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.

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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.

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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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