Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 10 & 11 – Kyoto [Fushimi Inari Taisha], Osaka, Hiroshima, Miyajima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 10: January 27

In the morning, we checked out and took an early (for us) shinkansen, leaving the island of Kyushu and heading to the main island of Honshu. We would be making out first pit stop in Kyoto. The shinkansen from Hakata station to Kyoto station was just over three hours via Shin-Kobe.

In Kyoto, we stayed at ibis Styles Kyoto Station, which is right across the road from Kyoto station (one of its entrances), so it was so convenient for all our day trips out of Kyoto. The hotel was actually really cheap and pretty good. After dropping off our bags, we headed back to Kyoto station and had kaiten-zushi/sushi train at Musashi Sushi.

Then we took a train to Inari station to visit Fushimi Inari-taisha/Fushimi Inari Shrine (my second time). We ate some takoyaki before starting the hike. At the start of the hike, there were huge crowds and a lot of congestion, but the number of people dropped drastically after just 15-20 minutes of walking and soon there are very few people. Most people do not seem to walk to the summit.

As I hadn’t planned much else for the rest of the day (planned free time!), we decided to go to Osaka for the evening since Kyoto is honestly a bit boring in terms of shopping and eating (especially at night) and Osaka is just as bustling as Tokyo. We took the train back to Kyoto station and then to Osaka station. We spent some time shopping and browsing souvenirs. T picked up some Japanese Kit Kat Chocolatory chocolates he hadn’t gotten on eBay yet. He was super happy. (We collect Japanese Kit Kats…)

We decided to eat at Kiji Okonomiyaki, an okonomiyaki restaurant that was (might still be) highly rate online. We ended up in some office building and a security man told me that I, like many others before me, was definitely in the wrong place. For some reason Google Maps had the wrong address or pinned it wrong? We had to head back in the opposite direction to the station and doubled our walk (it was really far). It was in the restaurant level of a building, and there was quite a line. We waited around 45 minutes. Unfortunately I cannot recommend this place at all! It’s over-hyped by tourists (there wasn’t a single Japanese person) who were probably all visiting the online top hit okonomiyaki restaurant and everyone just keeps reviewing and recommending it, even though it was a thoroughly below average. Not to say a restaurant can’t be good if it’s visited by lots of tourists, but this was more of a tourist trap and had probably lost its charm. Such a shame that we wasted the time and effort to eat there. Oh well, after that we learned our lesson and no longer read restaurant recommendations from Tripadvisor anymore since they’re mostly tourists’ reviews.

After dinner, we walked to the Umeda Sky Building‘s Floating Garden Observatory (second visit!). This is my favourite night-time observatory in Japan (unlikely to be beaten, I think), because it is open-air and just stunning with the glow-in-the-dark “starry sky” ground. It was a lot more packed than the previous time I visited, but it was still amazing!

We returned to Osaka station and headed back to Kyoto station and our hotel.

Day 11: January 28

Today we would be making a day trip (just like my previous Japan trip) to Miyajima via Hiroshima. We took the shinkansen from Kyoto station around 9am and arrived two hours later around 11am. We then took a train to Shin-Hakushima station to walk by Hiroshima castle and the Peace Memorial Park. We got some hot snacks and also picked up an umbrella from the a conbini since it was raining. Then we took the tram (50 minutes) to Miyajima-guchi station, where the ferries to Miyajima depart frequently on the 10-minute journey. There are two ferry companies and the JR pass covers the JR ferry.

Miyajima is an island near Hiroshima and is one of the Nihon senkei (three most scenic places in Japan) and is still one of my favourite places in Japan. It is important to check the tide forecast for the day, which can be looked up many months in advance (maybe even a year?), which I always do before planning the itinerary in order to try and find the best possible day(s) so the visit can coincide as best as possible with the high and low tide. The high and low tides allow you to enjoy the island’s iconic attractions in different ways. On this day, the low tide was at 5:45am and 6:20pm while the high tide was at 12:15pm. When the tide is below 100m, it is possible to walk up to the famous torii gate.

