I’d done my research and I knew about the 17 UNESCO Heritage sites in Kyoto, the 1,500 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, the ancient traditions that still inform the daily lives of the people, the tea ceremony, the flower arranging, and of course, the geishas, that in Kyoto showcase the heart and soul of traditional Japan. All of that I saw and wondered at, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the green bamboo glade through which we walked on our second day in the city, the tranquillity, the sighing of the leaves and the faint sounds of birds hidden in the branches.
If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you will have gained some idea of what this place is about: I found it totally magical. Higashiyama is the main tourist area with the best shopping, the major artisan shops and the top heritage temples and shrines to visit, but because of this, it is mostly bustling and busy. So a short bus ride to Western Kyoto to Arashiyama to experience the wonder of this bamboo forest is the perfect antidote to the crowds.
Infinite stalks of thick, green, bamboo stretch endlessly ahead, a forest of trees unlike any other forest you will see. There is a sense of otherworldliness in the place and a strange quality to the light which is impossible to capture in photographs.
Everyone I spoke to was disappointed with the images they produced from their cameras, but it’s just impossible to capture something so intangible.
Japan has many natural beauties, the cherry blossom in spring, the dazzling palette of red and gold leaves in the autumn, and the scenic splendour of the snow-covered Japanese Alps, but the Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, a city that moves to an entirely different rhythm from the rest of Japan, is my choice for top attraction in that land of much beauty.
An article in The Guardian (UK) a few days ago alerted me to the fact that the world’s biggest fish market is about to close. This is the Tsukiji wholesale Market in Tokyo where Japan’s obsession with seafood is transformed into an operation worth almost 2 billion Yen a day (about £15.5 million).
But Tokyo’s new governor, Yuiko Koike put a halt to the move to the new premises in Toyosu, about a mile south along Tokyo Bay, as rumours have arisen that the new site, built at a cost of Y588 billion, is contaminated with dangerous toxins.
Let’s get the stats. out of the way fist. The current site handles more than 400 varieties of seafood a day and sells nearly 300 varieties of fruit at stalls around the periphery. Approximately 200,000 vehicles pass through its gates every day and it is estimated that about 60,000 people depend on the market for their livelihood. Those are the numbers that put the market at No. 1.
The auctions at Tsukiji start at dawn and by the time they have ended, hundreds of thousands of tuna, prawns, lobsters, crayfish, octopus and squid, will have passed through the market on their way to fish stalls and restaurant around the country and beyond. The Japanese eat more fish per head than any other developed country, about 27 kg. compared with the global average of 19 kg. and they consume 80% of the bluefin tuna caught.
When I went there I was struck by how this very old market was equipped with the most modern technology on the floor, from the automatic carts and floats that buzzed around to the ice-making machines, and how huge blocks of ice were loaded into a hopper which then disgorged crushed ice to be rushed along to the dispatching area to be packed around the fish.
Like the London markets which were forced to leave their hallowed premises, the Tokyo move to new premises is acknowledged as necessary. At the same time, it is recognised that something is always lost when atmosphere and charm are swapped for modernity and clean lines.
Although the outer market is being spared – good news for the thousands of tourists who flock here for the most refreshing sushi breakfast in Japan – for the thousands of people with an emotional attachment to the Tsukdji Market, the city planners are ripping the heart out of Japan’s food tradition.
The jury is still out on the move. We must wait and see.
Below, a slideshow of some of the photographs I took inside the market. They are not pretty, but then this isn’t a retail market, it’s a very busy wholesale market where the fish are inspected, bought and shipped out within an hour. The knives were in a shop that sold only fish knives like these: I feel sure I could gut a fish if I had one of these, but then I’d have to close my eyes as I’m squeamish and I might cut off a finger!
It was the window full of beautiful dolls dressed in exquisite kimonos that stopped me in my tracks as we strolled along Sanjyo Avenue, an area with many Meiji and Taisho-era buildings in Kyoto, former Imperial capital of Japan. This is a city where traditional arts and crafts flourish, where the scent of green tea drifts from the many long-established tea shops, and where it is customary to hire a kimono in which to stroll around and even to have matching make-up applied.
Lured into the shop, Doll Studio Tomo, by the window display, we found a veritable heaven full of dolls, each one exquisitely dressed in costumes made from antique kimonos, each with a slightly different facial expression and posture. The dolls are the product of carefully selected materials and technical skills and have the faces, forms and postures of young children, projecting the image of an ideal child. These are not dolls for children, but ‘collectables’ for very sophisticated grown-ups.
Speaking to the proprietor of Studio Tomo, a member of the family that has been making these dolls since 1983, he explained that the dolls, which measure 26cm – 64cm, are the product of the maker’s awareness of the feelings of those who will look at them and enjoy them in their everyday lives, or as we would say, someone who knows his customers.
The uniquely patterned costumes of these traditional Japanese dolls are made of priceless antique kimono fabric dating from the late Edo period (1600-1867) to the early Showa era (1926-1989). The heads and bodies are made of pulverised seashells combined with a heated natural glue, which is poured into moulds until it hardens. After this, the moulds are removed, the parts are polished with soft cloths, and the eyes, mouth, and other features are individually incised with a chisel.
