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Naoshima August 11, 2009

Posted by Dru in Chugoku, Japan, Shikoku, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Naoshima” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-naoshima

Naoshima isn’t a very well known island for most people, but if you are into art, and especially modern art, Naoshima is the place to be in Japan.  It is an island that has embraced art and made it the number one attraction on the island.  Access to Naoshima is relatively easy.  The most common route is to take a ferry from Uno, near Okayama.  Since this is on the main island of Japan, and the easiest way to get there from the Shinkansen, it is also the busiest way to Naoshima.  However, from Shikoku, you can catch a ferry from Takamatsu, which takes less than an hour.  Travelling to and from Naoshima is an interesting adventure in itself.  Naoshima is located near several other islands, and it is near a busy shipping lane for Japan.

Upon arriving in Naoshima, you will more than likely enter the main port.  This area is Miyanoura.  It is a tiny area which gives a glimpse into what Naoshima is about.  From here, you’ll have two choices, to either rush onto the bus, or look for a bicycle rental shop.  The day I visited Naoshima, it was raining on and off, so I decided to take the bus.  Do note that the bus drivers speak minimal English, at best, but they can help you with the very basics of buying a ticket.  If you have a little time, a quick trip to a giant red pumpkin at the port is worth a visit.  You can literally walk inside.  There are two pieces of art around the ferry terminal that is sure to wet your appetite for what’s to come.  You can also walk over to the “007 ‘The Man with the Red Tattoo’ Museum” which is only a few hundred metres from the terminal.  This is not worth visiting unless you have extra time waiting for the ferry as it comprises of just one room with only a few pieces of James Bond memorabilia.

The easiest place to visit is the Honmura district.  This is the location of the “Art House Projects”.  It is a collection of 7 homes that were designed by artists.  One of the homes requires a reservation in advance, but the rest don’t.  There is a 1000 yen fee to visit all of the homes and you will get a very nice souvenir listing the homes and a map of the Honmura area with locations of each house.  If you are taking a bus, make sure you get off when you see the school and post office.  It will be on the right.  It is very easy to miss, but it’s the best starting point.  You will be located very close to “Haisha”.  This is a very interesting house that was built to look derelict.  It is a collection of trash that was formed into a two storey house.  It was by far the most interesting house, in my opinion.  “Ishibashi” was the second house I visited and it was a nice place.  Inside the house, it was designed to look like a waterfall.  Without pictures, it is impossible to give a good description in only one or two sentences.  It was a nice place, but too easy to forget.  “Gokaisho” is another easy to forget place.  It was nothing more than a couple of shacks, albeit extremely nice shacks that faced a beautiful stone garden.  Of course you couldn’t walk into the garden, but you could sit down and enjoy the peacefulness of the garden.

“Kadoya” had the most interesting message.  Throughout the house, there were digital numbers counting up or down and at different speeds.  It provided a very surreal experience.  If I had more time, I would have liked to stay even longer.  “Minamidera” was more interesting outside than inside.  It was an interactive house of darkness.  You are taken inside a pitch black room where you have to wait for about 5 minutes while your eyes adjust.  After that, you’ll be able to faintly see a screen with fog, which you can walk up to.  It’s not very interesting, but something that’s worth a visit.  The last house was “Go’o Shrine”.  This one wasn’t difficult to find and it was fairly beautiful.  However, finding the entrance to the inside was more difficult.  There is a hill next to the sea where you can walk down.  Then, you have to walk through a thin concrete hallway till you are under the shrine itself.  It provided a very peaceful experience that was even better because very few people were on the island when I visited.  After visiting Go’o Shrine, you can also take a quick look at some castle ruins, but be warned, there was nothing but garbage in the area, so you shouldn’t feel a need to see it.  The area is very small and easily accessed on foot.  Do note that it’s a little difficult to find each street and the map makes the town look much bigger than it really is.

