Travellers who want to immerse themselves in the serene timelessness of classical Japan, but are in too much of a hurry, should spend a day in Suigo. Timothy Morrell discovered tranquil cedar forests, ancient shrines and a pocket of surviving Edo period townscape 40 minutes from Narita Airport.
The neighbourhood isn’t promising. Suigo is an expanse of pleasant suburban flatland near the sea, with intermittent rice paddies beside the highway and heavy industry looming on the horizon. A trio of townships in this nondescript landscape, however, contains some exquisite surprises.
Sawara, Itako and Kashima are referred to locally as waterfront cities, which is misleading because the only water you’re likely to see is in rivers and canals. They’re also not very urban – I didn’t see any high-rise buildings, I couldn’t find an ATM and my credit cards didn’t work there. That, of course, is part of the charm. What you can find is streets with shops that were built 200 years ago and haven’t changed much since.
The principal attraction, however, is a lot older and more spectacular than that. The Kashima Jingu grand shrine is in a majestic cedar forest. It dates from 660 BC and is one of the most important Shinto sites, figuring prominently in the history, culture and religion of Japan. The shrine’s various structures have been rebuilt over the centuries, and the great 17th-century main gate, one of the most beautiful in Japan, impresses on visitors how deeply this place has been venerated by many generations.
The shrine’s activities are centred around the Honden, or main sanctuary just by the grand gate. Here I was able to observe Shinto priests in billowing silk robes and tall black headpieces, cute kids in traditional costume keen to be photographed and an elaborately garbed bridal couple being put through their paces for the camera by a hyperactive young wedding planner dressed like one of Charlie’s Angels. All this is great for colourful souvenir snapshots, but to get some appreciation of why this is sacred ground you need to penetrate deeper into the forest to the inner shrine, the Okumiya. It’s smaller and older and set in a quiet forest glade that could draw an ADHD sufferer into a profound state of calm.
Before getting too sentimental about the mood of peace and harmony, visitors should note that the Kashima shrine is dedicated to the patron deity of warriors and military men. This still, silent place is regarded as a site of power. It embodies a complex philosophy rather than simple feel-good ambience.
Aside from spiritual replenishment, visitors can also enjoy exceptionally good refreshments at the shrine, in a restaurant beside a stone walled pond at the edge of a large clearing. Superbly light and crisp vegetable tempura is served, together with fresh soba noodles whipped up with flour, water and astonishing skill in a glass-walled booth beside the door. A picnic version of the tea ceremony is offered under the trees.
For many visitors the much humbler surroundings in the township of Sawara will make a more lasting impression than the natural and architectural grandeur of the Kashima Jingu shrine. The town gives an authentic sense of stepping into the past rather than visiting a tourist attraction. Normal life goes on around you in the old quarter. Venerable family businesses sell wooden, bamboo and ceramic goods that to foreigners are intensely picturesque artefacts and for locals are banal everyday domestic implements. Traditional sake shops, stacked with barrels wrapped in straw binding and splendid calligraphic labels, are a treat to visit whether you drink sake or not. Some of the merchandise is bizarrely exotic, particularly the gift packs of little dried fish that stare dolefully out through the clear plastic topped presentation boxes in which they’re arranged like chocolates.
Free guided walking tours of Sawara are provided by thoroughly endearing women volunteers who should be listed as a national treasure. They’re witty and knowledgeable and provide a valuable opportunity to interact with the locals.
Every region of Japan has some sort of annual festival, and before you make travel plans it’s worth doing a check of what’s happening when and where. The big events in the Suigo area are the Itako iris festival in June, when the town’s riverside marshes transform into a lake of white and mauve flowers, and the much livelier festival of floats in July and October. All three towns in the Suigo area participate in this biannual event, when immensely heavy and tall carved juggernauts with a traditionally dressed orchestra onboard are dragged through the streets by teams of chanting, sake-fuelled youths.
Travelling from Tokyo, you pass Narita airport not long before you reach the Suigo district. Day trips to the three towns from Tokyo are offered, but if you’re taking an evening flight out of Narita it makes sense to combine your trip to the airport with an excursion into ancient Japan. As a way of relaxing before a long flight, it’s worth at least a day in a spa.
The Suigo-Santo region is easily accessible by train from central Tokyo, with the journey taking from 90 minutes to just over two hours, or from Narita in around 30 minutes. One way fares start from JPY1,620 (about A$20) for an unreserved seat with an upgrade to a green (first class) seat costing from JPY550 (about A$7). Tickets can be purchased at train stations or travel agents in Tokyo.
Japan Airlines flies direct to Tokyo from Sydney daily. Return economy fares start from A$1,300 and business class fares from A$5,608. Flight time is just under 10 hours. jal.com
Where to stay
There are no five-star hotels in Suigo-Santo, so it’s best to stay in central Tokyo and make a day trip. The Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo is within walking distance of Tokyo Station as well as the city’s shopping and entertainment districts. Rooms start from JPY45,000 (about A$544) per night plus taxes. mandarinoriental.com/tokyo