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April 20th 2013
Published: April 20th 2013
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Nagasaki

The journey to Nagasaki from Tokyo involves 2 Shinkansens (bullet trains or super fast express as it’s called here) & 1 Limited Express train – about 7 hours in all. Swapping trains was easy as we had bookings and all we did was show the station staff the tickets and they directed us to the right platform (or station even as the Limited Express & Local trains don’t use the same stations as the Shinkansens). Service on all is simple, helpful and effective.

Heading out at speed we suddenly see Mount Fuji in all its glory towering above everything nearby. It is pretty impressive and we can see why it’s such an icon in Japan. Ironic as we had just booked a day out at a park in Hakone (for our return to Tokyo) as it’s recommended as a good spot to see Mount Fuji. The mountain is closed and off limits till May/June to get close up.

The scenery while travelling is mixed. Most towns and cities look pretty much the same from the train – grey or beige, smallish buildings by and large - the wealthier folks houses have the Japanese temple style roofs and design with manicured bonsai trees in their gardens. These are interspersed with blocks of flats, a few temples thrown in for good measure and loads of places with large neon signs which will probably transform the town/city scape at night.

The weather is a bit cold but the sun is shining (we better make the most of it as the forecast for the next 2 days is pretty poor with rain expected). The information office in the station gives us direction on how to get to the hostel. It’s pretty simple. The city operates a Streetcar service (or trams to you and me) which visits all the main attractions in town. It’s a flat Y120 per ride no matter how long the trip. Also there is a Y500 day pass if you want to use the service a lot. The trams are a mix of cute old vintage ones and some modern larger ones which bend in the middle. It’s all very slick and the machine gives you change to help you pay your fare. One thing of note is that there is no problem about change in Japan – even if you pay Y10,000 for a Y150 product they will smile and say thanks and give you all the change you need. The drivers go about announcing the stops which sound like they are gently singing and you need to pay attention or you could miss your stop as the pronunciations are softer than you expect. It’s good fun to listen though.

We get to our tram terminal 3 stops away and then walk over to Akari (Nagasaki International Hostel) which is pretty centrally located. Our room is Japanese style ie futon on tatami mats on the floor, with shared facilities. The hostel staff are very friendly and have loads of local information on offer, including a local area map of all the eating places! Our kind of place.

The Hostel is within walking distance of many things and by the river which leads into the bay. It has the Hamano-Machi shopping area nearby. What we have noticed is that the Shopping Malls in Japan tend to be on one level under walkways leading off in various sections but with cars driving through them (whose drivers are terribly courteous & always give shoppers right of way) but this can be quite disconcerting.

The hostel is also close to Teramachi which is known as the Temple area – a few of note and the others not so famous. It’s definitely worth a walk around. We visit Kofukuji Temple and Sofuku-ji Temple. Kofukuji can be traced to the time when the merchants of China's Ming Dynasty, who frequented the route to Nagasaki, constructed a small monastery here in 1620 as a place to pray for a safe voyage. At that time, the Japanese government's prohibition on Christianity was especially virulent, and even the Chinese residents of Nagasaki, who were also at risk of being suspected as Christians, felt it necessary to prove they were Buddhists by building a series of Chinese Buddhist temples, Kofukuji Temple being the first.

Sofuku-ji Temple was built in 1629 by the Chinese residents of Nagasaki who hailed from Fujian Province, and is the more famous as it houses 21 cultural assets, including two national treasures - Daiohoden (Buddha Hall) & Daippo-mon (First Peak Gate). It features on all the local advertising as it’s very photogenic and the gate and temple are all in red.

Also nearby is the Megane-Bashi (AKA the Spectacles Bridge – the oldest stone bridge in Japan) with the river full of Koi carp & some turtles swimming around randomly. The price of those fish in London would be circa £5K each!

