- 50 days
- 5 days
- Tokyo (Japan)
- 3 days
- Hakone (Japan)
- 8 days
- Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaido, Japan)
- 1 days
- Shikotsuko (Hokkaido, Japan)
- 1 days
- Sapporo (Hokkaido, Japan)
- 3 days
- Osaka (Japan)
- 3 days
- Koya (Japan)
- 4 days
- Kyoto (Japan)
- 1 days
- Nara (Japan)
- 2 days
- Hiroshima (Japan)
- 2 days
- Beppu (Japan)
- 2 days
- Kumamoto (Japan)
Trip package (and costs)
- Total spent, incl:
- 7200 $USD
- 24th August: Beijing to Tokyo
- 24th August - 2nd September: Tokyo, Mount Fuji and Hakone region
- 3rd -12th September: Hokkaido Hike with Walk Japan
- 13th - 22nd September: Osaka, Koya-San, Kyoto
- 23rd September - 3rd October: Nakasendo Way with Walk Japan
- 4th - 9th October: Tokyo, Hiroshima, Beppu, Kumamoto, Fukuoka
- 10th - 11th October: Tokyo to Melbourne
- Posted on
- October 28, 2015
Trip dates: 24 August – 11 October 2015.
From: Beijing (China) to Tokyo, Hakone, Hokkaido, Osaka, Koya, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Beppu, Kumamoto, Fukuoka (Japan)
Travelers: 2 adults
Trip review: 5****
Our first day in Japan was a sensory overload, all in a good way. We started off with a guided tour of the Tokyo Fish Market (Tsukiji), which opens to the public at 9am, by which stage the “real” business including the famous tuna auction has already long finished. The market has been in operation since 1935 and is due to move to new (reclaimed land) premises next year. It employs about 50,000 people and has about 480 species of fish. It was a fascinating insight in to one of the Japanese staple food items.
Then we went for a walk through the Meiji Shrine which is the grandest Shinto shrine in Tokyo. The shrine itself is gorgeous in its simplicity and sits in the middle of a large forested area in the centre of Tokyo. It was built originally in 1920, but was destroyed in the Second World War, but authentically rebuilt in the 1950s. The surrounding gates are made from statuesque 1500 year old Taiwanese Cypress tress, some of which were 1.2m in diameter! At one entrances the path was lined on one side by a wall of barrels of Bordeaux in recognition by the industry of Emperor Meiji’s commitment to importing wine and introducing it to Japan. On the other side of the path, a wall of sake barrels similarly offered by the industry in recognition of his support for Japanese tradition and culture.
In contrast to traditional culture, we then had a wander down one of the craziest shopping streets in Japan (Takeshita-dori), where the Japanese youth shop and strut their stuff in some pretty interesting outfits! The general theme of many of the shops seemed to be pink, sweet and glittery.
We have previously tried a fair amount of sake and discovered that we liked it and have been quite excited about learning more about it and tasting more. So we headed off for a traditional sake restaurant for dinner and had a lot of fun trying a few with our dinner, aided by a dainty, beautiful and very expressive waitress! A great first day in Japan.
The next day started with a Ninja workshop in a small darkened room in residential northern Tokyo (near Tabata). It was full of information and giggles! We were all dressed up as ninjas and after a short history and weapon lesson, got down to practicing. We were taught to throw stars (Shuriken), initially with rubber versions. Once we had shown that we could hit the (rather large) target we were allowed a go with real ones, then progressing to throwing spikes and chopsticks! Apparently we were quite good, some tourists have hit the ceiling behind them and broken windows! We also learnt how to use a blow-pipe and how to noiselessly (ish) move through a revolving door! There were a number of comedy moments, but the instructor was great and although he was very professional and obviously took his art very seriously, he was also up for a laugh.
After passing Ninja school we decided to explore another facet of Japanese culture, Kabuki. Kabuki is a theatrical art form that originates from the 17th century and is unique, not least because the actors are all male. In its early days, Kabuki was apparently quite erotic and the bureaucrats were concerned about the moral fabric of the audience, so banned female performers hence the all male cast. The actors that play the female parts are trained specifically and solely in female roles and Kabuki actors are usually “born into” Kabuki theatre. It is highly stylised and unlike any other theatre I have seen before. Fortunately we had personal digital subtitle screens, which helped make sense of what was going on. The performances go on for several hours, but you can go to one act, which we did and that worked out well. We really enjoyed the performance, but I think seven to eight hours would have been too much!
Next day we started in a lovely palace park centred around a tidal, salt lake fed by the sea bordering the park (Hama-Rikyu Onshi-Teien). The gardens were lovely even on a cloudy day, with three tea-houses one of which was serving traditional (Matcha) green powder tea and Japanese sweets. It was somehow an appropriate paradigm for Japan wandering through the traditional, sculptured beauty of the park with a background of high tech skyscrapers. We took advantage of the available personal GPS-enabled digital audioguide to provide information on the park as we meandered.
From the park we caught a tour boat up the Sumida River to Asakusa, which is the older part of Tokyo and also the venue for Tokyo’s most visited temple, the Senoji Temple. There has been some sort of place of worship on this site since 628 AD, although the current temple was built in 1950. Leading up to the Temple is a magnificent gate and pedestrianised walkway with little shops selling a range of things from snacks and touristy kitch to crafts and gifts. Surrounding the Senoji Temple are little laneways with lots of lovely individual shops catering for tourists and locals alike.
Yet another wet and cloudy day, but we decided to brave the elements and go for a Lonely Planet self-guided walk around the Yanaka district of Tokyo. Like Asakusa, Yanaka has great architectural examples of the old Shitamachi (“downtown” part of Tokyo from the Edo period) style. During the Edo period many of the temples from around Tokyo were relocated to Yanaka as part of a reorganisation of the “urbanisation” and quite amazingly the area survived earthquakes and World War II bombings largely in tact. As a result the area is an atmospheric maze of alleyways, old wooden temples and small sculptured gardens.
