GIFU PREFECTURE, Japan — It was about 10 p.m. and I was outside in near-zero temperatures, stark naked with an assortment of equally naked women, soaking in a natural hot spring. And it was heaven.
By our third night on a week-long journalists’ tour of Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, we had “gone native” in the town of Gero’s Japanese-style accommodations. After a multi-course, beautifully presented meal — complete with sake tippling — we shed our yukatas (light-weight kimonos) and enjoyed the blessed mix of crisp fresh air and fondue-hot water.
Ah, this is the life, I thought, sighing. My six kids’ schedules and endless WhatsApp groups seemed farther away than the starry sky above.
As the Jewish World editor at The Times of Israel, I was lucky enough to be picked to take on the assignment of covering the land-locked Gifu Prefecture’s new tourist package, the Chiune Sugihara Trail. The trail was created for those Jewish American or Israeli tourists who wish to honor the legacy of Sugihara, a former diplomat to Kaunas, Lithuania, who is credited with saving up to 10,000 Jews from war-torn Europe by issuing them transit visas in 1940.
The Sugihara Trail is built around his childhood stomping grounds in the Gifu Prefecture, a central Japanese region. The first stop for us journalists is the Chiune Sugihara Memorial hall, which is built on Yaotsu’s Hill of Humanity Park. Although there is controversy over whether or not it was the diplomat’s birthplace (as the museum claims), it is an informative and needed Holocaust education center in the middle of rural Japan.
The other truly related-to-Sugihara stop on the trail is the Port of Humanity Museum in Tsuruga, where “his” Jews disembarked. Located on the seashore, the museum is actually found in a different prefecture (analogous to a canton or province) called Fukui.
This museum as well gives an overview of the good deeds associated with the once unheralded diplomat, but its emphasis is more on those who arrived at the port and the acts of kindness performed by Tsuruga townspeople. There is a moving film — I cried when the sounds of Israel’s national anthem “HaTikva” swelled in the background — and informative historical displays.
But (don’t tell my husband who stayed home with the kids) much of the trip was pure touristic fun. My first time in Japan, I returned with a quintet of revelations.
1) Japan is preternaturally clean and the toilets are amazing
What could be more comforting than a warm toilet seat on a chilly fall day? The Japanese have taken toilet engineering to the next level.
Although especially those public restrooms which largely cater to Japanese tourists still offer what Israelis laughingly call a “bul p’gia” (bull’s eye) toilet — basically a ceramic hole in the ground — the “Western” facilities are to die for.
In addition to the aforementioned toilet seats and insane cleanliness, the toilets all offer bidet functions — and usually a noise-screening simulated flushing sound. Apparently, Japanese women can be “shy” about sounds related to bodily functions, and so were increasingly flushing the toilet to mask them, according to the best and most fun guide I’ve ever had, Yumi Fukao, director of Soy Travel. (She kept up an amusing and informative patter during our long bus rides that kept us engaged — and laughing.) The society frowns upon waste, and so this simulated flushing noise has become a standard feature.
And there’s more! In one restroom, there was even a toilet with a faucet on the top, whose water is presumably reused in the basin.
I got very excited about all this and during our trip — much to the chagrin of my kids — my Facebook feed was filled with picture of toilets.
2) Horse-hoof socks and why-didn’t-I-think-of-that inventions
I live in Israel’s Judean desert and most months of the year really don’t need to wear closed-toe shoes. (It’s January and we still haven’t turned on the heat.) However, when in these sad transitional few months between summer and summer which we call winter, the Japanese horse-hoofed socks just could be the answer.
They are designed somewhat like mittens: There is a space for your big toe, and another for the rest of the digits.
I first encountered these handy (footy?) socks when we were dressed in traditional formal kimonos. It should be noted that despite their pajama-like comfort appearance, the kimonos are super constricting — in a medieval torture device kind of way.
We were given boring white socks to go with our wooden flipflop footwear. But later, I noticed hoof socks with every design under the sun throughout the standard-priced tourist tchotchke shops.
For about $5 apiece, I brought home a pair for me, decorated with bright sushi rolls and chopsticks, and for hubby, I splurged on two more sedately colored sets with white Japanese cats and an enormous Buddha.
The second mind-blowing invention is heated coffee in resealable tin bottles which can be purchased on the cheap from vending machines. While this may not seem like a revolution in the coffee-quaffing world, imagine the ease of obtaining something that you 1) know won’t spill, and 2) is much more tasty than any of the powdered brown stuff usually on offer.
I was first handed a bottle by the trip’s kind organizer, Hidehiko Kato, who met me at the airport and played conscientious shepherd from start to finish. It stayed warm for several hours during and after our ride on one of Japan’s extremely clean commuter trains.
