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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

Traveling Japan by train and getting off the beaten tracks with John Dougill

Updated: May 1



Eager to know what it's like traveling Japan by train? What lies beyond the well-trodden tourist paths of Japan?


Embark on a captivating journey through the lesser-known landscapes and cultural treasures of Japan's western coastline in Off the Beaten Tracks in Japan: A Journey by Train from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Join author John Dougill, a seasoned resident of Japan with three decades of experience, as he traverses from the northern tip of Hokkaido to the southern reaches of Kyushu, exploring remote regions and uncovering the essence of each stop along the way.


Drawing inspiration from acclaimed travel writers Alan Booth and Donald Richie, Dougill offers a contemporary perspective infused with personal anecdotes and keen observations. From the rugged beauty of Wakkanai to the tranquil shores of Ibusuki, each destination becomes a canvas for the exploration of Japan's rich history, vibrant culture, and unique spirit.


Off the Beaten Tracks in Japan: A Journey by Train from Hokkaido to Kyushu by John Dougill is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.


Read a sample of John Dougill's Off the Beaten Tracks in Japan below.


 

Preface

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. – Laozi

Alan Booth walked it. Will Ferguson hitchhiked it. I did it by train. Travel the length of Japan, that is, or to be more precise, travel between northernmost Japan and the southern tip of Kyushu. Cape Soya to Cape Sata, more or less. This way of “doing Japan” follows the geographical arc of the country, leaving out the islands of Okinawa (which have no railway). It is about three thousand kilometers in all, and with stopovers it took me three months.

The journey was conceived during the Covid crisis, when travel abroad was impossible. The government encouraged domestic travel, which happily provided an opportunity to escape the heat and humidity of the summer in Kyoto, where I live. In the desire for coolness, I looked as far north as I could, which meant Hokkaido’s most northerly tip, Cape Soya.

Getting to the cape would involve taking a bus from the closest train station, which was Wakkanai. Though I had toured Hokkaido by train twice before, I had not visited Japan’s most northerly station, stuck out on its own at the end of a long railway line. I set my sights on mid-August, when temperatures there would be in the low twenties, and thought of traveling back to Kyoto in tandem with the falling temperatures. And then it struck me: why stop at Kyoto? Like Donald Richie in The Inland Sea, I imagined forever following the sun as it retreated southward, so as to bask in the lingering glow of late-summer warmth.

Japan’s most southerly station is Ibusuki, famous for its sand bathing, so I took out a map and considered the railway lines connecting north and south. The obvious choice was the Shinkansen line running from Hakodate in Hokkaido all the way down to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu, but I had already done all the segments and, although the bullet train offered convenience, it held little appeal. By sticking to the Sea of Japan, however, the route opened up exciting possibilities. I would avoid the big cities on the Pacific coast and bypass the touristic Golden Route of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Instead I could explore towns on Japan’s less glamorous side, including several attractive castle towns that had been the seats of feudal lords in Edo times (1603–1868). Still today they remain regional centers of art, crafts, and cultural activities. Conveniently for a train traveler they are spaced an hour or two apart, like stepping stones the length of Japan.

The absence of bullet trains along the Sea of Japan coast suited my intentions, as I was looking for a more leisurely pace. Local trains would do nicely for short stretches, and express trains for the longer distances. My plan was to explore the rich diversity of the country by seeking what was unique to each of the places I would visit. As elsewhere, modernization has had a leveling effect on Japan’s cities, but scratch the surface and there is great regional pride in the distinctive features. To a large extent the spirit of place remains manifest in such aspects as the famous products, literary associations, religious customs, ancient traditions, and above all the local food.

Travel books tend to be by younger people, footloose and fancy-free. Alan Booth was thirty-one when he did his heavily blistered walk, and Will Ferguson was around the same age when he stuck out a thumb to hitchhike north. Donald Richie was still in his thirties when he started the trips that were woven together in The Inland Sea. I was twice their age, but I hoped that would work to my advantage. “Write about Japan after three weeks or thirty years,” is the sage advice given to newcomers. I had missed the boat for the first option; I was determined to catch the train for the second.

