Chuugoku 2: Akiyoshido and Motonosumi shrine

Although Yamaguchi itself felt like a very small town in the middle of nowhere, I was about to venture further into the Japanese countryside. About one hour by bus from Shin-Yamaguchi station are the largest and longest limestone caves in Japan. The bus ride takes you high into the hills, passing the rice fields, valleys and trees, and far from any heavy civilisation. Admittedly not many locals would make the journey up to the caves, but there were only 3 people on the bus who made the hour trip, and leaving in the other direction I was the only passenger for the whole journey!

Being in the country, I found that anyone who knew even a smidgen of English wanted to practice with me. One gent started talking to me coming back from the toilets in front of the cave entrance about a Scottish girl who was doing a homestay with his family for a year, and about the band her father plays in. Absolutely fascinating I’m sure, but not when there were caves to be explored.

The Akiyoshido caves were indeed impressive! Prepare yourself for some expert geological analysis. Just inside the entrance, the roof stretched up to a height of about 40 metres, and must have been a similar distance across. There were lots of stalactites, although fewer stalagmites, which is all you want from caves really. At one point there was an area called the 1000 plates, which were flat limestone deposits (in the shape of plates) which also looked nice. And closer to the other end was a really thick column of limestone which must have been one of the oldest parts of the whole cave system.

I would be spending the night in the town of Hagi, about another hour bus ride north of the caves. The following day, I planned to visit my friend Hanako and her family who live about 2 hours from Hagi in Hamada, and it was on the bus that I checked the train schedules for the following day. What I hadn’t anticipated was that being right in the countryside, there were only 2 possible trains to take from Hagi: one leaving at 8.30am, and the other at 5pm. I had been planning on leaving around lunchtime, so this threw me into a quandary. On consultation with Hanako, she had made lots of plans for us the following day so we decided that I would get the earlier train.

This, however, led to a sudden change of plans for that afternoon. Not now having the following morning as I had expected, I decided to bump forward visiting a really cool little shrine by the sea, which was about an hour from Hagi in the opposite direction to Hamada. The bus dropped me off about a 10 minute walk from Hagi station, about 30 minutes before the train left. Again, being the country, the service was more akin to a Sunday service in the UK and the next train wouldn’t be for another 2 hours, so I didn’t have time to drop off my bag at the hostel so that would be coming with me too.

As I had a little time to kill at the station, I was dawdling around a bit when a station worker shouted out to me “Bus? Train?”. He was taken aback when I replied in Japanese, but took the opportunity to explain about a Hagi citizen who was one of five Japanese people sent to UCL in the mid-1800s to learn about foreign culture and technology at a time when Japan was just opening itself to the world after centuries of seclusion. Luckily, he knew the train timetables inside out so knew that I had plenty of time to show me the little exhibition inside the station building about the famous five, and he seemed really proud of them, especially when I said that yes, I had heard of UCL, a big university in London.

Eventually, the train rolled in and I rolled out, heading one change and an hour away to Nagato-furumachi station. From the station, it was a further 15 minute taxi ride to Motonosumi Inari shrine, a picturesque shrine with a series of red gates right on the sea front. It was easy to capture some great photos, as the shining sun clearly brought out the distinction of red gates, green foliage and blue sea. It was definitely probably the most remote and challenging-to-get-to shrine I’ve been to, but I feel the effort was well worth it and highly recommend it.

I headed back on the train to Hagi, ready for an early start the next morning.

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Chuugoku 1: Iwakuni and Yamaguchi

I left my job at the end of March, and as I don’t start my new one until the end of April I had a few weeks off to fill. I tried to get back to England for a bit, but my new job requires changing my visa type which due to Japanese bureaucracy takes time to process during which I wasn’t sure whether I was actually allowed to leave the country or not.

As such, I found a cheap flight to Hiroshima and headed west for a few days to an area of western Japan known as the Chuugoku region. The name itself is a little confusing, as it is exactly the same as the Japanese word for China (the kanji 中国 meaning ‘central country’, as it lay between the early settlements in Kyushu and the old capital in Kyoto).

I started in Hiroshima, a city I first visited 5 years ago. As I’d been there before, I didn’t spend much time there this time; however I did drop in at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island to see the famous red torii gates, which last time was under construction after suffering some damage strong winds!

From Miyajima, a short 20-minute train ride takes you to Iwakuni station, from which another 20-minute bus ride takes you to the Kintai-kyo bridge. Iwakuni is famous for the 350 year-old wooden arched bridge, spanning the Nishiki river and I was lucky to visit at a time when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, which added a perfect backdrop to what is already a stunningly beautiful bridge. It costs 300 yen to actually cross the bridge, I assume to cover maintenance, but if you don’t want to pay you can always just cross at the parallel road bridge 150m up river.

Another bus and train takes you from the bridge to the prefectural capital, Yamaguchi city. Yamaguchi is supposedly known as ‘little Kyoto’ for its temples and pagodas, and in walking around the town once again I could take advantage of the cherry blossom trees to provide an excellent background to my photos. At the end of a nice stream flanked on both sides by the cherry trees, there was a rather delightful 5 storey pagoda, although the temples of the city were much the same as you’d find anywhere else in Japan.

Nokogiri-yama

Nokogiri-yama, or the saw-tooth mountain, is a two-hour train ride from central Tokyo in Chiba prefecture, located by the coast of Tokyo Bay near the Kanaya ferry terminal. Perhaps best- (or only known) in the UK as the end point of Top Gear’s race across Japan a few years ago, we had originally planned to visit when our friend Dakes came to visit in 2015. Indeed, we actually made the two hour journey but had to back out at the last minute when we found the cable car to the top of the mountain was closed due to high winds. Due to our typical bad planning, we didn’t know about the hiking routes, and hadn’t had any lunch by the time we arrived, so changed our plans to take a ferry trip across Tokyo Bay for an all-you-can-eat Chinese at Yokohama’s Chinatown instead.

Two years later, however, with slightly better planning, we made a return trip fully intending to hike to the top, a walk expected to take about an hour. After arriving at Hama-Kanaya station, we had a quick fish lunch before embarking. Faced with a choice of 3 routes, we selected the middle one, not knowing that it seemed to be predominantly steep steps rather than the gentle slopes the others appeared from above. It was an unusually jolly spring day, and with the sun beating  down on us as we climbed, we worked up quite a sweat and needed a few water and coat and then jumper de-clothing breaks. Occasionally passing an envious glance at people coming down the other way, we soon gained commanding views of the bay.

The final set of steps took us out at a little hut, the entrance to the top of the mountain where we had to pay 600 yen to see any of the good stuff. Remarking how pissed you must be to get to the top only to realise you didn’t have any change, we happily paid up and could gaze upon the Buddha which was the end point to the Top Gear race. At the time, we hadn’t actually seen that particular episode, and were surprised when we watched it afterwards as there’s a much more impressive Buddha just round the corner which would have been a much better ending point.

Top Gear’s finish Buddha

We decided that the slightly less impressive Buddha must have been chosen due to the much better camera angles afforded by being overlooked by the saw tooth itself. A further 5 minute climb took us there, and after a 15 minute queue we were able to take a photo ourselves. After dropping in on the bigger and more impressive Buddha, we took a leisurely stroll down the other side of the mountain before collapsing on the train journey back to Tokyo.

The bigger, better Buddha just down the hill