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Trip Report 15 days in Japan put me in a food coma, and I loved it!

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My husband and I got back 2 weeks ago from Japan, so I figured I'd better start my report now or it'll never be done. This is going to come in bits and pieces, so please bear with me. We are a couple in our mid 30s from New York who go on at least one international trip a year. We, or rather I, do all the planning and organizing and enjoy the process very much!

This was an unusual trip for a few reasons. Two of our last three trips had been to Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia with a side trip to Hong Kong), so this year I had wanted to head south to the Galapagos. But, my husband (Ajit) changed jobs earlier this year and didn’t have as much vacation as I did nor could he request time off early enough for us to book the boat of our choice. So, instead, we decided to head back to Asia, this time to Japan. Why Japan? Because my cousin had moved there last year from Singapore and had asked us to visit and second, since I had more time off, I planned to spend an extra week there, giving me a chance to hang out with them for a few days and travel on my own for the rest. Another first for me – the traveling alone bit; well, except the time I spent a few days in Ottawa, but that doesn’t really count. Also, we love food, so that was going to be a big focus of this trip. In addition, Ajit has been learning Karate for a few years under Sensei Mori here in New York, and has come to revere several aspects of the Japanese culture. So, while we prefer traveling to developing countries, we were certainly excited about going to Japan.

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    Tokyo and Kyoto were obvious choices for the trip. I wanted to do a day trip from Tokyo and looked at a few options – Nikko, Kamakura, Hakone. I would have preferred to go to Nikko, but with the shorter days in winter, Kamakura made more sense. Being a closer destination I would have more time on the ground to explore the town and temples. For my solo adventure, I knew I wanted to go to Takayama and spend a night in Shirakawa-go, so that was easy. We would have 5 days in Kyoto so I looked into the possibility of day trips to Nara or Uji, but there was just so much to see and do in Kyoto that I decided it would be best to stay put and not spend our time running around. Lastly, since Himeji is undergoing restorations until 2015, Hikone seemed a great choice for a stop over on our way back to Tokyo, to wander around the castle there. Our plans were finally coming together. We usually travel around Thanksgiving, which coincidentally turns out to be a great time to be in Japan, and especially Kyoto, to enjoy the changing seasons and fall colors, also known as Koyo. Perfect-o!

    In the end, our itinerary looked something like this.
    Nov 17th: Take it easy since I arrive the previous night
    Nov 18th: Spend the day with my cousin, Archana and family; possibly do a day trip
    Nov 19th: Kamakura
    Nov 20th – 22nd: Takayama and Shirakawa-go (Ajit arrives that night)
    Nov 23rd – 25th: Tokyo
    Nov 26th – 30th: Kyoto & Hikone
    Dec 1st: Tokyo; fly out early morning on Dec 2nd

    I wanted to stay in a ryokan and was willing to splurge a little, but my, were the prices significantly higher than I was counting on! We usually spend anywhere from $10 - $50 a night in Asia, so my splurge is someone else’s budget travel, haha!!! Anyway, I compromised and decided to book us into a basic but comfortable ryokan, one with a private bath but no fancy Kaiseki dinner. I found a great option – Ryokan Shimizu, walking distance from the train station. In Takayama, I decided to go a little more basic and booked a tatami mat room at the Rickshaw Inn with a private toilet, but shared bath. Shirakawa-go was my splurge and I booked myself into Hisamatsu, one of the Gassho Zukuri minshuku in the village. Rickshaw Inn was booked through their website, and the ryokan and minshuku were booked through www.japaneseguesthouses.com. I can’t recommend them highly enough – very professional and courteous, especially since I had to move my travel dates around a couple of times.

    Since we were going to be traveling by train and the Shinkansen a few times, it made sense to get the JR rail passes. I got the 2 week pass for myself and the 1 week pass for Ajit. I ordered the passes online and picked them up at the Kintetsu offices in Rockefeller Center. We used the pass for the following routes.
    Tokyo – Kamakura – Tokyo
    Tokyo – Takayama – Tokyo
    Tokyo – Kyoto
    Within Kyoto to get to Fushimi Inari and Tofukuji
    Kyoto – Hikone – Tokyo
    Within Tokyo to get to Shinjuku, Shibuya, Yanaka etc.

    I also used http://www.hyperdia.com/en/, another great resource, to look up train schedules for all our routes and print out the preferred options, so I could show it to the agent at the station when reserving our seats.

    Lastly, http://www.japan-guide.com/ was a fabulous source of information as well.

    With this, we were all set and ready for Japan!

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    I fly American Airlines from JFK to Haneda. It’s a crappy plane with 4 movies playing on a fixed schedule, but the upside is that it is an empty flight so I have the 3 seats next to me to lay down and sleep, and that’s pretty much what I do. We land in Haneda at 9:30pm, 45 minutes ahead of schedule and I meet up with Sajish (Archana’s husband) who’s come to pick me up, by 10:15…neat! They live in Roppongi (steps from the Roppongi Itchome metro station on the Namboku line). He works with Citi; they’ve been in Tokyo for a year and will be there for another 2 years and possibly longer. I quickly withdraw some cash from the Citi ATM in the airport and we take the monorail to the Hamamatsucho station and a taxi from there. The train is crowded even at this time of the night, with several people returning home from work boarding at Shinagawa, where many companies are located, including Citi. We’re home a little after 11. My 3 year old niece, Aanya, is up when we arrive, and so is my aunt who is visiting. Hugs, catching up and a lovely dinner later, I hit the bed. But, not before I experience the awesome toilets in Japan, with the heated seat, warm water and a variety of other fancy options that I don’t dare try! I linger more than I should.

    I’m up at 4 the next morning. It’s chilly, but I turn on the radiant floor heating, something else I’m loving about Japanese apartments. It’s going to be a rainy day in Tokyo, so we decide to stay local. After breakfast, we visit the local farmers market and sample their offerings, stop by at the neighborhood convenience store to get some groceries (and I pick up the first of many mochis I would have on this trip) and then get home. For lunch, we are to meet a friend of my cousin who is visiting from Singapore. After much debate about where to go, we end up at an Indian restaurant in Ginza (really, this was going to be my first meal in Japan? If you haven’t guessed already, we are Indian!). The food was good though. After lunch, we head to the Tokyo metro station, so I can exchange my JR voucher for the actual pass and reserve seats for my trip to Takayama. The 7:33 shinkansen, which was my first choice is booked, so I am now on the 8:33 Hikari to Nagoya with a connection to Takayama. All very easy. It’s still raining and I’m ready for a nap, so we decide to head home. I spend the rest of the evening napping and hanging out with my family. The plan for Sunday is to start early and drive to the Fuji Five Lakes area, specifically Lake Kawaguchi. It’s supposed to be sunny and we are counting on it!

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    seemaskt - I will be flying that same flight for the first time since they changed their schedule from NRT to HND - I am not looking forward to it....lol.....

    I also stayed at the Rickshaw Inn in a very small single room with a toilet and sink - maybe the same as yours - I thought it very comfy there and convenient for sightseeing.

    Looking forward to more. :)

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Great start to a report. I am reading with great interest as I am planning a trip soon.
    You mentioned eating a "mochi." Which flavor did you try and did you bring some back with you.

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    Sorry folks, I did go to sleep before 9 last night, so didn't get a chance to finish my next installment.

    Mara - yes, that is the same room that I stayed in. Very comfortable room, friendly staff and a great location, so I was very happy. Hope your flight is better than mine!

    ileen - I had so many different varieties of mochis, I think I've lost count...let's see, red bean paste, green tea, sweet potato, custard, cream, yuzu jelly, apricot jam, soy honey, some traditional, some more fancy. I should've brought some home, but they wouldn't have made it all the way back. :-)

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    Hallelujah! I wake up to a clear sky on Sunday and the sun is out. We pack some sandwiches for the trip and are out the door by 6. We get down to the basement parking to pick up the car and I’m once again amazed by the automated multi-tiered parking system they have in their building. All you do is put your card in and your car is magically brought up from one of the many levels below. Way cool for a residential building. Traffic is light as we head out of Tokyo and apart from a quick stop to fill up gas, we drive straight to our first destination, which is Chureito Pagoda, which is a five story pagoda in a quiet park overlooking Mt. Fuji and Fujiyoshida town. You can climb up the 400 steps to the pagoda, but we have a 3 year old with us (at least, that’s our excuse), so we drive up to the top. The clear day affords lovely panoramic views of Fuji and the town, and the autumn colors though past their peak for the most part, adds to the vista. The red and white pagoda with the iconic peak in the background also offers up some pretty pictures. There are a lot of cherry trees around the pagoda so I can imagine this is a very popular spot during sakura season, though it must get very crowded. We spend about an hour at the top and then drive to Lake Kawaguchiko, less than an hour away.

    Lake Kawaguchiko is the second largest of the Fuji five lakes and the most popular – the latter being very evident as we approach the lake and see traffic backed up all the way around! It’s too early for lunch, so we park the car and decide to go up the ropeway first, which goes up to an observation deck near the peak of Mount Tenjo. The views of the lake, town, hills, snow capped peaks in the distance are incredible. Worth the almost hour long wait in line. The views of Fuji though are not as clear as from the pagoda this morning. Archana soon appears with mitarashi dango – skewered glutinous rice dumplings covered in a sweet syrupy soy sauce glaze. Delish! I’ll admit now that I have a thing for glutinous rice desserts. They’ll appear many a time in my narratives, just saying. I enjoyed them in Hong Kong and Vietnam and am prepared to consume them in bulk here in Japan as well. She also brought back grilled baby potatoes in miso, also yummy. We head down and decide to get lunch. Archana, in her research, has found out that Hoto noodles, a hot pot dish, is a specialty of the area, so we drive to a restaurant that specializes in it. What should be a 5 minute drive takes 20 minutes with the traffic, and then we stumble around for another 10 minutes to find the place, asking for directions along the way. Soon, we see a restaurant with a line of at least 50 people at the door and realize that hoto noodles is not meant to be. We had passed by a nice looking place along the way, so we decide to go there instead. It’s a traditional Japanese restaurant (yay!) and we sit on tatami mats around a low table, sip roasted green tea and order lunch. I am excited to see Sukiyaki on the menu and that’s what I get. The beef is melt in your mouth good, cooked in the soy, sake and sugar broth and velvety once dipped in the raw egg. There’s also tofu, enoki mushrooms, scallions and noodles to dip, along with rice and miso soup on the side. I am so content, I decide to forgive Sajish for the Indian lunch yesterday.

    We walk around after lunch, mainly because we are stuffed and then hop in the car to drive back closer to the lake. The traffic is worse now, and although we want to drive to the Koyo tunnel, we decide it will it best to park where we can and just walk along the lake, so that’s what we do. I try to pick up some coffee for us from a coffee shop, but have to negotiate a Japanese only vending machine to get a token. Luckily, the woman behind the counter sees me struggling to make a selection and offers to help. Expensive coffee in hand, we enjoy the sun, fresh air and views of Fuji for another couple of hours. And, Aanya, my niece, is happy to run around and throw pebbles into the lake. The fall colors appear to be just past their peak here, though we spot a few maple and gingko at their best and brightest. All in all, a fun getaway from the city. There is lots more to do here – boating, biking, soaking in an onsen (though I’m not sure you can unless you stay at one of the local hotels) if you stay longer.

    The drive back home is smooth sailing for the first hour and then we hit traffic. What took us an hour and a half in the morning ends up taking 4 hours and we get home well past 7. We play some singing games for a while and then I doze off for the rest of the ride. I am off to Kamakura tomorrow for a day trip and then to Takayama the following morning, so finish packing for the trip. Then, it’s an early and light dinner (I’m still digesting my lunch!) and off to bed.

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    Thanks everyone, glad you liked the pictures. HT - yes, we do have good taste. :-)

    tripplanner - We did luck out with the weather that day. This was pretty much one of two sunny days during the entire 2 weeks. Most other days, we had rain and cloudy skies that would clear up for a just short while.

    I'm working on my Kamakura installment - will have that posted today.

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    Sorry about the delay, but the next installment is finally here.

    Kamakura

    My plan for Monday is to spend the day in Kamakura. I'm up early, have breakfast with my aunt and head out by 7:45. This will be my first time on the metro and I'm prepared - I bought a Pasmo card from the station yesterday (for 2000 Y) and also have with me a very easy to use English map of the metro printed out. The stations are numbered on each line, so I can tell which direction I need to be headed in and how many stops until I get to my destination. Simple! The trains are crowded at this hour, but there is no mad rush on the platforms or people blocking the door or any passive aggressiveness - such a pleasant change from the NY subways. It is also easy to find my way around with all the helpful signage on the platforms (including how many minutes to each stop) and in the train. And, the announcements on the trains are clear. The Tokyo metro system moves more than double the number of people compared to the NY metro and does it so much better. As you can tell, I am impressed!

    I change trains at the next stop and take the Marunouchi line to Tokyo station, from where I transfer to the JR Yokosuka line. I have to get my pass stamped this first time and a few minutes later, I'm on the train to Kita Kamakura. It has been cloudy all morning, and rains briefly along the way, but when I step off the train an hour later, it is no longer raining.

    Kamakura became the political center of Japan in the 12th century and remained the center of power until the 14th century. This period was known for the rise of the samurai as well as the growing popularity of Buddhism. Today, Kamakura is a small city by the sea scattered with several temples and shrines. My first stop is Engaku-ji, right across from the station, an important Zen temple founded in 1282 to honor soldiers who died during the Mongol invasion. It has a massive Sanmon or main gate through which I enter the wooded grounds that rise up the hillside. There are several beautiful buildings in the complex, many of them rebuilt more recently after the original buildings were destroyed by earthquakes or fires. I enjoy strolling through the grounds for an hour, finally ending at the tea house on top of a hill next to the temple's large bell. I'm ready for a snack, so sit down with a cup of hot green tea and abekawa (mochi covered in soy bean powder) and enjoy the views.

