Like most people, I haven’t been in a hotel in about two years (the photo you see is from 3+ years prior). But necessity pushed me into the unenviable position of having to book a hotel room for a few days during the height of travel season. The necessity? My air conditioner breaking.
That’s another story.
My stay in the hotel has reminded me of a lot of things. What it feels like to use facilities that aren’t your own. How nice it is to have someone else doing the cleaning for you. The awkwardness of timing yourself so that you don’t have to share an elevator with anybody else. That sort of thing.
And, of course, the cleaning wars with the housekeeping staff.
Everyone has a bucket list of adventures. Mine has two categories: a bucket list for places to see while I’m still in Japan, and one for places I want to see before I actually kick it. In the former, I’ve had one thing at the top of my list for the past two or so years: a trip to Mt. Koya.
In my ever-continuing quest to find Fun Things to Do in the Kansai area on my days off, I realized I’d overlooked something very obvious, and very nearby.
If you think ‘famous literature in Japan’, what comes to mind first? Basho’s poetry? The Kojiki? …What about ‘Tale of Genji’, or 源氏物語 by Murasaki Shikibu?
For those of you not in the know, Tale of Genji is credited as the first novel written. Yes, other western novels have been given this credit- Don Quixote and whatnot- but Tale of Genji was written back during the Heian period, or the 11th century. And boy howdy is it a novel, with romances and political intrigue and all sorts of messed up stuff.
But let’s not get into the nitty-gritty of the book, we’re here to talk about the author herself. While I’ve sort-of known that Murasaki Shikibu’s influence was present in Kyoto and Shiga, it didn’t really hit home for me until a friend suggested we go to Ishiyama Temple.
Ishiyama Temple, or 石山寺、is located in Shiga prefecture, within walking distance of Lake Biwa. It’s said that Murasaki Shikibu found inspiration for the Tale of Genji there; seeing as it’s NaNoWriMo (and the friend in question is a writer), we figured it would be a good pilgrimage to pay homage to the Japanese novelist.
To get to the closest train station for the temple, hop on the JR Biwako Line from Kyoto Station to Ishiyama Station for 240 yen. From there, change to the Keihan Line for an additional 170 yen to get to Ishiyamadera Station. Alternatively, if it’s lovely weather outside, take a walk- it’s about a 30-40 minute hike from town. If you opt to take the Keihan Line, you only have to walk for about 10 minutes. Great for a rainy day.
From the station it’s an easy enough walk; there are maps everywhere and signs (albeit in Japanese). Exit the gates and turn right, following the water until you get to the temple gates. From there, go on in to reception.
Now, here’s something to keep in mind: there’s a lot to see here. If you want to just see the temple and gardens, expect to pay 600 yen. If you want to see absolutely everything, they have a set ticket. This includes any little side buildings and displays. I personally opted for just the basic ticket as I wanted to enjoy the gardens, rain or not.
The “basic” ticket, by the way, was more than worth it.
First of all, the grounds were much bigger than I was used to; I’m accustomed to standard Kyoto temples and shrines, places that are squeezed in between office buildings and large streets. This place had winding gardens up and down hills. The whole place was reminiscent of Mt. Kurama with its’ use of stairs and heavy foliage.
The main hall didn’t allow pictures inside, but it had your standard temple fare- charms, fortunes, a place to pray, and the all important stamps. The best part of it, in my opinion, was the view of the autumn leaves from the hall doors, but the rest of it was pretty neat, too.
Because it was rainy when I went, there weren’t many folks out in the gardens, which let me explore at my leisure. It was quiet, save for the sound of running water and the occasional bird in the distance. It’s no wonder Murasaki Shikibu was inspired to write there- if it had been nicer weather I might have sat down on a bench and scribbled some things down myself!
Overall, it took a little over an hour to wander around. Perhaps if I’d splurged for the “set” ticket to see more things it’d have taken longer, but I was fully satisfied with what I’d experienced there.
There are lots of things to see in the Kansai area, from temples to museums and parks and what-have-you. But if you have some time and aren’t completely templed out, I’d recommend this little side-trip, especially during the autumn months.
In a previous post, I mentioned that I had been to Okayama prefecture on a daytrip from Kyoto before. Okayama is both a prefecture and city name, in the Chugoku region of the island of Honshu in Japan. It’s a castle town with gardens and tasty goodies to experience, so why don’t you and I take a look at it together?
