Well, I've been back for a couple of months now, so I better put out a trip report before my next vacation coming up next week -- this time to Australia!
Thank you to all the Fodorites who provided knowledgeable and meticulous help with my trip planning. All the folks who responded to my transport logistics questions on this thread and others who posted trip reports. Your first-hand experience and knowledge are far more valuable than any guidebooks out there!
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/transport-logistics-kyoto-hiroshimamiyajima-kyushu.cfm* 3/15 (Sat)Fly into Osaka from US (overnight in Osaka)
We visited the following places on this trip: Osaka, Koyasan, Kyoto, Arashiyama, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto, Mt Aso, Kurokawa
Took trains most of the time, and in Kyushu we rented a car and the driving was very easy. We picked up the car at Kumamoto train station near our hotel, and dropped it off at Kumamoto Airport before we flew out. Car rental was with Budget, and it was reasonable for about $50 USD a day.
Found that Japan was quite cheap to travel! You can find clean and comfortable lodging for under $100 USD and decent fresh food for under $10! Don't let the myth Japan is expensive to prevent you from traveling there! Well, it helped that the dollar was quite strong against the yen when we went, and it's great that taxes and tips are all included in the price, so no additional 25-30% tag-on at the end, as in the U.S.
Below is the itinerary we ended up following:
* 3/15 (Sat) Flew into Osaka from US (overnight in Osaka in Sheraton using hotel points)
* 3/16 Train from Osaka to Koyasan. Bought World Heritage transport tickets at Namba Station. Templestay at Eko-in temple in Koyasan-- it was the highlight of our trip, and so glad we didn't drop it! We booked directly using their website and asked numerous questions and always got prompt response in excellent English from one of their resident monks named Nobu. $200 USD a night for 2 including beautiful room, Koyasan vegetarian dinner and breakfast, afternoon tea/snack, guided meditation, guided morning prayer and fire ritual ceremony. We paid another $15 USD pp for a guided night walking tour of the Okunoin cemetery led by Nobu. It was worth it.
* 3/17 Spent another 1/2 day in Koyasan. Train back to Osaka and then to Kyoto.
* 3/18-3/21. Kyoto for conference. Coincided with a lantern festival where many temples and surrounding traditional streets were lit up with shops open late. Lots of beautiful and artistic giant flower arrangement exhibits along walking paths.
* 3/22 (Sat). Bought the 5 day train pass ($240 USD). Went to Arashiyama. Late afternoon train to Hiroshima on rail pass. Overnight in Hiroshima. Stayed at Sheraton in Hiroshima – biggest hotel room in Japan! Cool, contemporary look. We barely spent any time there though.
* 3/23 (Sun). Half day at Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. Afternoon ferry to Miyajima. Overnight in Miyajima at Kikunoya. Good location, but smoke smelling room, and main hostess wasn’t too hospitable by Japanese standards. We just needed a place to crash for the early morning hike the next day. $75 USD a night.
* 3/24 (Mon). Early morning hike up Mt Misen in Miyajima. Couldn’t find breakfast or food anywhere in the early morning before tourists arrived! Vending machines only sell drinks, not snacks! Train to Beppu. Overnight in Beppu. We stayed at this small inn for $75 USD a night, including an elaborate hot breakfast (with your own stove to cook tofu soup, and a small grill for fish) and onsite private onsens that you can reserve. It’s a great deal. Nothing refined like a ryokan but a great value. The room was probably the tiniest I’ve ever stayed in (something like 7x8 ft), but clean and contemporary and hip looking with very efficient use of space. I loved it! Since we got to Beppu quite late we stayed for another night and booked it directly with hotel and it was slightly cheaper than on booking.com.
* 3/25 (Tue). Beppu morning: took a local bus to go to 2 hells and then walked to the Hyotan public for a soak. It’s a pretty elaborate onsen with hot sand bath and multiple pools. Day use was something like $10 USD. The night before, we went to that old famous onsen for a soak – water was too hot but the wood building was huge and imposing.
