A Travellerspoint blog


Last days in Japan

Hiroshima, Miyajima and Kobe

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.


Hiroshima was always going to be on our Japan itinerary for all the obvious reasons. After we had checked in at Hana Hostel (one of the best we've stayed in in Japan) we headed out to the sights.

 Hiroshima has numerous monuments, museums and sights commemorating the atomic bombing. We walked the full length of the Peace Boulevard through Hiroshima to the Atomic Bomb Dome. The dome used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall and on 6 August 1945, the atomic bomb exploded almost directly above it. Everyone inside the building was killed, but the  building itself was one of the few in the area that was left standing after the explosion. For many years it was discussed what to do with it and as one destroyed building after the other was torn down, it was felt that this should be saved, as a memorial.

The A Bomb Dome

The area around the A Bomb Dome was completely destroyed and is today the Peace Memorial Park (and world heritage site). On the way to the museum, we passed the Children's Peace Monument. There was also a display full of origami cranes sent from children all over the world. It was the young girl Sadako from Hiroshima, who when sick of leukemia, decided to fold 1000 cranes believing that it would help her get well. She died before she could finish, and her class mates finished it in her place.

Children's Peace Monument

Paper cranes made by children all over the world 

Peace Memorial Park with the flame of peace, that will only be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon earth has been destroyed

The Peace Memorial Museum was very good and quite overwhelming. It gave a very substantial and comprehensive presentation of events before, during and after the bombing. It covered historical, political and technological aspects, as well as providing gruesome testimonials from during and after the bombing, including photos of victims with horrible burns and melted skins. One story we both had noticed was that of a mother who after the bombing kept going to the bus stop waiting for her daughter to come home. Her daughter never came, but the mother kept going anyway, day after day.

Models of what the epicentre looked like before and after the bombing

Hiroshima was a military centre before the bombing but has now become a strong advocate for peace and nuclear disarmament. The museum showcased an impressive number of Hiroshima conferences and declarations on peace. There were also copies of the letters that the successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent to the ambassadors of countries that have conducted nuclear tests, the mayor always hoping that this will be the last letter of its kind they will ever send. It is impossible to imagine anyone visiting Hiroshima and not leaving fiercely opposed to nuclear weapons.

Copies of letters the Mayor of Hiroshima has sent to ambassadors after their respective countries have conducted nuclear tests

Hiroshima is a surprisingly nice city. It's big but much easier to get around than Tokyo or Osaka and the rivers and greenery makes it a very pleasant place. It's amazing that out of such complete devastation such a pleasant and vibrant city has risen.

Miyajima - one of the three most beautiful places in Japan?

Miyajima is a small island (UNESCO world heritage site...) less than an hour from Hiroshima. It's known for its beauty (somewhere listed as one of the three most beautiful places in Japan) and is one of Japan's biggest tourist attractions. We had been told that we had to go there so off we went, aware that it was Sunday and most likely busy.

Our first and main stop was the Misen, the highest mountain of the island. We decided to walk up rather than taking the ropeway. The ferry and the main town of the island might have been very busy, but the trek up the forest path was surprisingly calm. And steep. When we reached the summit after about 45 minutes we were quite beat! Mind you, the estimated climb time was 90 minutes so we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Truth be told, we were sick of the crowds and keen to get back to Hiroshima to do some shopping so that spurred us along!

Miyajima is full of deer which are tame

On the way up

The view from the top of the coastline and the dotted island was just amazing and we could definitely see why this place is known for its beauty.

Views from the summit of Misen

On the way down, we had quick look at the temples. In one of them is a flame that has been burning continually since it was lit 1200 years ago.  The flame was used to lit the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.

A very old fire

Once down (and here we took the rope way), we headed to the ferry. First we stopped to have a look at the famous vermilion torii of Itsukushima-jinja. At high tide, which it kind of was when we passed it, it looks like it is floating in the water. It was a running "snap". We had shopping to do.  You may have guessed that temple fatigue has become a problem.

The torii of Itsukushima-jinja

After lunch (and our last noodle soup in Japan!) we took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima, after a very pleasant day at Miyajima.

Last day in Japan

We were to take the ferry from Kobe on the Tuesday and had plenty of time to get there from Hiroshima, given that it only was two hours with the Shinkhansen. We therefore decided to stop in Imbe, known for nothing but pottery. We arrived in a very small and, by all accounts, dull town. We had a look in a number of pottery shops. The Imbe pottery is beautiful with very earthy, dark tones. It was soon clear, however, that the prices were way above our budget.

In one nice pottery shop, the owner offered us to have a look at the kiln used to make pottery - quite an impressive device!

Beautifully set out pottery shops but with prices way above our backpacker budget

Trying to find lunch, everything turned out to be closed. Luckily, the always reliable FamilyMart was open, so we got some sandwiches there before getting back on the train.

When in Kobe...

Apart from catching the ferry to Shanghai, we had only one thing planned in Kobe - tasting the Kobe beef. We asked at our hostel for a recommendation and were told to go to Mouriya. It was supposed to be a good place but, said the girl in the reception, very expensive. We decided to interpret that as "reassuringly" expensive. 

After having found Mouriya, which turned to be a Russian cryllic spelling - not sure why - we were seated and shown the menu. Of course the prices outside the restaurant turned out to be prices, not for Kobe beef, but for something that was "almost as good". Having come this far though, we decided that it was worth paying the extra for the real thing, thinking that the food better be good.

We had been allocated seats around the cooking area and next we were allocated our own chef! We were delighted when it turned out that he spoke some English. He started by frying slices of garlic and while they were frying, carefully organising our plates, putting salt, pepper and wasabi on them.

