Tag Archives: Japan 2014

Day 14

Day 14

We woke up for an early breakfast then used the subway to get to Kyoto station for the shinkansen back to Tokyo. With a 2 week Japan Rail pass you aren’t allowed to use the fastest “Nozomi” service which now makes up most of the trains, but instead can get the “Hikari” every 30 minutes. This still travels at around 170mph and just stops a few more times. I watched the countryside fly by and tried to spot Mt Fuji which wasn’t too hard. Sadly it had the typical layer of cloud covering the peak.

We got into Tokyo just before midday and headed back to the same hotel we’d used at the start of the trip. Whereas Tokyo felt very unfamiliar just a couple of weeks before, it now felt like returning home. We knew dinner would probably be a little awkward so we wanted a big lunch and had the amazing idea of trying to find the same katsukura curry chain in Tokyo and there was one at a department store in Shinjuku within walking distance. Even though we’d had it the night before, more tonkatsu was amazing and we both had bigger portions.

From Shinjuku we headed over to Ryogoku where the Kokukigan sumo stadium sits and made our way inside having obtained English lists of the competitors and the rankings for the day. The tickets weren’t cheap but we had excellent seats on the upper level with a great view and the spectacle of sumo turned out to be genuinely enjoyable, much more than either of us really expected. The bouts were short and involved a lot of ceremony but it was always a powerful and exciting contest. The fighters improved as the time went on and as the quality improved, so did the amount of time spent on pre-match build up.

The funniest part of the sumo was how men would do a lap around the small ring holding very traditional style advertisement banners for major companies. I saw one fight where both wrestlers toppled out of the ring at the same time and after a length deliberation the judges decided they should fight again. We also saw several wrestlers exit the ring at speed straight into the crowd which sits very nearby. I had to wonder how many people get hurt this way. The experience was well worth our time and really made the last day in Tokyo into something to remember.

Afterwards we headed back to Shinjuku and grabbed some bento for dinner before packing up ready for an airport transfer so early the hotel couldn’t help us with breakfast.

At least on the flight home I haven’t had to worry about staying up as long and being immediately ready for sightseeing so I can enjoy a few movies. Turns out the new Robocop was better than I expected, Divergent was doing OK until the second half and The Angriest Man in Brooklyn said it was a comedy and then ended up with Robin William’s character trying to kill himself and it all got a bit emotional. There’s just enough time left to think about watching Life of Brian which I found in the archive before we land.

I don’t think Claire and I have ever been so quick to decide we want to return to a country to see more of it. The food which was a worry before the trip turned out to be a highlight. The sights were better than expected across the board and the transport runs so well that we rarely had cause to stress. Above all else we found the people to be incredibly kind and hospitable. Strangers stopped for us (and other western tourists) to help them with ticket machines or if they saw us looking at a map with a little confusion and many people tried to use what English they knew to talk to us and ask us about the trip.

Arigatou gozaimashita and sayonara Japan. Ja mata ne!

Day 13

This day began similarly to the previous few.  We had a strong desire to get up early but we were doing an awful lot during each day and I hadn’t been sleeping well.  We got up anyway and made the best of it, grabbing a fairly quick breakfast and getting out of the hotel for around 9am.  We hopped on the subway nearby to then change onto the a main JR line to take us to Arashiyama, an area in the western hills of the city.

We had a bit of a walk from the station to the start of our walking tour but soon enough we got to Tenryu-ji temple.  We only saw the gardens here and though we found a very pretty pond next to the main building, the rest of the garden wasn’t quite as good as some of the excellent ones we had already seen.  The reason to start here though was that the exit of the garden went straight into Arashiyama’s bamboo grove and you get to walk right through the middle of it.  I’ve walked though plenty of forests but there is something pretty damn cool about going through bamboo because it just has such striking lines.

We strolled north through Arashiyama afterwards past a few smaller temples.  We eventually stopped in Gio-ji which is a small but very atmospheric little temple on the hill with a dark,mossy garden full of trees and bamboo and very few tourists.  There were spiders hanging between the bamboo everywhere here and while Claire saved me from walking into one of them, I don’t think the couple behind us were so observant.

We then continued up the hill for some distance through some very traditional small houses and shops to a large orange/red tori gate.  We walked a bit too far beyond this and ended up at the foot of another shrine, along way from a taxi rank to get us over to north-west Kyoto.  Luckily for us as we walked back down to the tori gate we were approached by an empty taxi!  Not only this, he was the lovely kind of taxi driver who stops at a picturesque lake on the way to take a photo of you and then uses highlighter on a map (whilst he’s driving) to show you where you’ve just come from and the route between the main temples in the area.

We hopped out, now in the last major temple sight-seeing district of Kyoto to see Ninna-ji, the first of 3 temples we were looking for.  We were treated to a quite extensive building complex which was originally built as a retirement home for one of the emperors and converted by his son into a Buddhist temple.  We had lovely views out over the pond to a nearby pagoda and got to walk up to the emperor’s own room, surrounded by a nightingale floor.  This was on a par with any of the other temples we’d seen and there were far fewer people at it which made it an excellent experience.

