Northern Kyushu and areas in Honshu - December/January 2009/2010
This trip started with a culture course and homestay in Fukuoka, and then wound its way north. Instead of moving on to another town nearly every night, I decided to stay in well connected areas and do day trips. It saved me carrying my heavy backpack everywhere!
I may fill this in with notes and/or photos as my trip occurs, as this time I will have my laptop with me!
My culture course and homestay was in Fukuoka, so I flew directly into Fukuoka airport (with a slight deviation to Singapore, on the new A380). The flight to Singapore was completely packed, I was in the top level, in the middle row at the back of the plane, and still found it roomier than normal international flights. Singapore airport is amazingly huge, in a 4 hour gap, I walked from one end to the other (and charged my laptop a little).
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Fukuoka|
The New Years course was packed full of activities, and this being my first homestay, I was unsure how it would work. It was only towards the end of the week that I found out my family was ok with me coming home late, otherwise I would have stayed out with friends more often! I walked the 5km to the school each morning (and home again in the evening), and at some point developed bronchitis (as expected). The best way to quickly become healthy-ish again was to keep walking, and drinking hot sake certainly helped to kill the bugs!
Mochi tastes completely different in Japan, than the mochi that is available in Australia - perhaps the rice does make a difference. Daizaifu shrine on New Year's day was terribly crowded, and visiting a tranquil garden afterwards was just the thing to calm me down. I would have liked to see the view from Fukuoka tower, poke around the nearby mountains, attend a tea ceremony, wear a kimono, and perhaps see a bit more of the bay area, but the days were very packed with activities, and it was only a very short course. It's a shame the building that the school was in was closed for most of the time I was there.
I'll miss my new friends, and I really wish I had put the course at the end of my trip, and also wish I had extra time so I could attend an intensive language course!
Kitakyushu, Shimonoseki and Mojiko
Heading to Kitakyushu around 'peak' from Fukuoka was interesting. Both the subway train and express train were full of people heading home from work, but even with the big pack, I managed the trip without incident. I was surprised to find the food and shopping areas in the station (and Riverwalk) close at 8pm - I'm used to such places staying open until 9pm. The next day was a bit of a rest day, the weather was quite nasty in the morning, and I was coming down from the high of the course - the lure of being a hermit was too strong. But I managed to walk around the city in the afternoon, and did a little shopping. It was surprising that there were very few people in the three shopping complexes I visited on my search for replacement gloves.
I met my friend early in the morning, and we braved the extremely windy, bitingly cold weather together. A short trip on the train brought us to Mojiko, which has a collection of non-standard architecture. Mojiko station is the sister station to Flinders Street Station in Melbourne (Australia).
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Shimonoseki|
From Mojiko (on the island of Kyushu), we walked under the sea to Shimonoseki, on the main island of Japan - Honshu. The 750m track under the strait was packed with people exercising away from the cold, and seemed very industrial. We made a quick visit to the almost deserted Okinawan style shrine, where workers were disassembling the stands that covered the grounds for the new year's shrine visit. Lunch was at the fish market, and although the market itself was closed, the sushi place was amazingly popular - it sold the best sushi I have ever eaten. Unfortunately, my dictionary's batteries failed, right when we wanted to translate the names of the various fish. The observation deck on
A five minute ferry trip brought us back to Mojiko, where a fantastic store (Ghibli and other cute anime brands) tempted me to buy some very large plushies from Totoro. If there had been a good quality, small statue of a kodama, I would have bought it. Braving the freezing wind we walked around the station area to see the very European architecture around Mojiko retro, but we soon retreated into a warm train.
There was still time to kill in the afternoon before things closed, so we headed to Kokura castle, a short walk from Kokura station (Kitakyushu). The gardens, although small and beautiful, seemed rather dormant - it was winter after all. The castle was mostly deserted, but had some gorgeous tiger paintings, and an exhibition of student calligraphy. Photos of castles from around Japan were displayed on the top floor of the castle, along with a model assembed from toothpicks! The top floor had an excellent 360 degree view of Kitakyushu, marred only by the huge police building, but the modern architecture of the Riverwalk shopping complex was easily seen.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Kitakyushu|
As my friend and I had packed our sightseeing into one long day, I had some time the next morning before I had to be in Kyoto, so took a trip back to Fukuoka to buy the obi I had fallen in love with. I wish I had visited a station to get my JR pass before the first day that I wanted to use it! I wasn't able to start travelling with it before the office opened at 10am. I would have liked to spend more time in Fukuoka, and drop in at the school again, but I had to arrive at the apartment in Kyoto around 5pm, and it was several hours from Hakata station (Fukuoka) on the shinkansen.
I used Kyoto as a base to visit many other places. It was cheaper to rent a small apartment for a week, than to book a hotel or good ryokan!
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Kyoto|
During the first couple of days I day-tripped to Nara and Himeji. On the public holiday for the Coming of Age day, I decided to temple crawl and look at the various kimonos worn during temple visits.
My first stop was a very quiet, closed and serene Gion. I could not imagine that a such a bustling place could be so still. As I was by myself, and wanted to walk everywhere, I was not going to return late at night. From Gion, I walked to the iconic Kiyomizu temple, built on a steep hillside. The temple was not overly busy, but also did not look as wonderful as in other photos I had seen. I would guess, it is most photogenic in spring and autumn.
