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Trip Report Kansai & Kanto Nov 2012 - Koyo and Onsen

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PART ONE: TRIP PLANNING AND GETTING THERE!

So, my husband and I escaped to Japan for 6 days and here is a little trip report. We are in our 30s and this is our third trip to Japan. We find the culture delicious (literally and figuratively) and inspiring! I am adding details that I think a travel planner would find useful. We are not big sightseers.

Before we left, we consulted Lonely Planet Japan, Lonely Planet Tokyo, Rough Guide Japan, Time Out Tokyo, and Japan By Rail (2008). All except JBR checked out from the library : ) This forum was extremely helpful too (thanks especially to hawaiian traveler). JBR is a great book - and it has been recently updated - ours was from a previous trip and was pretty much useless. Get the newest book.

We ended up taking JBR and Lonely Planet Tokyo with us. The LP was published in September 2012 and was super accurate!

So, first the tickets. We are from Boston and wanted to fly direct on JAL. It ended up that the best fare we could find was through JTB-USA and was $1370 per person - and that was BOS-NRT-ITM. We did not mind as we have always wanted to check out Osaka (Japan's kitchen). For whatever reason, it was cheaper to fly to Osaka than to fly straight to Tokyo on that same flight. We had the option of flying straight from Tokyo to Boston on the way back but opted to take the AA flight instead so we could squeeze more time in Tokyo. We bought the tickets in the last week of September for a Nov 15-22 trip - had we waited a week, we would have benefitted from the fuel charges going down Oct 1. But, it is not a good idea to check prices after you book. I normally don't use travel agents but JTB-USA had the best price plus they were super friendly to boot. I also figured if we ran into any problems (AA was striking at the time) we could call them to help us out.

NOV 15: We left Boston at 11:50 on the JAL Dreamliner. Brand new plane, comfy comfy seats, great service. We fly cattle class and have no special status anywhere. Because we booked through JTBUSA, we could not even check in early online and try and get two seats together in a row of our own. The food was okay - nothing special. For what it is worth, it was not very Japanese. ANA has much better food but cattle class is much more cramped.

NOV 16: Arrived in Narita on schedule. It is not busy season so we breezed through customs and immigration. We had three hours to kill waiting for our connection to Osaka but made the mistake of heading to the domestic terminal right away. There is nothing to do there. Nothing. Just one tiny Blue Sky convenience store. No food (except a curry stand), no currency exchange, nothing. At least we had an IPAD and free wifi. But only one between the two of us. Again, if we were to do this again, we would have stayed in the international terminal a bit longer.

Flight to Osaka was fast and efficient - we arrived at 8 PM and were heading to ground transport with bags by 8:20. No currency exchange - Itami is a domestic airport. Plus, ground transport does not take credit cards there. So, we had to get money out of an ATM. Normally, this is not a problem as we use our Charles Schwab card (no fees, no currency fees) but it had expired right before our trip and we had not noticed so we paid something like $15 in fees to take out 20000 Y. Ugh.

It was an easy 25 min 600Y ride from Itami airport to Namba station in Osaka. Despite our limited Japanese, we were able to find the bus and purchase tickets. By 9 PM, an hour after our plane landed, we were in Namba.

Before we left, we had debated between staying in the heart of Osaka the first night or by the airport. Toyoko Inn has a brand new joint that is a 5 minute walk from Itami for 6900Y per night. On the other hand, in the past my husband has wanted to go out the minute he gets in to town and it was Friday night after all.

We ended up deciding to stay in the heart of Osaka in the famous Dotonburi Area. A few weeks in advance, we booked a room in the Dotonburi hotel for about 7600Y. As the website says "as a practical matter there is no cancellation fee." So we booked two nights, Nov 16 and Nov 18, knowing we would be staying at an onsen Nov 17.

The Dotonburi hotel is between seven and ten minutes from Namba station. You just walk up one of the main streets and turn left at the Yoshinoya. Then walk past the spa and there you are. They don't speak much English but check in was easy breezy beautiful and when they accidentally gave us a smoking room instead of the non-smoking one we had booked, the error was rectified immediately.

This hotel is substance over style. The room was only a tad bit larger than the double bed. The two of us could not fit in the bathroom at the same time (and we are skinny!). The tub is the weirdest thing I have ever seen - it is super deep but four feet wide. So, you can bathe your infant in it but that is about it. Luckily, you can take a shower. Initially, I was disappointed....but, once you get out of your room, this hotel is awesome. Price and location is excellent. Everyone gets a free five minute phone call anywhere in the world (honor system). Free wifi. Three computers with internet for guest use. Unlimited free coffee, tea, and water in the lounge. Graceful staff. Umbrellas to borrow. You can use the spa next door for 1000Y (50% discount), I would not recommend this for romance but for a clean place to lay your head, it was fabulous. We did not try the buffet breakfast or explore the hotel but it seems like a lot of thought went in to exceeding guest expectations.

My husband conked out but I took a walk around the surrounding area - which was very lively. Lots of neon. Lots of people were still dining in the izakayas (pubs) and bars in the area. Completely safe at 10 PM. Everything smelled delicious but I was too tired from our long trip to deal with negotiating in Japanese so I went to the Lawson convenience store across from the hotel and grabbed some onigiris (rice ball snack) and joined my snoring husband in the room.

Part II: Kobe, Arima Onsen, and Osaka,

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    PART II: Kobe, Arima Onsen, Osaka

    Thanks to jetlag, we were up and at 'em by 6 AM. Our plans were somewhat go with the flow with the only definite being that we had to go to our ryokan in Arima by 4 PM.

    It was rainy outside and we heard that Osaka was more fun at night than during the day, so we figured we would check out Kobe. We had a couple different options for getting to Arima onsen - by both bus or train we were looking at 2600Y roundtrip. We decided to splurge for the Kansai Thru Pass at 3800Y because we figured the convenience of not having to buy individual tickets would be worth a few extra yen. I am not sure we saved money by doing so, but we saved time, and when you are doing a short trip to Japan, time is money.

    We checked out of the Dotonburi but left most of our stuff there. We packed a tiny bag for the ryokan. On the way too the station, we ducked into a Royal Host restaurant from some bacon, eggs, and coffee. It was tasty but portions are small for the price so it might have been better to go with the hotel breakfast.

