Walking on a mountain trail well-worn by centuries of pilgrims. Saying a prayer in front of a shrine first built two thousand years ago. Watching ninja battle one another with knives, chains and hooks. Eating wild boar sausages from a pop-up stand. Standing in a forest of fall foliage brilliantly illuminated on a dark night. Cocooned in a tunnel of lights a city block long.
My destination was Japan’s heartland, Shoryudo, called the “way of the rising dragon,” a region in the middle of Honshū, Japan’s main island. Comprised of nine prefectures (Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Nagano, Gifu, Shizuoka, Aichi, Mie and Shiga), Shoryudo is located midway between Tokyo and Kyoto.
Ninjas Up Close
Growing up, I loved stories about black-suited ninja who moved in the darkness and dispatched enemies with the speed of cobras. So I was very happy when I was told our trip would include a visit to the Ninja Museum of Igaryu.
We started with a tour of a Ninja House. A line of people waited to enter. Each group of thirty was assigned a guide dressed as a ninja. We filed into the first room and sat down on the floor. The ninja-guide waived her hand around the room. “What do you see that is unusual here?” Kids strained their necks looking around and whispered to their parents, asking if they saw anything? A shake of the head said, no, the room looked completely ordinary.
Then like a magician, the guide smiled and unmasked the secrets that lay behind seemingly solid walls and floors. Hidden out of sight were spaces in the wall where ninja could lay in wait and surprise an intruder with deadly force. Crawl spaces in the rafters allowed ninja to watch and listen unseen. A floor board could be raised to reveal a hiding space for weapons and important documents.
We moved from room to room as the guide revealed more secrets. We started down a long hallway that appeared to lead to another room. But it didn’t. The hallway led to a wall. That, she said, was designed to fool enemies who rushed into the hall only to find themselves trapped and killed by a ninja hidden overhead.
After visiting the house, we went to watch ninjas in action. We paid an extra fee and entered an open-air, tented amphitheater. Using real weapons, actors in the Ninja Show demonstrated how ninja fought and killed.
A recorded English voice on the PA narrated the show along with the Japanese-speaking master-of-ceremonies. The master-of-ceremonies told jokes and kept the crowd entertained as five performers used ninja weapons against one another. With a curved sword in her hand, a female ninja fought off three male attackers. To show the accuracy of ninja training, small metal arrows were thrown forty feet to strike a target’s bullseye. With each toss of a sharp edged weapon, the audience gasped as the deadly steel landed an inch from a performer’s head.
After watching the show, we wanted to know more about ninja so walked into the Ninja Tradition Hall, a fact-filled museum. With explainers in Japanese and English, the displays told the history of the ninja.
When civil war divided Japan for a hundred years from the mid-15th to the mid-16th century, feudal lords battled one another in pursuit of power and wealth. In the push-pull of warfare, there were always winners and losers. When a battle was lost, the defeated fled. Avoiding capture and death meant finding a safe haven. Protected by mountains, Iga City was one such refuge.
Iga became a ninja center where the arts of espionage and stealth were taught. Disgraced samurai became ninja. So did villagers and farmers. During the civil wars, ninja spies and assassins were hired by samurai lords, like Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), who used them to learn about an enemy’s fortifications and troop strength and, when needed, to murder a rival lord. Using ninjas, diplomatic alliances and military force, Ieyasu eventually united all of Japan, ending the civil wars.
In half a dozen rooms, ninja myths were dispelled. Much to my disappointment, I learned that ninja only rarely wore black. They wore many disguises to blend in, but most often they dressed in the navy blue-dyed clothing of farmers.
To be effective, ninja had to be keen observers of natural science and human behavior. They could tell the time of day by the change in the pupil of a cat’s eye. They studied when people slept in order to find the best time for invasions of homes to gather information or to assassinate. They studied the skies to determine when it would rain because rain aided their stealth. If stars twinkled or if a ring formed around the sun, it would rain. If there was dew on a spider web, the day would be clear. To find scarce water in the mountains, they would look for a cricket hole or the entrance of an ant colony and follow the hole to water.
