Kōrakuen Garden in Okayama

Okayama is a small city on the Shinkansen line between Himeji and Hiroshima. We first visited 11 years ago following the Rough Guide’s recommendation to use it as a base for visiting off-the-beaten track gems such as Takamatsu. Himeji is under 25 minutes away by train—an easy day trip—and its good value business hotels make it a better overnight stop for the sort of Rough Guide/Lonely Planet-reading budget conscious travellers we are. At the time it struck us as being a welcome opportunity to experience a more “real” Japan than the glitz of Tokyo and the foreigner-friendly tourist attractions.

Returning for the first time 11 years later, it was still as lovely as before but decidedly more aware of its potential as a tourist destination in its own right. It is the main gateway to the new and popular island-hopping bicycle tours and its Kōrakuen Garden is one of the great gardens of Japan and definitely worth a visit. It provided us with several hours of happy and peaceful diversion and, in contrast to Himeji Castle, there are multiple cafés and tearooms inside to keep you refreshed while you explore. Leaving the garden towards the castle there are some casual riverside restaurants with lovely views over the river. Okayama Castle’s commanding position completes the vista but is a modern concrete reconstruction following the original’s destruction in World War 2 so we did not venture inside.

Himeji Castle

Himeji is the most famous of Japan’s 12 original castles, and a popular stopover on the tourist route from Tokyo to Hiroshima. During our previous trip to Japan it was part-way through a five year programme of renovation and preservation so this was our first opportunity to fully appreciate its majestic beauty.

In addition to surviving wars and earthquakes, the castle’s domineering position on the skyline has been sympathetically preserved. Visitors arriving by train are left in no doubt as to why they should leave the train here with a grand vista from the Shinkansen platform. Reaching the castle is a 20 minute walk from the train station, not easy going in the July heat, but there are a good selection of ice-cream shops and bakeries to sustain you. No food or drink (other than water) is allowed to be consumed inside the ticketed part of the castle grounds, so it is important to time your visit around meal times.

The castle grounds are interesting to explore, and the West Bailey has informative displays about some of the former inhabitants, and how they lived. The main keep is unfortunately a little anti-climatic after such a grand build up. The upper floors of the keep are nearly empty so it becomes mostly about climbing flight-after-flight of very steep steps until you reach the top, where you can enjoy fresh breezes from the windows and the view out over Himeji city, except that Himeji is not the most pretty or interesting of cities to look at—you are already inside its best bit!

Hiroshima and Miyajima

Our previous visit to Hiroshima in 2012 was a single rainy day so we saw no more than the inside of the moving and informative Peace Museum. On that occasion we stayed overnight on the island of Miyajima but the packed nature of the itinerary left no time to linger in this calm and picturesque spot.

On this trip we had much more time to explore both Hiroshima and Miyajima, and were also blessed by some beautiful weather. Upon arrival at Hiroshima’s station by 300km/h Nozomi Shinkansen, there was both a feeling of comforting familiarity, but also a noticeably different atmosphere compared to Tokyo, for example the wider streets and shorter buildings means you see more sky.

Miyajima is a small island, a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland. It is famed for the large torri gate on the beach, which marks the entrance to a substantial shrine complex that appears to float on the water at high tide. Aforementioned high tide was a little too early in the morning for our family of late sleepers in holiday mode, but it is still an impressive sight. The port area felt buzzy rather than busy (except when we crossed paths with a party of school children) but the enormous number of eateries made me glad we had come on a weekday rather than a weekend! I did also wonder, as it got progressively quieter throughout the afternoon, if there had been a big influx of people earlier in the morning for the high tide view and we were enjoying a more peaceful visit as a result of missing the set piece event.

Hakone: A volcanic break from Tokyo

Hakone is a pretty mountain town just 90 minutes on a train from Tokyo, making it an ideal weekend getaway destination for the denizens of this mega-city. There are numerous onsen resorts (naturally heated hot springs), powered by the volcanic activity, and a cable car that takes you right over the volcano crater from where they extract the hot water and then pump it around the region! The views at the top of the cable car are impressive, and we paid ¥100 to go into a little geo museum which was fantastic and very child-friendly.

Sadly, while on a clear day, there are opportunities to see Mount Fuji from the cable car and also from Lake Ashi, on the day we visited it was blanketed by a thick cloud.

