Category Archives: Japan

• Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area

Visit: 20th February 2016

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Horyu-ji Kondo and Pagoda

Our final WHS on this week in Japan, visiting Horyu-ji took things back to basics. The site consists of two sub-sites not far from one another: both Buddhist temples and amongst the oldest wooden buildings in the world. The temple, in fact, is inscribed on the back of the 10 yen coin.

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This was our final day in the country and we were due to fly home late that night. This left pretty much the whole day free to sightsee, giving sufficient time for a temple visit. We took a JR Yamatoji Rapid Service from Osaka to Horyuji station and walked the twenty or so minutes to the temple site. The trains are famously punctual in Japan, and keeping to schedule is an obsession for railway staff. In the glass-fronted train we rode that morning you can see the white-gloved driver pointing to his timetable printout to compare the time that we passed a particular waypoint with the time on the schedule. Anything more than a few seconds and he would be kicking himself.

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The weather was pretty grey that day, and we passed through some very ordinary – you might even say dreary – areas, which I appreciated because it gives an insight into what humdrum everyday life is like in a culture that is, on the surface, so very different to ours. But it was livened up on this particular day (it was a Saturday) by a local mochi-pounding event. In Japan the rice-harvest is historically celebrated by pounding some of it into a chewy paste, which is then eaten as a snack. It is performed with oversized mallets, and people from the village gather round to watch the mochi pounding. I was pleased to see it taking place quite by chance, as it was something I had seen in videos before setting off for Japan but did not expect actually to see myself.

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The WHS technically consists of 48 wooden monuments or structures located at two sites in Nara Prefecture, east of Osaka. They are the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, with 11 of the structures dating back to the 7th or 8th centuries AD. This was the first of Japan’s World Heritage Sites to be inscribed by UNESCO. The design and layout show the strong influence of China at the time, for it was from China and the Korean peninsular that Buddhism arrived in Japan. Over time Buddhist architecture was adapted from the Chinese style to suit the needs of Japanese culture, developing into the distinct indigenous style that one sees at other temples throughout Japan (for example in Kyoto).

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There is of course a prestigious five-storey Pagoda (rear in the photo above) and a Kondo hall (front). These are the oldest buildings on the site. Nearby is housed a collection of Buddhist statues similar to those we saw at To-ji Temple in Kyoto (but were not allowed to photograph).

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It was raining, but since we didn’t have much choice we carried on regardless to walk the 2 kilometres to the nearby Hokki-ji temple. We passed through empty streets and across damp farmland, taking in cloud-obscured views of the low mountains that surround the plateau on which the temples are sited. I did consider attempting to catch a bus, but one look at the Japanese timetable told me that it was not an avenue worth pursuing.

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Hokki-ji is much smaller than Horyu-ji, and for a while we were the only visitors there. We paid the monks a nominal few hundred yen to enter and wandered around looking at the three-story pagoda and associated buildings. It was a tranquil place.

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Having finished with our temple-spotting we walked another 2 kilometres to a station at Yamato-Koizumi. There was still time in the day, so we ended up going via Osaka to Kyoto again (the third time that week), only to get drenched at the Nijo Castle!

We had a wonderful time in Japan full of unforgettable experiences. My highlights included:

  • Eating excellent Ramen in Tokyo and Osaka (and discovering that our beloved chain Ippudo has two restaurants in London. And it’s just as good there – we tried it the other day!)
  • Discovering the delicious convenience of Soba noodle joints.
  • Flying on a 787 to Okinawa and walking its old streets in the sun.
  • Enjoying a refreshing beverage on every corner from Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines.
  • Taking in the Zen tranquillity of Tenryu-ji temple in Kyoto.
  • Drinking matcha green tea in a restaurant with sweeping views of the wide Uji river.

We will be back, Japan, and hopefully not before too long.

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• Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu

Visit: 18th February 2016

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Shikinaen royal garden

Just a week or so before we set off on our big Japan holiday I noticed a banner ad on my web browser that seemed tailor made for me. It was from All Nippon Airways in conjunction with the government of Japan, offering tourists with bookings to Japan a flat rate of £60 for any domestic flight on ANA’s network. Sensing an opportunity, I looked to see how far one could travel domestically in Japan, and saw that the best value for money would probably be a flight to Okinawa: the subtropical island home of 1.3 million Japanese and many thousands of US troops. Located 750 miles south west of Osaka, it would be a two-hour flight for us.

