Hunting down an abandoned railway track

When I left vacation planning to the good husband this year, I should have prepared myself for quite a bit of action. We’ve hiked up three mountains so far on this trip to Japan, and my back and knees are threatening to give up on me.

Still, the husband had one more surprise for me which he revealed yesterday.

And the surprise was a hunt for the abandoned JR Fukuchiyama railway track.

ImageThe adventure began at Namaze Station. Following the directions of the excited husband, we walked along a busy stretch of road that was frequented by large buses, lorries, container trucks and heavy vehicles. My heart leapt to my throat whenever a monster rumbled past me at high speed.

After 15 minutes or so, we crossed that crazy, busy road and came upon a expansive field with little houses and lush greenery in the distance.

ImageImage

Closing in on that field, we took a little path on the left of that field and that soon brought us to an old signboard that warned of danger ahead. Yep. We were on the right track.

Ignoring the sign, we went forth and crossed an old but sturdy bridge.The vista that greeted us from there on was one of the most brilliant I’ve seen on this trip. Running along the Mukogawa river valley, the abandoned track is now loved by locals who appreciate the serene and scenic environment.

If you are a worry wart like I am, rest assured that this abandoned track is truly safe to explore. Along the way we met small groups of elderly folks and the occasional dog walker. Just remember to put on proper hiking shoes, as the ground is littered with rocks, stones and tree branches, and bring along a strong flashlight to help you conquer the six unlit train tunnels on that route.

We covered the full length of the abandoned track in three hours, with several stops for photos.

I shall let the photos do the talking from here on. :)

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Advertisements

The funny incident at Takeda

The good husband had been waxing lyrical about Takeda Castle Ruins months before the holiday.

“The view is really lovely from up there and the trail leading up is becoming very popular with young couples. We must go!” he said endlessly, while reassuring me that the hike would be an easy one since young boys were bringing their dainty dates on it.

So that was what we did.

From Himeji we took a train on the Bantan Line to Takeda Station, and found ourselves in a quiet little town. A hand-painted map in front of the train station shows two routes to Takeda Castle Ruins – one runs 800m through a cemetery at the foothills, the other is winding path of 1-plus kilometres.

Of course we chose the shorter route!

ImageImage

The starting point of the route was a pretty one, rounding the back of a trio of shrines. But after passing the cemetery, as the hand-painted map had shown, we were lost. There were no signs to point us in the right direction, and the only way forward was through an area covered with bushes.

There seemed to be a worn path, which meant people had used that way before.

Image

Close by was an old man who was gathering twigs, and we approached him for help. “Takeda Castle Ruins,” we said, while pointing to the top.

The old man seemed to understand and replied with a very long sentence. Of course, we understood not a single word.

So I pointed to the bushy area and asked again, “Takeda Castle Ruins?”

The old man sighed and after a thoughtful pause, nodded and waved us in the direction of the bushes. So off we went.

But as we climbed, the worn path disappeared and many times we had to stop and think where we ought to proceed. We had to find firm footing on loose rocks and exposed tree roots.

It was bewildering for me and many times I asked the husband how was this trail suitable for dating couples?

Despite the cool weather, I perspired heavily and had to strip down to my T-shirt. And even that was soaked through in the end. I imagine young Japanese girls who take this route would perspire just as much too, and have their heavily made-up faces melt away.

My endless complaints aside, we pressed on and eventually came face to face with a proper path. Hurrah!

Image

But even that disappeared moments later.

Eventually large stone slabs appeared, signalling the castle ruins were close. Indeed, the stone foundations of Takeda Castle Ruins soon came into view.

Image

What joy! The trek is over! And we took a photo to commemorate the moment.

Image

We sat on the grass to catch our breath and to enjoy the view for a while, before climbing to the top of the stone foundations, which is truly our final destination. But minutes later I heard kids’ laughter.

Kids up at the Takeda Castle Ruins?

Kids who managed to conquer that horrible trail to arrive at Takeda Castle Ruins?

