Kumamoto – Dogo Onsen – Kyoto (July 23rd – July 28th 2015)
Strolling to the tram with all the luggage, heading for the train-station in Kumamoto, this surely felt like to be another hot day, maybe even with a few more surprises? It started well, the tram from last century was punctual as usual. Arigato gosaimasssss.
Our plan was to head for the scenic route over Mt. Aso to Beppu before heading by ferry to Shikoku and a ryokan in Dogo Onsen. Mt. Aso is a gigantic volcano with 100km circumference and 5 active peaks, while Beppo, located quite close, has a vast array of onsen spas with hot water. The train was full, only 1 seat left later in the day. Replanning in 2 seconds, next stop Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen via Okoyama. The train network in Japan is amazing. We had a short stop in Okoyama, so we quickly grabbed an ekiben for lunch as the landscape was flying by towards Dogo. Ekiben is a railway lunchbox with various combinations of pickles, rice, cold meat or fish dishes. It comes ready with chopsticks and wet tissue, excellent on the go!
Dogo spa is about 30 minutes ride from the train station in Matsyama, again with trams that would be in museums anywherelse in the world. Our ryokan was a bit hidden behind large spa’s and hotels, but only a few minutes walk. Very cosy and extremely friendly and helpful staff. The room was traditional as it can be, large and spacious, covered with tatamis and with covered balconies. Kjartan’s head discovered that the roof was quite low a few places in the room (sturdy low hanging wooden beams). Hopefully no permanent damage. On a positive side, these beams and all wooden interiour gave a pleasent cypress scent to the room. This smell has followed us all over Japan, in ryokans and ancient temples and castles.
In Dogo there is a famous spa, Dogo Onsen Honkan, which was the model bath house in Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”. It looks really nice, but we chose to go to our ryokan`s private onsen instead. Quite small, but very warm and pleasant. You have to make sure to take pauses with some cold water not to get a heat stroke.
This onsen was a perfect refreshment as we had visited a beautiful Matsuyama Castle Museum the same day when the temperature reached around 35++ degrees!
During the night we experienced some vibrations that resembled a fast train passing, only to find out in the morning that there was two minor earthquakes. Actually, the host did not even notice as it is so common, but other guests confirmed.
Next stop Kyoto! The traditional ground pillar of Japan, historically the capital for more than thousand years before Tokyo took its turn. Arriving, it was quite straight forward to find the hostel, great directions from our host. It was a shock to find that Kyoto was so full of foreigners. First impression was that it felt like the least Japanese city so far. People were very frequently walking on the “wrong” side of the street (right side) compared to the rest of Japan. We headed out for dinner in the direction of the Nishiki fish market. Most of the stalls had closed down, so sampling the remaining scraps was not very tempting. However, just at one of the entrances to the market, we found an excellent restaturant/bar playing Japanese hits from the 80’ties. Full of locals and families enjoying udon, takayaki and other grilled foods. Apart from a few smokers, the place had a very nice athmosphere and is highly recommended for anyone happen to be in the area.
Smoking in restaurants and bars is actually quite common in Japan and there are many public smoking areas and rooms. This is a big contrast to the rest of the world these days. Another thing we noticed here is that are very few garbage bins in public. Surprisingly, the streets are very clean and there is a big recycling awareness.
The next day, inspired by a very good Norwegian newspaper article, we wanted to see the more traditional Kyoto (“as Japanese as it can be”) and headed for the hills dotted with temples and shrines. We climbed a mountain with thousands of torii’s (red gates used as entrances in Shinto temples).
It was special even if the place was full with tourists. However we found a nice path exiting the torii and lead up to the peak through the forrest instead. This was a highlight, walking through a mix of cypress and bamboo forrests. There were lots of shrines along the way and very few people. At the very top, we entered the torii galore again and strolled down the mountain.
The rest of the day we where walking alongside the eastern hills, visiting temples and the Gion district where geishas live and work. It should be said that this area is full of geisha wannabees that takes selphies and say “Waah!” (“Wow!”) here and there. We did manage to spot one real geisha in an alley that prepared the street in front of a very discreet entrance as the evening approached.
The next day we headed for Osaka on a one day trip. Osaka can’t be accused for being a beautiful city. However it seems to have been growing fast for practical purposes. It has several interesting areas for different merchandise. Small businesses are thriving and people are very friendly.
Osaka was once the capital of Japan and plays a very important role for trade, culture, handicraft and other merchandise. We went to Den Den Town, Osaka’s answer to Akihabara (Tokyio`s “Electronic City”) as well as Namba, probably one of the busiest commuting and shopping areas in the world. Even if the place was bustling with people walking here and there, the extremely kind and helpful station officers light up on the chance to help a lost foreigner on their way. Our officer jumped and reached for something in his little square pocket purse. We thought he was reaching for his reading glasses, but instead he produced a map neatly folded in many layers to eagerly show us the way.
By chance while looking for a big temple in Osaka, we found a smaller one called Isshinji Temple. It was actually very interesting and worth to see. It had thirteen Bhudda statues made of ashes of more than 200 000 people. We entered the temple during one of the ceremonies and saw people that came here and got calligraphy prayers written by monks to pay tribute to their buried ancestors. Really special place, both cemetary and sanctuary.
The next day we finally took a train between Japan`s most famous cities: Kyoto – Tokyo. We are writing this on a top floor restaurant in the bustling capital that never sleeps. We are a bit delayed posting this due to temporary loss of Internet connection (who would think that in Tokyo!), so a new story is coming in the next episode very very soon! Photos as well.
Greetings from k&d in Tokyo, the Power House of Japan! 🙂