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Matsue August 31, 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 “Matsue” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-matsue

Matsue is a nice small city located near the coast of the Sea of Japan, north of Okayama.  It is a little different from typical small towns located along the Shinkansen due to the lack of easy access points.  The entire region of Shimane is similar to each other.  The city of Matsue is great for its ability to have all of the amenities of a modern city, and the friendliness of a small town.  It is not a major tourist destination, even for Japanese people, but it is very friendly to foreign tourists who are looking to experience small town Japan.

There are a lot of things to do in Matsue.  The main attraction has to be Matsue Castle.  It is one of the largest landmarks in the area, and a great base for a day full of exploration.  Upon entering the temple grounds, you will realize that the entire castle area is much smaller than other castles such as Himeji.  On the grounds, the first thing to see would have to be the Matsue Jinja.  It is a very small shrine that is within the castle grounds, but below the castle itself.  It isn’t a significant shrine, but it is picturesque enough to warrant a picture.  Next to the shrine is the Matsue Kyodo-kan.  It is a European style building with a small, and free, museum inside.  Inside the museum, you can see a few miniature models of the city showcasing the city around the start of the automobile era.  It’s nice to see, but a little cramped within the exhibits.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to head upstairs, but there are more exhibits there as well.  A more interesting place to visit would have to be one of the guard towers located a stone throw away from the Kyodo-kan.  Inside the tower, you will be greeted by typical castle architecture.  Think of it as a mini-castle where you can enjoy yourself with relatively few people to disturb you.  I enjoyed it almost as much as the castle, mainly because there was only one other person inside.

Matsue Castle itself is a mid-sized castle.  It is an original black Japanese castle.  In Japan, there are two varieties of castles, white and black.  Himeji is a typical example of a white castle, which is predominantly white, and Matsue is a black castle, which is predominantly black.  The area around the castle is also nice, but inside you will be greeted by the original architecture.  One of the original water wells are still there and open, but covered by chicken wire to keep people from falling in.  Like most castles, you will be able to get a taste of the old life in Matsue.  You can see old traditional samurai armour, pictures of castles from around Japan, and miniature scale models of Matsue itself in both the past and modern times.  What caught my interest the most were the old wooden partitions with paintings of daily life activities on them.  It was somewhat unique in the area and worth a few extra minutes to enjoy.  The castle keep itself was not special. Most castle keeps in Japan are just open spaces with beautiful views.  While the view of Lake Shinji was beautiful, the other sides were not as spectacular as you mainly saw the modern buildings of Matsue.  Unlike Kochi, you didn’t have a sense of the old life, or the beauty of nature just outside the city as you couldn’t really see past the buildings.  Generally it’s still a fun place to visit, and do spend a little time to go around the entire castle grounds as you can see different aspects of the history of castle construction as you do so.

For Japanese tourists, a trip to the northern side of Matsue Castle is a must.  Buke Yashiki, or the samurai residence, is a small section that houses the old home of the top level samurai of the region.  The home itself was not as grand or lavish as some of the other samurai homes that still exist, due to the low salary of a samurai in Matsue.  If anything, the entire area is worth a visit for the ability to look around and see how the samurai lived and how people in general lived at that time.  Next to the Buke Yashiki is the Lafcadio Hearn’s Old Residence.  This is an old house that housed one of the first foreign residents of Matsue.  He went on to become a naturalized Japanese citizen and wrote many books on Japan.  He is usually credited with introducing Japan to the western world, but his works tended to over romanticize the country.  He only spent a little time in Matsue, but he was remembered the most by the people in Matsue.

