A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

The Foothills of Fuji-san

semi-overcast 28 °C

There is not a Japanese tour guide or travel advertisement that doesn’t feature Mt. Fuji on its front cover. But, while everyone comes in the hope of seeing the mountain, most get no better view than this…
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The elusive Fuji is the highest peak in Japan and often has its head in the clouds. However there are many good reasons to visit the mountainous Hakone region in the foothills of the sacred peak. Volcanic springs spew sulphurous hot water from fumaroles in the mountainsides and a myriad of alpine resorts channel the steaming liquid into their onsens, (bathhouses), like this one at our hotel in the village of Gora…
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Water is everywhere in Japan. So far we have ducked two typhoons but a third, potentially the most serious in living memory, is headed Japan's way next week. Until then we could happily luxuriate in the mineral springs of Hakone and even sit with our feet in hot water while we have coffee at our favourite lakeside café in Motohakone-Ko …
The placid waters of Lake Ashinoko make an ideal viewing platform for Mount Fuji – they told us…However, we had great fun sailing across the lake, despite the gloomy weather, and met some delightful young girls from Tokyo…
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The Hakone area is the playground of Tokyo and public transport in the mountains rivals that of the cities, with frequent buses and trains that zigzag up the steep inclines. And when the roads run out there are funiculars and cable cars to take us to the peaks We were told that that the view of Mount Fuji from the cable car is spectacular – on a clear day...
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And so after two fruitless days peering through the gloom in search of Fuji-san, we packed our bags and readied to catch the early morning train to Tokyo, knowing that we now had a reason to return to Japan – if ever we needed one. But when we opened our shutters in the morning we had entered a dreamworld. The clouds had drifted away, the sun was shining and Admiral Lord Nelson's man-o'war, H.M.S Victory, came sailing into the harbour...
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We quickly tore up our train tickets and made a dash for the jetty, and as we set sail the glorious peak of Mount Fuji slowly rose above the yardarm...
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More and more of the great mountain came into view above the swirling clouds...
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Until, finally, as we jumped ship and rode a cable car high into the sky, Japan's most sacred mountain was revealed to us in all its splendour...
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In a few weeks time, once the last of the year's typhoons have past and the maples all turned red, Fuji-san will put on its familiar white cap and pose for tourist's photos. In the meantime - we have our photos and so many memories of our time in the Hakone mountains.

Posted by Hawkson 02:35 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

The Morning Train to Kyoto

sunny 25 °C

Hiroshima wakes crisp and alive to another day – a phoenix has arisen.
The early morning station with its gleaming floors is as fresh as the unbreathed air.
The concourse is an orderly crossroads of well worn commuters as a myriad of freshly washed faces look only forward and leave the past behind. Their horrific history is gone, but must never be forgotten.
The reverent bow of the ticket man and the smile of the coffee girl greet us without a common word. They know we came only to bear witness, and we know that we are welcome …
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And then the stealthy Shinkansen slithers silently to a stop at our feet with the precision of a metronome and we say a fond farewell to Hiroshima – we wish you good fortune.

Like a wingless Boeing our sleek Shinkansen slips out of Hiroshima and skims across the surface, leaving towns and cities in its slipstream and the fields and mountains just a verdant blur. There is no clickety-clack to suit Betjeman’s poetic meter; no snorting steam to fuel Stevenson’s fantasy: just the quiet purr of pure power. But as the Japanese race into the future they have kept faith with their past. Beautiful kimonos still adorn elegant women on high days…
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…and they happily pose for our camera...
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While the giant torii gate at the Itsukushima shrine on Miyajima island has stood with its feet in the sea and beckoned worshippers for fifteen centuries come typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and the atomic bomb…
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While Buddhists and Shintos still play their role, excellent service is the true religion of this ancient land today. Attention to detail is all.
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A street cleaner plucks scraps of litter with chopsticks and tongs with the pride and precision of the man who has woven bamboo blinds on a family heirloom since childhood …
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Trains, trams and buses appear as if by magic at precisely the appointed hour; hoteliers, waiters and chefs greet us joyfully, treat us regally and charge us minimally – and never, ever, accept a tip. We buy miserly bric-a-brac and are treated with royal deference. A two bit plastic cabbage slicer is tenderly boxed and carefully wrapped then handed to us with both hands and a deep bow – we could weep with joy. But nothing is more tear-jerking than being welcomed by the store’s entire staff at the stroke of ten each morning…

With Hiroshima and Typhoon Phanfone behind us we face a bright new day and head northwards towards Japan’s crowning glory – Mount Fuji.

Posted by Hawkson 17:49 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

Hiroshima and a Thousand Origami Cranes..

sunny 25 °C

The check-out girl at the corner store bows, smiles, and wishes us “Good morning”, then bows again and says, “Goodbye” as we leave. The train conductor bows to all as he enters each carriage and turns to bow again as he departs. Even the shelf-filler at the supermarket stops her empty trolley at the stockroom door to turn and gracefully bow to us as she leaves. And so it seems inconceivable to us that the forebearers of these incredibly polite, immensely helpful, and unbelievably kind and generous people, could have instigated one of the most devastating conflicts in human history…
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Hiroshima today is a vibrant modern city full of bright young people. It has wide tree lined boulevards; bustling pedestrian arcades; upscale shopping malls and smart office towers, but it wasn’t always this way. Until 8.15 am on Monday August 6, 1945 Hiroshima was a sleepy city of picturesque wooden houses lining narrow lanes. It was far from the major industrial hubs and beyond the normal range of the U.S. bombers, so no one flinched when three B29s flew high over the city that summer morning and Col. Paul Tibbets dropped an atom bomb from the plane that he had proudly named after his mother, the Enola Gay. But when the mushroom cloud cleared and the dust settled this is all that remained of Hiroshima…
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No one knows how many died that day, or three days later when the horror was repeated in Nagasaki. Tens of thousands were instantly vaporised by the 4,000 degree C heatwave and left nothing but shadows on the pavements and some dust in the wind, while as many as two hundred thousand died later of burns, wounds and radiation. This is the memorial where the names of all known victims are enshrined…
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Only one news reporter survived, but after taking five photographs he was so traumatised by the hellish scene that he put his camera away. However, apart from the A Bomb Dome which has been left as a perpetual reminder, perhaps the most moving symbol of that terrible event is the statue dedicated to the many thousands of children who died then and in the following months and years.
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The statue was inspired by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who contracted leukemia from the radiation and spent her dying years folding thousands of origami cranes in the hope that they would make her well. She died, but her story lives on, and every year children throughout the world make origami cranes in memory of all those who perished on that lovely sunny morning in Hiroshima.

