Mark Bibby Jackson travels to Japan to see what the country has to offer
As I crash into the webbing the instruction given by our guide comes rushing through my mind – ‘bounce and catch’. Passing up the simple opportunity to grab hold of the rope meshing intended to assist my ascent to the platform, I allow myself to rebound into the ether before descending once more. Unfortunately, this time I land much further from the platform, so in addition to climbing up I have to scramble along the net. Momentarily, I ponder letting go and allowing myself to dangle once more. Surely our guide will hoist me to safety? But considerations of my dignity prevail and I continue to scramble slowly towards the platform, my strength evaporating quickly.
Noticing my predicament my guide makes a grab for my crotch and yanks me up by my harness. Did I mention dignity? It was two days before my colleagues stopped laughing. They chose the simpler option of walking along the narrow rope bridge – clearly my own misadventure had served as a lesson.
We are at the Forest Adventure in Odawara, on a mindfulness trip organised by the prefectures of Kanagawa and Yamanashi designed to promote the varied attractions of Japan in the build up to the 2019 Ruby World Cup. I’m not sure whether George North and co will take on the Odawara zip cord challenge, but if they do, I’m sure they will emerge with their dignity more in tact than mine. Proceeds from the adventure are used to protect the Odawara Forest in which it is contained – some of the cedar trees are over 300 years old.
Today is Day Three. Already most of my pre-conceptions have been obliterated. Forget the grey, concrete jungle that is Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama, Japan is a green and pleasant land. At the centre of the main island of Honshu towers the magnificent Mount Fuji – or Fuji-san as the Japanese call it.
As a child when you drew a picture of a volcano, this was it. The previous day we had timed our visit to perfection. The slightly menacing clouds dispersed to be replaced by crisp wintry blue skies, that revealed the perfect snow-capped crusting that resembles a Christmas pudding. From spring to autumn the more adventurous choose to trek to the summit, while in winter months some foolhardy skiers take to the slopes, often with fatal consequences.
We opt for the slightly easier ascent to the viewing point at the Arakura Fuji Shengen Shrine. The cherry trees below might not be in bloom, but the autumnal hues more than compensate, and as the sun starts to swiftly fade beneath horizon, the sky explodes in a brilliance that defies Japan’s nomenclature as the land of the rising sun.
That night we rested at the Hoshinoya Fuji, a resort beside Lake Kawaguchi at the foot of Fuji-san, that claims to be Japan’s first glamping centre. Never a fan of spending a night under canvas – a cold February night just outside Colchester still etched deep on my psyche – I have yet to try camping’s glamorous younger cousin. However, all misgivings are soon swept away, as I am led to my personal pod – a concrete structure that is as far removed from my previous experiences as the glorious breakfast I am served the following morning is from mugs of sweet tea and stale bacon sarnies.
A range of salads, pickles, soups, green tea, apple juice and the obligatory mackerel are spread out on my terrace overlooking the mountain, a heated blanket to keep off the slight frost in the air. Delivered in a back-pack and served in small metal containers, this is the closest I will get to actual camping. Together with the fresh air and breath-taking view, this really is the ideal way to start the day. Energised I take on the morning’s activity, donning my checked shirt to chop up some wood that will be used to fuel the bonfire. To my dyspraxic amazement I hit the middle of the stump at the first attempt, the timber splintering into two, as I ponder whether I too could have been a lumberjack just like my dear papa.
Throughout my short stay the food amazes. Forget tiny bowls of sushi conveyed on miniature rail tracks and cold noodle, Japanese food is varied, tasty and incredibly healthy – how else can you explain a life expectancy that would not look out of place in Scandinavia. Dining is a ritual with food coming in tiny bowls containing constant surprises – strange pickles, fermented beans and numerous takes on fish, both cooked or raw – all washed down the obligatory miso soup and green tea.
On our first night we were taken to the small village of Kamijyo, where the locals welcomed us as if we were the first overseas travellers to visit their small hamlet. They invite us to join in their traditional way of making dumplings from rice. A huge pestle moulds the boiled rice in a large glutinous mass – or at least its does in the hands of our hosts – we have slightly more mixed success. Then we dine with our hosts on tatami mats, where the freshly prepared rice dumpling and udon noodles is washed down with wine from the local Grace Winery in the town of Tsugura-sha, which has won many a rosette for its distinctive white made from the koshu grape.
After dinner we are taken to the Hatago hotel in Kikori, were we are greeted by a cacophony of noise and incomprehensible instructions that is at first perplexing. I almost expect our Japanese Manuels to call upon Mr Fawlty to assist. Fortunately our luggage is not lost in translation, and instead we are led to our rooms, where futons await.
Still suffering the effects of the long flight from the UK, I opt to take a dip in the hotel’s onsen baths. After taking a shower while sitting on a wooden stool, I walk to the hot pool with only a small towel to preserve my modesty. Safely settled in the hot waters, I place the flannel on my head and let all the aches collected on my long journey float away.
Part of the concept of the Japan Mindfulness Trip is to refresh both your body and mind. A trip to the Saijoji Temple, the second oldest Soto-Sect shrine in the country, allows us to experience some Zen meditation as well as hone in our Japanese calligraphy skills. As a monk passes around my colleagues to instil their concentration with a wooden baton that he ‘taps’ on their shoulders, I am glad I decided to opt out of the former.
However, it is while visiting the Erinji Temple that we are provided with lessons on Buddhism and enlightenment. Our monk called Soy informs us the key is to understand yourself. However, as he has already told us that he never wanted to become a monk in the first place rather wishing to travel to America and only took up the vocation as it ran in the blood, I am left wondering whether he should have followed his own advice. Still, as we wander around the beautiful gardens at the rear of the temple, it’s hard not to be impressed by the serenity of the place.
Our final day takes us to the town of Odawara, best known for its castle. The current building dates back to 1682 although it was destroyed by the earthquake of 1923 and only recently restored. The museum is well worth the visit – and not just for the opportunity to dress up as a samurai or ninja – an excellent five-minute video provides a wonderful interpretation of what it meant to be a warrior in ancient time, and how the spirit of the samurai is endowed in nature.
A trip that has taken us back to one of the world’s oldest cultures comes to an abrupt halt as we take the bullet train back to one of the world’s largest and most modern city. Yokohama’s Nissan Stadium will be the venue for the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. However, we are not permitted to enter – a certain Cristiano Ronaldo is preparing to take on all-comers in the Club World Cup. One final surprise on a voyage that never ceased to amaze, although normally favourably. Whatever your reason for visiting Japan, make sure you break away from the major cities, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.