Exploring Japan: DOD contractor on Okinawa visits all 47 prefectures
Exploring Japan: DOD contractor on Okinawa visits all 47 prefectures
Back in 2017, Sara Hewitt suddenly found a TDY to MCAS Iwakuni becoming her permanent duty station. The DOD contractor from the Washington D.C. metro area took to exploring her surroundings little by little. Eventually, Hewitt said, her trips stopped being random travels and instead became a goal to visit all of Japan’s 47 prefectures.
Through COVID-19 restrictions and a move to Okinawa, Hewitt accomplished her goal this year with visits to Shiga and Fukui Prefectures. Hewitt spoke to Stripes Okinawa to give us the details of her time in Japan and why she chose this lofty goal to better get to know her new home.
Did you always want to come to Japan, and did you know a lot about the country before coming?
I did not know a lot about Japan before I arrived. I had visited briefly on a work trip years ago where I managed to squeeze in a few days in Kyoto after a few days of jetlag and meetings, but that was the extent of my knowledge of Japan. Work initially suggested I go to Japan on Halloween of 2017, and I arrived in Iwakuni on Nov. 4 for a TDY of indeterminate length. And that TDY then became me moving to Iwakuni.
I’ve always liked traveling, so when I found out that I was moving I very quickly ordered a guidebook because I was excited by the prospect of getting to explore Japan. And because I had no idea where, exactly, Iwakuni was located. Iwakuni is a great town, but it is a little remote – I used to joke (except it was true) that the nearest Starbucks was in Hiroshima, which is a 40-minute train ride from Iwakuni. Iwakuni is lovely – it’s famous for the Kintai-kyo (the Kintai Bridge), a pretty castle near the bridge and for growing a lot of lotuses. Given that the base is pretty small, it’s a great way to really immerse yourself in a Japanese town. Lots of the Japanese staff in my office got bento for lunch, so I signed up to get bento and I never had any idea what I was going to get for lunch until I opened the container. It was a great way to get a real sense of what life in Japan is like.
How did you start traveling around Japan?
One of the great things about Iwakuni is that it’s on the Japan Rail network, so I could hop on a train after work and be miles away by the time I went to bed that evening. Initially, I explored Hiroshima, which is a day trip from Iwakuni. Then over Thanksgiving, I had my first real trip when I took the train up to Nagano to see the snow monkeys. It was an easy trip – I went to the Iwakuni train station, showed the station master where I wanted to go, and he printed out a receipt showing me what train I was going to take, when and where to switch trains and how long I had to switch trains. I was initially a little surprised/concerned to see that I was scheduled to take trains that only had a few minutes for transfer time, but given how punctual trains are in Japan, it worked out fine. After that I was a convert to train travel - the seats are comfy and recline and I could get an ekiben (train bento) and have dinner on the JR train if I was riding through dinner time.
Once I officially moved to Iwakuni, I started to plan more weekend trips to take advantage of any long weekend. After finishing work on Friday, I’d head to the train station with a small backpack and go off on an adventure for the weekend. I also went through my guidebook and identified a variety of festivals, because even if the town was a little quiet, there was going to be a big event for me to see. After a little over a year in Iwakuni and exploring Nagano, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagasaki and Kobe and festivals like the Tenjin Matsuri, Gion Pyramid Festival, Danjiri Matsuri (sort of like Tokyo drifting, but with floats that had to be pulled with giant ropes), a torch festival (where I got covered in ash), a firefighting festival and Setsubon (where I learned that uncooked mochi being tossed into a crowd is like getting hit by a hockey puck), I had a chance to move to Okinawa.
After living in the mainland, you move to Okinawa. How was that?
Okinawa is fascinating, but slightly different than living on mainland. So, it’s another version of the same adventure, but now I also get to see the Ryukyu culture in Okinawa. I also enjoy getting a chance to explore Okinawa and the various water-based activities that are a great idea to do on a tropical island. But I still go up to mainland every now and then for long weekends.
When COVID hit, I had use or lose vacation, but it was incredibly difficult to leave the country (or, more accurately, it was easy to leave Japan, but incredibly difficult to get back to Okinawa). So, I would look at the map that III MEF put out that showed red zones and green zones. I would figure out which airline would fly me directly into a green zone and then I’d figure out what I could do in that random location (and that location probably wasn’t a city). And that is how I started to visit a few locations that were slightly more off the beaten path.
So, 47 prefectures. When and why did that become a goal?
