20s). On several of the tombstones the inscriptions are illegible. I said a few psalms of Tehilim in memory of the dead buried there, and regretted there was no minyan to be able to say kaddish.

The Sakamoto International Cemetery is about halfway between the Peace Park and Nagasaki Station. The closest tram stations are Urakami-Eki-Mae or Mori-Machi. The cemetery is a short walk up a steep hill, and the Jewish plot is right at the entrance (to the right).

 

Nishizaka Hill

Another first for Nagasaki: Christianity made its debut in Japan here, in the middle of the 16th century. Portuguese Catholic missionaries landed here and initially were free to practice their faith and convert Japanese to Christianity. But things changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate took over, and Christians suffered from repeated persecutions and murder.

The most famous incident was the crucifixion of 26 Roman Catholics – 6 of them foreign Franciscan missionaries, and the rest Japanese converts, including 3 young boys – on Nishizaka Hill. The story reverberated throughout the Christian world and eventually the victims were martyred and canonized by the Roman Catholic Church (in the mid-19th century). On the site of the crucifixion stands an impressive memorial with life-like statues of the 26. Behind the memorial is a small museum. Also on this hill is the San Filippo Church, with turrets reminiscent of the famous Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

 

Fuchi Shrine / Nagasaki Ropeway / Mount Inasa

Across the Urakami-Gawa river is Mount Inasa, with the famous Nagasaki Ropeway leading to the observatory at the top. Before taking the ropeway, the adjacent Fuchi Shrine is well worth a visit. I was lucky to be here on January 1st, when many Japanese make their Hatsumode, the first visit to the shrine in the new year.

Fuchi Shrine is neatly tucked into the mountain side, with several secondary “mini shrines” a short climb up the mountain path. The main shrine is in typical Shinto style, complete with the purifying water, the hanging Ema (wooden plaques) and the mandatory bell, faithfully jingled by every visitor.

The cable car ride up the mountain takes less than 5 minutes, during which the Japanese attendant explains about the ropeway and the observatory (with English recordings following her explanations). The observatory at the top is a circular one, giving a 360-degree view of Nagasaki city to the east and the Sumo-Nada sea to the west. I timed it so I would get to the top a little before sunset, to watch both the sunset on one side and then the city night view on the other.

The night view of Nagasaki from Mount Inasa is labeled as one of the “top three night views in the world” (along with Hong Kong and Monaco). I don’t know who rates these night views and how Nagasaki made it to the top three, but it is certainly a most impressive view. I spent more than an hour on the top, watching the day turn into night, and it was a majestic spectacle of nature. Luckily, it was a clear day so visibility was good.

A round-trip ticket on the ropeway is 1,23o Yen. One can also climb up (or walk down) using the “promenade”, convenient stairs carved into the mountain.

 

Kyushu Trip – Day 2 is here.

Wantage Bookshop, Kobe

When we lived in Tokyo, many years ago, there were several second-hand English bookshops we could go to. In Kobe we don’t have such a wide choice, so the Wantage Bookshop, a short walking distance from our home, is a real lifesaver.

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This is a small bookshop, with non-fiction books on the ground floor and fiction books a steep climb up to the second floor. Despite its small size, crammed shelves fill up most of the space and the choice and variety of books are good. An added advantage is the seemingly haphazard arrangement of books, which makes browsing a delectable, if somewhat time-consuming, experience.

The bookshop is open only on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) from 11am to 5pm, and is across the street from Shin-Kobe Shinkansen station.

Jewish Cemetery, Kobe, Japan

Earlier today I joined a few members of our community to visit the local Jewish cemetery in Kobe, Japan. A long-time member of the community, Jack Yohai z”l, who passed away two years ago (on Rosh HaShana) has no family in Japan, so we went to say a memorial prayer and kaddish on his grave.

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Grave of Jack Yohai z”l

 

The Japanese do not bury their dead and the cremation rate here is more than 99%. When a Jew dies in Japan, it is always a bit of challenge to race to get the proper official documentation signed before the body is cremated.

The Jewish cemetery in Kobe is located on Futatabi mountain. In the 1950s, the Kobe City government relocated all foreign cemeteries within the city to this location, and designated it as the Kobe Municipal Foreign Cemetery. It is located in a beautiful woodland park, a hiking and camping site, and is maintained meticulously year round. There are designated plots for Jews, Christians, Muslims and other religions.

There are two Jewish plots in this cemetery. The older one probably filled up, so a new one was allocated further up the hill. The names on the tombstones clearly reflect the changing composition of the Jewish community of Kobe. While in the old plot most names are Ashkenazi (Russian or European), in the new plot most names are Mizrachi (from Arab countries). The people buried in the old plot came to Japan in the 19th century and, judging by the dates on the tombstones, most of them died in the early 20th century at a relatively young age (40s and 50s). The ones buried in the new plot arrived here in the early 1900s and most of them died at an old age.

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The new Jewish plot at Futatabi cemetery

There are three “major” Jewish cemeteries in Japan, in the three port cities where foreigners typically lived: Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. In addition, there are Jews buried in various general foreign cemeteries, especially those set up after the wars to bury the dead foreign soldiers and POWs. An acquaintance of mine recently found a few Jewish graves at a POW cemetery near his home in Osaka, dating back to the Russo-Japanese war of 1905.

May the memories of these Jews buried in Japan be a blessing to us all. Amen.

Zozo-ji Temple – Candle Night

Zozo-ji temple is a Buddhist temple in the Shiba neighborhood of Tokyo. It sits at the footsteps of Tokyo Tower. Every summer, the Candle Light event takes place at this temple. I had a stroll through the temple grounds this evening.

