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Hakone (Part II) February 2, 2010

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

If you have the energy to continue into Hakone, you’ll have to travel a bit farther than Souzan.  Most of the activities around Hakone are centred in the area between Hakone Yumoto and Souzan.  From there, you can venture out past Souzan on a cable car and head out towards Lake Ashi.  This is probably where you’ll get the best views of the countryside of Japan, if that’s what you are looking for.  Do be aware that if it’s even slightly cloudy, you won’t get the best view of Hakone.  The most famous view is from Lake Ashi where, on a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji.

Souzan is the starting point of the gondola that will take you to Owakudani, and then off to Lake Ashi.  Owakudani is generally translated into great boiling valley, or hell’s valley.  It’s an active volcano that is constantly emitting sulphur.  Be aware that you’ll be near the top of the mountain, so the weather will be cooler and because of the sulphur, it will be very smelly.  There is pretty much only one major route to follow.  Head with most of the people and look for signs and maps.  It can be a little difficult to get around, but once you are on the path, it’s pretty easy.  The people who work at Owakudani are careful about the amount of sulphur in the air and will advise you to make your way down if it’s too dangerous.  When you do get to the end of the hiking trail, there is a large boiling pool that is too hot to swim in.  It’s nice for pictures, but the main point of the journey is to buy eggs.  When at the top, you can buy the freshest boiled eggs in the area.  The eggs are boiled in the boiling sulphur water, which actually makes the shells black.  The inside of the egg is still natural, and the taste is normal, but the shell is black and a little brittle.  The main selling point is that each egg you eat can add around 5 years to your life.  This can be a lot if you are desperate.  The trip out to Owakudani is something that isn’t necessary, but if you are interested in seeing new things, and experiencing Japanese travel culture, you should head here.  The other reason to stop off at Owakudani is the ticket to get to Lake Ashi requires a transfer at Owakudani, so you might as well stretch your legs and enjoy the smell of sulphur.

Lake Ashi, as I mentioned, is probably the most famous place in Hakone, yet one of the hardest places to get to.  If you only want to go to Lake Ashi, you might be better off taking one of the highway busses out there.  From Owakudani, you can take the second extension of the cable car to Lake Ashi.  Do be aware that on major holidays, this area is also very busy and not easy to get around quickly.  Once at Togendai station, it’s necessary to transfer to one of the sightseeing boats.  During the high season, there are many boats trolling the lake.  These have been called gaudy and I can imagine why.  From the pictures, they are nothing but elaborate pirate ships that look like they were stolen from Disneyland.  It does look like a very interesting ship to travel on and I’m sure the views from the ship are beautiful.  There are only two stops, other than Togendai, for the Hakone Sightseeing Ships.  It is Moto-Hakone and Hakonemachi.  Both are equally important from what I’ve heard.

At Hakonemachi, you’ll be within the old town of Hakone.  Here, you can see some of the most historical buildings in Kanto, the greater Tokyo region.  From here to Moto-Hakone, the old Tokaido Road heads into Tokyo.  The old Tokaido Road is a historical road that was the only road in and out of Tokyo, heading west.  In Hakonemachi, you can visit the Hakone Checkpoint.  The Hakone Checkpoint is where all travellers, Japanese and foreign, had to check in to ensure they were allowed to travel within the country.  Walking to Moto-Hakone is something that has been recommended.  Along the way, you can walk down a path of cedars and once at Moto-Hakone, you can visit the Hakone Shrine.  Taking the ship to Moto-Hakone would also be special as it’s a famous place for pictures.  One of the torii, gate, is placed at the edge of the water making it a beautiful sight in the day.  If you are adventurous enough, you can continue along the Tokaido road for about an hour or so.  You’ll be able to read a small tea house and museum, as well as see some of the original unpaved road.  Do note that the road is nothing more than a walking path.

