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Trip Report Dipping my toe into the pond of Japanese culture...

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Hi all.
I have just returned from our two week first trip to Japan. I love reading trip reports, and get such useful information from them that I felt I should return the favour with my own report.

Travelers: DH and I, newbies to Japan
Duration: Two weeks - trying to eek as many experiences of Japan out of our time as possible!
Transport: Flying Jetstar from the Gold Coast of Australia, into Tokyo and out of Kyoto.
7 day rail pass
Preparation: Hours and hours of internet-based research and booking (which I LOVE) - organising, checking, double checking, printing out and compiling of a central Mission Control folder!

Day One:
Flight from the Gold Coast to Tokyo.
After a very uneventful flight, we landed at Narita airport at just before 7pm. From my research, I was hoping to get the N'Ex/Suica card combination (3500 yen), but the next train was going to leave at 7.49 with the next one a lot later. We hustled our way through immigration and baggage and raced to the first JR place we could find. No, wrong one, have to go downstairs. Next counter - no, have to buy from the travel office.
At the travel office, loads of people seemed to be milling around, and when the lady in front of us, at 7.35pm, dumped about 20 passports down on the counter to exchange rail passes I thought we were stumped.
Luckily, I had printed out a piece of paper that said, in big letters, N'Ex/Suica, and one of the staff took pity on us and rapidly booked our seats and handed over the Suica card. We raced to the platform and made the train - high-fives all round!
The Suica card is loaded with 2000yen and just needed to be swiped over the turnstiles at the subway stops. We used it for two days travelling around Tokyo, and then got our 500 yen deposit back for returning the card, so all in all great value!
We were staying at the Best Western Astina Shinjuku Hotel. I had detailed instructions and several maps so was confident we would find it. DH has inbuilt navigational skills somehow too. I knew we needed the East Exit, and was confident we were following the path, until we emerged onto a busy street with no idea where we were. Luckily, with the help of the maps, a nice local pointed us in the right direction and we were off without another hitch.
The hotel was just fine - good location close to JR Shinjuku station and subway stops, small but functional room and staff with enough English to get us by. DH dived straight into the bathroom looking for the famous Japanese toilets - and was not disappointed!
The hotel is on the edge of the "red light" area in Tokyo and there certainly seemed to be plenty going on that we didn't really understand, but we were never bothered or threatened in any way. We soaked up the busy atmosphere, with the neon and the people, enjoying our first taste of Japanese cuisine at a small store nearby - I don't know what the proper name for them is, but we called them the octopus leg balls!

Day Two:
Exploring Tokyo
Today was the only day of rain we had on our holiday. It was a chilly 4 degrees celcius, but undeterred we wrapped up in our down jackets and hit the streets.
Our first destination was the famous Tsujiki Fish markets. We weren't that fussed on getting up early, so left the hotel around 8.30am. First stop was breakfast in a local cafe - a "morning set" of a ham/egg/spinach roll and coffee was less than 1000yen for both of us. Good start.
We then had to conquer the Tokyo Subway system. It is very daunting when you first look at it, and it is a steep learning curve but with the help of the subway system map, knowing which station we were at and which one we wanted to go to, we were able to get the necessary details from a nice man at the turnstile and before long we were there. If you have done the Paris subway, it really works much the same way, but with the added bonus of numbering system.
The fish markets were full of whizzing carts and forklifts, boxes and crates and tanks of fish and seacreatures - alive, dead and dying! We only saw one other Western tourist the whole time we were there - not tourist season I guess. I did feel a little "in the way" so tried to be as inconspicuous as possible (not very possible!).
We found a friendly sushi restaurant and took that initial plunge into Japanese cuisine. I have to say I haven't eaten much Japanese food and am not a huge seafood fan, but we went ahead and ordered the "Ladies Set" for 2100 yen, which consisted of 8 pieces of sushi, miso soup, green tea and some other things (?). The severe looking chefs prepared our feast and laid it out on a banana leaf which was all very visually appealing and quite tasty. DH described his "roe roll" as a taste sensation - attacking all the senses with the initial rolling of the balls around your mouth, followed by popping sensations which then flooded the mouth with a fishy taste! Interesting to watch him digest this!
I had an app on my iPhone with Japanese language on it and hit the word for delicious - "oishii" sung from my phone, achieving the hint of a smile from the severe sushi chefs!
The next part of the plan was to wonder towards the Sony Building. A pit stop on the way was needed so we found a McDonalds where we were given a token to use the local toilet. DH had an audience - a little old lady who was servicing the toilets. Bit off-putting apparently!
The Sony Building was quite interesting - with a great 3D movie on a 200cm screen being the highlight.
We then wondered towards the Imperial Gardens in the now quite heavy rain - only to find them closed unfortunately. We made our way back to the hotel to retrieve the hoods from our jackets and ended up having a snooze for an hour - it felt like sacrilege to waste precious holiday time, but we really needed it and it kept us going for the rest of the day.
After our snooze we jumped on the subway to the Shibuya crossing. We were there from around 5pm, with the sun setting and people heading home from work. With the rain, it was a sea of umbrellas, and there was a symphony of light and music coming from the surrounding buildings - awesome! We took the obligatory video footage, and some time-lapse type photos with streams of light which look really cool.
Dinner was noodles and dumplings (we think it was a Chinese restaurant but we weren't really sure). Total bill with drinks was 3000 yen.
We had two further destinations planned - the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building observation deck and then the New York Bar for a real treat and ONE drink only (we ended up having two of course)! The views from up these buildings were great, if a little misty with the rain, and it was a real spoil in the New York Bar - mellow jazz music playing, impeccable service and cocktails that were just too yummy. "This is the life" ran through our heads for the few hours that we nursed our two drinks! Worth the expense, and eating noodles for another few nights to compensate!
We got lost between the two buildings and had the experience of a lovely local turning themselves around to come and help us, then walk us 500m in the opposite direction to show us where to go. So friendly!
Pooped, we crashed into our beds at around 11pm.

