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Driving in Japan (2010) [Part II] September 28, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Driving in Japan (2010) [Part II]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tt

Our final leg of day 1 was a trip to Sakaiminato, Matsue, and Izumo.  The drive to Sakaiminato was a long and boring one, and one that I wouldn’t recommend.  It wasn’t recommended to me by my map, but it was necessary to reach our destination of Sakaiminato.  The stretch between Yonago and Sakaiminato was one long boring straight stretch.  We got fed up looking for the famous street in Sakaiminato and parked in a supermarket just a couple blocks from the station.  It turned out nice as we could just walk over to the famous Mizuki Shigeru Road.  After a tour of Sakaiminato, my friend took over the driving as I was exhausted and we had agreed to do the switch.  The drive on the north side of the lake between Sakaiminato and Matsue was beautiful and allowed us to see some of the countryside towns of Shimane.  We also got to see how they do construction.  Instead of having flag people directing traffic, they used signal lights and timers.  You would see a timer ticking down with a red light.  When the timer reached zero, the light would turn blue and you could go.  They basically set it up so that there was a “flag person” all the time, even when they weren’t working on the road.  It was the first time I had ever seen that, and we saw it a couple times on this journey.  The roads in and around Matsue and Izumo were nice as well, but there was nothing unique about them, especially when comparing it to other cities in Japan.  It was beautiful to drive around Lake Shinji and I would recommend it to anyone and everyone.

After a couple days off in Izumo to relax and see all of the sights, we took off on the second section of our tour. We drove from Izumo all the way to Hiroshima.  The first part was a quick jaunt on the San’in Expressway and the Matsue Expressway.  We headed south to Unnan City and then south along the Tojo Ourai, route 314.  It was a nice two lane road that had little to no traffic on it.  It was a nice winding road that flowed along a river and past many villages.  It was a perfect way to see the farms and forests of Shimane before we got to Hiroshima.  My plan for the route was to reach the Okuizumo Orochi Loop.  It’s a double loop, kind of like a pretzel, that ends roughly 105 metres above the starting point.  The total length is roughly 2300 metres.  It’s a fun little double loop with a nice small pullout at the top. Be sure to stop here and take a bunch of pictures.  Whenever you go, it will be quiet as most people take the major Izumo Ourai instead of this road.  After we completed the loop, we continued south until we reached the Chugoku Expressway.  We had another “moment” in a national park just before we reached the Expressway.  Unlike other moments, this one wasn’t comfortable.  I was doing the majority of driving on this section and I had a small beetle join me in the car.  I think we hit him and he just happened to fall into the car and get stuck near my crotch.  It was a fairly uncomfortable feeling for me to have a bug wedged under my pants, and it didn’t help that it was as we approached a corner.  Thankfully, I kept cool enough to continue driving.  After about 10 minutes or so, we came to an intersection where I could get out and sweep the bug out onto the ground.  Aside from the near heart attack I got from being surprised, all was well.  By the time we reached the Expressway, things were good.

The trip along the Expressway was quite simple.  We decided to switch drivers as I hate driving in the city.  My friend was really kind enough to “volunteer” his services while I navigated.  We got off the Expressway just before the Hiroshima Expressway started.  We took the main roads and got fooled by our GPS again.  All of the signs and all of the cars went one way, and the GPS said to go another way.  We instinctively ignored our GPS and followed the signs to our next “Expressway”, a tunnel that would bypass a lot of the city and drop us off in the centre of the town.  It was very interesting to exit the tunnel as we were on a bridge over a river and then planted in the downtown core of the city.  Imagine entering a tunnel in the suburbs, with only a few strip malls around.  Once you exit the tunnel, you are immediately on a bridge looking at a big bustling city with tons of traffic.  We managed to safely find Hiroshima Station and then to the hotel.  Needless to say, it was a huge challenge to understand the GPS and we did get a little lost along the way.  When you are travelling in a city, GPS is very difficult to read as the signal tends to bounce off of the tall buildings.  A little heated argument did ensue within our car, but cooler heads prevailed and we made it to our hotel, and dropped off our car at the rental shop and said sayonara to our faithful steed.  I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, driving in major Japanese cities is very stressful and not fun at all.