How is that possible?

So I picked myself up and climb up the stone steps, impatient to see if there were indeed children up at the ruins.

And I saw a carnival of people up there, some dressed in lacy stockings and heeled booties. What the heck?!

Then I noticed that a barricade was placed at the top of the step where I had just set foot on:

Image

Then the truth dawned upon me. We must have taken the wrong way up, a route that was closed to the public, a route that was not meant for visitors.

No wonder the twig-gathering old man said so many things when we asked for directions to Takeda Castle Ruins. He must have been trying to tell us how to get to the correct trail.

No wonder he sighed and waved us up the overgrown path. He must have thought, stupid tourists, that’s the wrong way up but go if you insist!

We later discovered that the correct path to Takeda Castle Ruins offered a far easier stroll. The path is well paved and regular sized steps are provided. Furthermore, a large part of that 1-plus kilometre route is accessible by car, so visitors can drive more than half-way up and then walk the rest of the journey.

WTF.

The deed was done, so we could only laugh at ourselves and then explore the expanse of the castle ruins. It was beautiful up there, and sprawling. And we took a million photos.

ImageImageImage

We found a quiet spot to have a little picnic of hot tea and Manneken waffles.

Having spent so much energy hiking up to Takeda Castle Ruins, we stayed up there as long as possible and only descended 90 minutes later.

It was at the actual entrance of Takeda Castle Ruins that we had another funny moment. By accessing the historical destination the wrong way, we had actually skipped paying an entrance fee of 300 yen each!

Back in Takeda town, we walked through the quiet streets and found that there were hardly any tourists – it seemed that they would come in their tour buses and leave the town as soon as they were done at the Castle Ruins.

Just as well. No screaming, excited tourists to ruins the serenity of the area.

Occasionally an elderly folk would pass us by and greet us “konnichiwa”. That’s what we love about the rural areas in Japan. Everyone still greets each other and isn’t in too much of a rush to stop and smile.

Walking on we discovered a tiny shop selling okonomiyaki, one of the husband’s favourite Japanese dish. So in we went, and was greeted by a boisterous group of old men.

They all started to say different things in Japanese to us while waving us in. The female boss of the establishment emerged from the kitchen, and bade us to sit.

Soon the old men realised we were tourists and through some words the husband recognised, we understood that they wanted to know where we were from. And when they heard that we are from Singapore, one revealed that he had his honeymoon in Singapore 50 years ago while another said he had helped built one of our expressways.

WOW!

With a mix of sign language and a smattering of Japanese and English, we managed to chat and tease each other and became friends.

Image

Travels bring such joy!

Off to Kurama and Kibune

The husband and I love escaping the big city, and a trip to the rural town of Kurama to the north of Kyoto City seemed like a mighty good plan, especially since all the tourist hotspots in the city were packed.

Kurama can be accessed by train from Kyoto Station, but a few line transfers are needed. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Nara line to Tofukuji Station (about two minutes), then transfer to the Keihan Main Line to get to Demachi-Yanagi Station (about 10 minutes). Go to the platform for the Eizan Railway from here, and take the train bound for Kurama Station (about 30 minutes).

Image

Now, this service comes once every 30 minutes and uses a short train, so be prepared for large crowds and to stand in a very tight space throughout the journey.

The train ride is popular after sunset, as the tracks cut through a maple tree groove that gets lit up come evening, creating a wonderful vision for passengers.
Image

It was mighty cold – by my standards – in Kurama when we were there on November 29. Despite having two layers of thermal pants on, my knees were chilled to the bone. So before we started our hike up Mount Kurama, we slipped into one of the few noodle huts close to the train stations for a hot meal.

We realised that meat wasn’t featured on the menu at many eateries at Kurama – perhaps because Kuramadera, a revered temple on the mountain, and Yuki-jinja, a smaller Shinto shrine, are frequented by pilgrims.

The closest option I got for meat was ebi tempura, served in a heated metal pot with udon and soup. It was wonderful.The husband ordered the restaurant’s most popular dish, a soupy soba with sticky rice balls.

