Currently traveling

China, Korea and Japan 2019

Hunting World Heritage Sites on our first trip to East Asia
Currently traveling
  • Day51

    Mount Fuji

    October 17 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Under heavy skies we got up and got on today's series of trains, heading south towards Mount Fuji. There's a few different spots you can see and interact with this icon of Japanese art and culture, and for our visit we'd chosen to head for the town of Fujinomiya, located just south-west of the mountain itself.

    Here was the World Heritage Centre, and a good vantage point for viewing the mountain. Or would be, if it wasn't heavily overcast! Despite being basically underneath a 3500m mountain, we couldn't see it in the slightest. Nothing, zip, zilch. And it was raining!

    We headed into the World Heritage Centre which had some great displays about the mountain and was really well presented. It showed you through the geological history, the various climates at different points on the mountain, the history of man and the mountain, worship, art and culture, the works. We spent a couple of hours going through, really impressed.

    By the time we emerged, you still couldn't see anything. Of course! Nearby was a shrine that pilgrims climbing the mountain usually stop at (Fuji is worshipped as a Shinto god), so we stopped in here and had a look around though nothing seemed particularly different compared to other Shinto shrines.

    Grabbed a quick lunch at the 7-11 and then headed for a nearby sake brewery. They brew their sake with glacial runoff from Fuji, so we figured that was almost as good as climbing the mountain itself! Kind of.

    In the end, defeated by the rain and unable to see anything, we boarded a train bound for Tokyo. Our accommodation for the night was a capsule hotel to the north of central Tokyo, in an area called Omiya. Lots of stuff happening nearby, and we had a good wander around. Nearly had pizza after wandering into a place that did good size pizzas for 400 yen (about $5), before realising that the cover charge was going to be 500 yen each!! No thanks, we'll find a noodle shop instead. So that's what we did!
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  • Day50

    Shirakawa-go Historic Village

    October 16 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Another early start - of course! Multiple trains and buses heading north-east out of Kyoto up along the isolated central northern coast. After a few hours, we arrived in the historic village of Shirakawa-go. This is a small village of wooden huts that have an unusual design - tall peaked roofs like Scandinavian houses. In this isolated area they get a lot of snowfall during the winter, so the steeply angled and thatched roofs help with shedding snow quickly and easily. Unusually for Japan, the local residents also build multiple storeys of attics into these roofs, and use them for small crafts like silkworm rearing and silk production.

    Essentially it's in an isolated area without much arable land, so whatever they could do to increase their income was needed! It was quite a nice village, with a sprinkling of houses against a dramatic backdrop of tall hills - not quite mountains. Nice colours as well with the early autumn, though despite the remoteness of the area it's definitely made it onto the tourist trail and we definitely weren't the only ones! Oh well.

    Spent the day exploring and then a late afternoon train back to Kanazawa where we'd stay the night. We'd heard that train stations in the evening often have the best food: bento boxes, conveyor belt sushi and the like, so we hung around for a bit and then decided on sushi train for dinner. We stuck to the cheap plates of course, but still got a delicious meal for a good price!
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  • Day49

    Kyoto Day 2

    October 15 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    Another busy day of temple sight-seeing today! Out fairly early on the bus, where our first stop was Ryoan-ji temple. Arrived right at 7:30am on the dot, just as the doors opened - I think we were the first visitors! This is one of the World Heritage temples in Kyoto, mainly noted for its large Japanese rock garden. It was an interesting sight, since you can only view it from the verandah of a nearby pavilion, and it's arranged so that you basically can't see the whole thing at once - you have to take different positions. There's 15 large rocks arranged skilfully in a bed of small pebbles, and they're organised so that you likewise can't see all 15 from any particular vantage point. The idea is that to see all 15 rocks simultaneously, one must achieve enlightenment!

