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Trip Report Capturing the Koyo of Autumn in Japan 2009

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Sept 30-Oct 1

We arrived at the HNL airport about 2 ½ hours early for our flight being eager to get our long planned vacation started. The commute was a breeze even in Honolulu's morning rush hour traffic as the drive from house to airport took only 22 minutes. We left my car in the parking lot at airport for number one daughter to pick up in a couple of hours after work and use for the month we are away. Check in was done at home online so we just dropped off our bags at the luggage station then an easy trip through screening on our way to the Red Carpet room. We waited there till about five minutes before boarding time, we then proceeded to the gate area for the boarding. As we were sitting in the waiting lounge we heard an announcement paging a few customers and our name were included. ‘We would like to upgrade you to business class, as we need your E-plus seating, our plane is overbooked” said the gate person. No problem here. So as we went back to our seats and sat there stunned and very happy with our new found luck another announcement rolled over the PA system.
“Ladies and Gentlemen if you take a look over at our equipment outside of gate 7(they always call the planes their equipment) you will see that the engine cover is removed and the mechanics are working to replace the generator of that engine ya da ya da ya da back up to the Red Carpet room for us, the flight left at 1:00pm, which was bout 1 ½ hours later.

After a very comfortable and happy to be in business class flight we arrived in Narita just a minute ahead of two other flights, I think from NW. Luckily we were one of the first out of the plane so were one of the first to clear customs so the whole process ended up taking only about ten minutes. We then bought our limo bus tickets to the Westin along with our return tickets from the Grand Hyatt, which qualified us for two free 24-hour Tokyo Metro tickets. Total cost for two round trip tickets was 12,000 yen.

We arrived at the Westin hotel after a 100 minute commute on the limousine bus and due to our late arrival right in the middle of the after work rush hour traffic jam. The room we were given at the Westin was a large deluxe king room which was very large and an upgraded one due to our SPG gold status. I had booked the room about 4 months earlier for two nights for 24,000 SPG points total. The rooms at this Westin should be going for 20,000 points per night but I lucked out as I check the SPG site daily and pounced on the 12,000 points per night that popped up once as I was checking. I checked almost every day after I booked and the price was always 20,000 points per night. I don’t know why it happened but am sure glad it did. When I booked the room the reservation stated that the amount was a “low rate” but we got a beautiful room all the same. I had wanted to give the Westin a try after reading emd’s report a few years ago and am glad we did. The area around the hotel is a quiet residential like neighborhood if you can say that about any of the neighborhoods of Tokyo and quite unlike the one I am used to in Shinjuku. I wouldn’t hesitate to stay there again but still prefer the more vibrant Shinjuku area although there is absolutely nothing wrong with the Westin’s environs. It’s just a matter of personal preference. I like the night life..... ;)

We were pretty beat after our long flight and commute so went out for a fast dinner at the first place we saw in the shopping complex across the street an Italian restaurant with a Japanese name. I thought of the Panda in China at this point and for the rest of the night unfortunately (bad dreams). We both had pasta dishes, I the Bolognese she the mussels in white sauce and a soft drink for 28,000 yen total, not bad. I know we should have looked for a Japanese restaurant but remember; we would be in Japan for a whole month and will have enough Japanese food during that span to fulfill anyone’s desires and needs and just wanted something easy, quick and good. We went right back to the room after dinner where we both passed out pretty quickly after the long day of commute and time differential.

Oct 2

Both of us were up early this morning as most travelers from America are and almost went to Tsukiji fish market but being from Hawaii and having seen enough fish markets and fresh fish all over the world decided not to do it this time so instead we took an extended walk of the neighborhood surrounding the hotel and were back by 7:00 am for breakfast in the executive lounge on the 17th floor of our hotel. This was the best breakfast spread I have seen in a Starwood Hotel’s executive club. The breakfast was identical for both of the days we were there. There was one table with cereals, breads, assorted pastries and condiments. Another table had the bacon, ham, sausages, soft scrambled eggs, potatoes, etc. There was another table with green salads along with cooked veggies and a fresh assortment of fruits and finally another table with the Japanese breakfasts like miso soup, rice, fish, natto, and assorted tsukemono.

After breakfast we took the subway to Shinjuku JR station to activate our 14-day passes, make a few reservations and to go shopping in a store that Linda likes to shop at but when we were in the JR office it started pouring rain and did not stop for the next couple of hours. We activated our passes at the JR office at the West end of the station which is less crowded and a lot easier than the one at the East end of the station. For one thing the service agents actually helped us fill out our forms for us, which is rare (I have never seen it done in all my times to Japan) and all in all took only about 5 minutes.

We decided to stay underground to avoid the rains and took a quick subway ride to Roppongi to check out the site of the GTG venue later that evening then it was back to Ebisu to shop and relax until our dinner GTG with Mr. & Mrs. Kuranosuke and Mr. & Mrs. Lcuy at Gonpachi Japanese Restaurant in the Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo. Just a note that we were utilizing our SUICA cards for subway transport this time in Tokyo as we got them a couple of Japan trips ago and sure are handy on the subway or at convenience stores all over Japan. We would use the free Tokyo Metro passes on our return to Tokyo later in the month. Anywaysssss

Our Tokyo GTG with the HNL fodorites needless to say was a blast! Luckily there were no paper shoji windows for Kuranosuke’s enjoyment at this place. The venue was Gonpachi Restaurant, which is very popular amongst the Japanese locals, as we quickly found out when the place suddenly got jammed packed with people. A line extended out the door at one point. We were supposed to have only a two-hour time limit on our table but since Ken wasn’t breaking any windows that evening, lol. They let us keep going and going till we were done. It might have had something to do with the money we were spending on drinks and food of course, lol. The menu at the restaurant is solely sushi and Japanese food which was posted earlier in the online invite to the GTG.

We finally left close to 10:00 and walked Lcuy and Mr. Lcuy back to their hotel up the street called the Bhotel in Roppongi. It is part of a chain, the same that rkkwan stayed in Ikebekuro during his recent visit and mentioned in his recent trip report. The place looked really nice from the outside and was perfectly situated on one of the busiest main streets in Roppongi. I’ll let lcuy tell you all about it in her trip report ;)

Anyway it was a great night, with fabulous food in a spectacular venue (thanks Ken) and with the best of company. What more could you ask for? Looking forward to another Tokyo GTG next year…….maybe in November 2010 this time on our way back from Bangkok, yes SJ weeerrrre baaaaacccckkkkk. More to come.

Aloha!

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    Oct. 4

    We were up early this morning to catch our flight to Asahikawa, Hokkaido via Air Hokkaido also known as Air Do. We are heading north to Hokkaido to catch the start of the Koyo season in Japan at Daisetzusan National Park amongst some other places along the way. The service on the flight although serving only juices, water, tea and coffee is so superior to any American domestic airlines it’s not even funny. We arrived in Asahikawa after our 1-½ hour flight and best of all our luggage beat us to the baggage claim area.

    Right outside of baggage claim are a slew of Japanese rental car services. Toyota, Mazda, Nissan among them. Also present was Hertz who uses the Toyota rental facility as their base of operations. I had wanted to catch the bus into Asahikawa, as the airport is about 25 minutes from the city. Right after the slew of car rentals is a bus ticket machine where you can buy a bus ticket into the city. The buttons are marked in Japanese and English so that makes it easy. Cost for one person to the JR Asahikawa train station was 570 yen per person and you can buy tickets for two people at one time. Right outside the door was one bus waiting so I pointed to the bus and asked Asahikawa eki? The guy answered in English yah yah to which I smiled and he motioned to the bus driver who took our bags and stored them under the bus in the luggage compartment. The ride was 25 minutes or so and we were in front of the station after 4 stops.

    Our hotel for the evening was the Asahikawa Terminal Hotel, which is connected to the main JR train station. We had a twin room for 8900 yen that included breakfast and free Internet connection in your room. The area around the station is wonderful for shopping and eating as there is a main shopping dori (street) that is closed to any car traffic for about 8 blocks. That area is full of shopping and eating options. All the streets perpendicular to the shopping dori are full of all different types of restaurants(99% Japanese) all of which looked so good. We picked a crab restaurant for Linda and had a wonderful meal for 6200 yen which included Linda’s whole Hokkaido hairy crab and my tonkatsu curry dish with one drink each. It was off to bed early as we had an early start the next morning. I want to return to Asahikawa one day and would give it two full days and nights next time.

