A Travellerspoint blog

Hiroshima to Osaka

After waving goodbye to our new Buddhist friends we continued south to Hiroshima, a city still struggling to emerge from the shadow of its tragic history. Since the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945, 'Hiroshima' has become synonymous with death and destruction, a name still half-whispered with an accompanying shudder. However in the wake of that day the people of Hiroshima rallied, and continue to do so; the rumour that nothing would grow for 75 years proved to be false, the city rose from the ashes, and now Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its painful history.

Our exploration started, inevitably, at the A-Bomb Peace Memorial Park, an area dedicated to the memory of the bomb's victims. The most striking feature of the Park is the skeletal A-Bomb Dome that stands just across the river from the main memorial site; after miraculously surviving the explosion it was decided that this building would remain as a hard-hitting reminder of the power of the bomb.


The park's main feature is the Peace Memorial Museum, two buildings joined by a long glass tunnel and both packed with enough information to keep us busy for several hours. The first building focuses mainly on the political and historical elements of the story, while the second is more distressing, outlining the short and long-term health risks and even sharing some personal stories. The museum's focus is not limited to the events of Hiroshima; there is also a sizeable section dedicated to the subject of nuclear weapons worldwide and their potential threat to humanity. Every time a country begins a new nuclear weapons experiment, the mayor of Hiroshima writes them a letter of protest, showing that the city is still very much affected by its harrowing past.

However Hiroshima has much more to offer than just its ghosts. Our most memorable experience was our day spent on the island of Miyajima, about a 40-minute train ride and 10-minute ferry crossing out of the city centre. The island's most famous attraction is the floating torii gate in front of Itsukushima Shrine, a huge red gate built in the sea that, when the tide comes in, appears to be floating on the water. We were lucky enough to see it at both low and high tide.


The island's other big draw is the view from the top of Mount Misen, Miyajima's highest peak. There is a cable car available to take you to the top but we, in a fit of madness, decided to opt for the hiking trail to the top instead. What folly that turned out to be. Although the walk to the summit is only a distance of 3km, the climb is steep and the extreme humidity of Japanese summer makes you feel like you're inhaling more water than air. By the time we got to the top we were aching and exhausted, and then found to our dismay that the views were almost completely obscured by mist. It was still pretty spectacular though, and we enjoyed a sense of achievement not shared by the 99% of visitors who took the cable car. We did however take the cable car back to the bottom.


One 9-hour night bus later we were in Osaka, a city best-loved on the traveller circuit for its location; although slightly lacking in notable sights, it is a great base for visiting nearby wonderlands, as we discovered. However, wanting to give Osaka opportunity to reveal its delights, we spent our first day exploring the city. Our first stop was Osaka Castle, an impressive structure built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful Japanese general who ruled Japan in the 1500s. The inside of the castle is now a museum on the castle's history, which was surprisingly interesting. We also visited Dotombori, Osaka's 'neon district', where the shops and restaurants seem to exist under the impression that a ridiculously oversized or flashing sign is essential for success.


The following day we set out for Nara, a nearby town that, even by Japan's standards, has more than its fair share of temples. A large part of Nara's appeal is that the majority of its sights are situated in Nara Park, a huge green space that stretches across half the town; the green lawns and tree-lined paths make for a very pleasant sightseeing setting. You just have to remember to stay alert, as the park is home to many over-friendly deer who will eat your map and train tickets if you let your guard down. We spent about four hours wandering around the park and saw most of the main temples including Kofukuji and Toda-ji, which boasts a beautifully carved wooden entrance gate.


However our next trip was to be far-and-away one of the best experiences of our trip. We made an early start in order to make the highly-recommended pilgrimage to Koya-San, a mountain-top village that is home to the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most spiritual places in Japan. The mountain is so remote that it takes two hours, two trains and a cable car to reach it from Osaka, but it was worth it. The temperature is cooler, the air is fresher, and despite the number of tourists the town maintains an amazing sense of peace, as though everyone is walking around in a daze of hushed awe. Our first stop was Okunoin, a huge cemetery where Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, is believed to be resting in meditation as he awaits the arrival of the Buddha of the Future. It is believed that he will be the only person able to translate the words of this Buddha, and therefore everyone who can afford it is buried here to get a front row seat for the second coming. Over 200,000 tombs are erected here, and we spent an hour wandering among the carved stones before finally finding our way to the main hall.


