THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER FOUR: HAKONE!

The penultimate part of our Japan adventure took us to one of my absolute favourite places in the whole country. Hakone, oh Hakone—manju, mountains and hot-springs!

Hakone has long been a popular get-away place for people in Japan, and there are frequent trips to and from Tokyo. By Shinkansen, it takes half an hour, or so. However, we were coming up from Kumamoto, with a change at Shin Osaka. The journey took us just over five-hours, but was—as always—very comfortably on the Shinkansen. We spent the trip writing, snacking on bento boxes and treats, and I had to stop myself peering over Dad’s shoulder every twenty seconds, as he read a little Blood of the Delphi.

Staying at the Mount View Hotel in Sengoku, we arrived in Odawara, (rather than Hakone station), and took the bus up. This took approximately an hour and the roads were quite winding. People who suffer from travel-sickness may want to take something before-hand to help them get through it. Fortunately, the bus-stop was literally right outside the hotel, and we were welcomed with great occasion and shown to our rooms.

These were lovely and very comfortable, with tatami mats and comfortable beds. I believe some of the bigger rooms offer futons too, for those who want to go the whole mile. These are actually surprisingly comfortable to sleep on, and the experience is very enjoyable. I’ve done it several times and liked it very much.

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A Feast in every sense

Dad and I settled into our rooms, and then went down to enjoy the first of a series of decadent dinners in the dining room. These were set meals, and varied from night to night, offering seasonal food and vegetables. Crab, in particular, was a prominent feature on the table.

Finishing dinner, I then stopped by the onsen (hot-spring), which was an absolute luxury. In particular, I’d not been feeling particularly well, having developed a head-cold, but they say there are healing properties in the slightly sulphated water, and I did start to feel much better after a long soak.

 

Day 1 – The Venetian Glass Museum

With rain promised for the afternoon, Dad and I decided to make a gentle day of it. Enjoying a relaxed breakfast, we set out on our first adventure of the Hakone chapter.

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Crystal Trees

Hakone is peculiar in that there are a lot of surprising attractions in the area. This includes ‘The Little Prince’ Museum, The Venetian Glass Museum, Lalique Museum, and the Open Air Museum. Having had our fair share of cultural art pieces in previous chapters of the holiday, Dad and I decided to stop off at the Glass Museum.

This is a small, but fun exhibition which includes some surprisingly old, and rather spectacular glass works in their collection. You are greeted, on entry, but three trees which—on closer inspection—are actually made of metal with crystal glass blossoms.

Going into the museum, you walk through a garden, under arches of glimmering glass-beads, into the exhibition hall. This is decorated in a faux-venetian style, with iconic paintings across the ceiling. Be careful to note the dates on the pieces as you pass, because their age may really surprise you.

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A Chinese Blue Flycatcher (I think?)

Having finished in the exhibition, don’t be rushed to then leave. One of my favourite parts of the museum is the little walkway down the bank on the other-side. This is above a river, and provides some excellent photographs for the surround foliage, trees and wildlife, including lots of lovely little birds!

Dad and I then took some tea together, before deciding to head up to Hakone Machi-Ko, beside Lake Ashi, in order to get some information for our escapade the following day.

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Lake Ashi in the mist

It was raining at this point, and despite the miserable weather, there is something quite captivating about seeing the mist hanging over the lake, and the surrounding mountains. It really is quite mysterious.

Having planned our route, we headed back to the hotel. After another long soak in the hot-springs (these really are utterly heavenly), we had another outrageously delicious dinner, and then chilled over a cup of sake, and a manju each before bed.

 

Day 2 – The Rope-Way and Lake Ashi

 

Day 2 of our Hakone Chapter was the adventurous one. Taking a bus down to Gora Station, we met up with a friend, and old choir-buddy of mine, Kanako, and went up the Cable Car to Sounzan.

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Mordor!

From Sounzan, we took the Ropeline up to Akanawara. To any first time (or second time!) this is a must-do trip that takes you up to the very top. The views as you rise up from Sounzan to the slightly ominous mountain side, with huge billows of fumes billowing up from the natural fumaroles, the earth stained yellow with sulphur, has a vaguely Tolkien-esque feel to it.

As Dad said, “It looks like Mordor.”

Stepping out at the top, we were greeting by a spectacular view of Fuji…

Or at least, we would have been, had the clouds not been in the way. Even despite seeing this impressive and iconic volcano, the atmosphere still provided a feast for the senses. We were fortunate to be going during the week, and thus did not have to contend with crowds such as the area usually sees.

Stopping off briefly in the Geology Museum first, Kanako and I then moved on ahead of Dad in order to secure ourselves some Kurotamago (Black Eggs). Kurotamago are eggs that have been boiled in the hot-springs up on the mountain. Sometimes the walk-ways are open, giving people access up to see the process, and walk up the mountain path. On this occasion, due to an increase in fumes, much like on Mt. Aso, the walk-ways were closed for our safety. Even so, the egg boiling was still happened, and the eggs were available in a packet of five. Each egg supposedly lengthens your life by seven years, so we added a little time to our life span.

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Kanako-Chan with a Hello Kitty Kurotamago

Having taken a brief nosey at the souvenir shops, we rejoined Dad for a drink and some freshly cooked manju. (For anyone who enjoys, or wants to try this tasty treat, nothing compares to having it handed to you, hot and fresh, at the top of a mountain where it’s been cooked!)

Dad rolled his eyes as Kanako munched away, simultaneously chiming, “Oishii!” (Delicious).

We dallied around at the top for a few hours, hoping for the clouds to clear a little more and offer us that view of Fuji. This was not uncomfortable in the least, with lots of food and treats on offer, and in fine company.

After some time, we decided to give up the ghost and head down to continue the Rope-way back down to Hakone-Machi-Ko. Again, the views offered to us on the Rope-way down were excellent, though hard to photograph through the glass of the bubble, which was suffering from some general wear and tear.

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Lake Ashi

Reaching Lake Ashi, we had an half-hour before the next voyage, so having purchased our tickets, we took a short walk along the wooded area right of the pier. This was great fun, and gave us some of our best views of the lake from Hakone-Machi-Ko. As Kanako and I walked, we couldn’t help but fall into old habits, and before long we were both singing merrily together.

“Kyoshi, konoyoru—hoshi wa hikari!”—Silent Night, in Japanese. Not entirely season appropriate, but I only know three songs in Japanese by heart, so it was between that and Princess Monoke (which we sang next).

Sneaking our way back onto the pier, we then boarded a ‘galleon’—a large ship, decorated to look like something from Pirates of the Carabean, with faux-sales and slighty gaudy, painted pirate/sailor statues on the first-class deck.

Whilst you can take your seat in comfortable cabins, we all rushed to the top deck to take everything in as we set out. Lake Ashi glittered invitingly beneath us as we cut through the waters.

DSC_0059.JPGA little on Lake Ashi. It is several hundred meters above sea-level and was created after volcanic activity in the area caused a crater, that waters then rushed into and filled. It is known as the Lake of Reeds, ‘Ashi’ meaning ‘reed’.

The journey across the water takes about half-an-hour, and we didn’t leave the top-deck for the duration, even when the lake-wind began to bite a bit.

At the terminus, we caught the bus and Kanako and I parted ways, all of us agreeing it was a great day.

Getting back to the hotel, Dad and I took our soaks in the hot-springs, had another extraordinary dinner, and then dropped off to bed.

 

Day 3 – The Not-so-much Castle and the Open Air Museum

 

The last day of our Hakone adventure, and Dad and I decided to actually head down into town and visit Odawara museum. After a small hiccup with buses—we ended up going to Hakone station, instead of Odawara, we found our way across to Odawara Castle.

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Odawara Castle

From the outside, this was an impressive structure, though it is among the smaller of the castles you can find in Japan. The inside, however, proved to be somewhat of a disappointment.

