Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Kyushu Island: Volcanoes, Samurai, and Kamikazes

Kappa, a water spirit on the steps of
an old Samurai home in Chiran
Another day, another hike—a very comfortable rhythm, yet every day and every hike is different.  And so are our culinary experiences.  We’ve left the ancient Buddhist trails portion of our trip and have been exploring the volcanoes and beauty of the rest of Kyushu Island.
Kyushu, Japans, largest southern island.
We started at the top, and now we're
south of Kagoshima, near the bottom

Five days ago we enjoyed the luxury of spending two nights in the same place at the hot springs resort area at the base of Mt. Yufuin. The climb to the top of it was well worth the seven hours it took to ascend 800 meters and descend 1200 back to town. We lucked out with perfect weather.

Mt. Yufuin in the distance
View from near the top of Mt. Yufuin

We only had one really long bus day, coupled with a train ride.  It took us down to the bottom of one of the world’s largest calderas at Aso, (12 miles across and 18 long), complete with rice paddies, two cities, and multi-story apartments.

The giant caldera at Aso

Then we ascended 500 meters to the rim on the other side for a hike among the azaleas to the top of Mt. Eboshi to view the active Mt.Naka volcano. The azaleas were spectacular!

View the way to Mt. Eboshi 

After a bullet train ride we spent the night in Kagoshima, the third largest city on Kyushu Island.

We woke up the next morning to find the city streets dusted with gritty volcanic ash from an overnight eruption of Mt. Sakurajima 20 miles away.

Mt. Naka blowing off steam

One of our regrets about this trip is that we just couldn't work the Hiroshima Peace Park into our itinerary.  However, we may have made up for it in a small way with a visit the next morning to the Peace Museum for the Kamikaze pilots, located in Chiran, the site of a former Japanese Air Force base. Kamikaze means "divine wind," from over 1,000 years ago when typhoons wiped out two invading Chinese navies.  It was both fascinating and highly emotional. We saw the artifacts and photos of all 937 pilots, including some translations of their poignant last letters to their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children.

The Kamikaze Peace Museum
Many of the pilots were only 17 and had never seen combat before, but they had been training since the age of 14. No one, including their commanders, suspected months earlier that they would be flying such desperate last-ditch missions in the battle of Okinawa. Many didn’t want to go and were scared, but their honor and duty were more important then their own lives. I wonder if soldiers and airmen of the Allied forces felt the same way on the eve of Normandy, bombing missions over Germany, the invasion of Iwo Jima. Perhaps, but they at least had a glimmer of hope that they might survive. The Kamikaze pilots didn’t.  Only 10-15% hit their targets, but nearly all of them died.

At a Samurai garden near Chiran
Nearby we visited a well-preserved Samurai village dating back to the the 1600s.  This was the "Edo Period" of peace that lasted for about 250 years.  The Samurai got bored of all that peace stuff and focused on gardens and geishas.  The Kappa water spirit at the top of the post was on one of the steps to a home.

We ended the day with a climb part way up Mt. Kaimon, the “Mt. Fuji of the South.” This was the last glimpse the pilots saw of the Japan mainland as they tipped their wings and headed and headed toward Okinawa. The hike was hot and humid in lush foliage and volcanic rock.

Mt. Kaimon, the "Mt. Fuji of Satsuma"

View from part way up Mt. Kamian
We ended the day in a resort town with hot mineral baths.  Our inn had several of varying temperatures, including ice-cold.  Nice!

Click here for more photos.

Getting ready to "sabo-sabo" pork in Kagoshima

The mother of all sashimi in Yufin

Mario, our guide and
tabletop barbecue expert 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Hiking the Ancient Buddhist Trails of Japan

Our experiences the past six days of hiking in the remote areas of the  Kunisaki Peninsula of NE Kyushu Island (the southern-most large island in Japan) were a stark contrast to our mostly city experiences our first 10 days in Japan. It’s peaceful, rural, steep, sacred, and serenely beautiful. The forests and mountains are every shade of green imaginable.

It is so nice to now have two local guides who can answer our questions and explain things we never thought to ask. And our group of 15 is downright fun!
We'll start working our way south from here

We are hiking what are described as the “Ancient Buddhist Trails,” which date back to the origins of the Shinto religion over 2500 years ago and the Buddhist religion that followed 1300 years ago.  They still coexist in peace and have intermingled to some extent. The trails were intended as a meditation and are marked with many Buddhist statues and Shinto shines, but not the kind you would expect in India or China.

