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Monday 18 April - Arrival in Tokyo

Landed at Narita at 9:30. I had a good feeling about Japan when I got to immigration; the way the assistant was hurriedly ushering us to the desks made me smile. I took the train to Bakurocho station, my cabin-bed hostel, was just around the corner. In the afternoon, travelled two stops on the metro to Asakusa to visit Senso-ji temple. It was quite a shock, coming from London straight to this. Around the main temple were gardens, shrines and a five story pagoda. A large incense cauldron was popular with many of the Japanese tourists. That evening, took the train to Shinjuku to get a sample of Tokyo’s energy. Walked through ‘Electric Street’ and went to see the Hanazono-jinka shrine.

Tuesday 19 April - Osaka

In the morning took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo station to Osaka. It was mid afternoon before I had settled in the apartment. The guy who organises the apartment kindly offered to show me around. The observatory at the newly built NHK (state TV) building was closed but we had a coffee there and in the evening went to the Umeda Sky Building. The observatory there offered stunning views of Osaka’s nightscape. It reminded me of something out of Blade Runner.

Wednesday 20 April – Osaka

I was told about the cherry blossom tunnel at the Japan mint. Today was the last day and it was heaving with hundreds of visitors. After that, went to Osaka castle nearby. I walked around the grounds before going to the very impressive aquarium on the west side of town. That evening headed to Dotombori to see the night light up from the popular view point on the Ebisu-bashi bridge. Hidden in one of the alleys was Hozen-ji shrine with its moss covered statues. Worshippers come to burn incense, throw coins into the box, before collecting water with the ladles and throwing it on the statues. Headed back to Awaza for dinner at a local place near my apartment.

Thursday 21 April - Osaka

It was a nice morning so decided to head back to the gardens of Osaka castle. This time I went to the cherry blossom garden. People laid out under the trees relaxing or having a picnic. A man in his sixties, sitting with two elderly ladies invited me to join them for wine and cakes and we had a good long chat. Afterwards, decided to go to Sumiyoshi temples, which had been recommended to me. It was a few stops away on the train and it was very peaceful and beautiful. Before the temple complex was pond, crossed by a large arched bridge and many stone lanterns. The style of the temple predates Chinese influence and is quite rare. That evening I headed back to the Umeda Sky Building to catch the sunset. After that looked for a place to eat in the Umeda area. I decided I had to have sushi and I eventually found the place that had been recommended in my guide book. I sat at the counter watching the chef delicately prepare the fish, as a live octopus lay in a tank nearby. While I ate, the person sat next to me kindly offered me samples of his food, which on my other side a elderly mat sat, the fish on his plate so fresh it was still moving.

Friday 22 April - Koyasan

Took the train to Namba station from where I took the train to the mountain town of Koyasan. The last part of the journey was a cable car up the steep forested mountain side. Took the bus into town and went to the tourist information office where I arranged my temple lodging at a place near the cemetery. It was a traditional Japanese style room with tatami mats on the floor, sliding doors and a futon. The room overlooked the Japanese garden. In the afternoon walked to the Danjo Garan temple complex, dominated by the imposing Konpon Daito pagoda. Around it was the main temple as well as other smaller temples and depositories etc. Walk back along the main street to Okanoin cemetery on the east side of town. It’s fascinating and atmospheric (and a little creepy) with its moss covered gravestones and deities, set amongst giant cedars. A lot of the stonework had been damaged by earthquakes and lay broken where it fell. It all added to the mood. 200,000 people are said to be buried here. At the far side was Kukai’s Mausoleum where he is still believed to be alive, deep in meditation. That evening there was a ceremony at Danjo Garan. Hundreds of lanterns had been lit, and monks could be heard chanting from within the temples.

Saturday 23 April - Koyasan

Woke for morning ceremony at 6am. The main hall was very atmospheric, the smell of insense heavy in the air, the two monks chanting, at times in unison, striking the gong at specific times. It was quite an awesome experience to be there. It lasted 45 minutes, after which the tourists were invited to pray at the front. Later that morning went to the main headquarter temple, Kongobu-ji. Inside were rooms with painted sliding doors, some of which with gold leaf. Outside was a large rock garden on carefully raked gravel beds. As I was taking pictures a Japanese man approached me and offered to take me around. Motioning me to keep quiet, he took me to the room where the Emperor slept and ate. He then led me to a room where about a dozen Japanese people, the women in tradition dress, were sitting on the floor having tea and cakes. I was invited to join, and I was required to perform the necessary rituals while drinking and eating. It was very interesting, though it did feel a bit surreal! Left Koyasan late that afternoon and headed to my next destination, Kyoto. After checking into IchiEnSou guest house, went across the road to a noodle place. Despite not speaking very much English the staff were extremely warm and friendly, and the food was great too!

