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SAM IN JAPAN: YAKUSHIMA

After Koyasan we returned to Osaka for the night and the next day we got on a plan to go to Yakushima Island.  Yakushima Island is accessible via 2 ways and that is either by boat or by air.  Since I get sea sickness quite easily we opted for the plane ride instead however it was a pretty bumpy ride since there was quite a bit of turbulence along the way.   Yakushima Island was another destination that was on my ‘Bucket List’ that I had to visit.  Besides being an absolutely beautiful destination with wonderful friendly people, great sites to see and amazing food it was also the main inspiration for the beautiful backgrounds you can see in the animated movie “Princess Mononoke”.  Im myself am a big fan of Studio Ghibli so once I had heard about this place I simply had to see it with my own eyes.

An example of Princess Mononoke’s forest from the movie

Upon arriving at Yakushima we picked up our hire car near the port area and made our way to our accommodation for the next few days.  I highly recommend hiring a car to get around the island as public transportation whilst is available is not practical as most of the attractions around the island are either very far away or only accessible by car.  You can opt to join a tour group however car hire is very cheap and much more convenient.

Our accommodation for the the next few days was the very quaint very cute Cottage Morinokokage.  It’s a small collection of cabins that remind you of small cottages with a Disneyesque sort of feel to them.  The very gracious and wonderfully brilliant man who runs this establishment with his family is Nakashima who speaks fluent English and is very friendly and informative when it comes to his hometown.  There is a very interesting story to Nakashima who originally was in charge of the IT department for Tokyo Disneyland but after years of working there quit and moved back to Yakushima to start his own business.  All of the cabins that are currently there are constructed and designed by himself and are decorated to have an old English feel.

After we settled in we spent the rest of the day getting to know the area by checking out some of the local sites and driving around the island.  We had planned to do some hiking whilst in Yakushima as it was highly recommended but was told it would take at least a couple of hours to complete so we thought it best to reserve a whole day for that.  In the mean time we checked out other sites like the local onsen, some smaller hiking trails, coffee shops, tourist centres and such and mostly driving around the island enjoying the scenic view along the way.

The next day we prepared ourselves for a full day of hiking.  We are pretty novice when it comes to hiking but we were told that most of the visitors usually can handle the particular trail that we decided to go on.   The trail we walked lasted about 6 hours from start to finish ( this trail is a return trip ).  You can choose to take short cuts if you can’t complete the whole trail but just be aware the trail does get a little rough.  There’s some climbing over rocks, over small rivers and up narrow hill paths so just be prepared and be careful when hiking.

The trails themselves are absoulutely breath taking.  For those that have seen the movie “Princess Mononoke” it truly is almost like in the movies except more awe inspiring.  There are rocks, moss, trees and mountains that are just truly beautiful and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  I spent most of the hike resting along the way and taking pictures of the beautiful forest that I could.  I really don’t think I could capture the magnificence of this forest but I tried my best.  This trail that we went on wasn’t even the nicest one, according to Nakashima.  It was one of many although the ‘better hikes’ are more for those that are accustomed  to hiking and maybe best to avoid if you are a novice.

For our last few days in Yakushima we spent them exploring the rest of the island, which if you drive around continuously non stop should take about 2-21/2 hours.  It’s a gorgeous view with views of the mountains covered in forest and the sea’s shore from all around.  If you have time definitely check out on the beaches near sunset and drink in the magnificent view.

I hope you all enjoyed this week’s post on Yakushima.  It’s a lot longer  than my other previous posts only because this was such a wonderful experience.  I encourage anyone to definitely make this destination a must go place if you are ever in Japan.  Look forward to the last post on Japan covering the last days in Kagoshima and Tokyo, till next time :).

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SAM IN JAPAN: KOYASAN

Koyasan is located about roughly 2 hours away from Osaka in the Wakayama prefecture area.  Most popular for it’s temple stays and the moss graveyard it is a place that was on my definite to do list whilst in Japan.  After a very scenic train ride most of the day was spent visiting local shrines and checking out the local delicacies and such.  After a quick walk around town we headed towards the ‘Oku no In’, a moss covered graveyard which is a popular tourist attraction.  At first I was a little scared about heading into the graveyard but once you get there it is nothing less than spectacular.  Granite tombstones covered in beautiful dewy moss, lines of little statues wrapped in bright red scarfs amongst the gigantic forest trees was truly an experience I won’t soon forget.