The Yanagigaura shrine,  gateway
to the start of the Buddhist trails 

Much of our trails were on volcanic
Lantern near a shrine

Cell phone Buddhas?
Our trails are sometimes marked (usually in Japanese) and also hard to find, so it’s nice to have guides. We hike several hours a day through bamboo, cedar, cypress, rhododendron, and azalea forests, often up and down narrow rocky ridges. Fortunately we have chains and ropes in some parts.   We came across small and large Buddhas everywhere, especially under rock outcroppings. It’s been hot and humid.
A stone bridge with a huge
drop on each side

Monks' gravestones near Kyu-Sento-Ji temple

Kathy hugging a rock on a ledge
(It's not as scary as it looks)

Morning fog and a view of our trail on the left

The entrance to the Kyu-Sento-Ji  temple,
one of many shrines and temples we passed through

Himeshima Island
On Thursday we left the mountains and spent he night on a small island, Himeshima. What made it unique was a special temple on a rock outcropping, and  that it had children and young people on it. The rest of the countryside we’ve experienced appears deserted, with abandoned schools, rice paddies, and seldom used—but nice—roads. The average age is 75. Like in many parts of the US and the world, the young gravitate to the cities.  Japans's restrictive immigration policies over the years has created this demographic time bomb and rural economic crisis.

Our last bridge, crossing "The Void" and symbolizing
the end of the Buddhist pilgrimage trails 

Our roykan on Himeshima
We spend each night in traditional Japanese inns, called ryokans. Each room provides bathrobes (called yukatas) and slippers which we can wear throughout the inn.  The rooms are plain with straw mats.  After dinner, the futons magically appear on the floor.  The roykans  all have hot soaking rooms, some of which are heated by natural springs. So civilized! You bathe before getting in.

Our room on Himeshima

Our onsen in Yufin
And did I mention food?  Each night and most mornings, we have amazing Japanese feasts of all sorts of amazing tidbits, raw seafood, pickles, tempura, and more. And if we’re still hungry afterwards, the bring out bowls of rice.

Tonight we're in the spa resort town of Yufin, known for it's thermal hot spring baths.  From this point forward we're exploring other hiking trails and volcanic features of Kyushu Island.  It's  been a wonderful and unique trip for us.  And it's nice to be on an organized trip where we're hiking more, riding a bus much, much less.

Click here for more photos

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Shrines, Castles, Bicycles, Islands, Trains. and Food

The magnificent torri gate at Miyajima
We're on the small island of Miyajima, close to Hiroshima, and it's hard to believe that just one week ago we had our first full day of sightseeing in Kyoto.  But we've covered a lot of ground, seen a lot, and (as always) have eaten a lot.

A volunteer guide at the
Hiroshima station who
spent 30 minutes helping
us to find a storage place
for our bags.  He's an
engineer with Masda.
We thought Japan would be difficult to navigate, not knowing the language and the writing.  However, our biggest pleasant surprise is just how easy it is to get around.  The transportation system and tourist infrastructure is quite impressive.  We love the trains! While the people aren't outgoing, when asked they will take extraordinary measures to help us, even if they can't speak a word of English.

The amazing Himeji castle

Our last post closed with a photo of the amazing Himeji Castle, built in the 1600s.  We've seen a few castles in our day, but this one takes the cake.  It's worth a trip to Japan just to see this. We have a few extra photos of it included in the link at the bottom of this post.

Our stay in Himeji was in the 12-story Dormy Inn, a popular chain among the Japanese, about about the cost of a Portland budget airport hotel.  It included a wonderful anson, which consisted of hot spring pools and a sauna on the roof.  No swimsuits or tattoos allowed, but they were sex segregated. We could wander about the hotel and go to breakfast in the PJs and slippers they provided us.

We took a day trip to the town of Kuashiki, which had a well-preserved
A traditional residential street in Kuashiki
traditional Japanese village within it.  The beauty, clean lines, and quiet were a welcome contrast to the visual clutter and noise of most Japanese cities.

The 3-mile Kurusima bridge.  The circle at
the first tower is the bicycle ramp
So far, the highlight of the trip has been the Onomichi area, where we bicycled on bicycle routes and lanes over bridges to different islands.  Kathy came down with a cold and only cycled the first day.  I rented a serious road bike for the second day and had the most enjoyable 46 miles on a bike in my life, in spite of the hills and a missed ferry connection.  Many parts of the route were among fragrant lemon orchards.  We stayed in a re-purposed warehouse, called Hotel Cycle.  The whole theme was bikes and cycling, with bike racks right at the reception desk.  More photos are in the link at the bottom.

The bike ramp to the Kurusima bridge

Tonight is our last night before we meet up with members of our 12-day Sierra Club hiking tour in Kyushu.  We're in a quaint roykan, which is a small traditional Japanese Inn.  Now that all the tourists have taken the ferry back to Hiroshima, it's very quite here. Our host prepared a stunning seven-course meal for us.  The torii gate, pictured at the top of this post is rated as one of the top three most scenic sights in Japan.  It was built in the late sixth century and remodeled in 1168.

Our trip to Kyushu (the largest southern island in Japan) will be our last chance to ride the amazing Shinkoshan, the so-called bullet train.  Be sure to check out our video clip of Japan at 200 mph within the link below.  Enjoy!

