MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Asia”

Typhoon Hagibis

The thing with staying in a capsule hotel during a typhoon is that you have no idea what is going on outside. The sleeping floors had no natural lighting or windows, and with no external stimulation at all, it was impossible to know how bad it was getting. I’d gone to bed the night before with the news already showing lots of flooding and issues to the east, and when I woke up, the news showed scenes of devastation elsewhere. A tornado had also hit one region, and the footage rolled in of flooding and landslides. Typhoon Hagibis was a category 5 super typhoon, one of the strongest to hit Japan in decades, and Tokyo’s airports were grounded. My flight was out of Osaka airport the following day and I could only hope that it wouldn’t be cancelled. Knowing that Osaka’s tourist attractions had been shut as part of the typhoon preparations, I had nothing particularly to get up for, but my grumbling stomach eventually drove me to get up and head downstairs to the hotel’s cafe for some breakfast.

I popped out of the elevator at reception and walked down the stairs to the cafe which had floor to ceiling windows and was surprised to see no blustering winds and no scenes of destruction. It was raining steadily but not even what I would class as pouring, and as I looked out, I saw people going about their daily lives as if nothing was going on. Either the worst had passed, the worst was still to hit or we just weren’t close enough to the eye of the storm. I couldn’t believe it. I mulled over my options and decided that although little would be open, I could at least take a walk and stretch my legs. One of the things I love about Japanese hotels is that they provided free umbrellas so after procuring one, I headed out, and decided to wander down to Dotonbori.

When I reached the covered shopping street I was surprised to see that most of the shops were open and it was a bustling place to be. I got myself a Hallowe’en themed morning snack and pushed on to the bridge that crosses the broad river. Here it was relatively quiet compared to the hustle and bustle from my first night in the city but the wet pavements created some pretty reflections from the large and colourful adverts that adorned the buildings. The rain was constant but not so heavy to drive me straight back inside so I took the time to watch the people with their umbrellas bobbing past.

 

After working my way through the rest of the covered shopping mall I decided to see if the nearby food market was open. I find that fresh food markets are a great way to explore local life, and are always a stimulation for the senses. Being covered, it was open and I gratefully took shelter from the rain and did a good bit of people watching whilst also browsing the fresh produce, some of which I didn’t always recognise. I passed by two food stalls that intrigued me for different reasons. The first was selling minke whale meat, the second fugu. Hunting of any sort will always be a controversial topic, one that will fire up many people’s passions on both sides of the table. I don’t personally think the debate is black and white either as there is a big difference between subsistence hunting and trophy hunting, and a difference between hunting an endangered animal versus a non-endangered animal. I strongly oppose trophy hunting and killing endangered animals, but I’m not against hunting as a whole. Even although minke whales are not endangered, I don’t like whaling and I refuse to eat whale meat when I’m travelling. But I’ve visited both Iceland and Japan where whaling occurs and I’ve seen whale meat on the menu in both countries.

I was however briefly tempted by the fugu which had a long line of locals queuing up to purchase. Fugu is not just a delicacy, it’s also fatally poisonous if it’s not prepared correctly. I had always assumed it was only served in high-end restaurants prepared by highly trained chefs so it was curious to see it for sale here in a fresh food market. The popularity of the stall suggested it should be safe to consume but a quick Google search revealed there had been cases of poisoning stemming from consumption of the fish at markets like this one so I decided in the end not to try. Instead I found myself buying a creme brulee style sweet potato dish that was highly disappointing and really difficult to swallow without lots of fluids to help it down.

I made my way to Americamura as the rain started to get heavier. With the benefit of daylight I was able to spy the Statue of Liberty which I’d failed to spot the night I arrived. It stood atop one of the buildings visible from Mitsu Park, a downsized replica of America’s one. With the rain making me feel a little chilled, I wandered through the streets of the region, taking a long route back to my hotel. As I walked, my attention was drawn to a bright yellow manhole cover. I’d noticed many painted manhole covers on my travels round Japan but most of them were either very faded or the colours were quite muted. Osaka’s were bright yellow and this one particularly was still holding its colours well. By now lunchtime I was cold and didn’t want to wander any further so I retreated to my hotel to chill out in my capsule.

