Welcome to Japan, Mr Bond

Sunday 23rd April 2017 – Yudanaka

The next day we visited the castle properly with our guide Kenji, who took us on a walking tour up though the 6 floors. It’s definitely not the same style as the European castles we are used to, and actually from what Kenji was saying not a place that anyone actually lived, but was used for meetings and ceremonies and during a war, a final point to retreat to and defend if you were on the losing side.


It’s a really beautiful wooden building with what appears to be 5 floors from the outside but actually has a secret 6th floor. They didn’t like to spoil the order of creating buildings with what appeared to be a prime number of floors so often had a floor that wasn’t represented on the outside.


It’s black woodwork gave it the nickname Karasu-jo or Crow Castle, and with the wind coming through every gap and our bare feet on wood, it was freezing but we climbed the steep staircases up to the 6th floor then back down into some of the side buildings including the recently renovated Moon Observatory.

It’s all very photogenic so here are a few shots of the very pretty moat, cherry blossom and random people dressed up as samurai or ninjas (the fan of death was a particular favourite) are below.



We were due out on a train at lunch time so took a wander around the lanes of Nawate Street, which is lined with little stalls and restaurants and seemed to have a frog theme…


Our next stop was the mountain resort of Yudanaka, but on the way we stopped off at the cute town of Obuse to visit the Hokusai Museum, dedicated to the works of Katsushika Hokusaim famous for wood block art. You’d know the most famous piece which is a print of a big wave and comes from a series featuring Mount Fuji. His most famous pieces from his time in Obuse, are currently on loan to the British Museum.. I don’t know, you come all the way to Japan…


After Obuse, we travelled by train to the mountain town of Yudanaka, it’s high and close to several ski resorts, so the temperature was definitely a bit lower than we were used to. We were met by the owner of the Yorozuya Yurakuan Annex – an immense 70s style concrete hotel, complete with underground tunnels and complicated lift systems – very Bond, You Only Live Twice, but the rooms are traditional ryokan and the hotel centers round a Onsen hot pool which is supposedly one of the top 10 in the country.


The onsen has two pools, that alternate between hosting male and female bathers through the day. As the ladies had been assigned the more scenic of the 2 pools, we put on our yukata and headed down in the lifts to the underground tunnel that takes you up into the old wooden bath house.  Here, like in the last place, you strip, wash and then can choose between 2 hot pools, one indoors, the other outside (and slightly overlooked, no kidding) both fed by piping hot water from a volcanic spring.  The second pool is set in a natural rock pool, with a pebbled floor and surrounded by trees and blossom.  It’s a beautiful if slightly odd experience.

That evening it was back on with the yukata and we were taken through the hotel (tunnels and all..) to a large private dining in room just off an amazing bar in a huge hall, and served another traditional ryokan dinner.  This one had sashimi, Shabu Shabu, soba noodles, rice, bamboo shoots and all sorts of tiny delicate bites to eat.  The effort that goes into producing such beautiful food is mind-blowing, though I just needed a martini, shaken not stirred to complete the 70s Bond movie effect!

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Traditional Japan in Takayama

Thursday 20th and Friday 21st April 2017 – Takayama

Up bright and early for the transfer to Takayama this morning, with a taxi to Kyoto station and then a train to Takayama. We were met at the station by Mr Murayama, who took us up the hill to his Ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. We were shown to our rooms, which are in the traditional Japanese style, with tatami mats on the floor, and futon mattresses. As Takayama is in the hills the temperature is a good 5 degrees below Kyoto so we were really pleased to see a huge fluffy duvet on each bed.

Bathing is communal in a ryokan though split by gender (apparently this was something the Americans introduced after WW2 as previously it had been mixed), and they use the hot spring waters (or these days a boiler!) to maintain a bath that constantly refills.

The area is called Hida, and is similar to Switzerland with lots of hills, streams and traditional houses with steep sloping roofs that stop the snow piling up. Just up the hill from our Ryokan is the Hida Folk Village which is a collection of traditional Hida houses collected from around the region in the 70’s and rebuilt here to show what a traditional village would have looked like.


