Going Cross-country in the Land of the Rising Sun: My Road Trip Across Japan
As the saying goes, some people are born to drive and some are born to be driven. “And some like you Liam,” one of my friends remarked, “were born to be run over!”
Anyway, given my lack of a vehicle and lack of a license, driving trips in Japan, or even being in a car other than a taxi, was a real rarity for me, until recently. I had a few days off from work around the Golden Week holiday when a couple of my friends suggested, “How about a road trip?”
The aim of our minor Odyssey was to go from downtown Osaka to Fukuoka in Kyushu. Ordinarily, this would be about 7 or 8 hours on a bus or about two and half to three hours on a Shinkansen bullet train. However we had set aside one night and two days to complete this journey. Suffice to say, we would be stopping off at a few scenic locations en route.
So, here is a breakdown of our trip and the places we took in along the way.
8am: Leave Osaka
My friends rolled up in their rental car to begin the trip. Ordinarily I would have no objection to being locked up in a car with two lovely Japanese ladies for several hours, but I have to admit, that J-pop music, interspersed with occasional interludes of overly-theatrical Enka music really starts to grate on you after a while. I’ll be diplomatic and say this car was very “compact and snug”.
Like most things in Japan, as my friend joked, the question wasn’t 'is the car too small' but 'Am I too big'.
We stopped off for breakfast at a lovely little café in the shadow of Himeji Castle. It was unremarkable in that there were dozens of similar ones dotted around the area between Himeji Park and the Castle. Nonetheless, the opportunity to stretch my legs and get some coffee on board was most welcome. The beautiful backdrop of the castle, its gold leaf glowing in the morning sunlight, made for an excellent photo-op too. With both the car and its occupants suitably refilled, it was back onto the road.
At this point I must comment on the road itself. Japanese highways are amazingly well maintained, and the mix of beautiful mountain views to the west and the Seto Inland Sea to the east as we made our way down towards Okayama Prefecture was absolutely stunning. It’s one of the few places where a bit of mid-morning mist or fog actually enhances the visual experience, as the small rocky islands going out towards Shikoku almost look like they have been cut out of the clouds.
We reached Okayama just in time for lunch, and the chance to revisit one of my old stomping grounds.
1pm: Kurashiki, Okayama
Kurashiki is probably most famous for its old merchant’s town area known as the “Bikan Chiku”. This area encompasses several streets with an elegant canal as its centerpiece. Along both banks of the L-shaped canal, you will find a variety of souvenir shops, artists selling their works and a host of cafes and local restaurants. For our lunch on this occasion we decided to visit a local Japanese restaurant. This restaurant specialized in seafood, and it was here that I tried one of the more traditional and unusual Japanese snacks for the first time in a while, hokke (mackerel). Back in 2009, I was in this same place with a friend of mine. I ordered the hokke, a salted, grilled fish. It was delicious but, as usual, once I had finished it, the spine and ribs of the fish were left behind. A salaryman, who was halfway down a bottle of sake at the next table asked me. “Are you not going to eat that?”
“I wasn’t aware I could.” I replied politely. He then motioned to the chef/owner, who picked the remaining carcass up, sprinkled a few spices on it, and threw it into a deep fryer. A few minutes later, I was presented with my deep-fried fish skeleton, which I shared with my new salaryman friend.
It sounds revolting I know, but actually, if you can turn your mind away from what you are actually eating, and just appreciated the taste and crispy texture, it’s great.
My friends on this occasion however didn’t quite have the stomach for such a thing and they just went for the crab croquettes instead.
With lunch out of the way, we just had time to check out the nearby Ohara Art Museum before heading on to our next destination.
We passed through the sleepy little town of Kasaoka on our way to Fukuyama. As the afternoon wore on, we passed through Hiroshima prefecture as dusk approached. Our next destination was almost in sight.
6:30pm: Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi
We arrived at Shimonoseki, the southernmost city on Japan’s main Honshu Island just as the sun began to set. As we watched the sun go down, our final destination, Kyushu, was illuminated on the horizon. Standing between us and it however was the small straight of ocean currents that separate main Honshu from its little sister Kyushu. Shimonoseki is a typically bustling city of about 450,000 people, and as such it made a great place to stop off for a drink (non-alcoholic of course) as we looked out over the bay and took in this most beautiful of sunsets.
As the red sun set off to the west, I was thinking: “If someone wanted a postcard image of a Japanese sunset, this would be it.”
10pm: Arrive in Fukuoka
We hit some traffic as we crossed over into Kyushu, and we did stop off for a couple of bathroom breaks along the way, but still, we made it into Fukuoka City just before 10pm.
It had been a great adventure, and amazing to think we had seen so much in just one day.