For our last full day in Japan, we went to see the Itsukushima Shrine on the island of Miyajima. From Hiroshima, it’s a streetcar and short ferry trip, so an easy day-trip.
Oh dear. Around midday, when we arrived, the weekend crowds were intense, the souvenir shops intrusive and the famous O-Torii Gate we had come to photograph was stranded at low tide in thick mud.
But six hours later, after a stroll around the island, welcome reading time and a delicious authentic meal, all had changed. Now, this felt like a World Heritage Site, and the keen photographers, the ones with their tripods, were clicking away.
First built in 593 and remodelled in 1168, the Itsukushima Shrine sits on boardwalks above the rising tide. Approaching by boat, through the 16.6 m high, camphor and cedar wood O-Torii Gate, must have been an incredible, visual experience. As the sun broke through the low clouds, we obtained a dramatic shot that could only be Japan.
Ifyouplanto do this It’s all about being there at high tide, and hopefully it will tie-in with the sunset. So plan your day around the tidal charts.
More climbing today. Up the Main Keep of Himeji Castle, to the very top. A wonderful but slightly claustrophobic experience due to the narrow, steep stairways, the ever reducing size of the floors, and vast number of tourists.
Although the Main Keep appears to have just five floors, it actually has a seven floor configuration made of six floors and one basement. Two massive wooden pillars, almost one metre across, hold up the whole structure.
Dating from 1609, Himeji Castle is the pre-eminent Japanese Castle, built to project feudal authority and power. In the 19th century it was earmarked for demolition, along with many other Japanese castles, before being reprieved. In World War II it survived the US air raids, that reduced the rest of the town to ashes. And today, after a six year restoration it’s gleaming white; well maybe not gleaming when we saw it on a dull and drizzly day.
Himeji Castle is known as the “White Heron Castle” because it is thought to resemble a white heron taking off. Some readers will recognise it from the James Bond film: You Only Live Twice.
We’re continuing travelling around Western Japan using our Japan Rail Passes. An initiative to encourage more visitors to Japan, these passes – offering unlimited miles – can only be bought prior to arriving here.
A 45 mins local train, through unappealing urban sprawl, brought us to Nara, the capital city prior to Kyoto. It’s where you come to see the Todai-ji complex and the Daibutsu (Great Buddha), one of the largest bronze Bhudda figures in the world.
We had planned a rest evening in the hostel, catching up on diaries and emails, but that was scuppered by the prospect of seeing the temples, shrines and lakes in Nara Park lit by 20,000 glowing lanterns. This magical atmosphere, now in its 19th year, is the NaraTo-kae festival, attracting to Nara nearly 1m visitors. We were particularly lucky seeing the Buddhist wooden statues lit up in the Todai-ji complex.
In the morning, bright sunshine replaced the lanterns, and children were feeding the deer in the park. We headed straight to the 16m high Daibutsu, originally cast in 746 BC. It’s housed in the 1709 built Daibutsu-den Hall, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, yet amazingly a mere two thirds of the size of the 789 BC original.
We were glad to be here, especially as we have now seen all three of Japan’s most iconic sights (the others are Kinkaku-ji and Mount Fuji). But, we are now completely “templed-out”. The next stop on our train journey will be to visit Japan’s best castle.
We are in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, so it’s time to join the herds of tourists.
With blue skies and sunshine, our first stop was Kinkaku-ji, known also as the Golden Pavilion, one of the most iconic Japanese buildings and since 1994 a World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see the stunning reflecting pond within the temple, but the exterior walk around the lake was exquisite enough.
Originally built in 1397 as a villa, when the owner died it was converted, in keeping with his will, into a Zen Buddhist temple.
Amazingly though, what we marvelled at was in fact a 1955 reconstruction, as the original temple was arsoned in 1950 by a schizophrenic novice monk. The reconstruction is said to be a close copy of the original, although some doubt such an extensive gold-leaf coating was used in the 14th Century.
You don’t climb Mount Fuji for personal contemplation in an unspoilt landscape. Instead it’s an endurance challenge, enacted each night in the climbing season (mid July through to mid September) by thousands of Japanese.
We decided to embrace the excited crowds, young and old, many wearing new hiking anoraks and boots, some with wooden hiking sticks which will be stamped at each of the mountain huts up the mountain.
But this is no Sunday afternoon stroll. For much of the way up the steep side, the terrain is rough lava rock requiring commitment and stamina.