    I'll settle for a drone. We hurried through here, enjoying the nice lake as well, before heading out and walking quickly up the hill to the next temple. This one is one of the most popular in all of Kyoto, and despite arriving at 8:50 in advance of a 9am opening, there was already a large queue! We waited and got in fairly quickly, where we were greeted with a beautiful golden pavilion on a lakeshore. Gorgeous environment. Was cool to see the different styles on each level of the pavilion, and to then wander around the gardens and enjoy different angles, though it was super busy and crowded here with tourists. Lots of group tours, unfortunately!

    Done with the two main things we'd done to see, and it was only 11:30 - not bad going! We debated seeing a few more temples but they do honestly get a bit samey after a while, and they aren't real cheap either! In the end, we just headed back to the hotel and relaxed for most of the rest of the day, though Shandos went out for some shopping in the late afternoon.
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  • Day48

    Kyoto Day 1

    October 14 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    We've got two days here in Kyoto so decided to spread things out a bit. Got up very early and made our first stop the bamboo grove, a site super popular with Instagrammers because it's a pretty looking, well, bamboo grove. You can get some great photos here, so we spent a while taking various photos and glaring at people doing the same thing but paying a bit less attention to their surroundings. Nothing irks me more than standing in a pathway waiting for someone to take a photo, they finish and say thanks, then walk forward directly into where you're about to take a photo. Really?!?!

    Spent about an hour here and it was starting to get busier (plus the area isn't actually that large), so we caught a bus across town to the Thousand Gates walk, which again is exactly what it sounds like. It's a pretty famous Japanese landmark, where there's a thousand or so tori gates covering a pilgrimage trail up a mountain. It was ultra busy at first (like shuffling in a train station queue busy), but it slowly thinned out and you could eventually take photos without other people in them - with a little patience of course.

    Also visited a nearby temple that's part of the Kyoto Temples WHS that we'll mostly tackle tomorrow. Starting to get a bit of temple fatigue, even though they're usually nice and interesting.

    Grabbed a quick 7-11 lunch then headed for the Gion area which is a historic part of Kyoto and where all the geishas used to live. There aren't many still around though they can still be spotted occasionally - just look for the hordes of tourists acting like paparazzi. It was drizzling a bit now and not that pleasant, but we still wandered around for a couple of hours looking at the old wooden buildings. Did a bit of shopping too, where I managed to replace my sunglasses that I'd left at a restaurant a night or two earlier. Shandos also replaced her handbag which was wearing out and starting to die.

    By mid afternoon we were both a bit over it so we headed back to the hotel and chilled out the rest of the day. Went to a nearby ramen restaurant for dinner which was very tasty. You know it's been a good bowl of ramen when you drink a litre of water afterwards and can still taste the salt on your lips!
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  • Day47

    To Kyoto, via Horyuji and Nara

    October 13 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    Super busy day today. Packed up and headed out early, catching the train eastwards for about an hour to near the city of Nara. Our first stop was the Buddhist Monuments of Horyuji WHS, where there were some important temples and pagodas to check out. Thankfully this site isn't as famous as others we've seen recently, so it was relatively quiet which was nice. Though not as quiet as the previous day of course!

    Horyuji is one of the most important locations for Japanese Buddhists, and the spiritual home for one of their main sects. It's also home to what's considered to be the world's oldest wooden building! This building is a beautiful five-storey pagoda that's believed to house a fragment of Buddha's bone, though of course entry is forbidden (and I'm not even sure if it's possible). The pagoda is about 32 metres tall, and dendrochronology (ie, counting rings) suggests that the trees it's made from were felled in around 594 AD. Staggering. There's been fires at the complex in the past but it's managed to survive!

    The temple itself nearby is quite nice too, with impressive statues and the typical Buddhist relics, though photos aren't permitted for a lot of it which I always find a shame. Some people can't be trusted to keep their flashes off I guess!