Link to photos: 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Riding the rails to Nara

At the shrine of the BIG Buddha
I wish I had a Go-pro Monday morning for our adventure on the subway and the train to Nara.  We've been in packed subways before, but nothing compared to it until then.  While our two-stop trip didn't have the famed white-gloved young women known as "pushers" in Tokyo, we certainly could have used them to push us and everyone else into the car so the door would close.  It was suffocating, but at least we didn't need to worry about falling as the train rounded a corner or came to a stop.  And fortunately, pickpockets aren't a problem here.

View of the Big Buddha Gate
from the Isuien Garden
Arriving in the Kyoto train station, we encountered waves of sullen briefcase-carrying men in dark suits, along with  a few women and quite a few kids in school uniforms.  A couple of the kids seemed to be only six or seven years old.  Nobody talked on the train to Nara, as they were either sleeping or their heads were bowed down to their smartphone god.
Our skillful navigator

Nara is a delightful and tourist-friendly town and Japan's first permanent capital, dating back to the 7th century.  We walked about six miles in drizzle through a pedestrian mall to beautiful gardens, temples, and shrines.

The highlight was the Great Buddha, purported to be the largest in the world in one the world's largest wooden structures, pictured at the top of this post.  Truly magnificent! But we also toured a beautiful Japanese garden and several other shrines.  The train ride back wasn't crowded, and I got to stand behind the engineer part of the way.  You can see a short video clip from the engineer's cab by clicking: 142141  Note the engineer's finger salutes, which are safety measures.

The Kyoto station is a modern piece of work unto itself, surrounded by a hotel and countless shops.
RR station view from hotel area

RR station view from concert & garden area

 One of them was an emporium of Japanese delicacies with lots of free samples.  The sake and weird pickles didn't sit well with us, but we bought a bottle of Suntori, the famed Japanese scotch.

We returned to a noodle shop where we ate our first night here.  There are countless eating establishments in the back alleys here, and we're sure that many of them are outstanding.  We just didn't want to take a chance when we knew we could count on a sure thing.  We weren't disappointed.
Ippudo Nishiki Koji--More westerners than
usual, but the food and fun explain why

Today we headed off to Himeji for two nights.   The railroads have a very efficient luggage service.  We shipped our hiking boots, poles, rain pants, and more to where we start our Sierra Club hike next week. Cost?  Only $9.     That frees up about 12 pounds and makes room for the scotch.  We skipped the subway because of our bags and splurged with a $10 cab ride.  We got on the wrong train, but got off at the next stop, took the next train back, and caught the correct train in the nick of time.  The Himeji Castle was worth the trip.   More on it later, but here's a sneak preview.
The amazing Himeji Castle

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Kyoto--Just as Expected

Hiking at the Fushimi Inari Shrine
We've been in Japan--mostly Kyoto--for three full days.  It's exotic and totally unique to us, yet in a strange way it's exactly what we expected.   It's clean, crowded, modern, traditional, confusing, expensive, safe, and fast-paced.  Language is a huge problem, but many of subway and street signs also have English writing

However, the people are helpful,  the transportation infrastructure is amazing, the food is fantastic, and we can drink the water.
Our Hostel.  Our small but very
modern room is on the 2nd floor

Kyoto was the capital of Japan from the 8th century to the mid 1800s, and it remains the cultural capital of Japan with its rich history, shrines, and architecture.   Unlike many other Japanese cities,  it was spared from much of the WWII bombing, so a lot of historic buildings remain in tact.

Lost and can't find a translation
Yesterday, we spent a lot of time lost and on buses, but we managed to visit three UNESCO World Heritage sites:  the Ginkakuji Temple, the Kinkaku (Golden Pavilion/Rokon Ji Temple), and the Nijo-Jo Castle.  All were stunningly beautiful beyond words.  And so were the crowds, as it was a Saturday and the last day of a major Japanese holiday week.  You can see a few more photos when we publish a link in a future blog post.

Today we hiked 4 km to the top of Fushimi Inari-Taisa, through countless orange archways, passing many shrines along the way.  We came across hundreds of stone foxes, considered the messenger of Inari, the god of cereals. It was so beautiful, and it felt good to get away from the concrete jungle of Kyoto.  Good thing we got an early start ahead of the crowds.
Ginkakuki Temple
The Golden Pavilion

We spent a delightful afternoon exploring the Nishiki market, perhaps the best market we have ever experienced in all of our travels.  It was mostly covered, and most of the fish and other delicacies were too, so it didn't smell like most markets do.  Lots of free samples!

The rest of the time we've enjoyed wandering the back alleys and discovering noodle shops frequented by locals.  Tomorrow we're taking a day trip to Inara, home of the original capital of Japan and its castle, the world's largest wooden building.

The forecast is for 1-2" of rain, but hopefully we'll find indoor things to do there.

The Nijo-Jo Castle

At the base of  Fushimi Inari
One of many small shrines
guarded by foxes
Klingon food!
Who knows?

Sparrows, anyone?