The last trip to Japan for some time foreseeable, was the thinking.
Despite having been to Japan numerous times I have yet to visit Osaka or Kyoto, outside of what the inside of their stations looks like.
All the time people, upon hearing that I go to Japan frequently, would speak about how wonderful they thought the country was, and mention sights such as Dotonbori, Todaiji or Kiyomizu, or Arashiyama. Places usually go to on their first visits. Always, I would sheepishly answer that I have not really visited the Kansai area.
The place had so many places worth visiting and I was unsure how many days I needed to devote to a trip to the area. I could do it in two or three trips, but felt a bit of a waste. So I never planned a trip, until now.
Since the last time I have taken some interest to Japanese history through books found in the Japan Foundation Library, from historical fiction like the Tales of the Heike, Yoshitsune to history books such as the Onin War and six volume history treatises in Cambridge History of Japan. While my understanding of the Sengoku Jidai (the period people usually knows more about because, samurai!) remains fuzzy, I’ve come to appreciate a good deal of other eras such as Heian and Ashikaga periods and the role Buddhism played in forming the nation culturally and politically, and the founding of the two great mountain sects, Tendai and Shingon.
And this was going to be the last time I would visit Japan for some time. Travelling alone was reaching its limits. It was stressful and difficult to try different snacks (no one to share with, fills up easily) which takes away some major tourist spots, also hard to force a rest break due to boredom quickly setting in, so going alone in Japan was losing its appeal.
Felt it was time to go to some other places I’ve wanted to go, even if it means not going back to Taiwan for the trip.
So this was going to be the last trip, and I might as well plan a little longer to cover all the spots in Kansai. The decision was made to enter through the Hokuriku area, I actually wanted to visit Kanazawa more than I did of Kansai. Ever since the shinkansen opened to the city it has experienced a real boom both in tourism and investments, and their publicity push has been stunning, with emphasis on tradition and culture that felt more rooted and genuine than Kyoto.
An initial date of late March was penciled in, just before the cherry blossom season. I wanted to avoid the peak cherry blossom season, it was expensive and far too much crowd. If there was cherry blossom, then good, if not, that was also fine. A few places like Kenrokuen I was already set on visiting had cherry blossoms, other than that no plans were made to include any cherry blossom spots in the itinerary.
Then I discovered that there were holidays in late April so it would make sense to go after the season than before to take advantage of them. The dates was quickly shifted.
Two days were allocated to the Hokuriku area, Toyama and Kanazawa, the rest for Kansai area. The exact schedule for Kyoto and Osaka was left undecided, not yet unsure how many days each required.
While still in early days for planning, there were some flyer miles that needed burning so I picked a night in the middle of the trip that provided the best points for money, since many hotels neglect to adjust their point costs for peak seasons, and booked a night at View Hotel Honmachi. In retrospect this was a really awkward location in Osaka and awkward date, but I had no idea of where I’d want to stay yet.
The flight ticket went in a similar way. As I’ve decided to visit Hokuriku it was natural to enter there. China Airlines flew to Toyama while EVA few to Komatsu (near Kanazawa). But EVA did not have flights from Sydney the only choice was China Airlines and Toyama.
Before there was a solid schedule the flight to Toyama and return from Taipei had to be booked; for some reason the flight was almost booked out delays could not afforded. Including the segment between Osaka and Taipei was slightly more expensive than a budget air flight so that was left it out to buy some flexibility, I could decide exactly how many days I wanted to spend in Japan later and only book the flight then.
The planning paused for a few months before resuming at a slow pace. It’s a 2 hour journey from Kanazawa down to Kyoto, I pondered about a break in journey to take advantage of the distance travelled.
It pains to say that Fukui, that prefecture between Ishikawa and Shiga is rather barren. Their biggest attraction seems to be a dinosaur museum, and Maruoka castle, one of the few remaining castles with original pre-Meiji era keep. Neither was worth hopping off the train for.
Somewhere around Lake Biwa, then.
There is a very well made NHK documentary called Satoyama that talked about how Japanese villages existed in harmony with nature, in the show it followed the life of a local villager in Harie, on the western shores of Lake Biwa. Fresh stream water is channeled in small waterways through the village and into the back of houses in inlets where villagers can directly access to wash dishes and vegetables. The water in the channel is kept clean by schools of koi carps, one of many small ways the village lives with the bounties of nature.
