I’ll always look back on Nagoya as being a safe haven.
Last week was the 7th anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake. The events that unfolded back on March 11, 2011 are just insane. Continue reading “Nagoya Castle: My First Spring in Japan”
I’ll always look back on Nagoya as being a safe haven.
Last week was the 7th anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake. The events that unfolded back on March 11, 2011 are just insane. Continue reading “Nagoya Castle: My First Spring in Japan”
To be completely honest, for the longest time I really didn’t have much interest in going to Japan’s southernmost prefecture. From what I’d seen in pictures, Okinawa looked pretty similar to Australia’s east coast – white, sandy beaches and clear, blue water – and I thought what would be the point of travelling to the other side of the planet only to go somewhere that looks just like home?
But then, I kept meeting more and more people who raved about it, some saying it was their favourite place in Japan, others claiming it to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Little by little, I started getting curious about this far away archipelago until last year I decided that was it; I was going to go in 2016!
As luck would have it, my new position this year at school allowed me to join the Year 11 class trip. Any guesses as to the destination? Yep – Okinawa! To say I was stoked is an understatement. But I had to keep reminding myself I was going on a work trip, which meant being partly responsible for 360-odd students, and not sitting on the beach drinking cocktails all day. What a shame! (Just kidding). The way everything worked out could not have been more perfect, and I consider myself extremely lucky and grateful!
Day 1: Okinawa Main Island – learning about history
After a very early start to the day, we arrived at Naha Airport around lunchtime. From the plane window, I’d seen some of the smaller islands and was super excited to touch down. My first impression after having stepped off the plane: the humidity! Holy, it was terrible. Sticky, stifling, unbearable. Everyone had warned me about how hot it would be, but it was worse than I’d ever imagined. And the most shocking thing – it wasn’t even the middle of summer yet at that time. All we could do was try to distract ourselves with the beautiful scenery!
Being a school trip, we weren’t there just to swim in the sea and eat delicious food. It was also an educational trip, and being Okinawa, we were there to learn about the war. Prior to visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and hearing talks about WWII, I knew very little about what had happened.
The Battle of Okinawa had been fierce, destructive and described by the Okinawan people as hell on Earth. Okinawa had only become a part of the Japanese empire in the 1870s. Possibly for this reason, the people were not much of a priority to the Japanese military whose main goal was to prevent the Americans from creating a base from which they could attack the 4 mainland islands. Every day for almost 3 months, from April to June 1945, Japanese and American soldiers fought on land, air and sea. When the Japanese Army retreated to their last defence line at the southern tip of the island, they became cornered and thousands of soldiers and civilians were killed, resulting in what’s known as the killing fields or the Battleground of Hell. The surviving Okinawans fled for their lives and hid in dark underground caves called gama. Many died here from sickness and starvation. But the most gut-wrenching stories to hear were that the Japanese Army forced mass suicides of the Okinawan people, as though they were the enemy. I really can’t comprehend this. In total, over 200,000 people died, the majority of whom were innocent civilians, young and old.
The Peace Memorial sits on the top of a cliff near that final battleground. The names of 240,000 Japanese and foreigners have been inscribed as a way to remember those who lost their lives and so that future generations can learn from this battle and make sure it never happens again. Inside the memorial museum, you can read about exactly what happened, watch video clips, read testimonies and see life-like exhibits which are very confronting. After the museum, we got the chance to visit an actual gama. It was disguised from the ground level, and I didn’t even notice the entrance till we were actually walking down. And boy, was it hot in there – no escaping the heat. And to think we were there around the same time the battle occurred. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least.
Day 2: Okinawa Main Island – sightseeing
After a sobering first day, we spent the 2nd day sightseeing around the Okinawa Main Island. The most memorable place for me was Churaumi Aquarium, which is one of the most well-known aquariums in Japan. The main tank is insane! Made from 1m thick glass, it’s home to many manta rays, countless varieties of fish and huge whale sharks! I could have sat there all day watching the mantas swim through schools of fish and twirl round and round, while the whale shark glided by so peacefully. It was also a great place to escape the heat outside!