The fun has begun! The cooking started with garlic

Plates with Wasabi, pepper and salt

While he was cooking, we got our hors d'oeuvres (a tuna and avocado mix), and starter (soup). Next, our pieces of meat were presented to us - one sirloin and one rib steak. We  couldn't but approve and indicate to the chef how we wanted them prepared (rare! He seemed to approve).

Our Kobe beef

Our assumption that this would be the first time we'd eat with a knife and fork in Japan turned out to be wrong. Instead the chef chopped up the beef in pieces and we could continue eating with chopsticks. Depending on what type and part of the beef it was, he gave us advice on what seasoning to use: "This is good with salt - just a little piece of salt", "Try this with wasabi!", "This one with garlic and a little salt!". Our favourite by far was to eat the meat with the crispy garlic.  He also cooked some potato, a Japanese root vegetable which reminded us of turnip, bamboo shoots and aubergine. These were also given to us a few at the time, with advice on what sauce to use with the respective vegetables. 

There was a "the world is small moment" at the restaurant too. There were three men having dinner there at the same time and it turned out they were here on business. A French, Spanish and American guy, they were all living in Qatar, working for the Qatar Public Museums. When hearing we were from Brussels and that Grant was doing competition law, the Spanish guy mentioned that the only person he knew in Brussels was a competition lawyer. That guy turned out to be in Grant's cycling group. What are the chances?

It was a really excellent meal and much more of an experience than we had expected. By far the most expensive meal we've had in Japan but again, when in Kobe...

After dinner, we headed to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for our 50 hours cruise to Shanghai.  New adventures beckoned...

Lastly, our hostel in Kobe gave us the answer to a question that has been haunting us ever since we arrived in Japan...

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:01 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

The Real Japan


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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

"If you want to see the real Japan, go to Shimabara." This is what our friend Remi Tissa said when he learnt that we were going to Japan. Remi spent two years teaching English in Shimabara and has become an unofficial ambassador for the town. Of course, we couldn't resist seeing the "real" Japan, even less so when it meant being looked after by Remi's good friends, of which there are many in Shimabara. In fact, we discovered that the Remi Tissa fan club is very much alive and well down here.

 Shimabara is situated on the Kyushu peninsula, in the Nagasaki prefecture. According to Japanese standards, it's "countryside", being a small town of "only" 50 000. It is most known for its volcano, which last erupted in 1991. It has also been the sight of the Shimabara Rebellion,  and an early base for Christianity (as well as severe persecution of Christians in the 1600s). And of course wherever there are volcanoes, there are hot springs.

In order to get to Shimabara from Kyoto we had to change trains in Osaka and Fukuoka and finally get on a small private train in Isahaya. At around 17h on Wednesday we arrived, very curious about what this town had to offer.

It's fair to say that the Shimabara-Tetsudo line train is not the slickest of Japan's railway stock...

Home in Shimabara - the local youth hostel where we were almost the only guests

What we found in Shimabara was the most fantastically warm welcome we could have imagined. Remi's old friends looked after us so well for the two days we were there, and made sure we saw all the local sights as well as eating the best local food. It was an experience we will never forget.

Hiro, our personal tour guide

Remi had put us in touch with Hiro, a former senior student of his and a local guide. When we arrived to our hostel, an envelope full of local information awaited us together with a handwritten note from Hiro welcoming us and offering his guiding services for the next two days.  Hiro means "wide knowledge" in Japanese, and over the next two days Hiro would certainly live up to his name!

At 10 am on Thursday morning, Hiro was waiting with his car at our hostel for a whistlestop tour of the local sites. Hiro is a retired bus mechanic with a brilliant knowledge of the history and geology of the Shimabara peninsula. He was born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where his father managed a mine, but returned to the Shimabara peninsula at a young age.  He has lived here ever since, but did take a three month round-the-world cruise when he retired a few years back.  Hiro took up English late in life and was full of praise for his old language teacher, Remi.

Hiro and Grant - we were so lucky to have Hiro as our personal tour guide for two days. His generosity and hospitality were overwhelming

Unzen volcano area

The first place Hiro took us on Thursday was the Unzen volcano area. Shimabara sits at the foot of an active volcano, Mount Unzen, which last erupted in 1991.  Luckily the death toll was low in 1991 due to there being plenty of pre-warning, though some scientists and journalists were tragically killed.  In 1792, the previous major eruption of the volcano provoked a simultaneous tsunami and thousands lost their lives.  

Shimabara is far from unique; a large number of the peaks you can see from the town are volcanoes and there are plenty of people in Japan living in similar situations. When we asked Hiro why people continue to live next to an active volcano, he laughed and said he has answered that questions from foreigners many times. Simply, this is home and Japan is a place where space is tight. Hard to argue with that!

Living next to a volcano may be hazardous - the shell of the old elementary school in Shimabara, burned out by the lava flow in 1991 and left standing as an eery monument.  Thankfully, this entire area had been evacuated months before the lava eruption so none of the students were harmed.

We visited the burned out shell of the old elementary school to see the devastating effects of molten lava on everything in its path - this building was at the edge of the flow but was burned to a shell. Thankfully the entire area had been evacuated in the middle of 1991 and the eruption finally took place in October, when all residents were safely out of harm's way.  The eruption had been building for the best part of a year; we saw incredible photos of students and teachers happily playing baseball in the school yard in May 1991 (just before evacuation) under towering ash clouds that cut out most of the sunlight. Hardcore!!

Since 1991, Shimabara has two new features.  First, right next to the burned-out elementary school stands a high tech observation building from which scientists monitor the volcano full time.  They can predict with great accuracy when eruptions will occur, as the events of 1991 showed. All the same, the second floor of the building is a "volcano-proof" bunker where scientists could shelter if stranded. Apparently it would only take 3 minutes from eruption for lava to reach the level of the observation building, so that bunker must be reassuring for those working there! 