Image

With our tummies filled, we started off for Kuramadera. Its entrance sits at the foot of Mount Kurama, but the main temple complex is higher up, accessible by the temple’s own cable car service.

Alighting from the cable car, one still needs to walk some 10-15 minutes to get the the main temple complex. Despite the cold, my body warmed up with the exercise and I eventually peeled off my outer layers.

Stone steps lined with vermillion floor lamps loomed into sight when we got closer to main temple complex. Pressing forth in spite of our burning thighs (perhaps more me than him!), we were eventually rewarded with a lovely view from the top of the stairs.

Image

The main temple complex is huge, with plenty of open spaces and benches for visitors to sit and enjoy the surrounding greenery and contemplate how tiny we are in this enormous universe. There is a solemn prayer hall in the centre where the pious went to pray quietly to a large, imposing statue of the resident god. Standing in this prayer hall calmed my mind.

ImageImage

The good husband and I climbed on further where we found a museum that showcased the history of this sacred mountain and its indigenous wildlife. We settled onto a bench to rest and had some tea we brought with us, because our next journey would take us higher up Mount Kurama before we descend into the scenic village of Kibune at the other side.

Although there are steps cut into the ground for the convenience of hikers, many of these steps were broken by tree roots that had grown out of the earth, so one must walk with caution.

Image

It wasn’t an easy hike for me, as my back is weak and plagued with a chronic pain and I had done quite a bit of walking the past few days. Thankfully, the husband knows this and was extremely patient. We made several stops along the way up to rest.

After what seemed like a long time, we found ourselves at the peak of Mount Kurama. Signs advised us that Kibune is 1,026m away. Well, at least it would be a downward trek from then on!

Image

Along the way we came across several places of worship and from within came prayer chants. I’m impressed that the locals continue to make their journeys deep into the mountain just to pray.

Image

The species of trees changed as we got closer to Kibune, and I imagine how nature lovers would love trekking through this mountain.

ImageImageImage

It was 4pm when we reached the foot of Mount Kurama, on the side of Kibune village. The sun was starting its descend over the horizon. If we were half-an-hour slower, we would be hiking through darkness. With the sort of legends of powerful tengu and mountain spirits surrounding Mount Kurama, I really did not want to be in the forest after dark!

Kibune is a quaint village of traditional houses – these are ryokans and restaurants – along the crisp Kibune River.

Image

Image

In warm summer, the restaurant would build platforms over the river and diners could enjoy a leisurely meal in the open. In autumn and winter, kawadoko – the art of dining outdoors on a platform over a river – is impossible due to the cold.

Walking down the narrow streets of Kibune, we came upon Kifune Shrine, another landmark in the rural north of Kyoto. The shrine is dedicated to the god of rain and water, the protector of seafaring people.

Kifune Shrine is beautiful, and again requires worshipers and visitors to climb up many steps to reach the complex.

ImageImage

We hung around Kifune Shrine for quite a while, watching visitors getting their fortune told by strips of paper, called omikuji, that reveal messages when dipped in water.

When the cold started to get to us – it was 2°C) by then – we got back on our feet and went in search of food.

Now, most of the restaurants in Kibune serve pricey kaiseki meals. We found it funny that the hosts of such restaurants would politely explain that their meals are special and urged us to move along to other eateries further down that sold “cheap waffles”.

I wouldn’t have minded a kaiseki meal, as it was an experience worth the price. But the husband was not quite willing to fork out 10,000 yen for dinner for one.

We walked on and was greeted by an enthusiastic lady in front of a traditional house. She urged us to take a look at her menu and kept saying “yudofu”. Her fingers directed our attention to pictures of tofu cubes simmering in soup in a claypot.

Hurrah! I’ve always want to try Kyoto’s tofu cuisine. That was my chance!

