Our second sabbatical, which started in December 2009, commenced with a long awaited trip to Japan. As this was a winter trip we would be limited on what we could achieve, but would be able to visit Hokkaido at the best time of the year for seeing the cranes and the eagles. Hokkaido was already thick with snow as we picked up our little Mitsubishi 4x4. We started with a night at a Ryokan in Kushiro, which was frankly rubbish. They didn't seem to be expecting us and spoke not a word of English. Still, with that over we started a small circuit of the island to see the birds, and anything else we could find. We headed north and reached a point where you could see the islands taken from Japan by Russia. Top right of this next photo are the Kuril Islands

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The birding was great and we saw everything we wanted to. The food was amazing, apart from the fish guts for breakfast.

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Back in Tokyo, we took a day's trip to see she of the sights, and also went to the famous fish market where we breakfasted like kings in a sushi restaurant. It was sublime. Tokyo is a lovely place but quite intimidating the first time you are there. Particularly difficult are proper Japanese restaurants, highlighted by a red lantern, but rarely any way to see in. You have to commit yourself and take your shoes off first. 

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Me at the superb fish market. I love these trucks as they always used to be in the martial arts movies I watched as a kid. 


From Tokyo, we took the bullet train to Hiroshima and got a fabulous free tour around the ruins and the epicentre of the nuclear explosion. Very informative and we saw things I doubt you would find by yourself, and it really was free with no request for donations at the end at all. The local food speciality here is a giant noodle omelette with all sorts of trappings, which we tried in a central location. It is called Ominoki-yaki and there ar enow restaurants in London. 


Mount Fuji, unusually not shrouded in cloud.

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Last stop was Kyoto, one of the ancient capitals and also a day trip to Nara, another. We had Christmas Day here and ate Kaiseki, which is not a specific food but an approach. It was a seven course feast, accompanied by Saki. Great.

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A massive temple complex of Tori gates, each sponsored by a company or an individual. 

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Coming to Japan for the second time is certainly easier as the mind-boggling “hit” of Japanese culture is lessened, but it’s still fairly daunting. Since our last visit oyster-type travel cards are in use in Tokyo and we had purchased the JR Railpass which makes bullet train booking a lot easier. We chose a different part of Tokyo to base ourselves in compared to last time. Asakusa instead of Ueno to give ourselves a different experience. It was a nice choice with plenty of bars and restaurants nearby. 

We took a few day trips from Tokyo including the island of Enoshima, off the coast to the south. First stop out of Tokyo was north to Sendai which is the access town to get to Matsushima, a collection of off hore islands accessed by stylish red bridges. Our visit also coincided with the 2019 World Cup rugby tournament. This was quarter final weekend and we were able to see all four matches in a local pub. Fantastic experience especially with Japan progressing through to the next round. From Sendai we made our way to Nagano to experience some outdoor activities, specifically walking. There are some great temple complexes with plentiful walks local to town, plus the opportunity to visit Obuse where the famous painter Hokusai spent some of his later years. It is also renowned for its buckwheat noodles which we enjoyed, along with some chestnuts roasted by a street vendor. All temples in Japan attract the leaving of trinkets to receive blessings. These were some very smart cat ones.

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Matsumoto Castle is another fantastic day trip from Nagano. Beautifully restored and surrounded by an attractive moat.

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We revisited Hiroshima specifically to go to Miyajima which we missed last time. It is a rail and ferry trip from Hiroshima to its island location. The temple is built on a tidal area and should look lovely when the tide is in. Unfortunately for us the tide was out and the ”floating” tori gate was covered in scaffolding and tarpaulins. Oh well, can’t win them all. We did get to enjoy the Rugby semi’s but unfortunately Japan were knocked out. On to new territories for us we caught the train down to Nagasaki on Kyushu. We were to spend a week or so exploring Nagasaki (good food and shochu bars) and then driving around the rest of the island. Nagasaki has the dubious honour of being the second city to suffer a nuclear bomb and has a set of memorials to commemorate the event. The big highlight for us here was a boat trip out to see Battleship Island, as seen in the Bond movie, Skyfall. You cannot currently land on the island due to earthquake damage but the best views are from the sea anyway. It is an old abandoned mine operation.

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Another reason for coming this far down was for me to get amongst the cranes that winter at a reserve. We stayed in the area and were in pole position for an early start. It was quite early in the season, infact the official opening ceremony was underway in the car park, but both crane types were there and we enjoyed superb views for quite a few hours.    

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For the rest of our trip we visited Kumamoto, to see the castle which was extensively damaged a few years ago, and then drove to see the various active volcanoes on the island. Kagoshima is the ferry access point for Sakurajima volcano which was puffing away nicely. Mount Aso was also active and we were able to complete a nice walk to the top of a dormant volcano nearby that afforded great views of Aso. Returning the car we flew back to Tokyo for a night before heading to Australia.

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See more Japan here

© Paul Hyland 2012