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Trip Report Rain, hail (softened by sakura) couldn't stop us from loving Japan!

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This was our first, and hopefully not only, trip to Japan. We wanted to see the more traditional parts of Japan and do some nice hikes in the countryside. We did not visit Tokyo at all this trip.

I would not have been able to plan the way I did without the help of many people on this Forum, so wanted to pay it forward with this trip report in case it helps any other first-time Japan visitors. Special shout-outs to: mrwunrful, kja, kavey, russ_in_LA, HawaiianTraveler, luisJp, someotherguy, BigRuss, Mara, sue_xx_yy, and others. You all took your time to help me out, and I sure appreciate it!

We jumped around a little more than we usually do on a trip as there is just so much to see! In about 16 days we visited:

Kansai Airport hotel (1 night)
Nara (2 nights)
Koyasan (1 night)
Kyoto (5 nights)
Tsumago (1 night)
Karuizawa (2 nights)
Hakone (3 nights)
Kamakura (1 night)

We flew into Kansai and out Haneda airports on Hawaiian Airlines. Slight shout-out to Hawaiian: we didn’t pay baggage fees, and they served dinner and breakfast at no charge. Just like the “old days”!

Caveat: we moved slower than many travelers as my husband had to keep up with work in the mornings, so we were able to see about half as much as I had planned. Most people could see more than what I have listed in a day.

Here is a rather rambling account of our trip (April 3-20, 2015). Am going to post in several parts as when I tried to upload the whole thing it seemed to shut down Fodors!

PART ONE: Nara and Koyasan

OSAKA
April 3-4
Hotel Nikko Kansai Airport

We flew out of San Francisco at 9:30 am on Hawaiian Airlines and arrived Kansai Airport 7 pm the next day. We walked into the airport to a sea of humanity waiting to get passports checked and admitted to Japan. Hard after such a long plane ride…it took about 1 ½ hours just to get through this step.
Dinner was at Hotel Nikko, slurping noodles and listening to a loud rendition of the Hokey Pokey by Vickie Carr, I think…what a bizarre introduction to Japan! Hotel Nikko provided a bountiful breakfast buffet with good coffee, something we would miss later in the trip.

NARA
April 5-6
Sakuraya Guesthouse

It took about 1.5 hrs to get to Nara by train from the Nikko.

We loved the Sakuraya! Very bubbly and sweet English-speaking innkeeper at 150 year old house beautifully restored. Lovely tatami room. Shared bathrooms (two) but never a problem. Location was great; right on narrow traditional street where you walk through covered markets to get places. Walking distance from trains station.

DAY ONE (afternoon):

Kayoko recommended a walk along the Saho- gawa (gawa = river) to see the cherry blossoms (sakura) lining each side. Wonderful in spite of the rain. DH forgot his umbrella and was chased down by one of the men in green jackets who volunteer there. When he tried to return it after the walk, they kept saying “gift umbrella”…so sweet! This really was our first real introduction to Japan; the Nikko felt like just about any other Western hotel.

DAY TWO:

The next day I got a call from my friend Peter who lives in Kyoto, saying he would meet us at the huge Todaji temple in Nara. We didn’t have cellphone service in Japan, but I had downloaded the app LINE so that I could get free calls and texts to Peter as well as our kids in California.

We headed off to the temple via Nara Park. I had seen photos of the tame deer there and was eager to see them. They were all over! We saw many more in various spots around the temple as well. Away from the park we encountered several smaller deer who had been trained somehow to “bow” their heads in order to get treats…very endearing..

Todaji is huge, and apparently is the largest wooden structure in the world. It houses one of several Great Buddhas we saw in Japan, along with several awesome, fierce snarling warriors guarding him. There are a number of other shrines and temples close by.

We next visited Kasuga Taisha shrine, famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches.

Peter had to head back to Kyoto, but not before we had sushi (not far from the train station). For dinner we picked a very traditional restaurant with seating on the floor. The English menu picture menu stated you had a choice of “gruel” or “fish innards.” Not a hard choice…

KOYASAN (Mt Koya)
April 7
Rengejo-in Temple

Getting to Koyasan was not as challenging as I feared…thanks to a nice English speaking ticket officer who helped us with the transfers. The final train was even painted in beautiful colors. We used luggage forwarding to send our suitcases to Kyoto, so only traveled with backpacks. This is a fantastic service for those traveling by train, so that you don’t have to lug your suitcases with you on the trains and also so that you can immediately start to visit things in the city you arrive in without having to deal with storing your suitcases somewhere.

One word about Koyasan: FREEZING! If you go during anytime likely to be cold elsewhere, it will be freezing cold on Koyasan. We fortunately brought several jackets, but even then we were cold as it was rainy and drizzling as well.

We stayed at a Buddhist temple (Koyasan is the center of Shingon Buddhism). The temple was also unheated except for your traditional tatami room. They did have a low skirted table (kotatasu) with a heater under the table top, where you could stick your feet to get warm. An unlikely nice surprise was in the bathroom: in this austere temple they had heated toilet seats!

There was a funny incident when the monk first showed us to our room. It was a very small tatami room with futon in the sliding cabinets. We were really disappointed, as it looked like we must have gotten the most awful room in the temple. Then I noticed some sliding doors and started to pull them apart and peek into the next room. Hubby started loud whispering “Stop! That’s someone else’s room”!! Good thing I opened the screens anyway…there was a lovely room all set up for us with futon already down and hot tea and sweets ready. If it were up to my husband, we would have hunkered down in the ante-room all night cursing our luck!!