When we arrived on the island, it was already after midday. We quickly had some lunch and then visited Itsukushima-jinja/Itsukushima Shrine around 2:30pm when the tide was already receding drastically. Well, I knew the tide times so this wasn’t surprising. (On another note, I really REALLY wish I had remembered to start my goshuin collection here since getting my first book from Itsukushima-jinja would have been so special, BUT I FORGOT UNTIL THE NEXT DAY!)

Since it was drizzling all day, we didn’t visit Misen/Mt Misen because there wouldn’t be much to see. I had visited before though, and it is worth going! We wandered around the town, and I noticed that there were significantly less deer than three years ago. Compared to before, there also weren’t many visitors and a lot of stores were quiet or closed in the late afternoon, probably because of the weather and the time of year. We rested in a cafe and had some cake before walking out to the torii gate around 5pm when the tide was just low enough that it could be reached.

It was also dark now. We took the ferry back to the main island and a direct train back to Hiroshima station. We had some delicious Hiroshima okonomiyaki in the station, picked up some local snack souvenirs and took the shinkansen back to Kyoto station.

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 8 & 9 – Beppu, Fukuoka, Nagasaki)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 8: January 25

In the morning, we checked out of the ryokan. We would be spending the day visiting the Beppu Jigoku/Hells and then returning the car. A brief introduction about the Beppu Hells taken from here:

Thermal mud and hot springs have been gushing tremendously from the ground for over 1,000 years. There are 8 jigokus in total at Beppu consisting of the cobalt blue ocean hell, ‘Umijigoku’, deep-red blood pond hell ‘Chi-no Ike Jigoku’ as well as ‘Oniishi Bozu Jigoku’ (Onishi Shaven Head Hell), ‘Yama Jigoku’ (Mountain Hell), ‘Kamado Jigoku’(Boiling Hell), ‘Oniyama Jigoku’ (Demon Mountain Hell), ‘Shiraike Hell’ (White Pond Hell) and ‘Tatsumaki Jigoku’ (Geyser Hell) . Its onsen eggs (eggs boiled in the hot spring) and ‘Jigoku Mushiyaki Pudding’ (Pudding steamed in the Hell) are popular for visitors.

We drove and did our own Jigoku Meguri/Tour of the Hells. We first drove to the Kannawa district, where the first six hells are all within walking distance of each other.

I think I need a cactus font!

For lunch, we did the novelty steam cooking. The experience was disappointing. The food goes in, you get a timer, and you return to collect. It’s also quite overpriced – you pay for the ingredients and also the time you want to steam. At some point we also tried the iconic steam-cooked purin (Japanese pudding), which tasted just like every other purin, so I can’t say I’m sold on all the steam cooking in Beppu. It’s mostly just a novelty.

After lunch, we visited the last two hells in the Shibaseki district.

At this point it was only early afternoon. The Beppu Hells are definitely easy to fit in to half a day or less. We filled up the car’s petrol and returned it (conveniently to Beppu station, and I did complain about the windscreen wiper). From Beppu station, we took the shinkansen two hours to Hakata station (Fukuoka), our last pit stop in Kyushu. Current-day Fukuoka is a fusion of Hakata and Fukuoka, hence a lot of things in Fukuoka have retained the Hakata name. We checked in to our hotel, Hakata Green Hotel No. 1, which was perfectly fine and nothing special.

We left in search of the yatai (food stalls) along the river on Nakasu Island in the city centre. Yatai are considered the symbol of Fukuoka, and of course we love Japanese street food. Sadly we were unable to find any yatai in the area though I had expected to see a scene of over twenty! It may have due to construction works or perhaps they don’t operate during cold and bad weather. We quickly had to come up with a new plan. Fukuoka is also really famous for their ramen – Hakata ramen. So of course it was important (T is a ramen aficionado) to try Hakata ramen in Hakata/Fukuoka. We decided to eat at Uma Uma. Then on the way home, T couldn’t resist trying some oden from the conbini. They were perfectly good, convenient and cheap oden.