The eyes are made in the same way as artificial human eyes, then they are fixed in position to give the dolls a slightly shy, downturned glance. The hair should sway naturally, so Tomo Studio is as careful in its selection of hair as it is in all other aspects of doll-making and the hair moves so that it evokes the image of the child doll.
The costumes for all Tomo dolls are made from antique fabric. According to my research into the subject, Masako Morishige, who produces the dolls’ clothes, says that
“the history of these textiles goes back as far as the Momoyama period (1568-1600). Most of the dyed and woven cloth for the kimonos was made from the later Edo period to the early Showa era. The vivid reds and purples that are striking even in a dim exhibition hall cannot be produced by modern industrial methods. The patterns and design of traditional kimonos are reworked into fresh new creations. Valuable silk crepe from the Edo period and examples of Yuzen dyeing are also used”.
Antique kimonos sell for huge sums, and £10,000 is nothing to spend on a garment, hence the high price of the dolls. Alongside one of the dolls photographed above, is the price of 850,000 Yen and this is fairly average. The costumes are made from the undamaged parts that can be cut without ruining the original embroidery and the patterns in the cloth, a skill that demands artistic insight and an ability to be able to see the completed figure. Nothing is wasted, tiny pieces left over are used to make accessories.
Miyajima is considered to be one of the three most scenic spots in Japan and I’m not going to argue with that. I was bowled over by it: besides, it is a World Cultural Heritage site and is regarded as a holy shrine of Shinto by the Japanese.
Part of the city of Hatsukaichi, Miyajima is located in the Seto Inland Sea and is easily reached by tram, train, and boat from Hiroshima for those wishing to experience a complete contrast to that city. The journey from Hiroshima takes approximately 1 hour.
The island, for the Japanese, is a place of natural worship, stemming from its ancient history, the mountains in which Gods are still said to reside with Mt. Misen at its peak, and the primaeval forests which, even in daylight, appear dark and forbidding. As the entire island is an object of belief, it has remained untouched and in a natural state. Massive rocks are scattered along the coast and on the mountains of which no one knows the provenance and in the forests is a diversity of plants said to be the epitome of Japan.
A Deer Takes its Rest in the centre of Miyajima – Mari Nicholson
From the forests and wooded slopes come the deer that one sees wandering through the town. Over the years they have become used to people and they are perfectly happy living in close proximity with humans. At night they sleep by the river that runs through the town.
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima – Mari Nicholson
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima – Mari Nicholson
But what attracts most of the Japanese to Miyajima are are the several temples dotted around the island, one of which houses the eternal flame lit approximately 1,200 years ago and part of which was used as the pilot light for the eternal flame in the A-Bomb Cenotaph in the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.
Temples, Miyajima – Mari Nicholson
Street Scene, Miyajima – Mari Nicholson
Away from the quiet sea front with the amazing Torii gate and the gentle animals wandering around the paths around the inlet, lies the main tourist area. This is real tourist land, swarming with day trippers and weekenders, who surge up the main street lined with restaurants, noodle shops, ice-cream parlours, souvenir kiosks and shops specialising in kimonos, fans, artwork, and embroidery.
Fascinating shop with fascinating figures outside – Mari Nicholson
From the beach, boats ply for hire to take one around the famous giant torii gate which, at high tide, seems to float in the sea (a perfect photo-opportunity) but it is advisable to know the tides if you want to take advantage of this trip. A good photograph can be taken from the beach but with today’s digital use, selfie sticks and video cameras it can sometimes be difficult to take that perfect picture, and you may have to queue patiently while others take their time posing.
A Walk Around the Path that skirts the water and leads to the town – Mari Nicholson
As well as temples and shrines within walking distance, the centuries old Itsukushima (the former name of the island) shrine in the small inlet where the ferry arrives, is one of the most popular on the island – and it includes a small Noh stage. Most of the shrines on Miyajima, like the famous red torii gate, are built over the water, lending the image an ethereal feel especially on a misty day – of which there are many in this area.
A visit to Miyajima is a perfect day out if you want to see a part of Japan that will overthrow preconceived ideas, and a place where you can sample as many different dishes as you can imagine. Bearing in mind that Miyajima is noted for its oysters, be sure to try these: they are served in many different ways.fried, boiled, grilled, and au naturel. Dumplings are another favourite on the island, as is the ice-cream served in a Brioche bun: western food from hamburgers to fish and chips is widely available, so everyone can find their particular comfort food.
The Island is one of the most popular places for weddings and these are well worth seeing – and photographing – as the bride and her immediate entourage are dressed in the most elaborate kimonos, all of which will have cost many hundreds of pounds (or they may have been hired as we in the west hire morning suits and top hats) while the groom and his attendants are also dressed in the male equivalent. The transport too will be elegantly laid out, usually rickshaws in the lucky colours of red and gold – quite a sight.
