Japan - Koyasan/Nara or Kiso Valley/Matsumoto?
Jan 26, 12, 10:26 pm
I am heading to Japan for a short vacation from April 19-April 30. I plan to spend 3 days in Kyoto first, 3 days visiting either Koyasan and Nara, or Kiso Valley and Matsumoto, then, returning to Tokyo (via Nagano) to spend the final 4 days (with a day trip to Nikko).
I would like to get other members' input on whether I should head to Koyasan/Nara or Kiso Valley/Matsumoto. They look equally enticing and interesting, but I need to pick one due to time constraints.
Jan 27, 12, 2:09 am
I'd spring for Kiso/Matsumoto just so you can check out some hot springs (onsen). Koya is great for one night, and some including myself prefer Nara over Kyoto, but they're less "different" from the rest of your itinerary than the mountains.
Q Shoe Guy
Jan 27, 12, 6:19 am
Heads up, the golden week holiday begins at the end of your stay in Japan.
Jan 27, 12, 12:47 pm
I imagine it would be very hard to choose between them.
As I really enjoyed "Before the Dawn" by Shimazaki Toson (or Touson) I got more out of my visit to the Kiso valley. If you want to learn more about what it means to live (and to have lived) as a Buddhist monk then go to Koya San. Nara is somewhere I've recommended to friends an colleagues with very little time to spend in Japan as a more appropriate destination than Kyoto (The sights are in a compact easily manageable and very picturesque area, it's kind of what people imagine the mainly urban sprawl of Kyoto to be like before they learn more about it).
Personally, I don't think you need more than two days to see Magome/Tsumago and Matsumoto so you could also fit in Koya San or Nara (Nara would be easier).
Jan 27, 12, 12:50 pm
You can do Nara as a daytrip from Kyoto. It's quite close on the train. Then go from Kyoto to Osaka (about 40 minutes on the train) and transfer to to the Namba Station in Osaka to take the train to Koyasan. There is an express train that's a little faster but the local is fine, too - you'll start out on a regular track and finish on a single gauge track in the middle of trees. The train will take you to the Koyasan station where you will take a funicular up the mountain (Mt. Koya). Once inside the station you can ask the visitor desk to make a reservation at a temple for you to stay overnight. They'll do the reservation and instruct you how to get to the temple (there are no hotels in Koyasan). Once you get to the temple you'll be given information about the temple, set a time for dinner and then you're free to go out and look around. Koyasan is an amazingly beautiful place. It has loads of historical temples and an old growth forest "cemetary" which is incredible to walk through. As part of your temple stay you will be given dinner and breakfast the following morning. You can, also, go to morning services which is very interesting to observe. If you like to take pictures this will be your favorite place in Japan. April is a particularly beautiful time to go. Have a great trip.
Jan 27, 12, 11:11 pm
I've been to all the places you mention.
It depends on what kind of experience you want. As another poster said, Koya-san lets you sample the life of a Shingon Buddhist monk for a day or two. There are a couple dozen monasteries on the mountain, and a town has grown up to support them. When I went, there were teenage boys serving the (vegan) dinner, and I asked them if they were novice monks. They said that they were simply local high school students who did this as an after-school job.
Koya-san a beautiful place to walk around in, and if you read Japanese, you can walk through the woods to Kukai's tomb (read up on Shingon Buddhism before you go), read the names on the tombstones, and marvel at how many famous (in Japan) historical figures are there. In addition to the monasteries, there are free-standing temples all over the place. I went in May, and the azaleas were out.
I didn't go to Magome, but Tsumago is car-free except for a couple of hours in the morning when panel trucks come to supply the shops. You have to take a bus from the nearest train station and then walk into the town.
The only accommodations are minshuku (private homes), and there's an office in the middle of town where you can find a room. Everything is traditional style, so you sleep on a futon and eat Japanese food. There's nothing to do in the town after dark, so you go to bed early and wake up early. I found it very peaceful and relaxing to walk around and just look at the scenery early in the morning. After breakfast, I walked around and explored the historic buildings and exhibits.
I like Nara because of its compactness and its greater feeling of antiquity than Kyoto. You can either stay there overnight a take a daytrip from Kyoto.
Matsumoto is the gateway to the Japan Alps, but otherwise, if you're not planning to hike, the only things special about it are the castle and the area of ryokan and hotels with onsen.