Cherry Blossom in Tokyo

Japan is famous for its spring cherry blossom, although seasonal variation and its popularity make it difficult to see as a tourist. I think visiting as a tourist would also run the risk of being underwhelming. What makes the sakura special is way it completely transforms and dominates the urban landscape. Run-of-the-mill parks and canals, deprived by winter of any colour, are suddenly a riotous shade of pink and white. A few weeks later, the palette is a normal green. What was also unclear to me prior to experiencing it, is that sakura is a seasonal festival, not just a natural phenomenon. Shops and cafés produce seasonal specialities, and viewing the sakura is an excuse to get out of the house and enjoy some tasty street food with friends and family, perhaps washed down with sparkling wine and strawberries.

Like most parts of the world, spring is an unreliable season in Japan. The best days are comparable to fine English summer’s day, the worst are wet like the other type of English summer’s day. (It is unsurprising to me that strawberries are also in season in Japan at the moment.) Some fine weather in early March led to an early blossom, but this was then followed by two weeks of wind and rain, and some were predicting that the petals might be blown and washed away before there was a proper chance to enjoy it. However the day before we left for Hokkaido we were blessed with a perfect day of warm sunshine and we headed to the near-by area of Nakameguro which is reputed to be one of the best spots for enjoying the blossom.

Arriving mid-morning there was already a buzzy atmosphere. While it is a popular spot, everyone is here for for the same thing—a relaxed promenade, while eating, drinking and taking photographs—it was still very pleasant. Somehow the number of people enhanced the experience rather than detracted from it—sakura is something better enjoyed with others, not alone.

Skiing in Niseko (Hokkaido) in April

Having been regaled with many tales of glorious skiing in Hokkaido (both before and since our arrival in Japan), we were keen to experience it for ourselves at the first opportunity. School broke up for the Easter holiday on 31st March when many of the resorts are already closing down, but at the beginning of March the snowfall had been good enough that Grand Hirafu in the Niseko area expected to be operating through to the Japanese Golden Week holiday in early May and so we took the gamble and booked a trip.

It was a good decision. The flight north to Sapporo was an easy 90 minutes, made more comfortable by it being a wide-bodied aircraft with 9 seats across. Collecting a hire car was also straightforward, in the sort of we have a process, and that process has been designed to cope with foreigners way that probably becomes frustrating when you have been here a while, but for which I am still new enough to the country to be grateful for. The car turned out to be essential, both because the cheap transfers from New Chitose Airport are winter-only, as well as to get between the four different ski areas (Hirafu, Annupuri, Niseko Village and Hanazono). During the main season there are high altitude ski links as well as a shuttle bus between the areas, but both had finished for the season. Luckily our car was upgraded to an SUV which allowed our rental skis to fit in too. It is worth noting that only Hirafu is a proper village with independent restaurants and shops, the others are just ski areas with few other services. In particular Niseko Village is confusingly not a village at all: it is just a collection of car parks to allow access to the lifts, and a large Hilton hotel!

Our first day on the slopes was a perfect blend of skiing through soft snow in warm sunny conditions: I had been worried that the start of spring would mean skiing on slushy-ice but actually the volume of snow here means that even when it gets a bit warmer, the snow gets denser and claggier, so it is like skiing through buttercream not ice-skating. There are a reduced number of runs available as the snow recedes in certain areas, especially lower down, but the slopes are also practically empty, so it has proven a great opportunity to have a relaxing few days of enjoying the tremendous scenery in the sunshine, exploring the different ski areas and practising techniques.

On and off the slopes, it feels like we have travelled to a different country, not just a different island within Japan! French ski resorts are busy, bustling, places squeezing as many people and buildings into whatever space the geography permits—not unlike Tokyo—but here the village has a car-centric, low-density, feel. The large number of international visitors also means that café and restaurant staff all speak excellent English, contributing to the feeling of this being an easy and relaxing holiday. The two Australian-style cafés in Hirafu village has also given us a chance to enjoy a wider variety of western-style food (and coffee!) than we have found in Tokyo—a welcome taste of home after two months away.

Exploring Tokyo: Omotesandō

Omotesandō is a boulevard of high-end luxury fashion shops running through the Harajuku area of Tokyo. It is possibly the highest concentration of such shops, and the busiest area of this type, I have ever seen—although that may be related to its function as a transport artery rather than the retail establishments!

I would describe Omotesandō itself as of fairly niche interest but the grid of narrow streets which lead from it are full of surprising and delightful gems—the sort of area where turning a block too early is not a mistake but a voyage of discovery. Even the most unpromising street invariably yields tiny designer boutiques, art galleries and specialist cafés such as Higuma Doughnuts or the stationery-themed, cocktail serving, Bunbougu Café.

