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Trip Report Family Japan Trip August 2016

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Thank you to all the Fodorites who helped plan our trip! We had a wonderful time. Here is a detailed report to give back to the community and help other planners! I'll just omit the "in my opinion" - the whole trip report is my opinion - feel free to differ and do what is best for you!

Quick background: We are a California family of 5 who travel whenever we can. My teenaged kids (19,15,14) prefer educational touring of historic sites over Maui. We like to travel independently - organized bus tours are my idea of a nightmare. Yes, we like luxury but, so long as everything is clean, we are not picky people by nature. An easy group to please. No complainers.

1. The Itinerary

I had never been any where in Asia. My graduating senior picked Japan as a trip and the other kids gave it a strong second so off we went. Other than the country, the kids had no other input on what we did (by their choice). We started by reading Japan-Guide then asked a few questions on this site. I also like to look at expensive luxury tour itineraries to see the crowd pleasing destinations, keeping in mind some companies will choose an itinerary most profitable for them (eg outskirts of major cities sometimes have cheaper accommodations).

Here is what we settled on:

5 nights Tokyo. I think 3 nights could be sufficient but we fly in/out of this city so we need jet lag recoup time and we ended up doing an airfare/5 night hotel package so that's how it worked out.

1 night Hiroshima/1 night Miyajima. I agree with the sound advice frequently seen on Fodor's cautioning against itineraries like "1 night Rome, 1 night Paris, 1 night London" and you end up seeing nothing of a city BUT these locations are very close together and neither have that much to see (detailed below).

1 night Osaka. Another modern city like Tokyo but visited for the exclusive purpose of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.

5 nights Kyoto. Since we fly in/out of Tokyo, we headed to the furthest point first then ended in Kyoto which is just a 3 hour Shikansen train ride away from Tokyo. That way, we could just take the reliable trains to the airport in the morning vs burning a night in Tokyo the night before our departure.

That's 13 nights plus the night we lost en route = 14 night trip/13 nights in hotels. Based on the heat and the sheer volume of touring, 2 nights less would have been ideal for us - We are not big museum people though.

2. JR Pass

Pricey! $2100 for 5 people got us 2 weeks. In our case, no doubt it was a good value based on the amount of use. You will have to do your own calculations. Do factor in a small convenience cost. We just sailed past the gates. Plus, you see a live person at the gate. Every single time, I would either out of need, or just double checking, state our destination "Himeji" and get a number response telling me the platform. All markings can get you to any platform. Even though numerous exit gate, Shikansen directions signs and subway signs can be confusing, all platforms are numbered and, once you have the platform number, you are golden.

Note: When planning, think about how your itinerary fits in with a one or two week pass. We activated our pass on the first day and had a day to spare when we departed.

Added benefit: The pass did encourage more outings when we knew transportation was free.

Disappointment: There are no good local JR lines in Kyoto. Every time we stepped out the door, we had to buy subway tickets to travel two stops. At 290 yen per person each way, that's almost $30 a day for a family. $60 if you go out twice. Plus, although very easy to use, standing at the ticket machine and feeding money in a crowded subway when you are in a hurry to catch a train, gets old real quick. More under Kyoto.

Note: You have to buy the pass before departing the US. You will be issued a voucher that has to be made into a pass at a JR office. I think there is a JR office in every Tokyo station. We did it at the main station and it was quite crowded but the crowd control is amazing and they whisked us through in a jiffy. Passports needed. As the mom, I always hold the passports and JR passes. It was a bit of a hassle to hand them out every single time we entered and exited. Around day 8, I just fanned them out and said "five" and we were waived through, no problem. Out of approximately 50 uses, maybe 3 gate attendants actually looked at them and counted. When you redeem your vouchers, they show you a little use diagram directing you not to block the ticket gates and to pass on the far right or left (very easy to figure out).

Generally speaking, everything was easy to figure out even absent English.

Reserved seats: I think only the Narita Express is an all reserved train. Even then, the seats signs said to yield your seat to a reserved ticket holder so nonreserved passengers are contemplated and I doubt you would be kicked off. Our reserved tickets were never once checked.

When we did make reservations, we just popped into the office which was always on our way. Reserving seats is free with pass holders but it wasn't really necessary for us. Might be different during peak seasons.

We wanted to reserve the leg from Kyoto back to Tokyo to make sure we didn't miss our flight. We did this at the time we redeemed our vouchers. We frequently rode in the nonreserved cars, no problem. The platform is clearly marked where to stand for the first 1-5 cars nonreserved.