Now—before I continue, I should stress that this is no way means Odawara Castle isn’t worth a visit. The inside is museum which details the history of the castle in excellent detail. Whilst the written displays are in Japanese, there is Wifi, and you can download an app onto your phone, which provides all the information in English as you reach each display.

However, if you are going to castle—as we were—in the hopes of seeing some actual history, you may be disappointed. The castle inside has been refurbished and is entirely modern. In-fact, there was very little to show that we were in a castle at all, which was an incredible shame.

Feeling a little hard-done by, we popped across the courtyward for the ‘Heart of the Samurai’ exhibition, which, though small, lifted our spirits. The exhibition included suits of armour, katana and a small, artistic video.

Coming out, and with Dad in full-steam-ahead mode, I was able to convince him to hold back. There was a small booth, and much like some castles in England offer visitors the chance to try archery, this one was offering three goes with a shuriken (throwing-star). Dad waited as I queued up and had a try. Of the three tries, only one of my shuriken actually hit the mark…

Conclusion—I probably shouldn’t try out to be a ninja anytime soon.

Getting the train up to Gora, and the bus back down to Sengoku, Dad and I headed across to Hakone’s Open Air Museum.

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Glass Exhibition at the Open Air Museum

Whilst neither Dad and I are particularly interested in modern and abstract art, we both agreed that the Open Air Museum is well-worth a visit (It was actually my second time there!). The artwork is beautiful and, as shown by many of the promotional pictures in the museum which display a series of their statues in rain and similar weather, the museum is good viewing in any weather (though we were glad of the sunshine!).

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Figure Statues at the Open Air Museum

The walk around was pleasant, with some truly outstanding examples of extraordinary artwork, and with the views and landscape offering as much in the way of aesthetic pleasure, as the exhibition itself.

By the end of the day, we were exhausted and my leg was throbbing a bit. The clouds had come in, the wind was picking up, and it felt like just the right time to get back, have a long hot soak, eat our final, delicious dinner at the hotel, and discuss the best and worst bits of the Hakone chapter, over sake.

Worst bit—Odawara Castle wasn’t what we’d been hoping for.

Best bit—good company, great food, and excellent onsen.

THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER THREE: KUMAMOTO!

Having finished out adventure in Kyoto, we caught the Shinkansen to Shinkobe late in the morning, and then changed there for Kumamoto. This journey, which took between 3 to 4 hours was a little less comfortable then some of the others, simply because it involved going through a lot of tunnels, which I found a little irritating on my ears. Dad had no similar qualms, so it may have just been me! People who are prone to discomfort at atmosphere and pressure changes may want to take some gum with them, and a hefty set of headphones!

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There are no ninja in Japan

It was bright and sunny when we arrived in Kumamoto. We were immediately greeted by the disembodied head of a rather large (cartoon) bear in the entrance of the station. This is the mascot of the area, and visitors to Kumamoto will find him almost everywhere they go in the region. It took me a few days to put two and two together and realise why ‘Kumamoto’ had chosen a bear to represent them—(Kuma means bear in Japanese).

Our hotel, the APA was fairly standard and straightforward, but was well priced and put us in a good position for access to the rest of the city, the trams and the large arcades where we went to eat most nights.

Kumamoto is boasted as one of the friendliest places in Japan, though I will warn visitors that this area is a little more off the beaten track! Unlike Kyoto, which caters for vast amounts of tourists, we were among very few foreign guests at the hotel and in the city. A few of the restaurants had English menus, but on our first night we had to contend without—my Japanese was rather put to the test!

Fortunately, a lot of Japanese restaurants have a rather useful habit of including pictures, if not full-scale model displays of their food. This is incredibly useful for both those pesky tourists and for people who love a good visual when deciding what to eat.

We had soba noodles, then wondered back toward our hotel, stopping off in a bar-restaurant which would actually become a regular haunt of ours for the duration of our visit to Kumamoto. Dad got himself a beer, and I ordered some delicious plum wine.

For those who enjoy sweet or dessert wines—plum wine is the treat for you. That being said, they’ll offer it to you straight or with soda. Get it with some soda—even just a little. The wine is quite thick, and having finished a glass of it straight, I did feel a little queasy afterward and had to lie down. I corrected my mistake the following night and had no similar problems.

As a city, our first impression of Kumamoto was that it was bright and lively. It helped that we came out on a weekend, because there were lots of people about, but there was definitely the feel of ‘life’ here. The city was one that enjoyed sunshine and it had a slight ‘sea-side’ feel to it. Dad insisted that the sea wasn’t that close, but I smelt the difference in the air, even if there wasn’t a beach nearby.

 

Day 1 – The Crumbling Castle and the Golfer’s Nightmare

 

Kumamoto castle is one of the city’s biggest attractions, and draws a decent number of visitors every year. However, as Dad and I approached it, cameras at the ready and smeared in sun-cream, we weren’t expecting the crowd that greeted us.

The main entrance to the castle was closed, but signs directed us around a small shopping area where a three pronged queue of hundreds of people curled all the way around a grassy verge, up a flight of stairs and toward the castle-grounds.

Like any self-respecting Brits, we joined the back, and were pleased that—despite its size—the crowd was quite fast moving.

“This castle must be really popular,” I mumbled, whilst Dad craned his neck, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Hm,” he said.

After some time, we were able to make it up toward the castle entrance, only to find a huge mass waiting for us. Massive beach-balls were being thrown into the air, and someone was talking on a mic. There was music and chatter, and mile long queues for cabin toilets.

“Did we step through a portal into Glastonbury?”

“Hm,” Dad said, eyes still narrowed.

We advanced toward the wall of people, trying to see if there was actually anyway into the castle itself, which was on our left. Some investigation later however, and we discovered that there was no way into the castle because it was closed.

Upon closer inspection we saw exactly way.

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Kumamoto Castle – Damage from the Earthquake

In 2016 Kumamoto suffered from a significant earthquake. The castle suffered significant damages to the outer walls and the roof, behind which a huge orange crane (work machine, not the bird) sat poised, paused in its work.

This was, as you can imagine, rather a disappointment—we’d been keen to see the castle, but understandable safety regulations prevented us from even getting close to the rather impressive building.

We pushed through the dense crowd, like Scott and his men wading into the Antarctic—mystified, wary, and—in my case—grossly unequipped for the environment. Dad, a regular festival goer, and almost a head-taller than most of the people around him, was fine as he slipped through the crowd. I—claustrophobic, bad-legged, and at just the right height to be blinded by wide-brimmed hats and parasols—struggled a little more.

As we broke through the thicket into a slightly clearer area on the other side of the mass, we noticed that most of the crowd were facing toward the castle, watching it keenly. Clearly something was about to happen.

For a wild, and terrible moment, I thought we were about to be witness to the castle being bulldozed, and then I had the good sense to just ask someone who was poised ready, with a camera facing up to the sky.

“What everyone wanting to look at?” I asked in my broken Japanese.

The cameraman replied. I blinked stupidly and asked him to repeat. He did so. I continued to blink stupidly.

I didn’t understand a word.

Fortunately for Dad and I, a rather lovely young lady in-front of us turned around and explained in perfect English that that there was going to be an air-show. The event was to raise money for the castle repairs, and one of the pilots in the show was actually local to Kumamoto. Everyone had come out in force to see the spectacle, and support one of their own.

We got into conversation with the young lady, who had the most endearing accent—Japanese, but with the occasional twang of pure Australian! She’d spent some time in Perth, hence her impeccable English. She recommended a few places for us to go in the area, which we were very grateful for, as castle plan had fallen through.

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A Surprise Air-Show!

The conversation was cut off by the arrival of the aeroplanes. We watched, impressed, as they flew in perfect synchronicity across the sky, creating shapes out of cloud, and performing daring twirls and tricks. I pointed out that we were never at risk of missing a moment, because every time the planes disappeared, the crowd would quickly signal their return with a loud “Ooooh!”

Having seen our fill, and thanking our impromptu tour advisor, we detangled ourselves from the crowd and circled around the castle back onto the main-street.

