MistyNites

My Life in Motion

A Walking Tour of Kyoto

It’s always hard to get your bearings when you arrive in a new place in darkness. By the time I arrived in Kyoto following my day hiking the Nakasendo, it was night time and with the early sunset, I had stepped out of Kyoto’s main train station into the dark of the night and almost immediately been faced with the bright glow of the Kyoto tower. As with Nagoya the night before, I had booked my accommodation at a place that on a map looked close enough, but in reality with my 10kg backpack on my back and tired legs, was further away than I’d wished for. Again I felt like I was disappearing into a non-descript part of the city but after 10 minutes I finally arrived at the cute little ryokan that was to be my home for the next few nights. After settling into my morgue-like hole in the wall where my mattress was, I headed out to get a much needed dinner. I was able to grab the last spot in a hip-looking bar-restaurant and asked for the chef’s recommendation. Out popped a plate of tasting skewers which I followed up with some Japanese style nachos. Satiated and tired, I headed back for a much-needed sleep ahead of a full day in the city.

I awoke to a bustling Kyoto and made my way to Kyoto station to jump on the JR line to Inari. The packed train should have given it away but when I reached my stop, there was a swarm of people on the platform making their way outside. I had read that it was best to get here early to beat the crowds but I had needed my sleep, so even although it was just after 9am, the place was mobbed. And with good reason. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is one of Kyoto’s most famous and most visited sights. I’d seen hundreds of photos of the famous vermillion torii gates that the place is famous for, but hadn’t really appreciated the extent of the place. Up an initial walkway, I was presented with a huge multi-story vermillion shrine beyond which were more similarly-styled traditional buildings. I was surprised on looking at a map just past there to find that the torii gates actually snaked all the way up a mountain and down again. I wasn’t completely sure that I had time to walk the entire route given everything else I wanted to see, especially as there was a queue just to get into the avenue of gates as so many people were already getting a head start on their Instagram photos by posing right at the entrance.

In the first avenue, walking was very much stop start as people kept abruptly stopping in front of you to pose for a photograph. The crowds here were a little irksome but thankfully the higher I went, the more the crowds dispersed. A decent proportion of the visitors were only walking the lower sections. In part this was because it had started to rain, and as I reached one of the level areas with one of the many shrines, the rain started bucketing down like a tropical storm and I was forced to wait under the tree foliage until it eased off a little. I still got quite wet climbing up to a lookout area where I could just make out the nearby suburbs of Kyoto through the mist. I’d already decided by this point that I was going to continue the whole loop, and as I continued to climb higher, eventually reaching the shrine at the summit, the gentle rain and the lack of people in this upper section meant it was a very peaceful place to be.

 

The trail plateaued for a little while, arcing round near the summit before starting a descent through another route. The drizzle continued as I walked but it was still a lovely place to walk through with the forest thicker and more natural on this side. There were also a few route options on the way down and I took a detour at one point to take a longer way down, eventually coming out at yet another shrine where I stopped for a matcha ice cream whilst watching some feral cats wander around. Finally the rain ceased and I was able to get out of my rain jacket which I was sweating in, and continue down the slope in a more comfortable fashion. Eventually circling back to the city view point I could see Kyoto a bit better now than I had on the way up so I paused a little to absorb the view.

 

I took an alternative route down, and at one of the lower shrines I bought a prayer cat, a small ceramic white cat that contained a prayer or fortune. There was a nice bonsai garden here, and after a brief look around, a short descent brought me to a side street with a cute little cafe where I stopped for a delicious lunch. Back through the main shrine at the bottom, I took a side street and found myself in a bustling market area where street vendors cooked fresh food and cute little shops sold all sorts of souvenirs. I was in heaven walking around shops full of Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs and the food looked and smelled delicious. Despite not being overly hungry, I bought a scrumptious sugary dough snack to indulge in as I walked around. By now a little after mid-day, it was time to head back to the city centre.

Kyoto station is a destination in itself. The building itself is grand but sticking only to the platforms misses the majority of its charms and nooks which are spread across the upper floors. From the main concourse I took the multi-leveled escalators up to the eastern end where there was a giant Lego version of the station and a few pieces of interactive artwork. The view out the window was straight across to the Kyoto Tower and nearby, a ‘floating’ walkway led all the way over to the western end of the station where the roof stopped and stairs led up to a rooftop garden and viewing area. It was still very overcast with the occasional drizzle stopping and starting but the architecture of the station building itself was the star of the show here with crazy arched roof sections and multiple levels leading down into the station proper.

North of the station and a relatively short walk past the Kyoto Tower was the Higashi-Honganji Temple. This huge brown temple was one of the biggest I’d seen so far in Japan and although a few coachloads appeared as I arrived, the concourse was so vast it didn’t feel crowded in the slightest. Unfortunately the rain came back heavy again and I had to stand under the shelter by the cleansing fountain until it passed. This fountain was stunningly ornate and as is often the case, was in the form of a dragon. I’d already seen several dragon fountains on my travels but this one was the most beautiful. The temple itself didn’t hold my attention for long so once the rain finally eased enough to move onwards, I left the grounds behind and followed the perimeter wall north and then west.

 

A few blocks over and across a main road was Ryukokuzan Hongan-Ji-Nishi-Hongan-Ji Temple, another huge and dark brown elongated building within another elaborate wall. I didn’t stay here for long, just enough to take in the buildings and the grounds before heading north. I should have caught a bus, but I stubbornly opted to walk what turned out to be a rather long way with tired legs. I followed the side of the main road heading for Nijo Castle, but I got sidetracked by an enclosed market that spread for several blocks away from where I was heading. I found a delicious donut stall that sold creme brulee donuts, and enjoyed having a nosy at the shops and their wares as well as the various food stalls.

As it transpired, by the time I limped my way to Nijo castle which was another couple of blocks to the north, there was only half an hour until its rather early closure of 4pm, and I had just made it to gain the last entry slot of the day. A giant gold-guilded entry gate greeted me into the complex where the large exterior of the palace building stood dramatically in front of me. Inside, I walked the halls around the palace rooms, so very different to any European palace I’d ever visited. The pictures on the walls were intricate and exquisite, the styles varying dependent on the intended use or occupant for the room. Outside, the gardens looped past a series of ponds before crossing a broad moat to the Honmaru Palace which was sadly under industrial wraps as it was being restored. Within the compound though it was possible to climb up the tall and thick stone wall to get a raised view over the area. The masonry was incredible, the stonework tightly packed to form imposing defensive structures. Once across the moat once more, the trail circled back around the northern aspect of the premises, following the moat past a series of gardens to reach the entrance in time for closure.

 

The sun was getting low as I stepped out the station and made my way into the Gion district. I had a recommended walking route on my phone to catch the highlights, and I passed the little blue post office and distinctive facade of a large theatre before joining the immense crowds that were squeezing their way along the busy sidewalks. The main street was a mass of eateries and souvenir shops, with geisha-themed objects on display everywhere and people littering the margins taking photographs of everything and anything. It was an assault on the senses. I, like so many others, turned onto the historic street of Hanamikoji which was lined with traditional buildings. I eyed up the menus as I went, sussing out my dinner spot for later. Near the bottom end of the street was another huge and ornate theatre, beyond which I cut up another road to Yasui Konpiragu shrine where there is a large wishing stone, before heading back down and into the larger Kenninji temple. It was really beginning to darken now as I wandered round the grounds here. The sun had set and the remaining light was turning the sky purple. Little twinkling lights lit up a myriad of lanterns and the bugs began to come out.

 

Night brought a desire to eat, and I’d found the perfect place to circle back to where I had an awesome platter of yakatori, tempura and miso soup, all washed down with an Asahi beer. I love tempura and hadn’t had much of it yet on my travels, so it was a nice change. Once full, it was time to brave the Gion crowds again as I headed back to the main street. I followed the canal for a while before sticking to the main street, popping into sweet shops to get some local delicacies for later. Finally I reached Yasaka shrine which even in the darkness was a very bright orange colour. The grounds were open to wander through even at night, and there were plenty of lanterns lighting up the place. I spotted the moon shining brightly above one of the buildings at the same time as a Japanese man did. I waited patiently as he got his wife to pose whilst he took some photographs of her standing next to the orange building below the moon. He approached me and asked if I could take a photo of both of them to which I agreed. He lined it up and asked me to replicate which I did and then I did my usual thing when I’m asked to take photos of people, which is to take a couple of extra ones framed differently so they have choice. But the minute I started to do this, the guy started yelling at me, complaining that it wasn’t the view he wanted and insisting that I only took the framing he’d requested. I was both bemused and dumbfounded. I’ve never been told off before when doing a favour of playing photographer, and I sheepishly handed the camera back and waited for them to leave before I could take my own photos.

