Old meets new in the heart of Japan’s Honshu Island

Honshu Island

by John Penisten, Hilo, HI

On a March ’07 trip to Japan, my wife, Susan, and I wanted to experience something of the country’s hectic urban life as well as the slower pace of its small towns and countryside. We got both during our train trip through the heart of Honshu Island.

The small, sedate market town of Kurashiki, the vibrant city of Hiroshima and its solemn atomic bomb museum, the quiet majesty of Miyajima’s temple, the simple seaside village of Amanohashidate and the historic shrines of Kyoto: these special places gave us close-up views of old and new Japan.


After arriving about midday at Kansai International Airport in Osaka, we caught the airport train to Osaka station. From there, we took an express train to the market town of Kurashiki, about two hours west near the seacoast. Before our trip, we bought Japan Rail Pass (www.jtbusa.com or www.japanrailpass.net) vouchers for just under $400 for two weeks of unlimited rail travel.

Honshu Island

We wanted to begin our visit to Japan with a small-town experience. We chose the Kurashiki Kokusai Hotel (1-1-44 Chuo; www.kurashiki-kokusai-hotel.co.jp) as our base for its location near the heart of the Old Town district, a short walk from the train station. A clean, well-kept twin room cost $143 per night. A pleasant breakfast buffet cost an additional $14 per person.

Kurashiki was a good choice, as it was a fun place to explore on foot. Old granary and warehouse buildings along the back lanes and canal (actually, the Kurashiki River) have been transformed into trendy shops, stores and eateries. The shops turn out mochi (a sticky rice cake), manju (a traditional confection) and all manner of Japanese goodies, making for fascinating discoveries.

Kurashiki’s historic Old Town has many narrow lanes that provide a close look at everyday life in a typical market town, and there are textile, arts-and-crafts and specialty shops as well. The residential neighborhoods, with their rows of historic Edo-period houses, and the numerous shrines, temples, museums, gardens and other historic sites also are worth exploring.


Our next stop was the bustling metropolis of Hiroshima — quite a contrast to Kurashiki. Due to time constraints and mixing business with pleasure on this visit, we stayed at the deluxe Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima (6-78 Motomachi, Naka-ku; www.rihga.com), located in midtown. A large twin room with a panoramic view of the city and nearby Hiroshima Castle was $177 per night, including a very nice breakfast buffet.

Hiroshima was, of course, totally destroyed by the atomic bomb that was dropped on it in 1945. A visit to the Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial is a must. The park and museum, located at the confluence of the Honkawa and Motoyasu rivers, were a short walk away from our hotel. The park marks “ground zero” of the atomic bomb explosion.

Honshu Island

At the museum (entry, about $1 per person plus $3 for audio tour), we took our time, moving slowly through each display, exhibit and photo of this very solemn memorial to those who perished.

The museum provides a sobering look at the impact of nuclear weapons. Regardless of one’s views, a visit here provides a healthy dose of reality on the horrors of nuclear war.

Just a block away from our hotel was the towering Hiroshima Castle, rebuilt after the war. Also known as the Carp Castle, it is completely surrounded by a moat and houses an interesting museum on early Japanese life and samurai culture and art. There are panoramic city views from the top level of the multitiered building.


One of Japan’s three most scenic sites is Miyajima Island, located just off Hiroshima’s shore. From Hiroshima station, it’s a 30-minute train ride to Miyajimaguchi, then a 10-minute ferryboat ride ($1.50 per person, one way).

“Miyajima” means “shrine island,” in recognition of the 1,400-year-old Itsukushima Shrine ($5 per person). The temple was built over the seashore, and the towering vermilion torii (gateway) that stands at the temple’s entrance is Miyajima’s symbol.

The Itsukushima Shrine is a 10-minute walk from the ferry pier. However, we were somewhat disappointed to discover how overly commercialized the area was. The Omotesando Street shopping arcade is a tourist trap, with numerous souvenir shops and eateries. With Miyajima promoted as a special sacred and historical site of Japanese culture, it was a bit of a surprise to find it a typically gaudy tourist center.

Miyajima also has several other shrines and temples and a challenging nature walk/climb to the summit of Mt. Misen (1,755 feet above sea level). The Miyajima History & Folklore Museum ($5 per person) has an extensive collection of cultural artifacts dating from the Edo Period (1603-1867) and is well worth a look.


The second of Japan’s three most scenic sites (the third is Matsushima, near Sendai, in northern Honshu) is on the western coast of central Honshu Island on the Sea of Japan. The quiet fishing village of Amanohashidate is a relaxing 2-hour train ride from Kyoto.

Honshu Island

We opted to stay at a Japanese-style inn, the Taikyourou Inn (471 Monjyu Aza; e-mail info@taikyourou.com), located on the canal leading from the inner harbor to Miyazu Bay and the sea. The double room rate of $330 is considered moderately priced for this type of accommodation in early spring, the high-demand cherry blossom season. The rate included a traditional Japanese-style dinner and breakfast.