Afterwards we took a quick look at the pagoda in the grounds, grabbed a short drinks break and then headed outside to find some lunch.  I didn’t like the first option and we were worried there wouldn’t be too many more so we dived into the second as we saw they did yaki soba (soba noodles cooked with meat and veg on a teppanyaki hotplate).  We sat at the counter as the tables were hosting a small school trip of only 7 kids who had traveled up for a few days from Tokyo.  It was really fun to watch them cook my yaki soba and Claire’s pork steak.  We also saw them cooking okonomiyaki for the kids which is like a thick filled omelette.  I chatted a little to the school teacher and made my exit in style by smacking my head on the wood above the counter.  We weren’t expecting much of this place but the food was great and they were very friendly.

We walked along the road to Ryoan-ji, a temple famous for having a very nice zen garden.  Unfortunately there were a lot of people in the temple and it wasn’t a terribly large zen garden either so it didn’t make much of an impression.  With the heat and tiredness we also found our own moods heading south so we decided we needed a proper break to get the most out of the last temple on the list.  We talked about 25 minutes up the road and found a cafe just outside where we ended up with some coke and ice cream and I half collapsed on the table for a while.

Japan is a very clean place as a whole but there’s one convention that shocked us, and in this cafe it was even worse!  In almost all of the toilets we had come across so far in public, there was no soap or drying facility, just a tap.  In this cafe there wasn’t even a tap or a sink in the toilet.  Given that most of the toilets have space-age controls on them to control water pressure and multiple bidet sprays it just doesn’t make a lot of sense that they don’t much go in for soap outside of the hotel facilities.

After the break we headed up to Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavillion.  On our first full day in Kyoto we started with Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavillion) and this would complete the pair.  We paid the small entrance fee and joined the throngs of tourists to go look at a building covered in gold leaf.  Photos had made it look yellow to me and I wasn’t exactly bursting with excitement for this one before the trip but once the sun came out and we rounded the corner to see it then I understood why there were so many tourists.  It reflects beautifully in the pond that it sits next to and they give you several good vantage points to try and snap a picture.  Sadly for us there was a small wind and the reflections weren’t going to win me any photo competition prizes.  We toured round the gardens afterwards and then hopped into a taxi to make our way back to the hotel and we were both very happy to see the bed for a late afternoon nap.

We kept our options open for dinner and headed out to get a look at a Tonkatsu restaurant (fried pork).  I have always had a thing for chicken katsu as I mentioned before but Japan seems to almost always offer pork instead and I’ve always thought that outside of bacon that I wasn’t too interested.  The place looked good and had fantastic reviews so we went down a little tunnel from the mall and felt like we had entered a different world.  We had to pick which quality of pork we wanted and how much of it.  We then had it as part of a set with rice, miso soup and shredded cabbage.  They had a variety of different sauces to try on the pork and they also brought us some sesame seeds to grind ourselves (we weren’t sure quite what to put them on afterwards so a bit went everywhere).  I had 120g of their best tenderloin and it tasted so good that I wished I’d had just a bit more.  The spicy sauce was really good too.  To top things off I finally found Uemeshu available here which is a plum brandy.  It was one of only 2 things Sarah was really familiar with from Japan outside of the obvious stuff and I had made it a mission to track some down.  Luckily for me it was really rather tasty and I didn’t have to head home having failed my quest with my tail between my legs.

After dinner it was time to get packed up ahead of going back to Tokyo for the final day.  One final strange thing we’ve seen here so much has been selfie sticks.  People attach their phones and cameras onto the end of a stick and use it to take better selfies.  These things are apparently all the rage in Asia and I guess we’ll be seeing a lot more of them around Bath soon.  The Japanese love taking selfies and half of them seem armed with these new toys.  I can’t say that i’m tempted, but I have for once tried to take some photos of us on this trip and having a camera where the back screen could flip up and be used for a selfie has come in very handy!  Hopefully a couple of them aren’t rubbish.


Day 12

After the late start on the previous day we set an early alarm with the best of intentions.  Unfortunately we went to bed quite late and were still pretty damn tired from all the walking.  Over breakfast we decided to try and make today a little easier, but only a little.  With under 4 days in Kyoto and an impossible amount of sights to see we had to summon some energy.

To start the morning we headed to the Heian Jingu shrine.  This is one of the main shrines in Kyoto and is a large complex of red central buildings with a huge red front gate, all surrounded by a very pretty garden.  This place was also on my Lost in Translation hit list as there’s a scene with Charlotte jumping across the stepping stones.  I found them and I had my fun on them too!  This garden also featured a lovely large wooden bridge with a roof across one of the ponds with good views of some of the other buildings.

