Arrived in Kansai Airport, Osaka after an 11.5 hour flight on JAL. A very bumpy landing due to strong winds and driving rain, which had also closed the bridge to train traffic connecting the airport to the mainland (the airport is built on an artificially created island which, apparently, is sinking slowly).
Took a bus instead up to Kyoto, a 90 minute drive through the industrial sprawl that is Osaka/Kobe.
Checked into the New Miyake Hotel opposite the south entrance to Kyoto railway station, a thriving transport hub with frequent views of the futuristic Shinkansen (‘bullet’ trains that travel at c. 300kph). Steve Parker, our guide for the fortnight ahead, took us on a tour of Kyoto station during the evening, with a quick dinner stop in one of the many cheap restaurants in the vicinity, enabling us to get our bearings for independent excursions in the town and to understand the layout of this vast building.
|Kyoto station with Shinkansen (bullet train)|
Sunny with cold wind. A rather sleepy start as we’re now 8 hours ahead of UK time.
Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years and has a huge legacy of temples, shrines, palaces and tradition. Consequently, the image of Kyoto to the outside world is very much one of a traditional Japan but it is, in fact, a very modern city with a population in excess of 1.5 million, with ancient buildings intermingled with the new architecture of modern Japan, mostly laid out in a grid pattern.
Due to the fact that property was traditionally taxed on the linear frontage, Kyoto is characterised by very narrow but deep buildings, a feature you see everywhere in Kyoto.
Visit with local guide to the Nijō-jō and Ninomaru Palace, built as the Kyoto residence of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1603-16). Double moats, massive walls and watchtowers lead to the palace , a succession of five buildings lavishly decorated with screen paintings of the Kanō school and overlooking a lake garden. Not too much evidence of cherry blossom here yet, as there has been a cold spell over the last couple of weeks including some snow.
|Nijō-jō and Ninomaru Palace Water Gardens|
|Zen garden at Ryōanji Temple|
|Cherry blossom at Ryōanji Temple|
Next, on to the Kinkaku-ji in West Kyoto (Temple of the Golden Pavilion) which was also very attractive (but busy), where we saw the art of pine tree training and more cherry and plum blossom than we had expected. The pavilion originally formed part of a larger retirement villa built by the former Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408); on his death it was converted to a Zen Buddhist Temple.
|Kinkaku-ji in West Kyoto (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)|
|Lunch in Kyoto|
|Sannen-Zaka, Old Kyoto|
|Maiko (trainee Geisha) in Gion|
Quick breakfast in station café before taking a bus to Ginkaku-ji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion, a simple building set in beautiful gardens to the north east of Kyoto. It was built for the Shogun Ashihaga Yoshimasa. Amongst fabulous moss gardens and trees, we enjoyed a walk up the hill behind the temple to get the views.
|Ginkaku-ji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion|
|The Philosopher's Path, Kyoto|
|Heian Shrine, Kyoto|
|Gardens at Heian Shrine|
|Tea Ceremony at the Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō, Kyoto|
|Miyaki Dori performed by local geisha at the Gion Kōbu Kaburenjō|
Dinner on the 8th floor of a department store at an excellent tempura restaurant, then back to hotel bar.
Walking towards Nara’s Deer Park (with many tame deer begging food) we passed the Five Storied Pagoda and the Nara National Museum before entering the magnificent Todai-ji Temple, a World Heritage site. This is a huge shrine for the ‘Great Image of Buddha’, last rebuilt in 1692 and housed in the largest wooden building in the world. The entrance gate Nandai-Mon shelters two guardian gods. The Buddha is 15m tall and depicts Rushana (later, known as Dainichi Nyorai), the Cosmic Buddha and it is cast in bronze.
|Nara Deer Park|
|Giant Image of Buddha, Todai-ji Temple, Nara|
We then walked up the slopes of Wakakusa-yama, before reaching the stone lantern lined approaches to Karuga Taisha, a grand shrine founded in 768 as a tutelary shrine of the Fujiwara family – the Emperor still sends a messenger to participate in Shinto shrine rituals. Stone lanterns, donated by followers, abound, along with bronze lanterns around the outer eaves for the main building. Observed priests and priestesses in wooden clogs.
|Shinto shrine at Karuga Taisha|
|Stone lanterns at Karuga Taisha|
|Karuga Taisha, Grand Shrine, Nara|
Then back downhill to the town and had lunch with Steve Parker, our Exodus leader, enjoying soba noodles with local vegetables (sansai soba – thin buckwheat noodles).