It was then off to a Samurai workshop with the director for the Samurai choreography in Kill Bill Vol 1 (Tetsuro Shimaguchi)! He was also “Miki” From Crazy 88 in the film, initially training as an actor, predominantly in traditional Japanese performing arts and became increasingly interested in Samurai particularly as a performing art. He later also became accomplished in several Japanese martial arts. He leads a touring performing arts group that specialises in martial arts and is well worth looking out for. We had a great time learning about Samurai, practising ten different positions, culminating in a “performance”. We both did a Samurai fight scene with one of the performers, which was hilarious fun.
Keeping up with our Japanese cultural phase, the following morning we got up bright and early to visit a Sumo Stabled. Sumo wrestlers all live and train together in “stables” scattered around Tokyo (and indeed Japan) and you can visit them early in the morning to watch them train. Initially we had planned to go to a tournament whilst we were here, but after discussion with a number of people who all advised going to the stables rather than a tournament, we did just that. It was good fun, although you have to sit quietly on the floor at the side of “ring” for two to three hours, so it gets a bit uncomfortable if you’re not used to sitting cross-legged or kneeling (we’re getting pretty good at it now!). There is also no guarantee that the master of the stables will let you in on any given day, depending on what is happening, pending tournaments or his mood! It is an interesting spectacle though and I would recommend going if you get the chance, but the men certainly don’t exude health and longevity!
We then headed off to one of the more international areas of Tokyo, Roppongi, to visit the Mori Art Museum and observation deck. The sun had finally put in an appearance and we got great views of Tokyo from the fifty-second floor. It really is an impressive, thriving metropolis. There was also a really thought-provoking exhibition by a famous Vietnamese artist, Dinh Q Le, exploring different perspectives on the Vietnam War and in particular the role of helicopters. It was an excellent exhibition, although a bit of a reality check after our morning of hilarity.
With a dismal weather forecast, we set off the next morning for what we anticipated to be a very wet, cold and windy climb up Mount Fuji. We were prepared to see nothing from the top as the cloud was low and thick. Nevertheless, we had both wanted to climb Mount Fuji and this was our only chance as the the end of August sees the end of the climbing season, so off we went.
After asking lots of people and a bit of frustration, we got to the Fifth Station in thick cloud, fog and drizzle. Not a particularly auspicious way to start the trek! We had read a fair bit about the climb and knew that it was extremely popular and often crowded, but we were not ready for just how crowded the mountain was. It was crazy! The trek itself is not attractive and with the thick cloud cover, there were no views either. We trekked for a steady and fairly steep three and a half hours to the Eighth Station where we were booked in to a mountain hut “for the night”, with the plan of getting up in the early hours to summit in time for sunrise. There are huts all the way up Mount Fuji, managed and serviced by a team of people, providing snacks, drinks, meals and temporary rest areas. They also provide clean toilets all the way up the mountain and even wifi and a post office at the top! The huts are pretty basic and organised to fit as many people in as possible. So the dormitory is essentially a room with people lying side-by-side (your “berth” is literally as wide as the sleeping bag) and about three quarters of the length of my husband, with two levels on each side! In our dormitory there must have been about eighty people. Needless to say, we didn’t get any sleep and were quite relieved when we were “woken up” at 1:30am to get ready to summit.
The summit is at 3771m and should probably take no more than an hour from where we were, but the path is so narrow and rocky that with the crowds it is a stop-start conga line to the top and took about two hours. We then waited in the cold and wind for the sun to finally peak above the clouds. We were actually really lucky to see the sunrise as I don’t think anyone will have done after us, and it was quite breath taking. Despite the weather forecast, the weather held out for us and although it was really cloudy, it was at least dry until we descended. Soon after we got back to the Fifth Station the rain started and the weather deteriorated, so all-in-all we were pleased to have done it when we did. However, Mount Fuji will not go down as one of my favourite walks! A few people had said that Mount Fuji was better from afar and I think they are right, but due to the cloud, we never saw Mount Fuji from afar!
Hakone sits in the valley of Mount Fuji, with a large allegedly (we couldn’t see it for the fog. It is also home to lots of onsen (hot springs), traditional Japanese inns and local artists. Unfortunately the bad weather continued with continuous rain and low lying cloud, so we were limited with what we could do, especially as most of the attractions are outside.
The following day, in the rain and cloud we headed to Gora Park, which is a French-inspired garden with tea houses and a large craft house, where you can learn origami, glass-blowing, bead making and pottery. There were also some small shops showcasing the local artists-in-residence products. We decided not to embark on learning any new skills, but I think it would have been fun.
After a warming herbal tea and biscuits, we headed back towards Hakone to see if we could see the lake through the clouds. We couldn’t! However, we did visit an old, restored “checkpoint” (Hakone Sekisho) used to control movement of the lower classes and women during the Edo period. During this period, the feudal lords were controlled at least in part by the Shogunate by keeping their wives hostage in Edo (now Tokyo), so checkpoints were required to stop the women escaping. There was a large and important one in Hakone and although it fell in to disrepair and ruins, detailed original plans were found and the complex faithfully restored and completed in 2007. At the end was an interesting little exhibition outlining how the Sekisho worked. Leading up to the Sekisho is a parade of magnificent Cedar trees, aged over four hundred years old. Before heading back to the warm and dry of our Inn, we visited an old Shinto Shrine with a floating red torii (gate) in Lake Ashi.
Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaido)
Here was our ten day hiking trip on the northern island of Hokkaido, which was one of the last islands to be “annexed” by the Japanese. The indigenous people of the island are called the Ainu and not only look quite different to the Yamato (majority) Japanese, but are also culturally distinct. Hokkaido was only incorporated into Japan formally in the nineteenth century, with disastrous effects on the Ainu culture. Like many indigenous peoples around the world their language and culture were suppressed and the people suffered from discrimination. The Ainu weren’t recognised by the Japanese government until 1991and not as an indigenous people until 2008. However, they are reviving their culture and as part of this attempt to highlight their plight, history and culture, they have built a “replica village” which we visited the night we arrived on Hokkaido and enjoyed a short cultural show with traditional songs and dance.