When Ieyasu unified Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate, the ninjas’ specialized talents were no longer needed. The Shogun kept some in his employ as spies, but most found themselves out of a job. To find new employment, the ninja adapted their skills. Their observations about the natural world and human behavior led them into weapon and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Their talent in creating disguises helped them excel in the performing arts. In the centuries that followed, ninja left behind their occupations of spying and assassination as they became prominent members of the medical, artistic and manufacturing communities.
For centuries in Japan, commoners were not allowed to travel outside of their villages. One exception were pilgrims who wanted to visit Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. As a result, pilgrimage trails crisscrossed the island nation.
The trails pass through beautiful mountains, follow clear water streams and trace the outline of the coast. Trekkers love the trails as much as pilgrims. I had the opportunity to walk the Magose Toge trail, one of the most popular trails in Mie Prefecture.
The trail is one branch of a larger group of pilgrimage trails called the Kumano Kodo. Magose Toge is on the eastern route of Kumano Kodo called Iseji which connects the cities of Shingu and Ise and leads to one of Japan’s most revered Shinto shrines.
My walk began at a parking area next to heavily traveled National Route 42 (Kumano Kaido). The moderately difficult trail cuts through a cypress forest leading to the crest of Mt. Tengura and then down to Owase City. The three-hour walk was a good deal easier than I thought it would be because four hundred years ago a local samurai warlord lined the steep trail with large flat stones. A nice gift to pilgrims and modern trekkers.
The forest was beautiful. Tall trees blocked out the sun and dampened the noise of the busy highway at the bottom of the hill. We walked alongside a river that roared down the mountain, cascading over giant boulders. When the path moved away from the churning foam, the quiet of the forest enveloped us again. The serenity of the pilgrimage trail helped clear my mind. A perfect preparation for our next stop.
The Shrine of the Sun Goddess
The Kumano Kodo leads to many shrines and temples on the Kii Peninsula. I was on my way to the most famous shrine in all of Japan, the Ise Grand Shrine (Ise Jingū).
Just outside the shrine, we stopped to explore Okage Yokocho Street. A recreated Edo period (1603-1865) village, the shops sold just about anything a modern pilgrim might need on the journey including clothing, shoes, umbrellas and hats. Fresh orange juice, sake, sweets and snacks were offered to feed and refresh travelers.
The Ise Grand Shrine is not one shrine but many. There are one hundred and twenty shrines in two main areas. All the shrines honor the spirits of the earth (kami). In Geku (Toyouke Daijingu), the outer shrine, the kami of daily life are worshipped--the harvest, personal well-being, cloth, food and shelter. The inner shrine or Nakū is the more venerated of the two because the most important shrine in the park is dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess. That shrine cannot be seen nor visited by commoners.
Nakū might be one of Japan’s most revered Shinto shrines but the atmosphere was joyful not solemn. At the entrance, teenagers were taking selfies. Couples laughed together. Elderly couples walked side-by-side. Parents pushed strollers or walked hand-in-hand with toddlers. Young women wore colorful kimonos. Office workers in black suits and white shirts walked together chatting. A teacher led a group of high school students in their school uniforms.
Before we crossed over the Isuzu River (Isuzugawa) at the entrance of Nakū, we bowed twice to show our respect at the torii gate that signifies the separation of the earthly and spiritual worlds. Then, as pilgrims have been doing for millennia, we joined the mass of people passing over the Uji-bashi Bridge.
Serene and majestic, the shrine grounds illuminate Japan’s love of nature’s spiritual qualities. We walked on the meticulously maintained crushed gravel path. The chill air was still. We talked quietly as we passed through forested areas dominated by giant cypress trees and thick stands of bamboo. We visited small shrines built by hand and without nails, in a minimalist style called Shinmei-zukuri.
