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November 4th 2018
Published: November 4th 2018
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Tonight, is the last night of our time in Japan and the last night of our 7.5-week RTW trip. So, time to write this last blog and hopefully get a decent night’s sleep before trying to work out how to pack the Japanese souvenirs into our already full luggage, board the Shinkanson (bullet train) for Tokyo and Narita Airport before flying back home tomorrow evening. We’ve had almost 2 weeks in Japan, which is nowhere near enough, but we’re ready to head home and stop moving.

We started the Japan leg of our trip in Kyoto after landing in Osaka earlier that morning. We’d had an almost 9-hour flight from Helsinki. I’ve previously thought of Japan as being in “our back yard” but it turns out that they’re in Finland’s back yard - our flight to Melbourne is almost 11 hours. We negotiated Kanzai Airport in Osaka without problem, found our way to the station and then the train to Kyoto, but finding the taxi rank at Kyoto Station was another story; the signs to the taxis disappeared as soon as we left the station building. We managed to find a taxi eventually, made our way to our hotel and deposited our bags until we could access our room later that afternoon. We ended up “exploring” the neighbourhood of our hotel for the next few hours and came across the Nishiki Market. We love exploring food markets and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s a long, narrow street lined on both sides with stores selling all manner of things – there were stalls selling fresh seafood, some selling fruit and vegetables, tea, spices, Japanese snacks, pickles etc plus tourist-focussed shops selling pottery, fabrics, and other souvenirs. The street was packed. I don’t know how many of the people were locals doing their shopping but there were lots of Japanese tourists in the crowd as well. We were very surprised to see many high school-aged children in school uniform at the market, mostly in groups of 4-6 and occasionally accompanied by an adult. That night we tried eel (unagi) from the nearby, local restaurant specialising in the dish. We’ve had unagi before, and this was very enjoyable, but the Japanese-style seating on tatami mats on the floor wasn’t suitable for Terry and his crook right knee so no floor seating for us from then on. Our time in Kyoto was spent mainly visiting temples or shrines and basically wandering the streets. We visited the Buddhist Temple Kiyomizu-dera, the Shinto Shrine Yasaka-jinja, headed to the “burbs” to visit the Buddhist Temple complex of Daitoku-ji and the sub-temple of Daisen-in with its Zen garden, and went even a little further afield to the Shinto Shrine of Fushimi Inari-Taisha with its many hundreds of orange torii (shrine gates) lining the 4 km path up Mt Inari. I think that Fushimi Inari-Taisha was my favourite shrine/temple – it was nice to get to have a walk in the forest with the many other tourists, the visual spectacle of the arcades of torii gates was amazing and we learnt a little about the culture. Many of the deities at this and other shrines are “dressed” in a red apron or bib. I asked why but no one seemed to be able to answer so Dr Google to the rescue. It depends on the deity but at Fushimi Inari-Taisha the deity is Inari (a fox) who is the god of rice and hence associated with agriculture. The red colour is believed to expel demons and illness and so these red bibs help to protect the rice harvest and the prosperity of the farmers and people in general. My impression of any of the Japanese shrines/temples is that they are a major drawcard for the Japanese and foreigners alike. The approaches to a temple are a street rising up a hill and lined with stores selling souvenirs, food, tea and ice creams; temporary stalls selling hot food and streams of people making their way to the site. Many of the younger Japanese tourists, both young women and young men, have hired kimonos for the day and are slowly making their way up the hill so that they can have their photos taken in front of the temple/shrine. Once again, during our visit, we were surprised at the number of high school kids dressed in uniform heading to the temples during school time. We eventually managed to find out that it has been autumn break here in Japan and so many kids are on school excursions to other locations in Japan – they all seemed to be very well behaved and enjoying the culinary treats on offer (ie. they’re always eating).

We left Kyoto after a few days and travelled to Kanazawa. When we arrived in Japan we had no intentions to travel to Kanazawa and hoped that we would be able to take a relaxed attitude to travelling, staying where we liked for as long as we liked. Nope, it was impossible to get accommodation in a couple of the smaller towns/villages that we’d hoped to visit and so we soon found that we had to pre-book at least a week in advance to get reasonable accommodation in some towns. We both enjoyed Kanazawa. It’s a nice sized town, easy to walk around and has the most amazing gardens that were originally built as gardens for the adjacent castle. The timing of our visit to Japan has been almost prefect as the trees have been in full autumn glory in many locations. The colour was good in Kanazawa but was at its peak for our visit to Takayama.