Unfortunately photos are not permitted inside the main temple, Torodo Hall, but it is absolutely breathtaking. The inside is all black polished wood and glowing red lanterns, and the monks lead services at intervals throughout the day. My favourite room was the hall's basement, where thousands of tiny Buddha statues sit in countless rows and the ceiling is completely covered in red hanging lanterns, casting a gloomy glow over the whole room. As we walked towards the exit, the sound of hundreds of chanting monks floated through the trees; it was the perfect end to our visit to such an intensely spiritual place.

We headed back to the centre of town and spent the rest of the day in the grounds of the main temples, Kongobuji and the Garan complex. Kongobuji is the head temple of Shingon Buddhism and therefore the more important site, but I personally preferred the buildings in the Garan complex. Each building is made of wood and exquisitely carved, and the Konpon Daito Pagoda, painted bright reddish-orange, is particularly striking. A fountain splashes quietly in the middle of the adjoining lake, and we took a short break just to sit on the bridge and absorb the unique atmosphere of this amazing place.


After a few final days in Tokyo we found ourselves back at the airport, ready to embark on the final stage of our journey. Our month in Japan has flown by far too fast, but we will not be sad as this is certainly not the last time we will see this beautiful country. But for now, China and a whole host of new challenges await...

Posted by kate1401 22:10 Archived in Japan Tagged osaka nara miyajima hiroshima koya osaka_castle peace_memorial_park Comments (0)

Kyoto and Living With Monks

I think when people visit a new place, they set out with an idea in their heads of how they expect it to look. I include myself in this. You see photos, read books, watch films, and piece together a perfect vision of beauty that unfortunately very rarely materialises in real life. But in Kyoto I found everything that I had ever imagined when I thought of Japan; quaint narrow streets, wooden teahouses, magnificent temples, even a few flawlessly painted geishas.

When we arrived in Kyoto we were exhausted from our sleepless overnight bus trip, and decided to have a quiet day exploring the beautiful old district around our hostel. However we got so absorbed in our wanderings that we eventually found ourselves at Kiyomizudera Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto. It was impressive, but we were soon driven back into the streets by the hoards of over-enthusiastic tourists. The next day we visited the famous Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji Temple, and left with a similar case of tourist fatigue. Visitors are forced to stick to a marked path, and it is easy to feel like a herd of cattle in the enclosed space. However the gold leaf-covered Pavilion is beautiful, particularly as it casts perfect reflections onto the still waters of the lake beside it.


The following day we made the 30-minute trip to the district of Arashiyama on the western edge of Kyoto. This small calm town feels like a world of its own, and it is difficult to believe that it lies so close to the city. The Togetsukyo Bridge has become a symbol of Arashiyama, but the main attraction is the beautiful bamboo forest, where pathways have been made to allow people to wander through the endless rows of bamboo. It's a perfect way to while away an afternoon; shafts of light shine through the forest, the stalks sway in the breeze, and you feel absolutely at peace.


My imagination became reality on our last day in Kyoto at Fushimi-Inari Shrine, which embodied all my expectations of what Japan would be like. We had intended to go to Nara on this day, and changed our plans last minute on the word of a fellow traveller, and now the idea that we almost missed this place fills me with disbelief. The shrine itself, while attractive, is not the centre of attention; it fades in comparison to the thousands of Torii gates that frame the paths leading up Mount Inari behind the shrine. This, for me, was picture-perfect Japan.


We spent the day wandering among the endless rows of gates, our amazement increasing with every step. The paths are set amongst shady forest, and every so often a break in the gates would reveal a gathering of tiny shrines where locals come to worship. Eventually we emerged from the forest halfway up the mountain to discover a lovely view over the city below, before we plunged back into the winding trails leading back to the main shrine.


