A Travellerspoint blog

September 2014

On Track in Kyoto

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We came to Kyoto in search of the numerous aging temples and shrines that dot the landscape of this, the ancient capital of Japan. But as soon as we stepped off the high speed Shinkansen train from Nagoya we found ourselves in a futuristic world
Stations come and go as we wend our way across continents but while many are impressive historic edifices, (even cathedrals to railway worshippers), none compare in terms of size, architecture and services to the central railway station in Kyoto.

It is a city unto itself with a four star hotel, a major department store, the central post office, dozens of restaurants and cafes and hundreds of shops offering everything from kimonos to jellyfish salads.
The station roof is a masterpiece of structural engineering only surpassed in height by the nearby Kyoto Tower…
It has surely one of the longest and widest flights of stairs in the world ascending eleven floors to a rooftop garden with spectacular views across the city to the surrounding mountains…
Fortunately there are numerous escalators and elevators…
…and a full-sized stage offering excellent free performances from the likes of this concert band playing the music of Glenn Miller…
But, to return to the shopping for just a moment. The Kyoto Station is a shopaholic’s dream factory. All of the world’s priciest brands have set up shop here – Gucci, Fendi, Mary Quant to name a few, and the fourteen floors (eleven above ground and three below) of the Isetan department store are a shrine to the conscientious consumers who flock here to shop. But we have not come to Kyoto to marvel at the modern and to shop: we are here to seek the peace and harmony of the many ancient Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples like this, the Ginkaku-Ji…
But before we delve too far into the past we will have to spend sometime marvelling at all the staff as they bow deeply and wish us ‘Good morning’ and at all the goodies on offer at Isetan – particularly on the two floors dedicated entirely to the most exquisitely presented food. No photography is permitted in the store so you will have to use your imagination, suffice to say we have not experienced such service, such quality and variety and such attention to detail anywhere else in the world.

But with all this wonderful Japanese food on offer what on earth were we thinking when we took one of our first meals in Kyoto in a Nepalese tandoori restaurant where the entertainment was a Japanese/Arabian belly dancer who got half of the diners to join in…
And who said that the Japanese are timid?
P.S. While we were very close to Mt. Ontake last week we had left the area before it erupted.

Posted by Hawkson 00:04 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

A Beginner’s Guide to The Nakasendo Way.

sunny 29 °C


The Nakasendo Way (the central mountain route) was one of five main roads established by the shoguns of the Edo period and it has connected Tokyo to Kyoto since the early 1600s. Some sixty nine communities, known as post towns, sprang up along the 500 kilometre trail where traders and samurai could rest and be replenished with packhorses and porters as they travelled from place to place.
Much of the route is now paved highway, but remnants of the ancient path remain where it scales steep mountain passes and winds through pine and bamboo forests criss-crossed by scenic waterfalls and gurgling streams
Startled bears can be a danger in the forests, just as at home in Canada, so warning bells have been placed at intervals along the path and walkers loudly ring them as they pass…
However, while our feet may have trod the same cobblestones as shoguns and samurai, few of the post towns have survived in their original forms with the exception of a few in the beautiful valley of the river Kiso...
Towns such as Narai, Tsumago and Magome have numerous wooden buildings dating back more than two centuries, but many of these historic towns were virtually abandoned and the buildings left to rot until they were “re-discovered” and resurrected in the 1970s…
Now that the restored Nakasendo post towns are on the tourist maps they bustle with day visitors. But once the tour buses have left, and the knick-knack shops and ice-cream parlours closed for the night, the serene streets are left to the ghosts of samurai and shoguns and to those tourists who, like us, are walking ‘The Way’ and who are fortunate enough to stay in one of the centuries-old lodging houses known as ryokans…
We have experienced the most incredible hospitality in these traditional inns: the meals have been truly exceptional, (more later), the service unbelievable, the prices – beyond reasonable, and we were even entertained by our hosts. After six days of glorious weather, torrential rain hit in the night as typhoon Kammuri passed. And then the the sun returned. We are now headed to Kyoto on the legendary Shinkansen high speed train, but we will forever have wonderful memories of walking the Nakasendo Way.

Posted by Hawkson 19:11 Archived in Japan Comments (9)

