I haven’t posted anything in a while, and now that I’m typing away, I don’t want to write about China (as I’d planned). I don’t even really want to write about travel at all.
I sat down this morning and thought about finishing off my post about Beijing. It’s sat there mostly finished. Really I should just finish it. But I don’t have any enthusiasm for it, and if I’m not writing with any enthusiasm, how can I expect you to read with any.
What I want to write about instead is home, and about trying to stay sane.
The last couple of weeks has been a welcome change of pace for us. We’ve been mostly hanging out with family, doing a bit of hiking, and these last few days swimming, camping, and going to the beach. Spring is turning into summer in Western Australia, and I’m looking forward to spending as much time as possible outdoors in the next few months.
This — and some sad news from back home — has got me thinking about aIl of the things we’re missing being on the road. Before you switch off, this isn’t (entirely) a moan fest. I am profoundly grateful for all the experiences we’ve had in the last year. I’m proud that we managed to carve out this time in our lives, and so very glad that we were in a position to make it happen. It was hard work saving up enough for this trip to be an option, and it was hard to let go of our life in the UK, but we are very lucky that it was possible at all.
I stood trapped, trying to look nonchalantly unconcerned as the strains of Für Elise got louder and louder, attracting a swelling crowd of gawping Korean subway users to my plight. To pass the time, I affected a consuming interest in the safety poster on the pillar next to me. Which was in Korean, obviously.
I’d accidentally double tapped my ticket on the exit gate, rendering me stuck inside the barriers. Subway stations in Seoul are grand, sleek and shiny but rather soulless (baboom) spaces, generally completely devoid of staff. The only thing for it then, was to press the help button.
Don’t press the help button.
The ticket gate will rip into a spirited rendition of Für Elise, which will get louder and louder (or was this my imagination?) as you wait helplessly for a staff member to stroll the several miles from the nearest manned gate. People will stare at you. Your husband, who has managed to exit the ticket barrier without mishap, will slink off to laugh at you from a safe distance. Help will seem a long, long time coming.
Even if you do manage to exit the barriers in the manner of a person possessing basic barrier exit skills, getting out of a Seoul subway station is not easy. Look at the places.
When I eventually freed myself, we stepped out into the crisp cold sunshine and began to walk. Seoul is a dense modern city, packed with skyscrapers and expressways, but amongst them sit scraps of the past. One of these was our path for the day: the city wall.
In the 14th century a 20 km wall was built to encircle Seoul, controlling traffic in and out, and sealing the city shut at night. These days the city surrounds the wall, and not much of the original stonework remains. But several sections have been restored over the years, and now a walking route completes the whole circuit.
Frankly, we couldn’t be bothered to walk 20 km, so we set our sights on the northern half of the loop. We began climbing through a low rise residential neighbourhood, then on up the wall itself as it rose on a ridge above the city.
Baby faced guards, dressed all in black, loitered in groups at short intervals along the wall, outnumbering hikers considerably. Signs warned us not to point our cameras in the direction of the Blue House, the president’s palace, which dominated the foreground.
The history of this wall isn’t all ancient. In January 1968 it was the site of the first shots fired in an incident known as the Blue House raid.
It was January the 21st, midwinter. Three days before the largest campaign of the Vietnam war kicked off, 18 months after North Korea lost to Portugal in the quarter final of the World Cup, held in Liverpool.
A unit of 31 hand picked officers from the North was sent to assassinate the president of South Korea. They made it from the border and as far as the city wall, well inside Seoul, before being confronted.
Being outnumbered by uniformed guards adds an edge to otherwise serene hiking. The wall follows the ridges of four rocky, tree spattered hills. A tiny sliver of nature amidst panoramic city views. After a quietly tense hour or two on the chilly, wind whipped ridge, we were forced back down into the city by a break in the wall. Following the trail at ground level, we found ourselves at a checkpoint. Here, near the president’s palace, the wall is near complete, reconstructed to provide extra security after the events of 1968.
Entry to the wall section directly behind the palace is strictly controlled. Passports are required, and registration. The day we arrived they weren’t allowing entry at all. But to be honest, we’d had enough of this rather unsettling walking already.
Our pleasant stroll in Seoul turned out to be an introduction to the obvious presence of the sometimes quiet, but still ongoing conflict between the Koreas. This slight sense of unease, the barbed wire suggestion of impending doom, is not something we noticed further south. But here, 35 miles from the border, you can feel it.
