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Trip Report David's Trip Report--Japan- November 2013

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After more than a month back from Japan, I’m happy to finally have a bit of a breather that allows me to start a trip report. As others have noted in their own reports, I have learned much by asking for the knowledge of Fodorites that have gone before me—first last year in Turkey and now this year in Japan. So it’s important to share some of your own learnings to hopefully help others who will come after me.

November 5/6-Minneapolis to Tokyo:

I boarded the daily direct Delta flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo and settled in my bulkhead seat for the 13 hour flight. This is the second time I’ve purchased the bulkhead seats and for roughly $80 each way, find them to be good value—particularly if you can get the first row of bulkhead seats. The flight was non-eventful. We never saw nightfall during the entire trip over and we arrived the next day at approximately 5:00 p.m. Tokyo time on the 6th. I couldn’t imagine having a longer journey at this point but the couple from the Twin Cities sitting next to me had a two hour layover at Narita before another 5+ hour flight to visit their son and his family in Bangkok. Yikes!

My luggage was all carry on and so after a very quick deboard, I made my way to the Friendly Airport Limousine bus counter and purchased my ticket into Tokyo. The FAL stops at my hotel-the Mitsui Garden Ginza, and so it was an easy choice to pay the $30 one way fare, rather than navigating the Tokyo subway that first night and then coming up above ground and having little clue which way I would have needed to go. By the time I arrived at the hotel, it was about 8:00 p.m. and I chose to unpack and unwind in my room for the evening, rather than going out to explore the neighborhood. I would be staying at the Mitsui Garden three different times during my trip, and chose it for the décor, price and the fact that it was straight-shot 10 minute walk to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Slept reasonably well that first night in anticipation of my first full day of sightseeing in Tokyo.

November 7--Tokyo:

That first morning of the 7th, I made my way to a nearby Starbucks to get breakfast and my necessary jolt of java. (The hotel does offer breakfast in an onsite restaurant but it was approximately $20 and all I really need is coffee and some sort of pastry). After finishing breakfast, it was time to brave the Tokyo subway for the first time as I made my way to Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum. The Tokyo subway (as well as the Kyoto subway and all of the JR intercity trains) were MUCH easier to navigate than I anticipated. Plenty of good maps that contained English station names underneath the Japanese characters. The English station names were also called out over the trains’ PR system after first being called in Japanese. I’ve navigated subway systems in some of the world’s largest cities including London and Paris, and I found the Tokyo system every bit as user-friendly.

That first morning was raining as I made my way through Ueno Park. At this point, there was very little koyo in the park but nevertheless, the park held a certain level of charm in the rain. Visited a few small temples, including the small scale replica of Kiyomizu dera, before purchasing my ticket at the National Museum. I spent probably about 90 minutes touring the Japanese collection in the main hall. Many interesting paintings, drawings, swords, armor, ceramics etc. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m generally not a big museum kind of guy, but did find the TNM to be a worthwhile stop, particularly considering the weather. It is rather dark inside, however and could stand a bit of freshening and modernization.

My next stop was Asakusa to visit the Sensoji Temple complex. In spite of the weather, the crowds were having at the complex as by now, it was about 1:00 p.m. The temple gate, with the giant lanterns, along with the adjacent 5-Story Pagoda, made for a very nice photo op. This also turned out to be my first experience with the plethora of Japanese school children in their yellow helmets who seemed to turn out en masse at every tourist attraction throughout Japan. I later came to wonder whether Japanese schoolchildren ever spent any time in class vs. field trips. But nonetheless, they were always very polite, albeit numerous. The Sensoji complex was worth about a 30 minute stroll as I knew there would be even greater temple complexes to later explore in Kyoto.

After Sensoji, I made my way to my last stop of the day, the Edo Tokyo Museum. This is a more interactive museum that tells the history of Edo and later, Tokyo. You’ll find scale models of old Edo neighborhoods, learn a bit about Kabuki theater and everyday life in 17th century Edo and from there, progress to more modern events in the city’s history, including the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, WWII and the 1964 Summer Olympics. I probably spent about 90 minutes here and would recommend this as the one museum in Tokyo to see if you only wanted to visit one. (Although the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima would turn out to be my favorite museum of the trip, by far.)

Dinner that evening was at a pleasant, albeit non descript tempura restaurant in a nearby office complex/mall. Decided to call it an early evening as I needed to be in line very early the next morning—not for the tuna auction at Tsukiji but for what turned out to be the best sushi I have ever had—the world famous hole in the wall, Sushidai.

Tomorrow: Sushidai, Tsukiji, Hama Rikyu Gardens, Riverboat to Asakusa, Kappabashi

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    November 8: Tokyo

    The next day was beautiful-clear as a bell. (Well at least it was after I’d been up and at it for a couple of hours!). I awoke about 5:15 a.m. and was out the door about 20 minutes later and on my way to join the line at Sushidai. Sushidai is truly a little hole in the wall at the Tsukiji Fish Market, an easy 10 minute walk from the Mitsui Garden Ginza. If you check out Trip Advisor, you will see the glowing reviews and I had to see for myself what all the fuss was about. After arriving at Tsukiji and stopping to ask someone for directions to the restaurant, I arrived at 5:55 a.m. at what was obviously the place. Sushidai, as I later observed, holds a grand total of 13 customers. I was approximately 35th or so in line, so I knew I had a good 3 hour wait ahead of me. So what I figured, I can sleep when I get home. While in line, I chatted up both the German guys in front of me who had finished up their business in Tokyo and were enjoying several days of holiday, as well as the sweet Japanese couple behind me who I could tell wanted to practice their English. The time passed reasonably quickly and we all made it into Sushidai by just after 9:00 a.m. Earlier in line, the hostess asks each customer whether they want the 7 or 10 piece meal, as well as whether there’s any type of fish we don’t eat. I opted for the 10 piece meal, which for 3900 yen provides 10 pieces of chef’s choice, 4 small maki rolls and one more piece of nigri of my choice. I also noted that I don’t like sea urchin. (Funny enough, both the German guys and the Japanese couple also passed on the sea urchin, making me wonder who likes this stuff??). The most succinct thing I can say to describe Sushidai is that it should be called “Sushi2dai4”. The absolute FRESHEST, most flavorful sushi I have ever had. And the rice was delicious and still warm. My favorites were the fatty tuna and the salmon roe, which happened to be in season and so was served fresh rather than frozen. Our sushi chef spoke good English and was great fun to talk with while we had our sushi breakfast. I can’t recommend Sushidai highly enough. After finishing breakfast at about 10:00 a.m., I spent a bit of time walking around the shops of Tsukiji, checking out a couple of the knife shops. I didn’t buy a knife there as I was anticipating doing more serious shopping later that day at Kappabashi.

    After Sushidai, I walked the roughly 8-10 blocks to the lovely Hama Rikyu gardens. This is a very decent size park sandwiched between the skyscrapers of Tokyo and the port of Tokyo. Here again, very little koyo in Hama Rikyu which I attributed possibly to the urban heat island effect in Tokyo. After a pleasant hour or so stroll, I caught the riverboat ride from Hama Rikyu to Asakusa. This was the perfect day for a boat ride along the Sumida-gawa as the sun was shining and the temperature was close to 70 degrees F. Upon arriving at the port in Asakusa, I made my way back to Sensoji Temple to get some updated photos of the Gate and Pagoda in the sunshine and from there, walked the approximately 1 ½ miles to my favorite time in Tokyo, the Kappabashi kitchen supplies district.

    Kappabashi is a street of restaurant supplies stores that runs roughly ½ mile. Along the way, you’ll see stores carrying industrial-sized pots and pans, sushi serving trays, beautiful knives, rice bowls, ceramics, and the ubiquitous red paper lanterns that hang in front of many Japanese restaurants. Now this may not sound like much of a tourist attraction but apparently it is, and as my buddies and I are all big foodies and wine guys, I was pretty much in heaven. I found a beautiful sushi serving block just like you would see in any fine sushi restaurant for just $40. I also picked up some rice bowls, a pair of decorative chopsticks and a red paper lantern inscribed with “ramen” in Japanese. I also spent a total of probably 2 hours poring over knives in 3 different shops. I found a couple that piqued my interest but decided to think about that purchase overnight. Overall, I spent most of that afternoon in Kappabashi. If you enjoy cooking and dining out, you definitely want to spend some time here.

    After taking a wrong turn off the subway back in Ginza, I finally made it back to my hotel as nightfall began. I rested up in the room for a couple of hours and then decided to grab a quick bite to eat and walk through the bright lights of Ginza. I grabbed dinner at a stand up noodle bar in my neighborhood. I chose the pork soba noodles topped with shrimp tempura. I didn’t exactly know what part of the pig I was eating, but chose to follow the advice of my buddy Siggy, who honeymooned in Japan with his wife 20 years ago. Siggy told me before I left, “If it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it. If it tastes good, don’t ask what it is.” Truer advice has never been offered. By the time I finished dinner and took some nighttime shots of Ginza, it was about 10:00 p.m. I made it back to my hotel and spent the rest of the evening enjoying a couple glasses of wine and planning out my next day.

    Tomorrow: Obtaining my JR pass; Meiji Shrine; Mitsukoshi Department Store and back to Kappabashi.

