2 Week Tour of Chugoku – 16 Day Itinerary

Takeda Castle, Asago
Takeda Castle, Asago – Photo: Unkai

Our next adventure begins soon.

This time around we have just over two weeks.

In order to make the most of that time, we have planned an itinerary that takes in at least 9 locations but, at the same time, doesn’t see us crazily running around non-stop. We’ve put together a 2 week tour of Chugoku region (Western Honshu).

What we’ve come up with gives us time to pause, relax, stroll, socialise, spend time with family and friends, and generally chill, drink coffee and eat cake. :-) Here’s the low-down on how we put the tour together. Feel free to use this as inspiration for building your own version. Links to a whole bunch of resources that we used can be found at the end of the article.

 

Places Visiting

  • Asago
  • Hagi
  • Kobe
  • Kyoto
  • Okayama
  • Osaka
  • Takahashi
  • Tokyo
  • Tsuwano

And who know where else we might squeeze in a day trip to?  ;-)

Chugoku region map
Chugoku region map

The Plan

Given that we only have two weeks we decided to keep our travels limited to the main island of Honshu. That way we keep the distance to travel between destinations relatively modest, so we can see more, do more, enjoy more and spend less time actually doing the travelling bit (though I do love that too!).

Of course, we want to explore the lesser-known destinations, more than the more popular tourist places. So, in preparation, I opened my ageing Rough Guide to Japan to look at the map of Honshu and to see where on the coastline I’ve not yet been to, and to read about some of the places found there in more depth.

One area stood out: the north-western coastline of Honshu – between Kinosaki and the southern island Kyushu – two areas I’ve done some exploring in already. Filling in the gap between them felt like a good plan.

 

Kobe Harborland
Kobe Harborland

 

With friends in Tokyo, a friend’s band (Mechanical Cabaret) playing their first gig in Japan in the capital, and the invitation to DJ at a club the following day (I also run an electronic/alternative music review website: dsoaudio.com), we decided to begin our trip by flying into Tokyo for a couple of days, before heading over to Kobe, which we will use as the base for the rest of our adventures.

After our travels around Western Honshu, we’ll be flying back to England from Kansai International Airport in Osaka.

 

Our Itinerary:

Day 1 – Arriving Tokyo (Haneda International Airport), stay in hotel (in Gotanda)
Day 2Tokyo – DJ-ing. Evening Nozomi shinkansen from Tokyo to Kobe
Day 3Kobe – Chill
Day 4Kobe – Chill
Day 5Takahashi, stay in ryokan
Day 6 – Return to Kobe from Takahashi (via Okayama)
Day 7Asago (for Takeda Castle) day trip
Day 8Kobe – Chillout
Day 9Hagi, stay in guesthouse
Day 10Tsuwano, stay in ryokan
Day 11 – Return to Kobe from Tsuwano
Day 12Kobe – Chillax
Day 13Kyoto day trip
Day 14Osaka day trip
Day 15Kobe – Shopping
Day 16 – Depart to England (Kansai International Airport)

 

Some Highlights:

This trip is about mixing new destinations with familiar ones. The new destinations are all much of a kind, in that they are all off the beaten track (of course!) and are examples of the more historical/traditional side of Japan. Here’s a few, quick highlights on each of them:

Takahashi (and Tenchi Muyo!)

Takahashi town in Okayama Prefecture is pretty innocuous. Even in Japan.

So much so, that in 2014 the authorities there invested in developing an anime series, Ai: Tenchi Muyo!, set in Takahasi to help raise its profile and hopefully drive some of the millions of Tenchi Muyo! fans there in pilgrimage.

Tenchi Muyo! creator Masaki Kajishima is from Okayama prefecture. There’s a castle (Bitchū Matsuyama) and a Buddhist temple (Raikyū-ji) best known for its Japanese garden. My Rough Guide tantilisingly describes it as “A small, charming time-warped castle town… evoking images of a long-lost Japan”. That sounds like a piece of The Real Japan to me!

 

Takahashi, Fukiya Bengara Village
Takahashi, Fukiya Bengara Village – Photo: 663highland

Asago (Takeda Castle – the ‘Japanese Machu Pichu’)

The sole reason for going to Asago is to see Takeda Castle, also referred to as The Castle In The Sky/The Castle In The Clouds. Referred to locally as the ‘Machu Pichu of Japan’, it is the ruins of a castle built in 1441, at 353 meters above sea level, meaning that in autumn mornings clouds form below the peak it sits on, forming a ring of clouds below the castle – making the castle appear to be floating on the clouds.