Early afternoon we visited a traditional ink-maker, producing ink used for Japanese calligraphy. Having served a five year apprenticeship, he is the fifth generation of ink makers and he showed us how to sign our own name in Japanese script before hand-crafting an ink block for us to take away. An entertaining and unusual hour or so here, before venturing back into town to buy Japanese dolls and some calligraphy materials (which we’ll probably never use…).
Returned to Kyoto by train.
|Calligraphy and ink making in Nara|
|Japan's answer to the gropers!|
A bright cold morning with clear skies. Had an early breakfast of fruit and green tea, before an early meet to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Hiroshima. These trains are amazing, reaching speeds of 300kph and travelling on the tracks very smoothly. They also run to the second. Even the train staff bow as they leave each carriage to move through to the next one.
We reached Hiroshima and changed to a local line for Miya-jima and then caught a 10 minute ferry to this famous island, arriving about 1130. A flawless journey. Views to the island from the ferry were focused on the famous Ō-torii (1875), the entrance to Itsukushima-jinja (established in 1168) where Shinto priests worship the sea deity. Long corridors, red-colonnaded and lantern fringed, with open views to the sea, Ō-torii and the mainland beyond, including a New Age temple (exactly lined up with the Ō-torii). This led to an attractive little town with specialist gift cake shops and restaurants specialising in okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with vegetables, prawns, noodles and served with a sweet soy sauce).
|Ō-torii, the entrance to Itsukushima-jinja|
|Wedding in Itsukushima-jinja|
|Entrance to Daishi-in Temple, Miya-jima|
|Daishi-in Temple, Miya-jima|
|Momiji-dani (Maple valley)|
|Five-storied Pagoda, Miya-jima|
|Tahoto Pagoda, Miya-jima|
|Ō-torii from the Tahoto Temple|
Starting at the A-bomb Dome, the twisted wreck of the Industrial Promotion Hall, one of the few structures to remain standing despite being directly under the detonation of the world’s first A-bomb on 6 August 1945. 3km2 of this educational centre and garrison town was obliterated, leaving 140,000 dead by the end of the year. Over Motoyasu-bashi bridge into the nicely understated Peace Memorial Park containing the first statue to be seen, the Children’s Peace Monument, the base of which is permanently festooned with origami cranes, folded by school children all over Japan. We then passed by the Flame of Peace (which will not be extinguished until all the world’s A-bombs have been destroyed) and the Memorial Cenotaph. Into the Peace Memorial Museum, the tour taking about one hour.
The best feature of the park for me was the National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, which registers the names and photos of all the victims. A spiral pathway takes you down the Hall of Remembrance, containing a 3600 panorama of the city from the hypocenter. The panorama is underpinned by 140,000 ceramic tiles, one for each of the fallen. Beautifully done.
|A-bomb dome, Hiroshima|
|View from Peace Memorial Park|
|Memorial Cenotaph, Hiroshima|
|Shinkansen back to Kyoto|
Another fresh day dawns with a clear blue sky. And another early start, this time travelling from Kyoto to Takayama on a longish train ride, just under 4 hours, arriving Takayama at noon. We saw communities adjacent to the railway track pretty much all of the way – population density in Japan is very high – but it was an attractive journey into an increasingly rural landscape. Rice paddies, tea nurseries, bamboo forest and really tall pines. Eventually, after travelling east, north east, we turned north and followed a large river valley with deep gorges, reservoir dams – beautiful blue waters.
We were collected by the ryokan (family run traditional inn) owner from the station and taken uphill to an area where the ryokan was situated, adjacent to the Hida Folk Village, a nice spot overlooking the Central Alps in the far distance.
|Hida Folk Village|
Had lunch at a nearby restaurant, eating saisoba (soba noodles with mountain vegetables) and good locally brewed beer (ji-biiru) before a visit to the Hida Folk Village, an outdoor museum of over twenty traditional buildings from the Hida area. Large thatched buildings in a very attractive setting with lake and Shinto bell. Down past the craft shops and on to the Takayama Museum of Art containing glass collections and Art Nouveau interiors, including a section devoted to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and nice little café.