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    Thanks so much for your report. I'm really enjoying it and am especially interested in your visit to Kappabashi which no one much seems to write about. I hunt out kitchenware everywhere I go and this is on my Japan to see list

    The large number of Fororites visiting Japan this year is proving to be a fantastic resource between the different question threads and the great reports. It gives such a good overview to the rest of us making plans.

    I'm looking forward to the rest of your great report. Thanks for sharing.

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    Wonderful, really enjoying it.
    I need to get started on mine, I did keep a diary, throughout the trip, but haven't begun writing it up for a report.

    I enjoyed kappabashi too, on our first trip last year. I didn't buy much - some chopsticks and spoons. We looked at knives too but didn't know enough about them to work out which were best for us and good value.

    I also bought wonderfully touristy tea mug at a large ceramics stall at Tsukiji outer market, with various sushi fish on the outside - we'd been served tea in them in one of the sushi restaurants within the market and when I saw it on sale, I had to get it. And some chopstick rests too.

    And also bought fresh gingko nuts to take home from tht outer market area too.

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    Glad everyone is enjoying the report so far. I did not keep a diary and am doing this TOTALLY off of memory. Actually, in addition to passing along my experiences to others, I'm finding that writing this trip report is a great way for me to remember this trip years down the road.

    MaryW and Kavey, I agree on the value of visiting Kappabashi. I had purchased a set of Shun knives this past summer at Williams Sonoma and absolutely love them. Nonetheless, I wanted to buy one knife in Japan as a primary souvenir of my trip. I did quite a bit of research ahead of time to identify the top knife shops and determine what additional knife would be useful to me. Will report on that in my next installment.

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    I'm impressed if you were able to distinguish among the knife shops. I recall well the street somewhere in Kappabashi that has one knife shop after the other, each with an incredible array of hardware. Definitely worth a visit for anyone visiting Tokyo who enjoys top-rate kitchen stuff.

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    Mia1963, it was Delta.

    Don, I had done a lot of research prior to leaving. For me, researching a trip is at least 1/2 the fun of the trip itself. So I had map names, approximate locations, a few YouTube video advertisemtns, and even some Trip Advisor reviews for each of the shops I planned to visit.

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    November 9: Tokyo

    The weather had turned back to gray and coolish on Saturday, influenced I suspected by the Philippine typhoon. After coffee and breakfast at my Ginza neighborhood Starbucks, I walked the few blocks to the JR Shimbashi Station to exchange my JR rail pass for tickets on my subsequent trips through Honshu. The station attendant I was working with only spoke a bit of English, so I asked to speak with his manager. She explained that I needed to go to Tokyo Station to exchange my pass. So onto the subway I went and arrived shortly thereafter at Tokyo Station. As many of you know, Tokyo Station is enormous and it took me probably 15 minutes, and several times asking for internal directions before I finally found the JR office. Once there, exchanging my JR pass for tickets was very easy. The gal behind the counter spoke excellent English and was very patient with me while I inquired about different trains and departure time options. In the end, I purchased a ticket from Tokyo to Matsumoto, and then activated my pass starting 3 days later with future tickets from Matsumoto to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally Hiroshima back to Tokyo.

    With that task taken care of, it was time to head off the Meiji Shrine. The Meiji Shrine honors Emperor Meiji who was instrumental in ending Japan’s isolation from the rest of the world. The shrine and the gardens are quite large. As you enter, you approach a collection of wine and sake barrels, which as I recall symbolize the Emperor’s love for these fine beverages. A short walk past this display are several massive torii gates made from very old cypress trees. The path through to the shrine itself contained some beautiful chrysanthemums and many other trees and shrubs. While at the shrine, I saw a procession with a young Japanese couple who were being married. The shrine complex was nice enough but after an hour or so, I was ready to move on. I grabbed some lunch (soba noodles and tempura) at an on-site cafeteria, and then made my way out of the shrine. I spent the next ½ or so walking around the nearby Harajuku area trying to find the Oriental Bazaar, and I understood it to be a good place to fine nice quality, well priced souvenirs. However, I wasn’t able to find it and finally gave up, deciding instead to head back across town to the Mitsukoshi department store in Nihombashi.

    The Nihombashi branch of Mitsukoshi is the flagship store. The subway stop leads you directly into the basement food court level. As it was Saturday afternoon, the crowds were heavy and the food selections extensive. Pastries, quiches, salmon, chicken, vegetables and several other dishes that I had no idea what they even were. As I was still full from the noodles at Meiji, I passed on trying anything here and spent the next hour or so perusing the store. While it was a very nice store, in the end, it was just another department store similar to those found in any major city. With that, I decided to head back to Kappabashi as I had decided to purchase one of the knives I had looked at the previous day.

    Back in Kappabashi, I made my way to Kamata knives. Kamata is one of the top knive stores in Kappabashi. It’s located on the left side of the main street, about 3 blocks up as you enter the district past the giant chef’s head statue. You’ll recognize it by the giant picture of a knife on the sign above the store. That previous day, I had looked at two knives at Kamata, a knife for removing skin from fish fillets and a 5” santoku. In the Shun knife set I purchased this past summer, I already had a 7” santoku knife which I found myself using quite regularly, so I thought that the 5” santoku would make a nice companion knife, particularly since a paring knife for some reason doesn’t feel as natural in my hands as other knives. The 5” santoku had a beautiful walnut-looking handle with a full tang. It felt wonderful in my hand. And the other nice feature from Kamata is that they will engrave your name on the knife in Japanese characters for free while you wait. The knife was 7000 yen. At the $1 to 100 yen exchange rate in effect throughout my trip, that translated to $70. I made my purchase and then the shop owner took my knife and engraved my name, “David” in Japanese characters while I waited. How cool is that!? Since I’ve been home, I have used the knife many times and it has quickly become one of my go to knives for slicing smaller objects like mushrooms, smaller potatoes and herbs. I love it!

    I spent another hour or so in Kappabashi just checking out all the wonderful food instruments and supplies but as I had bought quite a bit the previous day, just window shopped. By this point, it was now about 5:00 p.m. and time to head back to the hotel to rest up before dinner.

    Sushi sounded great again that evening, so at around 7:00 p.m. I obtained 3 recommendations from the Mitsui Garden concierge for sushi restaurants within a mile walk or so of the hotel. I first went to the restaurant that she said was her favorite but as she predicted, the wait was long. ( I know, so what? I waited 3+ hours for Sushidai!) But at this point, I was pretty hungry and not in the mood to wait, so I walked back towards the hotel and stopped at her second choice, a place called Hakadote (like the name of the city on Hokkaido.) This turned out to be a very good choice. The place was pleasantly full (always a good sign) but I was still able to get an immediate seat at the bar. The sushi was delicious. While there, I was chatted up by a lovely Japanese couple, probably in their 30s. Both of them were so sweet. The gentleman travelled on occasion to the United States for business and both spoke wonderful English. They insisted on buying me a piece of sushi…I think it was grilled fatty tuna and it was delicious. How kind! This was just one example of why I think the Japanese people might be the kindest that I’ve yet met on my travels.

    By about 9:00 p.m. I made my way back to the hotel. I needed to be ready to check out in the morning and make my way to the nearby Conrad Hilton for my two day tour of Hakone National Park and my first meeting with that incredible Japanese icon…Fuji-san.

    Next two days: A missed earthquake. Storms in Hakone. A detour to the Fuji 5-Lakes area and trying out all of the unique transportation options through Hakone.

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    My memory is so poor, I'd lose so much of the detail if I didn't keep a diary. It's why I've been slow to write up my report, though. Must do that soon.

    Good to hear about your knife purchase -- in two trips we've intended to buy one both times but failed. Next time's the charm, I hope!

    Looking forward to reading more!

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    I'm enjoying your TR and looking forward to the next installment. We did find the Oriental Bazaar, with a lot of difficulty. They did have reasonably priced and nicely made souvenirs and yakutas, but not the dolls I was looking for.

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    Kavey--I hope the 3rd time is the charm. For me, it was really no different than buying any other purchase that would require a bit of research/comparison shopping. Most of my research simply was geared towards the knife shops that existed in Kappabashi and what other travellers' experiences were. I found the folks at both Kamata and at Tsubaya Hochoten (just up the street and on the opposite side) to be very patient and friendly and more than happy to answer my questions.

    dgunbug-I expected daily costs in Japan to be considerably higher than they actually were. Hotels were my biggest expsnese but that was primarily because by this point in my life, I've learned that quality hotels really DO make a difference as to one's enjoyment of the trip. It's not just the room itself but also, the quality of the servie, the availability of a concierge, etc. etc. Otherwise, meal costs were as reasonable or as expensive as you wanted them to be and the price of attractions, museums, etc. were more than reasonable. Not sure if you are from the U.S. or not but I've noticed that the US$ to Yen exchange rate has improved nearly 5% in the past month since I've been home.

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    One of the features of Japan is that you've got a wide range of prices, especially for food and accommodation. In cities, you can stay at top-flight hotels for $300-600/night, but you can also stay at business-class hotels for around $120-150/night. And, unlike lower-priced hotels in some other Asian countries, you can be certain that your hotel in Japan will be clean and safe.

    Restaurants are expensive in Japan. But it's also possible to eat in delicious places like noodle shops or okonomiyaki for very little. And you can get great take-away from department store food halls, again for very reasonable prices.

    Transportation is relatively expensive, especially train travel. In cities, especially Tokyo, public transportation is incredibly efficient and remarkably simple to use.