    Oct 5&6

    We rented a car from the JR station rent a car desk in the morning. There was a special that JR Hokkaido was having that stated if you had a Hokkaido rail pass of any kind, which we did, the price for a compact car that can fit 4 people was 37,800 yen for 7 days which included insurance and tax. They also have English GPS systems in their car that is a first as they all were in Japanese language only till about a month ago. The rental process took about ten minutes as they checked international drivers permit along with credit card and passport and off we went. Driving on the left side of the road took about 5 minutes to get used to my surprise and all the anticipation and worry were for naught. If you know how to drive it is no problem at all really.

    All my research beforehand stated that it would take 7 hours or more to make it from Asahikawa to Utoro our first destination but even with several pit stops to take pictures and other things it only took us about 5 1/2hours of an extremely scenic drive to complete the trip. We passed our ultimate destination of Daizetsusan about 1 hour out of Asahikawa. It is a very mountainous highway reminding me of a deserted and smaller I-80 heading west from Denver into the Rockies. All the surrounding hills were afire in fall colors and we stopped many times along the way to just gawk and take pictures to try and capture all we saw. The drive then shortly after turned into kilometer after kilometer of lush farm and grazing land all starting to turn colors and peeping as we descended from the mountains and were nearing sea level.

    The GPS systems in Japan work in various ways but the easiest to do when all the directions and buttons are in Japanese is to have the phone number of your destination or something close to your destination and plugged that into the GPS. The system does the rest and guides you to your destination pretty flawlessly. I know if we did not have the systems there would have many a turn where I would have doubted and wasted precious time with. No problem with the NAVI systems in Japan. I now understand and appreciate why the Japanese locals will depend on them and should always have them updated. Anyway we finally made it to our destination in the tiny fishing village of Utoro. We checked into our Ryokan hotel for the night the Hotel Shiretoko in Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula of Hokkaido our residence for the next two nights.

    The whole of the Shiretoko Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The total cost of a room for two people including tax and 150-yen Onsen fee that every Onsen in Japan charges was 57100 yen. This included dinner and breakfast for the two nights. Breakfast and dinner were buffet style in the main dining room. Now I know a lot of you out there do not like buffets but you really haven’t seen buffets like the ryokan have in Japan. The Japanese are obsessed with seafood of any kind. There were over 50 items offered that I counted. The main items were an assortment of fresh sushi (toro, ebi, tako, sakana, uni, caviar, etc.), crab, shrimp, fish, mussels, clams, huge scallops, steak, chicken, pork, squid, assortments of pickled and cooked veggies, salads, soups, and on and on and on. Breakfasts were an assortment of Japanese dishes and American favorites to many to mention. It was all very filling to say the least. You can also order wine, beer or sake for an added charge.

    This ryokan hotel also has a rotenburo (out door hot spring bath), which is located on the roof of the ryokan with a view of the ocean. In the winter the sea ice rolls in and the whole bay fronting the hotel is iced over for the winter. It must be a beautiful site from the rotenburo in the winter months. They also have indoor hot spring baths on the first floor.

    A funny thing happened to me on the first day in the men’s bath on the first day. I was in there taking my bath when in walked a Japanese gentleman who proceeded to take off his clothes. He walked in with a three-piece suit on and when he took off his clothes he had a full body tattoo, which was amazing to see. Also amazing was the reaction of all the Japanese men in the room. Most of them put their eyes down to the ground and some of them actually backed away from him and gave him a lot of space. He was a cool character and he kind of snickered to them to which all of them just put their eyes to the ground. I realized immediately what he was and just smiled at him when he looked at me and he just smiled back and bowed in respect, which I quickly returned. I glanced at his fingers and yes a tip of one was missing.

    The body tattoo was a beautiful work of Japanese art that I had never seen before and it was from just above his knees to just below his neck and down his arms till about three inches form his wrist. There was no tattoo under his armpits but everywhere else from the above the knees to just under the neck. I would see him several times in the next two days and wondered about the no tattoo rule, but knew that no one would dare turn him in.

    The next morning we drove to Shiretoko go ko (five lakes) and hiked around for about an hour. Actually the drive into the park is spectacular with wildlife all and sheer natural beauty all around and the lakes are more like large ponds and were a disappointment to me. So we left the lake area and drove over the Shiretoko Pass and down into Rausu and all the way to the end of the road in Aidomari with the two small Oceanside Onsens of Aidomari and Seseki. Both of these onsen are right on the beach and at high tide are covered by the ocean but both were visible and one was actually in use by a naked Japanese man when we arrived. We just looked at the onsen and took pictures as they are more of a novelty than a serious onsen and Seseki is really kind of a joke.

    The highlight of the area was the end of the road and the Aidomari Bridge, which had salmon running up the small stream from the ocean. We could actually have just picked up the salmon from the shallow stream with our bare hands if we had wanted to as we were that close and the stream that shallow and small.

    The drive over the pass was spectacular and the koyo was in full swing here at the high altitude. We stopped briefly at the top to take pictures and marvel at the view of both sides of Hokkaido Island, which are visible from this spot as were the Russian Islands that are off those sides of Hokkaido. These islands were Japanese before the war and Russia took them a few days after the treaties ending the war had been signed. The Japanese and Russians are still negotiating their return to Japan but knowing the Russian government I don’t think it will ever happen.

    We stopped for a late lunch at one of the crab restaurants just outside of Utoro where they have huge crab in a large tank. I would tell you the name but it was all in Japanese. They have a huge crab tank, which were about 30 feet long and 10 feet wide full of crab. You can pick any one out you want and they will cook it for you on the spot any way you want it and serve you right there in their dining room on the other side of the tank area. A crab lunch there will put you back about 5000 yen or more depending on the size of crab you pick. Satisfied we headed back to Utoro and did a few more touristy things like view the waterfall then headed back for a long soak in the hot spring bath, which I was too easily getting very used to and loving. I was starting to turn Japanese.

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    It sounds so great, ht!
    Good story about the やくざ in the bath.....
    Are you posting photos?
    Can any of this trip be done on public transit without a car, do you think?

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    Thanks all.

    Mara,yes we have over 1000 photos which I will post on a site one day but have to go over all and load which takes time. Yes this trip can be done by bus and train but driving on Hokkaido is REALLY easy and opens up so many more options. I had originally planned on taking the train and bus everywhere but found out from other sites that the car at that time of year was the way to go and boy it really was as we found out. More soon!

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    Oct 6&7

    We awoke the next morning to the Japanese TV news stations blaring all with the warnings about the incoming typhoon due to hit Okinawa in a few hours and then head up the coast towards the Osaka area for a direct hit and then up the Japan Island of Honshu and finally towards us on Hokkaido.

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

    Things like this are not supposed to happen on your vacation right?

    Well it was a little more than two days away from Hokkaido so with that dark cloud over our heads we drove to our next stop the Ryokan Hotel Akankoso on the shores of Lake Akan(Akanko) in the Akan National Park.

    Again the scenery on this drive was just spectacular and the koyo in the area of Lake Akan was at its peak as we had planned and hoped beyond hope that it would be. I can say now without any doubts that Hokkaido has the most beautiful natural scenery that we have ever witnessed in all of our Japan travels.

    First stop in the park was Lake Masshu. Masshu-ko is a caldera type lake that has no outlet for its water and can only be accessed by hiking down very steep and dangerous cliffs that surrounds the lake. Needless to say the view from the top of the caldera is breathtaking and because of the absence of the human element, the lake is unspoiled and natural which is the way it should be. After many pictures and some time to appreciate what we were seeing we continued our drive on towards Lake Akan through many more kilometers of just spectacular scenery as you travel between old and new volcano craters, through natural farm and national park areas, you start to forget that you are in Japan.

    As we climbed the last rise with tree after tree in peak autumn colors we noticed the sign to the turnoff of the little village that is Lake Akan. We cruised through the town and parked our car at a parking lot near the other end of town and started to walk this lakeside town checking out its many shops and small restaurants. They also have an authentic Ainu Village located midtown.