The best thing to do in Matsue is to take a boat cruise.  There are several small and long boats that ply the waters of the castle moat and the old moat system around the city.  One circuit will take roughly 40 minutes.  The boats themselves are fun to ride and you pass under very low bridges at times.  You have to be a little careful as the roof of the boat actually lowers, forcing you to bend over and nearly touch your head to your knees.  Thankfully, when I took the tour, I was with one other person, so we could just lie down and relax sprawled out on the floor rather than contorting our bodies in a somewhat unnatural way.  The trip will take you under various new and old bridges and past various historical and important modern buildings.  The guide will point out all of the important places, including telling you of the different bridges you pass by and under, but all of it will be in Japanese.  Thankfully, you can get a little enka music played when there is nothing special to listen to.  The guide is also interesting as they dress in white cotton pants, a blue jacket that is similar to a “happi” that is worn during festivals.  The guides also wear rice hats as if they were in Vietnam.  If you have the time, you can hop on and off of the boat and various points.  I had been recommended to visit the Ji Beer Kan, which is a micro brew shop in Matsue.  The beer is supposed to be delicious, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to go.

The last thing to do is to head to Lake Shinji.  It is a famous lake in Shimane and the major obstacle between Izumo and Matsue.  It is famous for its small clams, the Shijimi.  In Matsue, you can purchase the shells of the Shijimi, and also the clams themselves.  They are great inside miso soup, but do be aware that as with all other forms of seafood, it’s probably not allowed for importation in your own country.  I would consider just buying some miso soup which would probably come with some Shijimi.  The lake itself, from Matsue, is well known for its sunset.  There are a few sunset tours, but a view from the park is probably best.  If you head out of the station, head west along the street just north of the station and you will reach the park in roughly 15 minutes.  It would mark a great end of the day to anyone’s tour of Matsue.

Matsue is such a beautiful place that needs at least a day to explore.  There is a lot you can see and do if you have the time.  You can either rush and see many things in a short time, or take your time and see everything at a slow pace.  I always prefer the slow paced approach.  If you do have the time, rent a car and head out for a drive around Shinji Lake.  You won’t be disappointed.

Matsue Information:

Matsue City (Official Site – English): http://www.city.matsue.shimane.jp/kankou/jp/e/e.htm
Matsue (Japan Guide): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5800.html
Matsue (Wikitravel): http://wikitravel.org/en/Matsue



Shinkansen – North Routes March 2, 2010

Posted by Dru in Hokkaido, Japan, Kanto, Tohoku.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Shinkansen – North Routes” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kJ

Heading north, rather than south, provides a very different experience using the Shinkansen.  Unlike the Tokaido/Sanyo/Kyushu Shinkansen, the lines heading north share a main trunk and branch off at various points.  There are three main lines, and two “mini-shinkansen” that start from Tokyo Station.  The longest line is the Tohoku line.  This line started at the same time as the Joetsu line, but the Tohoku line will become more important in the near future.  The Tohoku line currently runs from Tokyo all the way to Hachinohe.  By the end of 2010, this service will be extended to Aomori, which is the larger than Hachinohe.  Ultimately, the line will be extended further from Aomori to Hakodate, and then Sapporo.  Unfortunately, Hakodate won’t be open until 2015, projected, and Sapporo may not open until 2020.  It will be a long time, but when finished, it will cut the time from roughly 12 hours, to just under 4 hours for the most direct services.  This will severely affect air travel as it currently takes 3 hours for most people to reach Sapporo from Tokyo.

The Tohoku line is also connected to the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen lines.  These services are slightly different compared to regular Shinkansen.  These lines use special trains that are narrower, and run at grade with various level crossings.  They are usually coupled with regular Tohoku trains, but branch out at their respective start points.  For this reason, it’s very important to know which train you are boarding.  It’s very easy to be on the wrong train from Tokyo Station, but the signs are usually clearly marked, and train staffs usually check tickets while the train is between stations.

The Joetsu Shinkansen is far simpler as there is only one line with no connections.  The complex part is that it shares the tracks with the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Omiya.  This is due to costs.  It’s very easy to see trains along the Tokyo portion of the line due to the volume of trains passing.  Recently, it has also become popular for hotels to create “train” suites.  These are rooms with views of the train tracks.  This is popular for “te-chans”, slang for train spotters in Japan.  You could also make it derogatory by saying “densha-otaku”, but that’s a different story.  It has also proved popular for young families with boys who love trains.  What better way to “take a trip” and not spend too much money.  As always, kids love boxes more than the toys that are inside them.  The Joetsu Shinkansen itself was built to service Niigata, but it also serves a small ski resort called Gala-Yuzawa.

