Making light of your luggage in Japan

Whilst living out of a suitcase or backpack is an inevitable part of your trip to Japan, there are a number of ways in which you can lighten your load when travelling from destination to destination – thus maximising your unemcumbered sightseeing time.

The first is fairly obvious: taking advantage of the hotel’s luggage storage facility to either drop your luggage off prior to check-in or hold on to it after you check out. You can make life a lot easier for yourself and avoid a long trek to your hotel with lots of luggage by making sure you book a hotel as near to the station as possible. There are none more convenient than the Japan Railways (JR) owned hotels which are located above major stations, including Kyoto and Hiroshima. I recently used JR Kyushu hotels in both Kagoshima and Nagasaki and they were both very nice, excellent value and extremely convenient. Other budget chains are always very close to stations, including Daiwa Roynet and Toyoko Inn.

It is also a good idea to make use of the coin lockers to be found in pretty much any train station. These come in various sizes, the largest of which will hold a suitcase or large backpack. Large lockers usually cost about 500 yen whilst the smaller ones are usually around 300 yen per day. Some like this one have integral change machines with instructions in English – very handy! It is also worth noting that train stations aren’t the only place you can find coin lockers. Bus stations, some tourist offices and many attractions also have lockers so you can look around unencumbered. This is such a boon and just many of way in which Japan rates highly as a tourist-friendly destination.

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Be aware that you cannot leave baggage in lockers overnight. Also, numbers of the larger lockers are limited and you can never guarantee that one will be available when you need it, especially if you arrive later in the day. I went to Himeji recently and there wasn’t a single coin locker to be found in the entire station. So whilst coin lockers are very useful, there are no guarantees that you might not still end up having to haul your luggage around.

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What my experience of travelling around in Japan has taught me is to take a small rucksack as well as my large suitcase for use on overnight or shorter side trips. This means that I can send my suitcase to my next major destination and have it waiting in my hotel when I arrive. This takkyubin service as it is called is an absolute godsend on a longer trip. Look for the sign of the black cat. Many convenience stores offer the service, but so do most hotels and it is much easier to sort it out right from your hotel reception. It then becomes literally a door-to-door service.

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Like nearly everything else in Japan it is extremely efficient and I think it is good value for money. The cost depends on the size of your luggage and the distance you are sending it. Standard delivery is a next-day service, but you can also pay extra for express same-day delivery. To give you an example, I sent my large suitcase from Nagasaki in Kyushu to Kyoto for about 1,700 yen and from Kyoto on to Shizuoka for 1,300 yen. The form is in Japanese and looks a bit daunting but people will be only too happy to help – this is Japan after all. You just need the address (including post code) and telephone number of the hotel you want to send it on to.

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In my case, the receptionist at the hotel filled in the form for me, I paid her the fee and the next time I saw my suitcase it was waiting for me in my Kyoto hotel room. Fantastic! This allowed me to take two-night side trip to the rural towns of Yufuin and Tsuwano without the hassle of large luggage. Typically I use this service two or three times during my trip especially when travelling to more remote locations, when one or more changes of train are required and/or when my hotel is some distance from the station. All these were true of my recent stay at a Buddhist temple in Mt Koya when I was very glad that I wasn’t hauling my suitcase around trains, cable cars and on to buses like many people I saw there. Rather, I was safe in the knowledge that it was on its way to my next destination. Believe me, takkyubin makes life so much easier and for me it is worth every penny.

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Nikko in minature on Mt Kuno, Shizuoka

In my previous post, I wrote about the world famous Toshogu shrine in Nikko, dedicated to the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Given the Tokugawa Ieyasu connection with my adopted home city of Shizuoka, it is perhaps not surprising that another Toshogu shrine dedicated to him at Mt Kuno, or Kunozan, in Shizuoka bears a striking resemblance to the one in Nikko. In fact, it is almost Toshogu shrine in miniature.

It is considered to be the second most important monument to the Shogun in Japan.  Though far smaller and less grand than its counterpart in Nikko, it is just as magnificent. In fact, the ornate decoration is more colourful and well preserved.

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Mt Kuno is a short and scenic cable car ride from Niondaira, a famous Mt Fuji viewing spot – a 20-minute bus ride from the city centre. If you don’t fancy taking the cable car back up to Nihondaira you can always descend the thousand or so steps that take you down to the bottom of the mountain, right by the Pacific Ocean. This is also the site of Shizuoka’s delicious strawberry nurseries. You can then catch a bus back to Shizuoka station.

