The bridge that crosses over the Moon – Togetsu bridge

The bridge of Togetsu (In Japanese written with the characters 渡 月 橋: crossing, moon, bridge) is one of the most emblematic of Kyoto. With its 155 meters long it was first built in the 9th century to cross the Katsura River towards the mountain of Arashiyama . Although it has been rebuilt and restored several times, the current version remains in the same place as the original.

Crossing the bridge and strolling along the river bank is a pleasure enjoyed even by the emperors of ancient Japan. It was Emperor Kameyama in the 12th century who named the bridge. He was sailing with his boat at night and enraptured by the beauty of the moment he declared: “It seems that the bridge is crossing the moon.”

A local legend says: boys and girls have to cross the bridge without looking back at any time. If they ignore this rule it will bring them bad luck of not looking back. I wonder if Ghibli was inspired by this bridge to for Spirited Away but instead of not looking back you have to hold your breath.

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The Tōfukuji zen temple

The Tōfukuji (東 福寺, Tōfukuji) is a zen temple in southeastern Kyoto. Its pavilions are surrounded by a huge green area, it is beautiful all over the year but the best time to see this temple is a the time of the kouyou (End of november) . Tōfukuji is one of the most important Zen temples in Kyoto.

The Sanmon style door of the Tōfukuji is 22 meters high and is the oldest Japanese zen gate (since 1425 without having been rebuilt). The sanmon style doors (三門) are not in all Zen temples, only in the larger ones. The San 三 (Three) before the 門 (Gate) indicates that it is composed of three entrances. Each of the entries also has a name, the one on the left is the kūmon (空門 vacuum door), the middle one is the musōmon (無相門 the door without form) and the one on the right is the muganmon (無願門 DO NOT ask for wishes).


This is the sanmon gate at Tōfukuji which is declared as a National Treasure

The set of these three doors: the one of the void, the formless one and the one of not requesting desires; symbolize the three places by which purification must be achieved before enlightenment. Passing through them helps to free you from: greed, hatred and ignorance. That’s why they are also called sangedatsumon (三解脱門 the door of the three releases).

Apart from the sanmon gate, the most beautiful of the Tōfukuji are the gardens. There are several, each with a style, some with large rocks and moss that adorns them, others full of vegetation and several dry with gravel and stones. All of them were designed by Mirei Shigemori . One of the most beautiful gardens inside Tōfukuji is the Kaizandō, which is hidden across the bridge Tsutenkyo. A bridge with a wooden roof that is 100 meters long and crosses a stream that will lead to the kamogawa.


This is the Tsutenkyo bridge, the name of this bridge translated is: “The Bridge to cross the sky”


Views from the bridge

Kaizandō is a dry garden similar to the Ryoanji but it is not symmetrical, an area of the gravel rectangle is occupied by hedges and rocks. What I like the most compared to the Ryoanji is that behind the gravel you don’t see a simple wall, there is a big Japanese style garden with pines covering the landscape. Another of the differences is the way they drag it, in the Kaizandō they do it in a way that squares of several different shades are drawn on its surface.

Tofukuji location on google maps.

From Kyoto Station, with the JR Nara line, it takes two minutes to reach Tofukuji Station.

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Fukui

After visiting Shirakawa-go we went north all up the way until Fukui. It was my first time in Fukui prefecture. We decided to only visit Fukui City, it was a big mistake… the city is disappointing and boring. The castle was so unimpressive (there is not even a castle, it is a dull government building) that I didn’t even take a single picture of it! If you are curious, this is a picture of the “castle” I just found on Fukui’s government website:

Don’t bother too much visiting the castle. The only beautiful and worth place to visit around Fukui’s city center was the Yokokan garden. The Matsudaira lord, who ruled Fukui at the beginning of the Edo Era lived in these gardens considered by the Japanese Government as a National Designated Place of Scenic Beauty.

One morning is enough to visit the Yokokan gardens. I would not recommend spending the night in Fukui City, leave to the northern coast. Next time I go to Fukui I will focus on visiting the villages on the seaside which they say are beautiful.

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Mikasa park

After visiting the Dobuita street we walked to the seaside. The water was clear and sarushima could be seen in the horizon 猿島 (猿:monkey, 島:island)… Monkey Island!

We ended up entering a park dedicated to Mikasa, a battleship that was used in the Ruso-Japanese war at the beginning of the 20th century. It sank near Nagasaki in 1905 but it was recovered and fixed in 1906. Now the ship is attached to the park in Yokosuka and its interior is a museum that can be visited. The cannons are filled with cement as a symbol that the Mikasa will never again participate in a battle.

This is the Mikasa Park exact location on google maps.

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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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