GW 2017: Chichibu

It’s the first week of May, and once again there are several public holidays in a row to form what is known as Golden Week, the time where almost everyone except the poor souls in sales jobs can have five days off in a row, or take a couple of days paid leave to extend their time off to a whopping 9 consecutive days.

This year, I decided to take a trip an hour and a half north of Tokyo to take a look at the shibazakura, or as they’re apparently called in English moss phlox. A 10 minute walk from Chichibu station in Saitama prefecture is Hitsujiyama Park, home to more than 400,000 moss phlox plants of nine different colours (but mainly pink).

An easy day trip from Tokyo, you can reach Chichibu by limited express train from Ikebukuro in 70 minutes, or as I found out when arriving at the station to find all the express tickets sold out (bloody Golden Week!) about 110 minutes by local train. 

In the park, there were plenty of stalls for food and drink, selling traditional festival fayre like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and udon (noodles).  However, as you can see in the park shade was a little scarce, and although there was a small shaded area to eat there wasn’t much out the back either, so be careful with the sun!

Chuugoku 5: Matsue and Tottori

From Hamada, it was a two hour journey by train north to the city of Matsue. Hanako had the day off so thought she would join me for the day. And it was another gorgeous day – the weather, in fact, was great for the whole trip except the final day; over 20 degrees every day and fantastic sunshine.

Matsue is home to one of the few remaining original castles of Japan, having survived fires and earthquakes since it was built in 1611. Situated close to Lake Shinji, it would have dominated the area before the high-rise buildings came along to hide it in their shadows.

Probably the best way to access the castle was by boat; primarily for tourists, there’s a circular tour of the rivers and castle moats that allows you to get on and off at a few spots around the city, one being right next to the castle. Although everyone sits on the bottom of the boat anyway, owing to some very low bridges we had to practice bending right down so the roof could be lowered to allow the boat to pass safely through. In the rivers we saw a collection of fish, ducks, and even some turtles sunning themselves on logs jutting out of the water.

We got off by the castle, and walked up to the main keep. Once again, the area was decked out in cherry blossom, although by now it had been dispersing for a few days so wasn’t as impressive as it could have been. In the keep were displays of old armour, swords, models of the shape of the town through the ages and on one floor a random of collection of photos of all the other castles in Japan. From the top, there were commanding views of the houses across the city.

We took advantage of finishing the boat loop, although there weren’t any other interesting places to get off, before heading back to the station and bidding adieu.

I headed on to my final stop, the city of Tottori another 2 hour train journey to the east.


Tottori is famous for one thing, and one thing alone: SAND. Tottori is home to the nationwide-famous sand dunes, situated about a 20 minute bus ride from the centre of town. I think calling them ‘dunes’, however, is rather optimistic, as there was perhaps one very large dune and several other smaller ones, although that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s not every day you’re faced with a 40m high wall of sand in front of you. Trudging a few hundred metres across the sand does make you feel grateful that you’re not lost in the Sahara and having to trudge for days to find civilisation, as at times it was tough going. Too tough, indeed, for the local camels, as due to high winds it was deemed too dangerous to ride them, so by foot everyone had to go.

Perhaps most impressive, though, was the Tottori sand museum located adjacent to the dunes. Featuring a different exhibition each year, this year’s collection displayed a selection of American themed sand sculptures, which were truly fantastic. Standing five or six metres high, they accurately portrayed depictions from history and popular culture, and although I’m not usually particularly bothered by things from across the pond they were absolutely amazing and incredibly well done. I’d definitely recommend a visit just to see the museum!

But alas, all things must come to an end, and after visiting the dunes and the museum in the morning, I headed back to the city and then on to the airport to return to Tokyo in the afternoon. Tottori airport might be of particular interest to any fans of the Conan manga or anime; the writer is from the prefecture, and the airport has been converted into a Conan-fest full of statues, displays on the walls and general Conan chicanery.

Chuugoku 4: Iwami Ginzan and Kagura

A couple of years ago when UNESCO released their latest updates to the list of World Heritage Sites, the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines in Japan were included. As I’ve been wanting to visit as many of these sites as possible, a wave of excitement came over me at the possibility of visiting a new site in my own back yard. I had of course never heard of the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mines, nor even of Shimane prefecture where they are located. A further check of where Shimane actually is dispelled any thoughts of ever visiting them, as not only is Shimane miles away from Tokyo, the mines are miles away from anything in Shimane itself.

