Shirakawa-gō

Shirakawa-gō was the last very famous Japanese touristic spot that I hadn’t yet visited since I arrived to Japan in 2004. The main reason why I had not yet visited this UNESCO World Heritage is because the access to it is not easy.

During our trip to Gifu I decided that it was the perfect chance fulfil my dream of seeing this place. We used our rented car from Takayama and drove all the way to Shirakawa-gō. It was a very easy ride, it was almost all the one hour travel driving on highways with no traffic at all and going through 11km long tunnels!

Walking through the streets of Shirakawa-gō is as beautiful and idillic as it looks like in pictures. When we arrived at nine in the morning, we were almost the first to arrive and it felt like time traveling to an old Japanese village. After ten in the morning hordes of tourists invaded every corner of Shirakawa-gō. So, here is my little piece of advice: if you can, and if you like loneliness when contemplating something beautiful as I do, visit Shirakawa-gō as early as posible.

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Japanese Alps hiking

On our third day we drove one hour to the East from Takayama and found ourselves in a valley that reminded me of Switzerland. The first western explorers, after the Meiji opening of Japan, found the mountains of the Hida range that divide Gifu and Nagano prefecture to be utterly similar to the European Alps and decided to name them Japanese Alps. The name stuck with the Japanese people and now the the Hida, Kiso and Akaishi mountains are all officially called Japanese Alps.

We arrived at the Shinhotaka ropeway and parked our car before nine in the morning. We were almost alone, surrounded by nature and the sound of the water hiting the rocky river. But suddenly, three buses filled with old Japanese people (probably retired) arrived and we found ourselves queuing in order to ride the Shinhotaka Ropeway. I’ll never get used to queuing in Japan, there always queues even in remote places where you would not expect it 🙂

The views from the top of the Shinhotaka Ropeway are astounding, pure nature beauty. From there, we started walking up into the mountains following a beginners route called Nishihodoku (西穂独標): Shinhotaka Ropeway ― Nishiho Mountain Cottage ― Maruyama (丸山) ― Nishihodoku. There was no snow at this time of the year and it was a very easy hike that we enjoyed very much. But beware, in winter it can be a very dangerous area: more details about the difficulty of Hotaka hiking routes.

 

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Photo of us with a Japanese Post at 2,156 meters of altitude

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This is the Nishiho Mountain Cottage. There is food (Ramen!), drinks and you can spend the night here.

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Photo of us at one of the summits.

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Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine

Our second day in Takayama was NOT planned.  I’m a very J on the last component of the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, I like to plan everything beforehand. In order to “fight” against my personality (My confort zone) sometimes I do things that are totally against how I would normally do. For example, not planning a trip is something that brings me out of my confort zone 🙂

We parked our car near the Takayama station and started strolling on the east side of the city. We soon found ourselves walking in streets filled with traditional houses. Beautiful alleys but also filled with tourists, ironically, not planning our day, brought us to the Sanmachi Suji, the most touristic place in Takayama. We crossed several bridges, contemplated the carps swimming in the river and walked northbound until we found ourselves almost alone.

It was then, when we serendipitously found the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine surrounded by green nature and lightened by the sunset ocre tones. The legend says that this shrine was build to protect Takayama against the monster Ryomen Sukuna, a beast with two heads and eight extremities.

When we entered the grounds of the shrine nobody else was there, it was magical to be there alone. Planning the day would have make it a totally different experience.

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That’s me taking the previous picture!

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Hida Folk Village

Hida Fold Village is a beautiful open air museum in Takayama (Gifu Prefecture). Since we were travelling by car, we chose it as our first place to visit, access from the 41 road (crossing Takayama from south to north) is almost direct (Turn left on the crossing with the 158).

Although it is located near the city, the Hida Fold Village is totally surrounded by nature. Walking around its pond and randomly entering its more than 30 traditional houses is a pleasure and feels like travelling back in time to the Edo Period (1603 – 1867).

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Most of the houses are build following the gassho-zukuri style. This architecture is characterised by high roofs with very step angles that help with the snow season. The shape of the roofs looks like the position of the hands when performing the buddhist prayer “gassho”, that’s why the name of the style is gassho(Hands joining together in prayer)-zukuri(making or building).

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I loved walking inside the houses and imagining the lifestyles of the people who lived in them in the old times. I learned that their lifestyle revolved not only around agriculture but they where involved in handcrafting, logging and even silk manufacturing (You can see silk worm raising devices). Almost all houses have an “irori” cooking area in the middle that helps to heat the entire place in winter when meters of snow cover all Gifu prefecture (Hida region).

The visit to this open air museum was an appetiser to before our visit to  Shirakawa-go days later.
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Access:

Hida Folk Village entrance ticket price:

  • 700 yen

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Best places to enjoy the Japanese autumn colours – kouyou (紅葉 こうよう)

Kouyou (紅葉 こうよう) could be translated as “the colours of the leafs in autumn”. During the months of October and November, the green forests turn yellow, orange an vermillion until winter arrives and snow covers Japanese mountains with a white. The ginkgoes bring the yellow, the momiji and kaede (Maple trees) add the rest of the tones to the Japanese autumn.