There, we caught the tram—which was as efficient as the rail and bus service—and went down to Suizenji, an attractive garden park that circles a large pond.

Surrounded by city on all sides, the garden was a stretch of perfectly mowed knolls and hills, with trees, humungous fish in the water, and an attractive tea-house on the water’s edge.

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The masochist’s golf-course (Suizenji)

As I looked out over the immaculate grass, a Japanese flag flapping on the other side of the garden, I made the observation to my father that it looked like a masochist’s putting range. Dad snorted loudly.

The rest of the walk was occupied by internal observations on how this garden was unequivocally unsuited for golf. Robin William’s sketch, and my own brief experience with Golf came to mind several times.

We stopped at the Tea-house for a drink. The waitress looked aghast when I asked if they had any coffee, (for Dad, that is—I’m not a heathen) and quickly informed me that there was only one thing on the menu, as the name of the place suggested. Tea.

We accepted this, and sat by the water, taking in the sights as we sipped our hot beverages and nibbled on delicious Japanese cake.

As the afternoon came in, we were driven back to the hotel by an unmistakable force that neither cared what time it was, where we were, or that we were on holiday.

Glastonbury ticket resales.

Having missed the chance to grab tickets in the first go, Dad, Jonathan and a number of his friends had formed a team to try and grab tickets on the resale for the famous festival, which Dad and Jonathan have attended for nine consecutive years. The ultimate father-son tradition.

I opted to join in with their efforts, and at 17:00 sharp Japanese time, our afternoon transformed into a frenzy of button hitting as we refreshed the Glastonbury ticket page again and again.

It was over in a matter of minutes, and unfortunately—despite best efforts—we weren’t able to secure tickets for the Vaughan men. Disappointed, but counting the fortunate of having attending nine years in a row, Dad wasn’t in too bad spirits as we set out for dinner.

We went to Kome no Kura, a great little, Japanese restaurant, with private, tatami floored booths, and a menu that included local Kumamoto dishes. We tried a few of these, avoiding the horse dishes out of personal preference, and the whole meal was very much enjoyed! I can’t recommend the place enough!

 

Day 2 – The Christian Islands

Day two of our visit saw us heading out to explore the coast. One of the main reasons we chose to go to Kumamoto, was that I was curious what life along the sea was like.

The sea is the centre of many island communities. It is a giver and taker of life—it has inspired generations of stories and mythology. As well as dividing countries, it connects them through trade routes. It gives us beautiful shells and pearls, provides one of the main sources of food in Japan, and is a place of wonderment and beauty.

It’s also a frothy, thrashing pit of death, where you can ironically die of dehydration, if the exposure, hyperthermia, drowning or large flesh-eating aquatic animals don’t get you first.

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Tomioka Beach

It stands to reason then that I wanted to see how the Japanese lived alongside this turbulent monster, especially considering the occurrences of earthquakes and tsunamis in the country. In particular we wanted to see rural fishing life, so we headed up to Tomioka Magarizaki, taking the costal road from Kumamoto. Once again, we hired a car for the occasion, and the journey took about two and a half hours.

The beach, on arrival, was small and almost entirely deserted. Dad and I enjoyed walking up and down it, and collecting some shells. The smell of the sea was incredibly strong, and there was very little in the way of commercial spots. Two restaurants that looked over the beach were closed, and there were no shops of any kind. Visitors coming here for a classic day out on the beach with parasols and ice-cream, would certainly be disappointed.

Having done the beach, we went further inland up to Tomioka castle. This has an interesting history, in particular with reference to Christianity in Japan.

A little bit of a history lesson. During the 16th Century, Catholicism arrived in Japan via the Portuguese. Catholicism took hold in some areas, boasting up to 100,000 converts at the height of its success. In particular, Nagasaki and the Kyushuu area became a centre for Catholicism, up until the point it was outlawed by the Shoganate in 1620.

Between 1637 and 1638, the Shimabara rebellion broke out. Most of the rioters—peasants in the Shimabara peninsula and Amakusa—were Catholics. This is often cited as the reason for the turmoil, despite the facts the rebellion probably had a lot more to do with over-taxation and hunger, than religion.

After the rebellion was ended, special enforcements were thrown down against Christianity. It was punishable by death, and so Christians went underground. Believers who continued to practise their faith in secret became known as the Kakure Kurishitans (Hidden Christians), and little signs and clues can be found across Kyushuu of their presence.

During the rebellion, Tomioka castle, one of the Shoganate strong-holds, was attacked three times. After the rebellion ended, the castle was succeeded by Suzuki Shigenari. He recognised much of the true cause of the rebellion, and submitted a request to the shogunate to reduce the tax. The request was denied, and it is said that—in protest against this—Suzuki Shigenari actually committed hari-kiri (a very painful form of ritual suicide).

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The View from Tomioka Castle

Back to the castle itself—it was actually destroyed in 1670 by Toda Tadamasu. The building that now stands in its place is a reconstruction, with very few original features on the inside. That being said, it is still well worth a visit. For one—it’s free entry, and contains a pleasant exhibition. There’s also a museum on the site which you do have to pay for, that contains historical artefacts. Visitors should be warned, that the majority of the information and writing is in Japanese, though you are provided with a free English pamphlet that goes into detail about the history of the castle.

Outside, you will find four statues stood looking out of Tomioka. One of these is the rather grim-faced Suzuki Shigenari. Beside him is his brother, Suzuki Shosan, a priest and Shigenari’s political advisor. The other statues are of Katsu Kaishan and Rai Sanyo.

Standing at the top of Tomioka Castle and taking in the stunning view of the island and sea, you can understand why it was such an important stronghold, particularly during a time of great national isolation in Japan.

Having completed the Castle, Dad and I decided to go back along the costal route and stop off in Tsuji Island. This is a popular place to go Dolphin watching, and indeed most of the shops and businesses had Dolphin themed signs.

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A Tanuki pops out to say hello!

The Island is actually quite small, and is mostly residential, with a small diving club and a local harbour. Dad and I drove around the island and enjoyed the views, as well as spotting some surprise wildlife in the form of wild tanuki (Japanese racoon-dogs) and lots of cats.

We ended our tour of Tsuji island by stopping off at the Youmeru Spa, an onsen located in the middle of the island, up at the top. We didn’t have time for a dip, so we opted for some lunch instead, and then began the long, scenic journey back into Kumamoto city.

We ended the night with Ramen, having been advised to check out Ramen Komurasaki, another restaurant in the arcade. We both ate the signature ‘King Ramen’ dish, along with some steaming gyoza.

 

Day 3 – Into the Volcano

 

So, around when we were still planning our trip, and I expressed a desire to go to Kumamoto, Dad had a look at the area and said he wanted to go and see Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. Dad was adamant about wanting to get to the top of it.

Cut to October, 2016 when an 11,000 metre column of ash was blown out of Mt. Aso as it erupted, ash reaching as far as the Island of Shikoku, 300 kilometres away.

I sent Dad a link on facebook. “Is this the Volcano you want us to go up?”

“Yep,” Dad replied merrily.

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Andrew Vaughan – Explorer Extraordinaire!

And thus, on our third and final day in Kumamoto, Dad and I got into the car and drove up to Mt. Aso. One of the things I have repeated again and again is how scenic the drives always are. I am not particularly taken by modern Japanese architecture, when it comes to cities. Houses aren’t really built to last, which in a country ravaged by earthquakes, seems rather wise. Driving through cities isn’t particularly fascinating, as far as views go. However, Japan is taken up hugely by mountains, and the moment you hit that lush natural world, there really is nothing like it. The colours, the variation…It’s magical.

We reached our destination, stopping off at Aso Volcano Museum. Unfortunately the cable-car that sometimes takes visitors up to the crater, wasn’t running. Toxic gas emissions were rising up from the mouth of the volcano, and Dad and I were pretty understanding on why it may not be a good idea for us to get too close.

Instead, we looked around the museum, and took the chance to take several thousand photographs of the amazing views around us.

