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Tottori July 27, 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 “Tottori” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-tottori

Tottori is a small city on the cost of the Sea of Japan in western Japan.  It is located north west of Kobe.  The city itself is not a major location for tourists, even for Japanese people.  The city has only one major reason to be.  The Tottori Sand Dunes are the major attraction with Japanese pears being the major tourist gift.  In general, there isn’t much to see or do in this small city, but if you are looking for a small Japanese city to visit, Tottori might be a good place to see what small Japan looks like.  Personally, I think there are many better places to visit than Tottori.

The Tottori Sand Dunes, or rather “dune” is a short bus ride from Tottori Station.  It isn’t very expensive to visit the Sand Dunes and there are many things you can do.  It isn’t a proper beach where you can just lye in the sun and get well tanned.  It’s a tourist attraction with people walking up and down the one dune.  There are several things you can do when you visit the sand dunes, but do be aware that when it’s raining, most of the activities are cancelled.  One of the most interesting things you can do is to enjoy a nice ride on a camel.  The price is a little steep at nearly 2000 Yen per ride, but when in your life will you ride a camel, let alone a camel in Japan!  The other major attraction is to take a horse and carriage ride.  These rides go rain or shine as the wagons are covered.  I can’t comment on the experience as when I went it was raining somewhat heavily, so the smell of the wet horses was pungent.  You can also try sand boarding, paragliding, or just take a nice walk on the beach.  Since most things were closed, I decided to take a nice walk from the main station to the coast.  There are three sections to the sand dune area.  There’s the section between the dune and the tourist centres, the dune itself, and the coast.  The area between the dune and the tourist centres has been changing over the years.  In recent years, there have been grass growing at the basin, and a small pond has been growing in size.  What was once a sand covered basin is now starting to change into a small green oasis in the middle of a large “beach”.  The dune itself is somewhat tall and requires a little energy to climb.  It’s not a difficult climb at all, but the sand doesn’t help in the ascent.  Just past the dune is a steep drop that leads to the Sea of Japan.  The views from the top of the dune are beautiful, if it was a sunny day, and the water is refreshing.  A quick trip to the shore is recommended, if anything to get your feet wet and to enjoy the sea.  The challenge of running down the dune is fun fairly easy, but one has to remember that what goes down must go up to get home.

Other than the sand dune, Tottori has several nice temples and touristy things around the city.  If you have a chance, a bicycle is more than sufficient to get around and a great way to spend a day in the city.  The loop bus would be nice as well, but I prefer to either cycle or walk around on my own.  In my journey, I decided to walk and see whatever came my way.  There is a nice small river that has various old bridges and sculptures lining it.  I also stumbled upon a small zoo, and when I say small, I mean tiny.  There were very small cages for animals such as goats, birds, and monkeys.  The cages themselves looked too small to keep the animals happy. I arrived after 5pm, so the zoo was closed, but the entire area is encased in a park.  It’s free to walk around the outside of the zoo, and the paid area of the zoo is only a single 10 metre long path that showcases, at most, a dozen or so animals.  I doubt it’s worth the admission as you can easily see the animals from outside.  There was nothing I could do to help the animals, and I could only hope that when the zoo was open, the animals are free to walk around the park, or a bigger area.

Other than that, there really isn’t much to do in Tottori.  If you go to the sand dunes, you can try to pick up a sand dune egg.  These are hard boiled eggs that were cooked in the sand itself.  It’s not particularly delicious, but it is “unique” to the area.  I’d probably recommend trying the “ago” (ah-go).  The main Japanese name is “Tobiuo” or Flying Fish.  It’s a small fish that literally jumps out of the water and can fly for several metres.  The main food to come from Tottori is rakkyo and Asian pears.  Due to the climate and poor soil conditions, these are the only foods that Tottori can produce consistently.  Rakkyo is a type of pickled onion. It’s difficult to explain, but it has a somewhat sweet taste.  It’s popular as a topping for Japanese curry or as a small side dish for lunch.  The pears themselves are generally in season towards the end of summer.  Any other time, you’d only get pear treats rather than fresh pears themselves.

If you do go to Tottori, I highly recommend renting a car.  Tottori city can be visited in a day, maybe two, but if you want to really see the area, a car is a must.  There are various beautiful beaches just outside of the city towards the west.  You can also head towards Mt. Daisen which is a large mountain that is considered to be the Mt. Fuji of the area.  Another great option is to take the San’in Railroad, run by the JR Company.  I have heard it’s a beautiful train that goes up along the coast.  You can enjoy a beautiful day going from Kyoto all the way up to Tottori, then over and along the coast.  If you have the time, and want to just enjoy a day as the world passes by, this is a good way to spend it.

Tottori Information:

Tottori (Wikipedia): http://wikitravel.org/en/Tottori

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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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.

