Japan Stories: Honshu
Last updated: Friday, October 06, 2006.

From November 23 to November 28 I travelled around southern Honshu using Japan's gift to the world, the JR Pass. Armed with this I was able to ride all the trains I wanted to, even the ever-cool, super-fast Shinkansen.

This is a little report about the trip. You might find it handy to look at this map.


I woke up at 5 am on Sunday to get an early start on my travels. By 5:30 I was boarding the Yamanote-sen bound for Tokyo station. By a surprising coincidence I ran into some friends on the train returning from an all-night bash in Roppongi. At 6:13 the Hikari Shinkansen pulled out of Tokyo station and headed south. It was a cloudy day, but at one point where Mount Fuji popped out of the clouds, giving us a brief but spectacular view.

After switching to a regular express train in Nagoya, I arrived at Takayama, my first destination. I went to see the Hida Folk Village, which was quite interesting. There are some old wooden houses with steep straw roofs to hold up the two-meter deep snows in the winter. Unlike western-style houses, the fireplace was right in the middle of the floor and there is no chimney, so the they tended to be quite smoke-filled. (Apparently the smoke also helps preserve the condition of the house and keeps bugs away.) The soft rain kind of added to the atmosphere.

After walking around the village, I started walking back towards central Takayama. I couldn't help noticing, some distance away, an incredibly large golden temple with a cherry on top. I kid you not; this temple had a great red ball plopped right on the middle of the roof. Was this a real temple, or some kind of big ice cream shop? I had to go investigate.

Sure enough, it was a real temple. In Japan, temples and shrines are major tourist attractions, and are interesting to see for their history and architecture. This one, however, seemed to be quite new, and had an enourmous parking lot and great staircase leading up to it. Since I'd come this far, I figured I'd take a quick peek inside.

As I was climbing up, this Japanese woman came up to me and started talking to me. I was considering turning back, since this appeared to be a real church in full operation, and I didn't want to interrupt anything. But the woman insisted that I go inside, so curiosity got the better of me. It was pretty incredible... there must be room for thousands of people inside. At the front was an enormous golden box with trees growing on either side, and an aquarium-like enclosure running the width of the room underneath it with water flowing through. The woman took me up to the front and called over a young acolyte who explained the basis of their religion (founded by some guy in the 50s) and informed me that all of the gods of all religions were inside the golden box. I couldn't understand all of the Japanese, but I did manage to enquire about the cherry and found out that it was the symbol of their religion.

You have to understand that in my experience, most Japanese are pretty loose about religion, adopting as many or as few as convenient. Also, I'd just become so blase about walking into temples everywhere that I never expected they would attempt a conversion on the spot. After a moment, the woman asked me if I was feeling any inspiration from the golden box. I didn't quite know how to tell her this, but I was not. I decided maybe I should be moving along, since my schedule was quite tight, so despite the woman's entreatment for me to wait for inspiration, I took my leave. On the way out they gave me a little dish of sake and a little stack of pamphlets for later reading.

I don't mean to belittle their religion, but it was a pretty strange experience.

Anyways, after that I walked to a part of Takayama with lots of old-style shops and looked around. It was a bustling area, with lots of tourists. I stopped off at a stall for some yakisoba.

For those who don't know, yakisoba is a kind of fried noodle with vegetables and usually bacon mixed in (though being a vegetarian, I usually try to order mine without the meat). The whole thing is fried in this tangy sauce, yum! I wanted to try the yakisoba in other areas in Japan, since there is considerable regional variation. I'm sure my coworkers would laugh if they heard about this little quest of mine, because if you consider the role of yakisoba in the Japanese food system, the situation is probably akin to a Japanese person travelling around America, trying the hot dogs in each city. Well, anyways, for the record, Takayama yakisoba had this beige powder on top, which makes it much drier. Also, the hot pan they served it on burns the bottom noodles, making them crunchier. Very interesting. Now that I've fully convinced you of my lamentable cultural insensitivity, I'll continue with my story...

I hopped on a train to my next stop, Kanazawa, where I found the Youth Hostel and stopped for the night.


My first target in Kanazawa was Myoryu-ji, also known as the Ninja Temple. Myself and about a hundred other people converged there at 9 am for a guided tour. The building looks like an ordinary temple, but in reality there are lots of concealed passages, rooms, and spy holes for times when a quick escape or assasination is called for. The tour guide revealed a hidden passage in the floor, a place for watching people from beneath a stairway, trick double-doors that open to the outside on one side, and to a secret passage on the the other, and so on. It was pretty cool.