More soon....

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    I just love this. I know nothing about Japan - but here's somebody who has done the research, has the passion and the sheer guts to follow through. How about these examples:

    '...Luckily, I had printed out a piece of paper that said, in big letters, N'Ex/Suica...'

    '...I had detailed instructions and several maps so was confident we would find it...'

    '...I had an app on my iPhone with Japanese language on it and hit the word for delicious - "oishii" sung from my phone...'

    Fantastic. Wow. Compared to some of the half-wit questions in here, it's a real buzz to see someone who has done the hard yards. I know you've had the benefit of it; I can already tell. What a travel hero you are. What a great example.

    10/10 to you drjem!.

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    What a great start to your report, drjem. Your arrival and first day where almost like reading my own when my sister and I went to Japan this past fall. We also just barely made it on the Narita Express after hurriedly purchasing our Suica/N'Ex cards at the JR office.

    Looking forward to your next installment! :-)

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    Great start drjem! I can feel your excitement jumping out of your written words. So glad you had a good time and that all of your research paid off. The dogster is spot on about your passion and guts. I love your story about the iphone language app. I use it all the time in Japan and it really comes in handy. Anxiously looking forward to more!

    Aloha!

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    Thank you all for such positive comments! I guess we are all different travelers - some "go with the flow" and others plan. I am a planner, partly because I enjoy the process in the months leading up to the trip, and also so that I can squeeze as much experience into the trip with the most ease!

    Anyway,
    Day Three:
    Tokyo Sumo
    I had pre-ordered tickets for the Grand Sumo Tournament through www.buysumotickets.com, a process that was very easy, with the tickets being sent through to Australia. We probably paid more than if we had lined up for tickets on the day, but I preferred the convenience of pre-buying.
    We had a leisurely start to the day, going back to "our" breakfast cafe for the morning set and then we went to the JR Travel Office at Shinjuku station to exchange our rail passes and book seats for the trains we needed for the next couple of journeys. One of the most useful pieces of paper I had in "mission control" was a copy of the train schedule, cut, pasted and cleaned up onto a single sheet of paper from www.hyperdia.com, with the origin and destination stations in both "English" characters and the Japanese character, and the times of the trains I wanted. I just had to hand these over to the staff and pronto, my tickets were there. So useful, especially as we ventured further in our trip where there was less English spoken. Highly recommended.
    We stopped off in Akihabara on the way to the sumo. It was my brother-in-law's birthday just after our return and he had requested some sort of "useless electronic goods" from Japan. We were not disappointed, finding a crunching dog that you plug into your USB! There is certainly plenty of electronics to look at and buy, but we weren't really needing anything so moved on to the sumo hall around lunchtime.
    The more junior ranks are on first, and the arena was pretty empty, but as the fighters got more senior the place filled. We were glad we had arrived early, as it gave us time to learn how it all worked, with the help of a lovely elderly Japanese gentleman who was keen to teach us. By the time the senior fighters came on at 4pm, with the pomp and colour of the ring-entering ceremony, we were really into it! I put my long lens into the camera, and shot some action shots - some of the expressions you can catch are priceless! We hired FM radios on which we were able to catch English commentary from 4pm, for the mighty price of 100yen (after your deposit is returned). That added to the experience really nicely as well. We learnt more about the wrestlers, where they were from, their record and also their favourite techniques - "he's a pusher-thruster", or "he prefers the left hand outside grip", not something we hear everyday! Sumo is a unique part of Japanese culture and we were really pleased we'd spent the afternoon doing this. We watched the progress of our favourite sumos during the rest of our holiday. Again, highly recommended.
    After the tournament finished we went in search of some dinner. My criteria were usually either an English menu, or a picture menu, or the plastic models that we could point to. These were not to be found in the area around the Sumo hall. Instead we wandered past a little side-alley restaurant where there seemed to be mini barbeques on benches around which you sat. "This looks interesting" said DH, despite not meeting any of my criteria. We received a hearty welcome (in Japanese) from the chef out the back, so we tentatively sat down and awaited menus or instructions of some sort. A fellow customer hoped up to help us out, picking up a large menu board with pictures of nondescript meat. His English was minimal, but as he was trying to show us which part of the animal these various pieces of meat come from, I slowly realised that (I think) we were in one of the "hormone" restaurants, where you can cook up all sorts of animal organs and offal. We had 5 dishes that he recommended - one of which was cow heart, but we still don't know exactly where the other parts came from! He indicated various parts of his own abdomen for a couple of them, but there were at least 2 dishes for which he couldn't remember the English translation. Oh well, we are dipping our toes in Japanese culture remember! Actually, it was all quite tasty - until I dared DH (who is genetically unable to refuse a dare) to order the trachea rings! Mmm, mmm - crunchy!
    Somewhat satisfied, and definitely amused after our dinner, we headed home, stopping back at the JR Office to return our Suica cards, receiving our 500 yen deposit back. All up, we paid 3000 yen each (about $36 Australia) for our trip from the airport and two full days around Tokyo. Very good value we thought.