 

It was still raining when my stomach dragged me back outside in the late afternoon. I found an eatery with the classic vending machine style ordering system out the door where you simply ordered off a picture menu then handed the ticket to the server inside. This was to be my last proper meal in Japan but I opted to get a range of bites, ordering a plate of karaage chicken and a mixture of fried and steamed dumplings. I wandered back through the now packed covered shopping street and back to Dotonbori which was once again alive with people and this time I had to dodge a sea of umbrellas as people congregated on the bridge across the river. The sky already had a slightly menacing look about it, but as I wandered the streets of Dotonbori, the sky began to turn a shade of purple like it had the night before. It never quite reached the spectacular shades of purple as it had ahead of the typhoon, but it added another aspect to the menacing look of the heavy clouds as the rain refused to let up. The crowds were not deterred though and by now it seemed that Osaka had definitely just gotten the edge of the typhoon. I lingered with them, experiencing my last moments in the sensory chaos of a Japanese city at night.

 

All appeared to be well with my flight out of Osaka, and I left the city with plenty of time, reaching the airport so early that the signs said my flight wasn’t open for check-in yet. I waited and waited and waited by the board for the check-in gate to appear until eventually I decided to just wander around the concourse and see if there was any sign of a desk opening. What I found was a single check-in zone for all flights by this airline which had a single queue that wound round and round a set of barriers and half-way down the concourse. A quick discussion led to the realisation that I had to join this huge queue which encompassed both bag-drop for online check-ins as well as normal check-ins. There was no get-around and as the queue struggled to move forward I grew increasingly anxious. Having been at the airport so far ahead of time, I saw my flight creep closer and closer as I waited and waited. The panic began to creep in and I tried to flag someone down to see if I could be prioritised but there was nobody on hand. It turned out that the cancelled flights from the day before had led to a huge surge of people flying that day and that was just how it was.

When I finally got to the front of the queue and the desk it was 20mins till boarding time. I hot-footed it to security to join yet another queue where I impatiently waited for my turn to go through screening. It was already boarding time when I reached the flight-side of security and then it was a race to get to my gate and onto the plane. I couldn’t foresee my bag joining me on the plane with such little time, and I settled into my window seat as we took off under the cloud and left Osaka behind. The Rugby World Cup had driven up the flight prices so much that I’d had to take a route home via Hong Kong, a rather inconvenient detour that took me in the wrong direction and dragged out my travel time. It did however lead to a pretty nice view of western Japan as we broke out of the clouds from the dispersing typhoon and sat within sunshine as we cruised west.

I’ve never had any great desire to go to Hong Kong, but my particular concerns at the time was the ongoing riots that had been plaguing the city for months and had already led to the airport being closed once. There had been another surge in rioting whilst I’d been in Japan so I’d been nervous that my flight was going to get cancelled for that reason, never mind the typhoon. In the end the approach into Hong Kong airport was interesting approaching over the water and in the distance I could see the tall skyscrapers that the city is famous for. I had several hours of a layover and the terminal was undergoing renovations which meant it was one of the worst airports to be stuck at with little to do and few places to sit. I was just tired and eager to get home by this point, but when the gate for my Air New Zealand flight to Auckland was announced I got there to discover there was a pretty awesome backdrop to the classic black plane that was parked there waiting. Then it was just the matter of the flight to Auckland and another connection to Christchurch, and just like that, my Japanese adventure was over.

Osaka

Osaka seems to be quite a polarising city. There are many tourists who don’t think much of it at all, and then there are the seemingly few that do. I for one, enjoyed my time there, and given that Mother Nature got in the way of my plans whilst I was there, I even feel a little robbed and would like to go back to experience what I missed out on. With just two whole days based in the city, I wasn’t going to waste the nights, and even though I’d been on my feet all day (as with every day I spent in Japan), I had a hunger to satiate and the city streets to explore.

My capsule hotel was in the Shinsaibashi area and from here, there were plenty of brightly lit streets to wander through on route to Americamura and Dotonbori. A large painted mural on the side of a building welcomed me to Americamura which felt like it was geared towards those 1-2 decades younger than me with trendy clothes shops lining the streets. With Hallowe’en 2019 just a few weeks away, there were pumpkins big and small decorating the path and the entrance to the large mall that greeted me. As my eyes adjusted to all the bright lights that bombarded me, I noticed that the street lights were actually made to look like a sort of robotic person. I’d read that there was supposed to be a Statue of Liberty around here somewhere but couldn’t find it, so I decided if I had time I’d come back in the daytime and see if it was easier to spot.