As we started downhill back to the centre of town, we came to a monument to police officers killed during the raid.
Choi Gyushek, the local police chief commemorated in the statue, was on the lookout for North Korean infiltrators that night.
Camped on their journey south, the soldiers from the North had been happened on by four teenagers. The soldiers had orders to kill and bury any civilians they met, but they didn’t. Perhaps because the ground was frozen too hard to dig a grave. Perhaps not. Either way they let the boys go, after an ad-hoc lecture on the virtues of communism. The boys went straight to the police.
So Choi Gyushek had been warned. When the North Koreans tried to pass his checkpoint disguised as soldiers of the South, he got suspicious. So they shot and killed him, the first casualty of the raid.
26 South Koreans were killed in the fighting, which spread from the checkpoint as the North Koreans scattered, then fled. A bus full of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Several days later, four Americans were killed in the DMZ trying to prevent the remains of the unit from returning to North Korea. One North Korean officer made it back, the rest were killed or committed suicide, except one.
Kim Shin-Jo was the only officer captured. He defected, and then he found god. Back in North Korea his family were murdered for his defection. In 2010, still living in South Korea, he became a human rights advisor to the government.
But it gets stranger.
The South decided to launch a revenge mission. Their unit of assassins too, would have 31 members, but they wouldn’t be elite officers. They’d be civilians, recruited for financial reward. The chosen 31 were held prisoner on an uninhabited island off the west coast and subjected to such intense training that seven of them died in the process. Then the mission was called off.
In 1971 the survivors of the training overcame their guards, made their way to the mainland, and hijacked a bus, which was then stopped by the army.
All but four of the unit members were killed in the struggle, or committed suicide. The remaining four were sentenced to death, and executed in 1972.
But it goes on. In 2003 a film based on the events was released, called Silmido after the island where the unit trained. The box office takings of Silmido topped 30 million US dollars in Korea alone. Only two years after this was a government investigation into the incident initiated, the bodies of the unit members, who had been buried in secret, located, and their families officially informed of their deaths. In 2010 the families won a case for compensation, which totalled less than 250,000 US dollars.
Our journey to Hakone was a bit of an epic, but it was absolutely worth the effort. We went to catch a glimpse of mount Fuji, and do a bit more hot spring wallowing before hitting the bright lights of Tokyo. Hakone is a mountain region about an hour and a half away from Tokyo, so it’s a popular weekend trip for Tokyo-ites.
From Nara we took a train to Kyoto, spent about 45 minutes scouring the station for a luggage locker (there were hundreds, but all were full), then had the afternoon in the city (more on this to come), before getting a night bus to Tokyo. The bus was slower than billed, so we got into Tokyo around 9.45 am. By the time we’d got a subway to Shinjuku station we were very hungry and in need of coffee, so we really wanted Mister Donut.
Mister Donut is a Japanese chain of coffee / doughnut shops. Actually it was originally American, but some takeovers happened or some such thing, and the American bit became Dunkin’ Donuts. Fun fact.
The doughnuts are really good, and pretty cheap for Japan (about 50p upwards), but the main draw is the coffee, which is also perfectly nice, but mainly they do FREE REFILLS. Heck yes. They even do a ‘morning set’ of a doughnut and limitless coffee for about £2. We tended to supplement this with additional doughnuts for a nice wholesome breakfast. Morning sets are a general feature of places serving coffee in Japan, and tend to be pretty good value breakfast options, especially given that coffee on its own can be quite expensive.
Anyway. We arrived at Shinjuku in dire need of a Mister Donut, but could see none. They’re often found in stations, so we were a bit put out. Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world, with something like 4 million people using it every day, and 50 odd platforms. It also has over 200 exits. We used one of these to venture out on a doughnut quest, but clearly chose the wrong one (silly us). It took about half an hour of increasingly disgruntled wandering, fully laden, to find our breakfast.
When we emerged, full of doughnuts and feeling much saner, we found we were right next to an entrance to Shinjuku, a good 800 metres from where we’d exited. It took us another half an hour to find our way back from this entrance to the ticket hall we needed for the next stage of our journey.
Japan’s patchwork of privately owned railway lines can be infuriating at times. It means you have to know which line your destination is on, then find the ticket office for that line. Route maps rarely show competitor lines, so if you need to change you’re left having to piece together maps and often buy multiple tickets. Gah.