    From here, I cross the railway tracks and walk along the main road towards Kamakura, stopping at Tokei-ji, another Zen temple founded in 1285. This temple served as a shelter for women abused by their husbands. In an age when men could easily divorce their wives but wives found it a lot harder to divorce their husbands, Tōkei-ji allowed women to become officially divorced after staying there for three years. Quite progressive for those times! This is a smaller complex with fewer buildings, but the grounds are lovely and peaceful with nary a soul to be seen. It's past 12 by now and I am hungry, so I look for a restaurant specializing in tofu that I had found on a food blog. In spite of what seems like very specific directions, I cannot find it. I walk into a couple of stores and ask, but have no luck. Feeling a little frustrated, I decide to keep walking, hoping to have better luck later in the day.

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    Clouds have given way to bright sunshine as I walk to Hachimangu shrine, the most important Shinto shrine in Kamakura founded in 1063. The colorful main hall stands atop a terrace that can be reached via a wide staircase. The shrine is crowded with tourists as well as families who have come to worship dressed to their nines in elegant, elaborate kimonos and sharp suits. People write their wishes on wooden plates called Ema, kids tie fortune telling paper slips called Omikuji to strings, parents photograph their beautifully dressed kids who enjoy their moment in the spotlight, a family walks a bride across a bridge - there is so much to see and appreciate here. I walk down the staircase past the dance stage, the sake barrels and down the path the leads to the torii gates and the main shopping street of the city center.

    I walk past the many restaurants and souvenir shops on this street and head towards Kamakura station, where I board a bus to the Daibutsu in Hase. In hindsight, I should have gotten something to eat here, but all the shops seem too touristy and I keep holding out for something better. Not a good idea. Anyway, a short bus ride later, I am dropped off at the Great Buddha. This is a beautiful bronze statue cast in 1252, and at 13m tall second in height only to the one in Nara. It used to be located inside a temple, but has been standing in the open air since 1495 after the temple was destroyed by a typhoon. I have a few moments of quiet before a large group of tourists arrive. I don't linger too long here, and once I've taken a few pictures, I make my way to Hasedera. Along the way, I look for lunch options but there are none to be found. With my stomach rumbling louder by the minute, I pick up some dango on a street corner.

    Feeling better, I enter the Hasedera complex. This is a Buddhist temple famous for its statue of Kannon, one of the largest wooden sculptures in Japan. The statue however, is in a poorly lit hall so you can barely see it. There is a pretty garden and pond at the base with stairs that lead up to the impressive main hall and an observation deck that looks out over the city rooftops and the waters of Kamakura bay. On the way up, there are several Jizo statues, seen as the guardian of children, and in particular, children who died before their parents, as well as souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses. It's a sad place to be and when I see some women lighting incense sticks, I feel like I am intruding, so walk away. There is a small shack next to the observation deck, where I get some steamed buns filled with a curried vegetables, and this ends up being lunch.

    It's past 3, so I decide to head back home, since I have an early morning train to Takayama tomorrow. I walk to Hase station, use my Pasmo card to get a ticket on the Enoden line to Kamakura from where I switch to a JR train back to Tokyo. There are several school kids on the train in smart uniforms - navy blazers and shorts or skirts with white shirts, ties and my favorite, bowler hats. So cute! By the time I get home, it's almost 5. I spend the rest of the evening hanging out with my family. I really enjoyed my day in Kamakura, and while the temples were not as grand in scale as the ones in Kyoto, there were very atmospheric and the absence of crowds for the most part allowed me to soak it all in and connect with my surroundings in a more intimate manner. If I had more time, I would have loved to hike the trail from Jochiji temple near Kita Kamakura all the way to the Daibutsu in Hase.

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    Great report, Seemaskt, and lovely photos as well. Did you have a favorite place in Kamakura? How did it compare with Kyoto for you? I didn't have time to visit Kamakura during our trip to Japan last year, but it looks very similar to what we saw in Kyoto and nearby Nara.

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    Thanks tripplanner. I really enjoyed Engaku-ji and the Hachimangu shrine. Like I mentioned above, I really enjoyed my day in Kamakura, and while the temples were not as grand in scale as the ones in Kyoto, there were very atmospheric and the absence of crowds for the most part allowed me to soak it all in and connect with my surroundings in a more intimate manner. We didn't get to Nara so I'm not sure how they compare.

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    Takayama

    My train for Takayama is at 8:33 and I want to get my seats reserved for the return trip on Thursday, so leave the house at about 7. Having made the trip to Tokyo station just the previous day, I know my way around. I decide to return on the 3:36 pm train that gets me into Tokyo at 8:10. Ajit arrives that night, so I want to give myself enough time to get home, leave my bags and go to the airport to pick him up. Luckily, I am able to gets seats on this train. I have some time before the train departs, so wander around the shops looking for a bento box that will be my mid morning snack on the train. There are just so many to choose from that I can’t make up my mind. I finally settle one that has tonkatsu (pork cutlets), rice and some other goodies that I can’t make out in the picture. I go up to the platform and realize that there are more food and snack stands there as well. I get myself a hot tea from one of the vending machines and settle into a waiting room to stay warm while I wait for the train to arrive. Can I digress just a little here to say how much I love the vending machines in Japan? They are everywhere and make it so convenient to grab water and other drinks on the go. I especially love that they have hot and cold drinks, which I’ve never seen before; just brilliant!

    The shinkansen arrives on schedule; there are women waiting by the doors to clean the train and rotate the seats as soon as the passengers have disembarked. It’s all done very quickly and efficiently in a few minutes and we are ready to board. I have a window seat that reclines comfortably and plenty of legroom, so what’s not to love. The train picks up speed really quickly and the towns and countryside whiz past as I eat my bento lunch. The tonkatsu, while cold is still succulent (I can’t wait to try the real deal) and the other goodies like a potato salad, pickled vegetables and stewed apples hit the spot. It is a clear sunny day, so I get to see Fuji-san yet again. We get to Nagoya in about 2 hours and I transfer here to the JR Limited Express train. As we get closer to Takayama, the scenery gets incredibly beautiful with the Hida river snaking its way through the valley surrounded by steep mountains on either side with lovely fall colors. We arrive in Takayama a little past 1pm and I make my way to the information booth to get a map and ask for directions to the Rickshaw Inn. The directions are not really that helpful since the woman just points out the route on the map. The problem is that there are no street signs, so I can’t tell which street to turn into. As I contemplate my next move, I see a tourist walking towards me who happens to be Australian and he is able to point me in the right direction. The hotel is just a 5 minute walk down and just off of Kokubunji street. I check into my Japanese style tatami mat room which is on the first floor and has a futon, low table, some floor cushions, a small TV and an attached toilet with sink. In addition to a heating/cooling unit, there is also a space heater. Just the right size, comfortable and perfect for me. I freshen up, warm myself in front of the heater until I get toasty and then step out for lunch. My guidebook lists Suzuya as a good option for lunch serving local specialties, and the front desks tells me it’s right down the street, so that’s my first stop. The restaurant is set in an old Hida style house and is a cozy space. It’s empty at this late hour though. I order a hot pot dish of pork, mushrooms, noodles and local mountain vegetables in a miso broth, that is recommended by the waiter, and sip hot tea while I wait for it to cook on the table. And the dish doesn’t disappoint.

    My plan for the afternoon is to walk through part of the old town and get to Takayama Jinya. It is cloudy with the sun peeking through every now and then, and very cold. I walk up Kokubunji street, cross the Miyagawa river and turn left onto Sannomachi street. This street and the next one have some of the best preserved buildings and merchant homes dating from the Edo period (17th – 19th century). Many of these buildings have since been converted to shops and restaurants and while this part of the old town does have a commercial feel to it, it somehow still manages to retain some sense of authenticity and charm. Takayama is also famous for its sake breweries, recognized by balls of cedar branches hung over their entrances. Some of these breweries have been in business for centuries. The streets are crowded, mostly with Japanese tourists, some of them being pulled around in rickshaws. I stroll up and down the streets admiring the pretty wooden buildings, browse around the sake breweries, stop to snack on a dango like skewered rice cake covered in a sweet soy syrup and made of pounded rice, so the texture is more crunchy. I do get curious looks from people and a couple of shop owners who can manage a few words of English ask where I’m from. They look excited when I say that I’m from India. After an hour of walking around, I can barely feel my fingers since I’ve been pulling off my gloves every other minute to snap a picture. So, I decide to walk over to Takayama Jinya, the local government office during the Edo period, hoping that it will be warmer indoors. Unfortunately, the building is not completely enclosed and has a courtyard in the middle, so warm I’m not going to be. It is a pretty building though and it’s interesting to see how the rooms are setup, with the work spaces, living quarters as well as maid rooms, kitchens and interestingly enough an interrogation/torture room! I spend about 20 minutes here and then head back out and down Sannomachi dori looking for another snack. This time, I hit the jackpot, and quite by accident. I see a tiny window counter along the street with what appears to be pictures of sushi on display. Intrigued, I pause to take a look and realize that it’s Hida beef sushi served a few different ways. The one that interests me is 2 pieces of sushi with grey salt on one, soy on the other, topped with freshly grated ginger and chopped scallions, served on what tastes like a shrimp chip. Beef + ginger? I’m sold. I order myself a plate and wait with anticipation while it is prepared. It is SO good…melt in your mouth beef with the salt and ginger giving it so much flavor! Seeing me visibly enjoy my beef, a few more curious people stop and order some. I make a note of the location so I can come back tomorrow. It’s getting dark now, and I’m cold, so I make my way back to the hotel to warm up, take a nap and rest before dinner.

    For dinner, I’m in the mood for grilled Hida beef, and want to try Yamatake restaurant which is attached to their butcher shop on the first floor. The staff at the hotel are very helpful with directions, and I find my way there easily. The shop and restaurant are family run, and the wife greets me warmly as I walk in. The restaurant is empty, so I wonder if I’ve made the right choice. I tell her I want grilled beef, so she picks out cubes of marbled beef. She asks how much and I point to a sign that says 200g, so that’s what I get. I also order some hot sake. I remove my shoes and sit on the ground at the table and sip my sake as she brings out the beef, some vegetables and condiments (a special sauce, soy + fresh wasabi, and freshly ground black pepper) and lights the charcoal grill. Soon, the smell of beef, mushrooms, scallions and onions roasting on the fire waft through the air. The cut of beef is fattier than I like, but it is very flavorful. I dip each bite in one of the sauces and relish it. The sake warms me up and I feel good. The owners check on me often to make sure I’m doing Ok. When I’m done with my food, they bring over containers of crème caramel, espresso jelly, and some other flavors of Jello and tell me dessert is free. I’m thinking, how good can this be? Well, the first spoonful of the crème caramel set off an addiction on this trip that I’m not proud of. The espresso jelly is too strong for my taste and the other Jellos are ok, but the caramel is divine – now, its not the best caramel I’ve ever had for sure, but the best that came out of a plastic container. Feeling satiated, I stumble back to my room. I read for a bit, plan my route for the morning and decide to take the 1 pm Nohi bus (which doesn’t require reservations) to Shirakawa-go. Soon, I’m fast asleep, dreaming of what else but Hida beef.

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    I’m up at 5:30 and decide to walk over to Kokubunji temple a couple of blocks away before I come back for breakfast at 7:30. This is a pretty three storied pagoda with a gingko tree next to it that is over a 1000 years old. The bright yellow leaves of the gingko provide a lovely contrast to the red, black and white pagoda. There’s just me and an older Japanese man with a tripod clicking pictures at this hour. Back in the hotel, I finish my western style breakfast, check out, leave my bags at the front desk and chat with the staff, before I head out once again. This time, I walk towards the morning markets that are setup along the river just across the bridge. The sun is shining and the bright reds and yellows of the trees that are still peaking stand out, it is pretty. Most stands sell local crafts and farm products such as vegetables, several varieties of pickles and flowers. I pick up some handmade spicy miso from one of the stalls, taste the pickle samples that have been put out, try some miso soup and sesame rice crackers. When I get to the end of the street, I see a man grilling Hida beef skewers and I have to get one. There are 4 cubes on beef on a skewer with some salt and pepper on it that he lovingly grills for a few minutes and inspects closely with his glasses to ensure the right level of doneness. I sprinkle just a pinch of red pepper on it and it tastes incredible. What have we been eating in the US, I say!! I keep walking north and east, past some more pretty streets and beautiful old homes (and this side of town doesn’t see any crowd at all, it’s just me and the locals) until I reach Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine, which plays host to Takayama’s famous autumn festival. After I explore the shrine, I look for something to do indoors as it is really cold outside.

    Next door is Shishi Kaikan, a hall that displays the lion masks used in the festival as well as mechanical dolls (Karakuri Ningyo) used in the festival floats. I sit down for a demonstration of the mechanical dolls - I’m the only one in the hall for the first half but a Japanese couple joins for the second. I don’t understand much of what the woman on stage is saying (though she repeats everything in English), but it’s interesting to watch these dolls enact scenes, do acrobatic tricks like fly from one trapeze to the next, do calligraphy, and the most common, serve tea to a guest. Some of these dolls are mechanical, while others like the acrobatic and calligraphy ones are controlled by puppet strings. A half hour later, I head over to Yatai Kaikan, the festival floats exhibition hall that showcases some of the elaborate and ornate floats with beautiful wood, metal and lacquer work used in the festivals, some dating from the 17th century. I exit the complex through a couple of large torii gates and walk back in the direction of the market. As I walk through the market, I pick up another beef skewer at the same stand, buy some red miso paste at a store (after trying several samples) and try a rice cake stuffed with beef. Not finished, I cross over back into Sannomachi street looking for more snacking options. This is definitely my kind of town. At another stall, I sit down to leisurely enjoy a minced beef kebab with miso along with a cup of hot sake. It’s only 11 and I’m already drinking, but who cares, I am on vacation! My last snack of the morning is the same beef sushi that I had the previous evening – I savor every bite like it’s my last meal. I stroll around for a while longer, get some tea at a coffee shop (one thing I learnt is that coffee shops don’t serve green tea which is too bad) and get back to the hotel to pick up my bag and walk over to the bus station. I buy a round trip bus ticket and wait for the 1pm bus to arrive.

