Here and there and everywhere: Japan, Part 1

There are a lot of reasons why I have a history of being… somewhat lacklustre at regular blogging. Some of these reasons are more interesting than others. One of the less boring excuses is that I travel a lot, and when I am travelling, I prefer to dedicate my energy to the trip itself, rather than tinkering with a blog (often over fairly underwhelming wifi connections).

True to form, I ranged far and wide over the tail end of 2015 and the start of 2016. In September of last year we went on a lovely trip to Japan. It was my third time visiting, because I just can’t seem to stop returning. Japan just hits all of the travel sweet spots for me: it’s endlessly interesting, stunningly beautiful, easy to get around, safe, convenient, and you can buy dorayaki (red bean pancakes) in every convenience store. It’s also comparatively close (when you’re Australian, you do actually start considering nine hour flights as “comparatively close”) so you don’t lose any time to jetlag.

This time around, we started out in Tokyo.

I’m not going to bother trying to describe Tokyo because that’s more or less impossible, but suffice to say it’s probably got what you’re looking for, whatever that might be. Example: in the same day we visited the lovely leafy and tranquil Institute for Nature Study and then wandered around Harajuku and Shinjuku. They’re not even that far apart. Japan is ridiculous and amazing that way.

Along with the usual tourist destinations of Shinjuku, Shibuya, Harajuku, Akihabara, and Asakusa, through complete dumb luck and good timing we also made it to Tokyo Game Show (non-gamer readers: afraid you guys will just have to take my word for it), which was tremendous fun.

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Once we wrapped things up in Tokyo, we hopped aboard a train and took a gorgeous ride to Takayama. We spent a lot of time wandering the old town, and clambering around the hills trying unsuccessfully to find the trails we’d read about, but enjoying the view nevertheless. Oh, and trying not to buy everything. Takayama is a special hell for people who love souvenirs. A lot of what’s on offer is both gorgeous and very reasonably priced, so if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend a lot of time agonising about how much room you have left in your suitcase.

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Our next destination was Kanazawa, along the northern coastline. We only had one full day in the city, so we made sure to check out the famous Kenrokuen Garden, which was far too beautiful to be done justice by my mediocre photography!

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After Kanazawa, we took the Thunderbird Express (best train name ever) down to Kyoto, where we stayed for a little under a week. It wasn’t my first visit, but I’m pretty sure that it’s impossible to get bored of Kyoto. It’s an incredibly beautiful city on the face of things, but more than that, I find that I actually love it more the longer I spend there. It’s one of those places where  you can very profitably just wander and gawk for a very, very long time without getting bored or running out of things to see.

There are far too many beautiful things in Kyoto for me to list them all, but one of my favourite new-to-me discoveries from this trip was the nineteenth century aqueduct hidden away in the Nanzen-ji temple complex (though the temples themselves are, of course, astonishingly beautiful as well).

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I will also never stop being partial to Arashiyama, for very obvious reasons.

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While, as mentioned above, I’m firmly convinced that I will never get sick of Kyoto, it was our next destination that had me the most excited: the Kumano region, on the Kii Peninsula. I had wanted to hike some of the Kumano Kodō ever since I had read about it several years earlier, but hadn’t managed to get there during my previous trip to Japan, so this time around I was about as full of enthusiasm as was possible, given the head cold I was sporting by this point of the trip!

We took the train down through Wakayama prefecture and stayed in Shirahama overnight, heading down to the gorgeous beach for a wander, a quick dip (the water was surprisingly warm for October), and also to wave a patriotic hello to the sand, which is apparently imported from Australia! The next day we took several hundred bus trips (well, it felt that way) and arrived in the lovely little town of Hongu. We had decided earlier to stay several days in Hongu and hike outwards, rather than trying to hike from town to town. This definitely turned out to be for the best, as one of our party was bedridden from a nasty virus, and the rest of us were still recovering; staying in one place left us with plenty of hikes to tackle, but had the added benefit of recuperation and hot-spring time!

The town of Hongu was small but lovely, with some impressive temples and the largest torii shrine in the world (it was colossal). There were also a large number of hawks circling over the town for the entirety of our visit. I’m still unsure why – perhaps it was mating season, or some such thing – but it definitely gave the place quite the atmosphere!

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The Kumano Kodō paths themselves were absolutely gorgeous. We hiked sections of the Nakahechi route, which took us through an amazing range of settings, from lush ferny forests to farming villages and mountain ranges.

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You get the idea!

When we weren’t hiking until our legs were screaming (and scream they did; in case the elevation in the last photo doesn’t give it away, there were plenty of steep climbs) we were lolling around in the nearby Kawayu Onsen. Kawayu Onsen is one of those places that makes people sceptical when you speak of your trip, because it sounds far too nice to actually exist. The onsen is set along the banks of the river; the hot-spring water wells up from underneath the river stones. You can dig your own bath, or laze around in one of the pre-dug holes. If you get bored or overheated, a quick dip in the (brisk!) mountain river does the trick. It’s as nice as it sounds, and the setting is gorgeous.

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I know, right?

After we finally pried ourselves out of the river, it was off to Kumano Nachi Taisha, one of the main destinations of the pilgrimage route. We cheated and, ahem, took the bus most of the way, but made sure to hike the Daimon-zaka, one final 600 metre stretch of stone steps and ancient trees.

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And then there was the temple itself, as well as nearby Nachi Falls. I came perilously close to running out of awe that day!

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After a night in sleepy Kii-Katsuura, part of which was spent soaking our tired feet in the hot-springs by the town docks while weeping with joy over having regained access to well-stocked convenience stores, I parted ways with my travelling companions. They got on a train back to Tokyo, and I boarded the northbound service for Osaka. There may have been a dance off at the station, but you didn’t hear it from me…

In the next episode: Anna’s solo adventures through Kansai!

 

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