Another historically significant place we visited was the World Heritage Shuri Castle in Naha city. Before Okinawa was taken over by Japan, it was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the capital was Shuri city, present day Naha. In the centre of the city was Shuri Castle, originally built in the late 1300s. It has only 2 storeys and is painted vermillion red from its Chinese influence, making it look more like a shrine than castle in my opinion. Over its 500-odd year history, it was damaged from fire many times, before being completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa. Inside the current reconstructed castle is a museum with lots of artefacts – like the beautiful king’s chair – giving a rare glimpse of a lost kingdom.
The Okinawa Main Island is the most developed and largest of the 5 main islands in Okinawa. I was expecting a bigger presence of the U.S. military since they have a major base there, but actually I really didn’t notice them – maybe it was just the places we visited. And although the seashore did resemble Australia a little, after the first 2 days, I realized how completely different it was due to its unique culture and history. It was awesome to explore the Main Island and I was excited for the next few days of island hopping away from the crowds!
Living in Tokyo, the public transportation system is so extensive and reliable that there really is no need to own a car. So these days when I travel around the country, I actually try my best to plan trips to places where you need a car! That’s how much I miss driving. Besides, who doesn’t love a road trip!? Not only does it let you do things at your own pace, but it gives you the chance to go where no trains or buses go. In other words, it gives you the chance to step off the beaten path. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent trip to Fukushima.
We left Shinjuku Station on the 9am bus bound for Fukushima Prefecture. We made our way out of the metropolis, past farmlands, through mountains (literally), and deep into the countryside, before arriving at Aizu-Wakamatsu Station just after 1pm. The most well-known attraction in Aizu-Wakamatsu is Tsuruga Castle, and it seemed like the entire town was an extension of it. The streets were dotted with preserved warehouse-style buildings that you can see in many ancient castle towns in Japan. Even the train station and underpass entrances replicated the castle’s roof design. I felt like we’d stepped into an open-air museum or a movie set.
We decided to use the town’s hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus for the afternoon. The first stop was the castle for a history lesson. Many castles in Japan look similar, but one thing that makes Tsuruga-jo different to all the others is its red tile roof – which I imagine looks exceptionally beautiful when the 1,000 pink cherry blossoms trees surrounding it are in bloom. Aizu’s bloody history is also well known in Japan. During a 17-month civil war in the late 1800s called the Boshin War, there was a large group of teenage samurai in Aizu called the Byakkotai. After one battle in particular, 20 boys were separated from the rest of the clan and retreated to a nearby hill. From afar, they thought they saw the castle on fire and decided to commit seppuku (suicide for samurai) thinking the war had been lost. Sadly, the smoke they had seen was actually from a fire outside of the castle walls. 19 of the boys died, and one survived to tell their story. The tragedy has been adapted into novels, TV dramas and movies and their tombstones are visited by many people each year.
Our second stop for the afternoon was Higashiyama Onsen, a hot springs town located in the mountains just outside of Aizu. A river runs straight down the middle of the town, with ryokans lining each side. I’d read that this area was in need of some TLC and unfortunately those reviews weren’t wrong. It felt like an abandoned town for the most part, with ugly cables running along the water’s edge and the buildings looking old and worn. Further up the river, however, things were a little different. Wild flowers were everywhere, and the river felt more natural without the invasive concrete structures. The streets were clean and atmospheric and whole place felt peaceful. We chose a ryokan and soaked in a hot spring by the river. Bliss!
To end the day, we tracked down a Kitakata ramen restaurant. This is one of the most famous regional ramens in Japan, and is originally from Kitakata, the town next to Aizu. The noodles are thick, wavy and soft; and the soup is made using soy sauce. Delicious!