 

Despite my aching feet, I walked all the way back down Gion’s main street and across the broad Kamo river to reach Poncho Alley. A back street filled with eateries, and more traditional buildings, it took only a few minutes to walk the length of it. As I had already eaten, there was little more to hold me here, so I decided it was time to head back to my ryokan. As I walked past the large shopping malls, I was tempted by a beautiful little patisserie, grabbing a delicious chocolate dessert to take back with me.

I was frustrated at how long it took for my bus to arrive. The transport system in Japan is generally faultless but my tired body just wanted to collapse in a heap. When finally it deposited me close to my accommodation and I dragged myself into the ryokan, it was over 12hrs since I’d left it that morning. Every single day of my time in Japan I’d walked so much. Even with exceptionally comfortable trainers, the heat and amount of walking was leaving me with swollen painful legs and feet that were barely better by the morning. As I lay my head on my mattress, the throbbing was intense, but yet again I had a full day of walking ahead of me the next day.

The Nakasendō

Japan’s Nakasendō is an ancient route that leads inland between Tokyo and Kyoto, used during the Edo period (17th-19th C.). 中山道 in Japanese, the three symbols literally say central mountain route, and when I first read about this route, and in particular the section between the mountain villages of Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, I knew that this was a must-do for me during my time in Japan. Away from city hubs, nestled quite far inland, I had originally planned on tackling this from Tokyo, but with research realised that it was much easier to get to from Nagoya. So having jumped off the Shinkansen there on route to Kyoto, I arose early to retrace my steps back to Nagoya train station and negotiate the rabbit warren that all major Japanese train stations are, to find a baggage locker to dump by backpack, and then the correct platform to take the train to Nakutsagawa in the Gifu prefecture.

 

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and for a large part of the nearly 1hr train trip I was riding through a mix of Japanese countryside and small settlements. Passing arable land and crossing rivers, eventually it pulled in to the small city of Nakatsugawa and outside the train station was the bus stand to catch the mountain bus to Magome and the start of the hike. A decent crowd waited for the bus and once on board it was a half an hour trip out the back of the city and up a winding mountain road. Eventually, I was at the beginning of what transpired to be my favourite hike and one of my favourite days in Japan. Magome was a cute little settlement full of traditional buildings and looking down over arable fields. The Nakasendō was originally serviced by sixty-nine stations or post-towns of which Magome is the 43rd and Tsumago the 42nd. Out here I felt so far away from the hubbub of city life and walking around the main streets I felt like I was in a classic Japanese story.

Up the initial slope and round the first corner I found a water wheel and a continuation of beautiful wooden buildings at the side of a brick pathway. With a little height I could start to see the surrounding mountain tops which were partially hidden by swirling clouds. Further along the road were little eateries and the local post office and as I passed the tourist information kiosk I was surprised to see a warning sign for bears. During my research for hikes in Japan, everything had suggested that bears were much further north and at no point had I expected to have to give them a thought on my trip, but suddenly it twigged why many of the locals I’d seen hiking on my previous hikes had had little bells attached to their backpacks. I’ve had such a sheltered hiking life. I have hiked in bear country before in the Rocky Mountains of Canada many moons ago, and I do keep a side eye out for snakes whenever I hike in Australia, but the vast majority of my hiking has been in New Zealand where nothing there wants to kill you and eat you, or in Scotland where all you have to do is a tick check at the end of the day. I felt a little unprepared to be in bear country but it was such a busy trail that I doubt there was ever one even close to me.

 

The trail through Magome led higher and higher past more and more cute little businesses until finally it reached a lookout. The post-town disappeared down the slope below me and I had a nice view across to the cloud-covered mountain tops, and from here at last, I was heading out into the relative wilderness for the nearly 8km walk to Tsumago over the mountain. Past arable fields and giant spiders, the stone trail led down then up and into the forest. When it broke out at a main road I saw a bell on a post which I soon discovered was a bear bell. There were enough people on the trail to make the use of it unnecessary and despite how much it would have been great to actually see a bear in the wild (safely), I took great enjoyment out of ringing every single bear bell on the trail (which considering there was one every half km or so, was a lot).

 

After a brief forest section, the trail again crossed the mountain road further along and I chuckled as I came across a sign welcoming walkers into somebody’s garden whilst also suggesting it wasn’t much to look at. I opted to skip the garden like everyone else that passed at the same time, and from here the trail cut through a small mountain village, with scattered homes across the hillside. At the far end was a small shrine, the entrance marked by a stone torii gate. Deeper into the forest and once more across the mountain road where the highest point on the trail was passed, a clearing in the forest revealed a large traditional building that on closer inspection was a tea house. The sign outside said it was free and I, like several other walkers, popped inside. It was dim and smoky and made me think of historic movies I’d seen. Over an open fireplace hung a large cauldron and a lovely man served us all green tea with the biggest smile and welcome.

 

The long forested section that followed was lovely, deep among tall trees and a babbling water course nearby. I continued to ring every bear bell I came across, but aside from the loud dong when I did so, there was only the occasional chatter from other people to break the silence. Eventually a side trail led downhill to a pair of waterfalls. Only a handful of people took the side trail, probably because it involved a climb back uphill to rejoin the main track, but whilst they weren’t the biggest or grandest falls I’d ever seen, they were a welcome change of scenery. Back on the Nakasendō a small group of traditional houses passed by, followed by a large arable field before the path suddenly took a decent drop down in altitude, winding through the forest towards the road again. There was a brief spell of relative civilisation as the trail cut through another settlement with more traditional buildings and a water wheel turning as a stream flowed through to the main river nearby. A noodle shop where the road and trail came together was a popular snack stop but I pressed on.

 

Before I knew it I was in Tsumago-juku. Initially it didn’t amount to much, but after following the trail a little while and crossing the now larger river, more and more people appeared as I reached a car park where buses had dumped coachloads of tourists. Suddenly I was in the hub of Tsumago and the street was bustling. The buildings were very similar to Magome and likewise it focused around one long main street, but the crowds here made it feel very different. I stopped for some ice cream and watched the World go by briefly, resting my feet as I did so before the last stage of the hike. Continuing onwards, there were so many pretty buildings and bonsai trees to look at and a few temples and shrines also. The background was dominated by a green covered mountain as I strolled through the street.

 

I’m not entirely sure where Tsumago ended, it just seemed to stretch on forever, the houses eventually petering out before the mountain road was crossed again. In order to get back to Nagoya, I had a train to catch, this time from Nagiso, the next town over. The trail cut back into the forest where I came across a side trail leading to the ruins of Tsumago castle. Immediately on taking it, I found myself on a raised path with bamboo canes sprouting up on one side and the main forest sloping off either side. My attention was suddenly caught by a crashing sound in the bushes to my left. I assumed it might be boar but hoped I might get a glimpse of a bear though no matter where or how I craned my neck to look, I saw nothing. When I reached the ruins on the mound at the far end of the earthen bridge, they weren’t much to look at but there was an area with a break in the trees that afforded a view down onto Nagiso at the bottom of the hill. I continued to search the undergrowth as I followed the path back to the main trail and shortly after returning to the Nakasendō once more, I was suddenly alerted to something in the undergrowth and out popped a group of macaques. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photograph as they disappeared into the trees almost as soon as they had come out of them.

The path gradually worked its way down the hill towards the back streets of Nagiso. The houses grew tighter and tighter together, until I reached a point where the remaining elevation offered a view across the rooftops of the main stretch of the town. A train engine stood on display nearby as the road cut down to follow the train line and lead me to the train station. It began to rain whilst I waited for the train to take me back to Nagoya but I even here there was a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. Eventually I saw the train come down the hill and finally I was on my way, arriving at length to pick up my luggage at the station and board the train to Kyoto.

Mount Kintoki

The freedom afforded by having a Hakone Travel Pass meant it was easy to just hop on a local bus at Miyanoshita and head west within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park to Sengokuhara. Early in the morning I was shocked to see some wild boar run across the road in front of the bus as we headed through the countryside. I had to walk along the road from the bus stop but it was a quiet Sunday morning and there was barely anybody else about. Reaching a trail head, I slipped on my hiking shoes and set about tackling one of the local mountains. I’m an avid hiker at home in New Zealand and had so far had some mixed success hiking in Japan, but it is a country full of stunning countryside so I set off up my third mountain since arriving and found a few other people lower down on the trail with me.