Day 9: January 26

Where possible, I try to visit as many castles as possible (though it’s not a bucket list thing for me), so in the morning, we took a subway to Ohorikoen-mae station and walked to the Fukuoka-jou ato/Fukuoka Castle ruins. Unfortunately I hadn’t expected it to literally be just the remaining gate. There was no castle ruins besides that. It was a bit disappointing. We walked a little bit around Oohori-kouen/Ohori Park and then took the subway back to Hakata station. Since that had taken a lot less time than anticipated, I wanted to changed my reserved ticket to Nagasaki for earlier. I was told the reserved section was full though. I figured we’d just try and get a unreserved seat on an early express train.

For lunch, we ate at an Ippudo Ramen branch in the station. Since Ippudo or Hakata Ippudo originated in this city, it made sense to eat it in Fukuoka.

We managed to easily get ourselves a seat in the unreserved section of the train to Nagasaki, which took around two hours. From Nagasaki station, we took a tram to visit the Peace Memorial and Hypocenter Park. The city is set against mountainous scenery, which is really beautiful.

We walked back to Nagasaki station (we quite enjoy walking everywhere when we have time) and tried to find the bus to take us to Inasayama (Mt Inasa) to see the night view of the city. I wasn’t having much luck locating the bus so I went to ask at the tourist centre, but was told the mountain was closed that day! What terrible luck!!! So we took the train back to Hakata station, and a subway to Tenjin, the downtown area of Fukuoka. On the city streets, we stumbled across a couple of yatai, – yay! We chose one and enjoyed delicious oden and tempura. It was pretty fun with great atmosphere in such a tiny space.

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 6 & 7 – Yakushima, Kumamoto, Takachiho, Beppu)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 6: January 23

For our last (half) day in Yakushima, we checked out of our hotel in the morning and drove to Kigen-sugi, which is also one of the major cedar trees on Yakushima, in terms of its age (over 3000 years old) and size. You can drive straight to this destination and a very short walk from the car park.

Those snow people were made by someone else!

After rain on the first day, and dry and warm weather on the second day, we had snow! As touched upon earlier, Japan was experiencing very strange weather and cold storms around the first week of our trip. It had snowed very heavily overnight and snow was piled quite thick on the mountains. Though Yakushima is quite south and tropical, it does snow during winter on the mountains, and some of the more difficult hikes are not recommended in snow. Yakusugi Land is pretty accessible and not much of an issue though. We had light drizzle for most of the morning.

After Kigen-sugi, we drove to Yakusugi Land, another major nature park featuring Buddha-sugi, Futago-sugi and Sennen-sugi. For short visits, most of the main cedar trees are located quite close to the car park, and there are much better hiking trails compared to Shiratani Unsuikyou from yesterday. Since we only had until early afternoon, we did the 80-minute trail. We were incredibly lucky that it stopped drizzling when we got to Yakusugi Land!

I was aiming for the 1:30pm ferry back to Kagoshima, so after our morning activities, we drove down to Anbo port, filled up the car’s petrol and dropped it off in the car park specified to us (at pick-up). We checked in for our ferry and had some time to walk a few hundred metres to the nearest supermarket to pick up some packaged food for lunch (and snacks including mochi, of course. Dango and mochi are my jam!). As before, the ferry trip was two hours.

On arriving back at Kagoshima, we took a taxi to Kagoshima-chuo station, where we were catching a shinkansen back to Kumamoto (~45 minutes)! I know my travel route is seeming ridiculous, but because Kumamoto is a pretty central and major city, I decided it served as a good base to get to our next two destinations.

We stayed at Hotel Route-Inn Kumamoto Ekimae since it was located right outside the station. We were really just in Kumamoto for an overnight stay and needed to be close to the station to pick up a rental car to drive the next day. I thought it was one of the poorer business hotels I’ve stayed at in Japan. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.

