“It is, I think, impossible for anyone but a Japanese to go Japanese,” wrote the American Japanophile Donald Richie in The Inland Sea (1971), one of 40 books he wrote during the near 60 years he spent in the country. He first arrived in Japan on New Year’s Eve 1946, as a 22-year-old administrator in the US occupation forces and found himself transfixed by the culture.
That Richie felt a certain alienation even after so long in the country suggests that a temporary visitor to rural Japan will likely be able to do little more than scratch the surface. But tour operator Walk Japan’s leisurely 10-day-plus guided walking tours at the very least allow foreigners access to remote communities a world, both spiritually and geographically, away from the main tourist cities, alongside an insight into Japanese culture that would otherwise be hard to find.
Its latest itinerary, the Inland Sea Odyssey, explores the Seto Inland Sea and is based on the journey Richie made while researching his book; it promises to be the company’s most intriguing yet.
Certainly Walk Japan’s British-born founder and CEO Paul Christie is well immersed in the culture. (Fluent in Japanese, he first visited Japan in 1987 and today lives with his Japanese wife in the Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, where he is also a farmer.)
But where Richie’s book was, he says, “a wistful lament on a disappearing way of life”, this journey promises to be one “of hope that takes us through the fascinating rejuvenation of the communities” who live along the coast of the Inland Sea and on its hundreds of islands.
Bordered by three of Japan’s four main islands — Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — the sea was described by Richie as “a nearly landlocked, lake-like body of water”, a “paradise, [an] ideal sea garden, 310 miles long, 40 miles at its widest and four at its narrowest».
Present-day Japanophiles keen to explore the country but concerned about the demands of guided walking holiday needn’t worry unduly. No day of the itinerary involves more than about four and a half miles of walking — about two hours’ worth. (You’ll also travel by train — bullet, express and local — road, ferry and water taxi.) Accommodation is mostly in smart city hotels and one traditional onsen, an inn with natural hot springs.
Himeji Castle CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
The number will be capped at 12 and, Christie promises, will go ahead even if only a couple sign up. Even if one normally balks at the idea of group trips, this will be worth making an exception for simply because of the access it promises and all participants will see, learn, taste and experience.
The itinerary begins about 60 miles west of Osaka in the city of Himeji (just over three hours from Tokyo on the bullet train), where the immense 14th-century castle complex has featured in films from Kurasawa’s epic Kagemusha to the Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai, by way of You Only Live Twice.
From there the group will continue to the island of Miyajima, the so-called Island of Gods and site of the sixth-century Itsukushima Shrine. This is an area rich in folklore and history.
Benesse House on Naoshima island CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
But for all the tales of samurai, sho-guns and pirates the guide will share, there will equally be an emphasis on the influence the region has exerted on several of the foremost Japanese artists of the past half century: film directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu; architects such as Kenzo Tange, Toyo Ito, Tado Ando and SANAA; the American-Japanes sculptor Isamu Noguchi; and the artist Yayoi Kusama.
The “art island” of Naoshima, which lies in the inland sea is a fixture on the itinerary, as are Inujima, home of the Seirensho Art Museum, Teshima and Omishima, which has yet another clutch of art galleries.
They promise to provide a fascinating insight into a landscape that is unintentionally ignored by many tourists despite its unquestionable splendour. Thomas Cook, the inventor of package tours, came here in 1873, travelling by steamer from San Francisco, across the Inland Sea, which “surpassed all my dreams of beauty”. Richie was equally moved to write about the wonders he saw, and it is Christie’s hope that his clients will be similarly impressed by what awaits.
Walk Japan’s Inland Sea Odyssey, 6 to 15 November, costs about £3,775 (580,000 yen) per person, based on two sharing, including accommodation, transport and some meals, but excluding flights.