Our itinerary for our trip to Japan was as follows.
|Day 1||Flight to Tokyo|
Accommodation – Mitsui Garden Hotel Jingu-Gaien x 5
|Day 5||Day Trip to Nikko|
Accommodation – Wisterian Life Club
Accommodation – Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex – 5
|Day 10||Day Trip to Nara|
|Day 11||Day Trip to Osaka|
|Day 12||Himeji Castle|
Accommodation – Hotel Granvia Okayama
Accommodation – Comfort Hotel Takamatsu
Accommodation – Comfort Hotel Matsuyama x 2
Half Day Trip to Miyajima Island
Accommodation – Dormy Inn Hiroshima x 2
Accommodation – Hotel Wing International Select Hakata Ekimae
Accommodation – Concerto Hotel
Accommodation – Hotel Wing International Select Kumamoto
Accommodation – Hotel Aile x 2
Accommodation – Sonic Apartment Hotel
Japan Day 1 – Flight to Tokyo
The flight from LA to Tokyo is 12 hours. We have been seated apart, but I spot that there are two vacant bulkhead seats. Together and extra legroom. Win, win. So I ask if we can move. The air hostess says yes. So I get a comfy seat for the 12 hour flight to Tokyo. The old man refuses to move. So I get two comfy seats.
12 hours, one book, two movies, 3 glasses of wine, a beer and a nap later we land at Narita Airport, which is theoretically in Tokyo. The arrivals process is handled with the sort of efficiency you’d expect from the Japanese. There are several stages to the process, all of which can be accelerated by entering data onto the Visit Japan Web site in advance. First, quarantine, which we can bypass by displaying a code on our phone. We sail straight through to immigration and then customs, both facilitated by displaying a QR code with landing card and customs declaration pre-filled.
We were due to land at 5.30. By 5.45 we are on a shuttle bus to Tokyo. As I mentioned earlier, Narita may be theoretically in Tokyo. In reality, it’s a 50 mile two hour bus ride into the city. And Japan is still very insistent on masks. I’d forgotten how much I hate wearing masks.
Mitsui Garden Hotel
After a two hour bus journey and a short taxi ride from the bus terminal, we reach our home for the next 5 nights; the Mitsui Garden Hotel Jingu-Gaien. It’s very nice, with all sorts of gadgets in the room and a balcony overlooking the Olympic Park.
By the time we arrive, we’ve been travelling for 18 hours, through 7 time zones, so we don’t do much. Just buy some beer and crisps from the local 7-11, admire the view and check out some of our room’s gadgets. I could do without the heated toilet seat, but I quite like that the room temperature, lights, TV and Lord only knows what else are controlled by my bedside iPad.
Japan Day 2 – Tokyo
Saturday 7 January 2023
We’re starting our first full day in Tokyo with a parkrun. There are no particularly central park runs; they are predominantly in the suburbs. And they are held at 8 am. So it’s an early start to catch a train 9 miles out of town town to Hikarigaoka Park.
Buying a train ticket is significantly more complicated than I’d anticipated. After several failed attempts, a passer-by takes pity on us and helps us fathom out the array of different machines and ticket options. We don’t succeed in obtaining our first choice, which was a 3 day metro pass, but we each have a (different) ticket which will get us to our destination. Although the whole process took so long, that getting to parkrun in time for the start is now marginal.
We catch our train to Hikarigaoka and walk the 10 minutes to Hikarigaoka Park, arriving just as the pre run photo is being taken. There’s only one other tourist there – another Brit, but the regulars are very welcoming.
Until I take my fleece off, thus exposing my 250 parkruns t shirt. Then I am treated like a rock star. Everyone wants their photo taken with me. Then someone asks me if I’ve met Paul Sinton-Hewitt, the founder of parkrun. I say that I have. Then I am treated like an actual god.
Once the furore has died down, we can actually run. The course consists of two very flat loops of the park. I run with the old man for the first mile, then he stops to tie his shoe lace. Meanwhile, I continue but take a wrong turn. He notices the cones I failed to spot and turns left as I happily continue straight on.
I rectify my mistake but am unable to catch him. A fact he is keen to remind me of repeatedly for the remainder of the day. After a few more photos, we can return to our hotel in the city, shower and change and set off to do some sightseeing.
Train to Marunouchi
The plan is to take the JR train (from a different station to the one we used this morning) to Marunouchi in order to visit the Imperial Palace. At Sendagaya station, the ticket machines are outside and you can’t even access the station without a ticket. Once again we fail to work out what to do, and when we do manage to purchase a ticket, we accidentally pay twice as much as was necessary.
After much palaver, we finally work out what to do and head for Tokyo Station. We had planned to have brunch at the station, but somehow manage to take the wrong exit and end up in an area with literally zero cafes or restaurants. By now, it’s 21 hours since I last ate and I’m starting to struggle.
Brunch at La Boutique de Joel Robuchon
After a lot of wandering around, we find a bakery and decide to buy a snack to keep us going. The Boutique de Joel Robuchon is a French style bakery. All the food is labelled in French, as are any allergens. This is not particularly helpful as it would appear that the staff don’t actually speak French. For example, the Croque Monsieur (allergens wheat and dairy) is a bread roll covered in cheese and embedded with walnuts. Or maybe pecans. That’s not really the point. The points is who the hell puts nuts on a cheese sandwich? And why the hell isn’t nuts on the list of allergens? I select something which I hope won’t kill me; a mushroom tart. It’s really greasy and the mushrooms are rather bitter. But I’m no longer hungry and I’m not dead. So it’s a win, win of sorts.
Then we walk to the Imperial Palace. I had assumed that an Imperial Palace would be easy to locate, but the site is far larger than I’d imagined and we walk and walk until we finally locate the entry to the palace.
My guide book recommends heading for this enormous gravel lined plaza for views of the Niju-bashi (iron bridge) and Megane-bashi (stone bridge) which link to the Fushimi-yagura (watchtower). In reality, the area is heavily guarded and you can’t get particularly close or see very much of aforementioned attractions.
Imperial Palace Guided Tour
You can only access the palace grounds on a guided tour. These free tours take place between Tuesday and Saturday at 10 am and 1.30 pm. There are 70 places available on a first come first served basis. So we queue for the afternoon tour to find we are around 80th in the queue and therefore cannot participate.
Imperial Palace East Garden
So we walk to the East Garden. This is free to enter, although there is a quota system. Luckily, we don’t have to queue. Again, this is significantly larger than I’d imagined. In addition, I was expecting a traditional Japanese style garden. But it consists mainly of enormous lawns of rather parched grass.
There are some more traditional areas of bamboo and a lake full of koi carp.
We walk back to the 100 year old station, stopping to admire its red brick facade. The plan is to go inside, locate Ramen Street, have lunch, then catch a train back to our hotel.
Tokyo Station is massive. It’s probably bigger than my home town. Its underground shopping and dining streets go on and on and on.
Lunch on Ramen Street
After some considerable effort, we eventually find Ramen Street, select a restaurant and choose, with the help of the plastic replicas, our meals. I opt for Udon Noodles with Tempura vegetables.
A thing I meant to learn but didn’t get round is to eat with chopsticks. Apparently, the way to eat noodles involves chopsticks in one hand and a spoon/ladle in the other. I attempt to go spoon only but the noodles are slippery little buggers and lunch is slow and laborious affair. Much of it ends up on my jumper.
We return to the hotel, stopping at the local 7-11. The old man settles down with a family pack of KitKats to crush candy, while I explore the hotel. It has a nice little roof terrace with views across the Olympic Park and the city.
Then I head for the Public Bath. I’m not sure quite what this entails, but I don my swimming costume and off I go. It’s basically what it says – a big bath. It’s very hot; rather like being in an oversized jacuzzi which hasn’t been turned on.
Apparently, you don’t wear clothes in a public bath. I come waltzing in in my swimming costume and everyone else is naked, leaving me feeling extremely overdressed. I’m not sure how to react; immediately whip my tits out or just get in the water demurely and not draw attention to myself. I opt for the latter, but I feel rather out of place surrounded by exposed fannies when mine’s all covered up. I don’t stay long, returning to our room for an early night. Tokyo is massive; on our first day we have walked 12 miles (in addition to the 3 we ran), so I am shattered.
Japan Day 3 – Tokyo
Sunday 8 January 2023
Today we have another busy day of sightseeing ahead, focusing on the areas of Shibuya and Shinjuku.
After a breakfast of sushi from the corner shop, we start by catching a train to Shibuya Station. This is another mega station which covers an area approximately the size of Wales. First, some admin; we must validate our Japan Rail Passes. These rail passes can only be obtained in Japan, but are only available to foreign non-residents. Thus, there is a complicated system (the Japanese love complicated ticketing) whereby you must purchase an exchange voucher before you travel, then exchange this for a ticket upon arrival. So we must locate the appropriate ticket office in this station the size of a small country. It takes some considerable time, but we finally find the office and obtain our tickets.
We now set off to see the famous intersection of Shibuya Crossing. Outside the station, a large queue has formed to have photos taken with a dog statue. Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to queue, we wait in line for a picture. The statue is of a dog called Hachiko, who waited every day outside the station for his owner to come home from work. When his owner died at work and did not return, the dog continued to wait for him outside the station for 9 years.
There’s also a colourful mural opposite the statue further celebrating this mega loyal pet.
Billed as ‘the busiest intersection in Japan, possibly the world’, this set of 5 pedestrian crossings where the lights all go green simultaneously, is an iconic Tokyo sight.
Coffee at Starbucks
We cross the road in a sea of people to reach Starbucks, which has a 2nd floor seating area overlooking the crossing, so you can sit and watch the comings and goings on the famous intersection.
At the top of the Magnet by Shibuya 109 department store, there is a small roof top cafe, Mag’s Park, with views over Shibuya Crossing. Entry costs Y550.
We didn’t buy anything, just forked out the required money to get a bird’s eye view of the crossing.
We fight our way back through the station maze to find, on our second attempt (we’re getting better at this) the exit to Shibuya Stream. This regenerated area along a small stream has several bridges and a few statues.
It’s not that exciting, but I’m glad I came for the Instaworthy Tokyo lips. From here we head back to station for the next destination on today’s itinerary.
Meiji-Jingu is a Shinto Shrine build of cypress and copper. We catch the metro to nearby Harajuka Station. It’s really busy, and we exit amidst a throng of people, all walking towards the shrine.
The path is lined with displays of donations of sake and fine wine donated to the monks.
We pass through several gates to reach the shrine. Here, a large queue forms, so we join it and wait in line, not sure what for. It is not to enter the shrine; when people reach the front, they throw money into a box, clap and disperse.
Round the corner are lots more queues, so being a lemming, I join one. Here you can pay upwards of ¥1000 (£6) for a good luck amulet, with prices rising according to what sort of luck you’re after. I can’t really back out, so am now the owner of a small but expensive bit of cloth which will allegedly bring good fortune. At ¥1000 a piece it’s certainly bringing someone good fortune!
We walk from the shrine a mile along the road to Shinjuku.
This bustling suburb is lined with shops and restaurants, neon lights and billboards; from huge skyscrapers to ancient alleyways and the thinnest building I’ve ever seen.
All is watched over by Godzilla, who is peering over the cinema roof.
After a quick drink and sit down in a random bar, we continue to today’s final destination; Shinjuku Goyen.
Shinjuku Gyoen is a park in a former Imperial Garden. Is open from 9 am – 4.30 pm daily except Monday and entry costs ¥500. We arrive just before the ticket booths close for the evening. January isn’t the best time to visit a Japanese garden, but it’s still a pleasant stroll through the gardens as the sun sets.
The garden is divided into zones. My favourite is the traditional Japanese Garden.
There’s also a pretty lake lined with beautifully fragrant narcissi.
Dinner at Hidakaya
On the way back, we stop for dinner at a noodle bar opposite the Olympic Park. It’s cheap and the portion sizes are enormous. I get the combo which consists of Ramen, fried rice and gyoza. After yesterday’s chopsticks fiasco, today I have come prepared with a fork secreted in my handbag. I enjoy the rice and gyoza but am defeated by the noodles, only managing about a quarter of the bowl, and that includes what I spilled down my top!
We return to our hotel for a well earned beer and a rest. It has been another epic day of sightseeing and we have walked a total of 11 miles. At least tomorrow I get to sit down, as we’re going to a sumo tournament.
Japan Day 4 – Tokyo
Monday 9 January
It’s our last day sightseeing in Tokyo. My head says ‘blimey that’s gone quick’ and my feet say ‘thank f*** for that, we’ve already walked the equivalent of a marathon in 2 days. First up, time to do battle with another Japanese ticket machine; this time, the bullet train seat reservation machine. With the JR Pass, you can make seat reservations in advance for free at machines located in stations. It’s not necessary (bullet trains have ‘reservations’ and ‘non-reservations’ carriages) but it means we are guaranteed a seat – particularly useful if you’re travelling with luggage.
