A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Totori Sandunes and Matsue

For our final big road trip in Japan I really wanted to go and visit the small town of Matsue in Totori Prefecture, as it has a lot of connections with one of my favourite literary and cultural figures from Japanese history. Also, driving there would allow us to stop off at the famous Totori sand dunes!

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So, these are the Totori dunes, the place where the Tatooine scenes in Star Wars would have been filmed if Star Wars has been a Japanese production. Sufficiently huge and dramatic enough to pass for a desert with a bit of creative shooting; as this photo I took of a couple of cos-play girls we spotted there proves.

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More than a mere beach, or even a standard coastal dune, here the sand has piled up to make hills high enough for sand boarding.

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Climbing these rolling sandy slopes is both exhausting and rewarding, with great ocean views from the tops.

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A word of warning though, as tempting as it might be to run down the steepest sand bank you can find, as fast as you can... those few seconds of wild, devil-may-care, free-wheeling bliss will have to be paid for with a slogging climb back to the top.

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After a fun stop over at the dunes we kept driving south-west towards Matsue, chasing the setting sun as we went...

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... and the next morning we awoke in Matsue itself, a small town built around it's central castle, known as the Black Castle for very obvious reasons. Small, but perfectly formed, it's classic example of the type of castle dating back to Japan's feudal age (along with Hikone castle).

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The small museum inside the castle is quite typical fare for this type of place, objects from feudal Japan including samurai armour and masks which I always enjoy seeing. As nice as these displays are they can become a little stilted and samey after seeing enough of them though, and I can't help but think it'd be nice to see a bit of this history brought to life a b it more.

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Luckily for us we've chosen a good day to be in Matsue for living and breathing history as the local museum is having a demonstration of matchlock firearms today. This type of gun was introduced by visiting Europeans in 1543 and went into mass production, becoming widely used in the late 16th century. These early rifles had to be reloaded with a fresh bullet and powder after every shot, making them quite slow to use in comparison with the rate of fire that a good archer could achieve. They did however have one big advantage, they could be used by relativity unskilled fighters meaning farmers and peasants cold be used to bolster the numbers of an army to great effect if needed.

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Today's display was performed by a mostly female team with great precision and timing, and despite only shooting five or six rifles at once the noise was deafening; what the 500 guns Oda Nobanaga had made all firing together must have sounded like is unimaginable.

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Overall Matsue is a fantastically well preserved slice of old Japan, in addition to the castle and the museum there are a number of well preserved traditional houses some of which are open; such as this Samurai house.

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The house I really want to see though is old house of Lafcadio Hearn, the writer who was the first to really bring Japan to the popular imagination with his collections of classic ghost stories and essays on various aspects of Japanese life. This is actually the second of his old houses I've visited as I also saw his relocated summer house in the Meiji Mura museum

This house was the place where he wrote his 1892 essay 'In a Japanese Garden'. For me it was quite special to be able to sit where Hearn sat and look at the exact garden that helped inspire that essay.

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Visiting the house was only part our Hearn heritage trail for the day though, he also wrote about an Inari shrine that he liked to walk in the grounds of as he went to and from work. As Inari (fox) shrines have long been my favourite type of shrine in Japan, and with the added Hearn connection stopping off for a visit was a no-brainer. On the way though we passed by a small cafe selling dango that looked too good to pass by.

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Once we'd had delicious dango and a drink we continued on into the shrine itself. A real treasure trove of kitsune, with more foxes than you could shake a stick at. Some modern ceramic, some ancient stone older than Hearn (and now with almost no face and held together with wire). The shrine was a beautiful, peaceful place and I can see why Hearn loved it so much, it was also a great way to wind up our time in Matsue... and pretty much my time in Japan.

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Posted by DKJM74 01:46 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Yokohama

The beginning of the end for my time in Japan really started back at the beginning of 2014. Knowing it was my last year on the program I'd signed up to attend the leavers conference in Yokohama. An annual 2-day conference designed to help those finish with JET to decide what to next, an (although I didn't actually hold out much hope that it's help with such choices) it seemed like a good excuse to visit Yokohama.

Despite being a work trip on the surface Haru also came with me and we explored Yokohama by night after the conference finished. As Yokohama is full of impressive towering building that light up the night, that's not a bad thing. In particular the waterfront are makes for some really pleasant night-time strolls, where you can also see the 'Nippon Maru', a grand old ship build in 1930, moored there.

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Yokohama also boasts quite a large China town area complete with blinking neon adverts and hanging lanterns criss-crossing the streets. Another areas that actually benefits from night time exploration.

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There were a few places that we really wanted to see that would require more than a spare evening to really enjoy though, so we extended our stay in Yokohama for a couple of days after the conference as well. The first of these free days we spent at Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise.

Hakkejimi is an artificial island built just off the coast which is houses a entertainments complex including theme park rides, a mall and a large indoor and outdoor aquarium and sea life centre.

