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Castles and concerts

Kawaguchiko to Himeji was the next leg of our journey, which took us through Osaka. We had just enough time for breakfast in Osaka’s fancy modern train station before we caught a train to Himeji. 

Himeji is a small city famous for one thing. It is home to the most outstanding example of a Japanese castle that is still original. When we say original what we mean is that is still constructed as it was originally but in order to preserve it, it has actually been disassembled and reassembled into it’s current form. We had read that it would be busy and upon walking across the moat we noticed just how many tour groups were being led around. Because of this we opted to see the castle gardens first and hope that by the time we made it to the castle the tour groups would have left. 

The imposing Himeji castle

The gardens were more beautiful than we expected. We walked through the entrance and found ourselves in a peaceful serene garden with bamboo, mud walls and maple trees with spectacular autumn colours of red and gold. Even better there were only a few other visitor and none of them were snapping hundreds of selfies. From the first garden we strolled over a wooden bridge and into a traditional teahouse with views over a  lake and waterfall. The water was full of giant koi carps from grey through to polka dot orange and white (we know that koi keepers probably have fancy names for these). This garden was probably the most beautiful we had been in and we think this was partly due to the fact we were able to walk among the plants, across the stepping stones and stone bridges rather than be restricted to a gravel walkway. There were also a few other gardens with themes of bamboo, pine trees, flowers and seedlings. The garden wasn’t huge but we spent a long time enjoying the calm between its walls. 


Koi swimming under the bridge

Can you believe this is an artificial waterfall?


Stunning autumn leaves

Moving on to the castle we knew we had made the right decision. People were thin on the ground giving us much better views of the castle upon the hill. We took the most trodden path up to the castle keep and up to the sixth floor. The entire structure is wooden and made from some truly gigantic beams all fitted together without nails. They had even managed to replace some of the partially rotten beams and retain most of the old sound parts. There were a few interesting features where knots had been cut out and replaced with star shapes or seating areas were raised so shooting was easier. Really the most impressive part was the scale and size of the castle which we really appreciated as we scaled the steep stairs with our backpacks on. Fortunately they weren’t as steep as the ones in Matsumoto castle. The views from the top were great although a little too hazy to see the sea. 

Brilliant white and plenty of shooting slots

Huge wooden beams and floors

A view of the castle complex

We returned to the castle after dinner as we were lucky enough to visit during the annual illumination festival which was themed about a princess. The lawn in front of the castle was strewn with light balls and the trees in the courtyard had disco balls and lights to make them shimmer in the darkness. Himeji town may not be all that special but the castle is definitely worth a look.

Magical night time illuminations

Tigers lurk at night

And fairies dance

That night we stayed in one of Japan’s stranger hotels. They are called love hotels and are designed to give couples some privacy. It seems Himeji has more than its fair share of these hotels and they were well rated. We decided to try one and hope that they were more romantic than seedy. Our hotel was on the edge of town and a little run down but the room was ok. We discovered the only real difference to a business hotel was a massager by the bed, a condom vending machine and a heap of adult channels on the tv. Thankfully there were normal channels and a decent breakfast included. We maybe wouldn’t recommend love hotels but for a night when all the other accommodation is too pricey, they aren’t bad. 

Ready to board the bullet train

The next morning was a big day. Matthias was celebrating a big birthday. We started our day with breakfast in bed before making our way to Okayama. As a treat rather than skimp and save money we took the Nozomi shinkansen (the fastest bullet train on this line). It was quite exciting. As we waited for our train we saw several trains speed through the station at up to 300km/h. They seemed to come every couple of minutes and made the ground rumble as they passed. One  train  stopped on our platform for just a under a minute before it departed again and accelerated to a couple of hundred km per hr. When our train pulled into the station we jumped on and walked to find a seat. Before we were even a third of the way along the carriage the train was already pulling away. The acceleration was smooth and the scenery started to flash past. The train was so much quieter and smoother than we had imagined. More shocking was how full it was. Shinkansen trains are fast but super expensive. Our ticket for just 75 km was 3600¥ each and tickets between Tokyo and Hiroshima often cost more than flying. Somehow Japanese people have enough money to pay the ridiculous fares and be whisked from Tokyo to Hiroshima in around 4 hours. We had expected a 30 minute ride but after just under 20 minutes Okayama was announced. We made sure to be ready to leave the train as they stop for such a short amount of time. We watched our train depart within 2 minutes of arrival. Then to our surprise the next train pulled into the  station. It just happened to be the slower train we had watched depart from himeji before ours. When you think these trains reach speeds  of up to 300km/hr and use the same line just minutes apart – just wow! 

Blown away by the speed of a shinkansen

Back down to normal speed we discovered our hotel had a bath and sauna just for men so Matthias could pamper himself. We went out for an all you can eat buffet for dinner and enjoyed beef, pizza and puddings. We were stuffed when we returned to our hotel but it was worth it. After some birthday calls it was time to sleep off our huge meal. The next day was the real present. We were going to see Mnozil Brass or Munozir as they are called in Japanese. 


Japanese landscaping on a large scale

Okayama castle or the crows castle as it is often called

Our morning walk in the famous gardens was followed by a mid afternoon concert due to electricity cuts. We bumped into some of the band members on the stairs though Zoë didn’t recognise them. The concert was well attended although the 4000 seat hall wasn’t full, not that it mattered once the show began. It was great fun with lots of gimmicks and good brass music. The Japanese crowd definitely appreciated it as much as we did.

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The search for an elusive mountain

It was a long detour with only one goal; we wanted to see Mount Fuji. Whether it was worth the night bus to and from the area was something we would only find out by trying. In one of our more decisive moments we decided to just go for it. Mount Fuji (or Fujiyama or Fuji-san) is THE most iconic symbol of Japan and is regocnised the world over. Rising 3,776m above the sea, it is the highest mountain in the land of the rising sun. It is also a volcano and almost perfectly cone-shaped. What makes it even more impressive is the fact that it is completely alone, a huge stand alone marvel. Add to this the five volcanic lakes which Mount Fuji created by spewing lava rivers and you have a great place to go hiking. Sadly the hiking season for Mount Fuji itself is a short few months of the summer so we would have to make do with some other mountains and hope for good views. For our base we chose Kawaguchiko in the five lakes region.


Kawaguchiko is a bit of a transport hub for tourists with buses connecting it to Osaka,Tokyo and quite a few other cities. It hugs the shore of the lake and is in turn surrounded by mountains. We enjoyed the atmosphere which was obviously touristy but not too much so. This might be partially due to the time of year but even in mid-November there were still 20 coaches parked next to the lake and many visitors coming and going to and from the train/bus station. Again we found the local tourist office to be a great source of information and we even got a free hiking map with a handful of walks up mountains around the town.

There’s a mountain in there somewhere


After checking in we walked down to and along the lake to explore and enjoy the scenery. It was very cloudy so we only had the lower half of mount Fuji to see. Fuji often hides in the clouds as early as 9am so it wasn’t a surprise to us. On the far side of the lake was a autumnal food and craft market which we decided to explore. It turned out that most stalls sold food, but since we had decided to cook in the hostel, we stuck to free samples. Next to the market area was a walkway along a water channel. We had been told that it was was something famous (locally) thanks to allcthe maple trees but at the time of our visit the peak colours were already over. We enjoyed the handycraft stalls before heading back along the shore. That evening we went to bed quite early to catch up on sleep in preparation for a super early start the next day.


We got up at 6am because we wanted to have a good breakfast before heading up some mountains since. We were treated to a beautiful sunrise view of the iconic volcano. The rising sun turned the white snow cap pink made the whole scenery a bit fairytale-like. While Zoë got the view from the kitchen making pancakes (a long time miss and craving), Matthias climbed up onto the roof terrace to get some nice photos. We had timed it very well and by the time all the other guests came down from the viewing platform into the kitchen we were already eating. It was clear that we did not need to rush up the hills as there were no clouds in sight to hide Fuji.
Our goal for today was mount Mitsutoge (1785m). We took the long way via mount Tenjo to get some more walking time and views out of it. On the way up to Tenjo there were already two fairly big viewing platforms (the higher one can be reached by cable car). From there the path wound through nice forest and for the majority of the distance followed the broad ridge line.

Fuji’s morning face

Matthias and Fuji making friends


In the quiet of this forest we found something really bizarre. It looked to us as though icicles were growing upwards out of the ground. At first we only found a few, but the further up the mountain we got the more we saw. They were in huge bunches of fine delicate ice. We had never seem anything like it and couldn’t figure out just how they came to be. Thankfully, uncle google knew just what they were. Needle ice is a phenomonen where the difference between the cold air and warm soil temperatures caused ground water to move to the surface where it freezes into needles or pillars. The Japanes even have their own word for this, shimobashira or frost pillars. The saying ‘you learn something new every day’ is especially true for travelling.

Such a strange phenomenom

Thin icicles melting away

We were lucky and had sunshine all day and it was a great pleasure to hike up the row of mountains. We could hardly believe how empty the path was; apart from the area around the ropeway we only met a couple of other walkers. This was all about to change as we approached the top. Suddenly, there were a lot more people. For lunch, we only just managed to beat a group of hikers to a sunny bench at a lookout area and enjoy another view of Fuji. Near the top of Misotuge yama were two huts offering food, drinks (yes, there were vending machines) and accommodation. Around them sat loads of hikers (moat of them on the ground) having their lunch.

