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May 7th 2013
Published: May 7th 2013
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Kanazawa – the City with a provincial feel to it.

We arrive at Kanazawa ½ hour late - though we are not sure why. It’s quite bright and after visiting the Information desks at the train & bus stations we catch a bus to Kouhrinbo for our stay at the Toyoko-inn hotel for 3 nights. We have opted for the hotel as it provides a lot more by way of services than some hostels do e.g better internet, breakfast, all day coffee or tea free, free printing which we have found very useful and the cost in some cases is less than a hostel; so a no brainer really.

There is a convenience store nearby and a supermarket as well. However, as it’s Sunday most of the restaurants that are in the guide book are closed. This is a quirk of the Japanese way that eateries have some random closing days each week – it could be any day of the week and usually the one we want! Damned inconvenient!!

We decide to go for an eat in option as the supermarket is selling lots of stuff at ½ price to clear the decks and the hotel is geared up for folks to eat in – microwave at the ready + tables set for eating. They provide hot & cold drinks free including hot and cold water on tap + ice (which a lot of Japanese use in their drinks – alcoholic or not). We get a lot of seafood as we are by the sea and this is the staple for the city. Great with hot (and for C cold) Shochu.

Breakfast is a Japanese affair – which is fun with chopsticks. Miso soup + various hot and cold rices + a variety of pickles + dim sum & salad. Pretty damn good for the price. The coffee isn’t quite Douwe Egberts that we had in their Kumamoto branch – something to complain about then - at last!

Kanazawa is a city with a provincial feel to it which is a surprise. The area we are staying is about 10 mins from the Railway station and is in the commercial and business district of the city – Louis Vitton, Gucci, Paul Smith, Tiffany & Co stores etc are across the street. Not quite what we had expected. We had visions of it being a small town – however, the city is spread out with everything you can think a city should have but without the overcrowded streets, noise, rush hour traffic jams etc!

The local folk seem very friendly and helpful. It also isn’t as pristine as some Japanese cities which make it feel more ‘real life’ than the rest. The old houses haven’t made way for grey tower blocks etc – there’s a sense that the old and new co-exist and complement each other.

It’s a lovely sunny day (expected high 15 to feel like 21 say accuweather forecast. They get it spot on!). We go to the main attraction – the Kenroku-en Garden (entry fee is Y300 each). It is considered to be the best garden in Japan from the Edo Period of their history. It was originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and is within walking distance of it (a major road separate the two now). The place is visited by hordes of tourists – some western but mainly Korean and Chinese. The garden is a good stroll on a sunny day and has a few nice features. They have the “oldest” fountain in Japan here, though it looks pretty new to us. There are a few bridges, a Statue of Prince Yamato Takeru in the middle (not sure why?), a Japanese Plum Grove (not yet in bloom), a Yugaotei – or place for performing Tea ceremonies, the Shiguretei Tea House, and the scenic Kotojitoro Lantern at the edge of a large lake.

Like most good gardens in Japan it is manicured and super clean and tidy. We even observe 6 guys with long brooms brushing the stones in the small stream that flows through the area. How OCD is that?

After C has her customary ice cream we walk through the gardens of Kanazawa Castle (which is in the process of being reconstructed) on our way to the Omi-cho Market which is a bustling fish market mainly with a few fruit and veg stalls. Some of the fish shops do food for locals and tourists. We have a snack of BBQ squid legs, octopus, squid and scallops. A lovely local experience.

Later we go to see the Oyama jinja Shrine (a Shinto Shrine) which is a stone’s throw from out hotel. It’s amazingly quiet and no foreigners in site. We have the place to ourselves bar 2 or 3 locals who pop in to pray for a few moments and meander off. It’s pretty peaceful as we take our pictures and move on. Interestingly, though it shows on the map in the LP guide, there is no information about the place, which is a shame as it’s a lovely shrine with a small lake, garden and a couple of sub shrines and older houses at the back in the complex.

Next call is the Naga-machi Buke Yashaiki District. This known as a former Samurai area and has some remnants of houses from that period still around – although modernised quite a bit and gardens looking pretty well kept – not sure they looked like that when the Samurai were in town. We think you probably need to be into this stuff to really appreciate this area.