So by the time we’d got our tickets for the next leg it was well after noon. Then it was two more trains, requiring separate tickets, to get us to Hakone-Yumoto, where we popped into tourist information to grab a map of the area. Actually, you can get straight to Hakone-Yumoto without changing, but you have to pay more to go on the special ‘Romancecar’ train, which didn’t seem like our scene.
We were starving again by this point, and the only readily available food was more baked goods, so it was carbs and sugar for lunch too. I was getting grumpy (again). Finding enough savoury, relatively healthy, vegetarian food to keep me out of hunger/sugar slump induced foul moods has sometimes been a challenge on this trip… Poor Arthur.
Hakone’s USP is the ‘Hakone circuit’, a route around the area using several different modes of transport, starting and finishing in Hakone-Yumoto. I think the idea is you just ride round the route for the day, catching views of mount Fuji and the local volcanic scenery along the way. Here’s the route:
It sounded kind of fun, but also kind of expensive, so we decided to skip it in favour of hiking up some hills to catch a Fuji view. This turned out to be a good call, because the cable cars at the top of the circuit were closed, and had been for several months. The volcanic fumes coming out of the mountain beneath them had got too intense.
We were staying in Gora though, so we got to ride the first bit of the circuit to get to our hostel. The little mountain train zig-zagged up the hillside, reversing direction at switchback stations along the way. When this happened the driver got out, locked up his cabin, and strolled to the other end of the train to install himself at the controls there. The frustrations of the journey receded as we climbed higher and higher. You can’t not have fun riding up a mountain through tunnels and switchbacks on a little red train.
The sun was setting on us as we arrived in Gora, a little village with a few hot spring inns and not much else. The steam drifting from the springs wrapped the whole place in a mysterious haze. Our home for the next two nights was Hakone Tent, the classiest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. An array of soft slippers welcomed us in, and the crotchety day getting there became a distant memory.
We picked out our futons in the tatami mat dorms, popped to the village shop to get some supplies, and cooked up some noodles in the kitchen while sipping a beer.
After dinner we went for a soak in the onsen. Yep, a hostel with an onsen bath. Life was good. Two baths actually. The one we chose was a little square wooden pool in the cave-like lower ground floor, a space that seemed carved out of the rock.
The water was hot and minerally. We sat cocooned in the steam, muscles and brains relaxing into happy stupor. After our soak I did a yoga class, as you do. Then we had a giant mug of ice cold beer at the cedar shingled bar, and went to our squashy, warm futons.
Next morning dawned bright and cool, and we set off to hike. First we crossed the valley below the hostel, passing some interesting buildings amid the greenery.
Then it was up, up, up the other side, to a ridge that led off towards Fuji. We were so busy debating whether to stay here forever, that we didn’t notice Fuji creeping into view between the trees.
After this its snow capped cone was more or less our constant companion, as we hiked along the ridge through autumn leaves and bamboo groves. The sun was warm, but the mountain air icy cold in the shadows. Across the valley back towards the hostel we could see steam flowing out of the mountain.
Around lunchtime we got to a particularly good viewpoint, and met a Japanese lady who took our photo for us. We began to meet more people after this, mostly older Japanese hikers, but usually we had the path to ourselves. A bit further down the path we stopped in a patch of sun to have a lunch of onigiri and fruit.
Following the path through thick bamboo groves, we finished off by climbing a mountain that has a view straight across the valley to Fuji. It was steep in places, and the sun was beginning to set, the temperature dropping, but the view was well worth the chill.
At the top was a little ramshackle cafe shop, which we took to be closed for the winter. But as we left, an old lady emerged, shouting excitedly. She wanted us to sign her visitor book. When we were done she gave us an orange*, and disappeared back into the dark building. It seemed like she must have been living alone up there, on top of a cold mountain, only accessible by a very steep, rough footpath. Perhaps she had family there that we didn’t see.
The light was nearly gone by the time we’d descended back to the valley, and hopped on a bus back to the hostel for another evening of hot baths and cold beer.
Having breakfast on the roof terrace the next morning, we seriously considered stopping here longer… or possibly indefinitely. The idea of spending the winter there, bundled up in the snowy mountains, was almost enough to drag us away from travelling on. Also, they had deckchairs.