The Dirt on Japanese Bathrooms

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The Japanese are obsessively clean and it is rare to find a scrap of litter or speck of dirt - we even saw one woman carefully dusting the cobwebs off her garden flowers. Whenever we have a few spare moments at home we might check emails or pick up a book, whereas the average Japanese will check the floor and pick up a brush. The same is true of personal hygiene. The Japanese love their baths but, unlike ours, their tubs are not for washing: they are just for relaxing after taking a shower. Everyone uses the same bath water – though thankfully not all at the same time – and it is constantly reheated. This is a typical wooden tub...
As we travel the world we frequently decry the ways in which North America is slipping behind technologically and Japanese toilets are both a cause for amazement and amusement to us Neanderthals. For instance, the toilet in our ryokan (traditional lodging house) in Kiso-Fukushima had a WiFi enabled digital control console...
The built-in digital clock is important if you have a rickshaw waiting on a meter, but the alarm function would seem to be a little anal, except for habitual toilet nappers or readers of engrossing mystery novels, (without naming names or gratuitously advertising).
The digital thermometer is important because it alerts the toilet seat to the ambient temperature. The seat is then heated to the desired comfort level which can be preset by frequent users. The seat temperature can also be controlled by the alarm function ensuring that early risers don’t get a cool reception at 4am.
With the addition of an anemometer to measure wind blasts, every Japanese toilet could become its own weather station.
Some Japanese toilet seats are equipped with canned music or sound effects to mask unfortunate noises. One, presumably devised for the environmentally conscious, loudly plays the sound of a fully flushed toilet while actually using only a little water. And, as you might expect, these toilets have electronically controlled hydraulic seats and lids which smoothly and silently close automatically after use. Also, each console controls the exact amount of flushing water needed to complete the particular transaction. Perhaps the most advanced features are the various bidet modes with a number of settings offering different angles and force of washes for men and women…
Toilet paper may seem obsolete when the bidet system is in operation, but it is provided in Japan for an entirely different purpose than at home. While some Japanese toilet seats are self cleaning after each use, those without this function are provided with toilet rolls and electronically controlled sanitizer dispenser units like this…
This is the only time that any form of manual labour is required when using a Japanese toilet.
Now, dear sceptical blog reader, if you think any of this is a fabrication – think again - we have seen it all, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next toilet we come across serves coffee or green tea while we sit and wait. In the meantime we have dinner in our yukatas after a twenty kilometer hike along the Nakesendo Way and replenish ourselves in preparation for our next visit to the toilet – "Kampai" ("Bottoms- up" in Japanese)..

Posted by Hawkson 04:10 Archived in Japan Comments (9)

Walking the Nakesendo Way

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The weather has been fantastic since we arrived in Japan and today was no exception. It was dry, sunny and pleasantly warm as we prepared to scale the Torii Pass from Narai to the Kiso Valley. The pass is only 3,500 feet high at the juncture of the Central and Northern Alps, but it’s a steep three kilometre trek up one side and another three down the other and is described in the guide books as the most difficult part of the Nakesendo Way. Today the traffic and trains zip through the mountain’s tunnel in minutes but we took the trail less travelled along the ancient trail. So we packed bottles of water and life sustaining goodies and mentally prepared our survival strategy in case we should become injured or lost on the forested mountainsides. But we needn’t have worried. The path is incredibly well maintained and signposted…
Walking sticks are provided…
And there are refreshing mountain springs at every turn… some even equipped with ceramic cups…
The sound of running water followed us up the mountain and we bridged stream after stream until we reached the Torii gate and shrine at the summit…
And then we followed the waterfalls and crystal clear streams down to the small town of Yabuhara where the mountain water springs from dozens of fonts in the town’s streets…
Yabuhara in the beautiful Kiso valley may be on the tourist maps but it is obvious from the shuttered shops that few visitors make it this far. There was little life apart from a woman hanging bunches of rice straw to dry in the wind…
And then came a memorable experience as we squeezed into the one and only café, sat on chairs made for kindergarten kids and ordered coffee. The excellent coffee came along with delicious little cookies…
But it didn’t end there. The cheerful woman cook and smiling waitresses all came out to welcome us and share a smattering of English before insisting that we should try their specialities…
Plate after plate of carefully arranged dishes arrived. “You must try this… and this… and this”. Meat rissoles, vegetables and potato salad, followed by deserts, apples and cornbread…by midday our morning coffee had spawned a filling lunch. And when the bill came it was less than $4 each.

The unforgettable hospitality continues: people guide us to the front door of our lodgings; lead us to restaurants; patiently translate for us and freely offer suggestions. Everyone has a friendly smile and a word of greeting – some in English - and despite the enormous differences between our languages and cultures we’ve had no difficulties whatsoever. We are already at home.

Posted by Hawkson 04:53 Archived in Japan Comments (10)

A Slipper for Every Occasion

sunny 26 °C

We may only be a train ride and short walk from the modern city of Matsumoto but we have stepped way back in time and are staying in a two hundred year old coaching inn in the ancient town of Narai in the Japanese alps – a town once known as the town of a thousand inns. This town has been a stopover between Tokyo and Kyoto for centuries and it is easy to picture throngs of Japanese traders arriving nightly after walking the mountain passes…
It must have been a relief to take off boots and shoes and to slip into more comfortable footwear in olden times and nothing has changed…
There are slippers for every occasion and floor type at the hotel and guests are strictly required to stick to protocol as they move from place to place, even to the toilet. No shoes are allowed anywhere and not even slippers on the tatami mats…

With its bath house, (more of these later) and superbly prepared and presented meals our traditional lodging house (a ryokan) in Narai is a wondrous museum where we are living history…
Imagine waking each morning to a breakfast like this…
And filling your water bottles from the many pure mountain streams…
…before strapping your wares to your back and heading up the main street towards the mountains…
Sayonara for now. Hope to see you on the other side of the alps in a few days.

Posted by Hawkson 15:19 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

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