One of the slightly confusing things about mountains in Japan is that some of them have more than one name depending on where you look. My summit for the day was Mount Kintoki 1212m high (3976ft) but some places refer to it as Mount Ashigara. Either way, it turned out to be a popular hike and I regularly bumped into other people. The main signs on the trail were bilingual, although there were plenty of kanji-only signs that I have no idea what they were saying, but it was a very easy trail to follow with no risk of getting lost. In the lower forest the trail passes the Kintoki shrine, a rather sweet little shrine hidden among the trees. Once past there, the climb started almost immediately, snaking through the tall forest in relative quiet.

About 90m (295ft) of altitude gain led me to a road crossing, beyond which it was straight back into the forest. There was nothing to see but trees and undergrowth as another 40m (131ft) of altitude took me up to a flatter section. At one point a giant boulder appeared in the forest that appeared to be propped up by large sticks. I’m not sure if it was a joke or if people genuinely were worried that the boulder would roll. Either that, or it was a popular spot to pick up or dump walking sticks. Probably only the locals know the reason for that. I had more and more people pass me heading up or down, the higher up I got. Another 200m (656ft) of slogging through the forest on what was now yet another hot day eventually led me out of the trees and to a clearing where suddenly I had some views. Below me was a gorgeous green valley surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, and slowly sliding over their summit was a thick bank of cloud that kept Mt Fuji out of view. A little further was a junction at 1040m (3412ft) altitude leading either up to the summit or back down via another route. I turned left, excited to see the sign stated the summit was only 20minutes away.

As the track continued its climb, the view became more and more beautiful, the slopes of the mountain becoming more visible and the wispy cloud off to my side. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the summit, just 1.5hrs after setting off, the cloud had moved in and shrouded the summit plateau. I was surprised to find a couple of buildings at the summit, including a little tea house that sold snacks and tea. With a few different routes up to the summit, there was actually a lot of people up there, all looking like locals. I’d been out-hiked by several people that looked like they were beyond retirement age and in fact I regularly saw older Japanese people out hiking where I was and they were all fitter than me. I sincerely hope I’m still fit enough well past retirement to continue my hobbies in the same manner.

 

I enjoyed my dried squid (a 7Eleven special that was the perfect hiking snack in Japan) and mulled around for a bit hoping the cloud would lift and Mt Fuji would appear. Alas it just swirled in thicker, and despite discovering some stray cats to entertain me, it was time to head back down. It was an easy descent back to the junction, but this time I took the other track which was a rather more direct descent than the winding ascent through the forest had been. Another clearing showed how much the clouds were just swirling round the neighouring mountain tops and now none of the summits could be seen. Even behind me was shrouded. As I continued down, I could see another track heading off across another ridgeline. Had I had more time I would have loved to do a longer hike but I had quite some distance to travel that day so there just wasn’t the time to explore other trails.

It took just over an hour to descend and I found myself back in civilisation at the back of Sengokuhara. Cutting down to the main street I decided to follow the road that led towards Lake Ashi as far as the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands. I love botanical gardens, and I had read that this was worth a walk around. I was sweating like crazy on arrival and despite the cloud, the sun exposure was tiring, but it was a really sweet garden to walk around. A series of paths led me round lily-pad covered ponds where dragonflies flitted about and reflections shimmered on the gently moving water. I spotted all sorts of insects and there were also some huge fish in some of the ponds.

 

At the back of the wetlands was the mountain I’d driven over on the bus the day before and it was possible to walk through the wildflower meadow that was growing on the other side of the fence. Again I would have loved to have just wandered off into this large meadow but I didn’t want to spend much more of the day here when I had a lot of connections to make. As I circled back towards the visitor centre, I spotted some terrapins sunning themselves on some stones and then a large grey heron stalked about nearby in search of food.

 

Getting into the national park had been quite the transport hop and now I had the same to do in reverse. I walked up the road to the main street of Sengokuhara to catch the bus back to Miyanoshita. Picking up my backpack at the hostel I walked to the train station to get the Hakone rail back through the switchback to Hakone-Yumoto. An easy platform hop brought me to the main line to Odawara where I was to catch my first shinkansen to head south. I had a bit of time to kill at Odawara and looking at the map, the city’s castle looked like an achievable excursion. Rather than look for a luggage locker, I just carried my luggage with me, but it was so hot and the straps rubbed on my shoulders as I wound my way through the city streets. I had my pocket Wifi and Google Maps but it was well signposted, leading me to the moat and bridge that led into the grounds. It was a very popular spot, and whilst there is a fee to enter the castle itself, the grounds are free to enter.

I had no time to explore inside but it was a very Japanese-style castle, proudly standing on its built-up stone walls, the walls itself white but plain, and the roof more ornate in comparison. The path led right round the base of the castle before leading me down a back track to the main road back to the train station. As I walked the streets of Odawara I noticed cute decorated tiles at various intervals on route. They depicted little scenes that I’m not sure if they represented the city’s history or some other cultural aspect. As I neared the station I was approached by a woman who started conversing with me in English. I was in a bit of a hurry to catch my train and I wasn’t getting what she wanted. In some respects I think she just wanted to practice English, but at times she seemed to want to follow me or find out where I was heading, and then it sounded like she wanted to interview me. Japan is probably the safest I’ve ever felt travelling abroad but this was the one and only moment where I just wasn’t completely confident I wasn’t being set up for a scam.

 

Just like seeing Mt Fuji, I feel that riding a shinkansen is a right of passage in Japan. A couple came into the station as I waited for mine and I was blown away by the speed at which they shot into and out of the station. They just whizzed past in a blur as they took off. It’s well known than when heading south from Tokyo, you want to sit on the right side of the train to get a view of Mt Fuji. Stepping on board I was more just in need of a seat as the train was packed. I did actually get a seat on the right but didn’t have much of a view. Not that it mattered as the mountain was just as shrouded from this angle as it had been from the top of Mt Kintoki a few hours previously. It took just over an hour to reach Nagoya, another busy metropolis two thirds of the way towards Kyoto. My sole purpose for stopping here was to make it easier to reach another hiking trail the next day, so I’d booked a hotel close to the hotel to make the commute easier.

 

At least on the map it looked close, but with my backpack irritating my shoulders it felt like it took forever to get there. It seemed to be the sort of hotel that was set up for business travellers, and I found myself in a rather non-descript part of the city. I had planned on visiting Nagoya Castle but arrived too late in the day to get there. My back up plan was to go to an observation deck for a city view but as I walked away from the hotel and through the uninspiring city streets, I discovered that the place I was heading to was shut. A little peeved, I knew there was another observation deck nearer the station, so with aching feet I turned around and headed towards the city centre. Stopping for savoury pancakes on route, I found the JP centre and followed the signs up to the observation deck.

It was getting dark when I got there. The sunsets in Japan were quite early during my visit in October 2019 and as the colours of the sky faded to red and then peaches and blues, the city lights began to twinkle on. Like Tokyo, there was just an urban sprawl in all directions, but unlike Tokyo, there weren’t quite the same pretty buildings to break up the sea of skyscrapers, and I just didn’t get much of a love for Nagoya. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t make me feel like there would be any reason to return here on another occasion. I could see Nagoya castle though in the distance, standing tall within a park full of trees. Aside from the colour of the roof it looked identical to Odawara castle, its ornate roof adorning white walls atop a stone mound. Thanks to the clouds in the sky it was a spectacular sunset, the sky on fire with deep reds and yellows. Once full darkness had fallen and I’d got my fill of the city lights, I headed back down and back to my hotel.

 

I found an ice cream shop on route which was much appreciated and when I reached my hotel I found they had a free bar in the lobby. Or rather they’d just laid out a whole load of spirits and mixers and left you to it. Every other Japanese guest poured a reasonable drink, enjoyed it then left. I don’t think they’d anticipated a Scottish person’s interpretation of a free bar. By the time I was on my third bourbon and coke I started to wonder if they’d suss me out and kick me out, but nobody paid me any attention. It would have been tempting to keep going, but after yet another day on my feet and with another hiking day ahead, I decided to call it a night and head up to my room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would end up being one of my favourite days in Japan.

Fuji Hakone Izu National Park

The Fuji Five Lakes region feels a World away from Tokyo, despite being within easy reach of Japan’s largest city. I’d already been to Kawaguchiko, a stunning lake with views of Fuji-san (Mt Fuji), and leaving Tokyo behind early in the morning, I had my sights set on another lake, the largest of the five, Lake Ashi. As a popular tourist destination, it is possible to get transport deals for the region and I highly recommend doing so if you plan to visit for 1-2 days. Whilst the location means it could make an extended day trip, I had booked accommodation in the region in order to enjoy it a bit more. It was still far from a leisurely trip though, as even with an overnighter, my commutes to and from nearby cities meant I still had to keep moving to pack it all on.

