Staying the night in Shinjuku provided us the convenience to take the 7am Super Azusa limited express train to Matsumoto (松本) of Nagano Prefecture (長野県). Matsumoto was our entry point into the Japanese Alps. The reliable rail service enabled us to reach Matsumoto at 9:40am, giving us a couple of hours to explore the laid-back mountain city before continuing our journey to “Japanese Yosemite Valley” Kamikochi. After putting our backpacks in the lockers, we stepped out of Matsumoto Station in a fine Saturday morning. A small line of people were waiting for public bus outside the station, but we preferred to cover the small city on foot. We planned to visit Matsumoto Castle, Art Museum and Performing Arts Centre before the 14:30 train/ bus departing for Kamikochi. To avoid the crowd later in the day, we first headed to Matsumoto Castle, the city’s primary attraction. It took us 20 minutes to reach the castle park, a parcel of green space with the moat surrounded Matsumoto Castle as the centerpiece.
12 castles still standing in Japan today. Along with Himeji Castle (姫路城) and Kumamoto Castle (熊本城), Matsumoto Castle or Matsumotojo (松本城) is considered one of the three premiere castles in the country. Built during the Eisho Period of the Warring States Period (戦国時代) by the Toda Clan, Matsumoto Castle is the oldest extant five structures/six story castles in Japan, dating to the late 16th century.
We entered the castle park from the south entrance, and were immediately struck by the beauty of the contrasting black and white castle and its reflection in the moat.
Through the Kuromon Gate (黒門),we entered a nicely maintained courtyard in front of the imposing castle. The five structures of the castle clearly appeared in front of us. They were (right to left) Inui Keep (Inui Kotenshu), Watari Tower (Watariyagura), Great Keep (Dai-Tenshu), Tatsumitsuke Tower (Tatsumi Tsukeyagura), and Tsukimi Tower (Tsukimi Yagura). The Inui Keep, Watari Tower and Great Keep were built in the Warring States Period when defense was the utmost priority. The Tatsumitsuke and Tsukimi Tower (Moon Viewing Tower) were constructed 40 years later in the peaceful Edo era with almost no defense.
Staff in historical costumes posed for tourist photos in front of the castle.
The well maintained timber interior and structure of Matsumoto is a rarity for the surviving Japanese castles. No shoes were allowed during the visit. Visitors were allowed to climb to the top floor in a one-way route.
The Great Keep was built with high level of defense with small slot windows.
115 gun and arrow slots were provided on the structures for defense.
Among with weapons and artifacts, warrior armors were also on display. This typical armor is equipped with a sword, a ramrod for loading bullets on the back, a bullet case on the waist, and an ignition agent case hanging from the shoulder.
Small amount of paintings were on display illustrating the bloody history of the castle during the Warring States Period.
The third floor is a concealed level, and was used as a warehouse and war shelter.
The fourth floor was the living space for the lord.
All stairs were narrow and steep and sometimes slippery. Most visitors took their time to climb and descend each step one by one. The steepest one was between the fourth and the fifth at an angle of 61 degree.
The fifth floor was characterized by the gable windows. This floor was used as a strategy meeting room.
The sixth (top) floor offers nice views to all directions. The view of the Hida Range of the Japanese Alps is particularly lovely.
The Toda Clan of Matsumoto Castle worshiped the 26-day old moon. A small spiritual decoration could be seen in the ceiling of the top floor.
We passed by a photo spot while exiting the castle courtyard.
Below the castle, the castle park offers many pleasant resting spots under shade.
The view of Matsumoto Castle and the moat is spectacular. We walked along the moat to the photogenic red bridge at the far side.
In the water, hungry carps came to the surface whenever someone approached the water.
We were lucky to see the beautiful inhabitant, the swan, in the castle moat.
After taking photos at the red bridge, we walked along the moat back to the park entrance and moved on to our next destination in Matsumoto.
Our departure schedule to Kansai International Airport (関西国際空港) was far from ideal. It was a red-eye flight departing from Hong Kong at 1:50am and arrived in Japan at around 6:30am. At the airport, we picked up our pre-ordered Haruka Express ticket from the JR ticket office and rushed to the platform for the Kyoto bound express train that was about to leave. The train sped past towns and suburbs along Osaka Bay and reached Osaka in about 40 minutes. From Osaka, the train took another half an hour to reach Kyoto. Opened in 1997, the current Kyoto Railway Station is a futuristic building made of glass and steel trusses, with an enormous atrium and a huge stepped plaza reaching multiple storeys up to the sky garden 70m above ground. We stepped out the station for a quick peek of Kyoto Tower, the city’s tallest structure opened in 1964 coinciding with the Tokyo Olympics. Together with the modern railway station, the tower often comes as a surprise for tourists who come to Kyoto expecting to see an 1200-year-old ancient city.