Now to get on with today, which starts with a visit to another park. We take a couple of trains to Ueno Park. This large park has a lake, shrine, pagoda, zoo and several museums.
We purchase some breakfast and head to a picnic area overlooking the lake. There is a small area of lake which looks how you expect a lake to look i.e. an expanse of water. The remainder has a dense covering of reeds.
We walk past a traditional Japanese five storey pagoda, but we can’t work out how to reach it, it appears to be inside the zoo.
Tokyo National Museum
On edge of the park is the Tokyo National Museum which contains the world’s largest collection of Japanese art. It opens from 9.30 am -5 pm daily except Monday and costs Y1000. This gives you access to exhibits across several buildings in the huge complex.
We start in the Honkan (Japanese Gallery). The first thing I notice about the National Museum is that they have the heating set to ‘furnace’. It’s absolutely baking hot and I immediately have to start undressing. Not all my clothes of course – I haven’t even managed that in a public bath yet.
We work our way down from the second floor, through ornate kimonos, fan art, samurai swords and armour.
Gallery of Horyu-Ji Treasures
This modernist building houses case upon case of Buddhas.
This grand building commissioned to commemorate the wedding of a prince houses special exhibitions.
Although all the old treasures are very interesting, this in my favourite. ‘Our National Treasures: 150 Years in the Future’ imagines what contemporary items might be displayed in a museum in 150 years time. From Godzilla to Hello Kitty, Keirin bikes to soy sauce.
There’s also a rather strange diorama paying homage to potato products.
The Toyokan (Gallery of Asian Art) houses exhibits from other countries in the region. We pass through here fairly rapidly as we are running out of time. Just time for a quick trip to the toilet before heading to the sumo.
As I have become obsessed with Japanese toilets, here is my report regarding the National Museum toilets. When you enter the cubicle, the seat automatically lifts and when you depart it lowers and flushes. It also boasts the hottest toilet seat I’ve ever encountered. This is the closest I’ve come to burning my bum in the toilet (unless you count after a particularly spicy curry when I was a student!)
National Museum of Western Art
We walk back to the station via the grounds of the National Museum of Western Art. This houses a collection of Rodin almost identical to that at The Cantor in Palo Alto which we visited a the week before last. Rodin was obviously a busy chap!
From Ueno we catch another couple of trains to Ryogoku Kokugikan, the 10,000 seater National Sumo Stadium, to watch a sumo tournament. I know very little about sumo. The first thing I didn’t know is that there’s only three tournaments a year in Tokyo, so we were lucky to obtain tickets for this quintessentially Japanese experience.
It’ a very long day with bouts running from 8.30 am to 6 pm. Although the big boys (and I mean that literally) don’t fight until after 2 pm.
We arrive shortly before 2 pm, which gives us a chance to get the hang of things before the top bouts begin.
We find our seats (we’re right at the back in the cheapest seats) and settle down to watch the action. A rough guide to sumo; a couple of large men in nappies faff a lot, throw some salt, then attempt to push each other out of a circle. The circle is raised, so often these huge men fall off the dais onto a judge. I think that about sums it up.
In the gap I go for a wander around the stadium. Outside are cut-out figures of sumo wrestlers carrying women in kimonos. I ask a man to take my photo. He tells me I have to pretend to kiss the sumo, so I oblige.
Sumo stadium toilet report; there is a button labelled ‘make flush sound’ which is presumably if you want to do your business without your neighbours hearing. I press the button. Just out of curiosity, not because I have noisy business to do. The sound is less like flushing, more like grating machinery. I have now drawn attention of all my neighbours to the fact I have some business to hide.
Back in the arena, we watch the intermediate category fights, but by the time the top (senior) group start, we are all sumoed out. So we just watch the parade then depart.
We stop for dinner in the same Ramen bar we ate in last night. This time I choose the rice combo, which consists of stir fried pork, rice, broth, macaroni cheese, cabbage, pickles and mayonnaise. An interesting combination.
In the evening, we do battle with the washing machine in the guest lounge. There are some instructions in English, but they miss out one vital piece of information; you must create a password in order to start the machine so that only you can open it. With some assistance from a fellow guest, we get the machine going. Then it’s another early night ready for an early start for a day trip to Nikko in the morning.
Japan Day 5 – Nikko
Tuesday 10 January 2023
Bullet Train to Nikko
Today I tick another thing off my bucket list with my first journey on a bullet train. We are travelling north to Nikko; a World Heritage Site of shrines and temples set in a cedar forest. After taking two local trains to Tokyo Station, we board our shiny bullet train to Utsunomiya.
It’s our first day using our 14 day JR Passes. These are small cardboard tickets which cost almost £300 each and if lost, cannot be reissued. Apart from being terrified of losing this incredibly expensive scrap of cardboard, every time I enter it in a ticket machine, I panic until I see it safely spat out the other side again. Then I must hand it back to the old man for safekeeping due to my track record for losing things.
The bullet train is as sleek and fast as you’d expect. Toilet report; it’s a bit like entering a space capsule. There’s even a mirror on the rear wall for that all important toilet selfie. As anticipated, there is a large selection of buttons to press. The closest one is the SOS button. Judging from the signage, this gets mistaken for the flush from time to time. Luckily, I manage to have a wee without stopping the train and we disembark without incident.
We have to change to a local train in Utonomiya, which apparently is big in the world of strawberries. There are tubs of strawberries around the station and even a statue of a strawberry wearing a crown.
We take the Nikko Line train to the town of Nikko, which is around a mile from the shrine. The four train, 86 mile journey takes 2 hours 15 minutes.
When we arrive in Nikko, it’s snowing, which is unfortunate as I didn’t bring a coat. It was so warm in Tokyo yesterday that I was wandering around in just a t- shirt.
We buy a bus ticket to enormous shrine complex, disembarking at Shinkyo Bridge; a traditional red bridge across a picturesque stream. For Y300 you can walk onto (but not cross) the bridge for a photo op. I mean, the photo isn’t compulsory but why else would you pay Y300 to not cross a bridge? We make do with taking a free photo from the road bridge.
We decide to start with Tosho-gu. This is a substantial complex/stair combination costing Y1300 to visit. Tosho-gu is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun Warlord. It consists of several buildings, all very ornate, decorated with intricate carvings and paintings, primarily of animals both real and imagined and in some cases both. The strange creatures on one of the buildings are believed to be elephants carved by an artist who’d never seen an elephant. The shrine took 15,000 artisans two years to complete.
You must pay an extra Y300 to access the five storey pagoda at the entrance. We just took a photo from outside.
The entry to the shrine is via the ornate Omote-mon Gate, which is guarded by Deva kings.
The elaborately Yōmei-mon Gate has over 500 carved images in white and gold. To ensure that its perfection did not arouse envy in the gods, thus bringing bad luck, the final supporting pillar was installed upside-down so the building could not be considered perfect.
The Sacred Stable is lined with relief carvings of monkeys which ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ in line with Buddhist philosophy.
From here, you can access, via 207 steep stone steps, the tomb of Ieyasu. It is decorated with a sleeping cat, apparently one of the most famous statues in Japan.
As if 207 steep stone steps wasn’t ordeal enough, there is no handrail, so nothing to lean on. And masks are compulsory. The more I climb, the harder I breath, the more steamed up my glasses become. Soon I can’t see where I’m going.
The first thing I see when I reach the top, wiping my lenses and gasping for breath inside my mask, is a defibrillator! To be honest there’s not much to see to warrant the ascent. Now I have to descend the 207 steep stone steps with no handrail, not being able to see where I’m going.
We finish with a guided visit to Honji-do, which has a huge crying dragon painted on the ceiling. A monk demonstrates something by banging two sticks together. I think it’s supposed to be the dragon roaring? So we take the bus back to town in order to catch the train to Tokyo, reaching the station at 1.16. I had thought the trains were at 19 minutes past the hour, however it turns out they run at 19 minutes past every hour except one. So we have 63 minutes to wait in the draughty station. Did I mention I didn’t bring a coat?
At least, while I’m fending off hypothermia, I can explore the station, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Preserved upstairs, but serving no actual purpose, is the rather grand first class waiting room.
We catch our train/bullet train to Tokyo station, where I announce I need a wee before continuing. The old man accuses me of faking it to take a peek at the bathroom. Tokyo Station bathroom report: automatic fake flushing noise starts as soon as you enter the cubicle. Plus there’s a useful map of how to find the toilet!
Tokyo Olympic Park
Although our hotel is opposite the Olympic Park, we’ve still not managed to fit in a wander. It’s dusk by the time we return, but just enough light to see the Olympic Rings.
Dinner at Sowat
The old man has selected a Thai restaurant called Sowat for dinner. It’s very difficult to find and we pass many perfectly nice restaurants trying to locate Sowat. Did I mention I don’t have a coat? Eventually, we find it down an alleyway. Both tables are occupied so we have to sit at a bench. There is no English menu, so we must use the photos to choose our meals. I select something which looks like noodles. It turns out to be squid and octopus. Epic fail. I pick out the corpses floating on my plate and eat the sauce and rice. It turns out I’m allergic to octopus. Luckily, the epic coughing fits are brought under control by antihistamines and my epipens live to fight another day. As do I.
Japan Day 6 – Hakone
Wednesday 11 January 2023
Today we leave Tokyo and spend two weeks making our way south west to Fukuoka. First stop, Hakone, which overlooks Mount Fuji. It’s a rather transport heavy day as we notch up 4 trains, 2 buses, 2 cable cars, 2 funicular railways and a pirate ship.
Bullet Train to Odawara
After two local trains to Tokyo Station, we board the bullet train to Odawarawa, where we pay to leave our suitcase overnight at the tourist information office. Here we also purchase Hakone Free Passes. These cost Y5000 (around £30) each and provide 48 hours of unlimited use of all the various transportation options Hakone has to offer.
Hakone Tozan Railway
We transfer to the Hakone Tozan Railway for our journey to Gora. Actually, it’s two trains; after 4 stops, we must swap to another train at Hakone-Yamato. We select a forward facing seat, and set off up the mountain. Not the best decision, as we soon reach a switchback. Once the driver has run from the front of the train to the back, and the conductor vice versa, we set off again, this time in the opposite direction i.e. facing backwards. After two more switchbacks, the train makes it to Gora, which is at an elevation of 541 metres.
From here, we continue to Sounzan via what the Japanese call a cablecar, but I would describes as a funicular railway. This 10 minute journey takes us to an elevation of 740 metres. Even the platforms are at a slant, which makes disembarking tricky, as we climb to the exit for the next stage of our journey.
The Hakone Ropeway is, theoretically, a 4 km gondola ride from Sounzan to Togendai over Owakudani Crater. As part of the line is under maintenance (and let’s face it, who wants to ride a poorly maintained cable car over a volcano?) we must take a replacement bus for the first leg of the journey to Owakudani. This is rather disappointing as we miss the most dramatic part of the trip where the car passes through the sulphurous steam belching from the volcano.
At Owakudani Crater, we get our first proper view of Mount Fuji. We’re lucky to have chosen a lovely day for our visit and apart from a little bit of cloud, we can see the volcano in its full splendour.
All around the ropeway station at Owakudani sulphurous steam bellows forth from the volcano. This makes for some spectacular scenery, although the smell is somewhat less spectacular.
The place’s USP is hard boiled eggs which have been cooked in the steam, thus turning the shells black. Obviously, we can’t resist purchasing some eggs (¥500 for 5). The old man also has a black ice cream.
We eat our weird picnic sitting on some black egg shaped stools watched over by Hello Kitty who is hatching from a black egg.
After the obligatory selfie with the black egg sculpture, we board the Hakone Ropeway which will take us down to Tendegai on the shores of Lake Ahinoko.
The 30 minute downhill cablecar journey takes you to Lake Akinosho, offering views of both the lake and Mount Fuji along the way.
Hakone Pirate ship
From here, you can take a pirate ship ride across the lake. I’m not sure what the significance of the pirate ship is – did pirates used to frequent inland glacial lakes? But it’s definitely a pirate ship, complete with cannons and a treasure chest full of life jackets.
Hakone Pirate Ship sails from Togendai on the north of the lake to the south shore, stopping at Hakone-machi (where you can visit Onshi Hakon Koen for views of Mount Fuji) and Moto-Hakone (where you can visit a shrine with a torii gate rising from the lake).
As we get views of both Mount Fuji and the torii from the ship, instead of disembarking and completing the final leg tourist circuit by bus, we decide to stay on the ship for a partial reverse loop, returning to the north of the lake for a second cablecar and funicular ride.