We subsequently rejoined the group for a few well-earned beers in the local micro-brewery, all brewed using wheat. Gillian got slightly pissed…a rare event indeed!
|Beer tasting, Takayama|
|Kaiseki Ryori, dinner in Takayama|
Up early but day cloudy with heavy bursts of rain. Had a comfortable night on the futon with lovely quilt cover. Taught yoga to some members of the group at 0700 before a Japanese style breakfast, which included miso paste and onions, wrapped in crisp seaweed nori, along with rice, mackerel, fried eggs, green tea and pickled ginger/daikon, plus vegetables with bonito flakes. Delicious!
|Yoga before breakfast, Takayama|
Into the San-machi Suji area of dark wooden merchant buildings and umpteen gift shops, wood carving being the local speciality. Had a fine lunch in a busy café near the bus station, enjoying gyoza (fried dumplings with pork inside) and good value yakisoba – fried buckwheat noodles with pork and fried egg. Yum…
|Sake brewery, Takayama|
|Main World Shrine, Takayama|
|Our minshuku in Takayama|
|Dinner at the ryokan|
An early start again into better weather. Train to Mina-ota reversing Friday’s route up to Takayama. Weather improved as we got further south with fine views from the train. Aquamarine waters of the river with deep valley sides covered in bamboo and some cherry blossom. Small farms with neat, low tea plantings. Incidentally, today everything is covered in sand from the Gobi Desert, having fallen with yesterday’s rain!
Passed through Tajima, Nakatsugawa to Nagito where we picked up a minibus to Tsumago, a completely restored village of Edo era houses, with very limited modern accoutrements like TV aerials allowed. Very pleasant but a bit twee, and, by late afternoon, attracting hordes of coach borne Japanese tourists.
|Bamboo forest above Tsumago|
|Japanese Alps from the site of Tsumago Castle|
|Exodus group above Tsumago|
Then back to Nagito station for a one-hour train journey up the Kiso Valley to Matsumoto. Bigger hills now, snow-capped peaks ahead, rather like the European Alps in the summer. We were picked up in Matsumoto by Mr Saruta, manager of Enjyou Bekkan, a ryokan owned by Japanese INN. A short drive through the very slow streets of Matsumoto before we reached the very pleasant but simple ryokan, situated in a residential area with hazy views of the mountains across a broad valley bottom. Chilled out, then walked a short distance to a nearby restaurant for an average tempura dinner. Early to bed.
Watched closing stages of the Masters before a Western breakfast for a change. We were picked up by bus for a tour of Matsumoto (‘Black’) Castle in the centre of town. A grey, drizzly day but it was an impressive site. Guided tour delivered by excellent local volunteer who spoke very good English. Interesting stuff before a tour of the museum and heading for a 1300 departure to Nagano, 48 minutes away.
|Matsumoto (Black) Castle|
|Defensive interior, Matsumoto Castle|
Interesting ride up and down hillsides at speed on a ‘Limited Express’ service, with packed lunch of yakitori (skewered chicken and pork, usually) and sushi (one found to include the rather unpleasant nattō, a fermented bean curd paste much loved by the Japanese for breakfast stirred into a bowl of rice, but definitely not for us). All rounded off with cakes and beer.
Collected at Nagano station, a large city residing in a basin surrounded by sizeable hills and mountains in the distance. The valley was filled with vines, orchards and nurseries…it’s a huge quality fruit growing area with produce much prized throughout Japan, especially the watermelons which fetch ridiculously high prices in Tokyo. There was a thirty-minute ride to Obuse, home of the famous Hokusai Museum, repository for woodblock prints (Ukiyo-e) of Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). Some good stuff here.
|Exodus group arrives in Nagano|
We stayed at Hotoshi Ryokan (another Japanese INN), whose owner is an expert in traditional archery, which he demonstrated to the group earlier in the evening…much ritual involved. Origami lessons were taken up on return from dinner…mainly cranes produced.
|The quirky Hotoshi Ryokan|
A brighter day, but still cloudy. Japanese breakfast, but avoided nattō with rice (unpleasant, slimy and bitter)! Took a stroll around Yudanaka before the coach arrived. Half hour trip to see the famed ‘Snow Monkeys’ who bathe in a ‘rotemburo’ at nearby Jigokudaii (‘Hell’s Valley’). Amusing and very photogenic. Steep sided valley with some rock fall beyond the rotemburo, and an extremely muddy path, which had to be ascended for about 30 minutes to reach the monkey park.
|Jigokudaii (‘Hell’s Valley’), the approach to see the Snow Monkeys|
|Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani, near Nagano|
|Interior of the Mansion of Heavy Snowfall|
We hit Tokyo’s rush hour on arrival, but quickly reached our hotel, the Gimmond, before heading out for dinner at a nearby izakaya, a pub restaurant, for some good value grub.