We took the escalators down to the subway, topped up our Icoca cards that we kept from our previous Kansai trip, and managed to board the train with our suitcase and backpack. Our designation was Higashiyama Station (東山駅) on the Tozai Line. We reached Higashiyama Station at a peaceful residential neighborhood sandwiched between two of Kyoto’s popular tourist areas: Northern Higashiyama (Nanzenji, Ginkakuji, etc) and Southern Higashiyama (Gion, Kiyomizu-dera, etc). At Higashiyama Station, we purchased a city bus pass for the day and picked up a handy bus map. We crossed the street and walked into a quiet alleyway right beside the crystal clear Shirakawa River (白川). We reached Eco and Tech, a 2-star budget hotel that we would call it home for the next five days. After checking in, we immediately headed out to the bus stop near Sanjo Station (三条駅) and Kamo River (鴨川). Before arriving in Japan, we had already decided to begin our Kyoto visit at the northwest part of the city where the cluster of three famous temples Ryoanji (龍安寺), Ninnaji (仁和寺) and Kinkakuji (金閣寺) are located. According to online updates of the autumn foliage at Kyoto’s main attractions, Ryoanji (龍安寺) and Ninnaji Temple (仁和寺) were two possible places where we might still encounter peak autumn foliage. Because of the recent cold weather, the autumn foliage of 2016 came earlier than usual. By the time we arrived on Dec 3rd, the fall foliage at most places had already passed the peak. The bus ride took over half an hour. It was sunny and we took a brief rest on the bus under the late morning sun.
Our plane landed at Kansai International Airport (関西国際空港) at about 6:30am. Despite a sleepless night, we were very excited upon arriving.
We left the airport and over to the railway station for JR’s Haruka Express train.
Upon arriving at Kyoto, we were overwhelmed by the steel trusses and overhead catwalks at the huge atrium of the futuristic Kyoto Station.
A large Christmas tree on the organic shaped platform looked small under the huge atrium roof.
Across the street from Kyoto Station stood the tallest structure in the city, Kyoto Tower.
Advertisements on the subway train reminded us that the special night visits to a number of temples were available during the autumn foliage season until 4th of December. Arriving in Kyoto on the 3rd of December, we made just on time for the night visits.
Many Kyoto’s attractions can be accessed only by public bus. We picked up a bus map from the ticket office at Higashiyama Subway Station, which proved really handy over the next few days.
We managed to carry our suitcase up the stairs and finally reached the exit of Higashiyama Station.
Following online instruction, we crossed a bridge at Shirakawa River (白川) on our way to our hotel.
A local couple dressed in traditional costumes were taking photos on a stone bridge at Shirakawa River (白川).
Eco and Tech Hotel is located in a quiet residential neighborhood away from the tourist crowds.
Eco and Tech Hotel.
We checked the website http://souda-kyoto.jp/travel/koyo/ for the autumn foliage at Kyoto’s main attractions almost daily for at least a week before departure. We decided to head to Ryoanji Temple on our first day because of its peak colours.
We walked to a bus stop near Kamo River (鴨川) and Sanjo Station (三条駅) for Bus 59 heading towards Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺).
Our posts on 2016 Kyoto and Nara:
OUR FIRST KYOTO STORY, Japan
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: RYOANJI TEMPLE (龍安寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NINNAJI TEMPLE (仁和寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE (金閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE (北野天満宮), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NIGHT AT KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: MORNING STROLL IN SOUTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA to KENNINJI, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: ○△□ and Chouontei Garden and Ceiling of Twin Dragons, KENNINJI TEMPLE (建仁寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: SFERA BUILDING (スフェラ・ビル), SHIRKAWA GION (祇園白川), KAMO RIVER (鴨川) & DOWNTOWN, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: YAKITORI HITOMI (炭焼創彩鳥家 人見), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: MORNING IN NORTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (北東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: NANZENJI (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: PHILOSOPHER’S PATH (哲学の道), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: HONENIN (法然院), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: GINKAKUJI (銀閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: CRAB AND SAKE, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 4: HORYUJI (法隆寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: TODAIJI TEMPLE (東大寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KASUGA TAISHA (春日大社), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KOFUKUJI (興福寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: NAKAGAWA MASASHICHI SHOTEN (中川政七商店 遊中川), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: RAMEN & CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 1, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 2, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 5: FAREWELL KYOTO, Kyoto, Japan
In Mid-October, we had the opportunity to reunite with two of our travel buddies for a short trip to China. It was the week after the week-long Chinese National Holiday. We had a simple travel plan consisted of two distinct parts: Xian (西安) for history and Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝) for natural scenery. Xian, historically known as Changan (長安), was the ancient capital of China for 13 different dynasties, spanning a total period of over 1200 years, including the golden age of Han and Tang Dynasty. The ruins of ancient royal palaces and tombs, such as the magnificent Terra-cotta Warriors of the First Qin Emperor, revealed the former glory of ancient China. Jiuzhaigou, on the other hand, has been renowned for its out-of-this-world alpine scenery. It is located at the north of Sichuan Province (四川) where the plains of Eastern and Central China begins to give way to the Tibetan and Qinghai Plateau.
