Heading north to Kyoto

HiroshimaTakamatsu & NaoshimaOkayama & HimejiKobe

It was grey and wet all the way to Hiroshima, and a total shock when we arrived - it was really cold! Tried Hana Hostel, but they didn't have a room for the night, so they phoned K's for us and we booked in, knowing we would have to switch rooms twice in four days, but happy just to find somewhere to get out of the wet. We slogged around to K's in the gloomy rain and booked into a Japanese room, then went out looking for dinner. Struck lucky and found a barbeque restaurant not far away, with pork (fillet and gut) and vegetables cooked over high heat at the table.

The next day we were up early to catch a bus to San Dan Kyo. Got there by 9:30 and walked the length of the gorge to the car park, then back again. It is 11.4km of great walking - very beautiful - with cascades, rapids, camellias, mosses, and fantastic views all the way along the gorge. There was almost no-one there - maybe a dozen other people in four hours. It rained on and off, but never enough to make it unpleasant. We had to wait for the return bus, so we walked around the village for a while, getting a good idea of how the irrigation system worked for the rice paddies.

Another early start, taking the local train to Iwakuni, then the bus out to Kintaikyo bridge. It is as magical as the photos suggest. We took the cable car up to the castle - somewhat disappointing, a bit plastic, with lots of swords on display but no attempt to show how they lived. The gardens and the view were better then the castle.

Back at the foot of the hill we walked around the gardens near the cable car station - they were fantastic. A side trail to a cemetery wandered through a bamboo grove, quiet and mystical. The most spectacular flowers were the peonies - I had no idea that they could be so huge, and cover themselves in blossoms. Looked all around the base of the hill, then went back over the bridge after lunch of an ice-cream from a stall that offered 100 flavours.

On the way to Kintaikyo bridge we had seen a flag-adorned temple high up on a hill, so we walked back down the road to find it before taking the bus back to the station and catching a local train down to Miyajima-guchi.

We caught a ferry over to Miyajima, with a little sail-by of the Itsukushima-jinja tori gate on the way. It was sitting high and dry at low tide, surrounded by sand flats and lots of people. Once off the ferry I collected a map and some info, only to have my map eaten by a deer. They roam around the port and waterfront scavenging. We did the obligatory things - walked along the streets of souvenirs and food that line the way to the shrine, then walked out to the tori. Visited the shrine and the treasure house, then we went up the hill to a much more architecturally-interesting temple complex with buddhism, shinto, hindu influences. Lovely prayer-wheels on the way up. One of the gods was dressed in a "Sponge-Bob Square-Pants" t-shirt!

Walked back to a small pagoda, then down to the 5-level pagoda, took time out for coffee, another walk up to a shrine that had closed up for the night. By this time the sun was low, the tide had come in, and we took our last photos of the tori in the water and the shrine reflected in the sea.

We dedicated a day for seeing the Hiroshima city and doing some administration and housekeeping. Sightseeing included the A-bomb dome, Hiroshima castle and Shukkeien Garden. More okonomiyaki for dinner, but at a very small place run by a single woman who spoke good english, with 6 english-speaking customers to start. I tried the seafood version - really good. Photos were taken all round.

We left Hiroshima with a lazy start to a wet day - no pressure to get going. Took the train to Okayama, then despite the rain we took time to walk around the town close to the railway station. At yet another wonderful Bic Camera store we bought an ethernet to USB converter - useful for hotel rooms where they provide LAN. Caught the train to Takamatsu, all in the drizzling rain. Had a very long stroll around town - down to the jetty, then up through town to the malls, which seem to run for kilometres.

We had read about the island of Naoshima in the inland sea, where the fishing industry had failed, but the economy was being rebuilt by creating a centre for modern art. We took the slow ferry to Naoshima in the fuggy haze of what looked very much like smog. If we could have seen the sky it would have been fine with light clouds, but visibility was terrible. The port looked very unlikely for an art place. We walked over the other side of the island, visited a couple of shrines to spin out the time to 10am, then got tickets and set off to find the 6 houses of the House project, where old buildings had been taken over as art venues.