    Overall, I'd say that Tokyo is less expensive than comparable major cities (Paris, Hong Kong, New York).

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    November 10: Hakone and a detour to Fuji 5-Lakes

    Sunday the 10th dawned as yet another gray day in Tokyo and I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to see sun again during my remaining 13 days. This was the morning that I was to meet the bus from Japanican tours to spend the next two days in Hakone national park. Hakone features several wonderful attractions, including the Owakudani Boiling Valley and Lake Ashi, but the big kahuna (at least in my book) is Fuji-san. I have been in awe of Fuji-san since the 6th grade when I had to do a social studies project on either Russia or Japan. That project is what sparked my life-long interest in visiting the Land of the Rising Sun and seeing Fuji-san, capped with its glorious snow cap, was at the very top of my list of things I wanted to see.

    I had to meet the Japanican van at 8:30 at the Conrad Hilton hotel, about a 6 block walk from the Mitsui Garden Ginza, so I was up and at the neighborhood Starbucks (where I was starting to real like a regular) by 6:45 a.m. By about 7:20, I had finished breakfast and my English copy of the Japan Times, and made my way back to the hotel to pack my backpack for the 2 day trip (leaving my main luggage with Mitsui Garden Ginza) as I’d be returning the following night. I was back up in my room by 7:30 a.m. Little did I know until I read one of Don Topaz’s posts on the Forum the next day that I had missed the opportunity to experience another one of my bucket list items.

    While I’ve had the chance to travel all over the United States and much of Europe, including multiple business trips and vacations to California, I have lived my entire life in the Midwest. I’ve gone through more tornado warnings than I can remember. I’ve seen two actual tornadoes in the Twin Cities and experienced numerous blizzards. But there is something about earthquakes that have always fascinated me. It’s probably because they are something we don’t have to worry about experiencing here in the Upper Midwest that makes them so fascinating. And as strange as it might sound, experiencing a quake is something that would be on my bucket list. Not anything major, mind you, but a little 6.0 or so shaker that would rattle the pictures and the furniture for perhaps 10 seconds but otherwise, do no harm. So I will admit, when I read Don’s post that Tokyo experienced a 5.5 quake that morning at 7:38 a.m., I thought “damn, how could I have possibly missed a quake of that size?”. All I can figure is that being on the 21st floor of the hotel, the shaking wasn’t perceptible due to the high earthquake standards that Japan’s building construction obviously entails. So alas, while technically I WAS there, since I didn’t feel it, I think I have to leave “experience an earthquake” on my bucket list.

    I met the Japanican bus promptly at 8:30 at the Conrad Hilton. We made one other stop to pick up passengers before we were dropped off at the central departure point to transfer to the bus that would take us to Hakone. I had signed up for the two-day Hakone tour with overnight stay. The schedule called for us to visit the Fuji Visitor Center before proceeding on to the 5th station on Mt. Fuji. From there, we’d travel into Hakone to catch the gondola/ropeway at Owakudani, before arriving at Togendai for a boat cruise across Lake Ashi. All along with glorious views of Mt. Fuji (weather and Fuji-san permitting, of course.) The second day would be all free time for me, staying at a mountain onsen and then using my Hakone Free Pass to tour through the park before returning to Tokyo in the evening. This would be it—my date with Fuji-san after all these years of pining for it from afar.

    We made our way out of Tokyo for the approximately 1 ½ hour drive to Hakone. By the time we approached Hakone, I wasn’t really thinking about Fuji-san when, there for the briefest of moments, Fuji-san and its amazing snow capped cone appeared directly in front of us. Sitting in the first row of the bus, I had a quick opportunity to throw my digital camera onto burst setting and snap pictures through the moving windshield before Fuji-san disappeared back behind clouds. (Little did I know at the time for the rest of the 2 days!) Wow, was that really it? And WOW, was that really IT??????

    Shortly thereafter, our tour guide informed us that there were some serious storms in the Hakone region. We would make our way to the Fuji Visitor Center to check out the weather report and determine whether or not we’d need to modify our itinerary. While at the Visitor Center, I climbed to the Fuji lookout point. There it was—Mt. Fuji, with the top 50% of it hidden behind clouds. While I knew in advance that Fuji-san is an elusive creature, I nevertheless was highly disappointed. Every time it seemed the clouds were going to break for a few minutes, they’d fill back in. I took a number of photos but knew that none were going to give me what I had come to the opposite side of the globe to see. By this time, it was time to reboard the bus. Our guide informed us that both the 5th Station, as well as the Hakone Ropeway had been closed due to storms in the Fuji/Hakone area. We were going to make itinerary change and head to the Fuji 5-Lakes area instead where the weather report was more favorable. Perhaps we would see Mt. Fuji from there.

    We stopped for a rather non-descript lunch upon reaching Lake Kawaguchi. As we finished lunch, the skies started to clear somewhat and the sun peeked out. I made a beeline out of the small restaurant to catch some pictures of Lake Kawaguchi in the sunlight. The fall colors were lovely around the lake and it was just wonderful to finally see some sun again. I had met a gentleman from the U.K. on the bus who told me that if we walked roughly a ½ mile around to the end of the lake, there should be a spectacular point from which to see Fuji-san. Although the skies above the lake had brightened, the clouds around Fuji had not thinned and the mountain continued to tease us with its game of “seek and hide”. After about an hour of free time to explore the lake, our group ended up taking a quick boat tour of Lake Kawaguchi and then took the gondola up to the top of the nearby hills. This was certainly a nice experience but my disappointment was setting in that, through no one’s fault, we weren’t getting the tour that any of us had signed up for. At the top of the hills above the lake, Fuji-san loomed large and shrouded in clouds.

    The remainder of the day was spent driving to Gotemba, a small town at the base of Mt. Fuji. There we visited a lovely shrine. Even in the mist, the koyo here were the best I had yet seen on the trip, which helped ease a bit of my disappointment with the weather and the missing mountain. By this point, it was getting dark. My tour guide told me that I was the only one on the bus who had signed up for the 2 day tour, so they would be meeting the van from Yunohona Onsen (where I would be spending the night) ½ way between Gotemba and the onsen, before returning to Tokyo with the rest of the bus. As we approached the rendezvous point, I asked our guide to disembark with me to be sure that the van I would be getting into was actually from Yunohona Onsen. (I figured hey, it’s pitch black, I don’t speak more than a couple words of the language, and if I didn’t double check, who knows WHERE I’d end up??). In the end, it was the correct van and about 10 minutes later, I was at my first ryokan of the trip.

    Yunohona Onsen is a nice enough, but aging ryokan high up in the mountains around Hakone. I checked in, found my room and relaxed until my 7:30 kaiseki time. The food was tasty, nicely presented but nothing particularly memorable. What WAS memorable was the outdoor, sulfur-based rotenburo. This was heaven on earth. The Japanese bathing procedure was exactly as I had understood it to be from research prior to my trip. One enters the assigned bathing area (separate facilities for women and men). You totally disrobe and then first shower and shampoo in a common bathing area with multiple shower heads. From there, in the case of Yunohona, you then step outside into what I would guess was perhaps 45 degree F. temperatures and walk down a flight of steps to the men’s volcanic-infused outdoor sulfur baths. This turned out to be one of those unexpected highlights of my trip. Soaking under the stars, in pleasantly-hot volcanic water that smelled of sulfur, while a ½ dozen other guests chatted away in Japanese was one of those moments that struck me with “wow, you really are HERE”!

    After soaking for a good 20 minutes, I dressed back into my yukata, made my way back to my room, and planned out my next day, solo adventure through the various transportation options through Hakone. Perhaps Fuji-san would present its glorious self tomorrow???

    Tomorrow: Lake Ashi, Owakudani Boiling Valley and the black eggs, Miyanoshita and back to Tokyo.

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    November 11: Hakone

    Another gray day in beautiful Japan. After checking out of Yunohona Onsen that morning, I caught their shuttle bus that took me to the local bus stop just east of the southern tip of Lake Ashi. I would be spending this day touring alone through Hakone national park before eventually catching the Shinkansen from Odawara station back to Tokyo. I’ll confess that I had just a little bit of nervous excitement at the prospect of being out in the middle of this huge, beautiful park and having to navigate all of these different forms of transportation to make it back to the comfort of the big city. I had done a considerable amount of research on touring Hakone but I did have just a bit of apprehension until I caught that first leg of transportation and saw for myself just how good Hakone’s transportation system is.

