I was glad to return to Matsumoto. The last time I was here was in 2011 and while we covered the major sights the last time ie the black castle, this time I was happy to just wander around and soak in the town’s laidback vibes. Even back then in that earlier visit, Matsumoto had come across as a town with more of a communal, village feel than a city. It’s the sort of place where you slow down your pace, throw out the schedule and just go with the flow.
Matsumoto has wide boulevards but these have little vehicular traffic. Most of these are intercut in a grid with smaller lanes. These lanes are a rewarding afternoon’s exploration. Moving away from the train station especially, in the older sections near the river and the castle, you’re likely to see old restored warehouses or kura, with a hidden shrine or two in the backlanes or maybe a street dedicated to frogs? Keep your eyes peeled and your level of curiosity high and you might find a surprise or two. As I did. Continue reading
These are the famous snow walls in the snow corridor near Murodo. This road is snowed over every year from November to April. In April, the road is cleared with great fanfare, with the event broadcast on national television! The route is usually cleared and ready for passage by mid April. When we were here in early May, the walls were about 18m tall, towering over the buses that trundle the route between Murodo and Bijodaira.
Walking the 500m-long snow corridor, or Yuki no Otani was just one of the highlights in a day filled with jaw-dropping gorgeous mountain scenery, this time cutting across and under the Tateyama massif and down towards Nagano. Continue reading
This picture was taken in late April. Well into spring already but up here on the Midagahara plateau, I am still standing on ice and snow at least eight metres deep. Only the tips of the trees can be seen. All around is a wintry landscape of white and blue. The 90km-long Kurobe Alpine Route is one of Japan’s most interesting itineraries. Not least because it boasts breath-taking scenery in the short time when it is open, but also for the sheer variety of transport options that bring to life the saying that it’s not so much the destination that counts but the journey.
For couch potatoes like me, this is probably also the easiest and most accessible way to get up this high into the Japanese Alps without breaking a sweat. For serious hikers or skiers (depending on the season), the Kurobe Alpine Route is a good way to get up to those high elevations, a start point for many rewarding hikes in the alpine meadows or a good downhill run. You could ‘do’ the alpine route in one day but why rush? We savoured the route slowly with an overnight stop at Midagahara. Continue reading
On Pingyao’s impressive city walls, surveying the grey rooftops of the town below, a lone rickshaw rider takes a break. The imposing wall is probably one of China’s last Ming city walls still mostly intact, encircling a cityscape that has not changed in the last few hundred years. You could probably walk the 6km circumference of the wall and I would have liked to do this but we were short on time. Regrettably, we did not allot Pingyao more time. I underestimated the size of this town. There were places that I would have wanted to see but could not.
The World Heritage Site is one of four ancient cities in China designated as Historic and Cultural Cities by the Chinese government and wholly under protection for preservation. If you consider that Pingyao has survived 2,700 years of war, revolution and ideology change mostly intact, this is no mean feat. Continue reading
In the Edo period, Kanazawa boasted not just one but three entertainment districts. Today these three areas – Higashi Chaya, Kazuemachi and Nishi Chaya are still more or less intact. The old dark wood machiya buildings still stand, a gathering of upscale shops, boutiques, souvenir shops and restaurants instead of the former teahouses and geisha houses.
The streets were mostly deserted by late afternoon and the rain had kept most tourists away – which suited us just fine. The light rain and dark skies only added a sense of mystery and romance to the hours we spent wandering the streets of Higashi Chaya and Kazuemachi that afternoon.
Pingyao has received so many glowing reviews that we had to put it on our list of places to see in China. The town is believed to be more than 2,700 years old and its city walls are said to be the most intact of all Ming walls with the old town authentically preserved in look and feel. However, unlike Zhangbi village which is clearly headed for an overhaul, Pingyao has already been discovered by tourists with the town’s main streets broad, well-paved and packed with souvenir shops, restored inns and restaurants.
Pingyao was bigger than I expected and is worth more time than the 2day-1night stay we had. Touristy sights aside, Pingyao is still very much alive with residents still living and working within. Go off the main tourist grid, peek into the alleys and courtyards and get a sense of the real town. Continue reading
Along the Kurobe gorge, there are only four key stations along the route, three of which were open at the time of my visit in early May. But the view as the little train chugged along deep into the valley is timelessly beautiful. Fresh green leaves of spring and early summer turns the landscape verdantly lush. Yet at some points, snow still dots the upper reaches of the mountains high above. Here and there, on the slopes, you could still see wild sakura with their white blossoms standing out against the green. Far below runs a rocky stream bed that at turns widens and deepens into slim lakes and rivers in shades of turquoise and teal before water disappears and reveals beds of bleached pale grey stones.
It’s probably well worth hiking certain sectors or even spending the night at rustic and remote onsen inns in the gorge which can be accessed by walking from some of the station stops. But we were short on time, having decided to move on to Kanazawa during the second half of the day so we stuck to a train ride to Kanetsuri station and then back to Unazuki Onsen. Continue reading