Return to the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan has always held a spell over us and after three years of travelling to other exciting destinations all over the globe we finally returned for a three week long trip. On our last trip we explored the area around Okayama, cycled the Shimanami Kaido, discovered some amazing artworks on Naoshima and took an essential history lessons in Hiroshima.
Exploring Different Parts of Japan
On our recent trip we travelled extensively through Kyushu and explored the wonderful island of Yakushima, followed by an obligatory stay in Tokyo. On Yakushima we danced the night away at a summer festival, snorkelled with turtles and hiked through lush ancient cedar forests. Through Kyushu we discovered fruit shaped bus stops, visited bubbling volcanic springs and the stunning scenery kept us entertained and captivated. After over two weeks on the peninsular with a focus on the countryside we spent a few days absorbing the urban delights of Tokyo immersing ourselves in modern art at TeamLab and the Yayoi Kusama Museum plus ventures into the lesser visited suburbs of the city, like Sumida, Sugamo “granny town” and quirky Shimokitazawa.
As a taster of the travels with an overview of ideas for those planning a trip here is our itinerary:
Kumamoto 2 Nights
Our first stop in Japan was Kumamoto, home of the giant cuddly bear mascot, “Kumamon”. Our lovely minshuku Hiroshimaya on the grounds of the peaceful Honmyoji temple quickly cured our jet lag with their delicious breakfast. The beautiful Suizenji Gardens and a ride on the rickety tram were a well spent first afternoon on our travels.
After a short ferry ride to Shimabara Peninsular we were engulfed by foul smelling steam from the boiling wells of hell in Unzen. Later, a selection of fruit shaped bus stops, created as part of an art festival, brightened our rainy drive. Before returning to Kumamoto, a brief stop at the canal town of Yanagawa, reminded us of our stay in Kurashiki, but sadly the last days of the rainy season meant that the streets and waterways were equally deserted. Nonetheless a charming hot footbath with a group of local oldies set an enjoyable end to the drive around the Ariake Sea.
In the early morning after heavy rains, we wandered past the multitude of moss covered Goyakurakan (achievers of Nirvana) statues to a deep cave at Unganzenji on the slopes of Mount Kinpo. After lengthy drive southwards past Kagoshima (where we would spend a short night before boarding the ferry to Yakushima), we stepped back in time on a stroll through the ancient Chiran Samurai gardens. Just outside the village we stumbled onto the colourful puppet theatre at Toyotamahime Shrine, powered by a water wheel.
Yakushima 8 Nights
With a week to enjoy the circular, mountainous, forest covered and ocean ringed island of Yakushima. We divided our time on the with a few days stay in the North, on Inakahama Beach, where turtle come ashore at this time of year to lay their eggs, followed by the second half on the South-West corner at Hirauchi.
Exploring the incredible underwater world of the Japanese Sea and coral reefs was one of our favourite past times on the island. Surrounded by turtles and an abundance of sea creatures this child friendly snorkel spot could easily rival with other tropical destinations, including the Maldives.
The boys spent two mornings diving near Isso Beach. Deep below the water’s surface they discovered turtles, shawls of tuna and a crashed WWII plane engine, home to numerous colourful fish.
Shiratani Unsuikyo Trail
The lush vegetation of the island with its three climate zones is a great hiking destination for families. On the Shiratani Unsuikyo trail we wandered through the thick cedar forests, fabled home to Princess Mononoke and Kodamas, up to a misty Taikoiwa Rock and past many ancient Yakusugis.
Onoaida Hiking trail
Our second hike on the Onoaida trail led us to Janokuchi waterfall, where we were able to take a refreshing swim in the cool pool underneath the impressive rock face of the falls.
Local Life and Colour
We met many amazing locals during our stay on Yakushima and even joined in on the dancing at a summer festival in Miyanoura with a giant float, drumming and sampled the largest nagashi somen run ever. Soaking in the outdoor onsen with the residents in the underwater spring was an unforgettable experience and truly Japanese.
Kirishima 5 Nights
A visit to Uchinoura Space Centre provided us with an insight into space exploration followed by a swim on the serene Hetsuka Beach. However, the impressive Ogawa waterfall was the main reason for our extensive drive and before returning to Kirishima we stopped for a sunset dip at the scenic Arahiratenjin.
A hike around the circumference of Onamino Ike, the highest volcanic lake of Japan came with the added wafts of foul smelling smoke from nearby smoldering Shinmoedake volcano and sweeping views towards Sakurajima.
Kareigawa Station attracts train aficionados from all over Japan thanks to its well-preserved building from the early 19th century. The picturesque Amori River was created by flowing lava thousands of years ago creating an otherworldly landscape, which we discovered on a ramble up and downriver. In the evening we watched the fireworks of the local summer festival.
Takachiho Gorge 3 Nights
The famous gorge draws crowds of tourists to witness its breathtaking beauty on a boat ride through the canyon. Afterwards we took a stroll to the mysterious Amanoyasugawara Shrine where thousands of stone men create a magical atmosphere. Equally fascinating was our brief stop at Kamishikimi Kumanoza Shrine en route to Kumamoto Airport
Tokyo 5 Nights
Our expedition to the east of the Sumida River started with a visit to the outstanding Hokusai Museum. There we discovered some of the artist’s most acclaimed paintings and some unseen reproductions from the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington. Later on we walked through the lesser traversed streets of Sumida. The day finished with a lengthy trip to TeamLab’s wondrous rooms at Borderless.
A visit to Sugamo took us to “Granny Town”, a peculiar shopping street with shops filled with interesting wares for elderly women (and therefore tourists too). After a ride on the rickety Sakura tram we alighted at Waseda University to visit nearby Yayoi Kusama Museum. Sadly the small exhibition of Yayoi’s works proved to be a little disappointment. However a trip across to Odaiba to TeamLab’s second venture in the digital art world, Planets, wiped our dismay immediately.
Surrounded by hundreds of lucky cats at Gotokuji we received an overdose of “kawaii”. Upon our return to Shimokitazawa after an initial visit years ago, we discovered that the array of quirky, independent shops were largely overtaken by chain stores, turning the once unique atmosphere of the area into an ordinary vibe.
For our last day in Tokyo and Japan we explored the side streets of Asakusa, away from the mobs of tourists at Sensoji. A wander along Kappabashi Street led us into the delightful world of plastic food and Japanese kitchen utensils.
The highlights of our recent trip to Japan were snorkelling at Isso Beach, hiking through the moss covered forests and being completely flashed by TeamLabs interactive art installations. We sorely miss the food, the friendly people and strange everyday objects like crazy vending machines and the bird tweets at pedestrian crossings. Without a doubt it will not be long before we return to our favourite country.
Where we stayed in Japan:
Sankara Resort treat yourself to a truly luxurious stay on the island.
Kirishima Kokusei for those wanting to stay in Kirishima Onsen
Ryokan Shinsen if you fancy a luxury ryokan experience
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