    We had lunch at a Japanese noodle shop located on the second floor of a building facing the lake. One of the younger waiters spoke English so ordering was easy. Linda had the shrimp tempura with a seafood ramen and I had some chicken karaage and a shoyu pork ramen. The bill with tea and soft drink was 1680 yen.

    We checked into Ryokan Hotel Akankoso located on the lakefront at one end of the town and immediately hit their rotenburo and indoor hot springs baths. I should explain that all the onsens on Hokkaido are the newer versions built within the last century or so and most are close to brand new. All are gender segregated. The only mixed onsen (men & women bathing together) you will find on Hokkaido are located in undeveloped natural areas off the side of a road where nature has a natural hot spring or river and people have built sometimes elaborate or sometimes crude bathing pools on the sites.


    Meals at Akankoso are buffet style again and featured as most ryokans do, food that is gathered or grown from around its location. I won’t bore you with the details of the food but just say it was pretty fantastic. Our room overlooked the lake and was a large 14 tatami mat room with full bath ensuite and a little terrace area next to the lake window with two chairs and a reading table so you can sit and enjoy the view. We would only spend one night at Akankoso as we wanted to try out the competition about 4 doors down the street to have more experiences. We rate Akankoso in the high range and would return in a heartbeat.

    The next morning after breakfast we checked out and drove off towards Kushiro to see the famous marshlands and maybe catch a glimpse of the infamous Tsuru(cranes) that nest and breed in the marshland area. I had never seen a Japanese crane before but had seen, as most have, the pictures of these magnificent birds in flight. I never imagined that in person they would be large yet extremely graceful.

    During our drive down south towards Kushiro we saw a car pulled over on the side of the road near a cow pasture with a tripod setup taking pictures. Being the curious person that I am I stopped our car to see what was up. Two cranes were feeding in the pasture about 50 meters from the road and I pulled out our camera and we got several nice shots. We watched and clicked away for a few minutes in silence, as it was a serene moment.

    Then it happened. A taxi with 4 tourists from China screeched to a halt. Out they jumped, cameras at the ready, screaming at the birds in Chinese and actually throwing rocks at them so they could take pictures of the cranes in mid flight. The taxi driver looked at us and bowed low shaking his head.

    Some of you who know me can possibly imagine what I wanted to do to these idiots. Off the birds flew in the opposite direction. Laughing, the four Chinese businessmen started laughing and joking with each other and slapping each other on their backs as they jumped back into the taxi and off they went, oblivious to the trouble they had caused. I stared at the older Japanese gentleman who was the first one on the scene and apologized profusely in Japanese for spoiling his find but he just said in broken English “life is but a fleeting moment and I am satisfied with what I just saw”.(paraphrasing here) What a nice man and what a bunch of a** holes the others were. Some people just don’t get it I guess.

    We would see 9 more pairs of cranes at various spots on the road towards and from Kushiro that day. The Crane Observation center is to be given a miss imho. We needed a rest stop and used their facilities after paying the 400-yen admission so we set out to explore what they had. The big attraction is the museum area where they have stuffed cranes in all stages of life and an explanation mostly in Japanese (they had an English brochure with not much info on it) about the stages of a cranes life. It also has an observatory deck on the fifth floor that overlooks the marsh area but we never saw any live cranes there either. The only cranes we saw in that area was off the side of the road and at the Crane Park located north of Kushiro close to the aforementioned Crane Observation Ctr.

    Kushiro is a big little city on the East coast of Hokkaido. It is one of the entry points to East Hokkaido area. It has and airport and JR rail station so it is connected with the transport system of Japan. Seafood is famous and king here and there is of course, another huge fish market. Downtown Kushiro next to the JR Station area and surrounding blocks offer a variety of the best luxury shopping, eating and lodging opportunities in the Kushiro area. We enjoyed lunch here at a large sushi bar downtown near the station area. All names and menus were in Japanese. Linda enjoyed the sushi platter special for 2900 yen. I had a non-descript meal of the non-fishy items available, which were few and far between. The 2900-yen plate would be comparable of the 3900-yen plates in Tokyo sushi bars and wouldn’t include the Hokkaido crab they throw on the plate just for looks.


    After a day of sightseeing we went back to Akanko and to our next ryokan the New Akan Ryokan Hotel. Much bigger and newer than Akankoso this ryokan was nice but too crowded due to the tour groups that covet this hotel. Also we found the buffet meals were sub par to what we were used to though their rooms were superior to the ones at Akankoso. The baths here are fantastic though. The indoor pools are huge and with a terrific view of the lake and surrounding mountains.

    I am glad to have experienced this ryokan but would not return here again if I were paying for it. BTW parking was free at both places if any of you plan to drive a , which I would fully recommend. In fact I will now always rent a car on Hokkaido without hesitation even in Sapporo. Just make sure you get a GPS system in your car, preferably with English (if that is your native tongue) as some of the routes although signed in Japanese and English can be very confusing when you are traveling at 70 kph.

    On one of our drives the route took us through a 5-kilometer stretch of graveled road, which I would have definitely not gone on if not for the GPS and its directions. English speaking GPS systems are new to Japan rental cars and just installed in September 2009 to JR rentals in Asahikawa. A have read on the other forums that a Japanese GPS is easy to use and understand and after using the English one can understand why. The island Hokkaido was only populated by the Japanese about 120 years or so ago so all the cities and towns streets have names and addresses and are in the modern grid patterns typical of streets in the U.S.

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    Thanks for your reply, ht - problem is that I usually travel on my own and haven't driven for years - good to know a lot of it can be down on public transportation.

    What fools they were - to throw rocks at the cranes. Oy!

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    Thanks, continuing....

    Oct 8-10

    We were off in the morning to our next stop The Sounkyo Grand Ryokan Hotel in the spectacular Daisetsuzan National Park. We had learned from the morning news that the typhoon had turned more than expected so this part of Hokkaido was only supposed to get an all rain event starting about 16:00.
    Needless to say the scenery along the drive from Lake Akan to Daisetsuzan National Park was drop dead gorgeous. We passed through two mountain passes and on the last one we spotted a group of deer grazing just off the side of the road oblivious of the traffic (not much) and having a good time. The drive through the last pass before the park was at high altitude and there was a cresting of snow on the peaks overhead.

    The drive into the park was truly one that I had been dreaming of for the last eighteen months of planning this trip. The fall colors were in peak conditions on this day and when we exited a tunnel into our valley I almost cried. The colors were beautiful and hardly and evergreen in sight. Bright yellows, mixed with blazing oranges and deep reds this was the best mixture of colors we had seen yet. We were a little early for check in time at our Ryokan, which we know is strictly enforced, so we drove around the park-taking picture after picture after picture then stopped by a Lawson’s to pick up a bottle of French wine for the evening. Let me mention here that the Japanese have a penchant for good Italian and French food along with their accompanying wines. I find that I can pick up a descent French white Bordeaux or a red for cheap at a Lawson’s, Seicomart or a 7-11…. check it out next time your there!

    We checked into the ryokan where only one out of the five people at the check in desk spoke manageable English. Check in was a breeze though as we had reservations for this Ryokan made for us by the Japanese Guest Houses site. The bathing facilities were more than adequate at this Ryokan and we had a wonderful time here. The Ryokan uses Pola cosmetics in the bathing areas and is extremely clean. They men’s rotenburo along with the women’s one is located on the second floor annex area. The men’s has a beautiful large open-air rotenburo along with one about ¾ the size on the lower level. The women only have one very large rotenburo area. Both of the views from the rotenburo are of the spectacular mountain scenery reminiscent of our time in Thun and Wengen(sans the hot tubs) only this time the forests seemed on fire with the spectacular fall foliage. The only problem was that around 16:00 as the weatherman had forecasted the rain started and did not let up until about 14:00 the next day. Thus the rangers canceled the cable car to the top of the mountain that morning so we could not get up there to see the other valley over the mountain, which was a major disappointment to me. Other than that the room was great and the food was fantastic and the sights were spectacular.