We make the trip to the Atomic Bomb Museumwhich details the story of Nagasaki before, during and after the second A bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945 at 11:02:35 am. It’s pretty interesting historically; however, as such museums go it is not as good as the War Museum in Saigon. It seemed a bit too stage managed and the most powerful exhibit, which is a picture of a boy carrying his dead younger brother to be buried, is given little if any attention in the entire blurb. We did, however, get an insight into the American psyche at the time and the politics of it all. Next to the museum is the Peace Memorial andthe Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb victims, built in 2003. It’s very neat and pristine like most things Japanese, though not as solemn as some would have you believe. The Peace Park and Hypocentre Park are nearby. The latter is of interest in so much as it has a section of the destroyed Urakami Cathedral (now rebuilt) in the park.

The general feel of Nagasaki today is that from the ashes it has risen and one can’t help but admire it’s redevelopment since the bomb. It is perhaps less clean & pristine than Tokyo, also people seem less disciplined here than in Tokyo and do jay walk etc (but that’s a relative comparison; folk are still hugely courteous and orderly – until under the influence! See later.)

Via the hostel we arrange a visit of the local neighbourhood - a walk with local volunteers who use it as an opportunity to promote their area and learn English from foreigners and engage in some cultural exchange by sharing information with people of different backgrounds. It’s a first for us and we enjoyed the experience. 3 young women volunteer despite the rain – but armed with the free umbrellas (most hostels seem to supply their guests with this service) we set off. The highlights of our visit are a local Inari Shrine (Wakamiya) where the fox is the focus of prayers, which is quite impressive (even in the rain), and a visit to the summit of the hill (a view point for the city harbour) which has a massive statute of the local samurai hero Sakamoto Ryoma. The walk along the little alleyways is quite fun as it’s off the beaten track and we would never have come here on our own. As a treat we take the women for coffee – they earned it as the 1 hour walk took nearly 2 hours with us stopping to take pictures all the time. Spring is definitely in the air and many trees are beginning to blossom and come to life including some orchids.

We visit a few other local attractions. One, recommended by the volunteers, is Suwa Jinja (or Shrine). It is located in the northern part of the city, on the slopes of Mount Tamazono-san, and features a 277-step stone staircase leading up the mountain to the various buildings that comprise the shrine. We survive and are awarded with the opportunity to see a local wedding celebration. Very elaborate; the brides are kitted out in full Geisha style and the men in formal Hakama. The shrine was apparently established as a way of stopping and reversing the conversion to Christianity that was taking place in Nagasaki.

One of the attractions in Nagasaki is Glover garden. It was built for a Scottish merchant who contributed to the modernization of Japan in shipbuilding, coal mining, and other fields (including beer and other alcoholic drinks not surprisingly!). In it stands the Glover Residence, the oldest Western style house surviving in Japan. It’s interesting to learn about the role that English & Scottish pioneers played in the industrialisation and modernisation of Japan. We didn’t actually get there as the weather was pants!!

Nor did we go to Dejima - a small block of Old Dutch houses and trading stores from the 17th century on the Nakashima River, which you have to pay to go inside for the museum, though you can see most of the buildings from the road. They are now part of the city but in their time they were based on what was a small island (now subsumed into the mainland with reclamation etc). The Dutch were the only foreigners allowed to trade with the Japanese here as all others had been barred for political reasons. Nagasaki is a more cosmopolitan area than most in Japan it has an interesting history of welcoming in the Portuguese (who brought Christianity & Francis Xavier), the Chinese, the Dutch and Americans. Their influences still show today in their special crafts and food.