Also, it was snowing in Kumamoto again. It was still a big deal and people were exclaiming how rare it was to see snow. For dinner, we went to Hanatsuzumi, which was the quintessential family-run homely Japanese restaurant. We sat at a cosy low table (kotatsu-style but minus the heating) and had mixed nabe (seafood, meat and vegetables). I had some language barriers as the family members were trying to explain the contents to me but I didn’t understand one particular thing they were concerned about. I eventually figured out one of the items was fish guts so I tried to subtly make sure T ate all of those, haha. The nabe was actually a huge amount of food and we struggled to finish but we did the very best we could since it’s rude to leave food unfinished. The family were incredibly nice and friendly. They even gave us mandarins to take away as a souvenir!!

Back at the hotel, it was time for us to do laundry. This hotel did have a female and male onsen (bath houses) and it turned out the coin laundry was actually located in the respective gender-segregated areas. To enter the onsen area you actually need to get a key from reception. As you can imagine, this was quite bothersome. We chose the washing machine in the female section, so only I could go in there to access our stuff and I had to obtain a key each time. This was definitely inconvenient as I had to return to put the washing into the dryer then again to bring everything upstairs. (Also it’s just easier with two people and four arms.) We hung everything up overnight in the hotel as they hadn’t completely dried. After all that, we ended up sleeping quite late.

Day 7: January 24

We woke early and checked out of the hotel. We picked up another rental car. It was snowing heavily today and poor T had to drive us in a pretty serious snow storm. Even better, the rubber on our wipers kind of broke so they didn’t wipe half the windscreen and we had to make frequent stops to manually wipe all the solidified snow/ice off the windscreen! We took the drive very slow, and despite being another tiny car, it drove very well in the snow to Takachiho-kyou/Takachiho Gorge (east of Kumamoto). What was meant to be a 80km, 2-hour drive took at least twice as long because we were driving on mountain roads through heavy snow. Luckily there were practically no cars. For a while thought we were driving behind a taxi which kept worryingly slipping and sliding side to side…!

Takachiho Gorge is best visited in warmer months so that you can also rent a boat and paddle along the river and look at the waterfall from below. Apart from the gorge, Takachiho is also famous for inventing nagashi soumen, a summer cold noodle dish where noodles flow out with water on a slide and you have to catch them with your chopsticks! Unfortunately we also couldn’t enjoy this because it definitely isn’t available in winter. But we both love Kyushu so much that we are considering revisiting Kyushu in the future, and possibly visiting Takachiho again! We also didn’t get time to visit the shrine.

When we got to the gorge, everything was covered in snow and it was already like 2pm. There was one souvenir store and a soba restaurant (where we had a quick and late lunch). Staff in both places advised that it might be too dangerous to walk down to the gorge in these conditions. This was super disappointing especially as it was already so much later than we had wanted to arrive. Nonetheless we decided to just start walking and see how it was. It was manageable and they had probably exaggerated a bit. Certainly we had to be careful but it wasn’t so bad because it was fresh snow. It was freezing but so worth it! I think we saw other visitors once, and otherwise we had the whole place to ourselves! I enjoyed how pristine the snow had fallen on everything.

My not-pristine snow person

After our short but sweet visit in Takachiho, we continued on north to Beppu. This leg was just over 100km and meant to take just over 2 hours (but it took us around 3 hours). We gradually left the mountains and the roads became easier though the whole journey was very isolated and we rarely saw any cars. It also stopped snowing eventually.

After arriving in Beppu, we drove to our hotel, Umikaoru Yado Hotel New Matsumi. They had a car park that we had to pay for (since we were keeping the car for half of the next day). Because Beppu is a very famous onsen town, we were staying in a ryokan (traditional inn). It was really lovely and a nice change to have a spacious room. The hotel also used water from the onsen for the baths so we planned to try that after dinner (since I have never wanted to actually go into a communal onsen).

