Tuesday, 13 April 2010


After successfully crossing Russia by train on the Trans-Siberian railway, largely thanks to the Trailblazer guide book, we decided to invest in their Japan by Rail guide, buy a Japan Rail Pass, and be gluttons for punishment again. As the distances are not so great this time however we spent less time on trains, and more time sight-seeing.

Our city of arrival was Fukuoka, also known as Hakata, on the island of Kyushu, Japan's third largest island. It's actually the part of Japan situated the closest to Korea (you can catch a ferry from Busan), but we flew from Seoul. Our first Japanese meal after arrival was noodles in a pork-bone broth with slices of roasted pork, green onions and red pepper. At this particular restaurant you buy a ticket from a machine, sit in a cubicle, place the ticket on the counter below the curtain in front of you, and after a few minutes a pair of disembodied hands places the food in front of you.

Ramen in pork-bone broth

As Fukuoka itself doesn't have an enormous amount to see, the next day we headed to Nagasaki, widely known along with Hiroshima as one of two sites where the atom bomb was dropped in 1945. (In Saipan three months before I had seen the site where the bombs were stored and from where the planes carrying them took off from).

epicentre of the A-bomb blast, Nagasaki

The bomb exploded at 11:02am on August 9th 1945 about 500 metres above this black stone monolith (above).

Peace Park, Nagasaki

About 150 000 people were killed or injured, and one-third of the city was destroyed. In fact this one blast killed more people than all the bombing raids in Britain during WWII.

garlands of paper cranes at Peace Park, Nagasaki

The Peace Park is built on the site of an old prison that was destroyed in the explosion, and is just next to the hypocentre.

statue in Peace Park

After this sobering visit, we continued our gastronomic adventures back in Fukuoka with tonkatsu - breaded pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage and miso soup.


Another meal saw us discovering okonomiyaki which is a Japanese savoury pancake/pizza/omelette. The batter is made of flour, grated nagaimo (a type of yam), water or dash (stock), eggs and shredded cabbage, and usually contains other ingredients such as green onion, meat (generally pork or bacon), octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, kimchi, mochi (rice-cake) or cheese.

an uncooked okonomiyaki on the hotplate

Our restaurant was a do-it-yourself establishment where every table had its own hotplate, but as we didn't really know what we were doing a member of staff came and helped us!

two cooked okonomiyakis

Then it was time for us to change cities, travelling to Hiroshima in one of Japan Rail's famous shinkansen, or bullet trains.

shinkansen to Hiroshima

Hiroshima is actually the Japanese city that I liked the most. It's a manageable size, the people are very friendly, and is not at all as depressing as I imagined it might be, despite its history. The bomb was dropped here at 8:15am on August 6th 1945, three days before Nagasaki.

A-bomb dome

The "A-bomb dome" is what is left of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall. It is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The bomb detonated almost directly above the building, which probably explains why it was left standing.

at the Children's Peace Monument

On the other side of the river lies Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, which contains the key World War II sites in Hiroshima. In the park the Children's Peace Monument can be easily identified by its colourful paper cranes. One of the main features of the Park is the Peace Memorial Museum, with exhibits and displays about the day the bomb was dropped, and its aftermath.

watch stopped at 8:15 on display in the Peace Memorial Museum

While in Hiroshima we participated in an International Exchange home visit for a day, and Mrs Yoshie Yamamoto very kindly welcomed us into her home, served us tea, and allowed us to try on her collection of kimonos.

I'm quite small (1m57) but Mrs Yamamoto is tiny!

My husband and I

Mrs Yamamoto's traditional Japanese footwear

Hiroshima's history is not only about the A-bomb, for example it also has a castle originally built in the late 16th century (as the castle was destroyed in 1945 a replica was built in 1958).

Hiroshima castle

Close to Hiroshima is probably one of Japan's most iconic sights: the big vermilion O-torii gate standing in water at Miyajima island.

you need to take a ferry to get to Miyajima

The gate is situated 200 metres from the Itsukushima Shrine, which was originally founded in the 6th century, although the present structure is a 16th century copy of 12th century buildings. 

the gate is 16 metres high and is built of camphor wood

There has been a gate since 1168, but the current gate is the 18th version and was built in 1875.

the gate looking back towards the mainland

Near the shrine is the Go-ju-no-to or Five-Storied Pagoda.

Five-storied pagoda

The pagoda dates from 1407 and is 27 metres tall.


The island is home to quite a few (permanently hungry) deer.

It also has a number of hotels, restaurants and shops.

group of Japanese high-schoolers visiting Miyajima

Our next stopping point in Japan was one of its most famous cities - Kyoto.

In the train to Kyoto (five-toed socks are fairly common in Japan)

Kyoto was the nation's capital and Imperial home until 1868, and is still the cultural and touristic capital of the country. Some parts of the city are considered to be of such historial importance that laws prohibit brightly coloured signs.