From here we headed south along the railway to the Fushimi Inari-Taisha shrine.  Similar to the previous day, the run up to this shrine also had a lot of little souvenir shops, food stalls and little old restaurants.  We grabbed some soba noodles and chicken in a broth from one along with a little sushi and it exceeded our low expectations by a long way.  They don’t seem to go in for ripping off tourists with crap goods and services in quite the same way that we do in the western world and it takes some getting used to.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the head shrine for the 40’000 Inari shrines across Japan and was dedicated to the gods of rice and sake in the 8th century.  Essentially there’s a large red shrine complex at the base of a mountain which is itself covered in forest.  Winding their way to the top of the mountain and around it are paths which have smaller shrines periodically at the side of them.  Pilgrims travel here and give offerings to each shrine.  Lining the paths are thousands of red tori gates.  We’d seen a lot of red gates at entrances to other temples and dotted about in Japan, but these turn the paths nearly into tunnels and make for a remarkable sight and experience.  It takes over an hour to walk up paths and steps through them to the top of the mountain and not much less to get back down.  There was a point on the way up with great views back over Kyoto but at the top is simply a large shrine in the woods.  It certainly felt rewarding to get up there though.  People vote this the number 1 activity to do in Kyoto and they’re not wrong.  As with everything in Kyoto it becomes quickly apparent that it’s so much larger than you expect and very well maintained for something so old and visited by so many tourists.  Even though there were a lot of people there, we had long sections in the top half where it wasn’t so busy.

After the shrine we headed off to Nishiki market for a little more shopping and to check out some of the food stalls.  The most exciting thing was seeing a tiny little red octopus on a stick.  We didn’t jump at the chance to try one.  We then headed out for an evening walking tour through Gion to try and spot a Geisha but didn’t find another one.  We did enjoy the many old streets with very traditional high-end restaurants though before getting back to the hotel with every intention of not getting to bed too late before our final day in Kyoto.

After many days walking around in Japan I realise that I have still only seen graffiti one time and that was on the train taking us from the airport into Tokyo.  I’ve seen poorer areas but nowhere that looked run down.  Everywhere has felt extremely safe, even the pink-light district in Shinjuku which the locals tend to avoid.  We often see young children using the subway or kids in school uniform out walking late at night too.  There’s no litter either.  There are very few public bins in Japan, you’re simply expected to take your rubbish home and deal with it and everybody does.  Where are the chavs and the disobedient folk?  I know they have the mafia, the Yakuza.. but on the face of it Japan seems to have less of the bad stuff than anywhere else I’ve yet been to.

Day 11

I’d planned that today we would do 2 walking tours.  Northern Higashiyama and Southern Higashiyama.  Both of these tours were meant to take 4 hours and are hard to squeeze in because of opening and closing times for the temples and shrines, but there’s so much to do in Kyoto that I wanted to try to be efficient.  I figured that there would be a couple of big temples and then a lot of small ones.  I was wrong.

We got up a little late and grabbed a pretty decent breakfast.  The hotel provides an awful lot of variety though the bread was all tiny so I had to toast loads of little pieces.  After the food we got out to a scorcher of a day and hopped on a bus up to the north-eastern hills.  Our first stop was Ginkaku-ji, the silver pavilion.  Except it isn’t silver, because the project ran out of money a long, long time ago.  It’s still lovely though and it there were extensive gardens with views from the hillside out over Kyoto.  They did a great job of taking the tourists near to the main building but in such a way that the best photos could still be taken without them getting in the way.

After this we headed to Honen-in temple.  We actually missed the main entrance and made our way up to the beautiful old graveyard instead before finding the main body of buildings.  This was all on a pretty small scale but very old.  We were greeted by a little old lady here who insisted we see somewhere else (neither of us caught the name) and when she found out we were from England she explained that she loves Hugh Grant.  Afterwards we deviated from the planned route to also take a glance at Anrakuji temple as we heard some chanting and it was a pretty little building.  There are thousands of shrines and temples in Kyoto that aren’t flooded with tourists and you constantly pass them, forcing yourself not to take a look because if you did, you’d never get anywhere.

We then made our way to a canal and followed a path known as the Path of Philosophy.  There was a lot of pretty flowers and trees around the canal and we had more good views out over the city.  After the canal we got to Eikan-do temple.  We hadn’t read much about it and it looked like a little temple (of many) on the route.  We wondered if we’d really get value for money out of the £3 entrance fee each (We had this thought several times, always to be proven so very wrong).  We found the main entrance and removed our shoes to tour the interior of what became many buildings lining the side of the hill and on multiple levels, with some lovely ponds and gardens too.  After the inside we popped our shoes back on and roamed in between the buildings and toured the gardens themselves.  We walked quickly but soon realised that if every “little” temple was like this then we’d be going all night too.

From here we walked down to Nanzen-ji.  I knew of this from a scene in Lost in Translation where Charlotte day trips to Kyoto and sees a wedding taking place.  There was a huge gate ahead of the main temple and then a bunch of sub-temples (we visited Nanzen-in and Kotoku-an.  All of the above were lovely.  The main temple buildings at the bigger sites are just magnificent and very large.  The gardens at the smaller temples are equally captivating and look exactly as you’d imagine when you think of Japanese gardens featuring ponds, stepping stones and zen gardens.  Our final stop of the morning was Konchi-in temple just around the corner, and this had a very pleasant zen garden.