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About halfway through our holiday, at this point staying in Osaka, we got up before dawn and headed to the bus stop for the coach service to Itami Airport. Half an hour’s drive later we checked in and got two roomy seats at the back of a Boeing 787-8. I was pretty excited about this, as it was to be my first time on this hi-tech and all-composite airliner – so I was disappointed when I got to the gate only to find a run-of-the-mill Boeing 777 parked there. Fortune smiled, however, because it was soon towed away and replaced by a shiny* new Dreamliner!

(* not actually shiny because it isn’t made of metal)

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Breakfast at ITM

While waiting for the flight we had a traditional Japanese breakfast of rice, salmon and pickled vegetables with miso soup. Rather different to the usual pain au raisin and a cappuccino…

An interesting feature of the 787 is the replacement of window blinds with a dimming button. The window never goes quite opaque, but it blocks the sun out sufficiently to allow you to sleep. As we took off from this urban airport there was a great view of the sprawling cities of Osaka and Kobe as they woke.

The Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu is a World Heritage Site consisting of nine subcomponents spread over the 466 square mile island of Okinawa. I had made no car hire plans because, fortunately, four of the nine parts are located within Okinawa’s main city of Naha. We had come to Okinawa for only a day trip, giving us nine hours on the ground there. Naha is served by a single monorail line that connects its airport, at one end of the line, to Shuri Castle, at the other.

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Shuri Castle walls

The Ryukyuan Kingdom ruled much of the Ryukyu island chain from the 15th to 19th centuries. It was a thriving trading centre, acting as a go-between for trade between Japan and mainland Asia (recall that Japan had a habit of sealing itself off from the outside world). The map below shows the trade routes that went via Okinawa.

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Shuri Castle was the centre of power in the kingdom, and home to the king. It was completely destroyed in the fierce WWII Battle of Okinawa when the Japanese used it as a defensive position. The castle was rebuilt in the 1990s from historical records, as faithfully as possible. Behind me is the Seiden, or main hall, in which the king went about his courtly business. The inside is another shoe-free zone, but we didn’t get cold feet this time because the weather was a pleasant 20°C+.

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Shuri Castle main hall

Next to the castle is another WHS subcomponent, in the form of a gate protecting a sacred grove of trees. The gate, known as Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon, used to be opened only for the king. There being no Ryukyuan king these days, it is never opened any more. The civilisation had a native Ryukyuan religion distinct from Buddhism or Confucianism, which was characterised by ancestor worship.

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Sonohyan-utaki Gate

Just a few metres down the road is the third subcomponent – a mausoleum called Tamaudan. It consists of two stone-walled enclosures, and was the burial site of Ryukyu kings and queens. It costs a nominal 300 yen to get into, and although there is not much to see the guest centre does have a small information room, where I found the map pictured earlier.

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Tamaudan Mausoleum

The Okinawans are proud of their WHS status, as evidenced by the granite plaques we found at each subcomponent. The site was inscribed in 2000 (the same year as Kronborg CastleHistoric Centre of Brugge and Blaenavon Industrial Landscape).

The final Ryukyuan site for us was to be the royal garden of Skininaen. Whilst still within Naha city, this necessitated a walk of perhaps 45 minutes across town. Using the free GPS function on Google Maps I was able to navigate us down charming back-streets in Naha’s quiet suburbs, where we came across peaceful temple, blossoming cherry trees and of course ample vending machines.

After a relaxing and unplanned lunch of Okinawan soba (pretty similar to mainland Japanese soba from what I could tell) we continued our walk toward the gardens, only to be offered a lift by a kindly local who was half-Okinawan, half-American. We were grateful for the favour when we saw the gradient of the hill she drove us up!

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Okinawan soba

Shikinaen was the site of the royal family’s second residence, and features a tranquil landscaped garden. It was used to entertain and impress distinguished foreign guests, particularly envoys from the regional superpower China. Like the castle, and much of Okinawa in general, it was blown to bits in WWII, but was carefully restored in the decades since.

We saw turtles basking in the sun and enjoyed walking amongst the trees and seeing the views afforded by the park’s elevated position, before beginning the downhill walk back to the monorail in Naha’s city centre. It is a pleasant enough but unremarkable city, with no decent architecture to speak of (that I saw) -WWII again I should think. We spent some time in a mall, where we ate Okinawan donuts (Sata andagi), before returning to the airport for our flight back to Osaka (this time to the man-made island airport of Kansai, as opposed to the regional Itami airport we had departed from earlier that day). We were flying back on an airline called Peach, which is a Japanese low-cost carrier. Although the service was fine, in other respects it was lower-frills than Ryanair! Peach’s flights depart from a dedicated ‘low-cost terminal’, which consists of a windowless converted hangar in the airport’s cargo area.