We walked out to a nearby restaurant, Toyotsune, for dinner. They specialise in tempura but have lots of other izakaya dishes too. The food was delicious!

While walking to and from the hotel, we noticed the streams and drains had steam coming from them from all the hot spring activity. I thought that was pretty cool! On the walk back, I also had a terrible slip and fall on a patch of slippery ice. I landed smack bang on my butt, but thankfully I was fine except for some bruising and pain.

Back in our room, we started to draw the bath. Unfortunately it took about half an hour of running the water before it was warm enough! We had been warned by the staff that the water would take a while to be hot since they were using water from the hot springs, but I thought half an hour was pretty extreme. Anyway, the bath was lovely but mostly a novelty (to say I had experienced the onsen waters of Beppu) since I never actually take baths.

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 5 – Yakushima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 5: January 22

We awoke to a glorious day of blue skies! We were so lucky to have gotten all the driving out of the way the day before and would be able to go hiking today in dry weather! It didn’t rain all day! Although I had specifically brought waterproof gear for Yakushima, including borrowing my cousin’s (large and heavy) waterproof hiking boots, I was definitely glad to see dry weather for hiking.

We had lunch at Yakudon, which featured a lot of really intricate and impressive cedar wood sculptures. My lunch set featured flying fish tempura. I had never heard of flying fish before and was incredibly amused when I watched them on Youtube – guys, FLYING FISH! We discovered it was quite a thing in Yakushima as the flying fish industry is based in Anbo (an area in Yakushima).

(Me, the driver, constantly wanting to stop to take photos.)

After lunch, we drove to Shiratani Unsuikyou, a nature park which features many famous yakusugi (Yakushima Cedars). The walk/hike wasn’t difficult though there are long stretches between major yakusugi where paths aren’t built (either no path at all or just small logs positioned as steps), and you just rely on strategically tied red ribbons to know that you’re still going the right way (as well as judging based on the ground what would logically be the “path”). I think we saw many one or two people during our 3 hour hike (see how the parking lot was empty except for our car). The park is just beautiful and so lush and green. We saw Yayoi-sugi (3000 years old), Nidai-oosugi and Sanbonashi-sugi (and possibly others that I didn’t jot down).

We then drove to dinner but since it was a bit early to eat, we decided to go see Yaku-jinja/Yaku Shrine. We did get lost walking to it and almost walked into someone’s house but he pointed us in the right direction. It quickly got dark and it was actually quite creepy there since it was so deserted and eery. Despite being “in town” by then, we didn’t see anyone on the streets except the man who gave us directions.

We went to Toyotsune for dinner and I chose a dinner set that also featured flying fish – gotta have the local specialty!

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 3 & 4 – Kagoshima, Sakurajima, Yakushima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 3: January 20

In the morning, we took a bus to Sangen-en/Sangen Garden. The bus I wanted to take didn’t actually seem to exist (maybe I got the wrong information online) but I did find another bus. Sangen-en is another landscape garden which has stunning views of Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay.

One of the cutest things I saw for the first time was the little straw huts that the Japanese use to cover plants in the winter! I found them so adorable!!!

We also witnessed this cute scene where the man in the pond (staff) was trying to catch a fish, and the other visitors were cheering him on. Everyone was very pleased when he succeeded in catching the fish.

We then took the bus to the Kagoshima ferry terminal that would take us to Sakurajima. I mentioned in the last post that I was really excited to come to Kagoshima in order to visit this active volcano and Yakushima, an island close to Kagoshima. These were major destinations I planned around for our visit to Kyushu. The ferry ride between Kagoshima and Sakurajima is only around 15 minutes, so it’s really close (and the reason why the town gets a lot of ash when the volcano erupts). After arriving at Sakurajima, there wasn’t much around so we walked up the hill to a cafeteria for a simple and quick lunch.