To get a short break from the heat we hopped onto the subway to travel just down the road and get nearer to the start of the other walking tour.  We picked up a quick bagel lunch in a cafe to help fuel all the walking too.  Our first stop now was Shoren-in temple.  More lovely buildings with some beautifully painted sliding screens and some of the best gardens of the day featured here too but our overriding memory was of a small Japanese girl pleasing with her mother (Kudasai!  Kudasai!) to let her ring the temple bell in the garden.  Mom didn’t seem to think this was a great idea but her dad picked her up and gave it a go.  It made a very gentle sound for a large bell and was intended to be rung by visitors.  This prompted us to have a go too!

Next on the trail not too far away was Chion-in temple.  We were a little confused as to where the entrance was.  Most of the temples so far had a single main entrance and some of them would charge a small fee at this point.  Not so with Chion-in as it was so ridiculously large.  The main hall was actually entirely encased in a modern shell to protect it whilst repairs were going on and yet the overall temple grounds were so big it hardly mattered and it was all free and a functional temple, we saw many monks cleaning and chanting.  The highlight here was a giant bell elevated on the hill in one corner of the temple which was hanging from an incredibly solid looking wooden structure.  The bell is so heavy that it takes around 16 monks to swing the giant wooden hammer into it.  The bell is around 400 years old and the temple nearly 900.  Some Japanese men suggested to us that it was Big Ben and they found this hilarious!

From here we entered Maruyama park which features the most famous cherry blossom tree in Kyoto.  Unfortunately in September it really doesn’t look all too special.  Still, there was an attractive pond and bridge and a little cafe drilling holes into grapefruit and selling them as drinks and a very talented young musician playing a guitar.  We walked to the western end of the park expecting to find Yasaka Shrine, which we assumed to be small because of the location.  Wrong, very wrong again.  This was a large shrine at the end of the park and flooded with people.  It sat at the end of the main street in Gion, a very old entertainment district in Kyoto and where you’d expect to find a Geisha walking about.  Like so many of the shrines it was large and red and had a lot of people offering up a bit of change for a small prayer.

We carried on up a small hill out of the park to find Kodaiji temple sitting at the top of a long flight of very pretty steps.  There was a shrine here and a lot of people with stalls nearby.  The temple featured more wonderful landscaped gardens and a bamboo grove.  From the bamboo we glimpsed a giant Buddha nearby too.  In any other city it would have been a major attraction but here it was just something you could see from the gardens of Kodaiji.  After the temple we walked down a few very pretty and traditional side streets.  We found a man walking with a Geisha and positioning her outside the buildings for some photos.  I asked if he minded if I also took pictures and was promptly ignored, so I did grab a few.

The final stop of the southern tour was the Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera.  It took a lot of walking up the hill through countless traditional lanes with souvenir shops.  They did an excellent job of not looking tacky.  We were especially surrounded here by young couples and women wearing traditional kimono and wooden sandals.  We knew we might see some of this but it was incredibly common.  In amongst the tourist shops there were also a lot of shops selling tasty little treats, each specializing in a different type of treat and so many of them look very interesting and tasty.  At the top of all the streets we got to the temple, expecting a large building but we found a vast complex of them again.

We again paid the cheap token entry fee and walked more of the hills of Kyoto.  The main building stood on a massive number of wooden stilts to allow it to sit on the hill and had paths along the hill to some of the other buildings.  The views from the top of the path over Kyoto were wonderful and would have only been slightly better if we’d have been a little later for the actual sunset, but the temple closes a bit too early for that at this time of year.  We made our way back down through the shops, trying a filled custard cream puff from one of the stalls for good measure.  We then got back to the hotel via the subway.

It’s hard to recall exactly which temple had which garden feature and where we saw the most beautiful paintings and details because there were so many.  Many times during the day we would see a magical red or black building on a huge scale, for it just to be the gate ahead of the main collection of temple buildings.  This was easily the single best concentration of historical sites I’ve ever seen and even though it was temple after temple, garden after garden, they were all different enough to stand out and each feel like a great experience.

We took pity on our very tired bodies and our need for a big meal and grabbed Indian food at a nearby restaurant with excellent reviews.  I think it’s fair to say that most people in England are probably enough of an expert in Indian food to be able to judge anywhere else (outside of India or similar) on how they do.  This place was pretty good in general but you really shouldn’t blend the spinach in a chicken sag to make the whole sauce bright green!  We dipped into a local food shop right by the hotel afterwards and found that it sold all sorts of global foods.  I don’t know why it’s so exciting to see highland shortbread or Patak’s curry paste when we’re so far from home, but it was nice to see.  It may also have involved buying some dairy milk ahead of the next busy day!



