Post 26 Last days in Japan

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!

Post 25 Captivating Kyoto

Kyoto is a huge city…definitely not ideal for a camper, so we came in by train… the bullet train. A journey that takes 65 minutes using the local train, took 18! It was fast! And smooth.

We planned 2 days in Kyoto, and wanted to see as much as we could using public transport and our feet. We used 3 self guided walking tours which took us to hidden paths we would have missed. Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over 1000 years, so not surprisingly there are many temples, shrines, castles etc. but they are quite far apart. This would be a challenge! Poor Chris! I get an adrenaline charge in busy cities… whereas I think after a while he would rather be in a field birdwatching!

The one or two day bus and subway passes are good value, but we also used the JR trains which were quick and comfortable.

Day one.

Exiting the station, the bus queues were huge, but efficient marshalling, and some squashing, meant we were soon on our way to stop one. From here we would walk through parks, and some of the oldest streets in Kyoto, still with wooden frames and paper screens.

The biggest treats were that it was warm and sunny, and the cherry blossom had erupted almost overnight. Glorious, but it meant everywhere was extra busy!

There were small temples everywhere, but we had our main goals. Firstly, overlooking the mountains, the amazing Kiyomizu-dera buddhist temple complex, first built in 763, but this renovation was from 1633. The colours were gorgeous, and the highlight is a huge temple, with a veranda hanging out over the side of the mountain.

Some renovation was in progress… we loved the bamboo scaffolding!

Then onto the impressive Chion-in temple complex with the largest gateway in Japan! The timbers were an incredible size.

Next to the lovely Shoren-in temple, with giant, ancient camphor trees guarding it’s entrance. The main hall had beautiful sliding screens with 16th and 17th century paintings.

Next a side step to Nanzenji Zen Temple, rebuilt 1570-1600. This was a lovely oasis with a pretty, zen garden, and gorgeous tiger screen paintings in the Hojo hall.

Now a walk along the 2 km Philosophers path, alongside a canal and lined with cherry blossom and spring shrubs. Gorgeous.

At the top of the hill, (every temple seemed to be at the top of hills …we will have climbed Everest by the end of this trip!), our final stop at Ginkakuji Zen Temple and dwelling house. High above the city, the garden winds it’s way up the hillside. We love the way the rooms are divided with sliding panels so they can be reconfigured in so many shapes and sizes. The 17th century screen paintings were beautiful but we couldn’t photograph them.

Onto a very busy bus to the town centre to find food! A recommended restaurant serving acclaimed Kobe beef wanted over £100 for a steak! Er… no thank you! So we found a great sushi restaurant with conveyer belt!

Then train back to our little camper before we do it all again tomorrow!

Day two, earlier start to try to beat the crowds. We were at our first shrine – Fushimi Inari Taisha – by 8.45. It was still busy!

This is a special place at the foot of Mt Inari. It has been a shrine to the guardian god of abundant rice crops and good business since 711. The shrine buildings are vermillion, the colour of our life force, and which can counteract spells. There are many statues of foxes, guardians of the rice harvest. Since ancient times, worshippers have built shrines up the mountain, and added Torils – huge red gates, so that now the Toril walkway stretches over a mile up the mountain… so up we went. Every one is inscribed with it’s donor and their wishes or thanksgiving message. It was quite moving to witness such belief.

Next, we found a tiny shrine to the frog spirit,

and then headed to the wonderful Nijo-jo castle, built in 1603 by the Shogun leader who unified Japan. It was also the place where the Shogun returned Japan to Imperial rule in 1867.

It was full of paintings, and special wooden Nightingale floors.. the nails squeak like birds singing when you walk. It is said that this was so that no-one could creep up on the Shogun unnoticed!

The ceilings were ornate.. themore decorative your ceiling, the higher your status!

The gardens were lovely and we had some great street food here – duck slices and Octopus balls!

Finally, a train to Arashiyama to see the impressive wooden bridge,

and the Tenryu-ji temple. We hardly left the train station when I foolishly pointed out a poster for a model railway exhibition! Quick diversion to see a very good layout of Kyoto, complete with bullet train… with one slightly bizarre addition!

Back on track, the Tenryuji temple is most famous for it’s garden, one of the oldest in Japan, laid out in the 14th century and little altered. It was gorgeous. The exit leads into an amazing bamboo forest, on an epic scale.

Finally, train back to Mairaba to collect the car. We needed to eat. Tripadvisor showed a cafe, so we headed down a dark street without much hope. Suddenly there it was. A small, very local restaurant! No English. They came and said ‘Sashimi tempura’. We nodded, unsure of what it would be like. It arrived, beautifully presented, tasted delicious and cost less than £10 each including tea and water… and an ice cream at the end. A perfect end to a great day!

PS ..you have to love a city that has cherry blossom handrails on it’s escalators!

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Post 24 Bimbling with Benji!

We collected our little Nissan campervan from Japan campers, named it Benji, and set off on our adventures. The first part involved crossing Tokyo! Luckily, once you learn the rules, most drivers here stick to them…except for speed limits, although these are very low at times.