The Benesse area is located along the south cost of the island.  If you rent a bicycle, it is probably the first place you will visit.  Otherwise, it is the last few stops on the bus route.  There are two museums, the Chichu Art Museum and the Benesse House.  I didn’t enter the Chichu Art Museum due to the cost, and my lack of real appreciation of modern art.  I did enter the Benesse House where I got a map to the outdoor exhibits.  The Benesse House is a small modern art museum that took me less than an hour to look through.  It wasn’t as impressive or breathtaking as I was lead to believe, but if I do go back, the Chichu Art Museum is on my list.  I was told I missed a very important museum.  The main attraction in the area is the outdoor works of art.  There are 18 works and they are all free to see.  You can get a map from the Benesse House, and maybe the Chichu Art Museum.  Although they are scattered throughout the area, from the Chichu Art Museum, past Benesse House, and out to a fishing port, the majority are located in clusters.  One set is located near Benesse House, and it’s a little difficult to find the entrance as there are no signs.  This makes it more interesting.  Along the beach, between Benesse House and the fishing port is the second cluster.  The beach is where the most famous piece of art on the island is held.  It is a giant pumpkin located on a small pier.  It provides a great beacon for anyone on the water, and an even better photo opportunity for travellers.  While I don’t get the entire message of the art, it was something I had to do on the island.

Naoshima is a great one day adventure from either Okayama or Takamatsu.  While most people recommend a day and a half, staying overnight at the Benesse House is extremely expensive, and the other accommodations are difficult to book.  Language can be a problem, but most people who work for the Art House Project, the Museums, and the Ferry Terminal all speak minimal English.  They can help you get tickets and find your way, even without English.  Just smile, speak slowly, and say “arigato”.

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Takamatsu August 4, 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 “Takamatsu” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-dc

Takamatsu is considered to be the largest city in Shikoku, at least for its city core.  It is also the head of the Shikoku government offices and the heart of business in Shikoku.  Upon entering the city, you will realize how different it is from other parts of Shikoku.  It is a vibrant city that relies a lot on business to keep it running.  Being part of the Kagawa region of the island also means it is the home of the best udon in Japan.  While the city is fairly large, it isn’t what most tourists would call, interesting, unlike Matsuyama.

There are only two things to really see in Takamatsu, Ritsurin Koen and the Tamamo Breakwater.  Ritsurin Koen is a Japanese style park that is also national treasure.  It is located about two kilometres from Takamatsu station.  The park itself is fairly large.  It can be a little difficult to find your way and to see everything quickly.  There is an old small tea house located near a red cliff.  This tea house is only for viewing as it is no longer in use.  The red cliff is probably the most famous image of the park.  While it is called a cliff, it isn’t that large, and follows the edge of the park.  It is modeled after a similar, albeit much larger, cliff in China.  There is also a large tea house located in the centre of the park.  This tea house is very nice and located next to a calm pond.  Unfortunately, like most tea houses in Japan, it was very expensive.  Walking around the park, you can find yourself lining up to climb a bunch of steps to the top of a mound of earth.  This mound is called Mt. Fuji.  It is said to look similar to the real Mt. Fuji at different times.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see it that way, but it is a great place to take panoramic photos of the park.  Lastly, you can also visit the gift shop area where you can buy very expensive bonsai trees, or wood carvings.  If you have ever been to Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo, this park will not be that impressive.  It is still a very nice park overall.

Behind the station, you can head straight to the pier where you’ll be able to enjoy a nice walk out to the breakwater.  The Tamamo Breakwater is a pleasant walk and the lighthouse is an amazing sight at night.  Unlike most traditional lighthouses, where only the top shines, the entire lighthouse glows red.  There is also a small park located between the pier and the station buildings.  Within the park, if you arrive at the right season, you can visit a very beautiful rose garden with dozens of rose bushes.  It makes for a very beautiful and relaxing stroll.  If you have the energy, you can also walk over to the Takamatsu-jo and enjoy the beautiful gardens as well.  Unfortunately, the castle was destroyed many years ago, but is scheduled to be rebuilt starting in 2010.  If you can wait a few years, you might be able to enjoy this castle someday.

If you aren’t so interested in sightseeing, Takamatsu is a very bicycle friendly city.  There are several shotengai with various shops in each one.  Takamatsu claims to have the longest shotengai in Japan. If you consider a shotengai to be just one street, then this is not true. If you combine them, and the fact that they are all connected, then this is true. Each shotengai street seems to have its own theme.  I would recommend renting a bicycle at the station before exploring the shotengai.  Unfortunately, I didn’t know about bicycle rentals and went everywhere on foot.  Being in the area of Kagawa, Sanuki Udon is very famous.  You will be able to find udon in almost every corner of the city.  Going to an expensive restaurant is nice, but you can easily find cheap varieties on almost every street. Most of the time, you just order what you want, grab some side dishes, such as tempura, and grab a seat.  You can easily eat for under 500 yen.  When you have nothing better to do, I would recommend heading to one of the udon shops, grab a quick bowl of udon, and chow down.