    I have really enjoyed my time here and could easily spend another day exploring galleries, doing the Higashiyama walk and of course eating some more. But, it’s onward to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I’ll be back tomorrow for a couple of hours before I board the train back to Tokyo.

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    seemaskt - yes, we had the same room at Rickshaw Inn - I just saw your photo....lol....I'm still following along in your footsteps...i really liked the Jinja as well and remember the torture room ;-)

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    Following along too! Enjoying your report and interested in you next segment on S-Go. Am toying with the idea of doing a day trip from Kanazawa via car rental next fall so interested in your opinion and findings in the town.

    Aloha!

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    Haha Craig!

    HT - Hope to get to the S-go segment when I get home today. My recommendation though is to stay for the night. It's after the bus loads of tourists leave and early in the morning that S-go is at its best. I'll have all the details for you in my report, so stay tuned.

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    Shirakawa-go

    The bus ride to Shirakawa-go takes about an hour. I can see snow capped mountain peaks in the distance as we make our way out of Takayama. There are tunnels for most of the way so no good views to be had, and so I catch up on my sleep. When we arrive at the bus stop, I am stunned by the number of tour buses parked and throngs of people crossing over the suspension bridge from the village of Ogimachi – I wonder if this would turn out to be a Disney version of a traditional village. Well, it is time to find out.

    With its traditional thatched-roof farmhouses, paddy fields, meandering river, and enclosed by pine covered mountains on all sides, Shirakawa-go is one of the most picturesque regions in Japan. Ogimachi is the largest of the villages in Shirakawa-go and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. It has several dozen well preserved gassho zukuri farmhouses, some of which are 200-300 years old. A gassho-zukuri is a house built of wooden beams that forms a steep thatched roof made to withstand the heavy snowfall that the region experiences in the winter months. The thatched roofs are about 2 feet thick and last about 30- 40 years. The old roofs are replaced every April, when the entire village comes together to help with the process that takes a few days per roof. Many of the farmhouses have been turned into minshuku (Japanese B&Bs), souvenir shops, restaurants, and museums to cater to the almost 2M tourists that visit annually!

    I walk through the narrow street, dodging people, towards Hisamatsu, the minshuku that I will be staying at for the night. It is towards the back, away from the crowds and right next to Myozenji temple. As I walk in, a lady comes running to say Hello, take my suitcase, show me my room and serve me tea and a mochi. I don’t stay too long in my room since I want to walk through the village and head up to the view point before dusk. The crowds have mostly dissipated by now as I make my way to the other end of the village, pausing to appreciate the pretty homes, flowers and persimmon trees, and lovely mountain scenery all bathed in golden sunlight. It’s a 5 minute climb up the hill to the viewpoint, from where I can look over the entire village nestled in the valley surrounded by forested hills. There are not too many people up here at this hour, so I sit down on a rock and take it all in. There is snow piled up on the roadside here, so it looks like it must’ve snowed a couple of days ago. By the time I walk back down, there are hardly any people on the streets, and the solitude is lovely. I stroll up and down the smaller pathways and around homes, koi ponds, take a closer look at the roofs and as it gets dark, I begin walking back home.

    There is a lot more activity when I get back, as dinner is being laid out in the main hall and I see some of the other guests walking about. I freshen up and join everyone for dinner. There are 8 of us – a couple from Thailand (who I had run into in Takayama), a couple from Singapore and a Japanese college student. There is an older woman sitting around the fire along with the lady who had welcomed me earlier, and who I learn is her granddaughter. The grandfather, who is 92, peeks in during dinner but doesn’t join us. Dinner is an elaborate affair with mixed tempura and dipping sauce, soup, grilled river trout called Iwana, shrimp and mushroom custard, pickled carrots and daikon, unknown mountain vegetables, and a shabu shabu with beef, tofu, mushrooms, carrots in a delicious broth. And of course, rice. Except for the custard that I find too “fishy” tasting, the food is delicious. There is mostly silence for the first half hour while everyone enjoys the food. The Japanese girl (who’s name is Wanaka) sits on her knees for the entire meal, while the rest of us keep shifting uncomfortably from one side to the other. Throughout dinner, she’s been continuously chatting with the hosts and I notice she’s been asking them questions from a notebook and writing things down. So I ask her about it and learn that she’s doing a project for school gathering details about the village, the families, how they lived and continue to live, their challenges and so on. She also wants to learn about the tourists who visit, so turns around and begins to ask me questions (in halting English) about why I am visiting Ogimachi, what I like or don’t about the village, what I think of my hosts and the service and if I would purchase any souvenirs. I give detailed and what I believe to be thoughtful answers and notice that she is paraphrasing that down to a few words! :-) While the rest of us are just staying for 1 night, she will be staying at another minshuku for a second night to continue her research.

    As we sip our tea and have oranges for dessert, we relax, start talking and ply our hosts with questions. With Wanaka’s help, we are able to have a conversation. The granddaughter is very affable and uses vigorous hand gestures when trying to explain things to us, and we all laugh heartily. She tells us that this home has been in her family for 5 generations (she has 3 sons of her own) and that they replaced the roof just this April. The irori (open-hearth fireplaces) in the middle of a communal room were used for cooking, warmth, and light during the long winter months. The family lived on the ground floor, while upper floors were used for silkworm cultivation and storage of utensils. Because there are no chimneys, smoke from the irori simply rises into the levels above, and soon some of us are bleary eyed from the heavy smoke. When it gets cold in the room, we move closer to the hearth to warm our hands and continue talking, while the couple from Singapore leave for the onsen. That had been my plan as well, but the interesting conversation and the below freezing temperatures outside keep me right by the fire. We talk about home and our travels, look through a photo album of the house and family, and turn in at about 9. As I enter the room, I notice that the bed has already been made, so I snuggle under the warm blanket thinking I’ll read for a while but fall asleep right away. The rooms in the minshuku are not partitioned all the way to the ceiling, so noise carries very easily. The guests are mindful about whispering and keeping noise levels down, so it doesn’t bother me at all. The room heater turns itself off after 3 hours, but I find that the blanket keeps me warm all night.

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    I’m up before the others and go out for a walk before breakfast is served at 7:30. Except for kids going to school and the locals beginning their day, there is hardly any one out on the streets. The cloudy sky and sliver of sunlight peeking through casts a lovely light on the village, and the air is crisp, but it is freezing cold! This is how I want to remember the village though and I am glad I stayed the night. An hour later, I head back for breakfast fresh as a puppy while the others have only just woken up. There are lovely smells wafting from the dining area, tea is being made and we sit around the hearth and warm our hands and feet. It’s how I imagined a cold winter morning would be in rural Japan. While I am in jeans and a sweater, everyone else is wearing the yukatas provided in our rooms. The yukata doesn’t seem to provide much of a barrier against the cold though, so I’m glad to be wearing what I am! Breakfast is another memorable meal of rice, miso soup, eggs, sautéed vegetables and my favorite, hoba miso, which is miso grilled on a magnolia leaf and topped with tofu, mushrooms and scallions. After some more conversation around the fire sipping our tea, we are ready to check out. I leave my bag near the entrance so I can pick it up before I board the bus, say goodbye to everyone and make my way to the onsen. Staying with a Japanese family in their home, sitting around a fire, eating traditional meals and enjoying a lively conversation makes this my favorite part of the trip. I would highly recommend it.

    It’s a nice walk to the onsen (called Shirakawago-no-Yu) along the main road, and even though it’s almost 9, there are still very few people out and about. If you stay overnight in the village, you get a discount at the onsen, so I end up paying 500Y, instead of 700 (don’t forget to pick up a coupon from your minshuku). I walk into the ladies section, leave my clothes and camera/handbag in the locker (wearing the key around my wrist with the elastic band provided) and enter the indoor pool area. Onsen etiquette requires everyone to wash themselves first before getting into the hot spring, so that's what I do. The water is hot and it takes a little getting used to, plus all the steam makes me a little light headed, so after a few minutes, I move over to the open air pool with a view of the river and a couple of small waterfalls. Much better! I soak my weary muscles for about 20 minutes or so and emerge feeling very relaxed. I get out to find a towel and can’t find them anywhere. Wanaka, who was at the onsen as well and is drying her hair tells me I needed to pay for it and pick it up outside. Uh oh. I resort to drying myself with the hairdryer while Wanaka giggles hysterically near by. I enjoy trying on all the gels, creams and lotions they have out on the counters (I love the anime inspired instructions on the jars/bottles!).

    My first stop after the onsen is the Wada-ke house, home of one of the wealthiest families in the village and the largest gassho zukuri. I walk around the house and go up to the top most level to get close to the roof. It’s quite remarkable to see how the beams are held together by ropes and not nails or clamps, which helped the homes withstand earthquakes. Huge oak trees bent at the base by the weight of snow were used for beams, providing unparalleled strength. The second floor was used for silkworm cultivation as it was at Hisamatsu, with the warm air from the irori providing the right temperatures and the tall roofs and windows on either side providing the appropriate amount of light. From here, I walk to the Kanda-ke house, also a very well preserved home with pretty views from the top floors. It’s past 11 by the time I am done here and the sleepy village is now teeming with tourists. I decide that this is the right time to get some early lunch and attempt to find Shiraogi, a restaurant right in the square/parking lot on the main road. I order the Hida beef grilled in hoba miso and it is scrumptious – melt in your mouth beef with the intensely aromatic flavor of the miso, the earthiness of the mushrooms and crunch of the scallions, finished with lots of green tea. I can easily have another one of these, but decide against it. I plan to take the 1pm bus back to Takayama so walk back to the minshuku. But then, I spot a little stall right across from Myozenji temple selling hida beef skewers, so I snack on another one of these, actually my last one. Sigh.

    The bus ride back to Takayama is uneventful and I’m there by 2. My train back to Tokyo is not until 3:30, so a second lunch can’t hurt, right? Most places are closed for lunch already, but I am able to find Mikado, on Kokubunji close to Rickshaw Inn. I order another round of Hida beef in hoba miso and some cold tofu with bonito flakes and soy sauce to balance it out. Another good meal (though I prefer the beef in Shiraogi) and I’m ready for my long journey home. I catch up on sleep for most of the way and arrive at Tokyo station at 8. A couple of subway connections later, I walk into the house at 9. I barely have enough time to freshen up and it’s time to pick up Ajit at the airport. His flight is a few minutes late (he arrives on the same flight that I did) so we get him a SUICA card while we wait. Another monorail ride plus taxi later, we are finally home having a late dinner and catching up on stories. It’s been a long day for both of us, but I’m so happy to finally have my travel partner with me.

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    Great reporting and pictures to match. Looks like you had beautiful weather in S-Go and the pics of the hida beef in the restaurant made my mouth water. I would have definitely doubled the order ;)

    Aloha!

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    Great reporting. Sounds really interesting, but readers should be aware that by the nature of these antique homes, almost all accommodations in this area have shared baths.

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    Yes, I should have, HT. Even with all the great food we had in Tokyo and Kyoto, I think I miss the hida beef the most.

    Craig, thanks for pointing that out, you are correct. Both the toilets and bath were shared. They were large and very clean though, so was not a problem for me (and I am picky about my toilets!) :)

    After our home stay in Vietnam (which is the only other place where we've done a home stay), this felt a lot more luxurious!

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    Thanks for your report about staying over in Shirakawa-go - I just did a few hour visit there as a stopover between Takayama and Kanazawa - and it happened to be a nasty rainy day as well. I had decided not to stay over particularly as I read about the smokiness of the houses from the irori - which I noticed when I visited the two that I found open....but it does sound very charming... :)

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    Usual price for the minshuku is ¥8,400 per person per night dinner and breakfast included. A couple of them are ¥8,100/night and a handful charge more but most are the same price. In winter, a small heating fee of ¥200 - ¥400 may be added. They are surprisingly less smokey than you'd expect. There are no beds and no tables/chairs - floor life, which may be challenging for anyone with mobility issues, bad knees or the like. Great experience though, and as noted, the town is very quiet after the buses leave.

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    Mara - As KimJapan states, it really isn't that bad. Except for the last hour of dinner, the smoke wasn't an issue at all. Also, the smoke wasn't an issue in the rest of the house and my room was right across from the main dining area where the hearth was. So, if you are ever back in the area and this is something you would otherwise enjoy, definitely consider an overnight stay.

    We all have different travel styles, and I agree that this is not for everyone. Hopefully, my report provides enough information for everyone to make an informed decision.

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    Some aspects of Japan travel can be especially problematical for those of us who are fat. Especially the low-table setup that is found in many ryokans and more traditional Japanese restaurants.

    At these tables, you've got to sit at floor level. Most Japanese people are adept at sitting on their haunches with their lower legs on the floor. Alternatively, you can use a legless chair that provides back support. For me, the latter is extremely uncomfortable, and the former is impossible; the only solution for me is avoidance.

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    Thanks, KimJapan and seemaskt, for your further info on staying overnight in a gassho house...possibly I was overly anxious but I do have asthma issues...but I might re-consider if I do a trip up that way again....I have stayed in many inns where I sleep on the floor and share facilities so I have no issue with that....

    DonTopaz....lol....maybe that's why we don't see a lot of chubby Japanese people - they get a lot of exercise and are used to sitting on the floor. I still remember elderly people zooming up the almost vertical stairways in some of the castles I've visited and this is with the slippers you must wear inside....

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    I have seen many plus size Japanese people.....think sumo

    I am at the largest size of yukata they usually have in a ryokan or minshuku....toku dai o onegai shimasu. or eru eru ;)

    Aloha!

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    seemaskt, I am really, really enjoying your report. How I laughed when I read of your dilemma with the towel! It reminds me of all the times I've headed to our local pool and forgotten my towel - but in my case, I fortunately had recourse to paper towels in the bathroom area of the locker room. I'm surprised they don't automatically include towels with the fee...so thanks for the heads up...

    We won't make it to Shirakawago this time, we are making do with the open air museum in Takayama instead. So I especially enjoyed this section.

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    Rhk, Don and HT - You guys are cracking me up! Regarding HT's comment about sumo wrestlers, my husband has been obsessed about them since the trip. I didn't realize how incredibly flexible they are, it was quite surprising!