There are two types of traveler. One likes to prepare meticulously, the other to travel on a whim, relishing the unexpected. Put me down in the latter group. Sure you sometimes miss out, sure you sometimes run into trouble, but that is more than compensated for by the joy of discovery and the thrill of surprise. Besides, with train travel in Japan you very rarely go wrong. The general impression is of cleanliness, punctuality, and considerate passengers. If hell is other people, it is much less so in Japan. Trains are by and large a delight. Passengers talk in low voices so as not to cause a nuisance, and talking on mobile phones is not allowed. Leaving litter is rare. And should you feel lost on arrival, just ask a random stranger and you will likely experience the kindness of ordinary Japanese.

It is no exaggeration, then, to regard travel by train as one of the great joys of Japan, which is why it felt such a privilege to have the opportunity to journey the length of the country. I invite readers to join me. Along the way there will be some surprises, several unexpected encounters, and not a few adventures. This is no conventional travel guide—other books and Tripadvisor do that well enough. My journey draws rather on over thirty years of cultural immersion to give a personal account of the fascination that Japan holds for foreigners. Every country is different, they say, but Japan is more different than anywhere else, and the book unpacks one individual’s response to the conundrums this often presents. As such it is as much a journey in time as place, ranging over the three decades I have spent in Japan. Along the way you will get to meet my friend Hirota-san and my partner Lili too. And along with the personal journey is the physical journey, through some of the country’s lesser-known gems that lie off the beaten track. Aomori, Akita, Sado Island, Dewa Sanzan, Matsue, Hagi, Iki Island, Hirado, Shimabara, Kagoshima—these may be unfamiliar names to many, but each holds a special appeal. So do please get on board, and let our great train journey begin.


1. Wakkanai

You see that island over there?”

“Yes.”

“That’s Sakhalin. Strange to think that you can actually see Russia.”

“It’s another country.”

“It’s another world.”

“Japanese used to live there.”

“Japanese and Ainu.”

“Yes.”

We’re standing at Cape Soya, next to a monument marking the most northerly point of Japan. In front of us the placid sea disappears into the far distance, and there, clearly visible, a mere forty-three kilometers away, lies Karafuto, otherwise known as Sakhalin. Geographically it is a continuation of the Japanese archipelago, but territorially it is the largest island in Russia. Once a tributary of China, it was populated by Ainu and other ethnic groups until in modern times it became a source of conflict between Japan and Russia. Before World War II Japanese controlled the southern half, but in the closing stages of warfare Russia moved to occupy it. In the Treaty of San Francisco (1951) Japan ceded the territory.


My companion, Hirota-san, is a Buddhist priest in the True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shinshu). He was expected to take over the family temple but had managed to extend his graduate studies to such good effect that at thirty-nine he was that most unusual figure, a Japanese “eternal student.” His interests had veered from Sanskrit to American Literature, and I was never quite sure how many masters courses he had started. When he heard of my plans to head for Wakkanai, he asked to be a Boswell to my Johnson. It was an amusing notion, but I wanted the freedom to roam at will. Besides, I am one of nature’s loners. In the end we agreed he would come for the first leg only. So there we were, staring out at Sakhalin.


The chief attraction at Cape Soya—the whole point of it—is a monument marking Japan’s most northerly point, in front of which visitors pose for photos. Nearby is the statue of a samurai holding a yardstick. Mamiya Rinzo (1775–1844), a famous cartographer, had led an expedition to Sakhalin, which confirmed for the first time that it was an island. Accompanying him were six Ainu, yet there was no mention of them—a bit like celebrating Hillary but omitting Tenzing in the conquest of Everest.


In 1976 an Englishman called Alan Booth stayed here overnight in a minshuku (guesthouse), and as he was leaving the next morning the owner offered him a bus schedule. He replied that he was going to walk. “How far?” queried his host. “The length of Japan,” came the unexpected answer. It took four months, and the result was the celebrated Roads to Sata.