If you have two days, there are a lot of things to see and do in Hakone.  If you only have one day, it’s a little difficult, but you can get all of the main places.  If you are looking for nature and scenery, I’d recommend heading out to Lake Ashi first as it’s a little difficult to get there.  Do be aware that I have never been there so most of my descriptions are from what I’ve read on other websites.  I am also unsure as to the timing of reaching Lake Ashi itself.  Owakudani, however, is a very quick stop, so it shouldn’t take too long.   Hakone is so popular amongst Japanese people, that there are several ways to get there.  By and far, the easiest has to be by train.  All you have to do is spend a little extra to make it easy.  Going by bus is also simple.  If you are going to only one stop or overnight at an onsen, this would also be viable.  Do note that you will have to be careful of the traffic.  It can take two or three times longer to get back to Tokyo due to traffic on the expressways.  Finally, you can drive yourself.  If you have a total of four people going, this could be a lot cheaper.  Parking in Hakone isn’t difficult and with modern navigation systems, you can easily find parking.  Either way, have fun.

This is part two of a two part series.  To read more about Hakone, head back to Part I.

Note: I didn’t have enough time to head to most places mentioned in this post.  I have added pictures of the Hakone Open Air Museum to fill the space.

Hakone Information:

Hakone (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5200.html
Hakone (Wikitravel):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Hakone
Hakone (Hakone Navi):  http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/
Odakyu Hakone Free Pass (Travel Information):  http://www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html
Hakone Open Air Museum:  http://www.hakone-oam.or.jp/english/index.html
Yunesson Spa:  http://www.yunessun.com/english/
Fujiya Hotel:  http://www.fujiyahotel.jp/english/index.html
The Little Prince Museum in Hakone: http://www.tbs.co.jp/l-prince/en/

Hakone (Part I) January 26, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Hakone (Part I)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-jd

Hakone is one of the most popular areas near Tokyo.  It’s a great place to head for a day trip and there are many things to do.  There are various places to visit, and the area itself is fairly vast.  It can take a lot of time to get around and do everything, so as a day trip, it can be a little tight.  I would recommend at least two days and one night, that way you can at least experience a ryokan or an onsen.  For those that don’t know, a ryokan is a traditional style Japanese Inn.  It’s similar to a bed and breakfast, with a twist.  Usually, your room is a typical tatami room with futons on the floor.  You are served a traditional dinner and breakfast, so this can be a little scary if you aren’t used to raw fish, rice, and sleeping on the floor in a room full of people.  There are several western friendly hotels in the area as well, and almost all of them feature an onsen.  Onsen are Japanese style natural hot spring baths.  It’s almost always separated into men and women, and the bathing rooms can be as detailed and large as a spa, or as small and simple as a large private bathroom.  It really depends on the hotel.  All in all, it’s a great experience, and something you can might want to try while visiting Japan.

When heading to Hakone, there are a couple of routes to take.  If you are lucky enough to have a JR Pass, taking the shinkansen to Odawara Station is probably the easiest way.  Otherwise, most people would take the Odakyu lines from Shinjuku.  Odakyu offers a two day Hakone Free Pass, which is great if you are spending two days there.  Otherwise, just go for single tickets.  There are tourist booths that have English speakers inside the station, so don’t worry too much about buying tickets.  The ticket machines also have English instructions.  Once at Odawara Station, you have to switch to the Hakone Tozan Train.  If you take the special express train, which costs more, you will probably go all the way to Hakone Yumato Station.  Otherwise, you’ll have to change at Odawara, and again at Hakone Yumato.  From Hakone Yumato, you will board the original Hakone Tozan train.  This is a small mountain line that makes its way slowly up the mountain.  It can be extremely beautiful in November with the beautiful autumn leaves, or even in the spring when the hydrangeas are in full bloom as both sides of the tracks are lined with trees.

