Thursday 25 November 2010

Hotspring Heaven; Gero Onsen

Gero Onsen is a Hot spring resort in the middle of Gifu Prefecture. It is one of the top 3 hot spring resorts named in the Edo Period. I had been craving for a while to head to Gifu prefecture and see the Gassho Housing (thatched roved houses) so this was the perfect chance.

A lovely woman called Yumi (who it turns out also studied at Murdoch University, small world!) along with the wacky and wonderful Julian, whom I had not yet met, organised this trip. I happened to hear about it via the Hyogo AJET mailing list. Very lucky for me! A mere 25,000yen got each participant bus fare, boat cruise and accommodation (including dinner and breakfast).

We left from Himeji Station at 8am, moving along the highway unfortunately took a little longer than expected due to the weekend traffic. So we decided to move the boat cruise to the next day. The bus driver pulled into a random little spot where we were able to enjoy a small shrine surrounded by trees starting to showing their Autumn colours (momiji). After a short stop we were on the road again to Gero. Entertainment in the form of a collection competition and 'guess the song' team quiz had us laughing all the way.

These two were running around

Momiji rainbow

Most accommodation in Gero Onsen has their own hot spring bath set up. Our hotel, Kankou Hotel Yumotokan, also had its own, but given the cheap price of our package, It wasn't quite as glamourous as some of the other onsens on offer. In saying this, we had lovely big rooms, with 2 tatami rooms and western style sitting areas in which we enjoyed the lovely complementary manjyu Japanese sweets, and tea. 

Before dinner we decided to have a look around, and go for a bath. Donning our hotel yukatas, we quickly purchased the 1200 yen 3 onsen pass from the hotel front desk (available from all hotels, convinience stores and information centre in Gero Onsen), and set out. As dinner was to be served at 8, we didn'd have too much time, and could only fit in 1 onsen. Sasara Onsen was the choice of the day. This onsen had a lovely outdoor bath that overlooked the town below and river, a lovely lounge and changing area and great products for guests to use. There was also a small bath infused with nice smelly things (something like bathing in herbal tea). We had a lovely long soak before heading back to the hotel for dinner. 

Our dinner was an enkai style (Japanese banquet style) feast. We were very well provided for, and ate ourselves silly. 

Feasting with new friends
After dinner, we headed up to Onsenji Temple to have a look at the Momiji Illumination. It was very very pretty, but also very cold. Photos just don't do it justice. Time, to defrost! Off to the public hotspring!

One of the famous features of Gero Onsen is its public hot spring. Right next to the river, this onsen is open air (called rotenburo) and has no facilities for changing or toilets, it is also meant to be enjoyed wearing bathing suits. Two of our group members that had arrived previously had not realised they were allowed to wear bathers, as everyone that was there was in the nick. This made for some light entertainment as the 20 something group of foreigners stripped down to their bathers and jumped in, next to the naked people. Even some Japanese women entered wearing only towels. Needless to say, I didn't get any snaps of this one. We enjoyed the warmth of the bath for around an hour before heading back for more bathing at the hotel, drinks and social time. 

The next day, after breakfast and a lazy start, we head out to to the markets and the Gassho Village. The Gassho houses are the thatched roved houses that were built to withstand and shed the massive amounts of snow that are typically experienced in the region. 

After visiting the Gassho village, me and another group member tried to get another onsen in. However, most of the onsens in the area are closed between the hours of 10 and 2... So we ended up at the only onsen open at that time, Shirasagi no Yu. It was still nice, but not fancy, and didn't provide soap or shampoo. 

At 12:30 we all piled on the bus and head towards our boat tour in Ena Valley. 

As we had made a group booking, we were ushered through the long line of people that were waiting. Another pleasant surprise; we were put on a Japanese style cruise boat with tatami mates and open to the air. The tour made a circuit of the river to look at the interesting rock formations while we relaxed and reclined. 

After a returning we had a little leisure time shopping, we all hopped on the bus to make our way back to Himeji. Once again the traffic caused some issues. Thankfully we weren't driving so we could all snooze away. 

Before this trip, I must say I was a little apprehensive given I didn't know any of the tour members. However, as I approached the group at Himeji Station on the first day, Julian and Yumi said they had already decided I must be 'cool' as I had gone out on a limb and joined the tour. Thank you everyone for making me feel so welcome. I had a fantastic time and look forward to more trips together in the future. 

The tour masterminds, Yumi, Julian and Taube

For modesty at the outdoor hot spring: Wear the yukata that your hotel provides you with. You will be able to change out of your wet bathers underneath your yukata with relative discreteness.  

