Osaka is not beautiful but its surroundings are

Osaka is not beautiful but its surroundings truly are

It’s the second time she’s told me this and it’s no more convincing but it temporarily distracts me from the fact that I’m about to get naked with a group of strange men.

It’s all about experiencing the authentic bathing ritual at “onsen”, hot spring baths which are a key draw for many in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, in the eastern part of the Kii-hanto Peninsula.

Our onsen at Hotel Kumano Club is an open-air affair. We have the place to ourselves so we bob about in the warm mineral waters while the rain gently falls. We contemplate our navels and drink in the calm.

The Kumano Club is a sprawling resort with accommodation in two-storey wooden chalets. We felt we had earned our relaxation, having spent the day tackling a five-mile section of the 43-mile ancient pilgrim path, the Kumano Kodo.

Visiting an onsen is a wonderful relief from city

Visiting an onsen is a wonderful relief from city life

Renewal is one of Shinto’s touchstones. It’s manifested here by each shrine, all with elaborate carvings and sloped roofs, being completely renovated every 20 years.

Jools Stone

It is only the second walk in the world to be granted Unesco status alongside Spain’s Camino de Santiago.

The Kumano Kodo links several of Japan’s most sacred spots associated with the Shinto.

Our walk from the Hongu Shrine to the Kumano Hongu Taisha, Japan’s largest Torii Gate, takes us through dense forests of tall cedar and cypress trees, past farms where monkeys are known to pilfer fruit and mossy logs are thick with shiitake mushrooms.

Centuries ago pilgrims would spend weeks trekking through mountains along the Kumano but we sacrifice virtue points by arriving on the Shimakaze Express from Osaka, a luxury train which has ferried visitors to Ise from Osaka since 2013.

No sooner have we relaxed in the plush lime green seats with massage functions, ordered a tasty bento box and eyed the array of sumptuous cakes in the buffet car than we’re gliding into Ise – Shima Station.

The Kumano Kodo trail is a Unesco site

The Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail is a Unesco World Heritage site

Ise is home to the Hongu Shrine, a key Shinto site framed by the classic scenography of angular Japanese maple trees and lily ponds heaving with koi carp. The scene looks like it has been lifted directly from an ink painting.

Renewal is one of Shinto’s touchstones. It’s manifested here by each shrine, all with elaborate carvings and sloped roofs, being completely renovated every 20 years.

After visiting the shrine we worship at the altar of commerce and wander along Okage Yokocho Street, gawping at all the multi-coloured morsels of unidentified fried food and somehow resisting the Snoopy giftware store.

My attempt to buy a matcha ice cream in garbled “Japan-glish” has my young server dissolving in fits of sweet-natured giggles. She issues me with a ticket for a nearby stall where a man turns a little wooden tombola wheel.

“Gully gully!”, she says excitedly, with an accompanying hand motion. I’m not sure if that means “good luck” but the gods fail to smile on me today. 

The ancient Hongu Shrine is well worth seeing

The ancient Hongu Shrine is well worth seeing

Not to worry though as the Mie Prefecture had further treats in store when we reached the ramshackle fishing village of Toba in the northern corner of the Shima Peninsula, an hour’s drive east from Ise.

Greeting us outside a humble wooden fishing shack at the Toba Diving Centre coast were a gaggle of older ladies, sporting traditional cotton aprons with red hoods.

These ladies, known as “Ama” (or fisherwomen) dive for oysters, urchins and abalones by hand, holding their breath for minutes at a time. All the divers are women, mostly 60-plus. Their most senior member is 86. They are the original sea mermaids.

Inside the spartan hut the Ama huddle over a coal griddle on the floor broiling their daily catch for us. I politely chew on a gnarly sea snail for what seems like hours, still honoured to be witnessing the surviving traditions of this remote community.

Osaka has a robust food scene

Osaka has a robust food scene

Japan’s second biggest city, Osaka, won’t win any prizes for prettiness but the sprawling industrial hub is known for its robust food scene, economic clout and vibrant nightlife. Friday night in downtown Osaka’s Dotonbori district is a multi-sensory onslaught.

Signage is a serious business here. The 66ft neon Glico Running Man, giant moving crab and a 3D family tucking into tofu all vie for our attention.

After retiring for the night and choosing from a selection of three sets of pyjamas thoughtfully laid out on my hotel bed, the next day starts with some cultural immersion.

The 700-year-old craft of Noh Theatre is perhaps less well known in the West than Kabuki but the Yamamoto Noh Theatre in Osaka’s city centre soon provides a crash course in the lore of Noh. On entering we’re immediately asked to remove shoes and socks and don these hoof-like cotton booties called “tabi”.

We’d already been schooled on Japan’s footwear fastidiousness – “being seen in our socks is like being caught in our underwear” our guide told us – but the purpose of the booties becomes clear when we’re invited to tread the boards alongside Yamamoto’s director while he demonstrates Noh’s highly stylised movements.

Osaka Castle is a stunning attraction

Osaka Castle is a stunning attraction

The tabi help you slide, very slowly, towards the lip of the stage. I volunteer to be trussed up in elaborate robes and an ancient wooden mask, which gives me another Tom Cruise moment.

Spontaneous disrobing was becoming a theme of this trip. My inner Samurai duly channelled, it was time to visit Osaka Castle to get some historical context.

The original castle built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a warrior leader celebrated as Japan’s “second great unifier”, burnt down in 1655 and was replaced by a 19th century reproduction.It is an imposing sight, spread over eight floors and flanked by an enormous mossy moat.

I huff my way up the stairs past gaggles of excitable schoolchildren to gawp at the military costumes and inventive animated dioramas before I take in the rooftop view across the vast cityscape, bringing home the awe-inspiring scale of the city.

To escape the city hubbub we take a scenic drive south through mountains to the charming beach resort of Shirahama.

We arrive just in time to see why Sunset Bay is so aptly named. Shirahama’s another popular onsen spot so it’s not uncommon to see bathers in their yukatas, a type of lightweight kimono.

We don ours for dinner but up the ante by wearing them while we stroll around the 24-hour supermarket in a sake-sozzled haze, filling our baskets with mysterious foodstuffs to take home and enjoying the locals’ bemused smiles as we do.


JTB (0208 237 1605/ offers eight nights in Japan from £2,140. Price includes return flights with Finnair from London Gatwick via Helsinki, two nights in Osaka, three at in Kumano and three at Shirahama beach and tours.

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