The hike, organized by Walk Japan, started the following day around Lake Akan in the southeast of Hokkaido, with a 1500m climb of Mount Akan-Fuji. This was a change of plan as the adjacent volcano we were planning to climb was on “high alert” and access blocked due to excessive toxic fumes exuding from the crater. We got good views and a smell of it though from Mount Akan-Fuji. Unfortunately the heavens opened on our way down and we finished the walk looking and feeling like proverbial “drowned rats”.
The following day we headed to Daisetsuzan National Park that covers 230,000 hectares with fifteen mountains reaching at least 2000m. That second day was also a day of weather extremes, starting with sunshine, but later changing to rain, hail, sleet and icy winds. It was a shame, because the scenery was stunning, but it was hard to appreciate when you face and eyes were being whipped by hail! We climbed volcanoes, averaging about 2000m, with a couple of days trekking between the foothills of the volcanoes with lush vegetation. The scenery was fantastic and very different each day, changing from barren, apocalyptic to lush green vegetation with the colours just starting to change to a myriad of yellows, oranges and reds. Dotted all over the mountains were smoking fumaroles, whose emissions intermittently merge with the waves of clouds, creating an eerie veil across vistas. Getting around the park for each of the hikes involved a range of transport options, with some long taxi rides but also cable cars and chairlifts to the start of the hike or back to the hotel at the end of hike. We made about 12km daily, hard walking over very uneven volcanic rocks, boulders, scree and tree roots.
Next day we had a three hour transfer to Lake Shikotsu-ku in the southwest Hokkaido. Lake Shikotsu-Ko is a large, 360m deep lake formed in a volcanic caldera and is surrounded by three active volcanoes. Unfortunately due to the concerns over the impending typhoons, we cut short our final day of hiking and just walked around the extruded volcanic core of Mount Tarumae which exploded in 1909 forming a lava rock dome, which still seeps toxic fumes, making it quite impressive and unusual. The lower slopes are covered in beautiful alpine flowers and higher up are great views of the sea. The day we were walking there were seven to eight meter high waves crashing on to the beach, creating a dramatic auditory backdrop to the walk!
Next day we headed off to Sapporo to find out more about the local beer! Sapporo Beer Museum and Garden and dumped our day-packs in free coin lockers. The museum is small, giving plenty of time to enjoy a few examples of the amber nectar! The brewery was started in 1876 with the approval of the government of the time who were looking at ways of diversifying industry in Hokkaido and after a Japanese gentleman visited Germany, fell in love with beer and spent two years training in a brewery there. The brewery retains a Germanic feel with a Japanese twist.
We then wandered around some of the sights of Sapporo, starting with the Hokkaido University Botanical Gardens, which also house a very small museum of Ainu artefacts and some old colonial-style buildings with a collection of taxidermied indigenous animals. The gardens would be spectacular in spring and early summer, but it was a bit of an overcast day and I don’t think we really did them justice.
Osaka is one of Japan’s largest and most modern cities. The first morning we set off for Osaka-jo, the castle originally built in 1583 by a hundred thousand people. It took three years to complete, and has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times over the years. The current concrete reconstruction is allegedly loyal to the original design other than being made of concrete this time rather than wood! Inside is a museum outlining its history, which is reasonably interesting, but mostly in Japanese which is a great reason to walk through it quite quickly without feeling guilty! The outside is quite impressive even if it was rebuilt in 1931 and refurbished in 1997!
Despite our better judgement and previous experiences of trying to follow Lonely Planet self-guide walks, we decided to do another one through Amerika-mura and Dotonbori. For the first time in a few days, the weather was glorious, so it was nice meandering and feeling the sun on our backs. America-mura was so named, as soon after World War II several shops appeared around the area selling zippo lighters and other American merchandise. It is now the place to shop and be seen if you’re young and hip in Osaka. Needless to say, we looked very out of place and felt neither young nor “hip”. The walk then led us through Dotonbori, with a crazy pedestrianised street full of restaurants, theatres and pachinko (pin-ball arcade) parlours. It really comes alive at night when all the giant sized “creatures” (crabs, hands holding sushi, cows etc) advertising the restaurants and neon lights come on.
Koya-san is a thickly forested tableland about 900m above sea level, surrounded by eight mountains and is the centre for the Shingon school of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. The founder, Kobo Daishi (known as Kukai in life), started developing the monastic complex in 816 AD, after returning from his travels and studies in China. It still has about 110 temples and is considered the spiritual centre of Japan.
Koya-san itself is a quiet and serene town, with a mix of the usual tourists and a number of Japanese pilgrims. There are three main complexes, essentially at each end of town. At the far end is Odunoin, which is entered by going over a bridge and then walking about two kilometres along a cobbled, winding and atmospheric path lined by cedar trees, some of which are up to a thousand years old! There are over two hundred thousand gravestones and pagodas in amongst the trees, partially covered in moss, but all well maintained. A number of the statues also wear red (or pink) bibs, which are placed on statues of a bodhisattva called Jizo Bosatsu who is believed to watch over and protect children in the after life. Parents who have lost children place the bibs on Jizo, hoping he will take care of them as a surrogate parent. At the end of the path is the Torodo (Latern Hall), which sits in front of Kobo Daishi’s closed mausoleum. As most of the temples were originally built in wood, they have nearly all been razed to the ground and been reconstructed several times, but tend to be faithful in architecture to the original. The hall contains over ten thousand lanterns, a couple of which have allegedly been burning continuously for over nine hundred years, although I’m not sure how this works when the building itself was destroyed several times! Religious ceremonies are held there, of which we watched part of one. Kobo Daishi himself, is also apparently not dead but in “eternal meditation” in his mausoleum and therefore twice a day the local monks take him food offerings. We tried to time it to observe the offerings to Kobo Daishi, but we’re clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time! For me, the trees and vegetation intermingled with and at times almost becoming one with the gravestones and pagodas are what really made this place. The trees in Odunoin are predominantly cedars, but around Koya-san there are also cypress, red and umbrella pines, fir and hemplock fir trees as well as Japanese maples, which I loved.
