Gourds, gourds everywhere: a peek at Naoshima

“Can I do a day trip to Tokyo from Kyoto? To Okayama? To Kyushu?” I found myself musing one day, at a loss for what to do on a national holiday. I looked at bus routes, at trains, and then finally a lightbulb went over my head: anything is possible if you have a bullet train ticket.

Which is why my friends and I decided one early autumn day to make the trek to a little place called Naoshima, in the Seto Inland Sea.

Naoshima is known as a Modern Art island, where you can wander around and see various structures set up outside for you to marvel at and, in some cases, even mess with. There are countless museums, several cafes, a couple of guesthouses, and buses to get you everywhere you need. Or bicycles, if you’re into that whole biking on the road thing. (Spoiler: I’m not. I’m a chicken.)

Pictured: art! (You could move the squares so they captured the light in different ways.

Bright and early I arrived at Kyoto Station and went to the ticket office. The trip to Naoshima from Kyoto is three legs:

  1. Kyoto Station to Okayama Station
  2. Okayama Station to Uno Station in Okayama Prefecture
  3. Ferry from Uno to Naoshima

(Okayama, by the way, is a lovely place that I recommend you check out. I’ll post about it another time.)

Do you have a JR pass? Are you a tourist? Great! Use your JR pass and the first leg of the trip will be really cheap for you. For the rest of us who live in Japan, the one-way price for unreserved seating is 7,010 yen. If you want to reserve a regular seat, make that 7,850 yen. I opted for the former because I figured I could use that extra money for a cafe or whatever, and in the morning there were plenty of seats to choose from on the Nozomi bullet train (the fastest of the trains available).

We got to Okayama in about an hour, at which point we were faced with multiple options for getting to Uno. Regardless of what you do, it’ll take 45 minutes to an hour. We opted for the regular trains at 580 yen one-way. You can get slightly faster trains (those 45 minute deals) for about double the price, but we didn’t think it was worth it. The train was comfortable enough, albeit tiny!

Once at Uno, we were bombarded with friendly, English-speaking staff who saw our non-Japanese faces and ran at us full-tilt.

“Are you going to Naoshima? The ferry leaves in twenty minutes! Go this way!” one exclaimed, pointing dramatically at the ferry port (which was in sight).

“Here’s a brochure in English!” another added, shoving several into our hands.

“Go to the store over there for discounted souvenirs!” a third exclaimed.

We fled toward the ferry instead.

The ferry was the cheapest and fastest part of the journey- about 20 minutes at 290 yen one way. When you get on it, there are multiple floors for you to choose from, and lots of seating arrangements. When you get on, you’ll be greeted with adventurous music ala Jurassic Park that makes you question if you accidentally walked into a theme park.

Finally, you’ll arrive at Naoshima, likely at Miyanoura Port. Now the fun begins: finding all the little things there are to do here.

Aki-can (空き缶) art

First off, of course, there’s the outside art that I mentioned before. There are multiple gourd structures on the island of varying colors. Some of them are solid, but others are hollowed out so you can climb inside and take silly pictures. There are also mysterious modern-art things that I can’t possibly hope to understand as I am, admittedly, not a huge art person.

ART!

(Reader: Why did you bother going if you’re not into ar-
Me: Shhh, don’t question it, just go with it.)

In addition to the outdoor stuff, there are the countless museums. Some are good only if you’re purely into the museum-going thing. We popped into one place, the Ando Museum, that was all of two rooms and cost us 500 yen-not massively recommended. There are other, much more interesting places to see: the Benesse House, the Chichu Museum, the Art House Project, etc. However, keep in mind these are expensive options- plan to pay as much as 2,000 yen for entry!

You can even hit up a bathhouse, cleverly titled, “I love Yu.” (Yu, or 湯、 means hot water, so it’s a play on words.) While bathing with strangers you can enjoy yet more modern art built into the place. I believe they switch up the men and women’s sides regularly so you can theoretically come back to view the other side without causing a scandal.

What did I like about the island most, though? Two things.