The nearest station to our hotel is at Owakudani, part way down the funicular line. An announcement states that there is no way to cross the line here, so to ensure to exit the correct side. We at the mercy of Google maps (and my navigational skills). Luckily, neither let us down. All we have to do now is walk for 15 minutes down a narrow, winding road with no pavement to reach the hotel.
It’s surprisingly remote and there doesn’t appear to be any buildings around, but we obediently follow the blue line. When we arrive at the hotel, I think we’re mistaken as it looks very industrial. It also looks very deserted. Just after we complete our mountainous walk, taking our lives in our hands on the windy pavementless roads, the shuttle bus pulls up. The hotel runs free shuttle from the station – who knew? Obviously not us!
Wisterian Life Club
It’s a massive hotel, but totally deserted. It’s a bit like checking in to the Marie Celeste.
From our room on the 6th floor we have a balcony with a pretty cool view across the mountains.
It turns out that the ‘industrial’ look comes from the fact that the hotel is built on hot springs, with machinery regulating the emissions. The building is split into two wings, each with its own hot spring baths. Our wing has 9 hot springs (5 for men and 4 for women). So while the old man is catching up on his candy crushing, I go to investigate the baths.
The room is like Dante’s Inferno. The springs bubble away into their respective pools. There’s also some spring powered showers and a sauna. As I have the place to myself, I figure it won’t hurt to take a few photos.
Dinner at Yunessun
As our hotel is in the middle of nowhere and the restaurant is closed, we ask the receptionist where to go for dinner. He says the only one restaurant within a half hour walk of the hotel is Momoji in the Yunessun Building. To reach it you must follow a passageway round the back of the hotel. Five minutes later you emerge at Yunessun, which turns out to be a hot spring/shopping mall combo. It also turns out that a set meal at Momoji costs £100 a head.
On the first floor we find a convenience store with a dine-in area. Here, you can purchase ready meals from the chilled cabinet and they will microwave them for you. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but my spicy tofu noodles are actually quite tasty. And they certainly leave us with plenty of change from £100!
Japan Day 7 – Kyoto
Thursday 12 January
Bullet Train to Kyoto
We wake up to a pretty special view of sunrise without even having to get out of bed. There’s so many things I’ve loved about this hotel. I don’t understand why there’s nobody else here.
Today, we descend from our ghost hotel in the mountains to catch the bullet train from Odawara to Kyoto. I check the route; the bus (which is included in our Hakone Free Pass) stops just round the corner from the hotel and can get us to Odawara in 38 minutes. Unfortunately, the old man announces that he ‘doesn’t trust buses’. So we must walk a mile to Kowakidani Station, then catch two trains. Total time to Odawara; 98 minutes.
The plus side of our convoluted travel arrangements; I can stop and pick up breakfast at the 7-11 (the epic sandwich combo of egg mayonnaise and chicken teriyaki). Plus we get to ride one more time of the little switchback mountain train, this time going downhill.
The bullet train takes just over an 2 hours to cover the 234 miles to Kyoto. That works out at average speed of over 112 MPH.
We reach Kyoto Station, which looks like a space ship landed on top of a shopping mall.
We are staying at the Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex. The first thing we discover about the Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex is that it isn’t actually annexed to the Kyoto Tower Hotel. As usual, we get lost in the huge underground sprawl of the station. This time, bearing in mind that the Kyoto Tower is 131 metres tall, we figure it should be easy to get our bearings. It is indeed and we make a beeline for the tower, only to discover that the annex is a further 5 minute walk along the road and round the corner.
As it too early to check in, we leave our luggage and head off for some sightseeing, starting with Ginkaku-ji. This requires catching a bus. Ironically, having just covered 234 miles in 2 hours, it takes us over an hour to cover the 5 miles to the temple. Someone needs to invent a bullet bus. The bus station is so close that we can see it from the hotel, but it is on the other side of the road, so we must take the underpass, which doubles as the entrance to a huge underground mall. Somehow, we manage to come back up again on the same side of the road! After a second attempt, we reach the bus station and board the bus.
It is supposed to be a 43 minute journey, but takes over an hour, almost all of it standing. Each time the bus stops, more and more people get on. Nobody ever seems to get off. Maybe they can’t – they’re probably stuck. Or dead. In Bournemouth, when a bus is full, it skips stops. None of that namby-pamby nonsense here. At every stop, more people get on and everyone has to squeeze tighter and tighter together. At particularly busy stops, there is a man to help shove people into the ever decreasing space. Contrary to my suspicions, we make it to Ginkaku-ji without being crushed to death and squeeze out of the bus and walk to the temple.
Ginkaku-ji, ‘Silver Pavilion’ is a pavilion in a traditional dry sand garden. The temple dates from 1482 when it was a retirement villa for shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, who desired a place to retreat from the turmoil of war. The temple is called the Silver Pavilion because the shogun planned to line the roof with silver, however he never got round to it (typical man). After his death, the villa became a temple.
You can’t enter the pavilion. Entry to the garden costs Y500.
Walkways lead through the gardens of meticulously raked sand. I can’t help wondering how the poor gardener feels when it rains and he has to start raking all those patterns again.
You can follow the path (what am I saying – this is Japan, you must follow the prescribed route) up the mountain to a viewpoint over the city.
To reach our next destination , the temple of Nanzen-ji we take the Philosopher’s Path, which follows a stream (Lake Biwa canal) lined with trees and plants. It ranks as one of Japan’s top 100 best walks.
The entire trail is 11 miles long and there are a number of shrines and temples along the way. We are covering a mile section to Nanzen-ji Temple.
Nanzen-ji is one of the most visited temple complexes in Kyoto, and I can see why.
The first building you come to is the enormous Sanmon Gate. This is more like a building with some doors in the middle than a gate. For Y600 you can climb to the second floor for views across the city.
As we are short of time and it involves taking your shoes off (the old man is wearing boots which take him ages to get on and off), we admire the gate from the outside and proceed up the path to the temple.
Nanzenin Temple is located just behind the rather impressive aqueduct.
It includes the mausoleum of an emperor, a temple hall and a garden centred around a pond. For Y400 you can enter the garden. To be honest, we hadn’t intended to go into Nanzenin, but paid the entry before we realised we weren’t actually at the Hojo we were aiming for.
The Hojo is the former head priest’s residence. Entry costs Y600 and visitors enter through the former temple kitchen. Here, you must remove your shoes, put them into a plastic bag to carry and don a pair of leather slippers.
The old man looks rather foolish trundling around in his slippers. This may because he accidentally took two left shoes.
The Hojo has a pretty impressive garden running around the outside.
It is most famous for its rock garden where the rocks allegedly resemble tigers and cubs crossing through water. To be honest, they just look like rocks. But they’re very pretty rocks nevertheless.
Temple toilet report; at the entrance to the toilet you must remove your leather slippers and replace them with plastic ones in case you piss on your feet.
We leave the temple just as it closing. A helpful monk gives us directions to the bus stop and we return to Kyoto on a even more crowded bus.
Kyoto Tower Hotel Annex
After a brief stop at a convenience store, we check into our hotel for the next few days. Most of our accommodation in Japan has been quite expensive, but at £175 for 5 nights, this one is worryingly cheap. I remember watching an episode of The Goes Wrong Show where a courtroom drama turns to farce because the set creator thought the dimensions were in feet, not metres so made everything a fraction of the size. Everyone is trying to be serious, but can’t actually fit into the courtroom. That about sums up our hotel room. It’s clean and has all mod cons, just in a rather compact form.
It certainly has a view of the not as close as expected Kyoto Tower. Especially at night when it is illuminated in red, white and blue.
Hotel toilet report. Compact (obviously). The toilet has a special ‘woman’ setting where you can turn the bidet to oscillating?!
Dinner at Ippudo
We return to the food court in the underground mall. The old man has selected a noodle bar called Ippudo, a chain which boasts a crazy fast order-to-table time.
Friday 13th January 2023
Japan Day 8 – Kyoto
Friday 13th January 2023
I start the day off with what a posh restaurant would call fusion cuisine; a pizza bao bun.
On today’s itinerary are a temple and a bamboo forest. First up, Kinkaku-ji; the ‘Golden Pavilion’. There is an easy way to reach the temple and a way which is free with our JR Rail Pass. The JR bus, which doesn’t appear to have a number, runs every 30 minutes. There is a far more frequent Kyoto Bus no 205, which we would have to pay to use. The scheduled time for the JR bus comes and goes. We try to decide how many 205 buses we will watch drive pass before we give up and catch one. Just then, the numberless JR bus appears round the corner.
We reach Kinkaku-ji; called the Golden Pavilion because there is, indeed, a pavilion covered in gold which reflects in the adjoining pond.
The original 14th Century building was a retirement villa for a Shogun warlord. After his death, the building became a temple. In 1950 it was burnt down by a mad monk, however it was reconstructed in 1955.
We walk along the prescribed route, stopping at a lucky statue, where, if you throw a coin and it lands in the bowl, it is supposed to bring good luck. I throw a bronze coin, it lands just short of the bowl, hitting a silver coin, which then bounces into the bowl. Bullseye!
I think this is my favourite temple so far. Even on a overcast, rather smoggy Kyoto winter’s day it’s quite a sight. It’s also one of the cheapest at Y400. You can pay extra to enter the temple, but we didn’t bother.
Our next destination is the suburb of Arashiyama around 6 miles west of central Kyoto. We can’t be bothered to mess around with the JR bus any more, so get the 205 to Emmachi station to catch a train to Arashiyama.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
We walk through the quaint, if somewhat touristy, suburb to the Bamboo Grove. It’s a very popular attraction, particularly with young people taking selfies in traditional costume.
Adjoining the bamboo grove is Tenru-ji; a Zen temple with a garden overlooking the mountains. The garden is supposed to mimic the overlooking mountains. I can’t see it. But it’s a pretty garden nonetheless. It costs ¥500 to visit just the garden or ¥800 including going inside the temple.
We continue to Togetsukyo Bridge, apparently Arashiyama’s is most iconic landmark. The bridge is made of reinforced concrete lined with cypress to give the impression of a wooden bridge. On one side it’s a pretty bridge flowing over a picturesque river with a mountain backdrop. On the other side is a construction site. Once we have taken some quaint bridge photos without cranes and JCBs in the background, we make our way back to the station.
This installation of 600 poles decorated with kimono designs outside Arashiyama Station is worth a quick stop before boarding the train back to Kyoto.
It is supposed to be illuminated at night, but although we visit mid afternoon, there is a storm brewing, so the lights start to come on as we wander around.
We catch the train back to Kyoto Station. This huge building which looks like it belongs in an episode of Star Trek is a tourist attraction in its own right.
There’s even a Lego model of the station which took someone with far more patience than me 720 hours to build.
We take a gazillion escalators to a Skywalk in the rafters, crossing to a rooftop garden towering high above the city.
Dinner at Kokkio
For dinner we head back down to the Porta food court. There are no English menus, so it’s a case of selecting from the photos or plastic food displayed outside. We end up in Kokkio, which is a Korean restaurant. Pointing at pictures brings me Chicken Dakgalbi. This turns out be a spicy chicken and vegetable stir fry, coated in a thick layer of melted cheese.
We point at more pictures to order a couple of beers. This does not go so well and we end up with half a pint of Bourbon and soda.
As our hotel may (or may not) be annexed to the Kyoto Tower, we have been given discounted tickets to visit the observation deck. Normally costing ¥800, we only have to pay ¥300. The Kyoto Tower was built to celebrate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is 131 metres tall in total, with an observation platform, reached by two elevators, at 100 metres.
It has good views across the city and beyond, with interactive multilingual boards providing more information about the things you can see.
There’s also a pretty good view of our hotel, which we return to, via the store to further investigate Japanese fruity alcoholic beverages. Today’s choices; peach, melon & vanilla and grape & cassis. T
Japan Day 9 – Nara
Saturday 14 Janauary 2023
After a glorious sunny week (during which we walked 75 miles), we wake up this morning to pouring rain. After our morning round of room Tetris, as we attempt to negotiate ourselves and our belongings around each other in our tiny room, and another round of pizza bao buns, we set off for Nara. This does not start well. The ‘wardrobe’ consists of a set of coat hangers hanging on a board over the table. When the old man takes his coat, he knocks a coffee cup onto the floor, smashing it. We need to get better at Tetris.
Train to Nara
It’s a 45 minute train ride to Nara on the aptly named Nara Line, which is included in our JR Rail Pass. The Nara JR station is 1.4 miles from the temple itself. You can walk (obviously) or take the No 2 bus, which costs Y220.
Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital, is famous for its temple containing a large Buddha statue. And its park full of deer. It is just 26 miles south of Kyoto, thus a popular day trip.