Heading out of Tokyo, I caught the train to Odawara where there was a seamless transfer to the Hakone Tozan line which took me to Hakone -Yumoto station which was nestled among rolling green hills on the edge of the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park. There I jumped platforms to the quaint little Hakone railway which took me deeper into the forested mountainside on a switch-back railway as it climbed higher and higher. After three switchbacks, we eventually came to my stop at Miyanoshita. With so much choice of accommodation, I had been driven both by price and ease of transit to stay at a hostel in the small village east of Gora. I headed a little down hill and along the deserted road to an old-fashioned hostel where I could dump my bags and head back to the station. The mountain train was relatively frequent, so it wasn’t too long a wait to catch one to go a few mores stops to Chokokunomori station.

It was swelteringly hot as I stepped onto the platform mid-morning, and I had a full day of sun exposure ahead of me. But it was worth it, as there was not a single thing I did that day that I would have wanted to have missed. A short walk from the station is the Hakone Open-Air Museum, an outdoor sculpture garden that was a delight to walk around. Nestled on the edge of a hillside, the location was stunning with rolling green hills surrounding the place and fascinating and beautiful sculptures at every turn within the extensive garden. There were lots of bronze figures, some abstract pieces and even some kinetic ones that moved and glistened in the sunlight. I took my time ensuring I covered as much of the walking tracks as possible. About halfway into the park, there was a large kids area and a pretty building that nestled beautifully into its surrounds.

 

At the far end, the path wound through some smaller sculptures and flower beds to come out at a large white building with the word Picasso emblazoned on its wall. A large sculpture typical of Picasso stood outside it and inside was a lovely air-conditioned art gallery that I perused through whilst cooling down. Back outside, the trail led up the hill to some pretty glass sculptures as well as a spot to have a foot bath in a stream. Nearby a large tower stood proudly, inside which was a spiral staircase leading up within stained-glass window walls to a raised viewpoint of the park and the greenery beyond. Neither the lake nor Mt Fuji could be seen but it was a stunning part of the country. As the trail circled back towards the main entrance building, I found myself among some very abstract pieces of art work and there was quite a crowd of people now as the morning had pushed on.

 

I walked deeper into Gora, the largest settlement in the area, cutting up into streets of houses to reach the entrance to Gora Park. A tiered garden, its centrepiece was a gorgeous fountain set within a gorgeous blue pond, framed by flower beds, hedges and park benches. A sign pointed me to a cafe and restaurant by its side and I took the opportunity to have lunch. Once refreshed, I circled back round the fountain and continued up the steps to the highest point in the park. Through rose gardens, rushes and under trees, I traversed the width of the park, heading down again to the fountain and on past a small shrine and under large spider webs guarded by large spiders to reach a conservatory housing hothouse plants. Eventually though I became aware of the hours pushing on and the time constraints that were ahead with the transport options so I left the park behind and continued through the back streets.

 

One of the things I’d most looked forward to doing in the region was taking the Hakone Ropeway over the nearby volcanic zone and having a wander round bubbling mud pools. Unfortunately, at the time of my visit in October 2019, an increase in volcanic activity had closed the middle section of the ropeway and a bus replacement service round the mountain was operating. Heading away from Gora Park, it wasn’t far to reach one of the lower stations on the Hakone Cableway. After some time, the cable car pulled up the slope and proceeded to take me up the incline to the top station where normally the ropeway would leave from, but instead we all got parceled onto waiting buses. There was nothing to see apart from trees as we drove the windy round around the slope of the mountain. Thankfully the lower section of the ropeway was functioning and we pulled in there to join the very large queue to board.

As the queue headed up a flight of stairs to the loading platform I could finally see Fuji-san with its necklace of cloud poking up above the treeline. I was able to secure a seat on the right side of the ropeway car and as we set off down the mountainside towards the lake I could watch the mountain taunt me as the cloud threatened to hide the summit. It finally disappeared out of sight again by the time the car reached the lake. I was eager to get on board the 2pm ferry that trails across the length of the lake but the queues were massive and I wasn’t sure until the last minute whether I would make it. This region doesn’t do halves when it comes to the transport as having already been on a normal train, a switchback train, a cable car and a ropeway, I was about to board what could best be described as a pirate ship. A large frigate was moored up at the pier complete with large masts and pirates. It was a novelty in its self, and I nestled into the stern of the vessel to watch the World go by as we sailed.

 

Sailing the length of Lake Ashi was sublime. Although the ship itself was busy, it felt remote with only a handful of boats on the water and forested hillsides framing the water’s edge. At the far end of the lake there are two stops, one at the southern end which it visits first and the other to the south-east which the ship reaches last. As we approached the first stop, I noticed the summit of Fuji-san come back into view and as we berthed at the pier, the waterfront was abuzz with activity from people paddling near the shore, and others enjoying a stroll. We paused long enough to let people pile off and others pile on and then we were on our way to the second stop, passing one of the region’s most photographed structures, the Hakone Jinjya Heiwa-no-Torii. Nestled close to the trees but just sitting out in the water, there were people in swan-shaped paddle boats sitting close by to admire it from the water. As we got closer to the second stop, the torii gate and Fuji-san lined up perfectly for a postcard-perfect view.

 

There was as much activity as the first pier and I was quick to get off and head round to the shrine where the torii gate was. But upon reaching it I was astounded by the queue of people snaking up the stairs through the forest that were waiting to have their photograph taken standing by the torii. It was a Saturday, so I’d probably picked one of the worst days to be in the national park but I’d definitely been naive about the crowds here. With nobody to take my photograph anyway as I was travelling alone, I first climbed the steps up to the shrine itself to take a nosy at the brilliant red building. The queue was just as long when I returned to it and I passed everyone to reach the shoreline, finding a spot off to the side that I could grab a quick photo of the large vermillion torii inbetween the many people that wandered into shot for their posed photograph.

 

Leaving the crowd behind I meandered back round the foreshore, stopping in a cute little cafe to have a chilled snack while contemplating my next move. The last boat left the 1st stop at 4.30pm and I decided that I would walk round the lake to catch it from there, rather than wait for it to come to me. I started off at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos of the lake and Fuji-san until I suddenly realised I was at great risk of missing the last sailing. I had to leg it through the streets to make it on time, jumping aboard with little time to spare. The sun was still on this part of the lake but the western shore was already in shadow as the sun had dropped low. It lended a nice tint to the hillside as we set sail past the shrine once more to pick up the last of the passengers, and as we ploughed the long length of Lake Ashi we gradually fell into shadow. Back at the ropeway it was just a matter of retracing my steps to the cableway, this time taking it all the way to the bottom at Gora train station where I could hop on the train back to Miyanoshita for a quiet night in in the traditional-style hostel, ready for an early rise and another day of exploration.

Tokyo Delights

I might be a bit spoiled for good coffee in New Zealand, so I’m often left disappointed when I’m desperate for a good brew abroad. The coffee in Tokyo hadn’t thrilled me so far, but that didn’t stop me parking up in a cafe in Shibuya on my last day in Tokyo to have breakfast. My legs were still a bit achy from being on my feet for 14hrs the day before, but that wasn’t going to stop me from another day of traipsing the streets of one of the World’s largest cities. Just down the road from the cafe was the infamous Shibuya crossing, the World’s busiest pedestrian crossing. Rush hour had passed but there was still plenty of activity with people regularly piling out of the train station and jostling across every time the traffic halted. It drew quite a crowd of onlookers, and I joined them initially before wandering around to look at the Shiba Inu artwork on the station wall and the dog statue in the square. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the dog statue was but it seemed to be rather revered.

 

When it was time to cross myself, I got swallowed up by the masses that crossed with me but what I couldn’t believe was the amount of people that would stop in the middle of the crossing to get their photograph taken. And it wasn’t tourists. It appeared to be locals on proper photo shoots. I’m not sure if they were modelling clothes or something else but it was intriguing and astounding in equal measure. The people were never fully finished crossing when the traffic lights turned green again so the vehicles would just start to push through the stragglers. It almost seemed like a well-orchestrated dance move that everyone was unwittingly taking part in. I guided myself on a walking tour of the Shibuya streets. I could just imagine what this place would be like at night all lit up, but the businesses didn’t really interest me during the day time. There were signs confronting me everywhere I went though, and after to-ing and fro-ing through the neighbourhood I eventually found myself back at the junction.

It was a short train ride to Harajuku station to visit Meiji Jingu. Once out of the station, I headed into the expansive park and was swiftly greeted by a gigantic torii gate. It was a lovely tree lined walk from there past beautifully decorated saki barrels and more torii gates to the shrine itself which was a hive of activity. Locals and tourists alike mingled together as people gave thanks and prayer either within the halls of the shrine itself or on the prayer walls outside. Without fully understanding the culture, it could be easy to get ‘shrined-out’ in Japan – the amount of shrines around the country is incredible, and I made a point of limiting my visits to them so as not to get complacent or bored with them. But here, I did get a little caught up with the vibe of the place and it was quite humbling as I found myself becoming introspective and silently taking stock of where I was. I even bought a wooden prayer piece to hang by the prayer tree with my wish for my friends and family.

