This is a great time to visit Japan. In advance of the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, bilingual English and Japanese signs have sprouted at transportation hubs. The island nation’s landscape is glorious especially in the spring and fall. The exchange rate is favorable relative to the U.S. dollar. And no one can resist udon, tempura, yakitori, ramen and sushi, the classics of Japanese cuisine. Tokyo and Kyoto are favored destinations, but there is so much more to Japan. So when you come for a visit, plan a long weekend and use the added time to explore Japan’s heartland.
Recently, I did just that. I traveled southwest from Tokyo to the coastal city of Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture to learn more about Japan’s history and to immerse myself in the beauty of the landscape.
Easily reachable by the bullet train (Shinkansen) car or commuter plane, the city is a unique destination with a mountain range on one side and bodies of water (Lake Hamana, the Tenryū River and the Pacific Ocean) on three sides. I spent days exploring historical sites, enjoying the serenity of a traditional tea ceremony, eating like a king and soaking in a natural hot spring at a luxury ryokan, a Japanese country inn.
The tour began at one of the city’s most famous landmarks, Hamamatsu Castle. Built in the 16th Century, the castle is well-known as the sometime residence of the samurai Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) who unified Japan after centuries of rule by factious warlords.
Built as a defensive weapon to guard the lord and his family from attacks by other warlords, the construction of the castle walls called nozura-zumi was impressive for the intricate mix of massive stones and smaller irregular stones, with pebbles filling in the gaps. At first sight, the stones, secured by gravity and weight without mortar or reinforcement, might appear to be easily dislodged during an earthquake or another calamity. But, in fact, the craftsmanship is so precise, the stone walls have survived centuries of buffeting by storms and the bombing of the area during WWII.
I grew up a fan of samurai movies by the great Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa. Seven Samurai about a ragtag group of samurai who defend a rural village from bandits. Rashomon with the story of an attack in the forest told from different points of view. Throne of Blood, his brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And, the Hidden Fortress that is said to have influenced George Lucas when he was writing the original Star Wars.
Unbelievably, here I was, standing in a real samurai’s castle. As the guide talked about battles that once raged outside the castle’s walls, he led us up the polished wooden stairs to the observation deck where we had a clear view of iconic Mt. Fuji in the distance. Looking down, I could almost hear the sound of samurai charging into battle, their exquisitely crafted swords blazing in the bright sun, archers raining down arrows on advancing soldiers.
With those days long gone, the castle has been transformed into a museum and a park. Inside the museum space, there was a life-sized figure of the shogun dressed in battle gear along with replicas of samurai armor. Ieyasu and his fierce warriors may have been small in stature but they gave no quarter in battle.Central to Japanese history, Ieyasu used cunning as well as force of arms to subdue his fellow feudal lords. He made and broke alliances when they served his interest and he prevailed in unifying the country where others before him had failed. But that success was accomplished only after he suffered a humiliating defeat.
The Battle of Mikatagahara (1573) was fought close to the castle. Ieyasu made a tactical error that allowed the opposing army’s cavalry to overrun his foot soldiers. With his forces decimated at Mikatagahara, he was wise enough to learn from his mistakes. Forming alliances that made him stronger, he recovered to fight another day. Ultimately he became the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate that reigned over a unified Japan. The Edo period (1603-1868) lasted for more than two hundred and fifty years until the Meiji Restoration transformed Japan from a feudal to a federal government.
While most of the original grounds and the Mikatagahara battlefield have been overtaken by urban development, the remaining area around the castle is an oasis of calm and beauty. We walked through the park with Japanese white pine, Japanese maple, bamboo stands and giant camphor trees providing a canopy shading intersecting streams and wooden bridges. Cherry and gingko trees lined the walkways. We visited in the fall when the maple leaves had turned Day-Glo brilliant. Our guide told us that we would definitely need to come back in late March or early April to see the explosively beautiful cherry blossoms.
To finish the tour, we took the winding stairs down a heavily forested hill to a tea house secluded behind the castle.