    Arriving at the southern tip of Lake Ashi, I first decided to walk roughly a ½ mile around the eastern shore to tour the Hakone Shrine. This is the shrine whose torii gate appears on the shore’s edge in many Lake Ashi photos. The shrine was lovely and quite peaceful with just a small crowd at around 9:30 a.m. I snapped some photos and made my way back to Ashi’s south shore to catch the pirate ship that would cruise across Lake Ashi to Togendai, the southern tip of the Hakone Ropeway. The lake cruise lasts a pleasant 20 minutes or so and drops you off on the north shore of the lake. From there, it was time to catch the gondola/ropeway that would take me to my next destination, the Owakudani Boiling Valley. The ropeway was my favorite of the Hakone transportation modes, by far. Most cars contained no more than 8 passengers, so you have plenty of room to move around and take photos from the air of Lake Ashi, the fall foliage and, when it’s visible, Fuji-san. Alas, Fuji-san was again clouded in this day. After perhaps 10 minutes, the ropeway stopped at Owakudani and it was time to visit this really cool volcanic landscape. Once you leave the station, you meander through a marked path up the side of some hills, all the while surrounded by plumes of volcanic steam escaping from the earth. The smell of sulfur is quite pungent and only adds to the other-worldly atmosphere. In addition to observing the volcanic terrain, the other big attraction is to purchase some black, hard-boiled eggs. For 500 yen, you can buy 5 hard boiled eggs that are identical to any other hardboiled egg you’ve ever eaten—except for the fact that the shells have been turned black from being boiled in the volcanic waters. (You can actually watch the men as they boil the eggs. Seemed like an awfully hard way to make a living.) Legend has it that consuming 1 or 2 eggs extends your life by 7 years. But for some reason that I never found the explanation for, you’re not supposed to each more than 2. So…after consuming a couple of eggs and offering the others to a tourist family, I spent a bit more time gazing at Mt. Fuji, still cloaked in a heavy cloud cover, before making my way back onto the ropeway to catch the next mode of transport-the Hakone Cable Car. (P.S. I would say that Owakundani is THE best place for serious Fuji-san viewing on a clear day. The mountain looks so close that you believe you could reach out and touch it. Alas, if only it were a clear day...)

    The Hakone cable car is basically a funicular that runs from the ropeway terminus at Sounzan to the town of Gora. There are four stops along the route that I’d guess goes for no more than a mile down the side of a steep hill. I exited at Gora and spent perhaps an hour just wandering and exploring the town, not finding a whole lot of interest. From there, it was time to then catch the final mode of transportation-the Hakone-Yumoto train, which would ultimately take me back to Odawara where I would catch the bullet train back to Tokyo. At the first stop on the Hakone-Yumoto train, I stopped at a cool little town called Miyanoshita. The town is filled with little antique stores and cafes and well worth an hour or two of exploration. As I was making my way back to the train station after exploring the town, I stopped for an ice cream cone break at a little shop near the station. As I came out, I noticed a few people soaking their feet in a little pool that had hot, volcanic water being piped in. This was TOO good of an opportunity to pass up as my feet were pretty sore by this point. So there I sat, soaking my feet in this little pool of volcanic water, eating my ice cream cone in the middle of Hakone. It was heaven and I never wanted to leave. At this point, it did cross my mind that unless the shop was offering its guests free use of towels, the only options I had to dry my feet were with either my jacket or with napkins from the shop. Just as I was about to go the napkins route, two teenage girls who had been sitting next to me enjoying a nice foot soak of their own got up and, using the towels they had with them, dried their feet off and began to walk back into the ice cream shop. Assuming the towels came from the shop, I asked them if they had indeed gotten the towels inside. As it turns out, the towels were theirs, AND they had one extra, clean towel that they insised on leaving with me to use. Again, HOW KIND IS THAT? I just don’t see these random acts of kindness happening anywhere else that I’ve traveled to.

    Now, with warm and happy feet, I made my way back onto the Hakone-Yumato train. This was by far my least favorite of the park’s transport options. First off, there are 3 switchbacks along the way and overall, the train is just plain slow. Start to finish it's probably just under an hour. Once back in Odawara, I caught my Shinkansen back to Tokyo and rechecked into the Mitsui Garden Ginza for the night. It was a tiring but very enjoyable day. Even without having seen Fuji-san, I really enjoyed my time in Hakone and would recommend it to anyone wanting to get out of the city and experience some beautiful mountain scenery.

    Next 2 days: Matsumoto and the “Crow’s Castle”, some beautiful koyo, and hiking through the Japanese Alps in chilly Kamikochi.

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    P.S. Forgot to mention that in Odawara, I had about 90 minutes before my train left so I walked to the Odawara castle. I arrived at the castle just before its 5:00 p.m. closure, so it was too late to enter. But I did walk around the castle grounds below (the castle sits up on a higher plateau) several times and got some great photos of the castle, which is lit up in white light at night. Definitely worth a quick stop if you find yourself in town.

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    Thanks for your detailed and place evocative TR.
    Although much of SE Asia has been fantastic to me, Japan has never been on my "list" despite only a 9 hour direct flight from our local airport.

    I have read many Japan TRs from Foders people over the last 3 or 4 months.
    All very thought provoking, so now revising the "list".

    Thank you to all.

    David, I look forward to the next episode !

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    Kayey and dgunbug, I appreciate your empathy for my Fuji-san situation. All I'll say is that these past 2 days may not end up being my only opportunities to catch the sleeping giant.

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    November 12 and Matsumoto and Kamikochi

    Had an early train that morning from Shinjuku station to Matsumoto, so checked out of the Mitsui Garden Ginza around 6:00 a.m. Before leaving, I asked the front desk about having my luggage forwarded to my Kyoto hotel so that I could travel through the Japanese Alps with just a backpack. The front desk was well familiar with this procedure, which I heard was very common throughout Japan. The charge was a very reasonable $14. I made a point to email my Kyoto hotel (Hotel Mume) in advance to advise them that my bag was coming and I would be there in 2 day. Once my bag was tagged, off I went to catch the subway to Shinjuku and from there, the JR train to Matsumoto.

    As I left Shinjuku around 7:00 a.m., I noticed a clear, beautiful morning sky was dawning over Tokyo. From this point through the rest of my trip, the weather would be sunny and clear except for one morning in Kyoto. The train ride to Matsumoto was pleasant, uneventful and just over 2 hours as I recall. Arriving in Matsumoto, I made a beeline out of the station and noticed that the weather, while quite sunny, was considerably colder than in Tokyo. I would guess it was probably in the high 30s F that morning. I checked the “pointy tourist street signs” and began making my way through the city towards my primary reason for visiting Matsumoto—Matsumoto-jo or the “Crow’s Castle”.

    About 15 minutes later, I arrived at my destination. Matsumoto Castle. Matsumoto Castle is 400 years old and is nicknamed the “Crow’s Castle” due to its charcoal black, striking exterior. It’s one of those structures like the Eifel Tower or the Hagia Sophia where pictures just don’t do it justice. The castle just screamed “medieval Japan” to me. I probably spent a good 45 minutes just taking pictures of it from all angles before crossing the moat to enter it. The koyo, both around the castle as well as throughout the city itself were spectacular. Plenty of reds, golds, oranges and browns. I’m sure I must have hit Matsumoto’s fall colors at peak. Inside the castle, you have the opportunity to climb up, I believe 4 stories before reaching the top. Inside are storyboards explaining the castle’s history and usage, along with medieval Japanese armor and other artifacts. While I peered out one of the castle windows. I saw a large group of Japanese schoolchildren in their yellow helmets (remember, they are everywhere during my trip!) approaching the castle entrance. At this point, one has one of two choices. Slow down your exploration and let them eventually pass you, or speed up your tour to stay ahead of them. I chose the latter as for me, the interior of the castle, while interesting, didn’t hold a candle to the castle’s exterior and the gorgeous fall colors.

    After taking another couple dozen pictures of the castle and grounds, I walked back towards the city and explored Nakamichi-dori, a pedestrian street of shops and cafes that were former merchant houses. I stopped for lunch along the street and ordered a steaming bowl of pork belly ramen, washed down with a Kirin. The proprietor was a bit surprised when I told her I wanted to enjoy my lunch outside, as to her the weather was quite chilly, albeit sunny. But I explained that where I came from in the United States, it was colder than this and besides that, this was only the second day of my trip that I’d seen sun! After enjoying my ramen and beer, I walked towards my final sight in Matsumoto, the Kaichi Elementary School. This school, a museum since 1960, shows that elementary school was like for Japanese children during the Meiji period, when Japan opened up to the West. The displays of wall charts, musical instruments, school books, photographs, etc proved to be an interesting way to spend an hour or so, as well as provided another opportunity to observe the gorgeous Matsumoto koyo.

    By this time, it was approaching 4:30 and time to make my way back to the train station to catch my van that would take me to my ryokan for the next two nights. Miyojinkan is tucked high up in the Japanese Alps above Matsumoto. I really enjoyed my two nights here. I booked a Japanese-style room with private, open air bath. Like you should expect at any fine ryokan, the service was outstanding and gracious. My assistant, Emi, graciously answered all my questions and cheerfully assisted me with all requests—including sending a separate shuttle van the next afternoon to pick me up when my bus from Kamikochi was going to drop me off 10 minutes after Myojinkan’s scheduled van would leave the bus/train station. Again, HOW KIND IS THAT?? ONLY IN Japan! I had kaiseki dinners both nights at Myojinkan. Traditional Japanese and Modern Japanese (which was my favorite of the two.) The room was comfortable and non-fussy. The private bath contained both a shower and a deep cypress tub, as well as a large window that opened up the bathing room to the mountains, babbling brook below and chilly outside air. It was a wonderful way to enjoy the late fall, crisp mountain air, all the while soaking in the comfort of my bath. Then it was time to hit my comfy futon bed in order to be up early to catch the bus to tomorrow’s destination, the Japanese Alps hiking destination of Kamikochi.

    November 13: Kamikochi

    That morning, I got ready to catch Miyojinkan’s shuttle that would take me to the Matsumoto bus station to catch the bus to Kamikochi, for an afternoon of hiking through the Japanese Alps. Now I had packed accordingly for this trip, knowing that the temperatures would be fairly cold. The Kamikochi hiking season runs from April (I believe) until season close on November 15th. The kind folks at Miyojinkan asked me if I was sure I wanted to hike in Kamikochi as the weather would be very cold. (25F, to be exact). I thanked them for their concern but explained that being from Minneapolis, 2-3 hours of hiking in 25F temperatures would not be any problem.