Bride and Groom on Miyaima Island – Photo Steve Moore
A Rickshaw with Driver (in black) awaits the Bride – Mari Nicholson
If you can stay overnight it is even better because after sundown the shrine and gate are illuminated until nearly midnight, a perfect backdrop to a walk along the paths around the inlet.
Ferry Departing Miyajma – Mari Nicholson
Strolling around Miyajima = Mari Nicholson
When the Tide is Out one can Walk out to the Torii but it looks perfect from here . Mari Nicholson
Nuclear accidents seem to happen, or be avoided, on a regular basis these days; countries arm themselves with ever more terrible bombs, nuclear power is poised to replace coal and gas, and the world sails on as though the 1945 destruction of two Japanese cities had never happened.
It was Sunday, August 6, 1945, and the early morning sun shone from the blue sky over Hiroshima, Japan. It had been a night of constant alerts with sirens warning of planes overhead but early in the morning, the all-clear sounded. The streets were full of people, workers returning from night shifts, day workers on their way to take their place, military workers, factory watchmen, women shopping, secondary school children making fire breaks, all, we can suppose, weary after a sleepless night.
Shortly after 7 a.m. an urgent communique came to the Military Command at Hiroshima Central Broadcasting, cut short after just a few phrases by a blinding flash, a blast of searing heat and a roar that shook the earth from its orbit.
It was 8.15 a.m when the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over Hiroshima and a blast equivalent to the power of 15,000 tons of TNT reduced four square miles of the city to ruins, instantly killing 80,000 men, women, and children. People turned to charcoal there and then, limbless and headless bodies flew through the air, and on the ground writhed still living bodies, their flesh torn from their limbs. Tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning. In total, it is said that 140,000 died from the effects of the bomb the Americans called “Little Boy”, 80,000 on the day and 60,000 from injuries and the combined effects of flash burns, trauma, radiation burns, and illness. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more. A few days later, Japan announced its surrender.
Cenotaph at Night with Dome in Background, Hiroshima Peace Park – Steve Moore
In 1970, five countries had A & H bombs, the USA, the UK, the USSR, France and China, and they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designating themselves nuclear powers and prohibiting all other countries from possessing nuclear weapons for 25 years. As we know, other countries now possess the bomb, or the wherewithal to make a bomb, although the fact is often denied.
The Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima is located in the centre of the Peace Park, It is a saddle-shaped structure which was erected in 1952, the shape representing a sanctuary for the souls of the A-Bomb victims. Inside it holds a list of their names.
Clock in Hiroshima Museum showing how many days since the bomb was dropped and, below that, how many days since the last nuclear test.- Mari Nicholson
There is a Global Peace Watch Clock within the Museum in Hiroshima Memorial Park which displays the number of days since the A-bombing of the city which killed thousands and left thousands more to die painful deaths from radiation poisoning and still others to live with the effects of the poison. Below the clock is another number which shows the number of days since the most recent nuclear test. It can be surprisingly low as many underground tests are conducted which are low enough not to create a critical mass of fissile material and so does not attract publicity. One has to ask oneself why nations feel the need to continually increase the power of their bombs when just one or two set off from different sides of the world could end of our world and our civilisation.
The Museum is dedicated to telling visitors the history of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and among the exhibits are a number of articles and remains damaged by the bomb, together with poignant pictures and sad memorabilia.
Hiroshima is not like the rest of Japan. It was flattened when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on it. It has been re-built and is now a soulless place of dull, grey concrete, wide avenues, boulevards, shopping malls and all the accoutrements of a modern city. What is lacks is a soul. That was destroyed in 1945.
Visitors to the city will be moved by the World Heritage Site of the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima’s most famous site . It stands forlornly by the river across from the Peace Memorial Park, as a reminder of the power that rained down upon the city half a century ago and brought such terrible devastation to its people. On that fateful day it stood within 100 metres from what became ground zero. The A-Bomb Dome is a propped up ruin, the only building still standing. Try and visit it at night if possible, when it is lit from the interior as well as the exterior. It is quite eerie.
The Children’s Peace Memorial in the Peace Park is continually covered in thousands of tiny folded paper cranes, a symbol of longevity and happiness in Japan, which come in by the busload from schools all over Japan on a regular basis. The Memorial was inspired by the story of leukaemia victim Sasaki Sadako, who, at age ten contracted the disease, after which she embarked on a task to make 1000 paper cranes in the belief that if she succeeded she would survive. Sadly she died having only completed 644 but her classmates completed the task, and so started a tradition that continues to this day.
School children learn the lessons of history on the banks of the river that guided the Atomic Bomb to Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson
The Peace Memorial Park is located across the Aioi-bashi Bridge and includes the Cenotaph which lists the name of all the known victims. The river is said to have been the bomber’s point of aim on that fateful morning. Beneath the Cenotaph burns a flame, set to burn until the last atomic bomb has been destroyed, at which point it will be extinguished. Thousands of sufferers from radiation burns threw themselves into the river in an effort to ease the pain but to no avail, and hundreds of corpses remained afloat in the water for days after the blast.
