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 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.


For the New Year holiday, we decided on a trip to the island of Kyushu, in the southwest of Japan. Kyushu is the third-biggest of the Japanese islands, and one that we’d never been to before.

We started our trip in the northwest city of Nagasaki, probably best known as the city on which the second atomic bomb was dropped. Just like in Hiroshima, a wide area of the city was completely destroyed, and now the city has been rebuilt into a thriving area.

We visited the Peace Park and Museum on our first day and, much like in Hiroshima, it was very powerful. Nagasaki was the secondary target, and was only hit due to bad visibility in Kokura to the north.


The unassuming entrance to the Atomic Bomb museum


The Peace statue through the fountain of the Peace Park








To the south of the hypocenter was the island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay, which for hundreds of years was the only land permitted to be used by foreign traders (first the Portuguese and secondly the Dutch) during Japan’s years of isolation. By restricting foreigners to this small island, the Shogun could constrain and control both trade and the spread of Christianity which the European missionaries were keen to promote.

Now, the island has become absorbed into the city as part of land reclamation, but in the past 20 years the city has been reconstructing buildings in their previous state. It’s a very interesting museum.



A scale model of Dejima, though I couldn’t get it all in one photo!


Just how small the island was

Round the corner from Dejima is Glover Garden. Built on a hill overlooking the Bay, this is a collection of western-style houses built by prominent British entrepreneurs at the end of the 19th century. With unmistakably western interiors, they provided a strange fusion of the two cultures.


The Nagasaki skyscape


The gardens around Glover House


Alt House


Glover House




GW 2015: Kanazawa and Matsumoto

We went by coach from Shirakawa to the city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture; “home”, as we’d been told by our students “to one of the best three gardens in Japan”.


Having had quite an exhausting day in the sun and on a couple of coaches, we treated ourselves to an our of relaxing before having a little wander around to see if we could find something to eat. We settled on Baqet, a restaurant Helen and I frequent in Tokyo being well known for its all-you-can-eat bread accompaniment to the meal. Becca and Wilkes were baffled at some of the selections of flavours on offer, with honey, cherry, sugar loaf and soy sauce bread providing some of the most interesting reactions.

Our hotel offered onsen, the Japanese hot springs, and afforded Becca and Wilkes with the opportunity to get naked with the locals. I’d been to one onsen before when we went skiing in Zao last winter, and my abiding memory of it was how so hot the water was that I could barely stay in it for more than about two minutes. That and the aroma of rotten eggs that percolated around the town due to the natural minerals from the mountains. No such smell here (so obviously not as nutrient rich) but still the same onsen routine: take all your clothes off, go in and sit on a plastic stool to give yourself a thorough washing before entering the water, enter the water and avoid trying to see any bits which might scar you for life. The Kanazawa onsen weren’t quite as scorchio as in Zao so were actually quite relaxing. Just what we needed to chill after the day’s walking.

IMG_3422The following day, we awoke bright and early to find the fabled Kenrokuen garden. One of the three most celebrated gardens in Japan, it was full of lakes, flowers and contained the oldest working fountain in Japan too. As gardens go it was pretty impressive.

Across the road from kenrokuen are the remains of Kanazawa castle, the grounds of which have been turned into another very impressive garden. Beside another lake, we were told how the castle was used as an army training base during the war, then became a university campus before finally being handed over to the city and transformed into yet another area of great beauty.











That evening Becca and Wilkes departed on their way to Kyoto. Helen and I moved to a new hotel and crashed out after a hectic few days! Lots of late nights and days of walking finally caught up with us so we had an early night.

The next day, the sun was out again and we decided to hire some bicycles. Kanazawa has a cool system where for a 200 yen fee you can ride rental bikes all around the city, as long as you drop them off at another station within 30 minutes. The stations are generally near all the interesting places so you can have a look around before taking another bike to somewhere else. We had a fun morning caching around Kanazawa on our bikes, and discovered a cool shopping street where a kids brass band were playing some nice songs.

IMG_3465 After lunch we went back to the station to continue on our journey and return back towards Tokyo. We took the shinkansen to Nagano and then a limited express train to the mountain city of Matsumoto. Matsumoto was a beautiful little city famous for its castle; hidden in amongst the mountains, it was cooler than coastal Kanazawa.

IMG_3450We only spent one quick day in Matsumoto, mostly spent walking around the town. From our hotel near the station, we headed towards Agatanomori Park, which contained a former school building which looked just like how I imagine old English boarding schools to look. We had a quick look around inside, but apart from one room mocked up to look the same as it was when in use, most of the rooms were locked and deserted so a bit boring.

