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Trip Report Mr. & Mrs. HT's 2008 Japan Cherry Blossom Tour

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Japan trip2008

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'

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.

April 9

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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    Thanks all, continuing

    April 10

    As we awoke the next morning I drew back the curtains and lo and behold the rain had stopped……yeah!

    We went out touring the other side of town that we hadn’t covered the day before in the rain after checking out and leaving our baggage with the front desk. We returned to the hotel around in the early afternoon and then took a short taxi ride to the Sakurajima ferry terminal.

    The ferry ride is a short ten minutes and the cost is 150 yen per person. You pay as you exit the ferry on the Sakurajima side and you must have the correct change. They do have a coin changer at the other end though. We waited a few minutes and took the Furusato Kanko Hotels free shuttle van to the hotel. The shuttle runs every thirty minutes from the ferry terminal from 8:45 to 5:00 pm with no service between 12:20 to 2:20 pm. The shuttle stop is located on the right hand side of the down escalators.

    The scenic ride was about 15 minutes and we were at the hotel in no time it seemed. At the reception desk the clerk happily informed us that the manager had upgraded us to an ocean view room with our own private hot spring bath on our balcony as we had booked this ryokan through Japanese Guest Houses, yeahhhh! This would be the first of several upgrades we would receive on this trip.

    The room was a large 12 tatami mat room with the balcony and a separate changing room attached. We also had our own private bathroom and shower. The view was fantastic and the room was all we could ask for.

    We had been asked at check in what time we wanted dinner, breakfast and morning shuttle. Dinner was served in the dining room which consisted of several different private dining areas. Our dining room for the evening was the Bara room. Dinner was fantastic! Twelve different courses plus various tsukemono. The courses ranged from 4 different sashimi, tonkotso, clams, shrimp tempura, a fish dish, steak tartar, and whole lot of other food. As some of you know HT does not eat much seafood and Mrs. HT does not eat much meat so it usually works out perfect for both of us as I eat hers and she has some of my seafood that I don’t care for. This is the only ryokan that we stayed in that does not honor any request for special meals in advance.

    Of course the dinner was served exquisitely by one of the younger English-speaking servers and we were fully stuffed when we left. I forgot to mention that at check in they also ask you what you want to drink with dinner. We unabashedly chose the sake.

    We then walked around the hotel and took a walk on their beach walk for an hour before we went into the outside rotenburo and retired so relaxed that I think I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

    April 11 & 12

    As I awoke the next morning I took a look outside on the balcony to see not a cloud in the sky and a beautiful sunrise. After a soak in our rotenburo on the balcony we got ready and went down to breakfast in different dining room than we ate at last night. As we entered the room I noticed there were ten different tables setup with bamboo screens between each one to ensure a little privacy. Each table had someone’s name on it so we knew where to sit without being told. The room has a large glass window that stretches the entire length of the room and ensures that every table had a gorgeous ocean view while having breakfast.

    Breakfast consisted of eggs, fried saba, various tsukemono, miso soup, lettuce salad, potato salad, some undetermined vegetables and kamameshi. The kamameshi they make is rice cooked in a bamboo steamer with the naturally salty Onsen water along with little pieces of shrimp, scallops, clams, squid and a white fish. They also served green tea and coffee and have of course the pitcher of cold mizu.

    After the huge breakfast we returned to our room to pack up and do one last plunge in our private hot spring bath then sadly went down to await our scheduled 9:30 am shuttle ride back to the ferry and sadly back to reality. We had a wonderful time at the Furusato Kanko and hope to return there some day in the not too distant future.

    At the ferry stop we took a taxi to the Kagoshima-chuo train station for our short ride to Fukuoka. I know, we could have walked a few blocks to Kagoshima station and used our JR passes to catch the train to Kagoshima-chuo but I didn’t feel like walking all that way with luggage. The taxi fare was 1100 yen ($11.00 US).

    We took the Tsubame 44 Shinkansen out of Kagoshima-chuo and arrived in Shin-Yatsuhiro in about 40 minutes. At Shin-Yatsuhiro you have to transfer to another train that was waiting just aside our train as we entered the station. The reason for this is that they have not completed the work on the new Shinkansen tracks from Fukuoka to Kagoshima. I think completion will be by late 2011 and you will be able to travel direct from Tokyo to Kagoshima in 7 hours with only one change in Shin-Osaka. Anyway, the entire process is easy and the Super Express train left 3 minutes later without a hitch.

    IMHO there IS a big difference in second-class and first cars and service on Kyushu Island trains. In first class the seats are roomier and can recline twice as far than second class. There were only three seats across in this car, two on one side of the aisle and just one seat on the other side. They also offered us a complimentary beverage of choice and a selection of free newspapers (all in Japanese). Each seat also had newly polished leather slippers for your use while on the train. There is also a private lounge in the front of the green car that can be used for meetings or just to lay back and relax in. They also have a dedicated attendant just for the green car.

    We were traveling lightly (for us) with only 1 – 22 inch carry on bag each that can fit in the overhead compartment or behind the back row of the car. The space behind the back row is large enough to hold, I would estimate, at least six large 26-inch bags. They also have hangers (real nice ones) there on the wall in back of the last row to hang your coats or whatever if you are so inclined.

    As we were on the route we noticed cherry blossoms were in bloom everywhere. We arrived in Fukuoka’s Hakata station and had a five-minute walk to our hotel for two nights, The Hyatt Regency Fukuoka.

    The two nights in the Regency Club room were “free” as I redeemed 7,000 points per night out of my Gold Passport account. In fact on this trip we have 11 free nights using points. Two nights in Fukuoka at the Hyatt concierge level, two nights in Hakone at the Hyatt (no club level offered at this hotel), three of our seven nights in Tokyo at the Hyatt Regency Shinjuku club level, two nights at the Sheraton Kobe Hotel Towers level using my points from my SPG account and finally two nights in the Towers level in the Westin Nagoya Castle Hotel.

    I find that redeeming points and using them in Japan saves a lot of money especially in the bigger cities. We saved the equivalent of roughly $3,200.00 US. Of course if we didn’t use the points I would not have stayed in the club level rooms…….not, lol.

    In our two days in Fukuoka we visited Canal City with tons of shopping and eating-places. If any of you like ramen, Canal City has a ramen stadium on the fifth floor with numerous ramen shops that serve ramen from every corner of Japan. We also visited the Tenjin shopping area, the Kawabata-dori shopping area, Tochoji Temple (I usually don’t go in for temples but this one we passed while walking from the subway station to Canal City and it looked impressive so we walked in for a few minutes) and Minami Park (400 yen admission). The cherry blossoms in Minami Park were still pretty full so we got a lot of pictures and saw a few people having lunch under the trees. It was a weekday so most people were at work.

    Transportation in Fukuoka is very easy to use and visitor friendly as the subway and bus systems have stops announced in Japanese and English. The subway ticket machines in the stations all have an English button so very easy to follow the instructions and buy a ticket. Taxis are cheaper than Tokyo as the first pull is 550 yen and 20 yen per kilometer after the first two kilometers. There is also a 100-yen bus that makes a circular route throughout the city emanating from the Hakata station and hits all the major shopping and most popular tourist destinations.

    Our meals in Fukuoka consisted of breakfast at the Regency Club of our hotel which was included in the club level rooms, lunch and a dinner at non descript Japanese restaurants that we passed by and walked into that did not sport any English menus. We would just pick out items from their picture menus or walk the waiter or waitress outside to point at the plastic food displays in their windows. We did have one “fancier” dinner our second night at Passetto Restaurant in the Tenjin area. The food was of course Italian. I had the Agniello balsomico while Linda had their Fruit de mare. We also had a bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio (4000 yen) and we shared a Tiramisu for dessert. The bill came out to 9000 yen and the food was very good. The concierge at the Hyatt recommended the place and made our reservation for us. The menu is in Japanese and Italian but if you are familiar with Italian food it is no problem at all. The owner/manager also speaks English and was willing to translate the menu for us but we did not need her to. She even walked us out to the street after our dinner and hailed us a taxi and told the driver in Japanese where to take us.

