Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 3)

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

 

Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 1)

In a country famous for its spring scenes filled with pink and white cherry blossoms, it’s hard to decide just where to go to enjoy these short-lived flowers. Your most memorable sakura experience could be anywhere from a residential street to a major tourist spot to a remote mountain side. The only thing to do is just get out there and explore!

For the sakura season, I had originally planned to stick around Tokyo like last year, mainly so that I could save money. But the closer I got to the spring holidays, the more I felt the itch to leave the city and make the most of my time off. With a week to go, I bit the bullet and booked my tickets, found accommodation and jotted down a rough plan. My destination: Kansai.

Kansai is a region of Japan that’s home to ancient cities, national treasures and the country’s oldest structures. It’s almost the polar opposite of Tokyo. After living in the modern, fast-paced capital for 3 years now, I immediately noticed the difference especially at my first stop, Kyoto. Even the most touristy of places have somehow managed to keep that traditional, ‘old Japan’ charm.

The last time I was in Kyoto was in 2012 during one of their best ever autumn foliage seasons. The streets were splashed with brilliant reds and yellows and oranges. After seeing the city at its fiery best, I knew I had to see it during the sakura season, too.

Night 1:

Higashiyama & Gion

Day 2:

Heian Jingu & Nanzen-ji

Imperial Palace

Rokkaku-do & Philosopher’s Path

Kyoto was breathtakingly beautiful, even though the sakura were not in full bloom. I loved strolling, or rather, crowd surfing, in Higayashima. I made it to Kiyomizu-dera just before dark and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. Walking around the streets at night felt like I was on a movie set with so many girls wearing kimono. I think Kyoto is the only city where it’s completely normal for everyone to wear a kimono! The following day I rented a bicycle which was such a good idea. You don’t have to worry about bus timetables, or getting tired from walking, or limiting yourself to just one area. Highly recommended if you visit Kyoto :) As for the sakura, the Imperial Palace was by far the best spot to see them while I was there. I love the feeling of being rained on by petals when you stand under a weeping cherry tree. And the Imperial Palace was full of them! I was also lucky to get sunshine on and off all day. As we all know, pink blossoms against a blue sky is always a winner.

After a busy day of sakura hunting I bid farewell to Kyoto, and continued onto my next stop. I headed south to a place famous for their deer that freely roam the streets. Part 2 coming soon.

A Year of Colours: 2015 Review

What a year! I’ve been looking back at my photos from the start of the year, and they feel more like distant memories than things that happened less than 12 months ago. In between major events like snowboarding in Hokkaido, sakura-viewing and going to music concerts, which of course I can recall easily, there were lots of smaller, casual events like going to local festivals, hiking and checking out cool cafes, which I’d almost forgotten about. It’s especially in times like this that I am grateful to have these visual reminders.

For last year’s review, I wrote up my top 10 trips around the country. I probably did as much travel this year, but for my 2015 review I wanted to do things differently. I came up with the idea of sorting the year into colours a while ago, and have been excited to put it together. Not all photos are of Tokyo, but all were taken in Japan and have a special significance to me. Although this is a review post, there are a bunch of new pics about places I didn’t get a chance to blog about – so feel free to ask me about them if you want to know more.

Here is my ‘year of colours’!

Yellow

White

Brown

Blue

Orange

Green

Red

Pink

Thank you all for reading and supporting Celia in Tokyo in 2015. I’m looking forward to bringing you more stories and pics in 2016.

Happy New Year!!

 

Adventure to the Japanese Alps

From when I locked the front door of my apartment behind me, to when I returned back home, was roughly a massive 17 hours!! What an insane adventure Saturday was.

I’d been to Hakuba before to go snowboarding, and had always wanted to go back in the summer to go mountain climbing/hiking but just never really got the chance. Then last week, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a beautiful picture of a misty lake surrounded by the most beautiful autumn colours – and it just happened to be located in Hakuba! The photographer said the colours would last just another few days up in the mountains. I already had a busy weekend planned, but could I squeeze this in?! I sat at a restaurant with my iPhone and researched the details of the trip and the cost, scribbling down notes on a napkin. It was going to be a hectic and expensive day. But I was so keen to see the lake and who knows when my next chance would be. To go or not to go?! Like most decisions in my life, I based it on the saying “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years”. And that was that!

The train ride from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station was direct, but 4 hours long. It was a rapid express train that runs only once a day, departing at 7:30am. Being a sunny Saturday, it was packed! The entire reserved-seat section was booked out, and the non-reserved section where I got on, was even more intense. I had to stand in the aisle for the first hour! As we got further into the countryside, people started getting off, and I eventually found a window seat to call my home for the next couple of hours.

The train pulled into Hakuba at 11:30am. The place was of course unrecognisable compared to winter when it’s covered in snow. I stood in awe at the bare, towering mountains forming a backdrop to the town. I desparately wanted to get up there as soon as I could! From the station, it was a short bus ride and then a 10 minute walk to the Gondola, the first of 3 lifts. It was fascinating seeing the foliage becoming more and more colourful the higher I went. It’s amazing what difference just a few hundreds metres in altitude makes!

The final lift took us up to 1830m above sea level. I felt like I was up in the clouds. The air was cool and fresh, and the sun warm and welcoming. And those autumn colours!! And that beautiful blue sky! It was all insanely spectacular! I felt so lucky to be there, and was happy I’d decided to go even just to see this.

After taking in the exceptional view, both up the mountain and back down over the valley, it was time to start hiking. It would take about 45 minutes to climb another 230m. The path alternated between loose stones, wooden stairways and boardwalks. It was fairly tiring – though nothing like the gruelling Mt Fuji. It probably didn’t help that I was holding an ice cream in one hand and my camera in the other!