IMG_3528We also stopped off at the Matsumoto Perfoming Arts Centre looking for a cache we couldn’t locate. After searching outside the front of the building for about 10 minutes, we were starting to look a bit suspicious when we decided to have a look inside. Inside, it turned out they were preparing for a TED talk that afternoon, although it was 100% in Japanese and we had to be off anyway so didn’t hang around. The cache ended up being in the rooftop garden!

IMG_3523Our final stop in Matsumoto was of course the castle. Over the years in Japan, I’ve found I’ve become a bit desensitized to temples and castles in that they’ve all become to appear pretty similar; Matsumoto castle, however, remained impressive and imposing next to the banks. Despite that, it wasn’t impressive enough for us to brave the three hour wait to look inside so we got an ice cream and headed back to the station.


GW 2015: Takayama and Shirakawago

Golden Week has come around again, and this year’s domestic trip saw us travel on the newly opened Hokuriku shinkansen towards Kanazawa. Our friends Wilkes and Becca came to visit for a couple of weeks, and they took full advantage of the JR pass allowing them unlimited travel on the JR trains; Helen and I, however, had no such luxury so had to shell out full whack for the two hour journey to Toyama.

IMG_3325Our planned schedule would see us head from Toyama up to Takayama in the mountains. From Takayama, we were ideally placed to take a coach to the historic (and UNESCO inscribed) traditional Japanese village of Shirakawago, before taking another coach on to Kanazawa at the end of the shinkansen line. The shinkansen to Toyama was relatively uneventful, but the train we took from Toyama passed alongside the beautiful Jinzu and Miyagawa rivers through the mountains.


Although boasting many shrines and temples (after all, where in Japan doesn’t!), Takayama was quite a small town, obviously most commonly used by tourists as the start point for getting to Shirakawago. We arrived at about 5pm, and had a couple of hours of daylight to enjoy so got to see some of the shrines, and discovered the local specialty of Hida beef. Finding a restaurant that was open on the national holiday was a bit more challenging though!

IMG_3334The following morning, we left bright and early on a coach to Shirakawago. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, and with an average of 10m snowfall every year, Shirakawago was cut off from the rest of Japan for many years, and so retained much of its traditional look and feeling. Now seemingly only used for the tourist trade, the village and its houses are famous for their steeply triangular-shaped roofs, designed so they do not collapse under the weight of the snow in the winter. In late April, it was a gorgeous day more suited for shorts and shades so it was rather difficult to imagine the place under several feet of snowfall, but it was nevertheless a beautiful sight.

Getting off the bus, getting to the village involved traversing a suspension bridge over a fast moving river. Several paths led between the houses, past gardens and ponds and up into the hills. At the far side of the town was a path up the hill to a lookout point (ambitiously called the observatory) which had a view over the whole site. All the open houses were now home to cafes or souvenir shops.









Golden Week 2014

For Golden Week this year, I headed back to Osaka and Kyoto, where I’d spent four days with my family two years ago, this time with Helen in tow who was visiting for the first time. In the end, it turned out cheaper flying to Kansai airport than going by shinkansen, even if the time in all was about the same, so we spent our first few days in Osaka.

The first night in Osaka was wet and miserable, and we didn’t feel up to much more than just popping to Dotonbori-dori for a bite to eat. Walking past all the massive crabs on the walls, luring people into the seafood restaurants, we found a cool little restaurant with what seemed to be a wild west theme called Bikkuri Donki (translated as the ‘Surprised Donkey’, not sure on the connection!) selling the hamburg steak and rice you can find in many places around Japan.


Thankfully, the weather was much better the next day and we could get some sightseeing done. We made a return visit to Osaka castle – I’ve read Shogun since my last visit in 2012 and so had slightly more idea on the history and therefore relevance of some of the sieges that they were banging on about inside – and Shitenno-ji temple, officially the oldest officially administrated temple in Japan dating originally back to the 590s.

In the afternoon, we headed over to Osaka aquarium, one of the largest aquaria in the world, which had some nice fish in it. Amongst the nice fish were hammerhead and whale sharks, many manta rays, some lovely penguins and even possibly some dolphins. I think my favourite part of most aquariums is the jellyfish with the cool displays thereof, and Osaka certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect.