A wonderful aspect of Japanese culture is its embrace of all aspects of life--the ephemeral, the seasonal and the eternal. At Ise Grand Shrine, the Shinto belief in life’s cycle is fully illustrated by the practice of Shikinen Sengū. For over a thousand years, every twenty years, many of the shrines, the Uji-bashi Bridge and the torii gate are dismantled and rebuilt. No power tools or nails are used. New wood is added to ancient lumber and hundreds join in the rebuilding. As soon as the new structures are completed, planning for the next cycle of deconstruction begins.
Fall Foliage Ablaze at Night
An hour’s drive east from Nagoya, in November the fall foliage is spectacular in the Korankei Gorge at the base of Mt. Iimori in Aichi Prefecture.
Combining reverence of nature with a good business opportunity, a hundred years ago, the villagers created a tourist destination by removing many of the indigenous cedar trees. On the slopes of the mountain, four thousand maple trees were planted instead. Why maple trees? The leaves of the Japanese maple turn from summer’s bright green to neon-bright orange and red in the fall. On a sunlit day, the trees explode with color.
But I didn’t come for the spectacle during the day. I was here to see the nighttime illumination during the Korankei Maple Festival.
On an evening when there was frost on the ground, we parked and crossed the busy highway. We walked in darkness up the hill until we reached a paved foot path on the bluff above the Tomoe River.
In a few minutes, the darkness gave way to the warm glow of lights and we entered the illuminated forest. Branches, leaves and tree trunks were ablaze with light and color. Electric lights clung to tree trunks creating colorful silhouettes against the blackness of the gorge. We wandered on the main trail and on smaller paths up the mountain in what felt like a VR-immersive fantasy of an alien world.
Returning to the main trail, we left the bluff and walked into a clearing to find a carnival of pop-up stalls selling savory and sweet snacks. The air was filled with savory aromas. Cooks grilled hot-sticky wild boar sausages. Vendors sold hot roasted chestnuts and Gohei mochi, made with red miso and sticky rice formed around a stick and grilled.
At one stand, a young cook stood over a large vat of boiling water. I was hypnotized by his quick, repetitive motions. With one hand, he scrapped a sharp flat blade across a block of folded dough and flipped strands of long, thin noodles into the water. In a matter of a few minutes, with amazing efficiency he made dozens of Chinese style knife-cut noodles. Another cook scooped up the noodles and added them to steaming bowls of broth. The noodles and soup made me so hungry, I would have happily eaten a bowl, but we were on our way to dinner, so I held back.
To leave the gorge, we crossed over the iconic red Taigetsukyo Bridge. After a selfie with the illuminated forest behind me, we walked back into darkness until we reached the highway and returned to civilization.
Light up the darkness
The darkness also gave way to light in a most spectacular way at Nabana no Sato, a half hour’s drive west from Nagoya. A seasonal flower park during warm months and an “illumination” park from mid-October through early May, tens of millions of lights brighten the night sky.
We bundled up against the cold and at the entrance walked through a pergola of lights. Walk under the arch, we were told, and you gain happiness. Loving that idea, we walked through the arch of lights three times because you can never have enough happiness.
Nabana no Sato was a theme park. But there were no rides. The adventure of the park was the experience of being inside art.
Living trees were turned into sculptures. Tree limbs that had lost their leaves to the change of seasons, gained a bright coat of lights. Illuminated tunnels stretched into the darkness. A lake was outlined with lights and a mountainside came alive with animated cartoon characters created by bright colored lights.
The tunnels of lights were my favorites. Lights were packed together and woven into sheets that became the walls and ceilings of the tunnels. We walked into the Brilliant Road, almost twice the length of a football field. Ten feet tall and thirty wide, the tunnel was illuminated with millions of lights, glowing bright blue. The experience of the shorter Cherry Blossom Tunnel was like being embraced inside maturing cherry blossoms as the lights changed from green to pink and back again.