A relatively less used, yet equally important Shinkansen line is the Nagano line.  This was built in time for the Nagano Olympics.  Currently, it shares over half of its line with both the Tohoku and Joetsu Shinkansen lines.  There are relatively few trains that travel this section due to the limited service range.  It basically follows the Joetsu route from Tokyo to Takasaki, where it branches off on its own to Nagano.  There is a planned extension from Nagano to Kanazawa by 2015.  By this time, the line should be renamed to the Hokuriku Shinkansen, further extensions to Tsuruga Station has been planned and will be built.  The line will ultimately link up with Osaka someday in the future.  The main purpose of this line is to connect the major cities on the Sea of Japan side of Japan to the main cities of Japan.  Whether it will prove popular or profitable will remain to be seen.

All three main lines utilize the same trains, while the Yamagata and Akita Shinkansen use their own specialized trains, for reasons mentioned above.  The trains have a similar styling to the southern route trains.  They used to use similar naming methods as their southern route cousins, but now they use the prefix E before their designation.  Due to this naming convention, you can still ride the 200 series train, which is very similar to the 0 and 100 mentioned in my previous post.  The first “modern” train you can travel on is the E1, a wedge nosed, bi-level, Shinkansen.  In 1997, the E2, E3, and E4 were introduced.  The E2 is similar to a duck billed train, but it isn’t as strongly pronounced.  It’s also one of only two trains that have been exported, the other being the 700 series.  The E2 was exported to China for use on their high speed railway.  The E4 is a bi-level train, like the E1, but with a duck bill nose.  The E3 looks like most European high speed trains, but used only for the Yamagata and Akita lines.  By 2011, there will be a new rain, the E5 entering service.  This is expected to take the system into Sapporo when that line opens.  It will be the fastest train in the entire Shinkansen fleet.

The final impression of this fleet is that it’s great!  Coming from Canada where high speed rail is non-existent, this would go a long way to connecting any country.  Countries such as China have begun their own high speed networks.  President Obama has also pledged to start thinking, and possibly building it soon.  If done right, it can earn money and save a lot of fuel.  Connecting Vancouver to San Diego is a viable option, so is Toronto to Miami.  While we must never forget how we get the electricity to power trains, it’s still probably cleaner overall compared to planes.  Can they replace planes completely?  Conventionally, they cannot replace planes at the moment.  We’ll have to wait for maglev trains before that could happen, but even then we are limited to specific ranges.  If you do travel to Japan, do try to use the Shinkansen.  It’s a fun, if expensive, way to travel.  Be sure to buy a JR Pass if you are only visiting.  It’s worth the cost if you head from Tokyo to Kyoto, even for just a day.

This is the second part of two in the Shinkansen series.  To read more, continue to the Shinkansen – South Routes.


Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen
Japan Guide (Great page for a snapshot of major services): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2018.html
Japan Railways (Lots of information on what to do in Japan):  http://www.japanrail.com/
Japan Railways (Shinkansen Page):  http://www.japanrail.com/index.php?page=JR-Shinkansen-bullet-train
JR East:  http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/routemaps/shinkansen.html


Shinkansen – South Routes February 23, 2010

Posted by Dru in Chubu, Chugoku, Japan, Kansai, Kanto, Kyushu.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Shinkansen – South Routes” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-kH

Travelling by train in Japan is one of the easiest, yet most complex things to do.  It is a must for anyone who visits Japan. Going to Tokyo, or even Osaka, you are generally better off using the trains.  Travelling by car can take a lot more time.  While the most used trains are in Tokyo, the most famous train line is the Shinkansen.  This is Japan’s high speed rail line, which happens to also be the first high speed rail line in the world.  It was opened before the Tokyo Olympics, and has been expanding ever since.  The most famous image of the Shinkansen has to be that of the 0 series.  These were the original trains that have only recently been retired.  As of December 2008, these trains were taken out of service.  All of the other trains have remained, but each year, several of the older trains have been retired.

