Exploring Japan by Train

Fine whisky, hot springs and exciting ball games await travellers in the northeastern Japanese prefecture of Myagi, best explored by the country’s marvellous trains.  
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A train passes a colonnade of sakura trees outside Sendai. Photo By: IamDoctorEgg/Shutterstock

Nostalgia and practicality, tradition and technology, concepts that seem like paradoxes merge together to create one of the most pragmatic transport systems in the world, right from travel time to the quality of your journey. When you take a train in Japan, from eating up regional bento boxes (ekiben) on local lines to reclining with a glass of wine on the Shinkansen (bullet train), you are participating in the Idris Elba of cultural institutions—all other countries want to be you, for very good reasons.

One of the most convenient and best deals available for tourists is the Japan Railways East Pass. This option gives travellers five flexible train travel days over a period of two weeks, valid on local, limited, and limited express trains all across the stunning northeastern region of Japan, known as Tohoku. The area is comprised of six prefectures, where travellers can find powder snow ready to be carved up by skiers in the winter, and breathtaking festivals that merge communal celebration with ancient craftsmanship in the summer. With the pass, travellers can cover territory all over these different areas for almost the same price as a regular one-way ticket from one end of Tohoku to the other.

As worthwhile the pass is to explore the entire Tohoku region, it is equally, if not better suited to exploring a single prefecture with greater depth. Myagi is one such prefecture in Tohoku, just above Tokyo on the east coast, that begs to be travelled by train. Visitors can sample some of Japan’s best whisky, soak in soothing hot springs, tour the azure coastline, and catch a one-of-a-kind baseball game—all with minimal travel time.

 

 Whisky

The Japanese whisky craze has taken over the world, making it close to impossible to get one’s hands on some of the country’s best blends and single malts. So go to Myagi, straight to the source at Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery. Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of said distillery, is often referred to as the ‘father of Japanese whisky.’ He went to Scotland in 1918 and trained for two years, honing his skills before returning home and eventually taking up the position of master distiller for Kotobukiya Limited (Suntory)—a company that now produces some of the most coveted whisky in the world. After serving his tenure with Suntory he started up his own distillery, Nikka. This distiller’s legend is so revered that in 2014 a TV series was created to highlight the importance he played in Japanese whisky culture, titled Massan after his endearing nickname. The show was so popular, local Japanese whisky sales soared even above their already high-flying numbers during the year the show aired.

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Cop a taste of Nikka Whisky while in Myagi. Photo By: Denis Balibouse/Indiapicture

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A man relaxes at an outdoor onsen. Photo By: Burin P/Shutterstock

 

After you tour the gargantuan pot stills and traditional Coffey stills of the Miyagikyo Distillery (the other distillery is in Yoichi, Hokaiddo) it’s time for a tasting and some shopping. The tasting will give you an opportunity to try a generous pour of a single malt, Old Rare Super (a vintage 1960s blend), and, surprisingly, apple wine, as Massan also was an avid orchardist. Afterwards, head to the gift store and keep an eye out for their Coffey Malt, which flies off the shelves. Also, be prepared to face a cap of one bottle per person of their more popular whisky, as stockpiling is discouraged, especially since many Japanese whisky brands are selling like hot cakes.

(Nikka 1, Aoba, Sendai City, Miyagi 989-3433; one bottle of Nikka’s Coffey Malt costs Rs3,500; train route: Tokyo Station-Sendai Station-Kita-Sendai Station-Sakunami Station.)

 

Water

Before Japan’s pure waters were used to make whisky, its mineral rich waters were pumped into hot springs or onsen. There is a lot of literature on the benefits of onsen, but you need only look at the faces of people leaving the bath to witness its salubrious effect. While there are plenty of them spread across the country, it’s worth noting that there are five in the Sakanami area—from small inn-like operations to large ones full of bells and whistles—a 10-minute drive from the Miyagikyo Nikka Distillery. While the inns (ryokan) might have a more idyllic, calm quality to them, the larger onsen operations are often easier for foreigners to navigate as everything one could need during their stay is provided to them by a staff fluent in English.