The second new feature is a "forbidden zone" right in front of the observatory, which follows the path of the 1991 lava flow. Because this is the path a future lava eruption would follow, all building and farming in this fenced-off zone is now forbidden. It cuts a wide path through the countryside on the south side of Shimabara. 

The volcano observation centre sits right next to the burned-out elementary school and overlooks the "forbidden zone"

View of the "forbidden zone" from the observation centre

Explanation of the path of eruption in 1991

Two things about all this are remarkable: firstly, the very significant resources that are deployed around the clock to ensure the safety of citizens from volcanic activity; and secondly the accuracy of predictions about how an eventual eruption would occur.  The vast majority of the area around the volcano is deemed entirely safe; only the "forbidden zone" is off limits.  It is this that allows normal life in Shimabara to continue as normal even as it nestles under an active volcano.

Hiro took us in his car up the winding road to a rope way (cable car) which took us to the peak next to the volcano, Myoken-Dake (1333m). From here we could see at close quarters the "lava dome" left from the last eruption on top of Unzen. Every eruption here will change not only the shape of the volcano itself, but also the surrounding countryside.  The setting lava flows will produce new hills and mountains in the area, as well as extending the shoreline further out to sea.  Prior to the 1792 eruption, Shimabara's shore sat a good 150 metres further back than it does today, somewhere in the middle of the town's shopping arcade.  Where will it be in another two hundred year's time?

Views at the top of the mountain of the lava dome and the surrounding area - Japan's oldest golf course is up here as well as lots of onsen (hot springs)

On the steps to the peak of Myoken Dake from the rope way, we met a group of local octogenarians out for a hike. They were extremely cheerful and especially excited to see two foreigners up the mountain. They asked if they could have photos with us, and then began paying us compliments and wishing us health and happiness in various different ways, which Hiro patiently translated.  Perhaps the final enthusiastic wish from the leader of the group was a bit too racy as it provoked hoots of scandalised laughter from the rest of the elderly hikers and Hiro politely said he could not translate the message!

This elderly hiking group revealed to us the secret of Japanese longevity - hiking up mountains and engaging in smutty banter!

Hot springs and the bloody history of Shimabara peninsula

Living under a volcano isn't all bad - the same forces that are producing molten lava are also heating the water under the ground, meaning this area is full of natural hot springs. Next stop on the tour at the foot of the mountain on the opposite side from Shimabara was the "jigoku" or boiling mineral hot springs.  The Japanese word literally means "hells" - bubbling sulphurous natural wells in the ground.  Today they are a tourist attraction and are used to boil eggs, which we sampled. Very tasty (and not black, like the ones in Hakone). In days of old, the use of the jigoku was far more gruesome: a number of Christian martyrs we boiled alive in them during the period of persecution.

The jigoku produce very nice hard boiled eggs. It is bizarre to see the earth bubbling and hissing everywhere you look here

We also sampled the foot spa in the coastal town of Obama, on the other side of the mountain. The hot water used here comes from under the sea - a sea so warm through geothermal activity it was used by the navy in days of old to remove barnacles from the underside of their ships - and is channeled into a 125 metre public foot spa that looks out over the sea.  It's a seriously civilised asset for the residents here. There is even a designated zone at the end of the foot spa where household pets can wash - great place to be a dog! 

Enjoying the foot spa in Obama, with views over the sea

In case you are wondering, the US President has not yet been to his namesake's foot spa, as far as Hiro is aware, but we think it should be on Barrack's list of places to visit...

Hiro took us for lunch in Obama to sample some of the excellent local speciality - champon - noodles with mixed seafood, meat and vegetables.

Champon for lunch

Last tourist stop of the day was the ruins of a former castle on the outskirts of Shimabara where around 30,000 Christians lost their lives in a botched rebellion in the 1600s, which led to a siege of the castle lasting several months.  While the views it across the peninsula are beautiful, the dreadful history of this area for Christians, persecuted by buddhists, is hard to fathom.

Stunning view across the water from the peninsula at the spot where a castle formerly stood. It is hard to believe the scale of the atrocities that took place here in the 1600s

Home for tea

For the last stop of the day, Hiro was kind enough to invite us to his house where we were treated to coffee, homemade Japanese cakes and hand-picked local strawberries.  Hiro's wife, Matue,  had spent the morning picking strawberries at a local farm and had filled half her kitchen with them. Here in Japan they are a winter fruit - large and very sweet - and we enjoyed doing our bit to help eat them.  Matue even gave us a big box of strawberries and homemade cakes to take away with us!!

Enjoying coffee, cakes and endless strawberries chez Hiro

Day two: more sights of Shimabara

Hiro took us out in his car for a second day of sight seeing in Shimabara on Friday. We kicked off with Shimabara's famous Samurai houses and the town's natural springs where residents can fill up anytime with some of the country's finest natural spring water.

Samurai houses including early domestic drinking water system

Helena getting into samurai ways

One of Shimabara's  public water springs

We finished up with a trip to Shimabara castle at the heart of the town. There we enjoyed some very interesting exhibits on local history, including the Christian persecutions. We especially enjoyed the samurai outfit exhibits, and the chance to try some samurai gear on.

Of all the ancient Japanese warriors, the Scottish samurais were the most feared...

Mighty Shimabara castle

Hiro took us out for another excellent lunch, this time to a local fishermen's cooperative, where we enjoyed among other things whole deep fried fish which are eaten in their entirety - heads, bones and all! Delicious.

Lunch at the local fisherman's cooperative on Friday

Our guided tour finished here and we parted with Hiro, so grateful to him for his brilliant and generous guiding. We could never have discovered so much of the area, nor eaten so well, without him.