    Day Four:
    We left Tokyo early this morning heading to Miyajima Island, via Hiroshima. I had been anxious about conquering this next step of the journey, but in the end it was pretty straight forward. Flashing your tickets to station staff made it easy for them to point to where we needed to be, and soon enough we were on the right train. We were travelling green class (I know, endlessly debated on this forum). Our suitcases both fitted on the racks above our seats (one "medium size" and the other cabin-bag size) and we were certainly comfortable.
    Mt Fuji was visible on the R hand side of the train, although the top was covered in cloud.
    We had a change of trains in Kobe - again we were happy to flash our tickets and ask where we needed to be. No problems.
    By now we had discovered the joys of the Japanese vending machines. Our initial meeting in Tokyo was unsuccessful - something that looked nice and refreshing turned out to become what we called "cat's wee". A bit of trial and error with the coffees soon discovered a favourite and we were always happy to splurge 120 yen on a hot, sweet and predictable coffee, which also doubled as a hand warmer!
    We made it to Hiroshima by lunchtime. We planned to only take one bag onto Miyajima Island, so we found a coin locker to store both our bags while we visited the Peace Park. Again my research meant that I knew which tram we needed, how the trams worked and how much they would cost so before long we were there.
    I too had had mixed feelings about going but we were pleased we did. I felt the whole place has a really balanced view of what happened, and I felt it was a call for peace, rather than just a graphic depiction of the horror that occured. We were approached by the Japanese school students writing their newspaper articles about peace - very cute in their broken English. My husband's Australian humour was somewhat lost of them, but we did get lots of smiles anyway! We spent about 2 1/2 hours there before we headed back to Hiroshima station to retrieve the one bag we wanted to take, and then we caught the JR line train to the ferry terminal.
    Iwaso Inn was our destination - a spoil for sure, but again a special part of Japanese culture we wanted to experience. It was 44,400 yen for the two of us including dinner and breakfast. We had a delightful happy lady show us our room and with much broken English and pointing we learnt all we needed to for our stay. After she left we decided to, literally, take the plunge! It was time to nude up and experience a Japanese onsen. I had been uncertain before we left whether I would be able to bring myself to do this, but hey, again, dipping the toe...
    Donning our yukatas we went downstairs and to our separate baths. I was lucky that there were only two other women around but they were leaving so I basically had the place to myself. Great way to start trying the onsen. I followed the protocol (I think) with the washing prior and using the little towels, and enjoyed a soak in both the indoor and outdoor bath. I definitely enjoyed the bath much more than I had thought. DH similarly enjoyed his time although he did have to share with a few others.
    Dinner was our next experience. Like I have said, I am not particularly familiar with Japanese food but was determined to try everything put in front of me. I can't say I enjoyed it all, but it is a real experience - donned in your yukata, fresh from a hot bath, just the two of us in the room, sitting on the floor being brought course after course. There was sashimi, tofu soup, eel, jellied something, hot oysters, tempura, poached fish, rice, pickles and then a light fruit dessert. Great experience - highly recommended.
    After dinner we took ourselves down to the waterfront to admire the Torii gate lit up at night. Being winter and at night, the place was deserted but for the odd soul and the few deer. It was really special.
    While we were away, the room fairies had come and put down the futons. We slept well after such a busy day, full of unique experiences!

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    Day Five:
    Waking up bright and early we headed back down to the baths for a dip before breakfast. Again it was deserted in my pool, and while I was in the outdoor pool overlooking the stream and the beautiful garden, a light snow started to fall. So special.
    I had piked and ordered the Western breakfast. I have to say that DH struggled through his Japanese breakfast (fish, small fish, a bit of cooked fish, rice, seaweed, pickled plum, tofu porridge and a bit more fish!). Apparently it was the breakfast that kept on giving - coming up repeatedly during the day!
    Our goal for the morning was the summit of Mt Misen. We walked through the gardens to the cable car station and paid 1000yen each for the oneway trip. There was still a light snow falling, which was really pretty but which meant that the views were minimal, although atmospheric. The monkeys at the top of the cablecar station were pretty cool to watch. We came across one sitting under a bush with his eyes closed who looked very zen in a meditative state.
    We walked the 20mins to the temples at the top, and then to the observation deck at the very top. There were only a couple of other people around, and we really enjoyed listening to the monk chanting, smelling the incense and soaking up the atmosphere up there. Being a "lover's sanctuary", we left a plaque with messages to each other at the temple - special to think they are still there. There is a fire burning up there that is said to have been burning for 1200 years, and which was used to start the eternal flame at the Peace Park. Very cool.
    After some debate we decided to walk down the mountain. We met many more elderly Japanese people coming up than we saw going down, as well as a couple of other Aussies who hadn't realised how far it was! It was a lovely walk, very secluded and with intermittent snow. The clouds lifted during our descent so we got to enjoy the views as well.
    We stopped in at the Daisho-in Temple complex at the bottom of the hill - lots to look at there.
    We picked up our bags and headed back to the ferry - stopping at any foodstall that looked interesting on the way and discovering yummy Hiroshima steamed buns. More photos of the Torii gate in the daytime, feeding nuts to the deer, and souvenir shopping - this is what holidays are about!
    Back on the ferry we went, then the JR train to Hiroshima station where we retrieved our other bag, then onto the Hiroshima port to catch a ferry to Matsuyama. By now we are following HawaiianTraveler's itinerary from his 2008 trip, cut and pasted into mission control. We took the fast ferry option as it was now 4pm which cost us 6500 yen. We were pleased we did as we didn't really find it all that scenic and there was quite a lot of smog around. English is becoming much more uncommon now, but we managed.
    From HT's report we knew about the Limousine buses that leave the port, and we were headed for the Hotel Patio Dogo which is right beside the Dogo Onsen, the final destination of the bus. Some confusion from us and communication difficulties delayed us a bit, but we all worked it out and we made it without any problem.
    At hotel reception, the clerk had great English. Our room was again small but functional, with the bonus of overlooking the Dogo Onsen. We asked our new favourite friend for a dinner recommendation. "Would you like fish?" he asked, which made me laugh before DH resolutely said no - he had had enough fish for the day!
    Armed with a piece of paper with the Japanese characters for the restaurant we were after on it, and a map, we found ourselves in a noodle restaurant, full of locals and with no English menu. Luckily there were pictures I could point to and we had nice noodle meal. At one stage I used my iPhone app again to ask if something was chicken (we had to point to the written words on the screen) - oh yes we were assured, but we reckon the chicken was beef, or possibly horse according to DH! Yummy all the same. The locals were slurping away happily too.
    Home to bed, and to ponder whether we would venture into the Dogo the next day...