On day two, we were up early to have some breakfast before going to pick up our rental car. We’d reserved the car from 9am to 6pm and weren’t going to waste a minute! From Aizu, we headed south to a place in the middle of nowhere called Ouchijuku. In the old days, Aizu was connected to Nikko via a trade route through the mountains. Along the route were a number of post towns like Ouchijuku where samurai, travellers and farmers could put their feet up and grab a bite to eat. Ouchijuku is especially picturesque because all of the houses feature thick thatched roofs, similar to those in the World Heritage Shirakawago, to protect the buildings from snow during winter.
Ouchijuku is fairly small and there is just one main street lined with houses, but I found it fascinating. I loved the traditional houses. I loved eating the local dishes – DELICIOUS tempura manju and very interesting Ouchijuku-style soba eaten with a long leek instead of chopsticks!! I loved all the colourful flowers blooming everywhere you looked – cherry blossoms, rapeseeds, tulips, snowbells. I loved talking to the local people who were so cheerful and friendly. Needless to say, I’d 100% recommend a visit if you ever get the chance!
From Ouchijuku, we headed further south to an even more remote place called To-no-hetsuri. We had happened to see this place on a local map earlier that day, and then were recommended to go there by some people we met at Ouchijuku, so we made a detour to go check it out. Over thousands of years, the river and wind have eroded the soft, white walls of the cliff to create some very unusual formations. Some gaps are so large that they have created caves that you can walk into. As usual in Japan, they have even built a shrine inside one of the caves. I loved the deep green-blue colour of the water, too. And with the bright green foliage up top, it made for an impressive sight.
On the road again, we travelled a couple hours north, around the huge Lake Inawashiro, into the forest between Mt Bandai and Mt Adatara, and down a lonely dirt track. We were very, very far from the beaten track, that’s for sure. From the car park, we walked through a few natural wooden torii gates and followed a shallow stream full of moss-covered rocks. Everywhere we looked, everything was green. Bright green. I could feel the negative ions swirling around us, purifying our pores and taking away any stress and worries.
We passed under one final torii before the gorgeous and graceful Tatsusawa-Fudo Falls came into view. I hear the autumn colours are stunning here, and in the winter, the waterfall freezes over. In summer, the weather is nice enough that you can walk behind/under the waterfall! During spring though, the water and air temperatures were still very cold, and we made do with admiring the waterfall from afar.
The sun was starting to set and eventually we pulled ourselves away and hit the road back to Aizu, making it back to the rental shop at 6pm on the dot. The following morning we caught the bus back to Tokyo, wrapping up our adventurous trip to Fukushima.
As the train entered the outskirts of the city, I slowly opened my eyes after having dozed off. Half asleep, I looked out the window; a sea of city lights met the dark night sky. In the distance an unmistakable sight immediately got my attention and any tiredness I had felt from the previous couple of days quickly vanished.
Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city was a blinding, pure white vision, like an angel descended from heaven. Lit up from all angles, Himeji Castle seemed to float above the city. It looked like an illusion, and a little out of place in a modern city. Then again, the castle has been around in its original state for over 400 years, so perhaps it’s the city that doesn’t match!
My sakura trip so far had taken me to Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and the countryside around it, and Osaka, before bringing me to my final destination. I was super excited to be visiting the country’s most famous castle, especially since it had been closed for so long to undergo renovations. I was still a couple of days early for the peak of the cherry blossoms, but I knew I was in for an awesome experience regardless.
I was up early again the next day. I had heard of the long queues to get into the castle, and the congestion inside the castle itself due to narrow and steep staircases, so the plan was to get there as early as possible. During the cherry blossom season, the gates open earlier than usual, and at 8:45am it was already busy.
One thing that intrigued me about the castle was all of the defence mechanisms. From the castle grounds entrance, you follow a confusing, winding path that goes through about half a dozen gates before you actually step foot inside the main keep. In fact, there used to be 84 gates throughout the complex. The castle appears to have five floors, but actually has six plus a basement within the stone base. The different floors are full of secret hiding places, special lattice windows and stone drop hatches, and the walls outside are lined with gun and arrow shooting holes. Also, the white exterior is made of plaster to protect the castle from fire and bullets.
