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Unique Destinations in Japan:
A Guide to Hidden Treasures by JET Alumni

On June 15, the JETAA Chicago Chapter hosted a presentation event, “Japan off the Beaten Path: Exploring Unique Destinations in Japan,” in Chicago, where five JET alumni introduced unique events and locations in Japan that are not typical tourist destinations.

Co-organized by the Japan America Society of Chicago and the Japan Information Center, the presentations featured “Setouchi Art Festival,” “Hiking Yakushima,” “Aomori,” “Shimanami Kaido,” and “Tohoku Kizuna Festival.”

Robert Corder, former JETAA Chicago Chapter President, was the MC of the event. “There are so many different destinations in Japan beyond typical locations such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, etc.,” he said at the opening of the presentations. “People in Chicago are getting interested in Japan more than ever, but they normally learn about big cities like Tokyo and Osaka. At this occasion, I’d like to introduce some interesting places to visit from the JETs’ viewpoint.”

Setouchi Art Festival by Justin Bussies

Bussies, who taught English from 2010 to 2013 in a small village in Kagawa Prefecture, the Island of Shikoku, became intimately involved in the entire community. He explained that the village, with its population declining, has been initiating various programs to revitalize itself. The Setouchi Art Festival is part of similar efforts in the Setouchi inland sea area, inviting artists from all over the world to exhibit their large-size art works across the numerous little islands.

Bussies presented photos of unique art works exhibited on Naoshima Island, Uno Harbor, Ogijima Island, Toshima Island, Megijima Island and Shamijima Island. Other Shikoku region attractions, such as the pilgrimage of the 88 holy spots and “Sanuki” udon noodles, were also introduced.

Hiking Yakushima by Robert Corder

Corder, while teaching English in Fukuoka from 2003 to 2006, heard about Yakushima Island and took a hiking trip there.

Known among anime fans as the background of Hayao Miyazaki’s animation film “Princess Mononoke,” Yakushima maintains nature untouched by humans, with deep, pristine forests and wild animals. The “jomon sugi” cedar tree, estimated to be 2,170 – 7,200 years old, is the UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the focal points of the Yakushima hike. There are several ways to get to Yakushima, such as taking a ferry or high-speed boat or flying, depending on your time constraints and budget.

A youth hostel in Yakushima is at a convenient location and “more comfortable than any other hostels,” according to Corder. Traveling alone, he made three friends while on the island.

Aomori by Ivonne Diaz

Diaz, who taught English in the city of Aomori from 2012 to 2014, talked about the Nebuta Festival, a summer festival widely known in Japan. Anyone can participate in the festivity – the only requirement is to wear “yukata” summer kimono, which you can buy or rent easily at a local store. You must become part of the festival in order to truly enjoy it, Diaz said. During the period of festival (August 2 through 7), local hotels and inns are fully booked, so careful arrangement is required before going to the festival.

Aomori Prefecture also offers many unique spots to visit and things to do, such as rice planting in Inakadate, the historical Hirosaki Castle, and Lake Towada. During winter, the area can have a snowfall of seven meters, offering chances for skiing and seeing snow monsters.

One of the local food recommendations by Diaz is “curry milk butter ramen.”

Shimanami Kaido by Troy Wiesner

Wiesner presented “Shimanami Kaido,” a route that connects the main island to the Island of Shikoku.

The route, 70 kilometers long, begins in Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, hopping six inland-sea islands via bridges, and reaches Imabari in Ehime Prefecture. You can hike, bike or drive the route, but Wiesner recommends bicycling as the best experience. He and his wife bicycled the entire route in eight hours while enjoying the beautiful sceneries along the way. Bike rental is available, and you can leave the bike wherever you finish.

Around this route are numerous tourist spots, including the famous Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture, the Imabari Castle in Imabari, and the Matsuyama Castle and Dogo Onsen hot spring in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, as well as several locations in Onomichi.

Seafood is the top of the list of recommended food in the area, including such local dishes as “tako-meshi” (octopus rice), “Hamako nabe” (seafood pot), “tai-meshi” (red snapper rice), anago-gohan” (conger eel rice) and many more, Wiesner said.

Tohoku Kizuna Festival by Lauren Worth

Presented by Worth, the Tohoku Kizuna Festival is a compilation of all the major summer festivals from the Tohoku region, which was hit by the Great Earthquake and Tsunami disaster in 2011. In July of that year, Rokkon Festival to comfort the dead began in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture and then was hosted by each of the six Tohoku prefectures in the following years, ending in Aomori last year. The Tohoku Kizuna Festival is a new event to take over the festival and continue the effort of recovery from the disaster.

The Tohoku Kizuna Festival features the Nebuta Festival from Aomori, Kanto Festival from Akita Prefecture, Morioka Sansa Odori from Iwate Prefecture, Hanagasa Festival from Yamagata Prefecture, Tanabata Festival from Sendai, and Waraji Festival from Fukushima Prefecture.

“By going to this festival, you spend tourist dollars, which will help revitalize the local economy, and you take some wonderful pictures and videos, which you’ll share with your friends and family back home. That way, you get to show them what the real Tohoku looks like today,” Worth explained.

From left: Troy Wiesner, Justin Bussies, Ivonne Diaz, and Lauren Worth

A Setouchi art

Jomon Sugi in Yakushima

Shimanami Route

Yukata in Aomori, Nebuta Festival

Curry milk butte ramen from Worth's presentation