I learned a few new things on this trip for my future travels.  The GPS is your friend and your foe.  There were many times where I wanted to use the GPS properly, but I couldn’t figure it out.  I’m sure there is a way, but without the necessary Japanese skills, it was more difficult that it should have been.  If you are trying to get from A to B, there is no problem to input it with basic Japanese skills.  Most of the input data is done in Japanese (hiragana), but finding the way to input in Roman characters was difficult.  It took us a few days to figure it out.  You also have to be aware that many places have the same name.  If you search for a place with a name such as “Sakaiminato”, you have to choose by the city.  Searching for something like Hiroshima Station, while it should mean the train station, it actually means anything with Hiroshima Station in the title.  It was a pain in the butt to figure out how to set it up properly, but with a little fiddling, we got it to work.  Navigation input is also set so that you can’t do anything unless you are parked.  Pressing the brake does not equal park.  You must actually set the car in park.  Other than that, the maps were very detailed and it was easy to navigate.  The instructions were great too, but not as good as the car that I used on my trip to Nikko.

As for maps, I still recommend the Touring Mapple.  It’s a brand that is geared towards motorcyclists.  The routes that are recommended are highlighted, and there is a ton of information on the maps themselves.  In British Columbia, we have Destination Highways, which is a great book, but it can’t compare to Touring Mapple.  Touring Mapple has information on tight corners which are dangerous, information on closed roads, and even information on restaurants and hostels where you can stay.  While it’s a terrible city map, it’s great for travelling between cities.  Do note that Destination Highways does have descriptions on the roads themselves, which is better than Touring Mapple, but Touring Mapple is more complete as you can get information on roads to access the great roads.  It even featured onsen which are great to relax in.  If you are driving a car, I still highly recommend this map as it’s perfect for any adventure that requires the open road.  Choose any route that includes as many highlighted sections as possible, otherwise keep to the Expressways.  If you drive on anything that isn’t highlighted, you can expect to see nothing but traffic and the view wouldn’t be as nice either.  Surprisingly, the rural Expressways are very scenic.  Stopping at the rest stops are wonderful as you can sample some of the local food and there are various activities that you can do.  Most of all just take your time and always venture off the beaten path.  You never know what you might encounter.

Note:  This is part two of a two part series.  If you haven’t read part one, please head over to Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I].
For further reading about the San’in region, please follow the links below:

Driving Information:

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – English): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chugoku_Expressway

Chugoku Expressway (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/中国自動車道

Izumo Orochi Loop (Wikipedia – Japanese): http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/奥出雲おろちループ

Drive Plaza (Information on Expressways in Japan including travel times – JAPANESE): http://www.driveplaza.com/

About Touring in Japan (English): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto/map_e.html
How to Cycle Around Japan (This is for cycling, but it’s very useful for driving as well): http://www.e-wadachi.com/howto_e.html

Touring Mapple (Official – Japanese): http://touring.mapple.net/

Rental Car How To (Japan Guide) [Note: There are links to major car rental companies towards the bottom of the page]:http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2024.html

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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Miyajima Redux September 14, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Miyajima Redux” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tA

It has been a couple years since I last visited Miyajima, and I was excited to return to an area that I found to be the most beautiful place in Japan.  Since I last visited, I have made visits to the other three Top 3 Views of Japan, and I still think it’s the most beautiful of the three.  I have been to various areas including a trip around Shikoku, and a trip to the San’in area, and I still think Miyajima is beautiful.  While the natural beauty wasn’t as special this time around, the actual island didn’t disappoint me too much.  The second time around was not as good as the first time, but it was still great to say the least.

The first time I went to Miyajima, I went on a busy weekend.  I had time to see almost everything, and I did almost everything.  One of the main places I wanted to visit was the top of the mountain.  I enjoyed my trip up a rickety ropeway but this time, I was burdened with a choice to either hike up or not go to the top as the ropeway was closed.  I didn’t mind too much, but with the hot weather and the fact that I had been travelling for about a week already, I wasn’t up to the challenge of hiking up to the top.  Especially when I knew I would have to rush a little to get things done.  Instead, I decided to relax in the village and just absorb the atmosphere.