    Using our Kansai Thru pass, we took the Hanshin line to Kobe. The whole thing took about 45 minutes. On the train, we read our JBR book to figure out what to do. We thought maybe we would try to see Mount Rokko. Howeverm by the time we got to Kobe, it was POURING. Like, torrential downpour, monsoon type stuff. So, we got off at the Sannomiya station to check out the department stores because Mr. Usernameistaken wanted to get a suit.

    So, we wandered around for a bit and at around 11:30, stopped in one of the department stores for lunch - noodles. We got there at the perfect time because the place filled up by the time we ordered. After that, we headed to the Daiei department store and the Mr. found his suit! A beautiful, wool, non-iron, slim cut suit for 16800Y ($200). Plus, for 400Y, they tailor it for you there! Within 2 hours! Mr. was in heaven.

    Because of the rain, we had intended to head off to the onsen ASAP, but we had two hours to kill so we wandered around some more and tried to get some free wifi by buying a starbucks coffee. Wifi is not as easy to get in Japan as it is in the US. We bought our coffee and sat down but it turned out that you need to register from a computer with internet before you can use the wifi at a Japanese Starbucks. So, before you go to Japan, go to this website and get yourself an account. http://starbucks.wi2.co.jp/pc/menu2_en.html
    Starbucks is genius - for the wifi, we visited the evil empire at least once a day. At least the coffee is good.

    So, by 2 PM, we had picked up the Mr.'s suit and hopped on the train to Arima Onsen. We were a bit sad we did not get to experience Kobe except for the Sannomiya station and department stores, but there are worse places to kill four rainy hours.

    The trip to Arima onsen was quick and uneventful. When we arrived, we telephoned our ryokan, Toshen Goshobo, and within ten minutes, a London arrived to whisk us to the onsen. It was still raining.

    Toshen Goshobo is a really neat place. It is a luxurious ryokan and a lot more expensive than what we normally go for, but we had been seduced by the praise given to it by choosynomad (not affiliated) on his website and figured it would be a worthwhile splurge.

    We booked by contacting the inn directly http://goshoboh.com/en/
    Prices were sky high because it was a high season (due to the koyo - autumn leaves) plus it was a Saturday. But we did not know when we would be back in Japan so we decided to go for it. We negotiated the cheapest room and dinner only (no breakfast) - at 18000Y + 6500Y per person - thereby saving about 6000Y. Looking back, I would have taken the breakfast. The experience was that wonderful.

    So, the London Cab collects you at the station and you bounce up the road for about five minutes. It is a charming old town with lots of stores and hotels and onsen. Even though it was rainy, you could enjoy the delicate Japanese maples with their elegant leaves ranging from canary yellow to pumpkin orange to fire red. Once we arrived at the inn, we were swarmed by staffed welcoming us and taking our shoes.

    A ryokan has existed at the site for something like 1200 years but in the early 1900s it had been renovated by its owners to provide an onsen experience for expats living in Kobe. So now it is a delicious mix of Japanese and western style - a library, tables and chairs, and even a jazz bar! Our room had to be about four times the size of our hotel room in Osaka and had a magnificent view of the koyo. It had a separate bathroom and toilet.

    We relaxed for about ten minutes and then headed straight to the onsen. There are two onsen here - one that can be used by all guests and one that has to be booked for an additional 2500Y. The general onsen has the famous golden waters of Arima. The onsen is divided so that men are separated from women but you can still talk if you want. The water was hot hot hot and the minerals burned a little but it was so relaxing that I went three times during my stay there.

    Goshobo is interesting because the rooms are very traditional Japanese but the common areas are quite Western. It is a nice mix and you can really enjoy the scenery of the surrounding areas by peeking out of the windows.
    Before dinner, we had cocktails in the library - complete with a piano and lots of interesting English books.

    Then, although most guests dine in the restaurant KAN, we were served dinner in the library, at a Western-style table and chairs. Another group also ate there so I don't think we were put there because we were not Japanese.

    Dinner was exquisite. It was served kaiseki style and very seasonal - Goshobo has relationships with local farmers so the ingredients are top notch. You can choose wagyu beef for an additional 3000Y - we did not. We were served sashimi, a potato dumpling in an elegant sauce, steamed vegetables with miso sauce and an orange sauce, main course (three types of fish for me, beef and vegetables for him), miso soup, rice, pickles, and a dessert course with fruit and mousse. It was not as big as the dinners we usually receive in ryokans but the quality of the ingredients and presentation was superior to the already excellent standards at most moderately priced ryokan - similar to a tasting menu at a fancy American restaurant. We drank sake and beer - the list is all Japanese and the waiter knew very little English - but we were able to find affordable options to complement our meal.

    The next morning, we dipped ourselves in the onsen, had some complementary coffee in the library and admired the leaves and scenery, dipped in the onsen again, and checked out.

    Goshobo gives you lots of little coupons so you can enjoy the shops and restaurants in the town. We chose not to because we had limited time but it is a nice perk. We got on the train back towards Kobe and debated about heading to Kyoto to check out the koyo there or heading to Osaka, where we had never been. Osaka won, because it was a gorgeous day.

    We arrived in Osaka around 12. By then we were famished since we had skipped the onsen breakfast. We stopped at an udon joint to try a local specialty, kitsune udon (udon with fried tofu). I ordered the hot noodle bowl while the Mr. ordered a plate in which you make your own broth using yuzu, daikon, and soy sauce. Udon in Osaka comes in a spicy lemony broth which needs no additional seasoning.

    Next, we hit a starbucks to plot the rest of our day. We decided we would stay at the airport hotel because we had a 7 AM flight to Toyo the next day plus we would save 600 yen if we used our Kansai Thru pass to the airport that night. We cancelled our Dotonburi reservation and made one for the airport Toyoko Inn.

    The Mr. does not like to be put on a schedule, so we hit the Sansaibashi area in Osaka and ducked into random shops and watched the locals enjoying a glorious, 60 degree, sunny, dry Sunday. We enjoyed it ourselves.