All in all, a visit to Nihondaira and Mt Kuno on a clear day makes a great day out with a view of Mt Fuji (hopefully!) and a taste of Nikko, but without the crowds!

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A wet, yet majestic Toshogu shrine in Nikko

On a wet and gloomy final day in Japan, I decided to eke the last bit of value out of my Japan rail pass by making a trip to Nikko. I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Utsunomiya and then the local line to Nikko. All in all this took about two hours.

Myhope that this might be sufficient time for the rain to stop before I got there was dashed – the rain just got heavier and heavier. This led me to decide to take the bus from Nikko station rather than take what would have been a pleasant 20 minute walk to Shinkyo bridge which marks the entrance to the Nikko national heritage area. So far, so good. But this was where I made my first mistake: forking out 300 yen (OK, so it’s not much and I’m a cheapskate!) for the dubious privilege of crossing this supposedly sacred bridge. Except that you can’t actually cross it because you are unable to exit the bridge on the other side of the river. Rather you could walk onto the bridge and then come back. I was less than impressed by the fact that I had got suckered into paying out good money for this – not least because, although the red bridge is beautiful, the best photos are of it, rather than from it, and so can be taken for free.  Be warned!

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There are a lot of fairly steep steps that lead from the other side of the Shinkyo bridge up to the temple complex, although there is a bus that takes you right up to the top and you may prefer to check this out if you find stairs a bit of a challenge.

Although there are other shrines and temples located within the heritage park, the undoubted star is Toshogu shrine built by my old friend Tokugawa Ieyasu. Those of you who read my blog about Shizuoka festival will know that this former Shogun took up residence in Sumpu castle in Shizuoka. Toshogu was built in dedication to the Shogun and it is absolutely magnificent. Unfortunately the main Yomeimon gate, a National Treasure, is currently undergoing major renovation and is under wraps. Nevertheless, the other ornate and elaborate buildings are well worth a visit.

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You can enjoy the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil monkey frieze. The setting on a forested hillside is also very attractive.

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Despite the near torrential rain, I still enjoyed my visit albeit that I made it considerably shorter than I would have done otherwise as I was starting to get saturated and cold. You can probably see the rain in these photos.

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It must be said that Toshogu shrine does have the feeling of a bit of a money-making exercise, however, with 1,300 yen only getting you into the grounds with additional cost to enter specific buildings. On the positive side, I think this only goes to show what good value most of Japan’s attractions are, whether it be a shrine or a museum. On the whole, there is very little sense of ever being ripped off anywhere. And I’m not sure that one could say the same thing about tourist attractions in the UK.

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Nevertheless Nikko does make a nice day trip from Tokyo and, time permitting, it would be great to combine it with a visit to nearby Lake Chuzenji and perhaps the most famous waterfall in Japan: the Kegon falls. Chuzenji is a hot spring resort which makes a pleasant overnight stay. The autumn colours are spectacular and the cherry blossoms are beautiful in early May.

I have visited in winter and can testify that it is also stunning with snow on the ground. Perhaps I am biased because I always think the best time to experience an outdoor hot spring bath, or rotemburo, is on a clear and snowy evening. What could be better?

 

The glorious spectacle that is Kabuki

Whilst in Tokyo I treated myself to an evening at the Kabukiza theatre in Ginza. This totally rebuilt theatre is a suitably grand setting for the quintessentially Japanese art form of kabuki. IMG_3312

I went to the ‘evening’ performance which started at 4:30pm – unbelievably early by UK standards. As usual, the programme comprised three or four shorter pieces with intervals inbetween.  It is thus easy to stay for just one or two acts, as you please.

My ticket for the evening show was relatively inexpensive at 6,000 yen (about £35) even though it was a front row seat. You can book online and pay by credit card in which case you need to print out your booking confirmation slip (just in case) and then take the same credit card with you on the night. You insert this into one of the automated ticket machines in the lobby just before the show and voila! your ticket appears. Very efficient. You can also buy cheap on-the-day tickets at the box office for one act only. Perfect for a rainy day or a last minute decision to take in a spot of Japanese culture.

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I simply love the spectacle of kabuki. It is so different from anything you will see in western theatre. For me it is an unmissable part of any trip to Japan and you can find performances in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka at different times of the year.

Do be sure to rent the earphone set if they have one. They are always available in Tokyo’s Kabukiza although apparently they are to be replaced at the end of April by a new G-mark guide service in English and other languages. The commentary is interesting and informative and helps you to make sense of what is going on on the stage, which would otherwise be pretty incomprehensible. You have pay a rental fee and and a deposit that is refunded when you return the equipment. Just ask any member of staff if you are unsure.