    On our second night the Ryokan made us a special dinner entrée that included King crab for Linda and Miyazaki Beef for me. We were the only ones who had that entree but we were probably the only ones who stayed more than one night as the typical Japanese only stay one night in a Ryokan. I would highly recommend this park and ryokan to you all if you ever get a chance.

    I would be remiss without mentioning the view from our room, which was breathtaking, was of the sheer cliffs across the street complete with waterfall and river just below our windowsill and the prerequisite red and yellow trees in abundance. The mountains all around outside were in peak color and just a beautiful way to start your day. As I mentioned the rain was a little downer but that first morning we woke up to see snow on the tops of the mountains across the street from our window view. There is not much to do but sightsee, hike and eat in Sounkyo so that is exactly what we did in.

    Daisetsuzan National Park and the Shiretoko Peninsula areas were recommended to me by and older Japanese gentleman we that met on a train ride through Shikoku in April of 2008 while we were there seeking the sakura. I asked him that if he had the chance where would he go to see the most beauty in all of Japan and he mentioned these two places as the most beautiful he had ever seen and his advice turned out to be spot on.
    Arigato goizaimasu Matayoshi san!

    Oct 10-13

    With a heavy heart we left Daisetsuzan in the morning to return our car in Asahikawa and then a quick train ride to Shin Sapporo to our hotel for the next 3 nights the Sheraton Shin Sapporo Hotel. I had reserved this hotel using Starwood points.

    The rental return was very easy, took maybe five minutes. When you rent the car the agency gives you a map of gas stations close by where they want you to fill the tank up with gas and you must show them the receipt upon return.

    The 1-½ hour train ride from Asahikawa to Shin Sapporo was without incident and we were there in a flash. Easy finding the Sheraton Shin Sapporo as it is right across the street from the station and there are signs in the station that tell what exit to take to get to the hotel. We are upgraded to an “enhanced” room because of my status but the rooms are small and although well appointed. When checking in I find out that they have no executive level in this hotel, which I should have checked when I made my reservation. Oh well live and learn. Had I known this I would have stayed at the Hotel Nikko in downtown Sapporo that was my first choice. That’s what I get for trying to emulate Rhkkmk,lol.

    After check in we immediately take the train back to Sapporo (8 minute ride) and do a little shopping, eating and basically looking around to get our bearings for the city. We also stop by the Hotel Nikko to see what we missed out on and should not have done that as I am now more depressed, oh well next time.

    There is a big covered shopping dori (street) about 150 meters south of the train station just after Odori Park that is worth your while if visiting Sapporo. As I mentioned earlier cities in Hokkaido are much easier to navigate than any others in Japan because of the way they are laid out in the grid pattern, they just drive on the wrong side of the road, lol.

    We ducked into a Japanese restaurant that was very busy with no English menus and no one there spoke a word of English but we got by just fine. Using the translator on my iphone and with a little point and nod we got a delicious meal for just under 20.00 US, which included one drink each and dessert. It would be called a complete seto meal in the Japanese lingo.

    Later that evening we had Italian at the 31st floor of the Sheraton with a fantastic view of the city but the food was mediocre and the service out of the kitchen very spotty. In fact Linda finished her meal before my meal was delivered. Something that we did not understand was happening with the kitchen as the food was coming out very sporadically to the obvious disappointment of the waiters and ourselves. In America no tip would have been given with this type of service (I can hear our friends from down under already), which is the only recourse we have. You have no recourse for a bad dinner and service where no tipping is the rule you just have to live with it. You can complain but big deal and what does that do for you. Nothing really, your still stuck with the bad service and the bill, lol. Anyway there is no recommendation given here for the La Scala Restaurant from HT.

    A strange thing did happen though as we were into our second cocktail. We experienced a mild earthquake that freaked me out along with the only other table in the place at the time. It was a very short rolling temblor for those of you familiar with quakes. I felt the building swaying back and forth slightly and was just about to scream hysterically and run for the stairs when it stopped,lol

    . I looked at the other table and saw the Japanese gentleman and his family with worried looks on their faces. When I looked at Linda she said, “What is wrong with you”. I said “didn’t you feel that earthquake”. She said no and started laughing at me. The waiter came over and started to try and fix our table as he thought it was shaking from being unbalanced. We both started laughing hysterically, me more than she, as I immediately ordered another drink, lol. Being on the top floor of a large building right by a window is one of the last places I want to be in an earthquake. Thank God it was only a mild one.

    The next morning it was off on a day trip to Otaru so Linda could have some fresh sushi and crab while I watched.

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    We woke early and went outside through the neighborhood looking for that small yet unique place for breakfast one always yearns to discover. This is fun for us to do in the urban Japanese setting because of the overall nature of the people. You sometimes end up with a gem but most times end up passing perfectly nice places in search of that certain gem. We found not a gem but a crowded little ramen house that was just what we needed that morning. I think they only had about ten different dishes that you purchased a ticket out of a machine but luckily one of them was the shoyu ramen, which is what I had wanted, and got. Breakfast cost for two was 640 yen.

    We had a 9:02 train reservation, which had us in Otaru at 9:58. The train makes one stop in Sapporo and another close to Otaru. The weather was cool but sunny that morning and it was a very scenic ride down to the little fishing village on the west coast of Hokkaido on the Sea of Japan.

    The main reasons to go to Otaru are the fresh sushi and the blown glassworks that the town is popular for. Fortunately there are many sushi restaurants and glass factories nestled together along with the requisite souvenir shops just a few minutes walk from the JR station.

    We got off the train and walked straight across the street and proceeded downhill towards the water and dock area. One block before you hit the docks you will cross over the famous canal area bridge. One block before the canal and bridge you will cross two blocks of sushi restaurants and souvenir shops. They are in an area two blocks wide by a few blocks long. We just cruised the blocks till we saw restaurant with the most people waiting to eat and got in a short line and waited to be seated. The restaurant’s name was all in Japanese writing but they had an English/Japanese menu available inside.

    As I mentioned it was a cool morning so to warm up I ordered a shrimp ramen while Linda had a sushi platter that consisted of eight different sushi that she picked out of the menu and a King Crab ramen, which was the special of the day at 1990 yen. Linda rates the sushi some of the best she has eaten and the crab ramen the absolute best ever. There was so much crab in the bowl that it was sticking out all over the bowl when the waitress brought it to our table. After lunch we walked up to the shopping section of town with two covered shopping doris but the recession has hit this town pretty hard it seems and half of the stores were shuttered closed while the other half looked like they were on their way to closing. There were just not many people around shopping except for the locals.

    Tired and full we wandered back to the train station and took the next express back to Sapporo for more exploring. We walked back to Odori Park and visited the clock tower and shopped the surrounding blocks which are a shoppers paradise with blocks of covered shopping areas that sells all that Hokkaido has to offer and with the adjacent live fish market where you can get just about anything live, smoked, canned or whatever to bring home or eat on the spot. It was dark by the time we took the short train ride back to our hotel and passed out pretty quickly. It had been a long day.

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    Sorry for the delay but had to catch up at work....still not caught up.....


    The next morning it was raining and I needed to send our bags to the Hyatt in Hakone via the takuhaibin service. I used the takuhaibin at the Sheraton’s front desk which is operated by the Nippon Express Company. They charged us 6900 yen for both bags seal bubble wrapped and with a promise it would be delivered the next day. We didn’t need it there for 7 days but what the heck. This is the most we have been charged for using this service and now realize I could have called or dropped my bags off at a Yamato service for a lesser price but live and learn…oh well now you all know.

    We then headed into Sapporo for more sightseeing in a steady rain. Oh did I mention it was raining? It wasn’t supposed to rain that day but it did and to make it worse I forgot to get an umbrella from the front desk before we left the hotel. We ended up buying 2 of the 450-yen clear 70mm models at the old Governors residence’s gift shop, which is now a museum. The museum contains many interesting displays about the history of Sapporo in Japanese and surprisingly a lot in English. We spent a couple of hours there and since it was still raining, decided to head back to the hotel and finish packing up for our 17:00 flight to Toyama.