Lunch with Fuji

Even though this trip was described as being 5-6h long (depending on the path you take), every Japanese hiker carried at least a 30 or 40 liter backpack (our daysack was 15l) and we could not understand why. There was no cloud in sight, the weather stable and not too cold. At lunch time discovered the solution: they basically carried a whole kitchen with them. Most locals had some type of gas stove to heat up water so they could have instant noodles. Rch backpack seemed to contain at least two of the big (and largely empty) meal tubs plus a lot of other snacky food. They did not seem to thing that there are more convenient meal options for hiking than that. Even the Japanese onagiri (stuffed rice wrapped in seaweed) is a lot better in terms of calory per space. Some people seemed to have improved things slightly: they carried their hot water in a thermo flask.

Did we mention there are other mountains too?

On the summit of Mount Mitsutoge

We summited mount Mitsutoge and then chose another pathway down to see what else the mountains had in store. The path was a little steeper and slippy. Matthias ended up with some muddy trousers after the needle ice helped him slide down a bank. It was really strange stuff to walk on as it crunched like ice but them slid you downwards as the leaf litter and pine needles balancing on top prevented your shoes finding any grip. The slowly slowly approach paid off and we both made it safely off the steeper sections of the path. Our walk took us along a forestry track to some fantastic waterfalls and then into town and along the lake shore. This even gave us the chance for a view of Fuji from the lake. It was a brilliant day and ended with a sunset view of Fuji (not so impressive as sunrise) and a good cup of tea.

Not such a great view and a little chilly


Our second day promised to be cloudy and cool. Instead of opting for a lie in we got up with Fuji and the sun to enjoy breakfast with a view. Afterall we may only see Fuji for a few days in our lives, so we might as well make the most of it. We set out in search of mount Asahiwada otherwise known as the flower mountain. It was a long trek across town to the foot of the mountain chain but once we reached the first view point we were rewarded with a green woodpecker sighting. Further along our trail got steep and became relentless. It was less scenic than the previous day and tired our legs out fast. With burning thighs we reached the summit of Asahiwada and climbed the last few steps to the viewing platform. We could see lake Kawaguchi but still didn’t get a view of lake Sako. Just a few hundred meters down the trail lake Sako came into view and the cold breeze started to blow. We were missing the sunshine a lot and so made swift progress to the next summit. It had better lake views but we had our sight set on a bus ride back to the hostel and a hot cuppa.


All is well in our world with a cuppa

We were happy to be back in the warm and with tea in hand before our bus back to Tokyo. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out. When the evening came around we made our way to the bus station and started our journey back south. It had been totally worth our detour. We both agreed we had been missing the great outdoors and felt ready for the next few weeks of mainly cities. 

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The city of temples and tourists, and some more tourists for good measure

Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, was our next destination and we were both glad to be a little further south and a little warmer. We arrived into the train station and it wasn’t at all like we were expecting. Kyoto’s train station is an ultra modern transport hub complete with exposed steel and glass facades. It completely lacks any connection to the historical city but despite this it’s still quite a nice building. Since we were couchsurfing and wouldn’t meet our hosts till later on, we went to sort out our onward travel and get a bite to eat. Unfortunately we ended up in a little trouble as the bus we had intended to leave Kyoto on was fully booked and it took us a while to find a solution. Luckily Tokyo (transport centre of the Japanese universe) saved us and we still had time to get a tasty bowl of ramen in the underground passage beneath the bus station. We arrived at our couchsurfing hosts apartment in better spirits and had a lovely evening getting to know one another in their lovely apartment. 

Kyoto tower

The grand entrance to Nijo castle

The next day we decided to visit the Nijo castle and Imperial Palace and gardens. Both were not too far away from where we were staying but meant that we walked a fair distance. The Nijo castle was a very impressive modern castle which has an important place in Japanese history. One of it’s rooms was used by the last shogun to denounce power to the emperor, ending 618 years of samurai period. This isn’t the first place we have got a little frustrated by other tourists and we are sure it won’t be the last. We still can’t understand why people visit anywhere to walk around at speed, ignoring signs and not even really looking. We probably spent around four times longer in the castle admiring the painted paper screens and wood carvings and learning about each room. Wandering through and listening to the suspended floor making squeaking and chirping noises like a nightingale was quite immersive. We were really impressed by the wood carvings and painting throughout the building and once again surprised that it hadn’t all been burnt down. The surrounding gardens were very peaceful although not as impressive as Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. Following the castle we wandered around the imperial palace park and were beckoned in to see inside the palace walls. We didn’t think any part of the palace was open so we were happy to walk around the outside of the buildings and see a glimpse of the grandeur (for free!). Before we returned home for the night we had enough time to visit the downtown area and it’s bustling Nishiki market. The market was completely rammed with fresh produce and tourists. There were some locals buying fresh fish or pickled vegetables but mostly the stalls were selling street food snacks and souvenirs. It is by far the busiest and most crammed market we have visited on our travels so far and left us in need of a cuppa and a relaxing evening. 

Privaledged guest in the imperial palace gardens


In true couchsurfing spirit we had agreed to cook one evening and our hosts would cook the next. We struggled a little to find cooking ingredients in a large Japanese supermarket were 3 full aisles were dedicated to sweets and crisps. In the end we found enough to make Allgäuer Schnitzel with Spätzle and vegetables, followed by a makeshift peach sponge and cream. Cooking was a little tricky but we managed and the food went down well. We chatted some more and discovered just how dependent Kyoto was on tourists. Thanks to our hosts background and time spent in other countries we had some interesting discussions about Japanese culture and life in comparison with other places.


Early the next morning, or not as our alarm didn’t go off, we opted to visit the famous bamboo forest. Our journey there was fairly simple but we hadn’t realised just how big Kyoto is and just how long the buses take to get places. 45 minutes later our bus pulled into a narrow street which was absolutely packed. Between the buses, bikes and hundred of pedestrians there was no wiggle room. At that moment we completely understood just how many tourists visit Kyoto and it is truly crazy. Resigned to being part of the crowd we found our way to the Bamboo forest full of selfie sticks and the odd bride and groom. It looked like all the photos you see in guide books just busier and not remotely peaceful. The bamboo itself was impressive, blocking out the sunlight to create an eerie bluish colour to the stems. If we could give one tip it would be to visit at dawn and cross your fingers that no one else has had the same idea

Ted and the baby bamboo

Something is finally taller than Matthias

We walked around the area to the river and then decided to visit one temple. We chose the recommended one but regretted this once we entered the heaving garden. Now, we totally understand that the autumn leaves are stunning and peak only for a week to ten days, but it happens every year (surprise!). If it were a once in a lifetime event we would get it, but does anyone really need 400 photos of themself with leaves in a famous garden in Japan? It’s sad to say but the number of people completely ruined any atmosphere of the temple or gardens. Perhaps limiting numbers would be a good thing to do even if it means a higher entrance fee. Famous or not the gardens are beautiful but whatever you do don’t visit at peak times of year and if you must come super early. 

So many people and red leaves


Back in the city we had a date with a fire festival in Gion. The fire festival took place at one of the smaller lesser visited shrines called Ebisu shrine. We arrived a little early and were relieved to find very few tourists. Instead preparations were underway and local people were gathering to take part. The festival began with the congregation washing their hands and then the monks and nuns. They went into the small wooden shrine and began praying, singing and using ceremonial fans, swords, bells and drums. We only saw some of this but the sword dancing was quite impressive. Later the monks came out and started a fire in the yard outside, into which they threw prayers weitten on bits of paper, sake and satsumas. One of the women stood over a bowl of steaming water nearby and made offerings of salt, rice and sake. A Japanese man warned us that we were about to get wet as she promptly started flinging hot water from the cauldron with bamboo bushels. Once the water throwing was done the festival was over and on our way out we received a charred satsuma which was very yummy. We weren’t sure if they were meant to be eaten or taken to shrines at home and used as offerings but our later our host confirmed that the former was the case.

Hand washing in preparation for the fire festival

Taking the festival to the shrine


Since we were in Gion already, we took a walk through the streets famous for their teahouses and Geishas. We didn’t meet any Geishas but we did see plenty of young Japanese women in kimonos taking photo after photo of each other. Gion is full of wooden buildings which mostly hold souvenir shops and sweet shops. It’s a nice place to walk about and sample some local yatsuhashi sweets but it isn’t quite as charming as little Takayama. Still we found this to be the part of Kyoto which had the most charm (when there weren’t as many tourists). We did hike up to one of the temples just in time to see the sunset over Kyoto and then, as we walked back to catch the bus, the streets were lit by lanterns. Kyoto is definitely still clinging onto it’s past and desperately trying to retain it’s charm despite the mass tourism. It still looks very Japanese but for us the atmosphere was more akin to a theme park only without the adrenaline kicks. 