The story now turns to one of the more interesting experiences of our trip - two nights living with monks in a small Buddhist temple near Kameoka, about an hour away from Kyoto. The temple is in a tiny village surrounded by rice fields, with a mountain looming in the background. I can understand how people find peace there; there is hardly a sound to be heard except for frogs, birds and the occasional car.


We arrived at 2pm during free time, and were welcomed by the two monks who live there permanently and the one other visitor. We were given time to unpack and settle into our new rooms - mine in the temple and John's in the nearby guesthouse - and then we entered straight into the monks' strict daily routine. First was the evening service, when the monks kneel in front of the shrine and chant their prayers in time. John and I were given prayer books and invited to join in, but the chanting is fast and rhythmic and we found it hard to keep up! The service was followed by dinner, a solemn affair that is undertaken in complete silence and in a specific fashion. Large wooden bowls were passed down the table containing rice, soup and a cold vegetable, and once everyone had filled their small bowls we ate, and then took a second portion if desired. It turns out monks eat very fast, and our first dinner culminated in an awkward couple of minutes where John was the only one eating, to the sound of complete silence. We then had to wash our bowl by filling it with warm water and scrubbing the food remnants off with a slice of radish. Don't ask me to explain it, I can't. I don't think even the monks could.

After a little free time, we had our first 'zazen' (meditation). We all took a seat on some cushions in the lotus position (half-lotus for the less flexible), and in the growing darkness we sat, completely still. I had thought that zazen required you to completely empty your mind, but one of the monks had told us that it is acceptable for thoughts to enter your head, as long as you don't hold onto them, and instead allow them to float through your mind like clouds. I found zazen to be a very relaxing experience, and when a bell rang to signal the end of the first half hour I found it hard to rouse myself. We then untangled our numb legs, massaged the feeling back into them, stood, and walked a few times around the room before settling down for a second half-hour session. Our day ended with a chat over a cup of cold tea, and we were in bed at 9pm in preparation for our 5am start the following day. My bed was just a futon on the floor, but zazen had tired my body so I fell asleep all the same.


A bell woke me at 4.50, and I groggily crawled out of bed and shuffled to the shrine room for the morning service - another vain attempt to follow the hypnotic chanting. We then had another hour of zazen before being put to our morning cleaning duties; John and I scrubbed the wooden decking that ran around the outside of the temple. Just as we finished a gong called us to breakfast, and we hurried to the table with rumbling stomachs. As the night before it was hardly a satisfying meal; rice mixed with hot water to create a thin porridge and a bowl of sliced cucumber. We followed the monks' example and ate fast, me feeling eternally grateful that I had mastered chopsticks in Thailand. After washing our bowls with the infamous radish, we did another hour of zazen then had some free time, during which the other visitor showed us around the village.

Our short, silent lunch of rice and vegetables was followed by a break from our routine; we had expected to return to the shrine room for mditation, but instead one of the monks took us to a neighbouring temple a short walk away, where the 'roshi' lived, the master of the temple. He was a tiny old man who looked a little like Yoda, but it turned out he's quite famous and has been invited all over the world to lead Buddhist services. After being shown around the temple we sat down to a tea ceremony with him, and over tea and Japanese cakes he showed us several photo albums depicting his adventures across Europe. We had our afternoon zazen session with him, and then returned to our own temple with a bag of vegetables. The monk thanked the roshi for the gift, but on the way home quietly admitted disappointment that it wasn't cake.


The evening followed the same pattern as the night before; we had our evening service, dinner of rice, soup and vegetables, and then sat down to our zazen. The repeated sessions were beginning to take their toll on our limbs, and our thoughts now tended to fixate on how much our knees and ankles were aching. As we sat drinking our evening tea and massaging our tingling feet, we asked the monks how long it took to get used to the constant sitting. The younger monk told us he no longer felt pain, but it had taken him three months to get to that point.