Around 6.00pm after we finished at ‘Oku no In’ we arrived at our accommodation for the night, a temple stay, and  had a soak in the their public bath house.  Since we were staying at a temple the monks only prepare vegetarian meals for dinner, this was not an issue as I had heard the meals at the temple stays were quite delicious.  Soon after we had settled in there was a knock at our door and several monks came in bearing trays of food for each individual.  There were 3 trays to each person each with an array of small tofu and vegetable based dishes placed neatly one after the other.  After the trays were set the monks described each dish and left us to enjoy the food.  The dinner was amazing especially their sesame tofu which I thought was the highlight of the meal.  A rich luscious firm tofu with a hint of sweetness and tones of sesame through out it with a side of their seasonal vegetables and locally made pickles was a treat.

During the night time there isn’t much open as many of the establishments close by about 9.00pm.  So most of the night was spent relaxing and just winding down after the long day.

The next morning we packed our things and made our way around before we headed towards the bus stop to go to the station.  We had missed an earlier bus so we decided to walk there instead as it didn’t seem that far.  We took a detour and in the end hiked down the mountain all the way to the train station which took at least 1 ½ hours, although we were walking at a very slow pace.  The hike was quite enjoyable but if you do decide to go down this way best to wear proper foot wear and to not go alone as the paths can be a little tricky and there isn’t anyone around so be careful.

Well that’s all for Koyasan for this week, next week’s post will be on Yakushima Island.  The place that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s film “Princess Mononoke”.

SAM IN JAPAN: KYOTO AND OSAKA

Kyoto and Osaka was a very quick stop over trip.  About 3 days were spent in Kyoto and 1 day was spent in Osaka, at this point I met up with the family and the rest of the trip in Kyoto was spent visiting all the local shrines, eating the local food and visiting Gion, Japan’s most famous Geisha district.  Kyoto is one of my most favourite places to visit, there is not as much hustle and bustle as Tokyo or Osaka and it possesses the lovely charm of traditional Japanese buildings which are more prominent here than anywhere else that I have been to in Japan.  Whilst I was in Kyoto I managed to make some time to visit the Manga Museum, which for any avid manga enthusiast is a definite must.  There is a long history of manga presented in the museum along with artist exhibitions scattered amongst the different rooms inside and not to mention all the manga you can possibly read.  Note that most of the manga is in Japanese so if you can read Japanese be prepared to put in at least a whole day if you want to catch up on those books you can’t get access to.

Osaka was predominantly eating since we had to leave for Koyasan the next day.  We stayed on the bustling street Dotonbori, known for its night life, shopping and food.  The street is very popular with tourists since the street is lined with shops, restaurants and mechanised signs which is a sight to see, especially at night time when the street lights and neon signs light up.  There’s a lot food places along this street that offer up many Japanese favorites such as  ramen, gyoza, takoyaki and also is home to a very popular restaurant called Kanidoraku Honten which specialises in crab cuisine dishes.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to eat at the crab restaurant as the wait to get a table was about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, so if you do plan to go, make reservations in advance.  On a final note I had the best egg tarts I’ve ever tasted in my life!  The bakery that sells them is called Lord Stow’s Bakery and stick with the original tarts as they are the cream of the crop (in my opinion).

That’s all for this week be sure to check out next week’s post on Koyasan.

SAM IN JAPAN: SHIRAKAWAGO

Shirakawago is a small town located in the CHUBU region and is famously known for its traditional thatched houses.  Shirakawago is not accessible via trains so you must catch a bus from Takayama in order to access the town.  I had planned to stay the night as I had wanted to experience a “farmhouse stay” for quite some time.  The town is small and from what I could find there was only one bus doing a circle route about the town.  Since the town is quite small  you can easily walk to where you need to go as long as you don’t mind a little foot work.  The local tourist centre is at the bus stop and the maps are in English making tourist spots and accommodation places easy to find.

I made my way to my accommodation after a brief 20 minute walk from the main bus stop and was greeted by the hosts who quickly escorted me to my room.  They explained a couple of the sites to see and things to do in the town as well as some of the rules and brief history about their establishment.  Most of the tourist spots focus on the history of the town, how the town was built, the architecture of the buildings as well as old antiques of what the people used decades ago.  You can stroll around and see several souvenir shops specialising in their local craft work, hats, footwear and other nick nacks and also many little shops which are literally just a window that offer snacks such as dango (a rice cake covered in a sweet salty sauce) and croquettes.

After covering most of the town and checking out the top view from a nearby look out peak (which was a bit of a hike for me) I made my way back to my accommodation and decided to rest up until dinner.  Around 6.30pm dinner was served and I got to meet the rest of the occupants staying at the accommodation.  After a little light dinner conversation we received our meals and tucked into the lovely home cooked meal provided around the wooden hearth.  Shortly after dinner I decided to visit the local bathing house to end the evening with a nice hot soak.  Since my accommodation was quite a distance from the bath house it took at least 15 mins to walk there.  It being a country town it was a little dark and quite quiet so on my way to the bath house it got a little scary so if you do decide to visit the bathhouse (which I highly recommend), try to find accommodation in the central part of the town or quite close to the bath house.  After the heavenly soak I made my way back to the house and tucked myself away for the night into the nice warm futon.

