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I first visited the small town of Misasa, a town located in rural Tottori, the least densely populated of Japan’s 47 prefectures, in the height of summer in 2019. I was there to get the lowdown on the area in advance of leading a tour there later in the year – and I immediately fell in love with the place as soon as I arrived.
Looking at a map, you could be forgiven for thinking that Misasa is only a stone’s throw from more well-trodden destinations in Japan (such as Hiroshima, which lies on the opposite side of Japan’s main island, Honshu). Looks can be deceiving however, because Japan’s mountainous interior prevents the type of speedy access that could be covered by a bullet train in just an hour!
Although its location is a little remote, those who are willing to make the effort to reach Misasa will be rewarded by entering a time-warp into an old-school onsen hot spring town uncluttered by hordes of tourists. And to help explain just how special Misasa is, I’ve come up with a list of the 6 unforgettable experiences you can have while you’re there.
Misasa also features in the Japan Heritage project alongside other tangible and intangible cultural heritage across other areas of lesser known Japan. Here are some of Misasa’s highlights.
Eat, bathe and relax at a historic ryokan
I stayed at the delightful Kiya Ryokan, which looks deceptively small from outside, but inside reveals a labyrinth of old wooden corridors linking different wings of the inn that have evolved since its founding (during the first year of Japan’s Meiji era in 1868). You’re guaranteed a warm welcome at any family-run inn no matter where you are in Japan, and Kiya Ryokan was no exception. The home-cooked dinners and breakfasts featured a delicious array of local cuisine, although I have to admit that the standout dish for me was a delicious beef stew served inside a hollowed-out bread bowl in the style of an American clam chowder!
Of course, I also made use of the healing hot spring baths at the inn, which had a number of baths to choose from, including two that can be reserved for private use. Also, just a few steps from the front door of the inn is a small public square where you’ll find a foot bath called Yakushi-no-Yu. Here you can roll up your trousers and enjoy bathing your legs and feet for free. Yakushi is the Buddha of healing, and there’s a small altar dedicated to him, looking over the onsen with his restorative gaze, next to the bath.
Watch the summer fireworks
I was lucky that my stay coincided with the height of summer. For twenty days that roughly coincide with the final ten days of July and the first ten days of August, the town puts on a nightly firework show by the river. The fireworks only last for about five minutes – and can’t exactly compete with New Year’s Eve in Hong Kong or Sydney Harbour – but it was delightful to go for a little stroll along the river after dinner. Visitors staying at other inns were all wearing their cotton yukata gowns and gathered with me on the main bridge to watch the display. Our collective ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ as the fireworks lit up the sky were accompanied by the chirping of cicadas, which added their own background music.
Visit a retro arcade
On the way home after the display, I popped into the Izumi Gorakujo hall. Visitors to Japan’s larger cities will likely stumble upon at least one pachinko parlour as they work their way around the country. In general, these are huge, unappealing buildings that reveal blinding, flashing neon lights, a cacophony of sound, and a plume of stale cigarette smoke as the doors open. Izumi Gorakujo is a place where you can try your hand at ‘Smart Ball’, the refined grandfather to the juvenile delinquent grandson of pachinko. A few hundred yen nets you a couple of dozen gobstopper-sized balls to feed into the pinball-style machines. If your balls fall into the right holes, the machine spews out more balls – and if you hit the jackpot, you can trade your balls in for a small prize. Many onsen towns in the early twentieth century had amusement arcades such as this, but they’re very much a dying breed, so a visit to Izumi Gorakujo is a great chance to experience a retro walk down Japan’s memory lane.
Climb Mt Mitoku…
As a diehard Buddhism geek, I had been particularly looking forward to the adventure I had planned for the following day: an ascent of Mitoku-san, or Mt. Mitoku. The mountain is located about five kilometres from Misasa town, and the base of Mt. Mitoku is the location of Sanbutsu-ji temple, which has been a centre for the practice of shugendo for centuries. Shugendo is a form of mountain asceticism that is truly multi-cultural in origin, combining Buddhism from India, Taoism from China, and indigenous Shinto beliefs from Japan into a combinatory system practiced by yamabushi, or mountain ascetics. Sanbutsu-ji was founded by En no Gyoja, the 7th century grandfather of shugendo in Japan, who is believed to have developed a multitude of magical powers as a result of his rigorous austerities practised in the mountains.
…and see ‘Japan’s most dangerous national treasure’
Although the main Sanbutsu-ji temple hall is located near the base of the mountain, the real highlight is the Nageiredo hall, located at a height of 900m on the mountain above the main temple. The hall is a designated National Treasure – often touted as ‘Japan’s most dangerous national treasure’ owing to the gruelling hike required to reach it. Due to the challenging nature of the hike (and believe me, it’s not for the faint hearted!), it’s not permitted to attempt it alone; hikers are required to sign in at the base of the mountain, and also have their footwear inspected to make sure it’s sturdy enough.
Travelling solo, I’d been worried about how I was going to hike given these restrictions, but my prayers were answered by Toshihiro-san, who works at the Kiya Ryokan. He’s a licensed local guide who offers escorted hikes for a very reasonable price, including the drive to and from Mt Mitoku. Of course, the added bonus was not just the fulfilment of the requirement of having somebody to hike with, but also being able to learn from him all of the temple’s fascinating history as we made our ascent. He even taught me a traditional pilgrim’s song to sing as we hiked; a prayer for protection as we scrambled over rocks and pulled ourselves up on chains hammered into the cliff-face.
After passing a number of temple halls with spectacular views perched midway up the mountain, we arrived at the Nageiredo hall one hour after setting off. Nageiredo means ‘thrown in hall’, and it’s easy to understand the origin of the name when you see it. The hall looks to be impossibly perched on stilts tucked into an opening in the sheer cliff face. Even today it’s still not known how the hall was constructed in such an inaccessible location – and so of course the legend has evolved that it was ‘thrown in’ by En no Gyoja himself. Only yamabushi ascetics are permitted to enter the hall – but given that the only access for the final hundred metres to the hall is via a very perilous sheer rock face, I found myself feeling quite relieved at this news!
Interested in reading more about Misasa Onsen, or other incredible Japan Heritage sites? Speak to our team for more information, or head to the Japan Heritage project webpage.