    Osaka, in my opinion, is underrated. Maybe we scored perfect weather, but it is clean, bright, and well-organized. It is a city of the future. It is also known as Japan's kitchen and it smells amazing. The people are friendly and seem relaxed and easygoing. We liked it much more than we thought we would. Kyoto is amazing but since we had been there twice and will probably go there again it was good we decided to see Osaka. Had we been more organized we would have checked out the castle but with our limited budget and time, people-watching was more than adequate.

    When it came time for dinner, we headed to the Dotonburi arcade which is jam-packed. The smells were amazing but we were too tired/intimidated to try one of the places out so we chickened out, collected our bags from Dotonbur Hotel, and headed to the Namba station.

    When we got to the station, we asked a local where we should go in broken Japanese and she signalled with her thumbs that downstairs was bad and upstairs was good. So we went upstairs and had dinner at a kaiten sushi joint. We dined, drank (beer and 180 mL sake) and had dessert for 2000Y. Who says Japan is expensive?

    After that, we took the subway to the airport using our Kansai Thru passes. The Toyoko Inn website said it was a five minute walk from the airport so we got off at the airport station. Indeed, things were looking good because we could see the Toyoko Inn from the airport. Upon further examination, however, it appeared that there was no way to cross the highway between the airport and the inn. Using broken Japanese, we gleaned from a parking attendant that we had to walk around to get there. It would have been a five minute walk except that is was pitch dark and we ended up getting lost many times. When we finally got in, we learned that the last shuttle leaves the airport station at 9:30. Had we known that earlier, we would have planned differently.

    The Toyoko was cheap and fine. We booked a double and the bed is tiny. They serve breakfast but we missed it because we took the 6 AM shuttle. Free wifi and coffee/tea in the lobby. Good value for anyone taking an early morning flight out of Itami.

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    I should add that the Kansai Thru pass takes you around the region on non-JR lines - so no shinkansen. So if you know what you are doing, you can really exploit it but a regular JR pass will be faster if you want to really zip around on it. For us, it was more about the convenience than the money saving.

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    So glad to read you liked Osaka. We love it there and can't believe the dislike for it on this forum. People there are friendly, the city clean and stylish, the entertainment venues first class and the variety and quality of the foods on offer in Osaka have yet to be surpassed in all of our trips to and around Japan.

    My guess from what you described about your deep tub in Doutombori is that the Japanese love to use the tub as a furo and soak in it in very hot water standing up because of the lack of space and someones past ingenious invention of the stand up furo.....only my guess from your writing ;)

    Anxiously awaiting more.

    Aloha!

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    Part III Tokyo Day 1. This got very long, and I am afraid I am not a very engaging writer, but I am not sure what to cut and hope that some of the info is helpful for those thinking to go to Japan.

    So, we rose at 5:30, were on the shuttle bus to Itami by 6:15, and were at Itami at 6:22. They began boarding our 7:30 flight at 7:15. By 8:45 we were on the ground at Haneda. Travel in Japan is so seamless and painless. Why can’t it be like this at home?

    We had decided to get a one-day subway pass for Monday and a JR Kanto 3-day pass to use on Tues, Wed, and Thurs. The JR Kanto pass is new, I guess, as no one at the domestic terminal knew what it was but they asked around and sent us to the international terminal. There, the JR office was closed (it does not open until 11 AM).

    So, we bought a monorail ticket to get into town and then a one-day Tokyo metro pass for 600Y at the airport. In hindsight, it would have been better to get a combo pass for Monday or a two-day Metro pass for 980Y as the pass we got covered only the Tokyo Metro (and not the Toei or JR lines). The combo pass would have covered the Tokyo and Toei lines. To travel efficiently around Tokyo you need the ability to get on two of the three lines (Tokyo Metro, Toei, JR). The other alternative would have been to load a Suica card with cash and do a pay-per-ride but we had left ours from a previous trip at home and did not want to fork over another deposit.

    Had we not planned a short trip to Gunma, we would have skipped the JR Kanto pass. The best way to get to and from Narita now is the Keisei skyliner (it is cheaper and faster than the N’EX). But since our train tickets to and from Gunma would total 12000Y, the 3-day JR Kanto pass at 8000Y was a good deal – especially since it would cover our trip to Narita as well as travel around Tokyo on Tuesday and Wednesday on the JR lines.

    We had booked the Hotel Niwa in Idiabashi on hotels.com for $300 US for two nights. I had had my heart set on staying at the new Tokyo Station Hotel but the $450 per night price tag was just too steep for us. I had also stalked the Hotel Seiyo Ginza but the price was similar to the TSH. Hotel Niwa has great reviews but I was concerned with the location – it is a bit far our out, near the Tokyo Dome.

    I shouldn’t have worried. The JR Suidobashi station was a five minute walk from the hotel. Because we only had the Tokyo Metro pass, we had to buy a ticket from Hammamatsucho station to Suidobashi (changing at Akhihabara) which was kind of a pain, because the Tokyo Metro does not stop at Suidobashi. So, if you stay at this hotel, it is best to use the JR Yamanote & Chuo lines and the Toei subway lines. Tokyo Station is not too far on the JR Chuo line (three stops but you need to change). You can take the Tokyo metro to Jinbocho station but it is not as convenient. Luckily for us, we had great weather in Tokyo so the walk was not so bad.

    Hotel Niwa was exquisite. A lot of midrange hotels in Japan lack character – you lose a sense of place because the hotels could easily be transplanted to any other city in the world. Hotel Niwa incorporates Japanese elements into its design. The entry way looks like a bamboo grove and there are screens on the windows in the guestrooms. At check in, we were offered to upgrade for 3000y per night – guess the days of free upgrades are gone - the clerk told us the standard room was very small and we would be more comfortable in a superior room and that there would be a “view.” Way to sell your place. But we were tired and had spent a night tripping over each other in a Toyoko so we were easy targets. The room was not all that big and the view was basically some buildings and a forklift but the room was very comfortable, the bed heavenly, and the huge, deep, soaking bathtub very welcoming.

    Anyway, since our pass only worked for the Tokyo Metro on Monday, and we are cheap, we walked ten minutes to the Jinbocho station to get out of the area. It is a university area and not terribly charming (though it smells wonderful thanks to all the eating places) but it is calm and gives one a peek into ordinary life in Tokyo.

