Given its location in the watery playground of Russia, China and the Korean Peninsula, Japan has had a long and varied history in which it has fought off a number of invaders and has, itself, been the unwelcomed guest. Since WWII, however, the country has thought of most of this as ancient history and has kept its eyes firmly on a future built on international relationships, manmade airport islands, high-end technology, non-stop vehicle production lines and a rather bossy, globally important economy. While products are the true mainstay behind the strength of that economy, tourism also plays a major role. Tourism saw a record number of foreign visitors hitting the country's shores in 2010 - nearly 9.4 million - according to the Japanese National Tourism Organization. Given everything the country has to offer, this is not surprising. In addition to boasting the Greater Tokyo Area, which, with 30 million people calling it home, is the world's largest metropolitan area, Japan is home to the perfectly shaped Mt. Fuji, the ruins and shrines of Nara, the ancient city of Kyoto, Okinawa, the only two places ever hit with nuclear weapons, numerous well swooshed ski resorts, some of the fastest trains in the world and hot springs that may or may not contain families of macaques! These are only some of the highlights; Japan is an ancient country with a strong, almost singular culture that varies within itself from one end of the nation to the other. One thing every traveller needs to keep in mind here is that journeying through the Land of the Rising Sun is not all that cheap, particularly if you plan to spend any length of time in the capital. There are ways to ensure you don't blow the a month budget in a week, but the more you know going in the better off you'll be so be sure to do your research ahead of time and budget accordingly. Finally, many areas devastated by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks are still cleaning up; these areas are not ready for travellers just yet, and residual radiation from meltdowns at the Fukushima power plant remains a risk. ~ WBB Staff Writer
Small and traditional, Mino City rests like a gateway to the Japanese Alps. From your first drive across the Nagara River, you are tied to its twists and turns as you journey further up into northern Gifu prefecture. The journey is worth making for the river alone: the bridges offer up elevated views of the impossibly clear water speckled with statuesque fishermen in their traditional straw hats. In Mino on a sunny day the wide, pebbly banks of the river are invisible beneath the camping chairs, barbecues and inflatables resting on its banks. The city bakes in the heat of summer and the cool, transparent river really is the only real refuge. Sometimes even a look at the water brings relief on a sticky summer day in central Japan.
The evening started off rainy but still with enough light to guide our drive through the tiny city of Seki in Japan's Gifu Prefecture, the fluorescent lights of restaurants and games arcades bouncing out at us through the drizzle. We stopped and started in the early evening traffic for a while before turning off into one of the surprisingly narrow Japanese roads that heralded rice fields and quiet countryside.
A long red bridge appeared up ahead, and we could see the water of the Nagara River, the surface being pelted by rain. Before reaching the bridge we turned off into a small labyrinth of one lane roads doubling back on ourselves until we were outside a large, traditional Japanese house. We announced ourselves through an intercom and entered the high ceilinged building.
The wooden house was a sight in itself, sturdy and chunkily built for use, it now holds a beauty that comes from just being very old. It gives you a moment's glimpse into the past and a sense of privilege. We walked on through into a courtyard surrounded by greenery, and got a brief glimpse of what was in store for us, in a large open pool off to the left.