At the other end of Koya-san is the Danjo Garan complex, a temple complex where the monks over centuries have studied, meditated and prayed. Some of the highlights include; The Konpon Daito (Great Pagoda) which again has been rebuilt multiple times, but currently sits at a majestic 49m high. The Kondo (Golden Hall), which is said to be the centre of the lotus flower mandala created by the eight mountains surrounding Koya-San, and was rebuilt in 1937. The Dainichi-nyori (Cosmic Buddha) is housed inside surrounded by his four attendant Buddhas, it really is quite special, especially as it has recently been repainted and is in all its glory. The Fudodo is one of the only original buildings, built in 1197 and has avoided all the fires that have destroyed the others.
In addition to these two main complexes are a staggering array of individual temples many of which tourists can stay at, Kongobuji (the Head Temple of Koya-san Shingon Buddhism), the Reihokan museum which holds many religious art works from Koya-San, Daimon the main gate of Koyasan, and the Tokugawa mausoleum to name but a few.
Kyoto is an amazing city and it would probably take quite a few trips to see all the UNESCO Heritage sites alone, but as a consequence it is also easy to suffer from “temple fatigue”. Although initially Kyoto appears to be another big, Japanese metropolis it doesn’t take long or much effort to discover the charm of its cultural history.
Our first full day in Kyoto we had arranged a guided tour, which was excellent. Our guide, “Terry”, was a charming older gentleman who had worked all over the world for Panasonic as a marketing manager and consequently spoke excellent English. He was a fountain of knowledge and clearly enjoyed sharing it and his love for Kyoto. Our first stop was a tour of the grounds of Nijo-jo (Nijo Castle), originally built in 1603 as the official Kyoto residence for the first Tokugawa Shogun. The dry stone walls and moats are pretty impressive and the stone work reminiscent of that seen in Cusco (Peru).
We then went to The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), as the name suggests the upper half of the Buddhist pavilion is covered in 14kg of gold leaf on lacquer! It sits on the edge of a large pond in beautiful gardens and is jaw-dropping. It was originally built as a villa and guesthouse for statesman wannabe aristocrat, but after his death was converted to a temple in accordance with his wishes. Not far from The Golden Pavilion is the Ryoanji Temple, which is famous for its Zen garden, a twenty-five by ten meter white gravel “garden” raked carefully in to perfect lines, with fifteen carefully placed stones. No matter where you stand in the garden you can only ever see fourteen.
Next was “Sou Sou” shopping area. “Sou Sou” is a Japanese fashion which has developed a modern approach to traditional dress such as the Kimono. It was really interesting and exciting to see how the young and new is embracing and developing the old and traditional. We also meandered through the Nishiki Market, a pedestrianised covered shopping street with lots of small, unique shops. Finally before wandering back through the Gion district with Terry pointing out the highlights and explaining about the culture of Maiko and Geiko (Geisha in Kyoto dialect), we visited the Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex which was originally built in 798 AD, but due to fires was rebuilt in 1633. The main wooden hall has an impressive, large veranda with great views of Kyoto, but to my eye rather ruining the vista is a three level, orange pagoda (it’s recently been repainted).
The following morning we had a guided cycling tour around Kyoto in glorious sunshine. It was a good way to get familiar with the road rules in Japan and the layout and distances in Kyoto. So in the afternoon we headed back to Heian Jingu shrine, which we had briefly visited in the morning, so that we could wander around the gardens. Next we ventured out to the northeast of Kyoto to enjoy the Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) Temple. It was built in 1482 by Yoshimasa (a Shogun), who intended to cover it in silver, but unfortunately his fortune declined and he never got around to it. However, his real passion was the garden, which is a haven of peace and tranquillity. Finally we stopped off on our way home at the Sanjusangen-do Temple, which houses a thousand and one statues of the Buddhist deity, Juichimen-senju-sengen Kanzeon, with an enormous version of the same deity sat in the middle. It is quite an amazing sight. The first 124 were made in the twelfth century and the remainder a century later. At each end of the army of deities sit statues of the gods of thunder and wind, with another almost life-size twenty-eight guardian deities between them. It was well worth the diversion at the end of the day!
The next morning started with an introduction to the concepts and rituals behind the Japanese tea ceremony, which is highly sophisticated and precise, from the utensils used to the positions of the utensils in front of the master of ceremony and even the minute hand movements. Interestingly the concept behind this Chinese import from the twelfth century and its development as an essential part of Japanese culture, is that it is meant to be “aestheticism of austere simplicity”! Our lesson about the informal tea ceremony was held in a small tatami room in a local lady’s house. She was also an artist who specialised in dying fabrics, overlaying free-hand designs using a very delicate process with wax. Her designs were beautifully intricate and her kimonos exquisite.
That afternoon we headed to the west of the city to where the famous bamboo forests are, which really are magical. I kept expecting fairies to weave their way in and out of the bamboo trailing glitter! At the base of the forest is the Tenryu-ji Temple, which in itself is not particularly interesting as it has burnt down a number of times, but the gardens are truly gorgeous and even in the crowds were a delightful escape in to tranquility. The Japanese tend to use water, stones, moss and trees to enhance the surrounding landscape, rather than “manicuring” formalised floral gardens. It is a very successful technique and I guess the reason Japanese gardens are so famous and replicated around the world. At the other end of the bamboo forest we visited some private gardens of a famous silent-film era actor, Okochi Sanso, who constructed the garden on a hill overlooking Kyoto over a thirty year period. It must be spectacular in spring and late autumn when the cherry and maple trees colour the hill pink and red respectively.