Being foodies we could not let the opportunity to try the local specialities to pass us by so for our first night we go to Keikaen (just around the corner from the hostel for their famous Champon & Sara-udon (noodle dishes with lots of vegetables and seafood). It has a Chinese influence. Last orders are at 8pm which is quite usual in many places in Japan. We try some shochu (a local wine made from rice, sweet potatoes or barley and pretty nice – the chef suggested we have it with hot water – it went down well). A few days later we try the Toruka Rice at Tsuru-chan an institution in Nagasaki. The dish itself is a mish mash of rice and noodles with Pork cutlet and Japanese curry sauce (MSG at its best/worst depending on your point of view) and some vegetables – an ideal hangover cure we decide on balance. We also try Wakat Akemaru famous for local seafood sushi which is reportedly the cheapest in Japan – each dish is Y110 only – it’s good and the value is awesome. However the best experience was us finding a random local bar in Shianbashi (the main bar and restaurant area of town) full of locals only and going for it. The folk were really helpful and chatty and made some good recommendations on food and drink including introducing us to Shochu on the rocks – pretty good too. We discover that they make the stuff with all sorts of fruit as well – apricots, berries etc and the bar shelves are stacked high with the stuff. After 2 drinks (and the locals seem to knock it back at the rate of knots) we leave and decide to try some street food. We chance upon a small place (almost a hole in the wall) making Teriyaki skewers of a variety of meats and entrails of chickens and pigs. The owner was a local married to a Philippine woman; they had 2 other customers – a gentleman – drunk but quietly getting on with it and a “lady” who was pissed as a fart – very friendly but who spoke non-stop in Japanese and took to hugging C a lot. Eventually M got a hug before we left after a few helpings of BBQ food (delicious) and a discount on the bill as the woman owner was happy that we were going to her country next. A great evening all in all.

Kumamoto

We have an early start for the train to Kumamoto, another Shinkansen, and after a quick stop at the information centre for a map and orientation to our hotel, we jump on the tram to the centre of town (flat rate Y150).

We are staying at the Toyoko Inn as it was cheaper than some hostels and with breakfast thrown in. We’re pretty impressed. The room is comfortable, has all mod cons and is very central for only Y6480 per night. It also has free pc access in the entrance lobby with free printing facilities and a free coffee machine. We make full use of all of them.

We have come here to see Kumamoto Castle known as (Kumamoto-jō), a hilltop castle considered to be one of the three premier castles in Japan. We are lucky to have arrived when there is a pageant on so lots of folk are dressed up in period costumes acting out battles etc, and doing displays around the grounds. There are also some local young folk who give a great drum/percussion performance and with real enthusiastic routines. The Castle is pretty impressive though the central area is a concrete reconstruction built in 1960, but several ancillary wooden buildings remain of the original castle. Its history dates back to the 15th / 16th Century. In1588, Kato Kiyomasa, a Japanese daimyo and local hero, was based at the castle and is credited as it’s architect , expanding the complex. He is buried in the city temple not far away, the Honmyoji Buddhist Temple, which we also visit. The day we visit is Buddha’s birthday. M is wearing his “Budha” T shirt from India which seems to go down well with the locals in the temples.

The covered market area near where we stay is a typical Japanese street scene – plenty of clothes shops, eateries with mainly Japanese menus etc. We are not sure how so many enterprises can survive – most of them seem empty most of the time (this is everywhere we have been). This might explain why Japan has been in recession for nearly a decade! Apparently, many of the prices today are the same as they were 10 years ago according to lady visiting who lived here 10 years ago.

The local delicacies in this part of the world are horse meat and whale meat sliced and eaten raw. We weren’t quite in the mode to try these. However, M is sure that they would be like sushi or they wouldn’t be so popular. C is ok with the horse meat which she has had before in France but not sure about the Whale meat on moral grounds and Japan’s stance on whale hunting.

Instead we do a quick orientation around the main shopping streets and go to a LP recommended ramen place for lunch (Ramen Komurasaki). Fabulous – meat noodle soup and gyoza for less than £7. It’s a Sunday and it’s packed with locals slurping away. We also try a 24 hour meat fest restaurant. You pay for your meal by buying tokens from a machine that has pictures of the food available to order. The waitress then takes your tokens and delivers a surprisingly good meal; steak, chicken, pork, rice and miso soup for Y880.

Mind you, finding a shochu bar was a challenge – no one seemed to know of one till we found a Izakaya with loads of the stuff down a side street from the main market area – great atmosphere to round off our short visit to Kumamoto.

Aso

We leave Kumamoto to catch the Limited Express Train at 3pm. It’s like an Alpine railway train with only 2 carriages with a driver in the front (as if he were driving a tram) and a woman Ticket Collector come Train “trolly dolly”. We even get our own stamped cards with the railway logo – obviously a famous train or journey. The journey is only 1 hr 15 mins and rides across the old outer rim of the caldera of a dead volcano. When the line gets too steep the train does a series of switchbacks and the driver walks through to take the train in the opposite direction. Rather cleverly, the seats can be rotated so as the train changes direction you can stay facing forward! Ingenious eh?