Time however was ticking on, so the next day we pressed on with a half an hour train ride to Nara, to revisit the deer park and the world’s largest wooden building (before 1998 when a bigger one was built in America). As a little something new, we also visited Horyu-ji temple, whose pagoda is “widely acknowledged to be one of the oldest wooden buildings in the world” according to Wikipedia. It looked pretty similar to all the other pagodas and shrines in the area – to be honest they all start looking the same after a while – but being of significant cultural value it’s recognised by UNESCO and so has made it onto my list of visited sites.



Most of the other temples in Nara are also UNESCO recognised, but the biggy (until 1998 at least) is Todai-ji which holds the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha (seemingly every statue of the Buddha we visit is the world’s biggest or best in some category, it’s ridiculous!). Todai-ji is located in the middle of Nara park, and deer roam freely all over the place inside the grounds. There are many vendors of senbei, or deer food, dotted around, and Helen made us buy some to feed the animals.

It was another scorching day, so by then we’d decided to call it a day and head on to our main stop on the tour, Kyoto. In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan-style hotel, which meant we had a tatami floor and slept on futons. We also had semi-traditional shoji doors (I say semi traditional, in that they weren’t covered by paper, causing a security issue, but were sliding doors filled with frosted glass). They might as well have been paper doors for the amount of hassle it took to lock the door each time we left, it took a full minute of jiggling in the lock every time to open or close it!



My previous visit to Kyoto was squeezed into a day, as I didn’t have much time and didn’t know if I would ever return. Thankfully this time we’d made sure it would be much more relaxed, as we had four nights booked so could walk around the place more leisurely, rather than the rush it was before.

Over the four days, we visited the Golden and Silver temples and Kiyomizu-dera for a second time, but also branched off and visited many places I didn’t have the chance to see before. One such place that had been recommended by one of my students was Arashiyama, a ten minute train ride to the east of the city, which has a famous bridge and a walk through a forest of huge bamboo trees, and was very impressive. We hired a boat on the river, and had a nice row (not an argument) enjoying the beautiful weather and the gorgeous scenery.



Back in Kyoto, we also visited Fushimi-inari shrine, possibly the most famous shrine in Kyoto after the Golden temple, the one with all the red torii gates. The temple is on the side of a big hill, and walking to the top took about an hour and led to a really anticlimactic gift shop; the wonder, however, is walking through the thousands of gates that line the paths, each donated at a grand price by a company for good luck in business. It was really something quite special.

In the centre of Kyoto is Nijo-jo, the castle of the Shogun just across the road from the Emperor’s palace. The castle famously has a ‘nightingale’ floor, so named because it was designed to squeak like a bird whenever anyone walked on it so that the occupants would never be caught unaware by stealthy intruders or assassins. It was pretty impressive, even though it would have been even more so had it had any form of furniture in it to give an impression of how it would have looked when it was in use. As it was, there were wide open spaces of tatami floor with some nice paintings on the wall, but it was hard to visualise what actually went on there.

We had originally planned to stop in at Himeji on the way back to get our flight from Osaka, but it’s been under construction for the last 3 years and although technically that may be finished, they’re taking their sweet time in taking the scaffolding down so we decided against making that particular detour. Instead, we headed north east to Japan’s biggest lake, Biwa-ko, and the town on Otsu, only about 15 minutes from Kyoto station. By this time, our luck with the weather had passed and it was a little grey and drab, so we didn’t stay for too long, but we had a look at the southernmost point of the lake before heading in to escape the impending rain. As the rain continued, we thought it best to head straight back to Osaka before flying back to Narita in the morning.













A walk around London

Being back in the UK for Christmas, I had the opportunity to go up to London and have a walk around as a tourist, taking in the sights that probably I wouldn’t pay much attention to while living in Britain. One of the plus points of London as a tourist destination is how close together all the best things to see are, and although I didn’t go into any of the attractions (far too expensive! almost £20 to get in anywhere, you’re having a laugh!) I could walk around them all easily in a day. It was a crisp winter day, but luckily it was one of the few days I was back where it wasn’t raining.

Here are some of the best photos!

Where to go next?

Where to go next?

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

Londons's tallest building, the Shard.

Londons’s tallest building, the Shard.


Old and new at the Tower


View of Tower Bridge from the top of the Monument

View of Tower Bridge from the top of the Monument



Big Ben

Big Ben

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Nelson's Column

Nelson’s Column

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

Big Ben and a phone box, how very London

Big Ben and a phone box, how very London

St Paul's and the OXO Tower

St Paul’s and the OXO Tower

Big Ben and the London Eye

Big Ben and the London Eye