Accueil > On the route to Kitamae

On the route to Kitamae

voyage japon croisiere kitamae

In the wake of Japanese merchants

Françoise decided to share a few memories of her expedition cruise in Japan along the Kitamae route, or “northern-bound route” – a historic shipping route with an unusual itinerary along the Japanese archipelago, weaving between fishing villages, dunes, and mountains.

A spiritual ascent

Our first port of call was Sakata, in the north of the Island of Honshū. Once disembarked from Le Soléal, we headed south to Mount Haguro, one of the Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa Sanzan and a major Japanese pilgrimage site. I would not have missed the climb to the shrine for the world, despite its  2,500 steps. Quite the physical and spiritual challenge! But how could I not feel like I was flying as I ascended into the heart of this cedar forest with its torrents and waterfalls? I wondrously wandered past a multitude of pagodas with a variety of silhouettes; the fruit of the Shintō-Buddhist syncretism that has largely dominated Japanese spirituality. Among it all, I stumbled upon the incomparable beauty of a five-storey pagoda; one of the oldest structures in Japan and a National Treasure.

Dancing hats

As our stopover in Sakata drew to a close, one last surprise awaited us. As we approached our quayside berth, my gaze was caught by a group of women dressed in brightly coloured kimonos. Having come to greet us, they broke into a traditional dance of the region known as Hanagasa Odori, accompanied by an equally folkloric rhythm – the Hanagasa Ondo, or “song of the straw hat with flowers”. A befitting reference to those worn by each of the dancers, adorned with benibana or safflowers. Incidentally, I prefer the alternative name of “dyer’s saffron”, as used in the past for tinting kimonos and cosmetics. In any case, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful farewell dances I have ever seen.

Beating drums

Further south, we set off to discover the wild landscapes of Sado Island; a small piece of land in the Sea of Japan, off the coast of Niigata. There, I fell under the spell of the quaint, peaceful town of Ogiwith its harbour and traditional wooden houses. What’s more, we werelucky enough to be able to attend a performance by the island’s infamous and internationally renowned Kodō troupe. Accompanied by a variety of traditional instruments, these exceptional artists played the taiko (giant Japanese drums), shaking both the earth and our souls. A truly stunning show and, for me, a very emotional moment!

Sacred snows

We continued our journey south to Toyama to reach the pure peaks of Mount Tateyama… As we left the shores of the Sea of Japan, I had no idea that our path would soon be culminating at an altitude of 2,450 metres, upon the volcanic plateau of Murodō. I gradually surrendered to the grandiose landscapes and the hushed atmosphere surrounding me… When suddenly, there before us, lay a veritable corridor of snow! On either side of the path, immaculate white banks of 10 to 20 metres high reached tall beside us: the famous Yuki-no-Otani snow wall! An incredible spectacle, and a unique experience to be enjoyed between April and June.

Outstanding on stilts

It was then time for a change of scenery, with the picturesque little town of Ine. This fishing village, with its old-world charm, is an architectural marvel: at the foot of the mountains rise some two hundred funaya – traditional “boathouses” built on stilts. The lowest storeys serves as storage for boats and fishing gear, offering direct access to the sea. Some even have a fishing net to store fresh fish for the family. We were lucky enough to visit four of them. An exceptional opportunity – and a privilege – to meet the inhabitants who continue to make their living from the sea.

Desert by the sea

This trip never ceased to enchant and surprise me: after the snow of the Japanese Alps came the banks of the Tottori Sand Dunes – the largest dunes in the country. Imagine a sandy desert, stretching over 15 km from east to west and 2 km from north to south, running along the Sea of Japan. The Tottori Sand Dunes have long been a favourite backdrop for the famous photographer Shōji Ueda. Today, some of this sand is used as a raw material for monumental sculptures, exhibited at the aptly named Tottori Sand Museum. There is something deeply poetic about these ephemeral works.

The subtle art of Hagi-yaki

At the south-western tip of the large Island of Honshū lies the medieval city of the samurai, Hagi; origin and home of Hagi-yaki pottery. Derived from Korean ceramics, this pottery is closely linked with tea ceremonies: most of the objects made here are in fact intended for this art. Much like those on display in the Yoshika family workshop. I discovered a delicate, sober form of pottery, with few or no motifs, humble shapes, and natural colours that darken slightly on contact with hot infused water. Right next to the workshop is a museum, dedicated to the family’s ceramic artist Taibi Yoshika. Hatao, his daughter-in-law, guided our visit and showed us all the work accomplished by this founder of the New Wave of Hagi-yaki pottery.

Awakening of the senses

On the other side of the Sea of Japan, our stopover in Busan, South Korea, took us to the “Land of Morning Calm”. I would not have missed this initiation to the ritual of the Korean tea ceremony for love nor money. This ceremony is much more accessible and less codified than the Japanese version, and is practised by a number of Koreans. It is a rite of purification for the heart, body, and mind, during which we are invited to reconnect our spirit with the present moment. How, you may wonder? By stimulating each of our senses with precise, carefully weighed, and thoughtful gestures. Feel the hot cup in your hands, inhale every fragrance, savour each taste… Only fill your cup about two-thirds full – the rest is for your soul!

Stunning sakura

Here, it was time to stop for a moment, just long enough to share in the wonder created by the mesmerising sakura, the cherry blossom trees that adorned our first ports of call. They generally bloom from March to May, depending on the region. In Japan, they are synonymous with spring and rebirth. For centuries, they have served as a reminder of the ephemeral nature of beauty and life. The sakura are an emblem of mono no aware, “the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera” – a typically Japanese aesthetic and spiritual concept. Celebrated during the traditional Hanami Festivals, they are resplendent with their delicate flowers, which range in colour from white to deep red and every shade of pink in between. There are several hundred species throughout the country.

Transported by music

Once we set sail upon the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea, our journey became even more melodious. While strolling through the streets of Tomonoura, a charming fishing village, I heard a gentle tune coming from an old building: the nimble fingers of a musician plucking the silk strings of a koto, a Japanese zither played on the floor or on a low table. Earlier in the day, during our stopover in Mitarai, we had already had the opportunity to listen to a shamisen, a type of lute with a long, thin neck and a square resonance box. It understandably takes ten years of practice to master it perfectly!

A promise to return

Finally, we reached Osaka, the final stop on our journey along the Kitamae route, in our southern-bound travels down the “northern-bound route”. I felt a gentle melancholy vibrating through me. I knew that this marked the end of a fantastic adventure, but I also had a feeling that it was only the beginning of an unconditional affection for this country and its people. I will be back. Of that I’m certain. In the meantime, my fellow adventurers aboard the ship and I enjoyed a final serving of sake – the fermented rice alcohol traditionally preserved in its cedar wood barrel. Such a warm reminder of all the wonderful moments we shared with the local communities, our expedition leader, and the crew since the start of our trip.

Head for authentic Japan!

For Ryo Ijichi, expedition leader and designer of PONANT expedition cruises across the archipelago, it is undoubtedly by sea that the Land of the Rising Sun best reveals itself to its visitors.

Photo and video credits : ©PONANT-Julien Fabro


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