    The bus ride from Matsumoto was perhaps 90 minutes or so and dropped us off at the Kamikochi Visitors Center. The very friendly young gal at the Visitors’ Center provided me with a map of the hiking area and recommended I take the roughly 2 ½ hour round trip hike up to the Myojin Bridge and back. This would take me past the famous and scenic Kappabashi Bridge, which crosses over the Azusa River, through snow covered forests amid the towering, snow capped Japanese Alps, and up to the scenic Myojin Pond. The hike was very easy…the terrain is flat the entire way. The scenery was lovely and would have been even more spectacular if not for the clouds and the light snow that occasionally fell. Once I reached the Myojin Pond, I wanted to cross over to the south side of the river and take that route back to the Visitor Center. However, that route takes slightly longer than the outbound path I took on the north side of the river due to twists and turns in the path, and I was afraid that if I made even the slightest detour or mistake, I would miss the last bus back to Matsumoto. So in the end, I hiked back the way I came which, nonetheless, was a terrific change of pace from all the city life, castles and fall foliage I had seen to date. I would enjoy coming back to Kamikochi a month or so earlier when the weather is likely clearer and the koyo is out in all its glory.

    Back in Matsumoto, I met up with the special van that Miyojinkan ryokan had sent for me. I enjoyed a terrific Modern Japanese kaiseki dinner that evening and settled back into my room for the night. My next four days would take me to Japan’s cultural capital of Kyoto, to see ancient temples and shrines and some of the most spectacular fall foliage I have ever seen.

    Tomorrow: The wonderful Hotel Mume (Kyoto); a nominee for the New Seven Wonders of the World—Kiyomizu-dera Temple; and some Shrines and Temples Fall Light up

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    David - I am still traveling along with you. :) Just curious how you found out about the Matsumoto ryokan - sometimes it is hard to find one that takes a single traveler.....

    And you wrote all this from memory...omigosh!

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    Wonderful detailed trip report. I'm bookmarking some of your locations for future use.
    Some similar experiences and memories from past trips.
    I'm thinking Shinjuku /Tokyo Stations could be a day trip destinations on their own.
    It took a second trip for us to have a clear view of Fuji.

    We experienced an earthquake while visiting the Nagasaki A-Bomb museum. The mock up A-bomb hovering over a earth globe near the exit started swaying !
    Some buzz by the other attendees and hasty exits but soon over.
    Later in Hakata there were some damaged building storefronts roped off.

    Looking forward to following along
    Thanks again for the effort

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    dgunbug--I'd be happy to include photos but I don't blog anywhere else, nor am I on Facebook. If there's another alternative, I'd be thrilled to load some.

    Mara-I found Miyojinkan through a Google search and then, vavlidated it through solid Trip Advisor reviews. I had understood exactly what you said about, what I'll call, a bias against single travelers. But no ryokan that I attempted to reserve turned me down, although Iwaso on Miyajima did require me to pay $100 or so extra.

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    David, I'm enjoying your report, and you are inspiring me to start work on my own, from the same time period. (Who knew November would be so popular a time to go to Japan!) A good site to load your pictures is It's free. You can upload your pictures and then provide a link to them in your report. But there are plenty of other sites as well.

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    Hi David, could you elaborate further on the difference / dishes in the traditional and the modern Japanese kaiseki meals you had at Myojinkan, please? It's so much about the food for me, and I'd love to know more on that.


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    Aprillilacs-thanks for the tip on I will check it out and try and get some photos posted there, perhaps this weekend.

    Kavey-I found the menu from Myonjinkan's Modern Japanese kaiseki. It was:

    Appetizers: Big char sushi; Cup-steamed egg custard with foie gras; Beef tongue with grated radish

    Chicken meatballs & mushroom soup, served in hot pot
    Smoked shinsyu salmon with shittake mushroom jelly
    Grilled plate: Shinshu Beef, Carp, Lilybuld
    Roast turnip dressed with Amber Sauce
    Rice porridge

    I looked through the photos both on my camera and my IPhone and I'm afraid I didn't take any of the Traditional Japanese (which is surprising because I thought I took pictures of all my kaiseki dinners). As you can see by the above menu, the Modern Japanese had more of a fusion aspect to it, as you might expect. I recall enjoying the Traditional Japanese but LOVING the Modern Japanese.

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    Aah fabulous, thank you so much. It was the modern one I was most interested in actually. We've had quite a few traditional kaiseki dinners now and have a good feel for the kind of dishes included but was curious about a modern version.
    I can see it's created on similar lines but with the fusion you mention in terms of ingredients like foie gras.
    Thank you!

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    Reporting in tonight from absolutely frigid Minneapolis. The temperature will be -20F by Sunday morning with a daytime high of -10F, -26F by Monday morning and Monday’s expected HIGH temperature is -18F!! Yikes. Alaska’s revenge. Gotta keep thinking about Puerto Rico in Feburary. Puerto Rico in February. <G>

    November 14 and 15: Days 1 and 2 in Kyoto

    I checked out of Miyonjinkan that morning, promising them a wonderful Trip Advisor review (which I still owe them). Their convenient shuttle dropped me off at the Matsumoto train station, approximately one hour before my train would leave for Nagoya, where I would transfer to the Shinkansen to get to Kyoto. The morning air in Matusmoto was crisp and there was not a single cloud in the sky. Matsumoto-jo and these sky blue skies were just a 15 minute walk away. If I walked fast, I could make it there and back, take perhaps 10 minutes of additional photos, now in the clear sky, and still be back 20 minutes before my train left. I went for it. In the end, I got a gorgeous shot that I have since blown up and have framed in my master bathroom with 6 other great pics from the trip.

    The train from both Matsumoto to Nagoya and then Nagoya to Kyoto was punctual (duh!) and uneventful. While it seemed like I never had more than 10 minutes to transfer on any multi-leg trip, I never had any problems. If I couldn’t figure out where I needed to go within the first 2 minutes, I never hesitated to ask a station attendant. All that I asked were likely used to English-speaking travelers asking for assistance and all promptly pointed me to the correct track number.

    My home in Kyoto for the first 3 days of my stay in Kyoto was the #1 rated Kyoto hotel on Trip Advisor-Hotel Mume. I had originally attempted to book Mume 7 months in advance of my trip but they were already full. (It’s small, boutique hotel of perhaps a ½ dozen rooms or so.) They told me they were hold onto my request in case they had a cancellation. Imagine my surprise when in July, they emailed me to say they could accommodate me for my first 3 nights. I am so glad I booked with them as the staff and owner have to be the kindest, most sincere hotel staff I have ever stayed with. Yoshie met my cab at the front door (the taxi directions they emailed were flawless) and offered me a glass of orange juice. We finished the check in process in their breakfast lounge/happy hour bar that sits atop a little babbling brook running right behind the hotel. I can’t say enough about this wonderful little hotel. No task were too big or insignificant to help me with, whether it be restaurant recommendations and directions, bus times and pick up points to Kinkaku-ji, or even transporting my larger wheelie bag (which arrived hassle free from Tokyo) to my ryokan a couple blocks down the street on my last day in Kyoto. The owner, Hisako, also taught me how to say “please” in Japanese. (Onegaishimasu). If I return someday to Kyoto, I will stay here in a heartbeat (and try to book one year in advance if possible!)

    With directions in hand from the staff, it was now about 3:00 and time to walk the 20 minutes to Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Kiyomizu is located in the eastern hills above the city. You approach it through an inclined street of perhaps 3 or 4 blocks, with shops selling mostly generic souvenirs. The crowds were pretty fierce at this time of day and it was challenging to enjoy what must be the incredible sacredness and serenity of the interior temple grounds when they first open. This was probably still my favorite temple, physically speaking, due to its location, it’s style, it’s veranda that looks out over the city (which you can get incredible photos of by walking down a path just off the temple grounds) and the various gongs and other sounds coming from those worshipping at the temple. Kiyomizu-dera was a nominee a few years back for the New Seven Wonders of the World competition and while it didn’t win, is still a must see and was one of my highlights of things I saw in Japan. I also returned the next night when Kiyomizu’s Light Up began. As I got there at around 9:00 p.m., the crowds had thinned. I enjoyed the light up but enjoyed the temple visit more during today’s day time visit.

    I made my way back to Mume and enjoyed a glass of rose cava and snacks. This is a wonderful little late afternoon touch that I enjoyed each night at Mume. After resting up for a couple of hours in the room, I made my way back to the lobby, where Yoshie took my request for sushi and recommended a great little place along the Pontocho, which was just a 10 minute walk away. The sushi was delicious. I walked around the Pontocho after dinner, snapping a few photos both there and of the area surrounding the nearby river. I made my way back to Mume and settled in for the night, planning out my next day when it was expected to rain for a good portion of the day.

    Next: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Tofokuji Temple, Sanjusangendo Temple, and Light up at Chion-in and Kiyomizu dera.

    November 15: I awoke that morning and, as predicted, a fairly heavy rain was falling on Kyoto. In hindsight, this would prove to be the last drops of precipitation I would see for the rest of my trip and fortunately, only lasted until about 1:00 that afternoon.