MacDonald's usual bright red is not allowed near Kyoto temples

Ginkaku-ji is known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion as when it was built in the 15th century the outer walls were originally going to be covered in silver.

The two-storey building is surrounded by a dry garden known as the Sea of Sand.

this pile of sand is said to symbolise Mount Fuji

I loved the way the bamboo has been used for this stairway

view from the Pavilion looking west over Kyoto

Alongside a canal near the Pavilion is the Path of Philosophy, lined with cherry trees. A famous scholar is said to have taken his daily constitutional here.

 Philosopher's Walk (Tetsugaku-no-michi)

Heian Jingu is one of Japan's most important shrines.

wishes on trees (you tie it to the tree and hope it comes true).

at Heian Shrine

in the street

beggar near Kiyomizu-dera temple

We spent one day visiting the city of Nara, 40km south of Kyoto, which was established as Japan's first permanent capital in 710 until the capital moved to Kyoto in 794.

Most of the city's popular sites are in Nara Koen (Nara Park), and the biggest draw is the Todai-ji temple complex.

The Great Buddha of Nara is 16.2m high

The main building is the world's largest wooden structure and is home to a 15-tonne bronze Buddha. There's also an enormous wooden pillar with a hole, and it's said that if you can crawl through the hole you'll attain enlightenment ...

my husband squeezing through 'the enlightenment hole'

Back in Kyoto on our last day we visited one of the city's most famous sights: the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Originally built in the late 14th century as a villa it was later converted into a temple, and had to be reconstructed in the 1950s after a monk set fire to it.

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) is covered in gold leaf

in the street

The Japanese have imported a certain number of recipes from other countries, and French crêpes can be found in several places, to my delight. Although they're not quite as good as the originals, they're still delicious!

Our penultimate stop was at Hakone, beside Lake Ashi, which is a National Park and resort area near Tokyo and not far from Mount Fuji.

Mount Fuji is Japan's highest mountain (3776m)

Pirate ships disguised as pleasure boats pleasure boats disguised as pirate ships sail the lake.

the lake was formed by the eruption of a volcano

interesting menu choice

One of the attractions in the area is the Owaku-dani valley which you reach by ropeway (cable car) and which has active sulphur vents. The smell can be quite unpleasant as hydrogen sulphide gas escapes from the vents.

sulphur vents

sulphur vents

A local speciality is black eggs which have been boiled in the hot springs. Eating one is said to increase your life by 7 years.

Kuro-tamago (black eggs)

At our accommodation in Hakone we had a traditional Kaiseki dinner  consisting of aperitif, hors d'oeuvres, clear broth, a raw fish dish, broiled food, soup, rice, pickled vegetables, and a dessert

Kaiseki dinner

Finally it was time to head to the nation's capital. As it was raining the day we arrived one of our first stops was Tokyo National Museum, Japan's oldest and largest museum. I was fascinated by the collection of haniwa figures which were erected on tombs in Japan during the 4th - 6th centuries. Figures were in the shape of humans, animals or man-made objects, and may have represented aspects of the person buried in the tomb.

Haniwa figures

We also visited Senso-ji which is Tokyo's oldest temple, founded in 628.

this giant straw sandal hangs at the temple's main gate

In Japan and Korea it's fairly common for restaurants to display plastic food, and whole shops are devoted to supplying and selling (incredibly realistic) plastic food.

plastic food shop

One of the distinctive buildings on Tokyo's skyline is Tokyo Tower, a 332m-high communications and observation tower.

Nearby is Zojo-ji temple where in one particular garden at the cemetery rows of statues of children represent unborn (miscarried, aborted, stillborn) children. Parents can choose a statue in the garden and decorate it with small clothing and toys. 

statues in the unborn children garden

In the Odaiba part of the city a leisure and commercial development  complex has been built, including the Fuji Television Building.

the unique architecture of Fuji TV HQ

We also visited the Meiji Shrine which honours the spirit of the Emperor Meiji who died in 1912, and his wife the Empress Shoken. While there we were lucky enough to see a wedding procession.

wedding procession, Meiji Shrine

wedding procession, Meiji Shrine

One of our last meals in Japan was shabu shabu, a dish where you put a thin slice of meat (or a piece of vegetable) in a pot of boiling water or broth and "swish" it back and forth  (the name shabu shabu is derived from the "swish swish" sound of cooking the meat in the pot).

On our last morning we visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in the Shinjuku area for its views from the 45th floor.

Little did we know that 14 months later we would be staying not far away on the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt hotel, having won a two-night stay there, in Beijing and in Shanghai!

Suggested reading:

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

La trace (French Edition) by Richard Collasse is only available in French.