After a minor delay, we flew out of Hong Kong in a Saturday afternoon. It was already dusk by the time we landed at Xian Xianyang Interational Airport. We took an airport bus into the city, and taxied the rest of the way to our hostel south of Xincheung Square (新城廣場). Our taxi passed by the well-preserved Ming city wall and the brightly lit historical Bell Tower. After getting off, it took us a while to find the alleyway where our hostel was located. We were delighted to find our hostel room clean and comfortable. After checking in, we headed out immediately to grab a quick dinner. According to guidebook, an old famous restaurant of Shaanxi Muslim food called Lao Sun Jia (老孫家) was just five minutes of walk from our hostel. We found our way to the restaurant at the fourth floor of a retail centre. It was about 21:00 and there was only one table of guests finishing off their beer and noodles. We sat down and ordered the popular paomo (泡饃), or crumbled flatbread in either mutton or beef stew.
After dinner, we wanted to checked out the beautiful Bell Tower (鐘樓) right at the historical heart of Xian. It was another five minute of walk from the restaurant. The tower was already close for the day, but we could still admire the historical architecture across the street from the tower’s roundabout. This handsome piece of traditional architecture was an icon of Xian. In the old days since the 14th century, the tower’s main function was to mark the moment of dawn with its bells. A few blocks away, we noticed another historical building prominently lit up. It was the Drum Tower (鼓樓), the building that originally housed 28 drums to mark the day’s end at dusk. Around the corner from the Drum Tower, we entered a busy pedestrian streets packed with snack vendors. We had entered Beiyuanmen (北院門) Street, the core of Xian’s Muslim Quarter. It was almost 10pm but the street was still busy with visitors. There were a number of vendors selling barbecue lamb kebabs, mutton or beef sandwiches, local pomegranate juices, traditional sweets, nuts, persimmon cakes, and many other kinds of desserts. After the filling meal of paomo, we gave it a pass for the street food. We slowly walked back to our hostel, hoping to get some good rest. In the next morning we would exit Xian and head eastwards to the foot of Lishan Mountains to check out the most popular tourist attraction of Xian: the First Qin Emperor’s Terra-cotta Warriors.
Mutton paomo (泡饃) at Lao Sun Jia Restaurant (老孫家).
Beef paomo (泡饃) at Lao Sun Jia Restaurant (老孫家).
Heading towards the icon of Xian, the Bell Tower (鐘樓).
The Bell Tower stands at the centre of a large roundabout.
The 14th century structure is lit up with atmospheric lighting.
The Drum Tower at a distance, and in front, the public square between Bell Tower and Drum Tower. The square is flanked by local restaurants, a department store, and a Starbucks.
Signage at the Drum Tower.
The mighty Drum Tower near the entrance to the Muslim Quarter.
Street vendor of lamb kebabs at the Muslim Quarter. There were terrifying lamb skeletons hanging in front of each kebab store.
Beiyuanmen (北院門) Street, the main pedestrian street at the Muslim Quarter.
Vendor selling regional pomegranate juice.
Rose cake, another kind of local dessert.
Kebab stores were the most popular.
Muslim beef sandwiches.
Vendor handling of sweet being heated up.
Persimmon cakes and a friendly smile.
Our posts on 2016 Xian and Jiuzhaigou:
DAY 1 – NIGHT ARRIVAL, Xian, China
DAY 2 – QIN EMPEROR’S TERRACOTTA ARMY, near Xian, China
DAY 2 – BIG WILD GOOSE PAGODA (大雁塔), Xian, China
DAY 3 – HAN YANG LING MAUSOLEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – SHAANXI HISTORY MUSEUM, Xian, China
DAY 3 – GREAT MOSQUE (西安大清真寺) AND MUSLIM QUARTER, Xian, China
DAY 3 – MING CITY WALL, Xian, China
DAY 4 -FIRST GLIMPSE OF JIUZHAIGOU (九寨溝), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 5 – ARROW BAMBOO LAKE (箭竹海), PANDA LAKE (熊貓海) & FIVE FLOWER LAKE (五花海), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – PEARL SHOAL FALLS (珍珠灘瀑布), MIRROR LAKE (鏡海) & NUORILANG FALLS (諾日朗瀑布), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – LONG LAKE (長海) & FIVE COLOURS LAKE (五彩池), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 5 – RHINOCEROS LAKE (犀牛海), TIGER LAKE (老虎海) & SHUZHENG VILLAGE (樹正寨), Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝), China
DAY 6 – ASCEND TO FIVE COLOUR POND (五彩池), Huanglong (黃龍), Sichuan (四川), China
DAY 7 – FAREWELL JIUZHAIGOU & XIAN, China