Discovering the Japan that lies beyond Tokyo

Senior editor David Cogswell traveled to Japan on a study tour sponsored by the Japan National Tourist Organization. His report follows:

NEW YORK -- American tour programs to Japan are limited primarily to the major cities: Tokyo, Kyoto,Osaka and Nara.

Most of the available tour programs combine Japan with other Asian countries, leaving only a few days to explore Japan -- precious little time to explore an area the size of California that is rich in history, culture and natural beauty.

To help expand packaged travel beyond present limits, the Japan National Tourist Organization here organized a study tour for operators and agents who book groups.

The tour explored the Seto Inland Sea area, including three Japanese districts (prefectures), two in the western part of Japan's main island of Honshu and a third on Shikoku, a smaller island to the south.

The area is virtually untouched by American packages.

It offers travelers a more concentrated and, in some ways, more authentic experience of Japanese culture than they find in the major cities alone.

The experience shatters typical American preconceptions of Japan as a small, crowded island.

The 100-year-old Dogo Hot Spring Spa is the oldest spa in Japan. The spring has been used for 3,000 years. Once you leave the cities behind, the most striking impressions are of Japan's lush natural landscapes, its forests and mountains and its picturesque seasides.

The villages, gardens and architecture blend organically into the countryside, reflecting the affinity with nature that is fundamental to Japanese culture.

That quality makes it hard to separate the beauty of the landscape from the charm and hospitality of the people.

From New York, it was a 13-hour nonstop flight to Tokyo on Japan Airlines, followed by another short flight to Osaka, where we were met by a representative of JNTO who became our tour guide for the rest of the trip.

Seen from the air, Osaka is a glittering coastal metropolis, with clusters of skyscrapers and streets teeming with night life. But it was only a connecting point. We rode a minibus to Kyoto and stayed Saturday night at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto in the city center.

Sunday morning we took a sightseeing tour of Kyoto, enough to provide a snapshot view of the city known for its rich culture.

From Kyoto we flew to Yamaguchi prefecture and transferred by chartered bus to Hagi City, a town on the Japan Sea. We stayed at the Kitamonyashiki Ryokan

The Peace Memorial Dome was one of the few buildings left partly standing after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. The tour exposed us to a large inventory of experiences from which the operators could later choose to build new itineraries.

In each city, we inspected hotels and ryokan and visited temples, shrines, museums, castles and neighborhoods. Some highlights follow:

In Hagi, the focus was the Yoshiga Taibi Museum. The group walked among historic Samurai homes and through the Akiyoshi Cave, the third-largest stalactite cave in the world according to our guide. The next stops were a spa in Yamaguchi City called Yuda Onsen and two temples: Rurikoki and Joeiji.

Tuesday, the group took a bus to Iwakuni City to visit the Kintai Bridge, an ancient construction of five wooden arches, and traveled by ski lift to Iwakuni Castle on a mountainside overlooking the city.

After lunch the group visited Hiroshima, the first target of a nuclear bomb, and walked through an artistically detailed Japanese garden before visiting the Peace Memorial Park & Museum, which memorializes the bombing of Aug. 6, 1945. It was an experience not easily forgotten.

The museum's exhibits included detailed before-and-after models of the city, photographs, artifacts and film footage that dramatically brought to life the world of the 1940s, the nuclear destruction and the inhabitants' struggle for survival.

A stone structure from the front of a bank building showed the shadow where a man was instantly vaporized as he sat on the stoop.

Clay tiles and metal furnishings showed signs of melting from the 300,000-degree temperatures.

Large mounted photographs showed the tower of smoke that boiled up into the stratosphere, then spread sideways.

After absorbing the stunning museum exhibits, we walked through the park and into the streets of the modern city, passing the Peace Memorial Dome, which had been an exposition center 178 yards from the hypocenter of the bomb.

Because it received the pressure in a downward direction, it was one of the few buildings that remained partly standing after the blast.

Situated on a delta with seven rivers, today's Hiroshima is fully rebuilt and marvelously green and vibrant, with sculptured gardens, sparkling skyscrapers and a hopping night life. As we walked through the city at dusk, a full moon shown over the skyline, creating an unforgettable image.

Other highlights of the trip included the blazing red-orange Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island; the Dogo Hot Spring Spa, the oldest hot spring spa in Japan; the 17th century Matsuyama Castle, and the Hirayama Art Museum, which houses the works of master painter Ikuo Hirayama.

The tour concluded with an exploration of the Seto Inland Sea Area before returning by air to Tokyo.

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