Heian shrine’s torii gate

Heian Shrine's torii gate

We started our shrine tour from the Heian Shrine. The whole shrine area is quite impressive in its size, but one of the most notable features of the shrine is the huge torii gate on Jingu Michi road. The gate is built in 1929 and, according to statistics from 2006, at 24.2 meters it is the seventh tallest torii in Japan. It certainly dwarfs people walking underneath it. Although it was Saturday morning (or maybe because of it), the shrine and the area around it weren’t too crowded.

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Okazaki Canal

Okazaki Canal in Autumn

This location is on Jingu Michi Street, right next to the Heian Shrine’s great torii gate. You can see the gate and its surroundings on Google Street View on the map below. Although
Okazaki Canal might not be as beautiful in the autumn as it is in spring, when the cherry trees on the banks are in full blossom, I can’t help but stop and admire it when I cross this bridge. There are also boat tours available on the canal, if you want to view the trees from another angle. The building on the right is the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art, which is also worth visiting.

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Shirakawa Canal

Shirakawa canal seen from Sanjo Dôri Street

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On our second day in Kyoto (and the fifth morning in Japan) the rain finally stopped and we were greeted by a beautiful morning. Because we’d crashed out early the night before, we woke up at about 6 a.m. After breakfast we quickly packed our stuff and took our backpacks to the next hostel called Kinsuikan, which was only a few blocks away. From there we headed to the nearest subway station. Our plan for the day was to see a few of the UNESCO word heritage sites in Kyoto, so we figured that we were probably going to ride both the buses and the subway, so we picked the one day pass that costs 1200 yen and allows unlimited travel on both. There are also other kinds of bus and subway passes available, but this one seemed to best fit our needs. I’m not sure if we actually saved any money with the pass, but it did make traveling easier because we could just get on a bus and show the card to the driver on our way out.

We then decided that our first stop would be the Heian Shrine, because it was just a few stops to the east from the subway station we were at . We got off at Higashiyama station, from where there was only a few minutes walk to the shrine. The canal in the above photo is Shirakawa Canal, which begins from the Kamogawa River and joins the river again about four kilometers North. We walked past the canal on Sanjô Dôri Street and ended up following the canal all the way to the Heian Shrine. Although this part of the canal is not the most impressive, I couldn’t help but take a photo of it. Even with the antennas and satellite dishes on the roofs, the scene takes you back in time.

See the location of this image on the map below. The street view image is from the other side of Sanjo Dori Street, but you can see the canal and the buildings across it.

Kyoto

Kyoto cityscape on a rainy day

The morning after we returned from Sendai we left Tokyo again, this time for Kyoto. We managed to got up early enough to be on our way to Shinjuku and Tokyo Station at 8 a.m. We’d already developed a routine for the mornings, which made getting on the way faster. This time we bought the Shinkansen tickets from Shinjuku on our way to Tokyo, so all we had to do at Tokyo station was to find the right platform. Our train left at 10:30 we started our journey to Kyoto. The train was quite crowded, but we managed to find seats and less that three hours later we were standing at Kyoto station, wondering where we would spend the night.

After an unsuccessful attempt to get a woman in the tourism info to help us and calling a few hostels with no success we found our way to the service desk of the International Tourism Center of Japan (it used to be located in the ninth floor of the station, but has since been closed). A helpful woman working there organized us fairly cheap hotel rooms for the three nights we were planning. The only catch was that we had to switch to another hotel after the first night. Still, it was better than staying outside, especially since it was the typhoon season and it had rained like crazy the entire day.

We stayed the first night in a hotel called Alpha Kyoto on Sanjo Dôri. I was thinking of writing a short review of it, but found out some time ago that it has been shut down, so I guess there’s no point. It was a fairly nice place and we actually ended up staying there twice. Although we had thought that it would better not to reserve hotels in advance because we had a lot of people to meet in Japan and needed to keep our schedule flexible, at hindsight it was a stupid thing to do and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wants to enjoy their holiday. The only positive thing was that the weather was so bad that we wouldn’t probably have done much sightseeing on the first day anyway.

Anyway, here’s a few photos from our room. The opening image of this post is a view from the room across Aneyakoji dôri.

