Francois' Japan Blog
by Francois, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2009/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2009

As 2009 draws to a close, I can look back on the past 12 months and recall many pleasant memories. It has been a pleasure to search through the thousands of pictures I have amassed over the year and pick out my annual top 10 of japan-guide report trips. Japan truly has a wealth of both natural and cultural travel destinations, and I'm sure I will be able to compile an equally exciting group of 10 different destinations next year as well.

Number 10: Kyoto's Jidai Matsuri

Taking place every year on October 22, the Jidai Matsuri ("Festival of the Ages") allows spectators to see the whole cast of Japanese historical figures pass by in the course of about an hour and a half. Starting at the Imperial Palace and ending at Heian Shrine, the festival consists of an elaborate procession of people in costume as early aristocrats, feudal warlords, and political figures of the early modern era. I especially enjoyed the times when I was able to recognize a particular historical figure, such as Sakamoto Ryoma or Oda Nobunaga.

The samurai Takigawa Kazumasu on parade

Number 9: Yoshino during the cherry blossoms

Despite the fact that I arrived quite a bit earlier than the ideal flower viewing time, I was blown away by the thousands of cherry trees at Yoshino. Although cold weather caused the blossoms to open unexpectedly later than when I visited the area for my April 5, 2009 Cherry Blossom Report, the varied elevation of the cherry trees of Yoshinoyama mountain means that in early spring one has a good chance of finding flowers in bloom at some point along the mountainside. Hopefully I can visit again next year, and if I am able to see the area at full bloom I am certain it will be near the top of my 2010 list of top 10 trips.

Hanami parties within Yoshino's Naka Senbon (middle 1000 trees)

Number 8: Oze in autumn

My first autumn color reporting trip of this year was also one of my most memorable. For the September 24, 2009 Koyo Report we visited Oze National Park, which is stradles northern Kanto and southern Tohoku. Rather than maple trees, the colour of the area was provided mostly by the reddening grass of the marshland area. One thing that particularly struck me about the day was the two large mountains at either end of the marshlands, which never seemed to get closer no matter how long one walked.

Hikers approach Mt. Hiuchigatake while walking across the bright red marshland

Number 7: Skiing in Zao

Although Japan hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, before I moved to the country I did not realize just how good the opportunities for skiing and snowboarding actually were. In addition to the mountainous geography and the high quality facilities, the skiing culture in Japan benefits from the complimentary onsen culture. Zao offered a perfect example of this fusion, where a tiring day on the snow was perfectly followed by a relaxing evening soak in the hot spring baths.

The slopes at Zao

Number 6: Nagasaki's newly opened Gunkanjima

A few days after it was opened to the public in April, we visited Nagasaki's Gunkanjima, which is Japanese for "Battleship Island" and is so named due to the way the island and its tall buildings look on the water. Before it was closed in the 1970s, the island was a coal mine and thousands of men, women and children made the 480 meter by 150 meter island home. At that time it had the highest population density in the world, and people lived out their whole lives on the tiny island. The tours of the island that are now offered to the public offer a strange glimpse onto the abandoned buildings and rubble of this former community in the middle of the water.

Getting one last picture of Battleship Island

Number 5: Nara, the ancient capital of Japan

This year I had the good fortune to visit Nara a number of times, and I have grown increasingly fond of the city with each visit. For me one of the most pleasant places in all of Japan is Nara Park. With its wild deer roaming freely and historic temples such as Todaiji and Kofukuji, Nara Park is perfect for a casual stroll. The Buddhist statues of Nara National Museum and the treasure houses of various temples become more impressive with each viewing. Some of the most impressive statues I saw this year were the guardian statues at Shin-Yakushiji Temple and the statues on display at the newly opened main hall of Toshodaiji Temple.

Buddhist statues on display at Toshodaiji's newly opened Main Hall

Number 4: An evening at the tip of the Noto Peninsula

For hundreds of years the Noto Peninsula has been known for its remoteness. Extending about 100 kilometers into the Sea of Japan, it is the most prominent feature of the northern coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu. One night we stayed at a ryokan at the very end of the peninsula, and I had a wonderful evening bath. The rotemburo ("outdoor bath") was perched over the rocky coast, and a full moon illuminated a crane that would fly here and there around the little inlet. Listening to the sound of the waves, and feeling the cool sea breeze while sitting alone in the warm water, I felt like I was the only person in the whole world.

Dinner in the evening
The ryokan, set on a small rocky inlet

Number 3: Hasedera Temple during sakura and koyo

When visiting the spots for each day's cherry blossom reports, there is usually little time at each location. I first visited Hasedera Temple for the April 3, 2009 Cherry Blossom Report, and I can still remember the feeling when I first got to the top of the temple grounds and walked out onto the balcony of the main hall. The temple is built along the side of a small valley, and from the top of the balcony there is a beautiful view and wonderful sense of space, which is all the more heightened when the cherry trees are blooming. We returned during the autumn, and the feeling was not even diminished one bit the second time.

