Northern Honshuu and Hokkaido - June 2008
The first of many trips I hope! I fell completely in love with the Japanese countryside, food and ease of travel! And even a serious earthquake didn't change my plans overly much!
This was my first solo trip, and I probably packed too much in. I had (mostly) a wonderful time, experienced a lot, and can't wait to return. Next time I aim to pack less in, but will probably not succeed in that goal! It has reinforced that I don't particularly like cities - I like the smaller towns. The cities are stressful, crowded, confusing, noisy and polluted. My favourite place and memory from this trip - the jizo statues along the river in Nikko.
Day 1 : Narita
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Narita|
The Narita temple complex and gardens were dwarfed by Nikko a few days later, but it was an amazing introduction. The gardens are beautifully manicured, incredibly steep, and such a lush shade of green, one that you never see in Australia. As for the buildings, they were impeccably maintained. In one of the main halls a priest was chanting over a large fire, accompanied by various drums. The tall trees and stone sculptures added to the feeling of both age and timelessness. I didn't go inside, removing my hiking boots is ablaborious process. I've noticed that the soles are getting a little thin already. Lunch was at Chrysanthemum house - eel, tea and a variety of pickles, and was so much better than what I have eaten in Australia.
The humidity here, is much higher than I have ever dealt with before. Both my lungs and sinuses actually liked the humidity after the dry air of the flight. I haven't received any comments or odd looks yet (blue hair), and I discovered that I forgot the octopod - holding the camera still enough is a challenge. Returning to the hotel early (exhausted from the flight), the shuttle bus ride was not pleasant, as the passenger behind me was kicking the seat continuously. Excel Tokyu Narita happily stored my bags that I dropped off in the morning. Even though the room I booked was non-smoking, there was an obvious smell. I am really not used to being in smokey areas or dealing with the left-over scent.
Day 2 : Chuzenji-ko
This day was spent travelling, and dealing with an incredible downpour all day. No photos from today because it was too wet! I had planned to walk from the cable car at one end of the town to the hotel, but the rain was simply too strong - you couldn't see for more than a few metres!
After breakfast, and shuttling from the hotel back to the airport, I rented a phone, then booked train tickets to Nikko. It was incredibly daunting to find the correct platform, carriage, etc. The platforms are so much longer than those I had been on in Australia and Germany. Even more daunting was figuring out how to catch the bus from Nikko to the hotel near Chuzenji-ko. I'm glad I had listened to Japanesepod101.com's podcasts about paying bus fares!
Hotel Shikisai's long, steep driveway is definitely not pleasant to walk up in the driving rain. The staff were amazingly helpful, and one even drove me back into town to make an emergency medical purchase! We had a rather confused conversation in English and Japanese, it turns out that his daughter is an English teacher. The rooms are stunning, but the view was marred by the continuous downpour. If I can, I will return in hopefully better weather!
Dinner was extremely varied, fresh and delicious. The bar attendant treated me to a wooden cup of new sake - it was much stronger and brighter than any other sake I have had. The wooden cup gave it an incredible aroma. One of the dishes really stood out, beef, beans and some kind of grain (oats?) were cooked in a rich tomatoey sauce, on a portable grill-pot over a tea light. I wish I knew the recipe for this dish!
Day 3 : Hiking Senjogahara and Nikko
Breakfast at Shikisai was incredible, and very filling. Some of the tastes and textures were strange, but delicious. Cooking bacon and eggs in a pot over a flame was yummy, as was the amazing banana milk! After dropping my bags at the front desk, I took the hotel's shuttle bus up to Yunoko - a lake higher up in the mountains. The scenery on the way there was stunning.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Tochigi prefecture|
The hike from Yunoko down to Chuzenjiko was incredible! Nikko is well known for its waterfalls, and does not disappoint. Yunoko was beautiful and serene, with few people, but the track was treacherous after the heavy rains. Many people were working on the track to make it safer. It was also a great idea to start from Yunoko, because between Yunoko and the Yudaki waterfall, there were a huge number of steps - it was a very steep and long drop!
Many tours and school groups joined the hiking trail at Yutaki, so the steps, waterfall and the trail after the waterfall was incredibly busy, and not at all peaceful. I did feel a bit uncomfortable, being stared at by the school kids, but they weren't overtly rude. Several of the school kids tried in various languages to say hello as they went past, which was quite amusing (they don't assume that the foreigner speaks English).
Yutaki waterfall was the most impressive waterfall I have seen - so tall! To think that I walked (or rather stepped) from the top of the waterfall, to the bottom. There were a number of cute fabric owls that just had to be bought as presents at the base of the waterfall from a small, but very popular souvenir shop. From the waterfall's base, it was onto the Senjogahara trail.