    We really enjoyed our time in Fukuoka and would like to return to do a few more things that we didn’t have time for. Three nights instead of two would have been perfect for us here. We are off to Hiroshima in the morning and emd’s okonomiyaki stand is calling our names!

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    Glad to hear from you HT. I just returned from a 10 day trip to Manila myself. It was a wonderful tiring but very fulfilling trip but am glad to be back to my kids.
    Loving your report!

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    April 13

    In the morning I sent our two large suitcases ahead of us to the Hyatt in Hakone via the baggage service. Since we did not need our bags to be there for the next eight days the Hyatt in Fukuoka said they would send them in a few days so as not to bother the other hotel....ok. The cost was 3800 yen this time for two bags as opposed to the 3500 from Tokyo to Fukuoka.

    We left Fukuoka via the Hikari Shinkansen at 10:39 and arrived in Hiroshima 1 hour and 10 minutes later. Again all along the way we saw various stages of cherry blossoms blooming, either in prime bloom or just past prime. We left Kyushu Island after our first stop and were now back on Honshu Island. Our hotel for one night was the Hotel Granvia Hiroshima, which is connected to Hiroshima station that made life a little easier. The Granvia is a large hotel similar but not quite as large or nice as the Granvia in Kyoto. The hotel’s double rooms were again pretty big for Japan standards and service was excellent by all the hotel staff that we came in contact with. The Internet rate we were told was the best rate available that was confirmed by the front desk at check in. Our rate for one night in a deluxe double room without breakfast was 13.900 yen total.

    As we arrived before check in time the hotel offered to hold our bags for us while we set out sightseeing for the day. After some information from the front desk we were off to see our first main objective the Peace Memorial Park and A- Dome building. We took street car number 6 from the front of the JR Hiroshima station out to the Park.

    As some of you know I am half Japanese. I had mixed feelings about making the stop at Hiroshima as my Japanese ancestors originated in Hiroshima. Almost all of my mother’s family in Japan were killed on that fateful August day in 1946. My grandfather had made the right decision in 1916 to move his family to Hawaii, as he wanted a better life for them.

    We started at the A-Dome and worked our way to the museum. After about a half hour in the museum I just wanted to leave as the pictures of the burned and charred bodies were just too much for me to see. It’s not that I think the US had done any wrong……quite the opposite imho. I just didn’t care to see anymore.

    A light rain started as soon as we left the building so we bought two 399-yen umbrellas and enjoyed the cherry blossoms that line the river next to the park. So peaceful from what I had just seen inside the museum. There was a mini concert that included of all things a Japanese Hula dancing troop and a band that played Hawaiian music. We listened for a while then went shopping at the large Hondori covered shopping street.

    We had lunch in a ramen shop on one of the many side streets that surround the dori. I wish I could tell you the name of this place as the soup base was incredible and I couldn’t make out what the unusual taste was but both Linda and I just loved it. We went back to the hotel for a little rest then it was off to explore again and do a little window-shopping. Dinner was at Mano Magio that is a little Italian restaurant on the 11th floor of the Fukuya store right across the street from the JR Hiroshima station. Linda had the clams with linguini in a garlic cream sauce while I had the spaghetti Bolognese. We had a ruccola salad and a bottle of Italian white wine and shared the chocolate gelato dessert all for 5100 yen. We had planned to have okonomyaki at emd’s recommended spot but we looked and looked and could not find it. I followed her instructions but it looks like the place described has changed ownership as in the spot where the oko shop was to be was a brand new hamburg shop. That is not a spelling error folks that is how the Japanese and spell and pronounce hamburger.

    Sorry for the bad news emd but the good thing is that they have a new oko shop upstairs in the station that I passed on the last morning we were there. It wasn’t open yet (open 11 to 11) but the menu looked divine. Tomorrow we go to Miyajima and the Iwaso Ryokan.

    April 14

    In the morning we took the local JR train from Hiroshima station to the Miyajimaguchi station, a twenty-one minute ride. We then walked two minutes down the street to the JR ferry, showed our JR passes and in ten minutes we were on Miyajima. What a beautiful island!

    Miyajima is considered one of the three most scenic spots in all of Japan and I have to agree. Miyajima has been known as a sacred island for centuries, in fact in the older days we were told that to do anything human as to give birth or die was not allowed on the island. Both the pregnant and the sick were taken off the island.

    The cherry blossoms were past their prime and most trees were losing some of their blossoms but it still looked spectacular. As we exited the ferry I called the Iwaso Ryokan to pick us up. Their driver was there in about five minutes. The driver loaded up our bags and took us on the scenic route to the ryokan which involved going through the forest area and groves of cherry blossoms, what a sight. There are deer all over the island and monkeys swinging through the trees making all kinds of noises.

    We were greeted at the front door by the front desk staff. We were early so we checked in and left our luggage there with them and went off to explore Mt. Misen.

    The ropeway to the top is located about a ten-minute uphill walk from the hotel. As we were walking we passed by Momijiso Ryokan that is a small ryokan smack dab in the middle of the forest. Momijiso has a great location and an outside noodle stand serving lunch that looked so inviting but we had other things to do first.

    We bought a round trip ticket on the ropeway for 1800 yen each. I was going to buy a one-way ticket (950 yen) and hike down but my knee was hurting so we got the r/t ticket. The views from the cars were spectacular and the view at the top is just gorgeous. We were very lucky with the weather this day as there was not a cloud in the sky and you could see all the way to Shikoku. The islands of the Seto Inland Sea looked like gems in the green blue water.

    There are deer all over the place and monkeys too. You are warned to leave your handbags and any food in the free lockers they provide at the top tram station as the monkeys will steal them from you. You are also warned never to stare directly into a monkey’s eyes as they can be very confrontational and will attack you if they feel you are a threat to them. Monkeys have ten times the strength of a human and can easily rip your arm out of socket. You are also warned to never feed the wildlife. All of these warnings reminded me of you Fodorites who have enjoyed the “secret place” in Bangkok. I sincerely hope no one ever gets hurt there…...imho it’s an accident waiting to happen as feeding a wild animal only trains them to depend on you for their food and they begin think of you as the food source, not as innocent visitors.

    After you get off the second tram you can hike up to the very top of the mountain and the observation tower on top. The hike is mostly uphill and some parts are pretty steep. We went about half way up and decided not to go all the way as I said my knee was bothering me that day.

    We lingered around the area for an hour or so taking pictures and viewing the wildlife then it was back down on the tram and walking to down to the Torii also known as the Itsukushima Shrine. Originally built in 593 AD the wooden shrine is built over water so that, when the tide is in, it appears as though the shrine is floating on the water, just spectacular. The construction of the shrine is an amazing feat of engineering as the base is not set into the mud but rests right on top of the ground. The shape and weight of the structure have withstood countless tide changes and centuries of typhoons so they must have done something right. The shrine has been repaired numerous times over the centuries.

    There is also a little shopping dori (street in Japanese) with all kinds of little shops selling souvenirs of the island and the maple manju. We ate lunch at Tonookajaya restaurant and had the seto lunch set) which included noodles, tsukemono and a drink. Lunch for two was 1550 yen.

    We shopped around and waited till 3:00pm and went over to Iwaso to get our room. We were greeted again by the front desk staff, asked our likes and dislikes for breakfast and dinner, picked our times for both and were shown to our room.

    Our room was on the third floor of the newer building along the river with a beautiful Cherry tree right outside that still had blossoms, kirei!