Sunday 24 April - Kyoto

The guest house was in Ghion, one of the four geisha districts. The streets in the area are really beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen. Wooden fronted buildings, red lanterns, intricately detailed metal roof tiles and immaculate and smooth paving. There is lots to see in Kyoto and it needs careful planning. I decided to go to the area around Kyoto station today. On my way I saw a pleasant scene; an elderly man on his lunch break, sitting under cherry blossoms reading a newspaper. I visited Shosei-en gardens before Higoshi Hongan-ji, a huge temple where an important talk was going on in front of hundreds of people. The whole temple was being renovated and there was access up to roof level giving visitors a rare chance to see the structure close up. Later, went to Hishi Hongan-ji where there were three temples. It was much quieter here and I was surprised when I was able to open the sliding screen doors and have the temple to myself. Next I walked to To-ji, a huge five story pagoda set in beautiful gardens. I also wanted to take a look at the futuristic Kyoto station building which was supposed to be interesting. That evening a bunch of us from the guest house went out for dinner and drinks. Pig’s ear was one of the more interesting items we ordered.

Monday 25 April – Kyoto

Saw what I thought was a geisha this morning, moving quickly but elegantly across a deserted street in Ghion. I later learned that, as she was wearing the wooden shoes, she may have been a maiko (apprentice geisha). Headed to Shinbashi, a pretty tree-lined street said to be one of Asia’s finest. I continued south to the start point of a walking tour recommended in my guide book. It led me towards Kiyomizu-dera temple, on a forested area on a hill overlooking the city. Wondered slowly to Kodai-ji where I spun the prayer wheels, before passing through Chion-in, a large temple up a long wide flight of steps with a huge gate. I had now seen plenty of temples and for a change decided to go to the bamboo forest at Arashiyama. It wasn’t a huge forest, and you were prevented from going into it by straw fences along a wide tarmac path, but the trees were huge, and creaked loudly overhead as they swayed in the wind. That evening I went back to the same noodle bar and this time tried Okonmiyaki, a Hiroshima style pancake made from cabbage, noodles and bacon. The guys had someone take a Polaroid photo of us which they kindly gave to me as a present.

Tuesday 26 April - Kyoto

Took the train to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. Here, there was a 4km trail up the hill lined entirely with hundreds, if not thousands, of these red torri (shrine gates) which were common throughout Japan. It was an incredible site. In the afternoon, went to Nijo castle. Someone I met at the guest house told me it was unmissable and I’m glad I went. The highlight was the paintings on the screen doors inside the castle. Birds, trees, tigers painted on a bold gold background, they were incredibly well preserved and looked stunning surrounded by thick oak frames. Some of the rooms contained models of the shogun and his staff. The ‘hummingbird’ floors squeaked as you walked on them – designed to warn residents of the castle of intruders. After the castle, took the train across to Niege, near the starting point of the walk along the ‘philosopher’s path’. It was a pleasant tree-lined path along the city’s old canal. There were many temples on route, but the main one, at the top, was Ginkaku-ji. The main attraction of this temple was the garden where the gravel had been shaped into lines and curves, and also a huge flat-topped cone. It was so perfect, there was not one grain out of place. From the top of the gardens there were nice views of the city below. It was my last evening in Kyoto, so I went for a last walk in the streets in Ghion. Later, a group of us went to a local place for dinner.

Wednesday 27 April – Nara

I had hoped a half day in Nara would be enough. I took the subway to Kyoto station, where I dumped my bags and got the train to Nara, 45 minutes away. Nara park was full of deer, they were even in the streets, looking to be fed. First stop was Daibutsu hall, the largest wooden building in the world. This housed the Great Buddha, one of the largest bronze figures in the world. Beyond this, I climbed up to Nigatsu-do halls which offered nice views of Nara. Next I went to Kusuga Taisha shrine. It was a nice setting in the forest, and this one had hundreds of stone lanterns either side of the path leading up to the entrances. On my way back passed a five story pagoda, then a three story one before heading back to Kyoto. From there I caught a shinkansen back to Tokyo, and back to the same hostel that I stayed at on my first night.

