Visiting Japan

Japan Tour May 2012

Our last trip was in May 2012. The purpose of the trip was to experience traditional Japan and its culture and stayed in Kyoto, Takayama, Tsumago and Kamakura covering the Hollyhock Matsuri, the Nakasendo and Tokaido roads and associated museums, Matsumoto and Kanazawa castles and gardens and much more. Kyoto was the capital for over 1000 years and is the cultural heart of Japan with over 2000 temples and shrines and 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites including many important gardens and palaces. It is also well placed to visit other important destinations such as Uji, Kanazawa, Okayama and Takamatsu. Kanazawa is a typical old castle town with geisha quarter, samurai houses and the famous Kenroko-en garden. Takayama is a small city in the Southern Alps and retains its rustic charm and atmosphere of old Japan with its temples, tea houses, merchant’s houses and Hida folk village. Matsumoto castle can be visited en route to Tsumago, which is a beautifully preserved post town on the old Nakasendo military road connecting Kyoto and Tokyo high in the Kiso valley. All the buildings date from the Edo period. Kamakura was seat of the Minamoto Shoguns with many important temples and gardens and convenient to visit the Hakone area to see Mt Fuji from Lake Ashi, the old Tokaido road, barrier & museum.

Accommodation included staying in traditional ryokans and Western style hotels. The timing coincides with the colourful azalea season. Should you wish to register interest for future trips, without commitment please email, where I will keep you appraised of developments.

Kyoto, the Cultural Heart of Japan

Kyoto is the cultural and spiritual heart of Japan with over 1500 temples and 300 shrines, 17 UNESCO sites and legendary gardens. These riches are a legacy of over 1000 years as the capital of Japan and are today the heart and soul of Japan.

How to get there

The nearest international airport is Osaka Kansai, which has a frequent express train service to Kyoto or you may catch the Yasaka shuttle with a kiosk outside arrivals and direct to your hotel. Arriving via Tokyo Narita then catch the Shinkansen (bullet) train to Kyoto which takes about 3 hours. Note than there are no longer any direct flights from the UK to Osaka and the Shinkansen fares are high and you should consider pre purchase of a Japan Rail Pass.

Where to stay

Kyoto has a wide range of international western style hotel accommodation, many of which are close to the station including the Righa Royal (4*), New Miyako and Granvia. Other more modest hotels are to be found such as the Mitsui Garden (3*). Prices are much the same the world over. You may choose to stay at a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese style hotel where you sleep on futons on the tatami matted floor. These are generally quite expensive and may not speak English or accept credit cards. There are a few B&B offered at a lower price and traditional facilities including Japanese loos, sleeping on futons and Japanese food. The Yonbanchi B&B has two rooms with family shower and loo in the small garden, breakfast with green tea, toast and fruit. The local tourist information office in the Isetan department store in the station is very helpful.

City life

Arts and crafts are well represented in Kyoto with the highly stylised No plays, tea ceremony (taken at many temples or Urasenke Chado research centre), ikebana flower arranging, kimono and dyed silks (Nishijin textile centre) and raku pottery (Kiyomizu district).

Kyoto is most famous for its architecture and gardens. Despite the fact that today many temples are but a small residual enclave of what was once a mighty force to be reckoned with. The Enryaku-ji complex once had some 2000 buildings and thousands of warrior monks that threatened the power of the shogunate and was razed to such and extend that only 120 or so buildings remain. There are over 1500 Buddhist temples and 300 Shinto shrines in and around the city, many of which have gardens and are well worth a visit in their own right.

Places to visit

The most popular time to visit Kyoto is in early April for the cherry blossom or late November for the magnificent autumn colour although May is resplendent when the azaleas and wisteria are in bloom. Places to visit will depend on time available in Kyoto and will all be found in the TIC tourist map:

The one day standard packaged tour takes in the Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji), Ryoan-ji temple rock garden, Nijo castle (more palace than castle) and Sangusangendo (1001 images of Buddha Kanon). However it is better to visit a single district such as Higashiyama (with its many temples and old back streets) or Arashiyama (playground of the Emperors) and see a number of sights without having to travel far between. Higashiyama temples includes (North to South):- Manshu-in, Shinsendo, Hakuso-sonso, Ginkaku-ji, Philosphers path, Eikando, Nanzen-in, Nazen-ji, Tenju-an, Konchi-in, Shoren-in, Chion-in, Kodai-ji & Kiyomizu-dera (choose a 4 or 5 and perhaps visit the laser night show at Kiyomizu-dera).

