Most countries have the odd attraction or two that get somewhat over-hyped. In Japan, Amanohashidate would fit that description. A place with an almost mystical/spiritual appeal to the Japanese, and which draws tourists in the thousands, we dropped by on our way from Ine to Kyoto. Glad we did not make a special trip as we’d have been sorely disappointed – literally a non-spectacular  sand bar across a bay near Miyazu. Perhaps though, that brief disappointment was all meant to be since the rest of the week brought us all the splendour of Kyoto and Nara, a wonderful reconnection in Osaka with my old boss of 35 years ago, a full service of our vehicle (after an initial struggle) and a nostalgic visit to our old stomping ground in nearby Kobe.

Light and dark blue lines show our route taken this past week. Distance -short. Sights – many !

Unlike Amanohashidate, Kyoto, (Japan’s cultural heart and former capital) very much lives up to the hype – most visitors justifiably spend days visiting its historic shrines and temples, quaint backstreets and excellent shopping options. We limited our re-visit to a few of our old favourites, Kinka Kuji still topping that list – both of us consider it our favourite Japanese shrine/temple. It was just astounding to see the number of foreigners there ( and at other Kyoto sights ) during this visit – at first we thought it was simply because we had been previously travelling in parts of Japan where foreigners are less visible ( was it perhaps that we just noticed them more here ?) but in asking several Japanese merchants, they all confirmed that they have never seen so many foreign visitors in the city as there are at present. They pegged the cheap yen ( “en yasu” in Japanese ) as the driving force. How the world changes – during our time here in the mid 80’s the Japanese business people were all complaining about “en daka” ( the strong yen ). For the first time in many decades, travel in Japan now represents very good value and foreigners are flocking here. More on that in next week’s blog.

Our favourite Japanese shrine, Kinka-Kuji in Kyoto.
Possibly Japan’s most photographed sight..
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto.
Famous Toji temple, Kyoto.
Kyoto backstreet near Kiyomizu-dera Dera
Kiyomizu Dera, Kyoto.
Kiyomizu Dera.
Japanese garden, Kiyomizu Dera.
Sannenzaka shopping street, Kyoto.
Japanese fans, Kyoto store, Sannenzaka.
Kimono clad women walking through backstreet in Pontocho, Kyoto.
Historic Pontocho street, Kyoto.
Street scene, Kawaramachi, Kyoto.
Kyoto backstreet scene. Many pretty canals branch off the river.
Our van is really NOT that big. Some in Canada could not believe we would travel so far, for so long, in something “so small”. In Japan they always want to put us with buses – sometimes we feel like we are driving a road train here!

The “service soon” indicator had stated to flash on our van ( we knew it was coming ) and had expected that to be solved with a fairly routine visit to any one of the many Mercedes dealers that can be easily found in all major Japanese cities. We figured Kyoto, one of Japan’s most international cities, would provide good dealer options and some English-speaking staff. Turns out we got two of those three things right – there were indeed several dealers, and the one we approached had a very helpful English speaking staff member (Mr. Isobe), but getting our vehicle serviced would turn out to be far more of an adventure than we had ever anticipated. While the Sprinter van is not a common Mercedes product in Japan ( we’ve not yet seen one on the road ) the V6 diesel engine and transmission it uses are very standard across the Mercedes range and hence the requisite oils and filters would/should be widely available. Indeed they were – but a service bay high enough to accomodate it was not !!! Not, it turned out, only in Kyoto, but nor was one apparently available anywhere in Kobe or Osaka, or, if there was, no dealer was willing to tackle servicing our particular vehicle ! Of course what needed to be done could easily have been done outside the service bay and an exception could easily have been made – but making exceptions to rules are not things that Japanese people tend to like to do. The long and short of it all was that our friendly Mercedes service representative, embarrassed at being unable to assist us “in house”, put us in touch with a local workshop that ( we were told ) specialized in “exotic cars and camper vans” ( a truly odd market combination we thought ). Fortunately, they were close by, able to assist us at short notice, and ( unlike all the Mercedes dealers ) were very happy to take on the challenge. Service completed the very next day ! Phew !