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Fumes rising up from Mt. Naka

A little bit more on Mt. Aso.  It has a humungous caldera, with a circumfrance of around 120 km, and actually consists of five peaks, known as the Aso-Gogaku. It is Mt. Naka, on Aso, which is the current active volcano, and from where we were, Dad and I could see billowing fumes rising from its crater.

We also saw even more evidence of the destruction of the earthquake that had occurred the previous year. A monument stone up at the top of a hill had collapses, and the museum itself was undergoing repairs. Despite this, everything was open, and we were welcomed warmly. Dad, being the Science nerd he is, profited more from the museum that I did—though I do have a soft-spot when it comes volcanoes, however macabre that is.

Having exhausted ourselves with photographs there, we drove across to Daikanbo lookout, further north, to take a few more photos. The lookout, though quite busy, did offer some really breath-taking views and was worth the detour.

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Views from Mt. Aso

Then back to Kumamoto we went, and stopped off in a small restaurant that truly pushed my Japanese to the limit. No English menu, and no pictures either. I thought we were doomed until I spotted one word on the menu that I recognised (though, I didn’t actualy remember what it meant!). Taking a leap of faith, I ordered two of the dishes with some rice.

All turned out well as we were delivered cutlets of succulent, breaded pork and delicious steamed rice.

Dad and I then stopped off at the little restaurant close to the hotel, for our ritual drink (that plum wine really is delicious).

In conclusion for Kumamoto—

The Worst Part, on a touristy level, was not being able to see Kumamoto Castle, though this very understandable.

The Best Part was the warmth in which we were received, the excellent food, and the unique experience of seeing a less tourist driven, new side to the country.

THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER TWO: KYOTO!

Kyoto is one of Japan’s most famous and historical cities. Located in a valley surrounded by mountains, it’s the perfect union between the modern world and the ancient past. For many people Kyoto represents the heart of what Japan is, and there is something very magical about the way you can literally step seemingly from one world to another.

To get from Takayama to Kyoto, we took the wide-view train to Nagoya, and then changed onto the Shinkansen. The journey took about four hours in total, but was very comfortable. The weather, which had been holding up for us, turned and it was raining when we arrived at Kyoto station.

Before leaving for our hotel, we stopped in on the Shinkansen office to reserve our seats for the next few journeys—the trains were apparently filling up fast, so we felt it prudent to stay on-top of things!

Our hotel was the Hotel Sunroute Kyoto, a modern building within walking distance of Gion, one of the go-too places which I’ll discuss later. Tired from the journey, and unkeen on going back out into the rain, Dad and I decided to remain in the hotel and make use of the restaurant there. It was an Italian. We had pizza. Don’t judge.

DAY 1 – Nightingale Floor and the Golden Pavillion

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The Gardens of Nijojo

Day one of our Kyoto adventure began with a recommendation from one of my friend, Jules—the famous Nijōjō (Nijo Castle). The initial structure of Nijōjō was built in 1601, with work being added to it over the next 250 years, as well as restoration after a fire broke out in 1788. The home of the Shogunate for many years, Nijōjō was also the place where the Shoganate ended after Tokugawa Yoshinobu officially returned authority to the imperial court.

 

Putting aside the long and fascinating history of this spot, this is a real must-see for anyone who is coming to Kyoto. The gardens are rolling and lush, with plenty of photo opportunities—and if you’re fortunate enough to be here in Spring, you can really profit from the beautiful sakura trees. Inside the building itself, photographs are forbidden, in order to conserve the amazing screen door paintings across the rooms. These are replicas of the original, which are being conserved in a museum close but, but are deeply impressive none the less. The artistry and detail is gob-smacking, with depictions of huge trees, birds of prey and tigers and leopards too.

(Fun-fact—did you know that the Japanese and Chinese used to believe that Leopards and Tigers were the same species, and that every third tiger-cub was actually a leopard?)

The thing I liked most was the inside of the castle wasn’t lit artificially. The entire outer corridor of the building was surrounded by shoji, Japanese doors with translucent paper screens. These were all closed to help preserve the screens, but light still came through the paper. You could imagine how—on a sunny day—with all the screens pulled back to admire the gardens, the gold across the inner screen doors would blaze impressively. The Shogun really had an aesthetic.

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The entrance into Nijojo

Gardens, history and screen doors aside, the real gem of this entire castle has got to be the nightingale floor. This is an incredible feature—a floor that makes noise at the slightest pressure. These are squeaky floor-boards on the next level. The amazing thing though? It really does sound like a forest of birds singing. It was amazing to walk across the floor among a queue of people and listen to the cacophony of chirps and trills. At times, I felt sure that bird-song was subtly being played out of a speaker—but there were no electronics in sight, and I could even hear the floorboards underneath me! It really did send thrills up my spine and was a brilliant start to our Kyoto experience.

 

Having gone through the castle, our next destination was Kinkaku-ji (The Golden Pavilion). This is a famous site that most people will have seen before in photographs or on postcards, but that you can only truly appreciate in person. Before I go into it though, a small note on Japanese public transport.

It’s great.

I mean, honestly, it’s great. The trains are good, the bus system is simple and reliable, and there are maps everywhere. Having used public transport across the board in many countries, I can say without a doubt, that the Japanese system outranks everything—leaving most places in Europe far behind. Dad and I travelled across Kyoto almost exclusively by bus, purchasing one-day bus-paces at the train-station, which were great value and allowed us the liberty to go where we wanted.

The trip up to Kinkaku-ji was a little longer, and when we arrived it was incredibly busy. April tends to be so, because people are attracted by the good weather and the chance to experience those wonderful sakura blossoms. Kyoto is also a hot-spot for the Japanese as well, (much like historical cities in the UK, like Bath) so we were competing a little for space. That said, crowd-management in Japan tends to be quite good, at least in comparison to places like London.

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Kinkaku-ji

Kinkaku-ji doesn’t take very long to get around, and that’s because the only real feature that you go to see is the golden pavilion itself. This is actually quite a small building, which sits on the side of a lake, surrounded by luscious vegetation. The site is inviting for herons and other wild-life, who can be seen resting in the area. For all its size, Kinkaku-ji is very impressive—it really is gold, and when the sun comes out, it’s a dazzling display that you don’t want to miss.

 

Unfortunately for us, the clouds had come in, and the skyline was grey and uninspiring. Most people were happy to snap their pictures and move on, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. Poised with his camera, he was adamant we wait for a break in the clouds. And thus we waited, sitting on the side and nibbling Japanese sweets that we’d brought with us. I occupied my time by offering services as a photographer for other people. On a small side note, offering to take pictures of people on holiday is a great thing to do for others. Were it not for people offering to take pictures of us, Dad and I would never appear in the same photo, which would be rather sad. Whilst I don’t believe we should live our lives behind the lens of a camera, photos are an important part of preserving memories. Get them right, and you can immortalise a little bit of that day forever.

Dad’s gamble on waiting for the sun turned out to be a brilliant idea. The clouds, which had looked ominously endless broke, leaving us a clear sky and glorious bursts of sunshine. The pavilion lit up like a lantern, and I think I used up about half of my camera memory taking photos. There really is no comparison—that sunlight makes the experience of Kinkaku-ji!

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A Couple in Kimono by the river

Feeling we’d done rather well for ourselves, we turned back toward the hotel for a brief rest before dinner. A word to the wise—if you tour Japan like we do, don’t try to fill your days with too much, and take little rests throughout the day, drinking plenty of water. It’s easy to exhaust yourself in an attempt to get the most out of your trip, which ultimately means you don’t get the fullest experience of what you do see. Take your time, and stop off at one of the many cafes and tea-houses that are dotted around Kyoto to enjoy some local refreshments. Also, if you are walking about a lot, having a spare onigiri (rice-ball with flavouring on the inside) in your bag is always a good idea. I find they travel better than sandwiches, and besides—when in Rome…

After a rest at the hotel (which provided massage chairs in our hotel rooms—luxury!) we headed out toward Gion. Gion really stands at the heart of Kyoto nightlife, and has a history as Kyoto’s pleasure district. In the modern day, Gion is where you can go to see Geisha perform, enjoy good food, and soak in the upbeat atmosphere.

