Monday, September 15, 2014

Kintaikyo Bridge - Iwakuni

During the O-bon Holidays this year, we visited Hiroshima. This was our first visit to the Chugoku region. The Chugoku region, literally translates to Central Country and is the western part of Japan's main Honshu island.Of the many tourist attractions in the region, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Iwakuni's Kintaikyo Bridge are the most popular. 

On our trip to Hiroshima, we first visited Iwakuni. Iwakuni in Yamaguchi prefecture is well known as a military base. Iwakuni was a castle town of the Iwakuni Han, a domain formed by the Feudal Lord Kikkawa Hiroie. The Iwakuni Han prospered during the Edo period and ruled for about 300 years until the Meiji Restoration. 

Kikkawa Hiroie was banished to the region after his defeat in the Battle of Sekigahara. Having lost his castle in Izumo, Kikkawa decided to build a new castle on Mt Yokoyama, by the banks of the Nishiki River. A natural bend in the river served as a moat to the castle. The upper class samurai lived on the castle side of the river and the low ranking samurai and merchants lived on the other side. In the early days of the castle, people had to cross the river on small boats to get to the other side of town. The river was also prone to flooding so the third Lord of Iwakuni, Kikkawa Hiroyoshi decided to commission a bridge to connect both sides of town. For 195 years, only the upper class samurai and the Lord and their families were permitted to cross the bridge. The bridge was off limits to common people who continued to use boats to cross the river. It was only in 1868 that the bridge was opened to public ! 

Today the Kintai-kyo bridge is the symbol of Iwakuni. The Bridge is one of Japan's three famous Bridges, collectively known as Nihon Sanmeikyo. What makes the bridge unique, is its architecture. 
The Bridge is 200 meters long and 5 meters wide and is completely made of wood and without the use of a single nail. Its five elegant wooden arches are supported by four massive stone piers and two wooden piers making it an engineering wonder. 
When Kikkawa Hiroyoshi commissioned the bridge, the challenge was to build one that would withstand floods. All previous attempts had proven futile as the Nishiki river was prone to flooding.
The original Kintaikyo bridge was built in 1673 but it too was washed away in a year. It was replaced with a stronger bridge in 1674 and this lasted for 276 years till 1950 when it suffered significant damage during Typhoon Kijiya. Restoration work was carried out and the bridge was reopened in January 1953. The bridge was designated a National Treasure in 1922. The most recent renovations were extensive and were completed in 2004 and cost over 2 billion yen. 
Visitors can cross the bridge for a fee of 300 yen.
On the other side of the bridge, is the Kikko Park, a large park built on the site of the feudal Lord Kikkawa's former residence.
Few old buildings remain and provide an insight into the samurai houses of the past.
A statue of Kikkawa Hiroyoshi, stands at the entrance of the park. 
Exhibits, artifacts and documents belonging to the Kikkawa family are on display in the Iwakuni Choko-kan Museum in the park. The park also houses the Iwakuni Historical Art Museum. The White Snake Park in the Kikko Park is home to a rare species of white snakes found only in Iwakuni. The white snakes are considered to be a symbol of Benzaiten, the Japanese Goddess of good fortune, love and luck. As such many people come to pray to them for success and prosperity in Business. The snakes have been designated as a natural monument of Japan.

Interestingly there are a few shops that sell ice creams at the entrance to Kikko Park. These ice creams come in various flavours; we even saw Garlic flavored ice cream in one shop !

A cable car ride from near the Kikko Park takes visitors to the Iwakuni Castle atop the Mt Yokoyama, overlooking Iwakuni city . The castle was first constructed in 1608 by Kikkawa Hiroie only to be demolished 7 years later in 1615 on the orders of the Tokugawa Shogunate. 
In the above picture, the castle is visible in the distance. The current castle is a 1962 reconstruction and is considered to be one of Japan's 100 great castles.  The Kintaikyo Bridge was once the the bridge to the main gate of the castle. An observation deck on the top floor of the castle keep offers a panoramic view of the city below.