Our plan is to try to see some quieter parts of Japan, as well as ‘must see’ sights.

There aren’t many campsites, but luckily Japan has a system of Michi no eki, roadside service stations which usually have good toilets and shops, and are free to stay overnight. In fact you see many Japanese couples and families doing just that…. sometimes in the back of quite small cars!

The cherry blossom season is much heralded here. Estimated start dates are published and vary massively from the warmer south, to much later in the north. We might just catch the start in Kyoto, our furthest point south.

We started by visiting….Ikea! We wanted a duvet and some little home comforts!

Then off to the Izo peninsula. There are some small tourist towns, but also some great scenery. We recommend the cliff walk and bridge at the Jogasaki coast, and the New York garden at one end of the walk.

Great strawberry ice cream!

Then we did the amazing 7 waterfalls walk inland from Kawazu. This involved driving an amazing double loop road up the mountain!

Find the main carpark by the tourist information, and get the bus to the top of the hill and walk back!

We crossed the peninsula to some small villages with great rock formations – Dogashima, and a lovely sunset.

Tripadvisor led us to a hidden, very local restaurant, where we had a sensational meal for £14 each, on gorgeous tree trunk slice tables!

A night by a small port, then off up the coast to catch a ferry across the bay from Toi to Shimizu. This cut off a big corner, and provided us with our first view of Mt Fuji. It is huge. Jawdropping!

Then a very long drive up into the mountains where we stop at Takayama with a preserved centre, showing wooden townhouses as they would have been in old Japan. Another great local restaurant where we cooked our own food!

It is cold up here. SO glad we bought the duvet.

Next day the sun is out. We visit the fabulous Hida-no-sato museum of authentic old village buildings rescued when a valley was flooded for a reservoir. Each building is set out with different village activities, and shows how the buildings are constructed.

Then onto 2 real villages, in situ. Shirakawa-go and, our favourite, Suganuma. The thatched roofed dwellings, called Gassho-Zukuri houses, are common here. The boards of straw are winter insulation.

Now onto the Noto peninsula at the North of Honshu. Some great walks at Ganmon rock, including tips on what every rocky shore hiker should be wearing.

Also an 8km stretch of drive-along beach (but the tide was in!), and a visit to the pretty fishing port of Wajima. Everything seemed closed! We eventually found a small restaurant but everything he served had gluten based noodles. The owner/chef was so sorry. ‘Wait a moment’ he said. He then phoned several restaurants, before beaming at us, leaving his restaurant(and customers), and walking us to an open restaurant on the next block!! That is so typical of the helpfulness here.

One other treasure here was Kiriko Kaikan, a museum of floats carried in local festivals. The photos do not convey their size and beauty. The largest are 20 metres high and take 150 people to carry them!

Finally we headed to see some terraced rice paddies at Senmaida.

They have been in use for hundreds of years, and enjoyed a late afternoon walk in this peaceful setting, knowing that directly across the sea is North Korea!!

South in 15 days, North in 2!

We left Seville Tuesday morning and headed north, using the excellent, and toll free, route 66 through eastern Spain. We had a stop at the fascinating city of Merida, which was once a hugely important Roman city. This is evident from the extensive buildings which remain interspersed with more modern buildings. We could only visit the amphitheatre, classic theatre, temple of Diana and casa del Mitrio, however  you can buy an inclusive ticket to all the monuments. and the museum.

In addition, the 9th century moorish castle contains a fascinating well. It is housed in a building and reached by a divided descending stairway so that donkeys could be brought down to collect water and go up the other side.

After Merida we pressed on Northwards to a city I have always wanted to visit, Salamanca.

We arrived at 8pm and found the free parking under the bridge. We walked into town because we had heard it was wonderful at night.  We were immediately bowled over by the network of historic syreets and beautiful sandstone buildings, all illuminated. The Plaza Major is a jewel. We ate delicious tapas at the Vegetarian Cafe Atelier and wandered back to Boris.

Salamanca is full of history, and home to one of the oldest universities in the world. The next morning we explored the city again, climbing the Bell Tower and visiting the Old and New Cathedrals, which are woven into one. They contained some of the best mediaeval wall painting and altar paintings that we have ever seen.

Our time was limited so we did not visit inside the Old University buildings or the architectually lovely Art Deco museum ..  we are saving that for next time!

We did find a super restaurant, En La Parra, for a final special lunch… a delicious and creative tasting menu for 37 euros. A great end to the Iberian part of our holiday. Luckily we have done lots of walking so we havent put any weight on! The food has been marvellous everywhere.

LThen a long drive north almost to the Spanish border with France. Another free night opposite Orio before some Spanish supermarket shopping to buy ‘essentials’ like my favourite Salmorejo soup!Crossing into France we stopped at a bird reserve and with the help of a Grey wagtail, a Greylag goose and a humble blue tit took our bird list total over 100 for the trip. 

Finally our drive north continued to Pons for 2 days with friends before sailing home from Cherbourg on Saturday. What a great trip!

We will have driven nearly 3000 miles.. this map shows our route.

