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.

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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.

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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.

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Nikko during Typhoon Wipha

With the weather blowing up a storm back in the UK last week, it wasn’t much better in Japan two weeks ago as we were hit by Typhoon Wipha. As luck would have it, we had a couple of days off work anyway, so we’d already made plans to get out of Tokyo and head up into the mountains to visit the shrines at Nikko (Tochigi-ken) again. I first went there last year when the family came to visit me, when it was a scorching hot day in the middle of June.

Flash forward 16 months, and just as luck would have it, our day off started raining. We’d been warned of the impending typhoon by our students all week, but as we’d dealt with enough of them in Hong Kong and already booked a hotel for the night, we thought it would be a shame to spend two days off at home when we could be out and about somewhere slightly more interesting.

IMG_0132Staying overnight meant that we didn’t have to leave at silly o’clock like last year, so we arrived at Nikko station at around lunchtime. Our hotel was a 20 minute walk over the bridge and up the hill into the woods, a nice secluded lodge with a log fire and smell of dog. We checked in and walked back down to the town, still raining, for a late lunch, before heading to the shrines for an hour before they closed and it got too dark to see anything anyway.

Shooting around quickly because of the weather and the time constraints, we saw that the Rinno-ji temple (which had been under construction last year) was still under construction [in fact I’ve just checked and the renovation is due to continue until 2021!], and so didn’t really see it properly for a second time. We headed on up the hill to Toshogu shrine to have a look around, but decided to wait til morning to have a look around as we didn’t want to pay to get in with only half an hour left before it closed. We had a nice little wander through the trees to the temple round the corner, before it finally got too dark to see anything and we headed back to the town for dinner.

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IMG_0085That night the rain got worse and the wind picked up. Being up a hill and in the woods, the wind rattled the windows and threw the rain up against them. It was quite a rickety old place, and I’m not entirely sure the windows closed properly so at times through the night there was an eerie whistling as the wind forced its way through. The mix of wind and rain driving against the windows wasn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep and I think I only dropped off eventually as the sun was coming up!

At breakfast we saw the aftermath of the night’s events on the TV news: 17 people died in Japan, houses were destroyed, and there was a whopping great arrow showing the typhoon’s path right through our house. After breakfast, the hotel owner gave us and some other guests a lift down to the town in his car. The rain had stopped, but the wind was still ferocious. Fallen leaves and branches covered the road, and the owner even stopped to take photos of the destruction as he passed as he couldn’t believe it. As we got out near the station, we were told that the trains were cancelled due to a fallen tree on the line; that didn’t necessarily affect us yet as we were still planning on visiting the temples again in the morning, but it meant the other guests had to wait around until it was cleared away.

On the upside, although it was still very window, the temples were empty so we had the place to ourselves. It was staggering walking the same paths as the day before seeing the debris and chaos that had fallen upon them overnight.

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IMG_0095We entered the Toshogu shrine, of the ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’ monkeys fame, and also the mausoleum of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (the very same shogun who welcomed William Adams to Japan). The temples were protected from the wind by enormous trees, which must have withstood many a typhoon, so although there were many fallen leaves, luckily no trees fell near the temples.

Having scooted around the shrines, we were eager to get home to see if we still had a house to get home to. With the tree cleared, although it took a little longer than the outward journey we were still back in good time and still had a house! We braved the typhoon and lived to see another day.

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Bangkok กรุงเทพมหานคร

IMG_2077Finally concluding my mini Thai series, we arrived in Bangkok Hualamphong station at around 11am, around 4 hours later than originally planned (and booked), and completely exhausted. We had breakfast at the station before trying to head across town to our hostel to check in and have a proper lie down after a rough night without much real sleep. We took a mixture of the metro and the coolly named Bangkok Sky Train to our hostel just down the road from the Myanmar Embassy.

Having checked into our room on the 4th floor (no lift!), we lay on the bed for a few minutes and as our room was so dark promptly fell asleep and had a doze for a few hours, making up for the lost sleep from the night before. We woke up around 5 o’clock, and not wanting to completely waste the day grabbed some dinner and headed to the Asiatique night market, a short ferry ride from Saphan Taksin BTS station. Asiatique is based in the renovated warehouses of an old trading company, and while what’s inside is pretty much the same tat you find in most markets, the surroundings were quite cool.

IMG_2116The following morning we were back bright and early at Hualamphong to take the train to Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya is the remains of the old capital city of the Ayutthaya Empire, founded on an island surrounded by three rivers, dominant in the area for 400 years between the 1350s and 1750s when it was routed by the Burmese overnight and razed to the ground. The train took just over two hours from Bangkok, and a third class ticket only cost 15 baht.