A Three day stay should take in Arashiyama and Hogon-in, Tenryu-ji temples and Okochi-sonso villa, the Orgel Museum and the Hozu gorge and even shoot the rapids. A visit to the Higashiyama temples above and a day in the city centre visiting Nijo castle, the Nishiki market, Shosei-en garden and Sangusangendo or even a visit to the temples in the North West at Ryoan-ji, Kinkaku-ji and Ninna-ji.

A full week’s stay could include in addition a visit to Ohara (1 hour by bus), the temples at Tokufu-ji and Fushimi Inari shrine in the South West and a day at Nara. If you are staying over a weekend, a visit to one of the main Shinto shrines (Kamigamo, Shimongamo or Fushimi Inari) will be well rewarded as the Japanese will be there in their best kimono's having family portraits taken, exhibitions of various sorts take place and wedding ceremonies can be discretely observed.

Eating out

Most Japanese are Buddhists and meat does not feature significantly in their diet although sea food does. There are a number styles of restaurant serving Kaiseki (high class Kyoto nouvelle cuisine – fantastic but expensive, the Grotto on Imadegawa is particularly fine but only seats 15 so book), Sushi & Sashimi bars (raw fish/seafood on or in a ball of vinegared rice – excellent and quite expensive), Tempura (vegetables/seafood fried in a light batter – scrummy and reasonably priced), Noodle bars (soba, udon or ramen – everywhere and cheap). You may wish to try Unagi (eel) but not the potentially poisonous fugu fish, which is served from specially licensed premises. A delightful vegetarian café (Café Proverbs) is to be found on Imadegawa Street. There are about 80 restaurants in the basement of Kyoto station alone. If in doubt take the waiter to the window and point to the plastic replica displayed – what you see is what you get. The Japanese are scrupulously clean and the food is safe.

There are a number of brands of beer available, which are lager style from Asahi, Kirin and Suntory. The latter even distils whiskey although the common local spirit is sake, which is not distilled but drunk when freshly brewed and served both cold and warm. It is possible to visit the Gekkekian Sake brewery in Fushimi district for a tour, sample the brew and shop for the price of a small bottle of beer = very good value.

City transport

Kyoto has two subway lines and a number of other private rail lines, which as you might expect operate smoothly in an integrated manner. The bus services operate out of Kyoto station (southern part of the city) and a few from Kitoiji to the north. Take almost any bus and you will end up at the station. Travel about town is not daunting as it may seem as most street names are in English and Japanese as is bus/train ticket machines, announcements and signage.

Japan Rail Pass

The Japan Rail Pass is a cost effective way of travelling around Japan on the Shinkansen and other Japan Rail services. A weekly pass is equivalent to a return journey cost between Tokyo and Kyoto. It must be paid for in the UK and is available from JAL and major travel agencies who issue a voucher, which must be exchanged at a major station for the pass itself. These passes are only available for visitors. The pass also covers seat reservations. Places to visit from Kyoto using your rail pass include Nara (ancient capital), Himeji and Okayama (castle towns), Kanazawa (provincial city with samurai and geisha quarters), Takayama (in Southern Alps) and the Kiso Valley (old shogun trail through mountains).

For more info e-mail David (see contact tab). See Gardens tab for images of Japanese gardens.

Matsue, Shimane Province, Japan

Matsue the "Water City" is a historical castle town astride the connecting river between Lake Shinji and a lagoon with its many waterways makes an ideal location for a short break in your Japan tour.