First of all, as I mentioned in that previous post, a one-way ticket to Okayama on the bullet train from Kyoto will run you about 7,010 yen if you don’t mind an unreserved seat. It’ll take you an hour on the Nozomi, the fastest of the available bullet trains. In my case, I opted to go in the late morning on a weekday, so I had a whole row of seats to myself to enjoy my indulgent brunch bento.
Upon arriving at Okayama Station in Okayama City in Okayama Prefecture (boy, the addresses there must be repetitive!), I stepped out and was immediately greeted by Momotaro, or the Peach Boy, along with all his traveling companions.
Now, for those of you not in the know, Momotaro is one of the famous tales in Japan, featuring a boy (shocker) who was born from a giant peach. He then goes on to have a lot of great adventures, dealing with ogres, picking up friends along the way. There are many variations of the story, but if you ask your average Japanese person they’ll be able to tell you at least a bit of the tale. Momotaro is said to have come from Okayama, so as you can imagine, peaches are very much a thing here. Peach-flavored everything is available, as well as the fruits themselves. Help yourself, but watch out for shocking price tags!
Anyway, once you say hello to the statue, you’ll be on your way to several attractions that are easily reachable on foot. The first place I hit up was Korakuen Gardens. If it means anything, it’s supposed to be one of “Japan’s best three gardens”. I think it deserves that title, because it’s one of the biggest and loveliest places I’ve strolled through since I got here. Despite being in Okayama City, it feels very much like you’re in another place when you walk through it. There were several places within the gardens where you couldn’t see the surrounding city at all, and were able to pretend you were out in the countryside.
Entrance to the gardens will run you about 400 yen, but if you’re planning on going both there and to the castle nearby, get the combination ticket that’ll be about 560 yen. It’ll save you some hassle later on, and hassle is the last thing you need when you have views like this.
Anyway, once you get your fill of the gardens, pop out and head over to Crow Castle. Yeah. The big black castle that’s looming nearby, watching you enjoy your garden experience. It’s also a short walk away, and since you were smart enough to get that combination ticket (right?) it’ll be no trouble to walk right on in and check things out.
Okayama Castle (or crow castle, as it’s nicknamed) is a large, impressive building that is six stories tall. There’s a lot of stuff in it- folding screens, videos, etc.- that give you the history of the place, some of it even in English. But what was nice about it was the view looking down at the gardens you just left.That said, it doesn’t take long to go through Crow Castle at all; maybe an hour at most. So if you have energy left over, it’s a great chance to check out museums and other things in the area. Or get some food; food is always good.
In my case, I checked out those two places, had a sit-down dinner, then headed back to Kyoto because of all the walking. I got home around 6 or 7 p.m., and thought the trip was worthwhile. You might have more energy and be able to hit up several more things than I did; maybe you’ll just have energy for the gardens. Whatever the case, it’s a lovely area and definitely worth checking out!
I’ve been to Sapporo twice now, and while I’ve tried to see or experience new things both trips some things were bound to overlap. One of those things was a visit to the Pioneer Village.
Exactly as it sounds, this is a little town recreated to give you an idea of what it must have been like for the Japanese when they first began to explore Hokkaido. There are little houses, school buildings, shrines, fishing huts, the whole shebang. Its an impressively big place, and I would recommend you plan to be there for at least half a day. (Admittedly not only for the sightseeing but also because of the buses being somewhat infrequent…)
Upon entry, you’re greeted by several buildings all with their doors wide open. I entered one at random to get my little personal tour started. While a lot of signs were in English, most were (nautrally in Japanese). I decided to puzzle some of them out for funsies when an older gentleman in a volunteers’ vest approached me. He was frail, dressed far too nicely for such warm weather, and had a slight hunch in his shoulders.
“What do you think about it?” he asked in Japanese, gesturing toward the sign I was reading.
“Pretty interesting stuff,” I responded in the same language.
He lit up, and proceeded to speak at full speed. While I couldn’t catch every word, I imagine he was saying something like this:
“Oh, good, you can understand! Well anyway, I’d like to share some information beyond what the sign says. On this date, this person arrived in Sapporo and he did this thing that resulted in…”
I nodded here and there, made interested noises, and said, “Well thank you for the explanation. I’m going to the next building now.” After all, while I appreciated his enthusiasm, speaking with someone and trying to keep up with their Japanese was not on my list that day.
The volunteer, however, had other ideas. “Oh, wonderful! I’ll accompany you!”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t ask you to leave your post…”
“Nonsense, I’m here to help anyone who comes in. Let’s go!’
