You desire a dark and creepy bamboo forest experience? Read on.
When visiting Kansai and Osaka, it’s easy to think of the whole region as a purely urban conglomeration. Which it is to a degree, but large parts, especially outside Kyoto, Nara and south of Osaka, are very peaceful and rural. Add the great transport connections to this and you have endless opportunities for day hikes!

I’m not a big hiker, but do enjoy long walks and easy hikes every now and then (and I hate mountains!). I had been meaning to hike the Kisen alps for a long time, but heard reports of the bad state of the trail and decided not to go by myself. I’m so glad I didn’t, as this turned out the scariest hike I’ve ever taken. It was easy enough to find the trail from Yamanakad station, and the instructions provided on the Hiking in Japan Website were on point… to a certain degree.

After a very steep initial climb up, the trail was in very poor shape, with a lot of warning signs about slippery slopes and other kinks in the road. One we reached what the website described as a large park, we were indeed rewarded with some great views across Osaka bay and Kansai airport as well as further into Wakayama Prefecture. As it was already 4 pm at that point, we decided to go for the shortest route towards Kii station… from where the path got even worse. We ended up having to virtually slide down the last mile of bamboo forest during dawn, which in retrospect is the funniest, but also scariest experience I’ve had in Japan. There was construction going on at the end of the trail, so we had to walk through a really creepy tunnel to get to the station in the end. If we hadn’t met other hikers along the way, I would have sworn the path had officially been closed.

choose your way out!

Was it scary? Yes, but an experience I won’t ever forget. Absolutely go for a hike here when you’re staying in Osaka! From current updates, it sounds like the trail has been reinstated a month or two after our experience. But do go early in the day, make sure it didn’t rain the day before, and do wear proper gear. Trainers and shorts or a skirt will not cut it here. It’s an easy hike on a physical level, but you do need some proper boots and trousers in case you end up on your behind at some point. You should be able to read some survival Japanese or bring someone with you who can. The warning signs are definitely not to be ignored and there is absolutely no signage in English… you absolutely must be able to read the names of the places you are going. Also, this is not for the arachnophobes! There were lots of spider webs on the way.

However, if you want to rural Japan with a touch of eeriness like out of a Ghibli movie, this is probably your best chance in Kansai.

If you like the traditional sides of Japan and have already seen a lot of temples, yet might not have the time or confidence to travel in rural Japan by yourself (English is rare there), a visit to the UNESCO heritage villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama is highly recommended. They are located in the area of Hida, near Takayama, which is also a beautiful town worth spending a few days in. There are a few different small villages, with Shirakawa-go being the biggest. Suganuma is another one we visited, which was a lot more quiet and peaceful, yet also had some small museums and souvenier shops.

This area is one of the most remote of Japan's main island of Honshu. The villages are only reachable by bus or car. The new tunnels built between Takayama and the villages have cut the travel time to about an hour and a half - before it took 3 - 4 hours or more to get there, and it winter, the villages were often completely cut off from the world. The villages are famous for their special thatched roof houses, which are several stories high and traditionally were heated by an open fire burning in the lower level. The smoke eventually turned the wood on the inside of the building black, which supposedly helps to preserve the material.

The thatched roof has to be renewed every couple of years - and this is the main reason of the UNESCO status, as the material for thatching has become very rare today and has to be brought from other areas of Japan. This means the average price for a new roof, including labour, is around $200.000!

Several of the buildings in the villages can be visited for small entry fees. I especially recommend the temple and the biggest of the thatched houses in Shirakawa-go, which houses an exhibition on the area. The temple museum focuses on the local rice wine festival, and you can even try some of their local rice wine (like a very high alcohol Korean magkeolli) for free.

Of course, this being Japan, there are also local delicacies! Everywhere sells chestnut ice cream, but the best local product is their pickled smoked burdock (gobo) - I've not seen this anywhere else in Japan and it's incredibly tasty, a bit like BBQ sauce. Don't forget to get some for Japanese friends :)

If you have some more time, several houses also offer a homestay. I'm not sure if they are English speaker friendly, but I've never heard of anybody receiving anything but kindness and hospitality in rural Japan - so it shouldn't be a problem if you don't speak Japanaese.

You can visit the villages with a rental car, but I do recommend getting a good tour guide, who can make the hstory and traditions of the area, including the many handicrafts and festivals unique to here, come alive for you.

We visited on a tour with Nohi bus, and it turned out that three of us had the English speaking guide to ourselves. The lady was outstanding - I've never met a tour guide who knew so much about a place and could answer even the most pesky (and critical) question. She even went out of her way and tried to get us another bus ticket back in Takayama, when the bus we wanted to get on was sold out.

Nohi bus is the local bus company that runs buses from Shinjuku to Takayama, some also continue to the villages, and on to Kanazawa City as well as all the way from Kanazawa to Kyoto and Osaka.

a gravestone and sculpture of a fencing champion

Paris, Buenos Aires, Manila, London... I've become an inadvertent fan of visiting cemeteries. Not so much for a pilgrimage to famous people's graves, but for the artworks that many of the gravestones and monuments are in these places.

Lychakiv Cemetery is located a 20 min walk from Lviv's medieval city, walking past the very impressive university campus. The entrance fee was 25 hryvnia, plus 10 hryvnia if you want to take pictures (and trust me, you will want to!). 

Lviv belonged to Poland for a long time, so there are many Polish graves in addition to Ukrainian ones and a large monument in addition to the Ukrainian war monument located there. 

I have to be honest, I was a bit worried how much I would get out of this experience, as I know exactly one of the famous people buried there (Ivan Franko, who, among many other things, translated Shakespeare, Byron, Goethe and Schiller into Ukrainian). However, the pictures will speak for themselves! 

We spent about an hour and a half wandering around - I imagine you can spend much longer if you can actually read Cyrillic. The art was fantastic, much unlike anything else I've seen at "western" cemeteries. I'm not sure if that's due to Soviet, Orthodox or Ukrainian influences or a mix of it all. After a week in Ukraine, I have to admit that this nation has its very own ideas and is incredibly creative in terms of visual art.

Ukrainian flags and colours were everywhere

A lot of gravestones showed people playing harps

The trident is one of the oldest symbols of Ukraine, which hasn't been an independent nation for long, although people have been fighting for independence for centuries

the angel rising above the cemetery and the surrounding hills was simply mesmerizing!

many monuments are surprisingly modern!

actually, only few looked classically orthodox

sleeping beauty

Lady in waiting...

This monument to an archbishop was so big, it reminded me of Chinese style necropoli

some statues were classic in style but used more modern materials

apart from harps, pianos featured heavily, too

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