That afternoon, we relaxed, wandered the town and prepared to move out the next day for Hiroshima.  It was fun to check out the town and see what a novelty we were to the local residents.

Relaxing in Shimabara on Friday, we bumped into more friendly locals such as the guys at the Shimeiso villa who plied us with free green tea, and Junichi Shimizu who runs a local cafe we stopped into - conversation was limited to sign language at Shimeiso villa, but we enjoyed a long chat with Junichi

Enjoying Shimabara by night

While the days were dedicated to sightseeing, we experienced Shimabara's nightlife in the evening, a fantastic experience thanks to Remi's friends. On the Thursday night, Yuko, an old friend of Remi, picked us up at our hostel and took us into town for some dinner. There we were joined by her friend Erika, who had moved back to Shimabara after several years in London and Tokyo, Yuko's husband Yutaka and their cute six year old, Ibuki (who in a most impressive way endured a long dinner with adults speaking nothing but English! We must have done something right however, as he gave us two of his origami books. We look forward to practicing our skills on the long ferry ride to Shanghai!).

The izikaya (local restaurant) is run by friends of Yuko. She'd confirmed with us before hand that we liked sushi so we were expecting a sushi dinner. That would, however, turn out to only be one of many delicious dishes Yuko would order. 

The excitement was there from the very beginning. To start with, we had small bowls of fish. We asked what it was and were told "It's blowfish (also known as poison fish or fugu in Japanese)". We were very excited. Blowfish is, as you may know, a highly poisonous fish and it can, if not filleted in the correct way, be lethal. There are several deaths reported each year caused by eating incorrectly prepared blowfish. For this reason, only chefs with a special "blowfish license" are allowed to serve it. Luckily, Yuko's friend is one of those people. So why, you may wonder, eat it if it involves so much risk? The simple answer is that it is so delicious, a fact we can now confirm having eaten it.

Blowfish - delicious, and deadly if not properly prepared

After the blowfish it was time for delicious sushi, noodles, various types of skewered meat, noodles, deep fried cheese and asparagus sticks, grilled vegetables, mushrooms, clam and cabbage soup and, of course, beer and sake. Just as we would think, "this is it, there couldn't possibly be anymore" - no, the doors would open and the friendly staff would come in with more trays with food that Yuko had ordered via the intercom on the wall. This is by far the best meal we've had in Japan and we really enjoyed chatting to Yuko, Yutaka and Erika and getting the chance to ask all our stupid questions about Japan. 

An exceptionally good dinner with Yuko, Yutaka, Ibuki and Erika

After dinner, it was bedtime for Ibuki so he and Yutaka headed home while we went with Yuko and Erika for another drink in one of the local bars. It wasn't, however, the bar Remi has said that we had to go to as it was closed that evening. Instead, we headed to Shin's bar with Erika on the Friday.

Shin's bar is one of the coolest we've been to and Shin himself, is a very cool and nice guy. We really enjoyed sitting at the bar and chatting to him. He runs this bar at night but during the day he designs and maintains gardens. It started as a small project but he now has more than 200 clients. Where he gets the time and energy to do all this work and be a dad we don't know. He also manages somehow to find time to go fishing. Apparently though, his wife doesn't allow him to go fishing every week-end. He showed us the sign Hiro had showed us earlier in the day when talking about his wife, which seems to be universal sign Japanese men use to show when their wifes are angry: the two index fingers pointing up on each side of the head, like a bull. 

When Shin heard Helena was Swedish, he immediately mentioned Haglöfs as he is a big fan of their fishing equipment. Apparently there is only something like three shops selling Haglöfs in Japan, so a friend in Tokyo sends him gear. We of course showed him our jackets and daypack and had a long discussion about the beauty of Haglöfs. If they ever wanted a cool face for a Japan campaign, Shin is definitely their man.

Shin making excellent cocktails behind the bar

Enjoying the ambiance of Shin's bar, Neon

Shin is a fan of American soul and it was playing throughout the night on his turntables. When he heard we'd been to Brazil he popped on The girl from Ipanema. The wall behind the bar was full of hundreds of albums.

After a while the bar filled up and in addition to Japanese guys, several English teachers showed up, originally from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They did seem a bit surprised that we were there as it isn't the obvious stop for tourists. These were the successors of Remi, though clearly there is no replacing him in the eyes of Shin and his other mates here!

After quite a few beers and Shim's cocktails and much later than we had expected, it was time to head back to the hostel. Erika and Shin didn't let us pay for any drinks, despite us insisting. We said goodbye to Shin, hoping he would take us up on the offer to come and design our garden one day (whenever we end up having one, that is). We also said goodbye to Erika with whom we had spent two excellent nights out. She said she would try to come to Sweden one day and we can only hope she does, so we get the chance to return the excellent hospitality we enjoyed in Shimabara.

Behind Shin's bar, one of the best we've been to!

Early next morning, we caught the ferry to Kumamoto, where we would take the train up to Hiroshima. 

We really had an excellent, unforgettable time in Shimabara for which we owe Hiro, Matue, Yuko, Yutaka, Ibuki, Erika and Shin a huge thank you. And of course, it wouldn't have been possible without Remi.  

Waving goodbye to Shimabara, where we spent a couple of excellent days, from the ferry taking us to Kumamoto

Posted by Grantandhelena 08:14 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

Neon lights and 2000 temples

Osaka and Kyoto

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After Nikko we had decided that it was time to go to Kyoto and have a look at its famous temples. However, being the cherry blossom season and the week-end we struggled to find accommodation for the first night. We therefore chose to spend one night in Osaka before heading to Kyoto. A great decision as it would turn out.

Osaka is a big city west of Tokyo, famous for its food and night life. There is also lots of sightseeing to be done but we decided that there would be plenty of that done elsewhere in Japan; what we wanted was a proper night out.