Nara is definitely guilty of taking a theme and running with it. From deer themed instructions to bollards to drain covers. There are deer everywhere.
As it’s raining we treat ourselves to a bus ride. It isn’t clear where we need to disembark, but we reach a bus stop circled by expectant deer and figure we’ve arrived.
The Temple is situated within a large park with a herd of what my guide book describes as ‘many (somewhat) tame deer’. This is an understatement! We disembark and run the gauntlet of deer. The old man purchases some deer food.. He is immediately surrounded. Some deer go for the food, another tries to eat the map, whilst another bites him on the arse.
Kasuga Taisha Shrine
We spot a sea of umbrellas heading up the hill and join them in the belief that they are going to the temple.
It’s a pleasant walk through a forest lined with stone lanterns. However, it takes us in the opposite direction to our intended destination and we end up at Kasuga Taisha Shrine. This ancient shrine was originally built in the 8th Century, when Nara became the capital.
We return down the hill and across the park until we really do reach the temple. Entry costs Y600 or Y1000 for a combined ticket including the museum. As we had also intended to visit the National Museum, we select the combination ticket.
At the centre of the 8th Century Todaiji Temple is a huge Buddha statue. It is housed in the Daibutsuden, one of the largest wooden buildings in the world.
The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) stands 15 metres high and contains 437 tonnes of bronze plus 130 kg of gold. This makes it one of the largest bronze statues in the world.
You enter at the front of the Buddha, walk round it, then exit via a long line of gift shops.
At the rear of the statue is a pillar with a hole the size of the Buddha’s nostril. It is said that if you can crawl through the hole, you will achieve enlightenment. Unfortunately, the hole has been covered up to prevent the spread of Covid, so enlightenment is currently on pause.
Outside the temple is a rather grotesque statue; Binzuru. It is said that if you have an ailment, you can cure it by praying and touching the corresponding body part of Binzuru. Miracle cures are also on hold due to Covid. If only there was a statue you could touch to cure covid…
As we head back towards the museum, we pass Todaiji Museum and realise that our combo ticket is for this, rather than the museum we’d intended to visit. This small museum houses treasures excavated from around the temple. It also has some rather over zealous cleaners; a lady walks behind us and each time we stop to look at anything, she disinfects and polishes the glass where we stood.
We exit the temple complex via the enormous Nandaimon Gate. How we missed this upon arrival is a mystery. It contains two 13th Century guardian statues (replicas of which can be seen in the National Mueum) and a lot of deer.
Nara National Museum
The National Museum is a veritable treasure chest of Buddhist artefacts, primarily Buddha statues. Entry costs Y700 with addition fees for special exhibits. We just purchase the basic ticket which provides access to two areas. The West Wing contains Buddhist art.
An underground passageway brings us to the Buddhist Sculpture Hall; row upon row, room upon room of Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes with varying numbers of heads and arms. With the exception of the aforementioned guardian statues, photography is forbidden throughout.
All Bhuddhaed out, we return to Nara station and purchase some food from a nearby bakery while we wait for our train to Kyoto.
Lunch at Vie de France
Lunch is another veritable fusion feast. First, a German sausage in Teriyaki sauce wrapped in a tortilla. Followed by a curry-cheese bao bun.
We catch the train back to Tokyo, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy a salad to make up for having bread for breakfast and lunch. Plus a couple of drinks to round off a hard day’s sightseeing. Today’s flavours; orange & cassis and plum wine soda. For added variety, the tower has also changed colour.
In the evening, while the old man goes for a walk, I attempt to wash my hair in the tiny bath. I add some grapefruit bath salts, which are a rather alarming fluorescent yellow. Then I climb in the bath. In order to wet my hair, I have to put my feet in the sink, but it kind of works.
Japan Day 10 – Osaka
Sunday 15 January 2023
On today’s agenda is a day trip to Osaka. It’s only 29 miles from Kyoto and can be reached by bullet train in 13 minutes. However, as this takes you to Shin-Osaka Station, which is on the outskirts, we are taking the slower (special rapid) train which goes to the more central Osaka Station. From here you can travel round the edge of the city on the JR Loop Line (free on our JR Rail Pass) or by underground (not free).
We take the Loop Line to Osakajokoen (Osaka Castle Park) Station. Osaka Castle is surprisingly far (almost a mile) from its namesake station and we have a long walk through a shopping mall and then the park before we actually reach the castle. As we walk through the park, we are passed by a runner dressed as a cat. Only in Japan…
The Japanese have a unique way of dating buildings. Once a building has been erected on a site, then the counting starts. So a castle can be built, knocked, down, destroyed and another building erected in its place. The counting doesn’t stop. Hence, this historic 16th Century castle was actually built in 1931 and made of concrete.
The 8 storey building is topped with a tower providing views over the city. It is surrounded by two moats and (as we have already discovered) a large park.
Visiting the grounds is free with a Y600 fee to enter the castle. There is a long queue to get in. In fact there are three queues, as you must first enter the temperature check station, then buy a ticket, then prove you bought a ticket. Once inside, there is a option to catch an elevator to the 5th floor (which obviously I take). Then we climb to the 8th floor to enjoy the view.
We descend via the stairs; each floor has displays relating to the history of the castle(s) displays of samurai armour etc. My favourite of some strange holograms telling the stories of famous battles.
From the castle we have another very long walk through the park to the station to continue to Japan’s tallest building.
En route we spot a man dressed as a samurai on an e-bike. Only in Japan…
We take the Loop Line once more to Tennoji to visit the adjoining Abeno Harukas. At 300 metres tall, Abeno Harukas is Japan’s tallest building (although a partially complete building in Tokyo is set to steal this title).
This mammoth 60 storey building contains a department store, a hotel and an art gallery.
You can visit an observation deck on the 16th floor for free or pay Y1500 to go to the top. We decide that we’ve paid enough to go up things already, so take the elevator to the 16th floor roof garden.
We head for our next destination of Shinsekai, passing through the recreation area of Ten-shiba with its festive Osaka sign.
On to Tennoji Park. Here, although it’s only mid January, we catch our first glimpse of the famous Japanese cherry blossom.
Shinsekai was the site of a 1903 expo. Once a state-of-the-art theme park, it has seen better day. However it’s synonymous with my mental image of Osaka, so we came here anyway.
Shinsekai is renowned for its kushi-katsu (think chicken nuggets on a stick -although you can choose other fillings such as pork fat or gizzards or even vegetables).
There are dozens of restaurants to choose from, all trying to outdo each other with signs each more garish than the next. We settle on a restaurant, sit down and are presented with two tiny bowls of pickled bean sprouts and a sign saying they are a compulsory purchase and cost ¥600. We select another restaurant, but they don’t even have a photo menu for us to point at. Our third choice is a chain which has a branch next to our hotel selling the same food only cheaper.
Right in the middle of Shinsekai is the 108 metre high Tsutenkatu Tower. This isn’t the original tower (that was made of steel and dismantled in 1943 to build ammunition to help the war effort). The current tower was built in 1956. You can pay to visit an observation deck on the 5th floor.
We decide we’ve had enough of Shinsekai and head for the station. While we wait for our train, the Hello Kitty Bullet Train goes past. Only in Japan…
Back in Kyoto, we buy some ready meals at the corner store. I have a pack of sesame dressing which indicates you should bend along the perforated line. Obviously, I bend the wrong way and end up wearing the dressing. Dinner is quite nice; teriyaki meatballs and dumplings. Although it would have benefitted from some sesame dressing…
Then it’s back to the hotel to do some laundry and take a bath. Today’s bath salts; a rather fluorescent shade of lavender. Today’s drink flavours; plum and grape.
Japan Day 11 – Kyoto
Monday 16th January 2023
Today is our last day in Kyoto before setting off on our epic train adventure and we have saved Kyoto’s most popular attraction until last. Suitable fuelled with egg mayonnaise and chicken teriyaki sandwiches, we set off for Fushimi Inari Taisha; a shrine complex consisting of a total of four of paths, lined with thousands upon thousands of red torii gates.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
We take the train to Fushimi Inari Station, which brings you right to the entrance to the shrine. After running a gauntlet of foxes, we come to the start of the torii path.
Inari is the deity responsible for good harvest and success in business. The fox is believed to be his messenger. Hence the proliferation of shrines and foxes. The monks charge from Y40,000 to erect a torii to bring good luck to your crops/business. Hence the continuous lines of them winding up and up the mountainside.
The complex is extremely crowded with hoards of people all vying to take photos of themselves and nobody else. It’s a 4 kilometre trail. Uphill. With lots and lots of stairs. I figure all we have to do is outlast some of the less hardy tourists and the crowds will diminish.
Obviously, I’m right and we get some nice, people free photos en route to a viewpoint overlooking the city.
At this point, we have been climbing for half an hour and I decide there is little to gain from walking up more stairs past more identical red gates. But the old man is undeterred. There is a summit and he is going to reach it.
So I find somewhere to sit and take charge of the coats (they were definitely a mistake today) while he soldiers on up the hill of never ending torri.
Some considerable time later, I start to recognise some of the people coming back down the trail. So I wait expectantly. Finally, the old man reappears and we can complete our descent and catch our train back to Kyoto. Shrine toilet report; only at the bottom – the mountain is considered too sacred to do your business on.
Dinner at Tops Cafe
We have definitely earned our dinner today and go in search of katsu curry. We find a place behind Kyoto Station which has both katsu and an English menu, which good because (a) we know what we’re going to eat in advance of it arriving at the table and (b) it’s self order which we obviously wouldn’t be able to manage in Japanese.
To be honest, the system is a little complicated for two foreign wrinklies and we end up with rather a lot of food.
But I have my katsu curry (amongst a whole range of other stuff) so I’m happy. And it’s a good curry. So I’m extra happy. And that concludes our last day in Kyoto. After reserving our seats on tomorrow’s bullet trains, we return to the hotel to pack and then bed. Today’s bath salts are ‘Forest’; a rather alarming shade of green. I fear I shall emerge from the bath looking like Princess Fiona.
Japan Day 12 – Himeji and Okayama
17 January 2023
Today we travel 130 miles west to Okayama. Technically, this can be done on the bullet train in under an hour. However, along the route lies one of Japan’s top tourist attractions; Himeji Castle. So we will be taking two trains and stopping at Himeji.
Train to Himeji
We get up and get ready, which is harder than it sounds in such a small space, constantly having to perform a weird kind of dance to manoeuvre around things and each other. Then it’s time to head to the station for our first bullet train of the day to Himeji. Half an hour early due the old man needing to factor in contingency (we only had to walk across the street).
Bullet train toilet report; a braille map to help blind men perfect their aim.
Himeji Station is about a mile from Himeji Castle, which is a straightforward walk or one stop on Shinki Bus No 6. First, we must find a locker to leave our luggage for a few hours. It’s a tight fit, but we manage to squeeze everything and set off unencumbered.
According to my guide book, free bicycles are available outside the station so you can cycle to the castle. The old man is having none of this deviation from our normal routine, so we must walk the mile to the castle.
To be honest, it’s quite a pleasant walk along a wide boulevard lined with statues and floral displays (mainly cabbages). Even the drain covers are pretty.
Himeji Castle is Japan’s biggest and best preserved castle. Unlike many of the buildings we have visited, which claim to be historic but were actually reconstructed fairly recently, Himeji is original. Having said that, it did undergo an extensive renovation which involved totally dismantling it and rebuilding it from scratch like an enormous 3D jigsaw puzzle.
The castle is nicknamed White Heron Castle as it is said to resemble a white bird in flight. As much as a castle can resemble a bird. Maybe after a couple of sakes? It consists of a six storey main keep plus several smaller keeps, surrounded by a maze of moats and walls deliberately contrived to confuse would-be attackers.
Entry costs Y1000 (or you can pay Y1050 for a combo ticket to visit Koko-En as well). There is a prescribed route to take around the castle and its grounds. This takes you up to the top of the castle, back down (obviously) then in a loop round the grounds.
Upon entering the castle you must remove your shoes and place them in a plastic bag. Inside it’s very dark. In the semi darkness you must climb 5 flights of extremely steep, slippery wooden stairs in your socks whilst carrying your shoes and wearing a mask. Quite a feat.
On each floor of the castle they are informative boards telling the castle’s history plus displays of samurai armour, weapons etc. For example, the loopholes in the castle walls are square, round, triangular and rectangular to accommodate a range of weapons from arrows to stones to guns to oil.
From the top of the castle there are great views across the grounds and the city.
Then we must descend the slippery wooden stairs. At one point I get stuck as my shoe bag lodges in the bannister, causing a log jam on the stairs. The old man has the added complication of trying not to knock himself out on the low ceilings.
Castle toilet report; basic (lol).
