We got back yesterday and despite major jet lag and something(stomach virus I picked up on the last day) we had a wonderful trip.
Most of this report was written at night right after our experiences of the day and some of it was edited after the fact so please excuse me if it sometimes seems that I am talking in the present tense and sometimes in the past tense. Hope this doesn't bother you.
Our main motivation to return again to Japan this year was to see the cherry blossoms in peak bloom along the Hinokanai River in the little town of Kakunodate. We were in Kakunodate last year in early April which is a little too early for the cherry blossoms to be in bloom in that part of Northern Tohoku. We fell in love with this little town and made a vow to come back one day and see the town in full bloom. After some research I found out that the cherry blossoms can start blooming anytime from around April 15th till about May 6. Quite a span of time so the main question was when are they going to bloom this year and to figure all of this out eleven months in advance so we can be there at the right time and make the correct reservations.
Some of you may already know that if I were to start my career over again I would have liked to have become a meteorologist (btw I do love my current profession). Meteorology fascinates me now that I am a little older and I am not impressed nor at all swayed by the 'global warming' politically correct crowd. I picked our times and places to travel based on what is happening with El Nino and La Nina as they really do have a proven affect on the global weather and this is a proven fact, not a money grab that is the global warming crowds' true agenda (controversy here, lol). Here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the impact is there to be seen every single day. Anyway, armed with my amateur weather status I planned the times and dates of our trip eleven months ago based on the La Nina that was just starting then and is still happening right now and away we went with fingers and toes crossed of course, lol. If any of you need to know what the weather will be like when you are planning your travel just ask Oksana'..I mean HT, lol.
With the help of some very helpful information in May of last year that mrwunrfl provided about codes on UA and how to get saver and standard award tickets and interpret the codes involved, I immediately started some research and found that trips from saver awards from HNL to NRT were available in first and business class. I played with the dates for a few weeks as I tried to summon up the courage to follow what I believe to be true and made the plunge for first class saver awards HNL-NRT round trip for 90K miles for Mr. & Mrs. HT. After that all that was left was the planning which we all know is one of the best parts of travel. Tickets were cut, plans were researched with passion and off we went!
Our biggest motivation to get the first class tickets was that we have never flown International first class before on any airlines. We had always used our miles to upgrade our International flights to business class for the past decade or so but have never flown in International first class.
April 5th & 6th
We left the gate at HNL 5 minutes late at 9:50 am and arrived 30 minutes early after an 8 hour flight to Narita. I bought limousine bus tickets at Narita for 3100 yen which included the one day Tokyo metro pass as that special is still in effect. We arrived at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo in Shinjuku after a quick 80 minute commute as the traffic on a Sunday afternoon was relatively light. We saw lots of cherry blossoms along the way from Narita into Tokyo. After we checked into the hotel on the ninth floor concierge level we went to Shinjuku Chuo Park which is right across the street from our hotel for our hanami (cherry blossom viewing). We came back to the hotel and made dinner of the snacks in the Regency club room. It was early to bed as jetlag and a long day started to catch up with us.
April 7, 2008
We woke up at 3:30am as our bodies were still on Hawaiian Time. We went out after a while and walked around for an hour before breakfast and then went to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (200 yen admission) for more cherry blossom viewing. We had missed this park last year but made it a point to visit this time as Kuranosuke had told us that it is a very nice place to view the cherry blossoms and as usual he was right. The large garden consists of three distinct styles of garden, English landscape, French formal and of course the traditional Japanese garden. The place is a work of art'..just fantastic! We wandered around for a couple of hours in awe. The Japanese garden was our favorite. The tranquility of the teahouse set next to the pond with cherry trees surrounding was incredible. This place is definitely worth a visit for anyone visiting Tokyo. Photographers with huge cameras on tripods were everywhere snapping shots of nature in all of its glory.
After the park we walked around window shopping and just playing tourist in the adjacent neighborhood as we had never been to this side of Shinjuku before. This is a lovely area with a cornucopia of interesting restaurants and shops. We eventually found our way back to the East entrance of Shinjuku station to activate our 21 day JR passes. The JR service center is located right inside the stations East entrance first door on the right. A very nice woman helped us to activate our passes. We then went to the next window in the same office to make some of our train reservations. I also picked up some train reservations I had made online off the JR website which was very easy to do and I am glad I had done it early as I later found out that the trains that I had made the reservations for were all but sold out (reservations were for the Golden Week period). All you need is the printout sheet that the website asks you to print out and the credit card you make your reservations with. She took the credit card and swiped it into her machine and out popped my tickets, all so simple.
I had purchased the green passes this time as I never had bought them before. I wanted to experience the difference for myself so I could report back to you all about it. The whole process took about ten minutes.
We then went to a Japanese/Italian restaurant for lunch on the second floor of the West side of Shinjuku station. The food was very good and the total bill came out to 2200 yen. Linda had the Pasta Vongole while I had the lunch special which was Spaghetti Bolognese with a green salad and drink all for 890 yen ($8.90 US). We then went down to the subway and out to Ueno Park to see more cherry blossoms but there weren't many left as many trees were past prime bloom. So Linda (undaunted) led me to the nearby Ameyoko market to do what else'..shop.