    The room itself was a ten tatami mat room with full bathroom and a Japanese balcony set so we could relax and enjoy the view. Just after the bell person showed us our room and how everything works he left us with a promise that someone would be there shortly to serve us tea. One minute later there was a knock on the door and in walked the hostess to serve us our green tea and sweets. After relaxing and finishing our tea we both went down to our respective hot spring baths and soaked and bathed for an hour.

    At Iwaso they have an indoor and outdoor hot spring bath separated for men and women. The indoor baths can hold about 30 people at one time and the outdoor ones maybe twenty or so. The outdoor ones had the same view as our room with the cherry tree and river but the river is louder here as it is ground level. The baths were very nice……not the nicest I have ever seen but very nice indeed. We really enjoyed them.

    After our baths we changed and went around exploring the rest of the ryokan. We got back to our room, relaxed a bit, and at our designated time there was a knock at our door. Our server for the evening Maikosan led us to a room down the hall where our dinner was set up and prepared in a private room to ourselves.

    Dinner consisted of 14 courses each. Mine was the kaiseki meat meal while Linda as always enjoyed the Japanese kaiseki dinner. I was served steak tataki, roast duck, some kind of Japanese pork, a chicken dish, Kobe beef that was served sizzling on a hot stone so you could cook it to your liking, various tsukemono, a green mixed salad, dessert, and rice with miso soup. Linda was served various sashimi, shrimp, a whole steamed small fish, seafood soup, various tsukemono, squid, scallops, also the Kobe beef dish, rice and soup, dessert and salad not all in that order. The rice and miso soup always are served last. The service was fantastic and the food was the same. They also gave us the option when we checked in of a variety of adult beverages available for extra cost with our meal. We chose a bottle of French white burgundy wine that was excellent. To all you red wine lovers out there I am also one of you but Mrs. HT does not care that much for them so I suffer through, lol.

    After the gorging we felt the need to walk some of it off so we went down to see the Torii at night which is lit up and just beautiful. There weren’t many people there as compared to the daytime as the last ferry to the mainland leaves at 19:00 so only the guests that were staying on the island overnight are around.

    A funny thing is that there are a couple of ice cream vending machines on the island and we noticed that the deer would congregate and sleep near these so they can pester people who buy ice cream. We walked around for an hour or so and went back to Iwaso for another soak and bath. We then went to our rooms and fell into a very relaxed sleep.

    The next morning we got up early, soaked, packed up and went to the dining room for our breakfast. I had ordered the American and again Linda had the Japanese one. I won’t bore you with all the details but it was wonderful and filling. We then checked out and were taken by a different route than when we arrived right through the middle of town and to the ferry for our onward journey.

    We loved Iwaso Ryokan and Miyajima Island and would love to return someday….

    Next up is our journey to Dogo Onsen and Matsuyama.

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    I am loving your report! I was just there (Japan) 4-15 to 4-19...I wish I could have stayed much longer and experienced all your travels. I am looking forward to hearing about Matsuyama as this was the first place I went in Japan when I tagged along on a business trip with DH 10 years ago. I have fond memories of our times there. I hope you enjoyed it!

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    sorry for the length....continuing

    April 15

    After we got off the ferry it was back to the train and a 21-minute ride back to Hiroshima station. We then took a taxi to Hiroshima Port (about 2200 yen) as we had luggage which can be frowned upon the street car (260 yen) plus you know me I will travel in comfort and don’t mind paying for it but want to let others know that there is another option.

    When we got to the ferry we bought two tickets on the slow ferry at 2900 yen per person from Hiroshima to Matsuyama with one stop in between at Kure Island. The lady at the window tried in vain to sell us tickets on the” speed boat” which would make the journey in less than half the 2 hours and 40 minutes that the ferry took but the fare on the high speed hydrofoil boat was 6300 yen per person more than double that of the slow ferry fare. I chose the slow ferry as we had a lot of time and since it was another picture perfect day I wanted to enjoy the view. In retrospect I am glad we went that route as we got some beautiful pictures of the islands and beaches along the way. Since we left the Hiroshima port at 11:00 it was the perfect choice.

    We arrived in Matsuyama port on time and in search of transport to the Matsuyama JR station and transfer to the streetcar to Dogo Onsen. We found out upon arrival that there is a much better and more convenient option. There are Limousine buses that leave from the port to Matsuyama with the final stop being Dogo Onsen. The total cost for this bus service is 600 yen ($6.00 US) per person. The schedule I took(all in Japanese) says that the services to Matsuyama from the port start at 5:15 am with buses leaving for Matsuyama. They are then followed by buses that the port leave at 8:00,8:57,9:48,10:57,11:48,12:57,13:50,14:57,15:48,16:57,17:48,18:57.19:48 with the final bus leaving at 21:21.

    We arrived at the Dogo Onsen stop about 30 minutes later and went in search of our room for the night at the Hotel Patio Dogo. The hotel is a two-minute walk from the bus stop and right across the street from the infamous Dogo Onsen. The Hotel Patio Dogo is a nice place to stay and the price was right too ($60.00 US per person). We checked into our room and while reading all the brochures on the desk I found out that they have a coin Laundromat that is only a five-minute walk from the hotel. What luck as our clothes were starting to walk around by themselves, lol. We loaded up some plastic bags with our laundry and off we went.

    The Japanese Laundromats are much easier to figure out than their European counterparts and they have gas driers that are computer operated (that’s what the sign says) and dry your clothes rather quickly. The wash cycle was 200 yen for 5 kilos and 300 yen for the big 7.5-kilo machines. The driers were 100 yen for a fifteen-minute cycle and we only had to put in 200 yen to dry all of our clothes.

    After our clothes washing adventure it was time to check out Dogo Onsen. I have got to say that I was not at all impressed with the place as it was just jammed packed with tourists from all over Japan. You can pay 400 yen to bathe in their hot spring bath but have to bring your own towel and soap. The can provide a towel and little bar of soap for and extra 200 yen. You also have the option for 800 yen of going upstairs to a semi private room after your bath to hang out and have some tea and sweet for 1 hour. If you want complete privacy you can rent a room on the top floor for 1500 yen.

    I guess that I have been spoiled by the different ryokan and minshuku that we have been to because we both were really a bit put off by the hordes of people there and the way the place is run during a busy period. The men’s bath had over fifty guys in the bath and locker room at the time I went and the women’s bath had a line out of their locker room. Linda reports that she had a hard time bathing (no chairs or spot available) and when she finally got into the hot spring she couldn’t even stretch out her legs or anything. She says it was butt-to-butt women everywhere in the baths and it was almost the same in the men’s baths. I guess for the Japanese tourist this is THE place to come to as it is so famous but I found it just way to crowded…..oh well to each his own. If you do visit this Onsen I would recommend that you DO NOT bathe between 17:00 till about 21:00, as this is the time everyone bathes and you will run into the same cattle call that we ran into. We should have known better, now you do.

    After our baths we explored the immediate area in our yukatas as everyone is walking around in them. It was fun to watch the different people and all the different hotels yukatas and the clip clop of the slippers on the streets. Right across the street is the major covered shopping dori where we shopped and ate dinner that evening.

    April 16 and 17

    We left Matsuyama early this morning bound for Kobe with a short stop in Himeji to see the Himeji Castle. It was pouring rain when we got up so we decided to scrap our plans to visit Matsuyama Castle and head on out. The train ride from Matsuyama through to Okayama was very scenic as you pass along the shoreline of Shikoku for much of the trip and we got to ride across the Seto-Ohashi Bridge. As we arrived in Himeji we looked for lockers as we excited the Shinkansen trains but there weren’t any available. Lucky I did my research as we just went downstairs to the basement where there were a plethora of lockers available. We chose the biggest locker, which held our two 22 inch bags for 600 yen, and off we went. We purchase umbrellas from the nearest convenience shop and walked out the door and onto Otemae Dori (street) for the 1-kilometer walk to the castle. Nicknamed the “White Heron” this castle is supposed to be the most spectacular castle in all of Japan.

