The Diamond Route: How to Do Japan Beyond Tokyo

The Diamond Route: How to Do Japan Beyond Tokyo

Rosalind Jana ventures beyond the neon lights of Tokyo and sidesteps established tourist destinations like Kyoto and Osaka, favouring a food-filled trip through the northerly prefectures of Ibaraki, Fukushima and Tochigi.

the pink hill first comes into sight, my bike rounding a
corner to reveal a huge mound of cerise bushes ahead, it’s a
surreal sight. Like something from a fantasy film set, complete
with several tourists amiably wandering around with dogs dressed up
in hats and bow ties.

As I begin to scale the path cut through the rosy bushes, I
begin humming “think pink!” under my breath, reminded of the
delicious song from Audrey Hepburn’s film Funny Face, celebrating
all things bubblegum pink and magenta.

I’m in the Hitachi Seaside Park; a huge, sprawling stretch of
space that feels a little like a much prettier, very Japanese
Center Parcs. A place where bright banks of flowers – including
these Kochia bushes, which are replanted every year and slowly
blush into vibrant colour over autumn – are interspersed between
Ferris wheels, pebble gardens, gaudy fairground rides and cafés
where one can stop off for a coffee after a spot of cycling.

Two days into being in Japan
and the ability to swoop around corners at speed, legs pumping, is
proving welcome.

I’m here to experience a new-ish tourist trail known as The Diamond Route. Taking in three prefectures north
of Tokyo
– Ibaraki, Fukushima and Tochigi – the route offers up a delectable
array of sights, experiences and culinary possibilities outside of
the more established tourist destinations like Kyoto

It’s an old passage to tread, dating back to the Edo period,
when merchants and nobles would use the Osho Kaidu route to allow
safe movement between cities. These historic precedents are still
visible today, from old Samurai schools to religious shrines and
traditional ryokan accommodation.

The day began early. Pre-gleeful cycling, I was up at 5am thanks
to jetlag, catching another dazzling array of pinks from my balcony
at Oarai Hotel as the sun rose over the sea, painting the sky

Visitors are encouraged to venture out to see the Isosaki Shrine
torii gate if they’re up at dawn, but I made the rather more lazy
decision to take a bath. It’s number one of two that day, given
that our Diamond Route trail is peppered with lots of good options
for hot water.

After the Hitachi Seaside’s technicolour sights it’s on to
Sake+Soba Nakaya to sample some of the region’s local specialities,
including locally brewed Hitachino Nest Beer, followed by a stay at
Nakamuraya Ryokan, a place known for its extensive spa options
thanks to its location in Iiazaka Onsen. The ryokan has been
operating for 120 years and in the hands of the same family for the
last 80.

The town, which is one of the oldest spring sources in Japan,
boasts nine public baths, one of which we visit that evening. It’s
a soothing experience – the slight smell of sulphur, the wonderful
lack of self-consciousness found among bathers all ages, from
giggling young friends to elderly women hosing themselves down
after a good long soak.

Between the elaborate home-cooked dinner in our Ryokan, complete
with plum wine (another local speciality) and all the bathing, by
the time my head hits the pillow – on the floor, beds here being
traditional futons on Tatami mats – I’m immediately ready to drift

The next day we head slightly off-piste in the direction of
Matsushima Bay in Miyagi, where we visit the small waterside
Godaido Temple and vast, tree-flanked Entsuin Temple.

This area was badly hit in 2011’s tsunami, something we’re
acutely reminded of when visiting the Ishinomaki Lab in the
afternoon, a local business set up in the wake of tsunami to
provide DIY skills and easily assembled furniture to those who’d
lost everything, as well as designs and materials for public
spaces. Now they specialise in beautiful, functional designs that
are sold worldwide.

On the way there we stop off at Enman-Tei for lunch. A
much-loved ramen shop, the original premises were also destroyed in
the tsunami. Now, though, it’s thriving once again.

I order the special – seafood ramen. A vast, steaming bowl
brimming with shrimp, scallops, clams and an intact, gigantic crab.
The crab stares up at me from the bowl, legs elegantly arranged
over the side like it might scuttle out, and I stare down at

I am mesmerised. I am excited. I am hungry. I am very quickly
becoming aware that I have absolutely no idea how to go about
eating this. Luckily I am saved from my own shellfish ineptitude by
the co-owner, who emerges to patiently dismantle this imposing
creature bit by bit. It’s delicious.

