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.









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!






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.