Getting to Osaka from Nikko means passing back through Tokyo. Our tickets left a connection time of precisely 7 minutes in Tokyo between Shinkansen trains; this would seem very optimistic anywhere except Japan.  But of course we were deposited from one train perfectly on time, followed the signs to the next platform, and hopped on our connecting train with a couple of minutes to spare. It's things like this that just make Japan so easy to travel in.

After having checked in at our hotel (which was an entirely automated process by the way), we headed to the Minami area which supposedly is THE area to spend a night out in Osaka.  So it proved to be. Neon lights, floods of very trendy people, noise, restaurants, bars... It was more like the "crazy", "Bladerunner" Japan we had imagined before. It was great wandering the streets just taking in the atmosphere.  

Saturday night in Osaka looks something like this

We decided to try the local speciality "okonomiyaki" for dinner. It's like a huge pancake with different fillings, covered by something that resembles British brown sauce, mayonnaise, and a fried egg for good measure.  Reading our description now, we should maybe clarify that it was delicious - as is everything else that we have tasted in this country. We've only had sushi - something we both love - a few times - we've been too busy trying the different specialities. There is so much more to Japanese food than sushi, sashimi, tempura and teriyaki!

Okonomiyaki is an Osaka culinary speciality and Chibo restaurant is a long standing specialist in making them

After dinner and a few drinks at a bar we ended up where any good night out in Osaka (or anywhere in Japan for that matter) should end up - a karaoke bar. It was the kind of place where you get your own room with a TV screen and awesome speakers. Included in the fee was unlimited drinks, ordered by remote control and delivered by a smiling waitress.

We decided to go for one hour and got started - ABBA being the obvious choice to warm up! Then it just went on. Suddenly the staff came and told us we had ten minutes left. Without hesitating we asked for another hour. This was just too much fun. An hour later, with barely any voices left, we gave up our booth, happy. Highlights? Probably Backstreet Boys' "I want it that way", Oasis' "Roll with it" and Roxette's "Joyride". Bon Jovi's "Living on a prayer" brought us back to our wedding... (and by the way, we've just had our five year anniversary!). 

A few shots from the karaoke booth

We left Osaka really liking the place.

Let's face it, there can be such a thing as too many temples

Kyoto is much more than a failed climate change agreement. It's home to more than 2000 temples, several of them so spectacular that they have been UNESCO world heritage listed. Unlike, for example, Nikko, the temples are spread out over a big area all around the city and public transport is a must to get around the different sights. 

As mentioned a number of times, this is cherry blossom time and peak season in Japan. This means that we were not alone when we embarked on our Kyoto temple spotting tour on Sunday, after having left our stuff at the hostel. We visited these incredibly beautiful temples (we'll let the photos speak for themselves) but unlike in Nikko, we couldn't really get a feel for the spirituality of the sites, as we were too busy dodging out of people's photos and trying not to step on Japanese children (second objective achieved, not so successful on the first one).  Maybe with hindsight, choosing a Sunday at the height of cherry blossom madness to see Kyoto was bound to be a little overwhelming...

We were not alone on the streets of Kyoto

A funny thing about Kyoto is that many Japanese tourists dress up in kimonos  before going on their temple tour.  We got some photos of that and of a geisha (real or fake, who knows) who was on a break from a photo shoot. 

If you're a Japanese tourist, the thing to do in Kyoto is to dress up in traditional costumes


First temple of the day, Kiymizu-dera

And more temples...


Pensive moment at the path of philosophy

Biker and dog, out for a ride. Nice to see that pooch not only had a helmet but  said helmet was Harley Davidson-branded as well

The geisha show was cool

On Monday morning our primary objective was to get tickets to the Miyako Odori, a geisha dance show. Kyoto is the "geisha capital" of Japan (anyone who has read "Memoirs of a geisha" might remember that it is set in the Gion quarters of Kyoto). Only, the geishas here aren't called geishas, rather they prefer to be called "geiko". Throughout April you can watch a geisha dance show (because of - you guessed it - cherry blossom).  We had read great reviews and were really keen to go. Luckily, we managed to get a couple of tickets.

Waiting for the fun to begin at the Geisha show

The geisha (or geiko) show was really special. The theatre was very tastefully decorated and nicely lit up. At 12.30 on the dot the music and singing started, performed by an all female orchestra sitting at the either side of the stage. It's the kind of music with a very distinct type of  singing you may remember from old Japanese films. And then in they came, the geishas. All beautifully dressed up in amazing kimonos, with the distinct make-up and hair you associate with geishas. For one hour, different dances were performed by different groups of geishas, some of the dances being more like a piece of theatre (some geishas even played men). It was really beautiful and graceful and by far a Kyoto highlight.

Some snaps from the Miyako Odori geiko dance - taken clandestinely despite ban on photography. Dedication to the blog

We agreed to take a temple break for the rest of Monday and just wander around and do some shopping instead. It was official: we were suffering from temple fatigue after only one afternoon.

Cherry blossom...

We keep mentioning the cherry blossom but it is actually worth a paragraph of its own. This time of year the Japanese go mad (a bit like Swedish midsummer) and it's easy to see why - the country is suddenly full of trees in various shades of pink and it is beautiful. We started off quietly laughing at people taking photos of cherry blossom but it turned out the laugh was on us - it didn't take long before we were doing the same thing.

"Ahhh, check that out, so much cherry blossom, better get a photo"

"Wow, lots of cherry blossom trees along the river, hold on, let me get a photo"

"Let me get a photo of you in front of this view (which has cherry blossom)"

"We should really get a photo of cherry blossom at night"

"These guys are having a picnic under the cherry blossom (always on blue tarpaulin - why?!) let's get a photo of that!