Resigned to my fate, I followed him out the door to the next building, and for the next few hours got far more information on everything in that Village than I ever needed to know.
The gentleman was beside himself with excitement, nodding to other volunteers and saying, “SHE speaks Japanese,” as if he himself had taught me.
When the other helpers expressed their astonishment, I interjected with, “Only a little, I’m still studying.” However, this seemed to ensure that yet more of them wanted to help the foreigner with her adventure, and we soon were a party of four: the gentleman, a younger man in traditional clothing, and an older woman. We proceeded to tour every single building. Place to place we went, staring at signs I could barely read and discussing topics I almost couldn’t follow at all.
Several times, I wish I had played the role of the foreigner who didn’t understand, but as we got further and further into this adventure I realized it probably wouldn’t have mattered; these people were so excited to share their history with me that I probably could have walked in speaking something really obscure, and they would have still dropped everything to assist me. It was inspiring, and very sweet… but considering I’d been hoping for a quiet day wandering around and reading things on my own, I was not mentally prepared for such helpfulness.
That said, the Village was far larger than I’d anticipated, and a lot of what we saw was fascinating; the signs I could read told me what I was looking at, whether it was a school (where volunteers were singing traditional songs) or a fishing hut. I will say one word of warning to visitors, aside from the super helpful people: there are mannequins and fake horses. Everywhere.
It doesn’t help that there are recordings that start up when the motion detectors pick up your entrance to a particular building. One minute you’ll be peering into a quiet little house and the next, you’ll be hearing an involved discussion in Japanese coming from nowhere!
At last, we wound up sitting in one of the traditional fishing village houses on the edge of the attraction, sipping hot green tea, when my phone went off. I checked it and saw that the next bus was due in about a half hour. Time to escape.
“Oh, my bus is coming soon,” I said, slowly starting to get up. “I’d better head for the entrance. Sorry to cut this short.”
“Your bus? Oh, you should have said you needed to get on a particular bus! We’ll lead you to the entrance!” my gentleman of a volunteer exclaimed, scrambling to his feet.
“No need, I can find it myself,” I said. “Besides, you’ve all been so helpful along the way that I couldn’t ask you to do any more.”
He hesitated. “But…”
“Look, you haven’t even finished your tea. I really appreciate it, but I don’t want to put you out. Thank you all so much.” I bowed.
That got everyone scrambling up to bow back at me, thanking me for coming to Pioneer Village. We bowed back and forth a few times, and each time I backed a bit further out toward the door. Toward freedom. They inched closer each time, still offering to help me find the entrance.
I fled, but not before peeking at one or two attractions just one last time:
The Pioneer Village is a lovely place, and I highly recommend you go. Just beware the automated recordings and the hospitality! 🙂
Moral of the story: I need to learn how to say “no thank you” to enthusiastic volunteers without feeling like a jerk.
I’m so excited about being back on a computer and not on a tablet. As much as I love tablets for their portability, there are some things that I have yet to master on them… like making my posts look exactly the way I want them to.
So as stated in previous posts, I went to Hokkaido for this summer vacation. If you’re in Japan in the summer I recommend it as a fantastic way to get away from the heat of the larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto.
My second day in Sapporo City, I was in a cafe in the main station, poking at my breakfast, when I heard a familiar voice from across the cafe call my name. My head snapped up, and lo and behold there was a coworker! We hadn’t had a chance to share our summer plans, but there we were, staring each other down several prefectures from home.
So you’re a nature person- someone who has done some form of camping and enjoyed it, for example- and want the chance to enjoy some natural scenery in Japan. That’s understandable; there are plenty of places to explore! There are lakes, rivers, mountains, bears, snakes… Wait.
There are a couple things a hiker needs to be aware of while in Japan. Not only the wildlife (there are actually bears) but how easily you can find the path and where to look out for things that can hurt you. Here’s what I’ve taken away from my time wandering around the most accessible hiking points- not only in the more accessible hiking areas in Hakodate and Sapporo, but also on the main island of Honshu.
1. There will be very little English, if any. Yes there are websites in English recommending various paths, but when it comes time to hop on a bus to get to the trailhead, or once you’re on the trail itself? Make sure you have a copy of the name of where you’re going, not only in English but with the Japanese characters (kanji) and, if it’s helpful for you, spelled out in hiragana too.
