Hidden Japan: A few highlights.

The highlights of a group tour always seem to vary.  Everybody has their own favourite thing or place.  These are occasionally predictable but more often surprising.  Drain covers?  Really?

In this post I have selected a few personal highlights from a recent Hidden Japan tour.

I start on day 3  in Himeji, a quiet town famous for its stately castle.  Unfortunately the main keep is still under restoration, but the mazy passageways and chunky earthen walls on the castle slopes remain a treat to trek around.  And even better than the castle was the neatly trimmed white-walled garden next door.  On our visit, we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

With the staff outnumbering visitors, we even got extra special service.  In a wooden one story building overlooking the garden, while sat on tatami mat floor, 3 kimono-clad ladies talked us through the tea ceremony.  We were treated like visiting lords – it was if they had been waiting for us all day.  Now I must admit, not all the group fell in love with the tea (typical problem: wrong colour + no milk), but everybody enjoyed listening to the teacher`s exquisitely polite explanation and demonstration.


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The day`s pleasant surprises were not over.  That evening we took a train to see a festival at a local shrine.  At the time, I was worried the event might be too small; I had never even heard of Kashima, the small town we were going to.  What if it was just a couple of old blokes standing around a candle?

As it turned out, the scale of the event did become an issue – the narrow streets were so jam-packed with people we barely had room to wriggle.  The atmosphere was like a rock concert.  The air carried around the smell of sake and the echo of the powerful drumbeat.  Giggling gaggles of young girls leant over the security ropes, closing in on the bare-chested men in loincloths carrying the colourful, towering mikoshis.

We even saw a rare glimpse of confrontation, two testosterone-charged members from rival mikoshi teams squaring up to each other.  The prolonged eyeballing and aggressive posturing was like a scene pulled from a yakuza film.

The next morning was more sobering but equally memorable.  A volunteer guide walked us around Hiroshima`s Peace Park.  Her cheery, relaxed, self-effacing manner concealed a quiet determination to tell us about the immediate and long-term impact of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and beyond.

Then came the whole day spent on the tiny green island of Miyajima.  We began the morning with a group hike to the top of Mount Misen.  Climbing at a gentle pace, we stopped regularly both to take a look into the woods and river alongside the trail, and also to erm…..breathe.   It is a steep climb, trust me.

From the observatory we had spectacular views out to the islands of the inland sea where the ferry would take us the next morning.

That afternoon was free for exploring.  A stay in Miyajima provides so many enticing options: the floating torii gate, the gnome-like statues at Daishoin, the map-eating deer, the chocolate-filled momiji sponge cakes and not forgetting the ryokan`s hot spring baths overlooking oyster farms in the bay.  My particular highlight was a dish in the evening banquet:  burdock root wrapped in conger eel – a magical mix of two of Japan`s finest, most underrated foods.

I have only mentioned 3 days of the tour.  There were so many more highlights, most of them unexpected:  the drunk, solitary salaryman`s haiku on the Matsuyama tram; the guided tour backstage of Japan`s oldest Kabuki theatre; the rainy morning on a forested, hilltop graveyard watching monks serve breakfast to a man 1200 years dead; the bizarre chat with the bubbly Moroccan chef about the BBC series, Birds of a Feather – “I lovvvvvvve Richard, ” he confessed.

These are only my highlights.  I am sure the group have different ones.

As the great man once said:  “A group tour is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get.”

Five reasons to visit the north of Japan

The beauty of Tohoku

Just fifteen minutes ago, before sitting down to write this, I was plunging into an outdoor hot-spring on the roof of my ryokan (Japanese Inn) watching the sun set over Sado Island, a lesser known destination off Japan’s north-west coast. With steam pouring into the cool air around me, I watched as the clouds and verdant hillside of Mount Kinpoku turned orange and then pink and purple as the sun dipped ever lower on the horizon, before finally disappearing into the distant Japan Sea. I was thoroughly lost in the moment, and I would have happily stayed that way had I not remembered that I was sharing this ‘magical moment’ with the four naked Japanese men who were also in the hot-spring. Strangely, and not necessarily for the better, I have grown all too accustomed to jumping into baths with naked strangers. Indeed, every night on my two week trip around Tohoku (northern Japan excluding Hokkaido) my companion and I have done as the locals do and finished off a long day of sightseeing with a dip in the onsen (hot-springs).

Yet this experience, as undeniably special as it was, has been only one among many. Which got me to thinking about what I like best about Tohoku.

A sample of what our nightly fare consisted of

Food! Food, food, food…. and food. At times it felt like we simply sightseeing in order to fill time until the next meal. Sure enough, delicious food can be found all over Japan but there is a plethora of local specialities in the north that make it different and exotic, even to a Japanese ‘foodie’ like myself. Staying in temples, hotels, and ryokans, every night has been a feast as artfully presented and as delicious as the one before. Fresh sashimi, whole crabs staring me in the face, tender slabs of marbled wagyu beef, oysters, nabe stews, noodles, tofu, black skinned pork, fried chicken, sushi… just to name a few.

A few shots from our time in the Ishinomaki area, still recovering and rebuilding from last year’s tsunami

A visit to one of the tsunami stricken areas is a harrowing experience but, for me, it was also one which inspired hope, reaffirmed my belief in the goodness of communities and their ability to come together in the face of disaster, and reminded me of just how many selfless organisations and individuals are working to rebuild the cities, houses, and neighbourhoods that were completely and utterly destroyed 19 months ago. The very short time that I spent volunteering in Ishinomaki is an experience that money simply can’t buy, and one that I would recommend to anyone with the desire to make a difference.