It’s a gloriously sunny day even though a bit cool. The scenery is lovely and very rural and so different from what we have seen in Japan so far. There are a lot of green farms and pine forests. As we climb we are treated to sweets as our ears will pop – boy service or what. Eventually we pull up at a small rural stop – Aso Town.

The thing that first strikes us (apart from the great scenery) is that the Information centre next door to the station seems bigger than the station. Information centres or points are a feature of all Japanese railway stations and they are very helpful with maps, suggestions on what to do, transportation issues and where to stay. A real bonus for us. But even so –this one seems bigger than the town needs!

Aso Base Backpackers is 2 minutes walk from the station, and we are blown away by the internal design and layout of the place. It’s amazingly clean and so modern yet traditional inside. We’ve booked a double room with shared facilities but it’s definitely one of the best Hostels we have stayed at anywhere in the world. As C says – if Vogue did a hostel, this would be it! The young couple running this (Korean woman & Japanese guy) are really helpful, they have a great map of the town and what’s where & tips on what to do. They have only had this place for 3 years. The kitchen area is so good that it inspires C to do some cooking. We find a great supermarket nearby and go for eating in. C excels herself given that this is the first meal she has cooked in 6 months. Awesome squid, beef & aubergine with jacket potatoes, and all washed down with Shochu.

Despite the weather being cold and variable cloud/sun etc, we decide to go to see the Crater of Nara-dake which is still a live volcano in the Aso National Park. We catch the bus from Aso station Y540 each one way which takes 40 mins through pine forests and great scenery which reminds us of Wales or the Scottish Highlands. We skip the Volcano Museum on advice from the Hostel as they feel it is too expensive and not worth the entrance fee as it doesn’t have much to offer.

It’s a 20 min walk up from the bus stop to the crater or a 5 min cable car ride. We choose to walk to keep a bit warm. At the top are 2 craters – one dead and the other active with boiling water (a beautiful green lake) at the bottom with plumes of white steam bellowing out from time to time against a very colourful Caldera. It’s definitely well worth it. There is a quite a loop where one views the craters from different vantage points.

Afterwards, we decide to try a little walk – with sandals and warm socks (heavy metal hikers or what!). We do about 1km and decide to come back as its cold, the wind is blowing which makes it feel cooler, and the landscape requires better hiking gear. The place reminds us of the Tongariro Crossing in New Zealand (voted the best one day walk in the world - and we agree). Back at base we decide to go for another night in with home cooking, log fire, good jazz music and some friendly travellers.

The next big thing to do in these parts (and it seems like most other parts of Japan as they are mad about it) is try an Onsen (or to the uninitiated, a hot spring bath). We catch the bus to Kurokawa - reportedly the prettiest Onsen village in Japan. It takes 50mins from Aso and costs a whopping Y960 each one way. We paid only Y540 for the same distance to the crater. (The private company is obviously making money – or, given that the bus is largely empty, not making money. Perhaps they should review their pricing structure). The village is still in the midst of spring coming in so we don’t see the prettiness but some of the pictures by the information office suggest it would look great in autumn and winter.

We chose to go to the Onsen Ryokan Oku no yu one of 3 recommended by our hostel – primarily as its mixed rather than segregated men and women. The bath cost Y500 (£3.50 how cheap is that!) and everyone is pretty helpful. It is a truly amazing experience and we can see why the locals are so taken by it. There is a strict etiquette to following re disrobing and showering before getting into the Onsen in the buff with a little towel for your modesty. The place has separate indoor baths for men and women, and outside are mixed baths – beautifully designed and overlooking the valley – a man made “cave” bath (not too bad but a bit artificial we felt) and a river side open air bath. We try them all – you can stay as long as you like. There’s a sauna as well which M tries to get all the India dust out of his pores. After a warm shower (they provide shampoos and body wash too) we get the bus back. So far it’s been a sunny day but the weather changes and there is some sleet on the way back. It’s gone cooler mainly due the increase in wind pressure.