As with all of Kyoto, there is an interesting merger of modern and old in Gion, and if you’re in the area, I would suggest walking along the Shimbashi (also called Shirakawa Minami-dori) street, which runs along a canal, with original architecture and tea-houses all along it. You are also likely to spot lots of people in beautiful Kimono walking along here, though you will quickly discover that not all of them are Japanese! Kimono hire is common in Kyoto, and there are several places you can go to try these unique clothes on, and have your hair done especially. I didn’t get the chance to try it this time, but the prices for the hire are reasonable, and wearing a Kimono is a wonderful experience. Kimono can actually tell you a lot about the wearer—from the length of the sleeves, to the colours, motifs and the occasional inclusion of family crests.

Having walked past some very expensive restaurants along the river and canal, Dad and I eventually settled at another ramen bar. There we enjoy some local sake, gyoza (dumplings) and a big bowel of delicious ramen each. A perfect ending to a great day.

 

DAY 2 – Bamboo Forests & The Samurai Garden

Day two of our Kyoto adventure took us to Arashiyama, which is in the west of Kyoto, toward the mountains. We caught the bus from the train station to Arashiyama-Tenryuji-mae, from which we took a brief walk up toward the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.

The first part of the walk is deceptive. You suddenly find yourself surrounded by bamboo forest on both sides, but the atmosphere is a far-cry from what is boasted to you—ethereal and peaceful. A tarmac path and heaving crowd hardly left room for inspiration, and I was just starting to feel a little cheated when he hit the actual Bamboo Grove.

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A ceiling of bamboo

This was still a tarmac path, which my knee was actually thankful for, but the experience was very different. The path narrowed and the long bamboo stalks bowed over our heads, embracing us secretively, whilst the leaves cast a strange green glow that was almost impossible to photograph. The rows and rows of bamboo blocked the whole world beyond it, and it was easy to believe that it just went on forever. It doesn’t surprise that there are several key Japanese myths that revolve around bamboo.

At the end of the path, you come up to Okochi Sanso, the estate of a famous Japanese actor, who was particularly remembered for his samurai films. The entry fee was steeper than anything we’d encountered so far, and Dad and I weren’t sure whether to go in. After some deliberation, and discovering that the fee also included a free cup of a tea and cake at the end, we decided to go in.

This turned out to be one of the best decisions of the holiday.

I mentioned before that strange phenomenon in Kyoto, where you can literally walk down a path and find yourself in an almost entirely different world—nowhere was this more the case than the Okochi Sanso.

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Colourful gardens of Okochi Sanso

Were it not for our clothes and our cameras, the modern world may have almost been forgotten. The walk up through the estate was peaceful, the garden hosting a wide selection of foliage, which scattered the canopy above and around is with a whole palette of colours. The most impressive thing by far, however, was the views. These were very special—and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t usually consider ‘views’ to be an acceptable reason to climb up anything.

Having soaked in the incredible mountain scenery, we enjoyed our free cup of Japanese tea and mochi (a type of traditional cake), and wondered back down the hill, in search of the Gio-ji Temple.

Just like you can’t walk two minutes through any old British town and not stumble into at least three churches, Kyoto is literally brimming with shrines and temples. Walk a kilometre in any direction and you’ll find a shrine, big or small. This is a large part of the city’s charm—the pockets of culture and history can be found in any corner. However, after your fourth or fifth in a row, the attraction of temples and shrines does start to lose its appeal…

If you like something strange, however, Gio-ji Temple may very well be for you, and that’s because of its famous, rather unique garden.

A moss garden.

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Gio-Ji Moss Garden

The temple itself is quite small, and a turn of the garden takes about five minutes if you really take your time. It is very zen however, and there is a great novelty to the experience. Gio-Ji comes highly recommended to everyone and anyone who just loves moss. You just don’t get moss like this anywhere else.

Tired from lots of walking and travel, and with the weather turning into something a little fresher, we decided to do our laundry at the hotel (many Japanese hotels have their own laundrettes!) eat in, and grab an early night.

 

DAY 3 – The Red Gates

Day three saw us heading down to Fushimi-Inari Taisha, a large red shrine which is a fairly iconic spot in Kyoto, and is featured in a lot of photographs.

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The Corridor of Torii

The main feature of Fushimi-Inari Taisha is the endless corridor of torii (the red shrine gates) that leads up into the forested mountain. The red gates themselves are donated by various families as part of the shrine, and they stretch on and on.

Unfortunately for us, we went on a very busy day, which made photo opportunities difficult. This was rather frustrating, as the red gates are really quite unique. However, there are several thousand of them, and the higher you go, the less people there are, with many stopping at the first rest-area and turning back.

“If there was ever a day where you take several thousand pictures of pretty much the same thing, it’ll be today,” Dad warned me, having walked it before. He was, as per usual, correct. I have more photos of red-gates on my computer now than I currently know what to do with…

The walk is actually quite long, should you decide to go the whole way up. I confess, I gave up at the last proper rest-spot, my leg weak at the prospect of another forty-minutes of walking. Dad went on and I enjoyed the view over Kyoto as I waited.

Other than red gates, visitors of Fushimi-Inari Taisha will also see a lot of stone kitsune (foxes) guarding smaller shrines all the way up. In Japanese mythology, foxes were both tricksters prone to possessing humans, but were also messengers of the Inari, gods of rice and sake.

Dad also pointed out that the area boasted a “sacred paddy field.”

“There’s a field of Irishmen up here?”*

Dad actually laughed at that.

(*I would like to apologise to all Irish men and women for this joke, and particularly to you, Séan. In my defence, I was very tired and you were on my mind.)

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Lanterns in a Gion Temple

We headed out to Gion again for dinner that evening, going to a sushi bar which was recommended to us by a member of staff at the hotel. Dad actually cited this as one of his favourite parts of the Kyoto trip. The sushi bar, located on Hanamikojo-dori street, was small, pokey and perfect. The food was great, the atmosphere lively, and the prices all very reasonable for what you were getting. I enjoyed a Plum-Liqueur and green-tea cocktail and proceeded to lecture Dad on proper sushi eating etiquette.

“You don’t put the rice in the soy-sauce! You dip the fish.”

“But he’s putting the rice in over there.”

“Yeah, well he’s doing it wrong.”

We left the bar on the tipsy side, full of delicious fish, and both a little giggly. What more could you want from a night out?

 

DAY 4 – The Philosophers’ Walk to the Market

We decided to take a more relaxed approach for our last proper day in Kyoto. Utterly shrined out, we perused the travel-book recommendations for other things to do. A recommendation from a friend, Chris, living in Tokyo was to check out the Testugaku-no-michi (the Path of Philosophy) which runs between Nyakuoji-bashi to Ginkaku-ji (the silver pavilion).

Ginkaku-ji is the twin, in many respects, to Kinkaku-ji, and whilst we missed it out this time,it is well worth a visit, as one of Kyoto’s most popular sites. Despite being called the silver pavilion, unlike Kinkaku-ji with gold, Ginkaku-ji was never covered in silver. It is, regardless, very impressive, with elegant gardens and beautiful architecture.

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Philosophy Cat

The Path of Philosophy led us along the canal, and is apparently a hotspot for cats, who can be seen patrolling the streets. According to signs that instruct visitors on how to conduct themselves around the cats, the cats are enemies of the crows. I enjoyed the image of an ancient tribal feud between the two species as I meandered along the path, under the umbrella of hanging tree branches and sakura.

We stopped half-way down at a tea-house where we enjoyed a traditional cup of tea and cake. Or, at least, I did. Dad asked for a coffee. Philistine.

As we sipped our hot beverages, we attempted to get into the spirit of the area.

“So, had any profound, philosophical thoughts?” I asked.