How to get there

Matsue is on the north coast of the main island of Honshu and is served by a number of daily flights from Tokyo to Izumo and Yonago airports and the Yakumo Express trains from Okayama (about 2 hours), which is on the main Shinkansen (bullet train) lines from Tokyo.

Where to stay

As you would expect with a city with a population approaching 200,000 there is a wide choice of accommodation from Guest houses to Japanese inns with hot spring baths. The three-star Tokyu Inn opposite the station is quite comfortable and very convenient although the Minami-Kan Japanese Ryokan near the main bridge provides excellent facilities and a fabulous garden with tea house (one of the top 10 gardens in all Japan). My Japanese business card came in very useful with a personal tour of the garden.

Places to visit

The original castle and the town were established over 400 years ago and occupy a commanding position between two large expanses of water – a freshwater lake and a sea lagoon. Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish writer settled here over 100 years ago and graphically described the beauty of the town and its surroundings, in particular the colourful sunsets over the pine clad Yomegashima Island in the lagoon. The black castle and its grounds, known as the plover castle, provides a wonderful backdrop at cherry blossom time and is worthy of a visit. Take the back exit from Castle Park and visit Lafcadio Hearns residence, which is rather more interesting than the commemorative museum next door. A little further along the road is an old samurai house with its domestic paraphernalia on display. On the hill above is the renowned Meimei-an teahouse.

Out of town the Adachi Museum of Art at Yasugi (some 20 minutes away by train) offers contemporary art surrounded by some of the finest gardens in all Japan. A bus ride from Matsue station across the causeway to Daikon Shima Island, an ancient collapsed volcanic caldera provides a fertile area for peony cultivation best seen at the fabulous Yuushien stroll garden, which boasts peonies in bloom throughout the year. A short journey to the Iwami silver mine at Oda provides a glimpse into medieval Japan.

The whole area contains a number of interesting temples and shrines, museums, parks and hot volcanic springs.

Eating out

As one might imagine with lakes, lagoons and the sea all on its doorstep the waters provide a number of local delicacies including whitebait, Shijimi clams, eel, shrimps, bass, smelt and carp.

Imperial Japan - In the footsteps of the Shogun

You have seen the film (Shogun) - now experience the marvellous legacy of Imperial Japan with a tour based on Kyoto

Places to visit

A Japan Rail Pass will save a lot of money. Details of how to obtain given later.

A day trip by local train to Nara (approx. 1 hour) takes you to the first real capital of Japan with the worlds largest wooden building housing the statue of Buddha at Todai-ji temple, visiting the Kasuga Taisha shrine of 3000 lanterns and the old merchant houses with other gardens and temples should time allow.

A day trip by Thunderbird Express train to Kanazawa on the north coast (approx. 2 hours), the regional centre of the Maeda clan taking in the Nomura samurai house, Kenroko-en castle and gardens, the Ninja-dera temple headquarters of the Ninja sect (need to book at the TIC office in the station) and if time permits the geisha district and the Shima geisha house all worthy of a visit.

A day trip by Shinkansen (bullet) train to Himeji to see the white heron castle (best in Japan) and the nearby Koko-en gardens.

A day trip by train to the Kiso Valley via Nagoya and Nakatsugarwa and bus to Magome to walk a 5 mile stretch of the old Nakasendo road between Kyoto and Tokyo. This has been well restored together with the post towns of Magome and Tsumago much as they were several hundred years ago. The mountain scenery (Mt Ena is 6500’) is beautiful.

In Kyoto itself, a visit to Nijo castle and nearby Nishi Hongan-ji palace is worthwhile with the impressive architecture and lavish gardens. The Imperial Park with the Omura palace buildings and superb gardens is also worth a visit (prior booking necessary via Imperial Household Agency). The Golden Pavilions (Kinkaku-ji) was built as a retirement home for one of the shoguns and is very photogenic. A visit to Sampo-in temple in the Diago-ji complex serves to remind of the lavish gardens built by the shoguns. The temple complex of Enrakyu-ji near the summit of Mt Hiei was home to an army of warrior monks and scene of fierce fighting; today there still remains impressive temples with spectacular views over Lake Biwa.