Friday, 15 August 2014

Rain, attractions and Obon

Date: Friday 15th August 2014

Weather: Clouds filled the sky for most of the day. Heavy rain fell in the morning and late afternoon, leaving the middle of the day dry. Due to the cloud, the temperature was fine.

MP3 track of the day: Patience – Take That

When you travel, you live in a world where everyday brings you new surprises. Yesterday I found pants on the floor next to my bunk and, when I awoke this morning, I felt full with cold (a cold, sunburn and a damaged foot … my 30's aren't starting well). These aren't the usual surprises I long for however, once showered and ready for the day, I felt more human.

Before heading out I checked the weather report for this area. Until 9am the area of Hakuba would remain cloudy; between 9am and 10am the clouds should break to reveal blue skies until around 2pm when it would rain throughout the evening. My plan was therefore simple. The time was now 7:00am; I would take my time and have breakfast at the closest McDonald's (a twenty minute drive). I would then drive to where the cable car whisked me 3,000 meters up into the mountains. If the weather did indeed improve at 9am, I would purchase a ticket; if not I would wait until 10am before cutting my losses and heading towards the city of Matsumoto where I would visit a castle among other sights. With that planned, I left my hostel around 7:30am and casually drove towards my chosen breakfast 'joint', photographing two lakes and letting two bikers - from my hostel - over-take me.

Once breakfast had been consumed I drove in the direction of the cable car. Before I go on, I must explain that, currently, I am travelling within the middle of the 'Obon' festival. 'Obon' happens all over Japan and it is a time when families get together within their home town. It's a three day holiday where everyone is on the move, heading back to where they grew up; which in one way is lovely as old school friends – who parted for different parts of the country – are able to see each other and chat about how life is. In one way it isn't that great because, most Japanese only have two weeks leave per year if they are luckily and, to use almost one week visiting their home town doesn't leave a lot of time to explore their own country. Unlike our Christmas celebrations; families do go out and they do visit attractions. This explained that, as I approached the car park for the cable car, the line of cars trying to park was considerable. What's more, the car park cost 500 Yen and, as I wasn't sure if I was going to use the cable car just yet (the weather was still dodgy), I turned around and found somewhere free to park where I could look at the mountains and await a weather change. I turned my car engine off and started to play Spryo the Dragon until 10am.

The weather report had been 50% right. The mountainous area of Habuka – which is where I currently was, and which is where my hostel is – is in a small valley. I could see that the clouds above the eastern mountains were indeed breaking; what's more, the clouds which remained were as white as a newly purchased bed sheet therefore, not threatening at all. The western mountain range however, were still covered in dark clouds. As I looked at the sky, it looked as though a titanic 'good vs evil' battle was about to happen with the eastern mountains white clouds moving towards the western mountains black ones. Battle or not, it made no difference on my day. It was 10am and the cable car went up the western mountains, which were still covered in clouds. I therefore put Spryo away and left the area, amazed to find more cars driving the opposite way willing to pay almost £60 per person to see clouds close up.

I was heading into Matsumoto at around 10:30am therefore, forgetting that this was holiday season, I thought that I would miss all of the traffic. Of course it took me a lot longer than I ever imagined and trying to park within the castles car park was a nightmare. Once again, the car park attendants were doing an excellent job trying to ferry cars to different car parks minimising waiting time however, I still had to wait for about thirty minutes to get my place. I could have searched for a less busy, and cheaper, car park a little out of town however, with my cold was getting worse, I couldn't be bothered to look for a better bargain and so I just waited in line praying that enough cars would leave soon so that I could get a space.

Eventually I found a space; the car park was a little more expensive than I would have liked however, once again, I didn't care. My initial plan was to see the castle before moving my car further into the city centre (to then walk around that). That plan was soon abandoned due to all of the traffic and so I decided to leave my car where it was when I looked around the city centre (the city centre wasn't that far away anyway).

Due to being 'Obon' the castle was packed with people though, it was still beautiful. Small in size, the castle consisted of one main building with six storeys (though, from the outside it looked as though there were only five storeys. This was intentional as there was a story, without windows, where Samurai could hide from the enemy). Next to the main building was a single turret and a 'moon viewing area'. Though this castle has had a lot of reconstruction work done to it, it is still the oldest wooden castle in Japan and, due to this and Obon, the waiting time to get into the castle was currently set at 100 minutes. I actually didn't believe the noticeboard; I decided to purchase an entrance ticket (£5) and go and look for myself however, before leaving the ticket counter I made sure that it was okay to leave the castle grounds and enter later without having to buy another ticket.

The queue stretched for miles. The time was 11:30am and so I had an idea; I would photograph the castle from it's inner-grounds before leaving for an early lunch. I hoped to get back around 12:30pm when everyone else was going for their lunches, reducing the queues. Congratulating myself on my 'excellent common sense', I left the castle making sure that one of the ticket guards knew who I was (so that they could let me in later).

As I walked south towards the centre of town I decided that it didn't really matter if I saw the inside of the castle or not; I always prefer the outside of buildings to the inside, and just getting those photos of Matsumoto castle, within it's inner-grounds, was worth the entrance fee. I walked down a small street, designed to kept within 'period' – of course all buildings were souvenir shops – before finding myself within the real Matsumoto city. Though not very big, the city has certainly been built upwards with skyscrapers lining most of the main streets. As it turned out, there wasn't a great deal to see, or photograph, within the city centre. I took a few photos to show 'everyday life within Matsumoto' before going into a shopping centre, attached to the train station, where I found a Vieda France. I decided to have lunch their before I walked slowly back to the castle.