Information:

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

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。

Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan) October 27, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kansai, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Amanohashidate (Top 3 Views of Japan)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-i2

Amanohashidate is one of Japan’s Top 3 views.  Along with Miyajima and Matsushima, it is considered beautiful.  In my previous posts, I have mentioned both Miyajima and Matsushima.  I was awestruck by the beauty of Miyajima and let down by Matsushima.  For the third year in a row, I went to visit one of Japan’s Top 3 views.  This time, I went with no expectations at all.  I was looking for a nice relaxing day and to just explore a remote area of Japan.  Getting to Amanohashidate is much harder than Miyajima and Matsushima.  Miyajima is difficult because you have to take a ferry.  Matsushima is difficult because it’s located outside Sendai.  Amanohashidate, however, is located far from Kyoto, and Kyoto is the nearest major city.  In fact, Kyoto is closer to the Pacific Ocean, and Amanohashidate is located on the Sea of Japan coast.  If you are travelling from Tokyo, expect to travel for roughly 5 hours.  Bring a fully charged iPod and you’ll be okay.

Amanohashidate is famous because it’s a 3 km sand bar.  Translated, Amanohashidate means “Bridge in Heaven”.  The most famous thing to do, when visiting Amanohashidate is to venture up one of the nearby mountains, stand with your back facing the sand bar, and look at it from between your legs.  This gives the impression that the sand bar is actually in heaven, or heading to heaven.  You can do this on both sides of the sand bar, and it isn’t too expensive to head up.  When you do head up, be sure to take the chair lift.  It’s one of my favourite things to do in Japan.  These chair lifts are not like your traditional ski lifts.  Rather, they are simple chairs with almost no safety features whatsoever.  It can be a little scary at first, but it’s such a peaceful ride that you’ll feel almost as if you were floating in the chair.  Unfortunately, the views of the sand bar aren’t great from the chairlift.  If you head up from Amanohashidate station, you’ll have a little luck as the top of the hill has a small, and I really mean small, amusement park.  It’s probably great for kids, but for adults, it’s nothing special.  You can easily spend an hour just relaxing and taking your time wandering the area.

When you finish looking at the sand bar and get tired of seeing the same static views, Chionji is the only notable temple around the station.  It’s somewhat large for the population, but it isn’t bad.  I’d say it’s worth checking out, and don’t worry about time.  If you arrive on the late train, you’ll still have plenty of time to walk around the entire area as the first trains back to Kyoto aren’t until around dinner time.  The temple itself, however, isn’t special.  The main point of interest is probably the omikuji, fortunes.  They come in small wooden fans which are pretty cute, and I’ve never seen them in that form before.  From there, you can take a look at a type of key/lantern.  Located next to the bridge leading to Amanohashidate is a key that looks similar to an Egyptian Key.  Of course, it doesn’t look the same, but this key is supposed to bring luck for ships.  Many people climb into it and enjoy a picture with it.

Heading to Amanohashidate, you’ll have to cross a bridge.  This is a famous point for photos.  It’s an old swing bridge that opens up many times a day to allow the tour boats to pass.  It’s nice for photos, but after you’ve seen it once, there isn’t much of a point to wait for it a second time.  When you do cross the bridge, you’ll be on Amanohashidate.  This 3 km sand bar is easily traversed by bicycle, but if you feel up to it, feel free to run across.  It appears to be somewhat popular for locals looking for exercise to run up and down the sand bar.  You could also go for a nice swim as the beach is quite beautiful.  The water is very clean and there are various showers located along the beach.  Do note that the showers are turned on during the summer season only.  Also, be aware of traffic.  The sand bar is closed to cars, but motorcycles up to 50cc are allowed and maintenance trucks may travel along the sand bar on weekdays.  Located in the middle, there is a small shrine and various haiku passages.  A famous Japanese writer was inspired to write several haikus while in Amanohashidate.  If you didn’t bring your own bicycle, don’t worry.  Just rent one from one of the many souvenir shops next to Chionji Temple.

One of the last few things you can do is to take a boat ride to the northern shore.  While I never did this myself, it looks nice and it’s a good way to burn time.  The other is to head to the sento.  There is a nice looking sento located next to the station.  A sento is a Japanese public bath house.  The prices for bathing in this sento are a little expensive, but apparently there is a free foot bath in front of the sento.  If you need to pick up some gifts, Amanohashidate is famous for its black bean snacks.  While this is not for everyone, it is an option, and some of them are delicious.  They also have a few varieties of sake and shochu.  Amanohashidate also has a regional beer, but I never tried it.

Other than that, there really isn’t anything to do.  I’d suggest bringing a picnic and enjoying it on the beach.  Amanohashidate feels very remote and other than a few souvenir shops and touristy restaurants, there isn’t much to do.  Once you’ve seen the sand bar, that’s it.  Unlike the other two Top 3 views, there is much less to do here.  I do feel that it ranks in at number 2 compared to Matsushima, but by and far, Miyajima is still the best.  The best thing to do is to make the most of your time when you are in Amanohashidate.  Enjoy being out of the big city.  Relax at the beach.  Read a book.  Talk with your friends.  Enjoy a beer on the beach.  Do everything that you should do when you are on vacation, mainly relax!

Amanohashidate Information:

Japan Guide:  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3990.html
Wikipedia (minimal information at best):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanohashidate
Wikitravel (the best guide, but still not great):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Amanohashidate
Official Site (Good information on events and tours, but no information on the sites themselves): http://www.joho-kyoto.or.jp/~center/english/shop/amanohashidate/

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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