Travelogue

Day 2: Toyoma – Kamikochi - The real journey begins by Vipin Kumar

We got up early morning for our trains to Takayama. These weren’t shinkansens or even limited express, they were local trains or futsu’s that took us across some really scenic countryside. The train was full of school kids on their way to school, constantly on the phone, a bag on their back and an umbrella.

We had to switch at a small station called Inotani and this was a proper small town. Most of the kids had gotten off way before Inotani. We were getting closer to the mountains where the station was just one track with only a cabin as waiting room.  As soon as I got off at the Inotani station, I couldn’t stop smiling. Till the previous night, Japan still hadn’t sunk in. Sure the 7-eleven magazines, screaming game shows on tv and asahi had happened, but still. Just look at the images. The overcast skies, the mist/clouds, the small patches of farms. I’m from a small town and I’ve spent a lot of times in train or in stations, and I’m glad the trip started this way. Cities have their comfort which enslave us, but the mountains, their charm frees us.

 

Some years ago, a friend had asked me “are you a mountain-person or a beach-person?” Till then, I didn’t even know the phrase “mountain-person” or “beach-person.” 2015 has been the year of mountains for me – the Himalayas, Ooty (for the nth time) and Japan and I’ve LOVED it.

The connection train slowly took us up slopes, with the scenery changing from farms to just mountain slopes freshly painted green with the previous night’s shower. The sun was out and  we could see the fog dissipating at some of the mountain tops.

We reached Takayama close to 10.30ish and straight headed for a brunch of Beef sushi, Beef curry and Ramen (don’t worry, pics are below to satisfy your visual palette). I’d planned on seeing Sannomachi in Takayama before heading out to Kamikochi or Shin-hotaka ropeway. So we walked to the heritage street only to find it CROWDED. I’d thought like a tourist and found my brethren in hordes. We had a quick look and moved to the Kamikochi Jinya. I recommend making a 15 min stop here. The Jinya is a security outpost which has a lot of relics, a pristinely maintained katana blade, the armor passed on for generations of the security officer and a rice storage room that has been preserved immaculately that the smell is distinctly that of rice and straw.

 

The bus stop to Kamikochi was right beside the station. Shin hotaka ropeway got pushed to the next day coz of bus schedule. So we left for Kamikochi for which we had to switch buses at Hikari. The scenery got warmer and more colorful as we went. Especially since the route had so many tunnels, we would be in the dark for quite some time and then be unveiled to the trees slowly turning color to yellow and orange with the onset of autumn. Then darkness again, more yellow and orange. This was till Kamikochi.

 

Kamikochi:

Kamikochi is a base camp set against the backdrop of the Hotaka mountain range. A river runs right through the small town and has a bunch of backpacker’s inn + souvenir stores on either side of it. We just dropped our bags and went for the nearest store before it shut at 6.30pm. Bought a bottle of cold sake, some bites and a couple of paper cups. Settled by the side of the river, propped the bottle between some rocks in the river (temperature was getting cold) and started drinking sake till only the mountain tops were lit golden by the sun while we were in the dark. We sat there till the trees formed silhouettes against the backdrop of the purple sky and headed out to the dinner at around 7.30. The cabin had a dining room and a rec room, with a central heater. The dinner was all laid out on the table (again photos included) with an electric cooker on each table that had hot rice and flasks with hot tea and miso soup. Fellow travelers started pouring the hot tea for us as we settled in. We sat in the rec room after dinner catching up on a bunch of things. More than two people came upto us for a friendly chat without even knowing English. A big group in their late 60’s or above were travelling together and a gentleman from the group came over for a chat. It was a conversation of smiles, sign language and more smiles but the genuine-ness of it couldn’t be mistaken. This is common for the mountains, the friendly banter.

We hit the bed around 11pm for an early morning walk to a nearby pond (3.5kms from our inn) called the Myojin pond. 