The next day we did our morning service, zazen and work, then after breakfast we packed up our things and said goodbye to the monks. It had been an amazing experience, but we'd be lying if we said we weren't somewhat relieved to return to real life, a life of lie-ins, meat and painless bones. One of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that 'life means suffering'. It definitely is the way they do it.

Posted by kate1401 05:01 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto japan buddhism arashiyama zen golden_pavilion zazen fushimi_inari torii_gates temple_stay Comments (0)

Tokyo: Two Needles in a Haystack

After originally planning on spending four days in Tokyo, we somehow found ourselves nine days later only just boarding our bus to Kyoto. On the face of it this may seem excessive, however it soon became clear on our ninety-minute journey to our hostel from the airport that we had underestimated the size of this city. As we whizzed past endless waves of streets, houses and offices, we really did feel like two very tiny needles in a very big haystack.

Our first two days were spent very leisurely after the non-stop journey around New Zealand; we met some lovely people in our hostel, explored the local area and visited a Japanese 'onsen'; a bathhouse where you get naked and chill in a spa for about £7. The hot water soothed our limbs, and just when we thought we were going to doze off we woke ourselves up with a dip in the cold pool. We also took advantage of Japan's low prices and went for a meal, Y100 wine and coffee beer.


After recharging our batteries for a couple of days, we finally ventured out into the great unknown of Tokyo. We started in Shibuya, site of the famous scramble crossing, where every few minutes every pedestrian light goes green and all hell breaks loose, with everyone crossing in a different direction and fighting to reach the kerb. There's a Starbucks overlooking the crossing that makes the perfect vantage spot to sit and watch this hypnotic proceeding. We explored the gigantic shopping malls that tower over the streets of Shibuya, and had our first ever sushi experience; tempura shrimp are a new personal favourite. It was also a new kind of dining experience; instead of interacting with a waiter, we used a touchscreen to order our food, which then whizzed out of the kitchen on a small conveyor belt. So far, so Japan.


Apparently the must-do activity on a Sunday in Tokyo is to head to Harajuku, and so we did, unaware of the bedlam awaiting us. Takeshita Dori, the main shopping street, was absolutely rammed with extravagantly-dressed teenagers, each one seemingly eager to make a bigger statement than the last. Walking down the street, we were so rammed in that we felt like we were queuing for something, except we didn't know what. We fought our way to the end and continued our exploration around a few of the less crowded streets, stumbling upon the Oriental Bazaar, before finding some much-needed peace at the Meji Shrine.

The shrine is accessed through a huge Japanese-style wooden torii gate, under which a wide path winds through quiet parkland and overhanging trees. The shrine itself is about a 15-minute walk down this path, thoroughly encased in the park, giving it an air of tranquility even when busy.


The next day we visited one of Tokyo's oldest and most popular temples, the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. It is fronted by a huge red gate with a lantern hanging in its centre, which leads to a short street packed with quaint little shops. The temple itself is impressive; a bold structure painted red and black, with beautiful lanterns hanging all around it. Not bad for a temple that was originally constructed in the year 645.


Akihabara is a surreal experience; we spent an afternoon there and it really has to be seen to be believed. The electronics district of Tokyo, as well as selling questionable technological good by the barrel, is home to countless arcades, with games to suit every taste. From dance mats to gun warfare, crane games to zombie annihilation, we saw it all. A personal favourite was Japan's version of air hockey, where the machine spits out twenty or thirty pucks simultaneously and the players are left scrabbling to hit them in any direction possible. I still couldn't say if I scored even a single goal.


After a day spent sheltering from an incredible ten-hour rain storm, we spent our final day wandering around Ueno Park, a sprawling respite from city life that features a lake, several museums and even a zoo. We discovered several small shrines hidden among the trees, and a group of huge trout in the river.


That night we boarded an overnight bus to Kyoto, slightly relieved to be escaping the bustle of the city and yet aware that we had still not experienced even half of what this giant city has to offer. Still, we were looking forward to our next destination, and settled into our coach seats with the wise words of a Japanese businessman still ringing in our ears; "I think you will like Japan...but I am very drunk....".