After a wander round the castle grounds, we continue to Koko-En; a reconstruction of a samurai home surrounded by 9 themed gardens;
- The garden of the Lord’s Residence
- The garden of seedlings
- Tea ceremony garden
- Flatly landscaped garden
- The garden summer trees
- The garden of pine trees
- The garden of flowers
- The garden with a hill and pond
- The garden of bamboo
As the entrance fee was only Y50 (£0.32) , I shouldn’t complain, but it’s not that exciting in winter. Apart from the obvious lack of foliage, some of the gardens are closed, while in others, trees are covered in bright blue sheets.
We start in the Garden the Lord’s Residence, the focal point of which is a pond containing hundreds of carp, which an elderly Japanese woman is trying to attack with her walking stick.
We follow the prescribed route round the remaining gardens. From Koko-En we walk back towards the station to catch the bullet train to Okayama.
Lunch at Darbar
As we are walking , we smell curry and decide to stop in a Nepalese restaurant (Darbar) for lunch. They serve a daily set lunch (today it’s chicken and mushroom curry, rice, salad and a naan) which cost Y850 (around £5.42).
It is very tasty and the naan is absolutely massive. It comes served on a tray, hanging over both sides.
Then we waddle the rest of the way to the station for our train to Okayama.
We are spending the night in Okayama primarily because we have to change trains here and it seemed like the obvious place to break the journey. However, it does have a couple of interesting sites; Korakuen Garden and Okayama Castle.
Hotel Granvia Okayama
We check into our hotel the Granvia Okayama, which describes itself as conveniently connected to the station. Albeit a Japanese station, so its still a 15 minute walk.
At check in we are given an upgrade from the 17m2 room we paid for to a 32m2 room. It’s such a relief to have some space and not be constantly tripping over stuff/each other. At check in we are also given some sachets. I’m not sure what it is? Sweets? Bath salts? Crack cocaine? I decide to throw it in the bath and take a soak (white peach and cypress bath salts) while the old man goes for a wander.
Then, after a brief foray for supplies, it’s an early night before tomorrow’s park/castle combo times two on two different islands.
Japan Day 13 – Okayama and Takamatsu
Wednesday 18 January 2023
We start the morning with a walk to the park. It’s quite a long walk and there’s a tram which follows the same route but the old man is determined to walk (the tram costs £0.64). It’s another walk along a statue lined boulevard. This time no cabbages, just dozens of kamikaze cyclists.
Every Japanese city seems to have a theme. Okayama’s is Peach Boy. According to the story, a childless couple found a baby in a peach. When he was older, the boy went off to fight ogres, befriending a talking dog and a monkey along the way. Hence, in Okayama even the drain covers have a boy, a dog and a monkey on them. There are also plenty of ogres. Ogres tend to be ginger.
We stop on the way at a convenience store to buy some breakfast and have a picnic on a bench overlooking the Asahi River and Okayama Castle. Breakfast today consists of the thing on the shelf above the shelf we pointed at in the shop.
After breakfast, we continue to Okayama Castle. It is nicknamed Crow Castle because it’s black and the Japanese have a thing about naming castles after birds. Although there was a castle here in the 16th century, this particular building dates from 1966. As this makes it the same age as me, the old man declares it ancient.
It may not be historic, however from the outside the striking black building decorated with golden fish is pretty impressive.
Entry costs Y400. The old man went in yesterday and wasn’t impressed by the interior which was rather modern, although there was a collection of samurai weapons and armour.
We cross a footbridge over the Asahi River which brings us the the garden of Korakuen.
Korakuen is one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. This is partly due to its proliferation of cherry and maple trees which apparently look spectacular in spring/autumn. However, so much of the focus in this garden is on the rocks, water features, bridges, tea houses and other buildings that it’s picturesque even in January.
In fact, the Japanese winter has been so mild that there are actually some trees starting to blossom in mid January.
Entry to the garden costs Y410.
Garden toilet report; squat – with instructions not to sit down!
We walk back to the hotel, while I count the number of trams that pass by, full of people with non-achy feet. Then it’s time to check out, return to the station and catch the train to Takamatsu.
This involves a 53 minute trip on a train which changes name part way along the route. So we start on the Seto-Ohashi Line and complete our journey on the Yosan Line Rapid Mariner, all on the same train. The old man is most perturbed by such chicanery and is primed to leap out of the evil, name-shifting train at any moment. We reach our destination despite the cunning train’s attempt to trick us.
Japan consists of four main islands plus over 6000 smaller islands. Thus far, we have spent all our time on the main island, Honshu. Today, we are travelling to the fourth largest island, Shikoku.
Shikoku is separated from Honshu by the Seto Inland Sea. It is famous for its 88 sacred temples which form a popular pilgrimage. According to my guide book it is “synonymous with natural beauty and the pursuit of spiritual perfection”. We’re going to do a parkrun.
There are three routes to Shikoku (more of that later). By train, you cross via an 8 mile long double decker series of bridges.
Seto Ohashi Bridge
The Seto Ohashi Bridge is actually a set of 11 bridges connecting Honshu and Shikoku via a series of islands. Although it sounds exciting crossing one of the biggest bridge complexes in the world, we’re actually on the lower deck with the road bridge above us so there’s not such a great view. In addition, there’s a lot of girders. Much as I lament a good photo op, if I’m on a train on a bridge over the sea, the more girders the better!
We are spending a night in the port city of Takamatsu. To be honest, we’re only staying here because we planned to go to the art island of Naoshimi, but it is closed this week for maintenance.
Comfort Hotel Takamatsu
Tonight’s accommodation is the Comfort Hotel. It’s a budget hotel but still very clean and comfortable with all the gadgets. And does a complimentary breakfast (which is, I suspect, why the old man picked it).
We walk from our hotel to Ritsurin Garden, which claims to be is one of the most beautiful gardens in the country. The garden dates from the 17th Century and took more than a 100 years to complete.
It was designed as a strolling garden for the enjoyment of the regional lord. The park winds around a series of ponds, tearooms, bridges and islands all with a mountain backdrop. The theory is that the scenery changes with every step. As I walk along, I wonder which 10 shots of this visual feast the garden’s designer would have picked to post to Instagram?
Entry to the garden costs Y410.
Again, we are in luck with blossom spotting, as some of the trees in the Apricot Orchard are coming into bloom.
Lunch at Tamachi Shopping Arcade
We walk back towards town via Tamachi Shopping Arcade. This covered shopping area is one of 8 converging arcades, which form the longest arcade in Japan totalling almost two miles in length.
We pick a noodle bar at random and the old man orders the hot pot, which really is a hot pot as it comes with its own little burner. I go for the Cheese Curry; an interesting choice. Not something I’d pick again.
Takamatsu Castle is a (restored) 16th Century Castle in a park with a sea water moat. As we have already walked 11 miles today and it’s a further mile to the castle, I decide to chill at the hotel, but the old man is determined to plough on.
He returns somewhat underwhelmed by the experience. There’s not much of the castle or its infrastructure left. Entry to the castle remains costs Y200.
We round the evening off with a snack in our hotel room. Today’s crisp choice; grilled plum. To be honest, I thought the photo on the packet was peppercorns, so the sweetness was a bit of a shock.
Japan Day 14 – Matsuyama
Today we are taking a train which hugs the northern coast of Shikoku for about 100 miles then heads south, still along the coast, to the island’s largest town, Matsuyama.
First, breakfast, which is complimentary at the Comfort Hotel. Before approaching the buffet, we must be appropriately dressed in masks and gloves. The food is an eclectic mix and contains a number of items I don’t understand how you’d eat with chopsticks. As the only other option is baby cutlery, I choose that and eat my scrambled egg and veggie spaghetti bolognaise with a teeny tiny baby fork and spoon.
Then we set off for the station a mile away. There is a bus which stops just outside the hotel, but the old man says it’s antisocial to take a suitcase on a bus, so we walk to the station through the shopping arcade. At this time of morning it’s a bit like walking down the middle of a cycle super highway.
The walk takes much longer than expected (thank goodness for the old man’s contingency) and we just have time to board the train and for him to stress about where to put the suitcase on the almost empty train.
Train to Matsuyama
Then we set off for Matsuyama on a trip which is further from the coast and far more industrial than I’d imagined. There are no bullet trains on Shikoku, so it’s a 2.5 hour journey. Add in the constant noise pollution of a Japanese train with the constant announcements and jingles and it’s a long 2.5 hours.
We reach today’s destination of Matsuyama. Shikoku’s largest city is famous for its hot springs, namely the 19th Century Dogo Onsen Honkan. We have established that the old man doesn’t do hot springs. Not that it makes much difference as the complex is under renovation and only has very limited public access.
I’m not sure what the city’s theme is. Drain covers; flowery.
Comfort Hotel Matsuyama
We are staying at another Comfort Hotel for the next two nights. It is around a mile from the station. There is a tram which stops outside the hotel but the old man says it’s antisocial to take a suitcase on a tram, so we walk.
Once we have checked in, we head for the city’s second biggest attraction, Matsuyama Castle. The castle sits atop the 132 metre high Mount Katsuyama and can be reached by ropeway or chairlift. On Saturdays there is a parkrun in the castle grounds.
Entry to the castle costs Y520 and the ropeway/chairlift is Y270 each way. We opt to take the ropeway up and walk back down along what is described in Lonely Planet as “a pleasant pathway”. From our hotel we must walk round two sides on the castle grounds to reach the ropeway. We arrive to find it is shut, but the chairlift is in operation.
The chairlift is exactly as described, a chair on a lift. Much to my consternation, there is no strap or anything to hold you on as you ascend 132 metres up a mountain. Just the gravity of your own arse sitting on a chair dangling in mid air.
We reach the top and after the obligatory photo with the tacky plastic Samurai, enter the castle.
Matsuyama Castle is one of Japan’s twelve ‘original castles’. Which, roughly translated, means it is made of wood not concrete. Hence you have to take your shoes off to enter and walk around the slippery wooden floors and steep wooden staircases in badly fitting slippers that have been on any number of other people’s feet. I opt to walk round in my socks. Not my best decision as I now have a splinter in my toe.
The castle is only three storeys high, so not as many stairs as some other castles we’ve visited. But, as if to compensate, you have to do them twice. In the middle are some VR booths where you can watch mock battles taking place in the castle narrated by a lady fuelled by helium.
From the top, not surprisingly, there are great views of Matsuyama and across to the Seto Inland Sea.
We walk back down from the castle via the path, as described in Lonely Planet as “pleasant”. It is hundreds upon hundreds of large, uneven, slippery stone steps. I climb my way way gingerly down the hundreds upon hundreds of far from pleasant steps, cursing Lonely Planet profusely, as I try not to slip or fall or cry. The old man thinks this is all hilarious and videos my distress.
Once we have reached to bottom of the far-from-pleasant steps from hell, we return to the hotel via the convenience store. Crisps of the day, according to Google Translate are ‘Immoral Garlic Mayo’. It looks like some kind of meat. Maybe Google Translate is vegan and trying to make a point? I briefly toyed with the idea of buying the chocolate coated crisps but decided that really was immoral. Drink of the day; white peach and orange.
Japan Day 15 – The Shimanami Kaido
Friday 20 January 2023
There are three ways to reach the main island of Honshu from Shikoku, the Shimanami Kaido is one of them. This series of 7 bridges across 6 islands spans a total distance of 70 km, most of which has cycle paths. Only the final bridge is a road bridge and cyclists must take a ferry. The plan today is to hire bikes and cycle a chunk of The Shimanami Kaido.
Working out how to get to the start is problematic. There is a cycle hire shop right at the start of the route. This cannot, however, be reached by public transport. There is also cycle hire available at Imabari Station, but this is 4 miles from the start. I would be knackered before we we even reach the beginning of the trail. We come up with a Plan C; to catch the train to Imabari then a bus to one of the islands, starting further along the trail at Hakatajima.
First, breakfast. This morning’s offering of food to put in your plastic compartmentalised tray even includes jelly. Now I really do feel like I’m back in primary school!
After breakfast, we attempt to catch a tram to the station. The tram passes our hotel, then turns and performs a circuit of the city with the station three stops in a clockwise direction. So we are somewhat disappointed when we reach the turn and the tram heads anti-clockwise.
We must disembark and catch a different tram. First, we need to pay. On Japanese public transport you must have the correct change. If you don’t, you must put money into the change box in order to obtain sufficient change. We have the correct money, but the old man mistakes the change box for the ticket machine and throws in his money. He now still has the correct change only in far more coins.
We catch the correct tram, which is running late. Even with the old man’s contingency, we miss the hourly direct train to Imabari. We end up instead on the local train which takes so long that it arrives just 4 minutes before the rapid train which departed an hour later. Also, unlike the rapid train, there is no Wi-Fi, which makes the journey seem even longer. And it is also running late.
