It’s easy for city dwellers like us to get caught up with our bustling metropolis lives and never really thinking much about the countryside. This is a common theme among many city folk in not just Japan, but many developed countries. Thing is, the countryside actually has a ton of things to explore and experience, and is full of warm smiles that welcome you in like family. But, getting out there and finding your way around can pose some logistical challenges.
That’s why JTB, one of the biggest tourism companies in Japan, is investing a ton in promoting some really amazing rural spots and putting together programs to help both Japanese and foreign visitors discover what the countryside has to offer. We were lucky enough to get a special invitation from JTB to have a guided tour of Hokubo, a quaint little county in Maniwa City of Okayama Prefecture located just an easy 3.5 hour direct bus ride from Osaka. Here’s a look at the sites and experiences we got to enjoy!
A winding single-road into the mountains had us pulling up to a secluded mountainside shrine. Only the pitter patter of the rain atop the wooden structures could be heard. Being a Shinto shrine, which is based around natural spirits and ritual, we were introduced to the traditional cleansing ritual when entering the shrine grounds. This involves using a ladle of water to rinse your hands and your mouth to cleanse your body and soul. We took part in a brief prayer ritual and even got to read our own fortunes – some of which were scarily accurate! Two hundred year old agricultural equipment lay on display in a side shed, dusty and rusty but still wafting with the faint smell of hay.
Zentokuji Temple Experience
Across from some breathtaking mountains shrouded in rain mists sat Zentokuji Temple, where we had a really fantastic opportunity to participate in a ceremony that even locals rarely get a chance to do themselves. We were welcomed by the “Temple Master,” and an express lesson on Zen Buddhism 101 (through a translator) in order to guide us through a 3 minute meditation and breathing session, followed by tracing ancient Japanese Buddhist prayers on parchment with calligraphy pens. Next, we moved to the ceremonial shrine, where the temple master led a fire ceremony, burning our prayer papers in a mini pyre and sending them to the heavens, before blessing each and every one of us individually. It was really quite the sight to see and be a part of.
Ya No Ana Cave
We had a quick stop by Ya No Ana, a cave hidden right behind the river that is famous for its luminescent fireflies summer festival. Inside this small but long-stretching cave stand the statues of 88 Buddhas. The cave stretches back into the pitch black darkness with incredible stalactite formations and massive ceilings tucked behind channels. Watch where you put your hands on the walls, there’s some massive spiders in there!
Nakatui Jinya (Guesthouse)
Our guesthouse and meals were something very special. Of course, it was spotless, and decorated quite classically with straw dolls and old photos on the walls. An in-house Japanese-style public shower and bath (divided by gender, of course) was stocked with towels and soaps. There’s both Western style rooms with comfy single beds and larger tatami mat floor rooms, the latter which doubled as our space for our welcome hot green tea and lunch. And what an amazing lunch it was! We got served an entire platter each of amazing little Japanese dishes using only locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients. Known as “washoku” in Japanese, it was an incredible way to start the trip.
There’s an entire team of elderly grandmother chefs running the kitchen to create these amazing meals. It was during our visit that they opened their kitchen for the first time ever to allow visitors to help them prepare various parts of the meal. Some of us were assigned to picking edamame off the branch, some were preparing the sushi rice and others even battered and fried the tempura! It all climaxed when we gathered in the building next door to sit around a sunken fire hearth that cooked a hearty pork stew. For at least an hour, we passed around all the amazing food we helped make, along with oolong tea, beer and sake, until our tummies couldn’t hold anymore. Throughout the dinner, we were entertained by the locals, shared stories about ourselves and learned a little more about Hokubo.
On a rainy morning, we got carted to a tomato farm, where rows and rows of sheltered tomato crops sprouted full of green and scarlet tomatoes. AND we were told to pick 10 per person to take home for free! The friendly farmer on hand helped us clip the sharp stems off our picks offered warm smiles as we showed off our shiny ripe tomatoes.
Keeping up with the farm theme, we were welcomed at a grape and asian pear farm next. What makes this local farm unique, apart from the fact that they have their own modern cafe on the grounds, is that they don’t sell to any chain grocery stores, supermarkets or department stores. Despite that, they sell out their crops every single year as loyal local subscribers anxiously wait to gobble up their annual order of grapes. The 20 employees work hard to grow 15 different kinds of grapes from April to October, and then pears until autumn as well. A true community establishment for the county of Hokubo, their ice cream parfaits are not to be missed – our favourite was strawberry!
Omatsuri Experience – Carrying a Shrine (well, kind of)
In Japan, there are a countless number of festivals that revolve around carrying a portable mini-shrine through the streets on the shoulders of the locals. Only the men of our group (due to local shrine rules) were invited to help carry the portable shrine for the festival – or ‘omatsuri in Japanese – for Koori Shrine (Koori Jinja). We were asked to wear all white, and were adorned with white ‘happi coats’ of the shrine – mini jackets emblazoned with the the shrine’s symbol on the back. A glass of sake along with salty snacks were distributed amongst the group of men to help us get pumped for the event.
The original plan was to heave the shrine all around the shrine. Unfortunately – or perhaps, thankfully – heavy rains dampened that idea, so instead, we hoisted the 500kg shrine from its storage garage and onto a truck. Although we had hoped for something more epic, we were still happy to be a part of something so dear to the local community.
Bitchu Kanachi-Ana Cave
As cliché as it goes, the best really was saved for last. Our minivan chugged up the steep mountainside road to a limestone cave called Bitchu Kabana-Ana. A long walk downhill and deep underground was a laborious task, as the day’s heavy rains gushed in around our feet and raged in from crevices in the cave ceiling. But once inside, we were in awe of the massive space, highlighted with multi-coloured spotlights. Water streamed in down the rock walls, really accentuating the thousands of years of erosion that formed the columns into the warped shapes they are now. You really only need 20 minutes to see the whole thing but it was definitely a highlight in our books. The ticket booth doubles as a premium ice cream stand and a souvenir shop, offering various trinkets carved from cave stones.
We absolutely fell in love with Hokubo, as we quickly discovered that there was a ton of things to see and do. By the end of our trip, we couldn’t wait to go back to check out more of the various caves, farms, waterfalls, shrines and more. But most of all – the amazing people are the biggest reason why we really want to return. Every single local that we interacted with from Hokubo were genuinely friendly, hospitable and full of life. They welcomed us with open arms and made us feel like family and that we were in a home away from home. Above all else, we’ll be back just to be able to be a part of the Hokubo family once again and we’ll definitely be recommending it to anyone else in Japan.