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Naha low-cost terminal

The flight was delayed, of course, so I passed the time with some cans of Orion beer. The shopkeeper for some reason took enough pity on me to come over and give me a free bag of crisps to go with them. We came away thinking of the Okinawans as a friendly people, less reserved than their mainland compatriots and happy to make tourists like us feel welcome.

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• Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)

Visits: 17th, 19th, 20th February 2016

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Following on from the previous post about Tokyo and Himeji Castle, today I write about the famous Japanese city of Kyoto and its many historic monuments. The World Heritage Site of Kyoto consists of 17 separate shrines and temples which pepper the city and its surrounds. Kyoto isn’t an attractive city by and large, but is studded with gems that betray its historical status as the capital of Imperial Japan for a thousand years until Tokyo took its mantle in 1868.

Byodo-in

25057390376_1acce7702d_bThe first temple we visited was called Byodo-in, located not in Kyoto itself but in the contiguous city of Uji. We took the Nara line 30 minutes out of town to Uji station, where it seemed that every other shop was a specialist in matcha – a prized powder derived from green tea leaves. We stopped at one such place, a restaurant on a beautifully peaceful spot overlooking the wide Uji river, to order tea and lunch. I had matcha-flavoured soba noodles with marinated herring. Natalie’s bowl of “highest-quality matcha tea” had a rich, bitter taste – quite unlike anything our matcha aficionado had tried before.

Byodo-in temple itself (the first two pictures of this post) is surrounded by a tranquil pool of water. The building in the centre is known as the Phoenix Hall due to its general likeness to a phoenix and to the two phoenix statues that adorn its roof. Also included in the site is a museum housing a collection of priceless Japanese antiquities. This was the first time on our trip that we were required to take off our shoes, which is something you will find very often when visiting Japanese cultural sites. The museum includes 52 wooden bodhisattvas, which seem vaguely similar to angels in Christianity.

Ujigami-jinja

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We crossed the wide Uji river to Ujigami-jinja. This small shrine was by far the lowest-key and the quietest of the sites we visited in the Greater Kyoto area. So quiet, in fact, that it joined the select list of World Heritage Sites at which we have found ourselves to be the only visitors. This means getting to enjoy a site deemed worthy of preservation for the benefit of all humanity all to ourselves (the others that come to mind have been Ta’ Ħaġrat temple in Malta,  Caernarfon Castle in Wales and The basilica of San Salvatore in Italy).

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Ujigami was built as a guardian shrine for Byodo-in temple, and is dedicated to the third/fourth century Emperor Ōjin and his sons. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) has dated Ujigami as being the oldest Shinto shrine in Japan, putting its construction date at about 1060 – around the time Edward the Confessor was losing his grip on England in his long-running feud with Godwin of Wessex and his son.

25185452415_07e82884da_bAfter Uji we took the train back in to Kyoto, stopping on the way at the famous Fushimi Inari shrine. It is not included in the 17 sites that made it into the WHS, but we were interested in seeing it because it is one of the famous Japan images – like Shibuya junction and Mount Fuji – that is known the world over for its long paths covered in torii gates.

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It seems to be something of a custom for Japanese girls to visit shrines dressed in kimonos, complete with white socks and wooden sandals. On the way back into the centre from Fushimi we were warned of the dangers of selfie stick use and managed to buy a can of warm onion soup thinking it was a refreshing fruit-based drink – not a pleasant surprise!

Kyo-o-gokoku-ji (To-ji)

Located a short distance from Kyoto’s main railway station in the centre of town, Toji temple – known more formally as ‘The Temple for the Defence of the Nation by Means of the King of Doctrines’ is home to the tallest pagoda in Japan. As an auspicious five-story pagoda it stands as a recognisable symbol of Kyoto. The shrine once had a counterpart (which burnt down a thousand or so years ago), and together they stood either side of the gate to the capital city of the powerful Heian empire.

The site features a couple of single-storey buildings too: the Kodo (lecture hall) and Kondo (main hall). Each of these contains a selection of fabulous gilded statues positioned as a physical representation of the cosmology of Buddhism. Photos are not allowed in here, but you can see the sort of thing I mean on Wikipedia or in my soon-to-be-published post on the Horyu-ji Area.