Posted by kate1401 20:47 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo shibuya ueno japan temple akihabara shrine sushi harajuku Comments (0)

Storming the South Island

We kicked off our southern adventure in Nelson, a town in the north east corner of the island that attracted us chiefly because of its proximity to the famed Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand's smallest national park but also among the most beautiful. After making the bus trip into the park, we set off on what was supposed to be a pleasant walk along the Park's coastal track, with stunning views over the ocean. For the first couple of hours all went to plan; it was chilly and overcast but we had come prepared in warm clothes and the scenery was stunning. Unfortunately we were not destined to finish the track. Two hours into the walk the heavens opened and what felt like a whole lake's worth of water poured down on us, soaking us to the bone as we retreated to the shelter of the local village, cursing the cruel timing of New Zealand's fickle winter climate.


Our next stop was the ridiculously small town of Punakaiki, made up essentially of a couple of streets of hotels and pubs that surround Pancake Rocks, a strange formation of rocks that appear to be stacked on top of each other in thin layers, like pancakes. There are several information boards that attempt to explain how the formations have come about, but the truth seems to be that nobody really knows. The rocks are accompanied by a series of blowholes that appear where the sea has eroded holes in the rock at angles; the sea water is driven into the holes from the bottom and sprays out of the top in spectacular fashion.


We then moved on to Fox Glacier, one of the highlights of the trip. At 13kms long, Fox is the longest of New Zealand's west coast glaciers, plummeting 2600m from the base of the Southern Alps. We reached the glacier via an easy one-hour walk that culminates in a track through a canyon with steep rock and waterfalls on either side, ending with a tiring climb to the base of the glacier. With Mount Cook towering in the background, this huge sheet of ice makes an impressive sight.


Queenstown was next, and its cosy, small-town feel endeared it to us immediately. It is the epitome of a winter town; the air is crisp, snow-capped mountains loom in the distance, and every morning you awake to a thick white mist blanketing the town. Although the main winter pastime is skiing, we found plenty to occupy us for a couple of days. Our hostel looked out over a beautiful lake, and on the edge of the town were some lovely gardens where you could entertain yourself with Frisbee Golf.


We also hit a highpoint food-wise in the shape of the famous fergburger. Fergburger is an immensely popular burger shop that is perpetually full, serving burgers almost the size of your head packed with meat, salad and a perfect aioli sauce. It wouldn't be going too far to say that this was the best burger I have ever had; your life is not complete until you've tried one.

After a quick stop in Oamaru to visit the yellow-eyed penguin colony, we headed to Christchurch with very little idea of what to expect. The city was ravaged by an earthquake in 2011, and on arriving it was clear the city is still recovering. The majority of buildings in the city centre either collapsed in the earthquake or were pulled down later after being declared unstable, and as a result walking through the city feels rather like being in a post-apocalyptic world where the last humans have retreated to strongholds and left the world to crumble. The city is being rebuilt one area at a time, and in the meantime quick-fix projects have been set up to add some cheer to the city. The best of these is the Re:Start Mall, a collection of coffee shops and independent fashion boutiques housed in huge shipping containers.


An assortment of quirky displays known as 'Transitional City Projects' also litter the city; these include a free Dance Mat near the shopping mall and a 'cardboard cathedral' that appears to have been made out of playing cards. When we arrived it appeared to be being made into a proper church. We came across a cool idea just at the end of our hostel's street; an ice-creamery had fallen down in the earthquake and in its place there now stands one of its freezers, converted into a book exchange. All these projects send out a message from the residents of Christchurch that they may be down, but they are certainly not out.