The main drag for food, drink and making merry is along the road from us by the Saigawa River. Its mix of Soho meets Piccadilly Circus Japanese style. There are eateries, pubs, clubs, girlie bars and Bars galore with price tags and entry fees to match.

We were planning to go to either Shirikawa-Go or Kamikochi from here, but the weather has made us change tack. We’ll go to S-G from Takayama, our next stop off point, & will have to give Kamikochi in the Alps (which only opens for business post winter on the 22nd April) a miss as the forecast is for rain and some snow; in our sandals we are not sure it’s the place to be.

So we decide to spend the day planning and making reservations for our trip to the Philippines – suddenly everything there seems to be falling into place which is great. We also try to finalise our final stint in India, as we need to book our flights – the trek in Ladakh and our trip in Sikkim and Darjeeling – which is proving a bit of a challenge for some reason. Fingers crossed and all will go well. Meanwhile we can use the facilities here to print all the flight and Hotel booking confirmations for free - Awesome!!

Next day after more admin on the travel front including blog updates and posting we leave for the train to our next destination.

Takayama – once again

We leave Kanazawa at 11 am to go to Takayama by train, changing at Toyama. This is the last day we can use our JR Pass. We have almost an hour between trains at Toyama so decide to go grab some coffee and then go to the platform. We are a bit surprised to see that our train isn’t listed on the trains’ schedule. As it gets close to the departure time we ask the JR staff and are informed that the trains to Takayama have been cancelled as high winds have blown down the electric cables and no trains are running. They advise us (via pre-printed translation sheets) that we will have to catch 2 Buses to get to our destination. And to make matters worse we have to pay for this – JR don’t pay – which is a bit of a nerve (and this has been pointed out in our JR Pass feedback form!).

It’s a miserable rainy day which doesn’t help the mood and feel of the day. So we sit in the waiting room watching a loop video about the area – which actually looks great in winter with all the snow – until our 1st bus, to Kamioka, arrives. We are in a group of 7 visitors caught out by the train cancellation, and the folk at Kamioka are certainly bemused; this is a small provincial town that doesn’t get many foreign visitors it seems. However, with usual Japanese courtesy they find chairs for us all and we wait until the local bus to Takayama arrives. Fortunately this isn’t a busy route – mainly kids getting back from school – as we pretty much take over most of the available space with all our bags (or more accurately all our fellow travellers bags – 2 large ones each! For a 2 week holiday).

Anyway, we get to see some lovely scenery en route and a lovely looking town - Hida Furukawa, that we may come back to visit if time allows (it doesn’t).

Arriving in Takayama 4 hours later than planned we head straight to J- Hoppers Hostel, where we have an awesome room – large tatami style Japanese room with futon bed and paper screens on the windows etc, and the hostel has great facilities and information with helpful staff.

Unfortunately the supermarket in the town centre is already closed so we have to traipse 15 minutes in the rain for provisions, but as usual the hostel has brollies we can use and the shop has some good stuff for cooking in one night - squid, noodles & greens, octopus and fish. The other 2 nights we head to local eateries. An Izakaya (bar that does food) nearby which is ok but doesn’t have many customers so lacks atmosphere, and a place recommended by the hostel - Yurakuan for local beef or chicken cooked on a hotplate, served with miso soup, pickles and rice. Absolutely fabulous! It’s tiny – only 7 seats at a counter which is an extension of the owner’s house. It has a limited menu, but all the food is cooked fresh to order and tastes delicious.

As we were here for the Spring Festival (1 day trip from Kyoto) we have already seen much of the town but it’s nice to see it in its normal state. It’s still busy with visitors but not quite so jammed packed. We wander around the attractive Sanmachi-suji neighbourhood which has well maintained houses and shops from the Edo period – many of these are now Sake breweries or shops where tastings are available. Fortunately we re-discover the steamed bun shop from our previous visit and have a hearty lunch of buns filled with greens, bean paste, pumpkin and beef and cheese. We also visit Hido Kokubun-ji, Takayama’s oldest temple which dates from the 16th Century and has a three storey pagoda and a gingko tree. It’s a little underwhelming until you come out the side entry and find a shrine to Sarubobo (Baby monkey in Hida dialect) – the local mascot of Takayama!! Only in Japan!

