Japan - 29/04-06/05/15

A lovely day out to Mt Fuji and Hakone, but the mountain was being a little coy.

We first came to Japan for our honeymoon, in 1977.  At the time, I was suffering from undiagnosed pleurisy.  Our next visit was in 2002 and that time I had injured my back at the start of the trip, so was in a lot of pain.  This time, despite our advancing years and undoubted travel fatigue, we are both in much better shape and we have enjoyed our week immensely!

We spent three days in Tokyo and two in Kyoto, mainly, but not entirely, repeating things we had done before.  One thing we had not done before was visit Mount Fuji, so we joined an organised tour.  It was a pleasant enough day, but reminded us of why we generally prefer to do things independently.  You spend a lot of time waiting for people who are late back to the bus, you get taken places you may not have chosen (in this case a cable car with a non-existent view and a freezing wind at the top) and you often find you have paid for a lunch that you wouldn't normally eat.  Mount Fuji itself was having a coy day (as it frequently does) and the peak only revealed itself briefly, while we were in the bus and unable to take photos.

The next day we stayed in the city and revisited the temple at Asakusa, where there is also a huge street market where we wanted to do a particular bit of shopping - as we haven't got quite enough to carry yet!  Before we could do that, we needed to find an ATM to get some money, but all the ones at the main banks refused our Visa debit card.  When Martin enquired at a large bank branch, he was told to go to the 7/11 convenience store - the ATM there would certainly accept foreign cards.  Of course!  Why didn't we think of that?  Anyway, it worked and we were grateful for the advice.  Shopping achieved, we made our way back to our hotel and prepared for our last day - our third visit to Lake Chuzenji, a beautiful spot in the mountains to the north of Tokyo, above one of the most popular and important shrine complexes in Japan - Nikko.  This time we gave Nikko a miss and after two trains and a bus ride up a steep mountain road, we arrived at the lake.  It was a lovely, sunny day, unlike in 2002, when it was cold and rainy.  We strolled along, had a lovely lakeside lunch and a boat trip, then returned to Tokyo.  The only thing we missed was the wild monkeys which had been everywhere on our previous visits - even to the point of shoplifting biscuits from the local store.  There were signs warning you not to feed them, but not a monkey in sight.  We weren't too disappointed - they really are a menace.  The ride down the mountain in the bus was very much more precipitous than the way up (it's a one way system).  Martin wisely closed his eyes and went to sleep, but I was mesmerised by the view of 20 or 30 hairpin bends curling away immediately below us as we twisted and turned.  Sorry, no photos - the camera was in Martin's pocket!

Japanese public transport is a thing of wonder.  It's easy to navigate, if you take the time to look for the English signs which are almost always there.  On trains, subway and buses all the destinations and next stops are announced in English as well as Japanese and everything, including buses in heavy traffic, runs to a strict timetable.  You really can set your watch by an arriving train or bus!  We had Japan Rail passes and bought a subway pass in Tokyo and a bus pass in Kyoto and were able to travel around those cities as easily and as freely as a native.  We were delighted to find that we could deposit most of our luggage at Tokyo Station, take only a small bag to Kyoto, then have the cases delivered to the airport to pick up on our return.  In some countries you might feel dubious about trusting such an arrangement, but not in Japan!  It was a great relief and it all worked like clockwork.  While our heavy cases were being tenderly cared for, we hopped on the Shinkansen "Super express" and headed south-west to the ancient capital of Japan, Kyoto.

Here, we were staying in a "machiya", which is a traditional wooden house with paper screens, tatami mats, futon on the floor and very little else in the way of furniture. One low table for eating from, and, as a concession to soft Western visitors, a set of equally low chairs, which are hard to get down onto, but much harder to get up from!  No other chairs at all.  Happily, the plumbing arrangements had been thoroughly modernised and the bathroom facilities were beyond compare.  (Martin now hankers after a heated toilet seat and was very tempted when he found a selection of them on offer in the duty-free shop at Narita airport!)  But I digress.  First we had to find the house.  We had clear instructions, but one of the ways our tiredness is manifesting itself is that we have a tendency to make little errors of navigation that can lead us off in the wrong direction.  So our hostess, who was waiting to show us the house before leaving us to enjoy it, was waiting anxiously in the street when we finally arrived in the care of a kind young man who had gone out of his way to deliver us safely.  It was down a very tiny back lane, off a side street, off a narrow arcade, so perhaps we were not too much to blame! Anyway, the lack of chairs aside, we loved the little house - everything simple, clean and in exquisite taste, including a miniature garden of raked gravel and artistically-placed stones and rocks.

On our first complete day we used our rail passes again and went to Nara, 40 kilometres away and the site of (almost) the biggest wooden building in the world, the Todai-ji temple.  When we came in 1977, it was being refurbished and was all done up in a giant plastic bag, but this time it was revealed in all its glory.  And it is glorious.  Inside is a vast, bronze Buddha and all around were thousands and thousands of Japanese tourists.  I should say at this point that out of the three times we have visited Japan, twice we have managed to arrive in Golden Week, without doubt the busiest in the calendar.  There are three national holidays during the week and many Japanese take the whole week off work and go out for day trips to see their own historic sights - the same that we had come to see.  That certainly makes it crowded, but it is rather lovely to see so many people of all ages out having a good time together.  There are old folk like us, young families and many, many young people.  They are often taking silly photos, to be sure, but they are still out there enjoying their own, very splendid, heritage.  That's something you don't often see at home.

