Land of the “Rising Sun” – Week Two Back to News List

“Standing at the train station watching bullet trains blast through travelling at least 150kph was strangely thrilling. We were waiting to catch a Shinkansen into Hiroshima. After a 40-minute SuperExpress ride racing through the countryside we met our guide, Pancho, at the train station.”

Join Compass Co-Founder Mick McDonald on the second and final leg of his recce trip, as he traverses every inch of our Rising Sun itinerary to ensure it’s up to scratch . . . 

[Read Part 1 here]

Hiroshima, of course, is renowned as the site of the first ever atomic bomb being dropped, what followed was a horrific story of human suffering on an incomprehensible scale. The Peace Park Memorial Museum offered a tragic reminder of what the outcome is when an atomic bomb is dropped on a population, it was a sobering and sombre visit but almost compulsory when in Hiroshima. We wandered the peace park visiting the actual site where the bomb was detonated, 600mt above our heads, on August 6th 1945, and the only surviving building, now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. Sadly, we also visited an eternal flame that will only be extinguished once the world is free of atomic weapons, guess that’s why they call it the eternal flame as humankind seems intent on destroying itself with a nuclear war, until then we will never be rid of these bombs and the flame will continue to burn.

To lighten the mood somewhat we ate oysters for lunch (a must do in Hiroshima), and caught a ferry out to the spectacular UNESCO listed Itsukushima Shinto Shrine with its amazing 60 tonne red Torii Gate that stands in the ocean, making it look like it is floating. Founded in the 7th Century this Shinto Shrine is a stunning piece of architecture that left us in awe.

 

Leaving Onomicho the following day we crossed onto the island of Shikoku via an amazing series of massive suspension bridges that soared above the Seto Sea. Today’s travel saw us enter a fairy-tale world of towering forest covered peaks that rose almost vertically from crystal clear rivers far below, it was a landscape of 800-year-old vine bridges that crossed narrow valleys and tiny single lane roads that wended their way through endless valleys, the scenery was breathtaking and exciting.

We overnighted at a wonderful Onsen stunningly located at the confluence of three valleys where we sat cross legged at dinner enjoying a traditional Japanese meal half of which I had no idea of what I was eating but it was magnificent. Curiously though we were the only ones not having dinner in our yakatas (dressing gowns), another weird and wonderful aspect of Japan.

 
 

The following day was a day of extremes as we spent the morning trundling along single lane roads, through seemingly empty villages and over lofty passes with views of endless mountains that disappear off into the horizon. The afternoon, on the other hand, was a trip through a jungle land of freeway and massive cities as we made our way into the jewel of the Japanese crown (for historical cities at least), Kyoto.

Kyoto is an incredible city overloaded with superb historic temples and ancient streets with traditional houses and shops, some of which have been operating for over 400 years! We visited several temples including the impossibly scenic Zen Buddhist Kinkaku-ji with vistas of gold covered walls and roof magnificently reflecting off the beautiful small lake that stood in front, it was the quintessential Japanese scene. Not to be outdone by the Zen Buddhists the epic Fushima Inari Shinto Shrine with its 1000+ torii gates that ascended the mountainside was an incredible experience to wander amongst. Perhaps the highlight of Kyoto was seeing several Geisha girls scurry through the ancient laneways on their way to an appointment, with only 200 Geisha in Kyoto it was remarkable to see them. 

Equally remarkable was a glimpse offered into the mysterious world of Geishas & Maikos (Apprentice Geishas) as we experienced a Geisha Show and got to spend time with a Maiko. But incredible as this experience was, nothing could top the “amazement” factor when the Maiko translator, dressed in a Kimono and spoke perfect English, told us of her time living in the miniscule farming community of Wycheproof, Western Victoria, population 610. This is the essence of travel, everyone has a story, and some are simply incredible, from Kyoto to Wycheproof back to Kyoto to teach foreigners about the Geisha culture, a culture that has thrived for over 400 years.

 

Dragging ourselves away from Kyoto we hugged the shoreline of the mighty Lake Biwa and ascended back into the mountains as the colours of autumn had arrived. As we are prone to do, we found utterly empty single lane roads that switch backed through encroaching forests and ancient tunnels. Some roads we did not see another vehicle, no mean feat in a county of 130 million people, until we reached Gujo, home to the impressive hilltop Gujo – Hachiman Castle from the 15th Century, so brilliantly lit at night that it looked like it hovered high in the sky, something from outer space coming in to land!

More lonely roads had us stopping at the superb Magome, one of the finest “post towns” on the legendary Nakasendo Trail. The trail wound its way from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) and was built during the Edo period of 1600 to the mid 1850s. Wandering the cobblestone streets of Magome it wasn’t hard to imagine Samurai warriors, feudal lords and princesses travelling this ancient route, we only travelled it far enough to get a great coffee! By mid-afternoon we were getting our first glimpse of one of Japan’s most recognisable sights, Mt Fuji.

Heavy overnight rains meant we were treated to an even more iconic view of Mt Fuji, this time with snow. Entering the Izu Peninsular was again like stepping back into a remote “time forgotten” Japan as we travelled roads that had seen zero traffic for who knows how long, all the while getting epic views of the Mt Fuji that dominated the landscape above Suruga Bay. We stayed in a monolithic hotel with an Onsen, not to mention epic views of Mt Fuji, and were the only guests, not another soul, but the minimal staff still managed to cook us an incredible traditional Japanese dinner that had us rolling back to our room.

 
 

Our final day in Japan saw us treated to endless views of the now snow-capped Mt Fuji, still visible as we reached Yokohama and the magnificent and historical, Hotel New Grand where the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth & General MacArthur have stayed.

Japan has been a complete revelation, with some of the finest back country roads I have ever seen, somehow riding these back roads make you feel completely remote despite a population of 130 million people. Japan is home to some absolute breathtaking scenery that if I am honest, I was not expecting. Japan is a country that tenaciously holds on to its time-honoured traditions and it was an eye-opening experience to be immersed in these traditions at times.

Veronica & I are already making plans to return to Japan in our coming retirement, I think we have saved the best till last, thank you Japan!

Check out the full itinerary for our Rising Sun Japan tour here!

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