    More soon...

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    Great report, drjem! I agree that if you do a lot of planning Japan is fairly easy to navigate even if you don't speak Japanese....I am now planning my fifth trip...
    Looking forward to more of your report. :)

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    Yes let me add to the kudos on your fabulous report. We have also followed HT's paths through Japan before so this looks like another one worth following. Thank you for taking the time to do this!

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    I am happy that some of you find my drivel useful :)

    I can see in my mind the places where you have been as you are describing them and the memories you are bringing back to me are very pleasant indeed.

    Something must be wrong though now that I have agreed with the dogster twice on the same thread,lol....Completely 100% fabulous!

    Aloha!

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    Thanks again everyone!
    And yes dogster, we did actually use a different term...lol
    I had also meant to put up some websites that I found useful in this process.

    www.hyperdia.com (everyone knows that one)
    www.japan-guide.com
    www.railplus.com.au (we bought our Japan Rail Pass through these guys - troublefree)
    www.japaneseguesthouses.com - we booked three different places through these guys without any problem, very useful information, pay when you get there - highly recommended
    www.tripadvisor.com

    Anyway...
    Day Six:
    Matsuyama
    After sourcing a decidedly Western breakfast at a little cafe, and a foot bath under the musical clock, and with aching calf muscles from the walk down from Mt Misen, we were ready to tackle the Dogo Onsen.
    We waited until about 9.30am when we thought it would be quieter and then treated ourselves to a "private room" at 1500 yen each (compared to the basic bath which is only 300yen). I needed to ease myself into the experience. With pointing we got our tickets, which then got us up to the third floor where we were allocated our own dressing room and yukatas. Then we were taken to the smaller bath on the second floor. There were about three other women initially but only one lady in the pool, with another few women coming and going during my dip. I quite quickly realised that being naked here wasn't a big problem - we are ALL naked, I don't know anyone and won't ever meet them again, so I was able to relax nicely. If there was one in my suburb on the other hand....
    The water is quite hot, so lasted about 20mins before heading back to our dressing room for green tea and sweets.
    So, if you are feeling unsure about whether to go in, I recommend going during a quiet period, knowing the protocol and then just relaxing! It was another great slice of Japanese culture.
    Suitably clean we headed off to visit Matsuyama Castle. Street car number 5 got us close to the ropeway/chairlift (which DH insisted on taking, he had had enough of "up"). It was a beautiful sunny day and the castle seemed to be basking in it. The surrounding trees were obviously bare in mid-winter, but I can imagine it is glorious in the spring with the blossoms, although with many more visitors than we encountered.
    From the castle we wondered down to the gardens, and then looked in a few shopping arcades before catching the streetcar back to the hotel.
    The scene outside the Dogo Onsen on our return was quite remarkable - hoardes of people in groups, distinguishable by the colour of their yukata, were descending on the Onsen, stopping to get the obligatory group photo in front first. There were some women dressed in kimonos heading in, and I was mighty glad we weren't going in then! Way too many people. We had dinner in an upstairs restaurant overlooking the scene (noodles again) - it kept us amused for quite a while.
    Back in our room we enjoyed the free hotel wifi on our iPhone and iPod touch before turning in.