As for luggage, ANY sized suitcase easily fits on the luggage racks. I cannot imagine luggage ever being a problem in a Shikansen. If you can't lift it, there is enough leg room for a small elephant so I am sure you could just keep your suitcase with you. What's NOT COOL is showing up at the Shinjuku station during the commute with 5 suitcases. There are one million people going to work. If you must, you can crowd on and stand. We used our backpacks to pack 2 nights of stuff then paid $15 per suitcase to have them forwarded from our Tokyo hotel to our hotel in Osaka. The only local train we ever had to take luggage on was Osaka to Kyoto late at night. Not a big deal.

Fun Fact: We were seating back to back with our kids. A nice lady stepped on the big aisle release lever and spun the kids around to face us.

You must use Hyperdia to check routes, costs and times. It is really easy. It auto fills your stations if you can just get the first three letters correct. Then click advance search and de-select Nozomi trains in the one section and private lines on the bottom if you are using a JR Pass.

Another aside: We happen to have iPhone Ss from Sprint and, believe it or not, for $5 per month, they gave us unlimited calls, text and data in Japan - a country notorious for being incompatible with international calling. We didn't have to rent a device. Having two cells was nice for communication the few times we split up. Otherwise, every hotel has free internet. Do your train research the night before and screenshot all of your possible schedules. You can access those photos during your journey.

3. Tokyo

Our Groupon included RT nonstop air SFO to Tokyo, airport transfers, 5 nights Washington Shinjuku hotel and a city tour (the kind I don't care for!)

Very comfortable, easy flight. Old United plane. It didn't feel long at all. Unlimited drinks with alcohol. Two meals. A couple movies. My son and I actually never even left our seats! When I said, low maintenance, I wasn't kidding.

Greeted by woman with a sign with our name. Although I prefer public transportation in major cities, when arriving exhausted in a foreign place, I will sometimes splurge on a private transfer. She directed us to the counter 20' away. The counter issued the actual "Limo Bus" tickets and told us #6. Stop 6 for Shinjuku was right outside the door. VERY easy. Very efficient luggage loading. One hour ride into Tokyo.

I liked the view out the window. Shiny tiled rooftops. Clean. Green.

The Washington Shinjuku: Looked nicer on the website! Oddly, all hotel check-ins ran a bit long. Lookout families with small children, no adjoining rooms and not even a triple! My oldest son slept down the hall; my younger teens shared a room and my husband and I had a third room which was more like a shoebox. Very clean. Very efficient. Just small. We enjoyed all the amenities - especially the pajamas. Daily water bottle per person. It worked for us but what if our kids were real young?

They didn't even swipe a credit card because you can't charge anything.

The included breakfast buffet was very nice. Japanese and Western breakfasts are so polar opposite, the buffets are separated. No eggs though. The eggs were weird everywhere. I loved scrambled eggs and omelet but have an aversion to an uncooked yoke. The scrambled eggs were always runny - reconstituted perhaps? Most of the time, what was dubbed an omelet was like an egg sack with a runny material inside. The bacon wasn't bacon. I don't know what it was but it wasn't bacon. The kids had rice, miso soup, cereal and pastries. Delicious pastries and juices. Fantastic coffee. Coffee was available everywhere just don't even try for decaf at dinner - decaf doesn't exist.

Our buffet highlight was the "ju ju man". He visited us every morning and said something about juju. By day 3, we figured out juju meant 10 and he was warning us that it was 9:50 and the buffet was ending in 10 minutes.

Warning: Don't go to the American breakfast place - it's the same food but not a buffet. Go to the 25th floor.

The only other meal we had in the hotel was dinner one night at the upscale Manhatten restaurant. It was a disaster. My 15 year old couldn't even eat the pizza. It was truly awful and came out 30 minutes after the other entrees. The food spacing was sporadic in several restaurants. It was common for one family member to be done before others even arrived. The food was not very good.

Back to Tokyo:

Arrival night: We stayed up to acclimate. Grabbed yummy pizzas at Capriciossa in the hotel basement complex then walked across the street and toured the top of the Metropolitan Government Building - free observation deck. Fun gift shop. Pretty gardens. Good first night.