“Not really. You?”

“Oh yes—I’ve been thinking about Nietze.”

“Have you really?”

“No.”

The conversation then turned to A Fish Called Wanda, and that was our philosophising was done for the day.

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Blossoms on the tree

Having completed the Path of the Philosopher, our minds were apparently so taken by abstract thoughts and ponderings that the impossible actually happened—we got lost.

Or, more to the point, we got onto a bus and got off at the wrong stop. To be fair, we were both pretty tired at this point, and Japanese street names can be hard to remember, even if you are familiar with the language.

Despite this, we managed to find ourselves again, and after a delay we made our way to the final spot of the day—the Nishiki market.

Now, on paper the Nishiki market doesn’t sound like much. It’s a long, indoor food-market that sells Japanese, and particularly Kyoto specialities, boasting large selections of foods and ingredients, most of which I couldn’t name if I tried. The real reason you want to head to this market though, beyond its attraction as a corridor of curiosities, is that the smells are amazing. I defy anyone to walk down through the stalls and come out the other side without their mouth-watering.

The Nishiki market then leads onto even more shops, and this whole area is ideal for souvenirs, if you haven’t already loaded your bags up from the shrines and temples. I managed to find a number of gifts, and was just about to leave, feeling rather pleased with myself, when I saw there was also an Owl display.

Yes. A display of Owls.

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“I’M AN OWL!”

As someone who designed a family crest for herself featuring an owl, bought an owl stamp earlier that day, has a lot of owl memorabilia and lives in an apartment called “The Owls”, I think it is fair to say I am quite fond of the creatures…

Dad was a good sport and held my shopping for me as I dashed over.

I managed to get several (million) photos of these lovely birds, and was even permitted to stroke a few of the veteran owls, after my hand was especially disinfected.

I emerged about twenty minutes later, a wide grin on my face.

“Good?” Dad asked.

“Owls are great.”

“I know.”

Having walked a good ten kilometres that day, and with packing and writing to do, we headed back to the hotel. Pizza again for dinner (don’t judge) and an early night in preparation for the long journey to Kumamoto.

Worst Part of Kyoto—Big, bustling crowds and getting lost on the bus-route.

Best Part of Kyoto—The Nightingale Floor, Owls and Sushi.

 

 

 

 

The Vaughans in Japan – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA 2!

DAY 2 – THE CHOSHI WATERFALL

15th of April

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Water Feature at the Hotakasa Yamano Hotel

Rain greeted us on the morning of day two. Having been too tired and tipsy to complete the work I’d been planning the night before, I was busy tapping away on my laptop when Dad came by my room for breakfast. The weather forecast was grim, the sky an icy grey, so he proposed we spent the morning in the hotel, and head down to Takayama in the afternoon to see some museums.

 

Anxious to catch up on my work, and with very little in the way of warm clothes, I was quick to agree. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast together, and then went to relax (or work!) in our rooms. At around noon, the weather improved, and we set off into town.

Having been promised rain and wind, the sky had cleared by the time we reached Takayama.  We parked up at the top of the town and dropped into the Takayama Museum of History and Art, a well-put together and extensive exhibition that was free entry. The museum gave us a little more background into the Takayama festival, and went into detail about the old castle that was once at the top of the town.

Having completed the museum, we walked back down toward the Sanmachi area, and happened across a tiny antiques shop that I couldn’t resist poking my head into. It was full of great little knicknacks, and much to my delight, had a small collection of katana (the so-called ‘Samurai’ swords) on display. I examined a few longingly, wondering whether I could ask Dad to buy me one for my birthday (it wouldn’t be first time I’ve asked for a sword, and probably won’t be the last). Dad pointed out a katana probably wouldn’t fit in our suitcases, and that airport security might take issue with me trying to carry an offensive weapon onto an aeroplane. He must have seen how heartbroken I was, because we measured the katana and promised to return to the shop if it fitted into the bag.

Note—it didn’t fit, and there are pretty strict restrictions on the importation of swords and other weaponry into the United Kingdom. I am distraught.

After wasting a little more time fawning over the katana, we departed in search of the Takayama Archaeological Museum. We passed it about twice before finally spotting it, only to discover it was closed. The next museum on the list was the Fujii Folk Museum, but with only a few minutes to go before closing time, we decided we’d return the next day.

Grabbing an early dinner, and a few snacks for the evening, we turned homeward. The mountains were framed by the warm light of the setting sun as we drove back up to the hotel. However, with it still being quite early, and the two of us still hungry for a little adventure, we decided to take a brief detour on the way up and stop by the Choshi waterfall.

Now—for anyone who is thinking of going to the area, the Choshi waterfall is a pleasant little place to visit, and has several perfect spots for great pictures, but be warned it can be very snowy during parts of the season…

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Following the river to the Choshi Waterfall

We stopped off at the bottom of the path leading up, and saw that the road had actually been blocked off for cars. Dad, who’s been known to drag me kicking and screaming on several ‘short’ (long, very, very long) walks, actually turned around to me and asked whether I wanted to go up.

 

“It’s a kilometre away,” he said doubtfully.

In a moment of naivety I replied, “That’s fine—let’s go.”

A kilometre? I thought to myself, Hah—that’s nothing! I can do a kilometre easy.

Except it wasn’t just a kilometre. It was a kilometre uphill, through thick snow, with leaky trainers and a buggered knee. As the light rapidly disappeared around us, Dad marching on ahead so that he could get to the waterfall before it got completely dark, I began to reflect that this hadn’t been my brightest idea…

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The Forest of Mononoke

In the end, Dad made it to the waterfall, but I had to stop at the bridge leading up to it. The snow was too high for me to safely get through it, and so I waited. At some point during the walk, the surrounding forest had gone from scenic to sinister. I consider myself a rationale, critical person up until the light goes out, at which point—as with many writers—I am at the mercy of a whimsical and vivid imagination. As the sun disappeared behind the mountain and the first few stars appeared, I found myself recalling every Japanese folk-tale I’d ever heard, and was assaulted with a sudden, primitive feeling in my gut—we needed to go. The mountain was no place for us—forget Shiroyama park, if there was ever a place where the mononoke resided, it was here on this lonely mountain path, with the tall, dark, trees stood in eerie formation and the long, whispering stream.

 

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Night falls on the mountain

Dad took his sweet time getting back down to me, and I almost killed myself in my hurry to get through the snow back to the car.

 

“Slow down—we have plenty of time.”

“I’m trying to get down while we still have light,” I lied. At twenty-four, I wonder whether it’s acceptable to still be afraid of the monsters in the dark.

The creature comforts of the hotel—bath, biscuits, and free wifi brought me back into the twenty-first century. Now brimming with ideas and the mood to write, I joined Dad for a cup of sake, and then disappeared into my room to indulge my imagination in a more productive way.


DAY 3 – STEP INTO THE PAST

16th of April

Day three of our adventure was museum day. With a full list of things to do, we decided get into Takayama quickly, so that we could make the most of the day.

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A Sea of Mountains

Even so, as travelled down, the light proved particularly suitable for pictures, and as we passed a mountain range, Dad began to lament—“We should have stopped and taken pictures—those mountains were spectacular.”

 

“Let’s turn around and go back,” I suggested, even as Dad was already doing a rapid U-turn in a side-pass, grinning from ear to ear.

“You’re turning into me,” he said.

I took my pictures in mortified silence.

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The Hida Folk Village

Our first stop as we reached Takayama was the Hida Folk village. Rather than an actual village, this is a museum that has relocated old buildings from around the area into the same place, preserving Japan’s architectural past, and exhibiting the lifestyles of the local people. This visit was a particular highlight of Takayama, and is a must-see for anyone who’s considering going.

 

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Shrine in Hida Folk Village

There are several routes through the ‘village’ for visitors, the shortest estimated to take 15 minute, and the longest estimated at an hour. We chose the longer route, and it took us about two hours. In our defence however, Dad reads everything in museums, and I joined in on one of several ‘traditional craft’ opportunities, and painted a little ‘lucky cat’.

