Nara is on the map for two things: temples and deer. The Japanese are big fans of both of these, so the place is packed with day trippers.
The deer were very friendly, possibly because there are stalls all over the place selling ‘deer crackers’ for the tourists to feed to them.
Nara’s home to the largest bronze Buddha in the world, which was pretty impressive, but perhaps not worth the rather steep entrance fee. It’s 15 metres high, and was cast in the 8th century, about the time Britain was being invaded by the Vikings, which makes the artistry and technical skill involved pretty awe inspiring.
Apparently it nearly bankrupted the Japanese economy at the time, because it used almost all of the bronze there was.
The hall which houses it remained the largest wooden structure in the world until the 1980s, despite being rebuilt on a smaller scale after a fire in the 16th century. The original complex also included two pagodas that might have been the highest structures in the world at the time, rivaled only by the Egyptians pyramids.
So, you know, it’s pretty big.
Some of the other statues in the complex were pretty cool, especially the chap in the photo at the start of this post, and the massive gate guardians you pass when you enter. These huge figures were in a style that seemed Indian to us. Perhaps imagery was still being borrowed from the source of the religion when Buddhism first came to Japan. Modern Japanese Buddhism has definitely developed its own aesthetic.
We had a nice wander through some of the shrines and gardens that are dotted around Nara park too, navigating our way through the flocks of tourists snapping autumn leaves selfies.
Group portraits with the deer were also going on.
The guy with the stick was herding the deer in front of the school kids for the photo. Not sure how this fits in with deer being revered as sacred messengers…
In the evening we stopped by a local sake brewery, and tried four of their brews. You could definitely taste the difference between the types, and I thought one of them was really nice. Perhaps I need to give sake more time, but I still find most of it a little harsh for my tastes.
I guess the deer on the wall wasn’t one of the sacred ones.
My favourite thing about Nara was the guesthouse we stayed in, run by a couple with a toddler. It’s called guesthouse makura, which means ‘pillow’. Coming through the curtain and sliding door out front, we were met by the owner sticking his head through a little window from the back room. Their front room was the bar, and upstairs were two tiny dorms and one double room. It was a proper old Japanese house on a little street full of sake bars, tiny restaurants, and secret Karaoke clubs. The inside was all lovely Japanese textiles and tatami mats, and the traditional bed rolls were squashy and cosy.
As well as the cute toddler, the owner was very nice, and we enjoyed chatting with him over a sweet plum wine in the front room bar. The only other guests were a Taiwanese couple who’d left their four week old baby at home to come on a two week holiday. I think holiday time is hard to come by in Taiwan.
Hearing this made me eminently glad that we’ve taken the course we have with our time on this Earth. Having a couple of years rather than a couple of weeks on our hands means we’re travelling slower than most, but if anything I’d like to slow down even more. (Spoiler: we’ve recently given in to this urge and started travelling by bicycle. Coming soon!)
Leaving everything behind may not be for everyone, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment so far. We miss people of course, and after four months I’m beginning to miss having a kitchen. I WANT A COFFEE POT! (ref. Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert*) But it’s nothing compared to all the new people and places we’ve been able to meet, and more than anything, having the time to absorb these experiences and let them change us a little bit.
Of course there are lots of ways to do this whole ‘life’ thing, and there are shades of grey between selling everything** and a life with two weeks holiday a year. But for us, I’m sure we picked the right way, or a right way.
It’s scary leaving everything behind: family, friends, jobs, a home, your accumulated life, having savings…
All I can say is that I’m so very glad we did it anyway.
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!