One: this little cafe/sleeping space called Shimacoya we found while looking for a place to take a break. It’s by the water, though you can’t see the sea from it. Part of it is a cluttered little book cafe and the other part is an old-style Japanese house with wooden flooring where you’re meant to pitch a little tiny tent indoors to sleep in if you stay.

Yes. A tent. Under a roof.

It was a quiet space, and the sun hit the area just right that me and my traveling companions all expressed the sudden urge to take a nap despite just having helped ourselves to some coffee. The staff were fairly friendly, and offer an unusual option on the menu: Hato Coffee, or Pigeon Coffee. Fear not! It isn’t made with pigeons. It is instead coffee with caramel syrup included. Why caramel = pigeons? Who knows.

Two: The shores of this island. It was a really gorgeous day, obnoxiously bright, and the weather was warm. I took so many pictures of the water hitting the sand, of the sunlight bouncing off of various things. It was truly lovely.

Would I go again? Nah, maybe not. I’m fairly satisfied with all I saw and did there.

Would I recommend the trip to others? Yeah! Even if you need something a bit more budget-friendly, there are buses you can take instead that’ll get you there from Kyoto in about 3.5 hours. I know that sounds like a lot but considering the number of buses in the States that offer day trips from say, D.C. to New York City? I think it’s doable for some.

 

How to survive Kyoto’s Gion Festival 

The weather is currently bouncing back and forth between rainy and sunny, but regardless is relentlessly humid. People entering shops do so with the seasonal greeting of, “It’s hot, isn’t it?” Summer has come to Japan, just as sticky as it is every year.

About a thousand years ago, people figured that maybe having some festivals would help take everyone’s minds off of the heat. One such festival, the Gion Matsuri, is still around to this day. (Disclaimer: Gion Matsuri can be linked as far back as the late 800s, but became an actual annual thing starting around 970 CE.)

Construction of one of the many floats displayed on Shijo Street in Kyoto City

You can expect to see plenty of neat structures lining the main streets of Kyoto, some of which you might even be able to enter to get a better look at things. These are called Yamaboko floats. The standard word for floats in Japanese is mikoshi (神輿), but each of the structures you’ll see during the festival in Kyoto have their own names and histories.

Being the biggest festival in Kyoto, lasting the entire month of July, this naturally draws crazy amounts of crowds. So, if you want to make the most of it, what’s a person to do?

Almost ready for its big day!

First, get your hands on a calendar. The floats are up and running as of now for you to take pictures and read all about, but the actual events are happening on very specific days. The float parade, or the Yamaboko Junko, will happen on two days: the 17th and the 24th. Leading up to the former are a series of days called yoiyama, yoiyoiyama, etc. These are great chances to wander the streets of Kyoto and take in the atmosphere of the festival at large.

Get dressed for the occasion! (Optional.) Some people like to get in the spirit of things, and that includes dressing up in yukata, wooden sandals, the whole bit. Me, I’m not a fan of it, but if that’s your thing go out and find yourself something awesome to wear. Department stores all over Kyoto City are selling entire yukata sets (the yukata itself, obi, geta, yada yada) for your convenience.

Figured out where you’re going and what you want to see? Find some food and drink! It is hot in Kyoto City, and the crowds are only going to make it worse. Even if the heat ruins your appetite, get some food in you and make sure you have water on you at all times while wandering around. I recommend going for cool treats like the chilled cucumbers or shaved ice (kakigori).

Be prepared to wait. When I say it’s crowded, I mean you might move a few meters in ten minutes. People are going to mill and take pictures and hover around the food stands. There will be signs and police officers showing you which way to go, where you can and cannot cross the street, and how to get onto a quieter road if you’re done with the festival.

Lanterns hanging on Teramachi Street in Kyoto City.

Listen to instructions. Don’t be that person who ignores all directions and tries to fight against the crowds. You will lose, and you will make yourself out to be a jerk to all and sundry in the meanwhile. Keep an eye and ear out, and if you’re not sure what’s going on ask around for someone who speaks your native language.

Breathe. If the crowds get to be too much for you, step into a nearby department store, convenience store, or cafe depending on what time you’re wandering around. Take a breather in the A/C, get yourself a cold drink, and mentally recharge before you plunge back out into the craziness that is Gion Festival.