    As we were walking the rain let up a bit and by the time we reached the castle it had just about stopped as the White Heron loomed just before us. What a sight! This is one of the few castle in Japan to survive intact the WW II bombing raids that laid even the city of Himeji to ruins.

    We bought our tickets and followed the tour route through the castle. As reported before you really have to watch your head in the castle as some of the passageways are very low and you can easily bump your head if you are not careful. There are many, many stairs and passageways so if you’re not up to it this is not for you but after the long climb you come out on the top floor with a spectacular view of the city and surrounding area. The cherry blossoms were just about over but some trees were still in full bloom that made it even a more beautiful sight. We took lots of pictures then had lunch that we bought earlier at the train station on one of the tables that the city of Himeji provides just for this purpose along Otemae Dori. After lunch it was back to the station for our short 25-minute express train ride to Sannomiya station in downtown Kobe.

    Kobe is one of the towns that everyone seems to say skip but now that I have been there I can whole-heartedly disagree. Kobe is a wonderful stop that is worth at least two full days imho and full of things to do and places to see.

    It was raining when we arrived in Kobe’s Sannomiya JR station so we took a taxi to our hotel for two days, the Sheraton Kobe Bay Hotel located on Rokko Island. Rokko Island is a man made island in the middle of the bay and a bit isolated from downtown Kobe but connected by the Rokko liner (a train) and by bus. You can catch the bus from the hotel to Sannomiya station for 360 yen per person and is the best and cheapest way to get into town. The taxi cost is 3520 yen to Sannomiya and the Rokko liner costs about 400 yen (we never used it) I think.

    We had two free nights in the Executive level rooms that I had used Starwood points for. The Executive floors receive free breakfast and a cocktail and light snack from 5:00 pm till 7:00 pm. I much prefer the Hyatt hotels when I travel but they are not everywhere we go so I chose use the Sheraton chain as my second hotel of choice in our business and pleasure travels as they do have over 2000 hotels worldwide. We used to use the Hilton hotels but found that their service and benefits just are not up to par. The Sheratons are not that much better than the Hiltons but I take any of them over the Marriott chain, lol.

    At this Sheraton they ran out of white wine after one bottle the first night and the room was packed with people. They only serve a couple of hot dishes and just one small dish of each, after it runs out (within the firs twenty minute each night we were there) they do not refill them. At the Hyatt chains there are many different dishes both hot and cold and they are free flowing and constantly replaced along with all of the adult beverages. Anyway we were given a very nice room and we were upgraded to the Exec room at check in because of my Gold status. All in all I really can’t complain after the entire price was right.

    We were looking to have Kobe steak and found a really good place on Sakita Street right behind the Sannomiya Hankyu train station. Not the JR station. As we were walking by we noticed a lot of the Kobe business men were lining up outside of this restaurant with a big red sign that was all in Japanese. As we were passing by the line started moving so we followed and were the last couple let in before they stopped as they ran out of room I could not believe the picture menu sign as it said complete Kobe beef lunch 2900 yen per person. When you enter they do have an English menu and the cooks (teppanyaki style with 8 people per table sitting around a large grill ala Misono or Bennihana). The menu consists of sirloin steak for 900 yen all the way up to the Kobe beef for 2980 yen per person. The meal consists of a lettuce salad with a oriental dressing, fried garlic chips, a vegetable dish of bean spouts and other veggies, the steak, rice, miso soup and you can have coffee, tea or orange juice after your lunch. The place is a real bargain and the steak was divine. You could cut the meat with you fork and the steak just melted in your mouth. I have had real Kobe beef before in Japan at Misono’s in Kyoto and this one was just as good for about 25% of the price. The restaurant is located right across the Lumine store and next door to the Slot Spazio(pachinko parlor) on Sakita Dori with no English name outside, just look for the big red sign over the door with a picture of a chef cooking steak on a grill. It is worth looking for believe me.

    Since it was raining we just walked the neighborhood around the station that is jammed with all kinds of shop and a huge covered shopping dori with literally hundreds of shops. The area right around the steakhouse is also ripe with all kinds of restaurants serving Kobe beef and many other goodies and all kinds of shops including a eight story Tokyu Hands store. What started out as us looking for Kobe beef ended up as a whole day so we need to return to Kobe to really check out the sights (gardens, museums, etc.). In hindsight we should have given Kobe three nights but that gives us a great excuse to return.

    Next Nagoya!


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    thank you!


    April 18-19

    In the morning we took a taxi to Shin-Kobe station for 3760 yen in a driving rainstorm. As soon as we got to the station the rain stopped and the sun came out…..oh well. We took an easy direct Hikari Shinkansen to Nagoya our next destination for two days.

    We again used points for our stay at the Westin Nagoya Castle Hotel that has a terrible location if you want to be next to the main sights and shopping areas but has the prime location if you want to be next to and see the Nagoya Castle. Our towers level room was very large and very nice with a gorgeous view of the castle. The Westin is a really nice hotel but you have to do a little traveling to see anything else other than the castle of the Nagoya Noh Theatre. Again as in Kobe the Executive Room at the Westin Nagoya Castle only puts out two very small dishes of hot food and when it was gone (this one after the first thirty minutes) they do not refill. Their reception hours are only from 5:30 pm till 7:00 pm with no service whatsoever. In fact it seemed like they were just waiting for 7:00 to arrive so they could break down. On night two they actually started breaking down their station at 6:50. I thought about complaining but thought that maybe it wasn’t the workers fault and it seemed that they were probably just following management’s orders. I also didn’t want to jeopardize someone’s job for my selfish wants. I am still thinking about writing my good buddy Keith Vierra at Sheraton corporate to vent to him about what a cheap hotel he helps run, lol…..maybe he’ll read this. If you are it’s your treat next time we meet. I will certainly mention it to him the next time I see him.

    I found two days in Nagoya to be plenty as we really did not enjoy this city. Nagoya is very tourist friendly with maps in different language everywhere in the city on the streets and in the subways and train stations but I don’t know, Nagoya just does not have that Japanese charm that other cities we have visited do. Nagoya could be a large city anywhere in the world, kind of soulless to me. We did visit the Tokugawa Art Museum that was fantastic.

    The main draw there is the original Tales of Genji scrolls. The original scrolls are from the twelfth century so they only display facsimiles. With today’s technology these replicas are fantastic! One week a year in autumn the originals are put on display. The museum is located on the former mansion owned by the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family. The Tokugawa also contains thousands of documents, pottery, paintings (which are particularly exquisite), helmets, samurai swords, etc. which had belonged to the Tokugawa family.

    There are a lot of English descriptions on all of the collections that is rare in Japan and just great. This place was fascinating and you need at least two hours to see all of the collections. There is a very nice Japanese garden adjacent to the museum that is also very interesting.

    April 20-21

    Nagoya to the JR Odawara train station is only a short 72-minute Hikari Shinkansen ride away and we would stay at the new Hyatt Regency Hakone for 2 more free nights using Hyatt points. This was a good week as the last six nights in a row were free, smiles.

    I had already purchased our Hakone Free Passes which entitles you to ride all the transport in the Hakone area from the Hyatt Shinjuku Hotel’s Odakyu travel agency in the lobby of the Hyatt so when we arrived at the Odawara station we immediately went to the Hakone Tonzan train bound for Hakone-Yumoto station. There you must change trains and continue on the train bound for the Gora station. At the Gora station you must get off the train and transfer to the Hakone Tozan cable car. You take the short cable car ride up to the Kamigora stop. I know this sounds difficult but it really isn’t as the trains and cable cars all start and end right next to each other (one leads to the other).

