South of Japan Trip Recap

I’ve returned from gallivanting in the South of Japan and the hard drive of my laptop is just about full of photos. Time to do some editing…

The trip was fantastic and the weather could hardly have been more cooperative (with the exception of a permanently hazy Mt. Fuji). I walked holes into my shoes and blisters onto my feet (which have now turned to callouses – my formerly baby-soft feet now genuinely have the appearance of a wanderer).

I would love to detail every sight of the trip, but any such writing would quickly become frighteningly long. Instead, I’ll share some more general impressions and events from the past couple of weeks.

I started out with an early shinkansen ride to Tokyo where I headed for the Ueno zoo. Ling-Ling the panda and his fellow residents of the zoo provided me with a days worth of photo opportunities in a park packed with locals soaking up the Saturday sunshine. In the late afternoon, I briefly explored more of the Ueno area where I felt my time was severely lacking. I love Tokyo and I’m looking forward to when my sister comes to visit me so that I can see more of it.

My hotel for the evening was located in Asakusa so that gave me a good excuse to spend the evening at Senso-ji – a Tokyo temple famous for the hustle and bustle surrounding it.

Sunday saw me making my way to the Fuji Five Lakes where I hoped to catch a glimpse of one of Japan’s most recognizable landmarks: Mt. Fuji. My prospects looked good when I left Tokyo on the highway bus; the snow-capped peak was clearly visible in the distance.

Approaching Kawaguchi-ko, however, haze had enveloped the mountain and its form was an indistinct blur in the sky. So, I decided to do some walking in the area. Kawaguchi is a cute lakeside town and a couple of temples, cherry-blossom-covered cemetery and a seriously bizarre private zoo greeted my steps. While the sun arced toward the horizon, that great cone giving the area its popularity suggested that it might come out to play. As I reached a suitable spot for taking a few photos, the haze once again shrouded the mountain and my photos lack the clarity I had hoped I might enjoy.

The next morning, Fuji-san drifted in and out of the clouds and I hurriedly bussed to one area I was told would yield a good view of the mountain. After a quick hike up a nearby mountain (whose stature paled in comparison to Fuji’s) I found myself observing a curious meteorological phenomenon: small clouds hovered in front of the peak and eventually drifted towards me and to the left. In their wake, they left more clouds hovering directly in front of the peak.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have all day to wait out the clouds and I descended the mountain to check out the nearby Narusawa ice caves. This brief stop could probably have been skipped – the caves aren’t really that much of an attraction.

So, with a cloudy Fuji toying with me, I decided it was time to start the next leg of my trip and I struck out for Kyoto. Of course, while riding the bus out of Kawaguchi-ko, Fuji taunted me by shooing the clouds from the sky and towering over the landscape. When climbing season rolls around, I think I’ll have to climb that sucker just out of spite…

Kyoto was six days of glorious temple and shrine hopping. I had been warned not to overdose on temples, but I think my temple tolerance level is pretty high. Each one was unique and would pose its own set of photographic challenges, so I was happy to bounce from one lovely, old Japanese building to the next. Rather than list off each of the locations I visited, I’ll let my photos do the talking in this case.

With Kyoto having turned my feet into chum, I headed for the relative peace of Koya San where my accommodation was a Buddhist temple. Finally, I was going to get the chance to sample some traditional Japanese vegetarian food – the stuff they used to eat before the dominant sect of Japanese Buddhism went all flaky and allowed for the consumption of meat. The multi-part meals had some parts better than others and made for a fun glimpse into the culture.

Among other sights on Koya San was one of the most fantastic cemeteries I have ever seen. In fact, I think it ranks a close second to the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Okuno-in’s extensive grounds were rainy the evening I spent there, but that set the mood quite nicely. Huge cedar trees surrounded enormous and varied tombs fighting a never-ending battle with the forest’s moss.

The next morning, the rain eventually abated, first yielding to atmospheric mist, then to pristine blue sky. Having wandering in the cemetery for the morning, I changed gears from traditional Japan into modern Japan and boarded the train for Osaka.

