Days 182 and 183 – Steam

Kinosaki is a small (population circa 4000) but beautiful town set just back from the sea.  With a tranquil willow lined canal running through its centre that is criss-crossed by several stone humpback bridges and plenty of cafés and shops, you could happily while away a couple of sunny days here and feel it was a worthy diversion off the main foreign tourist route.

Undoubtedly the picturesque surroundings are part of the appeal that the place holds, but the reason that mainly Japanese tourists travel here to experience the best examples of one of Japan’s unique cultural traditions….the Onsen.

Yet again we are staying in a Ryokan, and a particularly impressive one at that thanks in part to a free room upgrade.  Our Ryokan includes Japanese tea served in your room and a full on Japanese breakfast in the morning – self BBQ’d Sandfish, spinach and tofu!

In addition our hosts also present us with our outfits for the next few days.  Oh boy.

The full Onsen ‘experience’ starts by dressing in traditional clothing.  That means slightly uncomfortable wooden sandals (complete with special socks that separate your big toe from the rest of them) and Yukatas (a type of kimono).

Niki looks radiant in her beautiful bright gown completed by a wide waistband tied perfectly a bow.  I look like one of those slightly confused elder gentlemen that are occasionally found walking round ASDA in their dressing gowns.

Our outfits are completed by the addition of a rather fetching feminine wicker basket in which we place our towels and then we leave the hotel and walk the down the street to one of the seven Onsen baths that are spread out across the town.

Each of them present the same basic format.  Separate male and female areas in which you strip naked, have a very thorough shower and then immerse yourself in really quite warms pools of water.  And then just relax.

When you have had enough you get out, put your dressing gown and clogs on and head off to find another one to try.  You can grab a bite to eat or a beer on the way as several places along the side of the canal offer sustenance ‘to go’.

The basics are the same but each Onsen offers a different experience.  Some have the additional options of saunas and cold rooms, but it’s the location and design of the baths themselves that we think can make the whole process memorable.

Sat in a open-aired stone pool with blue skies above you, watching steam rise off the water and looking out across the bay towards the mountains whilst listening to sound of a waterfall beside you is simply one of the most relaxing experiences of our entire trip.

Even if you do have to share it with a group of naked Japanese people.


Day 181 – Rainy days and Mondays

After some wonderful weather it is almost as though Japan senses our impending return to the UK, checks the calendar and notices that it’s a Bank Holiday Monday, and decides to help our transition with a day of rain and grey skies.

Thankfully we have been storing up some of the indoor attractions that Kyoto has to offer and do a pretty good job of avoiding the rain.  That said the Japanese seem to be pretty well organised when it comes to rain.

For 500 Yen (about £2.50) you can buy an umbrella from a multitude of places.  Made of clear plastic they are both easily recognisable and give a great sense of openness and visibility compared to the traditional British brolley.  Better still when you enter various establishments across the city you are either offered a umbrella bag therefore negating the need to flap wildly outside a shop, or just a box that you drop your brolly into.  Because they are all the same, it doesn’t matter which one you grab when you leave either.  The whole system works really well.

So what do you do when you are in Kyoto and it rains?  Before you answer that question you might want to remind yourself that we choose to visit a Mazda factory and an incinerator recently.  Our first stop today was to pay homage to the Walt Disney of game design and we set out to visit the headquarters of Nintendo.

A longish underground ride brought us to a (being honest) disappointing industrial estate and a white building with a grey logo on it.  Unperturbed we take some photos and drop off a letter thanking them for all their help in ensuring I didn’t graduate with a first degree but I did leave university with a pretty amazing lap time on Mario Mart.

After that we get a bit more orthodox and head to an official tourist attraction type place, or at least on the face of it, when we visit the International Manga Museum. Once inside it seems far less of a museum and more of a living library.  Everywhere you look there are Japanese people reading the many Manga books, reading sat down on chairs, reading stood up, reading sat on stairs, reading everywhere.

It gives the place a lovely relaxed feel.  There are some exhibits that explain the subtleties of manga vs anime, and the various media examples you can see that the influence manga has and had across  the world, but honestly the best bit of the museum was seeing the range of people, from arguably the most technologically focused nation on the world, sitting and reading comic books (with the absence of smart phones) from the past 60 years on a wet Monday afternoon.

Day 180 – Knock on wood

f you have seen the film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, then you have not only seen an amazing film but also will have a feel for the mesmerising other worldly scene that a bamboo forest can create.

The JR Pass pays dividends again as we get to travel for “free” to the far west of the Kyoto area to get to the Arashiyama area…..and once again walk into the masses of Golden Week tourists.

Perhaps we are being a bit of a tourist snob, but whilst undoubtedly spectacular the number of people make it difficult to really appreciate the beauty of what we are seeing.

In fact, a few days earlier having read the Top 25 experiences of Japan in the Lonely Planet our friend Tom took us to his own personal bamboo forest in an attempt to equal their claims and in fact ended up giving an experience that was far better.  We got to experience what felt like a larger and more dense Bamboo forest with the absence of anyone else, and without the restrictions of fences and barriers.  Instead we clambered through his land harvesting bamboo shoots ready for the BBQ later that day.

