On the right track with Hokusai

Need for speed ... a bullet train passes Mount Fuji.
Need for speed ... a bullet train passes Mount Fuji. 

Armed with his rail pass, Stephen Phelan has seven days to crisscross the country and see the sights.

No traveller can reasonably expect to see the whole of Japan in a week. But since I don't have much time or money and I do have a seven-day Japan Rail Pass, I'm prepared to give it a bash. This silvery card, imprinted with a shiny reproduction of Hokusai's famous wood-block painting, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, represents the greatest bargain this expensive nation has to offer.

Except that you can't actually buy them in Japan; they're available only to visitors on tourist visas and can be ordered and purchased only before you arrive. The prices rise and fall with the foreign exchange rate and the options range from a top-end three-week "green" or "superior" pass, down to an "ordinary" one-week pass like mine, which I bought for about $300. And as soon as it's stamped at a JR counter in Tokyo Station, the clock starts running.

It is now approaching midnight and there is a sleeper train about to leave for the far side of Japan's main island, Honshu. Obviously, there are much faster services available on this network, including the hyperspeed Nozomi Shinkansen (for which I would have to pay a supplement) but the beautifully named and spelled Sunrize Izumo will save me forking out for a night's accommodation.

A private berth also costs a little extra - and a little is a lot in Japanese yen - so I take an assigned "seat" in the public car, which is more like a carpeted deck, where each passenger gets their own comfy floor space with a lamp, sheet and pillow. If you lie on your back, with your head underneath the large port window, you can watch one of the world's great megacities pass by upside-down, in a single continuous strip of bright, indecipherable signage.

Tokyo blurs into Yokohama, then Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, but eventually there is countryside and the lights are reduced to occasional fires in the distance. By morning I haven't slept and change trains without thinking - a quick ride on the ultra-fast Hikari Shinkansen to Hakata, then the Kamome limited express across the next island, Kyushu. The fog is pierced by church spires. This is where foreign Christians got a first and tentative foothold in Japan four centuries ago. Among the many things I did not know about Nagasaki, where I find myself at lunchtime, is the full extent of outside influences on its past life and present appearance.

Its prime location, in a natural harbour at the westernmost limit of the country, made it the first port of call for traders from China, and later, Europe. Wartime industry around the docks made Nagasaki a second target for atomic bombing on August 9, 1945, and the rebuilt city centre is now given over to peace monuments, memorial gardens and a number of powerful, essential museums.

One rainy day - sustained by a big bowl of the local delicacy "champon", a salty white noodle broth - may be long enough to take in the sights on the street-trams but perhaps not to fully absorb the contrast between the casual warmth of its citizens and its chilled, almost hallowed air of melancholy.

After a night in the family-run Ebisu hostel, I flash my rail pass again and cross back over onto Honshu, stopping in Okayama, where the annual Naked Man Festival is in full swing, if you'll pardon the pun. Up to 10,000 guys are running in the streets, wearing only headbands and fundoshi (sumo-style undies), toward the Saidiji Temple, where tonight they will jostle violently, and hilariously, for possession of a holy stick dropped from the ceiling.

For an old Shinto fertility ritual, this event seems more like a time-honoured excuse for public drunkenness, as the participants insulate themselves against the cold by chugging beer and sake. The next morning, I am on my way to Kobe by shinkansen. This rail pass has already paid for itself, in the sense that I would have spent much more on separate train fares by now. It also covers my JR bus ride to the foot of Mount Maya but not the cable car to the summit, where I've been told that the view is one of the three best in Japan. Not to generalise but the Japanese love to compile top threes of their finest tourist attractions.

As it happens, the cable car isn't running, so I walk up the mountain instead, through a forest embedded with shrines, and rest at the top until the sun sets and the lights come on below, connecting Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto into one endless electric field. This being the winter off-season, there are only two other guests staying at the Kobe Dears Backpacker House tonight, a young Japanese lawyer and a French sommelier, who has come to learn the art of sake-making with renowned local distillers.

The three of us share a few bottles of his free samples, heat up a cheap dinner of noodles and tempura from the local supermarket and attempt a slurring trilingual conversation about US politics. Which leads me to the important discovery that Japan may be the only place on Earth where public transport is bearable for those with a hangover: Shinkansen "bullet trains" are designed almost to float over the rails, a polite hush reigns inside and the windows offer an oddly soothing selection of silent moving images: paddy fields, strange birds perched on power cables, shivering bamboo forests that look like volleys of bent arrows fired into the hillsides.

I bypass the many unmissable temples of Kyoto in favour of a visit to the less-touristy mountain town of Iga-Ueno.

The great haiku poet Matsuo Basho was born here in 1644 and there are three local attractions dedicated to him, including a little museum, a reconstruction of his family home and a Zen garden at the "bagworm hermitage", where he worked and rested between his long walking tours of feudal Japan.

Composing little poems to describe the scene at every place he stopped, Basho was also his country's first real travel writer. I'm no haiku expert but I'm compelled to try one in his honour as I follow in his footsteps to the north, albeit 50 times faster. "The trains where I'm from, Are really embarrassing, Compared to this beauty.”

By the time my seven days run out, I have strolled through the country's "second-best" park in Kanazawa and sung a Led Zeppelin classic in a small and crowded karaoke rock bar, accompanied by a leather-clad barman on electric guitar. I have crawled up Mount Haguro on my hands and knees in deep snow, using my head as a plough. I have covered thousands of kilometres with my rail pass and saved millions of yen in the process. I never made it all the way to the top island, Hokkaido, and I whizzed right past countless cultural treasures (although the pass did permit me one last free look around Tokyo, on the Yamanote loop line). But nobody can tell me that I haven't seen Japan.

To order a Japan Rail Pass, or for more information, see japanpackage.com.au/jrpass.htm.

BARGAINS ALONG THE WAY

Tsuruoka Youth Hostel The best place I stayed in Japan was also one of the cheapest, at ¥2300 a night (about $30). A snowbound YHA-brand hostel near the base of three "holy" mountains - Haguro, Yudono and Gassan - it has spacious private and dorm rooms, a huge wooden lounge, an open fireplace and panoramic bay windows with a view from the peaks to the Sea of Japan. Around bedtime, owner-operator Llyoma Kilcuchi serves his guests hot chocolate, plays them a little piano and insists they come back in the spring, when the building is surrounded by cherry blossoms. Phone +81 2 3573 3205 or email kryoma@mail.dewa.or.jp.

Champon in Nagasaki Nagasaki is a little out of the way for most tourists but some diners will travel the length of the country just to sample champon. This life-giving, pork-based broth contains vegetables, bacon, shrimp, squid and noodles and costs less than $10 at Shikairou, the pagoda-style restaurant on the water, where the dish was supposedly invented.

Kenrouken Garden, Kanazawa Entry to one of Japan's most beautiful parks costs only ¥500. Once inside you can feed the koi carp - who will eat out of your hand - and partake in a tea ceremony. It's worth staying until dark, especially during cherry-blossom season, or in winter when the traditional lanterns are lit.

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