Senjogahara was noisy, and busy. Most of the school groups had overtaken me (I wish I were that fit!). There seemed to be several older tour groups walking their way back to Chuzenjiko (and then onto Nikko). Hiroko-san, a local tour guide, befriended me a little way into the marshland, and we talked in broken Japanese and English for several hours. The insects were deafening, and the landscape was stunning - open plain, ringed by mountains. The falls at the end of the Senjogahara were less spectacular, but still very beautiful. Although I had planned to walk back to the hotel to pick up my bags, my feet were rather exhausted, so I hopped on a bus.
After I collected my bags, I squeezed onto another bus, bound for Nikko, where I met another Hiroko-san. Her English was perfect, and our conversation was much deeper. I was a little upset at missing out on seeing the scenery because the bus was so packed! In future I think I would use Nikko as a base, and leave my big backpack there. Hiroko-san helped me off the bus with my big backpack, only to be met by the tour guide, who had arrived in Nikko before me! She had dropped off her tour pack for lunch, and was more than happy to help me find my hotel, Annex Turtle Hottori-an.
Having dropped my heavy bags in a lovely room, bought a few cool drinks from a nearby vending machine, it was time to explore Nikko and find some dinner!
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Nikko|
The Jizo statues standing watch over the gorge and river were so serene. Few other people were around, and it was the most peaceful and relaxed place I have ever been. I'm sure all the red hats and bibs would need replacing regularly, especially in the humid weather. The river itself wasn't all that impressive after the two amazing waterfalls earlier in the day. You can hear the river as it is diverted throughout the town - it creates a wonderful atmosphere.
Dinner was a good sweet and sour pork set at a Chinese restaurant, close to the Turtle Inn. The owners decided I was a novelty, and continued to talk with me throughout the evening, introducing me to their other customers. I was treated to an impromtu lesson on how to understand the meaning of kanji using the meanings of the radicals. The other customers were very polite, and invited me to the nearby onsen. Being incredibly tired, I declined. I replied that I thought to be quite inexpensive, compared to Australia - about AU$12.00, when the other customers asked what I thought of the price. They were then convinced that I was rich! I wish that were so!
I returned to the hotel, and found the bath room (hot spring fed) to be vacant. Washed, then had a lovely hot soak - fantastic for my sore legs, then fell asleep.
Day 4 : Nikko
I had a huge day of sightseeing planned - Nikko is famous for its temples! Grabbed my favourite breakfast of Maple & Honey iced milk coffee and a calorie mate bar, then walked to the temples to purchase admission. I had hoped to beat the crowds. Before I left, I asked the lady of the hotel to make a kaiseki dinner reservation at a place they recommended.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Nikko shrines and temples|
My travel diary entry for this day has one comment about the temples - Wow! Seriously wow! The temples were extensive, beautifully cared for, and being meticulously restored and protected. Sweeping was done with handcrafted brooms, the size of the buildings were amazing. Unfortunately the number of school groups exploded mid-morning, and I was becoming uncomfortable (I don't like crowds much). I explored one of the temples fairly comprehensively, braved the many flights of stairs, stopped to take photos (and catch my breath). The trees and gardens were also stunning, so green, so old and so tall! When I had enough of the crowds, I went on a hike to the more distant temples.
Unfortunately I did not think to strap my ankle, and did not know that the path was cobbled the entire way. But, the hike up the hill was worth it. The temples and their surrounds were quiet, away from the crowds, less meticulously maintained, but somehow more natural. Always accompanied by running water on the trek up the hill, it was a good recharge for me. The trip back down was on the other side of the mountain, where the insect drone overtook any distant running water sound.
Many of the school groups had packed up, I found a little something for lunch (coffee, kakigori, and the rest of the Calorie Mate bar), then finished looking through the rest of the temples (although I'm still not sure I saw everything). It started to rain as I reached Nikko Taiyuin temple, but stopped when I emerged.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Tamozawa imperial residence|
I had time to spare before my kaiseki dinner reservation, so went for a wander again around Nikko. I'm so pleased I did, because Tamozawa Imperial Villa and garden was open! Again, wow! The building and its fittings were amazingly preserved and restored. It started to rain as I entered the building, and watching the water run down rain chains, or drip off the roof into pebbles was so relaxing. The gardens were extremely well cared for, and luckily the rain stopped long enough for me to wander through before heading back to dinner via the picturesque bridge at the bottom of the temple complex.