Isobe-san checking the van dimensions to see if there was a Mercedes dealer anywhere in Honshu that had a Service Bay high enough to accommodate us – yes, really ! And they all said no !
Ultimately, Mercedes Kyoto referred us to Tanimoto-san at NAC Auto who specialized in “exotic” vehicles and “campervans”. Despite that being a seemingly odd market segment, Tanimoto-san took great care of us and got the job done !
While our van was ( in our mind anyway ) far from exotic, some of his other clients’ vehicles certainly qualified ! A classic Porsche.
When we left NAC Auto, the van was cleaned to showroom condition! Vacuumed inside, too !
In true Japanese style ( where service is EVERYTHING), we were driven to, and picked up from, the nearby railway station so we could sightsee while the service was done.

Through a mutual friend I had been able to reach out to and connect with my old boss from our time living in Japan over 35 years ago and it was with much enthusiasm that both Lois and I were looking forward to reconnecting with him while in the area. Maenaka san and his wife, Hideko, had agreed to meet us in historic Nara for a coffee and lunch so we made Nara our next port of call. Now, 35 years is a long time between catch ups so needless to say we had lots to talk about and thoroughly enjoyed both the coffees and the lunch, the experience definitely enhanced by Maenaka san’s choice of venue, the historic Nara Hotel. Nara is very congested and I was concerned where we would park our van but he had that all taken care of and the valet had us parked up right in front of the lobby! Needless to say, our arrival created quite a bit of commotion with the usual, “oki” and “takai” banter ensuing ( “It’s big, it’s high” ). A spectacular lunch, awesome views across Nara Park and great conversations filled the mid-day with subsequent hours spent exploring Nara’s attractions. So wonderful to reconnect after so long.

My old boss in Japan, Maenaka-san and his wife, Hideko. We’d not seen each other in over 35 years !
We enjoyed an amazing lunch at the historic Nara Hotel.
Coffee followed, but I had tea. I was given a timer to tell when the tea had steeped sufficiently. Yes, that kind of detail at this hotel !
One can’t walk through Nara Park without being accosted by the deer. Hundreds of them !
Entrance to Todai-ji, Nara.
Today-ji, known for its Great Buddha.
Great Buddha, Nara.

While I had worked mostly in Osaka, we lived ( and Lois worked ) in nearby Kobe. Of course no visit to Japan would be complete without a good walk down memory lane and after navigating some pretty crazy traffic between Osaka and Kobe, we managed to find a great place to park up for the night, high up on Rokko Mountain with a spectacular view over Osaka Bay and the surrounding cities. Probably one of the best camping spots in Japan so far.

Confusing traffic lights in Osaka. Rather than a solid green with a red right-turn arrow, we often see this. Hmm.
Caught rush hour, it was slow going.
Camping spot on Mt Rokko, Kobe. The iOverlander app just continues to deliver great spots to stay.
View by day, and…….
…even more stunning at night.

Sadly, the next day in Kobe was a little more problematic. We did manage to stop by and walk around our old neighbourhood and check out our old place (which remains largely unchanged). Given that the great Kobe earthquake occurred in 1995 and damaged much of the city, there was no guarantee our old neighbourhood would look as it did. The difficulty of finding a place to park our vehicle in Kobe meant that we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would’ve liked in the city. Some Japanese cities are just like that. What parking that did exist in the city ( at least that we could find ) was all designed for these new micro cars that everybody seems to be driving in Japan ! No room for us 😔.

Our home for over 3 years in Japan, top floor unit in “Atelier G” (at the time the Japanese had a thing for French names).

Leaving Kobe to the west one does not drive very far until  the amazing new Akashi bridge comes into view. It was built just as we were leaving Japan, and now connects the Honshu mainland to the island of Awaji, which in turn forms a land bridge between Honshu and the island of Shikoku, the fourth of Japan’s four major islands. More on our travels in Awaji and Shikoku next blog.

Till next week….

Another “montage” of video clips from the week that was. Enjoy…….