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.

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. 

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.


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.

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.  


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.

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. 

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.