I love that they are keeping track of Sakurajima’s eruption frequency on this board. As you can see, it had been quiet thus far in January and T were personally quite disappointed that there were no eruptions during our time in Kagoshima. In fact, it erupted over a thousand times the previous year, and after we left, Sakurajima did erupt!

We walked the Nagisa Lava Trail (around 3km), then took a bus from the end of the trail to Yunohira Observation Point. The Nagisa Lava Trail starts near the ferry terminal, and winds through the lava zone created from the giant 1914 eruption, showing all the vegetation regrowth since then. The Yunohira Observation is the closest observation point to the crater (2.5km away) and also the tallest at 350m.

We took the bus back to the ferry terminal and returned to Kagoshima. I also purchased our ferry tickets to travel to and from Yakushima, where we would be going tomorrow.

We walked around Kagoshima, stopping at a shochu store to buy (shochu) souvenirs, and many conbini since it was a bit early to have dinner but I had no other plans.

For dinner, we had ramen at Tontoro Ramen, which was apparently one of the best ramen restaurants in Kagoshima.

Day 4: January 21

We took a very early taxi to the Kagoshima ferry terminal. It was just easier with our luggage and the time of day to take a taxi. Our ferry departed for Yakushima at 7:45am and took two hours. When we arrived at Yakushima Miyanoura terminal, we picked up our rental car. For this rental car, I would be driving! Yakushima is very hard to navigate without a car, and especially so in winter when public transport is more limited. The island is manageable to drive around though – only 135km.

Yakushima is a subtropical island covered in cedar trees and known to have Japan’s oldest trees. It is famous for raining “35 days a month” and its ancient cedar trees, especially Jomonsugi, which is estimated to be 2000 to 7500 years old and the is the main attraction of Yakushima. Visiting Jomonsugi is like a pilgrimage to the Japanese, and in peak season, the trail to Jomonsugi is so congested that there’s barely any gaps between hikers. The roundtrip hike takes around ten hours (or more depending where you start) but because of the reduced access and shorter daylight hours during winter, it was not a good idea to attempt this hike. However we are hoping to return to Yakushima in the future to do the Jomonsugi pilgrimage!

My plans for Yakushima were fairly relaxed since it would be weather dependent. In true form, it poured the whole first day so we drove around one side of the island to the various sites marked out on maps.

How adorable was our car? It was tiny but comfortable and very easy to drive. The road speeds were slow enough that it didn’t matter that we were in a small car.

Much of the island was pretty deserted and we almost never saw tourists, even at tourist destinations. Even the town area where shops and hotels were located was really quiet. I guess winter is really not a popular time to visit Yakushima. We couldn’t even find a restaurant or anything for a long stretch, so we stopped at a supermarket. It thankfully had a bathroom (which I desperately also needed). We bought some food from the supermarket, warmed it up in their microwave and ate a very late lunch in the car.

We were driving down the western coast, which is definitely the quietest side of of the island (buses don’t even serve that side). The roads were, for long stretches, just single lane mountain roads for BOTH directions but we could go an hour or two without seeing a single car driving in the opposite direction. I guess that was one good thing about visiting during the super low season. Occasionally we would have to stop as there were animals in our way. We stopped at four waterfalls, including Okonotaki/Oko Waterfall, which is considered one of 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Japan loves a good list.

It worked out well that we just drove around the western side and stopped at the waterfalls, since it rained so hard all day. It would have been miserable to do any walks or hikes. We drove to our hotel, Yakushima Green Hotel, on the eastern side of the island (where all the hotels are) and checked in. The hotel had large rooms but was a bit old. Overall it was fine though.

We drove to have dinner at Izakaya Jijiya, which serves modern and fusion izakaya food. I hadn’t had trouble with parking the whole day because we hadn’t really been on residential roads, and most tourist destinations had parking areas. Unfortunately I could not figure out where to park nearby! We actually had to go ask at the restaurant, and they informed us of a parking area across the road where we could park for free. We enjoyed a nice dinner after a pretty tiring day. I was definitely sick of the rain though!