    Thanks Sue! Have a great trip to Japan and especially Takayama. When are you going?

    Hope to be back with more in a couple of days.

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    the tables, chairs, foutons and floor mats all sound soooo wooonderful that i will be sorry to miss them while i have to settle for a hyatt, ritz, oriental or motel 6 ('we'll leave a light on' if you have to leave the 'guesthouse').

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    I'm finally back with another installment. Sorry, this is taking longer than expected with all the distractions of the holidays.

    Tokyo - Friday, 11/23

    We wake up to a rainy day on Friday and it’s supposed to rain all day long. Ugh! We decide to take it easy and not make too many plans. First order of business is to go to Tokyo station to get Ajit his JR pass and also to reserve our seats for the trip to Kyoto on Monday, the 26th. Unfortunately, the earlier trains are fully booked so we are on the 9:03 Hikari. It’s still raining out but not heavily, so we walk towards the Imperial Palace, the current residence of the Emperor and his family. The palace buildings and gardens are not open to the public, so we walk to Nijubashi Bridge and from there along the outer walls and moat to the East Gardens. The gardens are a calm oasis in the middle of the bustling city, and make for a nice couple of hours on a wet morning.

    After we leave the park, we take the train to Ginza. It's time for lunch, and I'm in the mood for some yakitori, so we try to find Ginza's yakitori alley tucked away under the JR rail tracks. We walk around for a few minutes not sure if we are in the right place, but then find a hole in the wall space that looks like a makeshift shack with a few tables and decorated with bright lanterns that looks promising, so we go inside. There are just a couple of local patrons when we enter, but in a few minutes the place is packed. No one speaks English, but luckily they have an English menu, so we are able to order without worrying about what organ meats are going to end up on our plates. We order skewers of pork, chicken, leeks, shitake mushrooms, shishito peppers, and a side of eggplant along with beer and iced oolong tea. Surprisingly, we enjoy the chicken the most - it's moist, succulent and really tasty. The atmosphere and hustle and bustle of the place is half the fun, and I'm sure all the more enjoyable in the evening hours when office workers congregate here to enjoy after work drinks and snacks on their way home.

    From here, we walk towards the glitzy Ginza shopping area, which resembles Manhattan's Fifth/Madison Avenues, and is in rather stark contrast to the yakitori shack just a few steps away. We stroll along Chuo Dori which is closed to traffic on weekends and holidays (its national labor day here in Japan) and pop into Matsuya, a very upscale department store. We're not here to shop, but to take a look at the depachika or food court in the basement. My! I think I've died and gone to food heaven when I step inside. I've heard and read about how massive these depachikas are, but I'm still astounded by the incredible spread and variety of food here - from meats, specialized groceries, gourmet food products, wine, sake, stalls after stalls of prepared foods of very kind, the prettiest desserts I've seen under one roof, and several counters selling incredibly delicate and mouth watering wagashi (Japanese confectionary). And, I'm sure I'm forgetting a gazillion other things. I can seriously spend an entire day here if I am on my own, but we only stay for a couple of hours. We buy some tempura that we consume immediately, pick up some grilled unagi to take home, sample several food items on offer and go nuts buying many different kinds of wagashi (mochis with different kinds of fillings like red bean, almond paste and apricot jelly, an inside out mochi with a crystallized sugar crust, a red bean and rice treat, cookies with a cream filling, and jelly like sweets made of yuzu that are delectable!). The wagashi are expensive and can add up in cost very quickly, so while I am very tempted to buy a couple of boxes to bring home, I resist.

    It's still raining outside, so we get some cappuccinos while we figure out what to do next. The rain and cold weather make us crave for some ramen, and luckily, I have the name of one ramen restaurant in Ginza, called Manpuku, on my list. I don't have directions and given Tokyo's confusing address system with no street names and non sequential building numbers, we resort to asking the lady sitting next to us if she's heard of the place. She speaks good English, and doesn't like ramen, but nevertheless, researches the place for us and shows us how to get there on her phone. Awesome! Thanking her profusely, we walk the short distance to the restaurant. Manpuku has been around since the 1920s and serves shoyu (soy based) style ramen. We order one original style (with pork slices, omlette, fish cake, greens and bamboo shoots) in a light broth and one with shredded pork, vegetables and sprouts in a peppery broth. They are both good, with the peppery broth a notch higher than the other, but nothing too exciting. I think we have been spoilt by the flavors and toppings of Ippudo's ramen in NYC. It's past 4 now and no longer raining, so we walk back to the metro pausing to take one last look at all the swanky buildings and Christmas lights.

    Once we get home, we sit down and relish all the goodies from the depachika and wish we'd got some more.

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    Tokyo - Saturday 11/24

    Our plan for Saturday is to go to Tsukiji, have a sushi breakfast and visit the fish market. We decide to sleep in and not make the insanely early morning trek to the tuna auction. My aunt has never had sushi before and wants to try it, and Sajish offers to drive us there. We get there by about 7 and already there are long lines at some of the popular sushi spots including Sushi Dai. We find a restaurant at the end of the alley where Sushi Dai is located that has a much shorter line, and after a half an hour wait, we are ushered inside. The restaurant seats about 12 at the counter in very tight quarters with 2 chefs behind it. Hot towels and tea are brought over, while we order the sushi set that comes with 10 pieces of nigiri sushi and a tuna maki roll. The chef deftly prepares our sushi as we watch and places it on a tray with ginger on the side. There is tuna, snapper, salmon, horse mackerel, shrimp, scallop, salmon roe and the slightly sweet egg or tamago yaki. The fish cannot be any fresher and just melts in our mouths. And, with just the right amounts of wasabi and ginger on it. Not normally a big fan of roe, I enjoy biting into the bright orange plump spheres to release the saltiness, it's lovely. We finish our breakfast with miso soup. The set meal runs us Y2600 each, expensive but worth it. Even before we've had our final bite, Ajit and I make plans to come back here for our last breakfast in Japan.

    After my aunt and Sajish leave, we wander into the wholesale market area that is open to the public after 9 (when the peak of the business activities is over). Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world handling over 2000 tons of fish a day. It is incredibly busy with scooter carts whizzing past in every direction, trucks being loaded/offloaded and workers looking none too happy about all the tourists disrupting their day. We try to walk quickly and not get in anyone's way. The wholesale market consists of hundreds of small stalls in an extremely large crowded warehouse filled with seafood of every kind. Fish are being cleaned, cut and weighed as buyers and sellers scurry past along narrow lanes dodging carts and negotiate prices. And prices can get quite high here. A 600 lb tuna fetched a record $735k earlier this year at the auction! We watch as a couple of large tuna are cut very carefully with very long knives, and the fresh deep red meat lovingly checked for quality. Before we know it, a couple of hours have passed, so we start walking towards Hama Rikyu gardens. There is also an outer market with restaurants and retail shops selling food related products, but we don't spend any time here.

    Hama Rikyu is right by Tokyo bay and is a beautifully landscaped garden with the Shiodome skyline in the background. These gardens were built during the Edo period and served as an imperial residence and hunting grounds for centuries. As we stroll along the gardens and tidal ponds, the clouds clear; there is hope for a sunny day. Along one of the ponds is the Nakajimi no ochaya or teahouse serving matcha tea and wagashi for Y500. You can either sit inside on the tatami mats and have someone instruct you on the tea ceremony etiquette or sit outside - we choose to sit outside and enjoy the lovely views. There are instructions on a piece of paper - cut the cake with the chopsticks, eat the cake first and then drink the tea, and several seemingly complex steps on how to hold the tea cup, how to rotate the cup and in which directions before you take a sip. I try to follow a couple of instructions but my tea is getting cold, so I skip the rest. The matcha powder is whisked in the water, giving the tea a frothy consistency and a slightly bitter taste which is why it is served with the wagashi. It's a nice experience and worth doing at least once. After our tea break, we walk across the pretty bridge, along the sea wall to the dock from where we board the water bus to Asakusa. This ends up being our favorite garden in Tokyo, and a pleasant break after the chaos of Tsukiji.

    The boat trip takes about 45 minutes with a detour to Hinode pier in the opposite direction before it makes its way to Asakusa. We grab a beer and sit back and take in the views of the river, the many bridges each unique in its design and color, and cityscapes on either side. After we disembark, we walk along the crowded main drag towards Sensoji. But, first it's a stop for a tempura lunch at Daikokuya, a popular restaurant in the area. The main location has a long line in front of it, so we walk over to the annex just around the corner. It's still a 40 minute wait, so we get our number and go for a walk. The neighborhood harkens back to another time and conjures up images of an old world Tokyo, albeit now filled with shops selling local specialties and novelties. We stop at the Kaminarimon or thunder gate, one of the entrances to Sensoji, which holds a massive red and black paper lantern. On the other side of the gate is Nakamise Dori, leading to the temple grounds via the Hozomon gate. This narrow street is lined with stall after stall of sweets, snacks, clothes, toys, souvenirs, and so on. And, since it is a Saturday, it is especially packed with visitors - both pilgrims and tourists. After a few minutes of people watching, we head back towards the restaurant for lunch. I order the tempura set that comes with 3 large, light but crisp and luscious prawns and 1 mixed tempura with a dipping sauce. Ajit orders the set menu that comes with one each of the prawn, mixed tempura & kisu fish with a raw tuna appetizer and an utterly flavorful clear soup. It's a fantastic lunch!

    Energized, we walk into the Sensoji complex. This is a colorful Buddhist temple and the oldest in Tokyo built in 645, although the main hall and pagoda are most recent reconstructions having been destroyed during the war. Besides having religious significance, the temple is also a symbol of peace and rebirth. Adding to the crowds and atmosphere is an event promoting Tokyo's bid for the 2020 Olympics with a few current and past Olympians in attendance. There are mini track, judo, softball and fencing areas with announcements being made over loudspeakers and fans loudly cheering the action. It is definitely not the calm and quiet I was expecting! We check out the huge main hall dedicated to Kannon, the adjacent shrine built to honor the men who established Sensoji, the elegant pagoda and then wander back out. Before we leave, we stop at one of the busy shops on Nakamise for dessert - skewers of kibidango (dango covered in soy bean powder) along with a deliciously sweet and warm rice drink called amazake. Perfect! Time to head back home after what has been a really fun day in this crazy city.

    For dinner, Sajish wants to take us to Kuro Hitsuji, a restaurant that serves the Hokkaido speciality of Jingisukan (named after the Mongol Genghis Khan), a mutton/lamb barbeque prepared on the table. So, we are off to the Nakameguro area via the Hibiya subway line, a few stops from Kamiyacho station, which is walkable from home. It's dark but in spite of it, we can easily see that this is a really pretty part of Tokyo, with charming homes and lots of cafes, bars and interesting restaurants built alongside the narrow Meguro river lined with hundreds of cherry trees (must be gorgeous during sakura season). At the restaurant, we are seated on the floor with the hot plate on the table. There is also counter seating on barstools. We order different cuts of lamb and beef as well as enoki mushrooms, onions, cabbage, potatoes, sprouts and cabbage. The hot plate is first rubbed with lard (oh yes!) before we cook our meat. There is a delicious garlic and lemon sauce along with other condiments for dipping, and all of this washed down with sake and beer. Very smoky and hard work, but delicious. On the way back, we get off a stop early at Roppongi station, pick up some desserts and walk home along the expat frequented popular nightlife area.

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    Wow, you weren't kidding talking about a food coma - how do you guys eat so much in one day... ;-) and from your photos you don't look chubby.....I'm still with you enjoying every bite!

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    OMG you must be in a food coma.....all that great food. I am chubby and know of all the places you ate at except Kuro Hitsuji so I could see all those places in my minds eye while you told the story.....I love it! Well at least you did do a lot of walking this day ;)

    As you can tell I am enjoying your report. Can't wait till you get to Kyoto. I am interested in a few new eating venues there, lol

    Aloha!

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    Mara and Bob, Hope you both had a wonderful holiday. I took a day off from work today and sitting by the window, watching snow flakes fall to the ground, have been inspired to keep writing. So, thanks for reading along.

    Mara - I'm genetically disposed to being skinny, thank god. But, I'm sure I haven't done my cholesterol levels any good on this trip. Luckily, I have another 8 months to go before my next physical. :-)

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    Tokyo - Sunday, 11/25

    Sunday appears to be a great day, weather wise. We relish another of my aunt's lovely breakfasts (compared to our usual breakfast of cereal or oatbran at home in New York, having a proper Indian home cooked breakfast feels so indulgent!) and set off for Icho Namiki or gingko avenue near the Aoyama Itchome station. This is a wide avenue with 2 rows of gingko trees on either side, cut and lined in perfect symmetry. We are a couple of weeks too early for peak colors and some of the trees are still green, but it's nonetheless very pretty, the beautiful leaves a golden yellow with the sun shining brightly on it. There is traffic but that doesn't stop people from taking pictures in the middle of the road. On a side note, you do get lens envy in Japan, with almost every one carrying long zoom lenses and tripods. Hardly surprising though! There are plenty of people strolling under the trees and sitting in the roadside cafes enjoying the lovely day; it's a nice place to sit on a bench and watch the world go by.

    From here, we make our way towards Meiji Jingu. It's a good 30 minute walk past Meiji Gaien, several stadiums including the national stadium and on to Harajuku, where we enter the park. We get some hot tea and a beef bun for some sustenance before entering the grounds through a large 40 ft high torii gate made of a 1500 year old cypress. It's a 10 minute walk to the shrine through a large forested area that makes us forget how close we really are to the chaos of the city. This popular shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji and his consort, and was originally built in 1920 and then rebuilt after the war. During his rule, Emperor Meiji transformed Japan from a feudal society that had limited contact with the outside world for about 300 years into one of the great powers of the modern world. He embraced a policy of "Japanese spirit and Western knowledge" combining the best of western culture with the spirit and long held traditions of Japan. The Emperor started wearing western clothes, sheared his top knot and began eating western food. He particularly enjoyed wine with his meals. The barrels of wine along the entrance to the shrine (across from the more traditional sake barrels) were gifts from wineries in Bourgogne in France.

