Posts Tagged With: Japan

The top 5 places to visit in Kyoto

It isn’t easy planning a trip to Japan. The land of the rising sun has an incredible range of options for tourists. You could go skiing in Hokkaido, shopping in Tokyo or scuba diving in Okinawa. Pretty much every city has a wealth of cultural options, outstanding local cuisine and lots of opportunities to party hard. With this much to choose from, how do you decide where to go? One city features on nearly every tourist’s itinerary though; the truly outstanding Kyoto.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until it was usurped by Tokyo in 1868. In many ways though, Kyoto is still the cultural capital. Whereas the vast concrete jungle of Tokyo can sometimes feel a bit soulless, Kyoto is everything you imagine Japan to be before you go there. From the geisha district of Gion, to smoky little izikaya bars, to the many temples and shrines that are dotted around the city, Kyoto has something to offer everyone. The fact that the city is absolutely beautiful doesn’t hurt either! We weren’t too bothered about spotting Geishas, so for us the main attractions were the temples and shrines and we certainly weren’t disappointed. Here are what I think are the top 5 best places to visit in Kyoto.

5) Sanjusangen-do (the one with the 1001 Buddha statues)

Sanjusangen-do is a long wooden temple, located in the East of the city. It’s not that spectacular from the outside. The inside though is an incredible spectacle. 1001 Buddha statues stand to attention, guarded by some truly bad-ass looking warriors. It’s a really incredible sight and well worth the entrance fee, even though you’re not allowed to take photos inside.

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4) Kiyomizu-dera (the one that hangs over a valley)

Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s most famous and popular attractions. The temple itself juts out over a valley, meaning that the best photos are actually taken from the hill opposite the temple. From the bus stop on the main road, you have to walk up a very steep hill, which is lined with shops and restaurants selling all kinds of snacks and souvenirs. Be warned though, we went on a Sunday afternoon and it was absolute bedlam! I’ve rarely seen so many tourists trying to crowd into one place. For this reason, Kiyomizu-dera is probably best visited early in the morning.

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3) Kinkakuji (the golden temple)

If Kiyomizu-dera is one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto, then Kinkakuji is one of the most famous in all of Japan. This is the mythical sounding golden temple. Even if you’ve never even thought of going to Japan, there’s a good chance you’ll have seen a picture of this place. The temple sits on the edge of a lake, and on a clear day the image of the temple is reflected in the water. It looks spectacular and is well worthy of its exalted reputation. On a slightly unrelated note, it also had one of the best badly written English signs I’ve ever seen!

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2) Fushimi-Inari (the one with all the orange pillars)

Unlike the other places on the list, Fushimi-Inari is a shrine rather than a temple. The reason for its fame and popularity is the four kilometre path, which leads to the shrine at the top of the hill. More than 10,000 “tori” gates line the pathways, giving the impression of being inside a tunnel. It’s really atmospheric and totally unique. The four kilometres up and then down are also great exercise and a good way of working off all the previous night’s excess sake and yakitori chicken consumption.

1) Ginkakuji (the silver temple)

It’s rare that silver is better than gold, but in Kyoto it is. Ginkakuji was built in the same style as its more famous relation. The builders didn’t just succeed in paying homage to Kinkakuji though. They went and made somewhere even better, and it’s undoubtedly my favourite place in to visit in Kyoto. The temple is approached by walking along the evocatively named “Philosophers Path,” which follows the side of a canal that skirts the hills on the eastern fringe of the city. The path is beautiful in its own right, but what lies at the end of it is absolutely stunning. The temple is surrounded by a perfectly maintained Zen garden. A circuitous path takes visitors all around the garden, and offers views of the temple from a variety of different angles. What’s great about Ginkakuji is it’s not nearly as crowded as any of the other temples, meaning that you can experience moments of pure solitude and tranquility. Believe me, that is extremely difficult to manage in Japan! I’ve lived in Asia for nearly two years. I also have a fiancée that could never get tired of visiting temples so I’ve visited an incredible number of them over that time. Ginkakuji was right up there with the very best.