In afternoon, used our train pass to go to Yufuin. Tons of Japanese tourists and shops that sell pretty much the same stuff – blah European style pastries, crème caramel, so-called art, everything mellow and pretty, etc. with Nora Jones soothingly croons in the background. All quite sickening actually. It’s like Japanese’s fantasy of European/Western lifestyle/aesthetics. Maybe the onsens are better, but the shopping streets filled with day trippers were too crowded and generic for me. In hindsight, we could have skipped Yufuin and Beppu, and spent more time at Kurokawa. On the way back to Beppu, we hopped out of the Oita station transfer stop to look for food. Wow, excellent food here! There’s a handmade udon shop right in the station. The chef was continuously making new batches. Amazingly fresh and delicious and so cheap -- $6 a bowl!
* 3/26 (Wed). Train from Beppu to Kumamoto in the morning. At the transfer station Hakata, again we hopped out and tried a bowl of their famous Hakata tonkasu ramen. Then back on the train to Kumamoto. Went to Kumamoto Castle and cherry blossoms were on in Kumamoto. Although rainy, it was so pretty. Stayed at a business hotel we booked at the last minute because it was close to the train station. I think it’s Tokyo Inn (?) that includes breakfast. But room was so smelly of cigarette smoke that I couldn’t breathe or sleep. They claimed there was no non-smoking room left in a 20+ floor hotel??
* 3/27 (Thur). Rented a car from Kumamoto train station and headed out first to the Gorge (I need to look up the name) with the famous Shinto legend about the goddess. Then drove up to Mt Aso, but access to the volcano was closed due to toxic fume. Disappointed we drove down and walked around that big open field with a lake. We stayed outside Mt Aso at a Pensione (need to look up the need), which turned out to be like a western B&B, nestled in the woods with victorian style houses and front porch and big yard. The whole area was like that, very nice and interesting and it’s more like somewhere in rural US than Japan. Never seen so much land and space in between houses in Japan! The hostess and host were so friendly and they didn’t speak a word of English. Western breakfast too. There were 2 private onsens on the premise for use.
* 3/28 (Fri). During breakfast at the above pensione, we checked the Mt Aso website and lo and behold, the fume was all cleared up and we had to rush to check out and drive up to Mt Aso. The host and hostess were surprised we were rushing to leave so early in the morning. It was so worth it to see Mt Aso bubbling and fuming away! I’d been monitoring their website before the trip and every day was pretty much closed. We were so lucky!! We did a long hike up to a peak with a panoramic view of Mt Aso and the surrounding area. Drove to Kurokawa after.
We couldn’t decide whether to stay in Kurokawa or which onsen, but by the time we booked it, the night before there was only one left at a reasonable price of $200 USD for 2 people, including meals and onsen. (I need to look up the name.) It’s an older property but we had a room with a view of the river and some cherry blossoms. All their onsens are private that you can just check out the wooden pass and use. Nice to be soaking together privately. We tried all of their onsens. Dinner was kaiseki with homegrown rice and vegetables. The old woman who served us was so kind and funny. We walked around the cute little village of Kurokawa, very picturesque with a flowing stream. Should’ve spent another night here and skipped Beppu and Yufuin! Kurokawa wasn’t even in Fodor’s guidebook! Thanks to Fodorites who reported about this gem.
* 3/29 (Sat). More soaking in Kurokawa and breakfast and checked out. Drove back to Aso City and visited their shrine and walked around the street with lots of gurgling spring water displays in front of store shops for sampling. Supposedly it has some curative power. Drove to Kumamoto airport in the evening and flew to Haneda (alternative airport in Tokyo) and back home in the USA.
Just a brief recap. I’m not good at writing lengthy detailed trip reports, but would be happy to answer any questions! Thank you.
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Back from Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyushu. Questions welcome!