The Kintai-kyo bridge and the castle also feature on Iwakuni's manhole cover.

Address: 741-0062 Yamaguchi Prefecture, Iwakuni, 1 Chome , Kintai Kyo

Opening Hours: Always open. 

Closing Dates: None

Admission : 300 yen ( round trip- Bridge only)

Combination Ticket: 940 yen ( Bridge, Castle and Ropeway )

Parking: Car parking available along the riverbank.

Official Website: Click Here 

Kamikochi - Northern Japan Alps

Kamikochi is one of the most picturesque places we have visited in Japan. Kamikochi, an alpine valley is located in the southern part of Chubu Sangaku National Park, otherwise known as North Japan Alps. Located at an altitude of 1500 meters above sea level, the valley has some of the most impressive scenery in Japan. Its alpine climate attracts tourists in the summer months. We visited Kamikochi on our recent camping trip to Hirayu.
Legend goes that a Buddhist priest from Toyama, Ban-ryu was the first person to climb Kamikochi mountains as a pilgrimage. During the Meiji era, an Englishman, William Gowland with a group of western engineers climbed Mount Yarigatake and is said to have first referred to the peaks as Japanese Alps which later became a term to refer to the mountains in Nagano prefecture. The popularity of the Japanese Alps is credited to an English missionary, Reverend Walter Weston who climbed Mt Yarigatake and was said to have introduced Kamikochi in his book " Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps". A plaque dedicated to him stands along the hiking trail. A festival dedicated to him is held in June to mark the beginning of the hiking season.   

Kamikochi is a plateau in the Azusa River valley  surrounded by Nishihotakadake, Yakedake, Okuhotakadake , Maehotakadake and Yaridake mountains.
Mount Hotakadake at 3190 metres is the highest peak in the Northern Alps while Mount Yake is the only active volcano in the Northern Alps. The valley receives heavy snowfall in winter and is closed to public between mid November-mid April. 
The snow capped peaks of mountains make a pretty sight in peak summer. Private vehicles are prohibited in Kamikochi and visitors have the option of riding a bus or hiring a private taxi from Hirayu in Gifu prefecture or Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture. The other option is to hire private taxi, convenient albeit expensive. Nouhi buses leave at regular intervals from Hirayu Onsen Bus terminal ( Click here for bus schedule). Visitors arrive at the Kamikochi Bus terminal from where they can walk along different trails to enjoy the alpine scenery. Visitors can collect information and hiking maps from the information centre near the bus terminal. 

The shortest hike is from the Bus terminal to Kappa Bashi Bridge, the symbol of Kamikochi. 
The Kappa Bashi bridge is in the centre of Kamikochi. 

The snow capped peaks in the backdrop, the flowing Azusa river and the suspension bridge together make a pretty sight.

We chose to hike upto Myojin Ike and back . The hike is flat terrain along the Azusa terrain and is easy. Our 7 year old daughter enjoyed the 2 hour hike. More adventurous hikers can climb one of many surrounding peaks.

The entry to Kamikochi is through a tunnel , a short distance from which is the Taisho Ike. A volcanic eruption of Mount Yake dake in 1915 created the Taisho Ike by damming the Azusa river. Decayed trees stand in the pond creating a nice sight. 
When walking from Taisho-ike towards Kappabashi, one comes across Tashiro-ike, a small pond surrounded by marshy land. 

On the way from Kappabashi to Myojin Ike we came across Takezawa Marsh.
 We crossed another suspension bridge, the Myojin bashi to reach the Myojin Ike.

Myojin Ike is a pond about an hours walk from Kappabashi along the Azusa river.

The Hotaka shrine, the inner shrine to the Shinto deity of  Mount Hotaka stands beside the Myojin Ike. A small mountain hut with displays dating back to Walter Weston's visit stands next to the Myojin Ike.  

Kamikochi is considered to be especially spectacular during the autumn foliage season, around mid October. Bears and other wildlife can be encountered at certain places in Kamikochi, especially around Myo-jin ike.  