To finish the day off we spent an hour at Gion Corner, a theatre which over the course of an hour introduces some Japanese traditional art forms, particularly relating to those learnt and performed by the Geisha including; The tea ceremony, flower arranging, some traditional musical instruments, dance, kyogen (ancient comic play) and bunraku (puppet play). It was a shame, but there were probably a couple of hundred tourists, a number of whom spent the entire show talking and holding their cameras in the air so no one behind them could see. Sadly, I would not recommend this experience, which is a shame as the content provided a reasonable basic insight in to some of culture.
Kyoto is arguably the cultural centre of Japan and what symbolises the uniqueness of Japanese culture more than the Geisha? Kyoto, as the home of Geisha, also has a distinct local dialect and call the Geisha, “Geiko“. To clarify a common western misconception, they are not prostitutes or high class escorts. They are highly respected and trained entertainers of traditional Japanese art forms. Girls start their “apprenticeship”, during which they are called Maiko, at the age of fifteen and “graduate” at the age of twenty. During this time they live with other Maikos in a boarding house, nurtured by the boarding house mother who finances their expenses and education. They attend daily classes on the tea ceremony, traditional dance, playing the shamisen (a Japanese guitar), flower arranging, singing etc. During their apprenticeship they perform at functions, but are usually accompanied by a Geiko who acts as a mentor.
At the age of twenty, they become a Geiko and leave the boarding house, although they maintain a professional relationship with their house. At this stage they can have a boyfriend, but not marry or have children. The makeup, hairstyle, kimono and obi differ between the Maiko and Geiko and so even to the untrained eye it is quite easy to differentiate the two. Interestingly the reason for the white face makeup originates from the Edo period (17th and 18th century) when their faces (and therefore beauty) could not be appreciated in the dim candlelight, so they painted their faces white so that they could be seen! We had a fantastic and quite magical dinner with another twenty or so tourists and a Geiko and Maiko. The Maiko performed a couple of traditional dances accompanied by a Geiko who sang and played the shamisen, which was mystical to listen to. The hostess of the evening also briefly explained their lifestyles, dress and hairstyles, and the Maiko and Geiko played drinking games with us and wandered around the tables chatting to us. A fascinating and mesmerising evening! Don’t expect to win a drinking game against a Geiko, they are very professional!
Nara a gem of a town half an hour south (by train) of Kyoto, was the first permanent capital of Japan and has eight UNESCO Heritage sites! Most of the sites are located in a lovely green park, Nara-koen, which along with gardens, temples, shrines and the highlight, The Great Buddha (Daibutsu), has thousands of “wild” deer who roam freely around the park, the roads and indeed the shops! Their diet gets supplemented heavily by the tourists feeding them specially made deer biscuits and so they are very tame and friendly, and absolutely gorgeous!
At the base of the park is yet another fabulous traditional Japanese garden. Probably the highlight (apart from the deer!) of Nara however is The Great Buddha (Daibutsu), housed in the magnificent Todai-ji Temple. The temple is still one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, despite being rebuilt twice and most recently in 1709 when it was rebuilt at only two thirds of the size of the original. Likewise, Daibutsu is also one of the largest bronze statues in the world. The original was cast in 746, and most recently recast in the Edo period (17th century) and stands at fifteen meters, consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold! It really is quite impressive.
Also within the park sits the large shrine complex, Kasuga-taisha, a large part of which is currently being renovated, but the moss covered pagodas and small shrines were atmospheric and we were fortunate to time our visit with a great Japanese drumming band playing in the gardens!
Kyoto to Tokyo trekking
The Nakasendo Way is a road originally dating back to the seventh century, but really came to prominence during the Edo (1603 to 1868) period. During this time the Tokugawa dynasty ruled Japan under the Shogunate system, with local lords (Daimyo) kept under control by a number means. Firstly their wives and families were kept in Edo (now Tokyo) and the Daimyo had to live part of the time in their local area ruling the people and part of the time paying homage to the Shogun. Secondly the least loyal Daimyo were given land furthest away from Edo and consequently had to spend more time and money travelling between the two locations, making them less able to form a rebellion against the Shogun. The Nakasendo was an important roadway for the Daimyo getting to and from the Edo. It therefore had regularly spaced “post towns” with inns, restaurants and tea houses, porter services and shrines. We were walking sections of this for ten days.
The journey, we planned with Walk Japan again, started with a couple of train journeys, stopping off at Hikone to visit the castle, which still retains its original keep from the seventeenth century. It was the home of the loyal, warrior Ii family who played an important role in the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which was the final battle culminating in Tokugawa rising to power as Shogun. It was then on to Sekigawa to explore and learn about the battle a little more. There was very little walking on this first day.
Day 2 morning was a travelling morning with five trains to get to the village of Mitake and then finally some walking! About half the walking was along road, which was a bit odd, but the old road has been used and just updated and repaired over time, which of course makes sense. However, we also walked through rice fields, vegetable plots and fields, woodland and bamboo forests all of which were lovely. Every 3.8km are mounds of earth on each side of the road with a single tree on top, called “Ri”, which were used as distance markers, this being the distance the average walker would have walked in an hour. A few still exist and mark the route, as do some of the old, stone lamps that were lit to mark that you were nearing a post-town. The highlight though had to be the French Patisserie owned by a Japanese couple, slap bang in the middle of seemingly nowhere, with a beautiful garden!