By the time we reach Imabari, it’s almost midday. Catching the bus is more complicated than we thought as it’s 16 minutes late. During which time three other buses arrive. There’s nothing written in English anywhere so we erroneously board the wrong bus. Several times.
Finally, we catch the correct bus and set off along The Shimanami Kaido. First up, Kurushima-Kaiko Bridge. At over 4 km long, this is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world.
Then onto Oshima Island. It doesn’t look anything like I’d imagined ; it appears to be a hill encircled by heavy industry.
Next up, the 840 metre long Oshima Bridge.
This brings us to the small island of Hakatajima, where the guide I picked up in Tourist Information says you can rent a bike from Hakata SC Park, a four minute walk from the bus stop.
I have read plenty about cycling the Shimanami Kaido and seen numerous photos. They are all of happy, smiling people amongst parks and by the seaside or admiring public art.
We haven’t seen anywhere remotely resembling a park and we haven’t seen one single cyclist on our journey across the first two islands.
We disembark in Hakatajima, which doesn’t seem to have anything going for it at all. The guide said it was famous for its salt production and you could buy salt flavour ice cream in little stands along the road. There are no stands and there are no signs showing the way to Hakata SC Park.
We think we spot a park in the distance and wander across to take some photos of the bridge. It turns out to be a school playground – oops!
We set off in search of Hakata SC Park and walk until we finally spot a sign indicating it is in the opposite direction.
Hakata SC Park is like a ghost town. There’s certainly no sign of any bikes. Which is kind of a relief because it’s blowing a gale and I’ve gone off the whole cycling idea now.
We walk towards the bridge hoping the path will take us up onto it. But it’s just a dead end. At this point, we decide we’ve had enough, purchase some sandwiches at the 7-11 and eat them at the bus stop waiting for the bus back to Imabari, which is also late. My image of the efficiency of Japanese public transport is shattered.
On the way back, we still don’t spot a single cyclist. Which is hardly surprising as the wind is so fierce on the bridges that the bus sways violently from side to side. But we do get quite a nice view of the whirlpools as we sway across the bridge. When the tide changes in the Seto Inland Sea, the proximity of the islands causes the water to swirl, forming whirlpools.
Then it’s back to Matsuyama on the train. Total time of trip; over 6 hours. Point of trip; nothing really.
To make matters worse, we somehow manage to get on the tram going in the wrong direction (again!). This time, instead of waiting for another tram and paying for another ticket, we stay on for almost a full circuit, finally reaching our destination, Matsuyama City Station, 40 minutes later.
Matsuyama City Station
Matsuyama City Station is not only a station. Above it is a nine storey department store. On the roof of that is a Ferris wheel.
Kururin Ferris Wheel
The Ferris wheel offers a 15 minute ride with a bird’s eye view of the city for Y800 per person (Y1300 if you choose the one see-through pod).
It’s taken us so long to get here that the sun sets as we rotate high above the city.
Dinner at Goichi
From the 9th floor, we descend to the basement food alley and end up in a restaurant called Goichi. To make ordering dinner even harder, not only do they have no English menu, but there are also no photos, only drawings of unidentifiable brown blobs, which we assume are some sort of chicken.
I end up with fried chicken coated in cheese, which is OK. It could have done with a few chips, rather than a bowl of congealed rice.
If my ramblings about my rubbish day haven’t put you off cycling The Shimanami Kaido, below are my notes on our planned route:
- Kurushima-Kaiko Bridge
- Length 4045 m (across 3 bridges)
- Oshima Island
- Cycle Route 13 km
- Oshima Bridge
- Length 840 m
- Hakatajima Island
- Cycle Route 3 km
- Omishima Bridge
- Length 328 m
- Omishima Island
- Cycle Route 5 km
- Tatara Bridge
- Length 1480 m
- Ikujima Island
- Cycle Route 12 km
- Ikuchi Bridge
- Length 790 m
- Innoshima Island
- Cycle Route 10 km
- Innoshima Bridge
- Length 1270 m
- Total Cycle Distance 52 km
Japan Day 16 – Hiroshima
Saturday 21 January 2023
Today we are heading for Hiroshima. Having studied history at university, I am always fascinated to visit places where things happened which shape the world we live in. Even if those things were terrible like in Auschwitz or Chernobyl or indeed Hiroshima. If we don’t learn from the past, how will we prevent atrocities in the future?
Horinouchi Park Parkrun
But first, parkrun. Today we are doing Horinouchi Park parkrun which takes place in a nice, flat park at the base of Matsuyama Castle just a 10 minute walk from our hotel. En route, I ascertain that Matsuyama’s theme could well be oranges, as there’s a rather scary one at the entrance to the park.
Horinouchi Park toilet report; built to match the design of the castle. Privacy noise; deafening – can be heard half way across the park.
We’re a bit dubious about locating the parkrun start as there were only 6 runners last week. But the parkrun banner is easy to spot. Plus it’s somewhat busier this week with 27 participants.
The website describes the route as 4 x 1.25 km laps of the park. As we don’t speak Japanese and the organisers don’t speak English, we are not aware there has been a course change due to another event in the park. Hence, I’m somewhat disgruntled to finish my first lap and see my Garmin says 1.5 km. Which would obviously add up to 6 km for 4 laps. However, as I plod grumpily along, I can see flags being moved to a different part of the course. It’s still a little over 5 km, but not as much as I’d feared. And it’s a glorious morning, so I don’t stay grumpy for long.
Train to Hiroshima
We rush back to the hotel to catch the end of breakfast, check out and head for the station, actually getting on the correct tram for the first time.
Hiroshima is around 50 miles north west of Matsuyama by ferry, 118 miles by road or 215 miles by train. As we have JR passes, we are taking the train, which takes approximately 4 hours.
First, we must take a train to Okayama. This is complicated slightly by the fact that only half the train is heading for Okayama; the rest will continue round Shikoku. On the platform there is nothing in English to indicate which carriages are going where, but when the train arrives, each carriage has its destination in lights by the door. So, for once, we are confident we are headed in our intended direction. Which is just as well, because when the carriages are uncoupled, I am on the toilet.
At Okayama we transfer to the bullet train for the second leg of the journey.
Dormy Inn Hiroshima
We reach Hiroshima and check in to our home for the next two nights; Dormy Inn Hiroshima. It’s our seventh hotel in Japan and by far the worst. It’s very dated and everything feels a bit sticky. The room is tiny and stuffed with useless gadgets but there isn’t anything useful like a USB charging point or towels.
Dormy Inn toilet report; elevated. You have to climb in and the toilet roll dispenser has been cunningly placed right in the entrance to make it more difficult. The flush sounds like a jet engine underwater.
To most people, Hiroshima means one thing. The city’s name will forever evoke images of 8.15 am on 6 August 1945, when Hiroshima became the target of the world’s first atomic bomb attack. The bomb released by the US Enola Gay that day killed 80,000 people (primarily civilians) instantly and another 130,000 later in the ensuing fires and from radiation exposure. Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is a poignant reminder of that awful day.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is a located close to where the atomic bomb was dropped. It contains a museum plus several memorials amongst spaces for reflection. A path through the middle runs from the museum via the Cenotaph and the Flame of Peace to the Atomic Bomb Dome across the river – the park was planned so that these elements form a straight line.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum tells the story of the the attack on Hiroshima and its aftermath. It starts with a model reconstruction of the blast. Then you enter a series of black, dimly lit rooms full of items damaged by the blast and a lot of graphic, truly grim pictures; a mixture of photos and drawings of the horror caused by the bomb. The east building tells the story of the city of Hiroshima and the history of the development of nuclear weapons.
Entry costs Y200. While I think it’s important that we learn about these events, it is a truly harrowing experience. I’m not going to include anything too graphic, but believe me, there are plenty of images of dead and dying people on display.
Along the path from the museum is a concrete arch which contains the names of all the known victims of the bomb. Look through it and you will see the the Atomic Bomb Dome in the background.
Flame of Peace
Next you come to the Flame of Peace which will burn until all the world’s nuclear weapons are destroyed.
Children’s Peace Monument
The Children’s Peace Monument remembers the thousands of children killed by the bomb. As if that wasn’t tragic enough, many children had been mobilised to help with tasks around the city, so died away from their families, with their parents not knowing what happened to them.
The monument was inspired by Sadako Sasaki, who was only two in 1945. Aged 11 she developed leukaemia and decided to fold paper cranes, believing if she folded 1000 she would recover. Unfortunately, she died before reaching this goal but her classmates folded the rest. Surrounding the monument are thousands of paper cranes sent by children from all over the world.
Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound
This mound contains the ashes of thousands of unidentified victims of the bomb.
National Peace Memorial Hall
This circular hall which you enter via a spiralling slope is intended as a place of contemplation. On the walls is a panorama of the city, whilst in the centre is a fountain which represents the moment the bomb was dropped while the water offers relief to the victims.
An adjoining room has a large screen displaying names and photographs of those who perished. There are also computer screens where you can search for details of all known victims.
Exhibit Facility for Atomic Bombed Remnants
This is a recent addition to the Peace Park, opening in 2022. During a survey conducted in 2019 in the area around the park, remnants of bombed houses were found buried underground. Here, you can see one such house.
Monument in Memory of the Korean Victims
Around 10 per cent of the victims of the bomb were Korean. There were around 100,000 Koreans living in Hiroshima at the time, primarily as conscripts or ‘mobilised students’. This somewhat belated monument (it was erected 16 years after the completion of the Peace Park) acknowledges their plight.
Sitting in the middle of a lotus pond is this temple style bell. It was placed here so that people could ring it and hope for peace.
Atomic Bomb Dome
Across the river from the park stands probably the starkest reminder of the devastation wreaked upon Hiroshima; the Atomic Bomb Dome. Built in 1915, it was the Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb exploded almost directly above it. Everyone inside was killed but the building, designed to withstand an earthquake, was one of very few left standing near the hypocentre. It was decided to keep the remains as a memorial. The building has since become a poignant symbol of the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dinner at Coco Ichibanya
Coco Ichibanya is a chain of Japanese curry restaurants. You order food on a tablet at your table which has an English option, so we actually know what we’re getting in advance. The menu is extensive; you can add curry sauce and rice to a wide range of foods which you wouldn’t necessarily think of adding curry sauce to, like omelettes and sausages, for example. I opt for a vegetable curry with a cheesy garlic naan. It’s very tasty and goes down a treat after a very long day.
Japan Day 17 – Miyajima
Sunday 22 January 2023
It’s the penultimate day of of our very expensive JR passes. There are two things you can do in Hiroshima on a JR pass; take the tourist loop bus and take a ferry to the island of Miyajima. So that’s our day planned.
Ferry to Miyajima
You can get a ferry direct to Miyajima from Hiroshima Peace Park for Y4000. We have to take a more circuitous route with a bus to the station and a train to the port to reach our JR ferry.
We start by getting on the wrong bus and board the Loop Bus instead of the Tourist Loop Bus, but it gets us to the station and the driver even accepts our JR passes, which is an unexpected bonus. Then we catch the train to Miyajimaguchi. From here, it’s a 10 minute walk to the ferry terminal and a 10 minute ferry ride to the island of Miyajima, renowned for its floating torii gate which is one of the most photographed attractions in Japan.
This small island is home to Itskushima Shrine. Inland is Mount Misen, which can be reached by ropeway or by various trails.
As we haven’t has breakfast, we buy some sandwiches and think sitting on a bench by the seaside to eat them will be pleasant. A deer also likes the look of our sandwiches…
It’s around a 10 minute walk from the ferry terminal either along the seafront or along one of a couple of shopping streets. We’re not sure exactly where we’re going as the deer ate our map (again)!
Itsukushima Shrine and its torii gate are unique for being built over water. The shrine complex consists of multiple buildings which are connected by boardwalks on stilts with the torii around 200 metres out to sea.
Entrance to the shrine complex, which also offers the best views of the torii (unless you want to take a boat) costs Y300.
At 16 metres tall and with a pillar circumference of 10 metres, this is one of the biggest torii gates in Japan. At high tide, it appears to float on the water.
Ometesando Shopping Street
We walk back to the ferry via Ometesando Shopping Street. The street is a hive of activity, interspersed with souvenir shops and food outlets. Oysters and eels are popular plus waffles shaped like maple leaves, which you can observe being made in machines along the street.
Lunch at Okonomimura
After a very active few days, we choose not to explore the interior of Miyajima and take the ferry back to Hiroshima. We are keen to try the local speciality, okonomiyaki; pancakes layered with noodles and a variety of other ingredients. At Okonomimura there are multiple stalls selling this local dish.
Customers sit on stools surrounding a griddle where the chef prepares your meal. When it’s ready, she pushes it towards you and you hack off slices, leaving the rest gently sizzling away.