Day 10

We woke up at a stupidly early time to pack up and get ready for a 7am breakfast so that we could make the train for Kyoto.  This was our first authentic Japanese breakfast of the trip.  As with all the ryokan meals, there was no choice in what we ate, we simply got served our breakfast.  It was a lot of fun and rather tasty.  We had a mix of fish, rice, soup, some components to roll our own little sushi rolls (but with hot miso paste inside) a poached egg and numerous small dishes of accompaniments.  We then had a slightly nervous wait for a late taxi (nice to see something in Japan can be late though) and got onto the 8am train to Nagoya.  At Nagoya we switched onto the bullet train for Kyoto and relaxed at we sped across the countryside.

Kyoto subway isn’t nearly as comprehensive as the one in Tokyo.  There’s only a few lines and they’re only good for reaching a few places.  We weren’t ready to figure out the buses so we jumped in a taxi to our hotel, The Royal Park Hotel, to drop off our bags.  We then immediately headed out to explore and try to find the Aritsugu knife shop in a nearby old market so I could indulge in a little souvenir shopping.  They offer to engrave the knives when you buy them with your name (converted to Japanese) and I had to explain that I wanted mine to have “Kyuubi” and “Hachibi” which mean “9-tails” and “8-tails”, two animal spirits from Naruto, one of my favourite anime and manga series.  The young staff in the store were also big anime and manga fans (as most Japanese are) and we had a long conversation whilst the engraving was taking place all about what shows we all liked and how I got into it all.  They were really lovely and had very good English.

We then tried using the subway (with the help of a local who explained how we use the machine to buy tickets) to get over to Nijo-jo Castle.  This is a very large, single-storey castle in the middle of Kyoto.  It is famous for the entire building having “Nightingale” floors between the outside and the interior rooms.  The purpose of the floors is to make a noise when anyone walks on them so that even the most silent assassin may not approach and kill the Shogun.  You might expect a squeaky floor when you step onto it but you really understand how they got the name.  It’s a quite magical sound and the smile rarely left my face from walking on it all the way round the rooms.   As we walked through the building we got to see the initial audience chambers, then the chambers for more important guests, slowly building up to the Shogun’s own room.  All the rooms were devoid of furniture and were large tatami mat rooms which could be used as necessary.  As all the walls were made of sliding doors you could open up both the exterior walls and the interior room dividers and turn the whole castle into an open air room if needed.  It must have been quite something on hot days if they did that.

After the interior we toured the extensive gardens of the castle before making our way back to the hotel.  We’d eaten at 7am and not yet found lunch and it was nearly 3pm.  We buckled immediately and near ran for Burger King over the road.  We then checked into our room and had a short rest, reveling in the feeling of a proper bed before heading out to Samurai Kembu, a short walk away.  I’d signed us up for a 3 hour session where we’d watch a performance of kembu and then be shown some samurai basics ourselves.  Kembu is like a performance art of samurai abilities using a sword and a fan.  Samurai would traditionally do it  before a battle to build courage or during celebrations and they would practise to hone their ability.

This all took place in the basement of a building on one of the larger streets east of the river.  For the first out the crew of 4 performed many great short pieces which showed different styles and told stories from old samurai history.  They then got us dressed into kimono that we had chosen so that we could look the part of samurai and gave us each a sword.  We were joined for this by 2 other young tourists visiting from Australia but it was just the 4 of us.  We were then taught the basics of drawing the sword and a number of different strikes.  After a further hour the Australians left and we had a bit more time.  We were taught some use of the fan for kembu and then some further (very tiring) sword techniques.  We then had to practise a small kembu routine and each perform it separately on a stage.  There is video footage, I do not know if it will ever see the light of day!

My knees were just about as bruised as could be after the session so we rested at the hotel for a short while before seeking a very late dinner.  The hotel gave us instructions on finding a bento shop that made it hot and fresh to order.  Unfortunately the shop had no English signs and all we had was the name, but the logo was just about enough to make an educated guess that we had the right place.  The tonkatsu bento was rather delicious and we ended up getting to bed much too late given how much sightseeing there is to be done in Kyoto.  At least the pillows were comfy!

Day 9

We had a very odd western breakfast in Matsumoto with a really bizarre array of dishes, but at least we had good views out over the city from the top floor restaurant.  Afterwards we were a little rushed to get to the station but the hotel minibus driver was shouting to us to indicate that it was free and she’d get us to the station, so we had time to relax before our train at the station and pick up some bento boxes to serve as lunch on the journey.  The train took 2 hours, very slowly rolling through the Kiso valley to the west of Matsumoto and into the mountains before we got to Tsumago.

Tsumago is a village located on the Nakasendo Highway, an old postal and trade route that covers all the way from Kyoto to Tokyo and was used in Samurai times.  Tsumago was a post town and even now retains the very traditional appearance that it would have had back then.  It is the equivalent of a National Trust village, but exceptionally authentic aside from some of the old buildings operating as souvenir shops and a small number of cars parked nearby.