Big thanks to Lauren McRae for providing most of the photos shown :) 

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Mt Koya, Wakayama Prefecture; November 2010

In November, 2010, I was invited by my good friend Jon to join the Wakayama JET contingent on a weekend tour of Mt Koya (Koyasan), the home of Shingon Buddhism which was introduced to Japan by Kobo Daishi.

We stayed at Rengejo-in, a working monastery that also offers lodging for travellers (called Shukubo). There are over 50 Shukubo in Koyasan, but I'm pretty sure we stayed at the best. 

Quiet contemplation

Autumn Leave in the temple grounds

During our stay we were invited to join in the morning and evening meditations, and enjoyed traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner and breakfast. Dinner was one of the best experiences I have had in Japan. The widow of the former temple head joined us in our meal to tell us her story of learning English in preWWII Japan, and the reactions of people in postWWII Japan. Please go for yourself to find out. To hear the 'other-side' of the story, was certainly a special experience for me.

Prior to this we toured the area and visited some of the main temples in the district, including Kongobuji Temple and Garan. The Autumn leaves were particularly beautiful up here, especially as we didn't have to fight the hoards of people that we would have encountered, had we been in Kyoto. 

The second day we explored Okunoin Temple and Cemetary grounds. In a bid to remain close to Kobo Daishi in death, many people, including feudal lords, had their tombstones placed here. Come here on a foggy day, and you will be surrounded by haunting beauty. Many of the tombs' age are unable to be determined. Mount Koya was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004. 

This trip was made all the more special for me, as I was able to travel with my friends Jon, Luc, Brodie and Amanda. It was also Jon's birthday, so we brought along a cake just for him. Happy Birthday Jon!

Extra Koya-san information
  • Koya-san is on average 5 degrees colder than Kobe/Osaka areas. Make sure to bring layers. 
  • It takes around 2 hrs to Koyasan Station from Osaka, changing to the Nankai line at Shinimamiya. It costs 1400yen. Via express train from Shinimamiya costs 2160. The bus must be taken from the station, as the road is private and closed to pedestrians. 

Friday 30 July 2010

Okinawan Summer, July 2010

In the far south of Japan Islands, lies a paradise known as Okinawa. Life as we know it here in mainland  Japan, does not exist. Many people have escaped the rat-race that is known as Tokyo, to become forever imbedded into the relaxed Okinawan society.

Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands stretch in a chain of islands over 1000km long, and are home to many unique flora and fauna. Not to mention warm tropical weather. Did I mention the weather?

In July of 2010, after a long winter, and continuing cool temperatures, this Australian girl decided to break free and treat herself to an Okinawan holiday birthday present. Most probably the best present I could have given myself.

The only way to explore the Ryukyu Islands is of course, with Islander company! So myself and 3 lovely Jamaicans headed off to bask in the glorious warmth of the south.

Pure Excitement

This was my first experience with SKYMARK airlines. A great little budget airline, that runs out of Kobe Airport. Cheap tickets disappear fast, so it's best to be sitting online at 9:30 sharp, 2 months before the day you want to fly. I managed to get return flights for under 20,000 yen.

We flew out, all very amped, on the 15th of July. A friend of one of our party members worked on base, so he kindly picked us up and took us to our accommodation along the main stretch, Kokusai dori.

Our accommodation for the main island part of our trip was a small, but very clean and modern domitory called Okinawa Monogatari. The staff were very friendly and helpful, and also spoke a fair amount of English. Access is super easy and convenient, being a very short walk from Makishi Monorail station. We stayed in a room that was set out with 2 bunk beds, a small dressing table, mirror and the all important air-conditioner.

Kokusai Dori

Naha dusk
After driving out to Chatan for a mexican dinner, we then headed back to Naha and down to kokusai dori and found a great little outdoor bar, with cheap drinks, attached to a soccer jersey store. Later on they let us inside and turned on the Karaoke machine, and we did our best to dredge up the best of the worst 90's tunes.
A much needed sleep in followed.

On out first full day in Okinawa, we grabbed a quick conbini breakfast before sussing out the bus routes to head towards Shuri Castle. Most people take the monorail to the castle, but it is a long uphill walk from the station. Bus is by far the better option. Castles in Okinawa are very different in style and material than that of the main land. The influence of Chinese design is obvious, and limestone blocks have been used to build the castle walls and gates.