    After a wonderful breakfast at Mume, I made my way to the subway to get to my first stop of the day, Fushimi Inari shrine. Fushimi Inari is a collection of over 10,000 vermillion torii gates, along with little shrines and altars along the way that wind their way up a large hill in the southern part of Kyoto. While it was lightly raining through much of my climb up the winding paths of the hill, I thought it added to the spirituality of the shrine. I did not walk all the way to the top but probably 2/3 of the way up, stopping along the way to observe the little altars or to take a drink from the bubbling dragons. I probably spent 90 or so minutes here. Making my way back down the hill, I made my way back to the subway and traveled a couple of stops north to visit the Tofoku-ji Temple.

    Tofokuji won 2nd place in my book in the Kyoto koyo contest. While the temple grounds themselves were free of charge, the gardens required a 400 Yen ticket purchase and were worth every yen. Golds, reds, oranges and enough greens to keep everything real spilled across the tops of the trees and shrubs, which you view from a walkway that crosses the garden 2 stories up. I spent a good 45 minutes just oohing, ahhing, snapping pictures and walking through the gardens. Next stop, Sanjosangen Temple.

    In Sanjosangen, there are over 100 bronze statues of the goddess Kannon, all lined up in rows as if holding court. Statues of various other notable figures and gods are interspersed along the way. Since this is what everyone comes to see, the walkway to view these figures can be quite crowded. Also, unfortunately, you are not allowed to take photographs. In fact, the temple management is SO serious about this that there are multiple signs posted along the way, saying that your camera will be inspected upon leaving and confiscated if found to contain interior photos. I found all of this a bit unnecessary, in my opinion, as I didn’t see anything that would be damaged if photos, flash or otherwise were taken. This temple was interesting enough but my least favorite stop of the day. I did however purchase my shuin-cho here. A shuin-cho is a small, cloth-covered book with blank, heavy stock pages that costed 1000 yen. At each temple or shrine you visit, you can obtain obtain that temple/shrine’s ink stamp and calligraphic signature for just 300 yen. Counting the temple and shrines I ended up going back to obtain stamps/signatures, I ended up with 13 mementos in my shuin-cho that provide a lasting record of all the temples and shrines I visited in Kyoto (+ the Itsukushima shrine in Miyajima, towards the end of my trip.) It has become one of my favorite souvenirs from my trip.

    From here, I made my way back to Hotel Mume for the afternoon happy hour. That evening, I had dinner at a little hole in the wall dumpling restaurant in Ginza that Mume recommended. For less than 2000 yen, I gorged on dumplings, rice and beer. It was delicious. Then it was time to head out to snap some photos at both Chion-in temple and Kiyomizu-dera temple as part of the annual Fall Light Up. Solid but not obtrusive crowds at either temple.

    Overall, a really fun first two days in the beautiful city of Kyoto. Two more days left.

    Next: The temples of the Philosopher’s Path, including the spectacular koyo at Eikan-do, and a long bus ride and a very rushed visit to Kinkaku-ji.

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    Did you go back to Kiyomizu-dera to get a stamp in your shuin-cho? What a lovely memento...

    We did't do it on the first trip but this time I purchased ema from many of the temples and shrines we visited. Not all of them as a few were simply asking too much for these simple wooden plaques, the pretty designs notwithstanding.

    I had the idea of what I wanted to do with them already in my head in advance of the trip. When I got home, we found the perfect metal tree stand, which was easier than the regular green tree I'd originally envisaged:

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    Kavey, yes I did. I ended up going to back to Kiyomizu-dera, as well as Fushimi Inari and Tokofuji in order to get stamps from those places I had visited before buying my shuin-cho.

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    I'm very glad that I've FINALLY had a chance to catch up on your engaging trip report. Thank you for bringing back some wonderful memories!

    It's very clear that you did some extensive independent research to plan this trip, and it certainly seems like that paid off quite well -- you ended up with some experiences that matched your interests and that rarely, if ever, get mentioned by other Fodorites. Kudos!

    I'm looking forward to reading more. In the meantime, I hope you are keeping warm!

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    Really enjoying your report. We were in virtually the same cities at the same time as you. It was my second trip and my husband's first. We spent two days at Hakone Ginyu and felt very fortunate to see Mt. Fuji so very clear the entire time since I only caught a glimpse before it clouded up on my first trip, too. I'm hoping you finally got to see it well! Looking forward to your next installment.

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    Nice... I imagine it was quite enjoyable to see those places at different times of day too?

    We timed our visit to Fushimi Inari quite well as we reached the senbon torii as the sun was low in the sky, which meant the light and shadow was just wonderful!

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    Thanks kja. Yes it has been BRUTALLY cold here the past few days. Yesterday's low/high temps for the day were -23F/-12F and the windchill was as low as -48F. Even by Minneapolis standards, that is COLD!

    For me, researching and planning the trip is 1/2 the fun of taking the trip. I guess that's my Type A, somewhat anal personality. But hey, I've never yet taken a trip where I felt I've wasted precious time because I didn't know what to see or how in general to get there.

    Glad everyone is enjoying the report. The next couple of days are pretty hectic between work and evening activities, but I will try to get the next chapter written here before the end of this week. To those in the eastern 1/2 of the US--STAY WARM!!

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    November 16 and 17: Kyoto

    After another nice breakfast that morning at Hotel Mume, I caught the subway and from there, a bus to the northeastern part of Kyoto to walk the Philosopher’s Path and visit the many temples and shrines along the way. The weather was beautiful as I began my walk at the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path. The koyo along the entire path were very beautiful, with many photo opportunities along the way. Along the way, I visited Ginkaku-ji (Temple of the Silver Pavilion), Honen-in Temple, Anraku-ji Temple, Otoya Jinja (shrine), Nyakua-ji (Shrine) and Eikan-do Temple. Each were very nice in their own way, but the HANDS DOWN winner for most beautiful koyo goes to Eikan-do. The reds, golds, greens, oranges, yellow were absolutely spectacular. Granted, one is seeing the work of master gardeners at each of these temples but who cares—the colors at Eikan-do were breathtaking! And the most incredible part is that people said that Kyoto was still likely 10-14 days away from peak colors. I can only imagine. When I returned home, I had 16x20 prints made up of my favorite photos from Japan, from framing and hanging in my Japanese-themed master bathroom. The koyo of Eikan-do are one of those 7 photos—they were that good! The gardens of Ginkaku-ji were also lovely and I enjoyed walking briefly through the cemetery of Anraku-ji. Including temple and shrine visits and strolling the path, I would guess I spent probably 3-4 hours, of course obtaining ink stamps and calligraphic signatures at each.

    Upon leaving the south end of the Philosopher’s Path, I then walked a considerable distance back west to catch the subway back to Mume. I stopped and had street food along the way—something that I had no idea what it was but can only describe as Japanese pizza-full of tasty vegetables.

    By the time I made it back to Mume and rested up for a ½ hour or so, it was about 3:00 and I decided that I better get hopping if I was going to make it to my last planned destination of the day, the spectacular Kinkaku-ji or Temple of the Golden Pavilion. The wonderful staff at Mume provided me with the bus # and bus stop to take to get to Kinkaku-ji, as well as warned me that at this time of the day, I was probably looking at a 45-minute trip. (The temple closes at 5:00 p.m.). In the end, the bus trip took closer to an hour and ten minutes, absolutely CRAWLING through Gion before picking up speed further north. I made it to Kinkaku-ji at approximately 4:30—nowhere near enough time to see the Golden Temple and the gardens, particularly as dusk was approaching. I made a quick tour through the grounds, snapped some dusk photos of the Golden Pavilion, and decided that I would return on Sunday when I had more time and daylight to do the temple justice.

    Sunday dawned as another beautiful day in Kyoto. It was time to first backtrack to Fushimi Inari shrine and Tofoku-ji Temple to obtain ink stamps and signatures as I had not yet started my collection when I first visited them. Then, it was back onto the bus for the long ride out to do justice to Kinkaku-ji. The Golden Temple absolutely sparkled in the Sunday sun. As most of you know, this version of Kinkaku-ji was rebuilt in 1955 to replace the original that had been burned down by a deranged monk. The top two floors of the temple are covered in real gold leaf. I found the phoenix on top of the temple to be particularly poignant—a symbol of Kinkaku-ji literally rising from the ashes. Along the way through the beautiful gardens, many of us stopped to observe (and photograph) a regal stork (or was it a crane?) that was holding court in the lovely temple gardens. Again, the photo opportunities were lovely and numerous. Kinkaku-ji was one of my favorite temples in Kyoto, right up there with Kiyomizu dera and Eikan do. From there, it was another one hour bus ride back to Gion and then time to check out of Hotel Mume.

    When I returned to Mume, it was time to say goodbye as I was only able to book 3 of my 4 nights there. Again, I can’t say enough about what a wonderful place this was to stay and how kind and thoughtful the entire staff were. In fact, the wonderful staff had even transported my wheelie bag a few blocks down the street to my new home for the night, Yuzuya ryokan, so that I didn’t have to deal with it. Yuzuya is located immediately next door to the Yasaka Jinja shrine. It was a very nice, albeit rather expensive for what was offered ryokan. At the ryokan, I met Takumi (sp?), a handsome young Japanese man who assisted me during my stay. I changed into my yukuta and enjoyed a kaiseki dinner that evening which was delicious. After dinner, I soaked in the common bath and then relaxed in my room the rest of the evening. Tomorrow, it would be off to Hiroshima and the start of my 3rd and final week in Japan.