Our last stop was Kaikoura, where we shunned the highly-expensive whale watching in favour of a visit to the seal colony that sunbathes on the shores a short distance from town. The day was cloudy and windy, casting a foreboding grey tone over the sea and mountains and making for some great stormy photos. We trekked out to the edge of town, rounded a corner...and almost walked into a pair of seals who had decided to take a nap on the boardwalk. Although signs advised keeping your distance, the seals seemed to have no qualms about sleeping on and around the paths and car park by the sea edge, so we managed to get quite near to them, although their pungent smell ensured we didn't get too close.


So ended our New Zealand adventure! While we have loved our time here, it was with some relief that we headed to the airport towards Japan and its hot climate. As we flew over the Pacific Ocean, peeling off our winter layers, we waved a fond farewell to New Zealand; not so much 'goodbye' as 'auf wiedersehen'. We will be back.

Posted by kate1401 22:26 Archived in New Zealand Tagged queenstown abel_tasman fox_glacier christchurch punakaiki nelson kaikoura south_island Comments (0)

Nomads in the North Island

After the endless beach that is Australia, we were somewhat relieved to venture on to New Zealand in search of something new. Of course the first 'new' thing we encountered was rain; after 3 months of almost perfect weather it was a shock to the system to arrive in the wet, chilly climate of New Zealand's winter. Undeterred, we dug our hoodies and umbrellas out of the depths of our rucksacks and ventured out, feeling our sun-fed tans almost draining away. Auckland, though a large city, seemed to us fairly unimpressive; it boasts the Sky Tower and an impressive shopping/dining thoroughfare but overall felt crowded and oppressive.

Things looked up as soon as we left the city; after stopping in the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula for a day of walking and soaking up the views, we headed to Matamata to fulfill a longstanding dream; visiting Hobbiton, the filming set used in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. We were shown around the set by an informative guide who gave us lots of amazing facts about the making of the set, visited Bag End, Bilbo's house, and had a drink in the Green Dragon pub. A great nerdy day was had by all!


Our next stop was Rotorua, famed for its natural hot springs and boiling mud pools, and also for its rotten egg smell caused by the hydrogen sulphide emissions! Our lack of a car prevented us from getting to the town's main geothermal area, Wai-O-Tapu, but instead we enjoyed the free thermal pools on display at Kuirau Park, where the water literally boils in the ground. We also visited the Polynesian Spa, where for a mere 25NZD you can spend as long as you like soaking in the numerous outdoor hot pools, ranging from 33-42 °C, while admiring stunning views of Lake Rotorua. The water, sourced from two natural hot springs, has been used by Maoris for generations as a healer of aches and pains, and I must admit the pools did seem to have a soothing effect.


With newly-refreshed limbs we moved on to Taupo, by the side of a lake of the same name that is bigger in size than Singapore. So far does it expand you could be forgiven for thinking it was the sea, and the beautiful mountains of Tongariro National Park are just visible in the background.


We also made the short trek out through beautiful forest to Huka Falls, an impressive waterfall that is occasionally tackled by an ambitious kayaker with a death wish. For such a small waterfall it's quite impressive; any confusion we had about why the falls weren't a rafting destination was dispelled when we saw the volume of water gushing over the falls. We finished our walk with a visit to Craters of the Moon, Taupo's own hot mud pools.


From Taupo we headed for our final North Island destination-Wellington. Aucklanders seem to think that their city is much more worthy of being New Zealand's capital but I must disagree. Wellington, despite being smaller, seems much more spacious, and has an easygoing atmosphere that Auckland lacks. We made the obligatory visit to the parliament buildings, including the incredibly ugly Beehive, but Wellington's true appeal lies in the bustling streets and tranquil waterfront. A particular high point is the famous Cuba Street, a fabulous mix of cool bars, kooky cafes and secondhand shops selling clothes, music, books and general peculiarities.


Having heard that the South Island is far superior to the North, it was with high expectations that we boarded the interislander ferry bound for Picton and the South. Yet to come is Abel Tasman National Park, the glaciers, Queenstown, Milford Sound, Kaikoura...and we're already in love.

Posted by kate1401 20:21 Archived in New Zealand Tagged auckland rotorua hot_springs hobbiton matamata taupo wellington Comments (0)

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