 

There was so much to look at on site, with little interesting pieces of detail on the buildings themselves and strung round the trees. At one point a stir went through the gathered crowd and what looked like a wedding party appeared: a group of people in traditional dress accompanying what I think was a bride. They garnered quite an audience because of their garb and I felt quite sorry for them as loads of strangers rudely started taking their picture without even stopping to think whether it was appropriate or not. I watched them pass, the gathered audience dispersing shortly after and I headed out the side entrance of Meiji Jingu to walk the quieter path through the trees back to the entrance.

 

Almost directly opposite was a broad tree-lined dual carriageway that cut deep into the city again, leading me back to suburbia. Just one block down there was a mall with a striking mirrored frontage, escalators leading up into it from where I wound my way up to the Starbucks on the roof to take a look from the rooftop terrace. Although it’s probably more polite to purchase something while you are there, it is actually possible to just go up and visit the terrace without spending money, and from there I could see down to the hustle and bustle below. It wasn’t as dramatic as the traffic and people of Shibuya Crossing but it was still a nice perspective of the streets immediately around.

 

Another part-block down the road I found myself at Cat Street, a quaint street full of boutique shops and eateries. It was a mix of architecturally eclectic buildings and unlike anywhere else in the city, there was a gorgeous historic-looking brick building. I felt a little self-conscious in my clothes wandering through there, and having planned on eating here, I couldn’t find anywhere that looked like it had space or was affordable. I spied some funky street art on the wall as I walked and before I knew it I was at the far end of the street. I could see on Google Maps I was within walking distance of Shibuya Crossing having almost completed a large circle, and I was once again very grateful to have organised a pocket wifi unit to allow me to access the Internet on the move. It had been essential to me navigating my way through this immense metropolis. I happened upon a lovely place to have lunch as I continued and devoured a huge meal and plenty of drinks to balance out the amount of walking I was doing.

 

I’d read about a rooftop area above Shibuya Crossing which I was keen to get up to but found it a little confusing to work out how to get there. Eventually I worked out that I had to go into the department store type building directly opposite the main station entrance then head up to the food court. Even there the sign wasn’t immediately obvious but at the far side of a burger joint, a heavy door led outside to a metal staircase that led up to the roof. A machine released a token on paying the entrance fee, and then I was able to pass through the barrier and look down on the busy crossing below. It would no doubt be more impressive at night time but I also suspect the viewing area would very busy at night also. As it was, I just had to share it with 2 couples and we took our turns to stand in the prime spot and watch the dance of traffic and humans.

 

Floor by floor I headed downstairs through the department store, briefly mulling over the Japanese fashions, the weird mannequins and pop-culture shops. On the ground floor I popped out in a Hello Kitty store and couldn’t help but purchase a small kimono-wearing plushie. I don’t usually buy much more than fridge magnets when I go abroad, but Japan has such quirky and World-famous pop-cultures that it was really difficult not to buy a few extra souvenirs. I’d already bought a Totoro plushie at the Ghibli Museum, so even though I was 36 at the time, I bought it a friend. I’m still waiting to reach the age where I outgrow buying soft toys. I burst back out into the sunlight, purchase in hand and crossed the Shibuya Crossing yet again to head back into the large and bustling train station.

 

I cut across the city to Roppongi to visit the Tokyo City View and Sky Deck. There is no shortage of observatories in the city, and as I couldn’t visit them all, I decided that I’d rather have a view of the Eiffel-Tower-like Tokyo Tower rather than actually go up, and its distinctive orange colour made it an awesome building to witness on the skyline. I had arrived at the City View a little before 3pm and it was a gorgeous sunny afternoon. This particular observation tower has an inside viewing area with floor to ceiling glass windows, and an outdoor viewing area on the helipad on the roof. I’d highly recommend getting the ticket for both. I took my time enjoying the view from the comfort of indoors. I really loved the view from here and far preferred it to that from the Tokyo Skytree. The view south-west was hazy and I squinted my eyes in an effort to make out the distant peak of Mt Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain.

By the time I’d done the full circumference of the building inside, I found myself at a cool little self-service coffee station. Little pods of filter coffee of varying strengths, tastes and origins sat within gumball-type machines which could be purchased with a coin. Then you could watch the machine filter it through into your cup. It was a novelty that I took full advantage of, despite normally only having 1 coffee a day and having already had a disappointing one at breakfast. This turned out to be the best coffee I had in Japan, and I parked up at a bench with a window view of Mt Fuji to enjoy it. Afterwards I did another full circuit of the viewing area before cutting into the middle of the tower to reach the escalator up to the roof.

The rooftop is completely exposed and as such you have to lock all your belongings away in lockers, taking only the bare minimum with you and only what you can wear or attach to yourself. When I stepped outside onto the platform and realised the angle of the sun was getting low, and the shadows were stretching out, I quickly came to the conclusion that I wanted to stay here till sunset. I didn’t care about going anywhere else that evening, I didn’t care that this meant spending multiple hours here, and I didn’t care that this was to be the last of my daytime sight seeing. This was the place to be. As the sun continued to lower I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji which was now much clearer on the horizon. A wisp of cloud hung around its midriff just like I’d seen from Kawaguchiko a few days prior.

 

As the sun lowered, the sky turned from blue to peach then yellow. The shadows grew ever longer until the sun finally dropped below the line of cloud that sat above the hills on the horizon. The peach returned in the sky and then it deepened to purple as the sun sunk further to the west. I couldn’t stand still, there was so much to look at in every direction as the colour palette changed and the moon crept higher and the city lights blinked on below me. Mt Fuji dominated the horizon to the south-west, remaining visible as a silhouette for a long time. As the colours faded to black, the Tokyo Tower showed its true colours. It simply glowed orange, a beautiful beacon on the city skyline and I couldn’t get enough of it, photographing it repetitively from every possible angle and frame. I spent about 2hrs on the roof before I could tear myself away and head back down.

 

I had one last experience to have in Tokyo before leaving it behind the next morning, and that was to experience Shibuya at night. I retraced my steps on the metro system to the huge Shibuya station and as I crossed the pedestrian bridge within the station which has a large window looking out onto the crossing itself, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The square below was absolutely mobbed. By now 7pm I was amidst the commuters heading home at rush hour, ever watched by the throngs of tourists that had descended on the place. It was standing room only and once outside myself, I struggled to move through the crowds, eager like everyone else to get a vantage point of what turned out to be utter madness when the pedestrian lights turned green. The people moved in giant waves, and with four points to the crossing it seemed inevitable that people would get swept in the wrong direction, but somehow it just worked. I finally was able to hop up onto a low wall to watch the chaos enfold in front of me.

 

Once in the maze of bright lights of Shibuya I was again struck by the constant noise and brightness of the night here. The sensory stimulation was insane and I was torn between following my stomach and wanting to just watch the city life play out in front of me. I found a cute little place to have delicious ramen, one of my favourite Japanese dishes, and one which was readily available throughout the country, and once satiated I headed back out onto the streets once more. I played a bit more in one of the many arcade halls that litter the city, feeling joyful and stress free like a little kid. Eventually it all just got a bit too much, and nearly 12hrs after I’d left the hotel that morning, and once more with pained swollen feet and legs, it was time to limp my way back to my bed. I could easily justify many return trips to Tokyo to see more but I was satisfied with my attempt to do the city justice on my first visit. But all good things come to an end, and as there is so much more to Japan than its biggest city, it was time to move on.

The Lights and Sights of Tokyo

It wasn’t difficult to appreciate how big Tokyo was. With each day’s explorations involving a multitude of train connections as I skipped around the city, there was no denying the scale of the place. But a lot of my movements had occurred under ground in the vast network of Tokyo’s metro system, so I was looking forward to getting a bit of a raised perspective of this immense metropolis. There are plenty of observation decks to choose from, and I decided to make the Tokyo Skytree my priority. Not only was it a distinctive building in itself, but its location meant it was well placed for an impressive vista.

There was a haze in the sky evident as I reached the upper observation deck at 445m (1460ft), but it was still possible to see for miles. When I visited in October 2019 there was a temporary display about space travel and astronauts. It was a slightly random theme, and was heavily dotted with Snoopy & Friends characters but it was actually interesting and it filled the gaps where there wasn’t a viewpoint. But it was, at the end of the day, the view that made it worthwhile, and in every direction, Tokyo life played out below me. A mishmash of skyscrapers and lower buildings interplayed with each other, and on close inspection some historic building or shrine could be seen dotted amongst the more modern developments. Snaking through this urban landscape was the large sinuous Sumida and Arakawa rivers. The observation deck also snaked round and up as well to a final height of 451.2m (1480ft), the highest publicly accessible point in the tower.