We got a taxi to the Daikichi ryokan on one end of town and dropped our bags off and got shown around.  This was by far the most traditional accommodation of the trip.  Our room was a small tatami affair and we shared a bathroom and toilet down the hallway with the 3 other rooms on the lower floor.  We quickly threw on some hiking gear and packed up a bag and had them call us a taxi to Magome, the next post town in the valley so that we could walk some of the Nakasendo Highway.  We were a little nervous because of the light rain and the rolling thunder from deeper into the valley but we were determined to have a go.

The taxi dropped us near Magome pass, making our journey a little shorter than if we’d gone all the way into Magome.  Initially this was an annoyance but within seconds of arriving the drizzle turned to rain and then the rain turned to an almighty thunderstorm.  I’d never been walking in anything quite like it, let alone on some slippery and unfamiliar paths that I’d heard were badly signposted.  Luckily for us we were pretty well prepared and the signage turned out to be pretty reasonable.  We had some waterproof sacks in our bags that we loaded everything into but even these were damp by the end of the walk.  We bailed out our rucksacks a couple of times along the way too.

The walk took us just over 2 hours and went through some tiny villages in the valley and passed a couple of waterfalls.  You could really get the sense that you were walking a very old route that many people would have had to undertake over the years, and they wouldn’t have had light waterproof jackets and trousers!  At the end of the walk we slowly strolled through Tsumago which itself was bigger than we’d expected and incredibly authentic.  We then changed out of our wet clothes, surveyed the soaked cash that hadn’t been stuffed away and lamented what happens to an iphone screen in the pocket of a waterproof jacket.  We then shared a hot bath and got into our yukata for dinner.

We had high expectations for the food as this was meant to be one of the highlights of the trip and it didn’t disappoint.  Along with a variety of dishes, we ended up eating grasshoppers, a whole trout (including head and tail) and some horse.  I asked the Japanese gentleman dining near me what fish the red meat was.  He explained it was horse.  I then asked what the white fish was.  Also horse.  The white portion was the fat from the back of the neck apparently.  We ended up sharing a lot of conversation with him over dinner about what we’d been doing in Japan, why we had come and about the food and his own history with visiting England (Milton Keynes no less!) as he had excellent English and was a lot of fun.  After the meal we headed back to the room, lay our futons out on the tatami mats and got an early night.

I was pleased at this point to think that I’d not only survived the food in the ryokans where I’d have no choice in what I was given, but I’d also enjoyed a large amount of the food and some of it was truly wonderful.  Google street view had shown me that once we got to Kyoto afterwards that there would be a Burger King opposite our hotel should it come to the worst (well, the worst is actually McDonalds) and that we’d finally be back in the land of fall-back options.


Day 8

We got up early to head over to Kamikochi bus station and hop on the bus back to town, along with some chocolate mochi that I then left on the bus.  Even though it was about a 70 minute drive back to Shinshimashima, the bus arrived on time at the station to the minute.  The more this happens, the more disillusioned I get with trains at home.

We hopped on a local train to Matsumoto and then walked through town to the Buena Vista Hotel to drop our luggage, and it did have some pretty good views!

After 4 days of staying in ryokans we wanted a change, so we went to a Hawaiian burger joint by the river called Hula-la and had some outstanding food.  Even the fries were some of the best I’ve eaten.  We ordered a couple of cokes and ended up with bizarre white drinks that were easily tasty enough to make us forget to mention the mix up.

We walked further north until we came across the castle.  Matsumoto is famed for its castle, the largest of its kind in Japan.  To tour the castle we had to take our shoes off and carry them with us in a little bag.  There were 6 storeys  to explore and the steps were absolutely gigantic.  They were so steep to the top couple of floors that it was a little bit challenging with a bag, shoes and camera dangling about.  From the top of the castle we had commanding views in all directions and the whole place was in excellent condition.  By the end of the walk round my feet were done with steps  and we headed out to explore the rest of the town and see an array of shrines and wells.

We picked up some ice creams at the corner shop by the hotel and crashed for a little while before heading out to a very small, traditional Japanese restaurant for chicken katsu curry.  It was very tasty but it also helped me realise that the ones I can get back in the UK are very similar!

We strolled a little more around town to walk off a bit of the food before calling it a night.  Originally the purpose of the day in Matsumoto was mainly to provide a break in the ryokan food (in case I wasn’t enjoying it) and to allow us a bit of a break whilst seeing the castle.  In truth, we had some fantastic food and saw a lot more than just the castle.  It was well worth being an overnight stay.

Day 7

Double futon is entirely the way to go!  Though my back was still a little stiff, I can’t imagine how I would have felt if I’d slept with a single thin futon.  We got up before 7 for an early breakfast and were met with the same food as just about everywhere else.  They certainly do tasty bread here and croissants have been everywhere.  Aside from that though it’s usually just some scrambled eggs and just awful looking sausages.  At the very least they are civilized enough to have some Heinz ketchup.

I can’t make my way through this hotel without doing a lot of tripping over.  When you arrive at a traditional Japanese hotel or ryokan you’re expected to leave your shoes near the door (or in this large hotel, in some footlockers just after reception).  They then provide you with slippers to use when you’re inside, but they have to be taken off before entering the room!  There are even special bathroom slippers to be used for sitting on the toilet.  So at the Shimaya I got by in tiny slippers, probably 5 sizes too small for my feet.  This place took pity on me and gave me big slippers.  It turns out that they fall off my feet even more and some of the floors have slopes on them that are very deceptive due to carpet.  Just walking around the hotel becomes an adventure.