 

What I adored about Osaka was the immense indoor shopping street that ran block after block, occasionally broken by a road or a river. Full of shops for locals and tourists alike, the place was mobbed. Even though I was hungry, I just drifted with the general flow of people, passing clothes shops, Pokemon stores and eventually getting giddy like a child when I found a large Sanrio store. Funnily enough, I’m no particular Hello Kitty fan at the best of times, but when in Japan, it was hard not to get excited whenever I came across a Hello Kitty store. Over three floors of feeling like a kid in a candy shop, I left with a bag of goodies and continued my search for food. This came in the shape of Luke’s Lobster who had a long line of locals outside it which of course always speaks volumes. I dutifully queued up for my lobster sandwich which I messily ate rather conspicuously outside an empty shop window.

Passing dessert shops and more, I suddenly burst out at the river at Dotonbori, the streets and bridge alive with people. Large neon lights flashed all around me and as I jostled my way to the bridge edge I saw large boats carry people up and down the length of the river. I found myself constantly dodging other people’s photographs, weaving from one side of the broad bridge to the other before pushing on. On the far side of the river I took the main street which was crammed with lights and noise advertising eateries of all sorts. Large crabs and even dragons looked down upon me as I walked. Eventually circling back to the covered street I followed it till its eventual end, past arcade halls and animal-themed cafes before retracing my steps back through the madness to my hotel.

 

Japan’s ever reliable public transport system whisked me out of Osaka to the west, vaguely following the coast before moving a little inland and depositing me at Himeji. Japan is full of castles, and Osaka itself has one, but before arriving in the country, I had decided that Himeji Castle was going to be the one that I’d properly visit. When I arrived at the station it was a glorious sunny day, and I stepped out to a large avenue that led me up towards the dominant hulk of the castle. Whilst not as busy as Osaka, there were plenty of people with the same purpose and as I neared the castle the crowds congregated and moved on mass into the entrance way. A large lawn greeted us and ferried us towards the ticket booth. As most people made a beeline for the castle, I decided to separate myself from the crowd a little and explore the walled gardens first. I might as well have had them to myself, there was hardly anyone else there, but they offered a huge variety of views of the castle with other buildings and trees framing it.

 

I discovered that there was a long hallway within the wall of the gardens and this afforded a view out across the city to my left. After walking its length I joined the throngs to head into the castle, first negotiating the route up the hill to the entrance. Sensibly there was a one-way system in place that circled round the various levels, gradually heading up large staircases to reach higher and higher into the rafters of the building. From the very top there was a glorious view across the rooftops, the grounds and the city beyond. I spent most of my time on this floor before finally following the route back down the levels and back outside into the grounds again. I headed next door to the Koko-en gardens, taking my time to walk around before returning to the train station.

 

A little over half-way back to Osaka, I alighted at Sannomiya station from where I’d planned on catching a bus along the road to the start of a hiking trail I was going to follow. I’d just missed the bus so ended up walking a good chunk of it instead, eventually finding myself at a torii gate that marked the start of my route. Following some quiet back streets, the path eventually cut into Nunobiki Park where it led me to Nunobiki Falls. There are various tiers to this waterfall, the most impressive being the upper one which also has the best viewing spot. It was a small viewing area but thankfully it wasn’t too busy so each of us that arrived was generally able to enjoy the sound of the falls in peace. From there it was a gentle walk through the forest following the lower reaches of the river until I found myself at Shin-Kobe station and a route back to Osaka.

 

I had long left the sun behind in Himeji, a bank of clouds welcoming me back to Osaka. Before heading out of the station, I took a quick explore inside, noticing that there was a large floral arrangement on display on the upper floor. It was gorgeous, a sea of colour spanning almost the whole width of the upper mezzanine. Behind here was a large department store which I self-consciously walked around, aware I was a little dishevelled from my earlier walk through the forest. I didn’t hang around for long, aware that I was running out of daylight hours. It was overcast but high cloud when I stepped out of Osaka station, cutting through a business district to reach the Umeda Sky Building. I always love visiting observation decks in large cities as I find it is the best way to get a bit of orientation and perspective when ground level swallows you up in a soup of skyscrapers. This particular one is quite a distinctive building too as there are two buildings joined with what looks like a floating escalator system high above the ground.