 

I took my time at the upper observation deck before going down to the lower observation deck at 350m (1148ft). Following brunch in the cafe, the viewing areas in this lower observation zone spanned 3 different floors and were a bit more broken up. The difference in height from the upper observation deck gave a slightly different perspective of the city, and more detail was obvious such as the random giant golden bean that was nestled among some skyscrapers. There was also a glass floor here, as is often found in observation decks like these around the world, offering a vertigo-inducing view of the street below if you are afraid of heights, or a chance to scare other people by jumping up and down on the glass in front of others. I spent about 2hrs up the tower making it worth the entrance fee for me.

 

After the obligatory visit to the gift shop on the way down, I decided to take a wander around the neighbourhood. The Skytree is next to a canal so I followed this watercourse for some way to get a different perspective of the tower itself as well as to nosy around the nearby area. At a total height of 634m (2080ft), it was difficult to get a photograph that fitted the full scale of the tower in, but that didn’t stop me trying. After a while it was time to get moving and head on to the next part of the city to discover: Ueno Park.

 

As often happened in the underground rabbit warren of Tokyo’s metro system, it was a bit confusing which station exit I wanted to get where I was aiming to be. Sometimes it could be blatantly clear, and other times it was a complete guess and trial and error. Ueno park is a huge greenspace within the city containing a few museums, a zoo, shrines and a large pond. As always it was blisteringly hot to walk around it, but the park was very busy with locals and tourists alike. At the southern end there were multiple sculptures, and a couple of water features next to which a band was playing. I watched them briefly before making my way deeper into the park, following the side road past museums, eventually finding myself at a giant blue whale sculpture outside of the National Museum of Nature & Science. Beyond here was the impressive looking Tokyo National Museum at the top end of the park. Despite the respite from the heat that these museums would offer, I had neither the time nor the interest to go into any of them. Instead I was much more interested in the large market that was taking place in fountain square. Row upon row of wares ranging from teapots and cups to chopsticks and fabrics filled the square and it was really popular. I would have loved to have bought all sorts of pottery from there but in the end I settled for a few sets of chopsticks that I have made good use of since.

 

About halfway back through the park, on the far side from the road I’d cut up through, was a shrine and pagoda. Although I was keen to absorb Japanese culture during my stay, I feel that I missed out a lot on the significance of some of these places that I visited. I wasn’t always interested enough to read the signs, and sometimes the English signage could be somewhat lacking, so mostly I just admired the architecture or the gilding. Finally I happened upon a set of torii gates which led me down a pathway round the side of another shrine, and once across the road I was met by the large Shinobazu pond.

 

The Shinobazu pond was transected from the Shinobazuno pond by a series of bridges. The lower pond was a mass of floating water plants which hid the water below it. In what few gaps there were, large fish could be seen at the surface. As much as this pond felt like an oasis, it was completely surrounded by suburbia, and skyscrapers filled the circumference, the sounds of the city ever present. Once at the southern end of the pond, the plants offered a natural frame to the view of the Shinobazu no Ike Bentendo shrine and the skyscrapers to the west. It was a beautiful juxtaposition between an urban landscape and nature.

 

I cut round the pond and followed the dissecting causeway that split the pond in two, past weeping willow trees and people on pedal boats, eventually finding myself at the shrine in the middle. There was some sort of service taking place that I couldn’t make sense of despite observing for a while, so eventually I left, continuing to head towards the northern end of the pond where there was a plethora of giant fish and red-eared sliders hanging out on the rocks. The Ueno zoo is situated here and as I looked back towards the centre of Tokyo I could see the very top of the Tokyo Skytree sticking up above the trees. Between the ponds and the main part of the park, Ueno park offered plenty of variety of things to pass the time, and I’ll definitely return here if I ever make it back to Tokyo.

 

But there was still so much ground to cover and so much sightseeing still to fit in. Although it was now well into the afternoon, I still had a few hours of daylight ahead of me. My next stop was within walking distance, and already at the northern end of the pond it was just a 15 minute walk to reach the Nezu shrine. Initially walking through a typical city landscape, nearer the shrine down back streets there were a few traditional buildings present. After a short while I found myself at a giant torii gate marking the entrance of the shrine grounds. Following the long entrance path, there were a variety of buildings at the end and a plethora of torri gates lining the various pathways around the property. A couple of women in traditional kimonos were doing a photoshoot, but otherwise it was a very quiet place with hardly anyone there. There was a large koi-filled pond and the main shrine building itself had some gorgeous gilding on the roof.

 

I was both knackered and hungry by the time I reached Rikugien gardens an hour before it closed. Not only did the garden have an unexpected entry fee but it was also fully walled and gated, meaning it closed ahead of sunset which caught me off guard. I had grabbed some snacks at a nearby convenience store and found myself a spot to have a picnic overlooking the central pond. This was such a peaceful place with gorgeous shrubbery and a cute little boat in the middle of the pond, and was one of my favourite gardens to visit in the city. I felt rushed though, having to work my way round it all before it closed for the night, and sadly by the time I reached the final garden on my list of places to visit, it was already closed.

 

The Koishikawa Korakuen gardens was in an interesting part of the city. Stepping out of the Korakuen station I was immediately met with the large structure of the Tokyo dome and intriguingly an inner-city rollercoaster. After discovering that the gardens was closed, I walked round its circumference and round the edge of the Tokyo Dome, the forecourt of which had a host of entertainment centres including the aforementioned rollercoaster, but also a giant swinging dragon boat ride. Dusk was pushing on as I continued to wander around listening to the screams and chatter of the people enjoying themselves.

 

Because Tokyo doesn’t sleep there was no rest for the wicked. Taking the train to Shinjuku, one of the most active parts of the city at night, I started my night time adventures at the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Governmental building. The view was of a mass of city lights spreading out in all directions. I bought myself some sake and takoyaki at the cafe and proceeded to get myself nicely merry on the strong liquor. Takoyaki are battered balls of octopus but the highlight of them is the fish flakes that are sprinkled on top and that appear to dance, the heat causing them to flutter on the plate. At 202m (662ft), this observation deck was far lower than the Tokyo Skytree and its location within a built up part of the city meant the view wasn’t quite so interesting, or at least at night time it wasn’t, so after walking round a couple of times, and despite it being over 12hrs since I’d left my hotel that morning, I was ready to experience the chaos of nighttime Shinjuku.

 

Japan is a barrage on the senses at the best of times, but especially at night, where lights and sounds bombard you from every direction. Shinjuku was chaotic and highly stimulatory but also very fun to walk around. The crowds here were crazy and I discovered a plethora of games halls which I loved, spending far too many Yen on arcade games, the likes of which I hadn’t played since I was growing up. The Japanese seemed obsessed with these arcade halls with large complexes of them on nearly every street corner in this hub in the city. I stumbled across the infamous Robot Restaurant (which has since closed down) and there were eateries and bars galore down every turn. Every surface of almost every building was covered in neon signs advertising things I couldn’t make head nor tails of, and eventually the constant stimulation added to my increasing tiredness. That didn’t stop me from getting an ice cream pancake but after sitting down to eat it I struggled to get back up again as my feet were in quite a bit of pain from walking all day. It was after 11pm when I returned to my hotel room, over 14hrs since I’d left that morning. My legs were throbbing and my feet swollen, but I’d had a thoroughly enjoyable day. It wasn’t hard to get to sleep which was just as well as I’d be doing it all over again the next morning.

Tokyo’s Art Scene

Back when my trip to Tokyo was just a future dream, there were two places that I knew would be an absolute must for me to visit, and I made sure I booked them both ahead of time to avoid any disappointment. After a couple of days spent out of the city, it was time to do Tokyo justice and get and about. A few years ago at my local International Film Festival, I watched an animated movie called The Red Turtle, that had me in tears. It was the first Studio Ghibli movie I’d watched from start to finish and I loved it. I hadn’t watched any others since, but I knew of some of the main characters and most popular movies from the Studio, and I was well aware of Totoro, one of the most famous characters. Despite not being well versed in the movies, a visit to the Ghibli Museum was something that I was really keen to do, but required a good bit of forward planning. Gaining access to the museum requires a ticket that goes up for sale 1-2 months prior, and they sell out fast. Thankfully, I had been given a heads up by a friend who had visited the year before, and I set off from my Yotsuya hotel in October 2019, armed with my ticket.