    Back on the train where we headed to the city of Nara for more ancient temples! Nara was briefly the capital of Japan during the 12th century, and there's some important relics from that period still remaining. These are chiefly Buddhist and Shinto shrines (the two religions happily coexist in Japan as neither demands exclusivity from adherents), but also a palace and a primeval forest.

    Most tourists visit Nara for the famous Deer Park which is exactly what it sounds like, and happily for us, several of the WHS temples are located inside the deer park! So we wandered over after leaving our bags in a locker at the station. Lots of deer around and they're fairly chilled out, so you can buy wafers from local vendors and feed them and pet them which is pretty cool.

    Decided to focus on a few temples: Todai-ji, a large wooden building that houses the world's largest bronze Buddha statue (enormous!), Kofuku-ji which is a 7th century Buddhist temple that had been entirely dismantled and moved twice because the emperor liked it so much (!!), and Kasuga Grand Shrine which is famous for the huge number of stone lanterns outside and bronze lanterns inside. Seriously, there's thousands of them! Very pretty. And there was a wedding happening at the last temple too, which we enjoyed watching for a bit, especially when they were taking Very Serious family portraits and the bride's little niece and nephew refused to behave. Some things never change.

    Wandered back through the deer park in the late afternoon sun and joined the throngs of tourists heading to the station back to Kyoto. Found our guesthouse with no dramas (though it's in an odd spot, very residential) and had our bento boxes for dinner.
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  • Day46

    Typhoon Day

    October 12 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 15 °C

    Today was the day the typhoon finally passed over, after days of warnings and alarm. Thankfully it passed near Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres away from us, so we weren't really ever in any danger. But we awoke to pretty heavy rain, and decided fairly quickly that our plans for the day were done. I drew the short straw on going out to get breakfast, mainly because I'd said the night before not to bother grabbing any food (dumb), so off I went in the heavy rain and wind to get our typical pikelets and coffee breakfast.

    We spent the morning working on various things in our room, waiting out the storm. After lunchtime the rain had lifted a bit, so we decided that we could still see a bit of what we'd planned, but only if we hurried. So in a big rush we scurried over to the station and caught a train heading south.

    Destination for the day was the Kii Mountains, a peninsula sticking out south from the mainland beyond Osaka. It's long been a sacred spot for Shinto believers, with lots of temples, shrines, pavilions and pilgrimage routes. The biggest issue for us was that because it's a mountain area, you need to access it via a cableway (not a dangling cable car, more like a cogwheel railway like they have in Switzerland), and that hadn't been running in the morning.

    The train journey took about 2 hours, then the brief cable car, and then a short loop bus before we finally arrived at the first and only spot we were going to see: Koyasan temple. Thankfully it was open, though it was going to shut pretty imminently as we'd arrived just by 4pm.

    It was a nice temple to look around, with some beautiful painted screens though I couldn't take any photos of those. It's also home to the largest rock garden in Japan at 2640 square metres which was quite cool! Very zen. Though it felt a bit like Get Smart, as the workers were essentially following us around the tour route and closing each door/window behind us - clearly nobody else was allowed in! Though I'd be surprised if they'd had more than a dozen visitors all day, the entire area was deserted.

    Finished with the temple, we decided to head for one more spot. Caught the bus to where there's a grove of tall cedars lined up around stone lanterns and gravestones, but of course we couldn't go in because branches were down and the place looked a bit of a mess. Should've guessed! Hurried back up to the main road where we got the same bus heading back on its loop, and answered the driver's quizzical look with "ker-osed" and a point in the general direction. He understood!

    Cableway back down, then the two hour train ride back to Osaka where it was now getting on for 8pm. I was bloody freezing since I'd worn shorts and thongs (I basically can't wear my shoes in wet weather now because they're so full of holes), and we hurried back to a chain katsu curry house where we had dinner. Very satisfying to have a thick tasty curry on a cold wet evening.
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  • Day45

    Himeji Castle & Osaka

    October 11 in Japan ⋅ ☁️ 28 °C

    Packed our bags early again and headed out on the train, eastwards towards the city of Himeji. We wanted another early start as Japan seems to be quite busy at the moment, and tourist sites are always pretty packed. The train was only an hour or so, and we hopped out, dropped our bags in a locker and walked up the main street to Himeji Castle.