On Day 3 we head off to Zamami Island. We decided to spent that little bit of extra money to reach the island much faster and much more comfortably aboard the Queen Zamami III

Our accommodation here was Summer House Yuu Yuu A very cute little guest house run by a family (like most of the accommodation on the island). As we were travelling over a long weekend, in peak season, we ended up sharing a room (around 5 tatami size) between the 4 of us. It was a little cozy, but since we only were in our room to sleep, it was not an issue. Asthmatics should be warned that the owner smokes in the common area sometimes. However, this does not affect the rooms at all, which are sectioned off from the rest of the house.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after settling down I decided that I couldn't wait til the next day to hit the beach, and dragged my pals down for a walk to the beach. The sun had already gone down, and the moon provided very little light. Still we walked all the way down to the beach. The beach was covered in small crabs (and some not so small) as we walked across the coral covered sands. Although we made a valant attempt to paddle our feet, the knowledge other less friendly creatures in the sea kept us from diving in, until the next day.

Finally! The long awaited beach day. After a simple supermarket breakfast, and stocking up for lunch also, our kind hostel owner drove us down to the beach. We were also able to borrow snorkels for free. The sun was very hot that day. Being a sea lover, I dived straight in... and proceeded to snorkel for an hour. Armed with my new Olympus Tough camera, I swam around the coral finding many new fishy friends including parrot fish, angel fish, clown fish... and blow fish! After hopping out of the water I discovered that Japanese sunscreen just does not cut it. The sunburn on my back was so severe, my friend Shellie was telling me she wouldn't let me swim the next day.

Sorry Shellie, but no one stands between me and the sea!

Before I turned red...

Meeting the locals
The next day we made an attempt to see the sea turtles, without any luck. I swam around in my sport shorts and T-shirt so stop myself from burning further, before we got a water taxi to Gahi Island, one of the unmanned islands in the Kerama island group. We had been warned than a squall may come in in the afternoon. We were in for a treat.

A great dark cloud descended over the bay and brought a downpour of rain, and thunder. With nowhere to shelter, we sheepishly hid under beach umbrella, afraid that it would be struck by lightning at any moment. We were lucky, and after cowering under the umbrella for what seemed like an eternity, our water taxi returned and we returned to the safety of the island, and our accommodation to clean up and finish packing before heading back to Naha on the afternoon ferry. This ride back was an interesting one. Never having been particularly good with motion sickness, I quickly turned green. The high speed ferry skipped over the water and waves for the better part of the 50 minute ride. I managed to hold what I had in my stomach, thanks to the fanning skills of Adrian.

I did not edit this photo.... crazy natural colours eh? 

Sheltering from the squall

Safely back on land, we head back once again to Okinawa Monogatari, and went out for a stroll to purchase wares for our friends, and ourselves.

The next day was off to a fairly late start. We had planned to visit Nagannu Island, but due to high waves the ferries stopped operation. Instead we decided that we would try and check what was on offer up north and attempted to head to the ruins and old cultural village in the northern part of the island.

We ended up getting off the bus in a small random area... where we continued to walk to the castle ruins of Zakimi Castle. As 2 of our party members were heading back to Kobe on a flight that evening, we were a little worried about making time. However a nice family put us in the back of the van when they had finished, and took us to the nearby bus station, with regular departures. After making it back to Naha, Adrian and Suen did some last minute souvenir grabbing, and jumped on the monorail to the airport. Shellie and I carried on our happy little way, did some clothes shopping, ate some fairly normal Japanese set meals for dinner, before heading back to our little bar for a relaxing drink.

Zakimi Castle ruins

Our random transport
On our final day we decided that we might try for Nagannu Island again, but a rather sluggish start meant that in the end this was not an option. We ended up heading to American Village to do some shopping, and to have a swim at Sunset and Araha beaches, which are located 20 minutes walk from each other. Our last day was rather relaxed and got our final shopping needs finished. 

Sunset Beach

This little dude was very excited by the 'waves'

American Village

Our farewell was a beautiful sunset (which I wasn't quite able to catch on camera). On our return, summer in Kansai was finally showing it face.

Advise for travel in Okinawa

  •  If you can, bring your own Australian standard sunscreen. I found that the Japanese counterpart was useless, especially for snorkeling. 
  • Be aware that tropical weather may mean you need to change your plans. Have a back up plan just in case. No one wants to waste a day. 
  • Information centres aren't as easy to find as one would think. Grab plently of pamplets on your way out of the Airport. 
  • There is a lot to see up north. If you plan to head up that way, hire a car as it will probably end up being cheaper than busing back and forth if you have 2 people or more. (International drivers licence is required for those without a Japanese licence)
  • Take a towel with you everywhere. The weather is very humid, so you will need it to wipe away the sweat.