And so on.  We have said, a number of times, that enough is enough, no more cherry blossom photos, but if you look at how many photos the Japanese, who actually LIVE here, are taking of it, we are bound to take more.

People taking photos of cherry blossom

Back on the temple track

Our last day in Kyoto we were re-energised and ready to see some more temples. Our temples of choice were a bit outside of town, closer to the mountains, which turned out to be a very beautiful setting.
First temple of the day, the UNESCO listed Tenryu-ji. The garden was spectacular.

Shoes off when you go into Japanese temples

After the first temple, we walked through the famous bamboo grove. The lonely planet describes it as "entering another world"... Not so sure about that. It felt a lot like the over-crowded world of the rest of Kyoto in cherry blossom season.

Grant couldn't see the bamboo forest for the bamboo trees

Next stop was the home, or rather garden, of the late actor Okochi Denjiro. 

Remember this guy from old samuraij films? We didn't, but nonetheless enjoyed the stroll around his garden

Nice view from the garden

Frothy green tea and cake was included in the entrance fee

We met a really nice couple from Canberra there, whom we later bumped into on the train going west the next day. They had the ideal set up - retiring early and travelling lots!

Next up was the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Around 200 monkeys live up on the mountain, which is a brisk hike up from the river. We had seen some Japanese monkeys briefly while in Nikko, but this time we were able to get really close to the monkeys - quite aggressive little critters, it has to be said - and enjoy some beautiful views of Kyoto.

Lots of monkey business up here

Our last temple of the day (and indeed in Kyoto) was the Kinkaku-ji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It's beautifully placed in the middle of the water and the surrounding areas are fantastic. UNESCO listed? You bet.

Last temple in Kyoto - it's gold and UNESCO listed

It was with a very light step we walked towards the bus stop after our last Kyoto temple. No more crazy temple crowds, at least for a while. In the evening we enjoyed our best udon noodles so far, just around the corner from our hostel. On the sign language instructions of the friendly guy dining next to us at the bar, we added generous lashings of chilli powder. Grant didn't stop hiccuping for an hour after the meal.

And just when we thought we had Japan figured out...

...we get surprised once again - a vending machine selling ties

The next day, we would board yet another Shinkhansen in search of "the real Japan"...

Posted by Grantandhelena 12:02 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Sampling rural Japan in Nikko

snow 0 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Searching for more of the great Japanese outdoors, we headed north of Tokyo to Nikko, just beyond Odewara. Nikko is a UNESCO world heritage site (yawn - not another one!!) on account of its temples, and also renowned for its mountain scenery.  Unfortunately the area has been hard hit by the Fukushima disaster, given that it is north of Tokyo - even though it is a long way from the fallout zone, many tourists simply will not travel north of Tokyo.  We were told that in 2011 Nikko had just 3% of its 2010 tourism activity level - a staggering indication of the effect of the tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Temples, temples

Straight off the train from Hakone on Thursday, we stashed our bags at the station and walked up through Nikko town to find the world heritage area. This is a collection of various temples dating in origin from the 8th century and surrounded by magnificent cedar woods on the north side of the town.  We spent a good few hours wandering from one temple to the next along wooded pathways. It was especially cool to see the famous wise "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys over the Tosho-gu shrine. 

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

We were lucky that the crowds were pretty light and also these were the first temples we had seen in Japan so we really enjoyed taking them in. We think it's best to let the photos do the talking!!

The spectacular temples in the cedar woodlands of Nikko at Tosho-gu were founded 1200 years ago

Dedication to blogging - wireless signal is a hard thing to find in Japan so when Helena found some on the street in Nikko, we had to stop in the bitter cold to post an update on Cairns. We hope anyone reading this appreciates that commitment!

Getting Zen

The place we stayed in in Nikko deserves a whole section of its own. We chose "Zen Hostel" as a rural hostel where we could enjoy the countryside and an authentic Japanese "vibe". We had to take the train 20 minutes outside Nikko's main town to a small station where we were collected by the hostel owner, Scout. We then drove about 15 minutes on twisting, narrow mountain roads, through dense cedar forestry to get to the hostel, which sat next to a quiet road among the pine covered mountain scenery and overlooking a stretch of crystal clear river.  The setting is idyllic.  The hostel used to be an onsen (the showers are in the old onsen block downstairs) but is now just a place to stay, and a very nice one at that.

Zen Hostel - a little slice of Japanese mountain paradise

Our room was simple and spacious, Japanese-style - i.e. reed mat flooring, mattresses on the floor and sliding Japanese door.  In the lounge were huge, wooden tables low to the ground which guests sat around on the floor. There were thick blankets running from the table to the floor that you could use to cover your legs and a heating system under the table kept your legs warm. It was just as well since we discovered that Nikko in spring is a cold place, especially when your hostel doesn't have any central heating! 

Grant sampled the river next to Zen Hostel on our last morning - he lasted about 10 seconds in the freezing water before running for a hot shower

Zen Hostel's owner, Scout, is a force of nature. He is an American married to a Japanese girl, who has been living in Japan for several years and recently bought what is now Zen Hostel. When he is not baking his own bread for guests to enjoy for breakfast, he can be found driving guests all over the area in his free shuttle bus, making delicious pizzas, diagnosing any and all computer problems, discussing his Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet conspiracy theories, oh ... and running Zen Hostel. We enjoyed hanging out with Scout and finding out about his story, the hostel and the area.  We found it particularly amusing that Scout was convinced we must be Lonely Planet reviewers or travel writers given the amount of questions we bombarded him with - when he reads this blog entry he will finally understand to his relief that we are no more than inquisitive amateurs!