Fabulously orange temple

A fuzzy night scene

So many pretty fans

Back with our lovely couchsurfing hosts we were treated to a lovely Japanese dinner and also met some other surfers who were staying too. It was a good evening of chatting about everything travel and we also played a great card game called Exploding Kittens. It was great fun and workign together we even managed to beat our host for what was only the second time in his time with this game.


The next morning we woke early to visit the Golden Pagoda which is probably THE most famous temple in town and also a UNESCO heritage. Unfortunately our trip was a little spoiled when standing at the ticket office Zoe discovered ¥13,000 were missing from her purse. We had no idea who had taken it but whoever did it had time to sort the money from the receipts. We were really gutted to think that it must have happened while we were couchsurfing since we had picked up the money on our way back and Zoë’s purse had been zipped inside her camera bag all the time. This unfortunately is one sad side of couchsurfing and we really regretted trusting the other surfers not to steal. It was too late to confront them as everyone had left around the same time. Despite this start to the day we still visited the Golden Pagoda and it is justifiably popular and magical. It is so popular that they had to put a one way system in place which means all the groups and thousends of tourist walk through the beautiful garden while trying to take photos of everything and (in groups) follow their guide. One note: toilets inside are only located at the end (before you exit). If in doubt try to find the ones outside before going in. Otherwise you might find yourself having to walk against a massive tide.

Wow!

Ted getting a bit golden


Admittedly it was hard to get over the theft but in the end it is only money and we were still safe and on our big adventure. Our day was improved by meeting one of Matthias’ university friends and having a few drinks and a catch up. 

Christmas has come to Kyoto station

We were ready to leave Kyoto that night on the overnight bus to Tokyo before we made our way away from the masses of people to see the lonely mountain.

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Kanazawa

It was now time for us to leave the Japanese alps behind and head closer to the sea for a change of scenery. The city of Kanazawa is located right at the coast of the japanese sea and a fairly big transport hub. Apart from being a tourist attraction itself it also serves as a jump of point for trips out onto Noto peninsula.

We managed to get back into couchsurfing and stayed with Tsuyoshi and his wife for three nights (thank you again!).

The impressive wooden gate of the train station

A very cool fountain clock


Once we got of the bus at the train station and armed ourselves with a map from the tourist information we headed for omi-cho market. About 90% of the stalls and shops there sell seafood in all variations, but there were fewer eating options than in Hakodate for example. The shops here were all located in buildings and the streets had been covered with tarpaulin rooves over metal frames which means when it starts raining you will know it at the bottom. The variety of products seemed to us wider than Hakodate with fewer shops specialising only in crabs for example. The sushi restaurants around the outer buildings had really long queues of people waiting despite being fairly expensive. Shoppers seemed to be almost exclusively locals; we were the only tourists at the time.

So many different fish for sale


On our way back to the station we walked past a café advertising an origami tea time on certain Sundays and remarking that we should do it the next day, when two ladies charged out and round the outside to intercept us and invite us in for an origami introduction. Even though it was Saturday, there were five pensioners in the café waiting for somebody interested in the art of paper folding. We got a choice from a selection of figures to learn. Zoë opted for a balloon while Matthias went for the samurai helmet / fish. The old ladies were very good at teaching us and the men gathered around for a chat. They were all members of the wa-wa-wa club. One wa stands for peace, another one for conversation and the third for circle. The folding was a bit tricky but thanks to our well experienced teachers we had no problems. We were a bit sad, when we had to leave them too soon but the café closed and we moved on back towards the station.

Our host picked us up from the station and took us first to his house and then out for dinner. We got our first experience of ‘cook-you-own-ramen’. In such a restaurant you get your cold pot with the neatly arranged ingredients and cook it on a gas ring in the middle of your table. We also discovered that the local ramen speciality comes with a milky broth which became really rich and creamy towards the end. Japanese tend to not turn the gas off (only down) and just eat the solid parts of the dish while the sauce gets reduced. At the end, rice is added (served as a separate side) together with an egg (optional) and then eaten as essentially a second meal.

We were lucky with our timing both because of the season and weather and because Tsuyoshi had free time to show us around his home town. Together we went to the castle and the adjacent garden. The castle is consists of just a few buildings and only parts of them are original. The majority of what can be seen today is as you as the 20th century but still looks quite original. We decided not to go inside but to wander around the park on the castle hill which grants good views over the city. In good weather the japanese sea is visible in the distance.


Kenrokuen park on the other hand is beautiful; definitely worth a visit. Is it a large park that was originally set up as the private garden for the lord of the castle but has been open to the public for a long time. In it’s center is a big lake with turtle island in it and some nicely arranged streams flowing into it. At the corner closest to the castle is a famous two-legged stone lantern. Despite its rather small size it is famous only because two-legged lanterns are very rare; most of them have four or three.

Because we arrived there in November, we got to see another sight: all the pine trees at the lake shore had been tied up to large poles by dozens of ropes to stop them from breaking under the heavy snow load during the winter. We also found almost all the trees bearing their full autumn foilage for which Japan is so well known. While wondering around we got caught and interviewed by a group of you Japaneses girl scouts. They had a few sheets of paper with English questions on them which they read out to us asking about our origin and our experience and opinion of Japan. This was a good way of getting children to practise their English and to get used to talk to strangers even though they still were quite shy. We loved slowly wandering through the park and found it quite relaxing despite the tour groups and loads of locals. One reason for this was that it was the weekend and on those days locals can go in for free. For us it was ¥400 which is very good value since the park is big and well looked after.

In the afternoon we went to Kanazawa noh art museum for a quick look around the free part of the exhibition before heading to the samurai district. This district featured many traditional houses that used to belong to various classes of samurai but sadly only a few of them remain. We went into the house of a high-ranking warrior and even though the plot is only a fraction of its original size, it is still very nice to see. For us the garden was the highlight with it’s little stream, trees, bushes and stone bridges and lanterns.

At this point our guide/host had to leave us but promised to pick us up after dinner. Just a few hundred meters down the road is the house of a poorer samurai (free), which shows the simpler style of living.

An arty swimming pool

A typical samurai


The shrine in a rich samurai’s house

The other thing Kanazawa is famous for is gold leaf. The city’s market share within Japan is 99% and so it comes to no surprise that it is also omnipresent everywhere in the city. Places even sell food decorated with it. The most common example for this is gold covered soft-serve ice cream. There is a whole district dedicated to this local product (the gold; not the ice cream) which is great to wander around. All houses are of the traditional Japanese style with wood lattice works on the outside. Tsuyoshi recommended going to a family run gold beater workshop (free) rather than the museum. This was a very good tip because we got to see people working with those thin-as-air sheets as well as seeing a broad range of products decorated with gold. To get to this level, gold is rolled into sheets and cut, before being placed between waxed paper bound to books and then hammered. Workers transfer the gold to bigger ‘books’ after each hammering stage until they reach their final thickness of as little as 0.0001mm!

Busy bees working with gold

A stunning gold leaf fan

Having learned from experience that some highway buses get booked up very quickly, we went to the train station to book our tickets to Kyoto. We generally recommend booking buses in advance, but this is not always possible if you don’t speak Japanese. This time we were lucky to get the tickets we wanted.

The next day our host offered to take us up north and show us around Noto peninsula. This stretch of land is very popular for its beaches, nature and scenery. Getting there and around without your own set of wheels takes quite a while and only gets you to a few places i.e. the two main towns. Our great host showed us his favourite spots along the western coast. Along this shoreline, sandy beaches alternate with tall cliffs and rocky outcrops. One beach is particularly noteworthy since it is the only beach that people are allowed to drive on. The track is called chirihama nagisa driveway and just a smidgen under 9km long. Even buses drive along it. During the peak (summer) season it gets jam packed and people come from as far as Tokyo (even by public transport!) just to see this beach and go for a swim. Driving is still tricky and we saw one bus and a few cars getting stuck in parts with soft sand.

The beach road

Ted with the sand minion

Our next stop further north was at a cliff outcrop with some small rocky islands and a cave through which we walked. It was quite cool especially with the small sea tunnel next to it which created big swirls with the incoming waves. On the other side was a rocky shore line offering short walks around and a tourist boat trying to lure us in for a 20min ride costing ¥1,800 only to go to the next bay which we could see all of from the cliff top for free.

An arch and a cave


One of the beautiful bays

As it was getting late we stopped for lunch before crossing over to the east to relax in wakura onsen in Nanao. This is one of the two main town on the peninsula and a fairly famous onsen town.

Entrance to the baths was surprisingly cheap (¥400) and soon we found ourselves relaxing in the hot water and steam. It was hotter than our last hot springs in Hoheikyo and we were happy about the slight cool breeze while sitting in 42 degrees hot spring water. The baths also featured a sauna each for men and women and while Matthias stayed with our host, who was not a big fan of the hot air boxes, Zoë made full use of it. She was amazed to find a tv inside and enjoyed watching sumo wrestlers while sweating away before diving into the small cold pool outside. Two hours later we were back on the road, but before we drove back Tsuyoshi had a surprise for us: he took us across the bridge to Noto island just in time to watch the sun go down behind the hills beyond the sea, setting both sky and water on fire in the process.

Onsen time!