    When exiting the cable car at the Kamigora stop exit on the right hand side of the car as you are facing uphill. It is a five-minute walk down hill to the Hyatt. There are no signs in English so I thought I would be a little more specific here. We had originally booked the Hakone Ginyu Ryokan for the two nights but had gotten two nights free on points at the Hyatt and had read wonderful reviews of the hotel so decided to check it out. As it turned out we made the right choice.

    When we checked in we were asked if we wanted a free upgrade because of my Platinum status that usually means nothing in the US but I find that status really means something in Japan and much of South East Asia in general. We were upgraded to one of the Japanese rooms that are simply spectacular! KimJapan if you are reading you would love these rooms. I rate these rooms on par with the Peninsula room we had in Bangkok and the view was beautiful. They do not have a television in the bathroom though. It was one of the best rooms I have ever been in and I have been in quite a few nice ones worldwide. Did I mention that the cherry blossoms were still in bloom because of the elevation in Gora? smiles

    If any of you have a chance to go to Hakone I highly recommend this hotel and the Japanese style rooms. The hotel also has a reception hour that actually starts at 4:00 pm and ends at 7:00 pm in the downstairs fireplace lobby. Soft drinks, domestic and imported beer, French Champagne, French red and white Bordeaux’s are served free flowing and they do not run out like they do at the Sheraton’s. This service is available to all guests of the hotel no matter which room you stay in or your status.

    My only complaint, and I guess I am not in the minority on this according to Trip Advisor, is that the fireplace lobby smells like the wood that is burned every night after the sun sets. My suggestion is to wear the yukatas that the hotel provides so your clothes don’t end up smelling like wood smoke. Everyone wears them so you won’t feel awkward. On some weekends and special holidays the manager at check out told me that they have live musicians (there is a baby grand piano in the room). You can purchase light snacks or have dinner right there in that room as we did our second night.

    Our first night we made reservations in the French restaurant that was excellent but a little pricey. We both loved this hotel and would return in a heartbeat…..although I still want to try out the Hakone Ginyu Ryokan someday…..maybe next year in the fall to view the koyo, lol.

    I am glad we took mrwunrfl’s advice again and stayed for a couple of nights as we really took our time and explored most of Hakone and really enjoyed being able to take our time. On our first morning we were the first people, because of our location at the Hyatt, to take the Ropeway across to the Togendai station and Lake Ashi. The weather in that morning was beautiful and Mt. Fuji was out in full view and all her splendor and we enjoyed an unobstructed by ourselves in our car for quite a while. Fujisan in all her glory is a lucky sight to see but when the weather cooperates and luck is on your side its just spectacular.

    We then did the Lake Ashi ferryboat ride where the views of Fuji were good but not as close and sharp as the ropeway but are still pretty nice. We did the walk through the ancient cedar trees and part of the old Tokkaido road. We then took Hakone Tozan bus back to the Kowakidani station where we made our way back up to our hotel, as we were that excited about getting back and trying out their spa and hot spring baths. The baths are not rotenburo (outdoor) but are great all in all. We really enjoyed our two days in the Hyatt Regency Hakone and you will too if you do decide to try this wonderful hotel.

    April 22

    As we were checking out of the Hyatt Hakone I had the manager send our two large bags (which were getting a lot heavier) to the Hyatt in Shinjuku which we would meet up with in another eight days. The price was 3160 yen this time for both bags. I realized that it doesn’t really matter what your bag weighs but it’s the size and distance that matters.

    We took a taxi at 6:45 am from the Hyatt in Gora to the Odawara train station for 5760 yen (yikes) and it took 25 minutes to get to the station. The reason we left so early was that we needed to get an early start as we were going all the way to Hakodate on Hokkaido Island. If we were to take a later train it would increase our already long commute another two hours or so. We could have taken an airline flight that would have been a little shorter overall but we would have missed all of the sights we saw along the way.

    We passed the peak of the cherry blossom line in the Aomori prefecture near Morioka. It was very interesting to see first no blossoms, then a few blossoms, then more and more along the way till we were passing the peak bloom. I am glad we took the train or we would have never had this experience. I was very tempted to change our plans and head off to Kakunodate to see if the timing was right for the bloom yet but resisted the temptation and hoped again (not for the last time) that I had made the right decision.

    When we arrived in Hakodate we found out that three days before they had experienced a heat wave in Sapporo and all of lower part of Hokkaido and the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom earlier than expected. I had a sick feeling in my gut. Maybe our luck had just run out?

    We exited the 54-kilometer tunnel Seikan Tunnel and saw that the cherry blossoms were indeed starting to bloom everywhere and I was starting to feel a little queasy. Well enjoy the moment is what I always say so that is what we did. We have been extremely lucky this trip in the amount of cherry blossoms we have seen in the places we have been so far. I hope our luck holds true till Kakunodate.

    We were now on Hokkaido Island, our fourth island that we had been on this trip and the last of the four main islands that make up Japan. The ride along the coast towards Hakodate is scenic until you get close to the main city and all the industrial sections. Our stay in Hakodate would only be one night and we chose the Hakodate Kokusai Hotel to be our host for the evening.

    The Kokusai is an older hotel that has been recently expanded and renovated. It is a five-minute walk from the JR Hakodate train station. As you exit the train station front door turn right. Walk straight down the street passing the morning fish market and various seafood restaurants till you see the Kokusai hotel on the right. Check in was a breeze as we had prepaid for this hotel with a JTB agent in Honolulu before we left. The front desk staff spoke perfect English. The total cost was $148.00 US for one night. We were given a large double room in their new wing that was rather nice. The location is great as it is right next to the morning fish market and on the main street that leads to the other main attraction in Hakodate that is the Mt. Hakodate tram.

    After check in we walked around the town and found the main covered shopping dori just a few blocks away. When Linda was satisfied that nothing in Hakodate had escaped her gaze, lol, we walked on up to the tram station and took the tram up to Mt. Hakodate. The round trip tram tickets were 1100 yen per person and we stayed up there for about 90 minutes just enjoying the scenery and taking pictures as the sun started to set and all of Hakodate’s lights started to shine. We wanted to stay a little longer but it was getting pretty chilly and we were getting very hungry so down we went to seek a place to eat. We ended up eating at a Japanese crab restaurant right across the street of the hotel. No English menus here again but they did have picture menus which we have become accustomed to in Japan. Linda had a whole hairy crab with a crab onigiri while I had the crab ramen with some edamame and an umeboshi onigiri. We were both served hot tea. I could not believe the bill as it came out to only 2260 yen ($22.60 US). The crab alone would have cost much more back home.

    more tomorrow


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    April 23-24

    The next morning we awoke early and went down to check out the morning fish/crab market. If you are ever in Hakodate do not miss this place. The sheer amounts of live crab and the size of some of them will truly amaze you. We ended buying a few things there to take home that were shrunk wrapped and sealed well. One thing we bought that I had never seen before was cuttled crab, no not cuttle fish but cuttle crab. We were walking by one of the vendors when I noticed this machine going round and round making a heck of a noise and every so often a piece of cuttled meat would drop down the chute. I asked the lady in Japanese “oishi desu ka” (does this taste good?). You really have to learn this phrase if you visit food markets with samples or the large department stores with basement food departments that have samples of food all over. You will be offered a sample to taste, if you like it reply “oishi desu” (this is delicious) and buy what you want or pass it by. Needless to say the cuttled crab was delicious and we bought a couple of bags to take home with us.

    We then checked out of our hotel and it was off to the train station for our 2 hour plus ride to Noboribetsu Onsen and our two night stay at the Takimoto Inn right across the street from the huge Daiichi Takimoto Hotel and Spa.

    The green cars of the JR trains in Hokkaido are a carbon copy of the JR Kyushu trains with three seats across and a free drink is offered and a whole lot of elbow room. They don’t have the leather slippers though. The service is outstanding as they assign a personal valet to your first class car. The ride out of Hakodate to Noboribetsu is very scenic as you travel along the coastline and pass through two National Parks along the way (Noboribetsu being in the heart of one).