Being our first real day in Bangkok we weren’t really sure of the temple etiquette yet so I was wearing the only pair of trousers I had with me, jeans, and it was an absolute scorcher of a day. The actual site of the ruins is over quite a large area, so we rented bikes to get around, and headed for a small passenger ferry to take us across the river, rather than the bustling main road bridge.

IMG_2134We visited many sites around the city, the best being Wat Mahathat, where there is a famous carving of Buddha’s head among the roots of a tree [Part 2 of my famous trees of the world series! Find Part 1, the world’s widest tree, here]; Wat Phra Sri Sanphet, which had three fantastic bell shaped tower ruins, Wat Panan Choeng next door which was a temple containing a very large sitting Buddha, and Wat Lokayasutharam, the site of a long reclining Buddha.

It was such a scorcher that we had to stop several times to reapply suncream and to buy more water along the route – definitely not a day to be wearing jeans and a black t-shirt!

The following day we headed to a floating market in Taling Chan, on the outskirts of the city. Although not as famous as bigger markets further out of the city, we were pushed for time and it was much closer than those others, not requiring seemingly a two hour journey to get there. The hostel receptionist told us although we could get there by a mixture of train, ferry and bus, that the easiest way to get there on a Sunday was just a taxi from outside as the traffic wouldn’t be so bad. We flagged down a taxi easily enough, and headed towards the market. Twenty minutes later, it became clear that the driver had no idea where he was going, and was in fact cruising around hoping to spot a sign.

IMG_2245Even after asking for directions twice, he dropped us at what could have been the right place (as there was a market), but after inquiring with a friendly lady we were told that we were still 15 minutes by local minibus away. Very helpfully, the kind lady helped us onto the minibus and did her best to try to tell us where to get off again. The minibus was like a large tuk-tuk, and letting the old ladies and school kids sit down, I ended up standing on a little grill at the back, hanging on.

Probably about an hour after we were supposed to, we arrived at the floating market and actually saw some other people this time so knew we were in the right place. We were bustled past stalls of coconuts, spices, flavoured chicken and beef, and other exotic goods we weren’t exactly sure about, down to the water front, where narrow boats surrounded a large jetty, with people cooking fish, seafood and other meats in the boat before passing them up to the vendors on the jetty. We tried some satay chicken, but as it was only about 11am we weren’t that hungry yet.

Round the corner, we booked on to have an hour cruise of the surrounding area “by local boat”. We hopped on, and a silent guide led us around the back canals of Bangkok, making clear why the city was once called the ‘Venice of the east’. Although we were slightly disappointed with the cruise (we expected to visit the floating markets by boat, but only really went through one slowly for about a minute) it was nice seeing the more local side of Bangkok, and a side probably more usual many years ago.

IMG_2312We left the market and braved another a taxi to take us to the Grand Palace, home of the Kings of Siam and Thailand since the 18th century. We were forbidden entry uncovered, so before entering had to join a long queue to be given some sexy grey jogging bottoms and a long dress (sweating in jeans all day the day before had put me off doing so again!). Once inside, however, it was truly spectacular. Wonderfully colourful buildings, with plentiful gold edging, it certainly looked far grander than old Buck House! There were more Buddhas (the Thais can’t get enough), but really the buildings were the main attraction. Just around the corner from the Grand Palace was the similarly grand Wat Pho temple, where we saw yet another massive reclining Buddha, before returning back to the hotel.

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The China Monologues 五 The Great Wall of China

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Another early rise, but after yesterday’s unintended dry run at least we knew exactly what and where we had to go. Arriving at Beijing North station 5 minutes before one train, and a full 40 before the one we had aimed for yesterday, we were sure we must be able to get there today. Quite simply, we had to go their today as we were going home tomorrow!

We bought our tickets and headed into the main atrium of the station: already an enormous queue. That’s ok, we thought, it’s still 5 minutes before the first train so we’ll definitely get onto at least one of them. I don’t know if this is the case for the long distance inter-city trains as well, but at least at this station they didn’t like people waiting on the platforms before the train is actually in the station for some reason. When the second train rolled in about 20 minutes later therefore, after having your ticket checked there was a massive charge for the train. We were quite near the back of the queue, so thankfully we got through and onto the train, but by that time there were no free seats so we had to sit on the floor for the hour journey.