To plagiarise Winston Churchill, ‘If the world and its humankind survives ten thousand years they will still say, “This was their most dreadful hour.”’

Posted by Hawkson 22:42 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Japanese Birthdays

semi-overcast 25 °C

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It is very difficult to believe that Sheila was celebrating her 15th birthday when the first Shinkansen high speed trains sped across Japan at an astounding 270 kilometres an hour on October 1, 1964. Thousands of the trains and their upgraded offspring now whisk us around the country at speeds approaching three hundred kph. But wheeled trains are old hat. They have been around for nearly two hundred years and Japan is leaping into the future with 500 kilometre an hour maglev trains next year. Sheila too is leaping into the future and here we are with friends Trudy and Christine in a yuba, (soya), restaurant in Kyoto celebrating her induction into the silver society...
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She even had a proper birthday cake with candles thanks to one of the many authentic (and truly excellent) French patisseries here…
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Although the thermometer still hovers in the high twenties, fall is coming to Japan and the fabled maples are just beginning to show their true colours. While maples may be the stars of autumn, the lofty bamboos of Japan are a stunning sight year round. This forest is in Arashyama…
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Almost every home in Japan is surrounded by plants and there are wildflowers in abundance. It is amazing how many blooms there are at this time of the year. The beautiful waterlilies in the garden of the Ohara art gallery in Kurashki actually came from Monet’s garden in Giverny in France. However, there are many ancient formal gardens in Japan and we have visited some of the most striking. These are views of the garden of the Shugakuin imperial villa in Kyoto…
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...and this is the famous 'dry' garden at the Ryoanji temple...
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The Korakuen garden in Okayama, completed in 1700, is designated as a place of outstanding beauty and has three Michelin stars. The garden has its own rice paddy and tea plantation and it is a very popular place for wedding photos…
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The arborists at Korakuen manicure each tree one leaf or needle at a time, while the gardeners carefully sweep every fallen leaf and twig from the waters which are teeming with giant carp…
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Such attention to detail is commonplace in Japan, but surely nothing beats the young man whom we saw painstakingly removing every tiny misshapen and discoloured stonelet from the miles of gravel paths at the Shugakuin imperial villa.

Our time in Kyoto, Okayama and Kurashki has been especially memorable thanks to Trudy’s friend Yoshie and her cousin Dr. Jinroh Itami, together with Takashi and Chieko. Here is Chieko offering us oyster sembei – freshly made rice crackers, each containing a whole oyster…
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Thank you all for your amazing hospitality and gifts.
We are now enroute to Hiroshima where we are hoping to dodge our second typhoon - Phanfone.

Posted by Hawkson 06:14 Archived in Japan Comments (11)

A Tall Tale of Temples and a Thousand Toriis.

sunny 29 °C

Long, long ago, before the shoguns and samurais ruled this ancient land, much of the power lay in the hands of the priests. Things have changed, but old habits are hard to kick and a sizeable chunk of the population still pays homage at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

Despite numerous explanations by our friend Trudy as to why these two beliefs are not religions and that there is nothing contradictory about people worshipping both – we have to admit that we don’t really get it. But we love the incredible wooden architecture that both sides have created in the past millennium. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines seem to co-exist amicably in Japan by carving up the cycle of life between them. The Shintos take responsibility for births and marriages while the Buddhists look after the dying and burying end of things. This Buddhist graveyard is in the heart of Tokyo…
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The wooden staves, (tobha) bearing prayers for the dead are placed on the gravestones by relatives. Children’s graves are marked by carved statues called, Jizo, which are topped with little red hats…
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At the entrance to every Shinto shrine is a brightly painted gate called a torii and some of them are simply enormous like this one at the Heianjingu shrine in Kyoto…
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Sometimes more than one gate is erected in order to herald the importance of a particular shrine. However is is difficult to understand why the elders of the Fushimi inari-taisha shrine in Kyoto believed their creation was so special that it should be approached through an avenue of a thousand torii gates…
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It takes well over an hour to walk through this colonnade to reach the shrine so, not to be outdone, the Buddhists built the enormous Hongwangi Jodo Shinshu temple nearby, (where 2,000 congregants can worship at the same time), and the largest wooden structure in the world at the Todaiji temple in Nara…
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This is the great Buddha which stands more than fifty feet high in the Todaiji temple. It was cast from several hundred tons of bronze in 752 AD and has survived several major fires and a devastating earthquake…
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The Todaiji temple is is one of the most visited sites in Japan and is always packed with tourists
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...so we were lucky that we had our people-free camera with us…
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We have already lost count of the number of temples and shrines that we have visited on this trip and could spend the rest of our time here taking off our shoes, but Kyoto has so much to offer that we have to turn to the secular side. Next stop – the beautiful gardens of the Shugakuin imperial villa built for retired Emperor Gomizuno’o in 1655.

Posted by Hawkson 00:27 Archived in Japan Comments (12)

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