I finished my visit at midday with a quick walk around the central moat only to stumble upon the most gorgeous view ever! I had seen the castle from this angle on postcards but didn’t know exactly where it was. Cherry blossoms in the foreground, the red bridge in the middle ground and the castle in the background – amazing. I ended up sitting here with my lunch taking in the view for as long as I could.
What an incredible few days. Kansai is a special region full of iconic locations and a lot of history. This was my sixth spring in Japan and rather than thinking I’ve done everywhere worth going, I just keep discovering more and more places I want to go! Talking to the locals of a particular area, you find out so much that you’ll never find in guidebooks. But for now, the cherry blossoms have departed and it’s back to normal life, for a short while at least :P
No trip to the Kansai region is complete without seeing Nara. So, after 24 hours sakura hunting in Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, I hopped on the train and moved an hour south to another of the former capital cities.
From 710 to 784, Nara was the centre of Japan. Remarkably, some of the world’s oldest surviving buildings are found in Nara Prefecture, like the pagoda at Horyuji Temple. Up until the 700s, Shintoism had been the main belief system in Japan. But the Emperor, a devout Buddhist, changed that. Buddhism spread across the country from China, and with it came the earliest known works of written literature produced in Japan. Also under the order of the Emperor, Todaiji Temple was built and inside it, the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha.
Surrounding Todaiji is Nara Koen, a park full of free-roaming, wild deer! They came from the sacred hills behind Nara and were once considered messengers from God. They were protected by the government so much so that harming a deer would have resulted in heavy punishment. Today, the laws are a bit more relaxed though they are still recognised as a national treasure of Japan. People can buy special deer crackers to feed them and I think after so many years of being hand-fed, they have become one of the bossiest animals I’ve ever come across! They will grab anything out of your hand – so hold onto your food, maps, brochures and handbag tightly if you don’t want to lose them!
I was up early on day two of my trip and headed to Nara Park before the bus loads of tourists arrived. It was so peaceful and I got to witness the deer coming down through the forest and into the township. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a migration! They didn’t take any notice of me or the other people around, nor of the traffic that was starting to get busy. The funniest thing was seeing them cross the road. There was a special deer warning sign and somehow they all stopped right in front of it, then proceeded like children at a pedestrian crossing.
Starting from the edge of the town, a long, wide path serves as the entrance to Kasuga Taisha, a shrine tucked away in the woods. The shrine grounds were completed in 768 and some original structures exist to this day. Kasuga Taisha is registered as a World Heritage Site and is known for its 3,000 lanterns which have been donated by worshippers over the past 1,200-odd years. My favourite part was a pitch black chamber full of glowing lanterns. It was eerie but mesmerising.
I didn’t go to Nara just to see Todaiji and the deer, though. I wanted to get out of the city and explore the countryside. My original plan was to visit a place called Yoshino-yama, which is considered by many as the best sakura spot in the country. For 1 or 2 weeks a year, the entire mountain is covered in pink trees. But I was about 4 or 5 days too early and if I’d gone, I would have only seen a few flowers here and there. Not worth the 2-hour, multiple transfer train trip. Bad timing! Anyway, there’s always next year. So instead, I turned to some locals’ advice and continued my sakura hunt to Koriyama Castle, known for its cherry blossoms; Yakushi-ji Temple, one of the Japan’s oldest temples; and Toshodai-ji Temple which along with Yakushiji is a World Heritage Site.
Can you imagine what life would have been like back in the 700s? It was surreal to be walking around all of these ancient places in what felt like the middle of nowhere. It didn’t really feel like Japan, to be honest. I was in another world.
The day was drawing to a close and I was pretty exhausted after what felt like an entire day of walking. I got back on the train and headed towards my third and final destination, the home of the White Heron Castle. Part 3 to come.
I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.
2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!
I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!
Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).
Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)
Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.
Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)
I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.
Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)
After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!
Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)
A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.
Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)
I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!
Climbing Mt Fuji (August)
By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!
Matsumoto Castle (September)
One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!
Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)
One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!
Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)
After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!
Autumn colours in Toyama (November)
The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.
As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!
As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!
Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!