The event started in 2003 as part of a movement launched by an environmentalist group, under the slogan “Turn Off the Lights, Take it Slow”. Thousands of candles are lit in the temple grounds, and the walkway leading to the temple is filled with shops selling produce, organic food and… candles. At 20:00, after an inevitable countdown, the lights of Tokyo Tower go off and there is live music on an almost dark stage, lit mostly by candles.

The fact that most of the food stalls use electricity and the vendors at the various stalls use their iPhones to provide more light, takes away somewhat from the “all candle” atmosphere. Still, it’s a neat idea and the atmosphere here is both lively and relaxed.

Here are some pictures I took this evening:

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Entrance to the temple: “1,000,000 people at Candle Light”

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Stall selling by candle light

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Candle-lit stage

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Tokyo Tower before 8pm

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Tokyo Tower after 8pm

 

 

Sorakuen Garden – Kobe, Japan

Sorakuen Garden is a 5-acre Japanese garden built in the early 20th century in central Kobe, on the grounds of the former residence of the Kodera family.

The front gate is still the original one, made of zelkova wood with roof tiles bearing the Kodera family crest:

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At the northern part of the compound sits a large stable, built in 1910 for Kenkichi Kodera, the former mayor of Kobe. It is an imposing L-shaped building with stables on the ground floor and housing for stable hands on the second floor:

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Next to the stables sits the Hassam House. Built in 1902, this house belonged to an Anglo-Indian trader who lived in the Kitano neighborhood (where many foreign residences still exist). The house was moved to this compound in the 1960s. In the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, a chimney fell off the roof, and is now displayed in the front yard:

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But the main attraction is the large Japanese garden on the western side of the compound. This sprawling garden has a large central pond, stone bridges, stepping stones, streams and waterfalls. At the center of the garden is a houseboat from the Edo period, built around the turn of the 18th century. It is the last remaining houseboat of its kind still in existence:

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The garden itself is a secluded oasis of tranquility. It is a true gem, and at 300 Yen admission fee, it’s a great getaway for a leisurely stroll and a rest during a visit to Kobe.

Here are some more photos I took in the garden:

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Choueke Family Residence – Kobe, Japan

When Japan opened for trade in the middle of the 19th century, many foreign traders arrived at the port cities of Japan, mainly to Yokohama, Nagasaki and Kobe. Among them were also Jewish merchants and businessmen, who established small but vibrant Jewish communities.

The first synagogue in Kobe was built in 1912. World War II saw the influx of thousands of Jewish refugees (some arriving with the Sugihara visas), who received aid from the local community. Some of the refugees stayed behind after the war and made Kobe their home.

One of the pillars of the community since the 1930s was the Choueke family. Ezra Choueke arrived here from Aleppo, Syria. After a few years, he went back to Aleppo to marry Polissa, and they returned to Japan and lived in the Kitano neighbourhood, home to many foreigners. During World War II they moved to another part of the city and, when the bombing got intense, they move northwards across the mountain to Arima, along with other Jewish families. After the war they moved back to Kobe, to the Yamamotodori neighbourhood, living in a house with 3 other families.

The Choueke Family Residence was bought by Ezra and Polissa in 1954 and stands to this day in Kobe. It has been named a National Cultural Asset by the Government of Japan. The house is on the same street we live on, Ijinkan Dori, a couple of minutes away on foot. Polissa Choueke, now 96 years old, still lives in it. The house is unfortunately no longer open to the public.

I was fortunate enough to have met the son, Jack Choueke, who was on a visit to Japan recently, and he was gracious enough to grant me a private tour of the residence. I also had the honour and pleasure of meeting Polissa Choueke, and speaking to her for a few minutes about the history of the family and the local Jewish community. She struck me as a lucid, bright and strong-willed woman.

Here are some of the pictures I took of the house:

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Choueke Residence on Ijinkan Dori

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The Choueke Family Coat of Arms

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A portrait of Ezra Choueke

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Photo of Polissa Choueke, taken c. 1934 (15 years old). Apparently this photo was sent to Ezra Choueke as part of the marriage arrangements between the two.

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The Living Room

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The Dining Room

The house is more a museum today than a house. The ground floor is a huge exhibit of art items collected by the Choueke family over the years, mostly by the father Ezra and the son Tony. It houses the biggest collection of a very particular sort of Japanese art: woodblock prints depicting foreigners in Japan. With the arrival of foreigners here in the 17th century, local artists were fascinated by their appearance – clothes, manners, etc. – and they put down these impressions in their prints. This collection includes items that span from the Nagasaki era (17th century) to the Meiji era (ended early 20th century). Most foreigners are depicted with the same face. I guess that just as Japanese all look the same to some Westerners, the opposite also holds true…

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One of the paintings depicting foreigners in Japan

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A foreign ship at a Japanese port

The back of the house is even more impressive than the front. A big, well-kept, Japanese garden provides an island of tranquility, although one can imagine the bustle of activity here when the community numbered tens of families. Jack told me that the house was always full for dinner parties and weekend activities.

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The garden

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The path leading down to the garden

Since my visit to the house and meeting the Choueke family, every shabbat when I see the rows of honorary seats next to the Torah ark, I pause for a second on the seat bearing the name Choueke and say a silent prayer thanking the Jews who built and maintained this synagogue.

Thank you Jack Choueke (pictured below), for letting me visit the Choueke House and providing information about the history of the Jewish Community of Kobe.

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Jack Choueke (right), Tsur Shapir (center) and me on a bicycle ride through the streets of Kobe, July 2015