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Exploring Japan’s newest destination: the Diamond Route
January 4, 2019
There is a new destination in Japan which is off the beaten track from the usual tourist routes, which offers a strong hit of Japanese culture.
It is often said that Japan only truly opened to the west after hosting the 2002 football World Cup. And it was just the following year that Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation was released, which captured the minds of a new wave of young free spirits who set their crosshairs on Japan in search of a truly different, and apparently alien culture.
Japan’s tourism has continued to boom since then, and the next two years looks set to become another stand out occasions – when the country hosts first the 2019 Rugby World Cup, followed by the 2020 Summer Olympics 10 months later.
As more and more people head to the land of the rising sun, the old Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka route is becoming something of a cliché. However a new route, across the north of the country’s central island Honshu, just a few hours north of Tokyo, is starting to gain popularity.
Named the Diamond Route because of the shape it appears on a map, this gem of a route covers the Fukushima, Tochigi and Ibaraki prefectures. With each offering its own distinct character of rugged landscapes, ancient shrines, traditional food or tranquil hot springs, combined they tell a fascinating story of Japanese culture away from the mega metropolis cities.
Spanning four themes (History, Health, Nature and Outdoors) and with a handy set of online guides and maps – as well as a mobile phone app – that are tailored to each season, the Diamond Route leads you across the best that Japan’s wild and untamed north has to offer. Here, Candid Magazine provides a handy list of the best things to do, most delicious places to eat and stunning places to stay in each prefecture.
After leaving the bustle of Tokyo behind, just 3 hours drive north is Ushiku Daibutsu, a 4,000 ton bronze statue of Buddha – the world’s third largest statue in fact – located in a beautiful flower-filled park. Inside the gargantuan wonder, which is filled with over 3,000 gold family shrines that shimmer in the light, there is also an elevated viewing platform offering a breath-taking panorama.
Hitachi Seaside Park
Covering 350 hectares, the spacious Hitachi Seaside Park can be explored on foot or with a hire bicycle, and contains attractions such as BMX racing, mini golf, a theme park, train rides, and multiple cafes and restaurants. The highlight is of course though, the plants. Depending on the time of year, the park is a riot of reds, yellows or blues, and locals flock in all seasons to see the manicured blooms. Its also brilliant for seeing people walk dogs dressed up in a variety of outfits. It’s a surreal place to shake off the jet lag.
Oarai Isosaki Shrine
The Oarai Isosaki Shrine consists of a tranquil wooden pavilion placed high up on a hill side, where you can see Buddhist monks praying and leave a wooden wishing panel behind, as well as a traditional orange Torii gate placed out on the rocks at sea, opposite down a long flight of stairs. Both are particularly peaceful first thing in the morning, as the sun rises between the pillars of the gate and the monks sweep the paths, or at night when bathed in moonlight. Whilst not being the oldest or grandest shrine on the Diamond Route, it is one of the most enchanting and offers a great introduction to the traditions of Zen Buddhism. The nearby Hotel Oarai is only a five-minute sunset stroll from the shrine making it a great place to rest after.
The charming town of Mito, the capital of Ibraki Prefecture, has areas of cherry tree lined canals, which are night are framed by swinging red-glowing lanterns. In the autumn they have harvest festivals complete with battling floats covered in lights and accompanied by singing and dancing, and in the spring there is the famous cherry blossom. It’s also home to the Nakaya Hitachino Nest Beer; perhaps the best known Japanese craft beer in the UK, where you can visit the brewery and eat some of the best ramen around. If that doesn’t quench your thirst there is also the Besshunkan Sake brewery where you can witness traditional Japanese plum wine being made, as well as taste the numerous, and often potent varieties on offer.
Izaka Onsen is a hot spring resort that contains a variety of bath houses, some hundreds of years old, as well as traditional Ryokan – Japanese guest houses. The Nakamuraya Ryokan is over 120 hundred years old and has been run by the same local family since opening. The upstairs, rickety, dark wood rooms used to accommodate local travelling Samurai, and the small doors were designed to force them to remove their swords from their backs before entering. Wonderfully hospitable and brimming with history, the charming building – which is listed a piece of Japanese National Heritage – is opposite the oldest wooden bath house in the town. Walking there in the dark in your kimono feels surreal to say the least. Nearby are an array of traditional restaurants and stores providing a strong dose of historic Japanese spa culture.