I couldn't believe it! The waiting time had been increased by twenty minutes. With nothing left to see I entered the grounds and joined the queue. In actual fact; the queue was a lot smaller than it had been this morning. The queue also continually moved forward therefore, I was sure that it wouldn't take two hours to get into the castle.

Once more the Japanese had thought of everything. The waiting area had been covered with temporary gazebos and a wide collection of benches had been acquired, procured or stolen in order to accommodate the Obon traffic. A temporary toilet was placed close by so that people could use it – if required – without loosing their place in the queue.

After an hour and ten minutes of reading my guidebook, texting my friends and reading every English information board within sight, I was allowed in. Before going up the castle's huge wooden steps, I had to take my shoes off and place them, plus my umbrella, within plastic bags. It would have been nice if they had a 'shoe delivery service' - where my shoes were taken to the exit - alas, I ended up carry my shoes and my umbrella with me at all times, which pretty much stopped me from taking photographs (not that I ever enjoy photographing the inside of buildings).

It's not often that I read every English information board plus view every exhibit however, with the volume of people, the tiny 'Edo period' wooden stairs were causing major traffic jams. This meant that I had ample time to view each and every exhibit. Most of the exhibits were donated by one collector who had acquired a range of historical fire arms from around this area of Japan. These did not interest me as much as a large painting which seemed to show a battle raging around the castle between the occupants and an alliance of enemies. The detail was incredible and it was painted in that ancient Japanese style where 'long distance = smaller item' didn't occur.

Once I had seen these exhibits I then waited to climb the extremely steep stair cases all the way to the top. One noticeboard described the stairs as forty centimetres in height; this I knew wouldn't be a problem to assent however, I really wasn't looking forward to the decent.

I slowly climbed forever upwards, viewing archers firing holes (which were just like UK castle firing holes; i.e. big on the inside to allow for greater angle however, small on the outside so that it was hard for the enemy to fire into the castle) and places where boulders would be rolled down the sides of the castle to prevent the enemy from climbing up. Once at the top of the castle I had a quick look before returning down the seven sets of steps I had climbed. Once back on the ground level I only had the 'moon viewing room' (built after the 'warring period' when the occupier could build things for pleasure, instead of for military reasons. This is one of two 'moon viewing' rooms ever attached to Japanese castle). As the name suggests, this room was used to gaze up at the nights sky therefore, it's windows were huge.

Once I had finished my tour of Matsumoto castle I put my boots back on and headed out of the castle grounds and towards my car. For the first time today the cloudy sky was breaking therefore, I photographed the castle again because, I felt, these photos would come out better than the morning ones. As I left the castle grounds, I realised that this was my last 'tourist sight' of my trip. Though I wasn't feeling great, I still had a lump in my throat at the thought of my travels being over (I just love seeing new places).

After grabbing a drink I got back in my car and paid the £7 parking fee (ouch!). Due to the sheer amount of Obon traffic plaguing the streets of Matsumoto, I abandoned trying to find the road I required whilst in town; I therefore took any road which headed north. I decided that I would sort out any mistakes once I was within Matsumoto's outskirts.

It didn't take me long to get back onto the road which would take me all the way to my hostel. Helped by an 80p toll road, I was adamant that my decision to 'just head north', whilst within the city centre had saved me buckets of time. Once on the '148' – the main road to my hostel – I started preparing for tomorrow.

First of all I stopped to fill up my car before stopping to fill up my snack bag. I really didn't fancy driving thirteen hours tomorrow with a fully blown cold therefore, I bought some medicine which would hopefully keep my cold at bay (medicine in Japan is extremely expensive; a four day 'cold' treatment cost me £10). Finally I stopped for a cheap main meal (which was okay, though the sweetcorn pizza wasn't that great) before driving back to my hostel.

As always I was greeted by the owner of the hostel (named K's hostel in Hakuba) as I came through the door. We had a little chat about our days before I went into the common room to start writing my blog. Shortly after the owner came in too and sat down with his wife, their very cute baby girl and the mothers parents. I have really enjoyed my time here; the hostel is extremely clean and has that 'family feel' I always look for.

My plan is to get up at 4:15am tomorrow morning therefore, I put everything I didn't need for a 'one night stay' within my car. Once completed I wrote my blog, and uploaded my photos, before putting my PC, and camera, back into my car. After spending a long time cleaning myself I felt prepared for the day ahead. I eventually hit the sack around 10:30pm.

So this is pretty much my holiday over. Tomorrow I shall head back to Sendai before driving back home on Sunday night. Within my time in central Honshu over (four days during my spring holiday, and nine days now) I have:

  • Visited Nagano.
  • Seen monkeys.
  • Drank famous sake.
  • Hiked around a live volcano.
  • Drove around the Noto Hanto.
  • Slowly walked through the world's best Japanese garden.
  • Visited three UESCO world heritage villages.
  • Walked around the merchant quarter of Takayama.
  • Witnessed a dance festival.
  • Visited the Toyota museum within Japan's fourth largest city.
  • Hiked an old 'Edo period' highway between two preserved post towns.
  • Hiked around one of Japan's best national parks, 1,500 meters above sea level.
  • Visited Japan's oldest wooden castle

Not bad”, I thought to myself; “not bad at all” as I closed my eyes.

Toodle Pip!


  1. Moaning about prices. I think everything here is dead cheap compared to home. ¥360 for coffee & croissant, bargain!

  2. Btw, we planned to see the Obon lantern parade this evening, but it is now hammering it down so may give that a miss.

  3. It's alright for you; you are converting everything back into Stirling (currently the Yen is massively under-valued making any trip here a bargain). I get paid in Yen therefore, things aren't as cheap for me.

    Yeah, I've had so much rain on my summer holiday this year. This is the worst August I have spent here in Japan ... weather wise.

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