Thursday 28 April – Nikko National Park

Did I really want to see more temples? I wasn’t sure. But when I arrived at Nikko and saw the intricately decorated red and gold temples surrounded by beautiful forest I was glad I came. These temples are far nicer than any of those I had seen in Kyoto and Nara. My first stop was Rinno-ji temple which contains three large wooden Buddhas (the largest in Japan), before passing through a large stone torri to Toshogu, and nearby the large five story pagoda. Moss-covered stone lanterns lined the forest paths. Many of the temple interiors had golden decorations and paintings of dragons within squares on the ceilings. In Honjido, monks demonstrated the acoustic properties of the hall by clapping sticks together. It had been a worthwhile experience. At 4pm I took the slow train back to Tokyo. Went to my favourite restaurant under the bridge near Asakusabashi and ordered ‘ramen with spicy dipping miso’.

Friday 29 April – Mt Fuji

Took the bus from Shinjuku to Kawaguchiko. It was Golden Week, which meant that many people were on holiday and heading for the lakes, and there was also an ultra marathon going on that weekend. As a result the bus took four hours instead of two, but I arrived there in time to see the mountain before it got dark. When I first saw it from the bus I was awed. It looks so much bigger and imposing in real life. After checking in to K’s House hostel, I walked across the bridge to the north shore of lake Kawaguchiko. The view of the mountain and its reflection in the lake were stunning. The path was lined with purple and white flowers on one side and cherry blossoms on the other. For dinner I went to a hoto restaurant (hoto is a broad, thick flat noodle) which was a large place but traditional in the sense that you sat on the floor. The floor was raised though, and there was an area you could drop your legs into under the table, so it wasn’t uncomfortable for westerners who aren’t used to sitting like that. Kawaguchiko is a small town and it has the feel of one. It reminded me of some of those in the US that spring up in the middle of deserts. Back to the hostel and to the bar where we watched a bit of the royal wedding.

Saturday 30 April – Mt Fuji

It was a 45 minute walk to the north shore of the lake so I had rented a bike. Woke at 2am when one of the ultra marathon runners rose and I couldn’t get back to sleep. So at 3am I headed out to the shore of the lake and got into position for photographing the mountain. It was pitch black when I arrived. I watched and photographed as Mt Fuji slowly came into view, then changed colour as the sun rose and fishermen began to appear. I went back to the hostel, passing the runners who had already started their marathon. Later that morning I headed back out on what turn out to be an epic bike ride. I rode along the north shore of Kawaguchiko and this time continued westwards towards lake Saiko. It was less interesting in these parts. It was also hot, windy and at times steep, so it was hard work. By early afternoon Fuji had been hidden shrouded behind the clouds. I had heard about Aokigahara forest, which was infamous as a place where people go to commit suicide. Anyway, it was a nice forest and I had a pleasant walk through it before emerging near the lava cave. It was a small cave with ice formations, not really worth a visit. It was all downhill from there and I reached the hostel at 4pm. Just enough time to go to the cable car. Although Mt Fuji was hidden, there were good views of the lake and town below. The a visit to the onsen (hot baths) around the corner from the hostel. It was just what I needed after a tough day’s cycling and all the walking I’d done the last two weeks. For dinner, the hostel staff recommended a noodle restaurant, Akai, off the main road. It was at the end of a dark street and looked more like a small bar. I sat at the counter, the chef didn’t speak much English and he started cooking my meal without asking what I wanted. It was one of the best meals of the trip, and it was so good I ordered another.

Sunday 1 May - Tokyo

The bus arrived back in Tokyo at around 2:45, and then back to the hostel for the third and final time. The Imperial Palace Gardens sounded nice so I decided to go there, and had half an hour before it closed. That evening, took the train to Rappongi. There was an observatory there above the large shopping complex, however, the weather was bad and I didn’t think it would be worth the effort. Back to Asakusa and to my favourite noodle restaurant for my last meal.

Japan Highlights

• View of Osaka at night from the Umeda Sky Building
• Staying at a temple at Koyasan
• Temples of Nikko national park
• Mt Fuji and the north shore of lake Kawaguchiko

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