The Peace Memorial Museum is the place to find information. It delivers a simple anti-atomic warfare message with a power that can leave you in tears. The depiction of destruction and suffering is told with no pulling of punches and makes one think of what modern warfare, using these bombs, would be like.
Hiroshima Art Museum which has Dali’s Dream of Venus and works by the Japanese artist Hirayama Ikuo who was present during the bombing.
Shukkelen Garden. Located next to the Hiroshima Art Museum
Mitaki–Dera: the Three Waterfalls Temple, a quiet and secluded gem with a fine view over the city.
Best trip outside the city – to Miyajima. The famous Red Torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine (at least the one that is most photographed) can be seen here, in a very touristy town but one with great charm. While there, try the famed oysters, raw, deep-fried, or in hot pot dish, the savoury pancakes and the ice-cream sandwich in a brioche bun.
Standing on the platform in Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and seeing the Express train go through was proof enough that it deserves the praise lavished on it. The Limited Express really does go through like a bullet: blink and you’ll miss it. This sleek, slim, beautifully designed train is simply incredible.
Tokyo to Kamikochi
And I’m about to board it. We are leaving Tokyo and heading to Matsumoto and then onwards by local train and bus to the village of Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, otherwise known as the Japanese Alps. Private cars are banned in the Park and access is only possible by bus or taxi.
It is a moderately developed village with half a dozen hotels, some souvenir shops, and a few mountain huts and it is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Over the next few days,we shall be walking the many trails laid out through the pine trees and along the fast flowing rivers of turquoise snow melt. The area is only open from mid/late April until November, it stands 1500 meters above sea level and is home to the active volcano Yakedake (2455 m).
Interior of Train – Mari Nicholson
The train experience far exceeds my expectations, with carpeted floors, roomy recliner seats,and a quiet trolley service. The big surprise is the attendant who comes along about every hour or so with cold wet wipes individually packaged which she hands out to everyone. Not only that but the wet towels are collected afterwards, so no unpleasant wipes are left hanging around.
From the train windows, we see suburbs of small-holdings, villages where most plots seemed to have a small paddi-field, aqueducts, huge electronic towers, and always, gardens filled with pink azaleas, irises and hydrangeas in full bloom along with the ubiquitous bonsai.
Rice-planting from road to railway track – Mari Nicholson
A taxi from Kamikochi bus station takes us to the Imperial Hotel, a rustic Alpine-style building, located just below the mountains in the midst of sweet-smelling pines. Off to the side of reception is a bar in which an enormous open fire sits in the middle of the room, around which, I later found, clients like to relax and chat after a day’s hiking Our rooms are delightful and we decided to quickly explore the hotel’s facilities and then go for a stroll along the Azusa river which meanders its way through the valley.
Three days later and we feel we never want to leave Kamikochi. It is the tail-end of the Japanese spring so we are too early for what we are told is the breathtaking display of Japanese Azaleas (the Rhododendron japonium) and Sagisuge (Eriophorum gracile) that flower during the summer. In late autumn they are equally attractive as they then sport a coating of fine, white frost.
The area of Kamikochi is simply stunning with an amazing variety of bird life whose sweet song hangs in the air from morning till night. Wild macaques (they do not interfere with visitors because people are careful not to feed them) play on the paths in family groups and among the trees along the river. As we stroll along, the babies peek from their mother’s arms with big black eyes.
Sometimes, “if you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise” in the form of a big, unfriendly, black bear. Not to be trifled with, or approached, walkers and hikers are advised to carry a bell attached to their backpacks so that the ringing of the bell as you walk, informs the bear of an approaching human. We purchased ours on arrival and were glad we did when we came across the sign that informed us that a black bear had been sighted just a couple of days before our arrival!
For non-walkers, walking around the local area is safe and accessible, and there are natural hot spring baths for those who fancy the Japanese custom of sitting in a tub with other people. There are well-posted trails ranging from easy rambles to more serious hikes, and treks to the high peaks which surround the valley.
Kamikochi was put on the map by an Anglican Missionary
It comes as a surprise to many that this area was discovered by a British missionary, the Reverend Walter Weston (1861-1940) who first came to Japan when he was 27. He mapped the area, sparking Japanese interest in Western style mountaineering as a sport and he popularised the term ‘Japanese Alps’ through his work “Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps (1896)”.
Plaque to Rev. Weston on Azusa River – Mari Nicholson
He is known as the Father of Mountain Climbing in Japan, and a plaque has been erected in his honour set into the rock on the west side of the Azusa River, just north of the Onsen Hotel. On the first Sunday in June, the Weston Festival is held to celebrate the opening of the mountain-climbing season.
Walking in Kamik0chi
The simplest way to enjoy a day in Kamikochi is by walking or hiking one of the trails along Azusa River from Taisho Pond to Myojin Bridge. This is mostly flat terrain and is suitable for all levels of fitness, requires no walking or hiking experience and will only take a few hours – perfect for the person who doesn’t normally do much walking. A pleasant one-hour stroll is along the Azusa River from Kappa Bridge (see below) to an area called Myojin where there are several lodges and a few shops.