Sunset from Noto island

The onsen had made us all tired so a coffee stop was required on the way back. For dinner we opted for a Japanese curry which by this point was still new to us. It tastes a little bit like a medium-spicy Indian curry but more earthy and is always brown. We had seen it before as plastic food models but it never really appealed to us. Like most curries it comes with rice and options usually include beef or hamburger (no, not with the bun). Despite the rather plain looks it tasted very yummy and needless to say this was only the first of quite a few more curry dinners.The best part of the restuarant was the free refills of thinly cabbage as we were noticing a lack of vegetables in most japanese meals.


Post-onsen tiredness and full tummies saw us crawling into our futon beds rather soon after some green tea and chatting with our nice host and his wife.

The next moring our host drove us to the station where we got on our bus to the city of 1000 temples, Kyoto.


During this couchsurf we slept on propper futin beds for the first time. We had heard many stories about this infamous sleeping-on-the-floor arrangement but we slept very well and found it quite comfortable. Even bony Matthias, who usually struggles with rather hard sleeping surfaces, had three good nights sleep and no aches.

Overall we found Kanazawa to be quite a nice place. The highlights to us definitely were Kenrokuen garden and the leafgold district. With its good transport connection it is easy to get to and a good hub to explore the area. Noto peninsula seemed to be popular with cyclists and Kanazawa is a good place to start exploring this big part of Honshu stretching into the Japanese sea. Overall we recommend two days there if you want to see all the sights in the center. Distances are easily walkable if you have time but there is a circular bus route connecting all the main points of interest. For a full day of hopping on and off you should buy the day pass for ¥500 (single fare ¥200).

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Japanese Alps

We hopped on a bus from Tokyo to Matsumoto, ready to discover what the main Japanese island of Honshu has to offer. Three hours later, we arrived in the small city of Matsumoto which promised old style buildings and a castle.

Our walk from the station to the castle took us through some of the city and along a small alley of shops selling souvenirs and crafts, before we crossed the moat to the castle. Matsumoto castle is one of the oldest surviving castles in Japan. Japan used to have around 200 castles but many were destroyed to make a statement about the end of the Samurai’s reign. Now there are around 105 castle of which only 5 are original and built from original materials. We saw a sign for free English guided tours as we walked up to the castle. The tours are totally free, no tips or catches and run by Japanese pensioners. Our tour guides were fantastic and explained the history of Mastumoto and it’s castle with maps, photos and of course a walking tour. We definitely recommend getting a guide to show you around and explain how the castle was built and defended. Mastumoto was actually never attacked, so this is probably the main reason it has survived to the present day. Interestingly, unlike European castles, Japanese castles were never built to be inhabited, they were symbols of power but the main buildings were only used as a final retreat. In the event of a castle’s occupants having to retreat into the keep, the owner would retire to a special room and surrender by killing himself. Thankfully, this never happened in Matsumoto but we found it strange that they would go to so much effort to build a giant castle and then commit suicide. Outside the castle we were lucky enough to catch a chrysanthemum exhibiton. We were amazed by the number of flowers from just one stem and loved the chrysanthemum-bonsai trees.

Ted’s the king of the castle

Matsumoto castle and it’s moat


One of the stunning Chrysanthemum trees

All these flowers come from just one stalk!

After the castle we had a wander around but felt that really the castle was the star attraction. Unfortunately, our day went from bad to worse when the Airbnb room we had booked started crawling with bed bugs around 10pm. We left and ended up sleeping in an internet cafe (this time without free ice cream) until our bus to Takayama in the morning. We guess airbnb is totally unregulated and sadly some people don’t maintain a good standard of cleanliness, but we have to say it was easy to apply for a refund.

Running away from Matsumoto in the morning, our next stop was Takayama, which we quickly fell in love with. Nestled between the mountains of the Japanese alps, with a well preserved old town and some beautiful hiking it is perfect for a few days to relax and unwind. Our hostel called J-hoppers was fantastic and gave us loads of information and tips of what to see. Since we arrived just in time to catch the morning market, we headed straight there. We really enjoyed diving straight into all the sights, smells and tastes of the market. The first stall we saw sold local dolls called sarubobo (little monkey baby) which are made by mothers to protect their children and give them something to play with during the snowy winters. We tried some octopus balls, chestnut ice cream and the locally grown apples. The apples in Takayama are huge easily weighing 0.4kg each, and sadly costing anything from 200 yen to 400 yen. We were shocked by the price tag but happy to at least have a taste on some of the stalls. They are really delicious apples and very sweet, maybe even worth the price tag. The market slowly packed up around 11:30am and we wandered off along the river and into the old town.

Ted and his protective sarubobo



Takayama has some fantastically preserved districts, which feel like you have walked back in time into a piece of Japanese history. The wooden houses are not just for display, they are homes, shops, museums, restaurants and even a blacksmiths. The windows have traditional lattice shutters and the doors slide just as they always have. We wandered towards one of the famous temples and found a little gem nearby. We stumbled upon a cafe shop run by an old Japanese couple. While we browsed the shop the husband slowly brewed our japanese coffee and latte. Not only was it delicious, but Zoë’s latte was the cutest cup of coffee either of us have seen. The top was decorated with a work of art in the shape of a cat which seemed to climb out of the cup as you drank. Needless to say, we ear-marked the cafe for a return visit, much to the owners delight.

A family with their children in traditional clothes

Ted and the cutest cup of coffee

Woken up by our coffee, we took a walk around the hills and temples of Takayama. Takayama is famous for it’s Matsuri (festival) where giant intricately decorated floats are carried through the streets. A selection of these is on display at the festival float museum, but we gave this a miss in favour of a walk in the sunshine. The trail follows the edge of the town, where there a too many temples to count, each with their own small gardens which you can wander through for free. The walk was very peaceful, so we gave ourselves a little challenge at the end. We walked up the hill to find the ruins of the ancient castle which sadly is now just the remains of a rocky wall. Despite the fact that we missed the autumn colours in Takayama there were still a few pretty red and orange glowing trees in the forest. Tired out from our walk we meandered back to our hostel to relax.

Finally we found some pretty autumnal colours

One of the many temples on the temple trail

Pretty japanese bridge

We went out for dinner to find some of the local speciality beef. A lot of people know about Kobe beef which is a type of wagyu beef with prominent fat marbled through the meat. This gives the meat a great flavour, a melt in the mouth texture and an astronomical price tag. Thankfully, the local wagyu beef in Takayama is less well known and there are a few (relatively) lower priced options. Maybe it’s just our European thinking, but 100g of steak with three chips on the side is not appealing when the price tag is 3000 yen (£20)! We quite like to leave a restaurant full after dinner, rather than looking for the next meal. Whilst looking for a reasonable option we bumped into an Amercian couple and ended up having a beef ramen dinner together and chatting about all things travel. It was a lovely end to our day.

Hida beef sushi

With the sun shining in the morning we asked about any hiking trails around the city and our hostel receptionist recommended a walk around some hills to the south of the city. The walk to the beginning of the trail was a little boring as it took us along the main road. Once we found the trail we were plunged into an autumn forest and even better we were the only ones walking. The trail unsurprisingly had warnings about bears as it was on the edge of town and maybe not as well walked as some other trails. The forests in Japan are similar to Europe except beneath the trees there is usually bamboo growing and often a kind of sweet smell in the air. Our walk took us past a beautiful emerald pond and to the first hill summit with a view across the city and hills. So far we had gotten used to the Japanese toilet addiction (there are toilets everywhere) but we were still very surprised to find a clean toilet with running water on top ofvthe mountain! Then we descended past a temple and clambered up to a castle ruin before returning to the city. Sadly the clouds hid the real Japanese alps until we were on our way back, but we still got a glimpse of the towering rocky and snow covered summits in the distance.

Our pretty trail through the woods

Another blue pond we stumbled upon

Our time in the Japanese alps was almost at an end. With just enough time to fit in another trip to the morning market and a little retail therapy we had really enjoyed Takayama. On our way to Kanazawa we made a stop at a small village called Shirakawa-go. The Shirakawa region is known for it’s Gassho (praying hands) houses. These houses have steeply pitched thatched roofs made from susiki grass. Their name comes from their resemblance to clasped praying hands. The villagers of Shirakawago built such steep roofs because the area gets large amount of snow. Actually, Shirakawago is not far from a famous alpine road where the snow reaches depths of up to 4m and the road is carved through the snow. The houses are still inhabited and some are open to the public and include a museum on silk, a festival museum, the largest house and a medical museum. We chose to visit the only house in the village to offer free tea made from mountain herbs and also the only house where you can climb all the way to the eaves. It was really interesting to see how the wooden supports are bound together with ropes and how the roof sits on top of some huge trees. It might have been a miserable misty rainy day, but when the sun shone through the clouds we were treated to some fantastic rainbows. We also wanted to see the silk museum but found it closed and locked up for the winter.

A view of a rainy Shirakawago

We had the feeling we were being watched

Down in the village

Rainbows over the river

Feeling cultured we hopped on the next bus to Kanazawa.  

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Hakodate

Hakodate is Hokkaido’s southernmost city and connection point for Shinkansen to Tokyo and ferries to Honshu (Japan’s main Island). It took us most of the day to get there by two busses and one train. It could have been a lot easier and faster on the express train but without a rail pass also quite expensive. JR (Japanese Railways) charge a fairly high premium for their express trains so for most tourists on short trips it’s cheaper to buy a rail pass (~£200 for 3 weeks unlimited travel including Shinkansens).