 

By now late afternoon broaching onto the evening, I headed up the elevator within the one tower to be greeted by the first of these floating escalators that led me to the far tower. With glass windows, there was no denying how high up I was and I loved looking out at the city as I appeared to float effortlessly higher. Inside there was a good view out over the city and I could see denser and lower clouds move in from the south. This was the start of Typhoon Hagibis which had been all over the news, having tracked in from the south, and having already started to have its effects to the east. This was the second typhoon to hit Japan in the two weeks I was there, the first having hit land some distance away and not having affected me. The country had already made announcements about cancelled flights and closed tourist sites so I knew that the following day, my last day in Japan, was to be an interesting, if not restricted, one. The winds weren’t bad yet, so I was able to get out onto the outside observation deck and enjoy the views outside too as the sky changed colour.

 

I decided I would stay for the sunset and watch the city lights come on. There was no visible sun to watch set but I figured there would still be a bit of a colour change to make it worthwhile. I parked up with a beer at one of the tall windows inside and mulled over what I would do the next day. I watched planes come and go from a nearby regional airport, and then I got moving again as I saw the light dull in the sky. I’d expected to get a bit of colour through the clouds as the sun set but I was blown away with what transpired. The increasingly inclement sky that moved in as the leading front of the typhoon caused the sky to glow purple. I’ve seen a purple sky occasionally before but this was the most incredible sky I’ve ever seen. To the west some reds and yellows appeared through the small breaks in the cloud where the sun was actually setting, and the city lights began to twinkle on and contrast against the deepening purple of the darkening sky. The purple also reflected off the river turning it a divine shade too. No photo could ever do it justice, and unsurprisingly there was a lot of jostling among the gathered crowd for the best spots to take photos from.

 

Eventually the colour faded to black but the hint of the inclement weather was still there due to the immense city lights reflecting upwards into the sky. Although I’m not normally a fan of huge cities, I couldn’t deny the beauty of all the twinkling lights that lit up the Japanese sky. I stayed well beyond sunset and became aware of the wind increasing around me. Slightly stupidly I decided to walk back to Shinsaibashi, a nearly hour long walk through a mostly business district until eventually I hit the covered shopping street again. Despite the potential drama of the impending typhoon, the citizens of Osaka seemed unperturbed and I too nonchalantly headed back to my hotel, 7Eleven dinner in hand, unsure what I was going to wake up to the next day.

 

Arashiyama

It was nearly time to bid farewell to Kyoto, but not before visiting one of its most famous sites. Leaving my Ryokan behind, I joined the locals commuting to school and work at the nearby Umekoji-Kyotonishi station to head to Arashiyama, home of one of the country’s most famous bamboo forests. Like Fushimi-Inari Taisha a couple of days prior, it was a popular destination and whilst the crowds here didn’t quite rival that of the temple, there was still enough people wandering through the streets and forest to make it a tour in dodging people’s camera shots. I’m not completely sure what I was expecting here, but whilst it was a nice place to wander through, it was a little underwhelming for my expectations, and not half as big as I’d expected either. Still, I did make a point of wandering back and forward, crowd dodging and trying to make the most of the awkward lighting that trickled through the bamboo canopy.

 

At the far end of the walk, a junction split towards a Japanese garden and tea house to the right and a bamboo-lined path to Kameyama park to the left. As I walked along the track to the park, I could get right up to the bamboo, looking through the tightly packed forest. It was a little sad to see people had carved their names into the canes, a form of graffiti in nature. As I got closer to the park, a few other trees appeared on the edge of the bamboo grove, and suddenly I found myself at a hilltop and a viewing area overlooking the Katsura river. I’d always planned on taking a wander beyond the bamboo grove, but I ended up loving the rest of my time in Arashiyama a lot more than I did the time in forest itself. It was another stifling hot day but the blue sky and scorching sun belied the weather system that was moving in from the south. Here, there was just lush green hills flanking the broad river below in the valley, and across the far side, I could see a temple breaking through the foliage.