    We arrived in the JR Noboribetsu station and went out to the number seven bus stop located right outside of the back entrance of the station. The buses to Noboribetsu Onsen depart every twenty minutes or so and we were soon on our way. You again have to take a ticket as you enter the bus as I explained earlier and pay when you leave. The fare was 660 yen for two people. In hindsight I should have taken a taxi as the ride is short and only about 5 kilometers from the train station. That would have saved us the walk uphill to the hotel from the bus stop along the highway.

    The Takimoto Inn is a small seven story hotel built in 1977 and as I said across the street from their sister hotel the Daiichi Takimotokan Hotel. I had originally thought of booking the Daiichi but another brilliant suggestion by mrwunrfl saved us a bunch of money. At the Takimoto you can use all of the fabulous facilities at the Daiichi for free. That meant we didn’t have to pay the $285.00 US per person per night that we were quoted. The Takimoto Inn charged us 6000 yen ($60.00US) per person per night. This included a kaiseki dinner and a buffet breakfast both days. Granted the hotel room was a small Western double with a tiny full bathroom but we believe it was a great deal as the food was great, the people more than friendly and the price were right.

    Now a little information about the baths at Daiichi. I have never seen a more elaborate set of hot spring baths in my travels throughout Japan. Kuranosuke had it right. The baths are huge and plentiful. There are 36 different baths in all with all different water contents, shapes and sizes. The baths are very elaborate and they are constantly cleaning them every day between 8:00 am till about 3:30 pm. There are rotenburo with gorgeous views of the “hells” that are right behind the hotel, hot spring water fall massages, hot spring whirlpools and hot spring Jacuzzis, steam and sauna rooms and even a small water park on the bottom floor for the kids complete with water slides. There are sulfur baths, acidic baths, mineral baths and few more baths with different water contents that I am forgetting this late at night. If you are ever in the area and not staying in the one of the hotels you can be a day visitor for 1900 yen per person. The visitors have to leave by 19:00 but the baths are open to their hotel guests 24 hours a day and seven days a week. We really enjoyed our two days in Noboribetsu Onsen and would recommend a visit if you ever have the chance.

    April 25

    We left Noboribetsu with the 8:40 train and arrived in Hirosaki at 2:10 pm. Our hotel for the evening is the New City Hotel which I arranged through Japanicam dot com. This is the first time I am trying them as they had the best rate I could find online for this hotel in the cherry blossoms season. It is a Best Western Hotel. I had read in previous months that they had gotten away from the BW chain of hotels but the sign is above the door and everywhere to be seen in the hotel so another goof by the Trip Advisor crowd.

    The hotel itself is right next to the JR Hirosaki station and is new and everything is nice and looks new. You walk out the front door of the station and turn left. You will see the hotel to the left about a one-minute walk away. Check in was a breeze and even though they were very busy due to the peak cherry blossoms season and the fact that it was a Friday, everything went smoothly. Ok enough about the details as we just returned from several hours at the Hirosaki Castle and their more than 2600 cherry trees that were all in peak blossoms, dang what a sight. I have been to many places now in Japan and have seen peak blossoms in most of the places that we have been to but this place is by far the best I have ever been to yet (we leave for Kakunodate in the morning). What a sight! We were both just stunned to witness what just happened to us. We were expecting and hoping that we would see blossoms in full bloom but not on the magnitude and beauty that we both have just witnessed. I am very happy that we had an extra day to kill when making our plans so I decided to slip Hirosaki in just for the heck of it. I had read a little about the place and decided to shorten a long commute day with an overnight here. This place in peak bloom honestly makes Ueno Park in Tokyo in peak bloom look like a small circus sideshow. Honest folks it is that good. If you ever have a chance to see Hirosaki in full bloom it is a must see place. KimJapan and bmttokyo and all others who live in Japan who have not been here before and love to view the cherry blossoms put this place on your radar for future reference.

    Hirosaki-jo is about a twenty-minute walk from the hotel or a five-minute taxi ride that cost us 910 yen ($9.10 US). You can also catch a city bus from the JR Hirosaki station and it is about a ten-minute ride. If you plan on visiting you should give yourself a good three to four hours especially if the bloom is on at the time. The entrance to the castle itself was 300 yen but you do not have to visit the castle to see the blossoms.

    It seemed all of the small town of Hirosaki and neighboring communities where there at the castle touring and having their hanami in the large park which surrounds the castle grounds. As I had mentioned before there are over 2,600 trees on this site and every one of them seemed to be in peak bloom.

    One of the best things about this park imho is the variety of cherry blossom trees that are available for viewing in the park. See this site for types of trees:

    In Tokyo and places south of Tokyo it seems that the majority of trees are the Yoshino Cherry trees, which are beautiful, but I love the variety of colors and shapes of other varieties especially the Shidarzakura (weeping cherry) and the Kanzan trees. These and the other varieties are also in abundance in Hirosaki. There are also a couple of “tree tunnels” which are lined with trees that you walk through and it is just beyond my poor writing abilities to explain with any comprehension that will do it the justice that they deserve.

    They are a myriad of vendors there selling all kinds of Japanese comfort foods and beverages that will tantalize your taste buds. Vendors there also sell all kinds of Japanese products from extra film or memory cards to artwork from famous artists, pottery, books, handmade stitched products, etc., you can plan to eat lunch or dinner there very cheaply and then walk off some of the calories to boot.

    There was a carnival for the children with all kinds of rides and games and it really was just a whole lot of fun. There are crowds but not the crush of people you get at Ueno Park and a family or visitors can actually come in and find a place to sit and put down your tarp or ground covering and have a good time. We love to people watch and really enjoyed watching people having a good time or getting drunk and singing and dancing away. I forget what the Japanese term is for the promises that the Japanese people make but even though we didn’t understand all that was said it was very interesting to witness to say the least. As I said before Hirosaki is a must visit if you enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms and we are glad and feel blessed that we were able to enjoy a hanami in Hirosaki.

    Here is a little information on how to get to Hirosaki by train:

    more later


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    Wonderful report and great detail.

    I must admit that I agree with you about the Hyatt's Regency Club level being much better than the Sheraton's. The only Sheraton I've stayed in that had a great concierge level is, of course, the Royal Orchid in Bangkok. There they have free-flowing wine and liquor plus plenty of frequently replenished canapes and desserts, much like the best of the international Hyatts.

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    thank you, almost done

    April 26-27

    We arrived in Kakunodate on the 2:48pm Komachi Shinkansen with hordes of people at the rail station when we arrived which could only mean one thing in my mind that the bloom was on! We walked out of the train station to our hotel for 2 nights the JR Folkloro Hotel Kakunodate. After dodging literally hundreds of people from the train station to the hotel (30 second walk). We arrived at the front desk of the JR Folkloro Hotel and were greeted by Akiyamasan who greeted as an old friend and welcomed us back to the hotel. We met and befriended Akiyamasan last year and I have had several contacts with her the past year as I tried to nail down the exact dates of our two-night stay.

    The Folkloro Hotel had undergone a major renovation since last year and the place is now sparkling. We were given our requested room that is the largest in the place and on the first floor. I won’t give out the room number online but if you want to visit and have that room you can email me for the information.

    We freshened up in our room and rushed out to see the bloom on the river, as that is what this trip was all about. On our way out we presented Akiyamasan with our “omiyagi” from Hawaii for all her past help and she was just thrilled and excited beyond our wildest expectations. After a few minutes we excused ourselves politely and almost ran out the door towards the Hinokanai River. The river is a twenty-minute walk from the hotel and there were literally hundreds of people along the way.