One of the busy market halls

Hakodate is well known for its morning/fish market and seafood restaurants. One speciality of the island is crab and winter is the main season for it. Therefore, unsurprisingly every seafood restaurant had big boards outside promoting this speciality in all shapes of forms.

A half empty tank of horse shoe crabs

A half empty tank of horse shoe crabs


We arrived way too late for the market so we took to wander the streets around the harbour. The owner of our hostel gave us a lift into the center accompanied by a brief introduction into the main sights. Throughout Japan, the city is well known for it’s night view which is best appreciated from mount Hakodate. The peak can be reached by bus, ropeway or on foot but we we not overly excited by the idea mainly due to the lack of big buildings. Hakodate at night is said to resemble the shape of Hokkaido but consists only of a sea of lights without any stand-out features or buildings. To us it was more exciting to browse through the eclectic range of shops and restaurants located in and around some of the old brick warehouses at the sea front. They had a very nice and warm atmosphere and since halloween had passed, all buildings had English christmas songs were playing.

Hakodate clearly loves squids

Compared to Sapporo and Asahikawa the proportion of higher priced hotels, restaurants and shops was much higher in Hakodate, so it took us a lot longer to find a budget friendly and nice looking place for dinner. We found a small button restaurant between the market and the train station that served salt ramen (noodles in salty broth). This dish is as typical for Hakodate as soy ramen is for Asahikawa and miso ramen for Sapporo. It was nice but definitely lacking depth of flavour compared to the other two and our favourite is still miso broth.

Trying the local speciality salty ramen

Trying the local speciality salty ramen

The next morning we got up fairly early to have enough time for the market before boarding the ferry to Aomori (Honshu). 90 percent of the shops and stalls sell seafood in all shapes or forms. We saw sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shell fish parts and guts of fish but it was all dominated by crab. Traders sold giant horseshoe crabs, spiny crabs and snow crabs. A lot of them kept the animals in overcrowded aquariums but most had them folded up and lying upside down on ice. Like most local delicacies crabs were very expensive. Big horseshoe crabs sold for more than ¥15000 (£100+) but most of them did not have price tags. Smaller crabs started around ¥3000 The market was very busy and buzzing with normal shoppers, Chinese tour groups with selfie-obsessions and the shouting of the sellers. Despite the number of people we saw surprisingly few people with fish bags and nobody who bought crab. It left us wondering how long it takes for shopkeepers to sell all their stock and how long crabs had to endure the crowded water tanks.

Yummy looking but raw seafood breakfast

Yummy looking but raw seafood breakfast

Since when in Rome you should do what the Romans do, we had decided to have a seafood breakfast even though Zoë is not a big friend of it. It turned out to be very difficult to decide where to sit down but we found a place with reasonable prices. The food arrived quickly but we were taken aback when we discovered that the prawns, salmon and scallop were all cold and raw. Only the rice was cooked and hot. Zoë was very brave and sampled it all but left most of it to Matthias but even he did not enjoy raw prawns and fish (especially for breakfast).

Even man covers feature squids

Even man covers feature squids

With a funny feeling in our stomachs we wandered on to find some cooked meal to fix things. Despite the exorbitant prices we fancied tasting the local crab which many places serve grilled all over the market. We enjoyed the sweet and roasted flavour of the crab once we managed to extract the meat from the halved shells. This was one of the dishes where chopsticks are completely useless and special tongs are provided.

Getting to the ferry terminal from the city is super easy thanks to the express bus which departs right outside the train station. It only takes half an hour and costs around ¥500. If you want to take the boat across to Honshu we recommend booking your tickets in advance. There are a few different options available (from simple open spaced rooms to luxury cabins). Ships to Aomori depart roughly every two hours between 4am and midnight but not every boat has the same facilities so it is definitely worth checking which options are available.

We opted for the open space seating since booking a cabin for a four hour journey during the day was too expensive and completely unnecessary. Japanese have the great talent of being able to sleep pretty much anywhere so it was no surprise to see almost everyone around us falling asleep on the floor with only a small headrest as comfort.

Base fare area on the ferry

Base fare area on the ferry

Thanks to an incoming bad weather front the first half of our crossing was a bit rough with big waves and spray covering our windows about 15m above the sea when the bow hit them. Since it was a pretty big ship it did not roll very much and neither of us got seasick. Once we reached the sheltered water of Aomori bay the sea was a lot calmer and before we knew it we reached the harbour. Shortly before then we were in for a shock when we realised we had lost our booking confirmation for the overnight bus down to Tokyo. Without internet on the ferry we had to wait for the terminal to find the confirmation email but we could not find it. It was also at this (the worst possible) point that Zoë got locked out of her email account (Thanks Google!; who remembers the month they created their account after over 10 years!?). We actually doubted we ever received one. Without booking details and with the office of the agent closed for the day things looked pretty dire.

In a last attempt Matthias went to the ferry ticket counter and managed to describe the problem to them and ask them to ring the bus company. This was only possible because the website had a photo of the bus with the company’s name on it. They managed to find our booking on their system and confirm it. We received a piece of paper with our seat numbers and the confirmation that this would suffice. Being slightly more hopeful we walked the two and a half kilometer to the train and bus station to have dinner and await the bus. Somebody from the company must have rang the driver because when we showed him our ‘ticket’ he smiled knowingly and welcomed us by name. Again we were amazed and impressed by the helpfulness and efficiency of the Japanese and how well the information had come from the ferry women to the bus driver.

We were also in for another treat: a fancy sleeper bus with seats whos backrests reclined to 140 degrees, foot and leg rests and and ample space. Seats at the window even featured a privacy curtain. Unlike on normal coaches, both of us managed to get a few hours of sleep so when we arrived in Tokyo we felt sufficiently awake for our onward trip to Matsumoto near the Japanese alps.

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Hell valley and hot springs

After visiting two large cities, it was time to get into the countryside a bit more. Hokkaido is an island, which Lonely Planet recommends exploring by car, but actually, there is a surprisingly good network of public transport. It’s just a little tricky to find the information in English. Thankfully, the tourist information offices everywhere can help with that. Armed with a Japanese bus map of Hokkaido (sadly only available in Japanese), we set off for the onsen town of Noboribetsu, which is unfortunately two bus rides and 4 hours from Asahikawa. After spending the night couchsurfing with our new friend (Thank you Maria!) we woke early and boarded our bus.

Ted and his new ride

We arrived into Noboribetsu onsen around 1pm (after getting a local bus from the train station) and were immediately hit with a strong stench of sulphur. Not the most pleasant smell and unfortunately it stays with you all the while you are here, but it’s meant to be beneficial for all kinds of ailments. There is so much sulphuric water coming out the ground that the river which flows through the valley constantly covers everything with this special scent. We had decided not to visit the onsens here as we only had the afternoon, and due to the frankly quite ridiculous cost of accommodation in town. Instead, we dedicated the afternoon to walking around the area to see a few of the sites. Our first stop was hell valley where sulphurous yellow/white rivers run towards town and steam billows out of the ground. We really got a sense of volatile our planet can be, but also visited the main spring which provides so much wealth to this little town. Walking up the hill a little further takes you to a viewpoint and then back down to a volcanic lake. The lake edges are black in colour due to some sulphur combination and we caught glimpses of the boiling muddy water between the sulphurous fumes. Above the lake is a quietly steaming volcano which created this lake. Only a little way further on, is a footbath in a warm stream among the trees, which was a nice break from walking. Our walk took us back down to town via a geyser which produces spurts of water up to 8m high that are accompanied by rumbling thuds. Back in town, we grabbed a snack of Onigiri (stuffed rice balls) and jumped back on the bus to the station. Since the next bus to Muroran was around 40 minutes away we decided to try our luck again and hitch hike. It paid off, and we got a lift to the centre of Muroran before the bus arrived.

Matthias and Ted perched on the edge of hell… and no married life is not going that badly.

Steaming sulphurous rivers and geysers

Our first caldera lake complete with bubbling black sulphurous mud

Even the rivers here are hot enough for hot footbaths

Muroran is quite an industrial town with a large harbour and a peninsula famous for whale watching. Unfortunately, it wasn’t whale season and all we were in town for was a cheap nights accommodation. We had time to find a yummy ramen shop near the train station and have dinner before we started our search. Our choice of accommodation was a manga kissa, where we rented a booth each for 9 hours for just 2000 yen plus membership fee (most hostels cost around 3000 yen pppn). This fee included free hot and cold drinks, showers and ice cream, which we helped ourselves to. The booths were small but big enough and comfy enough to get a good night’s sleep. Manga kissa are a truly Japanese phenomenon: they are a combination of library and internet cafe. As the name suggests, they offer a huge selection of manga comics (read thousands). They rent out different types of booths: some are just for reading, while others come with a tv and dvd player, pc and or video consoles. Some kissas even have karaoke booths. More active customers can chose between table tennis, dart or billiard. Despite the slight lack of privacy (both walls are only about 1.70m high and cannot be locked) they are definitely a good and cheap last minute option in Japan.