Travel Tip: Use the Tourist Information Centres

Everywhere in Japan you'll find 'Information centre', especially in the travel destinations. They are extremely patient and even if language is a barrier, go out of their way to help you. They have

  • bus/train schedules in english
  • travel details for all the near by travel destinations
  • when we were trying to get to Kamikochi we called it's Tourist Information centre (coz the hotel folks didn't know english absolutely) from Takayama. They asked us to call back in 10 mins and confirmed that there is availability. Following which we just had to call the inn and confirm number of people and name. 

Japan: Day 1/Night 1: An uneventful start by Vipin Kumar

Francis and I met up at Narita airport around 5.30-ish.

Forex and SIM card woes:

We try to exchange NZD/INR to JPY but the Forex counters there didn’t support either of the currencies. Instead got pointed to an ATM. We also tried finding a local SIM card outlet but weren’t successful. The next item on agenda was to get the JR pass (Japan Railway pass) by showing the EO.
The plan was to travel to Takayama overnight and save on a night’s accommodation. However, the lady at the ticket counter gave us options to either Nagoya or Toyama but not for Takayama. Some context - At any point if you're confused which trains or connections to take, feel free to just walk into one of the ticketing offices and let them know your destination. They give you a travel itinerary on a short piece of paper (like a credit card receipt), highlighting the times in English and the connections. Due to the language barrier we couldn’t really get what she was saying but realized that Takayama wasn’t an option. We chose to go to Toyama as going through Nagoya would’ve meant crossing Kyoto and I didn’t want to cross the city we were coming back to anyway later. 
We got the tickets for all the trains we’d to catch that night at the Narita airport itself and proceeded to the airport transfer to Tokyo station. From Tokyo station we had to catch a Shinkansen to Toyama. All the while we’re using public wifi spots trying to find out if Toyama was a big enough city/town for us to get a SIM card and exchange/withdraw JPY. We had no money on us, had only plastic (which if you’ve done your research will know isn’t prevalent across Japan, esp outside the cities), no SIM so no internet. Our journey had begun with no money, no food, no water and we were getting on a 1.5 hour Shinkansen. Using the public wifi at Tokyo station we’d consoled ourselves by looking up Toyama and realizing it’s a city.

Surprise #1 

This is where Japan surprised me first. I realized with Toyama, and in the subsequent days, that almost every stop on the Shinkansen belt is developed. You don’t walk into a ghost town or a place where people look at tourists with surprise. You walk into an organized city/town in most of the cases. In my limited travel knowledge + being from India, you don’t expect stops in the middle of two major cities to have all the facilities. This is the reason we were looking up Toyama to understand if we’ll be able to get cash and a SIM card. And I was SURPRISED. 

Shinkansen (bullet train):

Let me talk about the Shinkansen as well. Two things definitely happen as soon as you board a bullet train (Shinkansen). First, the locals open whatever food takeaways they have AS SOON AS soon as they’re seated. Second, the Shinkansen leaves before the minute, printed on the ticket, is over.  So you can imagine two travel worn indian boys, with no cash and hungry and there’s an explosion of food smell in the bullet train.
Luckily, there was a in-train food service which accepted cards. So we bought some green tea cakes and water. The Shinkansen is one of the most convenient modes of travel in my experience. It’s better than flights coz there’s no security check to delay you and the station isn’t far away from the city. The leg room is insane (pic below) and the aisle is pretty wide as well. There are loo’s, smoking zones (in some) and you hit speeds of 297kmph (fastest I recorded on an app).

Toyama:

The bullet train actually ran 20 mins late. Having heard that the bullet trains never run late, we came to the conclusion that delays run in any country and Japan+Shinkansen weren’t any different. Only after we got down did we realize the reason for the delay. The wind was pretty strong with light showers. There might’ve been a storm close by. Then we got reminded of the lady at the ticket counter at Narita airport and her sign language. We realized that Takayama wasn’t possible because there might be a storm warning (especially since Takayama was the base of the mountain range). 
With the station public wifi, we quickly found a budget Ryokan for approx. 4k JPY/person/night and took a cab. The wind was so strong, the cab was shaking when we stopped at the airport. Went to a nearby 7-eleven (marveled at how anime adult comics were right beside the snacks section), withdrew money (7-eleven's have ATMs that accept international cards), bites and beer for dinner and we crashed. Had an early morning train to Takayama.