The first kabuki performances were by women in Kyoto. However, the presence of women on stage was soon outlawed on the grounds of indecency and since that time all kabuki parts have been played by men. Those actors specialising in female parts are known as onnagata. Kabuki actors are drawn from longstanding acting dynasties, either by birth or adoption. One of the special elements of the recent performance I went to was that one of the actors was taking on a new stage name: Nakamura Ganjiro IV. To celebrate this occasion a short drama was performed at which renowned kabuki actors introduced themselves and offered their congratulations.

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Kabuki is highly stylised and not at all like western theatre. The costumes, make up and staging are all dramatic and beautiful and, indeed, it has been said that beauty is the essence of kabuki. It is more like a series of scenes than an action-centred narrative. The actors are the focus rather than the story itself, which most of the audience is already familiar with. It is less about what is going to happen than simply watching the actors act. Everything in kabuki revolves around and supports the actors, including ‘invisible’ stage hands dressed in black who come on to hand the actor a drink or provide him with a seat to help ease the burden of the heavy and intricate costumes during long poses.

Though watching a kabuki performance always feels like a privilege, it is neither a particularly expensive nor stuffy affair. Don’t be surprised to hear audience members shouting out the actors’ names in a show of appreciation. Another part of the kabuki ritual is to bring along a drink and a bento box to enjoy at your seat during the intervals.  Even if you don’t stay for the entire performance, I think you’ll enjoy the spectacle and appreciate the actor’s incredible skill and artistry, honed over many years. My advice is to rent the English guide, bring along a snack, suspend disbelief and give it a go!

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The grande dame of Japanese hotels: The Fujiya in Hakone

It would be easy to think I am a but jinxed when it comes to my trips to Hakone. Last year I visited with a friend at about the same time of year and it absolutely poured with rain. Fortunately, we spent much of the time in an art gallery. After that, with a British bulldog spirit, we ploughed on up trains and cable cars to the top of the mountain. There was much laughter and general hilarity as the only thing any of us could see from the cable car was our own reflection. The clouds had descended and visibility was precisely zero. I still have the photos we took at the top to remind me of a highly entertaining cable car ride, if not quite the one we had envisaged.

Turn the clock forwards a year and I am back in Hakone only to be greeted on my arrival by the same dark clouds and heavy rain. Just as well really that my main reason for visiting this time was to stay in the Fujiya Hotel. This grande dame of Japanese hotels is located a (steep) five-minute walk from Miyanoshita station on the local train from Hakone-Yumoto to Gora. It was raining when I arrived at 3pm on Friday and it was still raining when I left at 11am the following day. Accordingly, I decided to concede defeat to the elements and beat a hasty retreat back to Tokyo.

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I had originally intended to take the usual tourist route around trains, cable cars, boats and buses as well as make a stopover en route at the Hakone Open Air Museum but what would have been the point traipsing around in the torrential rain? That was another 4,000 yen Hakone free pass wasted, although at least I got to take the so-called switchback train from Hakone-Yumoto to Miyanoshita. Given the weather there seemed nothing to gain from ploughing on around a route I have been on before (albeit a long time ago) just for the sake of getting my money’s worth.

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To be honest, the whole route tends to become a bit of a crowded and fraught procession. In spring and autumn the place is especially packed and I suspect winter may be the best season to see Hakone, not only because it may be a bit quieter but also because you have a much better chance of seeing Mt Fuji. That after all is for many people the main point of the journey, although the scenery in Hakone is beautiful on a clear day.

The other big attraction of Hakone for locals and tourists alike is the lure of night in a hotel or ryokan and the prospect of a hot spring bath. For my money there are less crowded, cheaper and nicer places to experience a hot spring resort. But Hakone has the virtue of fairly close proximity to Tokyo.

As I mentioned at the start, I had a very particular hotel in mind: The Fujiya. Why? Well, ever since I was a young student at Shizuoka University and came to the hotel to have tea with a friend of my father’s I have wanted to return one day. I tried and failed to book a room there when I visited Japan with my husband two years ago, but this time I was successful. The trouble is that when you have built an image up in your mind over such a long time, the result is often surprise and/or disappointment. And, although I enjoyed my stay, the hotel was not at all as I had remembered. Although this was entirely down to my faulty memory, I simply couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed.

