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.”

An Essential Honshu Photo Blog

Looking through all of the tours on the Inside Japan Tours website, I began to realise how hard it would be for me to choose a tour if I wasn’t leading them. There are so many fantastic places in this tiny country and every single one of them is completely different from the next. Still, I can say that one of my favourites is undoubtedly ‘Essential Honshu’….although the tour is now called, ‘Classic Japan’ staying at beautiful ryokan in Takayama and Kamikochi national park.  The cultural experiences are no less special!

By far the best pictures from this tour were the ones out at bars and restaurants, sitting around the campfire, dressed in yukatas… but, in an effort to protect the anonymity of an amazing group of individuals, I have refrained from posting those. Instead, here are some of my personal highlights from the last two weeks.

 

 

My 14th climb to the top of Mt. Fuji was as magical as all the others. Yes, there was some rain…. well, lots of rain. But it was worth it for the night time views of the surrounding area. Beautiful!

 

It is hard to stop and slow down when there is soooooo much to see. But every once in while it’s worth spending a half an hour in a Japanese cafe.

 

This is said to be one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan. You won’t get any arguments from me! (especially if you happen to be looking around sunset with a beer in your hand… ahhhh)

 

The bullet trains all look amazing from the outside but the Sakura is definitely the best on the inside. Why? you ask. Draft beer on the trolley cart. Yep, pretty nice. Could life get any better?

 

Some people like Kiyomizudera more than others. But I can promise you that the more times you visit the more you appreciate what an amazing monument this is. My 50th visit. オメデトウ!笑

 

Too mysterious for a caption…

This guy was clearly in charge. He couldn’t be bothered with the other monkeys or all of us silly humans trying to take his picture. Although, I will say that I liked him more this afternoon than I did the following morning at 5am when he and his mates were jumping on the roof of my cabin and squealing. Or was that Andy??? We shall never know.

In the heat of summer its tempting to want to get away from it all. What better place than Kamikochi? Views like this during the day, BBQ’s during the night. Ahhhhh.

Walking through the woods in Kamikochi…

Trying to cram two weeks of amazing experiences into a handful of photos is impossible. The above represent only the tiniest fraction of the great experiences that I was able to enjoy with a fantastic group from the UK and Australia. I thank you all for coming to Japan and truly hope that our paths cross again!

Tyler

Japan – still beautiful

InsideJapan Tours tour leaders have travelled the length and breadth of Japan and love it – That’s why they do it. One of the best things about being a tour leader in Japan is having the opportunity to show other people this stunning country along with introducing this unique and  beautiful culture.

Tour leader Steve Parker, is currently leading the Japan Unmasked tour which will be visiting Hakone (near Mt. Fuji)  and Hiroshima (next to Miyajima island). Having just completed a tour, he sent us this message with a couple of great photos.

“I was lucky to be leading around Japan again just last week with some eager travellers, who were blessed with sights such as those I captured on camera – Mt Fuji looking the most beautiful I have seen her in my years living and working in Japan, and a spiritual sunset on Miyajima island – famed as being one of Japan’s “3 great views”. Of course there were 101 other fantastic views, but I just wanted to share these gems with people.

The hospitable Japanese are waiting to welcome visitors with outstretched open arms to come and marvel at what their country has to offer. I am pleased to say that foreign tourists are returning to Japan  – the spirit of the land and her people as strong as ever. I therefore look forward with great optimism to sharing amazing experiences in the coming year here with more and more travellers” .

Steve Parker – InsideJapan Tours

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