    We were starving and the Mr. loves tonkatsu so we headed out towards Harajuku to try Maisen. It was not that hard to find – the Lonely Planet Tokyo book has decent maps plus it tells you which station exit to get out of. Plus there were signs! It was 11:30 and jampacked – but we got a table. I tried the cheapest cut of pork and the Mr. got the kurobota so we could taste the difference between the two. The kurobota was buttery and melt-in-your mouth but overwhelmed after a first few bites so we were glad to have the leaner cut to try as well. The atmosphere reminded me of another era – like a French tea room – with career waitresses in shirtdresses and brisk, efficient service. In spirit, it reminded me of Angelina in Paris or the Casa de los Azulejos in Mexico City – and am so glad we took the time to go there. They also sell tonkatsu sandwiches to go.

    During the rest of the afternoon, we explored Aoyama– known for its interior design, and Harajuku. It was Monday afternoon and it was busy but not too crowded. We stopped at a Uniqlo where I bought some jeans – which were hemmed, for free, in an hour. While we waited, we wandered into a Shinto shrine and garden and enjoyed the tranquility. Who says Japan is expensive?

    We headed back to the Niwa, bathed, changed, and then hit Asakusa. We do that every trip on our first night in Tokyo. We had planned to try an old onsen there but we could not find it. So, we headed to Ginza for the lights and people-watching. We ducked in and out of the shops (Takashimaya, etc) and admired the Christmas decorations and merchandise in general. For a bunch of Buddhists and Shintos, the Japanese really get a kick out of Christmas Japanese shops are like modern-day museums – the products, the packaging, the displays.

    At around 9, we figured we should have dinner. Ginza is full of buildings that each contain five or six restaurants – one on each floor – and we surmised that since the menus were not available on the street level, the joints were frequented more by locals and therefore must be pretty good.

    We picked a sushi one at random (it is in the same building as the Lonely-Planet recommended Indian restaurant Nataraj). There was a sign on the door that said “We don’t have noodles” and that everyone must order a set. It was late on a Monday night and there were only four diners left so we felt a little awkward but the waitress welcomed us in warmly. We decided to make it worth their while at least while not keeping them too late (we are both restaurant industry veterans) and we split the premium set menu (3950Y) with 11 nigiri and two gunkan, miso soup, and dessert. The staff was kind enough to give us both miso soup and dessert even though we ordered just one set menu. The nigiri were a revelation – tuna, salmon, aji, ikura, clam, whitefish, raw shrimp, torched shrimp, uni (sea urchin), scallop. Seafood like this is something you can only find in Japan – cold, clean waters produces firm and buttery fish (they need fat to stay warm) – and rice perfect – sticky but not gummy, a perfect supporting player to the fish.

    At that point it was about ten p.m., so we headed back. A few years ago, we would have stayed out as long as possible but we are in our mid-30s now with a toddler (who we left at home!) so we figured we would be sensible and call it a night. On our way back to Niwa from Jinbocho, however, the lure of the myriad bars and izakayas lining the way proved too much, and we decided to get a drink. We poked our head into one that looked lively but all the seats at the bar appeared taken so we moved on. The waiter/bartender poked his head out the door and motioned for us to come in. So in we went.

    The bar/izakaya/whatever it was consisted of one wooden bar with ten seats. Two chefs/bartender were parked in the bar. To our left was a couple in their 50s, to the right a couple in their thirties, and next to them, three college girls sucking down Beaujolais nouveau. I ordered sake and the Mr. a beer and everyone turned around to ask us where we were from, how we found this bar, and to advise us on what to eat. The speciality of the bar was takoyaki – octopus balls – something we should have tried in Osaka but were too intimidated to do so. So we went for that, as well as some marinated sardines and something called a yaki onigiri (ended up being a grilled rice ball). Everything, as usual, was sublime and perfect and the company couldn’t be better. We ended up hanging out until 12:30 AM with our neighbors to the right, comparing notes on the different places we had seen in Japan. Somehow sake kept flowing. At the end, one of the patrons put his arm around us and congratulated us for finding ourselves “deep in the soul of Tokyo.”

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    I forgot to add - at Maisen -look st the Japanese menuas well as the English menu. The English menu does not offer some of the more affordable options. We ended up getting the kurobota at 2950Y as well as the cheapest one at 800Y. But we would not have seen any tonkatsu for less that 1400Y had we consulted only the English menu!

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    you've got to drop that inhibition and just walk in and sit right down. ;)
    I know what you mean though.....it took me a few trips before I was able to do this with any level of comfort, now however.....

    the amount of detail in a trip report is never too much. this is perfect.

    the comfort inn hotels throughout japan we find a little larger than the toyoko inns and the likes.

    you should always order a twin room when you are two people and staying in a "business style hotel" in japan as they are a tad bigger with a little more room to move and two beds....not much bigger though, but at least you'll have your own bed and not scrunched onto a double(we never fit)and won't trip over each other(well maybe lol).

    never forget your suica card....don't leave home(or your hotel room) without it :)

    more more

    Aloha!

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    Part IV: Tokyo Day 2

    Tues Nov 20.

    As soon as we woke up, we headed straight to the JR station to get a JR Kanto pass to get around Tokyo and to take a short trip to Minakami in Gunma prefecture. With better planning, we would have already had the pass, but we weren't in the mood to deal with Tokyo Station the day before.

    The JR Kanto pass is an 80000Y three day pass that you can buy in Japan as long as you have a foreign passport. In that sense, you don’t have to commit to it until you are there and have flexibility to change your mind. It was recently introduced and perhaps for that reason a lot of JR staff don’t know anything about it. As we mentioned previously, the airport staff at Haneda had not heard of it.

    The Kanto pass covers the N'Ex train to Narita airport (in 2008 when we used the JR national pass, the N'Ex wasn't covered). It is a really good deal if you plan to take short trips to and from Tokyo - it covers shinkansen rides too. But it is not necessarily the best way to get to and from Narita as the Keisei Skyliner is faster (41 minutes vs. 53) and more frequent.
    We arrived at Tokyo Station around 8 AM and were sent to four different JR offices by JR staff before we found the one where it is available (it is by the Marounuchi South Exit I believe).