    The buildings are made of cypress and surrounded by tall trees, giving it an austere and serene feel, quite different from the temple at Asakusa. Being a Sunday, the shrine is filled with people who are here to pay their respects. Young girls are dolled up in pretty kimonos and fully accessorized, like I saw in Kamakura. We also see a traditional Shinto wedding procession led by two priests and two shrine maidens, followed by the couple under a red parasol, and finally family and friends. The bride is dressed in a white kimono with an elaborate headpiece while the groom is in a formal black and grey kimono. The procession looks so regal, that we initially think this must be a prominent Tokyo family but later realize that this is how all traditional shinto weddings are. At the main hall, I do as the locals do and toss some coins into the offering box, bow my head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. After a few more minutes of looking around, we pick up a hot tea from the vending machine and make our way out.

    Our next stop is lunch as we are very hungry. We walk down Omotesando, another wide tree lined avenue chock full of high end shopping. Our destination is Maisen, well known for its Tonkatsu, the deep fried breaded pork cutlets. It is located behind the Omotesando Hills mall, in an upscale neighborhood filled with boutiques and fancy homes. Unfortunately, after trudging uphill to get here, we find that there is an almost 2 hour wait (what!!), so we pick up some tontaksu to go instead from the take out location - a couple of pork fillet cutlets, one shrimp and a potato croquette, with the special sauce. We walk back down, find a place to sit along the road and eat our "picnic' lunch. The tonkatsu, while not piping hot like I was hoping for, is still crisp and wonderfully juicy...ia good decision. We walk back towards Harajuku station, hoping to catch a glimpse of the unique street style and cosplay culture that this area is so well known for, especially on Sundays. We hang around for about 30 minutes but don't see any action, so we aim for a second lunch of ramen at Kyushu Jangara close by. While we wait in line (again!, but not as bad), we are given menus to look over the myriad options for broth, toppings, noodles and sizes. Ajit picks the Kyushu special with a tonkotsu broth and I pick a miso ramen, both with char siu pork. We add some pickled ginger and spicy greens to our soups (tableside condiments) and slurp our way through the bowls. Very satisfying.

    As we head back towards the station, we get lucky and see a large group of costumed young adults posing for pictures - there are lolitas, a few goths, a bunny, and other anime inspired characters - with some costumes more elaborate than others. We see a few other interesting styles on the street, but no large informal gathering as we had hoped. It is probably too early in the afternoon for these kids. Since I am talking about street style here, let me digress just a little to also mention how fashionably dressed the people, and especially women are in general. We don't see anyone dressed casually - it's either super trendy or very stylish and immaculately put together with the perfect hair, makeup, brand name clothes, sexy heels and accessories. Even the sneakers here are the fancy wedge heeled kinds. Living in NYC, we see our fair share of beautiful and well dressed women, but Tokyo has us beat hands down. Ok, back to the story.

    We are to spend the afternoon with my family in Shinjuku gyoen, so we use our JR pass to take the Yamanote line to Shinjuku. By the time we get to the park it's almost 3 and my family is running late, so we buy our tickets and walk in. Shinjuku gyoen was also an imperial garden before it was opened to the public in 1949. We spend most of our time in the Japanese garden, with its ponds, well manicured shrubs and trees, bridges, bright red maples, tea houses and lawns to relax in. Archana tells me that the park is most famous for its cherry blossoms when everybody in Tokyo comes out to picnic under the trees. The park closes at 4, so we walk back to the entrance and meet up with my family who got here just in time to walk the same loop we did. We stop for some coffee and then head back home. We are short on cash for our trip to Kyoto tomorrow, so Ajit and I walk over to the 7-11 near by. We also pick up some beer and that awesome creme caramel for dessert. A chilled out night at home and it's off to Kyoto tomorrow. We will be back in Tokyo for one last day before our flight back to NYC. Until then.

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    Mahalo HT! Yes, all that walking made us feel better about all that eating, but also gave us an excuse to eat some more...lol!

    I plan to get to the Kyoto part tomorrow. Hoping to sort through/start uploading my Tokyo pictures today.

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    Kyoto - Monday, 11/26

    We are on the 9am train to Kyoto this morning and having made this trek a few times already, I confidently lead the way feeling like a local. We pick up a bento box, an onigiri and some hot teas for our train ride. I can see that Ajit is really excited to ride the shinkansen, he’s like a little boy with wonder in his eyes! :-) Unfortunately, we don’t have window seats and after a couple of days of great weather, it is back to being grey and rainy, so there are no good views to be had, and no views of Fuji for Ajit. We enjoy our bento breakfast – there are a lot of interesting treats in this box including tempura, a croquette, takoyaki, a piece of fish, shredded pork with ginger, slices of beef, noodles, beans and more that I can’t remember. Kyoto’s station is as modern and futuristic as the city is old and traditional, with it’s glass façade, exposed steel beams and several floors of high end shopping and restaurants. It’s raining here as well, but since our ryokan is a short distance away, we decide to walk it. We get out of the station and are unable to orient ourselves, so go back in and stop by the information desk, only to realize that we had gotten out the wrong end. Once we walk to the other side of the station, we are able to find our way easily to Ryokan Shimizu, less than 10 minutes away. The ryokan is located in a quiet residential neighborhood, along a narrow street that’s lined with old traditional style homes. Quite a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the station area. It’s too early to check in, so we leave our bags at the front desk, freshen up in the restrooms by the lobby and go out for lunch. Just around the corner is Nakau, a fast food chain, and that’s where we eat – Ajit has a bowl of beef udon with a fish paste broth and I have a small gyudon bowl that’s just grilled beef over rice. Cheap and satisfying.

    Given the inclement weather, our plan for the afternoon is to visit the Sanjusangendo temple and Nishiki market. We pick up a one day unlimited bus pass for Y500 each from the bus station as well as a bus map and take the #208 bus to Sanjusangendo. Kyoto has an extensive bus network with convenient connections to the popular sightseeing locations, so we actually end up taking the bus everywhere along with the occasional cab ride. The bus station is relatively easy to figure out with signs posted for most of the popular temples/shrines; after the first day, we are able to use the map more effectively to find the faster/better routes. Sanjusangendo, which is across the street from the national museum, is a Buddhist temple famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon. It was founded in 1164 and rebuilt in 1266 after the original building was destroyed in a fire. We spend the first hour outside walking through the complex (balancing our umbrellas and cameras in the rain) with its austere main hall purported to be the longest wooden structure in Japan (the name Sanjusangendo means "Hall with 33 bays"), the pretty garden, and strikingly bright orange and green main gate and corridor. Inside the hall is large wooden statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, with 11 heads and 1000 arms. The central Kannon is flanked by 1000 more life sized Kannons, who are covered in gold leaf and stand side by side several rows deep, making for an impressive sight. These statues actually only have 40 arms, each of which are said to have the power to save 25 worlds, hence the 1000 arms! There are also life size statues of the 28 deities who protect the Kannon, each of which is a Buddhist manifestation of a Hindu god (some examples are Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, Lakshmi, Asura). It is fascinating to see how the religious symbolisms of these 2 ancient religions (that both originated in the Indian subcontinent) are interconnected in many ways. We walk past the statues in single file, while some stop to pray or light a candle. Sanjusangendo is also known for the archery contest that takes place each January.

    The rain has turned into a light drizzle by the time we finish here. We take the bus back to the station and switch to the #5 bus to Nishiki market. With the driver’s help, we get off at the right stop but then are unable to find the market and we don’t see any signs. I see a group of teenage boys standing by the bus stop, so walk over and ask “Nishiki market?”. One of the boys ponders for a few seconds and then asks “You speak English?”. Encouraged, I say Yes. He then pauses some more before replying in halting English “I regret to inform you that I don’t know Nishiki market.” I love the formality of his response, it is so unexpected! Anyway, we walk a little further and ask someone else, who points us in the right direction towards an alley down the main road to the covered market. This is a narrow, 5 block long lively market lined on either side with shops selling anything that’s food related, so I am excited to be here! There’s fresh and dried seafood, vegetables, meats, pickles of very kind, sushi, snacks, nuts, all kinds of wagashi, food stalls and proper restaurants, some serving just desserts. It’s a culinary delight. The market is busy, so we slowly make our way through, pausing to check out shops that pique our curiosity, try various free samples that shops put out and also savor some of the freshly made specialties – we try a mugwort mochi with red bean paste, rice cakes (octopus for Ajit and mushrooms for me, mine was just meh), a skewered grilled octopus for Ajit (there was a tiny boiled egg stuffed in the head of the octopus!), divine Kyoto style beef manju buns hot from the steamer, a Japanese style layered sponge cake with matcha whipped cream, and some green pea brittle (that we save for later). We have walked up and down the market a couple of times eating all this food, and it’s almost 5 and time to take the bus back to our hotel.

    Our room is on the second floor and is spacious and clean with a couple of twin futons and an attached bath. Hot tea is brought over, and we relax, freshen up and take a power nap. For dinner, we want to go to the Pontocho, which is an alley west of the Kamogawa river offering a variety of dining options ranging from cheap to the very exclusive. We take the #205 bus which runs in a loop, but take it in the wrong direction, so 20 minutes later when we realize that it will take us an hour to get to where we need to go, we get off and hail a cab. Y1100 and another 15 minutes later, we arrive at the Pontocho close to 9pm. We walk down the narrow, atmospheric street lit with brightly colored paper lanterns, looking for a restaurant serving Sukiyaki (Ajit hasn’t tried it yet). We find one half way down the street that is expensive, and looks formal yet inviting, so we decide to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. The staff are all older women dressed in elegant kimonos. We are led to a private room with floor seating and a hot plate in the center. We’ve never eaten in a private room before, so this feels strange. We order the sukiyaki and some hot sake. As we sip the sake, our waitress (somehow feels weird to call her that) brings over an octopus appetizer served cold with thinly sliced baby cucumbers and a ginger dressing, and it’s one of the best octopus dishes we’ve ever had. Soon, she is back with the thinly sliced meat, mushrooms, leeks, onions, fu (made of wheat gluten as my research tells me later), chrysanthemum leaves, tofu and cellophane noodles. She starts by sprinkling rock sugar in the hot pot, waiting for it to caramelize and then adds soy, sake and mirin and stirs it around to form the base for our sukiyaki. She adds some of the beef and veggies to the pot, beats an egg each for us, and leaves us to make and enjoy our dinner. The beef is tender and well marbled and the sweet and savory flavors combined with the egg wash gives it that extra smoothness in texture making it exquisite. Much more so than the sukiyaki I had previously in Kawaguchiko. We also love the texture of the fu cooked in the sauce. Oh, and there is rice, pickles and hot tea as well. For dessert, it’s fresh fruit. I think we close the restaurant out, leaving around 10:30. When we ask for directions to the bus stop, the staff get together to try and help us with their limited English. Soon, one of the women asks us to follow her and she goes out of her way to drop us off at the bus stop a few blocks away. It’s wonderful how helpful she and everyone else we have encountered have been. This time, we take the #205 bus in the right direction and get back to the hotel in no time at all.

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    Kyoto - Tuesday, 11/27 - Northern Higashiyama and Gion

    Tuesday morning is partly cloudy with occasional sprinkles of rain. We are out the door by 8:30, grab some sandwiches to go from Café Veloce right by the train station, buy our bus passes, and board bus #17 to Ginkakuji, our first stop for the day and about 35 – 40 minutes away in traffic. Today’s plan is to cover the northern Higashiyama area in the eastern hills of Kyoto. Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan for more than a 1000 years, is now a large urban city, easily blending the ancient with the modern. Luckily, the city was spared from air raids during the war, leaving much of the historical treasures intact (unless they were ravaged by earthquakes or fires). And, it is a much larger city than we expect with greater distances to cover between sights.

    From the bus stop, it is a 10 minute walk to Ginkakuji or Silver Pavilion, a Zen temple built in 1482 as a retirement villa (and converted to a temple after his death) by a shogun (Yoshimasa) and modeled after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) built by his grandfather in northern Kyoto. While Kinkakuji is actually golden, Ginkakuji is not covered in silver. We walk a circular set route from the pavilion, along the dry sand garden, ponds and streams, past a couple of buildings, and walk up the hill from where there are nice views of the temple grounds, the city and the hills beyond. The fall colors are pretty here, but not as intense as they would be in some of the other temples that we visit. On the way out, we pass by the pavilion one more time for closer views. This is a pretty temple and lovely in the early morning without the crowds. From here, we get some sweet potato cakes and turn into the Philosopher’s Path, a 2 km long cobbled stone path that follows a canal lined by hundreds of cherry trees as well as a few maples. Lovely homes, cafes, restaurants and boutiques line the path that is also sprinkled with several smaller temples and shrines. We walk leisurely along the path enjoying the day, taking pictures and wandering down smaller streets. The sun peaks out every now and then warming us up a little. We pick up some dango (chestnut, green tea and regular) and a red bean/rice dessert and munch on it canal side.

    An hour later, we arrive at our next stop, Eikando. As we enter the complex, we are greeted with a riot of brilliant colors, it’s gorgeous. There are a lot of people here as evidenced by the tour buses parked outside, but it is a large enough complex that it doesn’t feel too crowded. The temple’s main buildings are located at the base of the hill while the pagoda nestles in the hillside above. We walk through the buildings and the multiple corridors, all in beautiful condition, past a courtyard garden on the way up to the pagoda, which is built in the Tahoto style with 2 levels. There’s just something really captivating about this temple that Ajit and I both fall in love with, and we spend quite some time wandering through the buildings and grounds. It’s almost 1 by the time we finish here and we’re hungry again. Right outside is a takoyaki stall, so of course that’s where we stop. We watch as a fresh batch of original style and black sesame takoyaki are made (we order a set of 10, 5 of each) and drizzled with the sauce and mayo. It’s the perfect bite sized snack, and we especially enjoy the black sesame version.