It’s a fun experience. The cons; it’s really hot eating next to a griddle, if you don’t eat quickly your food burns and it’s not the ideal meal to attempt to eat with two sticks.
Atomic Bomb Dome
Yesterday we ran out of time and weren’t able to cross the river to see the Atomic Bomb Dome close up. So we walk off our very carb heavy lunch with a walk to the Dome. Basically it’s just a derelict building, but it is also a symbol of hope.
Dormy Inn Public Baths
In the evening, while the old man crushes candy, I do some laundry. The washing machine is in the changing room for the public baths so while I’m waiting, I figure I might as well whip my kit off and have a soak. The Dormy Inn is growing on me. The baths include a big sit-down bath plus two smaller lie-down baths which are so relaxing. In addition there’s a jet steam sauna where steam is sprayed through holes in the ceiling. As the Japanese like to bathe au naturel, obviously photography is prohibited, so here’s a photo from the hotel website.
Public Baths toilet report; one of my favourites so far – you wash your hands in a tap which comes out of the top of the cistern which even has its own little water feature.
Japan Day 18 – Fukuoka
Monday 23 January 2023
Not the best night’s sleep. I thought the Dormy Inn toilet was noisy until I tried to sleep through my neighbour’s showers, which happened at 10.35 pm and 6.25 am. Who showers twice in less than 8 hours FFS? Never mind, this morning we check out and head for Fukuoka.
Bullet Train to Fukuoka
Today we are taking our final bullet train 170 miles south west to Fukuoka. We catch the shuttle bus to the station. The Dormy Inn has a free station shuttle – who knew? Obviously not us when we paid for a taxi from the station. They’re taking Covid very seriously. You have to wear a mask, disinfect your hands, keep the windows open and the driver dons gloves before touching the luggage. The seatbelt is broken, but at least if we crash, I will fly headfirst through the windscreen knowing that I’m virus free.
We reach the station and board our last Japanese train. The bullet train can travel at 200 MPH. That means that we’ve covered approximately 20 miles before I’ve got the internet working. The entire 170 mile journey to Fukuoka takes just over an hour.
Fukuoka is the largest city on Kyushu, Japan’s third biggest island and the closest to mainland Asia. It is joined to the main island of Honshu by a bridge, although the train goes via a tunnel, much to my disappointment.
Fukuoka is made up of two former towns: the castle town of Fukuoka and the merchant town of Hakata. The two towns merged in 1889 as Fukuoka, although the name Hakata is still widely used (for example, if you come by train you arrive at Hakata Station).
Hotel Wing International Select Hakata Ekimae
Tonight’s hotel is the Hotel Wing International Select Hakata Ekimae. A bit of a mouthful – wouldn’t want to work on the switchboard. Do they have switchboards these days?
This is one of the cheapest hotels we’ve booked. It’s definitely budget but I actually quite like it. Like most budget Japanese hotels, if you want any toiletries etc, you can collect them from an amenities bar in the foyer. Here, the amenities bar let you choose between a whole range of different shampoo options which keeps me entertained while we’re waiting to check in.
The room is small but clean and bright and makes good use of the available space. I particularly like the shiny chair.
Hotel toilet report; an illuminated bowl. What’s that all about?
We have one night in Fukuoka before picking up a hire car and driving round the top half of Kyushu. Having been told that my schedule of gardens and castles was ‘twee’, today we’re going to a shopping mall and an art gallery.
We make a brief stop at Kushida Shrine. To enter, you walk through the mouth of an Otafuku Mask. This mask of a smiling lady is supposed to bring good fortune. Unless you forget to duck when you walk through her, of course, then you just get a headache.
Kawabata Shopping Arcade
We continue through the Kawataba Shopping Arcade. The 400 metre long arcade boasts 130 stores selling everything from souvenirs to kimonos.
There are also plenty of food stalls selling local delicacies such as noodles, seafood and white strawberries.
Fukuoka Asian Art Museum
We reach our destination, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; a museum with an Asia Gallery which shows work from artists across the continent.
The gallery is on top of a shopping mall/hotel. In the foyer is a large mural by Chinese digital artist Bu Hua, the remainder of the exhibits are on the 7th and 8th Floors.
The focal point of the museum is the Asia Gallery. The gallery focuses on Asian contemporary art, but the pieces on display are diverse. For example, this sculpture entitled ‘Woman Holding her Breasts’ by Indians artist Ravinder Reddy. According to the accompanying description, the viewer’s gaze is held by the lady’s big, shiny eyes?
One of my favourites is Series 2 No 3 by Chinese artist Fang Lijun. This group of men with identical faces and expressions demonstrates that they have been deprived of their individuality and freedom of expression.
Entry to The Asia Gallery costs Y200. There are additional fees for special exhibitions. These fees vary; when we visited, the special exhibition was ‘Who is Banksy?’ and cost Y1800.
We return to the hotel via Canal City; a labyrinthine shopping and entertainment complex. Its 250 shops, cafes, restaurants (including Ramen Stadium), a theatre, cinemas and hotels are situated either side of a canal.
On the canal there is a fountain based water show every 30 minutes throughout the day.
On the Fifth Floor is Ramen Stadium. Obviously, this isn’t an actual stadium, but eight ramen shops with noodle dishes from across Japan, all watched over by a stuffed bear.
Lunch at Sanmi 333
We choose Sanmi 333, which is apparently famous for its tomato ramen. I’m afraid I don’t really get ramen. It’s like you take a nice meal and drown it in salty water – a bit like eating noodles at sea. So I’m hoping Sanmi 333 will win me over.
To order, you must put money in a machine and choose an option, then a ticket pops out. If you want more than one thing, you repeat to obtain another ticket. Once you’ve finished, you hand your pile of tickets to the waitress and your order is delivered. I choose ramen with cheese, while the old man opts for ramen with pork. It’s OK – but a bit like eating spaghetti bolognaise at sea.
Canal City at Night
In the evening, the old man goes for a walk while I stay in and wash my hair. To be honest, my hair doesn’t need washing but I got carried away at the Shampoo Bar – me get carried away at a bar? Perish the thought!
He walks back through Canal City. After dark, the fountain display is illuminated. In addition, action pictures are projected onto the glass building behind and you can watch transformers fight.
Nakasu Island Yatai Stalls
In Hakata the river splits then converges again, forming Nakasu Island. Alongside the river are rows of food stalls called Yatai where you can buy food such as yakitori (chicken skewers) and ramen to eat by the waterside. Or if you had ramen for lunch, just enjoy the view.
Japan Day 19 – Nagasaki
Tuesday 24 January 2023
Today we pick up a hire car to drive round the top half of Kyushu. But first, breakfast. Hotel Wing offers a complimentary breakfast. There are four choices, three of which are fish, including porridge with a dollop of pollock roe. I can think of plenty of nice things to add to porridge. Fish eggs isn’t one of them. The only fish free option is pancakes with fruit and whipped cream. So, dessert for breakfast it is then.
After breakfast, we check out and take the metro to the airport to pick up our car. Distance walked round the airport trying to locate the car hire desk/shuttle bus; two miles. That’s not strictly true. After a mile, we find an information desk and are told to cross the motorway and walk to the car hire office, which is another mile.
Drive to Nagasaki
It’s our first time driving in Japan, so we’re not really sure what to expect, except that it’s going to be expensive. Today’s 93 mile drive to Nagasaki costs Y4290 (£26.54) in tolls, while the hotel wants Y1540 (£9.52) per day to park the car.
We set off on the expressway to Nagasaki. All is going well until my GPS freezes with 69 miles to go. We decide to drive to the next services to find Wi-Fi. In the interim, the wind picks up so the car is being blown all over the road. And it starts to snow.
At the rest area I reset my GPS and we set off once more, only for it to freeze again. We head on to Nagasaki not really knowing where we’re going or how to rectify the matter. After a couple of circuits of the city, we locate the Peace Park and finally find our hotel. It’s down a tiny road that we’d driven past several times.
Hotel Concerto Nagasaki
Tonight we are staying at the Hotel Concerto Nagasaki. It’s somewhat more up market than our past few hotels and conveniently located for the Peace Park.
My favourite thing is the jacuzzi bathtub with TV. I’m not sure why I’m so excited about this – it’s not like I can understand Japanese TV…
I think a soak in the jacuzzi will be the ideal antidote to a stressful day, but forget rule No 1 of jacuzzi baths. I throw in the bath gel provided by the hotel and have soon created a foam mountain range in the bathroom.
Hotel toilet report; it has a clock. So you can do a time and motion study on your motions?
Once we are settled into our hotel, we go and explore Nagasaki, although the combination of the weather and the fact we arrived much later than anticipated mean we have to curtail our plans.
The port city of Nagasaki has played a prominent role in foreign trade for many centuries. On 9 August 1945, it became famous for another thing as it was the second city to be destroyed by an American atomic bomb.
Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
We head first to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum which tells the story of the bomb attack and its aftermath.
It’s not as easy to locate as you might imagine, as it’s in a large multipurpose building which houses the town hall and the library. Entry costs Y200.
The museum is divided into four sections; Section A, entitled August 9 1945, shows the city prior to the bombing, images of the bomb drop and a graphic of the immediate damage it caused. At the entrance is a clock discovered 800 metres from the hypocentre which stopped at 11.02, the time of the blast.
Section B, Damage caused by the Atomic Bomb, displays artefacts destroyed by the blast; for example rosary beads which melted and fused and the warped water tower from a school.
August 9th was a Thursday, so the school would have been full of children.
My favourite items are these sculptures made by a Dutch PoW who was working 1500 metres from the hypocentre when the bomb hit.
Section C, Towards a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, documents the world’s current nuclear arsenal and what has been done to encourage countries to disarm.
Section D consists of Video Rooms where you can watch videos related to the bombing. Although the museum makes for sombre viewing, it is less macabre than its counterpart in Hiroshima. There are photos of corpses and horrifically mutilated people, but they’re mainly on TV screens as part of montages, so you aren’t confronted by the same image for long. I came out feeling more educated than nauseated. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…
National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims
Adjacent to the Atomic Bomb Museum is the Memorial Hall where a water basin symbolises people crying for water as they died. Twelve Pillars of Light hold the names of the victims. You can listen to survivors’ messages and leave your own message for peace. We don’t stay long as an enormous school group descends.
Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park
We cross the road to a park. This small, paved park contains some statues and a stone column that marks the hypocentre above which the bomb exploded.
Nearby is a section of the wall of the Urakami Cathedral which was destroyed in the attack.
We think that the park we are in is the Peace Park and that it’s a bit naff compared to Hiroshima. It isn’t until later that we realise we haven’t actually been to the Peace Park – oops!
By the time we leave not the Peace Park, it’s 4 pm and we haven’t eaten since breakfast. None of the nearby restaurants are open so we head for a mall. In a fitting ending to what has been a trying day, we seem to manage to find the only mall in Japan with no food court. So we buy some bits from the supermarket and return to our room for an indoor picnic whilst watching the snow fall outside.
Japan Day 20 – Kumamoto
Nagasaki Peace Park
But first we start the day with a walk/slide along the icy pavements to Nagasaki Peace Park, which we thought we’d visited yesterday, but apparently we went to the wrong park.
The Peace Park is a little further along the road from the Hypocentre Park, which is opposite the Atomic Bomb Museum. It is on the hillside, but there are escalators to the top. From here, you walk along a pathway to the Peace Fountain.
At the far end is a 10 tonne statue.
Lining the path are statues gifted by other countries as gestures of peace.
Drive to Kumamoto
Today we plan to drive to to Kumamoto. There are three choices of route; by expressway (126 miles), by road and ferry (65 miles) or by local roads (113 miles). The dilemma is that it’s been snowing and we’re worried about driving conditions.
I program Google Maps, which recommends the expressway and we set off just before 11 am. ETA 2 pm. It’s a sunny day and the snow that fell overnight has pretty much gone. However, when we reach the expressway it is shut.
Undeterred, Google attempts to take us to a different expressway. Also closed. At this point, Google decides not to play any more and freezes.
We are near some water; option three was to skirt around Ariake Bay, so the old man decides to drive around the water. Unfortunately, it’s not Ariake Bay, but Omura Bay we’ve skirted. 90 minutes after checking out of our hotel in Nagasaki, we drive past it again.
I want to give up and remain in Nagasaki until the expressways reopen. The old man is determined to soldier on. We decide to have a bash with the car GPS, even though it’s in Japanese, so we can’t understand the instructions or read the place names, which makes it impossible to program. But at least it has the closed expressway junctions indicated.
And so we set off once more on a road which takes us round the correct bay. An hour later, the GPS decides the expressway isn’t closed any more and directs us onto the next junction, where a man asks us where we’re going, then tells us it is, in fact, still closed.