 

We stopped for an ice-cream when we were done, and then pottered down the road to the Hide Takayama Museum of Art, which was displaying some pieces of Art Nouveaux. From the old, to something a little more modern, this was a good exhibition, but was rather short for what it was. As lovers of the style, Dad and I thought several of the pieces on display were fantastic—in particular, a large, ornate mirror that was (as you might imagine) rather difficult to photograph. Visitors of the region who are interested in Art Nouveaux should definitely stop by the museum, but for those whom it doesn’t interest, or who are pressed for time, you can always just pull into the carpark to admire the red double-decker London bus parked outside.

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Two girls in yukata on the Nakabashi Bridge

Returning to the Sanmachi for the third time, Dad and I tried our luck at the Archaeological Museum again, only to find it was once-more closed. Fortunately the Fujii Folk Museum was still open, and we enjoyed three floors of assorted bits and bobs, including a display of beautifully detailed kimono (traditional Japanese clothes), painted scrolls, ornate pipes, creepy dolls and a collection of katana.

 

With the town no longer saturated by a mass of moving people, we were able to enjoy the old-streets of the Sanmachi as we walked back toward the Jinya, across the Nakabashi bridge, to soak up a little sun before dinner.

Back at the hotel, having had one final, glorious soak in the baths, we met for our customary cup of sake and discussed the best part, and the worst part of the first chapter of our holiday. We reflected that we’d been lucky with the hotel, (it really comes highly recommended for anyone looking to stay), and agreed we were both a little disappointment with the festival, which we’d hoped would be a little more exciting. All in all though, it was an excellent start to the holiday.

The Best Part—the Hida Folk Village

The Worst Part—Walking through the snow, in the dark, with a buggered knee.


THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA!

 

The Vaughans in Japan – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA!

“Let’s go back to Japan.” – An old, Vaughan proverb.

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Three Vaughans in Kyoto – 2011

Six years ago, I accompanied my parents on their first visit to Japan. Having already been myself, three times, and having studied Japanese for several years in school, I was put in a unique position of power that was usually reserved for my mother—the linguist of the family. I held the words and the lay of the land—where we went, what we saw, and—most importantly—what we ate was almost entirely at my discretion.

I must have done something right, because the holiday was hailed as a great success, and since then, the phrase “let’s go back to Japan,” has floated around the Vaughan household, popping up intermittently.

After my mother died two years ago, my Dad finally retired from work and took to a nomadic life. Keeping track of him since has proved difficult, as I’m never entirely sure which continent he’s on, let alone which country. Travel is a balm to an energetic, curious soul.

Suddenly, that phrase “let’s go back to Japan” stopped being a mere fancy, and started to involve booking flights and accommodation. And thus, here we are—the Vaughans (two of us, at least) return to Japan at last, and this time for a full three weeks.

The trip has been split into four sections: Takayama, Kyoto, Kumamoto and Hakone, with a day in Tokyo on either side. Whilst Dad writes his diary daily, and keeps tracks of his adventures in a small, discrete note-book, I felt I’d chronicle our journey in a slightly flashier way, as we proceed through the chapters of our journey.


CHAPTER ONE: Takayama

13—16th of April, 2017

We left from London Heathrow on the 11th of April, flying BA to Narita airport. It was a twelve hour flight which got us into Japan at around noon on the 12th, (4:00 AM English time). Jet-lagged and a little bleary, we organised our tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train), and made out way via train and taxi to our hotel.

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Tokyo Tower

Conscious that the best way to beat the jet-lag was not to succumb to the desperate, clawing urge to sleep, we set out into the streets of Tokyo just as night fell, to scavenge some food. The mid-April weather was very pleasant, the evening cool and refreshing. We stopped for ramen—always the easiest go-to!—and then went for a little walk. The hotel offered us an excellent view of Tokyo Tower, which was lit up brightly in red, and stood out vividly across the night sky.

As we wondered back I thought I saw snow falling across the road. Confused, I looked again, only to discover it was actually the gentle, meandering descent of several sakura blossoms. Japan’s famous cherry blossoms attract many people in Spring (ourselves included) to the parks and beautiful gardens that are scattered across the country.

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Sakura sapling flowering  in Takayam

A few blossoms falling onto the life-less concrete of a Tokyo side-street hardly sounds like something that would capture the imagination…However, whilst it might have been twenty-four hours of no sleep and almost solid travel, I was enthralled by this serene display. In particular because there were no actual sakura trees in sight—the petals had merely drifted on the wind from someone’s garden. Where I adept at poetry, I might have come up with something profound to mark the experience—the brevity of serenity or the quiet presence of nature even in our modern world…

Instead, I elbowed my Dad and went, “Look—sakura!”

To which he responded, “What?”

The following day, we rose early and made our way to Tokyo Station. We took the Shinkansen to Toyama, which was a comfortable journey, about two hours long. At Toyama we changed onto the Hida Wide-view limited-express train, heading toward Takayama station. This journey was an hour and a half and very scenic. The train was quite full, with people standing in the aisles. If anyone is planning on heading to Takayama on this route, particularly during festival time, I would advise reserving your seats, or getting to the platform nice and early!

We got into Takayama in the early afternoon. The town was a buzz with activity, tourists coming from every corner of the globe. We counted Americans, Australians, Germans, Philippians, Chinese, French, Canadian, Russian and many more among the people we saw! Dad was particularly impressed with me when I was able to make our a few Japanese tourists as well—people from Kyoto in particular have a distinctive accent!

With the town so busy, we weren’t able to book a hotel in it, and thus chose a rather lovely spot in Shinhodaka instead, about an hour’s drive away. This turned out to be an incredibly good decision, for reasons which I will detail later.

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The mountainous drive up to Shinhodaka

We hired a car and enjoyed an incredibly scenic and lovely drive up. My Dad, who’s one of those crazy people who sees mountains and goes, “I should climb that,” is well versed in driving through mountainous regions, and thus had no problem getting us there, having had a lot of practise already in the alps and in Switzerland. We were both quite surprised to discover snow as we got higher, and to find several ski resorts and slopes. Trust my father, mountaineering and skiing fanatic, to take me all the way to Japan and still somehow find the ski slopes here. He swore it wasn’t on purpose, but I’m beginning to think he has a special, innate sense for it.

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The Hotakasa Yamano Hotel

We arrived at the Hotakasa Yamano Hotel, which was very picturesque, perched on the side of the mountain, with lovely views, and a well-decorated interior and exterior. The rooms were comfy and warm, and provided free yukata (traditional Japanese clothing) which I was incredibly excited about. Dad and I donned ourselves in these, and went downstairs to enjoy a hot footbath as we planned our next day.

We finished the night with a lavish Japanese meal at the hotel restaurant, and then retired early, ready to head out and explore.


Day 1 – Takayama Festival

14th of April

We started early. It was a beautiful day, with streaming sunshine and crisp blue skies. Dad and I had an enormous Japanese breakfast at the hotel, which mostly consisted of Dad pointing at the various, delicately placed food and asking me, “What’s this?”

“I don’t know. Just put it in your mouth and eat it.”

‘What am I eating now’ is probably one of the most common games we play in Japan. Traditional Japanese food is usually very artful, extremely tasty, and always a little enigmatic.

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One of the Takayama marionettes

After breakfast, we headed off immediately for Takayama, to go and join the festival. Takayama has two major festivals, one in Spring and one in Autumn. The spring festival consists of large, ornate floats being paraded through the streets. On-top of these floats are marionettes, which are operated by a dozen strings, and a whole team of people. The floats only appear twice a year, so it’s quite spectacular to catch a glimpse of them.

We started our tour of Takayama by walking through the Sanmachi—an area full of

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One of the Sanmachi Streets

traditional buildings. This was lined with various shops displaying Japanese crafts, as well as food stalls and restaurants. We walked the length of the street down toward the big red Nakabashi bridge, crossing the river toward the Takayama Jinya—the old government house in Takayama. Here we got our first glimpse of the floats, which were out on display. Photo opportunities were made quite difficult by the size of the crowd, so we didn’t linger long, and went to go and see inside the Takayama Jinya instead.