 

Cutting through the park, a series of paths took me down the hillside to the riverbank. The place was buzzing with people walking the promenade by the river while a series of boats chugged up and down the waterway. Surrounded by greenery with the city life feeling far away, I joined the throngs that crossed the river where views upstream were interrupted by a dam creating a small cascade. A lot of people on the far side were there to take river boat rides or visit the monkey park, but I passed them all by, walking along the river bank, leaving the crowds behind and feeling lost amongst the natural world that filled my view. Thick trees grew up the slope to my left, and the river by my right was a stunning green colour. I passed terrapins drying themselves on the river bank, and as a couple of locals punted slowly up the river beside me, I spotted a large egret fishing in the shallows. I sat for a while soaking it all in before starting the slog up the hill to the hidden temple.

 

I took my time in the heat, already sweating, but my attention was soon to be grabbed by a beautiful brown and blue butterfly that landed briefly on the ground. At the top, I was personally welcomed into the temple and pointed towards a lovely hut full of comfy seats and a plethora of historical information and photographs about the history of the place. From the balcony out the front I could just make out the city of Kyoto across the tall trees on the far side of the river. After a brief look around, I headed back down the hill and enjoyed my wander back along the river past more terrapins swimming and sunning themselves, this time with a power boat chugging past me as I walked. The scene that greeted me as I came around the bend in the river was one of a multitude of people enjoying themselves in row boats, the hills behind Kyoto framing the view.

 

I hadn’t originally planned on visiting the monkey park as there was a fee to enter, but having not seen any macaques whilst up in the temple, I decided to visit the Arashiyama monkey park after all. The track started steeply through the forest, with many people struggling in the heat and with the incline. At one point whilst deep in the forest I was shocked to come across a crab walking across the path. Despite around two weeks in the country by this stage, and an awful lot of walking, I hadn’t at all acclimatised to the heat and I too was tired getting up to the upper area. But it was worth it to spot some Japanese macaques hanging out around the trees. This was no zoo. The macaques were free to come and go as they pleased, and despite the crowds of people around this upper level, most of them didn’t seem to care, simply going about their business, be it sleeping, grooming or fighting with each other. There was a variety of ages too, with youngsters chasing each other in play and adults asserting their dominance to the others. At the top of the final flight of stairs to the viewing area, a female breastfed her baby, neither giving a damn about the chain of people waltzing past and taking photos of them as they went.

 

The view at the top was incredible. Never mind the monkeys walking about, I could see most of Kyoto from here, neatly nestled among a horseshoe of green-covered mountains. After standing there for a moment soaking it all in, I turned round and realised that a young baby was sitting relatively close by, munching on some food in solitude in a patch of shade. I might not think much of human babies, but baby animals are adorable, no matter what the species. Baby monkeys are no exception. At the back of the area was a water hole and a building that people could go into to buy monkey food to feed the macaques in a sort of reverse zoo where the monkeys were free roaming and the humans were behind bars. It was a popular activity but one that I didn’t agree with as I feel the animals should remain wild and not be allowed to habituate to people or associate them with an easy meal. Behind here, a path led up to a higher area with another perspective of the park and Kyoto beyond.

 

As I stood at the top a monkey family appeared nearby, the youngster pausing to pull some leaves, a mutual stare exchanging between us. Below me, a couple of macaques ran across the roof of the building while others drank from the water hole. I meandered among them, slowly walking down through the upper trails with youngsters running above me and to my side. A steady stream of people arrived as I begrudgingly left the place behind, winding my way back down the hillside and back to the river, boats continuing to plough their way across the water as I returned. A sign for happy hour tempura and beer caught my attention, and my rumbling stomach lured me inside for some much needed sustenance. By the time I re-emerged from the cafe, a bank of clouds had moved in from the south, the leading edge of a typhoon that was due to hit shore in a couple of days.