So Tom 1 : 0 Lonely Planet.  Well done mate!

Though a visit to Arashiyama is not something that we regretted.  It is a beautiful location and in fact a walk and a stop at the Gio-ji temple is worth the trip alone.

A temple hosting the remains of a dancer that after being spurned by her lover dedicated her life to being a nun.  The gardens of which are hidden under the shade of high canopy trees and surrounded by a moss carpet that possesses more shades of green than you thought possible.  With sunshine dappled across the organic carpet you cannot help but be captivated by the sight.

Visually bamboo forests are wonderful.  But they can also provide an audible treat.  With the blowing wind the densely packed trucks are forced into each other and the sound they make due to their hollow nature is musical.  Different heights and diameter of tree create a different sound.  Our wonderfully clear and sunny day means that sadly we are not able to experience the natural version, but walking along tapping your knuckles against the trees creates something that makes me reminisce about my glockenspiel group at school (and yes, I did get bullied for it).

On the way back home we visit another of Kyoto’s famous temples, Fushimi-inari, which is home to the most Shinto gates we have seen.  And we have seen a lot.  A pathway leading for the bad to top of the hill covers 4 km and is lined by over 30,000 of them creating an odd orange tunnel effect.  Odd? Certainly.  Creates some interesting imagery for the end of an interesting day? Absolutely.

Day 179 – Whiter shade of pale

Golden week is the name given to a period of public holidays in Japan that fall in May, which if they fall correctly can give the average worker 8 days off work in a row without touching annual leave entitlements.  In a country that has limited standard leave entitlements in comparison to Europe, an average person might get two weeks, these are considered precious.

It doesn’t quite fall like that this year, but it still means that for a lot of the days this week it is a public holiday and therefore much much busier than normal.  We immediately notice this when we get off the bus stop to walk round another of the picturesque areas of old Kyoto.

The pedestrianised streets of the Higashyaima district are crammed with native tourists and our planned walking route seems to go in the opposite direction of the masses and we struggle our way through like salmon going up stream.

As is now the norm, we have more temples and shinto gates that you can shake an incense stick at, but they are beautiful and we head to one called Kiyomizu-dera that is built on a huge veranda over hanging a precipice that looks amazing.  There are lots of ‘things’ that people are queuing up for, queueing to ring bells, queueing to light sticks, queuing to stand and pray in front of Buddha statues etc., but we just walk round and observe.

Something that is particularly lovely about the busyness is that we get to see lots of people dressed in traditional Japanese clothes.  We are not sure if it is always like this, or if it is just during Golden Week, but seeing so many women looking amazing in colourful robes adds to the whole feel of the area (the men accompanying tend to look slightly less keen and more like they have stepped out in the dressing gowns).

Whilst the traditional clothes are impressive, our next stop is the Gion area of Kyoto.  An area that people go to get a glimpse of individuals that make the standard Kimono look like the equivalent of jeans and a T-Shirt……Geishas.

Made “Hollywood famous” by the 1997 film “Memoirs of a Geisha”, they are a rare and often misunderstood group.  They are not ladies of the night, but merely entertainers.  Being one is not easy, and getting to spend time with one is something that takes years and makes becoming a Mason seem like getting a Clubcard.

Whilst we stroll the streets we get to see a number of tourist Geishas, that is people that have paid to spend 3 hours getting made up before walking round .  You cannot be certain when you have seen a genuine one, we think we might have seen a couple because they didn’t seem obsessed with taking “selfies” every 2 minutes on their iPhones!

They look remarkable.  Sharing the same colourful Kimono attire we have seen plenty of places, but with the addition of ridiculous shoes, amazingly complex hair and then there is the make up.  These girls use more makeup than a Geordie on a Saturday night and could make a Lancastrian look like they have a mahogany tan.  White as a sheet with contrasting eyes and lips, they are mesmerising to look at and give you a real sense of being in Japan.

Day 178 – Temple of love

As well as being home to a vast amount of cultural sites of its own, Kyoto is also surrounded by other locations that make a great day trip (particularly with our Japan Rail Passes).

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, and with 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it has plenty of wonderful sites including what is considered one of the top 3 sights in all of Japan.

We have seen a fair bit of old Buddha since we landed in Asia.  We have seen him in tiny emerald form, in golden reclining form, and in gargantuan carved out of a cliff face form to name a few.  Nara lays down a marker down in the world of impressive Buddha statues wxith the Daibutsu-den, or Great Buddha, standing at 15m tall and one of the largest cast bronze figures in the world even though it was made way back in 746.

Maybe we have been a bit over exposed to Buddha, whilst it is an impressive sight I think we were more taken with the building in which he resides.  The main hall of the Todai-ji temple is the largest wooden building in the world and is simply  extraordinary to look at, particularly when set against clear blue skies and bathed in bright sunshine.

Now only two thirds of its original size after the initial structure burned down, it still stands over 48 metres tall and nearly 60 metres wide, and despite the masses of tourists it manages to never feel too full.