We also met some interesting fellow travellers at Zen - a pair of Dutch scientists, some Portuguese sisters (one a psychologist, the other an artist) and a French biologist. Incidentally, this is a trend in Japan: it attracts older travellers, often a bit geeky (we fit right in, obviously), and with an interest in the culture of the country. It must be said it makes a very pleasant change from only meeting gap year surfer/party types on the East coast of Australia.

Grant and Scout outside Zen Hostel in a rare moment when the latter was standing still

A seriously cool eating spot in Nikko

On Scout's recommendation on Thursday night, we headed to his neighbour's house up the hill next door.  Hide Watamabe runs Cafe Seiryuin Yamagoya in his house, which sits on a hillside overlooking the river. 

It was a memorable dinner. We were the only people there, as if we were Hide's personal house guests. We sat in his front room and he explained we could either have simple Japanese food, or his speciality Thai green curry - we went for the green curry, and Hide headed into the kitchen next door to prepare it for us. The food turned out to be delicious, and presented to absolute perfection: when the cherry tomato on top of the side salad fell to the side as Hide set the plates down, he frowned and carefully replaced it before letting us start to eat.  

The surroundings in Hide's place felt curiously Scandinavian - wood everywhere, and a simple, cosy design to everything. We were admiring the beautiful wooden furniture in the room, and Hide then explained that he hand carved all the furniture himself from local wood - the chairs we sat on, the table we were eating off, even the chopsticks we were using! 

A delicious meal in the home of Hide Watamabe - not only did he make the excellent green curry, but also the chair, the table and the chopsticks!

Home made banana juice, biscuits and orange for dessert, all presented just so. Fantastic

Hide himself - a picture of sophistication and a very good cook

We enjoyed the whole evening so much, we bought a couple of sets of Hide's hand carved chopsticks as a souvenir and headed off down the hill under a full moon and cloudless sky to follow the river back to the hostel. What a place!

A chilly spot for a hike

On Friday morning we awoke to a fantastic breakfast of bacon, pancakes and toast prepared by Scout. Since Japanese people eat rice and noodles for breakfast, a good American breakfast becomes all the more appealing when travelling here.  Scout then gave us a lift to the main town and we headed off in the tourist bus up a steep, winding road to discover the Nikko mountain area which starts at around 1,200 metres altitude.  

The temperature dropped by a good 10 degrees between the town and our first stop at Lake Chuzenji.  It was absoltutely freezing and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by snow for the first time on our trip. Unfortunately longjohns and gloves didn't make the cut when we packed our backpacks in February...

Beautiful Lake Chuzenji - the temperature tested our backpackers' wardrobe to its limits!

Slightly bizarrely, several nations have ambassadorial residences at the lake side, including Italy, France and our adopted land of Belgium.  The views are spectacular but we didn't see any sign of life in them.

Helena got no response when she tried to call on the Belgian embassy staff at Lake Chuzenji - presumably they were on their "pause"?

We visited the beautiful Chuzenji-ji temple on the lakeside, with views right over the lake and on to the next door Mount Nantai.  The most impressive thing in the temple is a wooden statue of Buddha that is actually 1200 years old - not a replica as with many of the temple buildings in the area.  The statue is called Tachiki Kwannon-bosatsu and is six metres high. It has eleven faces and tens of arms and hands carved out of the trunk and branches of a single tree.  The monk who showed us around the temple told us the statue was even "living" - something we took to be a piece of religious marketing until he clarified that the single tree from which the statue was carved actually still has living roots! After 1200 years it is no longer growing but the tree statue is very much alive. Amazing!

Chuzenji temple and the 1200 year old living wooden Buddha statue

From Chuzenji lake we hiked (alright, we took the shuttle bus part of the way but it was bloody cold!) up to Yumoto, lured by the promise of onsen - Japanese hot springs - at the top.  We followed the Senjogahara nature trail through woods and open moorland passing through spectacular mountain scenery.  We saw just two other hikers the whole time and had the pleasure of making fresh human footprints in the snow on most of the trail as we went - only a fox had beaten us out that morning. 

Scenery on the Senjogahara trail to Yumoto - bitter winds and snow made sure we did not hang around

We stopped at the impressive Yudaki waterfalls just before Lake Yunoko and the Yumoto Onsen area.  Perhaps even more impressive than the waterfall was the noodle soup we enjoyed in the restaurant there - made with three different types of mushrooms, one of which was tempura style, and great balls of the local speciality, yuba - the skin that forms when making tofu. Man, those were some good noodles!

Yudaki waterfall was great...

...but the noodles were spectacular!

After the exertion of the hike, it was time for some Japanese relaxation when we reached Yumoto. We paid into one of the many onsen hotels in the town and enjoyed wallowing in the hot natural spring water.  The area was so dead that we practically had the place to ourselves. Coming in from the cold to a hot, sulphurous bath is hard to beat. They also had an outdoor rock pool that was extremely hot so after 5 minutes or so you could jump from the hot water out into the fresh air and let the falling snow cool you off before jumping back in again. 

Readers will be relieved that there are no photos of this part of the proceedings!

After all that we headed back to town with the bus and to Zen Hostel for another night in the country. For the mixture of temples and the beautiful countryside, Nikko is definitely one of our favourite places on the trip so far. From here, Osaka and Kyoto beckoned. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 22:03 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

Meeting Fuji-san

Japanese style tourism in Hakone

semi-overcast 11 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Leaving Tokyo it was time for our first experience of Shinkansen, the Japanese high speed train. We were heading to Hakone, following the recommendations from Japanese people we'd met in Valparaiso and Sydney. Before getting started on Hakone, however, let us talk a minute about trains in Japan (this may be the first, but definitely not the last time this features on the blog). The beauty of our Japanese railpasses is that we can travel as much as we want all across Japan for two weeks, including on the very fast and very cool Shinkansen trains - that's bullet trains, for those who don't speak Japanese.

