A journey through nostalgic Tokushima, Japan PART 1

Yoshino River

[Read the original copy by clicking here]

The Shinkansen bullet train ride from Kyoto City, through Okayama train station and onto the island of Shikoku is scenic and calming, showing a vast change from bustling city life to the existence of real country living. It is one of Japan’s four main islands, but is seldom visited by outsiders as the region is traditionally a destination for pilgrims visiting its 88 Sacred Temples.

I am visiting the Tokushima Prefecture on Shikoku, and my first stop is Oboke Koboke, nestled in the far west mountains of the region. Translation of the area means, respectively, “big steps dangerous” and “small steps dangerous”, an appropriate description of the hazards of navigating through the vertical gorges on foot.

Why Tokushima is one of Japan’s least visited regions remains a mystery. The surrounding unique greenery, the celebrated bathhouses, and the centuries-old temples provide a destination of uncanny beauty that individuals can only experience in the region.

The hot spring experience

The local Hotel Sun River Oboke indulges travelers with traditional-style Japanese rooms that provide panoramic views of the deep valleys. Before nightcap, hotel guests can try their hand at the Japanese custom of communal bathing, followed by relaxation in an outdoor hot spring, or onsen. With the onsen outdoors on a balcony, travelers can rejuvenate after a long day of adventure as the night stars burn brightly and the hot spring’s alkaline mineral water invigorates the skin. This region is widely known for its natural onsens, and by far, they are some of the most beautiful I have ever stepped into.

Travels along the Yoshino River

As morning sees a fog sit lightly at the tops of the mountains, Oboke Koboke shows itself as located upstream from the Yoshino River, and the deep valley surrounding the ravine provides impressive scenery that is both beautiful and grand. A charming tatami boat ride along the Yoshino provides million dollar glimpses of emerald green waters and white rock faces thriving at the bottom of the cliffs. After walking down numerous steps down to the riverbank and hopping on board the boat, I gaze upward, the trees turning colour with the onset of autumn, and the crisp air leaves my lungs feeling fresh and clean. The vertical cliffs look uninhabitable, like a picture out of the film Tarzan, while secluded one-man beaches pop up every few metres.

Travelers can have lunch along the Yoshino River at the Roadside Station’s Nishiri restaurant to feast on Iya Soba, a soup characterised by thick and short noodles with hints of spring onion and delicious local chicken, and just metres up the road is the Oboke Yokai Village Museum, where there are more than 50 folklore goblins on display. The museum was established due to the numerous stories of Yokai, or goblins, by the elderly in the area, and the most famous Yokai in Tokushima is Yagy-san, a heartless goblin who rides a headless horse and kidnaps naughty children who don’t do as they’re told by their parents.

Other folklore Yokai on display include Hidarugami, a disturbed traveler who died in the mountains and teaches explorers to be wary of the unknown, as well as Yamajichi, a troll that terrorises the mountains. The museum is small yet quaint, and an effort has certainly been made to make it appealing with all the Yokai sculptures and decorations.

With Oboke Koboke known for its rapids, those who are game can find a bigger thrill on the river, which turns from a tranquil waterway for sightseeing into a rough river of astonishing beauty. The torrents are harsh enough for whitewater rafting, and eight-person rubber rafts provide the experience of a lifetime. Veteran guides from Mont-Bell Outdoor Challenge are provided to those keen to confront the waters, and strenuous beginner’s courses are offered before setting off, to learn about safety and the procedures. Without fear, six thrill-seekers can set off for a journey down the rapids with a rescue raft close at hand.

The adventure is breathtaking, and despite getting notoriously soaked, it is certainly an experience not to pass up. The scenery is splendidly memorable, and the feeling of team work is of a high standard when rolling down the rapids for two hours; two hours, though, that go by too quickly.

Food, oh glorious food 

Dinner at Hotel Obokekyo Mannka

Hotel Obokekyo Mannka is not far away, and again, travelers can treat themselves to traditional-style rooms and feast on a banquet of local foods. For those with adventurous tastebuds, guests can try grilled salted river trout roasted on a stick, and Dekomawashi, a dish of potato, tofu and konnyaku on a bamboo skewer dipped in miso paste. Local onabe, or broth, is made at the table, and the dinner hostess treats everyone to nameko mushrooms, pickled radishes, and mizuna vegetables.

The Oboke Koboke region is well suited for growing buckwheat due to mountainous temperatures, and local buckwheat noodles made of good quality soba flour have a strong yet simple taste. These noodles appear on the lunch and dinner menus at most hotels, and accompany the delicacies that fill any hungry belly after a day of exploring.

Storytelling at its finest

After dinner, those who are not too full on food can accompany a local storyteller who lights up paper lanterns and takes everyone up the shadowy hillside road. It is a Yokai night walk, and there are several stops during the one-hour stroll to hear stories of the local folklore goblins that roam the mountains.

Each guest is given a paper lantern with a candle, and in the dark of the night, the luminosity of the flame brings to life the Yokai. Where the group stops for storytelling, there are Yokai statues with striking carvings and charming paintwork to accompany the tale. The lanterns are the only light on the streets, and the river below provides enough atmospheric sound to think the Yokai could indeed be real.

Indeed, the traditional aspect of this area is a spectacle, and Tokushima is a place where modernised Japan seems detached from the rest of the world.

* You can find this article published in the February edition of Australia’s “Japan Australia News” newspaper.

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