A room in Hotel Alpha Kyoto

A room in Hotel Alpha Kyoto

A room in Hotel Alpha Kyoto

You can see the hotel on Google Street View below (the building with 7 Eleven):

New year, new tricks

A Bullet Train to Kyoto at Tokyo Station

We’re already well into 2015 and I’m ashamed to notice that I’ve let this blog and my other social media endeavors wither as I’ve become busy with all kinds of work and photography-related things. That is about to change, however. As an unofficial new year’s resolution I’ve decided to post more images this year and also resuscitate my Tumblr and Facebook accounts.

I’ve had big plans for this website and my photography for a long time, but never really got around to implementing any of them. So this might as well be the year to do that. As a first thing, I’ve added links to the sidebar to my images that are available for licensing on Getty Images and Alamy.

If you’re on Instagram, you can go to my account to see some travel photos that don’t end up in this blog. That’s also the place where I’m currently the most active and where I post new photos first, so if you want to see what I’m up to, follow me there. Even you don’t have an Instagram account, you can go to the Instagram page on this website to see the latest images.

The photo above is from the shinkansen (bullet train) platform at Tokyo station. I took this a few years ago when I was traveling around Japan. We were heading to Kyoto but had to wait for the staff to clean the train before we were allowed to board the train.

Nikka’s Miyagikyo Distillery

Nikka distilleries were established by a man called Masataka Taketsuru, who established the company’s first distillery in Yoichi in Hokkaido in 1934. The Miyagikyo distillery in Sendai was established in 1969. Interestingly, before launching his own company, Taketsuru helped to establish Japan’s first distillery for the company that would become Suntory. There’s a short history on Nikka’s website if you want to read more.

The factory area was huge and we had to walk quite a while after the first gate until we arrived to the tourist area. The first stop was the distillery’s souvenir shop. I thought it resembled a retirement home, except that it was much more fun. The shop and its surroundings were crowded by old men and women, and judging by the way many of the old boys wobbled around, they had already had a taste of the local produce. Although there were a few visitors who weren’t quite that old, we were without a doubt the youngest people there.

The next tour was just about to start when we got to the information counter so we signed up and joined our group. The tour lasted about 30 minutes. It started with a presentation about the history of the distillery and then our guide took us around the distillery and explained the process of making whiskey.

The road to Nikka Whisky Distillery

A Tour Group at Nikka Distillery in Sendai

Spirit Still at Nikka Miyagikyo distillery

Nikka's Miyagikyo Distillery in Sendai

After the tour we finally got to the good part – tasting Nikka’s products. During the tasting two Japanese men from our group, an older gentleman and a guy in his 40s, suddenly started a conversation with us. The younger man declared that he loves alcohol – and he probably did, because he told us that was going to visit a sake brewery the next day. After finishing our drinks we went back to the shop to buy something for the folks back home. In the shop, we were pleasantly surprised to see a bottle of 21 year-old Taketsuru waiting for us at the entrance! In 2009, the Whisky Magazine ranked the 21 old Taketsuru the best blended malt whiskey in the world, and it is manufactured right there at Miyagikyô distillery. it wasn’t a cheap bottle, but being one of the finest whiskey’s I’ve ever tasted, it was worth the price. And actually, compared to the price in Europe, it was quite a bargain.

After the shopping spree, we headed back to the station with our new family member and it just happened that the train back to Sendai arrived to the station as we entered the platform. We had thought of visiting Matsushima and the famous islands in the area, so we took a train from Sendai station to Hon-Shiogama, but it turned out that we had missed the last boat ride. Since we’d traveled all the way to Hon-Shiogama, we had dinner there and then headed back to Sendai. Matsushima would’ve probably been beautiful, but after spending such a wonderful day with whiskey, missing Matsushima didn’t feel that bad. After a light dinner we returned to Sendai once more and took the bullet train back to Tokyo.

And if anyone’s counting, with the fourth day over, we’ve traveled 885,5 kilometers by train.

Sakunami

We finally arrived in Sakunami a little past noon. Although the distance between Ayashi and Sakunami is only about 13 kilometers, it still took about 20 minutes to get there. When we stopped at Ayashi, I thought it was a quiet little station, but compared to Sakunami it was actually quite busy. Sakunami station was mostly surrounded by fields and forest, and there were hardly any passengers, although there was a taxi waiting for customers in front of the station. It seems that there is a hot spring resort with quite a few hotels and spas in Sakunami, but not having done our homework we had no idea of what the area had to offer.