I was by now very comfortable with the train network around Tokyo. Yotsuya was well connected, and with my pocket WiFi and transport app, negotiating the route I needed to the suburb of Mitaka was simple. It was already blistering hot when I got off the train at the other end, and I had about a 15 minute walk from the station, all the while wandering through residential streets in a part of Tokyo so different to where I’d been so far. Every now and again, I passed a sign counting down the distance to the museum, a grinning Totoro popping up above it. Arriving at the museum, I was greeted by a fancy big building and a giant Totoro in the bay window as I entered the grounds. The entrance ticket was allocated in time slots, and I’d secured the first entry of the day. As the queue slowly moved around the building, the building itself became more colourful and was covered in large swathes of ivy. Eventually it was my turn to get inside and was handed my entrance ticket, which included a reel from a Studio Ghibli movie, and after being pointed in the direction of the entrance, I was set free to explore.

 

You are not allowed to take photos inside the museum, which I respect, but despite only knowing a handful of the Studio Ghibli movies, I was absolutely enthralled with the place. Downstairs had various rooms with props and artwork on display, and towards the back was a small cinema that showed the most delightful short movie. Spiral staircases led upstairs, and I went into room after room of artworks and videos displaying how some of the movies had been made. I spent hours there, making sure I saw every thing there was to see, even queuing in the busier rooms to make sure I didn’t miss a thing. In one corner, a spiral staircase led up onto the roof, where I was immediately sweating in the intense Tokyo heat. Standing tall to greet me was a giant robot statue, representing one of the characters from the movie Castle in the Sky. It was impossible to visit this place and not buy something at the gift shop – there was some serious money changing hands here – and I left at lunchtime, satisfied with my morning.

My second must-do of Tokyo was also pre-booked to a time slot, but I had a few hours to get there so I decided to walk to a further away train station to allow me to visit Inokashira Park. The heat meant that every day of walking left me with painful and swollen legs, but it was hard not to make the most of Tokyo’s expansive parks by exploring every square inch of them. The Ghibli Museum sat at the most southern end of it, and I cut through sports fields where locals played tennis and ran round a track. The dominant feature of this park was a large lake which I reached after passing through wooded areas and statues. The reflections on the water were divine, and a series of bridges criss-crossed the water. I made sure to cover as much of the perimeter path as I could, circling round the long length of the lake before crossing back and forth across a few of the bridges to make a sort of figure-eight. I was surprised to see some cormorants, a species which I also see back home in New Zealand, and there were a few ducks and a heron to add to the bird life. It was possible to hire paddle boats, and even although it was a weekday, the place was full of locals, from mums out with children, to retirees out for a stroll, and workers taking a lunch break. I’m sure there were other tourists there too, but I felt like I was seeing the real Tokyo, away from the usual tourist hubs nearer the city centre.

 

I had several connections to catch to push me around and across Tokyo to the Aomi region within Tokyo Bay. In hindsight, I would have loved to have explored this area more in depth, but as it was, I arrived with just enough time to walk across the open complex at Tokyo Teleport station, where I was greeted by a giant multi-coloured Ferris wheel. Instructions in hand, I headed into the mall and almost immediately found myself inside a giant Toyota showroom. Looking down on reams of shiny cars, I cut across the galley and found myself directly under the Ferris wheel, watching it spin past me as I headed to the building next door. I was excited to get inside and see what all the fuss was about, with 3hrs prior to closing to make the most of it.

 

From the first photos I’d come across online, I knew immediately that teamLab Borderless was a place I had to visit, and I was not disappointed. This place blew me away, and I could happily go back again and again. Effectively a giant warehouse divided into rooms and floors, there’s no set path through, and its up to you to find every access doorway to every room – and boy do you want to make sure you see it all! Essentially an interactive art gallery, this place goes well beyond that, and it simply needs to be experienced. No photo or video could ever do this place justice. The first room was immense, and was a series of walls that displayed an ever-changing artwork of flowers. The place was effectively in darkness aside from the light created by the artwork, and it meant that some of the doors to different rooms were almost hidden. It made it a bit of a game to work out where each of the rooms were, and I’m fairly confident that I got round every single one of them. The place was packed, but it did make it easier to spot some of the room openings, however a few of the more popular rooms had long queues to get into them, and due to this, it took me the entire 3hrs to get round the place.

 

The whole place was an assault on the senses, but one that I very much enjoyed. Music played everywhere I went, and the lights and moving images led you round corners and down corridors. One of the most beautiful rooms was a large space with a high ceiling, in the centre of which was a raised area to get some perspective from. The art work moved across the floor and up the walls, and it was simply mesmerising. Everyone in the room became part of the art as the colours swept across their bodies. It was divine. The door out of here was quite well hidden but it wasn’t long before I found myself in a room of flashing rope lights and a mirrored floor. I went through this room a couple of times, because it was so pretty, but out the far side in an alcove, the vision of a bird dramatically flying across the space took my breath away.

 

Making sure I saw everything occasionally involved doubling back a bit, but I didn’t mind seeing some of the rooms more than once. I walked through fields of lillies where leaves fell and sat in a room with waves crashing around me before I realised that there was more than one floor. My first queue started at the bottom of the stairs and slowly led me upstairs to one of the most famous rooms at teamLab Borderless – the room of coloured lights. I’d seen the most photos of this room online and it was clearly very popular. The queue to get into the room was longer than the allotted time allowed inside it, but with a galley window to look inside as you waited for your turn, there was plenty of time to get a feel for the place. The room was a deep red when I first entered, eventually turning to a mix of pastels before I had to leave.

 

Upstairs was even more interactive than downstairs. As I entered the main area upstairs I was greeted by humpback whales swimming across the walls and geckos crawling across the floor. It was possible to draw art here that could be incorporated into the moving images, and at the far end I was greeted by a room full of giant air-filled blobs that changed colour as you walked through them. There were climbing poles to traverse, and moving platforms to try and cross, before I found myself in what could probably have passed as a kids room but was instead mainly visited by adults: a giant room with planes, cars and boats moving around, that could be manipulated by moving the objects across the floor and walls. The large slide just outside the city room made me wonder if upstairs was supposed to be for kids, but there were hardly any kids there, and every adult I saw was taking great delight in interacting with the artwork, myself included.

 

I watched the humpback whales frolic across the room before heading back downstairs to visit the last few rooms. There was another long queue that left me standing among a corridor of falling flowers, the colours dancing across my face and including me in their movement as I stood there. It took 20 minutes to get into this last room where I had to lie down on a large hammock suspended in the middle of the room. This was the only artwork I was underwhelmed by, and not really worth the wait, but when I came out I was close to the entrance and had just 15 minutes left before the place would shut. I walked round the flower walls I’d seen on arrival and headed back to the dancing rope lights once more before stepping outside into the darkness of the Tokyo night.

 

The reality is though that Tokyo isn’t really dark at night. The sky may look dark if you look up, but that is because it is hard to see any stars with so much light pollution from the city itself. If Tokyo goes to sleep, I don’t know when it does, because it always seemed so busy, bright and brash in the hours of the night, just as it did during the day. The colourful Ferris wheel was still turning as I walked below it once more, but this time I decided to wander around the Toyota warehouse as I passed through. Aside from the standard Toyota cars on display, there were some space-age models and some artistic body work on display too.

 

I visited Tokyo during the Rugby World Cup, and with the New Zealand All Blacks playing that night I decided to be social and visit one of the RWC hubs to watch the game in public. The crowds were massive but sadly it wasn’t set up that well so it was really difficult to see the screens through the throng of heads in front of me. A little dejected, I decided to head back to my hotel to watch the game there. Only my second hotel didn’t have the TV channel to watch the RWC. My initial hotel had, and I’d been able to watch the Scotland match a few nights prior. I was gutted to miss out on the experience, but I had acquired some merchandise at the shop before leaving that night. Sadly the All Blacks didn’t bring the cup home that tournament. They were outplayed several times, and that night’s match was one of them. But it was time to take my throbbing, swollen legs to bed ahead of another Tokyo adventure the following day.

Kawaguchiko

Still not content with staying in Tokyo, and with legs still aching from the previous day’s 8hr hike, I had another day of walking ahead of me. But my first challenge struck before I even got out of the city. I’d based myself in Yotsuya, initially because it was near where my conference had been on those first few days in the country, but secondarily because it had turned out to be an easy base for transit around the city to where I wanted to go. I’d arrived at my new hotel in darkness, so waking up that morning I’d finally been able to experience the view from my small balcony. It was hot and stuffy and I was surrounded by a sea of buildings stretching out for miles.