Made up of more than 260 pine tree islands, Matsushima Bay has inspired generations of Japanese artists and poets. Some are inaccessible, while others can be reached by boat or bridge, and many are dotted with ancient shrines. There are also local fish markets, ancient meditation caves and rock gardens to explore – whilst you can also bear the scars of the devastating 2011 tsunami on local buildings still.
Goshiki-numa lakes and Grandeco cable car
Consisting of five lakes created by local volcanic shifts, these waters are rich in mineral deposits that turn shades of blue ranging from emerald to turquoise. Each accessible by hiking trails, they attract many people searching for a slice of Japanese peacefulness. The local cable car transports leaf-watchers up the hillside in autumn, hikers in the spring and summer, and services the local ski runs in the winter.
This national park is rural Japan at its most captivating, and has great local hotels, such as the fantastic Hoshino Resorts Bandaisan Onsen Hotel, which is situated on a mountain-surrounded golf course, offers ski-in, ski-out access to the slopes in the winter, and hiking trails in the summer.
The centrepiece of the nearby town of Aizuwakamatsu is a stunning recreation of a 14thcentury Tsurugajo castle, which almost looks like a wedding cake with its white tiers and rose roof tiles, where feudal lords would hold their tea ceremonies. The city was the site of the Boshin wars and rich in Samurai history – and across from the castle’s megalithic stone walls is a Kendo academy where you can train in the ancient art of sword fighting. The town also has a lively food and drinking culture, with local specialities including horsemeat, which can be easily washed down with a cold beer in one of the many local, and inviting taverns, where you eat cross-legged on tatami mats.
The city also has a recreated Samurai School called Nisshikan, where elite members of society were trained from young boys, who learned how to read, write, swim, ride and fight, as well as a memorial to the suicide of 20 teenage boys – each the son of a samurai – who remained in the burning city to defend Aizuwakamatsu against pro-imperial forces in 1868.
The local Hotel Shosuke no yado Takinoyu is a brilliantly upmarket contemporary space, with both Japanese and western style rooms, private onsen on balconies, rooftops and riverside, a traditional Noh theatre stage hidden in the forest and some of the finest cuisine in the area. Meals consist of dozens of small dishes each clearly prepared with years of practise to master the flavours and colours – after all they say you eat with your eyes in Japan.
Ouchi-juku Post Town
This former post town along the ancient Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade used during the Edo Period of Japan’s history, which was trodden by people travelling across Japan’s countryside by foot throughout centuries past. The local single storey thatched buildings, which historically provided food and shelter for weary travellers, have been fantastically preserved and restored and walking down the single street’s track is like stepping back in time. Ouchi-juku is one of the most photographed places in Fukushima – particular in the winter when its lamps glow from underneath a thick covering of snow. There are also a number of inns should you wish to stay the night.
The stunning Toshogu Shrine, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, is the final resting place of Tokugawa leyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled over Japan for 250 years until 1868 and was known as the last great Shogun. The complex consists of dozens of spectacularly carved religious buildings that wind along tree lined paths through a forest-covered mountain slope. Each more richly decorated than the last, the skill, detail and colour of each building needs to be seen to be believed.
With its rows and Rows of Buddhist shrines, each facing a series of rapids and waterfalls and dressed in red cotton outfits, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss hiking trail winds through a forested valley towards Tamozawa Villa and a botanical garden. The scenery is lush and tropical, and the walk feels utterly contemplative.
A popular spot for people wanting to escape the hustle of Tokyo, the picturesque and quaint town of Nikko is just two hours by direct train north of Tokyo, riding the picturesque Tobu Railway. It’s a great way to start or finish a rural escape, snaking through suburbs, villages and forests.
Nikko houses several sushi and bento restaurants, antique shops and fantastic rural scenery; it’s the perfect antidote to the city. Inside the town’s shrines you can even You can even try a short session of Zen mediation with a local monk in order to reduce stress and enhance concentration.
As the gateway to so many hikes and temples, Nikko is also a great place to start or finish your Diamond Route adventure – or for those short of time, the perfect place to try it out for a day.
And once you’ve found your feet back in Tokyo, the perfect place to re- acclimatise to city life is KIKKA, a trendy hotel-cum-hostel with a funky bar. It’s a great spot to start, and finish, a night out in the big city.
British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Tokyo, with seats in the World Traveller Plus cabin from GBP1253 to Tokyo Haneda or GBP1253 to Tokyo Narita, both return including taxes/fees/carrier charges.