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The Oriental Caravan's 

Postcard from the Deep North...

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click here for details of next years tohoku itinerary

Spring 2003


Dear All,

After its blossom-filled  adventures in Kyushu, southern Japan, and a few days wandering  the backstreets of Tokyo, by mid-April, The Oriental Caravan was once again ready to head for the hills, eager to face the poetic challenges of Tohoku, the Deep North of Japan.




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The rare and shy Japanese serow (Capricoris cripus) seen on Yamadera mountain - the serow or kamo-shika is  an attractive goat-like antelope with short grippable horns

Buddhist shrine, en route to the summit of Yamadera Mountain

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Mountain vista  - looking out from a temple high up on Yamadera mountain

Follow me!


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Accordionist in Asakusa, Tokyo - Click here to HEAR  the music

A samurai and faithful dog in Ueno Park, Tokyo - scene of one of the final battles to restore the Meiji Emperor to power

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Mime artist at work in  Ueno Park, Tokyo

Portrait of a portrait artist, Ueno Park, Tokyo

Despite its great natural beauty, warm rustic allure, and wonderfully engaging people, Tohoku is an area rarely visited by foreigners and, as far as we know, this Spring's pioneering Caravaneers were the first western adventure travel group ever to explore the area.


Even for modern Japanese this part of the world is considered remote - a place of myths and monsters, of spirits and saints, a place  where the charm of 'Lost Japan' can still be found.

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Waiting for sunset near the peak of Yamadera Mountain

Temples silhouetted at dusk

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A typical rural  railway station on our journey north

Torii gate en route from Tsuruoka to Haguro Mountain - similar to the one at Miyajima (each column flanked by smaller 'supporting' gates) and associated with a combined form of Shintoism and Buddhism.


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Intrepid Caravaneers moments before boarding their narrow train to the  deep north

Cherry blossom at Gojo-jinja shrine, Ueno Park, Tokyo

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Lantern at sunset, Haguro Mountain

In ancient Japan it was believed that huge rock faces formed  the border between this world and the next.

For much of our journey we followed in the footsteps of the great Japanese haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. As Basho began his epic journey, setting off by foot some 300 years ago, he remarked, 

"Here I am in the second year of Genroku, suddenly taking it into my head to make a long journey to the far northern  provinces. I might as well be going to the ends of the earth".

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1689


Though conditions for the modern traveller have improved beyond measure since Basho's day, many things have remained very much the same. Amidst the ancient, towering cedar forests of Haguro Mountain, for example, yamabushi, ascetic mountain dwelling followers of the Shingon Buddhist sect, are still said to practice extreme feats of physical and mental endurance. These include extended periods sitting immersed in cold waterfalls and nanban ibushi a practice which involves staying at length in a room filled with the acrid smoke of burning red peppers.

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600 year old Go-ju-no-to pagoda marks  the beginning of the path to the summit of Haguro San

Traditional stone bridge near Haguro San

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Slightly less traditional wooden bridge also near Haguro san

Seeking out the wildlife on Yamadera Mountain


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The entrance to our shukubo, temple accommodation, on Haguro san

Tatami mat corridor in our shukubo 

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A Caravaneer reflects on life

Afternoon tea Japanese style

Fortunately, being on holiday, our fearless Caravaneers managed to resist such ascetic temptations and instead settled for the rigours of fine Japanese cuisine and some superbly characterful accommodation.


The accommodation was in fact one of the highlights of the trip and the hospitality we received, especially at establishments which had rarely before been host to foreigners, was often disarming.

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A very Japanese welcome

Tea ceremony at Hama Rikyu garden

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Tireless peace activist Mr Nobu Iwabuchi shows us around his fascinating Museum Perang Pasifik in Hiraizumi 

Our rooms were a good example of traditional shukubo temple accommodation found in the remoter parts of Japan


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Hama Rikyu Garden, Tokyo with skyscrapers of Tokyo overlooked by skyscrapers of Ginza

Mount Iwaki (1625m) as seen from Hirosaki town

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 Hirosaki castle moat

Chido Hakubutsukan Museum, Tsuruoka

In Hiraizumi, ancient powerbase of the Fujiwara clan, our night was spent in the grounds of Motsu ji temple, looking out across the lake of Jodo En, Japan's most renowned 'paradise garden'. Earlier that day we were received by peace campaigner Mr Nobu Iwabuchi who gave us a fascinating insight into recent Japanese history.


Finally we returned to the buzz and excitement of Tokyo for a long weekend of reflection - and, of course, a moment or two of saké-fuelled revelry...

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Asahi building (architect - Philip Starke), Asakusa,Tokyo

Destination Tohoku - station sign at Tokyo station

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Tokyo by night - Ginza district

a very balletic rickshaw driver at Kami-nari Mon (Thunder Gate), Asakusa


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Rag dog with yellow wig

Mechanical digger disguised as zebra, Tsuruoka

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Salon the Banana - a pub in Yamagata

Chief Caravaneer Phil Colley, impeccably dressed as ever, salutes the passing world 


We returned home with lasting memories of the many places and people that provided a truly unique and different insight into Japan, and as always there were more than a few things that made us smile - a truly great trip, thanks to all the Caravaneers who shared the journey.  

Within the next 2 weeks The Oriental  Caravan will set off once again, this time across the vast, unspoilt grasslands of Mongolia on a journey through the Land of the Khans. We'll be sure to send another postcard from there, so until then, please take good care.


With best wishes from


Phil and all aboard The Oriental Caravan 



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             Revised and last updated: November 20th 2013. Links