TRAVEL TIPS

With the exception of Fushimi-Inari, you could fit all of these places into one long day if you wanted. To do so, you’ll need a one day bus pass which offers you unlimited travel on all city buses, and is excellent value at just 500 Yen. That’s about £2:60 or $4 USD.

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Categories: Asia, Japan, Kyoto | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skiing in Niseko

Ask most non-skiers where they think the best ski resorts in the world are, the chances are they’ll say Switzerland or France. Some might suggest the Canadian Rockies. Hardly any will mention Japan. However, surprisingly to many, the land of the rising sun is one of the world’s very best skiing and snowboarding destinations. Japan receives an incredible 5.5 metres (18 feet) of snow a year, nearly all of which is fresh powder. If you’re into winter sports, that’s the stuff that dreams are made of. There are also over five hundred different ski resorts to choose from. One stands head and shoulders above the others though; Japan’s answer to Whistler, the truly majestic Niseko.

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Janey and I were lucky enough to spend four days in Niseko over Christmas, the centrepiece of our three week holiday to Japan. From the moment we arrived there, we fell in love with the place. That was despite having to endure a blizzard on the way from the bus station to our lodge. We later found out that we could have organised a pick up! The lodge itself was a large part of what made our stay in Niseko so memorable. Sat by a roaring log fire, with a cup of hot mulled wine, whilst the snowstorms raged outside, it felt like heaven on earth to me.

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Our first day of skiing, on Christmas Eve, was a frustrating one. It had been twenty months since our previous trip to the Sierra Nevada in Spain. Where had all the progress gone? I couldn’t seem to even change direction without falling over! The only consolation was that falling into the powder snow, felt like falling into the softest pillow you could ever imagine. December 24th was spent in Gran Hirafu, the largest of the four connected resorts that make up Niseko United. On Christmas Day, we went to Annupuri, which was much quieter and far closer to our lodge. I started tentatively at first, but bit my bit my confidence started to grow. I was doing entire runs without falling over! Then, on about my fourth run, I just let it go. I was skiing with complete confidence and freedom. The feeling of liberation was incredible. On the final run before lunch, we then got an amazing surprise Christmas present. For the first time in three days, the clouds cleared, and were treated to some absolutely mesmerising views of Mount Niseko.

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When I woke up on Boxing Day, every muscle in my body ached. My lower back was stiff and walking downstairs was a bit of an ordeal. Even though it was our last day, I couldn’t find any motivation. That was until Alan, the lodge manager, told me “there’s not many times in your life when you’ll ski on sixty centimetres of fresh snow.” SIXTY CENTIMETRES?!?! Was that really how much had fallen overnight?! Apparently it was and remarkably all my aches and pains disappeared rather rapidly. Within half an hour we were back out on the slopes for one of the best days of my life so far. In the morning, we sessioned the green runs four times, to refine our techniques, in preparation for taking on a red run. This had been my aim at the start of the three days. Now it was time to make it happen. When we stepped out of the gondola, at the top of the red run, the conditions were atrocious. Visibility was about two metres, the temperature was about minus ten, and the winds meant business. Getting to the bottom in one piece was going to be a bit of a test! Amazingly, we proved to be up to the challenge. It took about half an hour as we had to frequently stop to check that we were going in the correct direction. However, in the end we made it to the bottom without falling once. This was utterly exhilarating and a proud achievement. So we did it again for good measure, this time in slightly more clement conditions.

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The only thing that could top that morning was what was to come later in the day; night skiing. If there is one problem with Niseko, it’s that the majority of time the visibility isn’t good. The Siberian winds and eighteen feet of snow might have something to do with that. However, once the afternoon light fades, the floodlights are switched on, and the effect is just magical. Visibility is perfect, and to make it even better, the slopes are practically empty. Skiing through thick powder, on an almost empty piste in what felt like the middle of the night, is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We rounded off the day with a trip to the natural onsen (a volcanic hot spring) and some hot sake. Life really doesn’t get much better.