Yuzukushi Salon Ichinobo is such a place. Walk around the entire hotel in your Japanese style pajamas—it’s not only appropriate, but seems to be the preferred dress of every guest at the hotel—and bathe a recommended three times a day from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. When you’re not bathing, read a book or listen to a record in the lounge, catch some snooze time in the traditional Japanese tatami mat rooms (with modern touches like TVs and Toto toilets), or gorge yourself on everything from the sashimi and steaks made right in front of you at the buffet to the fine selection of wine and spirits, which are all included in the room price. Some things to remember are that one needs to shower in the bathing area before dipping into the volcanic waters. No swimming suits, just wear the one you were born in (if this is too intimate for you, a private bath can be reserved). Only carry a small towel into the bath, which is preferably kept on your head or shoulder. Also, don’t dunk your head in the water or have too much alcohol before bathing. Lastly, if you have tattoos, it is best to find an onsen that explicitly allows them. The vast majority of onsen look down on tattoos and will forbid bathers an opportunity to soak if they are discovered. That being said, most onsen will allow you to cover up a small tattoo with a bandage.

(989-3431 Miyagi, Sendai, Aoba Ward, Sakunami, Nagahara−3; www.ichinobo.com/sakunami, doubles from Rs22,000; train route: Sendai Station-Kita-Sendai Station-Sakunami Station.)

 

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Baseball is a popular pastime in Japan. Photo By: Pichi Chuang/Reuters/Indiapicture

Baseball

If you think going to a pro-baseball game in Japan doesn’t sound like an ‘authentic’ experience, you’d be wrong. With an estimated 500 million fans, baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan, and just might be the best spectator sport in the country. Catching a game at Sendai’s Seimei Park stadium, the home turf of the Rakuten Eagles, is a great way to see how Japan has taken a classic American pastime and made it their own.

Everyone, and we mean everyone, dresses up. Many fans go above and beyond wearing their team colours and jerseys, often donning mascot costumes. Moreover, most fans are outfitted with team-specific balloons, clappers, and basically every kind of tchotchkes the team store puts on their shelves.

Japanese baseball games are especially great sporting events to take children to as jeering is deeply frowned upon; instead fans satisfy themselves with loads of positive chants, as well as personalised ones for each player. Even though these songs are, of course, all in Japanese, they help make the stadium’s vibe warm and welcoming. And if you get bored after a couple of innings, just head to Smile Glico Park, a mini-amusement park inside the stadium. Here children can play on a big trampoline called BoyonBoyon and ride the Ferris wheel that looks over the field while parents can still watch the game. And you’ll definitely want to keep a close eye on the game because there’s a lot more diving onto bases during baseball games played in Japan. The theory behind this seems to be that even though running through the bases is faster, and thus more efficient, diving, especially head first, not only adds excitement to the game, but shows how dedicated and hardworking the players are.

And if you get a little thirsty from all that chanting, all you need to do is hail down one of the stadium’s many uriko (which translates to beer girls). They are often decked out in home team jerseys and carry around small kegs like backpacks, full of fresh pints. There are also loads of concessions stands, the best of them offering gyutan ekiben, which is a bento box of grilled beef tongue, a regional speciality of Sendai. (2 Chome-11-6 Miyagino, Miyagino Ward, Sendai, Miyagi 983-0045; ticket prices vary from Rs2,000 to Rs6,500; train route: Sendai Station-Miyaginohara Station.)

 

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Matsushima is made up of over 200 pine- covered islets. Photo By: SeanPavonePhoto/iStock/Getty images

Islands

Matsushima’s bay is made up of hundreds of small, forested islands. Some of the islets closer inland are joined to the mainland by red wooden bridges, while most lie further out, their pine-green conifers jutting out of the sparkling blue water. This seaside destination sees lots of visitors keen on taking boat tours among the rocky isles, however, equal numbers simply dine in elevated restaurants to take in the scenic views. Shiosai restaurant on the seventh floor of the Taikanso Hotel offers such panoramic views along with French and Japanese fusion.

The coastal town is also made famous by its spectacular Edo-period temples. All the Buddhist sites are in convenient walking distance of each other: Godaidō, a historic temple built on an island, Zuiganji, a Date clan Zen temple considered to be one of the most important in Tohoku, and Entsūin, full of well-manicured gardens and the opportunity to make your own prayer beads with the help of Buddhist nuns.

(Boat ride prices start at Rs1,400; train route: Sendai Station-Matsushima Station.)

 

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  • Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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