Myolin Pond actually consists of two ponds, a larger and a smaller, joined together and filled with crystal clear water. It is a place where many walkers like to pause and sit awhile, listening to the soft swish of the bamboo along the lakeside, admiring the reflection of Mt. Moyjndake in the waters, and the birds alighting on the rocks in the pond.
Tashiro Bridge is the starting point of Nishi-Hotaka Mountain trekking course. From here it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Kappa Bridge, 40 minutes to Taisho Pond and 5 minutes to the Weston Memorial.
Kapps Bridge with Weekend Tourists – Mari Nicholson
Fifty minutes from Myolin is the famous Kappa Bridge, from which hiking trails lead up and down the valleys and towards the mountain summits. Along these trails, markers indicate the best bird-watching points where wagtails, Japanese bush warbler, Japanese robin, flycatchers, Arctic Warbler, Horsfield’s hawk cuckoo, willow tit, nuthatch, wren, pygmy woodpecker, and others too numerous to list can be seen.
The Kappa-bashi is a 36.6 x 3.1-metre wooden suspension bridge over the Azusa-gawa river in the centre of Kamikochi, not far from the bus terminal. Several hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops can be found here. With the Hotaka Mountain Range in front and volcanic Mt. Yakedake billowing white smoke in the south, Kappa-bashi’s stunning views from the bridge makes this one of the most scenic spots in Kamikochi, hence its popularity.
The Visitor Centre in Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson
Hiking in the Mountains for the Experienced Walker.
The more experienced walker.will enjoy the climbs in the surrounding peaks, following one of the many delineated trails. These are more challenging but are only recommended between mid-June and mid-September. If you are new to the area, you should be aware that the treeline of Kamikochi continues up to 2500 metres which takes the hiker into a craggy world of rocks and cliffs. Climbing on these craggy peaks can be extremely dangerous even in good weather and should be tackled with great care, especially if there is wind, rain, or snow. The rain in Kamikochi can be intense and can continue for days, especially higher up, and can leave the hiker on the verge of hypothermia. Every year there are accidents and people lose their lives in the mountains.
Resting Awhile – Mari Nicholson
A 3-hour walk from Kappa Bridge is Yokoo, the climbing base for many of the 300-metre mountains in the Japanese Alps, including Yarigatake, a tranquil place and perfect for walking. There is a mountain lodge in the area for overnight hikers.
Fast-Flowing Rivers of Snow Melt – Mari Nicholson
And I just can’t resist one more picture of mother and baby macques, part of the family we encountered on one of our walks through and along the river. The soulful expression on the face of the mother, and the tiny baby peeking out from under her fur is as tender as you’ll get in any ‘mother-love’ picture.
The whole area of Kamikochi is covered with virgin forests of birch, Japanese larch trees, and Japanese hemlocks. In June, the young leaves of birch trees are so beautiful that they attract many tourists to what is called the “light green mist”. Generally, the foliage is at its peak in October and many visitors come here to admire the wonder.
I’ve seen it in spring and part summer, now I want to experience this delightful spot in the Japanese Alps in the autumn. I know where I shall be heading next time I’m in Japan.
Points of Interest in Kamikochi
Taisho Pond (Taishoike) was formed in June 1915, when an eruption of the nearby volcano Yakedake dammed Azusa River and created the pond. Decayed trees, standing in the pond, provide a special sight. It is a small pond surrounded by marshland located along the hiking trail connecting the Kappabashi with Taisho Pond. This pond never freezes over completely due to the spring waters underneath.
Kamikochi Imperial HotelBuilt in 1933, is the most prestigious accommodation in Kamikochi, offering a combination of mountain lodge atmosphere and first class hospitality services. The food was the best we had in Japan, with very fresh lake fish every day on the menu.
The Takezawa Marsh, a 5-10 minute walk from the Kappabashi along the trail towards Myojin Pond, is one of the most scenic areas of Kamikochi.
Myojin Pond can be reached in about a one hour walk from the Kappabashi.
Kamikochi Visitor Center Open daily from 8:00 to 17:00 (free admission), the visitor centre introduces the geography, geology, fauna, flora and folklore of Kamikochi and provides information to mountain climbers. Booklets available and some souvenirs.
Kamikochi is particularly beautiful during the autumn foliage season, which usually peaks in mid-October.
How to Get There
From Tokyo, two trains get you to Matsumoto, the JR Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano. From Nagano, take the Shinonoi Line to Matsumoto. The other option is the JR Chuo Line, slower than the Shinkansen, but it takes you to Matsumoto from Shinjuku Station. At Matsumoto, take the Matsumoto Dentetsu Railway to Shin-Shimashima, this is as far as you can go. From here, a bus, or a taxi will take you to Kamikochi.
Visitor Centre in Kamikochi: Phone: 0263 95 2606
Hours: 8:00 to 17:00, mid-April to November 15, free admission
7:00 to 18:00 July 20-August 20
Closed November 15th through winter
The temperature in Kamikochi is 5 to 10 ℃ lower than Matsumoto and in late autumn it sometimes falls below freezing point. Winter clothes are recommended from mid-October to early May when snow may be encountered, and carry rain wear at all times because it rains at lot in the Kamikochi mountains.
