Trip Start Sep 21, 2007
Trip End Apr 10, 2009

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Konnichi-wa everybody!
It has been a while since I last wrote an entry and tomorrow I am leaving Japan, so all the more reason to write a new entry!
The ferry from Busan to Fukuoka turned out to be quite relaxed and I met some interesting characters. I slept well and woke up early: the ferry had already docked before 6 o'clock but everybody had to wait on the ship until the Japanese customs would open at 07h30. The Japanese customs went smoothly and I soon found myself on a city bus to the Fukuoka train station. Here I bought a train ticket to Huis ten Bosch, a theme park where the theme the Netherlands is! This Huis ten Bosch was not cheap, but it was worth it and it was less tacky than I expected it to be. Here they built a lot of copies from original Dutch buildings, for example the more than 100 meter high church tower Domtoren and - of course - one of the royal family's palaces, Huis ten Bosch. It was all quite authentic; for example all the bricks used in the buildings were imported from the Netherlands. I spend quite a few hours here in the heat and after that I took another train to Nagasaki.
In Nagasaki I visited the next day the atomic bomb related sight and especially the museum was interesting and well worth it! I also saw my first Shinto shrine. Nagasaki has a Dutch heritage as well: the Dutch were the only foreigners (well, apart from the Chinese) allowed to trade with the Japanese for about 200 years. This all happened on a small man-made island in Nagasaki called Dejima. Work is well underway to reconstruct this tiny trade island, and there were some interesting facts that I didn't know about. Quite a few products, habits and plants were introduced to Japan by the Dutch.
After Nagasaki I took a train and a bus to Unzen. Unzen is a small village with volcanic activity: there are steam and the rotten egg smell everywhere. I teamed up with two French girls and we took the bus to the Unzen-Amakusa National Park. In this park we hiked for a few hours and saw the very active Unzen-dake volcano. Some of the paths we took were heavily overgrown; also meaning it was not very busy in the national park. After the hike we walked all the way back to Unzen village. Here I spent the night in a rental tent, and I was the only guest at the whole campsite!
The next day I took the bus to Shimabara, from where I took the ferry to Kumamoto. On the ferry I met the French girls again. I based myself in Kumamoto for the next three nights. That same afternoon I visited the impressive Kumamoto Castle, quite unlike European castles.
The day after that I activated my Japanese Rail pass, which I already bought in Busan. This rail pass gives me the right to travel all around Japan for 'free' on almost any JR (Japanese Railways) trains. This is basically a must for every traveller in Japan. I then took my first 'free' train to Kagoshima. In Kagoshima it was raining and I waited that out. After that I took the ferry to Sakurajima Island, basically one big volcano in the bay of Kagoshima; it is the most active volcano in Japan, with many (small) eruptions every year. Here I met the French girls again, and we cycled a bit around the island, meanwhile enjoying the coastal and volcanic scenery. About one-third around the island there was a lookout and from here I returned to the ferry - the French girls continued their trip around the island. I took the ferry back to Kagoshima and from there a train to Ibusuki. In Ibusuki are famous sand baths, which I 'took': you dress down completely naked and then put on a yukata (a kind of kimono). With this I walked outside to the beach where people bury you in hot sand. With only the head above the sand you 'cook' yourself for 10 minutes. The feeling was quite nice, but it was a bit marred by the fact that I was under a bit of time pressure. My hostel in Kumamoto enforced a 22h00 curfew and I was almost sure I couldn't make it. After a shower I walked back to the train station and took the train to Kagoshima. Here I kindly asked if a lady at the ticket counter could phone my hostel and tell them I would be late. I think this was the good and polite way to do it, because later that evening (at around 23h00) I had no problems. Japanese just don't like surprises.
The following day I returned to Kagoshima and from there took a train and bus to Kirishima-Yaku National Park, with also a few volcanoes. The closer I got to the national park, the worse the weather looked. In short, I walked five hours in the rain and was completely soaked. The moment I finished my hike, the sun started to appear... grrr! Completely wet I returned to Kumamoto.