Next, day, with much better weather, we armed ourselves with bus passes and did carefully selected sights in Kyoto.  First was Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion.  We really don't want to see inside, or learn any more details of, the temples built by various lords, bishops and other worthies to show how very important and rich they were, but in Kyoto, it's all about the setting.  The Silver Pavilion itself (which is not actually silver), with its reflecting pool, is a fine enough edifice, but it's the gardens we all go to see.  First, there is the sand sculpture, representing waves and possibly Mount Fuji, then the winding path leads you up a gentle, moss covered hill through the impossibly gorgeous trees, with just a few clusters of discreetly placed flowers, until at the top, you look back over the whole, and across Kyoto.  There is a small army of gardeners blending into the background, quietly sweeping with traditional brooms and gently hoeing the weeds from the moss.  Australians take note - not a leaf blower to be seen or heard!  The thing about these gardens is that there is no one point at which you say - ah, this is the best view!  You can stop at any point at all and the landscape is complete - just subtly different from the last place you stopped. The next bus took us to Kinkaju-ji, or the Golden Pavilion, and that really is gold!  More gold than when it was built in fact, as every time it burns down or has to be rebuilt, they add more gold leaf!  The iconic view has the pavilion perfectly reflected in the lake, but we think Photoshop has a lot to answer for.  We were there on a virtually perfect day, but a tiny breeze caused enough ripples on the lake to spoil the reflection.  We didn't care, we were too busy admiring the irises.  Again, not too many - just enough so that you could appreciate the beauty of their colour and shape, and the contrast with all the green and gold surrounding them.  More fine gardens, then onto another bus to the Nijo Castle, home to the Shoguns who controlled Japan from 1603 to  1868.  It's impressive and best known for its "nightingale" floors, deliberately built to squeak, so that enemies couldn't sneak up in the night.  We walked around the great verandah and gazed into a series of large rooms, with beautiful paintings on the walls and tatami mats on the floor.  Not a chair in sight!  Our last visit (we really did well that day!) was to the park of the Imperial Palace - large, peaceful and open to all, but unexciting.  Then we took the subway to a particular shop we were interested in and after buying provisions for a nice Japanese meal at our comfy table, we took a final bus home.  The whole day's travel and entrance fees cost approximately £10. Very good value.  And the winner on points?   The Silver Pavilion!

I was dubious about this part of our travels.  I knew we would be very tired by this time and I felt it would have been better to make Singapore our last stop.  But Martin was determined to revisit Japan and Hong Kong, reviving old memories and seeing how much has changed.  And he was right, because we are enjoying it so much.  Next time we must come in autumn to see the leaves changing colour.....

Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo. Founded in 623, but rebuilt after the wartime bombing.

Pagoda at Senso-ji Temple complex.

Now that's what I call a rope sandal! Senso-ji Temple gate.

The avenue leading to Senso-ji has been the site of stalls and small shops for centuries, but is now mainly for tourists, although there are still one or two traditional shops for locals.

Yum-Yum, Peep-Bo and Pitti-Sing, dressed beautifully in traditional Japanese costume, on a day out to Nikko by train. Apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan!

Lake Chuzenji - Nikko National Park. Delightful in 1977, very wet in 2002 and beautiful in 2015!

Cruising on Lake Chuzenji.

Kegon Falls, Lake Chuzenji's only outlet - at 97m (318ft) they the 3rd highest in Japan.

The Great Buddha Hall at Todai-ji Temple, Nara. Founded in 743, the building has been reconstructed several times. The current building dates from 1709 and, until 1998, was the largest wooden building in the world.

The central entrance to the Great Buddha Hall.

The Great Buddha - 15m (49ft) high, cast in bronze.

Ginkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto - the Silver Pavilion.

Ginkaku-ji gardens - said to have been designed in the late 15th century by Soami, Japan's Capability Brown.

Ginkaku-ji gardens.

The Sand Garden and representation of Mt Fuji at Genkaku-ji.

At Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto.

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto. The pavilion dates from the late 14th century, but had to be rebuilt after a disgruntled monk burnt it to the ground in 1950. The design was followed faithfully, but extra gilding was applied.

Kinkaku-ji - The Golden Pavilion.

Once again, it's not just the temple that's beautiful, but the setting too.

The entrance gate to the Ninomaru Palace within Nijo Castle.

A detail of the gateway.

Ninomaru Palace within Nijo Castle. No photos allowed inside, but the vast suite of interconnecting rooms used by the Shoguns and his court were spectacularly decorated with murals.

Our machiya in Kyoto. Beautiful, but uncomfortable, living room.

Gotcha! A last glimpse of Mt Fuji from the Kyoto to Tokyo train.