The houses are a mixture of farm houses, storage sheds, and grander houses that had belonged to the heads of villages. They all had the extreme sloping roofs, covered in either thatch or shingle made of wooden tiles. Most of the living areas were on the ground floor around a central fire, with the upper floors for storage or for farming silk worms.

That evening we all got dressed up in the yukata robes provided in our rooms and went to the dining room for a traditional Ryokan feast. Mr Muroyama creates these from seasonal products he gets from the local markets and this evenings meal used every bowl in the kitchen to serve sashimi, tiny firefly squid, a candle powered hot plate that cooked up a beef stew with noodles and various other treats. Wayne loved the firefly squid which everyone else was a bit squeamish about so ate really well.

Day 2 and I started the morning by visiting the Onsen. You start with a shower and wash, then you are allowed into the hot bath – and when I say hot.. it’s really hot, I’m not a lover of a very hot bath so I lasted about 30 seconds before I felt like a lobster with a low life expectancy and went back to the showers to wash my hair. This one was indoors, and was a long room lined with showers with the bath in the floor at the end of the room so did have the air of a sports centre changing room. I’m told the next one on Sunday is outdoors and more natural.

After breakfast we headed into Takayama for a look at the morning market and a wander through the old town. The town has several blocks of beautifully preserved traditional buildings which are made of black stained wood – super stylish and full of lovely shops and restaurants.


We spent a couple of hours wandering before heading over to Centre4Burgers to queue up for their 11am opening. Hida is famous for its beef which is prized across Japan and really expensive, the couple at this restaurant serve the Hida beef as a beef burger but only have a limited number each day which usually sell out in the first sitting – so we needed to be front of the queue.

The restaurant is tiny and quirky, filled with bottles of whiskey and knock-knacks, but the burgers are sublime! We managed to eat our way through the day’s quota, so apologies to anyone else in Takayama who wanted one.

After lunch Wayne and I decided to try and walk off some of the burger and followed the Kitayama walking trail, before taking a coffee in the ridiculously cute Bean Hunter cafe at the bottom of the Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine. It’s run by a seriously adorable older couple who create coffee art with the latte.

Fired up on coffee we walked the Higashiyama Walking course which takes you through something like 15 shines and temples to the north of the town. The weather was stunning, the cherry blossom framed each view just so and the mountain streams which are carefully choreographed into little channels and streams, gurgled away. It was a gorgeous way to try to burn off some calories and we finished with a climb up the hill at Shiroyama park and a breather at the Takayama castle ruins.


Walking back down into town, we stopped at a Sake store, identifiable by the giant ball of cedar that hangs over the front door. This place lets you taste 12 different Sake, if you purchase a tiny little Sake cup for 200 Y – about £1.50. A little bleary we then staggered back up the hill to our Ryokan for another amazing dinner.


So that was our first experience of traditional Japan – futons on the floor are quite comfortable, the pillows which seem to be filled with beans take a bit of getting used to, the food is exquisite and use a lot of dishes, the landscape is stunning and the communal bathing is done at a really high temperature!

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Hiroshima and the Torii in the Sea

Wednesday 19th April 2017 – Hiroshima

An early start this morning as we were booked to take the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima for our day in the south-east, so up at 5:30 and on the train by 7. The bullet trains are something else, sleek white, perfectly clean (of course!) they look like concord has been repurposed to fly without wings.


Hiroshima is of course famous for the atomic bomb dropped on the 6th August 1945, at around 8am. We started our visit with a trip to the point commemorated as the epicentre, directly below where the bomb exploded mid-air. The entire area was almost completely decimated but the Industrial Promotion Hall  directly below is almost completely intact and has been preserved as the Atomic Bomb Dome Memorial to all of the people inside who were killed immediately, and all those around who died either on the day or because of the aftereffects.


The Peace Memorial Park is a green space crossed with paths that is bordered by 2 rivers and at it’s point still has the T shaped bridge that the bombers used to identity the drop spot. In the centre is a curved concrete monument that holds the names of all the known victims of the bomb, and behind is a Flame of Peace that is set to burn until all the worlds nuclear weapons are destroyed. Sadly that feels further away now than ever with everything that is going on.