Day 3 was an undulating walk through towns, woodland, rice paddies and vegetable gardens. We also saw some wildlife including a lovely little, green tree frog and two small snakes. Soon after we stopped for morning tea at the picturesque village of Okute, where every second Saturday the community gets together for tea/coffee and toast (or rice balls). The ladies organising the event are all over eighty, and one lady who did not look a day over seventy was apparently ninety five! The village is also home to a magnificent, forty meter tall, one thousand three hundred year old cedar tree! At our final destination for the evening, a town called Ena, we were greeted by the sight of women and children all dressed up in matching kimonos and some being carried in floats, some playing music and with the main street lined with food stalls. Before putting our feet up for the day we made a quick visit to the Hiroshige Print Museum. Hiroshige was a famous woodblock artist of the eighteenth century, who made a woodblock print of each post-town along both the Nakasendo and Tokaido Ways. The museum has a number of original prints, which are exquisite in their detail and fine carvings, but the bonus is that you can also have a go at the printing side of it yourself, which is quite good fun!
Day 4 was an easy albeit seventeen kilometre walk to the post-town of Shichaya, predominantly through suburban towns and villages with a number of interesting artefacts to see along the way. The Japanese seem to have vending machines for everything and everywhere. You can get cold drinks from vending machines in the strangest places, but we came across the rice dehusking vending machine! Local people often grow their own rice for personal consumption and then take their rice to the vending machine where for 100 Yen (about $1.20 AUD) for 7.5kg the rice is dehusked and ready for cooking!
Lunch was at the relatively big town-come-city Nakatsugawa, where we went to an eel restaurant. We had heard repeatedly about the local specialty and that it was the best place to eat it, so despite the fact that the rest of our group bailed on us, we gave it a go. It was a busy restaurant with local trade, but the chef was delighted that we were trying the eel and came out especially to talk to us and to give us origami gifts! The eel was tasty, but made all the better by the Snickers bar afterwards in the park! The afternoon was a gentle climb in the the hills, using the longest, original stone-paved path remaining of the Nakasendo through woodland.
Day 5 was a fairly gentle walk, but great day. We walked about twelve kilometres, through woodland, farmland and old post-towns. A couple of the post-towns, Magome and Tsumago, are preserved as historical towns and albeit very touristy, are delightful and retain a lot of character and history. As a result it was a fairly slow day, with a number of stops for information, tea, coffee and souvenirs. From Tsumago we caught a taxi to a local onsen to have a hot, remedial soak to revive us from a day of progressive eating, which still hadn’t concluded. Rather fortuitously the onsen was also associated with a beer brewery, so that also aided with rehydration afterwards!
Day 6 was a lovely day, but a long twenty four kilometres albeit on fairly easy track and road mainly through woodland and farming hamlets. We climbed a hill to the site of Tsumago Castle which has long since disappeared, but the views of the surrounding mountains make it quite obvious why the site was chosen from a defensive perspective. Apparently the local Daimyo successfully warded off Tokogawa’s army here, which was several fold larger than the Daimyo’s. Tokugawa was so impressed by the Daimyo’s bravery in fighting him with such a small army, that when he became Shogun he gave him a very favourable plot of land despite being an enemy! However so this could never happen again he also had the castle dismantled. We walked across a wooden footbridge suspended over the Kiso river, originally built in 1912 across the widest part of the river, because the engineer “could”.
Day 7 was again fantastic, but with more eating than walking! It was essentially a day of two hill climbs interspersed with food and drink stops. We took a bus to the start of the first walk whereupon we came across a magnificent hundred meter waterfall (Karasawa-no-Taki) followed by a steady climb to the Jizo pass at 1355m, named because of the Buddhist deity at the top. The pass has wonderful views of the valley below (Kaida Kogan) and surrounding mountains.
After lunch and a quick visit to a local horse stables we climbed another hill (1425m). The horses reminded me of Mongolian horses, very short, stocky power houses. They were very friendly and seemingly docile. In Japan this breed of pony is known as the Kaida horse and the Kiso Valley is famous for these ponies. The second pass was a bit more work, but we were rewarded with spectacular views of Mount Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan, and the Kaido Kogan. Last October, Mount Ontake erupted spewing rock and noxious gas, killing fifty hikers. It has only just reopened to the penultimate station. We couldn’t see any obvious ongoing activity from where we were standing, but I guess that is part of the unpredictability of volcanoes!
Day 8 was an easy walking day and then train rides in the afternoon. First we visited a beautiful old Shinto Shrine. The Shrine had originally been at the Tori Pass (1200m) and had been there for about 1500 years, but was being damaged by the elements and the villagers had moved down the mountain to the valley, so they decided to move the Shrine down from the pass and relocate it in the village. The carvings above the Shrine were carved from a single piece of wood and are exquisite. It was then a gentle walk back down the other side to Narai, another preserved Edo village which again was very picturesque. After lunch we then travelled back towards Tokyo on three successive trains to the post-town, Karaizawa.
Day 9 and our final walking day, we walked just under twenty kilometres. The majority through beautiful temperate forest with the sun dappling through the trees. The first hour was a gradual climb to a fantastic lookout over the surrounding mountains and valleys including Mount Asama. The next fifteen kilometres were a gentle, long descent until we got to an old disused rail track that bypassed the town of Yokokawa, where after a wasabi ice-cream, we started the afternoon of train rides back to Tokyo. In the centre of Tokyo we walked the final kilometre of the Nakasendo Way to what is still considered the centre, from where all distances to Tokyo are measured. It was strange being back in such a thriving metropolis and being back in Tokyo after a month or so of travelling around Japan.
After a quick turn around we headed straight to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is currently undergoing renovations, but nonetheless was appropriately harrowing and left me feeling overwhelmingly sad, empty and numb. The audio guide was excellent and made the exhibits come to life, making the personal nature of the tragedy very real. The horror of the atomic bomb, dropped at 08:15am on the 6th August 1945, is still felt very deeply by the Japanese and they do not want war to ever be an option again and are vehemently against nuclear armament. The three meter long and four ton bomb was detonated six hundred meters above ground and destroyed almost everything in Hiroshima within a two kilometre radius. It contained fifty kilograms of uranium, only about one kilogram of which underwent nuclear fission, but even this caused the equivalent energy release of 160,000 tons of high-performance explosive. The immediate effects of the explosion, heat and radiation is thought to have killed approximately 140,000 people, although the longer term deaths associated with the radiation remain unknown.