Booth’s walk took place not long after a song about Cape Soya had become a national hit. It was an enka, a style dubbed “Japan’s country music” because of similar themes of loneliness, lost love, and longing. The music tugs at the heartstrings of older Japanese and is popular in hostess bars. Here at the cape, a memorial rock had a button which, when pressed, replayed the song, and as the plaintive tones filled the air, I even felt nostalgic myself.


The drifting ice is melting

Spring wind is blowing

The Rugosa rose in bloom

And seagulls crying

Along the distant shore

Happily the smoke trails

Of ships from overseas—

Ah, that’s Cape Soya!


It is a curious fact of life in Japan that Russia lies so close, yet is so remote in the national consciousness. In my thirty years in the country I have overheard countless conversations about America and Europe, yet I cannot recall a single one about Russia, though it takes roughly the same time to fly from Tokyo to Vladivostok as to Okinawa.


“What’s your image of Russia?” I asked Hirota-san.


“They are like thieves, I think.”


“Thieves? That’s not very fair, is it?”


“But they entered World War II just at the finish and they stole our islands. Japanese don’t think that is right. And they treated prisoners badly. You know, many died in Siberia after the war.”


“So you have a bad feeling towards them. Is that usual, do you think?”


“Yes.”


When Will Ferguson visited Hakodate on his hitchhiking tour across Japan, he was told that Russian sailors steal bicycles and remove car tires. The legacy of the Soviet Union still taints Russia’s image, and when Monty Python’s Michael Palin flew from Siberia to Japan in his travel series Around the World in 80 Days, he described the experience as moving from a country where nothing works to one where everything does. He was spot on. Customers may be kings in Japan, but in Siberia they are simply a nuisance. I remember my first impression of U-ra-ji-o-sto-ku (Vladivostok), when a hotel receptionist kept me waiting a full forty minutes while she chatted to a friend.


There were no such worries at Cape Soya, where stalls were doing a brisk business selling seafood souvenirs like scallops, clams, crabs, and octopus. There was Soya black beef too. The sole restaurant offered sea urchin rice and soft seaweed soba. Tasty. The atmosphere was delightfully local, for the tourist industry had somehow passed it by—no chain stores, no resort hotels, no crass commercialism.


Behind the ramshackle buildings was a grassy knoll with a dozen miscellaneous monuments, the tallest of which commemorates the shooting down of a Korean Air plane in 1983 after it strayed into Sakhalin’s airspace (ironically, it was numbered 007). Sculpted in the shape of a crane (symbol of Hokkaido), the monument was a reminder of just how cold the Cold War got. All 269 people on board perished.


Another monument was dedicated to a different kind of warfare—the sinking of the US submarine Wahoo in World War II. It had destroyed several Japanese ships, and the enlightened inscription, which shows compassion for both sides, is a model surely for how such monuments should be.


Eighty Americans sleep in the Soya Strait twelve miles northeast of here. Many Japanese sleep in the Sea of Japan from Wahoo attacks. This monument was erected by the members of the Japan Attack Group and relatives of Americans lying in the Wahoo. Old enemies met as brothers to ensure that our countries will have lasting peace and we will never again destroy the friendship we enjoy today.


Hirota-san had rented a car for the short journey from Wakkanai to the cape (about thirty kilometers). Giant wind turbines stood on rolling green hills, and a signboard cautioned that our coastal road was only three meters above sea level. Winters are harsh in these northern parts, though the houses looked far from robust and, like most Japanese buildings, seemed designed for summer. Only the chimneys hinted at the winter cold. The snow here is dry and not as heavy as the moist variety found further south, where houses have steep roofs with thick tiles to cope with the weight.