And then, there it was. My destination. From a distance, the lake looked like a puddle amongst the gigantic mountains! The autumn colours were just past the peak viewing time, so it wasn’t as bright and amazing as it had been lower on the mountain, but it was still so pretty! There were dozens of people around the lake, having lunch and taking photos. A light breeze meant it was hard to get that perfect mirror reflection, but as soon as the wind died down, you could hear all the camera shutters going off! We’d get about a 2-second window before the reflection was completely erased! I was fascinated by the tree-less mountains in the background. They literally could have been a painting; it hardly looked real. The evidence of snow left from last winter is a sign of how chilly it was. After hanging out at the lake for about 45 minutes, I had to start moving again to warm up. So, I bid farewell to this special corner of the world and made my way back to the chairlifts.

I took my time going back to Hakuba, stopping to eat a delicious locally-caught salmon croissant, as well as admire the pretty sunset. I had planned to catch the 4:36pm train, but missed it. Like a lot of rural towns, trains run very infrequently through Hakuba. The next one wasn’t until 6:14pm, which meant it was past 11pm when I finally got home.

It was an epic day, a little crazy even for me perhaps, but what’s life if you don’t do things like this every now and then? The journey there and back was just as much a part of the adventure as seeing the lake was, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat!

 

 

Food and Fun in Hokkaido

Last month, I went on a very short trip to the top end of Japan. My big sis, her partner and my little brother flew over for a bit of fun in Hokkaido! It was awesome to have some family time so far away from home. I wish I could see them more than once or twice a year!

Hokkaido is one of Japan’s four main islands, close to Russia, and gets some pretty serious snowfall during the winter months. The snow arrives in November and sticks around til May! It’s bizarre to see the tops of road signs sticking out from a field of white. In the mountains, they use overhead signs to tell drivers where the road is. Summer huts, and any evidence of summer for that matter, get completely buried!

The snow in the north is famous for being powdery dry – perfect for snow sports. But there’s a lot more to this huge island that just that. When I think of Hokkaido, I think of a remote (…very, remote) land, hot springs, the Sapporo Snow Festival, delicious butter corn ramen, the freshest of fresh seafood, mountains and vast plains, Sapporo beer, and the indigenous Ainu people. I’ve never been in summer, but from what I hear it turns into a wilderness adventure land… mountain climbing, rafting, fishing, camping – that kind of thing!

This was my second time to the north island – both of my trips have been to go snowboarding. Last year I visited a small, local ski resort called Kiroro with a friend, and this time we headed to the world famous Niseko at Mt. Niseko-Annupuri. The beginner slopes were pretty packed, but further up it was very spacious with lots of skiers choosing to zip through the trees instead. I’m always in awe of little 5-year-olds flying down the runs – no fear! Apart from the actual slopes, another reason I loved Niseko was for the spectacular view you get of the neighbouring volcano, Mt. Yotei.

Niseko is famous for its village as much as its slopes. There are plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy, and there’s just as many people about at night time as there is during the day! With the help of cheap airfares and package deals, the village becomes overrun with Australians making the most of the ski season. The resort is so popular among Aussies that one of my favourite Aussie hiphop groups actually played a gig at a bar in Niseko a couple of weeks before we went! That was very cool, although not cool we missed seeing them…

The more time I spend in Hokkaido, the more I love it. It’s a great place to get away from it all!

Hiking the Kiso Valley

Right in the centre of Japan is a very old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.

Nakasendo used to serve as the main road connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials, peasants and pilgrims would frequent this route. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. There are many sightseeing/hiking spots, and it’s common to drive the length of the road making pit stops at certain places along the way. My friend and I decided to do an 8 kilometre hiking trail that stretches from Tsumago in Nagano prefecture to Magome in Gifu prefecture. It was a completely spontaneous decision to go but it turned out to be one of my favourite trails in Japan!

P1050853

To hike this part of Nakasendo, you can start at either Tsumago or Magome. Although we started at Tsumago, I believe most people start at Magome because it has easier access from the train station. That, and it has more downhill sections so is a bit easier!

Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts to the street signs, are a reminder of how things used to be. In restoring this town, they went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TVs and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional. Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés!

Kiso Valley Kiso Valley

After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road over the river and towards the forest. The scene changed dramatically once we were outside of the tourist area. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.

We noticed a few bells along the way. At first I thought they might have been like a shrine where you ring the bell and say a prayer. But actually the sign below them said to ring the bell to scare off bears! I wonder how often a bear is sighted here?! After the bear bell, we came across a rest stop manned by a really nice old guy. We had a chat with him and he gave us some delicious warm soup from this very traditional fire place which you see in old houses. At the Nagano/Gifu border, we stopped at another rest house to try escape the rain that was pouring down. I bought a few sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves. I’m not the biggest fan of mochi, but I loved how they were presented! I bet travellers back in the Edo period would eat this to give them energy, too.

I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually a few famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants balancing woven baskets on a rod over their shoulders as they make their way between the towns.

But now, it’s a very different story. There are many sections of the trail where you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world (apart from your hiking partner). The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley. While some parts were steep and slippery in the wet weather, most of the trail was either gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands or forest floors.

It was a very do-able and well-marked hike and took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I loved most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we did see a few other hikers every now and then. The ‘hiking spirit’ in Japan always makes me smile. In the city, nobody pays any attention to anyone else, but as soon as you hit the countryside, we all magically change and greet each other with こんにちは (hello) and sometimes even a 頑張って! (keep going!) during more difficult parts of the trail.

Kiso Valley