Category Archives: Japan

Cherry Blossom, Tokyo and all points east and west

DOORWAYS: London, Tokyo, France

Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites.  The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:

Lots of Interesting doorways in Honfleur, France
Lots of  old doors in Honfleur, France
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Can’t resist including my favourite pub in Belfast
Doorway of Restaurant in Kyoto
Not exactly a doorway, but a delightful entrance to a restaurant in Tokyo
The Strand, London
The Strand, London

 

Oldest Door in Town
Pezanas, France (Oldest Doorway)

 

 

Very iold door, Noyes, France
A Very Old Door in Noyes, France

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Challenge: Face in the Crowd

 

Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge.  Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera.  So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes.  Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable.   Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.

Street scene, Tokyo
Tokyo’s Busiest Intersection at a Quiet Time

 

Street Barber in Hanoi, Vietnam
A Street Barber in Hanoi

 

Sicilian Afternoon
A Sicilian Afternoon – a Male only custom!

 

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Siesta on the Boat: a Trader takes a rest in Halong Bay, Vietnam

 

 

 

 

 

The Bamboo Forest of Kyoto

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.

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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.

Bambool Trail

 

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.

From Green to Black - Under the Bamboo

Everyone I spoke to was disappointed with the images they produced from their cameras, but it’s just impossible to capture something so intangible.

Kimona Clad Locals sightseeing in Bamboo Forest

 

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.

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TOKYO’S FAMOUS FISH MARKET

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.

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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.

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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!

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The Japanese Doll Studio

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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Doll Studio Tomo occasionally has exhibitions outside Japan (they were in London in 2015). Contact the Japanese National Tourism Board to enquire as to when they may be in your area.

Doll Studio Tomo Gallery, First Floor, SACRA Building, 20 Nakanomachi Saniyo Tominokouji, Nakagyoku, Kyoto, Japan 604-8083

Tel: +81 (0)75 211 5914     http://www.doll-tomo.com/english/

MIYAJIMA – Beautiful Island in Japan

dsc00776Miyajima 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.

Floating Torii Gate from the Ferry Boat
The Floating Red Torii from the Sea – Mari Nicholson

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.

Deer in the centre of Miyajima

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 on Miyajima - Mari Nicholson

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, 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.

Temple on Miyajima  2 - Mari Nicholson

Temples, Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

 

 

Temple on Miyajima - Mari Nicholson

 

Street scene 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.

Looks good, even though I can't read the Menu

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.

Path around the Inlet - Mari Nicholson

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.

Decisions, decisions.  Food is everywhere.
Decisions, decisions: food is everywhere
Conger Eel Buns for Sale - Mari Nicholson
Conger Eel Buns for Sale – Mari Nicholson

 

Fancy a sea eel bun, anyone - Mari Nicholson
Fancy a Sea eel bun, anyone? – Mari Nichoson

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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Bride and Groom on Miyaima Island – Photo Steve Moore

Rickshaw and Driver Awaiting the Bride - Mari Nicholson

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 from Miyajima

Ferry Departing Miyajma – Mari Nicholson

Ferryboat on Miyajma
Ferry at Miyajima – Mari Nicholson

Many walks on the Island - Mari Nicholson

Strolling around Miyajima =  Mari Nicholson

Torii

When the Tide is Out one can Walk out to the Torii but it looks perfect from here .                    Mari Nicholson

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SAKI – photo by Steve Moore

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HIROSHIMA – August 1945 and TODAY

It is difficult to write about Hiroshima.

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.

Enola Gay
The Enola Gay, the ‘plane that dropped the first Atom Bond on Hiroshima

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

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.

Hiroshima clock

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 Dome
Hiroshima Dome, the only building left standing after the bomb was dropped – Mari Nicholson

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.

 

Peace Park Memorial
Children’s Peace Monument based on the story of Sasaki Sadako

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 in Peace Park learning about the Bomb and its results

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.