Did I mention it is clean in Japan?
During our train ride, a suited Kato explained to me that despite the country’s hierarchical formality (until the clothes came off for the hot baths, of course), the people of Buddhist-majority Japan believe in treating members of all socioeconomic levels with respect and kindness. This was evident throughout our tour.
3) Food is an art, but vegetarianism is an unknown
A couple of members of our trip who were attempting to keep a modicum of kosher claimed they are vegetarians. Walking into any one of the many delicious eateries, they would innocently inquire, “Is there any fish in the soup?” The staff, eager to please, would say delightedly, “Yes!” Quickly seeing the two journalists’ obvious disappointment, the answer would instantly change to “No!”
Like in many places in the world, the street food — cheap and tasty — was amazing. But the delicate delicacies we were able to try should not be missed.
We sat through several multi-course meals of exquisite beauty in which I often had no idea what I was eating — animal, vegetable or mineral. Like the television program “Breaking Amish,” I was taking a time away from my nuclear family’s strict kosher diet. But I have to say, the turtle soup was hard to swallow. (They are so cute.)
The Gifu Prefecture is known for its special Hida beef, which we were given a few opportunities to try. It was served to us raw, with a little hibachi grill or a bowl of soup broth which was heated tabletop with a tea light. The results, perhaps due to my own ineptitude, were disparate. But when I got it right, it was like butter.
4) Water, water everywhere
In Israel, my desert home’s dominant palette is shades of gray and yellow. On good days, the sky is a beautiful cloudless blue; on bad days, everything is hazy and I can feel the gritty dust in my teeth.
In Japan, I felt as though I was bathing my eyes in the scenery. With waterfalls and a nearly constant drizzle, the Gifu Prefecture was a multichrome luscious breath of fresh air. By far the damp beauty was most stunningly expressed in the UNESCO heritage site Shirakawa-go. Its ancient houses and backdrop of foggy mountains is, on its own, breathtaking. Add the fall foliage and dank, leafy smell and it is as if I were walking in an alluring watery dream. (There are options to sleep there, but they are booked a year in advance. Maybe one day.)
In several of the stops on our tour, most notably Gero and Takayama, part of the pure pleasure was bath-hopping. Gero had the most variety, but in Takayama I had the most pleasant experience.
Before entering the baths, one must thoroughly shower and scrub. Reminiscent of the most rigorous pre-mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) attendants, several of the older women (and there were women of all ages, from grandmas to teens) rubbed their skins red. The signs state you must not have tattoos to enter, but that regulation wasn’t enforced with blatant foreigners like me.
In all occasions I preferred the outdoor facilities as the heat of the natural springs was too oppressive for me indoors. The blend of hot water and cold air outside was invigorating after a long day of touring.
In Takayama, we used a community bathhouse, where locals came and sipped tea prepared by an elderly kimono-clad woman following their soak. It’s the kind of place where posters for breast cancer self-checks are hung for those who frequent this women-only zone. It had a local feel, and since we were so relaxed from the experience, we felt at home enough to go back across the street clad only in our Japanese hotel-provided dress.
5) Futons are not just for dorm rooms
My best sleep in recent history was spent on the floor. Under the direction of landlady Eriko Arisu, Takayama’s Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan hotel offered the best hospitality I’ve ever experienced — and probably ever will.
Even entering the hotel is an experience: Upon guests’ arrivals, an enormous gong is sounded. With a cadre of attendants, one assigned to each room, the elegant kimono-clad Arisu greets newcomers as one would honored family.
In the morning, we spoke with Arisu, who had recently sent an employee to a training program to cater to the expected influx of Jewish travelers in light of the Gifu Prefecture campaign.
The Hebrew-language maps of Takayama are prepared and shopkeepers in the nearby market are already proficient in hawking their wares in the language of the Bible. Likewise, Arisu’s son Hiroki has recently garnered a kosher certification for his Funasaka Sake Brewery.
Arisu said that while it is true she is interested in accommodating the expected Jewish customers (only some 10-20 Israelis stayed there last year), she said she would like all customers to be able to feel her hospitality. Food, she understands, is a very important aspect of it.
Reviewing what was served at the previous night’s meal, I noted that only the sea cucumber was not a kosher fish. She said she had tried to make the meal as kosher as possible (her son’s sake was served) and she was happy to get the correction.
“We want the customers to enjoy Japanese culture, but for it to be a stress-free experience,” she said.
After a glorious night in the nearby baths and uninterrupted sleep on one of her futons, complete de-stressification was most certainly achieved.
The writer was a guest of Gifu Prefecture.