I’ve always liked lists, but I was probably a third or halfway through all the prefectures before I decided to sit down and list out every prefecture and see what prefectures I would have to navigate to in order to visit to all 47. And I like the idea of going to all 47 prefectures to get a more complete view of what Japan is like – to not just see the major cities, but to explore the smaller, quieter areas of Japan. For most of the 20+ prefectures I still needed to see I would flip open my guidebook, look for some suggestions of cities/towns to visit or festivals in that location, and I would look up the local tourism center and start to plan a trip. This generally worked as a plan, although some of the last few prefectures were getting very remote and my guidebook literally had nothing about them, which just meant I had to be a little bit more creative about looking for activities in a prefecture.
What’s the key to making the most of your time in Japan?
Part of the key to making the most of your time in Japan is to just go. Find a cool thing to do or see or eat and then build a trip around that. Japan is pretty easy to explore. Even with a language barrier (my Japanese is terrible, but I can say thank you, and I’m really good at asking if people speak English, I know the word for “map”, and I can respond that I know “little, little, little” when people ask if I can speak Japanese), it’s easy to navigate around and reasonably safe as a single female traveling by myself. The Japanese Rail line works really well, and the subway system is fantastic. In Tokyo there’s a number to go with each subway station, so even if you can’t say the station name, you just need to know, for example, that you started on the pink line at station 12 and you need to get to pink line, station 16. Even small towns will have a tourist information center (usually next to or in the main train station) and they’re really thrilled to see tourists and usually speak at least a little English. If they don’t, I just ask “recommendation?” in a translate app and I get pointed in the right direction for a museum, activity or dinner.
A great trip that I did started because one of my friends in DC sent me a link to an art exhibit in Japan – it was an exhibit about creating sculptures out of the leftover straw from the rice in Niigata. That trip ended up being 5 days, and in addition to seeing the straw art, I also saw two mummies, went through two purification rituals, and panned for gold on an island that had been a gold mine/exile colony. It all just sort of snow-balled off of my friend’s one line email that said, “this might be interesting.
What’s your favorite place in Japan and why?
I don’t think I have a favorite place in Japan. That’s a little like picking a favorite kid, and I don’t think you’re supposed to pick favorites. I think Japan has something for everyone. If you like cities, Tokyo is the largest city in the world and Kyoto is absolutely gorgeous. Nagoya is one of the largest cities in the world that I had never heard of, but it’s the home of Toyota and therefore has a really cool Toyota museum if you want to geek out on engineering (I’m a mechanical engineer – I spent 4 hours there) and an amazing Science museum that will let kids (and adults) push buttons and crawl through tunnels and play with magnets and sand.
But if cities aren’t your thing, there’s gorgeous countryside outside of those cities. Japan is really into bicycling, so there are a couple of superbly well-marked bicycle routes, like the Shimanami Kaido in the Hiroshima and Ehime prefectures that connects six tiny islands, or the route around Lake Biwa in Shiga prefecture.
There are a couple of pilgrimage walking routes in various prefectures (and sometimes across multiple prefectures). There are the Japanese Alps in the mainland towards Nagano, which get an amazing amount of snow and some gorgeous national parks in Kyushu, near some fascinating geology like the 7 Hells of Beppu. There’s a massive sand dune in Tottori with a really impressive sand castle museum. Or maybe you want to focus on culture – Japan has 25 UNESCO world heritage sites for temples in Nikko (a short train ride from Tokyo) and Nara (a day trip from Osaka) or monuments to when Japan was one of the leading producers of Silver (Iwami Ginzan) or silk (Gunma prefecture). Japan has a lot of festivals – for celebrating the end of a plague, or as part of moving shrines from one place to another, or as an excuse to carve ice sculptures or to have mountain monsters scare small children into not being lazy.
Or there are sporting events – seeing a sumo bout in person is fascinating and baseball games are great. Japan also has a wide range of foods – Hokkaido is famous for dairy and so their ramen has snow crab and a pat of butter, while Yamanashi is considered the wine region of Japan and has a delicious local noodle dish called “hoto”.
There are also Christmas lights. I once planned a trip with a co-worker that took us to four different Christmas illuminations in three prefectures in one weekend. One of the illuminations (at Nabana no Sato in Mie Prefecture) had over 5 million LEDs. It was gorgeous and a great way to get in the festive spirit if you think Christmas in Okinawa is a little too warm. There’s a lot of excuses to visit various locations – you just have to start.
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