For our last night we decide to try a local place to eat which is recommended by our hostel. It’s called Kojiro-Buchi and has tables with small charcoal BBQs literally built into them where you sit. We have some chicken wings and pork spare rib to go with the dish of the house Kamemeshi (rice bowl with vegetables cooked in a special pot). It’s pretty good and the whole experience with hot sake makes it a great evening.

Arriving back at the hostel we are ushered in by the owners in whispers; a local performer has set up to demonstrate some classical Japanese music; singing bowls, muted drums, spirit catchers (long bow like instruments that hum when waved in the air), bells and his own breathing! It’s very atmospheric and enjoyable. The performer looks traditionally Japanese – with long hair in a top knot, moustache and goatee.

So, sadly, we have to move on from Aso. Next morning we catch the Limited Express train back to Kumamoto then transfer to the Shinkansen service to Hiroshima.

Hiroshima

We bid a fond farewell to our hosts at Aso Base Hostel after a hearty breakfast and go to the station to catch the train to Kumamoto from where we get the Shikansen (the super-fast express as it’s known) to Hiroshima the city where the first atomic bomb was launched on 6th August 1945 at 8.15 am, destroying most things within a 4 km radius.

After getting some information regarding travel to Miyajima island, not far away, we get the tram service to the hostel 20 mins away, but near the Peace memorial and the Atomic Dome and Peace Park. We are staying at J-Hoppers one of a chain of Japanese hostels. It’s a double room with shared facilities – not quite up to the standard of our Aso base but adequate tatami mat Japanese style room to kip for 2 nights before we go to Kyoto.

We are surprised by the size of Hiroshima. It is a modern and buzzing Japanese city with wide streets and seems to be well planned. It has many multi story buildings along the central river. One wonders had Hiroshima and Nagasaki not been bombed whether anyone travel to these two contrasting cities? We’ll never know – however their fame seems to rest largely with their sad events 6 decades ago.

It’s a bit warmer here and the sun does actually come out while we explore the Peace Park. As we want to spend more time in Miyajima tomorrow we decide to do the main draw here. Entry to the Museum costs just Y50 (seems not worth charging for!). It’s has a different approach to the events here than Nagasaki. Some of it was more striking but we were surprised by the lack of numbers to give greater understanding and impact of what happened here. The best bit was seeing a scaled model of the city before the blast and one after and an enlarged picture taken at the time of the aftermath – total destruction.

The Atomic Dome is the iconic building that people see in photos which withstood the blast even though it happened just above it, even though everyone in the building was killed.

For dinner we head to Okonomi-mura – 3 floors of eating places all doing Okonomiyaki, an odd ball “sandwich” of pancake filled with cabbage, spring onions, bacon, and a choice of filling – we had squid and shrimps – with fried egg on the other side to complete the sandwich and it is served on a bed of noodles (Udon or Soba – your choice) and has a Japanese Worcester sauce type topping! All in all an interesting dish for Y950 each. We also got tempted by the beef soup when some other diners ordered it and it complemented the meal really well – all washed down with warm Shochu (sweet potato variety). The place is filled with locals enjoying an after work snack and drink or two – or in the case of the guy next to us, possibly 10! He literally fell off his chair though no-one seemed to mind.

Miyajima – The Shrine Island

We take the tram from Dobashi (near J-Hoppers Hostel - Y150) to Yokogawa the nearest JR station to us rather than go to Hiroshima to get the JR suburban train to Miyajima-guchi station for our planned day trip here (trains run every 10 to 15 mins all day to this destination). The trip costs us nothing as we have the JR Rail Pass and all transportation is by JR which is a bonus we did not expect. The train journey takes about ½ hour and then we walk to the nearby Pier where there is a JR Ferry. The Ferry trip is 10 mins to Miyajima Island Pier. The island's real name is Itsukushima , and Miyajima is just a popular nickname meaning "Shrine Island".

The day doesn’t start too brightly which is a shame – however, later the sun comes out and the island can be seen in all its glory. As soon as we arrive we notice deer roaming all over and very friendly with all the visitors. Despite the fact that they are actually wild deer they seemed to have worked out that visitors like friendly deers and will feed them with all sorts of snack – smart deers!