    The train from ShinSapporo to the Chitose Airport took 21 short minutes and the train arrived in the underground level of the airport. We were booked on a 90-minute ANA flight to Toyama. When you get to the ticketing area in Chitose airport there are a myriad of shops where you can purchase and ship all of the types of items that Hokkaido is famous for whether it be foods of all kinds or clothing, or handworks, etc. This area is an organized chaos. I know an oxymoron but you got to see this place. Anyway after a few last minute purchases we are off to check in. We were traveling light(for us) with two 22 inch rolling bags which we could have carried on but checked in as I loathe carrying anything especially around airports with the sometimes long walks to gates.

    We took off to a beautiful red Hokkaido sunset and landed in the dark Toyama night 90 minutes later. The flight on ANA seemed very quick with great service, again the baggage beat us to the claim carrousels. We took the bus that was waiting outside of the baggage claim into the city center and the main JR rail station. The price was 780 yen and took maybe 25 minutes. The bus was packed with people and we got the last two seats onboard. WE hopped off at the JR Toyama station and had a two minute walk to the Comfort Inn Toyama, our hotel for the next two nights.

    Check in was a breeze although only one of the clerks spoke English (and not very much of it). They are used to foreign travelers. The Comfort Inn Toyama is part of the International chain that has many inns throughout Japan. I have seen quite a few Comfort Inns in our Japan travels and had always wanted to try one. Glad we did.

    The twin rooms with bathrooms are large for a hotel of this type. Bathrooms again are large for Japanese standards. The hotel has two washers and dryers on the second floor for guests use (and we used them). The room price was 11300 yen per night, which also included free Internet in your room or in the lobby and a continental breakfast. The breakfast is served in the lobby between 6 and 9:30 am and consists of boiled eggs, rice, cereals, sushi, miso soup, breads and pastries, coffee, tea…. quite filling actually.

    Toyama is one of the gateways to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e7550.html

    The route through the pass was our next destination we were intending to leave for after our two days in Toyama. The fall colors up and down the elevations of the pass are said to be spectacular during the koyo season.

    We did our typical two days of shopping, walking and sightseeing. The Toyama Castle is not much to see. They are reconstructing the grounds and castle areas but won’t be finished for another 4 years or more so not much to see there now. Looks promising when complete though.

    The main shopping dori is a few blocks down from the castle. The main modes of transport in Toyama are the bus systems, taxis, bicycles or just walking. So we walked a lot with a few taxis thrown in between. The Comfort Inn actually had a few bikes for their guests for free but we declined.

    Lots and lots of seafoods are served in Toyama as they are a port city and Linda managed to enjoy her share of it. We had a few interesting meals here in non descript Japanese restaurants, one of them had no one speaking any English and no picture menus but I could see from the outside that this was a ramen type restaurant and just tapped out what I wanted on my iphone and let the waitress read the order on my phone. Did I mention using this earlier? The phones have wonderful applications available for use, one (there are several) of which is a language translator. You can type in information or sentences in English or a multitude of languages and have it read out in different languages. So you can type in info in English and have it read out in Japanese. This app only cost my $4.99 and is worth every penny. You do have to have your iphone activated in the country you are using it in however as the phone has to communicate with satellites to do the translations. This phone really broke down the language barrier for us during this trip as I have never had done before. I could now walk up to virtually anyone in Japan and communicate with him or her if they had the patience. Most we came in contact with were also amazed at the technology in the phone. Anyway if you have an iphone I do recommend taking them with you on a trip and getting a language translator application.

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    Great to see you are getting back to your report HT. I didn't think you were just going to visit Hokkaido but for a moment there I thought I mughthave missed something. Still, real life does have to take priority sometimes.

    I'm really hoping to get to Japan during the autumn sometime but November is a really bad time to get away from work for me - might have to wait til I retire!

    In the meantime I am planning a trip next March April, hoping to follow the sakura from Kagoshima to Hirasaki as I believe you did. Getting the timing right is a challenge. I believe you are able to calculate using el Nino as a predictor. Any tips for next year?

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    eigasuki, arigato....let me take a look at the weather charts and I'll get back to you. My first though is that Kagoshima to Hirosaki will take at least three weeks on ground to even have a chance of peak in both places.....

    continuing


    Well as I mentioned earlier we were planning to do the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Pass route and then on to Matsumoto but in the end after months of planning and at the very last minute we decided to drop that out of our plans and take the more leisurely route through Nagano and on to Matsumoto via JR rail. The time for peak fall colors had passed in the upper elevations of the TKAP so we decided we could put off our quest for now and take the less costly way to Matsumoto. We will be back to the Toyama area to do the route some day soon, maybe in the April-May timeframe when the views promise to be even more spectacular.

    Oct 15-17

    Matsumoto

    I fell in love with Matsumoto as soon as the train was entering the station. You know that feeling you get when you find someplace in the world and it just feels right? Well that’s how Matsumoto felt to us as we pulled into the station.

    We had a quick Japanese lunch in a Japanese restaurant inside the station and then took a taxi to our hotel for the next two nights, The Matsumoto Hotel Kagetsu. The taxi fare was 760 yen.


    http://www.mcci.or.jp/www/kagetsu/englishtop.html

    The Kagetsu has the perfect location and we had a beautiful view of the castle and surrounding Japan Alps from our twin room on the fourth floor. The Kagetsu is located in the very interesting Nakamachi District adjacent to the Mastumoto Castle. The hotel also offers a hot spring bath on premises that is very relaxing and great after a day of touring or whatever. It is free to all guests and we used the baths morning and evenings during our stay.


    Matsumoto-jo (castle) is the main attraction in Matsumoto and probably of the entire Nagano prefecture. I have got to admit that it is the best looking castle that we have visited in Japan yet. There is an interesting display of all of the castles still remaining in Japan on the garden grounds of Matsumoto-jo complete with recent pictures and descriptions in Japanese and English. I took some notes here, as some of the castles pictured were pretty spectacular and looked worthy of a future visit. A warning here should be noted as always when visiting a Japanese castle as the stairways up and down the castle are very narrow and steep. You will be given a plastic bag at the entrance of the castle to put your shoes into while you are in the castle and you have to carry them with you. Watch your head if you are over 70 inches tall as there are also low overhangs on these narrow stairs.

    After touring the castle you might want to consider giving yourself a few hours to explore the shops and old warehouse district around the castle called the Nakamachi District. Some of the businesses in this area go back in time with the castle over hundreds of years. At night the area bustles with izakaya, restaurants, and nightlife with courtesan pleasures at the forefront so to say.

    There are many small Japanese restaurants of which we tried one, along the river. The name was in Japanese and they served mostly seafood. Linda had the fish and seafood special that evening for 3600 yen consisting of a whole fish beautifully presented and cooked to perfection. I had a pork and chicken dish with veggies and rice for 2200 yen. A bottle of French white wine was 3000 yen so this was the splurge dinner in Matsumoto. On the other night we had dinner at an Italian restaurant owned by a young local Japanese man called Aqua Bono. The AB is located within walking distance (5 minutes) of the Hotel Kagetsu and as in all Japanese/Italian places the pasta is al dente! We had a wonderful time here with the waitresses and cooks even though hardly any English was spoken. We went back to AB for lunch the next day, it was that good.

    I am planning a return to Matsumoto one day in the sakura season as from the looks of the place it would be an amazing sight. I would recommend at least two nights in Matsumoto to give the town the time it deserves. I would even consider renting and driving a car in this area instead of using the fabled bus and train routes, as doing so would open up so many more options and opportunities and save time as well. The Kagetsu offered free parking on the hotel grounds.

    Oct 17-19
    Next Chojukan Ryokan at Hoshi Onsen

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    I loved Matsumoto too. Know what you mean by that special feeling when a place just feels 'right'. I think it's because it's not too big.

    I haven't stayed overnight but have been twice in January and once in April as day trips. The sakura along the castle moats were indeed stunning. In January it was very mild as it was snowing in Takayama that same day.

    I'll have four weeks for my Sakura trail next year but I don't kid myself that I'd hit peak blooms everywhere I go. I really hope to see Philosophers path and Kyoto with sakura and will consider everything else to ba bonus. Can you have too much sakura or take too many photos? (rhetorical question...)

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    Thank you, this report is fabulous. It makes me want to go to all these places. Matsumoto is high on my list. Did you get to the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum? We love woodblock prints, it is one of the main reasons I want to go to Matsumoto.