My hotel there was in the worst neighbourhood I have yet seen in Japan, but that doesn’t say much. The worst neighbourhood in Japan is still a lot better than the best neighbourhood in some places I’ve visited. Scores of homeless folks wandered the streets near my hotel, but I later saw them at their best in the park near Osaka-jo: Their limited resources somehow manage to pool together enough resources to have a karaoke session of old-time Japanese ditties under the trees. So, they seem to be getting along okay.

I spent that afternoon at the Osaka Aquarium marveling at the whale shark gracefully meandering through the world’s largest tank. He was definitely the highlight of the visit, but other notable sea creatures included a sun fish, a manta ray, the biggest sea otters I have ever seen and a few flocks of jellyfish.

Osaka acted as a base to explore a couple of nearby sights. First on the list was Nara. Nara is home to hundreds of semi-domesticated deer and the world’s largest wooden building featuring one of the world’s largest bronze figures: a meditative Buddha who would crush hundreds if it ever toppled thus hurtling the religion’s doctrine of compassion into a paradox…

On this day, a ceremony involving what appeared to be some rather high ranking religious officials crowded the area immediately in front of the daibutsu, but the building still afforded great views of the statue.

The whole area was packed with people on enjoying one of their Golden Week vacation days – this made for some good people watching and eventually, some very satisfied deer. By the afternoon, the deer cakes (biscuits sold by various vendors meant as food for the local fauna) that were once inspiring the ungulates to chase down the bearers of these treats were being rejected. Disappointed children kept shoving crackers into deer faces only to have them fall to the hooves of the disinterested animal.

I suspect it was this large number of people and animals mixing that lead to a few good buttings later in the day. I saw one deer with goat-like horns attempt to use them to gore a ten-year old boy who had penetrated the deer’s comfort zone. The kid got away completely unscathed and didn’t even cry after the deer had pushed him back a few feet with its head. He just looked stunned and returned to his father’s side.

The other child I saw get hit was less fortunate. Saying I saw it, however, is a bit inaccurate – I heard it. I was shooting photos of some distant deer when the sound of a spectacular collision filled the forest. About 30 feet to my left, a deer hovered over a now crumpled mass of a child who started bawling once the air had returned to his lungs. The boy’s father rushed him away from the irked animal, but not before a fear of ungulates imprinted itself in this kids mind.

I would advise anyone going to the area to keep a short leash on their kids while interacting with the wildlife. While these critters are extremely habituated to human presence, they’re still wild animals and their behaviour can be unpredictable. You never know when one is going to think it sees a target on your butt.

The next day I struck out from Osaka once more to visit Himeji and Japan’s most-famous castle, Himeji-jo. I certainly enjoyed this well-preserved fortress, but I think I must be partial to European castles – Himeji castle just didn’t overwhelm me like it perhaps should have. That didn’t stop me from spending a good part of the day there though.

On my return, I explored Osaka and found myself on top of the ultra-modern Umeda sky building for sunset. Good views of Osaka kept me out in the open air before wandering through Amerika-mura and the neon glow of downtown Osaka.

I had some time on the following morning to see a little more of Osaka, so I decided to check out Osaka-jo, the city’s castle. The experience was rather different from the pervious day’s trip to Himeji-jo. Himeji castle was completely persevered in its original state. This was most noticeable inside the castle – visitors are able to see the original wood and plaster in which the feudal lords once lived.

In Osaka-jo, however, the castle is now a concrete museum. It was rebuilt in 1931 and refurbished in 1997. It’s full of modern displays of artwork, artifacts and history. The castle still makes for an interesting visit, but a decidedly different atmosphere resides inside Himeji-jo’s original walls.

The best part of the visit to Osaka castle, however, was the group of samurai milling about at its base. Characters of all ages were dressed din authentic samurai gear and spent a good portion of their time blowing through conch shells. Ever more warriors seemed to answer their call and by the time I left, a couple dozen armor-clad anachronisms were guarding the area beneath Osaka-jo’s main tower.

