Saturday, August 25, 2018

Kanazawa to Mt. Fuji

Leaving Ducky we took the train to Kanazawa, something of an up-and-coming destination for tourism, meaning if you've been to the major sites but still want to go to a great secondary one, Kanazawa is high on that list.  Its best known attraction is the Kenrokuen Gardens, which are widely considered one of the top 3 of Japan, and the nearby Kanazawa Castle.  There is also a small traditional neighbourhood that is nice to walk around in.  The gardens were stunning and we spent most of our time just strolling around and through them.  The Japanese are more about landscapes than flowers so they really use the terrain to it's full potential, dividing it up into separate sections, usually revolving around water, whether a pond, stream, waterfall or fountain. The grounds around the castle were extensive and quite nice too.  If we had had a more flexible schedule I could've seen us spending more time there.

From the train on our way to Kanazawa

Kanaawa castle

Kenrokuen gardens

Historic neighbourhood of Kanazawa.

Our next stop was a brief one in the little village of Shirakawa-go.  It is listed as a Unesco site along with a few other nearby villages for their unique and well preserved architectural style involving very thick thatched roofs on wooden A-frame homes.  The village is small and feels fairly remote in a little mountain valley with some nice views.  It can get very cold in the winter and it almost looks like the roofs are thick hats on the homes to keep them warm. The only way to visit is by bus or on a tour, so we took the bus, stopped for a couple hours (all you really need) and then continued on a later bus to Takayama.

The village of Shirakawa-go

Takayama is a well known (some say tourist-trap) town in the mountains with easy access to nice scenery in nearby areas as well as many craft shops in the historic quarter to explore.  We must've been lucky because we didn't see that many people and ended up enjoying the town.  The historic quarter is just a few blocks by a few blocks, but the area along the river is also nice. There is a longer trail that goes around the back side of the city linking a handful of temples and shrines which made for a pleasant afternoon stroll.


Craft shops

From Takayama we caught another bus direct to Fujikawaguchiko (Sasha took a while to learn to say it but she remembered it better than I did just now).  Unlike the bus from Kanazawa to Takayama via Shirakawa-go which felt like it passed mostly through the mountains in tunnels and skipped the scenery, the first half of this ride was on some very narrow windy mountain roads with some great views.  Our destination, hinted at from the name, was a town at the base of Mt Fuji.  There are a few spots to base yourself near the mountain, or alternatively, people visit Mt Fuji on day trips from Tokyo, but it was on our way so we stopped at the most well connected town of the bunch.  It seems like a nice place.  Busy, touristic, but nevertheless nice.  We had a hotel room with a view of the mountain.  We didn't see it.  It rained nonstop and the cloud cover was so low we couldn't even be sure we were beside anything. 
We still had a nice visit to the Fujisan Heritage Centre, a little museum/visitor centre about the mountain itself.  Mt. Fuji has a massive influence on Japanese culture and so it is not surprising that there are all sorts of shrines and historic routes and starting points for ascents up the mountain to see around the base.  There are also 5 small lakes on the north and east sides of the mountain to visit and we walked along the closest one until we were soaked by the rain.  The stubborn tourist never wins against mother nature though so we left early and finally made it to Tokyo.

Lake Kawaguchi

A pilgrims temple at the base of Mt. Fuji


Tuesday, August 21, 2018


From Himeji we continued to Kyoto, arriving in the evening, too late to do much but gawk at the huge train station (we got lost trying to find the way out).  The following morning we met up with Ducky, a Japanese friend I've known for about 20 years.  He drove up on his own from Wakayama where he lives to join us for a whirlwind day in Kyoto.  Kyoto can't be done in a day.  It was my second visit and I've barely scratched the surface.  It needs lots of time or multiple visits. Or a lifetime.  As the former imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years, it has History.  With a capital H.  There are literally hundreds if not thousands of temples and shrines, gardens, parks and museums.  It is completely mental with tourist visitors but still a great city to visit.  Just don't ask me which temples to prioritize on a visit.  I've followed Ducky's lead both times and I was impressed.  This time we went to Kiyomizu temple with it's nice views over the city, the Imperial Palace, Maruyama park with the Chion-in temple. We also visited the Arashiyama bamboo grove on the west side of town which was nice, especially the nearby area along the river.  We were briefly mobbed by a group of school kids wanting to practice their English which amused Ducky and brought back old memories for me.  We were also lucky enough to see a couple of real Geishas heading off to work in the Gion area where the highest quality ones are traditionally from.

Special water at Kiyomiu temple.

View from Kiyomizu

Must have green tea ice cream

Arashiyama bamboo grove

Arashiyama area

A break to help with homework :)

In Gion

 The next day I hijacked Ducky and made him take us to Nara on our way to Wakayama so we could see the two Unesco sites there (a scenario that will feel very familiar to Savannah by now).  Nara was briefly the capital of Japan in the 700's before it was moved to nearby Kyoto, though its temples maintained power and influence for much longer.  In Nara is Nara Park, with a number of attractions, but of primary interest to us was Todai-ji, a Buddhist temple that was until recently, the largest wooden building in the world.  As to be expected with any 1300 year old wooden building, it has been destroyed and rebuilt a couple times, but impressively, the most recent reconstruction from 300 years ago is actually 30% smaller than the original.  It looks big, but you really have to get right up to it to appreciate its size.  Inside, of course, is a very large Buddha statue in a Japanese style.  Arguably the more famous attractions in Nara Park are the deer running around.  They are protected as sacred so there are over 1000 of them now and vendors sell "deer crackers". I'm not sure if people are feeding the deer or the deer are just mugging the people and taking the food...