Visitors can camp at one of the many campgrounds in Kamikochi resort or stay at one of the few hotels operating in the resort. 
We preferred to camp at the Hirayu Campground and take the bus ride between Hirayu and Kamikochi. 

Kamikochi can be visited as a side trip when visiting the preserved town of Hida Takayama in Gifu prefecture or the castle town of Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. Visitors can also visit the Okuhida Onsengo, a group of hot spring villages in the mountainous Okuhida region of Gifu Prefecture.

Official Website: Click Here

Bus Schedule: Hirayu-Kamikochi Line

Kamikochi Hiking Map: Click Here

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Hirayu Onsen and Waterfall

After our Camping Trip to Wakayama, our daughter wants to go camping whenever possible. Summer in Japan is very hot and humid, so we had been looking for camping spots with pleasant weather. On our neighbor's recommendation we planned to camp at the Hirayu Onsen Campground. 

The Hirayu campground is close to the Hirayu Onsen, one of the onsen towns forming part of the Oku-Hida Onsengo. The Oku-Hida Onsengo is a group of 5 hot spring villages located in the Japan Alps region of Gifu prefecture. The five villages that form the Oku-Hida Onsen go are Hirayu, Shin Hirayu, Fukuchi, Tochio and Shin Hotaka. The Oku Hida onsen area is close to the city of Takayama, a well preserved city in Gifu Prefecture and Kamikochi-Japan Alps in Nagano prefecture. This makes it a popular travel destination despite limited public transport connectivity. 

The Hirayu Waterfall near the campground is listed among  Japan's 100 best waterfalls. The waterfall has a drop of 64 meter high and 6 meters high. The waterfalls freeze in winter and are illuminated in February. (Entrance fees: Free)
There are restaurants and shops near the Waterfall parking lot. Weary travellers can even soak their feet in a foot bath near the restaurant area. 
A shuttle bus carries passengers from the parking area to the waterfall. (Adult fare : 100 yen). 
Parking is available and the Hirayu Waterfall and Onsen areas.  A ski resort is operational during the winter months in the vicinity.

It is said that the Hirayu Onsen was discovered  by exhausted soldiers from the land of Kai who had attacked in to Hida and reached the Hirayu waterfall.
A white monkey  appeared from behind the waterfalls and led the soldiers to a hot spring in the nearby mountains. This hot spring is the source of the Hirayu Onsen. 
The Hirayu Onsen has gender separated indoor and outdoor baths. Visitors can also use family baths, known as Kazokuburo or Kashikiri onsen, during certain time of the day. Overnight stay is possible at the Hirayu onsen hotel.  

Hirayu onsen is a close to the Hirayu Bus Terminal.
Hirayu is a good base for visiting the Kamikochi area of Japan Alps. Buses ply between Takayama and Hirayu Onsen and also between Hirayu Onsen and Kamikochi bus terminal at regular intervals. Private vehicles are prohibited in Kamikochi and visitors have the option of  private taxi and buses; buses being the cheaper of the two. More about Kamikochi in a separate post- Click Here ! 

Hirayu Campground : Click here

Bus schedules :  
Nouhi Bus Takayama-Hirayu route     
Nouhi Bus Hirayu-Kamikochi route

Area Map : Click here 

Address: 506-1433 Gifu Prefecture, Takayama, Okuhidaonsengo, Hirayu 768-36

Phone: 0578-89-2610 

Nagoya : Yokiso

Nagoya is one of the leading industrial centres and one of the biggest cities in Japan. However it is not popular as a tourist centre. But the city does have some amazing spots that one can visit. While a few like the Nagoya Castle or Sakae are well known, a few spots like Yokiso are relatively lesser known. 

Tucked away in the bylanes of Kakuozan, Yokiso is a beautiful villa built in the early 1900s by Ito Suketami the 15th, the founder and first President of the Matsuzakaya Company. It was his home and during the time it flourished as a reception hall and a place for social gatherings especially to host international students. A wide travelled man, Ito Sutekami the 15th was a philanthropist who believed in the fostering an international community. 

