In the second part of her travel diary, Danielle Mustarde follows in the footsteps of pioneering traveller Isabella Bird

PHOTOS BY DANIELLE MUSTARDE AND PIXABAY

Late afternoon, Thursday 6 February 

Westin Sendai 

Hakodate Asaichi Morning Market was today’s first port-of-call – a revered local market alive with the spoils of the sea. Stalls of giant, burnt-orange coloured crabs, trays of various sea molluscs and tanks of fish, squid and sea urchin; each surrounded by locals sussing out their choice of that morning’s catch. Passing through, we left Hakodate – and Hokkaido – for Hachinohe, on the northeastern coast of Honshu island, where we met the wonderful Kumi who would introduce us to the Michinoku Coastal Trail (michinokutrail.com), built after the devastating 2011 earthquake which destroyed much of the area and claimed more than 18,000 lives. To get a sense of the place on a tight time-budget, we drove much of the Sanriku Coast, stopping off at points of interest – crayon-red temples, stone “viewing decks” jutting out over the rough sea and, most awesome of all, an undisturbed, snow-covered beach set against the navy blue of the crashing waves. Lunchtime soon came around and was to be served in an (entirely non-hipster) sea container-turned-“restaurant” inside which, there was one large white plastic table and chairs, various sea-faring paraphernalia, and three local women, rosy-cheeked and hunched over a pot of bubbling water – that, and a lifeless plum-red octopus hanging from a hook in the ceiling. On the menu? The sea – followed by coffee. Though my quasi-pescatarian self couldn’t stomach octopus or crab, I dug into seaweed tempura and gave the fish stew a respectable slurp. It was a gorgeously authentic moment and our hosts were perfect; waving us off with a handmade banner as we left, stomachs full. A short drive later, we found ourselves in completely different scenery: at the foot of an otherworldly Buddhist shrine hidden in a small wood behind a village and blanketed in deep snow, utterly silent. (Pinch me?) In that same village, we stopped for a cup of thick, green matcha tea and to learn more about the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that the Michinoku Coastal Trail had been borne out of. Those conversations made seeing the area slowly come back to life all the more rewarding. 

Snow-covered beach on the breathtaking Michinoku Coastal Trail

Later that evening…

Fast-forward to this evening and, after a bone-chillingly cold but worthwhile “bar-hopping tour” of Hachinohe, we suddenly find ourselves in the comparatively metropolitan city of Sendai. I’m writing this from my warm hotel bed; the room’s ceiling-to-floor curtains open wide, allowing a view across sprawling Sendai’s neon-lit, gently-humming cityscape… 

Evening, Friday 7 February 

Ashinomaki Onsen Okawaso 

Today, I woke up to the sun rising over Sendai, the largest city in Japan’s Tōhoku region (an area less than 2% of international tourists currently visit). Later that morning, we arrived into the small town of Yamadera, literally “mountain temples”, by train. Tucked away in a valley ringed by mountains, tiny Yamadera is famous for its temples. To access them, you have to climb a winding set of stairs through an ancient wood. At the top, the mountain temples offer a far-reaching view of the valley, its grayscale mountains existing deep into the horizon. After a slippery descent, we leave for Fukushima by bullet train, or “Shinkansen, picking up bento boxes en route. Our next destination? Tsuchiyu Onsen’s geothermal energy plant, another community development to come out of the 2011 disaster (which caused a meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant). After a crash lesson in geothermal science, we’re invited to the local craft centre to paint traditional “kokeshi dolls”; wooden dolls famously crafted in the region. Tonight, we’re staying at another ryokan (ookawaso.co.jp/en) this time, for two nights. Dinner was at a nearby, traditional restaurant, where I ate “flowering mountain vegetable” with steamed rice and a glass of locally-produced, Japanese red wine –while the others dug into horse sushi (that’s a neigh from me). Back at the ryokan, there was time for a moonlit soak in the onsen before bed …which brings me back to now, snug in my futon after another jam-packed day. I know it’s a cliché for Westerners to fall in love with Japan but… I now see why. 

The view over Yamadera village from the cliffside temples above. Photo by Danielle Mustarde

Saturday 8 February

Ashinomaki Onsen Okawaso 

Having arrived at night, the first thing I did this morning was open my curtains upon which I was greeted by a snow-thick mountainside overlooking a milky-green river, curving right underneath my window: stop it, Japan. Today was a special day as it was, as it began with a trip to the snowy little train station of Ashinomaki Onsen (instagram.com/ashinomakionseneki) to meet Peach and Love, the cat station masters (that’s right). One of the staff members had Love – I presume the more senior of the two – conduct a “station patrol” which effectively reduced us all to small children. (It’s the tiny conductor hats that seal the deal). After spending all of my “yennies” in the dedicated gift shop, we took the very local, Studio Ghibli-esque train to Nanukamachi, a “historical craft quarter” in the Samurai city of Aizuwakamatsu. There we had a class in “maki-e” lacquerware plate painting at the Suzuzen Workshop before, taking a train to Aizu Yanaizu where we had a lunch of “hearty soul food” at Suzuya Shokudo. From there, we visited Enzoji Temple and, come nightfall, found ourselves at Ouchijuku Snow Festival, held in a tiny village of chalet-like buildings, nestled together in the snow. We snacked on Kaori-san’s rice crackers while watching the festival’s fireworks. To top all of that off, we ended the day with a beautiful dinner back at our ryokan, complete with sushi, hotpot, noodles and more. Right now though, it’s getting on for midnight and I have plans for an early morning onsen dip before we leave for ~ drumroll please ~ Tokyo.