The first Shinkansen line was the Tokaido line.  This is the most famous line as it helps tourists head from Tokyo all the way to Kyoto, and for business travellers as it connects Tokyo with Nagoya and Osaka.  While all of the trains are called “Super Express”, this moniker can be confusing.  The Shinkansen is a super express, relative to regular train services.  When taking the Shinkansen, it’s very important to know which train you are taking.  A Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama are all very different.  When using the JR Pass, the Nozomi is off limits.  If you do take this train, you might end up paying for the full fare regardless.  This is due to the sheer numbers of people using these trains.  Thankfully, the Hikari is still pretty quick with only a few extra stops, compared to the Nozomi.  The only downside is that travelling to Hiroshima and Hakata, in Fukuoka, is a little difficult.

The second Shinkansen line is the Sanyo line.  This is essentially an extension of the Tokaido line.  This allowed the line to connect Fukuoka, in Kyushu, to Tokyo.  Unfortunately, the trains can take around 8 hours to connect both cities making it impractical for most travellers.  Flying is still the best, but Hiroshima can be better than flying, due to airport locations.  When travelling along the Tokaido/Sanyo Shinkansen, there are several trains you could use.  The oldest currently being used is the 100 series.  This is styled like the 0 series.  These trains only travel along the Sanyo portion for Kodama (local) services.  It stops at every station, so the chance of riding this is pretty low for the average traveller.  The 300 series is the next oldest of the trains.  This series was fairly popular, but as I am writing this, they are slowly being phased out.  Currently, they are used for Kodama and Hikari services, with an occasional Nozomi.  This was the first Shinkansen that utilized a wedge style nose, rather than a “bullet” style nose.

In Japan, one of the most famous Shinkansen has to be the 500 series.  It is the most unique Shinkansen for its styling.  These trains have a sharp pointed nose, grey and purple colouring, and resemble a fighter jet, rather than an airplane or train.  Prior Shinkansen were made to resemble airliners.  The 500, while striking, was not very popular with customers.  It was very fast, but it was like a Ferrari.  It was relatively small inside, due to the tube like shape of the body.  The windows were smaller, it was darker inside, and a little noisy as each car had its own engine.  Few of these trains were made, but it’s still a popular train for train spotters.  The recent designs along these lines are the 700 series.  The 700 was the first duckbill styled Shinkansen.  The N700 is an evolution of the 700 series with more emphasis on comfort.  The N700 is also the first Shinkansen to be all non-smoking.  They do have smoking rooms.  In the older trains, there are smoking cars.  Entry into these cars is only for smokers.  Anyone else would be forced to leave, not by the train staff, but by the amount of smoke inside the car.  You can literally see a thick haze of smoke, and you can smell it in the adjacent car.  The N700 is quickly entering service and will be the main workhorse of these lines.  While the windows are a bit smaller than the 700, there is wifi access, for a fee, and two prong outlets in each row.  They are definitely thinking about their businessmen.

Connecting to the Sanyo Shinkansen is the Kyushu Shinkansen.  Currently, this Shinkansen line is under construction, with the southern portion complete.  This will link Hakata with Kagoshima, a city in the south of Kyushu.  At this moment, the line is running from Kagoshima to a point roughly half way to Hakata, the end of the line.  By the spring of 2011, this line is expected to be completed with through service to Osaka starting.  This line uses the 800 series of trains, which abandoned the duckbill style of the 700 series.  These trains have a more European styling, and the interior is said to be nicer than other Shinkansen trains.  When the line is completed, N700 trains will be used as well.  This will make it very easy to reach Kagoshima for most travellers.

This is the first part of two in the Shinkansen Series.  Please continue on to read more about the Shinkansen – North Routes.