Tokyo beckoned though, so we eventually managed to leave, and headed first to Hakone Open Air Museum, an art museum a couple of kilometres down the road. Entering through a smooth concrete tunnel, you’re met by a broad mountain view, and sculptures dotted about into the distance. You could tell from the natty outfits on display that the Tokyo hip had joined us for a weekend day out, mostly young families with toddlers in minimalist trainers.
The museum was excellent. It’s mostly a sculpture park, but also has a building of Picasso’s work. The Picasso was very interesting, especially because they’ve got so much of it in one place, you can see some ideas and obsessions running through. There was a great mix of media too. I didn’t realise Picasso had done so much ceramic work. Some of it was pretty cool, though much of it looked like something you’d do at one of those paint your own plate cafés.
Even better than the Picasso though, was wandering through the sculptures in the last of the autumn sun, mountains ranged around us. Occasionally the little red train would chug past the edge of the park. Otherwise it was quiet and calm, but for the happy sounds of kids playing on the interactive sculptures. It was busy, being the weekend, but not crowded, and we passed most of the day there, enjoying another picnic in the sun.
Quite a lot of the work is big scale stuff you can walk around in, or play with in some way. There’s a maze-like concrete warren sunk into the earth, and a tower of stained glass you can climb. The most fun one, a pyramid of clear plastic balls you could clamber through, was off limit to adults though. Sucks to be a grown up.
We rounded off the day with delicate sweets and an elegant pot of powdered green tea in the tea room, which was all glass and pale ash furniture, followed by a free foot bath. For some reason the hot spring water was full of lemons and oranges. The kids were having a great time chasing fruit up and down the bath.
All good things come to an end. Eventually it began to get cool again as the afternoon drew to a close, so (somewhat reluctantly) we dried our feet off and plodded off to Tokyo, down the mountain to our next adventure.
*This was at least the second time this happened in Japan, after we gave the American an orange on the Kumano Kodo. When we were leaving the campsite we stayed at that same night, a pair of bikers from Yokahama gave us an orange as we sheltered from the rain together under a porch, and they packed up their bikes ready for the long drive home. It happened after this too, but I’ve lost track of the times. Perhaps this is an aspect of East Asian hospitality we’ve never heard of before, or perhaps it really was Karma.
The Kumano Kodo are a network of very old pilgrimage routes in southern Kansai, a couple of hours south east of Osaka. Kumano is the pre-historic name for this region, which apparently evokes deep mystery for the Japanese — the area is associated with the Buddhist paradise, and the ancient Japanese land of the dead… Spooky. Kodo means something like ‘old ways’. Pilgrims from Kyoto followed the route in Imperial Japan, as far back as the 10th century. There are three ‘great shrines’ on the way, and countless small ones, where various stages of purification ritual were undertaken (and still are).
The Kumano is a world heritage site, the only trail that’s been designated one in the world, except for the camino de Santiago de Compostela, which it’s sort of twinned with.
After eating ourselves silly in Osaka, the plan was to catch a bus a bit of the way along the trail and camp for the night, then start hiking first thing. Instead, we got off the train in Tanabe to find we’d just missed the last bus of the day, so a night in a nondescript guesthouse it was.
Next morning we were on the bus at first light, clutching pastries and cans of hot coffee from the station vending machine. We even managed to stow some of our stuff in the station luggage lockers, so our packs were light and our spirits were up.
Getting hot coffee in a can never ceased to amaze me in all of our time in Japan. It’s one of the things that makes it feel like Japan is there to indulge you. Travelling here is absurdly easy. Thirsty? There’ll be a vending machine within 30 metres or so, and it’ll have coffee. Hungry? There’s a convenience store either behind you or in front of you at all times. (Except in Tanabe, where there will be a butchers or patisserie, but no convenience stores to be found…) Tired? Even hostels have oversized, soft, fluffy duveted, fine linened beds. They also have coffee. Free coffee. What we would’ve given for free coffee once we’d been in China for a few weeks.
Getting the early morning bus meant we had lovely soft light as the scenery got lusher and more mountainous. At first it was just us and a couple of other hikers on the bus. A river ran by us on the right, and the road was flanked by steep tree covered hills. We passed tiny three-house places (which had roadside vending machines), and a 12 foot high fiberglass rabbit.