I’m not sure if this place gave inspiration to Hayao Miyazaki for the Studio Ghibli film Laupta: Castle In The Sky, but images of it suggest it may have (but either way I love and recommend that film).

Hagi

Hagi was chosen to fulfil my insatiable desire to wander around places in Japan that have barely changed in hundreds of years. The kind of place where samurai houses and merchants’ quarters date back to 1604. Where traditional crafts, such as the Hagi-yaki pottery that the town famous for, and regional specialities like the whitebait caught in the Matsumoto river which divides the town, are maintained to this day. Hagi offers all of this.

Hagi old town
Hagi old town – Photo: Opqr

Tsuwano

Like Hagi, nearby Tsuwano was also chosen to revel in the ancient, traditional side of Japan. Tsuwano is older than Hagi and sits below the 908-metre Aono-yama volcano, and is known for its picturesque main street, ‘Tonomachi’ which is lined with Edo-era buildings and canals teaming with koi.

You could visit Hagi and Tsuwano in a single day but wouldn’t have enough time in each, so we opted to travel to Hagi first, stay there overnight, then spend the next full day in Tsuwano, where we will stay in a ryokan.

Kyoto and its Amazing Train Station

Not off the beaten track and a well-known international tourist destination – but with good reason. Kyoto is always worth a visit if you have the time. The main area of interest, including the shrines, temples and old town, is surprisingly compact and a lot can be covered on foot in just one day.

In stark contrast to the traditional temples and shrines Kyoto is famous for, the interior of its train station is a jaw-dropping example of modern Japanese architecture at its finest. You should allow some time to linger inside, taking in the striking design and engineering of the vast atrium spanning its 15-storey high interior. There’s also a shopping mall, restaurants and even a cinema if you want to spend a few hours here (and you easily could).

 

Nozomi train to Okayama
Nozomi train to Okayama

Our pre-planning included:

  • Re-read ageing Rough Guide to Japan for inspiration based on areas of Western Honshu I’ve never been to before.
  • Little bit of additional internet research to fill in the details on and refine our short list of possible destinations.
  • Checked late train and flight options from Tokyo to Kobe on Day 2. Opted for Nozomi shinkanesen train as they are super fast and frequent. Not much difference in price between plane and train, and not a lot in it duration wise, door to door either. Also, going by train allows us to stay in Tokyo a little longer. (The Nozomi tickets worked out at just under ¥15,000 per person.)
  • 7-day Japan Rail Pass purchased in advance in the UK (you cannot buy once you are in Japan). Which we will ‘activate’ on Day 5 with our train from Kobe to Takahashi.
  • All accommodation researched online via Jalan.net (see Resource links below) booked in advance. Even so, a suitable (ie affordable) ryokan in Hagi was not available, so we have opted for a more humble (and much cheaper) guest house there.
  • International flights booked using Skyscanner.com. Flights from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda with ANA. Return flights with Lufthansha (code share flight with ANA) from Kansai International Airport (Osaka) to Frankfurt, Germany, then to London Heathrow worked out to £687 per person.

Related: To read how this trip actually panned out you might want to read this follow up article:
TRJ Adventures: Changing Plans, New Discoveries

 

TRJ - Resources

 

Skyscanner (for flights)
http://www.skyscanner.com

JR Rail Pass (for trains)
http://www.jrpass.com

Jalan.net (for accommodation)
http://www.jalan.net/en/japan_hotels_ryokan/?cc=eng_banner

 

Official Tourist websites for all the destinations:

Asago Tourist Bureau:
http://www.city.asago.hyogo.jp/kankou/eng/index-en.html

Hagi City official website (Japanese only):
http://www.city.hagi.lg.jp/portal/

Kobe City official website:
http://www.city.kobe.lg.jp/foreign/english/index.html

Okayama City official website:
http://www.city.okayama.jp/english/index.html

Osaka City official website:
http://www.city.osaka.lg.jp/contents/wdu020/english/

Takahashi City official website (Japanese only):
http://www.city.takahashi.okayama.jp/

Tokyo City official website:
http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/ENGLISH/

Tsuwano Official website (Japanese only):
http://www.town.tsuwano.lg.jp/

Related: To read how this trip actually panned out you might want to read this follow up article:
TRJ Adventures: Changing Plans, New Discoveries

 

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