    Once we got the right office, getting the pass was a cinch. The JR staff also made the three seat reservations that we needed (round-trip to Gunma and a N’Ex reservation for our trip to Narita airport).

    For what it is worth, I don’t recommend relying solely on a JR pass to get around Tokyo unless you don’t need to cover much ground in one day and have no time pressures. The Yamanote (circle) line can be pretty slow (the train is not slow but it can take a while to ride the circle from one area to another) and the Chuo line (which is actually a good line that cuts through the Yamanote line) is hard to figure out.

    It turned out that the JR pass was not terrible for us since we had no set plans and we later discovered that we could use the JR Chuo line to quickly get from Shinjuku (our last stop of the day) back to Suidobashi (where our hotel was located) pretty quickly. However, I think it would have been better if we had used the Tokyo metro or the Toei lines (with a pass of a Suica card) – otherwise you waste a lot of time trying to get around. It is not easy to zip from place to place in Tokyo using the JR pass.

    Anyway, by the time we got our pass it was 9 AM. Next, we explored the newly refurbished Tokyo Station. It’s magnificient – especially on a bright sunny day. We checked out the lobby of the Tokyo Station Hotel and admired the posters advertising Tokyo’s campaign to secure the 2020 Olympics (if they get it we are so there). We wandered around the buildings and green spaces of the Marounuchi district and the Tokyo International Forum and headed down Sotobori-dori towards Ginza.

    First stop was cafe Ginza Miyukikan – the Japanese interpretation of a classic French bistro.
    http://cafe-ginza-miyukikan.com/
    The interior is French-inspired (velvets, knickknacks, and wooden antique furniture) but the energy is pure Japanese – bright and efficient). They have a simple set menu for 735Y that included coffee and eggs, bacon, and toast. There are also pastries galore.

    We both chose the set menu. The coffee was strong and came in real china and the toast a revelation – it looked like thick “Texas” toast but was actually light as air. Our table was in front of a busy Ginza street (Sotoboridori). So, while we ate, we watched Japanese commuters head to work – some expertly applying makeup while crossing the street others focused on their smartphones. In particular, we admired their commuting styles - trim suits and trenches. There was a definite chill in the air but nobody looked cold - perhaps UNIQLO heattech is the national uniform.

    The rest of the day we just wandered around our favorite Tokyo neighborhoods – admiring the people and the architecture. Around 1, we were in Harajuku and tried to find a restaurant that was very highly recommended by the Lonely Planet for affordable and inventive kaiseki dining – Agaru Sagaru Nishi-Iru Higashi-Iru right off of Jingumae – and had to enlist the help of the Beams sales staff to find it. It looks like a cave. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was 2 PM and lunch was over. Oh well, next time.

    So, we resorted to our fallback routine (go where the people are) and landed in a busy tempura & noodle restaurant a few doors down from the Beams. I ordered the cold soba and the Mr. the hot. The hot soba broth was the lighter, lemony broth that you normally find in Osaka and was so good that I ended up ordering a bowl for myself after I finished the cold soba. The tempura was fresh and light and crisp and crunchy.

    After some more wandering, we found ourselves in the forest/park surrounding the Meiji-Jingu shrine (right behind the Harajuku station). http://www.meijijingu.or.jp/english/map/1.html
    I have never seen anything like it smack-dab in the middle of a major metropolis. The trees really block out everything. It’s a great place to recharge.

    Later we went to Shinjuku to run some errands and met a friend for dinner at Washoko-en in the Tokyo Dome City Complex. http://www.wasyoku-en.com/index.php We met our friend in 2008 during our first trip to Japan and make a point to see her on every return visit. She chose this restaurant after consulting a Tokyo food website. It is a modern Japanese restaurant with fresh, seasonal food and amazing views. Our friend did all the ordering so we had sashimi, asparagus with miso mayonnaise, steamed vegetables with dipping sauce, cold soba, melt-in-your mouth simmered fish, charcoal grilled pork with yuzu kosho, and ended with hojicha. I am not sure if they have an English menu but if you are looking for inventive tapas style dining you won't go wrong here. WThe staff recommended three different 180 mL sake pours for the different dishes and they were all delicious. It's right by the Suidobashi JR station so it was really convenient to the Hotel Niwa.

    The day ended with a long soak in the Niwa's glorious deep bathtub.

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    Wed Nov 21& 22: Arima Onsen and going home….

    The night before, Tuesday at 10 PM, we had inquired about using a luggage delivery service to transport our luggage from the hotel on Wednesday morning so it would be at Narita in time for our 6:45 PM flight on Thursday. Alas, we were too late. The cutoff for Thursday was Tuesday at 3 PM.

    So, on Wednesday morning, after checking out of the sublime Niwa, we took our two bags and deposited them in the coin lockers at Tokyo Station. It would have been too much of a pain to leave them at the Niwa and come back for them on Thursday – although the Niwa is not far from Tokyo station we did not want to waste any time. Cost of the lockers from Wednesday at 10 AM to Thursday at 3 PM ended up being 1600Y.

    Our train departed at around 12:30 so stopped at a café for coffee and a piece of cream cake. Then we headed to Ueno park because it was only a few stops away on the JR line. It was tranquil compared to the madness of Tokyo Station in the morning and we were able to admire the fall colors (although a week or two earlier would have been much better). It was brisk and pleasant but not a very relaxed outing as we had to head back to the station to catch our train.

    We got to the station at 11;30 and headed straight to the GranSta restaurant complex below to try and get some lunch. Lines were unbelievable but seemed to be moving fast. The shortest line seemed to be noodles so we jumped in to that one. We were seated by 11:45 and served by 11:55. Our train was at 12:24 so we had to lunch like the Japanese – FAST! – which I am sure everyone appreciated since the line waiting to get in just kept growing and growing.

    Our route to Minakami involved the Asama shinkansen to Takasaki and then a local train to Minakami. The shinkansen had been decorated with cartoon scenes of the koyo as well as snow covered cartoon monkeys. The Japanese celebrate the seasons with such enthusiasm. The shinkansen looked brand-new and super comfortable. After about 45 minutes, we transferred to a JR local train to Minakami. This was more of a commuter train – with lots of students and elderly people. The views on both trains were simply stupendous.