 

The streets of Arashiyama were as much a delight as the nature had been. Very much geared towards tourists, I didn’t really care as I wandered among boutique shops and a plethora of stores selling anything from Hello Kitty and Studio Ghibli souvenirs to kimonos and artisan wares. A large Miffy statue grabbed my attention to a Miffy-themed bakery where I partook in a pastry and cake washed down with a hot drink served in a Miffy cup. I wandered past animal cafes, a side of Japan I wasn’t a fan of, jostling the thick crowds on the pavement until the end of the shops denoted the place to catch the bus to my last Kyoto destination. The huge queue at the bus stop left me wondering if I’d actually have any luck getting on a bus, and this was one of the few times the bus was exceptionally late in turning up. When it did, it was already quite full, but I was able to squeeze on, eventually reaching a small bus interchange in the middle of nowhere where we all had to bundle off and join another huge queue, impatiently waiting before yet another squeeze onto another tightly packed bus.

The crowds at Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famous golden temple were suffocating. A brief walk upon entering the grounds led to the south edge of Kyoko-chi pond across which stood the temple. As brilliant as the golden facade was, it was a jostling match here as people pushed and shoved to get the photograph that makes the place famous, with the reflection of the temple in the pond’s water. It was sad to see tourism ruin a place like this and I ended up hating the place simply because of the horrendous crowd here. When I was in Samoa earlier in 2019, I had been astonished to be asked to move at a swimming hole where I was relaxing because I was ruining the aesthetic of someone else’s posed Instagram photo. Here, several months later in Japan, I couldn’t believe it when people obnoxiously asked others to move despite the lack of free space, just so they could pose for a photo without other people in it. This is definitely the side of mass tourism that I hate. I snapped a few quick photos as the mass of people swept me along, literally being unable to stop at times due to the group movement along the trail.

 

Having had enough, I headed back to my ryokan to collect my luggage before walking the familiar route to Kyoto station. Just half an hour away is the city of Osaka, one which seems to leave such mixed opinions amongst tourists. Stepping out of the underground station at Shinsaibashi I could have been forgiven for thinking I was in America. The large gridded streets were lined by designer stores, and it felt a little disorientating as I cut through the streets to my hotel. I’d stayed in a variety of accommodation, but my last 3 nights in the country were to be spent in a capsule hotel. The lobby area was deceptive, but when I stepped out on my floor, I was met by a row of capsules, with no natural light whatsoever. Nonetheless I was excited to experience my little pod, which was a gorgeous little spot with a mattress bed. I laughed to myself when I opened the door to the bathroom to be greeted by a motion sensor toilet lid that opened up to greet me. Japan was still surprising and entertaining me and the delights of Osaka awaited.

Kurama to Kibune

A short trip to the north of Kyoto brought me to one very angry face. As was often the case, the meaning was lost in translation, or rather there was no translation. Upon exiting the station at the small township of Kurama, I was met by a giant red head with a giant red nose, and was left a little bemused and bewildered by it. As unwelcoming as it seemed, Kurama was a lovely little quiet hamlet nestled among the trees and it was only a short walk around the corner to the entrance to the Kurama-dera temple where my hike was to begin. There had been several people get off the train with me with the same purpose in mind, but it didn’t take long to feel quite alone here and that was just how I liked it.

 

I ignored the cable car, opting to walk the entire route, and early on the trail through the property led up the hillside. The various shrines were an unusual shade of orange, almost bordering on peach, and every few steps in the lower portion were wooden torii gates marking the entrances to prayer areas or the next part of the trail. Snaking up the hillside, I passed an unusual sculpture known as the Monument of ‘Inochi’ which was close to the path leading to where the cable car stops. Beyond here, a series of steps led up the next section of the mountainside, lined with pretty vermillion lanterns. Like every day before, it was so hot and once again I was sweating buckets as I made my way through the trees. As the altitude continued to gain, a few breaks in the trees started to offer a little view out across the nearby tree-covered hillsides. Kyoto was not that far away but it might as well have been, as it felt so utterly natural and secluded there out in the forest.

 

The views eventually started to include rolling mountain tops further away and as I reached the flatness of the grounds of the main part of the temple, a bird of prey was spotted circling above me. The buildings were once again a peach-hued orange colour and statues abounded across the grounds. It was peaceful here, the perfect place to build a place of prayer. I set off back into the forest again and came across a giant bell which encouraged a prayer and then a ringing of the bell. I am not religious but it is not difficult to be overwhelmed by the serenity of many religious sites, so whilst I do not pray, I made an affirmation and rang the bell, the low drone echoing out into the trees.