    This is another super famous spot, one of the icons of Japan. It looked magnificent, shining brightly in the sun with its white walls and richly coloured wooden support beams. Only problem - schoolkids! Hundreds of them, crossing the moat and invading the grounds. It was going to be a long few hours!

    We got our tickets and headed inside since, what else were we going to do! Himeji Castle had been a fort of various types for centuries, but acquired its current form in the early 17th century after a new warlord took it over and strengthened all the defences. The Japanese call it White Egret Castle because it supposedly looks like a white egret taking flight, and I guess I can kind of see the resemblance.

    The walk from the main gate to the keep entrance was quite interesting, as you keep zig-zagging through narrow passageway and doubling-back etc. It's only about a hundred metres in a straight line, but you have to walk nearly 400 metres to cover the distance - an ingenious defence system since you're vulnerable to shots fired from the walls the whole time.

    Inside the keep itself it was actually quite small, smaller than I was expecting. The whole thing was built of wood and plaster which I wasn't expecting, and the footprint wasn't especially large. Obviously it got smaller as you climbed up, since the castle tapers towards the top. Very crowded in places, mostly with noisy schoolkids but there were a few big tour groups of westerners too (mostly Italian and Spanish I think for some reason). But there were ebbs and flows so you occasionally got a bit of time and space to yourself.

    Back down where we explored a few other more remote areas of the castle which were mercifully free of schoolkids. Wandered through an interesting display about a princess who'd lived in the castle for most of her life, and the modifications she'd made to certain areas. But we were done by lunchtime, so headed back down the main street to the station and collected our bags. Back on the train to Osaka, and then another train further south to Sakai City where we had another WHS to check out - ancient burial mounds!

    Unlike the last bunch we'd seen in Korea, these were at least impressive to look at. The tombs are mostly keyhole shaped, which is quite unusual, and surrounded by moats. They date from the 4th to 6th centuries, and the largest one is absolutely colossal - over 800 metres on the long sides. That makes it the largest known tomb in the world, bigger than the Great Pyramid or the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang (Terracotta Warriors guy). Unfortunately we couldn't actually get that close to it, and from across the moat it just looked like a bunch of greenery on a hill.

    The museum nearby was closing but we managed to sneak in just in time. They had a quite well produced video about the tombs (there's about 160,000 keyhole shaped burial mounds in Japan but none elsewhere in the world!), and then a display of artefacts recovered from the mounds. Weapons, armour, pots, jewellery and the like. Since the only spot you could really see the mounds properly was from the air, we headed for the observation deck on the 21st floor of the city hall. But it was about 20 minutes walk and a couple of kilometres away, and by the time we got there it was approaching dusk, so you couldn't really see much. Oh well.

    Another long walk to the train station, mainly because a lot of the trains in Osaka are privately operated and our JapanRail pass only gives us free access to JR trains. Another long walk at the other end for our hotel, but we were finally checked in and done. Headed out in the evening to grab some Osaka specialities for dinner: okonomiyaki (pancake) and takoyaki (squid balls). Very tasty.
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  • Day44

    Exploring Hiroshima

    October 10 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 23 °C

    Up bright and early this morning as we had a lot of stuff to see! First stop was a train ride about 30 minutes down the coast to a ferry wharf, then a ferry across to Itsukushima Island. This island is the location of the famous floating shrine, where an iconic red shinto gateway (⛩) seems to just float in the water. It's not floating, of course, but placed in very shallow water. Unfortunately we couldn't actually see it, as it was covered in scaffolding to clean it before the Tokyo olympics next year! Ah well.