We headed out after breakfast to walk south along the river to Tashiro pond and then Taisho pond.  We were early enough not to have to fight against too many day-trippers, but they were still flocking in.  The views of Mt. Yakedake (an active volcano) were exceptional across Taisho pond, itself created by an eruption 99 years ago.  The channel down the side of the mountain taken by the molten lava can still be clearly seen.  We then took a different path back to loop round to Kappabashi bridge and our hotel, getting back at around lunchtime.

We tend to think that British people are pretty friendly walkers and we’ll often give a polite nod or “Hello” as we cross paths.  The Japanese put us to shame though.  It became unusual for us to pass any walkers without them smiling and greeting us (and it wasn’t just because we were foreigners as we saw them do it to each other).  Most often it was a “Konnichiwa” and the older the walker, the more gusto went into the “Kon nichi waaaaaaaaa”.  Aside from this we got the other typical Japanese greeting of “Ohaya gozaimasu” and then a lot of “Morningu”s and “Hello”s.  So often with such a big smile that it just helps your day feel that bit better.  They’re always having fun and laughing about things.  This is probably what makes them seem so like us.  They’re an extraordinarily polite people and they can be reserved too, but they don’t take themselves seriously at all and it always seems like the happy, innocent laughter of childish fun.

After a break at the hotel and rice balls and potato wedges for lunch we headed back up to Myojin bridge, taking the path in the opposite direction to the night before.  This time we found Myojin pond and saw some wonderful views of Mt. Oku-Hotakadake, Japan’s 3rd highest mountain.  Tonight there were no monkeys at Myojin bridge and we guess we just got incredibly lucky the previous day.  Signs were telling us that there had been bear sightings nearby just a few days earlier but they were keeping out of our way.

Dinner was a bit of a disappointment.  It was as if someone told the kitchen that they wanted it to be just like the night before, but not that.  Each plate had the exact same amounts of food as the night before with the identical crockery and placement.  It all looks quite fancy, but the taste isn’t there to back it up.  This is in stark contrast to the previous ryokan where just one woman was cooking us up a superior 9 course feast that was far more different between the 2 evenings.  I certainly wouldn’t call the dinner tonight bad as we still got to try a large variety of small dishes and some of them were very nice, it was simply poor by the standards of our trip so far.  The valley and scenery did not disappoint however and have been a welcome break from the urban sprawl that covers much of Japan.

Tomorrow we start several days of travel, beginning with returning to Matsumoto where we should have the chance to see one of the best examples of a Japanese castle before spending the night on a proper bed and being able to choose what we have for dinner.  The heathens may even let us keep our shoes on!


Day 6

Today we got up, had a western style breakfast at the Shimaya ryokan and then said our goodbyes.  Both the owner and his wife saw us off and wanted a few photos with us and they gave us some ribbons tied through 5 yen coins to tie to our packs for good luck.

We then hopped back on the “Limited express Snow Monkey” train to Nagano to start our journey into the mountains.  From Nagano we got a local service to Matsumoto which had to stop several times to reverse onto a different line to let an oncoming train pass.  It felt like it was unplanned at first but this was Japan, and trains do not run late.  We hit Matsumoto a minute ahead of schedule.

From Matsumoto another local train into Shinshimashima and everyone on the train seemed to be headed out into the mountains.  A group of about 25 teenagers (maybe 17 years old) were on board, as were a flight crew of 5 from Switzerland.  The 2 Swiss guys were bald and ended up with the girls stroking their heads and exchanging sweets all around.  Jealousy is an ugly feeling!  The kids were so cute and everything anime had told me they would be.  All of us ended up on the coach from Shinshimashima into Kamikochi.  The total journey taking just over 4.5 hours.  The coach had little flip down seats that went into the aisle and meant that even when full, nobody extra had to stand.  I spent a while chatting with the Swiss about their travel plans and mine and had the funny background noise of all the girls on the coach exclaiming whenever we’d try to squeeze by another bus on the tiny roads (Sugoi!  Sugoi!).

Japanese seats aren’t always very forgiving any by the time the coach pulled into Kamikochi we REALLY needed to walk about a bit.  After a little gap we grabbed some Japanese curry in a little cafe then made our way to the Shirakaba-sou Hotel.  The hotel is on the banks of the river running through this mountainous valley.  It’s all very lush and green at this time of year and a really pleasant setting.  It was a little overcast, but that’s pretty normal in the mountains and in Japan as a whole, not unlike England.  The hotel here was like an upmarket ryokan, with us staying in a traditional Japanese tatami room.  Much larger than in Yudanaka and much more like a regular hotel than a guest house.