The Shointei Tea House
The placement of a tea house on Kamei Hill in the shadow the castle was no accident. Ms. Hirano, our guide at Shointei, said that traditionally the tea ceremony was reserved for the nobility. Ieyasu changed that by inviting the general population to the castle to enjoy the tea ceremony. That helped spread the popularity of tea drinking throughout Japan. She also said that samurai often had a tea service before they went into battle. To focus their minds, they would immerse themselves in a moment of quiet and the enjoyment of a carefully prepared cup of tea before engaging in the turmoil and brutality of war.
Hirano recommended that everyone in their lifetime should have a formal tea ceremony. With an employer, a partner or a child, the act of serving and being served tea would build bonds of respect and connection, she explained.
Along with a selection of pounded rice pastries (mochi), we were to sample two teas, Matcha made with powdered green tea, and Sencha, made with tea leaves. The mochi were colored for the fall, pale yellow, peach, dark brown and pale white, with a selection of fillings, chestnut, red bean paste and seasoned egg (tamago).
We did not have time for a formal tea service, but our tasting still benefited from ceremony. When the mochi were placed in front of us, we were told to bow as a show of thanks and respect. When the tea cup (chawan) was offered, we were to bow again and accept the tea cup with one hand cupped underneath, the other hand on the right side. To soften the bitterness of the tea, Hirano told us to take a bite of the sweet mochi. Before taking a sip, we turned the chawan clockwise three times. When the tea had been consumed, we rotated the chawan counter-clockwise twice.
I enjoyed the delicate and refreshing Matcha, especially combined with the sweetness of the mochi filled with red bean paste.
Then we were poured a cup of Sencha, brewed from whole leaves grown in Hamamatsu and served from a delicate ceramic pot. The second tea was more full-bodied, stronger than the Matcha, which I preferred.
As we sampled the two teas, we snacked on the sweet mochi, talking and enjoying the view of the gardens and the fresh water stream we could see through the sliding glass doors.
After our tea ceremony, I was relaxed and happy. Sorry, samurai, no fighting and battles for me.
We walked to the park across the road and looked up at white Chinese pines, gingko trees and thick stands of bamboo clumped together impenetrably. Walking over wooden bridges and on stone paths, our leisurely pace allowed us to appreciate the exquisite beauty of the ponds and waterfall. The Japanese love of nature was in full display that afternoon.
Kanzanji Onsen Hotel Kokonoe
After the castle, we visited the serene and lovely Zen Temple Hōkōji on Shinnozan Mountain where we ate a vegetarian Buddhist lunch, the spectacularly beautiful Hamamatsu Flower Park with acres of flowers in full bloom and Ryugashido Cavern where I was loving our walk into the heart of the mountain until I remembered I am claustrophobic and rushed out as quickly as I could. I promised myself on my next visit I would make time to visit the Hamamatsu City Museum of Musical Instruments with its galleries of instruments from around the world.
Our stop that night on the western side of Hamamatsu was at Kanzanji Onsen Hotel Kokonoe on Lake Hamana. An elegant country inn (ryokan), the hotel takes great advantage of its location on the lake. The lobby has a floor-to-ceiling window that frames the still water outside. A mooring dock extends into the lake. The premium members’ spa has an outdoor deck on the edge of the lake. The breakfast dining room faces the lake as do a majority of the rooms.
Since rooms were available in both the Japanese and Western style, to immerse myself in my trip to the heartland, I chose a room with a futon for a bed and tatami mats in the sitting room. Before dinner, I dressed in the yukata (a kimono style robe made out of cotton) in my room and visited the natural hot springs (onsen) inside the hotel.
If you have not visited an onsen, you are in for a treat.
Heated by the rich flows of lava that course beneath the volcanically active Japanese archipelago, hot water is directed into indoor and outdoor baths. In the onsen there are separate spaces for men and women, each with its own attractive views of the lake. An equal opportunity stratagem has the men’s and women’s baths switch places every day. If you enjoyed the second floor bath one day, the next day you will be on the third floor bath with a panoramic view of the lake and the dock leading to the pagoda.
When I first visited an onsen years ago, I wasn’t certain about the etiquette. Female attendants walked through the changing room picking up discarded towels. After undressing, men and boys seemed to pay them no notice as they walked casually from the changing room into the bathing areas. Swimming suits are never worn, but should I as a Westerner cover myself with a towel until I entered the water?