    We arrived at Minakami station at 2:39 PM and immediately boarded a van from the ryokan filled with that night’s guests. The van was free but we had to reserve a seat in advance by emailing the innkeepers. The ride was about 40 minutes through serene and colorful mountains.

    Our destination was Takaragawa Onsen and Ryokan Osenkaku. http://www.takaragawa.com/english.html
    On a previous trip I had remembered reading that Gunma prefecture was an excellent place to onsen (we have made it a verb) but couldn’t find the book so I looked here http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/destinations/gunma/index.html
    I would have loved to explore the region a little more but the Mr. does not enjoy zooming from place to place so I compromised. Osenkaku was the easiest place to get to and book so I went with that – the idea being to just completely relax there. Their website is very user friendly and offers many options – the old building (annex) at 10000Y per person per night) and the main and east buildings at 13000Y-14000Y per night. All prices included dinner and breakfast.

    Osenkaku is a very rustic and traditional ryokan but they have made it very easy for foreigners to book and enjoy an experience there. As soon as we arrived, everyone’s shoes were whisked away and everyone congregated in the main dining hall to enjoy a cup of steaming hot consommé. Staff greeted each guest and gave them instructions on how to enjoy the onsen, noting that “you can go to the onsen at anytime, even at midnight!” Staff inquired about dining preferences – i.e., whether we would like to try bear soup for dinner or whether we wanted a western or Japanese breakfast. We declined the bear soup.

    We were given a short tour of the ryokan, which sits alongside a river. As we noted later, you can hear the sounds of the river from every part of the ryokan. The rooms are very well heated but the hallways and common areas are very cold. The main building and east building are close to the public bath and dining halls whereas the Annex, wehere we were staying, was closer to the onsen. They had a small gift shop selling local sweets as well as a “karaoke” room. They also have a small family of bears on the property – unfortunately they are caged.

    Our room, “Matsu,” on the third floor of the Annex building was very simple – no frills – but large and homey. It reminded me of our friend’s vacation cottage in the sea of Japan. It contained a sleeping room and a separate sitting room with views of the river and the onsen. Staff who showed us the room told us this room had the best view and that we were very lucky. So, if you choose the Annex option, I might ask for “Matsu.” The room had a sink and a fridge but the toilet was down the hall. As for bath – there was a public bath in the main building. It was cold when we entered but heated up quickly.

    The onsen was across a bridge and up a hill rom the Annex building. It was cold outside so I wore thermal underwear under my yukata for the five minute walk. The scenery was glorious – fall colors of red, yellow, and orange – although many of the leaves had withered. There were four onsen – three mixed bathing and one women only. The changing room was heated (thank God!) and there were no English instructions so we just followed what the others were doing. Unlike many other ryokan, no one washed themselvesfirst – just strip and dip! Women wrapped themselves in towels and men covered their private parts. Everyone was quiet so you could hear the river rushing by as you soaked. Stone statutes of deities and animals decorated the area and the elegant leaves of the Japanese maples floated in the onsen. The experience was sublime – very natural - and we stayed there until the sun went down.

    We trudged back into the main building and towards the public bath. We had chosen a later dinnertime so the public bath was empty when I got there – which was good because there were only five or six seats and one little soaking pool.

    After bath, came dinner – which was conveniently right next to the public bath. It included – sashimi, charcoal grilled river fish, mushrooms, and vegetables, with miso dipping sauce, simmered white fish in a brown sauce, miso soup, rice, pickles. The miso soup here was thicker and more substantial than in other parts of Japan and the rice was flavored. The barbeque is the specialty and they do it very well. Dessert was simply a peeled pear and two grapes.
    Dinner here was, as my husband described it, “hardcore.” We had to figure a lot of things out by watching other people – luckily, we had been in similar situations before and weren’t really worried about making fools of ourselves. One western couple in the room got up immediately without eating – this setup can definitely be overwhelming to the uninitiated. If you are in this situation, I recommend taking your time, looking around, and going with the flow. While everything looks “strange,” the flavors are not very strong, and while it seems like there is an endless amount of food, you can eat it all without getting stuffed or feeling uncomfortable.

    We retired early so that we could hit the onsen in the morning and watch the sun rise. We weren’t alone! Next came breakfast. We noticed that a lot of the young Japanese chose the western breakfast and that most western couples chose one of each with the men invariable going western. Both breakfasts included fruit, salad, and a “cook your own egg” – the western one had sausage, bread, and coffee while the Japanese one had salmon, natto, rice, pickles and miso soup.

    After breakfast we jumped in the onsen one last time – it was completely empty as everyone else was getting ready to go – bathed really quickly, and boarded the van to head back to Tokyo. The ryokan has choreographed everything so that the van hits Minakami and Jomo Kogen so those with a rail pass can take advantage of the Joetsu shinkansen that goes straight to Tokyo in 80 minutes. The Joetsu has two levels and we chose the upper level to enjoy the scenery. I am sure it is pretty all year round but felt lucky to get to see it during the fall.

    This was our third trip to Japan and we have been many different onsens. Most of them are very memorable for different reasons. The two we visited on this trip could not have been more different – Goshobo was luxurious and Osenkaku rustic, with Goshobo the onsen was not as atmospheric but Osenkaku’s took my breath away. Goshobo’s meals were very refined and bordered on haute cuisine; Osenkaku’s was rustic, traditional, and hearty. Service at both places were just about equal – meaning warm, unobstrusive, and accommodating – which is one of the things I love about Japan.

    The rest of our trip was uneventful but fun. We arrived at Tokyo Station around noon and wandered around Marounuchi and Yurakacho. We ducked into an underground restaurant with a completely Japanese menu, pointed to what we wanted, and to our delight found out it specialized in handcut udon noodles. Handcut noodles! Something I had really wanted but had no idea how to ask for!

    We ducked into Tokyu Hands in Ginza just to see what the fuss was about, hit the Muji store in Yurakcho, and then went across the street to see the what Lonely Planet described as shop specializing in “Japanese handicrafts” – most of what we saw was food from all over Japan, including ice cream made with milk from Hokkaido, in “milk and melon” flavors.”