Todai-ji temple

On the outskirts of Nara was our second destination, Horyu-ji, another temple complex whose pagoda is widely believed to be the world's oldest wooden building, dating to 607. Not that you can tell from looking at it. It was a much quieter and more relaxed temple complex to visit and we enjoyed a very quick run around the temples, shrines and attached museum. On our way back to Wakayama we made a brief stop in Osaka to eat some takoyaki (fried balls of octopus), a local specialty.

Horyu-ji pagoda on the right.


Takoyaki time!

 Last time I met Ducky was on my only other visit to Japan in 2009 and we had a blast.  He has so much energy and enthusiasm you can't help but get sucked into the fun.  His wife was pregnant with their first child back then and now he has 3 cute little daughters.  When we finally met his family, they were shy for about 15 minutes before taking a liking to Sasha.  We spent the next couple days hanging out with them, going to the park for picnics or burying each other in the sand on the beach.  Coming from a world where "helicopter parents" drive their teenage kids to school, it was a shock to watch his 6-year old daughter take off on her bike to ride to her music lessons on her own a few blocks away.  Have I mentioned that I can't imagine a country that feels safer and more polite than Japan?  We ate exceptionally well too but it came to an end all too soon and it was time to move on to the next destination.

Ducky's family

Beach at Wakayama


Friday, August 17, 2018

Hiroshima area

We flew from Okinawa to Iwakuni, a curious airport as it is actually a US military base that has only recently allowed a few commercial flights on limited routes, probably primarily intended for military personnel. For our purposes it was a more convenient way of getting to nearby Hiroshima than flying direct and we were able to quickly visit the pretty town of Iwakuni and its famous Kintai bridge with its multiple arches. 
The thing about Japan is that the natural scenery is breath-taking but in a polite kind of way.  It's almost like the Japanese have perfected the taming of wild scenes by adding just enough to accentuate or frame it, without really altering that much.  They see their beauty in a more delicate and subtle way and to truly appreciate it you need to adjust your mind and slow down your pace to take it in.  Kintai bridge was like that.  You have a beautiful little river valley, and some modest forested mountains, a little castle and then an oversized but unique pedestrian bridge that just somehow just fits and adds to the beauty.  We didn't have much time other to wander in the area of the bridge but it gave a nice impression.

Kintai bridge

The following day we visited Miyajima island.  It is a small island and a popular day trip just off the coast of Hiroshima. A quick ferry ride drops you off in a tiny town with deer wandering around and a walk of a few blocks takes to you a few picturesque shrines and temples.  The island is all about these, especially the "floating" torii gate which is built out at the edge of low tide so that when the tide comes back in it stands alone in the water.  I also really enjoyed walking up to the Daisho-in Buddhist temple that had lots of little stone Buddha statues lining the pathways, all wearing different knitted caps.  Miyajima was an enjoyable half day.  It was pretty crowded by the time we left but in addition to trying to trying to catch an early ferry over to have as peaceful a visit as possible, another is to consider the tides.  We were lucky enough to see the gate at both low and then high tides and the difference is a big one.  The high tide has the most appeal.

Deer in Miyajima

Shrines in the village
Miyajima village
Low tide

The torii gate

High tide

Now it is "floating"

Entry to Dasho-in temple

Love these guys

The next day we switched to a sadder tone and visited Hiroshima proper and its Peace Memorial Park, a collection of memorials commemorating the nuclear bombing of the city at the end of WW2.  It was the first city to ever be nuked and they have left some twisted wreckage still standing, more or less at ground zero and built a pretty park around it.  They've refrained from taking a harsh blaming or angry tone and instead focus on the destructive potential that must be avoided in the future. In all it is very well done and an important pilgrimage to make, if only to remind ourselves to beware of any "leader" casually tossing around the idea of using nukes again...  From the little we saw of the rest of Hiroshima it seemed like a very pleasant city and an easy one to get around on the local trams.  Hiroshima is also famous for it's unique version of Okonomiyaki which we found to be delicious.  It's a grilled "pancake" of batter, cabbage, noodle, meat, egg and other variable ingredients.  It sounds bizarre and looks really weird but you want one.  Just do it and thank me later.

A Peace Park memorial

Ground zero

Okonomiyaki is better than it looks

Our next destination was Kyoto, but between the two cities is the largest and one of the most beautiful castles in Japan, Himeji-jo.  Recently restored, it is now back to it's brilliant white colour which gives it its nickname of "white heron castle".  Built in the 1300's and expanded several times since, it dominates the city of Himeji and is more elegant than imposing.  Maybe with a few hundred soldiers or samurai in defense I'd change my mind...  In any case, it made for an easy couple-hour stop on our way to Kyoto on the train.  It wasn't too busy while we were there and the views from the top are very nice but the castle itself was more impressive on the outside. There was also a very pretty garden attached, divided into themed sections that we also enjoyed a quick stroll through.

Himeji castle dominates the city

Koko-en garden