    There's still a whole shrine to see here as well, which we spent a bit of time exploring as it was quite nice. Like the gateway, it's constructed pier-style out over the water so at high tide it looks to be floating. Although we'd missed high tide by an hour or so, it was just sticking up out of mud flats which was a bit funny. The idea is that the island itself is sacred, so the shrine and gateway were constructed out over the water so mortals didn't have to set foot on the island during their pilgrimages. I don't know how that works now, since they have shops and hotels everywhere, and even a cable-car up to the top of the island. A sacred cash cow perhaps.

    We'd started early partly for the tide but also for the crowds, and as we got the ferry and train back to Hiroshima, the crowds heading the other direction were pretty heavy! Grabbed a quick 7-11 lunch in downtown Hiroshima ahead of our next stop: the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. This is the famous domed building that survived being essentially at ground zero of the atomic blast - the bomb went off about 150 metres south-east and 600 metres above the building. It was aimed at the bridge next to the domed building (then known as the Industrial Exposition Hall) and missed by a few hundred metres, but when your bomb obliterates an entire city it doesn't really matter that much.

    70,000 people died instantly, and another 70,000 died over the next 12 months from burns, radiation, injuries and other diseases. Pretty horrible stuff. The building itself survived because the bomb was essentially straight overhead and the pillars were strong enough to withstand a downward blast. It's preserved these days as a memorial for those who died, and is the centrepiece of the Hiroshima Peace Park, which we spent some time exploring. The building itself is also a World Heritage Site - one of the rare ones that focuses on war which UNESCO has typically shied away from.

    We spent a couple of hours in the nearby peace museum as well which again was heavy going. Lots of brutal exhibits - stories, photographs, clothing and personal items from people killed and the like. But I had a slight reaction to it as well, because it slowly dawned on me that it focused entirely on the "what", and didn't even mention the "why". Unlike German museums which are quite open about the fact Germany was essentially destroyed because of the crimes of Hitler, the Third Reich and the Nazis, it almost seemed to treat the bombing as an act of god, like an earthquake or hurricane that just sort of happened. At one point it even glossed over some of the soldiers killed were Korean conscripts - not mentioning that they were only there because Japan occupied Korea and had conscripted these poor guys to fight for Japan!

    Don't get me wrong, was it a horrible thing? Definitely. Was it a war crime? Absolutely. But definitely some food for thought. It's also worth noting that Japan has never actually apologised or even expressed remorse for what happened during the war - not for their aggression, forced labour, comfort women, POWs, nothing. No small wonder that other Asian countries aren't particularly fond of the Japanese. And you'll probably be surprised to find that under Japan's constitutional monarchy, their current emperor is literally the grandson of Hirohito, the wartime emperor. So yeah. Make of that what you will.

    Wandered back to our hotel via a few cool shopping streets which were interesting to check out. Japanese shops tend to be quite intense with a lot of noise, light and writing, so quite a fascinating cultural experience. We also saw a pet shop that had a litter of dachshund puppies which was cute but also a bit sad. Dachshunds are a very popular breed in Japan and we've seen a lot of them already which is cool.

    Back to the hostel where we decided to stay in for the evening instead of heading out.
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  • Day43

    Iwami-Ginzen Silver MIne

    October 9 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 20 °C

    Heading north-east today, into one of those random isolated areas that we seem to end up in. Took a series of local trains and by lunchtime we'd arrived in a small two-horse town in the middle of nowhere. This was the location for the Iwami-Ginzen Silver Mine, Japan's most productive silver mine that operated between the late 16th century and the early 20th century. Got some brochures from a very friendly if puzzled lady at the train station, then caught the bus for about an hour out to the actual mine site.

    Had some lunch at a tasty recommended restaurant, then started exploring the town. It's a historic town and fairly well preserved, with a lot of the old buildings built off the silver wealth. Though probably the highlight was walking a couple of kilometres through the forest to find the old mine shafts. It's ticketed and well lit, but wandering through for a few hundred metres was pretty cool. In some places you could see chisel marks where the miners had done their work - remembering most of this was extracted by hand, not explosives.

