by Giles Strong

Konichiwa! Sorry for the recent radio-silence; I recently returned from spending Christmas and New Years in Japan.

I had first visited in 2013, when I’d travelled there with the Durham University Shorinji Kempo Society. I had always wanted to return and, with my retired-and-gone-travelling Dad mentioning he’d be there in December, I thought I’d head over and say hi. One of my old school and university friends, Ed, also flew out to join us.

We gradually landed throughout the day in Tokyo: Ed and I at the same airport, Dad on the other side of the city, and made our way to a hotel I had sorted beforehand. That evening we caught up on each others’ adventures over a range of weird and wonderful food, and one or two drinks.

Leaving a full exploration of Tokyo to the end of the trip, we took the shinkansen (bullet train) up to Sapporo, in the very north of the country; a ~10 hour journey, even though we spent most of it at 320 km/h! Sapporo had been a refreshing break from the intense summer heat during my 2013 trip, and now it had transformed into the Winter Wonderland I’d always imagined it could be: temperatures rarely above zero, close on a metre of snow, Christmas lights, and hot springs. The locals, too, seemed to relish the cold as they slipped and slid across the frozen city. It was also nice to see the care that people took to ensure that plants and trees didn’t break under the snow, by tying supports to them, or placing wicker covers over smaller ones.

Making our way back down south, we stayed in Sendai for a few days. It was Ed’s birthday and celebrations were in order, which a craft-beer café provided in abundance! In general, the Japanese craft-beers were really good, but they also had foreign imports, including a new ale from Scotland-based Brewdog; which to my delight I was able to tell had been matured in old Islay casks. Sadly I couldn’t pin down the distillery, but I don’t think even their website stated which one it was. We’d noticed that the price of drink in Japan varied considerably, but in general it was on the expensive side; our home for the night, especially so!

A short trip from Sendai is Yamadera. Nestled amongst the mountains, this small village — with its winding path up the shrine-encrusted hillside — is where the poet, Matsuo Bashō, had composed one of his famous haikus. This place had been stunning during the summer, and now took on a different kind of beauty, as the snow fell through the trees to collect on statues and roofs.

Farther down the country we visited another famous village called Shirakawa, which boasted a UNESCO World Heritage open-air museum of gassho zukuri (a traditional style of farmhouse with long, slopping roofs). Outside of the museum there were some privately owned ones which were used as guest houses. I had hoped that we might stay at one for the night, but sadly they were all fully booked. The nearby city of Kanazawa provided a convenient stay, as well as a lovely castle and garden.

Moving inland, we spent a night in Nara, where tame deer roamed about the parks and temples, accosting any tourist who dared buy a pack of deer-biscuits.

Osaka was next, with its giant castle filled with Sengoku Jidai history, its deep-fried octopus, and its population who would quite happily cross the road on a red light (first time we’d seen that anywhere in Japan!). A fun city, though.

We spent Christmas in Hiroshima, which had a lively atmosphere. The unrestored dome in the peace memorial park, however, stands as a reminder of the city’s history.

In Himeji there was the most beautiful castle I’ve ever seen. Called The White Heron, owing to the grouting on the roof tiles, the castle had miraculously been left unscathed by bombings which had flattened most of the surrounding city.

A short stop in Kobe then on to the old capital of Kyoto, where we’d managed to hire an entire house to spend New Year’s, and it was amazing! We’d stayed in a “Japanese-style” hostel in Nara, but to have a whole house decked out in tatami (straw mats) and shōji (slidey doors) was great. The only problem was the level of insulation, but the kotatsu (heated pit covered by a quilted table) quickly became our new-found friend.

Kyoto is perhaps most famous for its shrines, temples, and pavilions. Our home was next to Ginkakuji (The Silver Pavilion), with its understated décor and neatly raked gravel. Across the city sits the almost gaudy Kinkakuji. Every inch of its exterior (and from the photos, interior) caked in gold-leaf, reflecting the bright sun. Up the mountainside is Fushimi-inari, which is said to have around 10,000 torii (bright orange gate things). I hadn’t believed it when I’d heard it, but having walked all the way up, I can certainly believe it now!

With our rail passes on their last day of validity, we made our way back to Tokyo. The city, or technically a metropolitan prefecture consisting of 23 cities, is vast! There was no way we were going to exhaust it in the few days we had left: instead, we took our time and enjoyed what the various districts had to offer. It still came with its own adventures, though, with Dad being swept away in a crowd for a public audience with the Emperor, and Ed and I mixing up the name of our hotel station and ending up 4km away as the subway closed, but next to a very nice cocktail bar (they made their mojitos with mortars and pestles!). Tokyo was our last destination, and so after nearly a month of travelling together, we finally said our goodbyes and travelled home (or onwards to Vietnam, in Dad’s case).

Three things I particularly loved about Japan were: the sheer beauty of the countryside, with mountains, valleys, and rural villages; the politeness of the people; and the cleanliness of the cites. Recycling bins were scarce, and we had to look really hard to find bins for general waste; despite this, there was no litter anywhere!

On the last evening, we’d discussed what our favourite things about the trip had been, and it turned out that our lists were almost identical. However, they were also quite long, so I’ll leave you with a shortened version, in photo form. Matane!

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