In 2012 I set off to tour all of Japan’s World Heritage sites, travelling the length of the country from the north of Hokkaido down to Okinawa as I had been commissioned by a publisher to produce an illustrated guide to the sites. It was an auspicious year to do the trip —not only was it the twentieth anniversary of Japan’s first World Heritage registration, but it was the fortieth anniversary of the Unesco convention.
Japan is a surprisingly long country, and the trip took over four months as I moved steadily southwards from the subarctic in Shiretoko down towards the subtropical in Okinawa and Ogaswara. Contrary to the popular notion of Japan as a place of overcrowded cities, the journey began and ended in remote areas of unspoilt nature.
Few countries can be as pleasant to travel around as Japan, for its people are unfailingly polite and the transport system efficient and timely. Though public transport was my preferred option, car rental sometimes proved the only practical option.
Along the way there were plenty of adventures. In the mountainous Shirakami area of northern Honshu my driver fell asleep at the wheel one afternoon, not only wrecking the car but managing to strand us in one of the few spots in Japan with no mobile access and no passing traffic. As midnight approached and we sat vainly trying to sleep in the wrecked vehicle, a flashing light split the darkness and a small police car arrived to tell us that we were camping illegally!
There were other close encounters. At Shiretoko the hiking group I was with almost came across a mother and cub brown bear, said to be the most dangerous combination for humans. We thought we had steered well clear of them, but had to think again when we came to a clearing with uprooted plants and pungent smell. A few minutes earlier and we would have inadvertently stumbled upon them.
Two days later in Shirakami Sanchi I did stumble upon a bear, at the aptly named Black Bear Falls. It was coming round a bend in the path, and although the advice in such cases is not to panic, I was just about to run for my life when fortunately the bear beat me to it.
Sadly it was not possible to do all the sites full justice, for hiking every single nature trail and pilgrimage route could take years. Moreover, there were times when it seemed that fate was determined to thwart me, for it seemed everywhere I went there was something under repair. This was sometimes due to the natural disasters that plague Japan — the pond garden at Hiraizumi had been damaged by earthquake, and the surrounds of the Nachi waterfall by a typhoon.
There was a greater factor at play, however: of the 3600 buildings in Japan designated as important cultural properties, 3300 are wooden. When these ancient buildings need renewing, the repairs can be costly and time-consuming.
So which were my favorite sites?
The biggest ‘wow’ came amidst the fabulous gnarled cedar trees of Yakushima even though I’d been to the island before and knew what to expect. Walking in the woods one early morning, I stood riveted to the spot as the sun came up over a hillside and a whole swathe of forest was slowly brought to life by its spreading rays. It was as if a black-and-white painting was being transformed before my very eyes into full colour. Sheer magic!
The site that most took my fancy, however, was my final destination. It was quite literally ‘a voyage of discovery’, for the only way to Ogasawara is 25 hours by ship. It means that relatively few travel to the thinly populated islands despite the beauty of subtropical hillsides set amongst Pacific blues. They were registered with Unesco because of the unusual life-forms that have developed over the millennia, but for myself the history of the islands was no less alluring.
Until the 1840s Ogasawara was uninhabited, and the archipelago was first settled by a group of Westerners and Pacific Islanders (some of whose descendants remain to this day). At one point Britain and the US were arguing over ownership, and only after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 did the islands become officially part of Japan.
There is something of the charm of the southern seas about Ogasawara, and perhaps it was the enchantment of distance, or perhaps it was simply because my journey was drawing to an end, but whatever the reason Japan’s most remote World Heritage turned out the nearest to my heart. You could say it was one site that truly ‘registered’.