Just a few comics in the manga kissa

The next morning we failed to hitch a ride to Toya, so we boarded the bus to Date and then a second to Toya onsen instead. We knew Toya onsen had a few large hotels with onsens, along with some nice walking routes, so that was really the main reason for a journey there. What we hadn’t expected was to be plunged into a history of volcanoes which has saved lives all over the world. The volcano responsible for the development of our current monitoring technologies is Mount Usu. The first seismometers were installed here around 1910 and collected data about the behaviour of Mount Usu. It sits on the coast separating Toya town from Toya lake (Toyako) where we were staying. Like all onsen towns it’s not cheap to stay but we felt it was much more than just an onsen town. Mount Usu was a dormant volcano, but became active around 1600, and remains so to this day. It generally erupts every 20-50 years with the two most significant recent eruptions being in 1910, 1977 and 2000. The eruptions in 1910 led to the discovery of hot springs and the creation of Toyako onsen by the side of the Lake Toya. Lake Toya is a caldera lake and comes complete with 5 volcanic islands at it’s centre. Mount Usu’s latest eruption in 2000 caused massive devastation of Toyako onsen and significant changes to the landscape which we got the chance to explore. One of the changes was that a section of the ground rose by 70m while creating graben fault line next to it. It also created new craters which, together with the uplifted land, cut off to road to Toya; leaving some houses on its side cut off (our hotel was one of them). Since then, they got re-connected and even got their own bus stop.

Lake Toya

The fairy castle ferry

Our first day was a little rainy but gradually cleared up giving us the chance for a lake side walk and footbath in one of the free hot springs. There are only a few small walking trails around Toyako onsen but each of them tells a story of the areas history both im Japanese and English. Our first walk took us through the forest and over Showa shinsen, one of the newest lava cryptodomes before descending towards Toyako via some fumaroles (steaming holes in the ground) and some of the newest craters. On our way back to the hotel we took a walk up through one of the valleys where mudslides damaged houses, kindergarten buildings and also removed bridges. They are all still in situ as memorials to the damage a volcano can cause. It was eerie to see apartments filled with mud and dented where a road bridge was washed into the block. Thankfully, no one was killed in 2000, but the eruption did prompt the building of dams to slow mud flow and channels to protect the resort areas. Climbing over the dams, we reached a crater top which had just suddenly appeared and become a beautiful crater lake. At the top of the trail we reached our hotel for the night and checked in. Our hosts were lovely and offered to take us back down to town for dinner, where they recommended a hotel restaurant. We both instantly thought of cost before our host revealed it was a one coin restaurant. They had a small selection for ¥500 but also more refined and expensive options. We chose a set meal of pork with rice and ramen and paid just 1000 yen for 2 huge portions. It just shows local knowledge is very important.


The next day we had another small trail to follow, to see how a new fault line had emerged and created a graben (stepped fault). This fault was just a few hundred meters from our accommodation and had created a lake and turned a downhill road into an uphill road. The information signs showing old photos allowed us to compare how much the earth’s crust has changed and the images were pretty humbling. The deserted roads and buildings were better than any words to describe the effects a volcano can have on people’s lives. It was also fascinating to see how movable the land was and what can be created, such as a 70m hill where the land was once flat. Once the hail showers started, we returned to our hotel a little soggy for a break. Matthias picked up a hard boiled egg which had been grilled on hot stones and had a fairly smoky smell but it tasted delicious. We walked down to the town expecting more rain with the plan to visit the museum of volcanic science. Luckily, the sun came out so we stayed dry and had a nice wander around town, before settling on a burger restaurant for a late lunch. Later we visited the volcano science museum which informed us with even more information about volcanoes. It’s divided into two parts; a free section about volcanoes, Toyako and the national park and an exhibition on volcano science costing ¥600. We opted to be cheapskates and felt we got plenty of free information to peruse.

The graben formed by the latest eruption

A new caldera lake

One of the house pulled apart and broken by the eruption

Workers fixing a broken water mains pipe abandoned their digger only to find it buried in volcanic ashnupon their return

Overall our time in Shikotsu-Toya national park was very interesting and even though we only put our feet into the hot spring water we felt fairly rejuvenated. 

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A cool city and cold thumbs

Asahikawa is the next biggest city from Daisetzusan National Park and located 2 hours north of Sapporo. We had found a pretty good deal with a hotel near the train station so it was easy to get around. The main attraction of the city is the nearby Asahiyama zoo. It is Japan’s northernmost zoo and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The zoo is regarded as one of Asia’s most modern zoos in terms of animal welfare standards. When we went the weather was cold and very windy so we didn’t really try to stay as long as possible especially when it started snowing and hailing. At least it worked in favour of the polar bears…

Ted and his white and cold cousin

This zoo also features a big petting/domestic animal section including dogs, cats, rabbits, goats and ducks. Another big section belongs to animals of Hokkaido and Siberia, which also makes this zoo unique. We got to see many animals we had not seen before like the Hokkaido fish owl, racoon dogs, sables and ezo deer.

One thing we really liked was the hand made signs at most enclosures. Most were made by the keepers while some were definitely made by children. They really gave the zoo a more personal touch than the usual printed signs. We were sure they had very good information on them, but sadly they were all in Japanese and Google translate didn’t work very well on them. One really cool feature in the polar bear and wolf enclosures was the dome shaped lookouts inside the enclosures called seal view and rabbit view respectively. People walked up to them from underneath and could catch a glimpse at the animals from a very different perspective. They even had a persicope underneath the polar bears for people who could not make it up the stairs. Some of the animals (notably the brown bear and the snow leopards) disliked cameras with big lenses. The bear hid next to a big window next to which a member of the zoo hid. He hit the window and growled every time he caught a glimpse of her. The snow leopards repeatedly pounced at the fence trying to get a visitor with a big camera. Even after he hid it under his poncho they still watched him very anxiously and with their ears folded back. Presumably the cameras reminded them of dart guns or something similar. When the visitor was out of sight, the beautiful cats played catch and tried to sneak up on each other. These were the most active we had ever seen big cats in a zoo.

A snow leopard ready to pounce on a tourist

We can definitely recommend visiting this zoo but don’t expect it to fill a whole day. We spent less than 4h in it including a lunch break. It can even be done as a daytrip from Sapporo with special combi tickets for public transport.

On one of the evenings we met up with a Russian girl whom we contacted via Couchsurfing and met up for donuts and choux pastry buns. She has been living in Japan for four years working for JET programme (teaching English to Japanese and working as interpreter and translator) and could tell us a lot about the local culture, which was very exciting and interesting.

We also managed to stumble into a Nepalese curry restaurant (Namaste) run by two Nepalese men who cooked the most amazing and tasty curry we tasted since we had left the UK.

Traditional room for a tea ceremony

The next day we went to see the blue pond and Shirahige waterfall near Biei. There is a good bus connection from Asahikawa but inspired by stories of some travel friends from Hong Kong, we decided to have our debut in hitchhiking. Neither of us had tried this before but had heard that Japan was a good country for this mode of transport. It felt really strange standing by the side of the road with your thumb out hoping for somebody to stop. Because it was quite spontaneous, we had not made the usual sign of where we wanted to go. It took about 10 minutes for the first car to stop. The lady either did not go to Biei or did not really understand us (not quite sure as we don’t speak Japanese), but at this point another car pulled over with two older women in it. They offered us a ride to Biei station and also took us to a well-known (at least to Japanese) tourist attraction called the Ken and Mary tree. This is a tree, which is over 100 years old and lives by the side of a small road which featured in a 1950s tv advert with two caracters called Ken and Mary. Once we found out that we had missed the bus to the blue lake by only 5 minutes we decided to try our luck and stick our thumbs out again (it was 3h till the next bus). This time we were not as fortunate and no car stopped to pick us up. Because of the time and considering how far it was to the lake decided to rent bikes and cycle there in order to see it while it was still light. It took us three attempts to get bikes (one shop was closed and the other said it was too risky; strange in 13 degrees sunshine on dry roads) but yet we managed to get some bikes from a hotel near the train station. It should have been a warning to us that all four bike tyres had to be pumped up before we could set of…

Blue sky over a blue pond

A few kilometers outside the town we found a fantastic cycle path which followed an old railway line and was thus very flat. After 10km,  disaster struck and Zoë’s front tyre let go of all its air. Without any means to repair the damage we went to the only house we could see and asked for help.

The owner pumped it up with a compressor only to see air bubbles pretty much all the way round the outside of the tyre which was worn down to the inside thread in places. We were shocked and quite upset that a hotel rented out bikes in such conditions. After considering the options, the man offered to take us back to the hotel. Zoë really wanted to see the lake and was upset that she would miss it, so we agreed to swap bikes so she could carry on. Our saviour put the bike on the back of his pick up and drove Matthias back to the hotel, where he immediately marched up to reception to (seemingly) have a go at them. Faced with the offer of a different bike and a lift to the lake Matthias kindly declined and decided to wait at the hotel, since all bike wheels looked worn and he did not fancy another breakdown.