The view of the Hasdera complex in spring
The view of the Hasdera complex in autumn

Number 2: Biking across the Shimanami Kaido

There are three land connections between the main island of Honshu and Shikoku, and only one is traversable by foot or bicycle. That is the Shimanami Kaido, which connects Onomichi City to Ehime's Imabari City. The route is not too difficult and offers a number of attractions along the way, such as the unique Kosanji Temple and a museum dedicated to the recently deceased painter Hirayama Ikuo. If the weather is good, the bike ride is truly fantastic, with great views of the neighbouring islands and the small villages and harbors along the route.

One of the first bridges crossed in the afternoon
One of the last bridges crossed in the evening

Number 1: Hachimantai in autumn and Nyuto Onsen

Finally, my number one pick for 2009 is an autumn trip to the Towada-Hachimantai National Park in Akita Prefecture. To beat out the other destinations for this year's number one spot, Hachimantai offered three different attractions. First of all, and the principle purpose of the trip, was the area's fall colours as was described in the October 6, 2009 Koyo Report. The fall colours were among best that I saw all year. Secondly, there was the hiking at the top of Mount Akita-Komagatake, which though lacking in colour offered great scenery. And last of all was the evening at Tsurunoyu Onsen, which provides a wonderful rustic atmosphere, including dinner around an irori ("traditional fire pit"). The day came to a perfect ending in an evening soak in the ryokan's large rotemburo bath, which is among the best I have visited.

A sea of red koyo
Dramatic scenery on Mount Akita-Komagatake
One of the best rustic baths I have visited

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List of Posts:
2011/09/01 - Final Post
2011/05/09 - Cherry Blossom Report: Sapporo
2011/05/06 - Cherry Blossom Report: Hakodate
2011/04/22 - Cherry Blossom Report: Aizu
2011/04/21 - Cherry Blossom Report: Sendai
2011/04/16 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2011/04/15 - Cherry Blossom Report: Osaka
2011/04/14 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kanazawa
2011/04/13 - Cherry Blossom Report: Yoshino
2011/04/12 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2011/04/11 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2011/04/08 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2011/04/04 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2011/04/03 - Cherry Blossom Report: Fukuoka
2011/04/01 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kagoshima
2011/03/31 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kumamoto
2011/03/30 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2011/02/11 - Shiretoko Fantasia 2011
2011/02/11 - Asahikawa Winter Festival - by night
2011/02/10 - Asahikawa Winter Festival - by day
2011/02/09 - Sapporo Snow Festival 2011 - by night
2011/02/08 - Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi 2011
2011/02/07 - Sapporo Snow Festival 2011 - by day

2010/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2010
2010/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Osaka
2010/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2010/11/25 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2010/11/24 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2010/11/23 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2010/11/16 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2010/11/05 - Autumn Color Report: Yamadera
2010/10/27 - Autumn Color Report: Kuju
2010/10/26 - Autumn Color Report: Kirishima
2010/04/10 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2010/04/09 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kanazawa
2010/04/08 - Cherry Blossom Report: Osaka
2010/04/07 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2010/04/05 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2010/04/01 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2010/03/30 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2010/03/26 - Cherry Blossom Report: Nagoya
2010/03/25 - Cherry Blossom Report: Nagasaki
2010/03/22 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kumamoto
2010/03/21 - Cherry Blossom Report: Fukuoka
2010/01/23 - Wakakusa Yamayaki

2009/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2009
2009/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2009/11/25 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto Light Up
2009/11/23 - Autumn Color Report: Nara
2009/11/22 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto Ohara
2009/11/21 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2009/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto Higashiyama
2009/11/16 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto Kurama
2009/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Hakone
2009/10/07 - Autumn Color Report: Hachimantai
2009/10/06 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Akita-Komagatake
2009/09/28 - Autumn Color Report: Kamikochi
2009/09/24 - Autumn Color Report: Oze National Park
2009/06/18 - Biking the Shimanami Kaido
2009/06/01 - Gunkanjima
2009/04/15 - Cherry Blossom Report: Osaka
2009/04/15 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2009/04/14 - Cherry Blossom Report: Himeji
2009/04/14 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kobe
2009/04/13 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kanazawa
2009/04/12 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2009/04/05 - Cherry Blossom Report: Yoshino
2009/04/04 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2009/04/03 - Cherry Blossom Report: Nara
2009/04/02 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kobe
2009/04/01 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2009/03/31 - Cherry Blossom Report: Himeji
2009/03/30 - Cherry Blossom Report: Kyoto
2009/03/29 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2009/03/26 - Cherry Blossom Report: Tokyo
2009/01/19 - Bears in Hokkaido

2008/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Kamakura
2008/10/06 - Autumn Color Report: Lake Akan
2008/08/18 - Miyajima Trip
2008/06/09 - Post Towns
2008/05/08 - Baseball Game
2008/04/14 - ASIMO and Aoyama Cemetery
2008/04/08 - Ninja Restaurant