From Kumamoto I moved to Aso and Aso National Park - and yeah I know this sounds very funny in Dutch (aso being an abbreviation for an antisocial person). Contradictive to the name, it turned out to be a nice small village and a beautiful national park. After I checked in into a hostel I took the bus to the volcanoes of this park. A description of the whole area would be something like this: imagine a frying pan of 128 kilometer in circumference (the name is a caldera) and right in the middle of this frying pan are five volcanoes, of one is very active, the Naka-dake. It is the largest active caldera in the world. There were low hanging clouds, so the views were not always that good. The crater of the Naka-dake was very impressive with lots and lots of steam and its poisonous greenish-bluish lake. Away from this crater were some hiking trails and they were almost deserted - and that's the way I like it. I walked around for a few hours and took loads of pictures. It was very serene. Then it was time to take the last bus down.
After Aso I took a few connecting trains to Usuki. In Usuki I visited famous Buddha sculptures carved in rock faces. At the station I met a few other foreigners (a British-German couple, an Italian couple and a Maltese girl) and together we rode free rental bicycles to the site (and back). After visiting the nice site the Italian and I were the only ones to dare eat the local specialty: fugu (it was fugu tempura). Fugu means blowfish and an ill-prepared blowfish can result in death - no joking! But you've guessed that from the fact that I am writing this entry almost 3 weeks later, I survived (as did the Italian). It tasted quite good as well. From Usuki I went to Beppu, a famous onsen (hot spring) town. I went to one onsen but thought it rather stupid with this weather: why do I want to sit in hot water when I am already nearly boiling outside?
The next day I took the train to Kokura and here I changed to my first real shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. In Hiroshima I quickly changed for a train to Miyajimaguchi. From here it was a short ferry ride to the island of Miyajima. This island is famous for the very photogenic "floating torii" (a torii is a Japanese gate to a shrine), one of the few pictures of Japan that I knew of before coming to Japan. After a few hours here I returned to Hiroshima, where I spent the night.
In Hiroshima I visited of course the atomic bomb related sites as well. Because it was of one of the biggest national holidays, called O-Bon, the Hiroshima Peace Museum was packed! I couldn't really move independently and after half an hour I decided to skip it - from what I've seen it was quite similar to the Nagasaki museum anyway. It was too hot to do much else, so I basically chilled the rest of the day (with aircon in my room).
From Hiroshima I moved on in the direction of Kyoto, but not before I paid a visit to the famous Himeji Castle along the way - supposedly the most beautiful castle in Japan. I haven't seen them all (about 300), but this one was indeed very beautiful. After a few hours in Himeji I continued to Kyoto.
In Kyoto I stayed 5 nights, and used it as a base to explore Kyoto itself and the surrounding area. The first full two days I occupied with sightseeing around Kyoto, which basically meant seeing a lot of temples and shrines. After China and South Korea, temples really cannot interest me that anymore, except for a few exceptions. I am just basically 'templed out' (for the second time this trip, after Myanmar the first time). But hey, Kyoto is one of the must-see cities in Japan! There were a few nice ones though, especially the Golden Pavilion.
On the third full day in Kyoto I went to Osaka, together with three Spanish guys I met the night before in the hostel. We took the shinkansen to Osaka and 13 minutes later we were already in Osaka! In Osaka we first went to the local castle, which wasn't all that exciting and after that we returned to the train station area and visited the Umeda Sky Building, a gate-shaped office tower. It had a viewing deck, so that is where we went. The view was really good and the weather was fine as well, creating better views.
The last day in Kyoto we (the Spanish guys and me again) took the train to Nara. I was expecting more so-so temples but I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe it had also something to do with the fact that Nara was a rather small town and the temples were situated in a large park. Anyway, the Todai-ji temple was especially impressive, where the main hall is the largest wooden building in the world, containing another record-breaking Buddha inside. At a shrine further down there were a lot of photogenic lanterns. And around the park (as on Miyajima) were hundreds of 'wild' deer.
From Kyoto I took the shinkansen to Tokyo, the largest conurbation in the world, with more than 30 million inhabitants! It is really big and it feels really big as well. But Tokyo - in my opinion - is not a very nice city. I saw the Imperial Palace from a distance, visited the very controversial Yasukuni-jinja shrine (because of convicted war criminals being enshrined here), browsed at the largest department store in the world (Tobu in Ikebukuro), and went to the busy centres of Shinjuku (where I went to a free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices towers) and Shibuya, where I saw one of those very busy intersection, busy with people that is. Another day in Tokyo I just relaxed.