Hongan-ji

A brisk walk north took us to another temple close to Kyoto station. This site is formally known as ‘Western Temple of the Original Vow‘, and was founded in 1602 by Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate and the same man who built Himeji Castle). The temple was a result not of his kindness but of his sharp eye for power, for he commanded that the Jōdo Shinshu sect split its Honanji temple into two in order to diminish its power.

Free to enter, at Hongan-ji we saw two large decorated halls into which ordinary Japanese would come to pray. The floors are covered with tatami mats, so again one must take off shoes to enter. It was very peaceful inside these buildings, and it almost felt as if we shouldn’t have been in there, being the non-Buddhists that we are. Occasionally monks would wander past, adding to the mystique of the complex.

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Hongan-ji from above

Before leaving Kyoto that afternoon to head back to our hotel in Osaka we took a trip to the (rather expensive) observation deck at the top of the Kyoto Tower. At 100 metres you get a fine view of this low-rise city. I managed to spy through telescopes a number of the temples that dot Kyoto, as well as the global headquarters of a company I grew up knowing well: Nintendo! We then went back to Osaka for our second visit to the Ippudo ramen chain for a bowl of the good stuff.

Tenryu-ji

Two days later, after taking a day out to go to Okinawa and then a morning at Himeji, we darted back to Kyoto in order to visit another shrine. This time we picked Tenryu-ji, which is on the western outskirts of Kyoto, close to the hills that have halted the city’s almost inexorable sprawl.

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We were glad we did, because it turned out to be the best one of our trip. Consisting of a temple complex and a garden with a pond, designated as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty of Japan. Oh and I couldn’t resist reliving a Homer Simpson moment.

Tenryu-ji is the head temple of the Tenryu branch of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. There seem to be so many branches of Buddhism that most temples we visited were the head temple of something. This temple was everything a tourist would want one to be: pretty, peaceful, garden, pond, raked gravel, bamboo, tatami mats, paper walls and quiet. The area outside the temple was pleasant to stroll about in, too – outside of the hustle and bustle of central Kyoto.

Nijo-ji

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The following day – which was also our last day in Kyoto and indeed our last day in Japan – I decided to use the few hours we had spare before heading to Kansai Airport for our flight home to shoehorn in another temple. This was probably a mistake, because when we got there the heavens opened. And, unlike some of the other temples in Kyoto, Nijo Castle (another Tokugawa Ieyasu building) is not a small and indoorsy one! Surrounded by a moat, it is a formidable block in the heart of the city. We walked around the maze of corridors inside the Ninomaru Palace, squeaking over the nightingale flooring. The surface was deliberately designed to ‘chirp’ when walked on, in order that intruders would not be able to sneak up on the emperor unannounced.

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When the heavens really opened on us as we walked around the castle grounds I threw in the towel and got us a taxi back to the railway station. From Kyoto we took a train to Osaka to pick up our luggage and then a one-hour Airport Rapid Service to Kansai International Airport. This airport is an impressive feat of engineering, for it was built entirely out of the sea. I managed to take a picture of it as we flew past several days before on our way from Itami to Naha – squint and you can see the H-shaped outline of the airport island.

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Although we have reached the end of our Japan trip chronologically, I still have two more posts to write on the other WHSs we saw. Stay tuned!

• Himeji-jo

Visit: 19th February 2016

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This February Natalie and I went to Japan for a week-long trip to a part of the world neither of had really explored before. The land of the rising sun is 9 hours ahead of Britain in the winter, so we spent the whole trip adjusting to the jet-lag and as I write this, having returned home, I am jet-lagged again in the other direction. It was a wonderful trip, full of fascinating cultural differences. The four World Heritage Sites we visited were all located in the southern half of the country, but we began our visit with two days of general sightseeing in Tokyo, which I’ll tell you about before we go on. Skip to beneath the photo of the sea lions if you only want to read about the WHS of Himeji-jo.

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We flew out on Turkish Airlines, stopping to change planes in Istanbul on the way to Tokyo Narita. Arriving late on a Sunday evening we activated our Japan Rail passes at the airport. The Japan Rail pass allows unlimited travel on JR trains. This covers most lines you might want to take, but there are many exceptions, making it a slightly Byzantine task to plan a rail journey. To compensate for that, the trains run with world-beating timeliness – in Japan a delay of even one minute is something the staff consider to be very shameful. We boarded a Narita Express train to the simply named Tokyo station – one of the world’s busiest. At this time of night, however, it was quiet, so we stopped off for a celebratory arrival meal before walking to our hotel in the Tsukiji district.