C had a mad fit before leaving India and decided to grow her hair. Inevitably it is now driving her bonkers so we have to find a hairdresser. We stop for coffee at Café Doppio (great little find) and ask the lady there if she can recommend somewhere. Just up the road is Bros and the guy there does a great job; though he maybe takes M’s “short” sign-language a little too literally. Anyhow, peace is restored.

As we have time to spare and the weather isn’t great we decide to try a local Onsen. The staff at the hostel recommend the one at the Green Hotel, 10 mins walk away. It costs Y1000 each but is well worth it. It’s a segregated one this time and quite busy but doesn’t feel crowded as it has Jacuzzi and hot pools both inside and out and a sauna. The facilities are great too and by the end of an hour we both feel thoroughly relaxed and shiny clean!

Shirakawa-go – A UNESCO World Heritage Village

We have pre-booked a half day trip to Shirakawa-go through the hostel as they have a special deal (Y3300 each) with a local tour company run by a guy called Yamamoto who is excellent; really OTT Japanese stereotype (played up of course for the benefit of visitors). He has huge enthusiasm despite doing this tour every day, twice a day!

We’re very lucky – the skies are clear and it’s a warm, sunny day. S-G is famous for its Gasso style houses (about 100 of them) – built with very steep thatched roofs over a simple lashed wooden beam A frame. The design is earthquake and wind resistant and offers great snow protection. Seems to work as they have been there since the middle ages!! A UNESCO designation we agree with at last.

The trip starts with a 50 minute coach journey which takes in a series of 10 tunnels – the longest at 11 kms! Then we visit the observation site above the town which on a clear day gives fantastic views across the Alps – all snow-capped. Then it’s into town for a 90 minute wander and several hundred photographs! At Yamamoto’s suggestion we visit Kanda House which is open for visitors and is extremely well preserved in the original style. It has a fire burning in the central hall and the smoke goes up through the floors above through lattice willow sections. There are displays of local crafts, tools etc and a cup of wild grass tea (surprisingly good) is served included within the Y300 entry fee. There’s also a little shrine in the house like all good Japanese houses.

Overall, a really worthwhile trip – though on a wet, cloud day it probably loses a little of its attraction.

Matsumoto – town or city?

We catch the bus from Takayama Nohi Bus station (next door to the Railway station) for the 2.5 hour drive to Matsumoto. It’s raining and miserable but the forecast is better for Matsumoto. Gradually, as we climb higher across the pass at Hirayu Onsen, the rain turns to sleet, then to snow and then to a full scale white-out. The scenery is awesome. At least 6 – 8 inches of snow on trees and houses, and the mountain tops (as much as you can see given the weather) are completely snow covered. We’re just glad we have a bus ride through this as it would have been hopeless if we’d had to walk through any of it – sandals and socks and snow don’t mix!

The other side of the pass, it’s back to rain and cloud but fortunately it dries out by the time we get to Matsumoto, where we have a 5 minute walk (after visiting the local tourist info desk at the train station) to Matsumoto Backpackers – run by an Irish guy Brian and his Japanese fiancé Shuko. They started in Feb’13 and it’s a nice, small place in a Japanese wooden house. We have a shared room for the first night (with a Spanish couple from Manor House in London living a road away from Sarah!) and then a private room for 3 nights. The rooms are traditional tatami mat and futon style and very comfortable.

The hostel is right by the river and on Brian’s suggestion we go and sit outside on the sunny days enjoying a beer (M has discovered Yebisu – a malt beer). Almost feels like being back home.

We spend some time orientating in the afternoon, and we get lost! But in the process we find the International Suzuki Method School (famous for the way it teaches music and founded here in Matsumoto) and the Fukashi shrine, apparently popular for kids to go for blessings for exam success.

