Katsura Imperial Villa

One of Kyoto’s top gardens for this afternoon. This one you have to book in advance, in person, at a small office in the Imperial Gardens. A major pain in the neck but it proved well worth it: it’s got paths, it’s got lakes, it’s got at least four tea houses (sword wielding samurai-proof ones, too, if I understood correctly).

The guided tour is unrushed and allows plenty of scope for copious photographs. Tricky lighting for much of the time leads to mixed results…

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Nijo Castle

A late start after the early morning and other exertions of yesterday.

I had a tour of Katsura Imperial Villa Garden booked for the afternoon but the morning was free. The castle of Nijo (“Nijo-jo”) was vaguely on the route so it won out.

This was my first castle of the trip; quite different from the shrines and temples I’ve been sightseeing most days. There’s politics attached, for one (warning: myJapanese history is hazy at best): built at the behest of the shoguns but rarely visited by them, the castle was the scene for the final handover of power from the shoguns back to the emperor, after nearly 300 years.

The majority of the complex (two palaces and surrounding gardens) have somehow survived more or less intact since the 1600s; little surprise that the entire site is a world heritage site.

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The (self-guided) tour begins at the Ninomaru Palace, magnificent home/office of the shogun. Bright, airy corridors adorned with paintings of animals and trees lead you around the building and the massive rooms contained inside. Several rooms (such as the meeting halls and bedrooms) have figures inside to illustrate how the rooms were used.

Space is the word: big rooms, big corridors and high ceilings. Perhaps to have space in Japan has always been a mark of sophistication and wealth…

Lastly, the Ninomaru Palace sports real, authentic, nightingale floors. The throng of tourists make the place sound like the dawn chorus.

Outside lies a lake garden…

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Deeper within the complex is found the Honmaru castle and garden, of which only the latter is open to the public. The present palace does not date back nearly so far as the Ninomaru.

One remaining tower from the original structure provides a view of the surrounding area…

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Overall, an excellent way to spend a couple of hours and surely an unmissable part of a trip to Kyoto – but, I get the feeling there’s so many unmissable sights here…

Earthquakes and Typhoons

A number of people back home have asked me about the weather in Japan (and simultaneously taken the opportunity to complain about the weather in Ireland). I tell them:

  1.  If it’s not 30 degrees, it’s raining (either way you walk around all day wet).
  2. We had a typhoon (the strongest for 50 years, according to the newspaper) that knocked out trains both bullet and local, leaving me stranded in Fukuoka (in style, admittedly) for a night.
  3. Only a day after joking that only an earthquake stops the Shinkansen, we had…an earthquake. A force 7, no less, and the cause of a minor nuclear scare.

You people don’t even have weather!

Gion Matsuri – the parade

July 17th is festival day in Kyoto – “Gion Matsuri”. It’s the biggest festival of the summer and one of the biggest of the year. The guide book says it dates back to the ninth century when it originated as a ceremony to stave off plague during the summer months. Well, it’s not every day you’re nearby for the biggest Kyoto festival…

Last night’s arrival wasn’t the best: it took ages to find the hotel (even though it was just 10m from the east side; there is an art to exiting Japanese train stations which I haven’t yet mastered), the hotel had no information on the festival and – the last straw – the hotel did not have broadband (a first in Japan) to allow me look it up.

Eventually, I figure it starts around 9am somewhere near Yakasa Shrine. Lucky for me really: it could have been 5am (like in Fukuoka, where the bed of the Grand Hyatt was so much more appealing) or 5pm, in which case I needn’t have bothered coming to Kyoto an evening early and staying in that crappy hotel.

Anyway, in a Herculean feat of …sleepiness, I arrive at Yasaka Shrine at 9.15; there is no activity. I ask a passerby; I wish I hadn’t. Eventually, I wander out and the friendly shopkeeper asks if I want the parade rather than the shrine? Correct!

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There’s one or two people there already.

It’s a little St. Patrick’s Day (from March 17th to July 17th) but with less girl guides, brass bands and more…rustic transport in place of the tractors. I never quite work out what these floats are: they’re almost like street-cars (trams, in Europe) but really crap street-cars that are too tall and lurch about all over the place and require twenty men to turn them round to take a corner.

This, in fact, is the main thrust of the parade: watching them turn these contraptions: they’re pulled by about twenty young men and to take a corner the wheels have to be placed on planks and brakes applied and ropes pulled…it’s very complicated. A bit of an art form, like so many things here.

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I don’t understand the significance of anything (a recurring theme on my trip) but it is good fun, probably in much the same way that St. Patrick’s Day is fun for a while too.

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One last observation: it’s very nice being the tallest person in the crowd…but some resourceful locals are prepared for that…

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Glover Garden

Unbeknownst to me, Nagasaki was the major Japanese port; a centre of trade between Japan and Europe, home to Europeans after the “opening up” of Japan in the 1860s and the site of many innovations, such as the first asphalt road and tennis court in the country (the road is still on show albeit with some potholes after 150 years without a re-surfacing).