However, with the introduction of Hanako and her family to the narrative, visiting the mines became a tantalising possibility. The family agreed to drive me there, seeing as it was one of the most interesting place within a 50 mile radius, and they themselves had not visited for about 4 years so thought it worth a trip again. From Hamada, the mines were just over an hour’s drive.

Getting to the mines takes a nice leisurely 45 minute stroll from the car park; following a nice stream, walking under the leafy branches of trees high above; occasionally there were steps up to a shrine, or a small hole in a rockface which used to be one of the access tunnels. It was a very pleasant, if warm, walk up the hill and it let you appreciate just how isolated the mines indeed were.

I don’t know what I was really expecting from the mines to be honest. Or rather, I did, and that was the problem. The image of rolling, brake-less mine carts cascading around caverns full of underground tunnels like something out of Tomb Raider of the Temple of Doom were rather unforthcoming; the scale of the accessible mine shaft we visited was rather subdued in comparison. Mainly, there was just the one shaft; maybe 3 feet wide by 5 feet tall (I had to stoop a lot) and about 160m long. Although impressive considering the tunnel was excavated purely by hand, it was still a little underwhelming when I realised that that was literally it. To have UNESCO recognition I was expecting at least a second tunnel. But then, maybe that’s why a philistine like myself doesn’t make the judging panel.


That evening, the family took me to another cultural highlight of the city, that of Iwami Kagura. In Hamada, a kagura is held at a local shrine every Saturday night; although banners around the shrine suggested it was for tourists, I could easily imagine I was the only tourist who had been to see it in ages. Primarily and respectably, I assume, it is more to keep alive and to teach the youngsters of the area the local customs. Kagura iis a traditional Japanese folk dance; there are supposedly many stories to be told through the medium of kagura, the one we saw being the timeless fight between the good guy and the evil oni (a monster), set to a backdrop of drum, flute and wailing (or singing, to be more culturally sensitive). Primarily moving in a circle around the small stage, the combatants ‘fought’ with bow and arrow and sword in well choreographed routines. Occasionally, the dancers stopped to say what they were about to do in ye olde Japanese – Hanako said even she didn’t understand some of what they were saying – before continuing to circle each other. Things eventually all built up to the big finale, where (spoiler alert) the good guy won.

The following day, I moved on from Hamada. However, I was touched by, and will remain forever grateful for the kindness and hospitality afforded to a complete stranger by Hanako and her family, and I would like to thank them heartfully again.

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.

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

Kumamoto

We awoke bright and early again to make a short hop on the train to Oita city from where we would get another coach across the whole width of Kyushu to Kumamoto. We didn’t have a ticket for the coach sorted before we arrived, so it required a little running around from the station car park which supposedly doubled up as the bus stop to a department store 5 minutes away which for some reason contained a bus ticket office.

The route from Oita to Kumamoto passes by the largest active volcano in Japan, Mt Aso, bang in the middle of Kyushu. It is supposedly a nice place for hiking, as you can get right up close to the crater if it’s not too dangerous and spewing toxic gases, but on our whistle-stop tour we couldn’t really afford the time to do that so we had to make do with a glance from afar from the bus window. The journey took about 4 hours in total.

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Kumamoto is famous for two things: Kumamoto castle, and basashi. The castle is considered one of the three best castles of Japan, along with Matsumoto and Himeji, but sadly it was severely damaged in an earthquake in April 2016. When we went in early January 2017, access was still heavily restricted, so we couldn’t enter the grounds, but again only look on from afar. Although we knew in advance that it was unlikely we would get in, it was still a little disappointing as you never know just how bad the damage was going to be. As you can see from the pictures though, the damage was considerable and we can only imagine how bad it must be inside., and as ever o rht and ass ever for Japan beautifully coiffeured gardens

The Japanese absolutely love their food, and whenever I mentioned I was going to Kumamoto I was always told that I must try their local delicacy, basashi. Helen wasn’t really too keen on even trying it, as basashi is raw horse meat. We went to an izakaya for dinner as we thought that they must have it on the menu, but by some quirk of fate we must have picked the only restaurant in Kumamoto that didn’t have it! Or at the very least we couldn’t find it on the menu. [As an addendum, however, it’s quite easily found all over the country so I tried it when we got back to Tokyo, and it was delicious. A little chewy though.]

Also worth a mention in Kumamoto was the beautiful Suizenji park, an idyllic little haven in the centre of town.With typically Japanese stunningly coiffured gardens, it was a perfect place to rest and have a cup of matcha next to the picturesque lake.