The nature of Nikko

Just a few short hours north of Tokyo is one of my favourite places to visit in all of Japan. Aside from the architectural masterpieces for which the area has become famous for, Nikko has great hiking, postcard perfect waterfalls, colourful foliage in autumn, wild monkeys and serrows, hot-springs, and cool summers. By all accounts, this is a “must-see” destination. Of course, as with most “must-see” spots, there is rarely a quiet day when you can get the best sights to yourself, which is all the more reason to make sure you spend the night at a traditional inn near the temples and go for a wander at night once all the crowds gone home to Tokyo.

Sado Island’s rugged coast

I ride on the comfortable Tokkaido shinkansen (the bullet train running between Tokyo and Fukuoka) weekly and spend much of that time gazing out the window watching as neat rows of exquisitely manicured green tea plantations and the many rice paddies squeezed between houses and cities whiz by. Some days even Mount Fuji makes an appearance. Yet every time I make this journey I am simply amazed at how developed this densely populated corridor of Japan is.

In northern Honshu (Japan’s main island) life moves at a slower pace, nature still reigns supreme, and small towns outnumber big cities. For anyone who has only been west of Tokyo, a trip up north will reveal a different side of Japan; and if you’ve never been to Japan at all, this might just be the Japan you’ve always imagined.

The natural and historic beauty of Haguro San is truly exquisite

The last on my list is most certainly not least; Haguro San is the smallest of three sacred peaks in Yamagata prefecture but it is far more than just another hill.

From what felt like a very ordinary road running through the middle of a small town, I stepped off the bus and walked no more than 20 metres through an old Buddhist gate and found myself in another world altogether. A bit like Narnia but without the talking animals. 2446 stone steps cut through giant cedars, lead me over an arched red wooden bridge, past a 1000 year old cedar tree, around a 600 year old ornate wooden five-storied pagoda, into a teahouse for a well deserved rest, and finally on to my accommodation, a Buddhist temple turned Japanese inn at the peak’s summit.

The quiet air and reverent atmosphere at the top of this pilgrimage destination left me forgetting completely about the cares and worries of my daily life in Tokyo. Instead of opening up my computer or flipping on the TV once the sun went down, I changed into my yukata (a light cotton kimono), had a boil in the temple’s bath and then sat down to a delicious almost-vegetarian feast and a large ice cold beer. This was surely the closest I was going to come to having a religious experience.

Bond. James Bond – The mysterious Gunkanjima

There are many recognised mysteries of the world such as Stonehenge, the Mayan civilisation, the Easter Island statues, the Loch Ness Monster, crop circles and more. One of the lesser-known mysteries though is a small island off Nagasaki called Gunkanjima or ‘Battleship Island’. The island also provides the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall” with a stunning location for Daniel Craig to do his best for Britain.

This 480m x 150m island was home to approximately 5000 people up until 1974 which is when the island and the Mitsubishi owned coal mines that brought people there, were suddenly abandoned…by everyone. The island has been out of bounds since 1974 but in 2009 a boat dock was added allowing paying tourists to get near the island for a glance at the heavily built up island. However, a ‘friend of IJT’ (who shall remain nameless) hired a fisherman to travel to the island in the early hours of the morning to see the island for themselves – true James Bond style.

The intrepid traveller (we shall call them Bond), snapped some sneaky pics from the hospital, the pachinko parlour, onsen and school. Bond also visited apartments which still had washing in sinks, kids toys on the floor and even a bottle of sake with cups lined up ready for pouring in one. It was as though people had left the island in a hurry and there is no indication as to why. Since the adventure, Bond has been told that such actions would have warranted deportation if caught. People in Nagasaki are seemingly uninterested about answering questions on the subject or are perhaps a little cagey.

Why did people leave the island in such a rush?
Why have people not been allowed to visit the island?
Why is the island still standing and the buildings not demolished?

These days you can visit the island which is approximately a 50 minute boat ride from Nagasaki. People are allowed to visit the island for about 45 minutes, but exploration of the island is strictly prohibited because of the dangers provided by the typhoon torn buildings….but is that the real reason??……

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Standing on the top of Tokyo

One of our recent Tokaido Trailers, Jenny Gillman, wanted to tell us about her trip to the Tokyo Skytree. Jenny was keen to go and see inside Tokyo’s newest addition to the Metropolis skyline for herself. Here is what she had to say about the 634 metre tower.

After a smooth flight and a warm welcome at the airport from my InsideJapan Tour’s tour leader (Harry Sargant), three of the group dropped bags off at the hotel in Asakusa and headed out to explore. We visited nearby Senso-Ji temple before the other two members of the group went off for a shop. I went off to discover the Tokyo Skytree which dominates the skyline in this part of Tokyo. One stop from Asakuka, with train guards to point me in the correct direction, I arrived at the Skytree on the Skytree train! After quite a few sets of escalators you arrive onto the 5th floor of the Skytree.

I queued for approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes and chatted to very friendly locals. After paying 200oyen we went up in a lift which opens onto the view of Toyko below – there was a collective “wow” when the doors of the lift opened to reveal Tokyo below. After seeing the whole of the city and a view of the bay (on a clear day you can see Mt Fuji) I waited another 10 minutes and paid another 1000yen which would get me to the very top! This lift ride would take me to the top of the worlds tallest freestanding building and reveal incredible view. It was well worth paying the extra money and I had lots of fun walking around the spiral walkway to the glass floor and standing 452.1 metres above the city!

The Skytree is a brilliant way the start any trip to Toyko, as it gives you a really good idea as to the huge scale of the city. There’s nothing like standing at the top of the world’s biggest tower in the worlds biggest Metropolis contemplating your trip beyond the horizon.

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