Zoë in the meanwhile made it to the lake despite having only three gears and being out of practice, but gave the waterfalls a miss because of her tired legs. The lake was not as blue as in the photos, but rather a deep misty green completed with dead silver birches and a few tour buses of Chinese tourists. It was worth seeing although probably better on a sunny day. The ride back to the hotel was almost all downhill and took just half as long, which was good as once the sun dipped below the horizon, it started to get chilly. Fortune was smiling at us again as we managed to hitch a ride back to our hotel. This day was a great lesson in how helpful and friendly Japanese people are. Without the amazing help of this random guy we would have had to push a flat bike for 10km and we would have spent quite a bit of money on buses had it not been for the people who gave us a lift.

So many friends!

The weather promised to be better on our last day so we went on a day trip to Asahidake (next to a mountain with the same name). This place is well known for it’s onsen in the valley and hiking at the top of the mountain. We did not try to hitchhike there because it was too far and we wanted to be sure to get there, so we opted for the 2h bus journey. As we got to the end of the valley the snow (which had already melted in Asahikawa) from the day before became higher and higher and reached roughly 25cm near the bottom of the cable car station. Inside they had a screen showing live views from the top which was all in clouds at this point. We hung around for a while, waiting for a weather change and eventually we were rewarded with a clearer view at the top. The cable car takes only 10 minutes for the ride and stays close to the ground. This gave us the opportunity to watch the snow covered and frozen trees on our way up. Upon leaving the gondola at the top we were welcomed by freezing cold wind. Thankfully, the viewing cabin was well insulated and heated so we could enjoy the grand views. The clouds had lifted just enough to clear the height of the buildings, so we stood almost with our heads in the clouds. We had hoped to go at least for the small circuit walk (30min), but it was blocked off just outside the house. The beginnings in each direction looked somewhat trotted so we ventured on regardless only to be greeted by almost knee deep snow 30m later. Since we were not equipped for deep snow walking we had to turn around and resort to the views from inside the building. With the clouds decending again we headed back down to return to Asahikawa. Despite the lowish clouds we were glad that we had extended our stay in the area by an extra day since the visibility was better than the previous days.

So much for ‘We won’t see winter for a year!’

Due to our spontaneous change of plans we didn’t have any accommodation booked for this night but our new couchsurfing friend spontaneously offered to host us for one night (thank you very much again!). On that evening we went out for a delicious homecooked soup curry in a small but cosy eatery tucked away not far from the highstreet. Afterwards we had our first Japanese karaoke. We rented a booth for two hours and had a great time even though neither of us is a good singers. Back at Maria’s place we were treated to Russian tea and sweets while learning more about what it is like living in Japan as a foreigner, which was very interesting.

A beautiful and white winter forest

After a good night sleep on futons (a slight downgrade from hotel beds but still comfy) we were finally on our way to one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns.

The capital of the north

We landed safely at New Chitose airport 75 minutes after leaving Tokyo. We caught the train straight to the centre of Sapporo and made our way via the streetcar to our apartment for the next five days. We booked through Airbnb and luckily found a small one room apartment with kitchen and bathroom for just £25 per night. We had everything we needed to cook and make a good breakfast. We had originally intended to spend our time in one of the National Parks on Hokkaido island but unfortunately accommodation options were a bit pricey and fairly limited so Sapporo was the next best thing.

Autumn in full swing

Sapporo has two main claims to fame: one being hosting the winter olympics and the other being the best beer in Japan. We were lucky with the weather as it was warm and sunny for most of the time we stayed. On our first day we took a walk up to mount Moiwa to get a view of the city and see some of the famous autumn coloured forest. At the start of the path there was a small car park with signs warning us abour pit vipers and bears. There were bear bells which were free to borrow and would hopefully let the bears know were we were. The path went through some lovely autumnal forest (although we missed the true peak of the colours) with bamboo and vines, before climbing to the top of the hill where there was snow. It was a fairly easy walk both up and down but most people seem to visit mount Moiwa via the ropeway instead. It was nice to see lots of locals getting their daily exercise in the hills and everyone we passed greeted us with a happy ‘konichiwa’.

We even found a tree swing!

Ted guarding us from wild bears

The next day we visited the university botanical gardens and museums which were a bargain at just 600 yen. Ther was a beautiful garden with some very old trees and a rock garden along with a musuem about the Ainu people (native to Hokkaido) and the animals of Hokkaido and Japan. Interestingly Hokkaido used to be part of the Asian continent before moving south and breaking away. Because of this the plants and animals are more like those of Russia and continental Asia than the rest of Japan, but you also find subspecies found only in Hokkaido such as the Ezo Sika deer and Ezo wolf (now extinct). 

Colonial style museum with lots of native animals

We then walked along to see the old government building surrounded by more autumnal coloured trees, Ginko avenue and Odori park. Sapporo is a fairly compact city so it’s easy to walk around most of the sights. For dinner we visited one of Sapporo’s sushi restaurants. With a little apprehension on Zoe’s side and concern for cost (sushi can cost thousands of yen) we opted for a conveyor belt restaurant. Despite our lack of Japanese we managed to figure out that we could take plates from the conveyor belt or choose from the menu and order directly from the chef. We arrived mid-afternoon so the belt was fairly empty but there were a few people eating and the 3 chefs were hard at work. We ordered a selection of dishes including prawns, california rolls, tuna rolls and pork rolls. They were all delicious and with prices ranging from ¥130-¥550 per plate also quite reasonable. In order to help our budget we stuck to the lower half of said range. The options were still very varied and tasty. We think these restaurants are a good way to try real sushi for the first time without a huge price tag. Although, we were also starting to realise that when Japanese eat out, they eat a lot, maybe 10-15 plates of sushi per person, but when food is this yummy we can see why.

Old government building surrounded by a beautiful park

Following our city tour we made a trip out of town to the Morenuma sculpture park where various examples of modern art have been created. These include a glass pyramid, a new mountain and a metal tripod. They have all been done on a grand scale and are great to wander about. In summer there are also a few fountains but sadly these were turned off a week before we visited in preparation for the deep freeze that Hokkaido gets every winter. The park was very easy to get to with several bus lines passing the nearby road and gates. We got a good city map from the tourist info at the train station that explained all the options. One of the bonuses of this park is the view of Sapporo with the hills and sea in the background.

The modern pyramide with great scenery

Modern art in a park

On our way back home we had one must see to visit: the Sapporo brewery. The brewery is no longer in operation but instead houses a museum and a few restaurants. The current brewery is located on the edge of town and is a bit far away for a visit. The old buildings look just as a brewery should although the smell of brewing beer is missing. Inside there is the choice of a Japanese tour including two tastes (one special beer is only available with this tour) or a free self guided tour around the museum. We opted to move at our own pace and try the standard beers as this included Sapporo classic which is only available in Hokkaido. The museum was very interesting telling the story of how one well travelled Japanese man brought German brewing secrets to Japan and how the Sapporo brewing company is firmly rooted in Hokkaido due to the fact that they needed a cold climate for cooling and storage. At the end we tasted three beers; Sapporo black, Sapporo classic and Kaitakushi (a recreation of the very first beer brewed there). They were all tasty but the Sapporo classic was Ted’s favourite.

Everything seems upside down after some beer…

Our final day staying in Sapporo was a day trip to a hot spring town located an hour south. It’s easy to reach by bus and there are two hot spring locations within 2km of eachother. We bought a combi ticket at the bus station, just 1800 yen for the bus and one onsen. Considering the bus costs ¥840 and entry to an onsen ranges fromm ¥500 to ¥1000 this is a great deal. We got off the bus at Jozankei to have a wander around the town and use some of the free hand and footbaths. Unfortunately the first footbath we found was closed and the handbath was luke warm at best. We continued down to the river and found a riverside footbath complete with a steaming buddha statue. The water was lovely and warm so we took off our shoes and plunged our feet straight in.

We had read that eggs can be cooked in the hot water from the springs so Matthias bought some eggs to give it a go. The footbath water was only around 60 degrees (when it came out the ground; the foot bath was a little bit colder) so egg cooking was a failure and we almost ended up with a raw egg in the footbath when it cracked. After a little more research it seems the Japanese cook eggs when the spring water is around 70 degrees but it can take up to 40 minutes to get a semi-boiled custardy consistency egg.

The picturesque valley of Jozenkai

Next we walked along the river valley, over a bridge and then along the road to the onsen we wanted to visit. Hoheikyo has a single hot spring which is available for day visitors. The onsen has chill out rooms, a cafe, an Indian restaurant, a Japanese restuarant and baths for men and women. In Japan bathing is done in the nude and therefore sexes are separated. On the day we visited the men had two outdoor baths (rotemburo) while the women had one large outdoor bath. They are swapped every day to keep it interesting. Each side of the fence also had an indoor bath which was a scalding 42 degrees and very steamy. Thanks to the lovingly decorated suroundings the rotemburo were much more appealing so we spwnt most of the time outside. The water contained so much minerals that it had formed an up to 2cm wide lip around the edge of the pools. Before bathing there is a washing area where you sit on a small plastic stool and shower or throw bowls of water over yourself. The women certainly did this very thoroughly, some shaving or exfoliating or scrubbing off most of their skin. Once clean you are ready for a bath. The outdoor baths were all situated in gardens with view of the surrounding hills which was lovely and relaxing. The Japanese all take their wash cloths (tiny modesty towels) into the baths with them and sit with their cloths folded on the top of their heads whilst bathing. We spent around 2 hours bathing in the spring water which is said to cure many illnesses. We spent some time cooling off and relaxing before catching the bus back to Sapporo.