The next day is given over to high-altitude exploration. First
stop: Bandaisan Goshikinuma Lakes. In 1888 the eruption of the
nearby Mount Bandai forever altered the mineral make up of these
lakes, rendering them a dense turquoise.

Snow-dusted peaks hover beyond the impossibly vivid waters. And
peaks are exactly where we’re headed afterwards, hopping onto the
Grandeco Ropeway to weave our way up into the mountains.

It’s enthralling – that first moment of careering out and up the
side of a mountain in a small, glass bubble, trees endlessly
falling away beneath our feet. In winter this is a ski resort, the
whole scene transformed into a snowy wonderland. But for now the
leaves are just starting to turn auburn.

At the top, the views are unsurprisingly spectacular – plenty of
further craggy peaks sprawling out into the distance, each a
slightly different gradation of dark, almost inky blue. Up here it
is cold, crisp, and quiet; just the sounds of voices, rustling
leaves and the smooth whir of cable cars coming and going in an
endless loop.

After the peaks, more water. At the Urubandai Lake Resort Hotel
we visit perhaps my favourite onsen of the week; a secluded outdoor
space where steam rises gently from the water, the view ahead one
of pewter lake and gold-dappled trees.

It’s not quite as spectacular sight as Lake Inawashiro though,
which claims the title of fourth-largest lake in Japan (every sight
and destination here comes with a clear set of rankings, whether
it’s the height of a statue or the age of a building).

Docked to one side there sits a magnificent swan boat complete
with crown, serene, implacable and faintly dreamlike as the sun
begins to set behind it.

By evening I’m up to my shoulders in warm water again, on the
balcony of Shousuke no Yado, Takinoyu, where my private outdoor
bath is situated on a balcony overlooking a roaring waterfall.
Appropriately, I’m reading Flights by Olga Tokarczuk – a steady
companion for a week on the move.

Over the next two days this place becomes our base for a series
of explorations, from the Samurai School Nisshinkan – a former
training academy for young samurai soldiers, detailing the historic
(not to mention rigorous) education system for young students,
while also allowing us amateurs a chance at trying out some archery
– to the Iiamoriyama Memorials, set up to remember a group of young
samurai who allegedly died by ritual suicide on a hillside,
thinking that a battle they were participants in had been lost.

We also visit Ouchijuku, a former post town that once functioned
as a stop off-point for travellers passing back and forth between
the north and Tokyo
(or Edo, as it was then known).

Now, the long, straight street of thatched-roof buildings have
been transformed into a number of shops where you can buy anything
from food to flutes to ceramics to yukata to kitsch knitted
vegetables. Clear plastic bags of fruit look almost jewelled in the
light, while the brook on either side of the walkway is punctuated
with bright crates of bottles, the contents kept cool in the flow
of water.

Our final day takes us towards Nikko, Tochigi, in the direction
of the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. A picturesque gorge full of tumbling
rocks and even more tumbling water, the main sight here are the 70
or so Jizo statues (a deity known as the protector of travellers,
as well as women, children, and the deceased), each clad in a red
cap and bib. Of varying sizes, these mossy lines of figures stare
out solemnly over the path, ever-watchful.

Afterwards, we wander around the Nikko Toshogo shrine. An ornate
set of buildings forming the final resting place of Tokugawa
Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate (who ruled Japan for
approximately 250 years until the mid-19th century. Everywhere
there’s a preponderance of gold leaf, as well as elaborate carvings
of birds and other, more fantastical, creatures.

Like many shrines in Japan, here Buddhist and Shinto iconography
intermingle, with elements of the two faiths sitting side by

It’s a rather grand ending to the week – one that’s much more
touristy than many of the destinations we’ve experienced, all
queues and cameras. It makes me realise how much I’ve appreciated
the quieter spaces we’ve seen.

As we round our way back towards Tokyo for a final sleep, my
head is full of blue skies and green woods and gold walls and
thick, pink banks of flowers and low white buildings with mountains

It’s been a swooping tour of history and faith and food – never
before in my life have I so greedily filled myself with sashimi –
and one that’s left me hungry for more.

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