08.30–18.00 March-July, Sept-Nov:   0830 – 19.00 August:  08.30-17.00 Dec-Feb.

Tel: (082)2414004.  Admission 50 yen.  Tram line 2 and 6 from Hiroshima station.

http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/top_e.html

Other places to visit:

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

MitakiDera: the Three Waterfalls Temple, a quiet and secluded gem with a fine view over the city.

 

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Photograph by Steve Moore

 

Red Torii Gate at Miyajima, near Hiroshima
Red Torii Gate in Miyajima, outside Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson

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.

JAPAN: Walking in the Japanese Alps

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 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 on the Limited Express and heading to Matsumoto and then onwards by local train to Shima Shima before boarding the bus to the village of Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park, otherwise known as the Japanese Alps.

Kamikochi is a moderately developed village surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with half a dozen hotels, some souvenir shops, and a few mountain huts.  Over the next few days, my friends Ken and Steve and I shall be walking the many trails laid out through the pine trees and along the fast-flowing rivers of turquoise snowmelt.  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 Shinkansen

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 individually packaged, cold wet wipes 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 each with 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.

Tokyo Suburbs - Rice paddi from house to railway

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, the hotel clients relaxed and chatted 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 the yearly 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.

Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi
Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

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.

The Macaque takeover of the public tables and benches
Macques lay claim to the picnic area – Mari Nicholson

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!

Bear Sighting Poster
Black Bear Sighting in Woods at Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

For non-walkers, 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.

A Walker in the woods
Walking in the woods in Kamikochi

 

 

Hikers by the river

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This area was discovered by a British missionary, the Reverend  Walter Weston (1861-1940) who arrived in Japan aged 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 Re. Weston

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 Kamikochi

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 less experienced hiker or walker.  No need for hiking boots or specialist footwear, normal trainers will do for these sort of walks. A Walk in the Woods 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 linked ponds, one large, one small, filled with crystal clear water.  It is a place where 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 that sit on the rocks in the pond.  A tranquil spot by the pond

 

Japanese boy at Tsaio Pond
Japanese Boy Plays by the Tsaisho Pond – Mari Nicholson

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.

Hikers along the river in Kamikochi
Hikers along the river in Kamikochi

Kappa Bridge

Tourists at Kappa Bridge, Chubu Sangaku National Park, Kamikochi

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 the town, hence its popularity.

Visitor Centre, Kamikochi, Japan - Mari Nicholson

The Visitor Centre in Kamikochi – Mari Nicholson

The more experienced walker will enjoy the climbs in the surrounding peaks, following one of the many delineated trails.  These are more challenging and 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 where, even in good weather, climbing can be extremely dangerous.   These peaks should be tackled with great care, especially if there is wind or rain, as the rain on the high crags can be intense and has been known to continue for several days, leaving hikers on the verge of hypothermia.  Every year there are accidents and people lose their lives in the mountains.

Resting awhile in the Kamikochi Park

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.

A Bend in the River - Dramatic Scenery

Fast-Flowing Rivers of Snow Melt – Mari Nicholson

And I just can’t resist one more picture of mother and baby macaques, 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.

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Mother and Baby by Steve Moore.

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 attracts visitors who come to admire the wonder of it.

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 Hotel Built 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.

Imperial Hotel Kamikochi.  Terrace and Balcony Rooms - Mari Nicholson
Imperial Hotel, Kamikochi, Terrace & Balconied Rooms – Mari Nicholson

 

 

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

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

Climate

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 a lot in the Kamikochi mountains.

TOKYO MAPS

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.

Hope these help.

Tokyo Subway Map

Tokyo Maps

Tokyo Maps 11

 

TOKYO SIGHTSEEING

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.

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Rickshaws for Hire –

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. Electronic Japan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Senso-ji Temple

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.

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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.

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Louis Vuitton in Ginza

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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.

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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.

Tokyo-at-Night

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.

Tokyo-in-Colour

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.

Towers

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.

SUMO

The writer with Sumo Wrestler in Subway

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.