    Tomorrow: Hiroshima--the A-Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum.

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    MinnBeef I am enjoying this so much. I don't know if we can ever make it back to Japan, but if we do, Matsumoto is definitely on my list!

    I am very impressed with your patience in waiting for sushi. My deal with spouse to get him to go to Japan was to stick to fairly simple food (i.e. he is not a sushi fan) so I am enjoying your food 'vicariously.' There, you needn't feel guilty about portions, you were eating for two.

    You keep teasing about Fuji-san so I will be patient.

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    By the way it's too late for you, but I will post this for anyone needing a faster public transit option to Kinkakuji.

    Take the subway to Kitaoji, and only then a bus to Kinkakuji-mae. Way, way faster in Kyoto to use the subway. I've a map link posted in my trip report if anyone needs further detail.

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    Hi everyone. Thanks for the nice feedback. I need to get back to the trip report. I've started a new job and it's been understandably busy. Going to try and get the Hiroshima and Miyajima segments put together this week.

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    Sorry for the short delay in installments everyone. The new job has been quite busy and I've just returned yesterday from a few days in chilly Houston--high temperature around 35 degrees F. This winter weather has been absolutely INSANE! Good to be back on these forums and reliving my wonderful memories of Japan.

    November 18: Hiroshima

    I awoke at Yuzuya that morning, had breakfast, bathed and checked out of the ryokan. Handsome Takumi bid me farewell as the taxi took me to Kyoto Station to catch the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. The train ride to Hiroshima was pleasant, punctual and uneventful, as were all JR train rides. I arrived at Hiroshima Station about 1 and 45 minutes later. I had elected to stay at the Hotel Granvia due to its incredible convenience, being located right at Hiroshima Station. The Granvia combined very modern, functional décor with a terrific location and a very reasonable price (about 18,000 yen for a double bed as I recall). After checking in to the Granvia, I made my way to the streetcar (which stopped right outside the Granvia) and began my day of touring Hiroshima, stopping first at the A-Bomb Dome.

    The A-Bomb Dome is incredibly sobering, both in daylight and even more sore at twighlight. It’s amazing how close you can get to the ruins, although there are a number of signs warning that if you cross any closer, an alarm will sound (which I never doubted for a second.) It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I photographed the Dome from all angles. While this is not absolute Ground Zero, it is within a few hundred yards and I could not help but look up into the sky and think about the horrors of what that day must have been like. The Dome is immediately adjacent to the Motoyasu River and it was very sad to think about the people who jumped into the river on that day in an effort to try and escape the intense heat. While one might debate both sides of the argument for dropping that bomb, there is no debate as to the sadness and horror that it must have caused to countless innocent civilians. A “must visit” when in Hiroshima but a sobering one at the same time.

    From the A-Bomb Dome, I walked across the river and made my way to Peace Memorial Park. I walked past the Eternal Flame, a flame that will remain lit until all nuclear weapons are removed from the face of the Earth. From there, I stopped at the Children’s Peace Monument, which is dedicated to all the children who died in the bomb blast and in particular, a little girl named Sadako who 10 years after the blast, developed leukemia and believed she could be cured if she folded 1000 paper cranes. Unfortunately, she died before finishing her project. From there, I stopped at the Cenotaph, which is a coffin-like stone structure. Each year, the names of those who have died during the previous year as a result of the atom bomb are added to the Cenotaph’s roster. After pausing here, I made my way to my primary destination in Hiroshima, Peace Memorial Museum.

    In short, the Peace Memorial Museum is incredibly well done. I thought it very fairly portrayed Japan’s role in both pre-World Ware II atrocities as well as the war itself while at the same time, not shying one iota way from the horror of the bomb itself. The yellow-helmeted Japanese schoolchildren showed up early in my museum visit and I decided to let them pass me by as I wanted to linger at many of the poignant exhibits. Several that struck me in particular were displays of the watches that stopped at 8:15 a.m.-the moment the bomb exploded; the display of various artifacts that were found in the bombed ruins (Kannons, teapots, etc.) and in particular, the personal stories of several individuals who perished in the bomb. There was also a small exhibit dedicated to Sadako, including several of the tiny paper cranes she folded in an effort to be healed. It was incredibly sad and yet heroic at the same time. I probably spent a good 3 hours at the museum. By far, it was my favorite museum I visited in Japan.

    From Peace Memorial Park, I walked to Hiroshima-jo. I admired the castle from the outside but did not feel a desire to tour the inside. I made my way back to the A-Bomb Dome to capture some photos at twighlight. The ruins take on an incredible eeriness at dusk--the bombed out dome silhouetted against the dusk sky. I then walked to the streetcar line, catching the car that took me back to the Granvia. By this point it was time for dinner, which was a simple tenderloin steak and vegetables at one of the hotel's restaurants. (Hey every so often I needed to just enjoy simple, American food). I really didn’t do anything else that evening as I knew I was going to be checking out early tomorrow to catch the boat to one of my most anticipated stops in Japan-the beautiful island of Miyajima.

    Tomorrow: Miyajima Island, the Floating Torii and Itsukushima Shrine, the incredible koyo of Red Maple Valley Park, a trip up Mount Misen, and a wonderful stay and kaiseki dinner at Iwaso Ryokan.

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    Congratulations on your new job! I hope it brings you many rewards -- including lots of time for travel and for indulging your love of cooking! And thanks for continuing your trip report.

    My compliments to your ability to capture some of the experience of Hiroshima in words. I never felt able to do so, but I hear some of my thoughts in what you have written. Thank you so much! And a special, if bittersweet, thank you for reminding me of the display of watches. I had forgotten them; you brought back that moment when I gasped upon seeing them.

    Stay warm!

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    Hi Amy. My bad, I have been meaning to finish this up and have gotten side tracked with both the new job as well as a winter escape last week to Puerto Rico.

    I will try to finish this up this coming weekend. Thanks for your interest!

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    Here are my next two days of trip report. Ovenbird-yes lots of photos. Agreed, the koyo were absolutely breathtaking. I had never seen fall colors so beautiful. Over 1500 photos. I will at some point try to get some put up onto Shutterfly.

    November 19: Miyajima

    Staying at the Hiroshima Granvia couldn’t have made things more convenient for both getting to Miyajima Island and ultimately catching the bullet train back to Tokyo. That morning, I made my way via streetcar to the stop where you catch the ferry over to Miyajima. My plans were to spend the day and night on Miyajima as many of your Fodorites had mentioned how wonderful the island becomes once all of the day trippers leave. You couldn’t have been more correct!

    I must have snapped a dozen shots of the Floating Torii as we approached the island by ferry boar. The torii and shrine were at almost high tide when I docked around 10:15 that morning. Walking from the pier straight to the torii, I snapped another 2 dozen or so photos, from all angles and distances in the hope of catching that perfect shot that would become one of my lasting memories of Japan. After paying homage to the torii, I explored the Itsukushima shrine, which the torii serves as the “entrance” to. I watched a young couple in Japanese finery getting married. A warrior dancer and musicians accompanied the ceremony. To my pleasant surprise, the shrine also provided ink stamps and calligraphic signatures, just like the shrines and temples did in Kyoto. I obtained my 13th and final set in my shuin-cho. I used the rest of the daylight hours to explore the rest of Miyajima’s highlights, including the 5-Story Pagoda, Red Maple Valley Park and the cable car up to Mt. Misen. Red Maple Valley Park was breathtaking in all its “koyo-ed” glory. The colors here rivaled those at the Eikan-do Temple in Kyoto, and a photo of the koyo with this beautiful red-painted footbridge became one of my favorite photos from Japan and proudly hangs in 16x20 poster size with 6 other photos in my master bathroom.

    Other highlights that day were eating grilled oysters from a vendor’s shack (the oysters were delicious in all of their barbequed smokiness and all that was missing was a glass of Blancs de Blanc Champagne to wash them down) and buying a beautiful Japanese scroll that also now hangs in my master bathroom (Mt. Fuji, a dragon and a carp.)

    By twilight at around 5:00 p.m., I made my way back to the torii for some sunset shots and then made my way for the evening to Iwaso ryokan where I would spend the night. Iwaso is the oldest and most famous ryokan on the island and, while not cheap, was well worth the price imho. I had a top floor, corner room that looked out to the gorgeous koyo of Red Maple Valley Park, as well as to the Floating Torii, lit up a beautiful orange at night. After relaxing a bit, I made my way to the bathing area and enjoyed a wonderful soak in the baths before re-donning my yukuta and preparing for my kaiseki dinner. The food was delicious—probably my favorite of the 5 kaiseki dinners I had at different ryokans. Fish, beef, and more grilled oysters were just a few of the courses. After dinner, I just relaxed in the room, enjoying the crisp sea air and admiring the beauty of the lit up torii.

    In summary, I had high expectations for Miyajima and it did not disappoint. For those who plan to visit Hiroshima, I would definitely encourage you to spend a full day and night on the island to best enjoy it in both its hustle and bustle as well as its tranquility.