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Leaving Niseko the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I’ve caught the skiing bug badly. Our first trip to Sierra Nevada planted the seed. Niseko made it blossom into a true and burning love! I now think regularly about different places we could ski in around the planet. Mongolia, Serbia and Chile are some of the more random ones I’ve come up with. One thing is for certain though; wherever we go next, it will be almost impossible for it to match up with Niseko.

TRAVEL TIPS

Annupuri Oasis Lodge is one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in. I’d choose to stay there over any five star hotel. Visit their website at http://www.annupurioasislodge.com/

Categories: Asia, Japan, Skiing in Niseko | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Operation Snow Monkey

Japan; the land of the rising sun. Home to sushi, sumo and samurai. It’s one of the most evocative and distinct destinations on earth. Prior to last December, I’d wanted to go there for years. Our three week Christmas holiday gave me the perfect opportunity. Janey, my better half, was somewhat sceptical though. Understandably, she was concerned about the financial impact of three weeks in one of Asia’s most expensive countries. I had to do something to persuade her. Thus, Operation Snow Monkey was born.

During my research about Japan, I’d found out about a group of Japanese long-tailed monkeys who live near Kambayashi onsen in Nagano prefecture. Their claim to fame is that they escape the bitter winter cold by bathing in the onsen, a natural volcanic hot spring. They’re also exceptionally cute. And Janey has a big weakness for cute fluffy things. Part one of Operation Snow Monkey involved “accidentally” leaving my phone lying around or my laptop screen open, with pictures of cute snow monkeys on them. “Who are they?” Janey asked. “They’re called snow monkeys, they live in Japan” I casually declared. The seed was planted. After a few days of this, the build up was over and I went for the winning shot. “You know if we went to Japan at Christmas, you could see the snow monkeys…………..” SUCCESS!! We were going to Japan!

The day after our flight arrived in Nagoya, we stepped off a train in Nagano, right into some of the foulest winter weather imaginable. It was cold, wet sleet. By the time we had walked the short distance to our hostel we were freezing, miserable and soaked to the skin. Had it all been a big mistake coming to Japan in the winter? The next day assuaged our doubts spectacularly.

After a morning spent visiting Nagano’s stunning Zenko-ji temple, we boarded a bus to take us to the monkey park. Throughout the journey the snow was coming down really hard and the bus even had to stop to put snow chains on the wheels. Then, all of a sudden, we were deposited by the side of the road in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. From the road, a track meandered up through snow covered pine forest towards the monkey park. Our guidebook understated the length of the walk (it took us forty minutes rather than twenty) but overstated the difficulty level. It’s actually an easy stroll, as long as you have strong footwear.

During the walk a full scale blizzard started. At one point it was blowing horizontally into our faces. We were going to have to work to see these monkeys. It was well worth it in the end though. The onsen, despite being a bit of a tourist trap, was a truly unique place. Some of the mother monkeys clutched their tiny offspring to their bosoms for warmth, while others sat in the water, enjoying the searing heat. Occasionally, a fight would break out but for the most part, the monkeys seemed gloriously content in their little oasis from the cold. All the while the blizzard raged around us, making the visit even more memorable.

On our walk back to the road, night was beginning to fall, giving the forest an almost ethereal nature. At times it felt like we were walking through Narnia! A cup of hot sake, in the café at the bottom, warmed our bones and put the seal on a truly unforgettable experience.

Over the next three weeks, Japan completely exceeded our expectations. The visit to the monkey park remained one of the very best days though. Operation Snow Monkey was a complete success!

TRAVEL TIPS

We took a bus from Nagano station to the monkey park. It took us about one hour and cost 1300 Yen. These leave pretty frequently throughout the day. Be careful not to miss the last bus back from the monkey park though! This departed at 5:30pm.

Categories: Asia, Japan, Snow Monkeys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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