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Tsukiji is famous in Japan as the location of the world’s largest fish market. An early-morning visit to the market is a popular tourist activity, but to see the famous tuna auctions you have to get there early. The tours begin at 5am, but to be sure of getting one of the 120 places you need to arrive as early as 3am! On our second morning there we were recipients of some inexplicable luck when we showed up at 5.15am to find tourists being told with evident relish by a Takeshi’s Castle-type guard that there were no places left that day. As we meekly turned to go back to our room and get some more sleep he motioned to me to come over and pulled out two visitor tabbards he had stashed under his coat, conspiratorially murmuring not to let others see them and to go through the door behind him. As we walked into the waiting room with 58 others awaiting the 5.40am tour I could see him gleefully informing new arrivals that they had arrived too late. I still have no idea why we were picked, but that is the story of how we got into the tuna market auction.

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The tour itself is simply an opportunity to watch the auctions take place of the morning’s haul of tuna. Hundreds of the freshly caught tuna lay on the floor as buyers working on behalf of the world’s finest sushi joints walked between them, sampling the flesh and deciding the prices worth paying and which particular fish they were interested in taking back to the masters in the kitchens of Tokyo and beyond. Tsukiji Market has been getting a lot of press lately because in November it is due to be relocated (against most traders’ wishes) to a new, modern premises in a different part of the city. The current site clearly shows its age, and it was certainly not designed with tourists in mind. It is a challenge to avoid being knocked over by the pinball-style whizzing of electric carts here there and everywhere, presenting a health and safety hazard that would not be allowed to coexist with sightseers in the UK, I’m sure of that.

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Around the market an array of stalls and restaurants are open from the crack of dawn. Their proximity to the market enables them to offer unbeatably fresh fish, making a trip to the market an opportunity to sample the joys of fresh sushi at rock-bottom prices. On both of our mornings in Tokyo we did just this. Below is a typical plate (from left to right: fatty tuna, medium-fatty tuna, lean tuna, seared fatty tuna, fatty tuna with green onions).

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Often these sushi bars only have room for a dozen or so diners. It is exciting to see the chefs at work on the other side of the counter preparing your order.

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Later on our first day in Tokyo we went for some more general sightseeing. From our home station of Tsukiji we took the Hibiya line west across town, changing onto the Yamanote circular line to go one stop north to Shibuya. This is the site of the famous ‘busy junction’ that might be what you think of when asked to think of Japan. The photo below was taken at 11.25 on a Monday morning – hardly rush hour admittedly, but we had expected more people than this!

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From Shibuya we walked north to Harajuku, a district known for its teenagers and faddish fashion. We then caught another Yamanote line train north a stop to Shinjuku – a district of skyscrapers, offices, shopping malls and bars. We had been advised that a good place to get a view of the city was from the 202 metre-high observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t good enough to see Mount Fuji, but it did allow enough visibility to see most of the city’s urban centre.

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Tokyo is by most measures the world’s largest city (it is often referred to as more of a group of cities that have merged together), with some 38 million people overall. We came down from the tower and sought out a the Taiwanese restaurant called Din Tai Fung – a chain of restaurants famous for its dumplings that only exists in Pacific Rim countries (and Dubai). I love the place, and I am sure it would do well in London – so I hope it comes to set up shop soon. The hot and sour soup is a personal favourite. Yes that is a mountain of pepper on top.

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The food in Tokyo – and Japan as a whole – is excellent, and it is far more than just sushi. With the exception of Din Tae Fung we kept it Japanese the whole trip, mostly eating ramen and soba (noodle dishes with thick and thin broths, respectively, and slices of meat or tempura-battered seafood/veg atop). We couldn’t get into any of the hyper-trendy places I had read about, so satisfied ourselves with more ordinary but still excellent places. Ippudo is a ramen chain that we really liked – eating there in both Tokyo and Osaka. In writing this blog post I’ve just discovered that the chain has branches in London – win! The Japanese have a phrase for lovers of ramen – they call them Ramen Freaks. I might just qualify for that soubriquet myself soon.

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Above is the Shiromaru Classic, with pork belly in classic Hakata-style ramen. This is from our second night in Tokyo, in the Ginza district. Below is a ramen with minced pork and eight types of spices, which I had in Osaka. This one doesn’t seem to be on the London menu – may they think we Englanders can’t handle our spice!