Day 1: Buffet. 8 am bus pickup for tour. That bus took 45 minutes to get us to the crazy busy central bus depot to meet the tour at 9. Boarded a nice Hato tour bus with a lovely, funny, informative guided named Nina. We went to the Tokyo Tower (grabbed ice cream cones before boarding the bus!), Ginza, Imperial Palace/Gardens, the Meiji shrine complex. She taught us how to buy a fortune for a 100 yen donation then get rid of the bad one. She also talked about culture and religion. I had an allergy attack and she walked me to a pharmacy and translated. I have no idea what pill I took but it worked and didn't make my heart race so it wasn't Sudafed. By the way, they offered many nasal sprays. I read somewhere that Japan outlawed nasal sprays???

On the medicine note: The other drug store items we needed (or wanted) were glycerin suppositories for my daughter. Pharmacies are not as prevalent as one would think. We found one by the train station. I sent my husband solo and he came back with hemorrhoid meds. Because he is a man and won't ask questions. Never found glycerin suppositories but the liquid glycerin was available and worked fine (labeled glycerin in English). The other item was a Kotex. We studied the packages forever and bought an odd pad but it did the job (about 14" long!)

The tour ended at the Tokyo station where we redeemed our pass vouchers then took the train to Shibuya. We were amazed at all the lights and glitz! We laughed crossing the street with thousands of other people. We found the statue of the dog Hachi by the train station (from the movie); found the quaint steps leading to Parco then had an authentic Japanese lunch in Parco department store. They gave us a private room with a buzzer to ring to call the waitstaff when wanted.

By the way, ordering by pointing always worked. I could even omit ingredients for my kids by saying "only" and pointing to the desired ingredients or saying "no" and pointing to the offending item. Once or twice a restaurant would not accommodate requests but we managed fine for the most part.

This rewarding stop in Shibuya is an example of the JR Pass benefit - I bet we would have gone straight back to Shinjuku without the pass.

Once back at Shinjuku we grabbed takeout dim sum and hot dogs at the train station as a late dinner/snack.

Day 2: Nikko. We wanted a long train ride to rest our feet and cool down. We narrowed down our outside Tokyo city excursions to Nikki, Kamakura or Hakone. We nixed Hakone - too far and poor visibility for Mt Fuji plus $750 for a guided tour. Nikko was my absolute favorite. Easy train ride to the nearby station then transfer to the local train (still JR). Upon arrival, it could not have been easier to figure out what to do: We bought a bus pass to Laken Chuzenji and Kegon Falls (same bus stop). Gorgeous drive! Tickets are sold right in the train station. Study the options on the ads on the train. We saw the falls, had an amazing lunch at a quaint cafe with the nicest waitress on Earth then skipped stones into the lake. Relaxing. Beautiful.

Took bus back down mountain and viewed the three main temples. Rain was threatening so we had to hustle. Took just under two hours. They were all absolutely amazing. I especially enjoyed the monkey carving depicting "Hear/see/speak no evil".

We took the bus back to the train station. Unfortunately, the train had to stop for lightening adding 45 minutes to the hour journey so we missed our reserved Shikansen seats back. No big deal. Plenty of nonreserved seats.

One problem: No other shrines or temples could wow us after Nikko!

Day 3: Ueno Park. The kids did vote to see the Giant Pandas (on lease from China!). We spent the morning at the zoo but it was crazy hot. Full sun (had been humid pppp and overcast before). Truly unbearable. Our sunscreen sweat into our eyes. Soaked with sweat. Took it slowly, drank a ton of water and purchased a parasol. Nice zoo. Very active polar bear! Not as small as advertized.

After, we all suddenly became museum afficionados and high tailed it to the National Museum where we sat for long periods of time admiring the national treasures in the air conditioned building. It was a lovely museum and we did enjoy it.

Ueno Park itself was not very impressive. We treated the kids to $18 cheeseburgers at the Hard Rock Cafe at Ueno Train station. I treated myself to some muddled blackberry vodka lemonade. We all perked back up and shopped/strolled in the Harajuku area. Kids got a kick out of the capsule hotel ads.

Day 4: This was supposed to be Kamakura but we had a different giant Buddha on our itinerary in Nara and were still a bit shrined out. I was also not bouncing back well from the heat. So... We spent the day on Odaiba ...

More to come (please excuse typos!)

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    Hi Jill,

    What a wonderful trip report. I'm so glad you enjoyed Japan.