Rain. Had a late start into clearing weather. Took the Narita Express from Tokyo Central to cross town to get to Shinjuku, one of the busiest rail stations on the planet! A 10 minute walk took us to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where we had breakfast in a rather strange refectory on the 32nd floor (thank you Rough Guide!?!) before heading for the viewing platform on the 45th floor. Cloudy, but we got a great feel for the scale of Tokyo.
Back through Shinjuku to the east side, passing the enormous Nishi Shinjuku skyscrapers, and into the main shopping area with the usual Mitsukoshi and other department stores.
We caught the JR Yamanote line to Harajuku, grabbed a quick pasta lunch, then walked east along Omotesando (likened by the Japanese to the Champs Elysees, but this is stretching it a bit!). Purchased a hand painted silk scroll with coloured landscape created by Nishiwaki Hanka of the Ichiga Artist Society from a super little arts and antiques shop (Fuji-Torii on Omotesando) before walking back along Takeshita dori, a bit like Carnaby St or Camden Market, full of young fashionistas.
|High fashion! Takeshita dori, Tokyo|
|Meiji-jingu Shrine, Tokyo|
|Tokyo Big Sight from the Yurikamome Line|
Went to the American Embassy for breakfast (McDonalds to those of you who do not travel much!) as Gill was aching for western food again.
Then on to a guided tour, starting out on the Metro cross town to visit the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which was very attractive with blossom and some fine trees.
|East Gardens of the Imperial palace, Tokyo|
Then on the Metro to visit the Metropolitan Government Building (again!), this time with clearer views. Metro to Asakusa area, north east of central Tokyo, saw the Asahi Beer HQ (styled like a glass of beer) before a quick tempura lunch and a flying visit to the very busy Senso-ji Temple.
|Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo|
Metro back to the hotel to get ready for dinner with friends from HBS, Toki and Sachiko Ando. This was a fine affair, in a beautiful tatami room in Kitaohji in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Enjoyed kaiseki ryori again. Superb.
|Dinner with good friends, the Ando family|
Up very early to visit the thriving Tokyo fish market at Tsukiji. En route, we passed the Tsukiji Hongan-ji, an Indian looking Buddhist temple, before entering the frenetic wholesale markets area. Avoiding the ta-ray (motorized trucks) and hordes of delivery men on bikes and scooters, we made our way to the main fish market to see hyperactive auctioneers selling both fresh and frozen tuna (some huge in size) from the floors of large warehouse rooms. Other market areas sold all types of seaweed, and some of the weirdest fish you’ll ever see. Octopuses, squid, sea urchins, sea pineapples, to name but a few.
|Tuna being auctioned at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo|
Then, to Sushi Bun, a tiny sushi bar established 150 years ago and still in the family. In one of the oldest sushi bars in the world, specialising in fish caught in Japanese waters only, we were served with superb etoro (fatty tuna) and other fresh sashimi. At about £15 for a set, this was not cheap by Japanese standards, but it was worth it to watch others eat some of the most challenging sushi I’ve ever seen (especially at 0630 in the morning!), including tiny squid and anago (sea water eel).
Back to the hotel, took Gill for breakfast, then headed to the original Mitsukoshi store in Nihombashi (golf gear shopping, but thankfully ‘large’ in Japanese sizing is a size 10!) and then on to the fascinating Drum Museum near Asakusa, where many other shops in the district specialised in selling small shrines for in-home use.
Visited the bustling ‘Electric City’ at Akihabara, where there was an overwhelming selection of gadgets to suit all tastes and pockets.
|Electric City, Akihabara|
Back to hotel for a chill out before the final group dinner. A good night in a local restaurant where thanks were made to leader Steve Parker and more interesting food (such as tonkatsu, seared tuna in breadcrumbs) was enjoyed.
Homeward bound from Narita Airport, about 90 minutes from central Tokyo early on a Saturday morning. Uneventful 12 hour flight home.
|Farewell bows at Narita airport|