I’ve written in earlier posts about how easy it is to negotiate the subway/metro, and the train stations in Tokyo, so here are the maps to help you do so. Also posted is a map of Tokyo’s streets.
As the train stations link to everywhere in Japan, if you’re travelling on, it could be useful to study these before setting out. The subway/metro maps are a doddle to follow and the system can’t be recommended highly enough for getting around the city.
One concentrates on districts in Tokyo rather than buildings and monuments of which there are few, because, despite hundreds of years of history, there is nothing of any permanence left in the city, apart from the Imperial Palace which you can only look at from the Imperial Gardens. The lack of permanent buildings and monuments is because the houses burnt down regularly as they were traditionally made of wood, and because frequent earthquakes made the use of stone too dangerous.
Tokyo’s districts, however, are many and varied and it is a good idea to know what you want to do and see before setting off to explore. Each area offers something different, but if you like a frisson of naughtiness, then maybe keep Roppongi for nighttime.
Akihabara– Electronics town – is what the name implies. It’s heaven for gadget freaks, where thousands of square metres are given over to nothing but electronics, from wide-screen televisions to electronic toilet seats, through all beauty products, kitchen appliances, cameras, ‘phones and games. Hard not to spend money in a place like this especially when you see, and covet, the latest model of camera or ‘phone, maybe 3 years ahead of when we’ll see it in the West.
Fortunately, it’s so easy to do a ‘phone check on prices these days wherever you are, and we found, much to our surprise, that most of the goods in Electronics town were priced higher than they were in our own country (possibly to do with the currency fluctuations) so prices were a disincentive to buy. We did succumb, however, to one or two items unavailable to us at home: I defy anyone to walk through this store or the next on my list, the Sony Building, without buying something, even if it’s only a camera case!
The Sony Building is another Mecca for electronic-mad visitors. All the trend-setting Sony stuff is laid out on six floors and you can have hands-on fun with the latest games, listen to car stereos, see a demonstration of the future of television and even have a meal. On the ground floor, there is an English pub where the food, wines and spirits are pretty good. Japanese beer, Asahi, can be recommended.
Mother photographs laughing daughter at Senso-ji Shrine
Asakusa District is said to retain much of the atmosphere that existed before the Second World War when it was Tokyo’s hub of popular entertainment. You’ll see fewer businessmen here with briefcases, few banks and few high-rises but there are interesting small shops and craft stalls, and you can climb to the viewing platform of the Tokyo Skytree – the World’s tallest tower at 634 metres – for panoramic views over the city.
If hot spring baths are your thing and you are not planning a visit to one of the Ryokans where you usually have your own volcanic spring on your balcony, then the Jyakotsuyu Onsen (hot spring) at Taito-ku, Tokyo 111-0032, will give you the authentic experience.
The Red Lantern at Senso-ji Shrine
Asakusa also houses the oldest and most impressive temple in Tokyo, the Senso-ji, one of the city’s most treasured temples. The Thunder Gate dominates the entrance with the red lantern immortalised in Hiroshige’s early 19th-century woodblock print still dominating the entrance. Beyond the gate lies a bustling street where 54 shops line what is one of the oldest shopping streets in Tokyo, and which leads to the temple buildings with their heavy lead roofs.
A Young Couple Check out the Fortune Slips
The temple grounds are incredibly busy with sightseers, people praying, shopping and taking selfies of themselves and their families, and those seeking a look into the future. For 100 yen your future will be foretold but should it not be what you hoped for, them you simply tie the fortune ticket to the nearest wire tree and it will remain forever within the temple grounds. And then you buy another, hoping that this time, your luck will be better.
Incense blows from the great bronze urn in front of the main hall and men and women dive into the smoke and stroke it over their heads (for clearer thoughts? more hair?) while others light their incense sticks and just pray.
Bathing in the Smoke
Ginza District is famous for its up-market shopping and the range of designer shops that line the street. It’s a great place for admiring the window dresser’s art where the placement of a purse with a belt and a scarf is like a modern still life. All the top designer names are here.
Louis Vuitton in Ginza
Budget-conscious shoppers should head for the Uniqlo store which offers floors of trendy designs at cheaper prices. Both men and women are catered for here and although the music is loud, the staff is cheerful and helpful.
Roppongi District is where the Japanese go to let their hair down. It could be called sleazy in some senses, raucous and tasteless in another, but it is undeniably what a lot of people want as you will see if you venture into this Vegas in Japan area where behaviour you don’t see anywhere else in the city is tolerated.
Kagurazaka was once a 200 strong Geisha town which was razed in the 1945 bombing and there are still some 20 Geisha here. If you take a stroll down the cobblestone alleyways of the town you may meet some of the ghosts that they say still haunt the place.
On Tokyo Bay
And when you want to have an hour’s rest, take the boat trip on Tokyo Bay, which gives you a totally different look at this fabulous city, as well as a comfortable ride in a well-ventilated boat with large picture windows on either side. Once at the end of the trip, you can, if you wish, continue on to Odaiba island complex and ride the Big Eye for another view over Tokyo.