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My room was huge by Japanese standards and had a nice outlook. Whilst it is good that the reception and public rooms remain largely unchanged and the hotel does have a nice atmosphere, something was missing. I can’t help but feel that there is a difference between preserving and cherishing the past and simply not updating anything. Faded splendour is a good description of the public areas and this has its own charm. The Orchid tearoom overlooking the Japanese garden is especially nice.

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And you do get a real sense of the history of the place and its distinguished guests, including members of the royal family, Charlie Chaplin and John Lennon.

But the bedroom was an unhappy mix of the original and stylish (like the lovely table lamp) and the simply old and tired.

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The bathroom in particular was rather sad and a bit seedy with tacky plastic toilet roll holder, rubber bath mat and grotty old (but surely not original) taps.

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Some sympathetic renovation is needed to restore this stately lady to her former glory. And that really would be a sight worth seeing.

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The new bullet train from Kanazawa to Tokyo

Well, I really am now on the last leg of my wonderful trip to Japan. In one sense I seem to have been here forever, so far removed do I feel from my everyday life in the UK. And, at a certain level, I have reverted back to the Japanese life I enjoyed many years ago – a bit like putting back on a pair of well-loved and comfy slippers. On the other hand, my time here has simply flown past.

As I write this blog the scenery is also flying past. That’s because I have just boarded the brand new Hokuriku shinkansen, or bullet train, from Kanazawa to Tokyo. This new line was opened to great fanfare and excitement only last week so I count myself lucky to be one of the first group of passengers to use it.

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Kanazawa station is looking absolutely fantastic with a magnificent archway, flowers everywhere and even elements of the gold for which the city is famous incorporated into the station design.

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As for the train itself, as you can imagine it is absolutely pristine and very smart although I’m slightly disappointed it hasn’t followed the Kyushu shinkansen in having only four seats across – two on either side of the aisle. This new train has three plus two like the Tokaido shinkansen trains. You still get a lot of legroom but the seats are lightly narrower and not quite as comfortable. Yu do get a cupholder, tray table and plug socket for each seat so you can use a laptop.

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There is a public payphone in the area between the carriages as well as immaculate toilets that put English trains to shame. I would only ever use a train toilet in the UK if I was absolutely desperate. That is not the case in Japan. The disabled toilet is particularly impressive – very spacious and with great baby changing facilities for mothers too.

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More importantly for the train buffs amongst you is the speed of the train. I just asked the conductor what speed we were doing and she said between 240 and 250 km/hour but that we would soon hit 260 km/hour. My abysmal maths isn’t up to calculating that in miles per hour but, take my word for it, it’s very fast! It does mean you have to be very quick off the mark to capture any scenery on camera as you zoom by. There have actually been a lot of tunnels so far on this trip, no doubt because we are passing through the mountains on our way towards Nagano. However, I have just managed to snap a couple of pictures of the snow-capped peaks.

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This new service has reduced travel time between Tokyo and Kanazawa by about two hours. Previously you had to use a mixture of the Tokaido bullet train and Thunderbird express from Kyoto or Osaka. For those of you not familiar with Japanese geography (and why should you be?), Kanazawa is not only south of Tokyo but also on the west or Japan Sea coast. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka etc. are all on the opposite east coast. Towns and cities on the Japan Sea coast have been pretty poorly served by the train system, with relatively infrequent and generally slow trains. The further south you get along that coast, the more you feel you are slipping into a different time warp in terms of public transport.

One of my very favourite places, Hagi, for example has a little one-man train that shuttles up and down and feels a world away from the bullet train that we all imagine when we think of Japanese trains. Whether or not there are plans to extend the shinkansen beyond Kanazawa I don’t know but it would certainly make the Japan Sea coast a lot more accessible. Wonderful places such as Matsue and Izumo Taisha would suddenly become much more do-able. On the other hand, it is probably the relative isolation of towns like Hagi that make them so special and so different from the hussle and bussle of ‘mainstream’ Japan.

Either way, Kanazawa just got a whole lot closer and that makes it all the more reason to include this delightful city in your trip to Japan. In my opinion, it is worth a visit for Kenrokuen garden alone. More about this in a later post.

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The phoenix temple of Byodoin

En route from Kyoto to Mt Koya I decided to make a brief stopover at Uji to visit Byodoin temple. Uji is a small town near Nara famous for its green tea. Not surprisingly then the souvenir shops are full of green tea products and the town boasts that it produces the best tea in Japan. As a former resident of Shizuoka – also famous for its green tea – I beg to differ. And shockingly a friend of mine who owns a green tea company informs me that Uji tea makers often mix their tea with Shizuoka tea since the supply of Uji tea is quite limited. You heard it here first! In any case, no visit to Uji would be complete without a matcha (green tea) ice cream!