    Nanzenji, our last stop before lunch, is where the Philosopher’s Path ends. This is a sprawling temple complex dating back to the 13th century entered via the massive Sanmon gate built in 1628 and scattered with several gorgeous buildings. We don’t enter any of the buildings here, but just take our time and zig-zag our way through the grounds. There is also a beautiful brick aqueduct built during the Meiji period that was part of a canal system constructed to carry water and goods between Kyoto and Lake Biwa. The fall colors around the aqueduct make this a popular photo spot. I don’t think we did this temple justice and would have loved to spend more time here. But, it’s time to eat a proper lunch and explore Gion afterwards. So, we hop into a cab that drops us off at the intersection of Shijo dori and Hanamikoji in the heart of Gion.

    There is a small restaurant right where we get dropped off on Hanamikoji, so we walk in to check it out. They specialize in soba (awesome, we haven’t tried it yet!) and have counter seating and a few tables. We get 2 stools at the counter, order shrimp tempura soba for me and the beef (I think) soba for Ajit, and watch the noodles being prepared and the dish assembled in front of us. Ajit does consider getting the nishin soba (topped with herring) but then decides against it. The soba is delicious (Ajit’s broth is very flavorful and better than mine), and while I have misgivings about ruining the crispy tempura in my broth, the little bits of tempura batter than break off into the soup give it some additional texture. This is a huge bowl of soup, and Ajit helps me finish mine as well. Just the nourishment we need. Research back in NYC indicates this restaurant was likely Hen Chi.

    After lunch, we walk around Gion, Kyoto's most famous Geisha district. Geishas or geiko as they are called have been around for centuries, and are highly trained and respected entertainers skilled in the traditional arts who entertain their guests during meals and other special occasions. They dress in extravagant kimonos and wear elaborate hairstyles/wigs and white makeup. Their numbers have declined steadily over the years with some estimates pointing to only about 200 geikos and 100 maikos (apprentices) remaining in Kyoto, many of whom work in the Gion area. Gion is dotted with several well preserved traditional wooden machiya merchant houses some of which serve as restaurants and ochaya or tea houses where rich and powerful patrons are entertained by the geiko and maiko. We start by walking up picturesque Shinbashi dori along the quiet Shirakawa canal lined with willow trees and exclusive tea houses that overlook the canal. A couple of women dressed up as maikos are here getting their pictures taken. This whole area has such an old world feel to it, it's mesmerizing. We then walk south towards Shijo dori, and across it on Hanamikoji which is the more popular part of Gion. The street here is also filled with traditional buildings housing restaurants and boutiques, interspersed with tea houses, but is packed with people. We stroll here for an hour and even catch a glimpse of a geiko briskly (and likely) walking to an engagement. As day turns to dusk, the streets take on a more magical appearance; this would have been a lovely area to stay in if we could afford the prices. But, it's been a long day and we are ready to head back to the hotel.

    For dinner, I want to try a restaurant specializing in tofu called Tousuiro, that I have read about in a few food blogs. They have a location on Kiyamachi dori, and the front desk makes dinner reservations for 7:30, which gives us enough time to take a shower and get ready. The lady at the front desk is also kind enough to write the name of the restaurant and the address in Kanji characters so we can show it to a taxi driver. Armed with this, we are able to find a taxi and let the driver know where we want to go. 10 minutes later, we arrive at the restaurant and are seated right away at the counter, which is awesome as we can see each dish being prepared. We order the Y5000 set menu and sake, and over the next 2 hours, our kimono clad waitress brings out several courses of the most delicious tofu we have ever had cooked in many different ways - there's a black sesame flavored cold tofu, a sashimi appetizer, soft and silky tofu simply boiled table side that we serve ourselves topped with soy, scallions and ginger, firm tofu covered in miso and some other sauce skewered and grilled with a lovely texture and caramelized flavors, tempura fried tofu (the least successful), steamed tofu in fish paste, and a tofu ice cream. Each dish is also exquisitely presented. And if this weren't enough, there's also rice, pickles, miso soup and tea. We would definitely describe this as our top meal in Japan and can certainly recommend it if you like tofu.

    The bus stop is right across from the restaurant, so it's an easy ride back to the hotel on the #206 bus. Another fascinating note about Kyoto buses is that the driver always thanks each person as they pay and get off the bus. This is especially interesting when we get off at the station which is the last stop where so many disembark. Some say Arigatou gozaimas to each person, some simplify and add the gozaimas for every third passenger as in Arigatou, Arigatou, Arigatou gozaimas while others simplify even further and just say Arimas! And they all say it with a deep guttural voice. Either way, they are the politest bus drivers we have ever seen.

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    If anyone is still reading, here's the next installment.

    Kyoto - Wednesday, 11/27

    Wednesday, we wake up to clearer skies and promise of a rain free day. Today, we hope to cover the southern Higashiyama area and follow the same routine as yesterday, leaving at about 8:45 and picking up sandwiches from Café Veloce, before getting on the #206 bus to Kiyomizudera. From the bus stop, it’s a 10 minute walk uphill to the temple with the final stretch of steep road filled with shops and food stalls. We are excited to see a manju bun stall, but the woman has to make a fresh batch which will take time, so instead we pick up some a matcha custard puff to share front stall right in front of the temple. The first thing we see as we enter is a bright orange gate and adjacent building next to a 3 storied pagoda. The autumn colors are lovely here as well, it looks like we have been really lucky with our timing. Further beyond, are the main buildings that this temple, founded in 780, is famous for. The main hall has a large veranda supported by tall pillars that juts out over the steep hillside and offers impressive views of the bright maples and the city. Some of the buildings are being renovated and have scaffolding over them, but it doesn’t impact our enjoyment of the temple. There are tons of school kids in this temple, as they were in the other temples we visited yesterday. It’s terrific that they are able to appreciate their nation’s historical treasures; it’s unfortunate that kids in Cambodia, Egypt or Peru don’t have the same opportunities. We keep moving along the temporary walkway built in front of Okunoin Hall (which has the secondary balcony) towards the 3 storied pagoda on the opposite end of the hill and the views of the main hall and verandah along the way are wonderful. We then walk down to the Otawa waterfall where three streams of water fall into a pond and visitors use cups attached to long poles to drink from them. We see a tea house so stop for something to warm us up – dango in a warm azuki (red bean) soup and amazake topped with freshly grated ginger are just what we need. We really enjoy this unique temple and add it to our list of favorites. On our way out, we stop to check on the manju buns and the woman now has a fresh batch ready, so this completes our breakfast.

    A few meters down this road and to the right, we begin our walk through another of Kyoto’s enchanting neighborhoods - the historic, narrow cobbled streets of Higashiyama lined with quaint wooden buildings and traditional shops. We climb down these eastern hills via the Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka stairs and amble along the well preserved pedestrian path towards Kodaiji temple and Yasaka shrine. This area is just so full of character; I had imagined all of Kyoto would be like this, but that is not very realistic, is it? We do snack along the way as is customary for us. From here, we walk past Yasaka pagoda and turn into the wider Nene no michi street that leads to Maruyama koen (park). Across from Kodaiji, we take a short detour into Ishibei Koji street with it’s picture perfect homes, ryokans and elegant restaurants along narrow winding cobbled alleys. It’s nice to get away from the crowds here and have a few moments of quiet. Back into Nene no michi street, we walk towards the park. We sit on a park bench across from its famous weeping cherry tree to rest our feet, and watch a hippy westerner play the guitar and sing Japanese songs. Next, we turn into Yasaka shrine, our last stop before lunch and one of Kyoto’s most famous shrines known for it’s Gion Matsuri festival held every July that dates back over a 1000 years. In front is a dance stage with hundreds of white paper lanterns that get lit in the evenings and the main hall with bells that are pulled by pilgrims using long ropes. This brings to an end what has been a fantastic morning so far.

    My plan for lunch is to go to Roan Kikunoi just across from the Kamogawa river, and famous for its kaiseki cuisine. Prices are exorbitant at dinner and reservations need to be made days in advance, so I figure we can stop by for lunch. We walk on Shijo Dori and arrive at the restaurant, only to find it closed. Darn! I should have had the hotel call in advance and check/make reservations. Their website didn’t list any closing days, so this is a disappointment. The only other nice restaurant in this area that I know of is Izuju, a recommended sushi restaurant across from Yasaka shrine, so we trudge back the in same direction we came from. Unable to locate the restaurant, I walk into a Lawsons and ask the guy at the counter. He looks confused at first and then leads me out and down the block (I’m hopeful at this time)…to the police station and points inside! Haha, I guess he thought they might be better able to help me. Instead of going in, I cross the street, scan the restaurants again and finally find it. Facing Yasaka shrine, it’s on the left hand side of Shijo dori, right at the corner. Unfortunately, there looks to be a long line of people waiting. The staff don’t speak any English so I have no idea how long the wait might be. Everyone writes their names down in Japanese at the counter when they arrive. I find one person who speaks English, who says that they don’t rush anyone here, so the wait could be an hour or two. Sigh. Not willing to wait for another lunch and getting hungrier by the minute, we walk into the first restaurant a few doors down. I have the tendon (prawn tempura over rice) and Ajit orders a duck soba. The tempura here is oily, making me appreciate all the more the well made tempura I’ve had earlier. Ajit’s soba is good though.

    Feeling less cranky now that we have had some food, we walk towards Chionin temple, the main temple of the Jodo sect. Its Sanmon gate, at 24m tall and 50m wide, is the largest in Japan and dates back to 1619. We walk up the stairs to the gate and up another flight of steps to the main grounds. The buildings here have interesting details on the roof that we enjoy and there is also a pretty Tahoto pagoda. This temple also has Japan’s largest and heaviest bell at 74 tons that needs 17 monks to ring it on New Years Eve. Another interesting feature is the nightingale floor called the Uguisu-bari along the corridors. The floor is made up of wooden planks designed to creak or sing on every step, warning the residents of intruders. We walk out the back of the temple and wind our way through the upper reaches of Maruyama park where the fall colors are gorgeous and descend into the park and across the bridge over the carp ponds. Ajit is fascinated by a stork and some ravens, so stops to take pictures. A quick restroom break and we take the #206 bus again in front of Yasaka shrine back to the station.

    Another quick note about restrooms in Japan. Most have squat toilets with maybe one or at most two western toilets. And, they usually have no air dryer or paper towels. Several have no soap either. I notice most Japanese women carry a small square towel in their bags to dry their hands. I resort to drying my hands on my jeans and sometimes Ajit’s. Back at the hotel, we take a much needed nap and then make plans for dinner. We have been meaning to try the izakaya on the way to the station that always looks busy, so we decide to stay local. Still groggy from our nap, we are awakened by the shrill welcoming sounds of “Irasshaimase!” as we enter. Being a local watering hole, this place is packed with the after work crowd and the energy levels are high. We order some beer and sake, along with edamame, shisito peppers, grilled octopus and crispy chicken. This is a grungy, no frills place with the grilling/cooking done in the middle of the shack like space. The food is basic but good, though you mainly come for the atmosphere. We then move onto Chabana, an Okonomiyaki/Teppanyaki place a few doors down. Now, we have tried okonomiyaki back in NYC at one of our favorite hole in the wall yakitori places in St. Marks Place, but didn’t quite enjoy it. We want to try the Japanese version to see if we might enjoy it more. After the insane energy of the izakaya, this place is just the opposite. We sit at the counter and watch as our okonomiyaki are prepared on the hotplate. It is a savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients – our batter has predominantly cabbage, pork and sausage in it. The batter is placed on the grill until it sears and then covered until it cooks on the inside. The pancake is then slathered with a sweet barbeque like sauce, drizzled with mayo and topped with scallions, pickled ginger and bonito flakes. Our first bite doesn’t change our opinion of this dish, it’s decent, but the heavy handed use of the sauces and toppings kind of spoils it for us. A stark contrast to the usual delicate and well balanced flavors typical of Japanese cuisine. It makes for a good snack however and an even better one, late at night. It’s back to the hotel and off to bed; tomorrow is our last day in this great city.

    Another observation for the day is that Tommy Lee Jones sells coffee in Japan, his face plastered on vending machines in Kyoto peddling the Suntory brand of hot coffee. Apparently, he features is several popular commercials for the brand as well, as an alien, which is a funny take on his MIB films I guess. Does an Oscar winner need to sell coffee? Well, it looks like they can and do.

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    seemaskt, I'm still following and have started eating along with your installments....I made a note of the tofu restaurant you ate at - looks interesting, thanks!

    I've never eaten okonomiyaki in NYC, just in Japan and I enjoy it but I am not a foodie like you and Ajit obviously are....it is more of a specialty in Hiroshima....

    As far as getting help from the police station or koban, police booth, I do that all the time in Japan - it helps to have the name or address written in Japanese but some of them can help without it....

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    Also enjoying the report.

    I enjoyed okonomiyaki a lot more than you did in Hiroshima -- must have lucked upon a good place. It's definitely comfort food rather than fine cuisine. (Mara, the Hiroshima version of okonomiyaki is unique because it typically includes a layer of noodles, but other cities have their own versions.)

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    Glad to know that some of you may find my ramblings useful. And, thanks for the encouragement!

    Mara, Don - I think if the okonomiyaki were smaller in size, not as thick and with less sauce on top, I would love it. Or, maybe I should try the Hiroshima version like you suggested. Everyone raves about it, so I was really looking forward to trying it in Japan. Oh well. :-(

    Bob - I think you should try Kikunoi for a kaiseki lunch, I've heard really good things about their food.

    On a food related note, after all the reminiscing about Japan, I went ahead and made reservations at Kajitsu for Ajit's birthday in January. This restaurant specializes in the vegetarian Buddhist shojin ryori cuisine. I've been meaning to try it for a couple of years, so really looking forward to it!