    November 20: Bullet train back to Tokyo

    As I had arranged to have my main luggage shipped by the Granvia back to my hotel in Tokyo, it was easy to travel light throughout my time on Miyajima. I checked out of Iwaso, snapped a couple more pics of the torii as I made my way back to the pier, and caught a mid morning ferry back to the Hiroshima port. From there, I caught the streetcar back to the Granvia, where it was an easy walk to the train station. I boarded a 12:30 bullet train that, other than requiring one change of train in Osaka, would be a direct, 5-hour ride back to Tokyo. While I was excited to experience the bullet train in all its long-distance glory, I was most excited about the opportunity to see Mt. Fuji from the train. I had heard that this is one of the classic views of Fuji-san and the weather had been clear and beautiful throughout Japan since I had left Hakone with Fuji cloaked in clouds.

    I knew that the views of Fuji would come about 2/3-3/4 of the journey into the trip. I started to sense we were getting close when I could almost feel the excitement of some my fellow passengers (Japanese, nonetheless) and got myself and my digital camera prepared. I made sure I had the camera on the burst setting and waiting for Fuji-san to appear, like a child waiting for Santa Claus. (For those wondering, you want to sit on the LEFT side of the train as you head northward from Hiroshima to Tokyo). All of sudden, I saw a huge bluish cone with a large snow cap! No sooner did I see it than it disappeared as we headed into a tunnel. When we came out of the tunnel, the mirage was nowhere to be seen. Was that really it? For what must have been another 10 minutes moving at bullet train speed, there was nothing. All of a sudden, there he was—Mt Fuji in all its magnificence, in all its snow capped glory. I could have stared at it forever but of course being on the bullet train didn’t make that an option. My camera clicked away at warp speed and due to the burst feature, probably captured 200+ shots of the mountain as we sped by. I would say we probably got about 5 good minutes of Fuji viewing. I exhaled as the mountain finally passed out of sight. My Japan heart was at rest—Mt. Fuji was real and it was spectacular! I’m sure my reaction at first sight of Fuji-san was similar to that when I first saw the Eiffel Tower and the Hagia Sophia. It’s just one of those incredibly beautiful things that create a lasting memory in the camera of your mind.

    Arriving at Tokyo Station at around 7:00 p.m., I made my way through the craziness and caught the subway back to the Mitsui Garden Ginza where I would spend the last two nights of my trip. After checking in, I made my way out to dinner and then settled back into my room around 9:30. Tomorrow would be another early day as I was planning to be in line at Sushidai by no later than 5:00 a.m. for one more incredible sushi breakfast. After that, the rest of the day was open—whether it be going back to Hakone since the weather was so much improved or perhaps just bumming around Tokyo. I would decide that in the morning.

    Tomorrow: Another awesome sushi breakfast at Sushidai and disaster strikes the Mt. Fuji bullet train photos.

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    Miyajima is lovely, isn't it? I took tons of photos on the ferry on the way there -- not thinking about the fact that it was raining, and that while my head was under shelter, my camera was not. Oops! I nearly ruined my then brand-new camera. It took 2 days and a lot of gentle dabbing to dry it out... I missed a ton of photo ops in the meantime, but am just SO grateful that the camera survived to let me take many, many more pictures later.

    I hope that the fact that you are posting again means that you are settling into your new job and no longer so cold that moving one's fingers is challenge. :-)

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    David, we were at Iwaso ryokan on Nov 14 and the koyo was gorgeous even at that time. You were there almost a week must have been close to or at peak colors. Wow!

    Kavey, I not only gasped but also totally forgot all I had just read of David's trip report! I have my fingers crossed the disaster was fixable.

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    David, I'm currently planning my first Japan trip and this is so helpful. Thanks for sharing. I've already added Kappabashi to my Tokyo plans as I love cooking and everything there is to go with it. Maybe it's a good job I'm going solo after all as I'm sure my usual travel companions would just roll their eyes after 3 hours in kitchen equipment stores! Looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    Thank you everyone. I will try to finish up the trip report this weekend. kja-yes Miyajima was absolutely lovely. To sylvie and others planning their Japan trips, I would strongly encourage you to arrive in the morning to give you a full day of exploring and then stay overnight on the island to enjoy it when the day trippers leave and it becomes much more tranquil.

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    MinnBeef, that might be tricky as I would like to visit the Peace Park in Hiroshima first, but I'm hoping to get there in the afternoon and to stay the night. I think I need to become an early riser on this trip! Or maybe I should head straight to Miyajima and then 'do' Hiroshima the following morning before heading for Kyoto. Too many variables and decisions to make. ;)

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    Finally finishing up my trip report on a gorgeous spring day in Minneapolis. Thank you to everyone who has "traveled" along with me on this report. I appreciate your interest and encouragement in getting me to finish this report. Getting this all documented has given me a lasting record of this wonderful trip that will help me retain the memories of the wonderful things I saw and people I met!

    November 21 and 22:

    I awoke at 4:15 a.m. that morning, showered, dressed and was out the door by 4:40 and on my way to Sushidai for one more outstanding sushi breakfast. I had chosed the Mitsui Garden Ginza partly due to its proximity to the Tsukiji fish market and by 4:55, I was in line at Sushidai. This time, I was # 15 in line, so that meant I would be in the second wave of diners after the restaurant opened at 5:00 a.m. I was in by 6:25 and enjoyed another outstanding sushi breakfast. Seriously, for those sushi fans visiting Tokyo, this is the most outstanding sushi around and will be totally worth your while to get up early to experience it.

    At about 8:00 a.m., I made it back to Mitsui Garden Ginza. It was a beautiful, clear sunny day and from the lobby on the 16th floor, gorgeous Mt. Fuji loomed above the skyscrapers of Tokyo. I probably snapped 10 photos from the lobby. Looking them over, I really wasn’t satisfied with any of them, primarily because even with the zoom, Fuji looked too far away compared to the Tokyo skyline. Being the type A personality I am, I decided to delete those photos to not take up unnecessary storage space. Before I deleted them, I was careful to look at my delete options. The option that seemed to make the most sense was “Delete all photos on this day”. I thought and thought about it and decided yes, delete all photos on this day. Unfortunately, I did not stop to think that the time stamp on the camera DID NOT adjust to Tokyo time and had remained on U.S. Central/Minneapolis time—15 hours earlier. Sooooooo…when I pressed delete, not only did it delete those 10 photos of Fuji above the skyline, it deleted all of the photos taken on that day…that day November 20th!!!!! Suddenly, all of my wonderful photos of Fuji-san from the bullet train were gone! A chill and a sense of dread went up my spine as I realized what I had done. At this point, my fate was sealed and my open day in Tokyo was now set. There was NO OTHER OPTION then to quickly head off to Tokyo station to buy transportation to Hakone, from where I would backtrack the entire route I had traveled 10 days earlier, knowing that at least the weather was sunny and crystal clear and Mt. Fuji would be enthusiastically awaiting my return in about 3 hours.

    I arrived at Tokyo Station and bought a ticket to Odawara, along with a Hakone Day pass. The train to Odawara turned out to be a local train, stopping at every friggin’ station. It took an hour just to get from Tokyo to Odawara. From there, I boarded the incredibly scenic yet incredibly slow switchback train and after about 45 minutes, the cable car. Finally, I boarded the gondola which I knew would take me to Owakudani Boiling Valley and my ultimate destination. As the cable car approached a hill top, I knew from my earlier trip what would be waiting for me once the gondola cleared the top of the hill. There, on a crystalline late morning that just 10 days earlier had been shrouded in clouds, stood Fuji-san. It was if I could reach out and touch it…it was THAT CLOSE! My camera worked overtime for the next hour as I just gazed in awe and shot photos of Fuji from every possible angle. If I didn’t have a job, family and friends back home, I COULD HAVE STAYED THERE FOREVER, it was THAT SPECTACULAR! I spent the next hour after that taking the gondola down to Togendai and from there, the boat cruise around Lake Ashi. This gave me several more great perspectives of Fuji-san, peaking above the beautiful lake. By mid-afternoon, I boarded the Hakone bus that ultimately took me back to Tokyo Station. Along the way, the bus stopped to pick up passengers in Gotemba where Fuji looked as if it was sitting in this hotel’s backyard. Once back at the hotel, I had a light dinner at a place that now escapes my memory. I spent that evening packing up and preparing for my flight home the next morning.

    That next morning, Friday, I boarded my reserved seat on the Friendly Airport Limousine bus back to Narita. I caught the Delta 3:00 flight home to Minneapolis. The flight was blissfully uneventful. We landed at around 10:30 a.m. that same Friday morning. The line through customs was efficient. From there, I picked up my wheelie bag from bag check (I had to check it as it contained my Santoku from Kappabashi), caught a Blue Line train home and walked in my front door around 12:30. I spent the next 5 days getting over my jet lag, which was worth every moment of difficult sleep for all the wonderful things I had seen and people I had meant.

    My top lasting memories of Japan:

    • The absolutely wonderful and kind people. My favorites of any country that my travels have taken me to.
    • The stunning beauty of Mt. Fuji.
    • The breathtaking koyo in Matsumoto, Kyoto and Miyajima
    • Matsumoto Castle
    • The incredible sushi at Sushidai
    • Kappabashi
    • The ¾ view of the veranda of Kiyomizu-dera

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    Thanks for a great trip report. I'm glad it all worked out well.

    Just FYI, it's pretty straightforward to recover photos accidentally deleted from a memory card *provided you haven't done anything since*

    There are several pay-for services and software. This one is free, though a bit geeky:

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