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Inner garden of the Takayama Jinya

This was an enjoyable experience, and well worth the ticket price. The building was large, and—unlike in many places—photography was actually allowed. Each of the rooms had a little signpost in Japanese and English to tell us what the area was used for—this ranged from a meeting hall, to the ‘interrogation’ (read torture) room. I particularly liked the peaceful inner garden, and the tiny little box room, which was especially designed for tea-ceremonies.

Having finished the Jinya, Dad and I decided to wonder down the main-street toward where a long line of festival stalls had been set up. Mouth-watering smells saturated the air, and large groups of children gathered around game stalls, trying to win prizes, or catch fish with paper nets! I stopped to buy a pastry filled with anko (red-bean paste), a sweet treat that is a particular favourite, and then horrified Dad by buying some takoyaki, a sort of dumpling with octopus tentacles inside.

“Better you than me,” he said, with a grimace as I put one in my mouth.

“Delicious.”

We returned to the floats for 14:30, to see the marionette performances. The crowd was now at a suffocating level, and extended all the way back to the bridge. Some people who were gathered at the front, had been there for an hour already, standing in the full heat of the sun just to ensure they had a good spot. Telephoto lenses on our cameras, and the fact that the marionettes are at the top of the floats, however meant that Dad and I were fine, even from so far back.

I confess, as impressive as the marionettes were—some being operated by over 30 strings!—the performance was a little repetitive, and after a while, Dad and I gave up, and slipped out from the crowd. The strange, slightly hypnotic music used to accompany the marionettes, followed us up the road as we headed uphill toward the Shiroyama park. We decided to do the Higashiyama walking course, which takes you up through the hills, and then around back into town on a route that passes by the significant shrines and temples in the area.

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The Shiroyama Park

Having injured my leg in January (I ruptured the ligaments in my knee) the walk was a little tough. That being said, it was well worth it. Walking up into the forested hills was like entering another world—this was the place of the mononoke and yokai—Japanese spirits and demons, that are similar in many ways to the unfriendly faeries and sprites of Celtic mythology. The atmosphere was only increased by the fact we could still hear the rhythmic beating of the drum and the sigh of the music from down in the town.

A warning to anyone who does decide to do the walk—the free walking map you get at the festival is useless on this route. If you don’t know the area or have a proper map, you need some initiative and a good sense of direction not to get lost. Fortunately for me, Dad is an explorer extraordinaire, and between my basic ability to recognise a few kanji (Japanese words, based on Chinese letters) and his innate understanding of mountain paths, we managed to find our way out. This was a relief, as at the top of the hill we found a helpful sign that warned hikers that there were bears in the woods. This might have been more useful at the entrance, where we could have turned back, rather than in the middle, at the point of no-return.

That would have been an interesting call to my brother back in England.

“How’s Japan?”

“Well we’re lost on a mountain and Dad’s wrestling a bear, but other than that…”

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Temple on the Higashiyama Walking Route

Having managed to emerge from the forest without being mauled, Dad and I stopped off at several of the temples on the route, before giving up the walk—after the climb, my leg was really starting to ache, and the last thing we wanted was for me to cripple myself on the first day of the holiday.

We proceeded back into town, and found a pleasant spot for an early dinner—more ramen!

It’s advised that people attending the festival stick around in the evening to see the floats being processed through the streets, donned with lanterns. However, with the hour-long drive we faced back to the hotel, coupled with the drag of jet-leg, Dad and I decided to head back early, rather than stick around until 20:00. This was ultimately a good decision, as the darkness came in fast, and both of us were getting incredibly sleepy.

Back at the hotel, we donned ourselves in the yukata and both went to the public baths. Japanese baths are great, as are onsen (hot-springs) of which there are an abundance in the mountains. You shower in a separate area and wash yourself down, and then go and soak in a lovely, hot pool. The one at the hotel had separate baths for men and women—inside and out. This is not for people who are body-shy, because swimming costumes and the like are not permitted—you’re naked all the way. However, for anyone who is unsure, I really recommend biting the bullet and giving it a go—it’s a great experience. With the chill of the mountain air, slipping into the hot water of the rock-pool outside and bathing beneath the stars was luxurious.

Loose and relaxed from the baths, Dad and I met up again for an evening drink, where we sat together and chatted over a bottle of sake (rice wine), before retiring to our rooms for an early night.


THE VAUGHANS IN JAPAN – CHAPTER ONE: TAKAYAMA 2!

To Bigger, Brighter Things! The CW Class of 2017

On Tuesday the 4th of April, the third year class of the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing programme all gathered together for an evening of celebration, smiles and prizes!

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend part of the evening and hear some of the performances given by the students. Short stories, poetry and non-fiction – the variety and quality blew me away and exhibited, once again, the diversity and range of the students at the University. I was able to also see the first batch of prizes that were given out for excellence in different areas of the course, including script writing for mainstream television, and fiction.

During a brief break, where were given the chance to refill our drinks, there was also a little quiz given out – with us (the lecturers!) as the subject. Students were asked to identify, from a list, which book we wished we’d written, which book we’d read forever, and what the title of our own books would be! Needless to say, as I meandered about about under the guise of photographer, I was able to take a peek at some of their answers, curious to see who they really think we are.

Unfortunately I was not able to stay for the duration of the evening, however I am confident when I say it was a roaring success. The Creative Writing class of 2017 should be proud of themselves and everything they’ve achieved. I wish them all the best as they venture out into the world to bigger, brighter things…

Or just stick around at the University, like I did.

diverse-fairy-tale-project

Mag Mell Publishing is currently looking for authors to contribute to our Diverse Fairy Tale Project!

What is the Diverse Fairy Tale Project?

From 2017, Mag Mell Publishing will be putting together our own anthology of our favourite Fairy Tales. The twist—the project is all about diversity. We’re looking for new, fresh versions of these popular stories that will represent minorities – including having POC and/or LGBTQA+ main characters.

We are particularly interested in hearing from minority authors who would be interested in contributing a short story between 3,000-8,000 words. Authors will be paid between £10-£20 ($12-$24) per story.

This would be a Kickstarter funded project. Authors would not be expected to undertake any work until funding and payment was guaranteed for them.

To get involved, or find out more about the project,visit our webpage here!

COLOURING COMPETITION

YES! THAT’S RIGHT – YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY

To celebrate the re-release of The Sons of Thestian, I will be holding a colouring competition between October and November 20th.

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A small series of Harmatia Cycle art (Including above designs by Amelia Mackenzie) will be released, and you will have the opportunity to colour the images. Entries can be done digitally, or printed out and coloured traditionally! What’s more, there are no limit to the number of entries permitted, meaning you can colour all the images if you want, or even do the same one twice!

There will be a number of prizes available, and top entries will be featured on my website and on my tumblr.

For more details about the prizes, and how to enter, please check back to my website in October, or subscribe to my newsletter and have all the details and download links sent straight to your inbox at the beginning of the month!

Blood of the Delphi – COVER REVEAL

 

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“Praise Harmatia, it is a city of gold and light. Praise it until it crumbles to dust.”

Rufus Merle is a wanted man. After twelve years on the run, raising the infant Prince Joshua, the last of the Delphi line now stands in grave peril. Sick, friendless and out of places to hide, Rufus and Joshua are hunted by dangerous alchemists, a deranged assassin, and a powerful faerie goddess, who will do everything in her power to turn Rufus into a living weapon.

With the net closing around them, and the sparks of unrest and rebellion igniting across the Kingdom, Arlen Zachary is forced to question his own allegiance between the Crown, and the people he swore to protect. As the gods play their hands, and the ancient Sidhe prepare to settle a century old feud, Harmatia trembles under the tyrannical rule of a King, whose only commitment is to the dead.

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