I wouldn’t say the ramen was noticeably better than what you can get in London’s Shoryu (which is a really good place), but it was a lot cheaper – meaning you can afford to eat it more often in Japan.

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On day 2 in Tokyo (and our last there before moving on to Osaka that evening) we rode the Asakusa line north from Higashi-ginza, near our hotel, to Asakusa. This is a more historical part of Tokyo, and we had a look around the famous Sensō-ji temple.

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On noticing banners declaring Tokyo possessed a building that was part of a serial WHS up for nomination I called in at tourist information to ask what it was about. The lady there told us that in nearby Ueno park there was a Le Corbusier Brutalist building housing a museum of Western art. The museum was unfortunately closed, but I thought it would be prudent to go over there and have a look at the museum in case the nomination ends up being inscribed at the UNESCO convention later this year. Like most people I’m no great fan of 1960s architecture, but I’ll let you make up your own mind.

24818704349_c17879316b_b.jpgTo get to Ueno park we had ridden the Ginza line three stops west from Asakusa to Ueno. Fortunately there was another site of more interest, particularly to Natalie: Tokyo Zoo! I too very much enjoyed our visit there, and all the animals seemed far keener to put on a show than do the sulky residents of London Zoo. I hope that was just because of the fine weather that day, rather than any sort of unnatural behaviour induced by the keepers. The collection was impressive, for it included a panda and a polar bear, among many others.

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After the zoo we took the Hibiya line from Ueno to Tsukiji to get our bags and catch the Hikari Shinkansen (or bullet train) from Tokyo to Osaka.


We visited Himeji-jo, known in English as Himeji Castle, on our third day in the west of Japan. The weather was very nice, making it a pleasant 20 minute stroll up from the station to the castle. Himeji was one of Japan’s first World Heritage Sites, inscribed on the list as “the finest surviving example of early 17th-century Japanese castle architecture”.

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Himeji is nicknamed ‘the castle of the White Heron’. It dates back to the 14th century, though its most significant features – its innovative defensive measures – come from the 17th century early Shogun period. This period followed 150 years of conflict in Japan, in what is sometimes known as the Warring States period. It came to an end when power was unified in the hands of the first shogun, whose name was Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa dynasty ruled for several hundred years, and it was they who introduced Japan’s Sakoku, or ‘Seclusion laws’, which cut the country off from the rest of the world (apart from very limited trade). The Sakoku – a reaction to the threat posed by imperialist European powers – ran from 1633 to 1853, and made it illegal for most people to leave or enter Japan. It is interesting to ponder the effect that this isolation had on the Japanese national identity, at a time when the rest of the world was exchanging ideas and trading as never before. I think it must account for some of how ‘different’ Japan is from other countries in a way that is difficult to describe.

We were fortunate in our timing because the castle has recently been through a period of renovation in which the whole main tower (or keep) was covered in scaffolding. Today it looks pristine, and fully deserving of its Heron moniker.

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Himeji-jo has many ingenious defensive design elements. For example, the keep is built atop 15 metre sheer walls high up on the hill, and to reach it an attacking force would have to work its way through a maze of fortifications, breaching gate after gate as the route spirals up and around the hill. As the crow flies the distance from the first gate to the keep is just 130 metres, but attackers trying to reach it would have to travel a path at least three times longer. Attackers would be disorientated long before they reached the keep, arriving to face its steep walls exhausted and demoralised.

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The walls are full of firing ports of different shapes. In the past there were as many as three thousand of these arrow slits. The route to the keep contains traps, such as holding areas containing hidden defensive warriors, who would wait for the enemy to break through one gate and advance to the next before attacking them from behind.

The structural core of the large tower is made up of two 25 metre-long wooden beams, which give the building great resilience against earthquakes. This is the same technique used in tall Buddhist pagodas. Above is a section of one of them.

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The town of Himeji was heavily bombed in 1945, but the castle miraculously survived unscathed. In this regard it is similar to Cologne Cathedral in Germany. As you can see, of course, nowadays the rebuilt city sprawls far and wide around the castle.

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After finishing our shoes-off visit to Himeji Castle there was time left in the day for some more sightseeing, so we picked up some bento boxes and Shinkansen reservations for the 30 minute journey from Himeji to Kyoto. I had a sushi roll filled with mushrooms and Tamagoyaki (sweet egg omelette) and Natalie had rice with beef. It is a great lunch for travellers (for whom the bento box was first developed), and I only wish we had decent bento available at British railway stations for the same purpose.

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