Japan

October 2014

It is easy to get more than expected, if you had no idea of what to expect in this country, that is one of the most developed, urbanized, technologized in the world. In fact, it is also one of the most exciting countries I have ever been to, as the Japanese culture is so familiar, yet so different from everything I know.

Tokyo

Holding the massive sub- and railway plans of Tokyo in hand is a first hint, how big that city conglomerate of nearly 40 million people might be. To realize it, you have to climb one of the various skyscrapers and look over this endless urban area.
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Architecture
With so many buildings around, there must be some architectural jewels. A lot of them are found around Omotesando street and usually house an expensive fashion brand.
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Tsukiji Fish Market
Featured as "frenetic" and "chaotic" in the travel guide, this market actually is one of the best-organized I have ever seen. And what else would you expect in Japan?
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Fuji

Even with nearly perfect weather we did not spot famous Mount Fuji from Tokyo, so we decided to make a visit to Japan's highest mountain. After we got off the train in Kawaguchiko, we saw: nothing. Low hanging clouds completely covered the cone and the allegedly panoramic hike to nearby Mt. Mitutouge was too forested anyway to have a better view. Seems as my Fuji camera was just not meant to take a picture of her eponym…
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Monkey Business
Instead of Mt. Fuji we discovered some wild Japanese macaques in the woods. As my 90 mm lens is everything but made for wildlife photography, I tried my luck with sneaking closer. Lesson learned: The escape distance is roughly 10 meters. Not the monkey's – mine. After getting a bit too close, this dude became a little furious – and I did a hell of a sprint.
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Mt. Fuji
After some hours of hiking we were rushing back to Kawaguchiko for the last train to Tokyo, when out of nowhere Mt. Fuji appeared between the trees. The clouds were nearly gone and the volcano showed its perfect cone. Someday I am going to climb this beauty!
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Kyoto

The old imperial capital is 400 km southwest of Tokyo – a more than convenient 2.5 hours ride on the Shinkansen bullet train. Arriving from the mega city Tokyo, Kyoto feels like a big village. Buildings are smaller, people more relaxed and our hostel's old bicycles were good enough to discover the whole city. Our first visit was the famous bamboo forest in Arashiyama. It is actually quite small – much smaller than expected – and crowded with at least as many visitors as trees. It still has its very own charm, and I still regret that I never made it out of bed at 5 am to get a sunrise picture there.
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Monkey Park
After our first experience with Japanese macaques I was not sure what to expect from the monkey park. The monkeys are living wild, but are fed on top of a panoramic hill. Instead of caging the animals, they cage the visitors – a rather praiseworthy approach! And for me no need to run away this time ;)
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Kiyomizu-dera
One of the thousands shrines of Kyoto, and one of the most beautiful. A look back right after the entrance gate offers an amazing view over the city, people are dressed in beautiful kimonos or school uniforms and on the way back down you cross an impressive cemetery overlooking Kyoto.
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Fushimi Inari-Taisha
This shrine is famous for its thousands of red gates which guide the way through a park, that gets more and more wild with every step away from the entrance. Each red 'torii' is sponsored by a company or business man – in hope for earning more money in return. Unfortunately even a very small one was too expensive for our travel budget – a vicious circle…
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Nara
Wooden and alive people are greeting friendly here: Just an hour away from Kyoto, Nara houses some more temples and shrines for those who just cannot get enough. Main attractions: The great hall of Todai-ji, which was the largest wooden building of the world until the 1990's, and the surrounding Nara park, which is home to hundreds or even thousands of pushy, begging, yet cute deer.
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Kurama Fire Festival

What a lucky coincidence. October 22nd is when the small village of Kurama goes crazy every year – and guess who accidentally was around? On this day of the year, the villagers put their business suits away and prepare for the wicked festival, while thousands of visitors squeeze into the small commuter trains from Kyoto to Kurama.
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Calm Before the Storm
We arrived a bit early – time enough to walk through Yuki-jinja. This shrine will stage the festival's climax later that night behind closed doors, at least for visitors. Before the festival starts, things get a bit confusing in the village. It takes a while, until everyone understands the system: Not just the participants will be moving, also the spectators will. Hundreds of policemen guide the way.
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Light my Fire
The festival reproduces the myth of receiving the deity in Kurama – therefore, all along the main (and only) road of Kurama, fires are lit at 6 pm. It starts with small torches carried by children, before their brothers and fathers in not much more than a Mawashi inflame and shoulder dozens of huge, 3 meter long pine torches. Shouting loud and sweating even more, they keep running up and down the road, before all finally meet at one place and prepare for the climax.
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Hiroshima

Hiroshima found sad fame for being the first victim of an atomic bomb – a fate that 70 years later still shapes the city's heart and soul. The Peace Memorial is home to one of the most intense museums I have ever visited and the story of Sadako Sasaki will move the hardest to tears. Nevertheless Hiroshima is not just a depressing place, it is home to wonderful, welcoming people, beautiful and relaxing guesthouses between rice paddies and an amazing local cuisine.
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Yake-Dake

As we were simply not equipped for Mount Fuji during this trip, we tried our luck with another volcano: Mount Yake. With just 2.455 meters a rather feasible hike, we thought. We got up at 5 am to catch the first bus from Takayama to Kamikochi Valley. After the first kilometer along the Azusa River we left the high-heeling tourists behind – so basically everyone in the national park on this day. With some sunbeams glaring through the clouds we were optimistic for better weather, as the morning started extremely cold after a rainy night.
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Reaching the Top
Out of 15 days in Japan we picked the only one with really shitty weather for our hike on Mount Yake. Clouds moved in quickly with heavy wind, rain and eventually snow for the last several hundred meters of climbing to the top – the idea of turning around occurred more than just once. We gritted on our teeth and made it to the top, for all the beautiful view you see on the right. We guess it is the Japanese version of a summit cross – at least we did not find another way further up in the heavy clouds. Mountain hiking in Japan is unfinished business – a good reason to return to this more than amazing country :)
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© Benedikt Altschuh  /  Impressum