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It is celebrated all around Japan, and many places become touristic attractions just because they are specially beautiful during the kouyou. This is a list of the best locations to enjoy kouyou by Nihon Kankou:

If you want to enjoy it without going far away from Tokyo I recommend Mount Takao and also the Rikugi-en gardens which are very easy to access from Komagome station near central Tokyo.

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Sankei-en gardens

If Shinjuku-gyoen is my favorite park in Tokyo, Sankei-en 三渓園 is my favorite one in Kanagawa. It was a private garden owned by a family of silk traders one hundred years ago. Sankei Hara was the family member who first bought the land. He loved Japanese gardens and architecture so much that he decided to design the garden by himself, he also brought traditional wood houses that he loved from all over Japan.

If you visit it early during a weekday it is a very quiet place with areas where the forest and the Japanese style houses will be for you and nobody else. I recommend it to everyone who complains about being tired of visiting temples and shrines filled with tourists when traveling around Japan for the first time.

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Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line – Crossing Tokyo Bay

Since I looked up Tokyo bay for the first time in Google Maps in 2005, I have always been wondering what is that tower that comes out of the sea, more or less on the middle of the bay.

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If you zoom in this is what you get:

Tokyo bay tower

Its name is 風の塔 “Tower of the Wind” and was built by Kajima Corporation. It seems like an antenna but it turns out that it is a ventilation system for the highway that crosses the bay under the sea. The name of the highway is Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line and it is actually a combination of a bridge and a tunnel. The Tower of the Wind can’t be visited, but the rest area 海ほたる Umi-hotaru “The Sea Firefly”, which is right at the end of the tunnel, can be accessed by anyone.

The other day we cross Tokyo bay using the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, we passed under the Tower of the Wind and we stopped at The Sea Firefly to have a coffee and take photos. To best way to access the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line from the center of Tokyo is to go to Odaiba first using the Rainbow Bridge.

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Crossing the bay under the sea. Speed limit 80km/h (50mph).

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

When we arrived to the rest area 海ほたる Umi-hotaru “The Sea Firefly” we parked our car and walked around for a while. We had the sensation that we were on a boat. The building has several floors, all of them full of shops, restaurants and, of course, a Starbucks.

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

That thing by the sea that looks like a monument is part of the machinery that was used to drill the highway tunnel.

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line

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Walking Around Residential Areas – Setagaya

One of the tips that I usually give people that come to Japan for the first time is to “not to worry” too much and wander around without a clear destination in mind. One of the things that I enjoy the most about living in Tokyo is to get lost with my camera in residential areas. The residential areas don’t have anything special like tourist attractions do, but that’s why I find them so cool and charming.

These are some of the photos that I took around Setagaya in Tokyo. I’m not saying that you should go to Setagaya, any residential neighborhood in any Japanese city has a similar spirit: small houses that look like they have been taken out of a Doraemon or Shinchan episode, low-rise buildings, narrow streets where almost no cars pass, a lot of green areas, stressed out people going to the supermarket riding a bicycle…
Explore and get lost in any neighborhood near your hotel when you come to Japan! 🙂

Trivia: Setagaya-ku is the second largest district in Tokyo after Ota-ku and was the neighbourhood chosen by Akira Kurosawa to “retire”.

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More photos of my walks around Tokyo in my Flickr and in my Instagram

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Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba, like mount Takao, is an ideal location for a one day trip while staying in Tokyo. Mount Tsukuba is topped by two peaks of similar heights: Nyotai-san 877 m./2,877 ft. and Nantai-san 871 m./2,858 ft. Legend has it that the deities that created Japan remain in mount Tsukuba, the goddess Izanagi is associated to the lower peak Nantai-san while the god Izanami is associated with the higher peak Nyotai-san.

Even if you climb up both peaks the hike is not very long. It is quite enjoyable because along the path there are several rest areas with restaurants and Shintoist shrines.

One day trip to Mount Tsukuba

One day trip to Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba

Mount Tsukuba
At the top of Nyotai-san, the highest peak.

Instructions on how to get to mount Tsukuba at jnto.

Related posts about hiking in Japan:

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Matsushima

Matsushima is a group of almost 300 islands that lay inside a small bay in the Miyagi prefecture. Matsushima is written in Japanese using the characters 松:pine and 島:island because it turns out that most of the islands are covered by pines. The views from the mountains behind the town of Matsushima-machi are considered as one of the three most beautiful views in Japan. The other two are Itsukushima (Miyajima) and Amanohashidate.

The days we were in Matsushima we were not lucky at all. It was cloudy all day, from dawn until night. This one is the best photo I was able to take of the famous view:

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The truth is that the famous panoramic view is not the most beautiful thing the islands have to offer, but walking around them and enjoying the breeze from the Pacific ocean is.

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Matsushima

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Fukuura island is accessible by foot from the esplanade at the seafront of the town.

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Matsushima

Matsushima

Matsushima

Matsushima

Matsushima

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Ukiyo-e of the Matsushima islands by Hiroshige.

How to get there from Tokyo: Take the Tohoku Shinkansen until the Sendai station. From Sendai change trains to the Senseki line which will take you to Matsushima-kaigan station.

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