    Day Seven:
    Matsuyama to the Iya Valley
    After a good nights sleep we decided to take one more plunge into the Dogo Onsen, waiting until around 9am before heading in. We took the 300 yen option this time and enjoyed the bigger but busier bath. We were old hands at this by now!
    Outside the onsen, a couple dressed in traditional white clothes were riding the rickshaw - newly weds apparently. Looked lovely.
    For breakfast we found a delightful cafe in the main mall area by the hotel which overlooked this lovely Japanese garden, and who thankfully had a "toast morning set". DH still hadn't recovered from his fish breakfast.
    We took the streetcar back to Matsuyama JR station to catch our train to Oboke. We had booked these seats back in Tokyo, because we were being picked up at a specific time. We travelled along the coast before changing trains at Marugame station and changing to a more local train to Oboke. The scenery was interesting - sea on one side, but still developed all the way through to the mountains. As we got closer, we headed into the mountains, at one point emerging from a long tunnel to completely snow-covered ground. V pretty.
    Oboke station was tiny and there was no-one there when we arrived. I was full of confidence that my arrangements would stack up, and sure enough 5 mins later the van from the Hotel Iyaonsen was there. (34,740yen for two including dinner and breakfast). We hopped in the van, but had to wait for another train with some more guests. I decided that I really did need to go to the toilet and couldn't wait, but discovered the van door was locked and we couldn't get out. DH, undeterred, got the driver's attention, and then hit the "toilet" button on the iPhone, the words sung out and I was released! So helpful! It was a squat toilet, which I had managed to avoid the whole trip to date, but I managed (my motto is - get down low and go, go, go (borrowed from a safety campaign here)).
    The van ride took about 40mins and we started traveling down increasingly narrow roads, that then become snow-covered. We had thought of renting a car for this leg, but I'm so glad we didn't because there's no way I would have believed the sat nav when it told us to go down this narrow road, covered in snow and hanging to the side of the cliff! Being a skiing kiwi, I am used to such mountain roads but it was a little daunting. Then, perched on the side of the mountain we came to our hotel. It was all on its own and we really did feel we had found some remoteness in busy Japan.
    Our room was a traditional room but there was massaging chair in the balcony area which overlooked the valley - lovely.
    We had time before dinner for another bath. At this hotel, you don the yukata and then catch a 5min very steep cable car to the bottom of the valley where there is an outside hot spring. It was really cold, but we were undeterred. There are no washing spaces there so I just hopped straight in, only to work out later when the next lady came that you are supposed to at least rinse off using the wooden bucket before getting in. Oops, never mind. I wondered why the other lady was looking at me funny.
    It was really special sitting in the pool, and being able to look over the edge at the river below, with water that seemed impossibly clear. Highly recommended.
    Dinner was in the restaurant but we had the paper dividers between us and other diners. Lucky, because the areas specialty is a salted whole trout on a stick. We both attempted but couldn't manage to eat more than a bite, but it was fun watching the locals downing the entire thing! Again, lots of fish and again quite an experience. The waitresses had very little English, but did carry books with them that they pointed at a couple of times. It worked well. We probably offended the chefs when we asked if we could have no fish for breakfast - sorry guys! I feel like such a piker, but I did try!
    The futon fairies had been again and we now had a bedroom in our living room. Another great day on holiday.

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    Day off today, kids still at school, so going to try to knock over another couple of days!

    Day Eight:
    Iya Valley to Kyoto, via Himeji
    First port of call this morning was the indoor onsen at the hotel, where I was alone. Fab.
    We finished our non-fish breakfast and spent a bit of time getting some photos of the area, including taking another trip down the cablecar for shots of the valley.
    We had organised the hotel van to take us back to the station (all free) and we were dropped there with about 30mins to spare. Oboke is pretty tiny, but we managed to find a little shop to buy some supplies for the day's travelling.
    I showed my printed out sheet of paper to the lady in the station office, and we were able to work out which train we wanted, but she didn't give us a ticket. This seemed to perplex the conductor when he came through the carriage, but no amount of slowly spoken Japanese from him was going to get us to understand - so I think he gave up and accepted our Rail Passes as evidence that we could be on the train. It was an interesting ride from Shikoku to the mainland, at one point crossing a really long bridge.
    We arrived at Himeji station around lunchtime, found a coin locker for our bags and made our way to the castle. The station was well sign-posted, and once outside you can see where you need to go.
    The castle was another impressive structure which we enjoyed visiting. A local man accosted us in the gardens to practice his English, which made for interesting travels.
    Back on the train to Kyoto, we texted the owner of the townhouse we were staying in and he gave us instructions for the correct exit from the station - where he was dutifully waiting. The townhouse we booked through www.vrbo.com. It is self-contained, although we didn't use the kitchen other than for hot drinks and cereal in the morning, and cost us 56,000 yen for 4 nights. It was tucked away in some streets between Kyoto station and the Nijo castle, which probably isn't the best place to stay as we were mainly visiting the Higashiyama areas and Gion, but it wasn't too much of a problem.
    We settled in and then I sent DH off to find some milk and "real" tea - which he dutifully found. Of course, his mission was to find beer, and when he asked the little old lady if she sold beer, she said no, but let me take you to where they sell beer - 5 blocks away!! How's that for service?

    Day Nine:
    Exploring Kyoto
    Our mission today was to follow the "Lonely Planet Southern Higashiyama Walking tour", said to show the best of Kyoto in one day (sorry Fodors, that's the competition aye!).
    I had scanned the page from the book, enlarged it and it got taken out of mission control and put into my pocket (which had become known as mini-mission control by now). We were able to walk to the start from our townhouse, and starting up "teapot" lane, we found ourselves at the Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It was only 8.30am but people were arriving already, including the schoolkids on excursions that seemed to be everywhere in Japan. We had to wait until 9am to go down the somewhat secretive entrance - in the Lonely Planet guide they recommend paying 100yen to descend into the Tainai-meguri which is to the left of the main temple entrance - but they don't really explain what it is. Well I won't either, because it was pretty special and very cool - so I add the recommendation to do it to LP's!
    Also at this temple are the two stones 18m apart which you try to navigate between with your eyes shut - if you miss the stone, your desire for love won't be fulfilled. It was great fun watching the high school students goosing around and doing it, and of course they laughed at us as we did it (successfully you'll be pleased to know!).
    From this temple we walked down the busy touristy street full of souvenir shops, sampling Kyoto cuisine along the way for breakfast. We followed the itinerary off the beaten track and into some really delightful side-streets with traditional little stores and homes and lovely Japanese gardens at every turn.
    Along the way we visited the War memorial and then went into Kodaj-ji. The crowds from Kiyomizu-dera hadn't made it this far and it was really beautiful. Here we saw our first stone garden - awesome.
    We stopped in the park for lunch (noodles again) and visited the colourful and busy Yasaka-jinja shrine.
    Already DH was templed out so we headed to the shops for some retail therapy and then meandered the streets of the Gion district in the naive hope of seeing a geisha. Around 6pm we came across a crowd of people all standing around a doorway, with excitement in the air. Quick as a flash a couple of geisha zoomed from nowhere and darted through the crowd and into the doorway. Camera flashes exploded, and the crowd went wild! So much for just stumbling across one! It was really quite peculiar and funny.
    Exhausted now and limping, we succumbed to a French restaurant for steak and chips, and a banana split for dessert (boy did we enjoy it) and stumbled home for a good sleep!