The third day in Tokyo I took the shinkansen to Utsunomiya and from there a local train to Nikko. In Nikko there was a bit of a drizzle, but apart from that is was quite nice, although the sights were temples and shrines again. The smaller ones were the nicest ones here. After Nikko I went the same way back and in Tokyo I already booked a bus ticket for the day after to Mount Fuji. After that I had a quick look around in Yokohama, but because it was raining I quickly returned as well.
So the next day I took an early bus to the so-called fifth station of Mount Fuji near Kawaguchiko at about 2300 meter in altitude. That still leaves more than 1400 meter to climb. It was drizzling when I arrived, but it soon started to rain heavier. I changed into the best rain-protective gear I had (just a cheap raincoat) and left my big backpack and my laptop in a coin locker. At 10h20 I started to climb. It was very, very busy with hundreds, maybe thousands of people coming down Mount Fuji (having been there to hope to see the sunrise), and only a few people going up. On the way there were the stations (6th, 7th, et cetera) where I stopped only twice: one for a toilet break and to change into some warmer clothes and once because the rain was just too hard. After that last stop the rain subsided a little bit, but there were small mud flows coming down the path now. Anyway, I continued and reached the crater rim at 13h50, after 3 hours of almost continuous climbing. I was completely soaked by the rain yesterday and also very cold. Because of the rain and clouds there was nothing to see at the top. I rested a bit in a restaurant and could barely move my fingers to unwrap some bread out of plastic. I decided to go down as quickly as possible. Going down I felt my knees hurting, but figured I would still feel them if I would go down slower. After almost running down I reached the fifth station 2 hours later. In all those hours of walking I had about 20 minutes without rain! From the fifth station I took a bus to Kawaguchiko, where in the hostel there were a really nice shower and a hot bath waiting for me. Now I really appreciated the onsen!
The day after that consisted mainly of train rides: first to Otsuki on a private (JR Rail pass not valid) line and from there back to Tokyo. From Tokyo I took a shinkansen to Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. I visited the speed skating stadium here, the M-Wave. Next I took a train to Matsumoto, then one to Omachi and then another one to Kamishiro. In Kamishiro I stayed in one of the nicest hostels I ever stayed, the K's House Hakuba Alps. A very friendly managing lady, a huge common room (more like a real living room) and it was all very clean as well. The next day I had a relaxing day and stayed mostly inside; there were low hanging clouds in the mountains and I still felt my muscles from the Mount Fuji climb, especial my knees.
From Kamishiro until today I basically took trains through rural areas, mainly along the Sea of Japan coast. First from Kamishiro via Otari, Itoigawa and Toyama to again Kyoto (just for the night). Then from Kyoto to Izumo via Himeji and Tottori (where I spend a few hours in a huge sand dune area). Today I came back to Fukuoka via Masuda, Nagato, Shimonoseki and Kokura. In Shimonoseki I stopped to have a walk through a pedestrian tunnel from Honshu Island to Kyushu Island (and back) and from Kokura to Fukuoka I took my last shinkansen.
Tomorrow I will take the ferry back to Busan and the day after that I will fly to the Philippines, yet another new country for me!
I must mention a few things about Japan. Did I mention earlier in a South Korea entry that in South Korea there are almost no Japanese cars... in Japan I saw only one Korean car (and to be honest, a Hyundai dealer in Nagano)! There are a few more European cars here though than in South Korea.

Another thing is convenience. In this part of the world they like convenience (like Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea) with loads of convenience stores, like 7 Eleven and Family Mart (very convenient for a traveller as well!). In South Korea I also encountered a lot of vending machines (mainly for cold drinks and tea and coffee), but in Japan there are vending machines e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e! According to the Lonely Planet there are more than 6 million vending machines in Tokyo alone! But because it was very hot and humid most of the time in Japan (apart from the last few days), this came in very handy as well (and it was not too expensive). Talking about prices, Japan was less expensive than I expected or than people told me it would be. My most expensive lodging was 20 euro (I stayed mostly in dormitories).

A last thing: I was made to believe that the trains in Japan were so punctual that they don't run at the exact minute, but at the exact second. After travelling for almost 4 weeks in Japan I didn't see that once. The majority of trains do adhere to their timetable very strictly though!
So this was one of the longer (longest?) entries so far. Maybe I should just update sooner? ;-)
I hope you enjoyed reading it! Until next time!
Everybody take care and sayonara!
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