The museum is situated at one end of the Peace Memorial Park, a peaceful and reflective open space with a number of memorials to the victims of the atomic bomb. At the entrance to the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims is a monument symbolising the time the bomb exploded, surrounded by water dedicated to the many victims who died crying out for water. The Hall of Remembrance shows a three hundred and sixty degree panoramic picture of the devastated area as seen from Shima Hospital, the epicentre. Below the panorama are the names of the neighbourhoods that made up the city prior to the bomb. Outside is a screen of constantly changing photographs and names of those that died. It is a harrowing reminder of the suffering humans inflict on each other. In the centre of the park at one end of a pond is the Flame of Peace, which it is said will not be extinguished until all the world’s nuclear weapons are destroyed. There is also a statue dedicated to the children who died as a result of the atomic bomb, inspired by Sadako Sasaki, who died at the age of eleven from leukaemia after being exposed to the atomic bomb aged two. She believed that if she could fold one thousand paper cranes, which represent longevity and happiness, she would survive. She was unsuccessful, but her story inspired many around the world and she has become a symbol of the nuclear disarmament campaign and world peace. At the opposite end of the park to the museum stands the only surviving building, the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was almost directly below the bomb and although all the occupants were killed and the building gutted, as a consequence of its position it survived. The building’s preservation was controversial, but in 1996 it became a UNESCO Heritage Site. It looks starkly beautiful lit up beside the river, but is a grim reminder of harsh reality of Hiroshima’s modern history and human destruction and terror.
The following day we ventured to an island just off Hiroshima, Miyajima. It is a small, forested island with a 535m hill with deer, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and is again UNESCO Heritage listed. Going over by ferry you pass the oyster farms and just before the ferry port is the photogenic “floating” O-Torii Gate a few hundred meters off the shore in front of the Itsukusima Shrine. So we could appreciate the Shrine and Tori gate at high tide (we arrived at low tide) we decided to go straight to the Buddhist Temple, Daisho-in, and walk up Mount Misen, before the hoards of tourists arrived! The Daisho-in is beautiful. It is nestled in woodland at the foot of Mount Misen with fabulous gardens, a pond, pavilions and all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies filled with Buddhist artefacts. The walk up Mount Misen is also lovely up a good path with innumerable steps, shaded with trees and accompanied by the odd deer. The views at the top are great and the day we were there the sun was glorious and the sea and surrounding islands looked mystical in a light haze. It was well worth being sweaty and tired for!
The next few days we had a fair bit of train travel on the Shinkansen around the southern island of Kyushu, which is famed for its onsen and natural beauty.
Arriving in Beppu in the afternoon, our first impression was of a tired and dreary seaside resort, past its peak. Beppu is a geo-thermal hotspot, renowned for its hot springs (onsen) and bubbling outlets of varying kinds (“Hells”). So after a lunch we went to our first onsen, Hoyoland. This particular onsen is a mud bath onsen and all I can say is that is in need of the renovation, is pretty seedy and I felt like I needed another shower at the end! An odd experience and the worst onsen.
We then hit the theme-park-like “Hells”. We took the advice of the local Tourst Information lady, thank god, and only visited the best three of eight. Essentially they are individually themed areas of bubbling geo-thermal outlets, the first was bubbling mud, the second was a turquoise lake and the third a red clay lake both with steam rising off the hot and toxic water. The number of steaming hot gas outlets all around Beppu are quite amazing, it looks like the whole town is going to explode at any time. We then visited the second onsen of the day, as we had learnt that the Japanese consider it “de rigeur” to visit at least three in a day so we thought we would try to fit in! The second onsen, Hyotan, was a much more pleasant experience. We started with a hot sand bath, which didn’t really do it for us, but then moved on to the more traditional hot spring baths, which were lovely and well worth the effort.
Another morning train journey and we arrived in the city of Kumamoto, the main attraction being its castle. The current building is a reconstruction (1960) of the one built in 1601 to 1607 and destroyed in 1877 in the fifty day siege of the Seinan Rebellion, which was the inspiration for the film “The Last Samurai”. The fall of the castle resulted in the final demise of the Shogunate period and reinstatement of Emperor Meiji. The six floor main tower now houses a museum of the history of the castle, but fortunately most of it is in Japanese giving me a great excuse to just admire the views rather than read all the information! The walls around the castle again demonstrate the brilliant, earthquake-proof engineering that we have seen both in Japan and South America that are both so earthquake prone and yet have many examples of masonry that has survived centuries.
We then moved on to the capital of the southern island of Kyushu, Fukuoka and we definitely started to slow down! The first day we wondered around until mid afternoon, first visiting the Yanagibashi Fish Market which was interesting but small and then Canal City Shopping Centre. The shopping centre, which opened in 1996, was considered “futuristic” at the time but now is really just quite a nice open-planned, light and airy shopping centre with all the usual brands.
After lunch we visited the Kushida Shrine, a Shinto Shrine which traces its history back to AD 757. Finally we headed to the Tochoji Temple which is said to have been founded in 806 AD by none other than the intrepid spiritual leader Kobe Daishi (Founder of Shingon Buddhism). The temple is not particularly impressive as a building, but houses a 10.8m wooden Buddha carved in 1992, which is quite striking and worth a visit.
Our second day in Fukuoke was pretty relaxed and we just meandered around town soaking up our last day or so in Japan, without much of an agenda other than visiting the Asian Art Museum, which was a great little museum showing a collection of contemporary art from around Asia.
A long, but exceedingly comfortable and efficient Shinkansen trip back to Tokyo saw our last twenty four hours in Japan’s capital.
