by Francois, staff writer of japan-guide.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.