The first stop on the way to Hakone should be at Chokoku no Mori.  This is the second to last stop on the line heading into Hakone.  This is the home of the Hakone Open Air Museum.  If you need instructions, you should call it the Chokoku no Mori museum as that’s the Japanese name.  This museum opened in 1969 and has over 70,000 square metres of open space.  It’s built into the side of the mountain and the museum itself is spectacular.  There are several permanent exhibits and also several rotating sculptures within the museum grounds.  Almost everything is interactive.  You can almost touch each sculpture.  There are some pieces of art where you can enter them, play on them, and of course contemplate the meaning of them.  If you love taking photos, this place is great and it’s easy to spend a couple hours here.  Be sure to bring a few snacks when you get hungry.  There is also a nice little foot bath where towels are just 100 yen each.  It can make a nice little souvenir, and the bath water isn’t bad.  Be sure to check out all of the buildings, and if you have kids, bring them too.  There are a few places where kids can just play for hours on end.  The only problem is the weather.  Try to go on a sunny day and you’ll be treated with a great experience.

If you head to the next station, Gora, you’ll be able to enjoy a nice little park, some places to eat, and an opportunity to do some glass blowing.  Do note that you must pay to enter the park.  This area itself isn’t that interesting.  The food can be delicious, and there are several souvenirs to buy, but unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to really look around.  The weather was terrible when I went.  I only had a chance to try one of the small local shops.  There is a delicious tonkatsu shop, breaded and deep fried chicken cutlets, made from black pigs.  It appears to be a specialty and there is always a lineup whenever I’m there.  It’s a little pricey, but it’s delicious.  Do note that the wait can be over 30 minutes to get in, especially if you have bad timing.  While Gora is a good place to stop and have lunch, you can always take the cable car that is connected to Gora Station and head up to Souzan.  Taking the cable car is a nice simple journey.  It isn’t very steep, but there are several stops along the way.  Unfortunately, there is almost nothing to do at the top of the cable car, aside from going to the gondola.

If you are making this a day trip, you might want to think about heading back at this time.  Thankfully, there are still things to see and do on the way back that had been missed on the trip out to Souzan.  Along the cable car route, there are various hotels and ryokans that you can visit and spend a night.  Otherwise, you should head back and take the Hakone Tozan, get off at Miyanoshita and you will be at the Fujiya Hotel.  While I have never visited this hotel, it is a famous hotel.  It is expensive but it offers a nice dining experience and a few other touristy treats.  There is a nice onsen inside and the area of Miyanoshita has various shops where you can buy Japanese style fine china.  If you head back to Hakone Yumoto, you can take a bus for 30 minutes and visit the Little Prince Museum in Hakone.  This is a museum based on the author of “The Little Prince”.  It’s a famous French book that Japanese people love.  The museum looks nice, but as with many things around Hakone, I didn’t have a chance to visit this museum.  It is fairly popular with Japanese tourists, and from the pictures, the museum itself looks beautiful.  If you have a two day free pass, it’s probably worth a quick visit.

This is part one of a two part series.  To continue reading, please head over to Part II.

Hakone Information:

Hakone (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5200.html
Hakone (Wikitravel):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Hakone
Hakone (Hakone Navi):  http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/
Odakyu Hakone Free Pass (Travel Information):  http://www.odakyu.jp/english/freepass/hakone_01.html
Hakone Open Air Museum:  http://www.hakone-oam.or.jp/english/index.html
Yunesson Spa:  http://www.yunessun.com/english/
Fujiya Hotel:  http://www.fujiyahotel.jp/english/index.html
The Little Prince Museum in Hakone: http://www.tbs.co.jp/l-prince/en/

Matsuyama July 14, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Matsuyama” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-cN

Matsuyama is a city located on the western side of Shikoku.  It is, by some standards, considered the largest city on Shikoku, but this is debated with the city of Takamatsu.  The city itself has a very small feel, yet has enough shops to keep city folk happy.  It is also an excellent place to see different things at a somewhat relaxed pace.  You’ll be able to see a castle, onsen, parks, and temples, all in one city.  If you don’t have a lot of time, Matsuyama is a great place to see everything in a couple of days.