Thursday 20 May 2010

In a forest far away... Yakushima, Kagoshima Prefecture

The big cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe are always high on the visit list for travellers in Japan. Kyushu, the southern island of Japan while largely over looked is very deserving of visitors. Vast areas that escaped the ravages of the Second World War can be found in a unique oasis down here in the south.

Yakushima for me, is the most special of these places. Located a 2 hour high-speed ferry ride from Kagoshima’s Dolphin Port, it is the home of ‘Yakusugi’, a name given to cedars over 1000 years old. The air is fresh, clean and filled with the scent of cedars both young and old. Hiking and nature enthusiasts from Japan, and around the globe come to Yakushima to experience the magic first hand. It's not hard to see why it inspired the forests of Studio Ghibli's 'Princess Mononoke'.

The most famous of the Yakusugi is Jomon-sugi. Jomon-sugi is believed to be somewhere between 2170 and 7000 years old, and its name refers to the Jomon period in Japan's prehistory. The tree can be found on the north face of Mt Miyanoura and was not discovered until 1968. 

The hike to Jomon-sugi winds itself around rivers, brooks, moss, and countless cedars. A one days gentle hike from the Arakawa trek base station takes around 9 hours along reinforced pathways and platforms that have been put down to protect the forest and root systems that intertwine with the course.

Off we go!

Wilson's stump is one of the highlights of the trek. Looking up into the canopy of the forest thought the hole in the stump at the right angle, and you'll be greeted by a very ‘lovely’ view.

Many cedars here have taken on interesting forms over the years, including the Medusa cedar and the Kirin cedar. Some 3 generation cedars also line the much worn path, each generation growing upon the other.

Our guide took us through the trees and off the beaten path to a place where beautiful turquoise waters stretched between the trees inviting us to soak our weary feet. We navigated the precarious stone path to the boulders in the centre of the river for a rest. The water was fresh and icy cold, come summer I would be the perfect swimming hole.

Upon reaching Jomon-sugi I felt a great sense of achievement and wonder, the light streaming through the canopy of trees just adding to the magic. 

Although hiking through the forest is the main event on this beautiful island, there is still much to see. Most of the coast is accessible via the single bus route (except between Ooko Falls and Nagata beach on the western road), but a hire a car will give you the freedom to explore other parts of the island.

Ooko falls in the south of the island is 88 metres tall; the huge volume of water that falls into the river below sprays a mist across the landscape. Nearby local vendors fry up the island’s specialty, flying fish, as the monkeys play in the trees.

Yakushima’s Nagata beach, on the western coast, is known to be one of the world’s important spawning grounds for loggerhead turtles, so head there from mid may to mid july to take a peek.

The western road is home to the Nagata lighthouse. Many animals casually sauntered onto the road, unafraid of us as we passed by. From the lighthouse we took in the wide view of the ocean and the beauty of the steep cliffs, then turned to the spectacular view of the mists clinging the mountains across the island. 

So if you are headed to Japan in the near future and want to see something outside of the usual destinations, Yukushima is worth travelling the distance for. It really is one of the gems of Japan that should not be missed.

The treking team, Scott, Dooley, Clint, Mike, myself and 2 lovely Japanese Ladies. 

How to get to and around Yakushima
If you have time to spare the 'Sunflower' Ferry goes overnight from Osaka Seagull Port to Shibushi Port, Kagoshima Prefecture. The ferry departs at 17:55 and arrives at Shibushi at 8:55. Once in Shibushi Port, you'll need to jump on the shuttle bus into Kagoshima City which takes around 2 hrs depending on traffic. I’d recommend a ‘tourist sleeper’. The lowest class was described by Scott as ‘the Dragon’s lair’; a huge humid room where travellers lay down their futons together and attempt to sleep.

For those needing to get to Kagoshima in a hurry, flights to Kagoshima Airport start from 7,800 yen one way. Train lovers can check out the new Sakura Shinkansen for around 21,000 yen one way, which takes around 4 and a half hours.

To connect to Yakushima, you'll need to take a ferry. The high speed ferry 'Toppy' costs 7,700 yen one way or 14,000 yen return and takes around 2 hours.

For those with a decided lack of hiking gear, most accommodations and tour guides are able to arrange gear for your hiking needs. Some accommodations such as Kagoshima Youth Hostel also have K-cars for hire, at around 6000 yen per day (you’ll also need to re-fill the petrol tank before returning it).

For further info check out the JNTO Yakushima fact sheet @

Lastly, a big thanks to Mayumi who planned this whole trip as a birthday suprise for her husband. What a champion!