Waiting at the Tokyo central station, we were very excited when our train came into the platform. The train stopped and the passengers came out. The next step, however, was not us getting in. Instead an army of women in pink uniforms, equipped with brushes and vacuum cleaners, entered the train, one team for each car.

Firstly, they turned around all the seats so ALL the passengers could travel facing forward (which of course made us question why this isn't the case in Europe). Secondly, they vacuumed, wiped and brushed and replaced the head rest covers with new ones (which reminded us of Eric's recent experience with Aeroflot and their not so new head rest covers...). Thirdly and lastly they went to inspect their respective car once more and once satisfied, it was time for us to embark. Do we even need to say that the train departed on time?

After only around half an hour we reached our first stop, Odawara. Here we got our "Hakone free pass" which would grant us unlimited travel in the region for the next couple of days.

Hakone is a beautiful mountainous area south west of Tokyo. Its main draw is its many onsens (hot springs) and great views of Mt Fuji. Another attraction is the various modes of norimono you get to use with a freepass, including train, boat, "rope way", cable car and bus. You can do a nice loop using these different norimono - more about that shortly.

We arrived at Hakone-Yumoto (almost all villages in the area are called Hakone-something, very confusing) in the pouring rain and set off to our guest house. Our place was the only reasonably priced place that wasn't fully booked, an indication of how popular the area is. We had moreover read a few reviews which weren't exactly full of praise of the place. We didn't have much choice other than to take our chances and hope for the best.

Our place turned out to be very simple but not half as bad as we had feared so in the end we were positively surprised. Our room was traditional Japanese style hence very simply furnished. No sooner had we arrived before a lady came in with a big thermos of hot water. She showed us where the green tea and the cups were, bowed and then left. We were thrilled, a cup of tea was exactly what we wanted.

Another significant and unexpected treat was the fact that our place had its own onsen (hot spring), which guests had unlimited access to. With horrible weather outside, there wasn't much else to do than to go and soak in the hot water. It could be a lot worse.

The onsen

And voilà, the beds are out!

The next morning we woke up early, having a long day of sightseeing ahead. We were very happy to see that it had cleared up overnight but only dared to be cautiously optimistic, knowing that Mt Fuji more often than not is covered in clouds. Rather than taking the bus or train to our first stop, we decided to walk along the Old Hakone Highway towards Moto-Hakone situated by the lake Ashino-ko. We could see clouds rolling in over the top of the mountains and could only hope that this wouldn't mean that Mt Fuji would be covered.

Walking the meandering hills of Hakone

We stopped in the village Hatajuku to have a look at the local woodcraft. The local speciality is to glue together different types of wood in different colours and hence creating intricate patterns. Very beautiful - and not cheap. They can glue the different wood types together to make complex picture blocks; they then take a plane to the block and shave off layers, every layer being an identical wood picture.  It was pretty amazing but far too expensive for a souvenir.

Examples of Hatajuku woodcraft

After that we took the bus down to Moto-Hakone where it was freezing. We took a quick walk along the cedar tree avenue, through Hakone Sekisho, an ancient check point (and one of the best preserved in Japan). Back in the day (when Tokyo was still known as Edo), people traveling had to stop at these check points and present their tegata, a wooden plaque serving as passport, and subject themselves for inspection. Luckily this was not needed today as we were so cold and eager to get going.

Luckily nobody stopped us at the check point

On the way to Hakone-Machi we suddenly saw it coming out from behind the clouds - Fuji-san. Would we get any better views before the end of the day..?

You never forget your first glimpse of Fuji-san

In Hakone- Machi it was time for our first exciting mode of transport - a pirate ship. Only in Japan! While Ashino-ko is a nice lake, it's main reason for being a tourist attraction is the views of Mt Fuji. Still we appreciated the opportunity to go on a proper pirate ship!

The ship was called Vasa, but unlike the original, this one had obviously survived its maiden voyage

Posing with plastic pirate...

...only to later discover the real deal below deck!

Helena, Fuji-San and Red Torii gate

Sister pirate ship

With the first exciting type of attraction out of the way, it was time for number two: "the rope way". In no way did could we ever get lost or not know how to get to the next access point. The whole Hakone loop is just so convenient, in lack of a better word. You step off one piece of crazy transport, and straight on to the next. There are signs, arrows, time tables, photos, staff and various helpers everywhere so you always know where to go. And did we mention that everything leaves on time?

We stopped half way at Owakudani to check out both the splendid view of Mt Fuji and the volcanic activities. Owakudani is an area around a crater which was created in an eruption 3000 years ago. Today the volcanic activity is limited to hot springs and sulphurous fumes. We decided to ignore the smell and check out the springs. They were obviously smelly but very impressive nonetheless. The whole place has a doomsday feel to it.

Owakudani with its sulphurous fumes - for once it wasn't Grant!

Another thing we couldn't resist while there was to have some eggs. Yes, that's right. For 500 yen you can get five eggs that have been boiled in one of the pools of sulphurous goo. They are black on the outside but apart from that they seem very much like regular eggs. With the exception that these will prolong your life by seven years! If not, you can claim a refund. Er...

We did not envy this guy his job - boiling eggs in sulphurous hot springs...

This seems to be the closest we get to Easter eggs this year

Egg frenzy

While the eggs were good, we still needed some more sustenance and ventured to the footstalls inside for some local sweets, including ice cream with bean jam. Surprisingly tasty.

What better dessert after an egg lunch than a bun with bean jam filling?

And here, some more photos of Fuji-san, we were obviously very happy with the clear weather!

Fuji-san, again

Next it was time to get on the rope way again, after which it was time for a cable car and train back to our guesthouse. And what better what better way to reflect on a great day than to soak in the onsen...

Posted by Grantandhelena 17:00 Archived in Japan Comments (10)

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