    We trudged back to Tokyo Station, collected our bags and rode the N’Ex to Narita. Mid-week in November appears to not be a busy time and so two hours before our flight gave us more than enough time. We were flying American back and there was not a single person in line when we went to check in at 4:45 for our 6:45 flight. Security was a breeze as well.
    The plane was probably about ¾ full but the seating patterns were odd – lots of half empty rows and single people occupying two-person rows. Configuration was 2-5-2. We, however, were placed in a 5 person row with three other people near the back of the plane. We couldn’t check in early or online because we bought our tickets from JTBUSA rather than from the airline directly. So that is one thing to think about when buying tickets from a travel agent. Maybe we could have gotten two seats in a row of our own if we had asked at check-in. We don’t fly that often so we don’t know many tricks.

    We had had the option of the straight flight to Boston on JAL but that left in the morning and the evening flight gave us the opportunity to spend more time in Japan – otherwise we would have had to spend an extra night in a hotel and just get up and go to the airport. We ending up not regretting this choice.

    The AA flight was actually pretty good. They served decent meals (better than JAL cattle class FWIW). No free booze but we did not need it as both of us crashed for most of the 11 hour flight to Chicago. Woke up for a snack – a really good pizza – and then we were there.

    As far as an 11-hour flight in economy class squeezed in a tight row in and old plane it was not bad at all. I was actually somewhat impressed with our national carrier. No frills but very efficient and they ran a good flight. I wish they would smile or fake enthusiasm – our flight attendant was stone-faced the entire time – like a robot. I wish American would encourage their flight attendants to serve with a little grace and style. It makes a big difference and it is free.

    O’Hare on Thanksgiving was really easy. I highly recommend travelling on this day. Immigration went fast and we had a drink and watched football while waiting for our flight to Boston.

    So, there you have it. A quick 6-day jaunt to Japan – the only country where you can get a five-star vacation at a 3-star price (Goshobo, Niwa) and a 3-star vacation for pennies compared to what you would spend in Europe or even parts of Latin America and other parts of Asia.

    I normally don’t like to think about what we spend on vacation (it detracts from the experience) but I include prices for people who think Japan is unaffordable. It is not!!! For those who care, this is what we spent – in dollars

    Airfare
    $1340 total (BOS-NRT-ITM, ITM-HND, NRT-ORD-BOS)
    This included one free ticket using Capital One miles)

    Travel expenses:
    $196 (Kanto pass);
    $92 (Kansai Thru pass)
    $15 (two Tokyo Metro passes –cheaper at the airport than in the city BTW)
    $15 (Itami airport bus to Osaka)
    $9 – four train rides on the Tokyo metro at around 130Y-150Y per ride

    Hotels
    $92 (Dotonburi with late checkout)
    $75 (Toyoko)
    $640 (Goshobo) – weekend, high season, no breakfast. You can probably do cheaper/
    $360 (Niwa)
    $230 (Osenkaku)

    Food and Drink:
    Breakfast and lunch averaged between $5-20 per meal.
    Dinners: $15 to $50 except for Washoku-Enn, where we went all out and treated out friend.
    Meals were included at the ryokans.
    $30 We split a coffee each day at Starbucks ($5 includes one refill at 100Y) for free wifi
    $30 – vending machines (The Mr. LOVES these)

    We bought gifts and clothes for ourselves at Uniqlo (maybe about $300) and then a suit for the Mr at Daiei ($200). Tailoring was practically free. I bought two sakes at the airport for $50 to burn through our cash and a remote controlled Japan Airlines toy for our son ($20).

    So there you have it. Hope the report gave some ideas and insight to others interested in Japan. We didn't do much traditional sightseeing but regular everyday Japan is so unique and such a treat that we did not feel we needed to (plus we have seen a lot of Japan on previous trips). It was a bit rushed but by not having definite plans and by having a "go with the flow" mentality we managed to really enjoy ourselves. We cannot wait to go back.

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    Great report - it sounds like you had a wonderful trip! I love when your husband called the ryokan dinner hardcore...lol....

    I agree with you that Japan travel is not that expensive, maybe when compared with other Southeast Asian countries but not compared to many other parts of the world!

    I'm not going til the end of March and I'm already getting excited reading the recent Japan trip reports! :)

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    Sounds like a perfect vacation to me, u-n-i-t. Thanks for the reports & details.

    (I agree about the timing of the JAL flight back to Boston; it does require an early and inconvenient start to the day. Definitely a matter of personal preference in choosing between an inconveniently-timed non-stop and a well-timed connection routing.)

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    Great report! I'm jealous of your onsen trips - my husband had no interest in trying one.

    We also loved Osaka and had the same observation - Japan is NOT so expensive. Except for taxis and short subway rides. I really think there is a price difference between Osaka and Kyoto/Tokyo though.

    Smart you figured out the starbucks wifi beforehand - I was so frustrated as I didn't realize you needed to create an account in advance and went internetless for a full 48 hours, which was kind of nice actually.

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    Thanks for posting. I especially appreciated the details. Japan is on my "to do" list, maybe in the spring. I just need to wrap my head around using the transportation system. All of the options make it quite intimidating to me, even though I have used public transportation in many other foreign countries. Did you have any transportation problems on your first trip? Do you remember your itinerary?

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    Thanks for all your comments. I am glad you enjoyed my report and it was not too boring.

    Shellyk - the transportation system is actually pretty easy to use. If you go in the spring, just post your itinerary and folks on the forum will give you helpful advice. I recommend buying ther latest eidition of Japan By rail. We found the 2008 very helpful in planning routes - there is a 2011 or 2012 version out now.


    My first trip, we used a 14-day Japan Rail pass. It was in April 2008. Looking back, we would ahve been fine witha 7 day pass but the dollar to yen was much better then and then we would have had to fly or buy a really expensive ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo. We got the 14-day pass because we did not realize that our friend's family would be completely chauffeuring us everywhere for four days in Kyoto.

    Weather was a bit rainy but mild and pleasant. Dollar to yen was 1: 110Y. I miss that.

    Here is what I remember doing. We were 29 at the time and had no children so we had lots of energy.

    Day 1: Arrived NRT. Night in Tokyo (bought N'Ex).

    Day 2: Day in tokyo. Activated 14-day JR pass. Took now defunct Hayabusa night train to Kumamoto.