The big draw here is the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine & the O-torii Gate. The shrine complex is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first shrine buildings were probably erected in the 6th century, and the present shrine dates from the mid-16th century. The iconic Torii gate standing in front of the Temple, is partially submerged in water in high tide and looks quite majestic.When the tide is low, it is approachable by foot from the island. The view of the gate in front of the island is classified as one of the the top views of Japan. The gate is about 16 metres high, and built in the style of Ryobu Shinto, a medieval school of esoteric Japanese Buddhism.

We are really lucky - just when we are going through the shrine entry (Y300 each – the rest are free), we get to see a full blown Japanese wedding and the entertainment afterwards in the main area in front of the Torii gate. It’s really interesting, gentle, respectful, great dress sense and a colourful occasion which we are sure costs a fortune.

Next we go to see Senjyo Kaku which means "pavilion of 1000 mats" which is the common name of this Hokoku Shrine. The name describes the spaciousness of the building. The hall, which dates back to 1587, is located on a small hill just beside the Itsukushima Shrine and it looks pretty impressive as some of the cherry blossoms surrounding the building have lasted here. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three unifiers of Japan, commissioned Senjokaku for the purpose of chanting Buddhist sutras for fallen soldiers. Next to the shrine is a five story pagoda which seems relatively new, however, it adds glamour to the whole scene on the hill.

Next we visit the Kotohira Shrine near the Treasury hall, which is quite lovely and a poor cousin to the bigger shrines and temples here but worth a look around.

Next up the road and on a hill is the Tahoto Pagoda which was built by the priest Shukan in 1523 and is 15.6 meters high. Although it was constructed mainly in Japanese style, parts of the structure have Indian and Chinese architectural features. It presents the unique combination of a square shape on the lower level and a round shape on the upper level.

Further up the route/track is the Daisho-in Temple founded in the year 806.It is said that in the temple there is a flame which is said to have been burning since its foundation, more than 1200 years ago! We didn’t see it!

We then move on to the Daigan-ji Temple which is an ancient Shingon Buddhist temple. It’s pretty impressive as most temples in Japan are for a variety of reasons. This has lots of images of Buddha and other deities and small shrines built in the hillside. It’s very attractive.

We then head downhill and stroll through the main drag of the area – the Omote-sando – which is full of souvenir and food shops. The bulk of the visitors today seem to be Korean. They are a breed apart from the gentle and respectful Japanese and can be noisy and generally a pain in the arse. They are hot on the local maple waffles being manufactured openly in a few shops.

C is tempted by an unusual ice cream of sweet potato (though mainly because she thinks it’s blueberry!) with crushed waffle cone pieces at the bottom and a small blueberry coated sweet potato – sounds nuts but quite nice really.

We try a local “kebab” – octopus fried in light batter on a skewer – really nice. They also do them in all sorts of varieties (shrimp, fish, squid, cheese & bacon etc) but we decide to save ourselves for the local delicacies at lunch time. On the way we see O-Shamoji the world’s largest rice scoop – a bit bizarre perhaps but this is Japan.

Eventually it’s lunch time and we go for the island specialities - Anago-meshi - which is BBQ’d Conger Eel with rice & miso soup (Y1200) and Oysters with rice and miso soup (Y980). Hiroshima is famous for its oysters which we assume come from here as you can see the oyster farms in the bay when taking the ferry across. They are cooked – BBQed in their shell and sort of steamed in their juices before serving and being eaten with soy sauce. They are pretty good this way.

After the journey back to Hiroshima and some changes to our train reservations at the JR office for the next day (when we travel to Kyoto – everyone’s favourite we are told) we tram it to the main shopping area for an afternoon tea (coffee actually) with cakes (NY cheese cake for M and mixed berry tart for C) at Stick Sweet Factory – very decadent but lovely.

We decide to go for a low key dinner after all this so we pick up some food from supermarket and we are set for the evening with our own shochu at the hostel. Cheers!! And it’s off to Kyoto for a week tomorrow with temperatures forecast to be high and the sun shining most days ………… awesome.


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