    Back down to the town, we wandered around for a few hours looking at the buildings, a ruined refinery, shrines to pray for the miners' safety, and graveyards for those who didn't come home. Moderately interesting stuff, about on par with other mining sites we've been to. Hurriedly finished up before getting a 4pm bus all the way to Hiroshima. It would've been cheaper but longer to get a series of trains south to Hiroshima, but the thought of just sitting on a coach for a few hours was fairly appealing, so that's what we did.

    Arrived in Hiroshima after 7pm, where we found the hotel and grabbed some 7-11 food for dinner.
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  • Day42

    Nagasaki

    October 8 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 24 °C

    Up early around 6:30am and headed out to the station to catch our first train, a couple of hours south to the port city of Nagasaki. There's two WHS for us to visit here. The first site relates to Japan's industrialisation of the 19th century, when Japan's isolationist rulers realised that without massive change, they were going to be colonised like the rest of Asia. So after a pleasant tram ride down to the waterfront, we boarded a boat that would take us to Battleship Island, site of a large former coal mine.

    It's a famous spot these days, a tiny speck of land in the ocean covered with tall and crumbling concrete apartment buildings. It was all built for the coal mine between the 1890s and 1960s, which was one of Japan's largest and most productive. These days it's a ghost town, which you might remember from the James Bond movie Skyfall. Unfortunately due to typhoon damage we couldn't go ashore, but it was nice to cruise around a couple of times and get some footage.

    On the way there and back we also got a great view of the huge shipyards in Nagasaki's port. These were massive engines behind Japan's navy in the build-up to World War 2, and their flagship Yamato was built here, though these days they mainly build Princess and Carnival cruise liners. It's part of the World Heritage listing though, which is cool.

    Quick 7-11 lunch, then we walked over to the large cathedral on the hill. This is the centre of our second WHS visit for today, which relates to Christians in Nagasaki. Christianity arrived in Japan in the late 16th century with Portuguese missionaries and St Francis Xavier, and it spread like wildfire. Within a decade or so there was apparently 650,000 Christians in Japan which is quite startling! Suspicious that the missionaries were foreign spies laying the groundwork for colonisation, Christianity was eventually banned for 200 years, only being rescinded in 1863.

    But in the Nagasaki area, many people continued to secretly practice Christianity, worshipping Virgin Mary statues disguised as Buddhas, saying special prayers after they'd been forced to publicly renounce their faith, and passing on the gospel father to son. Unfortunately the site is called "Hidden Christian Sites of Nagasaki" and many of them are just that - hidden away in inaccessible locations. The best we could do is visit the main church in Nagasaki which was built just after the ban was lifted, and where the sudden emergence of all these practicing Christians turning up for church was considered a genuine miracle. The museum here was quite interesting too, showing how missionaries won over local leaders with their western science contraptions that seemed a bit like magic.

    Filming finished, we hurried back to the station and jumped on a train back to Fukuoka. No time to see the atomic bomb museum, but we'll see that particular legacy in a few days. We got back around 5pm, enough time to walk back to the hotel and enjoy their hour of free beer in the bar. More work and some washing, before dinner at a nearby traditional ramen place. Very tasty!

    It's funny how there's always an odd system in Japan. At the ramen place, to order you used a touchscreen at the entrance. You paid, and it would spit out a pair of chits. Take a seat at the counter, give the chits to the guy who then comes back a few minutes later with steaming bowls of ramen. Or on the bus, where you board via the back door and take a ticket with a stop number. When you get off (via the front door only), a screen at the front tells you the cost for tickets stamped with each stop number. You then put your money and tickets in the basket. Very different from Korea where every bus in the country takes the same tap-on/off cards, and to China where every bus in the country is 2 yuan and you just chuck notes in the bucket!
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