Although the (vegetarian) kaiseki meal was amazing, and the presentation was stunning, I wasn't comfortable in Gyoshintei. I was the only person in the large room, and unfortunately my ankles and legs still don't deal well with kneeling or sitting cross-legged for a long time. The meal was very light yet filling.
Back to the hotel, for another bath and sleep - my ankle was fed up with walking!
Day 5 and 6 : Sendai and Hiraizumi
I woke early, had breakfast at the hotel, and then took a quick walk in the rain - trying to capture photos of a cemetary I had seen on the way back to the hotel. The rain made it really difficult. Returned, packed, and caught a taxi to the station (it was too wet). The taxi driver chatted the entire way! Caught the local train back to Utsunomiya, then the Shinkansen to Sendai.
Unfortunately, my preferred hotel did not have any vacancies, and they redirected me to a very expensive hotel across the road. The Montorey Sendai hotel allowed me to leave my bags while I spent the afternoon, wandering around Sendai. I chose to use the Loople bus (sightseeing bus) - it was completely packed with touring school kids!
My first stop was the Masamune Date mausoleum, unimpressive after the Nikko temple complex. I was amazed at the number of lanterns in the children's graveyard - each one represented a death of a child in the family. After the mausoleum, I decided to skip the bus (and the crowd), and walked to the Sendai Museum. The exhibitions seemed jumbled, and unfortunately the (free) English audio commentary covered only half of the exhibitions. A steep walk up the hill to the remains of Sendai castle (Aobajo). It was still fairly crowded, although nearly time for the last Loople bus. I didn't see the postcard pictured tower, but the view over the city was stunning.
There were so many crows! Caught the Loople bus back, and it went through one of the university campuses - huge! It dwarfed Monash! And there were so many bikes and mopeds.
I picked up dinner at Sendai station, hired a laptop, and chose an early-ish night.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Hiraizumi|
The next morning, I moved my bags to the Hotel Metropolitan (now they had a vacancy), then made my way by shinkansen to Ichinoseki, then by local train to Hiraizumi. Discovered my batteries aren't holding their charge, and have swollen - difficult to remove from the camera, so had to buy emergency batteries at the temple entrance. Although the Hiraizumi temple complex is older and simpler, I preferred Nikko. Open flat spaces remind me too much of Australia. I decided to hike between the temples, and was glad I remembered to bring extra water - it was hot! After a steep start, the hills levelled out. I missed the sound of running water, but loved that I was the only one walking.
Chusonji included an interesting noh stage. The golden temple was well protected within a building, and within a climate controlled glassed space. The museum in the temple complex was interesting, with gorgeously illustrated sutra scrolls - gold on deep blue paper.
Lunch was at the base of the temple - first time eating soba. Not sure it was good quality - I didn't enjoy it very much. Returned by local train and Shinkansen to Sendai, browsed the Spal2 complex near the station. Grabbed a roast beef salad for dinner, and a green tea & adzuki bean muffin for breakfast, then returned to the hotel for an early night. The Metropolitan Sendai rooms, although small, are well priced and appointed, and the service is very good.
Day 7 : Large earthquake in Akita, stuck in Sendai
I was running late, waiting for the next shinkansen, heading for Morioka where I had booked a hotel. At the beginning I thought it was a train rattling through, but the rattles turned into shakes, the vending machines were jumping in their brackets, and everything was swinging, especially the signs and lights. The station platforms are normally very quiet and stable, so it was disconcerting, especially when I noticed that fellow passengers had dropped to the ground. At the time, I thought it was 'just' an earthquake, but quickly found out it was a large one.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Earthquake|
All trains and buses north were cancelled. Although the only word I could get from the station attendants was "dame" - which at that time, I only understood to mean 'bad'. I wandered with my heavy backpack through the streets to the bus station, wasted an hour in lines, then returned to the train station to find more information. Windows had broken, and news was playing continuously on the outdoor large screens. TV crews were hanging around, so I tried to be inconspicuous. The Metropolitan was booked out, so back to the station once again, and I found a small hotel reservation service, who found me a cheap room, reasonably close by in the JAL hotel. 3 hours after the earthquake, I dropped my bags at the JAL hotel, and wandered around Sendai until I could check in.
Several shops were closed - their windows were damaged. My friend rang to see that I was ok, and shortly after my phone went flat. I got lost wandering the various shopping malls, but eventually found my way to Yodobashi camera (and bought some new batteries). Too much walking with the heavy backpack had really hurt my ankle, so back to the station for a late lunch (incredibly fresh sushi), bought dinner, then returned to the hotel. My phone bill will be huge, purely because of the earthquake!