We had to ask the station staff for directions to our destination, Nikka’s distillery, and while they seemed a little amused to find out where we were going, they were very helpful. A station employee actually ran to the nearest bus stop to check the schedule for us. Because we would’ve had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus, we decided that we might as well walk because it was only two kilometers to the factory.

While I was talking with the station staff, my sister found out the terrifying secret of the Japanese countryside: there are MONSTERS everywhere! There was a butterfly the size of my palm resting on a phone booth next to the station building, and unfortunately this freak of nature wasn’t an exception in the local fauna. The brushes were bustling with all kinds of bugs from huge spiders to different kinds of beetles. While we were walking to the distillery, we also noticed that there were a lot of hornets about 2 inches long flying around and a lot of dead ones on the roadside. (I read later that they are common in the mountainous areas of Japan.) I was also later told that they cause more deaths in Japan than all the other wildlife combined. Strangely, I had never encountered wasps or other bugs of this size before, even though I have been camping in the countryside and the mountains in Southern Japan.

Here’s a few photos from Sakunami Highway that leads to the distillery:

On Sakunami Highway
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Mt. Kamakurayama
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The mountain above is called Kamakurayama. I read later that it is possible to go hiking there from the hot springs, so it’s a shame we missed that opportunity.

Sakunami Highway
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The distillery is just around the corner in the image above. Despite all the bugs it was a pleasant 20-minute walk to the distillery and although we spent a good amount of time goofing around and taking photos of the insects and other stuff, we managed to get there well before the bus. If you want to see the route to the distillery yourself, check the map with the street view below (turn left on the highway and head towards the big mountain):


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Day 4 – Ayashi

After the dance performance, we hopped on a train that would take us to our next destination, Nikka’s whisky distillery in Sakunami! Actually the first train took us only half way there, to a small town called Ayashi, where we had to wait for another half an hour for a train to Sakunami.

Ayashi Station

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Ayashi seemed like a really nice little town and it was actually a pity that we didn’t have more time to explore it. According to Wikipedia, Ayashi station was built in 1929, but it had its moment of glory in December 2001 when princess Aiko was born. Because the name of the station and the princess’ name are written with the same kanji characters, people rushed to buy platform tickets from the station to commemorate the event. In December 2001 approximately 84,000 tickets were sold at the station, when during the previous six months just over a hundred tickets had been sold. We didn’t know anything about it when we stopped there, of course.

Ayashi Station

While we where there, my sister and his boyfriend went to find some snacks from a convenience store, but I chose to stay near the station and took a few photos. I had foolishly worn a new pair of shoes during the first couple of days of our trip and my feet were already hurting from all the walking. Well, that was a lesson learned.

A train arriving at Ayashi Station

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Although we didn’t have much time to explore Ayashi, there was one landmark that was visible all the way to the station. In the distant hills, there was a massive high-rise that really caught my attention. Apparently the building is called Nishikigaoka Central Heights. You can see it below on Google Maps – click the yellow man if the street view doesn’t open automatically.


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1.10.2009 – Day 4: Dancers at Sendai Station

Dancers at Sendai Station

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The great thing about traveling is that you never know what happens next. When we got to the station, we noticed that it was unusually crowded and there were a dozen mascots standing in a row inside the station. It seems that the city of Sendai and Miyagi prefecture organized a tourism promotion campaign and we happened to be there on the opening day. After the big-headed mascots a few dancers and finally a group of musicians with drums and flutes entered the stage that had been built inside the station. The dance performance looked fun so we stopped to watch it for a while. Unfortunately the local media had taken the best places in front of the dancers so we mostly got photos of the backs of their heads. The video below was shot by my sister and she’s kindly given permission to use it.

1.10.2009 – Day 4, part 1: Sendai in three photos

We woke up early because we had a busy day ahead of us. After a sturdy breakfast we checked some details from the Internet at the hotel lobby, packed our gear and headed back to Sendai station. Here’s a few images from the walk back. These are not very representative of any tourist attractions Sendai offers, just general views of the city. It was a cloudy day and everything looks a bit gloomy, but despite that Sendai seemed like an attractive city.

Sendai

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This next building caught our eye (or actually the thing on the roof did). It turned out to be a wedding hall called Palace Heian, which explains the unusual architecture. I think the style of the roof construction is called Shinmei-zukuri.

Palace Heian wedding hall seen from the Ekimae dôri street

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Sendai Station

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