Outdoor bath at Hoheikyo onsen (Copyright: Hoheikyo onsen)

Back in Sapporo with skin as smooth as a babies bottom we went to the entertainment district of Susukino for dinner. Hokkaido is famous for ramen (Japanese noodle soup) with 3 famous ramen cities; Sapporo (miso), Asahikawa (soy sauce) and Hakodate (salt). Thanks to this Sapporo’s ramen alley has been prospering for years. The only diffculty is deciding which of the 15 or so restaurants to eat in. All of the restaurants offered the traditional trio of broths and some had specialisations such as crab, tempura or butter corn. We picked a restuarant with the butter corn ramen and also tasted the miso ramen. The chef spoke a little English and was very friendly. The ramen was super tasty and only 800 yen per bowl. It’s defintely worth a visit to this tiny alley if you are in Sapporo.

Back home we packed up our bags and got ready for our next destination.

The land of the rising sun

The land of the rising sun. That is one of the nicknames for our next destination. When we arrived in Haneda airport in the middle of the night it was anything but. Our friends in Tokyo had arranged some private accommodation for us and since we could hardly wake them up at 1am and public transport had already stopped, we spent this night in the airport. What we did not expect, was that by the time we arrived most benches and seats were already occupied. We walked arround all the floors in the arrivals terminal hunting for some comfy sleeping surfaces, but in the end our only option was two hard wooden benches outside a shop. This sleeping in airport seems to be very popular. Somebody actually made a website about all the options and facilities one can use for spending the night in Haneda (). Using our jackets Zoë managed to get a relatively decent night sleep, while Matthias kept watch over her dreams and our belongings. Unfortunately, there were no windows nearby and so we missed our first sunrise in Japan. 

Our first ‘beds’ in Japan

Public transport resumed operation around 5.30am but we did not leave until later on. Our couchsurfer friends had sent us a lot of information about the Tokyo metro and on how to get to them and the apartment they arranged for us. The Japanese rail system might be very efficient but the Tokyo metro is still confusing. There are at least 15 lines plus some privately run lines that go outside the city. You have to buy separate tickets for private lines or exchange tickets within the stations. Tickets can be bought to a certain stop for a fixed price. Maps above the ticket machines show how much the ride to each stop along the line is. The one thing that allowed us to take on this spider web-like system is the English button on the ticket machines. This made it easy to buy the right tickets. If this didn’t work the staff at the counters spoke good English and were always very helpful.

Subway map of Tokyo

Once on the platform, we found that on most lines (mainly the ones going away from the center) there were 4 types of train: local, semi-express, limited express and express. Local trains stopped at every station but the others only stopped at fewer stops thus shortening travel time. We always had to check which trains actually stopped where we wanted to go.
We arranged to meet our friends for lunch and headed for Shibuya area for breakfast. Near the station were dozens of various eateries but we found most of them closed or just opening and setting up. We found a nice bakery café with good coffee. Next to the station is also Shibuja junction. It’s claim to fame is that up to 1000 people cross it in all directions at the same time. Cafés around it as well as the station have windows from which people can (and do) stop to see the masses cross the roads. It was raining that morning and therefore not quite that many people on the road but it was still a flood of umbrellas everytime the green men lit up.

Shibuja crossing in the rain

Matthias was tired and we were not yet used to the Japanese pronounciation and so we managed to miss our stop and did not realise it until two stops later. To get back to where we came from we jumped onto the first train back which unfortunately happened to be a local one that stopped 10 times instead of twice. In the end we were one hour late to our meeting but luckily our friends were still there.
After dropping our bags in the flat and a quick introduction we went out for lunch. There we had our first bowl of the famous ramen (noodles in broth) plus some other specialities. We spent a long time catching up since we hadn’t seen each other for over a year. 

Japanese love umbrellas – but you can’t take them inside

In the late afternoon we went to Shibuya station for drinks and a stroll through the streets and quirky shops were you can buy second hand kimonos for ¥1000 (£6.70). 

It rained ao much even Ted wanted an umbrella

The next day was meant to be soaking wet and it did not disappoint. Matthias decided to brave the Japanese cuisine and bought natto following a recommendation from our friends. As we were not particularly hungry, we decided not to cook any rice but eat it just with toast. Natto is fermented soy beans and ours came with soy sauce and a japanese mustard. Eventhough it did not contain any cheese, it was similar in consistency (only more slimy), formingvvery long strings which made it difficult to eat. We managed one of the three 50g boxes before giving up and resorting to other toast toppings.

The replica of a metal art work created in the 7th century

Beautiful traditional pottery

Our activity options were fairly limited by the heavy rain, we decided to go and see the Tokyo national museum near Ueno train station. The museum consisted of five buildings holding different themed exhibitions. All of them are very well set up and have English signs. Even with all the downpour outside, the museum was not overly crowded. The best thing about the exhibitions there was that they only had a small number of items on show in each section. Unlike European museums that tend to show 20 paintings for a certain area or period, the national museum had maybe 5 on display but covered more areas of Japanese lifestyle, culture and history. We were particularly impressed by the level of detail in some artworks that dated back as far as the 7th century. It was very interesting to see how this country developed; especially as it was cut off from contact with other countries for hundreds of years. Overall, we both enjoyed this cultural stint a lot and definitely recommend this museum as the one (if you only have time for one) museum where you can learn about Japanese culture and history.

An impressively detailed dragon figure

After a yummy dinner near the station, we headed back home for an early night since we had to go to the airport the next day. This night, after a one month break, typhoon lan (21) hit the island. We watched the weather forecast anxiously. It was expected to arrive in Tokyo early morning, so we expected the worst for our flight north. Very surprisingly though there was no wind and no rain by the time we got up. We had factored in some extra time to get to the airport but it soon emerged that it wasn’t enough. Almost all train lines were delayed or ran a reduced service due to the storm. By the time we finally got to Haneda airport, we had only just over one hour left before departure. Because we could not find any info about our flight or the airline on any sign we turned to the woman at the infomation desk for help. She didn’t know about it either and at this point we discovered that we were on the wrong airport!

Mario Kart exists in real life!

Haneda and Narita airport are on the opposite sides of Tokyo bay and, though linked by multiple transport options, at least 90min apart. Even though it was easy to despair we sat down and immidiately sorted out a solution. We had booked an appartment through Airbnb which could not easily be changed so we tried to fly later the same day but by the time we found cheap flights, getting to the other airport two hours before the next flight was a bit of a risk considering the disruption caused by the typhoon. Evening flights were too late and would have meant arriving in Sapporo with the last express train. With New Chitose airport being located an hour away from Sapporo we didn’t feel like taking that risk and possibly having to spend the night at the airport. We therefore decided ro spend the night in Tokyo and fly the next day. Flights were also cheaper the next day. Zoë was lucky to find a cheap double room in Asakusa world travellers guesthouse near Ueno station from where we had good train connection to the right airport. The room was tiny but we also got a breakfast and free use of the hostel’s jacuzzi which was amazing and really helped us to relax in the evening. The hostel also has a small but nice roof terrace. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Senso-ji (temple) and the gardens which are located about 1.5km from the guesthouse. The surrounding area is full of stalls and small shops where you can by everything: second hand kimonos, chop sticks, steamed dumplings and lots of souvenirs. It was really busy but we enjoyed wondering and looking so much we forgot all about the trouble we had had only a few hours earlier.

A five storey pagoda next to senso-ji temple

Women in their traditional kimonos

That evening we had a mission for dinner: finding a place that served a bowl of ramen for ¥300. That number has been mentioned on quite a few blogs and travel cheaply-websites as the normal rate. We walked around many alleys and along some streets near a train station (where cheap eateries are usually to be found). When we eventually gave up and sat down the cheapest ramen we found cost ¥400 for noodles, vegetables and soup. The most common option (with some vegetable, half an egg and one or two slices of meat) costs on average ¥750. Considering for that price you get a bowl about 20cm in diameter and 5-6cm deep full of filling and yummy food it is still very good value for money. The cheapest place we found was a so-called button restaurant. The name comes from a machine at which customers pay and order their dish by pressing respective button. They then recieve a small ticket which they hand over to the chef at the counter. This type of eatery is normally quite small; ours had about 12 seats. Thankfully the chef came to help us with our selection and cooked us a simple tasty meal.

Udon ramen with seaweed

Back in the hostel we were very excited about getting into the jaquzzi. It was not an onsen (hot spring), but still quite close. Showers came in half height and with a plastic stool to sit on while washing. The water was as hot as we could endure and very relaxing. By the time we came out we needed to go to the roof terrace to cool down.
In the morning we had only 20min between start of breakfast time and having to leave for the airport. We managed it and with a good Japanese breakfast of fish, rice , vegetables and tofu we were on a fast march and our way out of Tokyo (this time through the correct airport).