Japan: The backdrop of the Olympics looks impressive on TV – but it’s gold to see it in real life

All those gleaming new pools, sparkling stadiums, and miles of beautiful scenery—with Mount Fuji popping up every now and then—have served as a reminder of what a fascinating country Japan is.

And for me, these Olympics have brought back vivid memories of a trip I took to Shikoku Island shortly before the pandemic hit.

It is the second smallest and least visited of the Japanese islands and has retained many of the country’s traditional features due to its historical isolation. What I hoped to gain from my road trip was glimpses of tea ceremonies, misty mountains and thatched houses. I was not disappointed.

Rise and shine: the beautiful Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu was laid out in the 17th century by a feudal lord

Rise and shine: the beautiful Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu was laid out in the 17th century by a feudal lord

The first stop was Takamatsu, in the north of the island – a bustling concrete metropolis. Here the street signs are the only indication of where I am. But as I left the honking traffic for the Ritsurin Garden, I stepped into a watercolor. The ‘walking gardens’ – as they are called – were laid out by a feudal lord in the 17th century, and the old black pines, humpback bridges and bonsai-strewn lawns are much as he left them.

The highlight was perhaps inevitably the tea ceremony, which was launched here in the 1640s. In the old tea house I knelt to watch our “hostess” beat the matcha (powdered tea) into a pea-green foam, and then, like honored guests through the ages, I wandered out with my brew to the mesmerizing bunches carp staring into the lake.

In Takamatsu, I stayed in a modern hotel, but the next night I spent in a ryokan, a traditional inn with tatami mats and communal baths. Upon arrival, I was shown to an empty room, later given a futon, and given a yukata – a lightweight kimono-like robe. It proved remarkably forgiving of the multi-course feast served before I was led to the women’s pool, where the old hands fought and flossed naked in front of a wall of mirrors.

The matcha tea ceremony has been an integral part of traditional Japanese culture for centuries

The matcha tea ceremony has been an integral part of traditional Japanese culture for centuries

The matcha tea ceremony has been an integral part of traditional Japanese culture for centuries

Shikoku is the second smallest and least visited of the Japanese islands

Shikoku is the second smallest and least visited of the Japanese islands

Shikoku is the second smallest and least visited of the Japanese islands

I skipped this step, but luckily slipped into the large, warm pool for a long dip, which turned out to be significantly more soothing than my usual quick shower.

The next day I continued to explore the Iya Valley, one of the “three hidden regions” of the country. Inaccessible and remote with steep mountains still covered in forest, the area became a citadel for political refugees from the 12th century onwards and remained virtually an independent country until the first public road was built in the 1920s.

Here I gathered my inner Tom Daley and wobbled nervously over one of the few remaining vine bridges that towered over a steep river gorge.

Afterwards, I felt grateful to return to the safety of my car, from where I enjoyed the misty landscapes on the journey to Ochiai. This turned out to be a hamlet of thatched houses restored by American Japanologist Alex Kerr.

The soft-spoken academic first arrived in Iya in the 1970s, when the old world was still intact. “Cooking was done over a fireplace sunk into the floor, and the people who worked the fields wore the woven-straw raincoats you see in samurai movies,” he said.

Kerr has made it his long-term mission to renovate old homes and rent them out to visitors. ‘The Japanese like to go to old cities themselves; they just don’t want to suffer.’

Ochiai is a hamlet of thatched houses restored by American Japanologist Alex Kerr

Ochiai is a hamlet of thatched houses restored by American Japanologist Alex Kerr

Ochiai is a hamlet of thatched houses restored by American Japanologist Alex Kerr

Certainly, my stay was suffering-free. I loved the elegant bare rooms separated by fusuma paper sliding doors and lounging in the former hearth, now repurposed as a sofa, heated by double glazing and underfloor heating.

While rural communities remain under threat as the younger generation migrates to the cities, they still work, and a journey along mountain roads that don’t have to look down brought me to a form of Japanese Airbnb at a small one-man business.

The farmer – an energetic 70-year-old widow – spoke no English, but welcomed me with a big smile and the international gesture of ‘Come in, come in’. After a lavish, home-cooked meal – accompanied by rugby on the television – she pointed to a stack of futons to signal that I would find my own place somewhere in one of the multi-purpose rooms.

Lisa Freedman of the Daily Mail recalls nervously wiggling over one of the few remaining vine bridges in Iya Valley

Lisa Freedman of the Daily Mail recalls nervously wiggling over one of the few remaining vine bridges in Iya Valley

Lisa Freedman of the Daily Mail recalls nervously wiggling over one of the few remaining vine bridges in Iya Valley

My last stop was in Wakimachi, a city that grew wealthy in the 18th century and produced the famous ‘Japanese blue’ indigo dye used in the Olympic flag.

Today, the grand merchant houses have been painstakingly restored and wandering through the airy splendor of the Yoshida Family Home, with its carved wood paneling and peaceful courtyard garden, I had no problem imagining the kimono-clad ghosts.

Later, as I whizzed down the main street on a Brompton bike, past rooftops decorated with family crests and protective demons, I felt like I’d seen the best of Japan, old and new.

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