The next day I checked out after breakfast and did a few more laps around the town, taking photos and seeing the sites till it was time to catch the bus back to Takayama.  Overall my stay in Shirakawago was interesting.  It was good to see the village, learn about it’s history and experience a night’s stay in one of the “gasshou zukuri” houses.  I think the best time to go would be during the summer or winter seasons, I went whilst it was during the transition from winter to spring so everything was in a sludgy mess.  This place really shines during the winter period (according to photos I’ve seen) whilst still enjoyable I think if you decide to visit Shirakawago best to make it during the winter when the snow is falling.

I hope you enjoyed that post on Shirakawago.  Next week it’s Kyoto and Osaka until next time :)J

SAM IN JAPAN: YUDANAKA

Yudanaka is a small hotspring town located to the north from Tokyo and takes about 2 hours to get there by shinkasen.  For those that aren’t familiar with hot spring towns they are towns that specialise or are known for their hot spring baths.  What these baths provide is a public bath house for those that either want to relax and enjoy the natural hot springs (some baths use natural hot springs whilst some are man made)  or for those that want to simply clean themselves and head on home.  Now this concept maybe new to people so I’ll briefly explain how these hot spring public bathes work.

hotspringtut

So if you decide to use a public bath (rules are the same for both natural and man made baths) firstly you must wash yourself clean before entering the bath.  The bath is a large pool of hot water which more than one person can occupy at the same time so be aware you will be sharing a bath with several other naked people.  There should be shower heads or taps nearby with small buckets provided for you to wash yourself clean.  Once you have cleaned yourself thoroughly you may enter the bath but be warned the bathes are very hot so be sure to test the water first before submerging yourself completely.  As a precation for first time goers it is best you do not stay in the hot bath for too long as you may become dizzy from the heat.  Also it is important to keep hydrated with water straight after to avoid dehydration.   For those who are uncomfortable about being naked around others then maybe give it a miss, but if you don’t mind then I would highly recommend as it is a wonderful experience.

So now with that little tutorial out of the way I can now give a little info about the Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) I stayed in.  The place I stayed in is called Senshikan Matsuya, one of the many traditional inns located in Yudanaka.  If you stay at this Inn you are given a free pass to access all 9 public bathes (a popular attraction if you are visiting Yudanaka) anytime before 10.00pm.  It is said that each bath has a different use or cure, for example one for skin disease, cleansing the innards, and a variety of others which unfortunately I cannot remember.

The hosts of this establishment are very welcoming and offer a chauffeuring service to and from the train station upon your arrival.  They speak English quite well and are very informative and helpful especially with organising trips to the popular monkey park nearby.  Once you’ve settled in you can change into a yukata (like a light kimono) as well as a pair of wooden slippers.  You may wear these provided items of clothing about town as it is quite common since most visitors come to bathe in all 9 springs.  Wearing the yukata makes it a lot easier otherwise you’d have to keep constantly changing in and out of your regular clothes, which trust me gets cumbersome after a while.  The town is quiet and quaint with a lot of older folks selling their local wears and delicacies but besides the baths and the local fair there is not much else to do.  Ideally towns like this are ideal for vacationers who want to get away from it all and seek quiet solitude.

You can have the option of having meals provided which I highly recommend as the meal I had was wonderful.  An array of small dishes were served by a lovely sweet elderly lady who described each dish in great detail in perfect english.  During the dinner I had a kotatsu (a table with an in built heater covered with a thick blanket) which kept me nice and toasty while I dined on this delicious home made meal.  After an incredibly satisfying dinner I ventured out to explore the 9 hotsprings, unfortunately I didn’t get to cover all of them as it was getting late and I had to get up early the next day to go to the monkey park.

The next morning one of the hosts took a small group of us to the monkey park.  From the drop off point there is a bit of walk of about 25mins till you reach the destination, after that you’re free to roam about and take pictures of the monkeys or with the monkeys if you choose.  After the monkey park it was time to catch the train so soon after I caught a bus back into town and hoped on the train towards Takayama.

Overall the experience in Yudanaka was amazing.  A much needed relaxation period from the busy Tokyo scene with lovely locals and an experience you won’t soon forget.  For more pics of my time in Yudanaka you can see the full set here on my flickr site.  Next post will be Shirakawago, a UNESCO heritage town known for it’s traditional thatched houses called gassho-zukuri.

SAM IN JAPAN: TOKYO

Hello fellows, so as I promised last week I’ll be going over what I did in Tokyo in a little bit more detail.  I’ll be talking briefly about food, shopping, sites to see and a little bit on craft shops for those that maybe interested.

