Leaving the snow monkeys behind, I took the train to Matsumoto and after a good nights sleep warming up and an early start I managed to see the towns sights within a day, starting at the Black Crow castle, another of Japans finest castles looking out over the mountains, and then to Japans largest wood block museum (Ukigoe). It was a real eye opener to see the time and skill involved in the process and to view the exhibitions of famous prints and I have to admit I have a bit more appreciation for the output now, but let's just say that if this is the largest museum in Japan I would hate to pay to get into any of the others!! The trip to the museum on the outskirts of the town did take me for a walk through the suburbs however, which really shows the Japanese pride that they have in everything, from the cleanliness and tidyness of their streets to the precision and beauty of their gardens, no matter how small, and I'm not sure I have seen a car with more than a days worth of dirt on it yet!
From Matsumoto I then moved on to Takayama, a 2 hour scenic bus ride through the mountains which turned into a 3 hour bus ride due to the first of the winter snow falls the night before. Takayama wasn't much to look at, especially on arrival where the bus brings you into the very industrialised modern side of town, but hidden away in the old side of town is lots of pretty streets lined with touristy shops selling local produce, from cakes and biscuits, to red bean candies, to sake... and all handing out free samples!
I spent a good couple of hours walking around these streets filling myself up for free and warming back through with the sake tasting.
Not all shops offered free sake but I did manage to find one that only cost me 100 yen (equivalent to 80 pence gbp) to try as many of the 10 bottles in the display cabinet as possible and I even got to keep the glass as a momento, worth every penny! :) I also went to the traditional folk village, Hido No Sato, but can't really say that I would recommend going if you're ever out this way... best to stick to the in-town tourist traps and the tree lined wooded walks around the town.
In Takayama I got to stay in a traditional Ryokan complete with an onsen for bathing which was a great experience. If anyone has ever been to Japan they will know there are certain rules involved when bathing in an Onsen, which is far too over complicated, but basically its a natural hot bath big enough for lots of people, and you all get in naked together (all same sex) after washing yourself in communal showers and then soak in the pool for as long as you can take the heat before getting out and drying off with a flannel (which you are not allowed to take into the pool) and only then are you allowed to go to the changing rooms and dry off properly with a towel. Its definitely one way to get over your inhibitions with a group of strangers!!
Heading back south the next place I stopped at was Kanazawa, known for it's Samurai districts, where I got to go inside a ninja temple and take a guided tour completely in Japanese (so didn't understand an awful lot), but the temple was pretty cool with lots of trap doors and secret passages, all very Inspector Gadget style and would be a great place for playing hide and seek.
I've also been back to Kyoto for a couple of days to visit the remainder of the town that I didn't get a chance to see on my first visit there, including the zen gardens at the Silver Pavillion which were really impressive and maybe the calmest temple I've visited since I've been here, the International Manga museum
, the impressive Nijo castle, and the famed Golden Pavillion, a temple covered in gold leaf that is flocked by hoards of tourist even first thing on a damp and dreary morning.
And I`ve also taken a bike ride around the countryside and already harvested rice fields in the Kibi plains.
One of the highlights for me of the last week though really has been my visit to Hiroshima. It's not really a place that I had wanted to visit as all I knew was it's association with WWII and the atomic bomb, but I have to say it's one of the nicest places I've visited here so far and a very pretty city (and they have the most amazing Christmas lights - whole castles and trains and little girls dream playgrounds!).
They have made a huge effort here to rebuild the city as a vibrant and happy place, and the peace memorial park is a really lovely place to visit. The museum dedicated to the A-bomb was quite a shock as it`s very graphic and goes into a lot of detail of what happened to the city and the effects on the people who were in the city at the time of the bombing, and turned out to be a very emotional morning which I hadn't expected. Whilst outside the A-dome I even got to meet one of the survivors, a 66 year old man named Mito Kosei, whose 94 year old mother is also still alive and well (after recovering from cancer) and he shared his remarkable story.
My other highlight of the week was going to a Sumo wrestling tournament in Fukuoka. There are only 4 tournaments a year, each held in different locations, so it would have been crazy not to go!
I went for the afternoon which is when the big guys come on, and boy, they are BIG, some of them are over 200kg!! I managed to get a photo with one of them (only 140kg though) outside the arena before his fight and I felt tiny next to him. All I can say is that if you are ever in Japan and there is a tournament on, it`s an experience not to be missed!!
Well it's been a busy week or so here in Japan since I made my last entry, and have done loads and loads of sightseeing, mainly to more temples and shrines and castles and big cities, so I'm now at the point that I'm ready to escape the crowds and get out to a bit of nature, and have been gradually working my way down to the south of the Japanese main islands where I will be taking a ferry to the warmer climates of the southern islands in the next week or so.