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    Kyoto - Thursday, 11/29

    Our last full day in Kyoto also promises to be rain free, hurrah! We are heading south this time, to Fushimi Inari and Tofukuji, but first we want to reserve seats on the shinkansen for tomorrow's trip from Hikone back to Tokyo. The front desk, feeling bad about our missed lunch at Kikunoi yesterday, offers to make reservations for today. But, not knowing how much time the 2 temples will take and not wanting to rush ourselves, we regretfully decline. We are able to get seats on the 3:55 Hikari from Maibara. The train to Hikone does not require any reservations. With that out of the way, we use our JR passes to take the Nara line a couple of stops to Inari, with the large torii gate of the temple right across the street. Fushimi Inari is an important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the kami (God) of rice, and famous for the thousands of torii gates that line the trail behind the temple all the way up the mountain. While most visitors come to see the torii gates, the gaudily colored and intricately patterned buildings inside the complex, including the Romon gate and main shrine, are also beautiful and we enjoy spending some time here. Foxes are thought to be messengers of Inari, resulting in many fox statues in the shrine grounds. We walk up the steps to the back, where the entrance to the hiking trail begins with two dense, parallel rows of vermillion gates called Senbon Torii (literally meaning thousands of torii gates). These gates are donations by individuals and companies, with the donator's name and date of donation inscribed on the back of each gate. It's impossible not to take a lot of pictures here, especially where the gates are dense and curve along the hillside, where it's strikingly gorgeous. We have to be patient though since every other person wants to take the same pictures as well. As we walk up the hill, the gates get taller and decrease in density, so after about 25 minutes or so, we turn around and walk back. It is possible to walk up all the way to the summit and back in about 2-3 hours and we may have done it if we had more time. As we leave, we realize that it was these gates that inspired the artists behind the Gates exhibit a few years ago in Central Park. This temple is also on our list of favorites.

    Our next stop, Tofukuji, is one stop north on the same train line from where it is a 10 minute walk away. As we enter the complex, it feels like all of Japan has descended on this temple. And, no wonder. The fall colors here are the most lush and vibrant we've seen on this trip. This is a Zen temple founded in 1236, and the head temple of one of the Buddhist sects. We begin by following the crowds along the famed Tsutenkyo bridge that spans a valley of red maples, but it is slow moving with people wanting to take pictures of every tree and every leaf. We continue walking to the main hall and then over to the Kaisando Hall, an elegant building reconstructed during the Edo period. The stone walkway to the hall is flanked on either side by a zen rock garden and a pond garden. Here, a woman in front asks me where I am from, and when I say India, she excitedly repeats Indo, tells her friends and proceeds to join her palms and say Namaste. How sweet! She tells me she is from Nagoya, and we both exclaim how beautiful Kyoto is. That's about the extent of the conversation we are able to have. Oh, and she points to my camera and says "Japanese!". I say "Yes, indeed, very good camera!" making her very happy. We then head back out into the gardens around the main buildings, which have equally spectacular colors. We give the Hojo gardens a miss, though I've read that they are quite lovely and a nice respite from the crowds.

    It's past noon, so we walk back to the station, picking up some dango filled with sweet soy sauce on the inside (very interesting, like an inside out mitarashi dango) and a shrimp and octopus cake sandwiched between 2 rice crackers and drizzled with sauce that is equally delicious. Back at Kyoto station, we decide to have some ramen for lunch at the Ramen Koji (alley) on the 10th floor of the station. There are 7 ramen shops here selling different varieties of ramen. Each shop has a vending machine with pictures of the various options. The more options we see, the more confused we get and finally, we pick one randomly, insert our coins, collect our tickets, and wait a few minutes for seats to open up. I get a miso ramen and Ajit gets a shio (or salt based) ramen, both under Y900. My broth is thick and rich, and a layer of fat floats on top. The flavor of the broth is very intense, and I also find a slice of what tastes like lard in the broth. Hmm, not a big fan, though without all that fat, the ramen would have been quite good. Ajit's ramen is lighter and more delicate and definitely a winner.

    After lunch, we are on our way to Nijo castle, which we get to via bus #9. This castle was built in 1603 as the residence of the first shogun of the Edo period. At the end of this period, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a while before being opened to the public. The palace buildings are said to be some of the best surviving examples of castle architecture of Japan's feudal era. The Karamon gate is being renovated and covered in scaffolding, so we go straight to the main Ninomaru palace, a set of lavish buildings with delicate cypress wood and gold leaf carvings. We follow a fixed route through the interiors past several audience and waiting rooms with it's beautifully decorated ceilings and sliding doors painted by famous artists of the time, all in pretty good condition too. The corridors between buildings have the same nightingale floors we saw at Chionin temple. We exit through the landscaped gardens towards Honmaru, which was an imperial residence, finally climbing up the stone foundation of one of the castle battlements from where there are nice views of the grounds, city and hills in the far distance. We agree that this is a must-see in Kyoto.

    It's our last evening in Kyoto and we haven't yet bought anything uniquely Japanese for our home, so we take a taxi to the Kyoto Handicraft Center near Heian Jingu that offers multiple floors of traditional crafts of reliably good quality. Had we more time, I would have also liked to peruse the several antique and pottery/ceramic shops that we passed in the Higashiyama and Gion areas. I know that I want to buy some Kokeshi dolls here, so that's where we stop first. These are hand painted wooden dolls originating in northern Japan, and I find 4 elegant dolls that I really like in different colors. Sold! We quickly explore some of the other floors but nothing stands out quite as much. We get a hand painted bamboo bookmark as well, and feeling satisfied, take the #206 bus back to the station. Back at the hotel, we let them know that we will have their Japanese breakfast tomorrow (it needs to be reserved the previous night). Ajit is too tired to venture back up town, so we don't wander far for dinner; the front desk recommends Rakuza, set in a machiya and serving Japanese small plates and sake. We pick up some cash from the 7-11 nearby so we can pay for our room tomorrow and then walk over to the restaurant. Well, the menu is entirely in Japanese with no pictures, and the staff barely speaks any English. Our waitress, bless her heart, is incredibly patient as we ask her to describe (with miming involved) a few of the dishes as best she can. Ultimately, we keep it simple and order a tofu salad, grilled fish, couple of plates of grilled chicken and sake. We also get a cold tofu appetizer on the house. The food is simple and tasty. After dinner, we hit up our local izakaya one last time and have another round of sake with edamame and a plate of grilled fish for Ajit. When we are done, we take a stroll around the neighborhood before heading back to our room.

    Kyoto at first glance may look like any other urban city, but away from the concrete jungle and the glitzy shopping and restaurants, we do still get glimpses of the Kyoto of old that we have imagined, scattered with ancient temples, shrines and gardens set amidst cobbled streets, canals and 17th century machiya tea houses, and where if we are lucky, we can possibly also see geishas dressed up and going to work like they have done for centuries.

    "If Tokyo is the door to Japan's future, Kyoto is a window on its mysterious past." is something I read that very succinctly describes the contrast between these 2 cities.

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    I am really impressed to note that you have mastered the names of food, the various flavors and have a great knowledge of the stuff that would be foreign to other travelers.
    Thus, would you explain how did you learn so many facts about food and how do you remember everything.
    How did you take notes and how were you brave to try all the various variety of seafood. I would be apprehensive sometimes to try something totally new to me. Maybe I am not too adventurous.
    Would love to find out what were the unique souvenirs you purchased?
    You are a good writer. Maybe you have a professional background in some sort of work that includes good descriptions.
    Thoroughly enjoyed your trip through your experiences.

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    seemaskt - there's more to come, right? And btw, how smoky is an izakaya - I've found a lot of small Japanese restaurants are terribly smoky....although things are better than when I went to Japan for the first time....

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    Don't feel bad about missing out on Kikunoi. Perhaps if you splurge for the kaiseki (from ¥18,000/pax when we visited) its better but we had their Obento lunch menu and although plenty of food, nothing in the meal made me say wow and I didn't feel it was ¥12,000 well spent. It's s beautiful place and they are very welcoming. With all the hype I expected at least one dish to stand out, but it didn't. If go back, but only for the much more expensive kaiseki course menus and not the Obento. We had no choice of nenu as although we reserved two weeks ahead kaiseki was sold out - we could have the Obento or not go. Lesson - reserve very much in advance and get kaiseki.

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    Mara - yes, I have 2 more days to write about, our day in Hikone and our last day in Tokyo. hope to finish them both this weekend. The izakaya was smoky, not just from the cigarette smoke but from the grill as well. But, it wasn't bad enough to bother us and we didn't feel claustrophobic. I think it may have been because the izakaya was open in front with just some plastic sheets covering the entrance, so there was good air circulation.

    Thanks ileen! I take down notes when I travel and ask about food items that I haven't seen or heard about before, that's how I remember. If I miss something, I research it online when I get back...you are bound to find information on food and travel blogs. I do enjoy food and think you can learn so much about a country and its people and culture from the food, so do read as much as I can about it before I go. And, I am not that adventurous at all, and don't eat offal meat for one. Ajit is more adventurous when it comes to food than I am actually...but I do like to try new things, you never know when you might find something you really like. Living in NYC, you do get exposed to a wide variety of international foods, so that helps as well.

    As for souvenirs, we picked up a few kokeshi dolls from the handicraft center that I mentioned above. Apart from that, we got a few bowls and tea cups from the inner market at Tsukiji on our last day. When you live in a small apartment, you have to pick and choose wisely. If we lived in a bigger house, I might have come back with more . ;-)

    KimJapan - good to know about the weeks in advance reservations, making one the previous day may not have helped us then. I'm not feeling too bad about it now. Did you go to the Gion location of Kikunoi by any chance? On their website, they list only kaiseki menus for lunch at 3 different price points - Y4200, Y7350 and Y10500 at Roan Kikunoi which is whe we tried to go.

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    We did go to the one near Gion. Looking at their website - it isn't exactly what we were offered last spring. I'm sure it was more expensive than their website now lists. I went for work and have the excel sheet from expenses and we definitely paid 10,000 plus service fee and definitely did not get kaiseki but a box lunch with sashimi side and 2 other dishes and soup.

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    Thank you seemaskt, thoroughly enjoying your food-centric trip report. My family would love to travel with you as it seems everything we do is based on what, when and where food is available!

    What guidebooks would you recommend for the areas you visited? It sounds like you gleened many excellent tips and bits of information from them and from websites.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

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    KimJapan - The Gion location of Kikunoi has a different lunch menu (and includes the bento) from Roan Kikunoi. The former has 3 Michelin stars, while the latter has 2, so I can imagine that your lunch was more expensive.

    Thanks ovenbird! Haha, I hear you...and this is how we are all the time, not just when we travel! We usually buy the Lonely Planet books, but for Japan we got the Fodors guidebook. While I liked the book for the descriptions of sights and such, I didn't care at all for the food recommendations, most of which were pricy and moreover not indicated on a proper map. So, when you're near a particular temple or other sight, there's no easy way to tell what's nearby. I like the Lonely Planet better because of this, and used my cousin's copy of the Tokyo guide. But mostly, I got recommendations off of food blogs and those worked out very well.

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    Hikone

    Friday is a relaxed morning for us as we have nothing planned until we check out at 10 and take the train to Hikone. At 8, we go down to the lobby for their Japanese breakfast (Y1100 each). It is an elaborate meal as expected - there's miso soup, rice, grilled fish, a delicious soft poached egg topped with fish sauce, tiny dried fish, sauteed burdock root, pickles, dried nori and green tea. The egg mixed with the rice is creamy and lovely and the burdock (or gobo) is a revelation - earthy and with sweet and savory flavors, reminds me a little of sunchokes. I wish we had eaten more of this while in Japan. Have to find me some burdock in NYC now! Incidentally, the seeds of the burdock were the inspiration for velcro, who knew!

    We finish packing, check out, say our goodbyes to the friendly staff who have been very helpful and walk over to the station to take the JR special rapid line to Hikone, 50 minutes away. We could have taken the shinkansen to Maibara and a local train one stop away to Hikone, but with the transfer at Maibara, it takes about the same amount of time. On the platform, I find green tea flavored kit kats, which becomes our mid morning snack. The train is crowded with commuters, but we get seats a couple of stops into the trip. At Hikone station, we leave our bags in a coin locker, pick up a map from the information desk and walk 15 minutes to the castle.

    Hikone is a small city at the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake. It's castle is one of only four castles in Japan designated as national treasures. My original plan was to go to Himeji, but since it is undergoing major renovations until 2015, I pick Hikone instead. As we walk down the main road, we get brief glimpses of the castle perched on top of the hill. Hikone castle, completed in 1622, is much smaller than Himeji, but like it was never destroyed in the war or by earthquakes/fires and survives in its (mostly) original condition. We walk past the castle museum, cross the moat, climb up the steps and across a wooden bridge into the castle. Japanese castles are unlike any other castle I've ever seen - they are incredibly beautiful and delicate looking, words you wouldn't typically associate with castles. Their architectural style is unique, and Hikone uses multiple styles in it's design, and it's just charming. Combined with the maple trees all around the front and back gardens of the castle, and we easily spend more than an hour here soaking it all in and taking a lot of pictures. We then stroll around Genkyuen garden, a pretty landscaped garden at the base of the hill with a pond, several bridges and a teahouse, with views of the castle behind it. What had started out as a clear day is now grey and threatening rain, so we are glad to be done early.

    As we exit the garden, we see a beautiful bride and groom in traditional dress having their wedding pictures taken. When I stop to acknowledge and congratulate them, the bride's mother and photographer call me over to take a picture with them. They take one with their camera, and I ask if they can take one with mine as well. How nice to be included like this! The groom speaks good English and we chat for a bit about our travels and where we are from/live, but don't stay too long as I don't want to interrupt their festivities. It's past 2 and time to get some lunch, so we head out. We get some dango at a stall across from the castle and chat with the owner, who is excited to show us all the framed pictures he has taken of the castle over the years especially during cherry blossom season. We start walking towards Yume Kyobashi, a street designed to look like a former castle town and with many dining options, but soon realize that we may not have enough time to eat and get back the station in time for our train, so we backtrack our way towards the station. Most restaurants in this area appear closed since it's late for lunch, so we find a bento shop that makes fresh bento boxes to go. I get a tonkatsu box and Ajit gets one with beef over rice. We sit on stools and eat ours in the shop (I think the shop lady was quite amused), and get another katsu bento and gyoza to go.