So we set off around the bay once more, for another 90 minutes, before the Japanese GPS decides that this road, too is closed and turns us back towards Nagasaki to catch the ferry instead. I’m not convinced – I don’t think we will reach there in time for the last ferry.
Just as we reach the outskirts of Nagasaki (again), the GPS decides that the road it said was open, then closed, is in fact now open and turns us around (again).
We re-retrace our route along the bay. We’re getting quite familiar with it by now. After a quick stop at a 7-11 for a wee and some chicken teriyaki and egg mayo sandwiches, we set off once more.
After we have been driving for 6 hours, the GPS decides once more that the expressway is open and diverts us to the nearest junction. This time a man asks us where we’re going and allows us onto the expressway (hallelujah) and the remainder of our journey is relatively straightforward.
We reach Kumamoto shortly before 7 pm after an epic 8 hour drive.
Kumamoto is a lot a bigger than I’d realised with a population of 740,000. Its most popular attractions are Kumamoto Castle and Suizenji Garden (which apparently includes mini replicas of the 53 post stations of the Tokaido, the road, which connected Edo with Kyoto during the Edo Period, complete with mini Mount Fuji). Obviously, they shut long before we arrived.
We fight our way through the evening rush hour traffic to find our hotel. Then we have to locate the car park, which is elsewhere, and walk back to the hotel.
Hotel Wing Kumamoto
Today’s accommodation is another Hotel Wing. In a very small twin room. With 4 chairs. I don’t understand why, with such limited space, you would decide to add so many chairs. We could have a game of musical chairs. Except there’s only two of us. And there isn’t room to walk around the chairs.
Dinner at Coco Ichibanya
It’s been a long day, so we go in search of dinner. In the arcade behind the hotel there is a Coco Ichibanya. We’ve eaten at this chain before and thought it was OK. I order a vegetable curry with rice. You can choose the size of your rice portion. I opt for small. Last time, this got me a small portion of rice. This time, it just gets me a small portion. My dinner comes on a tiny plate and consists of 5 chunks of potato, 4 chunks of carrot and 2 slices of bean. Also, last time I went for spice level 1 which was mild. So this time I select level 2 of a possible 5. By the time I have finished my tiny curry, I can no longer feel my tongue. Or my lips.
We decide to take an evening stroll to Kumamoto Castle which, according to Google Maps, is a 9 minute walk from our hotel. In reality, the castle is situated on a hill overlooking the city with a moat running round the base of the hill. It’s a 9 minute walk to the moat, from where you can see the castle in the distance. It is illuminated at night.
Japan Day 21 – Kumamoto to Beppu
Thursday 26 January 2023
On yesterday’s schedule was Kumamoto, ETA 2 pm, visit castle and gardens, then today was supposed to consist of a drive to Beppu via a volcano lookout and a gorge where you can hire a boat and row through the gorge. In reality, we arrived in Kumamoto long after everything was shut and aren’t prepared to veer off course today after yesterday’s struggles with Japanese road closures.
So, most of our plans are shelved, but we get up and walk up the hill to Kumamoto Castle.
The 17th Century Kumamoto Castle has recently reopened having been badly damaged by an earthquake. in 2016. A lot of the grounds are cordoned off and it takes us a while to work our way round to the entrance which is on the opposite side to the city. At one point, we see a ladder and wonder if this is the entrance?!
Entry costs Y800. We don’t really have time to go in and get back to our hotel in time for check out, so the plan is just to visit the castle grounds and take some photos. But the toll booth is cunningly placed so you have to purchase a ticket before even getting close to the castle.
We purchase our tickets and enter the ultra modern castle, which is laid out over 6 floors with an observation deck at the top.
We start climbing the stairs floor by floor. There is plenty of information, presumably about the castle. Who knows? I can’t read Japanese.
The old man is worrying about getting back in time and says we don’t have time to climb to the top. I point out there’s a lift. He says the lift is only for the elderly and infirm. I tell him to shut up and get in the lift.
We have a quick look at the view from the top, then descend back into Kumamoto and set off for Beppu.
Drive to Beppu
We think we have perfected the art of driving on Kyushu as a foreigner; we program Google Maps, which keeps freezing, then hold the image next to the Japanese car GPS, which we can’t read. Then line up the maps on both, put a red cross in the correct location on the car GPS and follow the green arrows to roughly our destination, depending on how accurate we were with the cross.
In theory, Beppu is just 81 miles away, but we are taken the long way round to stay on the expressway, bringing the journey to 130 miles. ETA; 2 pm. Let’s hope the expressways are actually open today and we’re in Beppu before 7!
Today we actually make good time and are indeed in Beppu around 2 pm, despite stopping at a service station for a quick pee and mountain photo op.
Beppu is a seaside spa town, famous for its hot springs and the plumes of steam which randomly spew forth around town.
Our hotel for the next two nights is Hotel Aile which has its own hot spring baths. We paid extra for a sea view and have ended up in a triple room. The décor is a bit 80s, but it’s cosy and we’re pleased to have some extra space.
We take a walk along the sea front, which is sandwiched between the port and a petrochemical plant, through Matogahama Park.
Then we walk into town, where even the station has its own hot spring.
Dinner at Bungo Chaya
Beppu’s cuisine includes toriten (chicken tempura) and dangojiru (miso soup with thick noodles). We find a little restaurant which serves a set meal including both dishes for Y1150 (£7.15). Add a pint of draft beer and the price for dinner comes to about £10 each.
Then we return to our hotel, where the old man crushes his candy, while I don my Japanese dressing gown and check out the hot spring baths. There’s an indoor bath on the top floor and open air bath on the roof.
It may be freezing outside but the water is around 40 degrees, so it’s lovely lying on the hotel roof naked watching day turn to night above me.
At night, Beppu Tower, which has the dubious honour of being Japan’s shortest tower, is lit up, which adds to the rooftop atmosphere. I say atmosphere, there’s actually only me up there…
Japan Day 22 – Beppu
Friday 27 January 2023
Awake at 8.22 am. In the rooftop bath by 8.30. I still haven’t got the hang of Japanese public bath etiquette and I’m not sure how to improve without observing others, which might look a bit pervy between two naked strangers. But I have a lovely bath, even if I am lying on my back like a giant starfish with tits, while the Japanese ladies are sitting demurely in huddled balls around the edges.
Also I don’t think I’m doing dressing/undressing right. The Japanese ladies get completely naked before removing their masks, while I’m more a mask first, knickers last kind of girl.
Jigoku Meguri (Hell Circuit)
After breakfast, we set off to visit the Hell Circuit, aka the Seven Hells of Beppu. The hells are seven hot springs for viewing rather than bathing, where you can see steaming pools in red, white and blue, bubbling mud pools and other hydrothermal activity (each hell has adopted a theme).
Entry costs Y400 per hell or you can visit all seven for Y2000. There is an eighth hell (Yama Jigoku) which isn’t included and which we didn’t go to because it has a ‘compact petting zoo’.
Five of the seven hells are located in the Kannawa district (around 3 miles north of the town centre) and two are the Shibaseki district (2 miles further north).
Kannawa District Hells
Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell) is probably the biggest and the best, which is kind of unfortunate, because it sets expectations several of the other attractions can’t live up to.
Here, steam rises from a blue pool. As we arrive, the wind picks up, which sends the plumes in every direction. One minute, you can see the pool, the next you can’t see anything as the sulphurous steam swirls around you. Then it starts to snow, so we have ice and steam at the same time.
The pool set in a garden where there are a few smaller, orange coloured hells and a large pond.
There is also a steam heated greenhouse with a lily pond and banana plants.
Oni-ishibozu Jigoku (Demon Monk Hell) is so named because the bubbling pools of mud are said to resemble a monk’s shaved head.
Kamado Jigoku (Oven Hell) sells food cooked in the steam, as demonstrated by a demon cook statue at the entrance.
Visitors can drink the hot spring water, enjoy hand and foot baths, inhale the hot spring steam and try various snacks cooked in the hot spring.
There is also a man demonstrating I don’t know what with a blow torch.
Oniyama Jigoku (Devil’s Mountain Hell) has dozens of forlorn crocodiles crammed together in a tiny, concrete enclosure. Grim.
Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell) has a vaguely white pond surrounded by a garden. Inside are enormous fish in tiny tanks they can hardly move in. Also grim.
Shibaseki District Hells
We drive up the road to the last two hells.
Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pool Hell); when the steam subsides it reveals a pond of deep ochre.
This is one of my favourite hells. Not only is it picturesque, but provides plenty of props for that all important photo op.
Tamatsuki Jigoku (Tornado Hell) has a geyser which erupts roughly every half an hour. A stone arch has been erected to prevent the geyser from reaching too high, but it’s still interesting to watch the controlled mini geyser, while a recorded message boasts that the geyser erupts more regularly than Old Faithful or any geyser in Iceland.
On the way back into town, we stop at Yukemiri Observatory, which I read about on the Drive Japan website. They said it was hard to locate and they weren’t kidding. Especially with our Google Map screenshot to Japanese GPS navigation method.
We finally locate the small concrete tower on the hillside which provides views of the town below with steam belching forth.
As it’s our last day before a prolonged journey home (unless the expressways close again, then who knows where we’ll be?) we spend a fun afternoon in the laundrette, which has a useful reminder not to put pets in the washing machine.
We walk back to the hotel through the bitterly cold Kitahama Park.
Then time for another dip in the rooftop bath. After 3 weeks in Japan, I finally convince the old man to take a public bath. He’s a bit concerned about getting naked on the roof in sub zero temperatures. I tell him he needs to be more concerned about how ridiculous he looks in his yukata!
Japan Day 23 – Dazaifu
Saturday 28 January
Our time in Japan is nearly over; today we head back towards Fukuoka ready for our departing flight. First, time for one final rooftop dip watching the sun rise over the petrochemical plants of Beppu.
Drive to Dazaifu
Today we are driving to Dazaifu; a shrine town on the outskirts of Fukuoka. We had planned to stop in the mountain village of Yufuin en route, but with sub zero temperatures after a day of snow, we decide not to risk getting stuck in ice or if the expressways close and head straight for Dazaifu.
It was definitely the right decision. Before we’ve even reached the outskirts of town, it’s snowing again and even on the expressway the snow is starting to settle on the outside lane.
It’s a scenic if somewhat nerve wracking drive through the mountains of Kyushu.
We reach Dazaifu without incident, despite the snow. This former capital of Kyushu is known for its shrine. When we arrive it’s heaving. Luckily our apartment has its own parking spot, so we head there first.
Sonic Apartment Hotel
The Sonic Apartment Hotel is quite close to the centre of Daifuzu, just round the corner from the pedestrian area which leads to the shrine.
Our apartment has two double beds, a kitchenette and a bathroom crammed into it and is surrounded by an abundance of plastic foliage. It’s above a restaurant so smells of fried chicken and it’s extremely cold.
We turn on the heaters in the hope that the apartment will be habitable on our return and set off for a wander.
Pancakes at Kasanoya
We walk along the busy pedestrian shopping street towards the shrine. Dazaifu is famed for its pickled plum pancakes (umegae-mochi) sold at various shops along the street. In many shops you can observe the pancakes being made either by hand or by machine.
We opt for the shop with the biggest queue; Kasanoya, and buy a bag of the highly coveted pancakes (five for Y650). They’re like dough balls into which a mixture of beans and plum have been stuffed. It’s very claggy and the beans keep repeating on me. Not great when you’re wearing a surgical mask…
Kyushu National Museum
As the shrine is so crowded, we decide to visit Kyushu National Museum first. This enormous building looks like someone dumped a spaceship on the hillside.
It is reached by a series of escalators and illuminated moving walkways which bring you up the hill to the very impressive glass and steel building.
Entry to the permanent exhibition costs Y700. This is situated on the 4th floor, accessed by yet more escalators.
After such an impressive arrival, the exhibition has a lot to live up to, which it can’t quite manage. The ‘Cultural Exchange Exhibition Hall’ contains a range of exhibits from ancient artefacts to satellites from both Kyushu and across Asia.
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine
We descend back down the hill to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. This large shrine with a pond and legendary plum tree is thought to bring good luck, particularly to students taking exams. Students come from far and wide to wish for examination luck.
After you’ve rubbed the lucky bull’s nose to bring you good fortune, you pass over Tai Ko Bridge towards the main shrine.
Behind the shrine is a museum, but we decide to walk back down the hill in search of somewhere to eat. Everywhere is either very busy or about to close. Dazaifu is a popular day trip venue from Fukuoka. Not many people stay overnight, hence not much stays open late.
So it’s another gourmet microwave meal from the convenience store for us. Then an early night ready for our flight to Seoul in the morning. Our three weeks in Japan has come to an end.
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