After a toilet stop next to misty early morning fields, the bus climbed higher into the hills, and got busier and busier. Hikers got on at every stop. The trail runs fairly close to the road for much of its length, so it’s easy to pick it up at various points. Clearly we were’t the only ones cheating and using the bus to cut down the mileage.
We only had one day on the trail, so we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere, roughly as far from that evening’s camp spot as we reckoned we could walk before nightfall.
At first the route went along a small road, but soon it veered off into the woods, and became the rocky, winding path that we followed for most of the day.
We met few people — a young Japanese couple, two older Australian ladies, a pair of middle aged Japanese men, and a large group of Japanese hikers in conspicuously new, top of the range kit, suitable for an Alpine expedition.
The path wound up hill and down dale, mostly through thick woodland, with the occasional small shrine or charming bridge to divert your attention. And everywhere vivid, stunning, autumn leaves.
As we plodded rhythmically through the quiet forest we composed haiku.
I put down one foot, then the other foot, on the Kumano Kodo.
The path was very well marked, to the point that paths other than the Kumano Kodo were signposted thus.
Everything was pleasingly damp and mysterious, and there was a lot of moss, so I was having a lovely time.
After a picnic lunch we descended into a river valley, and were met by some of the overenthusiastic concrete application that’s evident all over Japan. Often, roads snake along both sides of a river valley, and bridges unite them with bewildering frequency. Now and again a bridge will boldly jut out to nowhere at all, ending abruptly at the valley wall. Apparently, this sort of bizarrely pre-emptive construction is partly a result of the way the Japanese political system works. Representation is still loosely based on the population distribution of the 1940s, despite a huge shift towards urban living since then. So sparsely populated rural districts have disproportionate sway at a national level, which results in rural areas winning plenty of job-creating investment.
There was one particularly painful incursion on nature where a huge swathe of trees had been replaced by a carpark, which was completely empty, being down a dirt track in the middle of nowhere.
I think in this instance these were probably landslide prevention measures, which is fair enough I suppose, but it’s certainly not pretty.
Further along we found an abandoned village, slowly returning to forest. Families began to move away during a recession in the 1940s, and 17 households became 8. A sign by the trail told us that the government deemed this settlement, which was called Michinogawa, ‘unfeasible’, and the remaining families were resettled to a nearby town. It didn’t say if they went quietly. The houses still had kitchens, with tiled sinks.
After this the trail joined a road again, and passed through small villages. There was almost nobody around, but small well tended rice paddies and neat lines of tea plants flanked the road. We stopped to buy some satsumas (or ‘mikan’, as they call them here), from a roadside honesty stall. The only things on sale were bags of satsumas, and tubs of pickled garlic.
While we were stopped a rather perturbed looking American caught us up, and asked us if we’d seen his friends, who he’d lost some time before. We hadn’t, but we gave him an orange. This turned out to spark a very long run of Karma, in which almost everyone we met in Japan gave us an orange.
Shortly afterwards we got to a cafe, which served coffee made with hot water from their hot spring.
Obviously we had to try this. It was very nice, though nothing like any coffee I’d had before. A rich, almost pungent taste, with sharp coffee flavours, but something muskier going on too. The ladies behind the counter seemed very amused to serve us. I suspect they don’t get many foreigners in.
From the cafe it was mostly a descent to Hongu, a town that houses one of the ‘big three’ shrines on the trail, and our sort-of final destination.
The shrine was very busy with tourists, but also monks chanting away in the main building. It felt strange to emerge into the hubbub after being cocooned in the forest all day.
After the shrine we plodded through town to the giant Torii which marks the original site of Kumano Hongu Taisha, the shrine at Hongu. It was moved up hill from a river plain after floods more or less swept it away. Then it was time for the last few kilometres to our campsite for the night, at Wataze Onsen. It was a scramble to get there before it got pitch black, since we’d somewhat underestimated the hill between Honshu and our bed for the night. I was entertaining visions of snakes lurking in the falling dark, and the shrines that had seemed pleasingly eerie in the sunlight became genuinely creepy.
On the way we passed Yunomine Onsen, which is a little town in a steep river valley, full of steam from the hot springs that bubble forth all over the place. (An onsen is a hot spring bath.) In the middle of town is a tiny wooden hut perched perilously over the river, which is the only hot spring in Japan that’s a Unesco World Heritage site. Being there was like going back in time. It was very quiet, and very misty, as people clopped around in their sandals and cotton yukata. The sound of splashing water drifted from the windows of hotel bath houses.