Glover Garden was the home to, amongst many others, Thomas Glover, a Scotsman who – to list just some of his achievements – made a major contribution towards modernising Japan and founded the Kirin beer company. His home – along with some of the other oldest western-style buildings in Japan – is located in the park, preserved as it was then.

Lastly, the park was the setting for Madame Butterfly.

This is not any old park…

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The #5 streetcar takes you to Hollander slope, so-called because all Europeans at the time were known as Dutchmen. This steep slope sports a myriad of crafts, ice-cream and souveneir shops. The garden itself is found at the top of the street – the highest points of the garden afford a wonderful view of the city and sea.

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The suggested route works upwards from the former Glover residence through some of the other buildings of the park.

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As you ascend the park the views get better and better. The view from this house was the best I got; this morning’s weather was not so kind as the previous evening’s. All around is the sea and what I assume – since one of the park’s houses belongs to Mitsubishi – are the Mitsubishi ship yards.

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Glover Garden makes for a somewhat unusual tourist attraction for Japan but all the more welcome for that; you can get tired of temples and shrines and seeing how the “newcomers” adapted European residences for Japan is fascinating. I think it’s an essential part of any trip to Nagasaki, doubly so since it’s a reminder that this city was great, important and world-famous long before 1945.

Grand Hyatt, Fukuoka

Wow. Amazing.

  • I finally understand why people spend €400 on a hotel room.
  • I finally understand how a truly excellent hotel can completely transform your mood from disgruntled, frustrated , traveller.
  • I finally understand how Scarlett Johansson’s character in Lost in Translation spent most of her time in the hotel.

After two weeks of €50 a night jobs, this hotel has about 50 people on hand at all times to take your luggage to your room and answer all your crappy little questions like ringing the train station to confirm that the Nagasaki line is open and even order your taxi (“JR or Shinkansen side? Nagasaki? Oh, the JR side – this way.”) and carry your bags to the taxi.

The room was spacious, the bathroom vast and the shower divine. The 32″ plasma TV helped, the free 1Mb internet connection was glorious and the little note on the bed about the next morning’s “Gion Yamakasa” festival – along with the free paper hat, or whatever it is – as they say, priceless (however, a choice between this bedroom and getting up for a 5am canoe race is no choice at all, really, but a nice souveneir).

Downstairs was a very nice, reasonable, bar with a live piano/guitar duo at night and vast breakfast buffet in the morning and outside all that is a plaza with a canal running through and an attached shopping centre.

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I never even caught a single glance of the city…and I don’t care.

Amazing.

Fukuoka

An unexpected stop-over in Fukuoka. While the shinkansen stops for nothing short of an earthquake splitting the line down the middle, the local line to Nagasaki is closed past Sago owing to the impending typhoon. Fukuoka (whose station is confusingly called Hakata) is the terminus for the shinkansen (Fukuoka-Osaka-Kyoto-Tokyo line) and so that’s as far as I can get tonight…fuk.

To make up for things somewhat, I check into the Grand Hyatt, Fukuoka. Might as well be stranded in style…

Miyajima

A small picturesque island south of Hiroshima, Miyajima is home to the famous (well, if you’re Japanese anyway) Itsukushima-jinja. The “floating shrine” contained inside is considered one of the country’s top three views; it’s dubbed “floating” since it’s built on the sea-bed and – at high-tide – appears to float on the water.

Combine this with a nice little ferry ride and some other templery dotted around the place and you have the makings of a fine half day trip from Hiroshima.

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Needless to say, with impeccable timing I caught low-tide: there may be a typhoon on the approach that will swamp the island and all of western Japan along with it, but today I get low tide.

This said, however, the view was still very impressive. I think the looming skies help…

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And…as noted before, temples are more interesting than shrines. You wander around underneath it and try to dress it up in a nice photograph but basically you’re done after about 30 seconds (unless there’s a golden sunset in progress fronted by blooming cherry blossom…both being in very short supply on a stormy July afternoon).

So, plenty of time for the other stuff; Misen-san supposedly offers wonderful views of the island and environs but was closed due to the impending typhoon.

The temple of Daisho-in was “kind of” open; kind of, since I was allowed to just roam around the grounds after some hand motions with some monks/workers. One of the workers was quite memorable in that he had the physique you usually only see in statues of the Buddha: all muscle, big neck. He was carrying what turned out to be a parcel but could just have easily been a granite block. I had always presumed those statues to be stylised; now I know better.

Aside from this revelation the temple does a nice line in colourful miniature statues…

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A small park, Momiji-dani-koen, where the ropeway/cable-car terminus lies, provides a few minutes distraction before heading off towards the temple of Itsukushina-jinja itself.

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This temple, similar to the shrine, is built on the sea-bed. Again, it’s “kind of” open – I wander around the whole building without paying anything even though I’m pretty sure I should… Anyway, again, while it would be nice to see these things at full-tide they’re still pretty entertaining even on their day off.

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