There are four routes up, and we were taking the most popular one. We set off at 11.45am in partial cloud, but this was good, it kept the temperatures lower.
By 5pm we were above the clouds and arriving at our booked mountain hut. After basic food was industrially served, we chatted to a small group, before heading off to our beds around 8.30pm. Now bed isn’t really the right word. Better to imagine how slaves would have slept in the late 18th century on the ships crossing to America, but without the chains. 200 people crammed into double-decker sleeping pens.
Not surprisingly, we hardly slept at all, which actually made getting up at 2.30am to continue the climb a lot easier than you might imagine.
Under a starry, clear sky, and a near full moon, a continuous procession of headlamps moved slowly up the mountain. This is the M25 of mountain climbing, complete with hold-ups from weight of traffic. However, at 5.15am, just after sunrise, we reached the highest point of the ‘land of the rising sun’.
But one more thing needs to be mentioned. Given this is a sacred mountain, also a Japanese icon, and climbing it is a Japanese rite of passage, we were surprised by the generally shabby facilities. Also, the poor service and inflated prices in the hut. We expected more from Japan.
If you plan to do this It’s best to do more of the climb in the evening, by booking a higher hut, even though they tend to be more expensive. That way, after summiting, you’ll have more energy for the gruelling, three hour walk down the mountain. And in our opinion, walking poles are a must.
It’s made of rock, but it acts like a giant magnet, drawing millions of tourists from around the globe. And seeing Uluru in context, from all angles and perspectives, is so different from seeing the classic postcard shot.
In the flatness of the Outback, you see Uluru first some 40km away. Thereafter, as you drive around the National Park, your eyes are always drawn to it. It’s simply both mesmerising and engulfing.
We spent a couple of days focusing on getting to know the 348m high stone well. The journey of the sun, the contours and buttresses in the rock’s surface, create ever changing effects that rewards the extra time.
Since, Hilary was here 30 years ago, more walks have been opened up. For five hours, we walked all around the base of the rock, enjoying the unique flora and fauna, the succulent waterholes and the caves where the Aboriginals gathered to tell their stories.
And we’re glad to say that, despite the number of visitors, discretely accommodated some 15km away, there’s still remarkable peace to find.
For many people it’s a bucket list thing. If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it well, and Agincourt Reef, 90 minutes from Port Douglas, just this side of the continental shelf, is a recommended place.
Local operator Calypso offered, for a price, extended snorkelling at three different sites, so we booked Roger up – Hilary’s done it before and doesn’t particularly like snorkelling.
Conditions were perfect, exceptional good water visibility and low winds, and helped by the provision of a prescription eye mask, Roger had a brilliant experience. Swimming directly over the kaleidoscopic coral, and through the shoals of intensely-coloured fish, in such shallow water, was special.
He feels different about the 2,300km long Great Barrier Reef now. It’s not a line on the map, but a unique, precious living entity of great diversity. And one that’s so in peril from cyclones, rising sea temperatures, bleaching, sugar cane fertilisers, coal mining ships, and tourism – you name it.
No wonder everyone wants to see the reef whilst they can. But will our grandchildren?
After all the Ansel Adams photography, it seemed strange to see this gem of a national park in colour. Temperatures hit the high 80s as we cycled and walked around the Yosemite Valley.
It’s spelllbindingly attractive, but don’t come here if you want to get away from people. And photography is a lot harder than it should be due to the number of cars parked everywhere.
Perhaps the best way to see the Valley is from Tunnel View, see image below – El Capitan is on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right with Half-Dome far away in the distance.
If you plan to do this Even on a Monday, we were surprised how busy the Valley was. Unable to book accommodation inside the park, we stayed an hour away from the entrance, and had to get up early to secure convenient parking places. Cycles helped us get around the Valley quicker.
The Old Town in Quito is like a step back in time. It reminded Hilary of La Paz or Kathmandu back in the 1980s.
The Plaza del Independencia is well preserved, together with a wide area of surrounding streets with sublime old buildings. This was South America’s first UNESCO world heritage centre.
The streets were full of Bolivian women selling bags of fruits and vegetables and school children flooded the central square on a day out. Everywhere lots of police, some trying out their brand new Segways, in preparation for expected civil unrest in the next round of the presidential election.
A backdrop of high mountains and mists and the near total silence once darkness descends, make this a very special place.