    Day Ten:
    Nara
    Today was the last day of our JR pass, so we used it to travel to Nara, stopping at the Fushimi-Inari shrine on the way. We had no intention of walking all the way up the hill, but I really wanted to get "the shot" through the tunnel of hundreds of torii gates. It was a bit tricky 'cos I had to wait for other people to walk out of my shot, but I did manage to get a couple of good photos.
    At Nara station we found our way to the Information office where they gave us a map and offered us a goodwill guide. I had read about the goodwill guides but hadn't organised one, so I was really pleased with the offer. A lovely lady called Mariko met us at the next Information office, and basically spent the next 3 1/2 hours showing us her town. It was just awesome to have her and again,thoroughly recommended. If you don't book one ahead, ask at the Nara Station (JR) information office like we did.
    Heading into the park we came across the famous (sometimes) bowing deer who we dutifully fed. We explored all the myriad of shrines and temples that make up the park but the highlight was of course Todaiji with it's enormous Buddha. I managed to achieve the crawl through Buddha's nostril to achieve enlightenment, health or intelligence, depending on what you read, (with a little help from Mariko pulling my arms through), but DH, who has a slight resemblance to a big Buddha himself, got stuck - much to the amusement of the waiting schoolchildren! They were raising funds for restoration work, so we bought a roof tile for 1000yen and we were able to paint whatever we wanted on it. We put our names and the kids names (at home, not with us this trip) - nice and simple.
    Noodles for dinner on the way home (I hadn't realised how many times we'd actually had noodles before writing this report out!), and a quick trip to Bic Camera for more useless electronic goods before limping home to bed.
    Really liked Nara park - worth a visit.

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    I am really enjoying your report. I am in the middle of planning a 2 week trip (one week spent working in kyoto) to Japan first of june. I, too, am a planner (and other nicknames given me by SharonG). I am dutifully taking down notes and plan to hit other reports and threads mentioned!

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    Sounds as though you had a wonderful time. I think we must be related. Your description of printing out the train timetable of all the trains you wanted and using it in areas where there was no English sounded just like me.

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    Hello, I just came across your report by chance and really enjoyed it. I lived in Japan for 3 years until recently and your report really makes me realise how much I miss it all. I'm very impressed with all your planning. It's remarkable how easy Japan is to navigate with a bit of planning, if you don't plan a trip there and try to 'wing-it' with no spoken Japanese you can easily get completely lost. I now live in Indonesia and therefore miss the food, the public transport and the cleanliness! Can't wait for your next installments.

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    Okay - back on deck after a trip to an indigenous community in remote Outback Australia - a world away from Japan!

    Day Eleven:
    Kyoto
    Our last day in Kyoto and we attempted (somewhat successfully) to conquer the bus and subway system. The buses are particularly complicated at first glance, so I was pleased when I worked it out with only one wrong bus caught!
    The essence of the bus system is the map. On the map, each stop has the number for all the buses that pass through this stop. The idea is that you look at the stop where you are, and then the stop you want to get to, and find numbers that match, eg if there is a number 50 listed for both stops, then you know you can get from one to the other on bus number 50. As is standard (it appears) throughout Japan, you get on at the back of the bus, and then pay on the way out at the driver's end. There is a signpost at each stop which lists the times of the buses, so you can work out when your number 50 bus is coming through. Sounds complicated, and the map looks horrendous, but it can be done!
    Anyway, our first destination was Kinkakuji - the famous Golden Pavilion. We got there by a combination of subway and then bus. It was a drizzly overcast day so I was expecting it to be a little dull, but it still managed to shine beautifully. The gardens were just awesome and the mist off the ponds around the pavilion gave it a really special atmosphere. We arrived at opening but it was still quite busy. I can't imagine how much busier it would get at peak tourist season.
    After the aforementioned hiccup on the buses, we made it to the Silver Pavilion. It is being renovated, so really it just looked like a bit of a shack, but the gardens were my favourite yet. They had a great stone garden.
    The Silver Pavilion is at one end of the famous "Path of Philosophy" which was our next destination. Not sure what to expect, it turned out to be a delightful walk down a small canal that is lined with cherry trees. We found a tiny art gallery along the way where we bought a couple of wood-cut prints (we try to always bring home some sort of art work from our travels) and went into a few other temples along the way. At the end of the path, we were limping and templed out so we caught the subway to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre (don't bother - it has the same stuff at higher prices) and then a bus heading closer to home.
    Dinner was interesting - the outside of the restaurant looked nice and the menu had pictures so we ventured in. On being seated we discovered the large grill plate that was our table. Hmmm, this should be interested. With the help of the pictures and an English menu, we chose a chicken stir-fry type dish which was placed onto the hot grill for us, and then a Kyoto pancake, topped with noodles, cabbage, beef, pork and cuttlefish. It continued cooking on our hotplate while we ate, and we covered it in sauce using a large paint-brush! We had to progressively strip off items of clothing as we got hotter and hotter from the hotplate - not a good look! For dessert we went Japanese - Green tea icecream, black sesame icecream and red beans. An acquired taste!
    Hobbling home we got lost trying to find our townhouse (all those little alleys look the same). Finding a small pharmacy, we hit the "I'm lost" button on my iPhone, and handed them the card the owner had given us with the address on it. Worked a treat and we were soon home again.
    We really enjoyed Kyoto, loving it's little pockets that wait to be discovered and would thoroughly recommend time spent here.