Go out, have fun, and stay safe, Gion-goers!

What’s with Japan and flowers?

Who here is familiar with cherry blossoms? Everyone? And we’re all aware of which country often gets associated with cherry blossoms, right? Cool.

Yes, cherry blossoms are a big thing here in Japan–scientists dedicate their time to figuring out when, exactly, the flowers will bloom in every specific part of Japan. They will also work out peak viewing times, so you can enjoy the blossoms/crowds at your discretion. People not only have parties underneath them but also splurge on seasonal goods– sakura flavored lattes from certain brand-name coffee shops, sakura flavored sodas, Japanese sweets shaped like flower petals, the whole nine yards.

Did you know that this doesn’t only happen with cherry blossoms, however?

Flowers are a big deal in Japan; up in Hokkaido, lavender is a huge hit in summer, drawing crowds galore to view fields of them. There are tulip festivals in the spring, and spider lily festivals in the fall.

Despite the fact that I know very little about flora (except that some of them are pretty and “I like the purple ones”), I’ve been drawn into this craze. Every spring, a friend and I make the trek out around Kansai to find the best spot to view wisteria, or in Japanese, fuji (ふじ).

Wisteria 2016 small
Spotted in Nara Park near Kasuga Shrine.

So what gives? Why do so many people rush all over Japan to get a glimpse of these flowers for the week or so they’re in peak bloom–fighting crowds, buying seasonal souvenirs and novelty items, attempting to snap selfies with these plants in the background? What’s wrong with going to a local botanical garden at your leisure and avoiding all the hassle?

…Well, nothing really, but keep this in mind:

With cherry blossoms, the flowers are seen as very transient. They bloom so briefly and are so susceptible to the lightest rain showers. People often view them as a symbol of a type of philosophy–life is short and bittersweet. Better to enjoy it while you can or, if you wish to go a more spiritual route on the matter, it’s better to learn that attachments to earthly things like this will only bring you suffering.

If you ask the average Japanese person why, of course, you’ll get a variety of much more mundane answers. “The flowers are beautiful!” “I go every year with my mom, so it’s kind of like a family tradition.” Then there’s my least favorite: “Well, Japan has four seasons.”

Siiiiiigh. Yes, yes it does.

At any rate, even if you’re not in Japan for cherry blossom season, keep an eye out for what flowers are blooming wherever you’re at. For example, during May, wisteria and roses are all over the place. If you google “Japan Rose Festival” you’ll find several sites in English offering various events, from Tokyo to Fukuyama.

Have you been to a flower festival in Japan? Or are you interested in checking any out?

Avoiding crowds during Golden Week

I’m going to put the TL;DR right here at the top of this article: you can’t really. Just grit your teeth and bear it as best you can.

Okay, back to actually talking about this.

Golden Week is a series of holidays in Japan and other Asian countries that fall very closely together, so often the government just writes off an entire week in spring as one big holiday and calls it a day. Generally this falls around the end of April/start of May, perfect weather for sightseeing.

And you and everybody else in Japan knows this.

Prices for transportation go up, shops put everything on sale, and everybody buckles down for the first big wave of sightseers for the year, especially in Kansai.

So! If you’re in a place that’s popular for tourism this Golden Week, here are some tips to help you survive it.