Just to the north there is the Children’s Peace Monument inspired by Sadako Saski who was just 2 at the time the bomb was dropped. She wasn’t hurt at the time but developed leukaemia at 11 and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes, believing if she did it she would recover. Sadly she died before she finished, but her classmates folded the rest and the story inspired nationwide paper-folding which gets sent to the monument and is displayed in glass cases until the next batch arrives.



At the end of the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which is a harrowing collection of items salvaged from the area along with the stories of some of the individuals caught in the blast. The area had been damaged before the bomb so crews were sent in each day to keep roads clear for fire trucks, and school children who were 13+ were encouraged to join the effort. Over 6000 of them were in the area when the bomb was dropped and the shredded uniforms and stories of terrible suffering are really hard read.


It doesn’t leave you with any doubt that the use of nuclear weapons is unacceptable, the bombs that are around today are some 3000 times more powerful than the A bomb dropped here. I’m happy to pay the entrance fee for any world leader that needs reminding. If they need an extra incentive there are a team of instructors at the exit of the museum that teach you how to make your very own paper crane.

Our next stop was Miyajima a 40 minute train ride further down the coast and the location of one of Japans most visited sites, the red torii (shrine gate) of Itsukushima-jinga. This shrine gate sits out in the bay of the Sea of Aki, and at high tide it seems to float on the water shining brilliant orange-red in the sun.


To get there we took a train from Hiroshima then a car ferry over to the island of Miyajima. From the ferry terminal it was a short walk along a restaurant and shop lined walkway, past lots of cheeky deer, to the temple. Tempted by the excellent plastic versions of their dishes in the window, Wayne and I stopped for a quick lunch of Kaki Curry (fried breaded Oysters in curry sauce) and Osaka Donburi (chicken and egg with rice). Oysters are grown locally in the bay and lots of the restaurants were serving them, either raw, grilled in their shells, deep-fried or even baked inside a rice ball.

It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we walked to the Itsukushima-Jinja shrine and paid our admission fee. The shrine is right on the beach with piers out into the water, originally commoners were not allowed to set foot on the island so came to the temple by boat via the torii, today, there is land access so the piers make create photo points for the gate in the sun.



The main temple was being used for a wedding, and bless-em, they got a whole pile of tourists gawking at their special day which they studiously ignored. The ceremony had them stand on opposite sides of a walkway and looked as though it concluded with the passing of a bowl of liquid from one side to the other which they both drank from.


We took a walk around the cute little town then met the others back at the ferry terminal for our long 4 hour trip back to Kyoto. This evening we needed to pack a small bag for our next 2 nights in a Ryokan in Takayama. Who knows what you need for traditional Japanese living but we were about to find out..

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Precision gardening Kyoto style

Tuesday 18th April 2017 – Kyoto

Today we were back to good weather – hurrah! And headed off by bus to Kinkaku-ji known as Golden Pavilion. It’s probably one of my favourite places so far – built as a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu in 1397, his son converted it into a temple which in 1950 a young monk, who was obsessed with the temple, burnt it to the ground.

The building itself is covered in gold leaf and sits on a green lake that reflects its image perfectly, but for me it was the gardens and the setting that really made it special. The Japanese have perfected the art of taking a tree and training it, just so… so that branches drape artistically, or sit in perfect symmetrical layers, or frame a view… so I’ll let the photos show how stunning it was.


Our next stop was another garden, this time the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji. This is a walled oblong with 15 carefully placed rocks, sitting in sand, which is carefully combed to give the appearance that the rocks are sitting in a sea. Supposedly it isn’t ever possible to see all 15 rocks in one go from any angle adding to the Zen idea that everyone experiences everything from their own perspective.


Lunch – very excitingly was at a restaurant that served sushi via a sushi train. You could either take items off the conveyor belt as they trundled past, or you could use screen above the table to order specific items, that once cooked came whizzing out on a second conveyor belt above the train stopping at the right table apparently by magic. Awesome!