Our legs felt very pulled. We decided that the good citizens of the island were practicing the art of fooling the visitors into believing that they were seeing art. Nevertheless, we pressed on, doing a complete walking circuit of what was on offer. There were art works on display all around the place - cats, camels, elephants, boa-constrictors, and stones around a japanese bath down near the beach. Went to Bennesse House - hmmm. Went to Lee Ufan Museum - really didn't like it Gave up. Walked back to the port - found that the next and last ferry would be 1.5 hours later. Walked around looking for the ceramics place - it was closed.

While wandering around waiting for the ferry we stood watching some men building a house out of charred boards. They very kindly invited us in. Inside there was a man and some children building a huge mammoth out of straw, to fill the house. In truth, this was the best work of art we had seen all day.

The hazy, smoggy air had cleared, and we had a much more scenic ferry trip across the inland sea to Takamatsu.

After a lot of trouble we finally caught a train to Zentsu-ji to visit Zetsu-ji Temple - missed the first one because we didn't understand the system, where we had to get a local train first to somewhere else, then catch the express. The shrine was well worth the bother - quite spectacular. It is part of the 88-temple pilgrimage walk, and there were people dressed as pilgrims, but we felt they were really day-trippers - there may have been real pilgrims there.

We caught the train back to Takamatsu and went to Ritsurin Garden for the rest of the afternoon. They are wonderful, with new views at every turn.

We had decided to spend two nights in Himeji, but we wanted to stop at Okayama as we passed through. We left out bags stuffed into two small lockers at the railway station, booked a ticket to Himeji for sometime after 3pm, and went to look at the Korakuen Garden. These were small gardens, said to be one of the three best in Japan, but they weren't anywhere near as good as the garden in Takamatsu. Nevertheless they were nice gardens. Also walked over to the castle, but didn't go inside - it is new and looks plastic. In the afternoon we caught the train to Himeji and had lots of trouble getting a hotel room. Tried a guest house and a large hotel and finally got a room for one night only at the Comfort Inn. Hmm... may as well go to Kobe the next day - at least we might be able to get accommodation there.

We left our luggage with the hotel and went to Himeji castle. It was in the midst of major restoration work, with a huge multi-storey building erected around and over it, complete with its own lifts, air-conditioning and services. This building had a painting of the real castle on its exterior, so you could get a glimpse of what you were missing. Despite the repairs and the crowds it was well worth it - a much more interesting castle. We had a guide who spoke good english for all of the visit to the "egret's eye" viewing of the restoration. Also visited the building where the princess and her family and her 40 female servants lived, and the gardens, including a beautiful peony garden.

Down in the city we saw an amazing sugar scale model of the castle - it had won first prize in a confectioner's competition, and gave us the best idea of what the castle actually looks like.

We went to Kobe - only 20 minutes away. The train dropped us at Shin-Kobe, somewhat north of the down-town area. We tried a couple of hotels - no rooms. Finally tried "Super Hotel" and could only get a smoker's room. Took it - accommodation was proving difficult in this part of Japan The hotel wasn't super, but they showered us with gifts, and they bowed excessively, and the room didn't smell as bad as it could.

We walked all around the waterways - the park where the earthquake had caused devastation was now rebuilt, with multi-story high-flying roadways soaring overhead - scary. In the morning we left our luggage at the hotel and explored a bit of the city, searching out two shrines marked on the map. One was a glorious vermilion shinto shrine where a ceremony was performed for a baby while we were there. The other was Chinese - good carvings and lots of dragons. Walked back to Shin-kobe and took the cable-car up to the herb garden. Great view of Kobe from up the hill. Lunched on "rice on a stick" and german beer and sausage, at a very bavarian-looking building at the top of the park then walked down the hill through the garden. They have fantastic flowers, including fuchsias.

We took the cable car down the hill and stopped for coffee at the large, expensive hotel alongside the station. Geoff's cafe au lait came in a large beer stein - OK, that's cool. My orange juice came in a large fruit bowl. I thought it must come with a ladle, so that I could share it with the rest of the clients in the cafe, but no - just a stirring spoon and a straw. I drank it just to spite them. Back to the (locked) hotel. Buzzed them, picked up the luggage, and it was off to Kyoto.


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