Matsumoto is quite a small town with a river running through it and an easy vibe to it. It’s the gateway to the Alps so lots of folk come here to go walking, and in winter, skiing. There are a couple of nice streets to mooch around – Nawate Street by the river which has lots of antique, craft and food stalls as well as a crazy street ornament of a frog with two ninja turtles fighting on its back! Nakamachi Street is the former merchants area and is packed with fancy café’s and galleries. Nearby is Genchi Well, famous for its natural spring water which people still go to collect by the bottle full. Actually there are a number of natural spring water points around the town, and the water stays a constant refreshing temperature year round. And finally, Ningyo “Doll” Cho Street which is decorated with carp kites – to mark “boys day” and specialises in shops selling ornamental dolls dressed in samurai warrior garb. They are exquisitely done and bloody expensive - Y310,000 for one doll!!

The main event here though is Matsumoto-jo – the black or crow castle, which we visit on a fine sunny day which is also a national holiday – so it’s packed with local visitors and tourists. It’s much smaller than Kumamoto Castle but is an original including all the insides which makes it much more interesting – and gives a better sense of what the original Kumamoto Castle would have been like. We are approached in the queue by a volunteer guide who proceeds to give us a talk through the history and design features of the castle, so by the time we reach the head of the queue we are fully briefed and appreciate what we see all the more. It dates back to the 1500’s and actually has 6 floors – though from outside it looks like 5. The 6th is hidden in the 4th floor and was designed for the Samurai to hide in if the castle was attacked so they could surprise the invading forces.

Other places we visit are Kaichi school which was built in the 1800’s in a Japanese version of European style (just because!) and nearby the former Catholic Priests residence which you can go inside and is furnished just just like an English period home, fireplaces and all. It’s famous because the Priest wrote the first Japanese French dictionary.

We’ve noticed that quite a few places in the Alps region have French or Spanish influences - restaurants, café’s and hotels with (mainly) French names though the menus are often Japanese fare. We are also bemused to hear about the “Paris syndrome”; apparently the Japanese who go to Paris with massively high expectations about how beautiful etc it will be and then find themselves depressed at the reality (unfriendly people, dirty and noisy streets, sub ways etc). The Japanese Embassy has a 24 hour support hotline and has even has to repatriate some visitors each year!

Brian has recommended a stroll up a hill - Johyama Park, overlooking the town for good views of the Alps on a clear day. It’s not on the map and as we are walking we check with a local lady that we are heading in the right direction. After asking us to wait a minute, she disappears inside her house, returns with her son (we presume he speaks English) and her car keys. Then ushering us into the car she insists on driving us there!!! The son speaks no English and his role is to check the directions on the sat nav – which seems to get us lost a few times but we make it eventually. It’s incredibly generous of her and is a fine example of the Japanese spirit generally; they will go to great lengths to be of help.

Our plan had been to go to the Kiso Valley, which is supposed to be very beautiful and has a nice walk between two villages – Tsumago and Magome, which is part of the original walking route between Kyoto and Tokyo from the Edo Period. When we look at the train times (and cost) though – 5 hours travelling - we can’t quite get enthusiastic enough – and to be honest, we’re enjoying having an easy few days! So we don’t go.

Eating out here is fairly typical of our experiences generally in Japan. We find a great value local diner (Menchu) that does really good pork and ramen, served with hot sake. There is also a decent supermarket so a couple of times we eat in. We also try a sushi place at a nearby outlet centre. Pretty good at Y100 per piece – and good for a laugh too as their conveyor belt keeps going wrong and ends up chucking the dishes on the floor!!

On our final evening we offer Brian and Shuko our copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” to watch, so they set up a projector and invite the other guests and have a film night. We join them about half way through after our dinner out. We join half way through the India bit and for the Bali section which brings back good memories of our trip there with the girls. C hadn’t seen it before (even though M bought it for her ages ago!) so we stay up to see it to the end. It’s nice seeing it on a big screen (well, wall of their living room) rather than just the laptop screen.

Next day it’s an early start for the train back to Tokyo for our final 4 days in Japan.

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