There is an abundance of good coffee too. Bread, Espresso & serves a latte that is almost short enough to be a flat white. The drip coffee of the day at the aforementioned Higuma Doughtnuts was excellent, and LATTEST Espresso Bar was a laptop-friendly hangout that, according to their website, aims to have the world’s best female baristas.

Despite there being so much fine choice, the small size of the establishments means that every eatery seems to be busy all the time. Large queues forming at peak times on sunny weekends is perhaps expected, but we had to wait for a table for breakfast at Bread, Espresso & even at 9am on an unremarkable Tuesday. Plan ahead if you intend to visit!

Sunday in Akihabara

Another fun day of exploring Tokyo, including the incredible 7 floors of techno-heaven that is the Yodobashi Camera store. Closing the main road to traffic during the day made for a great atmosphere, and produced the opportunity for a rare panoramic photograph.

A Sunday in Tokyo

Compared to the staid and professional financial district of Otemachi where I had spent much of the week, Shibuya on a Sunday afternoon was a fizzing hive of youthful energy and activity.

Arriving at Shibuya via the efficient metro system, I first attempted to photograph the famous crossing, with (initially) limited success. I had read there was a Starbucks overlooking the crossing, although it is actually part of a multi-storey record store with a vast inventory of CDs and vinyl records, the like of which I thought been consigned to history. As promised, there was bar seating next to the huge windows although every seat was full, not of the gawping tourists that I aspired to be, but mostly students, either alone with laptops or chatting with a friend. There was also a huge queue for a coffee so I left and instead enjoyed a very good pasta lunch at a window table in Café L’Occitane just around the corner while capturing a time-lapse video of the crossing.

After exploring some uniquely Japanese shops such as Tokyu Hands and Mega Don Quijote, I walked into an adjacent area and enjoyed a coffee break at Lonely Planet recommended Fuglen. This may be a Norwegian coffee chain by origin but the coffee was good, and clearly adopted as the neighbourhood hangout by the locals.

After dinner, another Lonely Planet recommendation allowed me to capture some sunset photos of Shibuya from the 9th floor of a nearby arts centre/theatre building. The final photo of the three below was captured near the more serene Imperial Palace.

Final photographs from Japan

A final collection of photographs from our trip to Japan. We are positioned ourselves on the right side of the train to see Mount Fuji for our trip from Osaka to Tokyo but sadly it was too cloudy. I have included some photographs of the view from the train window because I think it gives a nice impression of what you see when travelling on the Shinkansen. I also managed to get one photo of Mount Fuji from the plane window as we took off for London. Would love to go back one day.

Hiroshima, Miya Jima, Nara and Koyasan

After a week of warm and sunny weather, our weather luck ran out and our one day in Hiroshima was in torrential rain. That evening we stayed in a wonderful Ryokan (traditional guest house) on the island of Miya Jima and the weather had cleared by the next morning so we enjoyed a pre-breakfast walk around the temple before the first tourist ferry arrived from the mainland. Sadly we caught up with the cold front in Nara but the weather improved again by the time we reached the Buddhist mountain retreat of Koyasan, centre of the Shingon Buddhism. At the higher altitude the Autumn colours were already beginning to show, and it was possible to see a glimpse of how impressive the Autumn leaf colour would be.

Retrospective of our day in Tomonoura

During our trip to Japan in 2012, we took a day trip to the historic port town of Tomonoura in the Hiroshima Prefecture. I do not remember why I did not blog about it at the time but it proved quite photogenic so I thought I should write something to provide context for the photographs.

The town is on the side of a hill, the upper part provides some lovely sea vistas, and we enjoyed the bonus of some beautiful sea eagles soaring on the warm thermals. At sea level the town has picturesque traditional wooden buildings and quaint narrow streets. Lunch was in a friendly water-side café that served up large portions of satisfying seafood pasta and in the afternoon we took the five minute ferry ride to the island of Sensui Jima. This is undeveloped (except for two hotels) and offered more superlative sea views in return for some light hiking.

Reaching Tomonoura was probably our biggest adventure on Japanese public transport since it required taking a local bus from Fukuyama station. Tomonoura is mentioned in the guide books but it is certainly not on the “standard” tour for Westerners and that made it all the more pleasurable a day. Yet again the people were incredibly friendly, from the bus driver who talked to us about scotch and the Olympics, to the café waiter who translated the Japanese language-only menu and made sure Rosie’s pasta was dairy free.