The heart of Matsuyama has to be the castle.  Matsuyama-jo is located on Mount Katsuyama.  This is a relatively small mountain that provides a nice getaway from the city itself.  There are about four different routes to climb Katsuyama to reach Matsuyama-jo.  Heading to the east side of the mountain is by far the easiest way to get to the top.  You can ride the gondola, or take the chairlift.  Both take roughly the same amount of time to reach the top.  The chairlift is a single chair that slowly climbs the mountain.  It is a very Japanese style of moving people.  It is very peaceful, providing beautiful views of the city as you climb the side of the mountain.  Riding the gondola is better if you have many small children with you.  The gondola is usually packed, so the view depends on where you are inside the car.  At the top of the gondola station, you’ll be greeted by many shop keepers trying to entice you to buy one of the citrus fruit drinks and bring a bottle home with you.  It is a nice refreshing drink, especially if you decide to hike up the mountain, but a little expensive.  Depending on the day you visit the castle, you might also find a few activities in the outer courtyard.  On the day I visited, there were opportunities to dress up in period clothing, such as a samurai, or in an old style kimono.  The castle itself is a well preserved original.  As I mentioned before, Shikoku has many wonderful and original, castles, unlike Honshu, the main island.  This one is no exception.  Upon paying the entrance fee, you will have a great opportunity to have spectacular views of the city.  The inside of the castle is extremely busy.  You must remove your shoes and wear slippers as you walk through the castle.  Unlike Kochi-jo, there isn’t much to see or do in this castle.  It is too busy to place dioramas, so you can only enjoy the original architecture and views from inside the castle.  It was amazing to see the Japanese people lining up in a very orderly fashion to leave the main tower of the castle.  If you have the energy, I would also recommend hiking down the mountain and taking a look at a shrine located halfway up the gondola.  If you head to the south side of the mountain, you can also visit Bansuiso.  It is a French style villa that is now part of an art gallery.  Unfortunately, I didn’t visit this gallery, but if I do return to Matsuyama, I will.

Matsuyama has two stations named Matsuyama, JR Matsuyama and Matsuyama-shi.  When you travel to Matsuyama, it is important to know which one you are at.  JR Matsuyama is a nice station, but it is highly focused on travellers only.  There are very few things to do around the station itself.  Located a fair walk west of the station is Matsuyama Central Park.  It is a more secluded park that is probably used by locals rather than everyday tourists.  It does have its own “castle”, but it is modeled after European castle walls, rather than Japanese style castles.  Matsuyama-shi station is more interesting.  It is the start of Matsuyama’s long shopping arcade.  As I have said, countless times, shopping arcades in Japan tend to look and feel the same.  Matsuyama’s shopping arcade is no different.  It is definitely worth a visit as it is somewhat unique.  I would probably take a quick look through the arcade, but focus more on the area just below Matsuyma-jo.  Around the gondola, you will be able to enjoy a more touristy and local experience.  This is also the location of the Matsuyama Guesthouse.

Matsuyama Guesthouse was my home for one night.  As a tourist on a budget, hostels are a great way to save money.  Although the sign says it’s a guesthouse, you can also rent rooms for one night.  The day I arrived, the hostel filled up completely.  There were two long term guests.  One was a New Yorker who had lived in China for a couple years.  He was just starting out in Japan, and decided Matsuyama would be his base.  There were also a couple of American hikers who were hiking all around Shikoku, but had to stop and return to Tokyo as they needed to get back to work.  An older Australian couple also came by.  They shared their stories of travelling throughout Japan and how they were going to another country, maybe Korea, to visit their son.  I also got to meet a Dutch “kid” who just finished High School and wanted to spend his GAP year in Japan.  At night, they had a special party for either Kids Day or Green Day.  In May, Japan has Golden Week, 5 consecutive days off, including the weekend.  With so many new guests, I guess we had to party.  We had some homemade okonomiyaki, cold sake, and some umeshu.  It was a wonderful time, but unfortunately, I couldn’t stay more than one night.  They were fully booked the next night.  The host of the hostel is very friendly and very kind.  Her English may not be perfect, but she tries so hard and she is always smiling.

Overall, Matsuyama is a wonderful city that is a must visit if you go to Shikoku.  While in Matsuyama, I would also recommend heading over to Dogo.  It is a very short tram ride, and I’ll talk about that next week.