IMG_1025Upon arrival at Badaling, we were faced with two options of actually ascending to the Wall: we could get a cable car, or we could walk. From the bottom, the mountainside looked pretty high and steep, so we went for the cable car choice. In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea as there was a 2 hour wait to get on (didn’t know that when we got the ticket), so by the time we reached the front of the queue we were frozen and pretty fed up. We later came down the other way, and if I went back would take that option over the cable car as it didn’t actually seem too bad.

The cable car ride was a short 5 minute trip. After exiting at the top, we were led straight out onto the wall.

It really is magnificent. My first thought was stupidly “it’s just like in the pictures!”. What a muppet! The feeling though was similar to that of seeing the Tiananmen; the marvel at seeing in real life the famous images that you only ever thought you’d see in photos.

IMG_1045It stretched out into the distance, clinging to the rolling hills; as we were frozen from the wait, we decided to start walking. One thing you don’t get from the photos is just how steep it is in places, it was a proper workout, especially with so many layers! It obviously wasn’t designed for European bodies, as my head was constantly above the side of the walls offering protection from the wind, so I had to do a lot of ducking!

We walked along one side of the Wall and discovered that going much further in that direction would lead to the exit, which we weren’t quite ready for. We could see in the distance the Wall stretched for a long way in the other direction, so we decided to head over that way and see how far we could walk. The section the other side of the cable car exit was the steepest part yet and raised up to a tower on a peak; having struggled to the top we questioned the wisdom of continuing in that direction as the next part seemed even more undulating and we weren’t sure if we fancied the trek back up to this highest point! Instead, we treated ourselves to some Haribo and admired the view.

IMG_1058Near the exit, they’ve installed a little ride, like an electric toboggan, presumably to get back to the bottom in style. Helen had wished to go sledding on the ice at the Summer Palace the day before, but we’d decided against it as it was too expensive for what it was. Because of that, I promised that we could go on the toboggan when we went down. When we were at that side before, there was no queue. On our return however, it seemed the tour groups all had the same idea as us as the queue was enormous! Alas, once again we had to leave disappointed as by this time we had to try to get back to the station as the trains were sporadic, and we wanted to get back to Beijing in time to see some Chinese acrobatics before we left.

The train station at Badaling was even smaller than Beijing North, and rather than a structured queue there again was a free for all. When the train approached, the ticket inspectors came out and started letting people into a little pen, and the bundles began. There were two full blown arguments, and would have led to fights if others hadn’t held the perpetrators apart. Babies were screaming, and Helen drew my attention to a little girl by her wasit who was in danger of being crushed in the melee. It really isn’t a sensible system, and very dangerous. Making it through the rat run we ran for the train, and as luck would have it someone left his seat just as we were walking to it so we were able to ride the hour back to Beijing in relative comfort.

IMG_1063On the way, we checked the guide book to find the best place to catch some evening entertainment. We settled on a place recommended which happened to be just round the corner from our hotel. We headed straight there to buy a ticket for the evening before grabbing some dinner; when we arrived, we were told there were only single seats remaining on separate tables, and that they’d be a whopping 300 yuan each! We’d probably spent only a bit more than that on our whole trip! Sadly for the third time, we had to go away disappointed. We have dual entry visas, so I promised that we see something when we return the second time.

We had a dinner of Peking duck (we had to really) and ate some street food for pudding, and headed back to the hotel for a nightcap before our early rise to get back to the airport the next day.

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The China Monologues 四 The Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven

Monday arrived and bright and early too, as we were off the Great Wall so needed to be up early to try and get there as soon as possible. Lots of hotels and tourist companies in Beijing offer planned trips to the Wall for up to 200 yuan, but they’re not really our thing as I think going by yourself is much better as you’re less restricted and can spend as much or as little time as you want somewhere.

IMG_0755Helpfully, a colleague told me to follow the advice of this website but with the caveat that it seemed correct, but he used it a couple of years ago the train times could be out of date by now. Thinking it wise to check, we asked in our hotel and the kind lady advised even that we needn’t go to Beijing North station as the website said, but instead from Beijing Train Station itself. She didn’t know when the train left.

Thankful for the up-to-date information, we headed at quarter to eight to Beijing Train Station (you can probably tell where this is headed), only to be told “hah! don’t be ridiculous, you can’t get to the Great Wall from here! you need Beijing North station!” [their English was surprisingly advanced in a city where not much was spoken at all]. In a rage of fury, we headed back for the metro to head now half an hour away to the station we’d originally thought of and in fear of missing the train.