    We pick up our bags, take the local train one stop to Maibara, where we wait for our 3:55 shinkansen back to Tokyo. While we wait on the platform, a couple of nozomi trains zoom past without stopping, which is when we get a sense of how powerfully fast these trains actually are. You don't feel it as much when you're in the train. Ajit just loves it! We sleep for most of the way back, only walking up to eat our bento and gyoza (actually, I finish all the yummy gyoza). We get into Tokyo station a little past 6 and are home by 7. The rest of the evening is spent at home, catching up and being entertained by my niece Aanya.

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    You clearly packed carefully; if what I heard is correct, most of those coin lockers only accommodate fairly small bags (?)

    Seemaskt you seem to have sailed right through this trip. What do you think helped? (Our own upcoming trip will be our first to Asia. So no tip will seem redundant to me.)

    Your description of Hikone castle as looking delicate, refined, made me wonder if its function was more political or even residential than military (?) Anyway, you've given me something to look up.

    Still loving your report.

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    Thanks everyone! Mara - I use a Nikon D5000 with a fixed 35mm lens. Ajit uses a D300 with a 50mm lens. We didn't have a zoom lens on this trip.

    Sue - they had lockers of different sizes in Hikone. We used a medium sized one, and the had some larger ones as well. We didn't pack light at all since we were carrying heavy sweaters and jackets. We left a carry on and a large suitcase in Tokyo with my family and carried a medium sized suitcase and a small backpack to Kyoto.

    As far as travel trips, we found Japan very easy to travel around. Language can be an issue at times, but everyone goes out of their way to help. What helped me the most was:
    1. Printing out an Engligh map of the Tokyo subway that I always carried with me.
    2. Printing out the train schedules from hyperdia for the JR trains we wanted to take, so we could show it to the staff to reserve our seats
    3. Having restaurant names and directions written out in Japanese by your hotel staff, to show it to locals and taxi drivers. That is, if you are particular about where you eat or have specific places you want to try. We only did this once, but should have done it for some of the other restaurants we had trouble locating.
    4. Getting a Suica or Pasmo card for Tokyo is much easier than buying tickets for individual rides. And, it's very easy to get the card balance refunded at the airport.
    5. Both Tokyo and Kyoto are big cities and distances are further than they seem on a map, so don't over plan your days. Make room to just linger in places you enjoy.

    That's all I can think of now. l'll post again if I think of other things. Have fun planning your trip! I'm sure you will love your time in Japan.

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    LOL Bob...If Ajit can only get his pictures done, there may be more of me. So, it looks like you will be going to Japan next (or soon to be, this) fall? Do you know where you'll be going yet?

    Anyway, my pictures are all done and uploaded.
    For Kyoto days 3 and 4: http://culturesconnected.smugmug.com/Travel/Japan-2012/Days-3/27286768_R4w7pw

    For Hikone and our last day in Tokyo: http://culturesconnected.smugmug.com/Travel/Japan-2012/Hikone-A-perfect-detour-on-the/27026278_d8Qx4F

    Hope to be back before the end of day with my final installment.

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    Here goes my last installment. And, here's wishing everyone a Happy New Year! Hope you've enjoyed and gleaned some useful information from my report. Thanks for reading!

    Saying Sayonara to Tokyo and Japan: Our last day of the trip

    Today is our last day in Tokyo and in Japan, and we wake up another cloudy day with a chance of rain. We sleep in a little and as planned, head out to Tsukiji at 9 for another sushi breakfast. There are long lines at Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi even at this hour, so we head straight to the same restaurant that we ate at on our last trip here a few days ago - there is no line here and there are 2 empty stools at the counter, perfect! A few minutes later, a line starts forming outside, so we timed it just right. This time, we get the Omakase special, with the additional uni and 2 extra nigiri sushi of our choice and with the sushi made/served one at a time instead of all at once on a tray. The uni is creamy and briny, but not overly so like some of the uni I have had before, definitely a factor of the incredible freshness of the seafood. The only negative is that since we are seated at the far corner of the counter, we are served not by the master chef, but likely the apprentice, whose sushi skills are not as refined. But, while the finesse is missing, the sushi is divine is worth every yen, all 3500 of it.

    After the most expensive breakfast we have ever had, we take the subway to Akihabara and from there the JR line to Nippori, for our walk through the Yanaka neighborhood.. One of Tokyo's few old quarters to have survived both earthquakes and the air raids of World War II, Yanaka is largely residential, with narrow lanes, small houses, traditional shops, and several small temples and cemeteries tucked away here and there, representing the "shitamachi" atmosphere of Tokyo's bygone era. It is raining by the time we start our walk along the main road towards Yanaka Ginza, an old fashioned pedestrian shopping street, filled mostly with locals going about their weekend day. Lining the street are shops selling crafts, clothing, household goods, sweet and food stalls, butcher shops, fish mongers, barber shops etc. We peek into shops, try some sweets and delicious skewered clams, but mostly just enjoy the ambience of the area. We make a left at the end of the street into Yomise dori, and when it starts to pour, duck into a small shop selling many different types of mochi. Sitting on a bench with hot green tea in our hands, we nibble on delicate mochi filled with custard and cream, and watch the rain come down. The mochi is so good, we buy a few to go. When the rain slows down a little, we get back out. There are Christmas carols playing on the loud speakers along this street, which is quite strange in this predominantly Buddhist and Shinto nation. We did see Christmas trees and decorations in department stores and in the Kyoto station and attributed this to the commercialization of Christmas and the "holiday season", but carols on a loudspeaker in a local neighborhood seems out of place.

    We walk back up to the main road and turn right into another narrow alley filled with old homes and shops, and dotted with several small temples and shrines dating from the Edo period. It's easy to lose track of time here, as we wander in and out of these temples, some with cemeteries at the back. There's a temple dedicated to the Kannon, another to Jizo (the protector of children), and the Kannonji and Choanji temples (mentioned in the guidebook). We absolutely love this atmospheric area, and highly recommend it. Unfortunately, because of the rain, we don't take many pictures, but I don't think pictures would do it justice anyway. It's just someplace you have to be to appreciate it's charm. We continue down this path to another main intersection, turn left and then left again into the street that leads to Yanaka Cemetery, one of Tokyo's largest cemeteries, with several famous public figures, artists, and writers, some of whom were Yanaka residents, buried here. We spot many feral cats wandering amongst the tombstones with a few locals feeding them. Ajit is spooked by cemeteries, so we don't spend too much time here. As well, it's almost 2, so we skip our last stop, Tennoji Temple, and continue along the main road, as the sun comes out, past one of the campuses of Tokyo University towards Ueno Park.

    Another random note about Tokyo and Japan in general is how clean it is, which is not surprising in and of itself, but more so because public trash cans are strangely absent (except on train platforms). We notice locals carrying their trash in plastic bags that I'm guessing they take home to dispose of.

    Ueno park is a large public park housing many famous museums and the zoo, and popular with locals and visitors alike. If we had more time, we would have liked to check out the national museum. Today, we walk though the park to the JR station and take the train to Shibuya, to do the touristy thing and check out the busy Shibuya crossing. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides. We walk across the junction and later go up to the walkway on the second floor of the station to get an ariel view of the crossing. There is no mad rush on a laid back Sunday afternoon, so this is likely more fun to do on a weekday evening, when the streets are busier and more chaotic with commuters and the city lights come on.

    From here, we head home, grabbing a late lunch of soba at a restaurant in the Izumi garden building next door. Given it's our last evening in Tokyo, we decide to spend it with my family. They're all sick nursing a cold, so we stay home, watch movies and hang out. We ask the concierge in their building to have a taxi pick us up at the ungodly hour of 4 am, for our 6:30 AA flight back to JFK. We barely get any sleep, before it's time to say our goodbyes and leave. The ride to the airport only takes 20 minutes but costs Y9000! We check in, and when the ticket counters open at 5, exchange our Suica and Pasmo cards (at different counters) for a refund of the balance. Some tea and gyoza later, it's time to board our flight. The flight home is more tolerable with a better selection of movies and we arrive to an unusually warm Sunday morning in NYC.

    We loved Japan more than expected to, with it's interesting mix of old and new; glass and steel (and ugly concrete) skyscrapers next to serene parks, streets reminiscent of days gone by, temples and shrines; swanky shopping and extravagant dining along with hole in the wall yakitori and noodle stalls as well as izakayas; modern living with high tech gadgets combined with old fashioned traditions and manners; an appreciation for the delicate, understated and sublime contrasted with the wacky cartoons, fashions and noisy pachinko and karaoke parlors. It's a country and people with one foot firmly in the future and one foot in the past, though I'm not sure how long that foot will remain there with the newer generations.

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    yes we depart boston on oct 24 non-stop (japan air) to narita--3 days in tokyo, then 3 nights in kanazawa, then 2 nights in hiroshima (trying to convince K to go elsewhere), and finally 5 nights in kyoto.

    we will be travelling with the hawaiiantravellers (peter and linda) and will meet up with craig and jeane along the way.

    i'm hoping to eat some of the foods you have mentioned but not all, and not as frequently unfortunately.

    after japan we will be in thailand for a month.

    have you been to thailand?

    where do you like to eat in ny? both indian and otherwise...

    you should come to the boston GTG next october--we have tons of fun and good food.

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    Sounds like a good trip, Bob. Must be fun to catch up with other Fodorites. Are you planning to go to Miyajima as well?

    No, we haven't yet been to Thailand, it's on my list though I'd like to get to Burma, Indonesia and Laos first. Next year, we'll probably head to Morocco or somewhere in South America. Will depend on how busy work gets.

    Ooh, I have a long list of favorite restaurants in NYC, but for Indian we like:
    Chola, Amma (their lunch is a great deal), Tulsi (fine dining) - all in midtown east
    Bhojan (Vegetarian only with a variety of snack/street food options as well), Chennai Garden, Tiffin Wallah (both for South Indian breakfast/tiffin style food) - all 3 in the Murray Hill area
    Kati Roll Company (multiple locations) - For indian wraps, a speciality of Calcutta, best to grab to go

    Most of the Indian food in the US is North Indian (with the Mughal/Persian influences), but the restaurants above offer dishes from some of the other regions as well.

    If you're ever in NY, let me know and we can take you.

    Thanks for the invite to the Boston GTG. I'll keep it in mind.

    Have a great new year with the Mrs.!

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    seemaskt - I have stayed twice in the Yanaka area of Tokyo - I find it much calmer than the areas often mentioned for tourists and it is fairly easy to get around being near a metro line and the Yamanote line. I was there last year just around Thanksgiving and was also surprised at the Christmas music playing all over...lol....

    Thanks again for letting me travel to Japan with you and Ajit - it was wonderful! And thanks for the camera info.

    So when will you return to Japan? ;-)

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    Fantastic trip report. Thank you so much for sharing in such an entertaining, detailed, foodcentric way. My husband and I travel to Japan at the end of March and you have provided so much useful information - our mouths are watering in anticipation!

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    seemaskt,

    Thank you for this fabulous report! It's always nice to experience Japan from another perspective. We missed going to Japan this year and you made me home sick with your descriptive writing so can't wait for next fall when we get to baptize a few Japan newbies.
    Let us know if you post Ajit's pictures when ever.

    Aloha!

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    Hi Mara - I would have loved to stay Iin the Yanaka area and explore it some more...lucky you! Not sure if/when we'll return...there are so many countries to visit and so little time! :( But, it's definitely a place I would go back to if I had the opportunity. It looks like you have been back several times. What keeps drawing you back to Japan?

    Thanks rcw! Have a lovely trip!

    Peter, thanks! I'm sure you have a lot of pressure to show Bob, Craig and their families a good time!! ;) Hope you have another wonderful trip to your favorite destination!

    Bob - we used to go to Queens for Indian food when we first moved to NYC and there were fewer options in the city. Now, with a lot of great options here, we don't wander too far anymore. Sorry!

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    Yup, that's the Murray hill area I am referring to, on Lex between 28th and 26th streets. The 3 restaurants I listed above are our favorite in that area. There are also a couple of others we like, but not always reliable.

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    lol...that area on Lexington gets one hungry just walking down the street. ;-)

    seemaskt, I decided to go the first time to Tokyo just to get out of my usual European trip comfort zone - also an extremely cheap fare - I enjoyed Tokyo - it was fairly easy to get around, people were so helpful - it was clean and I guess I got the bug....since then I have gotten to know Japanese people from NYC who have moved back as well as others I met online so when I go there I can meet them sometimes....Plus at heart I am a solo budget traveler and Japan is easy to get around with public transport as you know. If it wasn't such a long trip I would go more than once a year... :) Also I have been studying Japanese so now I can converse a bit and read signs etc which does help and the Japanese people seems to like when one makes an effort.
    Happy Travels in 2013 everyone!

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    seemaskt, thanks for the tips, including the ones about bigger lockers available in Hikone.

    I have just learned, by the way, that decongestants used commonly in North America (e.g. Sudafed, Tylenol Cold) etc. cannot be brought into Japan.) Major bore, I shall have to think hard about how to be prepared if I end up flying with a cold.

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    Mara - those are good reasons to travel to Japan. I'm sure your interactions are so much more rewarding now that you speak the language.

    Sue - I didn't know that you couldn't take Tylenol etc. into Japan and in fact had some on me which weren't confiscated. Not sure if the rules are relaxed or if I just got lucky.

    Bob - will send you an email. Hope to see you in the spring.

    Safe travels in 2013 to all!!

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    Hi Seemaskt

    It's only meds with phenylephrine in them that are potentially problematic. Could be you had stuff without that ingredient, or maybe as you say you were lucky, who knows.

    I'm sorry your report is over. Can't you just invent more trip to report about? ;)

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    Just found your report today and have read the whole lot, savoured it all. My husband and I went to Japan for the first time, in October. Like you, I did a lot of reading and research in advance, and like you, food was a major theme of the trip. Indeed, I've been writing up my experiences too (for my food blog) and smiled several times as I noted how similar our reactions were, what delighted us, and even what we chose to share in the reports. Some of mine are up but some are sitting in a queue of posts scheduled to be shared in the coming month.

    What a pleasure to read... :-)

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