Please feel free to visit Guesthouse Matsuyama and read their blog.  Unfortunately, their blog is only in Japanese, but the pictures are always nice.

Website: http://www.sophia-club.net/guesthouse/
Blog: http://www.sophia-club.net/blog.php

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。

Tokushima June 9, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokushima” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-bZ

Tokushima is situated in the north-eastern region of Shikoku.  It is the major gateway to the island from Kansai.  It is connected via Awaji Island to Kobe.   Unfortunately, this city is very small and easily visited within a day or two.  You can easily get out of Tokushima city and head to Naruto in the north; Iya Valley in the west; and towards Muroto in the south.

Tokushima is primarily known for one thing, and only one thing, the Awa Odori.  It is a summer festival held in August.  It is one of the most distinct and unique festivals in Japan.  The Awa Odori is literally a traditional dance of the region.  People dress up in the regions unique festival clothing and the dance can be heard for blocks.  It is very difficult to describe the dance and it is something that must be seen in video to truly understand how complex, active, and interesting it really is.  All over Tokushima city, you’ll be able to see statues, banners, art, and videos of the Awa Odori.  You can even take a dance class at the base of Mt. Bizan.  While the Awa Odori is the most famous thing about Tokushima, sudachi is the most famous gift from Tokushima.  It is a small green citrus fruit that is similar to limes and lemons.  It has a slightly stronger taste, but very refreshing.  Beware that buying any sudachi sweets can be dangerous.  They last a long time, but once opened, they “could” expire within a day or two.  I would recommend buying sudachi alcohol and drinks, which are very popular.

There are only a few things to do in Tokushima itself.  The most famous thing to do is to head up Mt. Bizan.  There is a gondola that will take you from the base to the peak, but it runs every 15 minutes.  You can also get a discount if you go in the evening.  The top of the mountain is very beautiful and gives you a great view of the city.  Heading up in the evening is worth the price, however heading up at full price may not be worth it for those on a budget.  You can also hike up the mountain, and the peak offers various hiking paths.  If you are an avid hiker, this is a great place to get started for a short day hike.  Routes tend to be well marked and wind their way around the mountain.  In May, you will also be greeted with beautiful flowers blooming around the peak station.  If you are lucky, Mt. Bizan has over 1000 cherry trees, so the cherry blossom season is supposed to be extremely beautiful.

After Mt. Bizan, Tokushima Central Park is the next best place to visit.  It is located on a hill behind the station.  It can be a little difficult to reach as the station has only one entrance, to the south.  The park is located north of the station.  Once you find the park, it is a very nice place to visit.  The entire park is the site of the ruins of Tokushima Castle.  There are two routes to the top of the hill.  While both routes are equally difficult, be aware that the main route may have some school kids running up as part of their training exercises.  In all honesty, this park is better served to the locals.  There isn’t too much to see.  The view from the top of the hill, while nice, isn’t that great.  It’s difficult to see much of the city as there are large trees surrounding the old courtyard.  However, it is a good way to enjoy an afternoon in Tokushima.

Finally, walking along the Shinmachi River, south of the station, is a lot of fun.  The parks along the river are very beautiful, and there is a lot of outdoor art to enjoy.  You can even take a boat cruise around the city for only 100 yen.  It takes about one hour to go around the city.  You can also take a 4 hour cruise up to Naruto.  The river is also conveniently located near the main shopping area.  Shopping in Tokushima is sparse, to say the least.  It is probably the smallest major city in Shikoku, so finding any major name brands would be very difficult.  If you are looking for something to eat, I would recommend ramen.  It is a local specialty and the local food maps, available in most hotels, show the locations of famous ramen shops.  While it isn’t very different from other ramen shops in Japan, they tend to add slices of meat, and the soup base tends to be a little thinner and saltier, in my opinion.

Overall, I couldn’t say there is a lot to do in Tokushima city itself.  However, there is enough to make it a good weekend trip.  If you are just backpacking around Japan, timing a visit to coincide with the Awa Odori is the best way to go; otherwise it’s best to skip this city.  I would definitely like to return someday.

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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