Nick (nickmurdoch) wrote,

Japan 2016: Days 1-5

This is the first of a few posts about my recent trip to Japan with Emily!

We arrived in Japan towards the end of an uncommonly early cherry blossom season, but fortunately we had hedged our bets around the country on where the best would be, so places we thought we'd be early for were in full bloom, while places we thought might be spot on were already dropping their flowers (raining cherry blossom is great). In the first few days we saw temples and a castle, hiked beautiful routes up hillsides, and of course got to eat some excellent sushi.

Ueno, Tokyo

The first place we went after arriving at Narita Airport was Ueno Park in Tokyo, which is one of the best places to see cherry blossom (sakura) in Tokyo.

The park was massive and we spent quite a while walking through the trees, which were slightly past their best, but still very pretty.

We also had our first Japanese snack, which I think was a type of Dango. They were being roasted on one of many food stalls in the park, and were very chewy. We got the sakura flavour ones, naturally.


It was time for our first Shinkansen ride!

We changed onto a local line service to Nikko and arrived at around 16:30. While waiting for the bus to our first hotel, we explored the pretty high street, and visited Shinkyo, a great example of one of Japan's many red bridges.

We arrived at our hotel, a ryokan called Akari No Yado Village Revage, after getting a little lost because Google Maps had marked in the wrong place. The ryokan owner came out to greet us, and it turned out to be a much nicer place than we had expected. It had a choice of two private onsen and the owner showed us how to wear the traditional yukata robes. The onsen was very warm and cosy, and had a wooden-fitted dressing room beforehand, and an outside area for cooling off between dips.

In the morning we took a bus up the extremely bendy road to Lake Chūzenji, which was a little higher in altitude than we expected, at 1200m. We went first to Kegon Taki, the waterfall through which the lake drains, where there was a rainbow being cast from the morning sunlight. On our way out, I saw a macaque darting across the footpath!

We walked around a stretch of Lake Chūzenji, where it was extremely windy and very cold. It would have been nice to sit at one of the lakeside cafés with a warm drink, but nowhere opened until 10am, so we caught the bus back down to Nikko instead.

Nikko is mostly known for its large collection of Buddhist temples and shrines, and we visited a lot of them after returning from Lake Chūzenji. My favourite was one of the more out of the way ones which involved a pretty walk through some wooded areas and mossy graveyards.

After lunch and a couple more temples, we visited the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, which is a long collection of Jizo Bosatsu statues, all adorned with red beanie hats and bibs. Some of the statues had lost their heads, and whoever placed the hats on the statues has substituted rocks for heads in those cases.


We caught three trains from Nikko to Kamakura, which is a very pretty small city south-west of Tokyo. We stayed at Inn by the Sea, though we never actually went down to the seafront! One of the owners was an expat Canadian and went out of her way to accomodate our request for a vegetarian breakfast, which is not a particularly easy thing in Japan. Emily also got to test the nursery rhyme she'd learnt on the owners' daughter, who had just had her first day at nursery school.

Kamakura has a fantastic couple of country walking trails that take you around various temples, shrines and gardens. The first one, still in town, was Kōtoku-in, which featured a 13-metre Buddha statue. For 50円 (50¢ / 30p) we even got to go inside the Buddha. Pretty cool!

The first trail we did was the Daibutsu Hiking Trail, which ran mostly along an elevated ridge, through woodland. There were some good views of the city and sea from here. We reached a small public garden and then visited the Zeniarai Benten shrine where there was a spring that people claimed would double the value of your money if you washed it. There was a tunnel/cave entrance to the shrine, which seemed to be surrounded by cliffs, and the spring itself was in a cave.

Next up was Kuzuharaoka Shrine, which was a very pleasant low-key shrine. It featured a rock called Masaru-ishi, aginst which you could throw small ceramic disks as a gesture of getting rid of negative influences on your life.

At the end of the Daibutsu trail, near Kita-Kamakura station, was Tōkei-ji, a beautiful temple and graveyard where everything was coated in a layer of moss. The place used to be a nunnery that allowed women to obtain a divorce if they stayed there for three years.

After spending a good amount of time in this temple, we began the next trail, the Tenen hiking trail, which started with the Kenchō-ji temple, which was quite massive.

Behind Kenchō-ji was a steep walk up a hillside to a secondary shrine, which was protected by a number of bird-man statues. From the top there was a great view of the area, and even a viewpoint from which you could see Mount Fuji. There were also birds of prey circling the area, as we saw in many rural areas of Japan. I'm not quite sure what bird it was.

The Tenen trail was also very pretty, through woodland and it just kept on going up!

Eventually we partly decended down a set of steps, which lead us to the edge of a residential area. Here was Zuisen-ji, a temple with a "naturalistic" garden, which meant a less meticulously curated garden in favour of some parts that were basically wild. It was very pretty.

We walked back to the main centre of Kamakura and somehow nearly missed the gigantic Tsurugaoka Hachimangu shrine which overlooked the main high street. Emily visited a garden while I sat at a lakeside and watched a heron. I bought what I thought was a cookie from a shop, but it turned out to be a rice cake. (There are no cookies in Japan....)

The weather was sunny all day and the trails were really quiet, which was a welcome reprieve from some of the busier parts of Nikko the day before.

Back to the station and onto a train towards Lake Kawaguchi, one of the Fuji Five Lakes.


We got up early to catch the first train (a single-track line, like most of the private railways in Japan) a couple of stations along from the hotel in order to visit the Chureito pagoda, which was built specifically as a viewpoint for Mount Fuji. The pagoda itself is not open, but there is a viewpoint right behind it, further up the hill.

The way up to it was very pleasant, with orange lanterns and the cherry blossoms lining the sides of the considerable number of steps up the hill. Unfortunately the day was overcast, and so there was no view of Mount Fuji that day. I would have been right here!

The clouds parted for a few moments, enough to see part of the slope of Fuji, but that was all we got. It was pleasantly quiet at the viewpoint. A local woman was tidying up litter and asking everyone where they were from, and there were a few photographers holding out hope of the weather changing.

We caught the train back to Kawaguchiko and went for a walk around the lake, which the tourist guide said had some good cherry blossom spots. The lake itself was very pretty, but it was blighted somewhat by the rather dilapidated tourist town that had sprung up around it. We looked around a food market and bought a sakura-flavour ice cream (it had actual blossom in it) and a chocolate-and-sprinkles-covered banana (called, of course, a choco-banana) which seem to be quite popular in Japan.


Matsumoto Castle was definitely my favourite castle of the trip. It was surrounded by some nice green gardens, a moat with a red bridge over it, and the castle itself was very grand.

We did the tour of inside the castle, which like all Japanese castles, is constructed of wood, and as such it is unusual in that it is still the original structure - a lot of the tourist attractions have been rebuilt at least once in the past due to fires.

Outside we danced in the cherry blossom as the sun came out.

Also of note in Matsumoto was a small cafe/restaurant that served vegan sushi, so we treated ourselves to a mixed selection:

Very tasty!

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