I watched the news, wished I could understand, and wanted to be able to read the kanji. Took photos of the news coverage, because I doubted that there would be much information about it in Australia or Germany (my next stop). I figured out that it was a 7.2 magnitude quake, and about 6 in Sendai. Makes the quakes back home (about 3 - 4) seem insignificant. The damage was extensive, and I was glad I didn't catch the shinkansen I had wanted to - I would have been stuck in a tunnel. I was disappointed to miss Morioka.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Sendai|
Day 8 and 9 : Hirosaki and Iwaki san
The trains were running again, after the earthquake, and after having been thoroughly checked for soundness. This meant a fairly long train ride to Hirosaki, skipping through Morioka. I arrived in the afternoon, and after a quick check in to a hotel next to the station, I ran out to see the samurai houses, near the grounds of the Hirosaki castle remains. The houses were in fairly bad disrepair, probably more than those I had wanted to see in Kakunodate, but they were still interesting. The gardens were beautiful, and the stairs to the second floor were so incredibly steep!
I had a very short time to see the castle grounds and remaining tower before they closed for the evening. It's such a shame that few of the buildings are still standing. The stairs in the tower were also amazingly steep, and I was worried about my ankle (and my fear of falling down the stairs after my bad tumble last year). Hirosaki castle would be gorgeous in spring, covered in cherry tree blossoms! The botanic gardens next door were very ordered, and surprisingly large.
On my way back to the hotel, I wandered through the zen temple district. Many of these looked new, or at least newly repaired, with gorgeous new wood and polished gold trims. Almost all had expensive cars and kids toys in front, making me wonder if these are actually houses? For this reason, I was reluctant to take any photos - it seemed rude. The day was long and hot, And despite being on the train for much of it, I racked up a good number of steps, wandering to and fro in Hirosaki.
Dinner was at the hotel restaurant, I didn't feel like venturing out again. My first Japanese chicken curry - yum!
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Hirosaki|
I braved the buses the next day, and made my way to the top of Iwaki san - a recommended mountain hike close to Hirosaki. After an expensive and deserted chair lift to the top, with no harness to keep you in your seat, I watched apprehensively as a thick mist rolled in. It swirled and gathered in the folds of the mountain, forcing me to turn back after walking only a short distance to a rock shrine. With some difficulty I made it back to the chair lift - the operator took a photo of me, and commiserated that the weather was so bad and unpredictable. A medic arrived and head up the train to check on the others still walking. I caught the chairlift back down, the cloud blanket had smothered the mountain top, and was making its way downhill. So, instead of walking back to Hirosaki, I caught the buses, had an early dinner and a long sleep.
Day 10 : Hakodate
Another long train trip, with a massive tunnel, to get from Hirosaki, under the sea to Hakodate. I arrived in the late afternoon, and had a salty but good crab lunch, looking out over the bay. My phone had broken so I returned to the Softbank shop, who discovered that the airport outlet didn't enable roaming. Fixed in a matter of minutes, and with time to spare, I made my way by bus to the top of Mount Hakodate.
It started out peaceful and quiet, but as sunset approached, tremendous crowds arrived. Photographers with the expensive lenses on their SLR cameras, a film crew, and busload after busload of school kids. I felt so short and conspicuous - the school kids were so boisterous and tall! They were even lifting each other up on to their shoulders. Almost all were snapping photos on their mobile phones.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Hakodate|
However, it was the most incredible sunset I have seen! The full moon rising was also stunning, even though it quickly became too cold. The twin bays of Hakodate and the city lights are amazing. If I lived here, I would have to visit the mountain top at least once a month, if not every week, despite the crowds!
The returning bus was squished full, the turns down the mountain were scary. Worn out, I trammed back to the hotel - I had another long train journey ahead of me.
Day 11 : Asahikawa
Unfortunately, they don't seem to have the more spacious green-sha (first class) between Hakodate and Asahi-kawa, so I squished with my huge pack into a normal reserved seat. Arriving in the early evening, when all the sight-seeing places were closed, I took a short walk through the central shopping strip, and nearly melted in the heat. This time I bought a hat, so avoided getting badly sunburnt. I had my first ramen dinner - yum! The small ryokan that I had booked was cheap, but included breakfast. The tiny communal bath was very busy, but I was disappointed that the rooms (and the building) reeked of old smoke.
I took no photos of Asahikawa - too long a day of travelling had worn me out, and I had another long day planned to get to Wakkanai.