Walking round the rest of Nara through the majestic gardens, parks and temples affords you plenty of opportunity to feed the wild deer (or as wild as a population continually fed by tourists with 150 Yen biscuits can be – though that said one did eat Niki’s map) and admire the hundreds, if not thousands of stone pillars housing lanterns lining the pathways.  If you are lucky enough to visit in February during the Mantoro festival they are lit and reportedly provide impossibly atmospheric and beautiful lighting for a night time stroll.

The furthest point on our walk round Nara before retuning to the train station is a stop at Wakamiya-jinja temple.  Whilst being all the things that we have come to expect from temples (beautiful, calm, relaxed etc) it also has some of the more unusual prayer plaques we have seen.

It is common to see small pieces of wood tied to walls with writing on them as people wish for various things, and often certain temples will be associated with a certain aspect of life e.g. we saw one that was associated with study and children would often come to write a prayer before exams.

We are not sure quite what the theme of the Wakamiya-jinja temple is but the pieces of wood were heart shaped or with pictures of either men’s genitalia of women’s breasts on the reverse.  Perhaps we’ll let you decide what you think people are praying for?

Day 177 – Sleep sound

Being environmental geeks our next stop on our Japanese itinerary is a name that resonates loudly through our lefty tree hugging consciousness.  The Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was when the worlds developed nations acknowledged that climate change was a genuine global threat and set targets to curb emissions of CO2 by the year 2020.

Steps have been taken, partly noticeable by the proliferation of the hybrid and electric car along the city streets, but I am not sure that the world will meet the targets they set in 5 years time.  These, however feel like problems of the modern age, and Kyoto is not a city that feels like the modern world is its focal point.

This sense is helped by our accommodation choice for our stay, a traditional Ryokan.  Wooden houses, with wooden floors covered with tatami matting and thin bamboo walls that you are required to remove shoes before entering and remain quiet whilst inside.  The basic theme is also seen with the furnishings, a typical room with have a futon mattress on the floor, a single Japanese wall hanging and maybe a low table.

This doesn’t sound the most comfortable place in the world, but believe me it is.  Without an early flight or train, we have gotten out of the habit of setting an alarm and regularly wake naturally around 8:00am….our first morning in the Ryokan saw us stir at a decadent 10am!

If Tokyo is the economic heart of Japan, Kyoto is its daydreaming soul.  In fact at the start Kyoto can feel a little overwhelming with the dizzying array of historic and cultural sites on offer.  Looking through the usual guidebooks and websites, the disparate spread of locations all over the city can make planning days difficult.  After 30 minutes of starring at maps and leaflets we head out for a much needed cup of tea with a plan for the next few days.

Temples, temples, temples.

These are the words that our friends in Hofu used to describe Kyoto and they were not wrong.  We enjoy a wonderful afternoon strolling round a couple of the more famous ones, Nazenji and Ginkakuji, connected by a walk along the Philosophers Way nipping into a tea and cake shops to dodge the occasional shower.  We may have missed the famous cheery blossom, but the brightness and range of early spring greens on display in the ornamental gardens is spectacular.

Days 174 to 176 – Far from home

Travelling the world as we have done for the past 5 months or so is an amazing experience which give you a taster to what life is like across the green and blue ball that we call home.

There is another way of seeing what the world is like beyond the borders of the place you call home.  Something that changes the taster to a full on degustation menu.  Change the place you call home permanently.

Before our parents have a heart attack thinking we are dropping a bombshell on them via the media of a blog, we are not talking about us (at least not yet).  Instead I am talking about an old friend that we got to visit for a few days.

Tom is someone I have known on and off since our very first day at primary school.  In other words a long time ago.  Life, as John Lennon once said, is what happens to you when you are planing other things.  I think Tom’s journey from a Shaw Gawby to part time Japanese farmer is as good an example of that I have ever seen.

In the 12 years since he moved to these shores he has built a life.  He has his own business, a wife, an quite unbelievably photogenic family (seriously they make the kids from the Gap adverts look like Pug from The Bash Street Kids), and as hinted at, some land that he tends in his spare time.

In a fascinating but unfamiliar country, after months of hotels and hostels, we spent a wonderful and relaxed few days in the Southern Japanese countryside being made to feel incredibly welcome by Tom, his wife Izumi, and the two boys Ken(to) and Hari(to).  It has been wonderful to meet and spend time with someone normally so far away that we utilise the medium of FaceBook and blogs (Tom’s is here to feel like we are still friends.  A wonderful modern invention that ultimately pales next to actual time with people.

The three days with Tom, Izumi and the boys feels effortless and yet we seem to cram a huge amount into them.  Quiet 5 storey pagoda’s without tourists, bonkers restaurants with talking pens and food delivered by model bullet trains, a CosPlay convention, a haircut and eating BBQ bamboo roots we harvested ourselves.

It was a wonderful few days that sadly came to an end as we were chauffeured to the station to catch a bullet train (though we still had time to hear Tom’s sultry tones as a jingle artist on the local radio).