Afterwards I went to Kenroku-en, which is considered to be one of the "top three" gardens in Japan. The weather was much nicer on this day, and so I spent a while walking around. The most amazing thing about the garden is that all of the water is supplied by an underground tunnel from a riverbed 10 km away, without pumping. There's even a fountain that works by the natural water pressure.

After the garden, I headed back for the station. Unfortunately, the city of Kanazawa has this clever ploy whereby they put up signs for a bus that goes to all the tourist spots and ends at the station. Then they go and send a different bus along, which the unsuspecting tourist boards, and ends up in the middle of nowhere, and has to cough up more money for the return trip. Very cunning. My bigger problem, however, was when I got to the train station. It was the last day of a three-day weekend, and the trains were just packed. I hadn't made a reservation this time, because I wasn't sure what time I would want to leave. Thus I ended up standing for most of the four-hour ride to Hiroshima. I never knew that the Shinkansen becomes as packed as the Tokyo commuter trains on a long weekend!

Furthermore, once I arrived, I wasn't sure exactly where the Hiroshima youth hostel was. Fortunately, there was a Korean guy there who knew where to go. Now during that day, I'd started to become somewhat happy about my ability to speak Japanese with some students at the last hostel. But this Korean guy put me right to shame... he had been studying as long as I had (one year) and was much, much more fluent. And his English was pretty good, too! Oh well.


On Tuesday I took off bright and early to go to Miyajima, which is an island near Hiroshima. There I saw the floating torii (gate) which is one of the three great sights of Japan.

I then walked around the island and saw the five-storied pagoda and an interesting temple with some old paintings in it. Narrowly dodging the tour groups, I slipped away from the island and went back to Hiroshima.

Of course, the main thing to see in Hiroshima is the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb museum. The museum is probably the most depressing museum on the face of the earth. (Not to suggest that you shouldn't go...) It describes in great detail the before and after situation in Hiroshima. They have various articles that were damaged by the bomb, such as bottles, watches, and fingernails. There are statistics about the various radiation-caused disorders in the aftermath. The message is quite clear and quite powerful.

In the Peace Park, I saw the statue where they put all of the paper cranes that people around the world have folded in memory of the girl who started it all. I myself had folded quite a few during some of my classes in first year university, so I took out a piece of scrap paper and added one more to the pile while I was there. In the soft rain that was falling, I headed over to the A-bomb Dome, which is one of the few buildings left standing afterwards.

My initial plan after Hiroshima had been to go to Koya-san to try a temple stay. But I decided that it was too difficult to get there, so I went to Okayama instead. It's too bad, because I hear Koya-san is really nice, but Okayama is pretty cool too. They have another of the "top three" gardens, which was a huge place. There's also a pretty neat castle. Unfortunately, it turned out that the castle was closed on that particular day, so I could only see the outside.

Once again, I wasn't positive of the exact location of the youth hostel, since I had only the somewhat vague map in my guidebook to lead me. I was pretty close, but not quite sure which way to turn, so I had stopped on a corner to examine the map. A girl biking by, seeing me confused on a street corner with my big backpack, asked if I was going to the youth hostel. She then walked me most of the way. What a nice country!


Most of the places I'd gone so far were pretty popular with tourists, and while the crowds hadn't been too outrageous for the most part, I wanted to try going somewhere a little more out of the way. So on Wednesday morning I took the train up to Takahashi. It was a pretty small town (by Japanese standards) and had a lot of nice Japanese-style houses. The moutains around the city were had the fall colours, so the atmosphere was pretty nice.

I wanted to go to Bitchu-Mastuyama Castle, which is the highest castle in Japan (in terms of altitude). The only way to get there is by walking for 5 km (well, I could have taken a taxi), all uphill. But it was a nice walk even though it was raining a little bit. The castle has a neat atmosphere, with all the mist-covered moutains around it, and trees choked by twisty vines. The inside was really not very large, but at least it wasn't packed with tourists!

Back in the city, I decided to sample the Takahashi yakisoba. (Here I go again...) Unlike the dry, Takayama yakisoba, it had extra sauce put on top, and was therefore extra tangy. It also seemed to have some different kinds of vegetables in it, although, being fried and covered in sauce, I couldn't tell what they were.

My next stop was Himeji, which is famous for its big white castle. When I arrived at Himeji, it was pouring rain. I got soaked walking to the castle, but after that I was mostly inside. The castle was quite neat, with lots of displays inside. Highly recommended.