  1. Get out of town. Whether you’re staying with a friend in the countryside, visiting another country entirely, or just heading out on a day trip, this can make the difference in your sanity. If you live in a big city like Osaka, heading off to a small suburban area for the day or looking up smaller, not-as-famous temples and shrines to visit would be a good choice.
  2. Avoid all brand-name shops and cafes. You know the ones I’m talking about; the ones that you’ll see in every country, that often provide free wi-fi to those in need. While they are lovely and helpful to the weary traveler, that is exactly why you should avoid them or, at best, order anything you want to go. Finding seats in these places will be next to impossible unless you’ve already followed the advice of step number 1. Take Golden Week as your chance to branch out and find cafes and restaurants that you don’t normally check out. You might find somewhere new to become a regular at!
  3. Hide. While not recommended overly (see my point about the weather being awesome) this can really help you deal with the crazy crowds in town. Stay inside for a day; order delivery food, invite someone over, watch a movie, nap, whatever.
  4. Practice your murder face. This is also good for everyday use. In my experience, while people in Osaka and Kobe know how to walk, people in Kyoto do not. They never walk, they meander. Usually they pick up speed just enough to get in front of you, then spread out and refuse to let you pass while they walk as slowly as possible. Grr. Anyway, latent “sidewalk rage” aside, learn how to square your shoulders, duck your head, and scowl as if you’ve been denied coffee. While it might not affect the meanderers in front of you, it will make a difference in the ones coming from the other direction and they will get out of your way. Unless they are sightseers doing the same thing. Then, y’know.
  5. Get out early. If you have to go out, get out first thing in the morning. Yes, sleeping in is lovely, but if you want to get to wherever you’re going before everybody else does, enduring an early day can make the difference between enjoying your destination and wanting to kick other people in the shins.
  6. Try to get in the spirit of things. It’s a holiday; we’re all out to enjoy the weather, we’re all out to see things we don’t normally get to. Crowds will happen. Go to your brand name store, buy an overpriced snack or drink, meander along the streets with your earbuds in, and give the harried clerks at the stores a little patience.

My plans to handle this Golden Week are a mix of the above; I’m going out of town for a couple of daytrips, I’m hiding for one or two days, and I’m told my murder face is on point.

Good luck to everyone else in surviving (and hopefully enjoying) your Golden Week holiday!

Kyoto Botanical Garden

A few days ago I had a moment reminiscent of a previous blog post. It was a beautiful day outside; birds were singing, flowers were blooming, and I thought to myself, “On days like these, you should really get your butt outside and enjoy it. Before Kyoto becomes a horrible humid nightmare.”

Not having any better ideas, I chose to revisit a place I’ve been only once before: the Kyoto Prefectural Botanial Gardens.

 

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A shot of the conservatory in the center of the park.

The Gardens are actually very close to the Kamo River, up by Kitayama Station on the Kyoto Karasuma Line. When you exit the station, head for Exit 3. When you reach the top of the stairs you’ll see signs pointing you directly to the entrance. The fee for a one-time entry is all of 200 yen, so it’s a great place to spend a couple hours for those on a budget. It’s also huge. Square meters don’t mean a lot to me but for those of you who find those measurements important, it’s around 4700 square meters in size. You can easily find a quiet corner during the daytime to chill.

 

 

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There you go, tulip lovers, enjoy.

There are lots of different themes in the garden, depending on what you’re looking for. When I went there the tulips were in bloom, almost obnoxiously so, to the point where I felt obligated to take a picture or two of them.

 

The tulips are by the European style garden, which is lovely for people who like mathematical order in their flora. For me, I tend to aim more for trees and general greenery than specific flowers, so I found the quieter corners with the local species of plants much more appealing, see below.

One thing the gardens have going for them, beyond being cheap for the everyday visitor, is that they are free for senior citizens to enter. So when you’re walking around you’ll inevitably run into some retired folks who are happy to spend their days taking photos, painting, or just spending their time around all the greenery.

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Lookit that “deer trail”, it almost looks real.

Now, you might have noticed that conservatory in the first picture; unfortunately that does cost extra to enter, but it’s only another 200 yen. 400 yen for an afternoon somewhere quiet and pretty is not that bad, considering this is Kyoto we’re talking about.

One thing I’ll mention to be careful of: if you sunburn easily, bring a hat and sunscreen! While there are shady spots in the gardens most of it is out in full sunlight, including the benches you can rest on.

That’s all I really have to say on the gardens; the pictures I think speak for themselves. If you’re in Kyoto, go check the place out yourself and enjoy! If you finish up there and you still want to enjoy nature, you can easily pop out to the Kamo river or consider heading toward Mt. Hiei, which is not as far away as you might think.

Catch you all next time!

 

 

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This will be beautiful in the fall!

 

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My kind of place; reminds me somewhat of hiking trails.