Ahead of us lay a wide bay, the curving coastline of which led the eye to Japan’s most northerly town, but on rounding a bend we were confronted by a most improbable sight—Mt. Fuji. Graceful slopes rose to fashion a familiar shape, and the perfect symmetry took the breath away. It wasn’t the Mt. Fuji of course; it was the Rishiri Fuji, which stands on an island beyond Wakkanai.


Throughout Japan there are regional versions of Japan’s iconic mountain, and there is another in Hokkaido called Mt. Yotei. I knew too that at the end of the tracks in Kyushu would be yet another, the Satsuma Fuji. My journey would thus begin and finish beneath the protective presence of local Fujis. It surely augured well.



Wakkanai is a hybrid town, part industrial port, part summer resort. In among the modest buildings two high-rise hotels soar skywards out of all proportion to their surrounds. What were the city authorities thinking—or rather, what were they taking? They had sold the soul of the town for the lure of tourist money. Yet despite that there is something very appealing about the place. It has an end-of-the-line feel, and like a real-life Truman Show the station entrance is roped off for large portions of the day, as if to signal there is no escape.


While I was sipping a drink in a coffee shop, a family of deer wandered past, nonchalantly munching the front lawn. It is that kind of a place. Virtually all the shops and restaurants shut at five—it is that kind of a place, too. My room overlooked the port, and though there were several docks there were only two ships, one of which was a car ferry. Was the town always this quiet, I wondered, or was it the Covid effect?


For dinner Hirota-san and I tracked down the only open restaurant and ordered bukkake-don, which turned out to be a bountiful bed of rice topped by salmon roe, tuna, salmon, scallop, wakame seaweed, and succulent shrimp. Best of all was the sea urchin (uni), described by Matt Golding in Rice Noodle Fish as “arguably the sexiest food on the planet.” Perhaps that was why I drew Hirota-san’s attention to the waitress, aware that he was looking for a girlfriend. “She seems charming,” I ventured. “I don’t think so,” he replied.


“What’s wrong with her?”


“She poured very little sake into my cup. It wasn’t polite.”


“Really, let me pour you some more. Perhaps it will change your mind!”


“Also she reminded me of my old girlfriend. She is from Wakkanai.”


“Your old girlfriend? Is she still here?”


“Maybe not. But once I came here to visit in winter.”


“What was it like?”


“I had to buy a special tool for my shoes.”


“What kind of tool?”


“A rubber covering the shoe, it has spikes. I needed to cover my face with muffler.”


“It sounds like Siberia. Did you do any snow walking?”


“No, there was a problem.”


“What was that?”


“She was not friendly.”


Hirota-san had not mentioned his previous visit, but perhaps the memory was too painful. He had not had much luck with women; “I’ve never been on a car date,” he told me wistfully. As heir to his father’s temple his chances were limited, because few females these days are willing to take on the onerous duties of being a priest’s wife.


The next day we visited Wakkanai’s main attraction, a small park with a view of Sakhalin, and, yes, more monuments. It took all of fifteen minutes from the station to walk across town, past the main Shinto shrine and up a small hillside, at the top of which were views over the Okhotsk Sea. The monuments exuded a mournful atmosphere, the most prominent commemorating “nine maiden telephone operators” who committed suicide in southern Sakhalin rather than live on under the Soviet invaders of 1945.


Another monument showed the grotesque figure of a woman with head thrown back, looking upwards. Her mouth was open in a Munch-like scream, and her arms were outstretched. The statue honored the 420,000 people summarily expelled from Sakhalin in 1949. Overnight they had lost their homes, and their homeland.


In among the tales of human tragedy the statue of a dog stood out. In 1956, some forty huskies that had been trained in Wakkanai were dispatched to the Antarctic. When it came time to return, atrocious weather conditions meant fifteen of the dogs had to be abandoned. A year later, against all expectations, it was discovered that two had miraculously survived. The story won worldwide attention and formed the basis for a well-received movie, Antarctica (1983), starring Ken Takakura—and, of course, two huskies.


 

Off the Beaten Tracks in Japan: A Journey by Train from Hokkaido to Kyushu by John Dougill is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

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