The cat station masters

Sunday 9 February 

On the Shinkansen to Tokyo

Just before 7am this morning, I tip-toed off for a final, early morning onsen. For a short while, I had the whole outdoor area to myself (made up of a tier of three baths) and so I submerged myself in the warmth of the furthest pool. There, the only sounds were of the onsen water trickling in, the river flowing by in the valley below and my breathing. The hot water enveloped the bare skin of my body, while tiny snowflakes stung my face and hands; the rough rock of the mountainside under my palms grounding me there. And breathe… After that pretty special start to the day, breakfast: French toast and fresh fruit, followed by tofu, red beans and shiitake mushrooms. Meeting downstairs in the warm, wooded lobby, we were waved off by the ever-polite staff as we left for the train station. One vending-machine-ready banana latte later, and here we are, on the Shinkansen to Tokyo for our final day in Japan. Today’s also the first time I’ve worm “civilian clothes”, having spent all week in base layers, snow gear and hiking boots. As we approach Japan’s capital city – and its almost 14,000,000 inhabitants – the sun is shining and the snow is disappearing…

Sunday evening…

Hyatt Regency Tokyo 

After arriving into Tokyo, we took a taxi to Shinjuku for lunch: “okonomiyaki”, which basically means “what you like, grilled”, what’s not to like? After lunch, we walked to Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Yoyogi Park, before finding ourselves at Toyko’s famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing, supposedly the busiest intersection in the world. After surviving the Scramble, we entered Shibuya Scramble Square – a 230 metre skyscraper connected to Shibuya Station, riding the lift to its top floor, complete with open air viewing platform. The views across the sprawling capital gave a real sense of the city’s landscape (and is the best view of Tokyo according to my trusted sources). It was from this very place that I, like Isabella Bird almost 150 years ago, had my first glimpse of Mount Fuji – and at sunset, at that: ooft. After the briefest of sit-downs at our hotel (hyatt.com) I performed a final wardrobe change and headed for downtown Tokyo by night. It was on this, our final night in Japan, that I lived out my Lost In Translation-shaped fantasy: we did karaoke, in a private booth, overlooking Tokyo at night. It was a highlight among highlights. After karaoke, there was only one thing left: visit Goldfinger, the city’s famous lez/bi bar (the very one that Ellen Page visits in Gaycation). It was quiet when we arrived, but the place itself is perfect: cosy, kitschy, Uh Huh Her poster-adorned – and complete with a stage, a karaoke stage. One drink later and myself and Matt were mid-10/10 performance of Avril Lavigne’s Sk8r Boi to an adoring crowd. (We later got caught up in the glory and utterly destroyed Kelly Clarkson’s Since U Been Gone). As Sunday became Monday, we said our goodbyes to Goldfinger, leaving an issue of DIVA in our wake…

MY GIRLFRIEND HAS GOLDFINGERS window sign at bar Goldfinger

Monday 10 February

On a Finnair flight, somewhere over Russia

This morning we all woke up feeling a little rough around the edges, but I just about patched myself up with a breakfast of pancakes and green tea before we all bundled into a taxi to the airport an hour’s drive away. Checked in, (and one mad dash around the Pokémon store later) we said our thank yous and goodbyes to Kaori-san and made our way to the gate. And just like that, we’re now just an hour and a half away from landing back in London. As the smell of coffee fills the cabin once more, I take a moment to try and absorb everything I’ve experienced, quickly realising I’ve officially run out of adjectives sufficient enough to describe it. I wonder if Isabella Bird felt the same sense of awe reflecting on her own trip to Japan? Either way, I’m pretty sure I’m awe-struck enough for the both of us.

You can read the first part of this travel diary in the December 2020 issue of DIVA, available now at divadigital.co.uk and divadirect.co.uk.

For more information on travelling to Japan, including the latest Covid-19 measures, check out the Japan National Tourist Organisation at japan.travel. Flights were kindly provided by Finnair. Finnair flies to Tokyo via Helsinki with fares from £700 in Economy Class, including all taxes and charges. For terms and conditions, and to book, visit finnair.com.

Only reading DIVA online? You’re missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It’s pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.

divadigital.co.uk // divadirect.co.uk 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.