Night time Tokyo
Shinjuku District is considered now to be the heart of the entertainment area, especially adult entertainment where nothing seems forbidden. Bars, restaurants serving food from every nation, and discount shops abound with street entertainment on every corner. If any place in Tokyo might be considered slightly unsafe, this would be it, so beware of pickpockets and don’t go into any bars with unlisted prices. Check it out during the day before venturing into it at night.
Shinjuku Ni-chrome is a couple of blocks away from the centre and is the gay and lesbian nexus of Tokyo.
Outside the Shibuya subway station in Tokyo is an intersection where it is estimated as many as 2,500 people cross the street every time the light changes. It handles over 2 million people a day but you won’t be pushed or jostled, the Japanese are much too polite for that. It is the beginning and end of two main subway lines and during the day or at night when the neon is crackling all around you, join the surge of people at the famous crossroads as the cacophony of music, horns, tannoys and talk assault your ears.
Worth checking out.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government building comprises two huge towers each 248 metres. From the viewing level on floor 45 of either building, the views of the city and surrounding areas are stunning. In the winter (because of the clarity) you can usually see Mt. Fuji on the horizon.
The writer with a Sumo Wrestler met on subway
If it isn’t the season for the Sumo tournaments and you’d like to see them in action, then head for their stables at Arashio Beya 2-47-2 Nihonbashi-hamacho, Chuo-ku 103-0007 (1 min. walk from Hama-cho station on the Asakusa line, and usually from about 7 a.m. – 10. am. Many consider these practice sessions even better than the tournaments as they are constant. Make sure you follow the rules of not pointing your feet at the wrestlers (bad luck), no flash photography, no tripod, don’t stand up to get a better shot, and don’t bring food or drink.
Tokyo may seem weird but it is a fabulous city, a glorious hotchpotch of lights, noise and incredibly well-behaved people who stand patiently at the lights waiting for them to turn green when there isn’t a car for miles around. It’s fun whether you take it in during daylight hours or nighttime.
From bonsai in lush landscaped gardens, to kimona-clad beauties shopping in Ginza, and from pale green tatami mats in Ryokans to exquisite floral arrangements, Tokyo, as well as reaching into the future, is picture-book Japan come to life.
This is the first stop on a tour that will take in stays in some of Japan’s most beautiful cities and countryside, Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps, Kyoto, the ancient capital, Takayama, whose beautiful old town still preserves traditions, Hiroshima and Miyajima, and Hakone where a cable-car side-trip to Mount Fuji is planned. Fingers crossed, the weather will be fine on the day.
Kamikochi, Japanese Alps, turquoise waters of the snowmelt from surrounding mountains – Mari Nicholson
Driving into the city from the airport did not show a green and pleasant land. Living space is at a premium in Tokyo, which means that the suburbs are composed of high-rise apartment blocks built wherever space could be found, all in a uniform grey, unbroken by a splash of colour or flowers on a balcony. Once in the city however, another world becomes apparent.
Getting around Tokyo
Tokyo is a city of districts, each offering something different to the visitor, so it repays a bit of research before you set out to explore.
With its sensory bombardment, the capital of Japan can seem daunting to the first time visitor but with a little planning, we found it to be very accessible.
Tokyo is composed of many different districts each with its own character and charm, and as a capital with a reputation for safety, walking the streets is one of the best ways to absorb the atmosphere, check out the local craft shops, or explore the shopping malls both below and above ground. I am a leisurely traveller, happy to leave some things unseen, rather than rush around ticking off the sights, so I didn’t try to see everything.
Orientation, subways, and trains
Tokyo Train Station – Mari Nicholson
Rail is, without doubt, the best way to get around Tokyo, and the trick is to buy an IC Rail Pass for 3,000 Yen which is something like the UK Oyster Card, and which is valid on the vast subway network, the equally extensive overland train network, and the Monorail (great for views over Tokyo Bay), and also valid to use in some Japanese cities. Not only that, but you can use it to buy drinks from the kiosks on every station, just slap your card on the designated spot, and hey presto! green tea or hot chocolate can be yours in an instant. Topping up when needed is easy, with instructions in English.
Taxis are on the expensive side, but you don’t tip in Japan so at least what you see on the clock is what you pay. If you decide to hire one, then ask your hotel to write the destination in Japanese and show this to the driver. Rear passenger doors are automatically locked so wait for the door to open.
Luckily my travelling companions, Ken and Steve, are wizards when it comes to map-reading, especially subway maps, so I was able to rely on their expertise on negotiating the metro. Even I, after the first day, felt confident beneath Tokyo’s streets, as the system is made easy for non-Japanese speakers, with letters and numbers as well as names on the stations, fail-proof directions to platforms and tannoy announcements throughout the carriages when a station is reached.
Tip: Buy your IC Card and get a Tube Map as a priority on your first day. Then hurl yourself into the city and enjoy the experience – remembering to stop for sustenance occasionally.
