After a few days exploring the thousand-year capital, it was time to activate our JR West Rail Pass and take a day trip to Bambi-land. For anyone who’s feeling a little befuddled, that’s Nara – another former capital of Japan, like Kyoto, which is home to hundreds of sacred deer.
Kyoto is a fusion of antiquity and progression: ancient temples and Zen gardens are the fabric of this imperial capital of yesteryear, whilst the skyline is scattered with modern skyscrapers and complexes. Knowing full well that it would be impossible to see everything, only two more noteworthy attractions made it into our itinerary: Fushimi Inari-Taisha, the mesmerising hilltop Shinto shrine, and Kinkaku-ji, otherwise known as the Golden Pavilion.
Synonymous with seemingly never-ending bamboo shoots, Arashiyama is one of Kyoto’s most ethereal locales. If you’re looking for solitude, however, there’s a caveat: tourists descend on the bamboo grove in droves during daylight hours. Having gleaned the aforementioned titbit from fellow travellers, we decided to embrace another early morning in the hopes of having the bamboo grove to ourselves.
When Monday rolled round it was time to move on to our next destination: Kyoto. After an early alarm, a speedy automated checkout and a breakfast pastry we bought tickets for the 08:05 Thunderbird Ltd Express service to Kyoto. It wasn’t long before we arrived in the cultural centrepiece of Japan, home to hundreds of ornate temples and shrines, the former imperial palace and a horrifically humid sub-tropical climate.
Straddling Mount Haku in the remote Ryōhaku Mountains is one of Japan’s most picturesque – and authentic – human settlements, dating back to the eleventh century. With its traditional gasshō-zukuri farmhouses, expansive rice paddies and jaw-dropping natural surroundings, Shirakawa-go was a must-visit for us while we were in Kanazawa.
After a series of early mornings, we decided to have a more relaxed day soaking up the sun in Kanazawa. Proceed with caution: our version of a lazy day doesn’t involve spending the best part of the day in a semi-vegetative state – we still clocked up a staggering 32,364 steps pottering around, if the iPhone pedometer is to be believed.
At the crack of dawn, we were woken by the all-too-familiar buzz of our alarms. Having packed up our belongings the previous night, we crept out of the dorm and made our way to Matsumoto Station to catch the 06:27 train to Shinano Omachi (¥670; £5.26). A little over an hour later, we hopped off the train and made a beeline for “Alps Roman Kan”, a small shop adjacent to the station which ships bags to the other end of the route for a nominal fee. After filling out some paperwork and labelling our bags, we sped off to catch the 08:00 bus to Ogizawa.
To this day, Kamikōchi, a remote valley in the Northern Japan Alps, remains one of the most scenic places I’ve ever visited. Featuring marshlands, wetlands and dense forest this subalpine valley is nestled amongst some of Japan’s highest and most dramatic peaks. Simply put, Kamikōchi’s stunning landscapes are a photographer’s paradise and a hiker’s heaven.
When Mount Fuji finally graced us with her (or should it be his?) presence, we were up, dressed, toothbrushed and out of the hostel door within five minutes. Knowing the clouds would return imminently, we motored across Kawaguchiko Ohashi Bridge making it to the viewing point just in time to admire the reflection of Fuji-san’s revered symmetrical cone in Lake Kawaguchi. Barely ten minutes later, swirling clouds had moved in and smothered the summit.
After a short-lived snooze, we were up at the crack of dawn in an attempt to see the legendary Mount Fuji at sunrise. Croissants in hand, we left the hostel just before 4am and made our way to the viewpoint on the northern shore of Lake Kawaguchi. Unfortunately for us, due to low cloud cover, Fuji-san thwarted our plans and never put in an appearance. On the upside, with everyone else still (sensibly) in their beds, the lakeside was indescribably peaceful.