    I can't believe how much you accomplished in one day in Nikko. Can you clarify the timing of what you did... ie what time you caught the JR train at Shinjuku, where you switched trains, how long it took for the bus to get to Lake Chuzenji and what time you took the JR train back to Shinjuku. Did you feel that 2 hours was enough time to see the shrine, or in retrospect did you wish you had more time there?

    I am asking because I am making my second trip to Japan in Nov., and although we did not visit Nikko on our first trip (We went to Hakone instead), I am going back to Tokyo on this trip specifically to go to the shrine in Nikko and to visit Kamakura.

    We are going in Nov. and there are fewer JR trains going to Nikko from Shinjuku because it is off season. I want to allocate my time once I arrive in Nikko so that I have ample time at the Toshugu shrine. Never having been there, I have no idea how big it is or how long it takes to see it

    I am looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    Hi Jill! Welcome back! You're reminding me that I need to get my thoughts in order about our trip. School started today, so that's been the priority for the last week. Can't wait to see what else you did!

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    Thanks for the replies Shelley and Amy.

    Shelley - we probably showed up at Shinjuku around 9 am. Made it to Nikko at 11, Kegon Falls and the lake by noon. Spent about 2 hours there and had lunch. Bus back was about 45 minutes putting us at the shrine complex around 3. Some rooms were closing at 4:30, many at 5. So, do the shrines first then allocate remaining time for other things. We just walked though them and didn't linger. I think two hours in the minimum. If you are planning an entire trip for this, I recommend a night in the Lake area to get a break from the city. For us, it was a break from the heat.

    There will always be trains to Nikko. No individual shrine took more than 45 minutes to stroll around. It's not the Vatican! Not much to do other than walk around and snap some photos.

    Day 4: Odaiba: Getting there was a bit of a hassle (about the same as Nikko!). Hyperdia indicated a direct train from Shinjuku but we couldn't seem to find it. The journey took 3 transfers and use of a non JR train - I didn't mind the cost but I was worried about where/when/how to buy tickets. It was easy - when we exited with our passes as usual, they just collected the supplemental fare. On the way back, we took the above ground train that went over the Rainbow Bridge which was fun - it was all lit up at night. That train entrance is right outside the Toyota showroom.

    So we just headed to the region with no game plan. The descriptions I read of the various points of interest lacked enough detail. We wandered into Joypolis. A bizarre indoor amusement park. My kids had been such champs in Nikko, I bought them the unlimited ride bracelet. My husband and I drank beer in the cafe while they experiences three stories of interesting rides and attractions including a panic room game where you have to solve a puzzle to get out. They loved it and didn't want to leave. So, my husband and over crossed the street to Venus Fort which is a huge, Vegas style shopping mall designed with European facades and ceilings painted to look like you are outside. We had a wonderful meal at an upscale Italian restaurant and shopped. The kids got hungry and joined us for food.

    Then, there was a weird pop up concert in the mall of a girl band that attracted a huge crowd that went wild. We enjoyed the experience. On the way in, you walk through an American auto history museum. Odd.

    On the way back, we happened upon Toyota. It was really cool seeing space aged cars! No entry fees. Just a huge public showroom. We walked around for 10 minutes. Glad we did. Just outside is a younger kid rec area with carnival type attractions.

    Turned out to be a great day! The kids were exhausted and did not want to go to dinner. I was 100% comfortable leaving them in the hotel. Everywhere we went felt very safe. I had seen a small yakitori place and was anxious to try grilled skewer meats. What a disaster! There was a line out the door. Once we made it in, we learned it was a smoke filled whole in the wall. Business people were smoking and drinking up a storm. Louder then a frat party, I'd say. Very uncomfortable setting. We couldn't even talk. To be safe, we ordered the most expensive items: chicken breast skewers and Kobe beef. The chicken was served raw! And the beef was literally all fat. The amount of acceptable fat marbling that we are accustomed to was the amount of meat marbling the fat. I couldn't even gnaw through the fat to get meat. The edamame was good! Oh well. $40 down the drain. No biggee.

    Day 5: Excited for the next leg. We had booked afternoon seats for the long journey to Hiroshima but then we realized it was August 6! The day the atomic bomb was dropped. There was a huge peace ceremony scheduled so we wanted to arrive earlier. We just wheeled our suitcases down and forwarded them to our Osaka hotel. Took 5 minutes. With just backpacks, we whizzed through brunch, had our last juju warning then went to the train station. They voided the later tickets and issued new ones - seats were a bit scattered but we didn't care.