Tokyo Fish Market
Everyone said the Tsukiji fish market which handles a larger volume of seafood than any other market in the world is a must, and although we had all seen fish markets in the East before, we went there on our first morning. It’s impressive, with over 400 varieties of seafood on display from massive tuna laid out on marble slabs, squid and octopus squirming in baskets, shellfish heaped up in mounds, baskets of crustaceans, and eels, lots of eels, along with species of fish I’d never seen before. Tiny automated carts zip around (you need to watch out for these) collecting boxed items to be forwarded on. I loved the machine where huge blocks of ice were man-handled into a drum which turned it into ice cubes which were then used to pack the fish for the retail market.
Parks and Gardens
Misty Day in Tokyo Garden – Mari Nicholson
Too many to be able to visit them all, so we choose just three, the Shinjuku Gyoen Park where an air of tranquillity heals the spirit, and Koi carp plop in the streams under arched bridges, the gardens surrounding the Imperial Palace which are a superb example of the perfect Japanese Garden and the Kiyosumi Gardens with its large pond surrounded by some very special stones placed in the garden as stepping-stones, paving stones and stones for the waterfall.
Imperial Palace Garden, Tokyo – Japanese Tourist Board
There are too many Museums to mention and too many to visit on a 3-day visit if one wanted to see anything else, so Fukagawa Edo Museum was the only Museum we visited in Tokyo. This was an instant lesson in Japanese history and was a great help in understanding modern Japan. It consists of a display of reconstructed Fukugawa Saga-cho houses, taverns, and shops, all looking as though they’ve just been vacated – as well as a small theatre and lecture hall, all furnished in the period. There are interactive displays and fantastic model towns, rivers and courtyards filled with people. Well worth the visit.
Edo Museum – Mari Nicholson
Restaurant Menu – Mari Nicholson
There are so many superb restaurants in Tokyo, that won’t go into the eating experience, but the best sushi restaurant in Tokyo is said to be in Kyubey, right here in Ginza . Sadly, we just couldn’t make time to visit it as there was just so much sight-seeing to take in but from what we heard from other people, this is definitely the place to go. The prices are in keeping with the area with dishes from 4,000 to 8,000 yen, while a full set runs from 10,000 – 30,000 yen.
But I was mightily intrigued by some of the ‘alternative’ restaurants in the city. First up there are the ‘Maid’ restaurants which pander to Japanese male fantasies and allows the customer to interact with real-life manga characters. Waitresses are typically dressed as French maids and customers are treated as though they are the masters/mistress of the house. These range from standoffish Victorian style maid service to the school-themed cafes where customers pay to be spoon-fed or to be slapped in the face in public.
Then there are the ‘Cat’ cafes, the ‘Dog cafes, the ‘Bird’ cafes, the ‘Rabbit’ cafes, where you can sip your coffee or tea while relaxing with either your own pet or a rental pet. As space is so scarce, many people do not have the option to keep a pet so this is the answer to the problem. Mind you, if you do have the space to have a dog or a cat, you can also buy a pram in which to wheel them about. It stopped me in my tracks, but the Japanese sailed serenely by, unfazed by this strangeness.
Dog in Pram beng fed Ice-Cream
Dog in Pram, not unusual in Japan
And now there is a ‘Goat’ café as well, 5 minutes walk from Shibuya Station at Shinoda Building 1F, 23-3 Shibuya, but I wasn’t able to check this out to see how they interacted with the goats. This one sounds seriously weird.
I have had this image of Japan for years, of a country of kimona-clad beauties, beautiful gardens landscaped with flowers and red bridges, temples, and Bonsai, and, you know what, it is just like that.
I didn’t manage to cover the whole of Japan on my trip, that will take a few years, but I did chance upon many instances of the above as well as the frenetic crackling neon of Tokyo with shopping on Ginza, the surge of people crossing the road at Shinju and suspicious bars behind curtained doorways off the main streets: the traditional streets and craft shops in Takayama; the Ryokans where you sleep on a futon and eat only Japanese food: Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps, a sublimely tranquil place for walking and cycling, where snow-capped mountains surround fast-flowing rivers, and monkeys cavort among the bamboo, and where the birdsong is so sweet it stops you in your tracks: Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan with its traditions and spectacular sight-seeing: Hiroshima with its sombre Peace Park and its nearby island of Miyajima, and Hakone where the image of the ic0nic Mount Fuji changes depending on time of day and weather.
To say it was culture shock is putting it mildly whether it was from seeing a racoon on a lead being led along the street, to seeing a dog in a ‘dog-pram’ being wheeled around a park, to witnessing day in and day out, the regiment of ‘salarymen’ coming and going from their businesses all dressed in their uniform of black suits, white shirts and dark ties. The men of this most conservative of nations never sport coloured shirts.
The kimono-clad women and young girls I saw, and the few men I glimpsed dressed in traditional garb, I later found were often Koreans who hired the kimonos when they were in Japan. Many Japanese hire them also, as the cost of buying a good kimono, or a special one, can be astronomical, and they are nearly always worn for weddings.
So, join me as I blog about my trip on later pages, let me know if I can answer any questions you may have, or just log on and say ‘hello’.