After lunch the group split up, and a small number of us headed out to the Arasahiyama Bamboo Grove. It’s an other worldly experience, with a path that leads through a dense bamboo grove, lined with giant bamboos that must be 15 cm in diameter and at least 8m or 10m high. The path slopes gently up, and when you look back, the different greens are really striking. To get a clear photo you need to be there at first light so ours have a few tourists and even the odd chap dresses as a geisha but it’s a stunning place even with all the people.

We decided to take a bit of a walk further up the hills to see some of the other temples hidden in the greenery, and walked for about an hour through quiet little villages until we got to the Otagi Nenbutsuji temple. The grounds of this temple are filled with thousands of stone images, all different and is something to do with the spirits of paupers without kin who were buried here. They are so expressive, some are funny, others are cross, and some have been covered with moss, or have moss adding to the decoration. Somewhere supposedly amongst the 8000 here is one little fella who is upside down, but I couldn’t find him.


We headed back into town to meet the others, and headed back to Nishiki market and a restaurant serving a buffet of lots of local dishes. A great way to feed a big group with lots of different dietary requirements!

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The Japanese Alps

Saturday 22nd April – Matsumoto

Up early this morning in our Ryokan, with Mr Muroyama dropping us at the station for our journey to Matsumoto. This trip seemed to use every train in the region so thank goodness we were travelling with just our day bags, and could get from one train to another fairly easily.

On the way we were to stop at Tsumago, which is one of the best preserved villages along the old Nakasendo route between Kyoto and Eco. The town has been strictly preserved with even things like telephone lines and electricity put below ground rather than spoiling the scenery.

To add a bit of exercise to the trip, we got a bus up to a starting point at the Odaki and Medaki waterfalls, a couple of kilometres out of the village, then wandered back down the hill until we reached the village of Tsumago-juku.


It is really lovely, helped by it being a beautiful day and the cherry blossom appearing just in time for our visit, and the main street called Tereshita is lined with buildings and temples, some which date back to the 16th century.



We had a wander through the town, visiting some of the little shops which produce local crafts then stopped for an ice cream made from chestnuts, a local speciality, and sat in the sun. With so much blossom and nice weather it really feels like spring has arrived in Japan.


Back on the bus and then the train, we travelled to Matsumoto, a cute city sat surrounded by snow covered peaks, with one of the best preserved wooden castles in Japan. Meg took us for a Japanese style pub dinner, all small dishes around a huge table, which gave us the chance to try lots of small dishes of odd things. Slightly odd was the pickled aubergine which was bright blue, the gyoza were great, and the meat skewers weren’t as bad as the translations suggested – chicken skin skewers anyone?

To finish the night, we wandered up to the castle which, as it was cherry blossom week, was flood lit so looked really lovely. All set off nicely by the firework display that was going on in the background – the Japanese know how to put on a welcome!


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Temples, castles and sukiyaki

Monday 17th April 2017 – Kyoto

Today the rain was forecast to discover where Wayne was hiding so equipped with waterproofs we started the morning by heading to Kiyomizu-dera. The bus dropped us near and we walked through the lanes stopping for coffee, then calling in at the Yasaka Koshin-do temple.

Here spherical talismans made of colorful cloth, representing monkeys with their hands and feet tied to the back are hung in garlands. They symbolise self control, and the local custom says that in order to get a wish fulfilled, one must give up another desire. The old desire is symbolically put inside the kukurizaru monkey, by writing on the fabric and help requested to give up this desire.

On to the Kiyomizu-dera, which sits at the top of an old restored shopping street, and is really popular (read crowded!) temple but a great visit as there is lots to see. Our first stop was the Hondo (main hall) with a huge veranda that juts out on the hillside giving great views of the tree covered hill below and of a red pagoda in the distance, the second stop was the Jishu-Jinga, where visitors wanting to find love have to close their eyes and walk from one stone to another, if they got helped along the way then the rule is that they will need help to find love.