    Something seemed wrong after about the first block or so as we passed several trees that looked not past peak but they had no blossoms on them whatsoever. They only had the stamens but no leaves and no blossoms. Had we missed the bloom? Were we too late? I was flummoxed, as the timing was right I thought and how could this be? We turned the corner and I saw one tree in full bloom and felt a little better but when we passed by the street with the Samurai Houses all of the trees had no blossoms, only the stamens. I felt a little apprehensive but Linda said don’t worry they will be there. We reached the river and my total disappointment was fully realized, as there were no blossoms to be seen. ALL THE TREES WERE BARE.

    I couldn’t believe it. What had we done wrong? We were both terribly disappointed beyond words. We wandered aimlessly in the crowds of people for an hour or so when I decided to head back to the hotel and start an early happy hour. I wanted to leave town tonight.

    When we got back to the hotel Akiyamasan ran out of the back office to greet us so happy and thankful again for her presents. She immediately noticed our unhappy demeanor, as I just couldn’t properly mask what I was feeling at the time. What happened to the flowers I asked? Ohhhhhhh she said now looking sad, as she had picked up on my negative vibe. “They started to bloom here the 19th” she explained pointing to the calendar behind her. Today was the 26th exactly one week later, they should now be in peak bloom. She then pointed to the 24th and in halting English said “we had a freezing rain this night and all of the blossoms fell, I am so sorry. It has been unusually cold this spring and the freezing rain only happens every few years but when it does all the blossoms fall”. Global warming hah, so the cold La Nina weather had played a nasty trick on the HT’s.

    She then started to explain about the money that the Sakura season brings to the little town of Kakunodate and how the people depend on that to make ends meet. This weekend will be ok she said but the word of no blossoms had already gotten out and people were canceling their reservations for the next two weeks and that will really hurt the pocketbooks (my words not hers) or all the people in town. I started to feel a little selfish about my earlier pouting and realized how lucky we were just to be in this beautiful little town in Northern Tohoku. The way she explained it with all the calm and confidence of a person who is very centered and at peace with herself just put us at peace and in a better mood. I remember saying after her speech “I guess that gives us a good reason to come back and try again next year”. The smile returned to her now beaming face as she bowed very low and said “it would be an honor for all of us here if you would do us that honor” she said in her broken English.

    We all laughed together very loudly and it was then that I realized that there were a lot of people behind and around us waiting to check in or waiting in line to get into the restaurant and they all seemed to be listening with interest to our story (I doubt if any of them could understand what was being said but they all sure seemed interested). We went back to our room and I ordered a bottle of cold sake. I felt better after that, lol.

    The next morning we decided to rent two bicycles at the bike rental next door to the hotel. They cost 300 yen per hour and we were gone for about five hours. I am really glad we did this and if you ever go to Kakunodate in the cherry blossom season I can fully recommend this over renting a car as the traffic is horrendous in the little town as they close most of the main streets near the river and Samurai Houses from 10:00 am till 4:00 pm.

    By using the bikes we got to see the whole town over the river and across the train tracks. We also got to see a lot of cherry trees in full bloom in various other parts of the town in people’s yards, schools, small parks, and various other nooks and crannies of the town that we would never have had time to do on foot. It started to rain in the afternoon so we returned the bikes just before a huge storm complete with thunder and lightning rolled in just about 2:00 pm. We ran into the hotel lobby just as the rain really started to come down when out popped Akiyamasan with a present for us. She bowed very low and said “please accept this, I hope it makes you feel better” then ran away back around the corner to her office.

    In the room we opened the envelope and inside were pictures she had taken and dated 4-23-2008. The pictures were of the River and surrounding area in full bloom and were just fantastic! A little note was attached which read “I sincerely hope that you will return to see this next year and I hope these pictures I took three days ago will make you happy until your return”. What a beautiful person this girl is. She really took the entire sting of our disappointment and we are already thinking and planning a return sometime next year to Kakunodate and the Folkloro Hotel.

    Later on that evening when we were having dinner in the little restaurant on the premises Akiyamasa saw us go in and ran into the restaurant to act as our personal waitress as the other waitresses speak no or barely any English. They do have English menus though so if you get one of the ones who can’t speak any English you can just point at the items you want. After we were done she presented us with the special cherry blossom soda for dessert, which she bought herself and then ran out quickly to check on the front desk. During the cherry blossom season she works more than twelve hours a day. She is a very hard worker and the hotel is lucky to have her as an employee.

    April 28-29

    We had the 7:45 am Shinkansen train in the morning so after an early breakfast we were checking out at the front desk when Akiyamasan popped out of the office to personally check us out. In her hands were gifts for us that she presented to us with a very low bow. We thanked her profusely and left after a few pleasantries, as our train was due to leave in five minutes. The staff walked us out the door and all bowed as we left. We will return was my thought as we left the hotel. In the train we opened our gifts to find a beautiful sakura scented candle in a gorgeous glass container that when lit reflects little cherry blossoms on the walls. She also included a container of cherry blossom tea and two pair of hand painted chopsticks adorned with of course, cherry blossoms. Thank you Akiyamasan for all that you have done for us and save my same room for next year, we will be back again and again until we see your little town in full bloom.

    We took that Komachi Shinkansen to Omiya (Saitama) station then transferred to the Joetsu Shinkansen for a short twenty-minute ride to Takasaki. From Takasaki we transferred to a JR local train for a fifty-nine minute ride to the little town of Minakami up against the mountains known as the Japan Alps that were still covered in snow. As we were gaining altitude climbing on the train we noticed more and more cherry blossoms along the way and all in full bloom. We waited in the train station for the free shuttle bus to our next to last destination on this trip the Osenkaku Ryokan in the Takawagara Onsen.

    The bus arrived at 2:30 pm and we were off for a forty-minute bus ride deep into the mountains on our last adventure before returning to Tokyo and the ending of our trip.

    This is the most remote place we have ever been to in Japan sans the Tsurunoyu Onsen last year. This place is simply gorgeous! The vistas that we were privy to as the bus turned every corner around the lake and as the snow covered mountains were mirrored into the reflection of the lake......just so serene! We were so impressed with the area that we are making another trip into this area of Japan sometime in the near future for further exploration.

    Japanese Guest Houses arraigned this ryokan for us and I can’t say enough good things about them and their service. In fact they arraigned the Furusato Kanko Hotel, the Iwaso Ryokan in Miyajima and the Takimoto Inn at Noboribetsu Onsen also for us on this trip. See this site for pictures of Osenkaku Ryokan:

    Our twelve tatami mat room in the new wing of the Ryokan was all we could ask for and the views from our balcony were just awesome. The Cherry trees were in full bloom and the river rushing right below us made for a very peaceful and scenic next two days.

    Osenkaku has four outdoor rotenburo, which are just gorgeous and two indoor hot spring baths as well. One is for women only and the other three are mixed, the two indoor ones are separated for men and women. Women are given bath towels to wear in the rotenburo while men are pretty much running around buck-naked or with a small towel to cover their modesty. As I mentioned earlier the scenery and remote location make this one of the best places we have been to in Japan. English is spoken by many of the workers so you should have no problem communicating your wants to anyone.

    In fact we befriended one of our servers who admitted that she tried to move to Hawaii twenty-five years ago after her first visit but could not find a job there back then. She said she later got married and had a family but will “always have a soft spot in her heart for Hawaii and will return”, we were told on our last morning there.

    After a very smooth check in where you also pick out your yukatas from a large neat stack in the lobby with lots of different cool designs and colors(quite a refreshing difference from anywhere we had been) you are shown to your room and asked what your special wants and needs are.

    We can’t say enough about the food there as the Kaiseki meals are served for dinner in your room and breakfasts are the typical Japanese or American types which are served in the main dining rooms.