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    morningstar, thanks. No we did not get the chance to go to the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum but will on our next visit.

    eigasuki, my best guess, and that's all it is, says that next cherry blossom season will be an earlier one with the warmer winter expected due to the new El Nino this year. There are of course a few other factors to consider but if I had to make reservations now it would be for a March 24th Kyoto opening and a April 18th opening in Hirosaki. Remember that peak bloom is about one week after opening.

    I will continue this report very soon.

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    continuing:

    We left Matsumoto mid morning and had a mostly bullet train ride north to the Gunma Prefecture and into the Japan Alps. We arrived at the JR Jomokogen station shortly after 14:00 asked at the visitor information booth about the location of the bus stop to Sarugakyo Onsen (a 40 minute ride away). The attendant told us in perfect English that it was stop #4 right outside the doorway and the next bus would be there in 20 minutes. Time enough to freshen up before the bus ride. We were then to catch another bus for a 15-minute ride into the hidden valley which is Hoshi Onsen and where Chojukan Ryokan is located, our destination for the next two nights. We had heard and read a lot about this Ryokan during our research and although it was our second choice (our first choice Awanoyu Ryokan was booked solid 9 months in advance) we were very excited to have a chance to be there.

    The first bus ride from the station took us out into the countryside and back up into the mountains on a very scenic old highway. The hills all around us were on fire with the autumn colors called koyo in Japanese. Linda and I stared like school kids out the windows on the bus as it slowly got us to the last stop at Sarugakyo Onsen. We paid our 860-yen fair each and got off . I looked at the bus driver who was leaving and said ‘Hoshi Onsen’? He pointed to the little bus parked in the barn at the end of the driveway and said in broken English that it would be a few minutes. So we got out with our 2- 22” rollies and sat down at the stop for a few minutes. We then see a worker drive into the barn and park his car, then put on his hat and out comes our bus. We get into the bus and this time have to prepay the fare of 420-yen iirc, then its off on a short ride down into the valley of Hoshi Onsen. The bus stops at one place only and that is Chojukan Ryokan’s front door.

    My first thought was how beautiful this place is. My second thought was how ancient and extremely well preserved this place looked. It was the same feeling I had when I first saw Tsurunoyu Onsen; you knew you were seeing something very special and part of history. We were excited to say the least.

    All of the workers that are around come out to greet the bus and help the visitors with their bags and walk you into the front door to check in. There were four other Japanese tourists on the bus with us so the manager walks up to us and says Mr HT???

    Check in was a breeze as they just need the photocopy of your passport and then someone shows you to your room. Ours was located in the newer section with the full bath facilities ensuite although the rooms in the Honkan (original wing) have the prime locations next to the baths and right on the river complete with the views. Did I mention that the cost per night per person here is $280.00 US?

    So everything about the place is living up to our expectations till we start checking out our room and notice that there is no soap or towels anywhere, strange in a place you are spending $600 dollars a night for. Well no matter so we changed into our yukatas and slippers and went our separate ways to the gender specific baths.

    This is where the letdown started for me. Maybe it was my fault but I hated the men’s mixed bath at Chojukan. I hated it so much that it put me in a real bad mood and I wanted to check out as soon as I got back to the room.

    I was stewing there when Linda arrived looking so fresh and relaxed from her bath time.

    How dare she?

    I was sulking and she was having a good time?

    I immediately launch into why I was sulking. The mens bath for most of the day is the worst bath in the place. Picture yourself butt naked in a room with two bars of Ivory like cake soap on the floor of the large room capable of holding 40 or so men very sitting closely together and that’s about the number of guys there were in the place. No running water to be seen. You sit on the ground next to the Onsen pool and scoop water over yourself with a small bucket and rub yourself with the bar of soap to get up a lather and esdh yourself clean then rinse off scooping water over yourself always conscious of not getting any soapy water into the Onsen which is the sin of all sins in the Japanese Ryokan world or to splash any on anyone around you also another sin. After you clean up you then look around for a place to sit in the pool and bump over the skinniest guy you see so you can squeeze in between the beefcakes of humanity and soak in your one-foot square space of hot spring heaven, ahhhhhhhhh.

    This was supposed to be heaven?

    It was hell and I wanted out, now!

    Where was my a/c locker room with all the accouterments that go along with it? Where is the hot and cold running water, soaps, shampoos, razor, etc that all the other Ryokan we have ever been to provide? I was upset.

    At this point of the trip it is always good to be traveling with a person who will bring you back to the ground in a second and Linda is that person. She calmly explained that this was one of the most original Japanese Ryokan she has ever seen. The women’s Onsen and rotenburo (yes they had an outside hot spring in the women’s side) was a little rustic but took her back in time to the old days and how it must have been back then. Of course she was right and of course I couldn’t admit it…just yet.

    Anyway this Ryokan has just three baths for 37 rooms in the inn. One is a very small women’s only bath open 24 hours. The other is a mixed inside bath, which is the one the men have to use at the prime times of the day. The third is the inside/outside baths, which have running water and different soaps, but is only open to men from 21:00 to 7:00. It is open to women for the rest of the day dooming all men to the mixed (but no women ever go in) baths with the two bars of Ivory.

    The service in this ryokan was better than normal. Our room attendant served us breakfast and dinners in our room. She was a middle aged Japanese women who spoke no English but was extremely attentive. The food here I’ve got to say was good but not as good as we have had in places of the same rate. They served the usual selections of seafood and meats with vegetables from the surrounding mountains that all were served in overabundance.

    The next day we went on a 4-hour hike on a trail leading along the river and up part of the valley. It was a beautiful day and we took lots of pictures and had such a good time that I had forgotten about the bath thing and really started to enjoy myself. The autumn colors of Japan are different than the sharp colors of the US East coast. The colors have a subtly brightness to them and the different varieties of trees such as ginko and the Japanese maple or momiji bring out the Asian influence.

    There are bears in these woods as we were reminded of by numerous signs along the paths. Bells and loud talking should be the norm in all hiking in these parts of Japan. We returned from our hike to find that most people had checked out and we were the only ones in the ryokan sans a few day trippers who were just leaving. We slipped into our yukatas and made our way to an empty mixed onsen which we enjoyed for about 1/2 hour by ourselves. What a treat. Linda couldn't believe the bar of soap ;)

    The temperatures had taken a dip the past couple of days mainly because we were at elevation and it really made the mornings pretty chilly. The temps were perfect during our stay here but we were ready to leave the last night here and were anxious to go to our next destination in Hakone.

    Chojukan Ryokan is a very authentic Japanese experience in some ways too authentic especially for a tourist. It is situated in a beautiful setting along the river in the hidden valley but I just couldn’t get myself past the bath situation there. I would have been happier if they let the men have the women’s bath schedules but then >:-)

    I could not recommend a stay here for the prices they charge. Although I enjoyed segments of my stay here all in all it wasn’t worth it to me for the price we paid. I have been to better Ryokan who have charged much less and had much more to give.

    We left on the early bus out the next morning back to the train station reversing our bus ride order from the arrival ones and got to the station about a half hour before our train to Odawara and eventually the Hyatt Regency in Gora a familiar place to me and one that we do enjoy.

    No one was there to wave goodbye to us when the bus left at the Ryokan which is very unusual for Japan…..strike three and your out.

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    Thanks Statia, have some on Hakone but am in San Francisco area this week on business/pleasure but will finish this report when I get back home.

    Looking forward to your report when you get it all done!


    Aloha!

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    finally continuing

    Oct 19-23
    Hakone and Nasu

    As we entered Odawara’s JR station on the Hikari shinkansen I felt at ease not only because we have been here before and knew what to expect but I really like the Hyatt Regency in Gora as a place to just cool out for a couple of days.

    We quickly located the Odakyu service desk in the station and purchase our 3-day Hakone Free Pass for 4,400 yen each. The person at the service desk spoke some English. We stopped for a quick lunch in the little baguette store in the station ground level (one of our faves for a quick brekkie or lunch) then off to make our way up train system to Gora and the Hyatt Regency. I have given the details on the transport systems in Hakone and on to the Hyatt in our report last year so I won’t repeat it here.

