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.


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.










At the end of July, my friend Dakes came to visit from England. While he was here, we’d taken a couple of days off to visit somewhere out of Tokyo with him. He wasn’t particularly fussed where we went, but wanted it to be somewhere we’d never been before so as not to be too boring for us. Having reeled through several first, second, third, and subsequent choices, we settled on somewhere new to both of us and sufficiently far enough away to warrant a separate trip and headed out to Yamanashi prefecture and Kawaguchi-ko, one of the five famous lakes around Mount Fuji.

A reasonably easy (if a little long) journey from central Tokyo, we made it in about 3 hours to our hostel in Gekko-ji, near the Fuji-Q theme park and about an hour’s bus ride away from one of the fifth stations, in effect the starting points for people who want to climb Fuji. We were joined by Tom’s university housemate Adam, who by sheer coincidence had just arrived to start teaching in Japan at the beginning of July a few weeks before.














Having given the guidebook only a customary cursory glance before heading off, we only had two real plans for our overnight stay; firstly was to visit the lake itself, presuming it to be something worth seeing, and secondly to see one of many caves formed thousands of years ago after a Fuji eruption.

Having dropped our bags off in the hostel, we headed straight for the lake. Served by a single train line, with trains only every 30-40 minutes (not in the city any more!), we got to the station just after a train had left, so thought we’d rather go for a little walk than sit around for half an hour and headed towards the next station down the line. Reaching the station with 4 minutes to spare, but sadly finding no accessible entrance from our direction of approach, we ruefully watched the train roll by and thought it a wiser option to take a taxi straight to the waterside.













The lake certainly had a stunning mountainous border (though we couldn’t see Fuji), and with the misty clouds descending from it made a good backdrop to admire from a pair of swan pedalos we hired. From the middle of the lake, we could see a cable car up one of the mountains from which we would have a commanding view of the lake and hopefully a view of Fuji too.

And indeed we would have had a commanding view of Fuji had that too not been shrouded in cloud! There was a good viewpoint from which frustratingly placed photos showed us the view on a clear day (though if they need the photos I’m sure it can’t be amazing conditions very often); sadly, however, we couldn’t really see anything but the bottom of the mountain and a lot of cloud!














The following day, we headed for the ‘ice cave’, a 25 minute bus ride from Kawaguchi-ko station. Billed as having stunning ice formations in sub-zero temperatures, in reality it was rubbish! It was pretty chilly down there, which was nice on a baking hot day, but having gone down a few steps, there were a few ice blocks like the inside of an igloo and a stalagmite! For an attraction with ‘ice’ in the name, there was a severe want of ice! We were in and out within about five minutes, and that was mostly because of the queue waiting for people to get through the tight sections of the caves.

Back outside again, we noticed a sign saying the ‘wind caves’ were a 20 minute walk away through a forest. Not yet having had our fill of caves, we thought ‘why not?’ and had a pleasant stroll through the wood before reaching the new caves. Inside this one wasn’t much different from inside the ice caves, and not particularly windy either! The wind caves had one thing going for it though, and that was a better ice formation than the ice caves had! Having passed that, we were led along a bit further to see nothing much more than more rock. Bit of a let down, but what can you expect for 300 yen!





Hijacking the all important dog shot of some other tourists

Hijacking the all important dog shot of some other tourists

Okinawa 沖縄

Nestled halfway between Kyushu in southern Japan and Taiwan just off the coast of China, Okinawa is a gorgeous chain of Japanese islands famous for its beaches and year-round hot temperatures, and six day holiday at the end of June provided a perfect opportunity to spend a few days down there.


Having moved house at the beginning of the month, the weeks before and the weeks after the move had been both tiring and stressful, what with packing, organising, unpacking, dealing with all the paperwork and the attendant Japanese bureaucracy, and we were in dire need of a few days R&R.


Shuri-jo castle

And that’s just what we had!

We visited Shuri-jo, the UNESCO-recognised 14th century Ryukyu castle on a beautifully clear day that was so incredibly hot, we had a to wait in the visitor centre for a bit just for the air con!


We also took a ferry from the main city of Naha to the outlying island of Tokashiki to chill on the beach at Aharen. Having another scorching day, we went for a dip and a snorkel on the beach and had to go and pay for an umbrella so we didn’t frazzle while we we were out of the water, but we both ended up burning anyway despite all our precautions!

IMG_1820To be honest, we didn’t really do much more than that. We attempted to (and in fact succeeded in) visiting a wetlands park, however only to find that it was closed on the one day we went there! However, it was a nice and relaxing few days, only for it as usual to feel like we’d never been away just as soon as we got back again!






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.


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.


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.



The top tourist sites of Japan

Rocket News 24 recently posted an article summarising the top 25 travel sites in Japan, as voted by tourists on Trip Advisor Japan. I’ve been to nine of them, have a blog about 6 of them, have photos of two of the others [both in blue on the list below], but sadly nothing to prove I’ve been to Shinjuku Gyoen, so you’ll have to take my word on that one! I’ll definitely try to get to as many of the others as possible in the future.

[Edit May 1 2017: In the four years since posting this, I have been to many more of the sites on the list, and have added some more links/photos!]

1. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture)
2. Fushimi Inari-taisha (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
3. Tōdai-ji (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
4. Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima City, Hiroshima Prefecture)
5. Kinkaku-ji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
6. Kiyomizu-dera (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
7. Jigokudani Monkey Park (Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture)
8. Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo)
9. Narita-san (Narita City, Chiba Prefecture)
10. Tsukiji Outer Market (Chuo Ward, Tokyo)
11. Hakone Open-Air Museum (Ashigarashimo District, Kanagawa Prefecture)
12. Sensō-ji (Taito Ward, Tokyo)
13. Nara Park (Nara City, Nara Prefecture)
14. Kurokawa Onsen (Minamioguni Town, Kumamoto Prefecture)
15. Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka (Kyoto City, Kyoto)
16. Nikkō Tōshō-gū (Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture)
17. Mount Fuji (Shizuoka Prefecture and Yamanashi Prefecture
18. Kenroku-en (Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture)
19. Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji (Kyoto City, Kyoto Prefecture)
20. Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium (Kunigami District, Okinawa Prefecture)
21. Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture)
22. Hase-dera (Kamakura City, Kanagawa Prefecture)
23. Sankei-en (Naka Ward, Yokohama Prefecture)
24. Meiji Shrine (Shibuya Ward, Tokyo) [below]
25. Okunoin (Koya Town, Wakayama Prefecture)

Here’s the original link in full:

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.