    Hiroshima: How amazing! Oringally, we had allocated two hours to walk around considering the city was re-built after the war. But we happened upon a huge memorial service with dignitaries from around the world, religious ceremonies and, when the sun went down, the highlight of our trip: The kids got to write messages of peace on lanterns then light them and send them down the river with millions of candles. It was very special.

    We stayed at a Sheraton. Since it was one night, we piled into one bedroom with two (real) double beds and a sofa for my daughter. There was an excellent dinner buffet at half off for hotel guests. OK. My standards for excellent were low at that point.

    Loved this hotel - at the train station. Highly recommended.

    Having paid $24 for the bus ride to Peace Park the night before, I was ticked to learn the next day that our JR Pass works on red hop on and off buses. What a deal! These buses were right at the train station in front of the hotel! Our timing was fantastic.

    We rode to the Atomic Dome and starting looking at these binders available in various languages detailing the effects of the bomb. Little stools were provided. We were totally engrossed when a 72 year old Japanese man started adding details - turns out his mother is a survivor who was pregnant with him. We chatted for about half an hour. The kids got to ask questions of this historian and learn in a way they will never forget. THAT is the reason we travel. Very touching.

    After that, we just wanted to see the shrunken garden at the art museum. Definitely worth it. Unlike the public parks, this garden was a work of art worth seeing. We fed the turtles and koi.

    Satisfied, we packed up our backpacks and headed for the ferry to Miyajima. Very easy train ride to the ferry terminal. Quaint little town. We hit a 7 Eleven to grab more cash - that one charged a fee for some reason.

    The JR vs non JR ferries are clearly marked. Again, just show passes and board. Simple. Everything was simple. Just a 10 minute ride. So, thanks to Fodor advice, we went in on a ferry of 20 as ferries of hundreds of hot, exhausted, sun burned tourist came back ashore. We saw the gorgeous torii. The second you set foot on the island, you are greeted by tame wild deer. Divine messengers, I mean. A young buck with fuzzy antlers ate our map. We didn't need it but for purposes of his health, we wrestled the remaining portion back, despite some efforts on his point to ram us. Very funny.

    The kids were thrilled to see real American pancakes (plastic replicas) displayed Ina restaurant. We checked into our bargain, no frills ryokan then went on a walk.

    Very quaint island. It took 3 minutes to reach the ryokan. Our rooms had water views. Then 5 minutes to walk to the shrine complex. It was low tide so we were able to walk directly under and around the torii. The kids caught hundreds of hermit crabs. Very relaxing after the emotions of Hiroshima. It was sunset at that point and we went back on shore on the far side of the shrine and walked around the back of it. Amazing water waterways and old town pathways. We saw the shrine complex light up then strolled back to the hotel along the merchant street. Very fun. Tom got a beer out of a vending machine, mainly because you could.

    Back at the ryokan, I was surprisingly brave enough for the onsen because it was so casual there. I was grateful to see one Japanese woman already there with her young son so I could see what to do. The showering was obvious - where to see in the bath was not. Got it figured out, didn't feel overly self conscious and enjoyed it immensely. I put on my kimono pajamas and was ready for a great night sleep in my futon. Unfortunately, not enough padding for my hips. I'm a side sleeper. I felt fine in the morning but was a bit uncomfortable that night. I prefer western beds. Glad we had the experience though. The kids looked cute in their triple room next door with three futons in a row.

    The ryokan was called Sakura. I would recommend it. We booked on booking.com and paid cash on site. $395 for the two rooms. In the morning, I paid $5 for a perfect breakfast of coffee, a hard boiled egg (hey! there are real eggs in Japan!), fruit and the thickest piece of toast I have seen in my life. The kids got those pancakes for $5. Overall, the food was very inexpensive - at least the way we eat. After a buffet breakfast at 10, we would have "linner" at 4 and not be hungry again.

    Overall, Miyajima was a big hit and topped the kids list. We had no desire to go up the mountain for a view, and especially not a hike. We had the whole place to ourselves (and the deer) in the morning and loved the atmosphere.

    Day 8: Osaka

    The whole purpose of this was for Universal Studios Japan (USJ). I had booked two rooms on points at the stunning Marriott in downtown. BUT the train to the park the next morning would take an hour. So, we panicked and booked a cheesy hotel in Universal City. It was the Keihan and we paid $585 for 2 rooms. I really disliked the hotel. Check-in was a huge hassle. They gave the boys one double bed versus two singles and it was a huge argument to switch. They had to go to a different floor but ended up in a much nicer room.