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From a tourist perspective, Uji’s greatest claim to fame is undoubtedly Byodoin temple. This is considered by many people to be Japan’s most beautiful temple. Certainly on a warm clear spring day like when I visited, it looks quite magnificent.

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The reflection of this graceful temple can be seen in the pond which sits in front of it. This unique temple features on the reverse side of the ten yen coin.

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The entrance fee includes the nearby museum, which I did not visit, and for an additional 300 yen you can also book a tour inside the Phoenix Hall. Unfortunately, there was already a two-hour wait by the time I arrived (about 9:30 am) and I did not have time to fit a tour in before I caught my connection to Mt Koya. Nevertheless, I am still very glad that I stopped off to visit Byodoin as it is indeed a beautiful sight and it would have been nice to have spent a little longer there soaking up the scene.

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Museum of Art (MOA) in Atami

Whilst I was staying in Shizuoka I took the opportunity to travel to nearby Atami with a good friend of mine and visit MOA, or the Museum of Art. It is very easy to get to from Atami station as there is a regular bus service which climbs right up to the museum. It takes only five to ten minutes and costs just 170 yen.

The art museum is located right at the top of the hill overlooking the coastal hot spring resort of Atami – a favourite for weekend jaunts by Tokyoites. On a clear day the views from MOA are spectacular. Sadly on the day we visited it was cloudy and rainy, but it didn’t dampen our spirits.

The entrance to the gallery is by means of five – or is it six? – long and steep escalators taking you right into the heart of the hillside. It is a really bold and innovative design that still feels fresh and contemporary even though MOA opened in the early 1980s. The light show above your head as you ride the escalators further adds to the atmosphere.

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When we visited there was a special seasonal exhibition on Sakura, or cherry blossoms, featuring paintings and ceramics depicting these much-loved blooms. There is also a regular exhibit of artwork, ceramics and other artefacts – both old and new – as well as a golden tea room and Noh theatre.

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The MOA shop is an excellent place to buy some nice souvenirs and there is also an attractive garden, tearoom, coffee shop and soba restaurant where we enjoyed a delicious lunch.

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Atami is a short bullet train ride from Tokyo and would make a nice half-day side trip or stopover on the way to nearby Hakone. More about the latter in a future blog.

The snowy and scenic village of Shirakawa-go

Yesterday I was able to fulfil a longstanding ambition to visit the village of Shirakawa-go deep in the Japan Alps. Despite being within striking distance of both Kanazawa and Takayama, somehow I have never quite managed to make it. The idea of travelling there by bus has definitely been a factor since I tend to feel unwell on mountain roads. However, as it turned out my fears were unfounded as the route was mainly via a series of tunnels right through the mountains and so fairly straight.

In any case, this time I was determined to ‘bite the bullet’ and take the bus from Takayama to Kanazawa with a stopover in Shirakawa-go. You can buy your ticket at the Nohi bus terminal immediately next to Takayama train station. Be aware that some of the buses are reservation only and so you are advised to book your seat in advance, if possible a day or so beforehand. It was very busy whilst I was there and I wasn’t able to secure a seat on my first choice bus departure time even though I booked two days ahead – so be warned!

In the end I took the first bus at 7:50 am which arrived at 8:40 am. I then had just over two hours in Shirakawa-go to look around before catching my bus to Kanazawa at 10:50 am. Of course, there are many later buses to choose from if you want to stay longer and at least one Singaporean family I met there stayed overnight and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Maybe next time! But I sought the advice of the lady in the tourist office in Takayama who suggested that two hours would be enough and I think she was about right.

So why is Shirakawa-go so special? Well, it is a UNESCO world heritage site because it is a village of gassho-zukuri houses. These get their name – which translates as hands-in-prayer – because of the steep thatched roofs, designed specifically to withstand the very heavy snow that falls here throughout the winter.

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Those of you who read my previous blog will know that it snowed in nearby Takayama the previous day and I’m delighted to say that the snow was still on the ground in Shirakawa-go the day I visited. Undoubtedly the village looks its most beautiful when it is ‘masshiro’ or all white. It wasn’t like this yesterday as there was no snow left on the roofs or roads, but still plenty on the surrounding mountains. I understand that for a short period in the winter, there are special night time tours to see the village illuminated. I can only imagine how magical this might look.