IMG_0774Having arrived at Beijing North, and directed from the subterranean ticket office to the overground one, we were told that we had in fact just missed the train, but we were welcome to wait for the next one; some one hour and fifty minutes later. Needless to say we were not happy bunnies. I don’t think either of us do the “forgive and forget” thing that well, and we spent the day cursing the dozy bint from the hotel and giving her evils every time we saw her in the hotel afterwards.

We didn’t really wish to just sit around and waste 2 hours when we had other things we wanted to see, so we decided to flip our remaining plans and head to the Emperors’ Summer Palace instead, as now in the north we were over that side of the city.

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The Summer Palace was really beautiful. In days of yore, the Emperors used to head out to there in the summer when Beijing becomes an oven (though it also seemed a bit warmer there now in the winter when it is a freezer), as it sits upon the top of Longevity hill and overlooks the huge Kunming lake. It generally seemed a nicer place to hang out, and though the living area was much smaller than the Forbidden City, the environment seemed a much better one in which to live (though maybe in the 21st century that just meant there was less smog). Parts of it seemed literally built into the rock face.

Sitting atop the highest point of the hill was the nicely named Tower of Buddhist Incense, the focal point of the view of the Palace from the lake. We didn’t get round the other side of the lake to see it ourselves from there, but there are some nice pictures on Google.

IMG_0790Although it was as bare now as the Forbidden City is, I got a much better feel for what it would have been like to live there from the little paths and steps round the rocks, though the Emperors must have been fit (or had very fit eunuchs to carry him around) as some of the routes were steep! It also didn’t seem to be as well maintained as the Forbidden City had been, which was a shame.

After some noodles for lunch, we decided to move on from the Summer Palace and head to the opposite side of the city to the Temple of Heaven. From almost the most northwestern point of the metro map to a station in the south took about 40 minutes, and gave us a chance to thoroughly warm up, and we’d almost thawed out completely by the time we arrived and had to head into the cold again.

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There’s not really much to say about the Temple of Heaven; it was beautiful to look at in its own little courtyard, and was surrounded by a park which wasn’t too amazing. Walking up the steps, trying to get a look inside was like the scrums in getting to the front of the lunch queue at school: there was a distinct selfishness and thoughtlessness in trying to get a view of anything in China, which is also true in Hong Kong. The mindset of “as long as I’m alright, sod the rest of you” seems to pervade, and people were barging women, young kids and old men out of the way just so they could get a view of whatever might be inside themselves. It was particularly true also at the Forbidden City in trying to get a look inside the buildings. Would it really be that difficult just to have a line if people wanted to look inside?

IMG_0808We returned to the hotel for a quick lie down and to glare at the woman who had misinformed us the previous night: sadly she wasn’t on duty. In the evening, we were eager to try some more Chinese food (at the Olympic Park, the only place we could find which was open was the golden arches), and settled on some hotpot. Unlike British hotpot, a bubbling urn of broth is brought to your table into which you dip whatsoever you wish (or more likely whatever comes to your table after you’ve bungled through an order pointing at pictures), wait for it to boil then try and take it from the urn to your bowl without dropping it all over the table. Basically sitting in front of a boiling pot on the stove and picking out bits when they’re done. It was much more appetising than I’ve made it sound, and after a long day in the cold also very warming and well received.

Tomorrow we would rise again early for our second attempt at making it to the Great Wall.

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The China Monologues 二 The Forbidden City

Passing under Mao’s portrait through Tiananmen you enter the Forbidden City, the home of the Emperors of China for almost 500 years.

By western standards, the entry price of 40 yuan (about £4) was a bargain, as you could spend all day walking around exploring the different areas of the Emperors’ palace. The use of the word City is appropriate as it was enormous!

IMG_0498Because lots of the interiors have been taken away (many by Chiang Kai-shek when he was forced to leave for Taiwan in 1949) and put into museums, it was sometimes difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live inside the city, though there were a couple of rooms with some furniture left inside. [We didn’t visit the museum this time but I did visit the sister museum in Taipei last year.]

What could be appreciated, however, was the sheer scale of the place. Different Emperors seemed to prefer living in different parts of the city, and all through the different parts, were signs telling how one favoured this place over another, while their eunuchs lived just round the corner. I suppose when the oldest buildings were built in the 1400s, you have a lot of choice!

I really enjoyed walking around it, and though after a while it did start to get a bit samey (we were getting cold and hungry by that point anyway) it was definitely very interesting and thoroughly recommended.
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