Because I had visited many onsen before I arrived at the Kanzanji Onsen Hotel Kokonoe, I had accepted the fact that no one was interested in looking at me so I might as well get with the program. After I removed my yukata, I grabbed a washcloth and headed to the baths as naked as the day I was born.
Cleanliness demanded that before entering the hot water baths, everyone washed in a Western style shower or at a bathing station where you sit on a low stool, fill a bucket with water, soap and rinse yourself.
After showering, I entered one of the hot water baths. Settling into the water with the steam rising, I was completely relaxed. So much so, I fell asleep. I’m not certain how long I slept but when I awoke I was completely refreshed by the mineral rich, therapeutic waters.
For dinner I wore my elegant and very comfortable yukata to the restaurant. The kaiseki meal used local ingredients. The dishes recalled the textures and colors of the fall, bright yellows, pale greens and thick browns.
Treats from the land and sea arrived at the table, each plate decorated like a work of art. Barracuda sushi, chicken boiled with red wine and grapes and a white square of sea bream with wild mountain potatoes arrived at the table followed by a wicker basket topped with sweet prawns, Spanish mackerel, sea bream and big eye tuna (bachi maguro) sashimi.
Kaiseki means multi-course and so it was. Dish after dish arrived at the table, adding to the feast. Beef cooked in tomato with potatoes, broccoli and carrots. Abalone in a miso-seaweed gratin, topped with a fresh watercress sprig. Fried sea bream with five vegetables and tempura. There were more courses but the day had taken its toll. Even with the rejuvenating soak in the onsen, I was ready for bed. I left as more dishes were promised but all I wanted was to lie down on the futon and cozy up under my down comforter.
In the morning I enjoyed my own private onsen. The bathtub in the room was deeper than a Western tub, but half the length. I let the water run hot and climbed in. I picked up my novel and curled up in pleasure as the water relaxed my muscles. I read as long as I could before I fell asleep.
I think you can see a theme here. Warm water. Sleep. Complete relaxation.
With that, it was time to leave Hamamatsu to begin the next part of my adventure in Japan’s heartland.
When you go
Hamamatsu Castle, 100-2 Motoshiro-cho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken 430-0946, http://www.entetsuassist-dms.com/hamamatsu-jyo/en/
Hamamatsu City Museum of Musical Instruments, 3-9-1 Chuo, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken, http://www.gakkihaku.jp/en/
Hamamatsu City Tea House Shointei, 11-4 Shikatani-cho, Naka-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken, 432-8014 http://www.entetsuassist-dms.com/hamamatsu-jyo/en/shointei/
Hamamatsu Flower Park, 195 Kanzanji-cho, Nishi-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken 431-1209, http://www.inhamamatsu.com/activity/flower-park.php. When you arrive, take a ride on the Flower Train to circumnavigate the park to see what flowers are in bloom. Then, enjoy a walk through the areas featuring flowering cherry blossoms, Japanese irises, tulips, roses, hydrangea and chrysanthemums.
Kanzanji Onsen Hotel Kokonoe, 2178 Kanzanji-cho, Nishi-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken 431-1209, https://hamanako-kokonoe.jp/english/. Renovated in 2006, the 86 rooms offer a choice of traditional Japanese and Western style accommodations. Because Kanzanji Onsen is a ryokan, breakfast or breakfast and dinner are included, depending on the package. There is no charge for the use of the natural hot spring baths. In the public spaces, in addition to a lounge with a view of the lake and a selection of restaurants, there is a karaoke room and a game arcade crowded with lively (that means noisy) electronic games.
Ryugashido Cavern, 193 Tabatake, Inasa-cho, Kita-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken 431-2221, http://www.inhamamatsu.com/activity/ryugashido.php.
The Zen Temple Hōkōji, 1577-1 Okuyama, Inasa-cho, Kita-ku, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka-ken 431-2224, the official website is in Japanese only http://www.houkouji.or.jp; for an English language website, go to http://zen.rinnou.net/head_temples/08hoko.html. Besides enjoying the beautiful grounds and elaborate sculptures that decorate the buildings, for a fee the temple offers experiences in meditation, calligraphy and a traditional Zen Buddhist vegetarian meal (shōjin ryōri).