 

Japan by Vipin Kumar

I didn't travel with a laptop so this is a recollection of my Japan backpacking trip. With time to kill on a flight, I'm writing this travelogue with the overhead lamp throwing my silhouette on paper. A silhouette with a stubble. I'd left clean shaven with a bag full of washed clothes and a camera. This was my first backpacking trip, so I wasn't sure of what to expect. All I knew was that I wanted to go to Japan.

I’d saved for approx. 10 months (not very strictly, coz the partying didn’t stop). I return with a bag full of half dry clothes (dryer at the backpacker’s inn wasn’t really great) , 2 cameras and satisfied that we chose the right country. Hope the travel bug bite lasts long and more trips follow.

Who’s we? Me and Francis  (who was flying from Auckland to Japan) and he had come up with the idea of not making any plans for the entire trip. Sounded good and that's what we ended up doing. We just had a vague idea of how many days we were doing in each city, but not the details of where to stay or how to get there. Absolutely none.

Following was the initial travel plan

Oct 1st 7-8pm train - Overnight travel to Takayama. Saves us money to pay for hotel stay for the night.

Japan Alps: Days 1 & 2

  1. Takayama - 10h overnight journey to Takayama from Tokyo (in trains)
    • Sanmachi-suji (half a day)
    • Kamikochi
    • Shin-Hotaka Onsen
    • Shirakawa-go & Gokayama Villages
  2. Kanazawa
    • Kenroku-en
    • Nagamachi district

Days 3 - 7 - Kyoto:

  1. Eastern Kyoto
    • Kiyomizudera
    • Ginkakuji
    • Higashiyama
  2. Southern Kyoto - Fushimi Inari Shrine - must go
  3. Central Kyoto - Nishiki Market - Best food market in Kyoto - must go
  4. Northern Kyoto - Kinkaku-ji - must go
  5. Arashiyama - must go
    • Bamboo Grooves
    • Otagi nenbutsu ji
    • Adashino nenbutsu ji
    • Kokedara
  6. Capsule hotel stay one of the days
  7. Ryokan (if not satisfied with Shirakawa-go)

Day 8 - Osaka:

  1. Yamazaki Factory - Falls midway between Kyoto and Osaka
  2. Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shopping Street
  3. Himenji Castle (94kms west of Osaka)
  4. Koyasan - 108kms south of Osaka

Days 9 - 12 - Tokyo:

  • Kichijoji
  • Tsukiji

But, what actually happened was

  1. Oct 1st – Tokyo to Toyoma
  2. Oct 2nd – Toyoma – Takayama – Kamikochi
  3. Oct 3rd – Kamikochi – Takayama – Shirakawa-go – Ainokura
  4. Oct 4th – Ainokura – Shirakawago – Kanazawa – Kyoto
  5. Oct 5th – Kyoto>Shopping (Yodobashi)
  6. Oct 6th – Kyoto>Arashiyama + Fushini Inari +Changing dorms
  7. Oct 7th – Kyoto – Nagasaki
  8. Oct 8th – Nagasaki local sightseeing (Atomic bomb museum, Hashimi islands) – Hakata
  9. Oct 9th – Hakata – Tokyo
  10. Oct 10th – Oct 12th – Tokyo

Before I start off with the details of each day, I want to mention that the mountains and places outside the city is where my details would be higher than the cities. I guess it’s what YOU cherish and will be different for everyone. For me, I just ran from the crowds and the cities. 

 Departing on the 30th 

Departing on the 30th 

Stay tuned for a detailed info of each day