So Tokyo, where to start?  It’s a busy, bustling, fast paced roller coaster ride where if you stop you will most likely get bull dozed over.  I’m kidding it’s not that bad but sometimes it you just felt that way.  Tokyo is definitely a happening place.  Literally everywhere you go it is non stop and there is something happening everywhere you go.  Shopping is just insane, with several storey buildings of shops which consist of some of the nicest fashion you’ve ever seen to some of the weirdest fashion you’ve ever seen.  Tokyo is definitely a fashion hub for the very eager shopper, especially places such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ginza.  Shinjuku and Shibuya are more targeted to a younger crowd from I’d say early teens to the early twenties whilst Ginza is more your branded goods such as Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Loui Vuiton and many other luxury brand items.  Shibuya is close to Harajuku (Harajuku being the more alternative fashion than your more mainstream) and Omotesando (a few more luxury branded items) so if you do plan to do a lot of shopping, give yourself a day around this area, it will most likely not be enough but enough to satisfy your shopping needs.

Food is absolutely cheap here, and when I say cheap I mean cheap (according to Australian standards).  You can buy a cup of coffee in Tokyo for around $2.00 or less.  It might not be amazing coffee (it was really hard to find a café that made good coffee) but if you need a caffeine fix it will have to do.  I did prior research into where I could find some good cafes that specialised in coffee but unfortunately with the time schedule and everything being hidden away and written in Japanese (if you can read Japanese you will benefit a lot) it was much too difficult to find.  Although their coffee may not be great their desserts are a culinary delight for the eyes and mouth.  Most desserts, especially their cakes are immaculately presented and are cute to the absolute max!  Also it’s not only their dessert but also their food is extremely well presented, even their junk food looks nice as well!  If you’re looking at eating on the go when you’re in Japan, if you’re not picky and you just want to fill you stomach I recommend heading into a 7 eleven, Lawson, Family Mart (all of these are convenience stores) and just grab a rice ball or bento box to carry around with you if you plan to cover a lot of ground on the day.  If not then just duck into a restaurant, however with my previous experience a lot of the Japanese people did not speak English, so be prepared to do lots of pointing holding up numbers on fingers.  If you’re looking at eating out at restaurants and such the most you’ll pay is $18 for a meal (if the place is not too ritzy).  A lot of places especially near shopping districts offer many cheap eats, some starting at just $3.00 for a bento box.  if you plan to eat some where a bit more extravagent then I would recommend making a booking before hand and knowing roughly what you want before going.  If you’re staying in a hotel the concierge will usually help you make restaurant bookings if you request it.

If you’re looking for art supplies, yes it is a little off the mark but it’s what I enjoy, so for those that are interested you can check out Tokyu hands.  There are a lot more arts and crafts shops but honestly if you don’t have lots of time, Tokyu hands is your one stop destination.  I found this website that gives a great map and provides great info on a couple of craft shops in the Shinjuku area http://blackcabbit.wordpress.com/2012/03/10/craft-stores-shinjuku/

This is just skimming the surface of what you can see and do in Tokyo, there’s so many incredibly cute cafes, strange shops, out there fashion, galleries, exhibitions and more.  I wish I had spent more time in Tokyo but I guess this just gives me another excuse to go back again.  For more pics from Tokyo you can see the set here on my flickr site.  Next week look forward to Yudanaka, a hot spring town and the bathing monkeys.

SAM IN JAPAN

So after a month long vacation I’m finally back from my trip to Japan with a stop over in Singapore for a week.   I have so many updates for you guys, the biggest one being my recent (well not that recent) move back to Perth Australia my hometown.  The move was 2 weeks before the holiday so please excuse the lack of posts as life has just been a whirlwind of moving and shaking.

For the next few weeks I’ll be posting about my trip to Japan focusing on the places which I have visited which I will give a more indepth description of what I did at each place.  For this place it’ll be a little overall info about where I went and some of the highlights from each place, just so I don’t leave you guys hanging.

So my journey started in Tokyo for a week then I went onto Yudanaka, then onto to Nagoya, Shirakawago and then onto Kyoto followed by Osaka, Koyasan, Yakushima (The forest island that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke forest), Kagoshima and lastly finishing up in Tokyo once more.  After that it was Singapore for a week and back home to Perth.  I must say I mostly enjoyed the quieter areas of Japan better than the more popular touristy areas such as Tokyo and Osaka.  I used to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the busy crowds but I think as I’ve gotten older the constant pushing and shoving tends to rile the nerves a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong it’s still a great place to visit but for those that enjoy a little more of a slower paced holiday I suggest you start in Kyoto before you make a move to Tokyo.

That’s all for today’s post, stay in touch for more updates about the Japan trip (again sorry for all the delays).  Next post will focusing on Tokyo, my first travel spot.


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