 

At the summit, a gnarl of tree roots could be walked amongst before the trail started to descend past more Buddhist temples, eventually leading me down to another hamlet, Kibune. This place was adorable, the old-style buildings so charming. At the far end was Kibune shrine, another impressive-looking building guarded by vermillion lanterns and torii gates. At the top part of the shrine, there was a waterway where for a small fee you could purchase a prediction, a fortune that would be revealed in the water. It was a novelty but I took part, the water revealing the Japanese lettering, and a QR-code that took me to an English translation. At the time of visiting in October 2019, it was a little depressing to read and I dismissed it out of my head, but during the first COVID lockdown of 2020, I happened across the screenshot I’d captured of the translation and was dumbfounded. My future prediction read: ‘SICKNESS: Heavy sickness, have faith; DIRECTION:  Fortune favours all to the south; TRAVEL: You should practice restraint; STUDY: You are advised to calm your mind and study; BUSINESS: It may suddenly get worse; MOVING RESIDENCE: Postpone your move’. 3 months after my return home from Japan, COVID emerged and within a couple of months it was a pandemic, my country was in lockdown, and my trip home to see my family in Scotland had been cancelled. We have been exceptionally fortunate in New Zealand, down here in the Southern Hemisphere, and have escaped the worst of the mismanagement and farce that has befallen other countries, but still, many businesses have had to fold. As a result of not being able to travel abroad for the foreseeable future, I made the decision to return to university and get a post-graduate qualification. I also decided to buy a house but have been unable to due to a surge in the market. It was rather spooky to re-find this fortune and read it again with everything that happened over the first half of 2020.

 

After grabbing an early lunch in a deserted eatery, I walked back through Kibune and followed the course of the Kibune river as it flowed downhill, eventually bringing me to the Kibuneguchi train station at the confluence of the Kibune and Anba rivers. A bit of transport-hopping brought me to Ginkakujicho where I followed the Philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi) south through the beautiful neighbourhoods. It skirted past many shrines, distinctive houses and some lovely artisan shops. There are simply so many temples and shrines around Japan, and with so many to visit, I had done some reading to pick a few that would hold my attention. Despite the heat, I followed the path for some distance before eventually arriving at Eikando Temple.

 

It was early autumn so there was the very start of some autumnal colours as I wandered round the grounds. At the back of the complex, some steps led up to a building from which there was a view across the rooftops of the nearby suburbs. The temple itself was simple and I was bemused by the sign warning about roaming monkeys, but it was the garden that captured my attention with a central group of ponds and a gorgeous butterfly that sunned itself on the stones at one end of the complex. As I walked around the ponds, I spotted a grey heron perched atop one of the trees, and with the sun casting down onto the water, the foliage was reflected on the still water. I’d seen photos of this place in full autumn changeover and can only imagine how stunning the place would have been in a few more weeks.

 

South from here was the grand Nanzenji Temple and the nearby Suirokaku water bridge. The crowds here were notable and the various trails around the concourse, as well as into the surrounding forest were busy with people posing for photos at every turn. The water bridge was impressive and so unexpected and the forest was lush but a little oppressive in the heat. Trails led up into the mountains but I went as far as a small waterfall before returning. Back in the temple grounds I went up to the viewing platform above the entrance gate where there was a view over the nearby temple and suburbs. The sun was already dropping low and I was keen to move on to my next destination before it got dark.

The sun was really low by the time I made it up to the viewing deck of the Kyoto Tower. The space here was cramped and the crowds increased as the sun set making for a rather unpleasant experience being shoved and squashed or blocked from being able to see as the light changed and the city lights came on. Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is compact but it’s surrounded by mountains making for a beautiful setting. With the tower next to Kyoto station, I could watch the shinkansen come and go, zooming through the city as they left and entered. The crowds within the tower got no better so once the lights had gone out of the sky and it was fully dark, I headed down through the market at the base and into the station in search of dinner.

 

There was a light display on the steps as I headed up to one of the food courts where I squeezed into a small space inside a ramen house for some delicious food. Afterwards, I joined the gathering crowds at the bottom of the steps to watch the display which moved through Hallowe’en-themed images, traditional images, and tourist adverts as people ran up and down, posing for photos. I stayed through several cycles, enjoying the atmosphere before my weary legs dragged me back to my ryokan and a much-needed lie down.

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.