    Day 3: took shinkansen to Kagoshima and ferry over to Sakurajima. Stayed at the the sublime Furusato Kanko ryokan (now closed)

    Day 4: Shinkansen to Kumamoto. Stayed at a cheapie Route Inn across from the station. Checked out the Kumamoto castle and city. Dined at an izakaya next to the station.

    Day 5: Train to Kurokawa onsen. Night in Sanga Ryokan

    Day 6: Trains to Miyajima. Arrived around 5 PM. Night in a cheap hostel. Explored Miyajima after 5 when the daytrippers had left. Cheap and tasty noodle dinner at the Auberge Watanabe. http://www.auberge-watanabe.com/english/index.html
    My husband said his udon with shredded beef is the best he has ever had. If I were to go there again, I would stay there, at the Auberege Watanabe, though others recommend Momiji-so.

    Day 6: spent the entire day in Miyajima. Hiked around during the afternoon. We stayed in Kinsuikan Bekkan that night - characterless ryokan hotel. It was fine but I would not stay there again.

    Day 7: train to Hiroshima. Visited the peace park. There was a baseball game going on across the street that day - we did not have tickets but it was fun watching all the little kids. On that same day, we shinkansened to Himeji - ate lunch at a famous little noodle bar (hand cut udon) on the main road between the station and the castle) and spent three hours exploring Himeji castle (which may now be closed for renovation). That evening, we took the train to Kyoto to stay with our friend's family.

    Day 8: Kyoto. We stayed with friends but on other trips we have stayed at the Palaceside Hotel - cheap, clean, and very centrally located. We took a bus tour this day - recommended by our friends but which I do not recommend.

    Day 9: Our friends took us to Amanohashidate and to their summer house in Amino, near the sea of Japan.

    Day 10: Amino/Sea of Japan

    Day 11: Kinosaki onsen with friends

    Day 12: We returned to Kyoto and spend the night at a local temple that took lodgers. We are told that temple doesn't take lodgers anymore. I would need to look up where we stayed but it was by a famous old onsen/public bath.

    Day 13: Woke up and used our railpasses to go to Tokyo. We spent the next three nights at the Park Hotel Tokyo.

    Day 14: Tokyo

    Day 15: Tokyo

    Day 16: Went home.

    Search under my handle for our second trip. It was in June and July 2009 and during the rainy "tsuyu" season (but we actually had more rain during our first trip in April 2008).

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    I had the bear soup at Osenkaku and it was ok. We were there for two nights and they served basashi on the second night. Your report brought back those memories along with the ones of their magnificent rotenburo along the river. We soaked our second day after breakfast and watched as all the guests left leaving as all alone for a while....what a treat. Thanks for doing this report and encouraging us to take yet another trip back probably next fall.

    Mara, Where are you going? If you answer the Iya Valley I will scream. I am jealous anyway.

    Aloha!

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    Thanks so much for the info. I will look up the TR for your second trip. I guess you really like Japan considering this was your third trip in 4 years. I've got to do some research before making any decisions, but will be back to the Forum once planning begins.

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    Yeah, we love Japan. After our trip in 2009, we have been to other places but keep wishing we were in Japan so we socked away $75 per week for a year and made it happen. We left our baby with my parents - next time we might have to bring him with us so it will take a while to save up to go again.

    I couldn't find my old trip report on the site but here is a rough idea.

    June 24: Arrive Narita, checked into the Intercontinental Tokyo Bay. We got a great deal by booking directly with the ich website during a monster sale. I would check them as the Intercontinental has lots of nice properties in Japan.

    June 25: Tokyo

    June 26: Tokyo. On this day we exchanged our vouchers for rail passes (to start the next day) and made a seat reservation for the shinkansen for our next day trip to Lake Tazawako as it books up.

    June 27: Activitae 7-day JR pass. Shinkansen (change once) to Tazawako. This train trip, high up among the trees, was one of the most memorable in my lifetime. Bus to Kuroyo Onsen (ryokan in Nyuto onsen). We couldn't book the more famous Tsurunuyo but this place was affordable, scenic, delicious, and super-authentic (no English and we were the only foreigners). Highly recommend.

    June 28: Trains to Hakodate. Stayed at a Toyoko or similar there.

    June 29: Trains to Sapporo and then onto Asahikawa. From Asahikawa, we took a bus to Asahidake onsen (hiking area). Lots of travelling this day. Mr. was not happy. Stayed at the Bearmonte Manseikaku hotel - the day before high season prices. It was okay.

    June 30: Explored the area (Daisetsuzan National Park). Transferred to the more affordable and atmospheric Daisetsuzan Shirakaba-so Youth Hostel. http://park19.wakwak.com/~shirakaba/home2.html

    July 1: Bus to train from Asahidake to Asahikawa to Sapporo to Noboroibetsu Onsen. Stayed at the Dai-ichi Takimoton hotel. It is like the Las vegas of onsen but lots of fun and not too expensive (we paid $9500 Y or something per person for room, spa, buffet dinner and breakfast)/

    July 2: Sapporo. Explored the city and stayed at an airport hotel.

    July 3: Flight from Sapporo to Kyoto using the 10000Y "yokoso" fare. Used the railpass to get from Kansai Int'l to kyoto station.
    Stayed five nights at the "Palaceside Hotel." http://www.palacesidehotel.co.jp/english/fr-top-en.html

    July 4, 5, 6, 7 : Kyoto, with friends and on our own.

    July 8: Paid about $40 pp for transfers to the airport. Flew KIX-NRT-JFK-BOS. We had a six hour layover in Narita and amnaged to explore the area a bit.

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    Dear experienced Japan travelers (USERNAMEISTAKEN, HAWAIITRAVELER & all others)
    We (lat30s couple & 5yr old kid) are about to take our first trip to Japan in mid-October 2013 and we would be grateful for your inputs on experiencing onsens: KINOSAKI OR OSENKAKU? We arrive through KIX and leave from NRT and wanted to spend a day in a nice onsen. Some of you veterans may have been to both these places... could you give us your feedback?

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    Insuka, please start your own thread rather than adding to an old trip report. Use the "start a new topic" button at the top of the page and give it a descriptive title and you will get plenty of assistance.

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