Takayama was our favourite location of the trip. Once again, a smaller city with a population of around 90,000. We arrived in Takayama after a variety of transport methods. In May, and later since, heavy rain has resulted in landslides which have covered the main Toyama to Takayama rail line. We ended up on a 2-carriage, glorified rail motor from Toyama to the small village of Inotani where we were transferred to buses for the remainder of the trip up the mountain. It was great as the autumn colours were vibrant and the mountain scenery pretty good. Our Takayama accommodation was a ryokan (traditional-style guesthouse) a little out of town. We had a lovely, spacious room with tatami mats on the floor, sliding paper doors and window coverings and slept on the floor on futons. Terry was uncomfortable the first night but after adding a second futon to the pile we both slept well. Takayama is known for its old private houses in one neighbourhood. Most of these have been turned into sake breweries, cafes and retailers but it’s a very pleasant area to wander through, particularly the streets with fewer tourists. Of course, there are numerous temples and shrines dotted along the streets and hills, and a museum which has on display a selection of floats from the Spring and Autumn Festival – no crepe paper to be seen on these floats!!! Takayama is also a jumping off point for visits to the Japan Alps and the gassho-zukuri style villages in the mountains to the north. The gassho villages are known for their A-framed, multi-storey, thatched farmhouses. Not many of the original farmhouses have survived the building of the hydro-electric dams along the Shogawa River but there are still 150 or so spread between three villages – quite a few homes were moved to “Folk Villages” in neighbouring towns prior to flooding the valleys for the dams. Some of the gassho farmhouses have 4-5 floors, living space is on the ground floor and silk production is on the upper floors. The houses traditionally had an open fire in the middle of the lowest floor and the smoke from that fire helped keep the thatch vermin free but also helped strengthen the rope that held the thatch to the bearers. In the days of the open fires a thatched roof lasted around 80 years but now that some fires have been replaced by reverse cycle air conditioning the life of the thatch has halved. We were told that it costs about 20 million Yen ($250,000 AUD) to replace a roof and it takes 150 men 4 days to do the work. Apparently, the Japanese government helps with the cost as the farmhouses are all part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We also took bus trips further into the mountains, firstly to the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway and later to the village of Kamikochi. If we ever get back to Japan, I’d like to spend some time in this area in warmer weather as there are many walking trails to explore and onsen (hot pools) to relax in after to relieve aching feet and legs.

Our last stop has been in Nagano. Once again not a location we’d considered visiting earlier but we’ve had a pleasant 2 days, yesterday visiting the temple here in Nagano and today visiting the castle in nearby Matsumoto – both are on the list of Japanese National Treasures. The Zenko-ji Buddhist temple in Nagano is huge and I’d say the most memorable of the temples that we visited. There are a number of legends associated with the temple but the one that most visitors would experience is “The Key to Salvation”. Here visitors descend into the twisting, pitch-black crypt searching for the key. This entails walking along and keeping your right hand on the wall, all the time reaching out for the heavy, metal handle that is the Key to Salvation. The key sits under the main alter and so is in the most sacred part of the temple. We both went down but I’m glad I wasn’t down there alone. There were a huge number of little kids visiting the temple complex with their parents and many of these were dressed in kimonos. Mothers were usually wearing kimonos also, but the fathers were dressed in western-style suits. Of course, they were all having their photo taken, either in family groups, kids by themselves or at official sites dotted around the temple precinct. November 15 is Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3 Festival) which is a traditional rite of passage and festival day for 3- and 7-year old girls and 5- and 7-year old boys to celebrate their growth and wellbeing. In recent times the festival has been celebrated throughout the month of November. The kids also receive a long, thin red and white sweet which is given to them in a long bag decorated with a crane and a turtle. At both the temple and the castle were displays of chrysanthemums; these ranged from single plants with a huge flower to smaller plants that had been bonsaied.

Japan has surprised me in a variety of ways. It’s incredibly clean without a scrap of litter to be seen – that wasn’t a surprise – but there are few bins available. You’ll see the occasional bin at the railway station, but I don’t think I’ve seen a bin in the streets, not even along the long line of food stalls outside temples/shrines. I’d heard about the technology of Japanese toilets but now I’ve experienced it. Every toilet has had a warmed seat, some make “bird song noise” for privacy and occasionally you wonder which button do I press to flush? – I wonder what happens if the power to these toilets goes off. Everything looks lovely on display in the shops but there is so much packaging. Sadly, bars don’t open until 5:30 or later. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem but in Takayama our accommodation was too far from the restaurants to go “home” between sightseeing and dinner and we needed to sit down and get out of the cold – where better than a bar? Bus drivers, taxi drivers and some other service men do wear white gloves just like you see in the movies. Oh, and the taxis are all immaculate and the seats all have stretch, lacy, white seat covers. Apples are huge. And finally, there is no where near as much fresh vegetables in the Japanese diet as I’d expected. There’s lots of pickled condiments, a bit of fish/meat and carbs in the form of rice or noodles. Periodically there will be a side salad of lettuce to accompany a meal. I’ve been getting most of my vegies in my Japanese breakfast. I guess it’s possible we may have been ordering wrongly but I’m looking forwards to a good feed of vegies.

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