- Tokyo to Hakone (and back): two buses and three trains
- Tokyo (Haneda Airport) to Hokkaido: plain
- Shikotsu-Ko to Sapporo: bus and train
- Osaka to Koya: train through bamboo forest, followed by lush cedar, pine and fir forests, a five minute steep ascent by cable car and finally bus. The journey itself is outstandingly scenic and the cable car an impressive feat of engineering!
- Tokyo to Hiroshima: speedy, efficient and comfortable 4.5 hours Shinkansen (Bullet train).
- Suimeiso (Hakone): Lovely traditional Japanese Inn with its own onsen. Our room was typical, with one large, simply furnished room used as a sitting room, dining room and bedroom. The floor is covered with tatami (closely woven straw) mats and for dinner low tables and cushions were brought in and then removed and replaced with thin “futon” mattresses for sleeping. During our stay we were looked after by a lovely lady called Megume, who attended to all our needs including serving breakfast and dinner in our room. The food was all traditional Japanese, meticulously prepared and presented with two to three courses each consisting of three to five very small dishes. The food was all restaurant standard and really beautifully presented, but I have to admit that we are now a little “fished-out”! In our Inn, they had public onsen which are essentially used as public bathhouses to wash and clean yourself. The “open air” onsen are purely for relaxing in the hot mineral water and segregated by sex as you do not wear anything whilst soaking. The third type, which we used are the private onsen. For a fee, you can book a small private onsen, to enjoy together privately. It is the only way that men and women can share an onsen, otherwise they are all segregated. It was a great way to relax after our hike and melted away the aches and pains!
- A mix of Japanese ryokan, Japanese Inns (Hokkaido). The common theme with all of them was that they all had “onsen” (natural mineral hot springs), which was a blessing to relax in at end of a hard days walk! Most onsen had two baths of different temperatures and often an outdoor bath. One warning for the uninitiated, the male and female baths often change each day, so that everyone can enjoy the full range of baths, so you need to be a bit careful which changing room you enter!
- Nan-In Temple (Kōya-chō): it was an interesting experience. Unfortunately we didn’t get much interaction with the monks, of which there seemed to be three and a novice. Our room was a simple, but functional Japanese tatami room where we slept on a “futon”. The futons in Japan are not like the IKEA versions we think of, but are simply thin mattresses laid out on the tatami floors. The pillows are cases filled with rice. The meals were inevitably beautifully presented and quite tasty vegan meals (breakfast and dinner), served by the monks. In the morning at 06:30 all guests are invited to attend the morning “service”, which we did on the first morning. The temple itself is lovely with typically elegant Japanese aesthetics, dimly lit lanterns, dark wood intricately carved and richly embroidered hangings. It contrasted tastefully with the often ostentatious gaudiness of many religious interiors. The “service” itself was a simple chanting of some sutras, accompanied by intermittent drumming from a single large drum, a bowl-shaped symbol and a bell. Incense of course burning throughout to add to the ambience. Unfortunately we had no idea what the service was all about, but enjoyed the spectacle nonetheless.
- Clearly one of the highlights of visiting Japan is the food, and as foodies we had both been really looking forward to exploring both the food and the sake. It hasn’t disappointed! We have now had the opportunity to try most of the major types of cuisine including of course a fair amount of sushi, sashimi and tempura, but also Shabu-Shabu which is onomatopoeic for the sound of the bubbling broth that you cook the wafer-thin sliced beef and selection of vegetables and noodles in. You then dip these tasty bites in a selection of equally delectable sauces. Yakiniku which is essentially a self-cooked barbecue, with high-grade thinly sliced marbled beef which is again then dipped in sauces. Yakitori which are various chicken cuts, grilled on skewers and Okonomiyaki which is a Japanese “pancake” made with a pancake base (usually), noodles, any other ingredients you can imagine, an egg and tasty HP sauce-like topping. We both really love sake, although are still pretty ignorant when it comes down to the details and hope to address this during the next few weeks. However, ignorance hasn’t stopped us having a tipple or two and exploring a few local Izakayas, which are the Japanese versions of a bar or pub where you can enjoy a tipple with a “snack”.
- Osaka is obsessed with food and consequently with a reputation for being a place “to eat until you drop”. It has a few local cuisines that it’s particularly famous for including octopus balls (small balls of light choux-like pastry with a bit of octopus in the middle) and okonomiyaki (a pancake-like meal with cabbage, sometimes noodles, a selection of seafood and/or meats, sometimes an additional egg and a Japanese barbecue sauce).
- One of the most striking cultural attributes of Japanese people is how polite and helpful they are. Every time we spent more than about thirty seconds looking at a map, someone came over to us and offered to help, to the point of even escorting us through busy rush-hour subway stations to make sure we got on the right line! In the pouring rain, a lady ran out of her house to offer us an umbrella, stating that we didn’t need to bring it back! Even in crowded shops, the shop-assistants go out of their way to help make sure you buy the right thing, even when they don’t speak English they will do everything they can to help including either finding someone who can or persisting with amateur dramatics. For a westerner, the most amazing thing is that they want nothing in return and genuinely are concerned that you have a good time in their country!
- Another thing I love are their toilets. Firstly they are all without exception spotlessly clean. Secondly there are often toilet seat sanitisers, and nearly always the option for a “clean” and/or bidet as part of the toilet “menu” on the panel at the side of each toilet in all public toilets! I have to admit I haven’t utilised this facility yet and am building up courage, but just love how seriously they take their hygiene.
- It has to be said that train and subway travel in Japan is a pleasure. The stations are clean, with all the shops you could possibly need, great toilets everywhere, helpful staff, signs all in English and the trains are clean and always on time. The platforms are labelled clearly so you know where your car will be, and there is always an orderly quiet queue, with absolutely no pushing or shoving and no mobile phone conversations. It is considered very rude to talk on your phone or for it even to ring in public!