To reduce the driving the next day, we drove for an hour at night to a michi-no-eki that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere …what will we find when we wake up!… After a very cold night…around freezing we think, we awoke to find we were on a huge plain and next to a very wide river! Now off to the mountains! We chose a route that climbed up through the Kiso valley, following an ancient Shogun route from Tokyo to the plain. The area is known for its premium quality cypress trees. The cold climate means slow growth. They can take 100 years to reach maturity, but then the tree is tall, with dense, high quality timber. In the ‘olden’ days, this timber was reserved for high ranking persons… anyone else cutting down a tree was beheaded.. or for lopping a branch you lost a hand!
Part way up is a gorgeous village that has been preserved as it was. No TV masts etc!
We had a lovely walk here, and visited the old inn, which is still owned by the 25th generation of the family. A charming guide adopted us and took us from room to room explaining everything. The Emporer once came to visit for 30 minutes. They had a special high table built, with no nails, so that the Emporer would always be above everyone else.
Afterwards, the owner inscribed the table! He also had a toilet built specially for the Emporer… who never used it. So it has never been touched since!
She also explained the family seating positions around the fire. The children had the coldest, smokiest place, so that they could learn to cope with hardship and be ready to face anything in life. Guess who got the best place!!!
Then, we drove on, with tantalising views of the High Alps crowned with snow.
Our destination was Matsumoto and it’s beautiful castle, which would have towered proudly above the plain when it was built in….. The wooden construction of these castles is incredible, using wood like the cypress I mentioned before.
As dusk arrived, we sought out a small restaurant in the town, Kyobashi-soba, which served special soba noodle soup with additions on the side!
Chris hit the sake! Although we did find a brewery but it was closing!
Then 40 minutes drive to our next overnight. Brrrrrr. Really cold tonight. SO glad of the duvet!
Next morning dawned crisp and we headed south to the 5 lakes area. As we drove, gradually Mt Fuji came into view. Wow, it is such an impressive mountain, and we are apparently lucky to have seen it, as it is often shrouded in cloud.
On arrival, our first stop was to be a challenge.
As someone who never gets undressed in front of anyone, has a very modest swimsuit with a skirt, and has spent her whole life avoiding communal changing rooms, this was right out of my comfort zone… but I was determined to do it.
We visited an Onsen. A hot spring bath complex. These are plentiful in Japan, but this one was special. It had a number of different baths, and some of them had a great view of Mt Fuji.
All the baths are between 38 and 42 degrees C. Some are indoors, some outside.
Now here is the rub… Onsen etiquette is strict. Men and women are segregated. Shoes in locker. Then you are given towels. Into the communal changing room where you strip off. Completely! Not a swimsuit or anything allowed. Then you wander into a communal washroom where you sit on a wooden stool and wash yourself thoroughly. Now you are ready to go to the pools. Each one hold between 4 and 8 people. They are landscaped, with rock seats, waterfalls etc. You can wander freely (and did I mention nakedly) between them! It was lovely to see groups of elderly ladies nattering in one pool, two mums and their little daughters in another, 3 teenagers giggling in a third. And I did it. I visited 6 pools. Chatted to several people… mainly in sign language! … and forgot my modesty. Would I do it again? Yes I would! No photos allowed…thankfully!
Next we set off for a walk by Lake Saiko. Did I say ‘by’? I meant UP a big hill onto a high ridge with views of Mt Fuji.
That evening we stayed at a great michi-no-eki beside lake Kawaguchiko. A search for food led us to , a traditional restaurant in a 300 year old building where we sat on the floor and grilled our own food. Beef, duck, boar, whole fish, huge shrimp, quail, squid and veg! Then they appeared with a small vat of veg and noodle soup. Scrumptious.
Next morning Easter Sunday. We did a lovely walk along the lakeside to a shrine, and then drove on to Lake Yamanakako which, despite the haze, looked great with Mt Fuji in the background.
Great use for stepladders!
Another walk here, then onto Hakone. Crossing the mountains we left sunny and hit low cloud. This area is known for parquetry… woodworking to create beautiful multi coloured wooden items, including puzzle boxes.
Supper was in a tiny cafe which served a local version of KFC called Karaage!! Delicious chicken marinaded in soy and herbs, crumbed, cooked, then served with cream cheese, salad and soup! Delicious.
The ferry boats on the lake were rather ornate!
Our night was spent up in the clouds, literally. The Hakone michi-no-eki was at quite high altitude and the clouds came down to meet us!
Next morning…sunny. Our last day, and we needed to sort out our bags, clean and tidy the van, and do a 3 hour drive to return it. We had hit on a cunning plan. We almost passed our airport – Haneda – so we dropped off all our luggage in lockers there, before returning the camper to its base… the opposite side of Tokyo! Then we took the train, with just 1 bag to carry instead of 4… we decided to bring our lovely duvet home! Lightly laden, we were able to stop in central Tokyo, at Ueno park, which we had only seen in the pouring rain! What a difference! The cherry blossom was coming out, and the park was packed with pip up food stalls, and thousands of people picnicking under the cherry trees.
We indulged in Cherry blossom ice cream and explored the park, finding shrines and pagodas.
We also had a strange experience. Our one regret was that we had not been able to visit Hiroshima, and see the peace park. It was just too far south. While in Ueno park, we followed a path that initially didn’t look very interesting. Suddenly we were at a shrine, with a stone dove, enclosing a flame. I will let you read the inscription.
The Origin of the ‘Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’
On August 6, 1945, US forces dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and another on Nagasaki on August 9 the same year, claiming the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. Even now, many survivors are still suffering from the damage.
Sometime later, Tatsuo Yamamoto went to Hiroshima in search of his uncle, and found a flame of the atomic bomb burning in the ruins of his uncle’s house. He brought it back to Hoshino-mura, his hometown in Fukuoka prefecture. He kept it burning in his house as a memento of his uncle and an expression of his resentment. But years went by, the meaning of the flame turned into a symbol of his desire for abolition of nuclear weapons and for peace. Hosino-mura village build a torch and transferred the flame to it on August 6, 1968. It has been keeping the flame ever since as the flame for peace, with the support of the villagers.
In 1990 it lit the flame here in this memorial and is kept burning.
We were very moved by this.
Leaving the park we caught the train and monorail to the airport. The queuing system was well organised!!
The airport had some interesting shops, and a cool zone with a giant scalectrix racetrack. So Chris and I played…and I won!
All the Mariokart training was worth it!! We found a great restaurant for our last meal in Japan. Turned out it was a Korean Bbq restaurant, which is ironic, because it was better than any meal we had in S Korea, except for the one in the Japanese restaurant!
Emirates don’t have a lounge here, so we could use the Japan Air one until our midnight flight. We were glad we had eaten, as the food choice was poor, but we took advantage of the showers! Shame they don’t have washing machines too! Now for our longest flight.. 11 hours to Dubai. Night night!