Wikipedia:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen
Japan Guide (Great page for a snapshot of major services): http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2018.html
Japan Railways (Lots of information on what to do in Japan):  http://www.japanrail.com/
Japan Railways (Shinkansen Page):  http://www.japanrail.com/index.php?page=JR-Shinkansen-bullet-train
JR Central (Note:  Lots of information on operations and reliability):  http://english.jr-central.co.jp/about/index.html
JR West (Note: This page is not very interesting):  http://www.westjr.co.jp/english/travel/
JR Kyushu (Note:  Great pictures of their trains):  http://www.jrkyushu.co.jp/english/tsubame_top.html


Temples of Tokyo – Part I [Sensoji] February 9, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Temples of Tokyo – Part I [Sensoji]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-gh

When people think of Japanese temples, they think of Kyoto.  Not everyone has a chance to go to Kyoto.  If you only have a week in Japan, sometimes you can’t afford the time to go to Kyoto.  While it can be done in a day using the shinkansen, sometimes it’s much better to just relax and visit a few temples around Tokyo.  That way, you can take your time and save a lot of money on train fares.  In Tokyo, most tourists will only visit two temples; Sensoji in Asakusa, and Meiji Jingu in Harajuku.  Technically, Meiji Jingu is not a temple, but a shrine dedicated to the Japanese religion of Shinto.  Often overlooked is the temple called Zojoji.  It is much smaller than the other two, but due to it being left off most major tour books, it’s a great place to see a temple without the hustle and bustle of the other two tourist spots.

The first things to know when talking about temples and shrines are, what is a temple, and what is a shrine?  In a few simple words, a temple is dedicated to Buddha and a shrine is dedicated to a Shinto god.  It can be very difficult to know which is which, but in Japan, the easiest way to tell the difference is to look for the torii.  If there is a torii gate, a wooden archway near the entrance, it’s a shrine.  If there is a pagoda, or a huge statue of a Buddhist deity, it’s a temple.  In reality, there is no easy way to distinguish one from the other without research or looking at everything extensively.  Generally speaking, once you see a few of the temples and shrines, you tend to understand what the others will look like.  After visiting the these three temples in Tokyo, you don’t have to visit Kyoto, but as always, things are always slightly different, or they might have that one unique factor that makes it stand out.  Kyoto is still a very important place in Japan, and it’s still highly recommended.  If you don’t have time to make it out there, don’t feel too sad, but if you do have time, I would always recommend heading there.

Sensoji is probably the most visited temple in Tokyo, and the oldest.  When arriving at Asakusa station, it’s very easy to get disoriented.  They have finished some remodelling of the station to make it easier for people to find their way to the temple, but once you are on the street, you can still be a little disoriented.  Finding your way to Nakamise Shopping Street is the best way to get to the temple.  There is a large Buddhist style gate called Kaminarimon, with two large wooden statues inside protecting the temple.  This is the start of the shopping street, and the approach to the temple itself.  The shopping street is great for the usual souvenirs that you’ll need when you go home, so be sure to buy everything here.  Other areas of Tokyo don’t always offer this type of touristy garb.  You can easily buy rice crackers and yukatas, along with other cheesy Japanese stuff.  Do note that most Japanese people will only buy food, and rarely, if ever, buy the other stuff.  The temple itself is beautifully bathed in red paint.  Being a big tourist attraction, you can buy an “Omikuji”, which is a fortune.  They generally include English.  First, put your money into the donation box; then shake a large metal tin.  After shaking, turn the tin upside down and shake it until you get a stick.  This stick tells you which drawer to open to get your fortune.  It’s pretty simple and once you are there, you can watch others do it first and just copy them.  They should have English on the reverse of the fortune, or a translation somewhere nearby.  Do note that if you get one with okay, or bad luck, you are supposed to tie it to a post so that it doesn’t follow you.  If you have good luck, you are supposed to keep it in your wallet for one year.  Next, you can enter the temple itself.  There really isn’t much to see.  When you enter, you can only stay in the front entrance portion of the main hall.  Here, you can toss some money into the donation box and pray for whatever you like.  Also note that it’s better to throw a coin with a hole in it as it’s considered lucky.  5 and 50 yen coins are the only coins to have a hole in them.

This is Part I of a two part series.  To continue reading about the Temples of Tokyo, continue to Part II.


http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2058.html (About Temples)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensō-ji (About Sensoji)
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3001.html (More about Sensoji)


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