Originally, Yokiso was spread over 33000 sq mtrs of land to the east of Nittai-ji temple and comprised of more than 30 buildings. The property suffered significant damage during the WW II air raids and only a handful of buildings and the garden remain now. The garden is now divided into Northern Premises and Southern Premises; both premises are 200 meters apart.  

The main building, the Choshokaku stands in the southern premises and is open to public. The three story wooden house was completed in 1937 and is a blend of European, Japanese, Chinese and Indian styles. 

 While the exteriors are in western style, the roof is made of Japanese tiles.  The interiors of the first and second floor are in western style, the rooms on the third floor are in Japanese style. The woodwork is influenced by Chinese style and the walls are adorned by a series of large murals painted by Indian artists. Immediately after the war, the Choshokaku was taken over by the Allied forces and it served as a Commander residence until 1952. Between 1961-1979, it even served as a dormitory for Matsuzakaya workers. 

The Bangaro, (the Japanese pronunciation of English Bungalow) is a wooden building located in the Northern Premises. 

The garden in the Northern Premises was influenced by the Shugakuin Imperial villa garden in Kyoto. Previously the tea house in the garden was used to enjoy tsuki-mi, the moon viewing parties. The garden is said to be beautiful in the cherry blossom season and autumn foliage season. 
The Hakuun Bridge is a corridor bridge in the north garden and is said to have been inspired by the Chitose Bridge in the Shugakuin Imperial Villa, Kyoto. A dragon painting adorns the ceiling of the bridge.

A shrine and few other structures can be seen in the garden. Few views from the north garden.

A trip to Yokiso can be combined with a visit to the neighboring Nittai-ji temple

Address: 464-0057 Nagoya, Chikusa ku, Hoo-cho 2-5-21

Phone: 052-759-4450

Entrance fees: 
Southern Premises- Choshokaku - Adult 300 yen ; Up to Jr High School : Free
Northern Premises - Free

Opening Hours: 9:30 am to 4:30 pm

Closing days: Weekly on Mondays and from Dec 29-Jan 3rd each year. 

Access: Nearest station - Kakuozan subway station on the Higashiyama Line 

Car Parking: Not available.

Official Website: 

Monday, September 08, 2014

Ajisai no Sato : Katahara Onsen

One of my favorite things about Japan is its natural beauty. Every season in Japan has its special flowers and these flowers add to the beauty of the place. While the blossoms of Apricot, Plum and Cherry indicate the arrival of spring, Hydrangeas and Azaleas indicate the beginning of summer. 

Towards the end of spring, one can see the Hydrangeas beginning to bloom. Hydrangea blossoms are known in Japanese as "Ajisai".
Hydrangea blossoms of some places in Japan are quite popular and people visit these spots to see the Hydrangeas.
Kamakura city in Kanagawa prefecture is one such place popular for its Hydrangea blossoms. 

This summer we visited Katahara Onsen, Gamagori which is also popular for its Hydrangea garden - "Ajisai no Sato". 
Katahara Onsen- Ajisai no Sato is a famous Hydrangea garden where visitors can see about 120 species of hydrangeas. 

During full bloom about 50,000 hydrangea plants can be seen turning the hill slopes into shades of pink and purple. 

During certain days in June, the garden is lit up at nights attracting visitors from nearby areas. At night, glowworms can be seen in the garden. 
The garden has been attracting thousands of visitors during the Hydrangea festival ever since it opened up in 1989. Visitors can walk past the Hydrangea plants around the pond and along the slopes of the hill.

 The pond is also full of Koi fish (carp) and turtles.  

The Gulf of Mikawa can be seen in the backdrop. 

A small shrine is situated near the Ajisai no Sato. The Katahara Onsen is situated nearby.

Address: Aichi Prefecture, 443-0102, Gamagori city, Kanahira Cho, Ichinosawa 28-1

Phone: 0533-57-0660

Opening hours: 8:00 am to 21:30 hrs during the Hydrangea festival; closed rest of the year. 

Entrance fee: Adults-300 yen during the Hydrangea festival

Parking: Paid parking available near the shrine.