Day 12 and 13 : Wakkanai, Rebun and Rishiri
Does Hokkaido not have green-sha (first class) cars on their fast trains? Again, I was squished into reserved seating with my pack for many hours. The small hotel staff don't speak any English, only had a vacancy for one night, and I was amused to see that road signs are in both Japanese and Russian! I quickly dropped my pack into the small, but neat and clean room (with highly amusing garbled English signs), and tried to fit in a bit of a walk through the town.
It started to rain shortly after I left, and I was the only one in the park at the top of the hill. Despite the cold and rain, I enjoyed the vanilla icecream (very eggy and creamy, but didn't taste like vanilla beans). I dropped into the supermarket looking to buy breakfast - I had an early start the next day - but they didn't have any sandwiches! Off to the combini (convenience store), at the other end of town - the only one in Wakkanai.
I dropped into a small restaurant and had crab don (crab legs on rice). Exquisite crab, tiny portions and got overcharged on the bill, but didn't realise it till late.
The next morning, I quickly dropped my bags at the next hotel (much nicer), and caught the 7:30am ferry to Rebun Island. The weather was absolutely abysmal. Nearly constant pouring rain and heavy hanging clouds meant the mountains were hidden. The world disappeared into the white-grey haze, about three stories above the buses. The ferry crossings were unusual - instead of seats, they were tatami. I spent most of the time outside, enjoying the sea air, despite it being freezing and wet. The bus tours were packed, despite the horrid weather, and many of their stops were cancelled - it was simply too wet.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Wakkanai|
The ferries and bus circuits were very expensive, and not at all worth it in the awful weather. I was worried about how my camera was faring in the dampness, and was reluctant to take many photos. On checking in at the ANA hotel in Wakkanai, after a fairly poor day, I treated myself to an expensive meal - teppanyaki on the top floor of the hotel. I was treated as somewhat of a novelty - apparently very few single travellers visit Wakkanai, let alone eat at the teppan restaurant at the hotel.
Day 14 : Morioka
When booking the trains, I specifically asked for green-sha - apparently it does exist in Hokkaido! If travelling with a large pack, first class is definitely worth it, especially for 16 hours of travel! I received complimentary oshibori (hand towels) and drinks for this return trip. The area around Oonuma koen station looks gorgeous - I'd love to return someday and spend more time. The changes between trains were impeccably orchestrated - everything was exactly on time, I had a maximum of 10 minutes between trains, to change platforms, and stretch my legs a little. I arrived in Morioka at 8pm, absolutely exhausted. I had a little time before the food shops closed, found dinner and turned in. No photos today, except those taken out of moving train windows.
Day 15 : Chuzenji-ko
I had decided to return to Shikisai, as I had room in my budget, and wanted to spend more time at the onsen. Another long day of travelling, where the weather was again raining, and misty - none of the few photos I took turned out. This time I did enjoy the (extremely) hot sulphorous onsen, but felt that dinner was not up to the standard of the last time.
Day 16 and 17 : Tokyo
I found out how expensive it is to travel in Japan without a JR pass - almost 10% of the cost of a 2 week pass just to get from Nikko to Tokyo! I was bound for Ueno station, Iriya exit, and proceded to get lost, many times. One 'station' on the map is often a collection of different stations, lines, etc. Very confusing, coming from such a simple public transport system as Melbourne. The Lonely Planet maps I was trying to use, were impossible to follow, and often wrong.
When I eventually found the hotel, I dropped my bags, found some food and tried to do some sight-seeing - I had a list of places I wanted to visit! Don't try this on a Monday - the palace gardens are closed, and the river ferry doesn't run. I walked through the detached palace gardens, which were in terrible disrepair, poor maintained and muddy. They had a small tea house in the center on the lake, where I had my first matcha (powdered green tea), and wagashi sweet. The matcha was delicious - I need to get myself a whisk and tea bowl!
I was too tired to visit the Tokyo tower, and braved the subway to get home. I love the Suica cards - makes travelling so much easier!.
|flickr | nifwlseirff | Tokyo|
The next day I checked out, left my bags then met my partner at Ueno station, without getting lost this time! We wandered through Ueno park, and Shinjuku. I discovered camera was hopeless taking photos from the top of the government towers. After camera shopping for the family, and navigating the subway system again, we found a Mos burger restaurant for dinner (and got lost several times). Picked up my bag, and tried to book tickets to get to Narita. This was surprisingly difficult, and stressful - very few trains leave for Narita in the evening, but we eventually made it.
Day 18 : Narita
Only enough time for breakfast, before checking out and heading to the air-port for a flight to Germany for a whirlwind stop with family, before heading back to Melbourne, and work.