Like many things, it's only since I've been out of Japan that I've really begun to appreciate how amazing their aquariums are. There are so many of them that they kind of became 'normal' for me, but they really are impressive places. I saw whale sharks at 3 or 4 places in Japan and I doubt anywhere in the UK has one of these gentle giants.

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The dolphin show here was also very enjoyable and included not just the eponymous dolphins, but also sea-lions, two belugas and a walrus as well.

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Inside the collection ranged from the the smaller colourful tropical fish, through sharks and all manner of outlandish critters right back up to the massive walrus, which truly is a majestic beast.

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The languid beauty of the jellyfish is something that I always enjoy as well.

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Some of our favourite exhibits included the huge school of sardines in a special tank including strong currents to encourage natural schooling behaviour. Watching them separate, merge, turn and swarm together as one mass was quite hypnotic.

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The highlight of the day though was the in the Fureai Lagoon area, which is the hands on zone where you can get to meet some of the aquariums inhabitants. As well as the typical touch pool fare (with hermit crabs and star fish etc) there was an area where you could meet the dolphins and belugas - and, if the choose to swim near enough, you can stroke them as the pass by. That was a real treat.

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However, the highlight of our time in Yokohama was visiting Taya caves beneath Josenji temple. Located roughly half way between Yokohama and Kamarara, this temple is the dictionary definition of a hidden gem. Even Japanese people who I told about this place had never heard of it, Haru included, and yet it is one of the most impressive things I saw in all my time in Japan.

The temple itself is small and unassuming, and the entrance to the cave is little more than a low doorway leading into the rock face.

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Pay the modest entrance fee and you're given a small candle and a holder to illuminate your way around a subterranean marvel. Inside there is a series of passages carved by Shingon Buddhist monks training at the temple around 1200 to 1700. This in itself would be impressive enough, as just hewing the basic tunnels would have been hard enough.

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Yet it's the amazing carvings that the monk decorated the corridors and chambers with that really impress. There are domed meditation chambers, a natural spring adorned with a fresh water turtle and birds, whole epic tales retold in long carved sequences and massive monstrous figures. Truly an awe inspiring spite by any standard, and a place I'm genuinely glad to have visited. I really can't recommend this spot enough if you ever get the chance to visit.

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Never have I ever felt as close to fulfilling my old childhood dream of actually being Indiana Jones as I did walking around those ancient passageways guided only by the light of my spluttering candle, and coming face to face with these dreams and visions carved by long dead hands.

Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hikone Hanami and Hiking Hieizan

I suspect the word 'last' is going to creep into these next few entries quite a bit, and it begins here with my last hanami (Spring cherry blossom viewing). Which I'll cover briefly as I have A LOT of catching up to do on this blog.

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Every year my favourite local spot was on the north tip of the lake, so that's where we started off this year as well. However, it was only a brief stop before we drove around the lake to Hikone on the far side. Hikone is famous for it's well preserved castle and gardens, and as I'd only been there once (just after arriving in Japan) and Haru had never been there it seemed like a perfect place for our final hanami.

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The castle and it's grounds are on a virtual island separated from the rest of the town by a wide moat overhung with blossom laden branches, and it was here that we headed directly. Starting off with a quick tour around the inside of the main keep which boasts some impressive woodwork, including some rare twisting support beams that have been used in their raw state rather than been trimmed down to a more regular shapes.

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The castle grounds also house a nice walled cherry orchard which was in full bloom, and several people had already settled down on the grass for picnics under the pink.

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As we continued around the grounds we ran we also ran into Hikonyan, the official cat-samurai hybrid mascot of Hikone. The character was created in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the castle's founding. He's since proved to be one of the more popular mascots and has become quite well known. This Hikonyan show basically consisted of Hikonyan striking a series of cute poses for people to take photos of, not very thrilling but when you consider how many of those photos went on Facebook (or travel blogs) it is a master-stroke of cheap advertising.

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Eventually we made our way back across the moat and toward the formal gardens at the bottom of the hill. On the way down I was both surprised and delighted to see just how many wild turtles there were basking on the grassy bank of the moat or lazily paddling across the still water.

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The gardens below the castle are both elegant and a great example of a classic Japanese style layout. It was also one of the first places I visited upon arriving in Shiga Ken, as every year some local volunteers take new JETs on a guided tour around the caste and grounds. So it was nice to come here again for a second visit at the end of my time in Shiga Ken.

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Actually revisiting favourite old places was something I did quite a bit of in my last few months, and in May we set out to hike Mt. Hiezan and visit the garden museum at the top while it was still in full bloom. Although we could have cheated, and driven most of the way, we set out to walk the full distance which covers a mix of well paved areas and woodland footpath along the way - Oh, and a lot of steps!

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Near the top we took a short stop to take a look around Enrijaku-Ji, the famous temple that dominates the mountain ridge. Here we even found one or two late blooming cherry trees in full blossom.

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But our main goal though was the garden museum located right at the peak with it's colourful spring flowers, a recreation of Monet's water lily ponds and some spectacular views over the slopes all the way down to Lake Biwa and Otsu city spread along it's shore. So let's finish with that!

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Posted by DKJM74 11:13 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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