    One thing unique about this ryokan was that some of the meats served with our dinners were a little exotic for our tastes. They served meats and vegetables from the mountains in which we were which is not unusual. Dinners were elaborate and well served but the first night we were served bear soup that Linda balked at but it was really delicious imho. The second night one of the meat dishes was raw fillet of horse. The meat had an excellent flavor and texture and I really enjoyed my portion as well as Linda’s as she would not touch it. I kept singing the Mr. Ed song that whole night (you know the one that goes “a horse is a horse of course of course and…….” to Linda’s remorse, lol.

    Linda opted for the seafood and fish Kaiseki dinners and we were both served 14 courses. Here is Linda’s first nights menu:
    3 types of sashimi
    Vegetable tempura and shrimp tempura
    A whole fish you had to cook on the open ryori fire
    Beef with raw egg
    3 different pickled veggies
    Mushrooms, yams and taro you had to cook on the ryori
    Raw squid
    Sweet beans
    Stuffed cabbage
    Bear soup
    Some kind of fried bread dish
    Jello with fruit (strawberries)
    Plum wine

    Linda’s 2nd night menu

    Whole fish cooked on ryori
    Shrimp tempura
    3 types of different sashimi than the first night
    3 pickled veggies
    Miso soup
    Horse tartar
    Radish/cucumber salad
    Chicken cooked on ryori
    Three different mountain mushrooms cooked on ryori
    Apple wine

    My menus were similar except where there was fish they added steak, chicken or pork. Needless to say the food was excellent.

    The only negatives I have about the place are the day-trippers that are let into the rotenburos from 10:00 till 17:30. I can understand the need to make a little more money and as it was explained to me by our befriended worker that “the company needs to let the local people who cannot afford to stay here at the ryokan some time in their rotenburo so they can enjoy the beautiful surroundings”…….okay. Anyway the day-trippers take all the fun out of and the exclusiveness of the place and totally ruin the atmosphere between those aforementioned hours. It’s just something to remember if staying more than one day like we did. There are a lot of hiking trails though and we did a nice long hike, just beautiful.

    finishing tomorrow


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    April 30-May 4

    We headed back to Tokyo for the last four nights of our trip. So much of Tokyo has already been spoken and written about so no repeats here. We did do a day trip to Yokohama that was very interesting and I will let some tidbits go when asked to online as not to make this report any longer.

    We thoroughly enjoyed this trip and would recommend Japan in the spring and cherry blossoms season to everyone who have never been. I see us doing this again sometime in the near future.

    I am now in the start of the planning stage of our next trip which will probably be back to Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku in the fall of 2009 to try and chase the koyo line southwards for a few weeks……we’ll see. I have to “guess” on the dates, smiles.

    Thanks for reading.


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    hawaii, this is a great read, I am slowly making my way through it!

    I have to laugh, you aare already planning the next trip...

    I'll post again after I get done, I am only about half way through your report.

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    What a fabulous trip and a fabulous report, HT! Give yourself credit for guessing pretty well on the sakura - I'm sure your guesses on the koyo will be similarly accurate. When we're ready for our trip, I'll ask for your forecast!

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    I've read parts of this wonderful trip report. Seems like you did your part in being at the right place at the right time. Only foiled by weather in Kakunodate. I was very much looking forward to your report on the cherry blossoms but it sounds like you had a much more precious person-to-person experience there with Akiyamasan.

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    Great trip report HT. Regarding your time at Dogo Onsen, I had a totally different experience. I went in the early afternoon and opted for the Y1500 with the private room and better bath. I figured that I would make a fool of myself in front of less people there. I believe the bath was on the second floor. There was only one other person in the ofuro at the time and it was totally invigorating.

    I'm from Hawaii too HT and can I ask you what is in your omiyage that you give in your trips to Japan?

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    That was the way I was envisioning Dogo Onsen to be like....

    this yr in our omiyage was something small from HI.... lets see a can of mac nuts, some lions kona coffee, a puka shell necklace and a turtle key chain in a lauhala container, a little touristy but they get it that its from HI


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    Dogo was the first onsen I ever went to. Guess I timed it right. It was earlier in the day and was not crowded. When I got the ticket to go in I told the lady that I just wanted to go to the downstairs. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that I got a ticket for both. It is a big open room upstairs, but I wasn't really sure what I was in for. I correctly guessed that I should wear my yukata up there. Had tea, relaxed. Next day, after a night at HPD, I bought a ticket for both downstairs and upstairs. Or thought I did. When I got upstairs and didn't have a ticket, it caused quite a fuss. Again, though, the bath was not crowded and it was a pleasant experience.

    I like Fukuoka too. Did you see the shop selling Hakata dolls?

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    Mahalo nui loa for all the insights in this trip report! I've been undecided whether I could plan this trip myself but after reading this, I'm pretty sure I could. I just don't know if I have enough time to plan it all for this Aug/Sept! :(

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    Thanks for the info on your omiyage HT. That's a good idea especially since I find that japanese people have a soft spot for people from Hawaii. I'm a sansei and like you my grandpa is Hiroshima-ken. Your travels thru the Tohoku region has me intrigued. I like those rustic out of the way places that you described.

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    Another thanks for the omiyage ideas - and for the wonderful trip report too of course! Another sansei here but my g'parents were from Wakayama and Osaka. I'll be going there in a few months (I'll post my possible itinerary & questions soon) and need to bring some omiyage from NYC. I now have food for thought.

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    We met a Japanese gentleman on a train and he suggested Shiretoko in the fall when I asked what area he would like to see in all of Japan. I wrote it down and asked several concierge in our hotels after about Shiretoko and all were in awe of the place yet none had much information about it.....piqued my curiosity just as much as it did a while back when you mentioned the little town of Kakunodate to me, lol

    I think we will try in 10/09 to investigate the area......maybe you can make a commando run earlier and report???? lol


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    Thank you so much for a brilliant report HT. We are going to Japan to ski in January and I have decided to add on a couple of weeks travel there. We won't get any cherry blossoms of course.

    Have you ever travelled in winter there?

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    wish I could go earlier but too many things happening later this yr and early next yr. ie. DD is getting married, lol


    Thanks, yes I have been there in winter and it is cold. Nice time of year to do an onsen in combo with your skiing. There are a lot of ski areas in the Lake Tazawako area that I have seen with onsens all around, Nagano also.....have fun!


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    Just wanted to thank you for this fantastic report. I love your attention to the details and just enjoy your style of writing. There is so much information in this report!

    I remember reading about your adventures last year and was so taken that it moved me to plan a trip of our own to Japan. We leave tomorrow! Thanks again!!

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    Hi HT !

    Now in Nagoya on our way down to Hiroshima then Osaka on our drive back to Tokyo.
    Thanks for the tips HT.

    Saw the CB blooms here in Nagoya on TV this AM & they are mostly still asleep .... Noted schedule of viewing for the rest of our trip. Osaka might be IT.

    Domo !!!

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    Hi BMT,

    Glad the report helped. Hope you are enjoying the blooms and know that I am very envious of you right now. There are rows of trees around the river adjacent to the Peace Park that are beautiful in full bloom and then there is Miyajima...... Looks like you are in for a treat!


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    HI HT,
    Got back the other night. Spring may be here but the Sakura are not - saw a couple of trees at the Nagoya Castle, in Miyajima, none at the Peace Park really. None in Himeji & one early bird in Osaka. Although we missed the sakura, the kids think this was the best road trip we've ever had.

    Not bad- 5 cities- Nagoya, Iwakuni, Miyajima, Hiroshima & Osaka in 7 days- not a bad deal. Got to see our old friends & lots of new sights. It was a truly wonderful treat !!!

    Temps were down again today. Will probably see more Sakura at the Koen this weekend.

    Thanks again !!!

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    Aloha bmttokyo,

    Good to hear from you again, I guess the sakura will have a later start this year.....I remember saying that earlier this year.

    Head up north to Hirosaki later on in April around the 25th or so. It is a long train ride but well worth the effort imho. Do a weekend of it. Best sakura viewing I have ever seen.


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