To finish off the busy day, I took the train once again to Kyoto to meet Roz, whose house I was going to stay at for three days. That's right, while the rest of us coop students are in dorms or at best tiny apartments, Roz actually has a whole house! Thanks to her amazing generosity, almost every coop student from Tokyo got to stay in her living room when they travelled to Kyoto. Thank you, Roz!

So that night I actually cooked dinner instead of going to a restaurant. I'd almost forgotten how to cook, since the best I can do in my "minikitchen" in Tokyo is pasta (and instant yakisoba). What luxury to have a stove with 2 elements, and a combination convection-microwave oven as well! And a toaster grill! And a big fridge! And an electric dish drier! Well, actually, I think the electric dish drier quite often goes unused.


Kyoto, ah, beautiful Kyoto. It turned out to be worth being rained on in Himeji in order to have the beautiful weather that I had on Thursday. Leaving my big coat and backpack behind, I hopped on my borrowed bike and went off to see some of the temples that Kyoto is so famous for.

And promptly became lost.

Japanese streets are so frustrating, because they constantly twist, turn, and go in dead ends. I kept figuring out where I was, but then the street would turn without me realizing and I would be disoriented again. Then I remembered that I had brought that great invention, the compass. Never again will I attempt to navigate a strange Japanese city without one. After that I had no problems, and eventually ran into the campus of Ritsumeikan University, my first target. I just had a quick look around, since Rits is the sister university of UBC. In fact some of them had been volunteer tutors during my Japanese class. But I didn't really know anyone there, so I took off for the nearby Ryoan-ji.

Ryoan-ji is a temple renowned for its Zen garden which consists of fifteen carefully chosen and placed rocks in a thirty by ten meter bed of white gravel. A very minimalist portrayal of nature.

From the austerity of the zen garden, I went to the decadence of Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple. A whole pavillion covered in gold leaf, it looked quite nice in the fall colours. However, it was pretty packed with tourists taking pictures.

At that point my plan was to take the bike back and catch a bus to the east side of the city. But the weather was so nice, and it was so nice to be able to bike around, I decided to just keep going across the city. After an hour or two, I arrived at Ginkakuji, another temple and garden. I walked along the "Path of Philosophy", with its nice trees and canal and vending machines. Actually, I biked along most of it, but since some people went by on motorcycles, I didn't feel too bad about it. At the other end, I followed a little path up the mountain to some ancestral graves.

After I came down, I went to the Gion district with its numerous craft shops. Then I biked back towards Roz's house, past the Imperial Palace garden and stopping off at a pottery museum and a MacDonalds'. Yes, I'm ashamed to say it, but it was all I could find that was relatively vegetarian (with their new creamy koroke burger) and I wanted to get back before dark.

I did arrive before dark, at around 4:30. But when I say "arrive", I mean at the spot where I thought Roz's house was. Where Roz's house actually was is a different matter altogether. You see, I made a careful note of where her house was on my map, but in fact, I was mistaken (possibly the reason that I became lost so quickly after leaving it). As it happens, Roz was going to be quite late that night at a party with her coworkers. Since she had taken me to her house rather than giving directions, I really had no way to find it because, as it turned out, I had forgotten to bring the address. Sooooooo stoopahd.

Convinced that I was in the right general area, I began a search of every back alley in the area, of which there were many. I had taken care to make careful note of the appearance of Roz's house before I left: beige and sort of Japanese looking. What I didn't realize is that every house in that area could be described in the same terms. So after biking around all day, I was now walking through dozens of twisty alleyways, scaring children and being chased by dogs. Go ahead, laugh. I walked past past sawmills, past vegetable gardens, past cram schools filled with kids studiously writing their evening tests.

By 7:00 I was getting kind of cold and hungry, so I stopped off at a little restaurant. Afterwards I was ready to give up, but I thought I would just take one more look. I decided to expand my searched territory in a new direction. And lo and behold, there was the house!! Hallelujah! Only three hours of searching...


Today was Nara, a popular town with tourists and school groups, mostly because of its Daibutsu, a 16 m tall bronze statue of Buddha, housed in the largest wooden structure on earth. It was pretty cool.

Behind the Daibutsu, there is a hole carved in one of the pillars supporting the building. Apparently if you can climb through the hole, you are on the road to enlightenment. As I passed, a middle-aged man was well on the road to enlightenment, with a little help from his family who were tugging with all of their might. I took a look at the hole and it looked a little doubtful. But I thought, what the heck, and I plunged in. Somehow I went straight through without any trouble, much to my surprise and the consternation of the guy who went before me. Later I heard that the hole is supposed to be just the size of the Daibutsu's nostril, which makes for an interesting metaphor.

