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 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!
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 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.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of making a short visit to Shanghai. It was a busy trip so my best photographs are from the plane. There was also an evening river cruise which allowed me to experience the city’s stunning modern skyline, as well as its historical European-style buildings.
During our trip to Sydney last August, I had the chance to enjoy a very special birthday present from my family—a scenic helicopter tour of the city. I have strong memories of how awesomely spectacular the harbour is from upon high as a result of climbing the Harbour Bridge in 2005, despite having no photographs. That tour does not allow you to take any unattached item that could fall onto the highway below, so cameras were forbidden—even hats and glasses had to be attached by bungee cord. This helicopter ride was considerably more comfortable, and required less physical effort.
Our pilot was a friendly and chatty guide. Our knowledge of the city and its surroundings gleaned from multiple visits to Sydney, exploring by ferry and bus previously, and this trip by car, made the tour that much more exciting when we spotted our favourite haunts. The harbour and its beaches have outstanding natural beauty, and the way the city flows across the landscape is an impressive spectacle.
Modern cameras thankfully allow almost unlimited shots since there was a lot of interesting viewpoints to capture. Taking photographs was challenged by the curvature of the window, the motion, and the bright Australian conditions, so a great deal of editing work has been done since the trip and it is a pleasure to finally be able to publish these. (Click “Read More” if you do not see the photographs.)
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.
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.
We took off from a hot, parched, brown London, and arrived in a wet and green Perth. It had rained every day for at least a week before we arrived, and was forecast to continue raining but somehow, luckily, we enjoyed a fine two days of Australian spring weather (~22ºC), before the rain returned on the morning we left.
Cottesloe beach is a miles-long thin strip of brilliant white sand, backed by some brilliant playgrounds and plentiful ice-cream and coffee. In the evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset as we walked along the seafront to our dinner.
After an amazing trip to Taronga Zoo on our last visit to Sydney I was a little unsure about returning this time in case the magic failed to repeat itself. What I had forgotten is that, (a) the children love animals and (b) they are 4 years older and thus were engaged in completely different ways to before. As a result, it was a fantastic outing for all, and likely one of the highlights of the holiday. Fewer photographs of animals this time as keeping up with excited, enthusiastic children (and later, carrying very tired children) took all my time!
I chose a window seat for my first plane trip in over two years and I was not disappointed. After taking off from Heathrow we turned to the east and traced the route of the Thames to the sea. The summer weather meant there were crystal clear views of the green and pleasant land south of London, bisected by the M25!
After flying over Kent, the picturesque coast of France came into view, along with the busy shipping lane that is the English Channel–I had forgotten just how captivating it can be to study the earth below—no reading book or other entertainment was needed for the first thirty or so minutes of the flight. A few hours later I saw some astonishing cloud formations over Germany, and then at the end of the journey I was treated to my first views of Tokyo.
It was a cold winter evening, but we were sustained by a delicious sausage and apple pie and gravy from the foodhall, plus a very decent coffee. These photographs were all captured handheld using the default settings on an iPhone 12.
Back in August, in the time Before Second Wave, we enjoyed a grand day out riding a steam train at the Dean Forest Railway in Gloucestershire. It is a really lovely experience, especially for little ones, and I hope they will be able to survive the pandemic.