The first thing people should be doing is head straight to Itsukushima Jinja and the Torii.  It’s a short walk and you can see it from the ferry as you approach Miyajima.  The walk over on the weekend can be extremely busy with tourists taking up every available piece of real estate.  It’s a simple walk to get to the torii, and the best location for the view is generally reserved for those on tours.  They set up a set of benches/steps for groups of 10 or more to join together for a photo with the torii.  This area is the best for photos as you can see the torii with the main island in the background.  Like my last trip, I arrived at low tide, so I immediately made my way out to the torii.  Unlike last time, there were only a few people around the torii.  I was able to get more photos and not worry too much about getting in the way of other people.  Nothing had changed at all.  The gate was in the same location, with the same paint.  Although the paint did look a little older, it was still an amazing sight.  From there, I went into the shrine as it is a must see, even for a second time.  I headed in and felt that things were different.  With less people, pictures were much easier to take.  The only sad part was that there wasn’t a wedding happening this time.  I did get more time and things went much faster as there were very few people in the shrine itself.  Do be aware that on weekdays, while there are fewer tourists, there are hundreds of school kids taking educational tours of the island.  It’s tough to get around, but if you just wait a few minutes, they’ll soon pass.  The peak of these tours occurs around noon and in the early afternoon.

Afterwards, I headed over to a few of the other shrines in the area before my major task of the day, shopping!  I spent nearly the entire day in the shopping street of Miyajima.  Miyajima is famous for its wood products.  I have mentioned that Miyajima has the largest wooden rice spatula in the world.  You can still buy wooden rice spatulas (obviously not the largest one) as well as other wood products.  Finding things such as wood bowls and cups are harder to find, but chopsticks and chopstick rests are easy.  I was also introduced to an interesting character that looks a bit like a bald Buddhist monk.  Of course, they have the typical tourist goods such as t-shirts, pens, and whatnot.  I also had a lot of time to think about my gifts for friends.  Miyajima is the best place to buy momiji manju.  It’s a maple leaf shaped “pancake” with a sweet filling.  Typically, you’ll find red bean paste or custard, but in Miyajima you can also find macha, chocolate, and cheese.  There are a lot of flavours to choose from and I highly recommend trying them all.  I went to one famous shop that was recommended by the Japanese travel books.  The shop is easy to find.  It is the only shop that sells cream cheese filled momiji manju.  It can be easy to miss, but if you are looking for it, you will find it.

I also had a chance to eat in Miyajima.  It was the first time I had deep fried oysters.  Hiroshima is a region well known for its oysters.  They typically grill oysters in their shells and you can buy them for a few hundred yen each.  Being a weekday, these oysters were a little scarce, so I decided to go into a small restaurant and order a fried oyster set lunch for about 1000 yen.  I don’t normally enjoy oysters, but this time, it was delicious.  It was dangerously hot and I nearly burnt my tongue, but somehow, they got me to enjoy it.  Miyajima is also famous for its Anago, or salt water eel.  While it wasn’t in season, it was still a specialty of the area.  I can eat oysters, but I can’t eat eel, so I didn’t get a chance to try it.  While I was in Miyajima, I had a chance to run into a small liquor shop.  Of course it was focusing on souvenirs, but liquor was still a major presence.  Hiroshima is not well known for its liquor, but there is one brand of liquor that I generally recommend.  Kamotsuru is an old brand of sake that is somewhat well known in Japan, but well known in Hiroshima.  It is one of my favourite brands of sake and you can pick up bottles of it easily in Miyajima.  I was lucky to meet the store owner who gave me a little information (in Japanese) about the different varieties of Kamotsuru.  While I would recommend trying to speak a little with her, it’s best to wait until you are at Hiroshima Station and at a department store to get information as store owners in Miyajima have very limited English skills.  I have talked with many shop clerks about sake, so it’s easier for me to understand what they are saying.  Essentially, just buy what you want and hope you have the right type.

Miyajima is a wonderful island that will always leave me wanting more. I would love to be able to visit it again when the tide is in, and to go back to the peak of the island. It’s hard to find the time to go to Hiroshima, but I’m sure I’ll go back again someday. If you ever make it to Hiroshima, it is a shame if you don’t visit Miyajima as well. It’s not that close, but it is close enough that an extra day would not hurt.

The Miyajima series continues with Miyajima (Top 3 Views of Japan) and Top 3 Views of Japan (Reflections).

Miyajima Information:

Japan Guide: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3401.html
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Miyajima

Itsukushima Jinja (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itsukushima

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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