    We were staying at the Hyatt on points and because of my Platinum status with Hyatt I asked for an upgrade at check in. The desk clerk left to ask her manager about the upgrade and returned with a smile and a regency suite upgrade for us. We love to stay at the Hyatt Hakone.

    We used our two days in Gora to unwind and adjust. We did a few tourist things like visiting the Hakone Open Air Museum (discount with Hakone Freepass) and taking the Hakone Ropeway back and forth one morning to snap a zillion shots it seemed of Fujisan as she basked in the sunrise of a clear October morning. The weather on that day was clear but windy as a front was expected later in the afternoon making the ride on the Ropeway very exciting as we swayed back and forth in the wind....

    The Hyatt still does offer a three hour happy hour to all their guests from 16:00 to 19:00 where they serve free pour wine, champagne, beer and soft drinks in the fireplace lobby which is quite an atmospheric place in itself.

    The town of Gora is such a great getaway destination as we call it in the States. Gora is so close to all the big cities (90 minutes from Tokyo) but a totally authentic and beautiful Japanese little town complete with and abundance of unique places to rest your head for the evening. We love this area of the Hakone environs that we have experienced so far to be the best of the rest. Next time in the area I think we would try to go further to the base of Mt Fuji and the Fuji Five Lakes (Fuji go-ko) region.
    Checkout was a breeze at the Hyatt and the commute to Odawara station took 75 minutes waiting time included. We hit the train schedules down the mountain perfectly (of course). We were in plenty of time (1 hour) before our scheduled shinkansen to Tokyo so we had a light breakfast at the bakery in the station and then I hurried up to the shinkansen platform to do one of my favorite things I do when in Japan….watch a shinkansen roar through the station without stopping. It is such a rush to me. Odawara’s JR station is a very busy one and a great venue for this type of experience as it is on the main artery that leads into Tokyo from the east and all the Shinkansen pass through Odawara station with the only odd Hikari and the Kodamas only making stops. You can witness all of the Nozomi and Hikari trains roaring through the station and high speeds with all the wind and sound the experience is one not to be missed. The best time to do this is during the weekday morning and afternoon rush hours as that is when the most trains are scheduled.

    Our destination that day was Omaru Onsen Ryokan in on the slopes of Mt Nasu in the town of Nasu that is a little northeast of Nikko. We changed Shinkansen in Tokyo. We had only a four minute gap in time between our trains but luckily I knew more or less where to go so we made it to our train just as the whistle was blowing for the train to depart, phew.

    When we arrived at Nasu shiobara train station we were supposed to take the public transport to the Ryokan. This would have entailed taking a bus from the station up to the Ryokan and back but I was hesitant because we needed to be back at the station at 10:00 am and the buses took and hour and started too late to get to the station when I wanted. The only other options were to take a later train, take a taxi to the station that would cost about 180 dollars US or rent a car for two days at 55.00 UUS per day++. We ended up renting a car that turned out to be the best thing as we got to see a lot of the countryside in doing so.

    You don’t have to worry too much about knowing the Japanese language when dealing (doing business) with them I have learned. There are maybe five or six different car rentals located in the Nasu JR station and area right outside of the station. There was a Toyota, Mazda a Nissan and the JR rental attached to the station. I chose the JR one because I knew it would be the best place to have someone that spoke English. Well I was wrong, no one spoke any English but we got a car complete with a Japanese GPS (no English ones available here) and a 10% discount for having a JR Pass (you have to ask).

    After using the GPS on Hokkaido we pretty much knew how to operate the Japanese one and had no problems understanding what they want you to do as the pictures on the GPS will show you exactly where you are heading before you get there and tells you what turns are coming up so it was a breeze. We navigated be plugging in the phone numbers of where we were going to. If you can understand Japanese you can enter the names of the places you are going to and the GPS will find it. You can also enter the specific number for a venue or area but we couldn’t figure that out because of the language barrier. I hope I am not making this sound confusing, as it is not.

    We arrived at the Ryokan after a beautiful drive up Mt. Nasu through the outstanding fall colors that were peaking in this mountainous area of Japan.

    http://japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nasu/omaru.htm

    Omaru Onsen Ryokan is a gem! It is in our top three Ryokan ever.

    The rooms here are ordinary. You will find such rooms in most traditional Ryokan. The tatami are all new and the futon are clean and fresh. It’s the baths and the food served here that really make this place special.

    The baths here have a combination of mixed bathing and segregated bathing areas both indoors and outdoors. The mixed outdoor baths are located on a hot spring river that runs through the Ryokan through an amazing set of pools at different levels giving you various options on which bath to use.

    The food served here and the presentations for every course were the best we have experienced save one. I could not get over the food presentations they do at this Ryokan from a fish that was cut and fried into a work of art to a frozen ice molded serving dish that housed our sashimi and caviar that were simply incredible.

    Almost no English is spoken at this Ryokan except for one bright young man named Honma. Honma is an incredibly gentle soul who will explain all the oddities of Japanese living to you or just show you to your room and explain the rule of the house. There are also a couple of other English speakers that will serve dinner and bar tend but none with the skills that Honma has. If you are lucky as we were you may get to experience another of Honma’s amazing talents. Honma is an accomplished jazz guitarist. He plays occasionally on Thursday and Friday evenings in their bar area just before the Karaoke hour,lol. The man is amazing. I knew a soon as I saw his guitar (Gibson ES 165) that he would be good. He played mostly American jazz tunes that had all the Japanese people in the audience singing along (the Japanese love to sing). He also played one Japanese classic for the crowd (10 guests 2 of us non Japanese) in the short 45-minute set. He had five encores before they finally had to start the Karaoke.

    Honmasan even helped us with our luggage carrying it up the grade to our parked car on the morning we left. The man is a gem and so is the Omaru Onsen Ryokan. We would love to return there for a visit sometime maybe this time in the spring. We were leaving that morning for our last stop before heading back to Tokyo. We were headed for the Oriase Valley in Northern Tohoku and a stay at the infamous Oriase Keiryu Hotel.

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    Oct. 24-31 and home

    The Oirase Valley is noted for its beautiful koyo in autumn and the prime place to visit in Japan if you can guess the dates for the autumn colors correctly.

    Our home for two nights in the valley would be at the Oirase Keiryu Hotel. We picked this place because of location and although it was expensive, the Keiryu does have the prime location on the stream with a view that makes it all worth it. The stream flows along the floor of the Oirase Gorge, winding among trees, which while a lush green in spring and summer, turn brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange from late October through early November. Over a dozen waterfalls cascade down into the stream all along its length from the walls of the gorge. The drive from Yakeyama to Nenokuchi during peak koyo season is one of the most sought after in Northern Japan and our bus ride one weekend morning was spectacular. Although the government restricts the amount of cars on the road during peak koyo periods the road can become very crowded which is why the usage of the bus systems is a smart alternative. A lot of tourists both Japanese and the rare European ones will walk a length of this scenic trail catching the bus between different stops along the route. The bus will take you all the way to Yasumiya on Lake Towada for about 1100 yen per person. Yasumiya serves as the area's transportation hub with both the boat pier and the Towadako bus stop. The rest of Lake Towada is largely undeveloped save the occasional residence, hotel and viewpoint, and a few tourist facilities at Nenokuchi for visitors to Oirase Stream.

    We took the free shuttle bus that the Oirase Hotel provided from the JR Hachinohe station to and from the hotel. This bus leaves the JR Hachinohe station once a day at 13:15 so we had to time our train to meet the bus, which was pretty easy to do, as we had to go to the end of the shinkansen line in Hachinohe to catch the bus and we were starting from Nasushiobara. The free bus also takes you back at two different times in the morning. The bus ride is about 100 minutes each way. More on the way over as the bus stops at its sister hotel about 15 miles away for a drop off. If you cannot meet this bus, there are a few JR buses that leave from the station at different times of the day, which will drop you off right next door to the Keiryu hotel at the Yakeyama bus stop. JR buses I believe are free if using your JR Pass.