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    Day Twelve:
    Mt Koya
    Our final night was to be spent with the monks on Mt Koya.
    Planning our route here from Kyoto was the one that had stumped me the longest. It all seemed so complicated, with lots of different rail lines, subways and different available passes (like JR's Kansai Thru-pass vs the Nankai Railways Koyasan World Heritage Ticket). Our host at the townhouse had done some research for me also and provided a spectacularly complicated route for us to take. In the end (after probably quite a few hours of research both at home before we left and on the laptop in the townhouse) we decided that ease ruled over any potential savings so we just bought our tickets as we went along. A nice lady at the information desk at Kyoto station had provided us with a handout which showed us what we needed to do.
    We took the JR train to Osaka, and then changed to the JR Inner loop to Shinimamiya. There we bought our next ticket, to Gokurakubashi station on the Nankai railway system, and from here we caught the cable car up to Mount Koya (included in the ticket price, which I'm sorry I can't remember any of these prices but it didn't amount to all that much in the end, maybe around 2200Yen each). Our host dropped us off at the station which saved us quite a walk with our baggage and we had breakfast at the station before departing on this 3 hour-ish journey.
    It was an interesting ride - the train heading up into the mountains on a windy track. The cablecar ride was pretty steep too. From the cablecar station you have to catch a bus into town. The staff at the bus counter had great English and asked us where we were staying before telling us which bus and which stop we needed. We rode all the way to our temple lodgings and even though it was only midday, they let us check in. We were staying at Shojoshin-in, at the entrance to the cemetery, booked through Japanese Guest Houses, for 22,200 yen including dinner and breakfast. They are obviously very used to non-Japanese speakers as they had everything they needed to tell us printed out in English for us. There were instructions for bath times and protocols, when to be back for dinner and where to wait to be taken for dinner, and the details of the morning ceremony we were to attend. Our room was lovely, with cosy futons and a little table with a heated "skirt" to tuck your knees under (if you can sit like that). There was a gas heater in the room which kept us quite cosy when we were in there.
    After settling in we went exploring. First off we stopped at the information centre right near the cemetery and hired audioguides for the area (check out this useful website http://www.shukubo.jp/eng/index.html )for 500 yen each. We kept these until we left the next morning and they were excellent. Scattered throughout the Koyasan area are markers with the number for the audioguide on them - great idea.
    We followed our noses to Kongobuji, the Head Temple, and listened to our audioguides all through the complex. We bought the combination ticket that lets you get into six of the main sites in Koyasan so after leaving Kongobuji we visited another couple of places before heading back to our lodgings for another Japanese bath before dinner. This time there was just a smallish wooden tub which they reckoned would fit three people. I'm glad I was on my own because I think it would have been a tight squeeze.
    Dinner was served at 5.30 sharp. A phone rang in our room to inform us to head downstairs for dinner. We were met at the bottom of the stairs and shown into a room where all the people staying at the temple were to have dinner. Each couple or group was separated by a paper screen, but as the bloke next to us was a young Aussie, we moved ours so we could chat over dinner.
    The cuisine here is strictly no meat, fish, onion or garlic and was really quite tasty. We ate everything, enjoying most of it! On our way out we saw that the other non-Aussie groups seemed to have hardly touched their food. Seemed a shame.
    One of "the things to do" on Mt Koya is to visit the Okunoin cemetery at night. So, that's what we were going to do! I think dusk is probably the time to go, when there is still some light, but that is when we needed to be back at the temple for dinner so it was pitchblack and freezing cold when we got there. Undeterred, we rugged up and braved it, walking about halfway up the path before the lights seemed to get further and further apart and we really couldn't see much at all. We decided to turn back and started playing with my camera, opening the shutter up for 20 seconds at a time while DH danced around with his torch. The effect is a trail of light not apparently related to any person, and it quite freaked the kids out until we explained how we'd done it. The other cool thing we did was to find a statue, focus the camera on it, open the shutter for 10-15 seconds while DH "painted" the statue with light. It lights it right up and creates really interesting shadows.
    Anyway, while we'd been away, the staff at the temple had put some awesome hot water "bottles" in our beds. Made of plastic and quite large, they seemed to keep their heat for hours. It was really cosy under the covers, which was just as well since DH didn't want to leave the gas heater on overnight, and it was literally below freezing now!
    Great day behind us, we slept well.

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    Day Thirteen:
    Mt Koya, and the journey home.
    We set our alarm for early as we were to attend the morning Buddhist ceremony with the other guests and the monks. It started at 6.30am, with the monks kneeling in front of their altar, and the guests on a bench behind them. There was one gas heater burning, with an elderly monk sitting right beside it on one side, and the young Aussie from dinner towards the back of it. It was honestly absolutely freezing cold, and we had come down without jackets, so despite probably being in both of their personal spaces, I quietly sidled in to claim a small patch of the heater. DH wasn't so fortunate - he was over a metre from the heater and had a draft blowing straight down his back from a crack in the screens. Despite the discomfort, the ceremony was beautiful, with the monks chanting and playing symbols and gongs. All was still and I found it quite moving. The ceremony lasted about 30minutes and then we went straight through to breakfast. At 7.30, an hour after we had been in the ceremony, we noticed a thermometer inside the temple which read -3 degrees Celsius. It had probably been colder at 6.30!
    We went back to our room and packed, leaving our bags with the office while we explored the cemetery in the daytime. This area is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Japan, with the belief that the monk Kobo Daishi (who established the area around the year 800) is in eternal meditation in his mausoleum at the far end of the cemetery. We still had our audioguides so learned about some of the historic gravestones along the way. Closer to the mausoleum, photos are prohited. In front of his mausoleum is a temple staffed by helpful monks who seemed keen to tell us about the place. A family group were visiting and chanting their prayers at the temple which added immensely to the serene atmosphere. It really is an interesting place and well worth a visit.
    Leaving this area we wandered around town further, before sadly picking up our bags to make our way home.
    This journey involved the bus, cable car, train almost all the way back to Shinimamiya in Osaka, and finally the airport train to Kansai airport. We bought the rail ticket at the station at the bottom of the cablecar, again with my printed out instructions - so very handy!
    We arrived at the airport with several hours to spare so we found our way to a lounge where we were able to buy the use of a shower for 500 yen each. It was luxury (we hadn't been allowed to have another bath at the temple) and we stretched the experience out as long as we could, repacking our bags, putting away our down jackets and changing into clothes a little more suitable for the Gold Coast climate we were going to be landing in.
    It was an overnight flight, and remarkably we slept for around 7 hours. All that walking and cold must help you sleep!