    Aside from restaurants, there was not much that interested us at Universal City. The big draw was the JR train station takes you right there and the hotel was 50 yards from the entrance. Big factors when dealing with extreme heat (100 degrees, sunny and humid).

    We ate at THIFridays and the kids enjoyed their food. My martini came with bizarre pop rocks that kept fizzing and popping. We were ready for bed early but swung by the ticket booth first to buy tickets and ask questions. All highly recommended Express (front of the line) passes were sold out. I wasn't going to paid an extra $136 pp anyway.

    Opening time was 8:30 am. Each ticket was $72 I think. I felt more comfortable buying direct than dealing with the hotel. By the way, our luggage was waiting for us as promised, no problem.

    The next morning we had to pack then out our suitcases in lockers. No bell captain! Lockers were free though (100 Yen deposit). Mediocre buffet I bought with room (but only for 4 - my daughter walked in and had a croissant).

    We arrived at the entrance line at 7:45. They opened early!

    Based on an average wait time of 180 minutes per ride, we weren't surprised to see hoards of people running in. My kids were directly to run straight to the Harry Potter timed entry machines to get that nailed down then we could do Spider-Man. Disaster struck when the dispensers were closed and Harry Potter was open. Two kids ran for the line and one turned back. Four of us made it to the line then ,y husband had to go find the lost kid. So, three of us went on it twice. We are theme park junkies and I can say with authority that I was underwhelmed. Yes, we are fans. We have seen every movie and been to the studios in London.

    Unfortunately, my husband found the kid outside of the HP gates then controlled entry went into effect (I can explain more if anybody wants - just hit me up). So we couldn't reunite. I finally talked the staff into letting them in so we all went on the ride again. The only other ride in HP is a silly kiddy coaster. We had no interest in Butterbeer or the shops (having recently done all that at the studio) so we were well satisfied with HP by 8:30.

    Here's the trick: We just used the single rider line for everything. That way, we waited in line together for Spider-Man for 15 minutes. We were all on the same ride, just a few seats apart. Who cares! It's not like you talk during the ride and we were all together before and after.

    My daughter doesn't do scary rides and I don't do free falls so, after that, they guys did Jurasisic Park (water ride - one drop at the end) and The Flying Dinasaur - a roller coaster that you ride harnessed in on the back so you are "upside down in the Dinasaur talons". Tom said it was miserably uncomfortable trying to hold his head up and he is in super good shape.

    We happened upon a Disney style parade. We got ice cream. We did the Jaws ride - single rider was 5 minutes vs 60 and we sat together. The Express Passes were no quicker than single rider plus they are only good for a few attractions and mandate the time. Not worth it for us.

    We then saw Terminator. Our longest line at about 45 minutes.

    There really aren't many other rides other than the kiddy rides. We did not want to see backdraft or waterworld.

    The guys were hot and tired and decided to skip the Hollywood and space fantasy roller coaster. Without the heat and lines, I would have liked to ride Space Fantasy. So no big deal, we missed out on 1-2 things but did HP 3x and Spider-Man (my favorite) twice. There really was not much to this amusement park. My kids enjoyed Joypolis just as much.

    We left satisfied. And hot. And thirsty and ate at Wolfgang Pucks outside the park.

    We retrieved our suitcases then headed out for our final leg - Kyoto.

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    So sorry I never finished this. I typed up Kyoto but my screen refreshed and it was all lost. Unfortunately, my memory is now faded and I won't be able to provide the level of detail that I like to.

    Here is what I can remember at this point:

    The train from USJ to Kyoto required a couple of transfers that I didn't study. I asked my husband to be in charge of figuring out the way to our hotel. Mistake! So, we were with full luggage. As usual, a kind local showed us where to transfer and escorted us. Upon arrival in Kyoto, by JR we had to convert to their annoying local subway system and buy tickets. There is no getting around studying the maps and various lines. The Keihan line was closest and tickets were about $15 for two stops. We had to go up and down staircases for this. My son had to carry my suitcase on the stairs. Once we finally made it, we had no idea how to walk to our hotel.

    Turns out the addresses are the street and cross street combined. People helped us - our hotel was really an apartment building. Not well marked but we found it. The historic streets are narrow and extremely busy. Taxis are obnoxious and the streets are filled with equal parts cars, pedestrians and bicycles. At night, it felt dangerous.