It was by now a familiar saunter to the train station and I headed west a few stops to Shinjuku station, one of the larger transit hubs in the city. Despite having studied station maps online at my hotel, I stepped off the platform and very quickly found myself in a maze of artificially-lit corridors. There were signs everywhere, and a sea of people to sweep you along in the wrong direction if you weren’t careful, and I was also in a hurry, trying to make a connection. I needed to get to the bus terminal, but after following the signs, they sort of petered out and I ended up having to backtrack a bit and experiment a little before eventually I found a sign pointing out onto the street. It turned out I had to cross the road and enter another a building, and as a result of getting lost in the Shinjuku maze, I had missed the bus I had planned on catching.

The bus terminal was crowded, and my next challenge was finding the one I wanted. Unable to speak Japanese beyond basic pleasantries, and always feeling guilty about having to speak English, I chose to use a ticket machine over a person. However, it quickly transpired that I couldn’t pay with my prepaid card and so I had to go to the counter after all. But it turned out my destination was so popular that the next bus was fully booked, and I had to wait for the one after that. It felt like an age before I was finally onboard, and leaving the city behind. Although I’d already been out to a national park, this trip felt different, and from a bus, it felt a bit more immersive, and the scenery a bit more interesting to travel through. It was a 2hr drive into the Fuji Five Lakes, and I was super excited when Mt Fuji, the country’s highest mountain appeared in view with a ring of cloud below its summit. From that point onwards, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, and finally, after a detour to Fuji-Q Highland theme park, I was deposited at Kawaguchiko bus station.

The walk from the bus station to Lake Kawaguchi led me downhill through winding streets of shops and businesses for about 10 minutes, until finally I found myself staring out at a gorgeous lake with rolling green hills on the far side. Paddle boats shaped like swans lay stacked up in the foreground and just past them, a paddlesteamer was berthed, loading up ready to take day-trippers across the lake to Oishi. It felt so different to Tokyo, and I immediately loved the place. The foreshore was easy to follow, mainly on a separate path away from the road, and in the glaring sun, I started the anti-clockwise walk around the lake. Understandably given the scenery, I became rather snap happy. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. The lake itself had a gentle ripple on the water, and the reflections of the surrounding landscape and the blues of the water and sky against the green of the hills created an amazingly scenic location. Then, after a few curves of the lake had been passed, I looked back and realised that Mt Fuji was poking up in the background, and the smile on my face grew wider.

 

Mt Fuji remained in view as I continued to circle round this end of the lake. The cloud continued to swirl around its top, sometimes obscuring the summit, other times sitting just below it like a collar. When I’d initially booked my trip to Japan, I had thought I would hike up Mt Fuji, but upon researching the hike, I discovered that there was a short official hiking season, outwith which the hiking huts were shut, transport to the hiking routes limited, and indeed it wasn’t recommended to hike it at all because of safety concerns. There was no snow on the summit whilst I was there in October 2019, so in reality I probably could have done it, but I had opted for common sense and following advice as it was over a month past the end of the hiking season. But also in reality, I didn’t actually have time in my two week trip to Japan, and frankly the views of the mountain were probably more appealing to me than the views from the mountain would be.

I neared and then passed under a row of accommodations that would have great views of Mt Fuji from their balconies, and I continued to follow the path round towards the broad expanse of the Kawaguchiko Ohashi bridge that cut across this end of the lake, transecting it. The whole lake is huge, and there was not a hope of covering the full circumference of it, so the circle that was created by the bridge and the eastern foreshore was enough of a taster that day. Before I cut up to the bridge itself, I found myself down at the lakeshore near the legs of the bridge, sitting among some locals who were fishing, eating my lunch as the clouds swirled across my view of Mt Fuji. Looking under the bridge, I could see through not only to the far side of the lake, but I was able to watch the paddlesteamer chug across, peacefully sailing across the calm water.

 

Crossing the bridge, I didn’t know where to look. The view in both directions was divine, and I jogged back and forth across the road as I wandered, taking a ridiculous amount of photographs, and sweating in the incessant heat. To my left was the foreshore I’d just walked round as well as the dominating outline of Mt Fuji. To my right, was the large expanse of lake and the gorgeous rolling mountains that stood tall beyond it. In fact I took so long to cross the bridge that the paddlesteamer was making its return journey from the far side, and I was able to watch it return to the original pier I’d passed it from earlier that day. Reaching the far side of the bridge, there were more locals fishing and the path immediately turned into a park, skirting round to Oike Park where there was a small shrine, and some statues nestled among the trees. Flying overhead a large bird of prey caught my attention which I later discovered was a black kite.

 

The final section of the lake continued to give me views across the lake before it cut back to streets. From this angle I could see the ropeway that went up the nearby mountain, and as I reached the street that would lead me there, I spotted the same black kite perched atop the roof of a nearby building. It was nearing lunchtime by the time I made it to the Mt Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. The queue was frustratingly long and also in direct sunlight making for a slightly unpleasant experience. It was possible to hike up the mountain but I didn’t have time for that, and so the ropeway was going to have to be worth the wait. It was a slightly disorganised affair to buy a ticket from a machine, which was a surprise considering how organised Japan usually comes across for absolutely everything, and when my time finally came to board the ropeway I was incredulous at how many of us they squeezed on there. It was roasting, and despite the open windows, there was little air circulation in the cabin, making it a little unpleasant to breathe. We were crammed in so badly that I couldn’t actually move. For the entire ride up I was stuck in the position I was in, unable to shift my weight or even lift my camera up to my face to take photos. I don’t get claustrophobia but with the lack of personal space, the inability to reposition myself and the stiff, hot air, it was hard not to get a little panicked, and I couldn’t wait for the ride to be over.

 

But it was all soon forgotten once I’d spilled out at the top and saw the view. From the top station I had a gorgeous view across the lake and then once I’d walked round to the entrance of Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park, I could see across to Fuji-Q Highland theme park and Mt Fuji behind it, albeit now hidden behind some clouds. I treated myself to a matcha float complete with foam rabbit, before swapping my trainers for hiking boots and heading into the trees. The initial track up to Mt Tenjo was packed, with most of the people that had taken the ropeway up heading here, as it was only a 10 minute walk to the summit (1140m/3740ft). I was expecting an awesome view but in actual fact the trees were so tall here, that it was mostly closed in, apart from a gap that allowed Mt Fuji to be seen, framed by the tall trunks of the trees. I could see on my topographical map that a track from here led off across the nearby mountains, and I had my sights set on nearby Mt Shimo (1302m/4272ft).

 

There was little view as I walked deeper into the tall forest, following the ridgeline as it undulated and gradually gained further altitude. I had little respite from the heat and my energy began to wane. It took me longer to reach the road crossing high up the mountainside than I’d anticipated, and after an hour, I found myself at a lookout just shy of 1300m (4265ft). As with my hike the day before, I’d brought some 7Eleven dried squid, a Japanese snack that I ate a lot of whilst out and about. It was just the taste I wanted after all the sweating and it gave such an energy boost. That being said, I spent a lot of time eating whilst studying the topographic map, arguing in my head whether I wanted to push on to Mt Shimo. I’d learned on the hike the day before that a summit doesn’t necessarily equal a view, and where I was sat was specifically marked as a viewpoint. Indeed I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji from where I sat, and I reckoned the summit push would add at least another hour roundtrip. With it already being after 2pm, I made the executive decision to let the summit go, and once I was satiated, I pushed back down the gradual slope, to return to Mt Tenjo.

By the time I reached the gap in the trees at Mt Tenjo it was 3.30pm and the summit of Mt Fuji was visible once more. Back at the cafe I bought a snack that was translated as raccoon balls. In the 5 days I’d been in Japan, I’d eaten a lot of unrecognisable foods in a multitude of new textures that I’d never experienced before. I’m fairly up for trying a variety of cuisine and love to experiment abroad, so I was intrigued to see what raccoon tasted like. I still have no idea what exactly it was that I ate, but it didn’t appear to have any meat in it at all, but it was food and it was edible so I hoovered it down all the same. The sun was lowering towards the mountains at the far side of the lake but still the crowds came up the ropeway.

 

I discovered that you could go up to the roof of the cafe where I could see down towards the lake as well as Mt Fuji, and where I could do a bit of people watching as I ate. I hovered between the rooftop and the viewing area below for a long time, getting my photo taken against the backdrop of Japan’s most famous volcano, and watching as people put prayers on the local prayer wall. A bell hung within a heart-shaped frame that was great for framing Mt Fuji, and again I took a lot of photos as the shadows got longer. I started to realise that the mountains beyond the lake would lead to an earlier sunset, and I still had to hike down the mountain back to the lake. After an hour of soaking up the view, I started the descent through the forest. The track switch-backed downhill, occasionally providing views of the lake. A few side tracks led off through gardens, but I stuck to the main track, by now sore on my feet and tired.