It was a very nice one-night experience sampling authentic local cuisine, bathing in an onsen (hot bath) and sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor.

We enjoyed the village for its quiet atmosphere, well away from the hustle and bustle of urbanized Japan. “Amanohashidate” means “bridge in the heaven,” and it was named for the 2-mile-long pine-tree-covered sandbar which majestically bisects Miyazu Bay. The sandbar makes for a pleasant walk to the other side of the bay and the Fuchu district.

For an unconventional view of the area, take the cable car or chairlift ($5 per person) at either the Fuchu or Monju (Amanohashidate) end to the lookout areas, then bend over and view the scene from between your legs. It’s said that the view looks like “a floating bridge to the heavens.”

The Amanohashidate area also has several temples and historic sites to visit_plus some interesting shops at which to pick up local mochi and other goodies. There are also fish markets with local seafood products and numerous noodle shops and other eateries.


Located in the south-central area of Honshu Island, Kyoto is a vibrant modern city imbued with an air of ancient Japanese culture. It’s colorful heritage is easily seen in the many temples and shrines that capture the city’s past.

Honshu Island

The following are among the more popular and significant of Kyoto’s temples that our group visited. Many of the temples and shrines are open free to the public, but some do charge nominal admission fees, usually about $5 per person.

Located in the Sagano district of Kyoto, Tenryu-ji Temple (Temple of the Heavenly Dragon) has a long history, and its landscaped garden, one of Japan’s oldest, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The temple was established in 1339 and has undergone several reconstructions. The present buildings date to the Meiji period (1868-1912). Be sure to take in the magnificent ceiling painting of the Cloud Dragon in the Dharma Hall.

The Ryoan-ji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon), established in 1473, is a Zen temple most famous for its rectangular rock garden created in the early 16th century. The garden, composed of 15 rocks set into a field of raked white gravel, is considered a masterpiece. Foot paths lead throughout the temple grounds and around the Kyoyochi Pond, providing varied views of the beautiful gardens and the temple grounds.

More Kyoto temples

Kiyomizu-dera Temple is located in the Higashiyama district of Kyoto. Known as the Clear Water Temple, it was founded in the eighth century by a Buddhist priest. The temple buildings, most built in the early 17th century, are spread over a steep hillside offering panoramic views of the Kyoto metro area. Visitors seek out the temple waterfall for its pure water, said to have curative powers for all illnesses.

Daikaku-ji Temple, located in the Sagano area, was originally a palace of the Emperor Saga during the ninth century. It was later converted to a Shingon Buddhist temple. The temple buildings are noted for their exquisite traditional sliding doors and paneled paintings depicting scenes of early Japan.

Honshu Island

Fronting the main building is an imperial court-styled garden flanked with orange and plum trees. The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with the Osawa Pond adding to the serene atmosphere.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, in Kyoto’s suburban Fushimi-ku district, is one of Japan’s most important. This large Shinto shrine complex is spread over a wooded hillside with pathways running through tunnels of bright red-orange torii gateways, the temple’s most noted feature. There are numerous small shrines devoted to various deities, and many locals come here to pray, make offerings and ask for the blessings of the gods.

Kyoto details

Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital of Japan, didn’t disappoint. Thoroughly modern in every way and reflecting the fast-paced urban environment of today’s Japan, Kyoto retains its reputation as a center of Japanese culture and heritage.

Our hotel of choice in Kyoto was the New Miyako Hotel (17 Nishikujo-Inmachi, Minami-ku, Kyoto 601-8412, Japan; www.miyakohotels. ne.jp/newmiyako), where a twin room with private bath cost $167 per night. The hotel was clean and well kept. The full breakfast buffet, including Western and Asian cuisine, cost $17 per person.

We chose the hotel for its convenient location across the street from the main Kyoto train station, providing easy access to all of Kyoto’s attractions. The train station had numerous shops and restaurants as well.

Honshu Island

We intended to spend our last night in Japan outside Kyoto, taking just a small overnight bag. The New Miyako Hotel held our luggage overnight at no charge, allowing us to pick up our bags on the way to the Kansai Airport the next day.

We found the Japan Travel Bureau website (www.jtbusa.com) helpful in making hotel reservations and getting good rates for the rest of our trip.

Because our group of five had limited time plus one senior with some mobility challenges, we opted to hire a private, English-speaking taxi guide for one day rather than rely on buses, subways, etc., to get around. It was an excellent decision. We visited many of Kyoto’s major temples and shrines quickly and comfortably and with excellent English narration on Kyoto’s culture and history.

Doi Taxi (phone 090 9596 5546, www3.ocn.ne.jp/~doitaxi) is operated by Mr. Naoki Doi, an expert English-speaking guide to Kyoto. A comfortable 6-passenger van was used for the tours, which cost ¥5,400, about $55, per hour. I highly recommend this company.