We dumped our bags and headed out to walk north in the valley to the next bridge and back down the other side of the river.  Some of the walk was through thick forest and other parts along the bank of the river, sometimes on raised wooden boardwalks.  The highlight was the bridge crossing as many monkeys, probably thirty or forty were using it to cross over to our side of the river.  Whilst the monkeys at the park in Yudanaka were very cool, it was special to see these out in the wild.  Almost all the tourists had departed in the late afternoon and we were about the only people around.  We eventually left the monkeys and ended up walking by torchlight to get back to our hotel in time to get changed into our yukata for dinner.

Dinner here was in a large room and served as courses one after another in a western style rather than all at once as had been normal so far.  There was no English menu and when I did ask, although the waiter spoke some English, he seemed more interested in what I thought the food was.  We had 9 courses, some of which contained up to 4 individual dishes and most of it was very tasty.  There was a wide variety on offer, from strips of near raw beef, some kind of sea creature with suckers and clam chowder to a mushroom risotto and berry panna cotta.  Having this many small dishes is a fantastic way to eat and enjoy food.  If we don’t like a dish (and this has been rare) then we don’t eat much of it and there’s plenty of other ones to have.  We only tend to finish the better dishes because there’s so much food on offer and we have to pace ourselves!

Our room had been switched over from a table and chairs to having bedding out whilst we’d been at dinner.  Beds hadn’t been terribly remarkable on the trip yet but after a little while of lying down and getting people to hit other people on the head with pens thousands of miles away I tried to stand up.  Pen karma kicked in and gave me a few seconds where my back did not consider being upright a reasonable proposition.  The futons here are about 3 inches thick, sitting atop a hard tatami mat floor.  On the futon is a very thin blanket to lie on and I really hadn’t considered that most Japanese people would press a bit lighter on these than me and be more used to them.  So as I go to bed, I have 2 of them stacked on top of each other and we’ll see if double futon is the way forward here.

Day 5

Today was our first cultural failure.  We forgot to set an alarm and were late for breakfast!  We hurried into our Yukata once more and waddled downstairs for our western style breakfast.  We’d opted to go for the easy route here as 3 meals with rice and miso every day is still a bit much.  So we had toast, scrambled eggs and frosties in the basement whilst being serenaded by an electric pianola (pianos that play themselves).

We then went off to our first public onsen which was the “large” one in the middle of Yudanaka.  It wasn’t really very big but the other local ones are really quite tiny.  We were joined by a young japanese family (on our respective sides of the wall) part way through and I didn’t have to feel like we’d chickened out of public bathing.  This bath wasn’t quite as hot as the one the night before, though still tremendously hot by our standards.

After this we relaxed for a little while at the ryokan and then headed out again to the nearby town of Shibu onsen.  We bought a couple of cloths which name all 9 of the local onsen and walked around the town stamping them with red ink stamps found outside each one.  This involved a fair bit of guesswork as to which way up the stamp went and trying to compare them to the characters on the onsen signs.  We had a short rest at a foot bath at the top of town  and we then grabbed some chicken katsu don (with a really f**king hot mustard on a large bit of it that I got way too much of on one bite!) at the recommended place to eat.  It tasted great, as did the gyoza we had.  We then went off to use the largest public onsen in town and we didn’t get any company this time.  This onsen set a new record for temperature, even turning the cold tap nearby onto full did little to dent the ferocity.

Once we were truly broiled we grabbed some souvenirs and a couple of monkey cake things with jam in them at a local shop and walked back to Yudanaka.  We popped out to the local store and then went for another trip to the ryokan’s private onsen.  Once again I had to relearn the meaning of hot as this raised the bar, but we had lovely afternoon views out over the valley and got nice and clean (as if we weren’t already) before dinner.

Tonight we had a hotpot on the stove (and instructions to eat it once the fire had gone out) with chicken and prawns.  Rainbow trout cooked in foil with veg, mixed sashimi, tempura (a mix of sea food and vegetables), hard little things that may have been cucumber slices, some pretty raw roast beef slices with a basil sauce, tiny little rolls of mixed veg with a salad and a dish of sliced melon.  Again the quality of food was superb.  We washed it down with some hot sake and prepared for bath number 4!

The owner of the ryokan took us out to an onsen part way up a nearbv mountain, perhaps 15 minutes drive from the ryokan.  He arranged for us to have a private onsen with views down over the valley for just over an hour.  The early evening views were lovely and from here we could see the glittering lights of towns in the valley and the outlines of the alps in the distance.  We added a bunch of cold water to our little onsen and had a very relaxing time.  The selfies taken this night are the ones nobody will ever wish they’d seen :D.

The ryokan owner picked us up bang on time and then drove us back to Yudanaka for the night.  Tomorrow we make our way by a variety of trains and a bus into Kamikochi, a village in the Japanese alps on the banks of a river in a beautiful valley.  It’s a funny thing to come halfway around the world from Bath of all places and then fall in love with hot springs in Japan but Yudanaka and Shibu have been great and the owner of the Shimaya ryokan and his family (his daughter serves all our meals and is adorable) have been incredible and will not be soon forgotten.