    Our room at the hotel had a million dollar view of the river and requisite trees in full color from our large picture window. The room had a kitchenette and was pretty large with a separate dining area. The charge was 500.00 US per night for two people but included breakfast and dinner each day, which was worth the price especially the dinners. Dinners were served Kaiseki style in a separate dining room according to the meal plan you choose. We had chosen a mid level one that had so much food you couldn’t begin to believe unless you’ve been to Japan. I can’t imagine how a country that eats so well can have people for the most part that stay so thin. I guess its what’s in the food they eat…. all the good things for you… The hotel also has indoor hot spring baths and a rotenburo on premises that are gender segregated but very large, clean, fully supplied and relaxing. The hotel also owns another hot springs bath in another part of the lake that they will bus you to for no charge but we never had the time to use the service. We enjoyed our stay at the Keiryu and would not hesitate to return.

    We had lunch in Yasumiya, which is a delightful little Japanese village on the shores of Towada Ko at a small 8-seat restaurant. The mama san was the waitress, cook and bottle washer. Our meal was a simple dish of chicken and rice for me with a shoyu ramen with pork for Linda along with tea and a diet coke. The price was 1750 yen. Yasumiya may interest some of you who are looking for that small town with everything you are looking for in Japan. Temples, a lake, shrines, scenery, small town atmosphere and a post office which I withdrew money from easily on a weekend afternoon. I like the feel of this place and would love to return for a week to start peeling the layers if you know what I mean....

    The boat cruise from Yasumiya to Nenokuchi is a must at this time of year as the trees on the islands in the lake and along the shoreline were just ablaze in their full autumn colors. The ride lasts about 50 minutes and cost 1100 yen per person. You can then catch the bus back towards Yakeyama from Nenokuchi. We have a bunch of pictures from this trip which I will post one day soon on another site……I think I already mentioned this sometime earlier in this report,lol. All in all I would say that the Oirase Valley lived up to its reputation with me. It is a special spot of the world especially during the fall color time and all the previous hype is spot on. Next is a short fall visit to Akiyamasan in Kakunodate and back to Tokyo where it all started for our homeward flight.

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    We arrived into the JR Kakunodate station just after 15:00 on the Komachi shinkansen green car. One look at the surrounding mountains as we were on the train with all the fall colors in the air beckoned to me to rent a car when we got to Kakunodate. We walked over to the now familiar little Folkloro Hotel and into the small lobby check in stand and were greeted cheerily by the reception lady. She asked our names in Japanese and when I answered she smiled widely and called out to the back for Akiyamasan. Most here know the story of our friendship with this little dynamo so we won’t re mention here. Anyway gifts were given and I was given back my old translator that I had “lost” 19 months earlier and couldn’t figure out where I had left it.

    It started to rain furiously right after we checked in so we decided just to lay low and do our laundry in the Folkloro’s washer and drier. The charge is 100 yen for a wash cycle and 100 yen for 30 minutes of drier. They sell boxes of soap (1 wash) for 50 yen at the front desk. Such a deal, who said Japan is expensive?

    The weather cleared the next morning so we walked next door to the JR car rental and rented a car for the day. Akiyama san came with us to translate and got us a super deal of $45.00 US for a 24 hour car rental with the all important Japanese GPS NAVI system. Utilizing the car we got to drive to Lake Tazawa and drive around the lake and actually stopped by an Inn for delightful Japanese lunch. We drove all day sightseeing and stopping here and there at our whim to buy a few souvenirs when the opportunities presented themselves. Car rentals are a good idea in the rural areas imho as they make getting around a heck of a lot easier and the rentals are very easy to do. The cars are a great way to see a lot of an area in a limited amount of time. They open up a whole part of Japan previously unseen by us and I will now look to a car rental as a transport option if possible in the more rural areas of Japan into which we will be traveling.

    The last four nights of this trip were spent at the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo upgraded to the Regency club using points for the entire stay, gotta love it.

    We enjoyed our stay in Roppongi and the Hyatt but will opt to stay in the Shinjuku Hyatt for future visits. Nothing wrong with this Hyatt but definitely prefer the Shinjuku neighborhood and the property.

    We thoroughly enjoyed this koyo trip to Japan and would highly recommend it to all of our friends. We would like to see the koyo a little later in the year maybe in the late November to early December time frame with Tokyo and Kyoto being the main targets.

    Thanks for reading and hope that some of the information contained in here help someone in planning their travel to Japan.

    Aloha!

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    ht, i've been reading your report, on and off. seems like you and linda had a great time. we should have gone with you after gonpachi. lol.

    renting a car in the rural areas sounds like a good idea. domo.

    hi lucy, hope you are getting better.

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    Thanks everyone!

    Yes Bob you need to get you and Karen to Kyoto soon....maybe a sister city to Boston gtg will get you there,lol. Happy Holidays to you too!

    Lcuy, hope you feel better soon!

    Aloha!

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    HT, Thank you so much for doing this report. My SO and I always like to follow your advice when in Japan and you gave us a few new ideas for our next visit. Happy New Years to you and Mrs HT!

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    My husband and I are planning a trip to Japan and wanted to go in Sept. However, we are now reading that it is the height of the typhoon season. What do you know about this? Would we be better off going in Oct - or wait until spring? What do you think is the best month?

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    Travelbug, Sept along with August are typically the off months to visit Japan. I would favor April and November. October would be ok especially on Hokkaido or in Northern Tohoku as you know by reading this report which took place during the whole month of October.

    See here for the details you seek:

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2273.html

    Aloha!

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    Dear HT, we'll be travelling down from Hokkaido through Tohoku for 2 weeks in Sept. next, finishing in Tokyo - a three week visit. We enjoy renting cars too and it's our 4 th time in Japan in as many years.
    I'm hoping you could kindly suggest a route that takes in the spots you liked best through Tohoku in a usable route that avoids backtracking. A mix of trains and rental cars worked well for us in the past and I must say the convenience of Toyoko Inns at most places is so convenient as we like to get up and out, so really just need a bed for the night - with a few exceptions where we can afford something special, being budget travellers.
    Hope you can help with this - it should be of help to many others too.

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    If I were to do this I would do it in segments. Starting at the JR Hachinohe station,I would rent a car and drive up into the Towadako area and spend a couple of days there and make my way down to Hirosaki and visit the castle and town area there. From Hirosaki there is a local JR train that putts its way along the rice farms and fields through the mountains and finally down along the Sea of Japan ending up at Akita. Akita is worth a couple of days in itself if you have time but is a big city, or you can catch the shinkansen towards Sendai stopping at Kakunodate or Tazawako for on overnight and 1/2 day car rental in the area.

    In the Sendai area I think your plans are already covered but I would also take the shinkansen down to Nasushiobara and rent a car at the JR station there and drive up to here and overnight if you can, you gotta trust me on this one http://japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nasu/omaru.htm
    This place is the exception you mentioned and is worth the splurge imho. Honmasan will take care of you and if your there on a night he plays in the karaoke lounge you are in for a special treat. I can't wait to get back there, the view from 3000 meters up over the whole Nasu area is amazing. You can even hike to the summit of Mt Nasutake from here as the gondola is only a few hundred meters from the ryokan.

    From Omaru Onsen Ryokan you can drive through the mountains down to the little towns of Shiobara, Yunishigawa Onsen,Yumoto, Kinogawa and down into Nikko before dropping your car and catching the train back into Tokyo.

    Make sure your rental has gps. Not critical if not in English just learn how to use it before you leave the place.

    If you do something like this you might want to take advantage of the JR east flexi day passes so you can be flexible ;)

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2361_02.html

    Just one thought,lol

    Aloha!

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    Hi again HT
    Three weeks now till we start this Japan trip - our 4th, from Hokkaido to Tokyo overland. Still haven't got the amount of info we've had previously for Shikoku,Kyushu etc. - it's so darned hard to get info on Tohoku especially and many postings on forums have gone unanswered. Makes your info that much more valuable, so thanks. If you remember anything else please let us know....
    cheers
    Tom

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    HT, do you remember where you saw the cranes by the road? How far down from Akan Lake? I assume it's on the same road to the Akan International Crane Center, but north of it? Wondering if it's worth taking a 2 hours (40 mins each way+seeing time) detour from Akan NP to see the cranes?

    Thanks!

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    About an hour or less out of Akan all the way to the Observation centers. Look inthe farm fields and marshy areas off to the sides of the road. Lots of farmland and open fields.

    Aloha!

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