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As I had limited time there, the first thing I did was to park my bag in a coin locker (what a godsend these are!) and make my way to the nearby bus stop for the five-minute trip up to the observatory that gives a view of the entire village. Wow! This was a photographers’ dream because it is a truly beautiful sight. I’m afraid that my amateur photos don’t do it justice but I will not forget the beautiful images I have in my head for a very long time. The sight of these thatched houses in a river valley surrounded by snowy mountains is a glorious one that is worth the trip on its own.

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After taking the shuttle bus back down to the village I wandered around for a while, crossed over the suspension bridge over the blueist of rivers and visited the gassho-zukuri heritage village which brings together a collection of thatched buildings rescued from nearby communities. I smiled to see the wellington boots that were available to hire as you looked around. I am sure these would be a necessity in wintertime.

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Though brief, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this lovely spot and would recommend it as a great way to see something of rural Japan. An overnight stay in one of the gassho-zukuri houses would also allow you to meet a Japanese family, sleep on a futon and enjoy the local cuisine. But even a shorter visit like mine is definitely worthwhile.

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Takayama: a historical gem in the Japan Alps

Takayama is a two-and-a-half hour ride from Nagoya. The Hida Wide View express train takes a very scenic route along the fast-flowing Kiso River and passing through the hot spring resort of Gero. An alternative and very pretty route into Takayama is by Nohi bus from Matsumoto, crossing the Japan Alps near Kamikochi.

Its location in a plateau surrounded by the Japan Alps means that Takayama is cooler in summer and colder in winter than the cities along the East coast. I may have timed it just right to see the cherry blossoms here a good ten days or so later than Tokyo. I have visited Takayama a number of times and, after my beloved Shizuoka, it is probably my favourite place in Japan. I never tire of returning here.

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Aside from the beautiful (and authentic) historical Sanmachi district, the people are friendly, the location is spectacular and the food is great – especially the famous Hida beef. If you want to eat premium grade Japanese beef without top Tokyo or Kyoto restaurant prices, just try Hida beef in Takayama. I recommend Maruaki which is a restaurant attached to a Hida beef butchers shop. I went there again for lunch today and had the set meal with premium 5 grade Hida beef which you grill yourself to your liking. You can also have sukiyaki and shabu shabu etc. but why not try this melt-in-your-mouth beef in the simplest way possible? It’s not cheap, but for 2,800 yen all in I think it is a good deal for a memorable meal.

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Takayama is famous for its sake too and there are a number of small breweries around town where you can try out their wares. Brewery tours are available in season (around February I think). I also took the opportunity to try soy sauce flavoured ice cream. Unique and strange, yet surprisingly delicious!

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Well, who would have thought it? Last night I was planning where I could see the best cherry blossoms, but what did I wake up to? Snow! I feel like I could be back in the UK in terms of the unpredictability of the weather. It has changed from 26C to 3C in a heartbeat. It was truly freezing here today. In a way, though, it is lucky as I would rather have pretty snow than heavy rain which is what hit most of Japan today – although Tokyo too had a bit of snow. It is a rare event to get pictures of cherry blossoms in the snow and no one can quite believe it.

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I have visited Takayama in spring, summer and autumn but never in winter so it is a bonus to get a few snowy photos. I am taking the bus to the world heritage site of Shirakawa-go tomorrow – a collection of small mountain villages of traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. I hope that snow may have fallen there too for the sake of my photographs. More in tomorrow’s blog!

Meanwhile, I am spending a relaxed day meandering around Takayama. As well as the famous Sanmachi historical area I have been wandering along the Higashiyama walking trail. This takes you along a series of mountainside temples. None of them is particularly remarkable but it is a pleasant, quiet walk which, I would imagine, would have lovely views of the surrounding mountains on a clear day. Sadly, the snow and cloud today meant that the Japan Alps were not visible.

I have just stopped off for a warming coffee before making my way to the Takayama Festival Floats Museum and nearby Sakurajima Hachimangu Shrine. The museum is definitely worth a visit to see the elaborate festival floats given that few of us are ever likely to be lucky enough to see them in action in the festival itself when hotel rooms are like gold dust. The area around this shrine and the museum are delightful and perhaps my favourite part of the town. Takayama Jinya is also interesting and they conduct tours in English so you can understand how this important building was used.

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The morning market outside the Jinya is a good place to see the locals selling their fruit and vegetables and other products and there is also a morning market along the Miyagawa river which worth a leisurely stroll. That is the joy of Takayama. Keep your eyes open and there are little delights around every corner.