April 8, 2008
Today was a very rainy and windy day in Tokyo. Flights were being cancelled throughout Japan as a strong storm front was moving through. We decided to try and do indoor things which meant only one thing to Linda, SHOPPING! We started at the Ginza to buy some things that we needed then it was on to Harajuku to do more shopping. As I said earlier the weather was really bad, so bad that we saw later on the nightly news that domestic flights all over Japan were being cancelled. Harajuku is the shopping Mecca for the under twenty five set.
The rain and wind were really wreaking havoc on us and made walking around very uncomfortable so we headed back to our hotel after a late lunch at our favorite ramen shop in Shinjuku the 290 yen shop. I learned today that the real name of the place is Hidayama ramen.
We both had a bowl of ramen with a side order of edamame and gyoza and a coke for 1030 yen. Then it was back to the hotel to repack and sort out our bags for the flight to Kagoshima in the morning. We would be taking only two 22' bags with us (our version of traveling light) and shipped our two 26' suitcases to our hotel in Fukuoka via the Takuhaibin service which cost 3500 yen ($35.00 US) for both bags. We would catch up with our bags in three days hopefully.
Dinner was at our favorite French restaurant in Shinjuku, Restaurant Le Coup Chou. If you have followed our previous visits to Japan you know that we do love this place. We again were the only non local people in the place. We laughed and joked with the owner/manager Sugitasan who's English is getting better and better. He said so was my Japanese (that was the joke part). I had the lamb special while Linda had the seafood combo special and we both had a dessert and one bottle of French white wine. The total bill was 9200 yen.
We were leaving for Kagoshima this morning at 11:30 via an airplane so I figured we would have to leave a little early because of Tokyo's morning rush hour traffic. I had picked up the Star Alliance air passes for 11,000 yen ($110.00 US) each in Honolulu before we left. We caught the 8:15 Airport limousine bus from our hotel and reached Haneda airport 50 minutes later. The cost was 1200 yen ($12.00 US) per person. Needless to say we were early. I loved Haneda Airport as the check in was fast and efficient and you don't have all the people and confusion that you do at Narita. Since we had some time we decided to explore the place. The top 5th floor has a cool outdoor observation deck where you can watch the airplanes take off right in front of you. Our ANA plane left exactly on time and landed in a rainstorm in Kagoshima one hour and thirty one minutes later. Yes, a rainstorm!
At the Kagoshima airport you can catch a limousine airport bus to the city for 1200 yen for adults. You buy the ticket from the machine just outside the baggage claim door. There is a porter for the bus company in front of the buses also right outside the same door. When I asked in Japanese pointing at the bus 'sumimasen, Kagoshima iki desu ka' (excuse me does this bus go to Kagoshima?) he said 'hai soo desu'. Ok so this is the bus now how do I buy a ticket. I was fumbling in English and slaughtered Japanese when he laughed and pointed to the ticket machine (which is all typed in Japanese). He then showed me what buttons to push and where to put in the money. Bingo, two tickets fly out, they load our two bags on the bus for us and off we go.
Our stop was the second to the last stop of the route. There were 12 stops in all so it took us 85 minutes to reach our stop. The bus stop was fortunately (pouring cats and dogs) right across the street from the Kagoshima Tokyu Hotel, our hotel for the night. This is a very nice hotel in the Tokyu hotel chain. Our double room had an ocean view and a prime view of Mt. Sakurajima across the bay. Check in was a breeze. They charged us 6000 yen per person for a one night stay without breakfast. You can join their comfort member club online now and a small discount is given for members.
The room was large for Japan standards and the service was great. I can wholly recommend this hotel to all. We would stay there again without hesitation. They have two restaurants on the premises, one Japanese and the other was an Italian/American/Japanese restaurant which doubled as the buffet breakfast place in the morning. They also have a few izukayas and Japanese restaurants across the street.
As I mentioned earlier it was raining very hard that day so we were forced to do some indoor shopping at the Tenmonkan dori covered shopping street to the delight of you know who. I sometimes wondered if she was doing a rain dance in private in the mornings, lol. We asked the front desk attendant what was the best way to get there and she suggested the city bus which has a stop across the street from the hotel. She gave us a schedule and umbrellas and told us which bus to catch so off we went.
You must enter the bus from the back door and take a ticket from the box. Don't forget to take the ticket! Your ticket will have a number on it which corresponds with the numbers on the board above the bus driver. When leaving the bus you look at the board for your number and under this number will be the price of your ride (ours was 180 yen). You then drop the ticket and the money in the fare box located next to the driver and exit from the front door only. The buses also take the suica/pasmo cards so you can swipe it on the pad when entering the bus and swipe it again when exiting from the front. The fare is automatically deducted from your card.
Tenmonkan it seems has a gazillion shops and we did buy a few things there but the good thing in my opinion is that for lunch we got to try Kagoshima's famous tonkotso at one of the restaurants in the mall.
Tonkotso is black pork that has been boiled for several hours in miso, sochu and brown sugar and is absolutely delicious. The pork is not black but the pigs that are raised in the Kagoshima region are. If you are ever in the Kagoshima area and like pork, you must give this dish a try (thank you Kuranosuke for the suggestion).
We then headed back to the hotel and had dinner in one of the izakayas across the street. I don't have a name because it was all in Japanese with no
English but we managed by the point and smile method, lol.
We are early to bed tonight as we were very excited about tomorrow on Sakurajima Island.
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