All along the Algarve!

From the SW corner we have travelled east through the Algarve. We confess to thinking this would be the least enjoyable part of our trip, with images of endless tourism development. Well we were so wrong. The development is concentrated in the cities of Lagos, Albufeira, Porto Maio and Faro, but in-between are beautiful beaches, stunning coastal scenery, and, amazingly, some superb wetlands with great birdwatching.

We played tourist to visit the glorious rock formations at Ponta da Piedade. Wow!

Then a hot but splendid cliff top walk from Praia de Marinha to Benagil, followed by a wonderful night at Lagoa dos salgados. We were parked at the lakeside and our only companions were the myriad of birds including flamingo, glossy ibis and spoonbill. Sunrise across the lake was enjoyed while still in bed… lazy birdwatching indeed! 

Sunday saw us walking to Praia Salgados, then meandering to the riverside town of Santa Luzia for an Octopus based lunch.. their specialist dish.

 Another walk then onto Camping Rio Formosa to get organised ready for the journey home. Good campsite where we met lots of people who had just arrived and would not go home until March! Standing in shorts, in the warm sun, it seemed like a jolly good idea!

Our last day in Portugal was a cracker. We visited the charming town of Tavira before meeting Luiz, the owner of Pernatur, who runs guided birding walks. He took us for a superb walk around the Rio Formosa wetlands near Faro. The highlights were an Osprey with a huge fish, purple swamp hen, and a Little bittern, which posed briefly before slipping back into the reeds. A great end to our stay in Portugal. Then a quick getaway to drive across the border for a lovely visit with Maria-Luisa in Seville…..   and a real bed for the night. 

Heading south…. wonderful scenery!

3 great days meandering south down the west coast of Portugal. Temperatures 28 -30 degrees☺ 

Firstly a visit to Monserrate Palace near Sintra. Wow! Created by an Englishman in the 1750s who employed the Head gardener from Kew, and laid out massive English style gardens on the steep hillside. House was in the arabic style and has recently been restored.

 

We decided to bypass Lisbon and Sintra on this trip, and so headed south before visiting a super bird reserve at  Lago Pequena, then driving through the beautiful scenery of the Parque natural da Arrabida, where we camped in the ecopark near Setubal.   8 euros with full if simple facilities and electric hook up, and facing the sea.

Day 2 we headed for the south-west coast of Portugal. En route we saw the great sight of storks nesting on pylons! 

Remote, undeveloped and with the best scenery… we loved it. Our first objective was a local seafood restaurant… restaurant Azenha do Mar –  getting our priorities right! It was in the middle of nowhere at a tiny port. We arrived at 12.00 and just got a table. It reminded me of our favourite places in France. Great home cooking and packed with locals and artisans. We chose the local speciality… rice with crab and king prawns. The crabs were brought in from the fishing boat while we were there! Beer was 1 euro!  Fantastic meal for the total sum of £12 per person.

Then we explored the stunning coast with great cliff top walks,  before watching the sunset at Cabo Sardao and spending the night at the excellent camping Villa Park Zambiyeira.

Zambijeira was a lovely coastal village with a stunning beach.

Day 3 we continued exploring coastal spots and walking wherever possible. Migrating birds were frequently passing overhead, the highlight of which was great views of a booted eagle.

Our 2 favourite spots were Odeceixe, and Bordeira beach near Carrapateira.

Finally we arrived at the very southwestern tip of Portugal and continental europe. We free camped on the headland at Sagres, and watched the sun set into the sea. Then a chance find of Mums restaurant in Sagres…. a small cosy place catering for vegans, vegetarians and Pescatorians. Best meal of the trip so far. A great sleep then up to watch the sunrise, because this headland faces east towards the Mediterranean as well! Fab!

Fabulous Douro Valley

My blogs have caught up with my facebook posts! I will still post in both places as I have friends who only use one of them. It would be lovely to have some more followers for the blog. Then you get notified when we make a new blog post 😀

Yesterday was super…it just all came together. Lamego is the home of a chapel built high on a hill, in the mid 1700’s. A huge ornate stairway was built, ascending from the town below, with tile panels on every landing. The church is Santuário da nossa Senhora dos Romedios do Lamego. Pilgrims ascend the 684 stairs on their knees! Thanks to a sneaky back entrance to our campsite, we were already high up, so we descended!😀

We then explored the old town centre and the cathedral before driving to Regua. 

We parked easily in the super new camper spaces by the river. 3 € per night including electricity! Then a lovely lunch in Sus Douro in a beautifully converted goods shed before our train trip. 

And what a trip! The track hugged the riverbank as it wound up the Douro valley passed steep terraces of vines and olives owned by all the major port wine houses. It was a special trip using a vintage steam train pulling historic carriages. Free glasses of port were handed out,  and a costumed folk band moved through the carriages. Everyone was singing, clapping and even dancing. We felt as though we had gatecrashed a huge party! At the 2 stops an artisan market was set up with all manner of local produce to try, and the stations were decorated with tile panels which were over 100 years old. What a trip!