While I was at the temple, I thought I'd get my fortune told by shaking this box of sticks until one pops out (omikuji). I'd never done it before, but a lot of my friends had, and invariably ended up with fortunes such as "No. 17 -- Excellent Luck" or "No. 23 -- Outstanding Luck" or "No. 42 -- Damn Fine Luck". I figured that all of the fortunes must be good, so why not cheer myself up with a good fortune. Boy was I in for a surprise:

Well, at least travel was good. And I can't deny that the house that I had lost last night sure as heck wasn't found easily...

As I left the Daibutsu, a whole horde of school tours swarmed into the place. I just got out in time! I looked around at some of the other temples, but since I'd seen so many already I decided not to go in. Instead I took a walk through Nara Park, which was pretty peaceful. The only problem is that I came out of the park a long way from where I had started, so I was kind of in the middle of nowhere.

I started keeping my eyes open for a place to get some lunch, as I meandered through the back streets of Nara. As usual, it was pretty tough to find a place that had something vegetarian. Then, on this one particularly insignificant back street, I saw a restaurant with a small sign saying "Vegetarian restaurant". I was blown away... never in all my time in Japan have I seen such a thing as a vegetarian restaurant! I'd heard that there were a couple, mostly serving Buddhist food at outrageous prices. But this place, with its interior filled with strange artifacts and instruments, and new-age music playing softly in the background, could have been right out of Vancouver! Once again my serendipitous approach to travel took me to a place I wouldn't have found otherwise...

After a great lunch, I walked back to the main shopping area of Nara and picked up some souvenirs for some people back home. For some reason, parody T-shirts seemed to be all the rage in the souvenir shops. The shirts had famous corporate logos with Japanese puns made out of the name. For instance, there were numerous puns made out of the "Adidas" logo... such as aki desu (it's autumn), with the logo turning red. Then there was a dripping Nike logo that said Daeki (saliva). Also prominently displayed in many shops was this very bizarre "NO FUCKING" T-shirt, using a no-parking motif with a rather explicit pictograph. I was half-tempted to wait around and see what kind of people would buy such a thing...

After picking up some souvenirs, I went back to Kyoto. This time I had no difficulty whatsoever finding Roz's house.


Well, it was the last day of my JR Pass and therefore the last day of my trip. I'd left this day open, since there were many things left that I wanted to see. As it happened, I didn't realy feel up to consulting all of the train schedules to go to some place really exotic. Also, it was pouring rain in Kyoto so I didn't really want to walk around there. So I decided to go take a quick look at Osaka. My guidebook didn't recommend very much there, since it's just another big city like Tokyo, so I thought I'd go check out "Den-Den Town", Osaka's big discount electronics area.

I'd visited Tokyo's equivalent area, Akihabara, many times, and to be sure Den-Den Town was quite similar. Like Akihabara, they had girls dressed in strange outfits calling out for customers to enter their store and handing out pamphlets. But they also had one thing I hadn't seen before: short parades of people walking and advertising. First I saw the Sony group; 3 or 4 girls in shiny purple outfits with lots of balloons. Even stranger was the Toshiba group, all in extremely weird costumes. This one guy had a huge conical old-man wig with flowing white hair and was playing the sax, and the drummer was similarly decked out in bright colours. Seeing this crew walking by, with wafts of "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" blaring out was just plain weird. Adding to the surreal effect was an enormous wireframe fly perched on top of one of the buildings.

After I'd had enough of Den-Den Town (and splurged my leftover travel budget on a few items that were cheaper than in Tokyo), I went back and hopped on the Shinkansen home. But, oh, what a disappointment it was! From Osaka to Tokyo takes 3 hours and 45 minutes -- quite fast. But something was wrong with the Shinkansen that day, because we chugged along at pathetic speeds, stopping frequently for the last 10 km, and arrived a whole hour and 45 minutes late! Normally the trains are accurate to within a few seconds, so something must have gone seriously wrong. In fact, the delay made the evening news that night...

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good trip. The weather could have been better, but the fall colours were great and at least it wasn't too hot or too cold. I saw a lot of different aspects of Japanese culture and history, and had fun! You may have caught me using a lot of adjectives such as "strange" and "weird", but that's just part of making contact with a different culture. I'm sure to some people shiny purple suits and temples with cherries on top are the most natural thing in the world. Anways, anyone who's staying in Japan for a while should definitely jump at the chance to see different parts of the country.

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Brett Allen (brett@snazzorama.com)
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