Castles, tea and trains

Anyone who has only travelled on a Shinkansen and thinks that they have seen the best the Japan Railways has to offer is sadly deluded. Okay, the regional trains may not be as comfortable as a Shinkansen, but the often fantastic views more than compensate for this.

We bought day tickets for the Matsue Lakeline Sightseeing Bus and covered most of where we had walked yesterday in much less than half the time.

Our first stop was Matsue’s castle, a rare original. We’ve already seen four other Japanese castles, but like them, Matsue’s brings something original to the table. The intact castle walls, moat and gardens are gorgeous and the cherry blossom lamps were already in place for the blooming. Inside the wooden castle were impressive displays of samurai armour along with wonderful views of the city. By walking down the steep stairs backwards I felt safe carrying Alex.

Adjacent to the castle is the Local History Museum. The captions appear to be in Japanese only, but the building itself is an interesting fusion of western and Japanese architecture.

We wandered out through the castle’s forest paths and out to Shiomi Nawate, a historic street running alongside the castle moat. We skipped Lafcadio Hearn’s house and went straight to Buke Yashiki, the more than 250 year old residence of a middle ranked samurai.

The English brochure is rather confusing, but, like many Matsue sights, it is only half price for foreign passport holders and thus quite cheap to enter.

Walking further along the street we took a left turn and climbed up the steps to the Meimei-an teahouse.

The gardens are very pretty, but it appears as if the actual teahouse is not longer used for tea ceremonies. We were instead welcomed into a more modern structure looking out towards the garden and Meimei-an. There we sat on tatami mats in front of a gas heater.

There wasn’t a full tea ceremony, but it was quite pleasant way to relax while drinking the bitter macha green tea and eating the sweets. The lady who served us was more interested in Alex than us! Alex had a milk tea minus the tea.

We returned by bus to the station, collected our luggage from the hotel, bought ekibento for a very late lunch and started our journey away from Matsue.

Once you leave the passenger cabin the Yakumo Express has a real old feel to it, lots of solid grey metal like an old navy ship. But the views, as it travels down from the San-in coast to the Sanyo coast at Okayama, are stunning.

As we turn away from the coast at Yonago the conical Mount Daisen emerges snowcapped into view. We then spend the next couple of hours winding our way through a mountain valley, a river carving itself to alternate sides around us.

There are bamboo forests, forests of pine, but also of deciduous trees. Terraced rice paddies and stone walled towns hinting at floods dot the wider valley stretches. There were many mining operations burrowing right into the cliffs, possibly for lime.

There are a number of lines crossing between the Sanyo and San-in coasts. I’d love to spend a few weeks travelling up the entire San-in coast and across to the other side on each of the lines.

I had to stand much of the way, not due to a lack of a seat, but to carry an upset Alex out of the other passengers’ hearing.

At Okayama we changed trains to a Rail Star Hikari Shinkansen for the leg to Sin-Osaka. However, at Shin-Osaka we missed out tight connection due to a lack of downwards escalators and the need for old people to try to pack en masse into elevators. It seems like the old of Asia never learned patience.

Fortunately, our rail passes allow us to catch any other train, apart from Nozomi Shinkansens, so all we had to do was wait unil the next non-Nozomi to ride it in the unreserved carriages to Kyoto. I left my camera on my seat and, with the help of the passenger now seated there, only just managed to retrieve it before the doors closed.

At Kyoto we changed to a subway for our hotel, the Karasuma Kyoto. The room is wonderfully big here, the location pretty convenient. Unfortunately, it was too late to go out as a family and eat dinner. The shops were closed, and Alex needed sleep, not a late-opening bar. Looking for take-away and wanting something hot rather than another bento box from a convenience store I only managed to find First Kitchen, a Japanese burger chain. I wouldn’t mention it except that they serve mentaiko pasta. Sounds yucky!

Only one night in Kyoto, then we are off to our final destination in Japan, Tokyo. I saw yesterday that an aircraft had flipped and burned at Narita airport, probably due to windshear. Scary, seeing as that is the airport we are flying out of. I don’t want to think about it yet!

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