Kibunechaya serves several set dinners, and the one we chose was priced at 3,500 yen per person. It comprised of a pot of silken tofu cubes boiled in a plain broth, which we ate with fresh spring onions and ginger paste, as well as small, pretty dishes of cold shellfish, yasai tempura, boiled vegetables and a small fillet of grilled fish.

ImageImage

I love tofu, so dinner was most satisfying. However, the carnivorous husband suggested that we go for supper once we got back to Kyoto City. Haha, poor chap!

Kibune was completely dark when we emerged from Kibunechaya, and much more colder. It could well be under zero now that the sun has set. So imagine our delight when we passed this fireplace outside of Kifune Shrine. :)

Image

To return to the city, we took a train from Kibune Station, which was by then surrounded by illuminated red maple trees.

Image

The return journey brought us through the illuminated maple tree tunnel, and the train captain turned off all lights to enhance the vision. It brought out many ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. :)

Anyway, we did have another meal back in the city to satiate the husband’s lust for meat. We found a restaurant close to Shijo Station, just one train stop from Karasumaoike Station where we usually alight to get to our hotel.

I don’t know what this restaurant is called in English, but it serves a type of pork from pigs that were raised on the leaves of green tea. We had it as a shabu shabu, and the meat was amazingly tender and fragrant. Good luck identifying this restaurant through the photo below. It opens till 2am every day.

ImageImage

Hike up Wakakusayama

Visitors to Nara are often drawn to the majestic Todaiji Buddhist temple and its surrounding Nara Park, home to more than 1,000 deers.

For us, the one thing we wanted to do while in Nara was to hike up Wakakusayama, or Mt Wakakusa. Rising 350m high, with a 560m trail from the bottom, Wakakusayama is popular during Cherry Blossom season and in autumn when the leaves on the surrounding trees turn an enchanting shade of amber and gold.

ImageImage

Getting to Wakakusayama will require one to walk through Nara Park anyway, so we had the chance to marvel at Kofukuji’s and Todaiji’s architecture and feed some of the deers that roam around the sprawling complex.

ImageImageImage

560m may seem like a short distance to cover on foot, but it was an uphill trek on steps cut into the earth and I’m a very inactive person. My legs screamed bloody murder as I made my way up, while my lungs, unused to such activity, worked fast and hard to take in more air.

Thank goodness for the brilliant scenery along the way up, which made the hike less painful. It was great to stop whenever I needed and I took time to enjoy the sounds of rustling leaves and view of Nara spilling out below while I caught my breath.

Some 40 minutes later, we found ourselves at the peak of Wakakusayama, a grass-covered plateau where one could enjoy a picnic and take in the city view.

Image

Although we packed a picnic basket, with the intention of enjoying a quiet mid-afternoon tea atop Wakakusayama, rain had pelted down during the hike. At the top, strong winds whipped cold rain into our faces, making it quite challenging to eat.

Furthermore, it was about 10°C that day, and being wet and cold was a bad idea.

So we walked the length of the plateau and hung around as long as our bodies could bear the cold, and then descended from Wakakusayama. Going down was far easier! :)

There are some tea houses at the foot of Wakakusayama, and we sought out one of them for hot tea and to warm ourselves.

The rain refused to let up even after an hour, so we exited the tea house and made our way back to our hotel slowly on foot, cutting through a different part of Nara Park. Along the way we found a most charming tea house tucked among the trees.

Image

It was such a beautiful scene, almost like something you would find in fairytale land!

We didn’t stop for a snack there though, as we wanted to get out of Nara Park before the sun set and we still had a long way to go. In autumn, Japan falls into darkness soon after 4.30pm.

We were completely drenched by the time we reached Kasuga Hotel, where we stayed for two nights. Thank goodness our western-style room came with a bath, and in there we soaked ourselves in hot water to warm up. I love how the hotel provides a foot massager in every guest room – the machine was a life-saver for my worn feet!

A sweet end to an eventful day came in the form of a snack of hot matcha and local sweets, courtesy of the hotel.

Image

Goodnight now. I’m exhausted!