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Driving in Japan (2010) [Part I] September 21, 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 I]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-tq

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while now, you know that I have had many trips in and around Japan, along with many road trips.  I have been taking road trips almost every year now on either a motorcycle or in a car.  In 2007, I took a trip to Hokkaido by motorcycle.  It was my first road trip, and a terrible one at that.  I was alone, cold and wet.  For my second trip, I rented a car for just a day and drove up to Nikko.  The route brought back a few memories of my trip to Sapporo, but with all the comforts of a car.  It was a pretty easy trip, but it taught me the pain of driving in the city, and trying to return to the city on a Sunday night.  One word can sum up that experience, traffic.  Last year, I had my epic adventure, and the last one on my bike.  I took a trip by ferry and rode my bike around Shikoku for two weeks.  It was a wonderful holiday that restored my faith in driving and riding in Japan.  It helped a lot that I went with a friend from Osaka.  Recently, June 2010, I embarked on my big road adventure of the year.  I headed to the San’in region, along with Hiroshima.  What follows is a recounting of what happened as we conquered the roads that lay ahead of us.

As many of you know by now, I have written about my adventures in San’in already.  I have talked about Tottori and Shimane.  My journey started with a flight from Tokyo to Tottori.  I left in the early morning and had time to spend an entire day in Tottori city.  I visited the Tottori Sand Dunes and that was pretty much it.  The actual adventure didn’t start until the next day.  We got up early again as we had a long day of driving ahead of us.  Thankfully, we had two drivers, one being myself, and the other being my friend from Osaka.  We rented a Mazda Axela, which is a Mazda 3 in North America.  It was a little big for what we needed, but we were expecting a total of 4 people in the car, but one person bailed as she booked the wrong tickets for the trip.  The car itself was big for what we needed.  We could have gotten a compact car instead of this one, but the added size made the trip very comfortable.  When we got the car we spent a few minutes fiddling with the GPS navigation system before we took off.  The GPS was easy for us to understand, but it would take at least 2 more days before it was easy to use.  If you ever rent a car in Japan, be sure to learn a little Japanese, or have a good understanding on how to guess the menu system.  It was difficult to use, but we all had various degrees of Japanese knowledge which helped us a lot.

Our first leg of day 1 was a trip along the coast.  We started with a short drive on the mainland to avoid the traffic and made good time.  We reached our junction, ignoring our GPS all the time.  We had our own route planned and the GPS was guiding us to the “best” route but not the most scenic.  Thankfully, we had enough knowledge of the road to navigate smoothly and soon enough we were pros at navigating.  When we hit the coast, we took our sweet time and stopped at a couple beaches. We got our feet wet and took many pictures.  It was a perfect start to the day.  Driving up and down the coast on the Sea of  Japan is amazing. I have heard from many motorcycle riders that the coast is amazing, and I would have to agree.  I would love to just rent a car, or even bring a bicycle to the area and just enjoy the trip.  I was told by a friend that taking the train is also spectacular, but I tend to get a little antsy on trains after a few hours.  At least with a train, I could drink alcohol and not worry about getting into too much trouble.

My friend from Osaka did the first leg of driving.  He handled the coast very well, which was pretty easy.  There weren’t too many turns and the signs were easy for us to read.  We had one tough section through a small town called Hawai.  The pronunciation is the same as Hawaii, and the town played with that name a lot.  Everywhere you went, you saw Hawaii signs and tourist attractions that were a little tongue in cheek with references to the beautiful island resort.  After the town, we switched drivers as my friend had bad experiences driving on small country side roads.  It was my first time to drive in a few months and over a year since I had last driven on the left side of the road.  It was a little shaky at first, but I got my road legs back very quickly.  Aside from getting used to the car, which happens with almost any new car I drive, things were easy.  We were quickly headed down the road that we chose, but we soon reached what looked like nothing more than an access road.  Being in the countryside of Tottori, some of the main highways between cities are more akin to an access road rather than a true road.  Unlike North American streets where designated highways must meet a certain criteria, in Japan, it just indicates the road.  Our first “moment” came as this access road was about 1.5 lanes wide and we came across a truck.  It was a big truck and a challenge.  I was facing the challenge of passing this oncoming truck with only a few centimetres on both sides of the car.  The truck driver was kind enough to stop on the side and let me do all the work, but considering his side had a wall, and mine a drop into a field, it wasn’t that bad.  Creeping slowly, I passed my first hurdle.  Little did I know, this would only be the beginning of our journey of the day.

The route we took to Daisen, our first real destination, was simple enough and only a few points of caution.  My map had a few warnings that the road we were about to embark upon was closed during the winter months due to the weather.  This didn’t worry me too much.  We had a nice car, supplies to keep us fed and hydrated, and lots of time.  By the time we reached the road, things changed very quickly.  The first challenge of a small countryside road was past, but we had another road that was also only 1.5 lanes wide.  Being the countryside, and having seen the last stretch of road, I thought that this would be a short stretch of narrow roads.  I was wrong.  We also had to contend with a few construction signs with which we had no idea what they meant.  After our trip, we reviewed photos of the signs, and the sign said that cars were not allowed in, but when we went, it had a sticker on top saying it was “cancelled”.  Essentially, we got lucky.  We ended up doing most of the trip up and around Daisen on the narrow style road.  I have had experience on these types of roads before in Canada.  In Victoria, there are a few nice places like this.  The road is narrow and the vegetation is abundant.  On this road, it was the same.  The overgrowth from the bushes and trees made it a challenge to drive.  Being a kinder driver, I took a little more time to get around, along with the fact that I was worried about oncoming traffic, whatever it may be.  We spent roughly an hour or so going up, down, and around the north side of the mountain in what was one of my toughest drives ever.  The road was immaculate, and the beauty of the forest was unrivalled.  If I had the chance to skip that area, I would probably say no.  It’s something that has to be seen and experienced.  Before long, we were at Daisen-ji and taking a long deserved break from the car.

Note:  This is part one of a two part series.  Please continue reading in Part II.
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。


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

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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