Hiroshima was next on my itinerary. I didn’t expect a busy day of shooting photos, but when I arrived, I soon discovered that the Flower Festival was in full swing and I wouldn’t be having the peaceful night I had expected. The main boulevard leading to the Peace Park was closed to traffic and crammed full of people wandering from vendor to vendor, stage to stage, performance to performance. Marching bands, traditional dancers, orators, baton twirlers, cheerleaders, singers, etc. all kept the throngs busy.

The Peace Park was also host to festivities. A giant pyramid of potted flowers topped by a torch beckoned all passers by and the dim evening light was soon outshined by thousands of candles lit in the name of peace and spread out on tables leading through the Peace Park.

The candles made for quite a sight in the park and brought home just how much the residents of this city are still tied to its past. The latter point was re-enforced the next day when I visited the Peace Memorial Museum. A comprehensive history teaches visitors about each detail of the attack on Hiroshima. Needless to say, it’s a moving display and a necessary stop for anyone who makes their way to Hiroshima.

That afternoon, I boarded the ferry to Miya-jima, an island just off the coast whose fame lies in possessing one of Japan’s “Three Greatest Views.” Let’s just put it this way: the Japanese like lists. Miya-jima’s spectacular sight is the floating torii gate that rises out of the ocean and into the sky. This huge red gate is the scene of endless postcards and is indeed a magical sight.

I was greeted by intermittent rain, but not so much that I couldn’t enjoy my evening walking by the ocean and dodging the deer (yes, Miya-jima is host to another group of people-habituated deer).

The morning brought grey skies which soon turned to clear blue and I meandered through the ocean-side shrine of Itsukushima-jinja. The tide was in and made the whole structure feel like it was an island to itself.

As the sun broke through, the tide waned and the clam diggers materialized. Dozens of rubber-boot-clad locals descended on the now-exposed stretches of beach and began digging holes and sifting through the exposed sand to reveal crustaceans a plenty. Tourists flocked to the nearby torii or had lunch on the sea wall while fleeing from hungry deer. I walked through the hills and found a lovely temple (Daiso-in), some waterfalls and more deer.

I spent a quiet evening in Hiroshima in preparation for my early shinkansen trip the next morning. I headed to Tokyo as soon as my body could be roused from slumber and quickly made my way to the Kokugikan Sumo stadium.

What I would have given to have a press pass at this event. My seats were in the first row of the balcony and were fine enough spots to take in the action. But, never content with fine enough, I slipped down to the floor level and found myself a nice spot only a couple rows back from the ring. I suspect this was a common practice, since most of my neighbours didn’t look like they belonged there either.

This was the first day of competition and thus the celebrations and pageantry were plentiful later in the day. But, early on, fighting was the only thing on anyone’s mind. The salt-tossing and thigh-slapping were kept to a minimum and every rookie fighter just got in the ring to try to knock down the other guy. It made for some good fun. These gents were not quite as behemoth as the later wrestlers, but just as fierce.

When the lights rose signaling the beginning of the television broadcast, I was, unfortunately, ushered out of my posh seat and forced to re-assume my position high above the ring. I snapped away at a distance for a while then realized there spots at the pack of the lfoor level, so I started wandering down there once again while the larger, more adept fighters battled each other.

My last act before heading home was to partake in the uniquely Japanese tradition of omiyage. I found some great little chocolates in the shape of sumo wrestlers that won me some favour back at the office. Everyone thought they were a great little gift. It was my plan all along to get sumo omiyage both for the novelty of it and for the fact that I wouldn’t have to carry it throughout my trip. It’s all about the planning…

I caught one of the last bullet-trains home and lamented the end of my trip. Wandering with my camera is the life for me and Ichinoseki just isn’t as exciting as say, Kyoto. But, you make the best of what you have. It was, however, great to come home to see my friends and to get some much-needed rest.

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