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

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2010/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2010

Once again, the last 12 months offered a wide variety of travel opportunities while researching and reporting for japan-guide. Below are my top 10 travel highlights for 2010.

Number 10: Hiking in Kirishima

Although a planned hike across the Nakadake, Shinmoedake and Karakuni mountain peaks had to be shortened because of recent eruptions of Shinmoedkae, hiking in the Kirishima mountains made for a great day this autumn. I especially like hiking in the area when visibility is good enough that the far off Sakurajima can be clearly seen in Kagoshima Bay.

The hiking trail to Nakadake

Number 9: Bathing in Beppu

For onsen aficionados, Beppu is one of Japan's must visit destinations. The city has the largest output of hot spring water of all the hot spring resorts in Japan. However, more than the quantity, what I enjoyed most about my visit was the variety of Beppu's hot spring baths, including mud baths, steam baths, sand baths, and an outdoor bath at the Suginoi Hotel that provides a commanding view of the city and bay.

Plumes of steam can be seen all across Beppu

Number 8: Kabuki in Tokyo

Before it began extensive renovations and reconstruction in April, I was able to enjoy an afternoon of Kabuki performances at Ginza's Kabukiza Theater. An English pamphlet and audio device allowed me to follow the plot, while the costumes, characters and various aspects of the stage design provided much entertainment.

Premium seats at Ginza's Kabukiza Theater

Number 7: Nara's Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival

Taking place every year on the fourth Saturday of January, the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival involves the burning of the hillside grass on Wakakusayama mountain. Although fireworks and some small activities also accompany the festivities, the actual burning of the mountain is far and away the day's most impressive event. The burning mountain can be seen throughout the city and gives spectators a vivid impression of a raging fire's tremendous destructive power.

The burning Wakakusayama can be seen behind Kofukuji's Five Story Pagoda

Number 6: Autumn colors in Arashiyama

Last year when I visited the Arashiyama area for the November 19, 2009 Autumn Color Report, the attractiveness of the maple trees of Jojakkoji Temple was a real revelation. This year I had a similar experience in the area when I saw the colors at Nisonin Temple for the November 24, 2010 Autumn Color Report. The small temples of Arashiyama have become some of my favorite fall color destinations.

A gate surrounded by autumn colors on the temple grounds of Nisonin

Number 5: Kurokawa's Rotemburo Meguri

Another hot spring bath related entry, Kurokawa Onsen is also located on Kyushu, about a two and a half hour bus ride inland from Beppu. Whereas Beppu has a wide variety of baths, Kurokawa does one thing but does it very well. The small, attractive onsen town allows guests to try the rotemburo ("outdoor baths") of its many ryokan ("Japanese style inns"). The baths are designed and maintained to a very high standard, and the natural forest setting is ideal for a relaxing soak.

A bather enjoys Yamamizuki's spectacular riverside bath

Number 4: The Yamadera mountain temple

Like Hasedera Temple, which I selected as one my 2009 travel highlights, the Yamadera Temple has a unique atmosphere that comes from its location among the mountains. Yamadera has an even more remote feeling, as some of its buildings are located right on the edge of dramatic precipices. Walking between the temple buildings, visitors can sometimes feel as if they have stumbled upon the setting of a legendary fable or folktale.

Yamadera's walking paths seem to hover in the sky
The iconic Kaisando Hall and Nokyodo buildings

Number 3: Cherry Blossoms on Mount Yoshino

Yoshino is one of my favourite cherry blossom spots in Japan. A mountainside covered with 30,000 cherry trees provides an interesting contrast to the parks and riversides that usually serve as the setting for the season's hanami parties. Because the cherry trees are spread out over different elevations, Yoshino has one of the longest periods when it is possible to find flowers at full bloom. This year I was able to catch the cherry blossom peak in the lower Shimo Senbon area on the April 6, 2010 Cherry Blossom Report.

The view of Yoshinoyama from the uppermost Kami Senbon area
A restaurant with great views of cherry blossoms in the lower Shimo Senbon area
A couple sit on a hill surrounded by a sea of flowers

Number 2: Izakaya in Okinawa with live music

For its unique history and subtropical climate, Okinawa is one of the most interesting regions of Japan. One of the most enjoyable ways of experiencing some of the island's distinct culture is by eating at one of the many izakaya restaurants that provide live music for its patrons. During a visit to the islands in June I visited a number of such establishments on both the Main Island and Kumejima, and had a great time at each place. Okinawan food and Okinawan music are two of the most compelling reasons for a visit to the islands.

Live music at an izakaya along Naha's Kokusaidori Street
Another izakaya on Kokusaidori Street offering live music
At a restaurant on Kumejima a patron is invited to join in

Number 1: The year's first snowfall in the Kuju mountains

This year's number one highlight came when Schauwecker and I headed to the Kuju mountains in Kyushu to check out the area for the October 27, 2010 Autumn Color Report. Starting the day the sky was foggy and the weather was quite cold, and as we progressed further into the park the conditions worsened and there was even frost and snow on the ground. Though there were quite a few hikers at the park's entrance, further into the interior we saw almost no one. We reached the summit of Mount Kuju and sat down for a bite to eat and suddenly the fog began to clear up. All of a sudden we went from being able to see only a few feet in front of us to having almost our entire hike laid out in front of us. The view from the peak of the mountain was fantastic, making for an unforgettable experience.

Some koyo near the park's entrance
Further into the park the weather became more severe
A stone mountain hut offers shelter amid the morning's snow and fog
Schauwecker looks out onto Kuju's mountainous landscape as the fog clears

Bonus Selection: Climbing Mount Fuji

Although I did not go on japan-guide related reporting or research, I thought I would be remiss to not include a late August hike up Mount Fuji among my year's highlights. Climbing through the night to watch a spectacular daybreak from an elevation of 3776 meters is one of the ultimate Japan travel experiences, particularly valuable for the sense of accomplishment one feels at the top. This year we were also able to get some nice pictures of the mountain, which serve as a nice way to bring this list to a conclusion.

Fuji photographed in the morning by Scott from the Tokaido Shinkansen in January
A picture I took around noon on the way to Okinawa in June
Schauwecker gets a picture of the mountain before descending into the clouds on a late October evening

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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