Harie is about 80min north of Kyoto. There’s no express trains so access is not very convenient. Although I really wanted to go, it was difficult to fit it in whether as a side trip down from Kanazawa or a dedicated trip out of Kyoto.
Looking to the east side of the lake, Hikone and Omi-Hachiman were obvious choices. One was a famous castle town and the other a town with beautiful canals from the old days. It might not be possible to fit both in depending on when I leave Kanazawa. I made a note and left it at that.
Then a day to Mount Hiei, and two days with a night at Mount Koya. I saw an advertisement for the Okunoin night tour for Mount Koya once and immediately decided I had to experience the graveyard at night.
The rest of Kyoto, Arashiyama, Kinkakuji, Kiyomizu, Gion, Nishiki, Imperial palace and Nijo Castle, plus a few temples out of the long candidate list, I pulled a number out the air and gave them 3 days. Then a day for Nara, 3 days for Osaka though I really have no idea what to do there. All up about 12 days.
I locked in the capsule hotel stays I think I would stay in Kyoto, which unfortunately now had to be spread in two separate blocks, separated by at least one night in Osaka because I had already booked using frequent flyer and could not be altered.
Planning progressed at a very slow pace; there were no shortage of places looked at yet very few decisions made. The number and variety of places in Kyoto made deciding what to focus on difficult. Should I see museums? Traditional crafts? What about the famed moss temple, though it’s rather a pain to secure a reservation. The Kamigamo shrines? Kifune and Kuruma, where Yoshitune learned the secrets of swordsmanship from the tengus? Kyoto is famed for its tofus and I heard they make them differently on the east and west side, can I fit in a tofu cuisine somewhere?
A restlessness took hold and the research became mindless, an emptiness prevented settling on any course or action. I droned on, with the hope that past experiences will find a path through the cloud at the end.
Absentmindedly I went ahead and booked the flight back on Friday late evening. Then a hotel at Awaza in Osaka, which seemed like a convenient enough place to most places I might want to visit, plus it was cheap, be it Umeda or Osaka Castle or Tenmangu or Dotonbori; for the most part I still had no idea what to do in Osaka.
The date at Koyasan was moved forward and back a few times, not sure to make it early to go to a seemingly better shokubo (temple stay) or later and keep it out of the way of the main itinerary. I ultimately went for the later.
The trip went like this for several months, things kept being moved about till I’ve lost track of why I moved them in the first place.
Mount Hiei caused me endless headache. Saturday night was unbelievably expensive in Kyoto and Osaka, I had been searching where to stay when I discovered that out in the countryside in Ohara, the price at the local inn was not weekend sensitive. On a weekday it was a touch pricey but on a Saturday it was comparable. So I might as well go off into the mountains and spend a night in Ohara. But then it did not fit Mount Hiei well, I had already decided to put it the day after Osaka since I could take the JR train directly to Otsu, now it could not be fit in, luggage wise. Ohara up in the mountains demanded at least some warm clothing. Mount Hiei being full of walking demanded no luggage. The two were in conflict.
The schedule remained the chaos.
The bright spot was Kanazawa. The simplicity and compactness of the place made planning straightforward the spots interchangeable. Until I tried to reserve a visit to the Myoryuji, otherwise known as the Ninja Temple.
The temple requires reservations in advance. There is no booking websites or emails, a reservation had to be made via phone. That was not the problem, I can manage simple booking in Japanese by now and the temple’s reception spoke some English. I was shocked to find upon calling that on Monday, which I had originally planned on visiting, the temple was closed.
There was no way I could make it right off the plane so after some umming and without too much thinking, I asked if it was possible to attend the very first tour on Tuesday. The reply was affirmative.
While relieved way, I also knew the day originally intended for Hikone and Omi-Hachiman was now cut in half, and it’s estimated I would only get to Hikone after 1pm.
In the final month, the need to confirm reservations finally forced me to firm up the schedule.
Mount Hiei was out. The main hall was under renovations anyway and the cable cars a good deal pricey; a walk up the east side of Kyoto was put in its place before going to Ohara.
Arashiyama trolley train was removed, the time used to visit a few temples in the north western reaches of the area.
Osaka was virtually removed, leaving just one and two half days to anything suitable. I still had no idea what to do yet, other than Shinsekai and Dotonbori since I have moved the accommodation to Shin-Imamiya to better connect with the train to Koyasan.
The trip remained uncomfortably disorganized even as I step onto the train to the airport.