    So, in summary, we had a great holiday in Japan and feel we have at least dipped our toes into some parts of Japanese culture. We visited some really diverse areas - from busy Tokyo to remote Iya Valley, and sacred Mt Koya. My preparation helped us have a smooth trip. I hope my report in some ways helps others to have a similarly smooth visit.

    I'm now off to the USA forum to start planning a three week adventure with the kids in an RV, this September (after we've all been to Melbourne for a week in April). Can you tell I love to travel?? I hope I find posters on the USA forum as helpful as the posters on this forum.

    Cheers all,
    J

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    I'm just amazed, boggled and so, so, so impressed with this feat of research, travel and adventure. This is an object lesson in how to do it, even down to the 'I'm lost' button on the I-phone. True 21st. Century travelers. Inspiring!

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    Great report - and you cartainly experienced a wide range of Japanese sites and culture in a short trip.

    Thanks especially for the tips on Koya san. I'll be going there this April so it won't be so cold for me, hopefully.

    I'm also a great fan of the airport shower - just the thing to freshen up before a long overnight flight.

    Have a gr4eat time planning for your US trip. As you know most of the posters on Fodors are from US and I now you will get heaps of helpful advise and have an awesome trip. You may find my US tr a help.

    http://www.fodors.com/community/united-states/another-ambitious-aussies-awsome-american-adventure.cfm

    I too am a great travel planner with a France 2011, a Vietnam and US trip in the pplanning. Meanwhile there's Japan April 2010 and believe it or not, Gold Coast in September.

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    Thanks very much drjem for your very insightful report. We will be going to Japan very soon so found it a very interesting read indeed. Loved hearing you were Australian too!!! Well Done.

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    drjem, please forgive me if I missed it in your trip report but was just wondering what you did for cash in Japan? Were you able to use your Australian ATM card anywhere. I understood you could withdraw cash from ATM machines in Seven Eleven Stores but had heard recently that that service was no longer available. We are heading to Japan in early April and are wondering what is the best way to deal with our day-to-day cash requirements. Any advice gratefully received.

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    Your Aussie ATM card should work at the ATMs at Post Offices and the Citibank ATMs also accept international cards.

    You can safely carry quite large amounts of cash with the usual sensible precautions and make use of credit cards - they often give a better exchange rate I'm told though that would depend on your bank.

    Try not to use travellers cheques. I've got an ichimanen travellers cheque that's been to Japan three times because it never seems to be convenient to cash it in.

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    Yes, hearing about the troubles with the 7-11 ATMs and mastercards, we actually took most of the cash we needed with us (about 240,000 yen) and used that almost exclusively. We withdrew cash on two occasions at a post office without problem, but it is limited to 10,000 yen only. Push the English guide and it is easy to use the ATMs. We only used our credit card a couple of times too.
    I agree it is safe to carry reasonably large amounts of cash.
    I may not have been looking too hard, but I actually don't remember seeing that many 7-11s either.
    Hope that helps.
    J

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    Thanks for such a detailed, helpful report. I'm starting to plan for a trip to Japan in the fall - I hope it will be a bit warmer at Koya-san - and followed your travels with interest. You are clearly a stellar planner!

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    I have really enjoyed reading this. It brought back all sorts of memories. And you are so enthusiastic and positive. Obviously had a great time.
    Thursday have you thought of staying in temples during your trip? Can be cold but the food is out of this world and it's a unique experience.

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    gertie - yes, I'm planning to stay overnight at Koya-san, at least. Hadn't thought about doing more temples than that - I'm a bit leery of too much veggie food, since I have borderline hypoglycemia and need regular protein intake - I know tofu is protein, but I'm used to animal protein as well.

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    Shojin-ryori is the name of the cooking done at the Buddhist Temple Ryokans of Koya-san. It was brought into Japan via China and Korea together with the introduction of Buddhism. There are pictures of the foods on the TA site if you are interested.

    Yes they do use tofu at temple stays but not in the state in which you are used to seeing it. Yuba is the main tofu dish that Mrs. HT just loves. I on the other hand like some yubas and not others. I guess it just depends on what they cook it with to me. I love the texture of it though.....
    I remember being told by someone that yuba was the staple of the temples in the old days Kyoto and Nikko and in fact only the monks of these two areas were permitted to make and eat it. Some yuba recipes date back centuries. Times have changed....

    Aloha!

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    Thanks for all of the detail. I will incorporate some of it into our impending trip. I also admit to using the enemy-Frommers.Fodors and Frommers have served us well throughout our travels.

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