A little further up the road we eventually found our campsite, though nobody on it to pay. A bit of guessing on Arthur’s part secured us a pitch (the hotel next door turned out to run the campsite), and by 7 o’clock we’d made our home and started on dinner.
When we woke the next morning we found the site was very scenic, though it was obscured in darkness and steam the night before.
Dinner was noodles and stuff, which was all well and good, until we realised that we’d left our chopsticks in the station locker in Tanabe. Our fellow campers got treated to a ‘westerners eating noodles with their bare hands’ show, which I’m sure was hilarious.
Wataze has several hot springs, but the main draw is the rotemburo, which is an outside onsen, apparently the largest one in western Japan. The rotemburo was utter bliss after a long day walking. There aren’t many better ways to spend time than lying stark naked in hot water, surrounded by trees, next to a rushing river, watching steam drift by a fat full moon.
Men and women bathe separately, so it was some solitary time for us too, which is really quite nice after two months in each other’s continuous company.
Going to an onsen has some procedure about it. You undress in a changing room, and leave your things in a locker or basket, then it’s into the shower room, usually through a sliding door, which totally threw me the first time. Standing naked, helplessly rattling a door which you know should open, but won’t open for you, is a humbling experience.
Showering in Japan involves sitting down. First you rinse off the little plastic or wooden stool with the shower head, then seat yourself facing the taps, and go about your shower in the usual manner. At an onsen this is in a big open room with a row of showers along the wall. There’s usually a basin with the stool, but I never quite worked out why this was necessary — most people seem to use it to chuck a deluge over their hair when they’re washing it, but I find the shower head more effective. When you’re finished you rinse off the stool again.
Once you’ve had a good wash, you’re ready to get into the hot bath, or baths in this case.
Wataze rotemburo has five baths of various temperatures, the hottest one is hot enough that I could only stand it for a minute or so. I spent a very happy hour or so milling between the baths, with a Japanese mother and toddler, and I think Grandma, for company. The little girl was having a great time splashing calmly about in the warm water, but I could hear some more boisterous splashing and laughter coming from the men’s bath over the wall. I think the dads had more children to look after.
Once I’d dragged myself out of the hot water it was time for another shower (though purists would argue you shouldn’t wash off the hot spring water because it’s good for your skin). Then I made full use of the free hair dryers and combs, and chilled spring water to drink, while I very languorously dried off and got dressed. All of this luxury, by the way, cost about £3.50.
After our onsen we wound down further with a vending machine hot chocolate (it was a tough choice — beer and Haagen Dazs were also available), and tucked ourselves up in our tent. I slept the best I have in years.
Next morning there was just time for an improvised hot spring by the river before hopping on the bus back to Tanabe. You can dig into the river bank to make your own spring, since hot water springs up from only a foot or so down. The whole area is volcanically active enough that hot springs pop up all over the place. Thankfully we didn’t have to dig our own spring (we’d neglected to pack our shovel), and we just used one somebody had left behind. I think this hot spring au natural experience is pretty popular if it isn’t raining, which it was.
Swimwear is useful for this onsen experience, since you’re lying in full view of the whole town. That didn’t stop the Japanese man who pitched up next to us from stripping off though. His wife stayed on the dry bank, looking somewhat put out.
Getting back into our clothes without getting soaked by the persistent drizzle was something of a challenge, and we nearly managed it, but not quite.
Luckily the bus driver stopped at a vending machine on the way back, and we got a hot coffee to warm us up.
From Hiroshima we took a local train down the coast, and used our rail pass to hop on a JR ferry to Miyajima island. It’s a small island close to the mainland, and sits in a bay dotted picturesquely with other small islands, most of which aren’t inhabited. The ferry only takes 5 minutes or so, and passes between the oyster beds that surround Miyajima, before making an arc past the ‘floating’ torii that the island’s famous for. (Spoiler: it’s not actually floating.)
A torii is a gate that marks the entrance to a Shinto shrine, in this case Itsukushima shrine, which sprawls round the bay behind the gate. The idea is that the torii is the boundary ‘between the sacred and the profane’, as it’s rather grandiosely put on wikipedia.