    We liked our apartments though. I think it was called the Sakura - listed as a highly rated Ryokan on hotels.com. Nice to have a washer and dryer to launder some delicates and a few favorites. They dried overnight in the room. My kids had a triple apartment but the third bed was an uncomfortable couch for my daughter.

    We stayed three nights. The first day we went to the monkey reserve. The historic train that goes out there was fun. The entire town is worth seeing, although we skipped the shrines. We walked through the bamboo forest and had ice cream. Lovely day.

    I can no longer recall the street names but there are just a few major streets you need to know. One of the major ones runs to the river. At that point, it is a major 4 lane street; our hotel was on the same street but 2 miles down where it was narrow and winding - a more quaint area of shops and restaurants.

    One night when it cooled off, we walked to the river. On the way, we went through the huge covered market area. A few shops were open and the kids loved buying candy and chopsticks. It was a very nice walk. We found a huge touristy shopping area and then, once at the river, there is a little alley filled with the finest restaurants that overlook the river. We had an amazing dinner at one. I got a real, delicious steak. We left happy and had a nice stroll home.

    One day, we used our JR passes and went out to Himeji. It is a short walk to the castle but the heat had taken a cumulative toll on me. Upon arrival, I had to sit and eat and hydrate. The line for the castle was crazy long and it was crazy hot. The parasol I purchased was a life saver. The castle was definitely worth doing though as you get to climb up each floor. It is truly the most amazing castle in Japan and worth it.

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    From Kyoto, we also took the train to Nara. They offer free guides at the station but they were all gone by the time we arrived. It is a fairly long walk to the shrine complexes. There is a bus option that we exercised for the way back. The heat was not such a problem this time. Not because it wasn't miserably hot, it just didn't affect anyone badly that day. So, we saw another 5 story pagoda, a ton of deer and the huge golden Buddha. I can't remember his name but he was worth it. The other shrines were outshined by Nikko.

    We intentionally did outings outside of Kyoto because we like the historic sites, had free transportation and needed the long, air conditioned train rides to recoup.

    In Kyoto, we did visit the Imperial Palace. They no longer require an entrance pass. We didn't get a guide but one would have been useful. It was easy the get to on the train and easy to walk around.

    After three nights, we transferred to the Westin to stay on points and have a concierge. So, when we checked out of the ryokan, we brought our suitcases with us to the train station. The Westin has a bell captain there and they stored our bags all day while we toured Himeji. Upon our return, they transferred our bags to the hotel and we took the free shuttle to the Westin.

    We loved being in an American chain. Huge King bed for us. Our kids were right next door and, despite the two double beds, they set my daughter up with a full size heavenly roll away. My favorite picture is the 5 of us in our matching white pajamas on our huge bed.

    The draw back to the Westin is that you cannot walk to any restaurants. It's pretty isolated. We did not take advantage of its pool or any of the local walking areas. We were done waking.

    The free shuttle did take us to the area near the geisha district. We spent our last day shopping on a quaint street and wandering around the geisha area. We had a fancy lunch on the river then packed up for our journey home.

    At the time, I felt a little guilty for not spending our precious time there wisely but as I write this a few months later, we did plenty!

    Check out was simple. The shuttle took us to the train station where we had shikensens booked for the return. The train travel was smooth and very comfortable. We arrived at the airport at 2 pm for a 5 pm flight home. The kids wanted McDonalds in the airport.

    We boarded the plane pretty tired and slept most of the way. Jet lag coming home wasn't too bad.

    All in all, am amazing trip. Best surprise: Hiroshima, Nikko, onsen, the Buddha in Nara. Worse surprise: The food. I think I ate more Italian in Japan than I did in Italy.

    No regrets over the itinerary or hotel choices. The heat was an issue but there are trip reports were the cold or the rain or peak season crowds are an issue. With school aged kids, the options are limited.

    If I had to condense this all, I would omit USJ and do 3 nights Tokyo, 1 Hiroshima, 1 Miyajima, 3 Kyoto with a 1 week JR pass activating it on Day 2 Tokyo.

    Hope that helps!

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    What a great time, planned but willing to wing it with the kids. You have a great family-travel attitude. Too many people worry about doing all the "musts" and when you have kids, that's not what they always remember. When the kids are grown up, you can always go back for more!

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