Even in winter, Nabana no Sato never forgets its love of flowers. Giant greenhouses protect thousands of flowers. The special admission Begonia Garden greenhouse had over twelve thousand potted begonias in full bloom. Each begonia plant was specially cared for in its own earthenware pot, watered by a drip system. Exquisite care was taken to keep the blooms fresh. I didn’t see a single brown leaf or wilted flower. We walked into the other greenhouses to enjoy thousands of lilies, ferns and hanging plants.
In the spring when the ground warms and the sun shines brightly, flowering plants fill every square inch of the park. Botanical gardens cover the vast fields and decorate the walkways, the banks of streams and the shoreline of the lake. Tulips, hydrangea, roses and daffodils have their assigned areas. Each flower has its season and we were advised to check the website for a schedule of the blooms. I would definitely want to return during cherry blossom season.
Nabana no Sato shares Nagashima Island with Nagashima Resort. The flower and illumination park is part of a larger complex that includes an amusement park, a shopping center, a natural hot spring (onsen) and four hotels. I stayed in Hotel Nagashima Onsen Resort and enjoyed the beautiful indoor-outdoor onsen. My comfortable, efficient room had a view of the amusement park and its giant Ferris wheel.
Designed as a full-service destination, the Nagashima Resort has a mix of quality restaurants and fast food cafes. The complex has something for everyone, adults, teenagers and children. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and only wished I had more days to spend exploring the parks and continuing to enjoy the onsen. And, I really wanted to ride the Ferris wheel with a view of the island. That would have to wait until my return visit when I could enjoy the warm weather and the botanical gardens in full bloom.
When you go
Korankei Gorge, Iimori, Asuke-cho, Toyota-shi, Aichi Prefecture 444-2424. The Korankei Maple Festival is held every November.
Magose Toge Pass Route, on the Kumano Kodo Iseji or Eastern Route, http://kumanokodo.com.au/iseji-the-eastern-route/
Nabana no Sato Illumination and Flower Park, 270 Komae Urushibata, Nagashima-cho, Kuwana-shi, Mie Prefecture 511-1144, +81 0594-41-0787, http://www.nagashima-onsen.co.jp:8010/page.jsp?id=13894. Winter illumination from mid-October to early May. Check the website for hours and days when the illumination park is open. The outdoor botanical gardens are available during warm months. Indoor greenhouse displays are open all year at an additional charge. The price of admission to Nabana no Sato includes a food coupon to be used in the park. Depending on the package you choose, stay at the hotel and your admission to the floral park and the amusement park are included.
Nagashima Resort, 368 Urayasu, Nagashima-cho, Kuwana-shi, Mie Prefecture 511-1192. The Resort includes Nagashima Spa Land, a large amusement park said to be the 18th most popular in the world, Joyful Waterpark with slides and swimming pools open only in the summer, Nagashima Spa Yuami no Shima with separate natural hot springs (onsen) for men and women, a children’s park called the Anpanman Children’s Museum & Park after a well-known cartoon series and Mitsui Outlet Park Jazz Dream Nagashima, one of Japan’s largest outlet malls with 300+ stores.
Included in the complex are four hotels with varying degrees of luxury and service: Hotel Hanamizuki (100+ rooms), Hotel Hanamizuki Annex (90 rooms), Hotel Nagashima Onsen Resort (100 rooms) and Garden Hotel Olive (100 rooms), 333 Urayasu, Nagashima-cho, Kuwana-shi, Mie Prefecture 511-1192, http://www.nagashima-onsen.co.jp/page.jsp?id=14949. Strictly speaking these are not hotels but ryokan, in the manner of a traditional Japanese country inn with breakfast or breakfast and dinner included in the price, depending on the package.
Okage Yokocho Street, 52 Ujinakanokiri-cho, Ise-shi, Mie Prefecture 516-8858, http://www.okageyokocho.co.jp/english/englishA.html