To get to our campsite at Tsutumigaura recreation park, we then had to take a bus or walk for an hour along the road. Mercifully we were just in time for the last bus of the day, at 4.20 pm. The bus whisked us away from the throngs of Sunday sightseers at the ferry dock, and along the near empty road that winds round the island, passing the odd hamlet, and plenty of wild deer. Deer are everywhere on Miyajima.
Deer are considered sacred messengers in Shinto, so they roam unmolested because the whole island is held sacred — it’s been home to a Shinto shrine since the 6th Century. This sacred status also means trees on Miyajima can’t be felled for their wood, so the island is free from the denuded strips of land that slice through forests elsewhere in Japan.
Once we’d secured our campspot with a rather bemused man at the park office (for £1.70 each!), we pitched up near the other two tents occupying the vast beach-side site. Our fellow campers were both Japanese — a hiker and a touring cyclist with a fold up bike and a trailer. We were outnumbered considerably by deer, who watched us with interest as we cooked our noodles in the concrete kitchen shelter.
The next morning we had breakfast on the pier near the campsite, waved both of our campsite friends goodbye as they set off, then packed up to hike up the mountains in the centre of the island, with all of our stuff on our backs.
On reflection, this was silly. We could have left the things we didn’t need in a station locker on the mainland, and made things much easier for ourselves. We paid for it for the next week or so with very sore legs and a complete inability to negotiate stairs, but it didn’t spoil our fun on the day.
Miyajima is a brilliant place to hike — little winding paths through forest, and views of distant islands dotting glistening sea at every turn. Autumn was one of the best times to be there I think, when the maple leaves are beautiful shades of red, yellow and orange. Autumn maple leaves are a bit of a Japanese obsession, and Miyajima is firmly on the momiji (maple) watching circuit. Parts of the island were pretty tourist packed, but by hiking we managed to escape the crowds a bit, and see the sites without forking out an arm and a leg for the cable car that runs up to the island’s peak.
Our hike took us through quiet forest, along steep ridges, past huge hilltop rock formations, and to bustling temples perched amidst it all. Mostly it was very quiet. On the way up we only met three other hikers: a Japanese family who were very keen to know how we’d found the path (by using the map and regular signs that were posted along the way). They seemed surprised to see us. When our route took us past the mid-station of the cable car, the crowd of mostly-middle aged Japanese tourists waiting there were very pleased to see us, all waving merrily, if equally bemused by our presence.
The cable car brought plenty of crowds to the top, but it was quite nice being amongst them — somehow the busyness was fun, and didn’t make the temples feel too touristy. Also, we could get an iced coffee from the vending machine in the cable car station.
Perhaps the atmosphere was so nice because people were mostly being quiet and polite to one another, enjoying the peace, and in many cases worshipping at the shrines.
I’m using temple (Buddhist) and shrine (Shinto) somewhat interchangeably here — Miyajima has plenty of both, sometimes sharing a site, and the two religions have an intertwined history in Japan. Inexpertly speaking, Shinto is broadly to do with nature worship, through shrines dedicated to various nature related gods. It was the state religion in Japan before Buddhism was introduced in the 6th Century, and since then the two have become closely related and sometimes combined.
Itsukushima shrine marked the end of our walk. We didn’t go in because we were tired and hungry, so instead we walked through the town in search of lunch. It was incredibly touristy, but kind of fun.
The main street near between the shrine and the port is totally packed with all manner of Japanese tat. We couldn’t work out why there were so many shops selling spanking paddles, then we found this…
For lunch we had rice and egg, sake, and noodles with oysters. I decided a while back to start eating mussels and oysters, since there’s an argument that they can’t think or feel, so are more or less vegetables. (I realise this argument has problems if taken to extremes, but don’t most?) Also, farming them is good for the sea.
My first oysters were ok, but I’m not sure what all the fuss is about really. They’re basically like particularly fleshy seaweed. I was a bit underwhelmed, but it was nice to eat something that had come straight out of the sea 50 metres or so away.
Dessert was a couple of maple leaf shaped cakes that we bought on our way to the ferry, since every second shop was selling them. They were all making them on complicated conveyor belt systems with various machines to do each stage, which you could see from the street. Fun to watch, but the end result was a bit meh taste wise.
There was time for one last deer to try and eat us, and we were back on the boat for the mainland. Next stop, Fukuoka!