Dogo July 21, 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 “Dogo” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/s2liAm-dogo

Dogo is an area inside Matsuyama that is very well known.  Its claim to fame is Dogo Onsen.  It is claimed to be the oldest onsen in Japan.  While no one can be certain, it has the oldest referral in any written book in Japan.  For this reason, Dogo is a must see for people who visit Matsuyama.  Being a tourist destination, you will have a lot of opportunities to see and do things that are more common in the touristy areas of Japan.

Reaching the Dogo area is very easy.  Taking one of the main trams to Dogo Onsen is the easiest way.  It is the last stop, so don’t worry about missing it.  Once you get off the tram, you will see a sea of people.  Exiting the station will point you in the direction of Dogo Onsen.  Across from the station is a popular, and free, footbath.  This fountain is very popular as a quick way to enjoy the natural spring water without having to pay for the onsen itself.  Do be warned that it can be very busy and line-ups in the middle of the day are common.  Next to the footbath is an old style clock.  This clock, like many others in Japan, has a special chime every hour.  Don’t forget to turn around after walking to the clock and footbath, so you can see the beautiful station building.  It was built to look like an old European building.  The face of the building makes it feel much larger than it actually is.

There are two routes to reaching Dogo Onsen.  The first is to follow the shotengai to the entrance.  The other is to walk up a hill and follow the line of cars waiting to enter the parking lot.  I’d recommend the shotengai as you can always buy a few souvenirs on the way.  Dogo Onsen has two buildings, as far as I know.  When the shotengai turns right, you’ll be at the new onsen.  Turn left and the building is just outside the covered shotengai.  I believe everything is the same, but in a modern building.  It isn’t as busy, and has the same natural spring water, but because it is not the original, most people go to the original building.  Upon exiting the short shotengai, you will see the old onsen.  The way people talk about it, I was expecting a building that was much larger than it was.  It was a nice small wooden building with many people on the second floor enjoying tea and Japanese sweets after their afternoon bath.  There are many guides at the entrance that have instructions in English.  I’m not sure if they speak English, but the guides have English manuals that will definitely help.

If you do go inside to enjoy the bath, be sure to bring soap and a towel.  It does cost extra if you don’t have it.  It is also well known that going at night, or most other times, you’ll have to line up for everything.  You have to line-up to enter, to get a locker, to take a shower, and to bathe.  If you are shy about being naked in front of other people, especially for a long time, I’d recommend going to the newer building.  Once you finish your bath, you can visit one of the other rooms in the onsen.  Do note that the onsen has a few classes for bathing.  You can also visit the emperor’s room, but that is also extra.  After leaving the onsen, it is almost always true that Japanese people want to drink some alcohol.  Outside Dogo Onsen, you’ll have a lot of choices.  I would highly recommend going to the Dogo Brewery located next to the onsen.  The food was excellent, and so was the beer.  You won’t find it anywhere else.

Next to Dogo Onsen is Isaniwa Shrine.  It is about 135 steps to the top, and a good trial before heading to Kotohira.  The shrine itself is very small, but dedicated top the god of war.  If you have the energy, you can try to walk over to Ishite Temple.  This is part of the 88 temple pilgrimage and one of the most spectacular temples.  Unfortunately, I was unable to find it and discovered it was much farther way than I expected.  It is somewhere that I do plan to visit again, if I get the chance.

The last thing to do in the Dogo area is to visit Dogo Koen.  It is a very nice, relaxing park, where you can see dozens of people enjoying a nice barbeque on a sunny day.  It is a very hilly park and the site of the Yuzuki-jo ruins, another castle.  There aren’t any signs that there was a castle on the grounds, but there is a nice lookout site at the top of the hill that gives another vantage point to the city.  The centre of the park is a fun place to explore and to escape the heat.  Do be aware that there are a few entrances and exits, so it’s easy to get confused.  However, the main entrance is also located in front of a tram station, so getting back to Matsuyama is very easy.