From Kiyomizu temple, was a long walk via a few smaller shrines and temples to the Heian shrine. I saw the majority of kimonos here. Most were brilliantly coloured, with beautiful obis, but hair styles and mannerisms detracted somewhat. Large, puffy, glittery hair styles, talking loudly on mobile phones while smoking just doesn't seem to fit with elegant kimonos.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Coming of Age day|
I walked up the Philosophers' Way to Ginkakuji, a beautiful temple complex with sculptured sand gardens. The most famous sand sculpture is a perfect cone. Most temples, gardens and shrines closed for visiting soon after, so it was back to the apartment for me, with a few detours on the way, for a total of 35km walked. It may be recommended to pack in less, or catch public transport to do the temple rounds.
The next day was spent visiting a friend in Shizuoka - I wanted to walk a little less this day. The weather was not so good, so I curled up back in the apartment after a good meal. I visited a few more temples, the costume museum and Arashiyama the following day.
On the outskirts of Kyoto, easily accessible by train, Arashiyama has some beautiful bamboo groves, excellent gardens and odd shrines. The sound that the bamboo makes as it moves in the wind was unexpected, there was some swishing, but there was also tonking, as the bamboo stalks knocked against each other. The view across Kyoto from one of the gardens was amazing. It was very peaceful, and just what I needed after the crowds of central Kyoto. Unfortunately, all the shops in the area were closed, and the sky started to drop slush at one point, but it is still my favourite area of Kyoto, and I wished I had the time to spend more than one day here.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Arashiyama|
I had a late start, so did not arrive in Nara until after lunch, when it was packed with tourists. I decided to quickly walk through the gardens and see the temples, and luckily, by the time I reached most of the temples, the crowds were heading home. The deer were adorable, but I can see how they could be pests.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Nara|
The repairs to the Himeji castle had started, and I was apprehensive about how much would already be covered. Luckily, it was only one of the outer walls that was covered, and the main castle was easily visible from the station. I wondered why so many people were heading towards the castle, and it turned out there was an athletic meet for school children on that day, beginning and ending in the castle grounds. I'm sure it is a great place to run, but it meant the castle was full of sightseeing children and their families. The route to the top of the castle was awfully packed, and I felt quite claustrophobic from the press of bodies. However, the view from the top was worth it.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Himeji|
Shizuoka and Fuji san
I returned to Shizuoka purely to get some photos of Mount Fuji. However, the recommended photo spots around Shizuoka were not easy to reach on foot. I ended up taking a billion photos of the mountain as the shinkansen sped past, and many of these turned out wonderfully. It is definitely an impressive mountain, rising up in the middle of nowhere. The snow-capped peak is beautiful, and cloudy shadows play on the snow-laden slopes.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Fuji|
I missed seeing much of Morioka on my last trip thanks to the earthquake that stranded me in Sendai for an extra day. However, I was determined to spend 1-2 days here to see how I would deal with snow. When I arrived, Morioka was icy cold, windy, and it was very late. Finding a place to eat after 9pm is not easy. Morioka itself seemed to be a pretty small-ish city, with a million taxis lined up near the station. My hotel had a wonderful view of the tanki rank. Walking around as the snow and ice defrosted was not pleasant - either sightsee while snow is on the ground, or wait until the ice melts. I did not like slipping and falling while crossing streets.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Morioka|
When I got to see the samurai town of Kakunodate, the world was covered in snow, and a lot more decided it was the perfect time to fall from the sky, creating a stunning, quiet and magical world. The samurai houses were very well organised, preserved and not expensive to visit. I half-understood a long explanation while defrosting in one tatami entry room, adorned with samurai armour and antique kimonos. The cherry wood carving museum and workshop had some stunning pieces of art and furniture. I would love to return to Kakunodate in spring, as the cherry trees that line the river would look stunning.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Kakunodate|
My favourite town - I simply had to return here and see what winter in Nikko was like! I spent a few days, chasing frozen waterfalls around Nikko, returning to the places I saw last summer, and speeding through the sprawling temple complex and the always stunning Tamozawa Imperial Villa. Of the two local waterfalls I walked up the hills to, one was stunning, and the other was disappointing (and the small shrine was badly defaced with graffiti). Kegon falls and Chuzenjiko (lake) were crystal clear in the icy and windy weather. The ice-carving at Yunoko (lake) was on its last day, which meant there were no people there!
I ate the Chinese restaurant Yuen again - and it was as good as last year. I tried a tiny 3-table izakaya covered in business cards, the meat balls were cheap and stunning, and the service was wonderful. It is completely understandable why it was so highly rated in the Lonely Planet. I also ate at a local ramen shop (which provided terrible service and average-tasting, over-salted ramen). Staying at the Turtle Annex Hotori An, with its private onsen bath was lovely, although the kerosene heating was not so nice.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Nikko|
I wanted to spend an extra day here before flying out, as the town seemed quite picturesque. I felt very rushed on my last trip. I spent a quiet day exploring a small temple, the back streets, the tourist-laden craft shops lining the main street, and then worked my way through the large touristy temple complex and gardens. I followed this up with a trip to the shopping center before catching the convenient shuttle bus back to the hotel, feeling confident that I'd seen all of the local sights. I would have liked to see some of the sights that are further away (a local train or bus trip), but ran out of time.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Narita|