Below the Hondo, is a small waterfall where the water is split into 3 channels each with a different benefit of health, wealth and love… pretty sure they all come from the same source but that’s the power of belief for you. Outside the temple there was a particularly pretty cherry tree in full blossom where people who had dressed in kimonos posed for photos. It’s all very photogenic in amongst the chaos.


For lunch we went across the bridge to Omen Nippon, which is famous for its Udon noodle soup, and ordered a side of tempura and a cup of tea. The broth comes in a big bowl, the noodles on a serving plate, and then a big plate of bits is delivered to the table to add to your broth.

There were things like mushrooms, radish, spring onions, lettuce, ginger etc and 4 pots of powdered chilli, pepper, spices etc to jazz up the stew. It was nice, but I am finding the Japanese food a bit bland so used most of the pot of chilli.

By this time the rain had caught up with us so we headed over to Nijo Castle, through the dramatic entrance gate and into the central palace. It was built in 1603 as the official residence of the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. It’s very ostentatious, with painted walls and ceilings and for security a ‘nightingale’ floor – so should someone get passed the huge stone wall and defended gates, across the gardens and into the building past the guards, the floor as soon as any pressure is applied tinkles. Probably in the dead of night this would alert the guards who where positioned in concealed chambers but with a couple of hundred tourist traipsing through the tinkling was quite loud.


Next stop as it was fairly wet was the covered Nishiki Market, home to the weird and wonderful of things to eat. It’s a narrow covered lane, lined with open fronted stores that layout their produce into the lane. It gets narrow and crowded but you can pretty much buy everything edible you can think of and a fair few other things that you’d struggle to identify.

We headed out that evening to a restaurant that specialised in Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu. Basically this is 2 versions of the same thing, one is a boiling water bath where you cook meat and veg before dipping in a sauce and eating and the other is where you boil the sauce and cook the meat and veg directly in it before eating. You’re given huge bowls of veg, mushrooms and noodles then platters of thinly slice beef to cook and we were in such a big group we were able to order both the water bath option and the sauce option. Similar to a meat fondue in France – delicious!

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Nara and the Cheeky Deers

Sunday 16th April 2017 – Nara

This morning we met up with our Exodus tour group and our tour leader Meg in the reception of the hotel before our first group trip to Nara the first permanent capital of Japan. Nara is 35 minutes from Kyoto but with eight world heritage sites, it is second only to Kyoto for amazing things to see so is worth the trip.

Our first stop was a wander through the Nara-Koen park where we stopped for a quick picnic, and a look at the deer that wander freely through the park hassling tourist and locals (and particularly children) for food. They were considered to be messengers of the gods and today enjoy life as national treasures, being fed ‘Shika Sembei’ – small round flat biscuits that they must consume by the boatload.


We carried on through the park to the Todai-Ji which houses the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), guarded by two fierce-looking Nio Guardians. Todai-ji itself is the largest wooden building in the world, so pretty big, and is held up by huge central posts.




In the bottom of one of the posts is a hole through the base, which is supposedly exactly the same size as the nostrils of the Daibutsu, and guarantees enlightenment in the next life if you can squeeze through. We were enlightened enough in this life to know we weren’t going to fit…


We carried on through the parks which were full of cherry trees dropping blossom, to Kasuga Taisha, a huge red shrine with hundreds of lanterns, some of them displayed lit in a dark walk way. A wedding was going on at the time, so some of the area was closed but we got a look at the bride coming up the path in her white gown and huge white hat – apparently this is to hide any evidence of horns she might have on her head.. yup no idea!


Then on to Nigatsu-do, which is a large wooden building with a huge verandah with great views across the park.


Nara done, we got back on the train back to Kyoto and stopped at Fushimi Inari which was great to see a place we’d seen in rain and morning light in late afternoon light and dry. The crowds weren’t huge so we were able get some great shots of the gates without the crowds of people we’d seen on Saturday.


That evening a small group of us went for dinner at the Cube on the 11th floor of Kyoto station. This is a whole floor of lots of different restaurants, but best of all the station itself is amazing! There is a huge flight of stairs that runs from the 6th floor to the 11th where every step is full of tiny lights that they use to project a light and music display through the evening – proper nuts and a great second day in Japan.


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