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


Nikko (Part II) June 2, 2009

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 “Nikko (Part II)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-aV

After going to Rinnoji, it’s a short walk up a hill to reach Toshogu. Toshogu is the main attraction in Nikko. It is a large, fantastic, complex with intricate designs throughout. Upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll be greeted by the typical torii gate, but also a large pagoda. Rinnoji is a fairly traditional Japanese temple, simple. Toshogu is the polar opposite. The main pagoda has been likened to Chinese and Korean style temples. Lots of colour and various statues of animals adorn the rafters. This creates a very interesting style where people either love it or hate it. Many people have hated this because it isn’t “Japanese”, but that is a completely different argument altogether. However, upon entering the paid area of Toshogu, you’ll see a huge crowd of people gathering around a plain wooden building. It is very small compared to the surrounding buildings and it looks somewhat out of place. This is the famous Three Wise Monkeys (Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil) building. It is the most famous image of Nikko. Three Wise Monkeys are three monkeys, one covering his ears, one covering his mouth, and one covering his eyes. There are other carvings around the building featuring monkeys in other situations, but by far, the Three Wise Monkeys are the most popular. From here, you will see a few black and gold structures along with several carvings of various exotic animals.

There are several carvings of peacocks and some of elephants. Unfortunately, the elephants look nothing like an elephant, and several sculptures looked scary. Towards the back of the complex, you will see pretty much the same. There is a second area featuring the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, for which Toshogu was built. The cost to enter is expensive, so I never bothered to enter. There is another famous carving of a sleeping cat, but I didn’t feel it was worth the extra 800 Yen. The last place to visit within the shrine is Yakushido Hall. It is a small building which can have lots of people lining up to enter. Within the main room, there is a painting of a dragon on the ceiling. One of the priests/monks will give an explanation about the hall and how banging two sticks of wood in the right place will allow you to hear the dragon’s cry. He will demonstrate that if you away from the centre, the two sticks will sound like normal. However, when he bangs the sticks in the right location within the room, it will echo and resonate to sound like a dragon’s cry. It was a very interesting demonstration, but pictures and video aren’t allowed.

After visiting Toshogu, you can head over to Futarasan and Taiyuinbyo.  Taiyuinbyo is another mausoleum, but this time it was built for Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson.  It is smaller in scale, and it isn’t as busy as Toshogu.  It isn’t as spectacular, but just as intricate.  There are more Shinto gods guarding the area, and it’s location at the base of a mountain makes it very picturesque.  I personally enjoyed this shrine more than Toshogu, but I was let down a little as many things were undergoing renovations.  After visiting Toshogu, however, there isn’t much to say about these two shrines.  They are typical shrines without anything extremely new or interesting to talk about.

I would highly recommend that you rent a car when you go to Nikko. It is the easiest way to get to the distant locations, and you’ll have the freedom to head up to Lake Chuzenji. However, there are buses that head up and down the mountain to Lake Chuzenji, but you’ll be limited to when you can go. The road up to Lake Chuzenji is called Irohazaka. This road is famous among driving enthusiasts and street racers as it was featured in the anime/manga Initial D. The name is derived from the 48 hairpin corners that made up the original road. Iroha is the name of the 48 letters of the Japanese alphabet. Currently, there are two roads going to Lake Chuzenji. Both are one way. One heads up, the other down. Going up this road, there are two lanes. You’ll be able to see a few exotic cars and some motorcycles as they race uphill. Going downhill, there is only one lane, but you’ll see the same cars, only they’ll be going much slower than before. This road is also extremely famous in the autumn season as the leaves turn a bright red, orange, and yellow. It’s not uncommon for this road to be backed up, taking three or four times longer to travel than other season.

Lake Chuzenji itself isn’t that spectacular. Near the end of the uphill portion of Irohazaka, you can pay to take the gondola up to a lookout point. From here, you will be given beautiful views of Nikko, Lake Chuzenji, and Kegon Falls. Around the lake, you can do all of the normal things you would do at any lake. Swimming and taking a “swan boat” onto the water is popular. There are also many shops in the area that let you try Nikko’s famous food, tofu “skin”. Beware that during the winter months, most of the shops are closed due to the lack of visitors. The main attraction would have to be Kengon Falls. Standing at 98 metres tall, this waterfall is one of the tallest in Japan. Taking the elevator to the base of the waterfall is recommended as you may be able to see some Japanese mountain goats and you can have a better view of the falls. Note that in the winter months, it’s extremely cold, so dress warmly.

If you decide to spend a day or two in Nikko, hiking around Lake Chuzenji is very famous, and there are various hot springs in the area. Kinugawa is a famous hot spring resort town that is a short drive from Nikko. You may also be able to see a few monkeys running around. Beware that the monkeys can be aggressive, so keep a little distance and be aware of them if they are coming towards you.

Note:  This is part II of a II part series.  Please return to Part I for the first half of this post.


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