Why it’s helpful: you’ll come up across post signs that will be ALL in kanji. You can use your handy dandy copy to compare characters to ensure you’re on the right path or, if needed, stop another hiker to make sure you’re going the right way.
2. Watch what the other hikers are doing. Also, what they have on them. Do they have bells to scare away bears? Are they wearing jeans and heels? Compare it to what you’ve got.
Why it’s helpful: websites can’t tell you everything. Sometimes locals will be aware of something and your resources will not be up to date. Upon seeing what they’re up to, reevaluate your situation if needed.
3. Look out for trail maps. These are normally at the trailhead, but sometimes when there are multiple paths you’ll find them along the hiking trails too. They often will tell you the elevation you’re at and, if you’re following a scenic path, will point you in the right direction for where to go next.
Why it’s helpful: Especially for scenic trails, paths can go in a loop or connect with other trails multiple times. You don’t want to walk in circles for hours without getting anywhere, do you? Hopefully if you’re doing any substantial hiking you have a map with you, but if not… these can point you in the right direction in a pinch.
Speaking of knowing characters/kanji that are helpful to you, here’s a word that you should definitely look out for: 注意 （ちゅうい、 or “caution”). If you see this, pay attention to whatever has it written. You could be dealing with wildlife, falling rocks, slippery roads, or any other number of things when you see those.
If you go exploring in a foreign country, what do you want to know about beforehand? What words or signs do you think someone should know?
Can you see the third largest city in Hokkaido and all it has to offer in just one day?
Short answer: yeah, probably.
Long answer: yeah, probably, but you’ll be tired and grumpy by the end of it.
During my stay in Hakodate, I had two main in-city goals: hit up Goryokaku Park, and check out the night view on Mount Hakodate. Everything after would be icing on the proverbial cake.
I got up bright and early…. at eight. Hey don’t judge me, it’s my vacation and eight is early for me! Anyway, after having breakfast at my hotel, I headed down to JR Hakodate Station in order to find the Morning Market ( 朝市). It was reasonably close to the station, and I soon found myself surrounded by local seafood and produce.
The most notable of which was the crabs. They were everywhere, in all sizes, starting from about 4,000 yen per entire critter. The corn was more reasonable at about 100 yen per ear, with claims of having been brought in from the fields just that morning.
After that, I hopped on one of the trams. Streetcars basically run two routes throughout Hakodate and while I potentially could have walked, I opted to take it easy and use public transportation to get to Goryokaku Koen (roughly a ten minute ride from Hakodate Station).
Goryokaku is free to enter and a very pleasant, albeit sunny, walk. If you want to get a proper view of the former citadel, however, the nearby tower is there to help! It does cost to go up, but the view is lovely. Also, more importantly, there are restaurants and sweet shops inside- a great option for those hoping to get lunch in (like me).
When that was done, it was back off to Hakodate Station – because haha planning? What’s that?
I decided to check out the Bay Area for goodies, snacks, and overall ambience, and was not disappointed. The brick buildings, the calm water, the bustling souvenir shops, it’s all there.
If you head uphill from there (literally) you’ll find the foreign district, where you can see some really beautiful churches and take in the quiet neighborhood.
That was what I was expecting, anyway, until I heard cheering and music. Curious, I investigated and…
Surprise! It turned out I chose the right week to come to town. There was a week long festival happening with music and performers from around the world. As while a week pass was 3,000 yen, it was only 1,000 yen for one day!
The derailment from plans was very enjoyable, albeit mildly irksome in the sense that I’d been thinking of having local food for dinner and the main food stands at said festival had Indian and Korean dishes. Delicious at least!
But finally, finally, in the evening I got my chance and went up to see the night view from Mount Hakodate. And it was…!
…well, it was great once the fog cleared, but as you can see in the photo I was already in line to head back down the mountain.
By the time I was done with my day it was ten PM and my feet were ready for a break!
Are there other things to do in Hakodate? Of course! There are restaurants, shops, museums.. and that’s not even getting into what’s just outside of Hakodate. Onuma Koen comes to mind… but that’s a post for another day.
So yes, if you want to see Hakodate but can only spare a day, you can likely see everything then. Just be prepared for lines and getting distracted by sudden music festivals.
Keep an eye out- I’ll be posting more on Hokkaido soon!
Kyoto is well-known for its cultural offerings–temples, shrines, the opportunity to dress up like a geisha or maiko for a day, international centers where you can take classes, all of that. What is slowly becoming more popular with tourists here is a little place called Toei Kyoto Studio Park, or Eiga Mura.