One note: the temple did not have its name in English anywhere…I had to download a photo of it to make sure we were in the right place!

There were two Buddhist ceremonies at the temple: meditation at 6 in the evening and chanting at 6 in the morning. We attended both. There were only a few Westerners at each; mainly Japanese for the religious ceremonies. The head monk for the meditation sat perfectly still for over 45 minutes…incredible. Not a wobble at all, while I had to squirm a little to remain comfortable. The morning chanting was beautiful, followed by gong ringing, a recitation of sutras in Japanese and more meditation.

The vegetarian dinner prepared by the monks was beautifully done and tasty (in my opinion; DH was ready for a hamburger right after).

Other than the temple stay, the highlight was walking through Okunoin cemetery, where Kobo Daishi is enshrined. The Ichinohashi Bridge marks the traditional entrance to Okunoin, and visitors should bow to pay respect to Kobo Daishi before crossing it. Across the bridge starts Okunoin's cemetery, the largest in Japan, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometer long approach to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum.

Walking through this atmospheric place in the mist and drizzle was an incredible experience for someone like me who is fascinated by historic, ancient cemeteries. In the evening path lights came on, making the area even more atmospheric.
Unfortunately when we awoke the next morning it was not only raining and cold, but windy too. This was one of the few times on the trip we were done in by the weather. We were soooo cold we just decided take off for Kyoto earlier than planned, even though there were other things I had wanted to see on Koyasan.

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    PART TWO: KYOTO Days 1-2

    KYOTO
    April 8-12
    Kiyomizu Tenseian (apartment)
    Tamahan Ryokan

    Arriving at Kyoto Station, we proceeded directly across the street to a Starbuck’s!! After the austere Buddhist temple and not sleeping much due to the cold, we were definitely in need of caffeine.

    We used GPS to walk to the apartment. We never would have found the apartment without it and indeed once there had to ask a local girl to help us find it. There were no street numbers we could read, and no sign on the apartment. Our innkeeper is a world renowned celadon potter, who rents out the apartment above his studio. He would have picked us up, but we didn’t have cellphone service (note to self: rent phone next time). We finally found the place when Haraguchi-san came running out into the street!

    My husband told me I really scored with this apartment, and I have to agree! For less than $100 per night (10,000 yen per night) we had a four room apartment. We slept on futon in the tatami bedroom the first night instead of the Western bedroom, then for the rest of the stay used the Western bedroom and set up the tatami room as a living room. The apartment has a kitchen (small) and a study/luggage room too. The only funky thing was the Japanese shower/tub was outside on a small deck (not a big deal). There was even a washer/dryer. The apartment is located walking distance from Gion and Kiyomizudera temple in Higashiyama area. Great location.
    Haraguchi-san was great about drawing us maps each night of what we might want to see, and even offered to drive us around one afternoon. I have a friend in Kyoto, so we had to decline as we were seeing him, but what a sweet offer.

    DAY ONE:
    The next day we got a late start, and began by taking the bus to Ginkakuji (silver temple). There are many shops that line the street leading to the temple, and it seems my husband stopped in all of them. The temple itself has a lovely garden, but not silver. Apparently they wanted to differentiate it from the Golden Temple (at least that’s one story we heard). This is a large temple with lots to see, but it wasn’t super crowded as I had feared. I had read that the cherry blossom time is the most crowded, but except for Kiyomizudera itself, found the purported crowds not so bad.
    Ginkakuji is at one end of the famous “Philosopher’s Path”. This lovely narrow stone path follows a small canal lined with cherry trees on both sides. I had read a lot about this and looked forward to it, and it certainly did not disappoint! It was raining lightly and there were definitely lots of other people, but I didn’t find it oppressive. There were places to veer off the path and check out (other shrines, etc.) so this area was very interesting.

    One thing I loved about Japan in general was finding these lovely (and well-used) little shrines in the oddest places. We would turn around a corner on a busy street and find one…or in the mountains on a hike.

    At the other end of the Philosophers Path is Nanzen-ji temple. This is apparently a big sprawling temple complex, but because we meandered along the path very leisurely we got there a little late. We saw the huge entrance gate and found an incredible aqueduct raised above the grounds. Walking underneath it, we hit an overlook and a small stream. I thought the path along the stream looked inviting and took it. It led to a small cemetery. This is another thing I loved about Japan. I just love historic cemeteries, and in Japan you never know when you are going to run into one. I don’t know anything about Japanese burial customs (but am now going to read about them) but could see that people seemed to leave large thin wooden slats with characters written on them. These might be to commemorate death anniversaries? Maybe like in Jewish cemeteries where you leave a stone on the grave to mark your visit? Will find out for sure.

    On the way back to the apartment we had the first of several walks through Gion. It’s bordered by a very busy street, but once you veer off into the small alleys you can lose yourself (literally and figuratively). Many of the narrow streets are lined with red lanterns and are stone paths. It was amazing how small the streets could be and they would still let taxis roar up and down them.
    Side note: while in general I found the Japanese people gracious and kind (as expected), I did not expect that sometimes you took your life in your hands as a pedestrian! It doesn’t seem the custom to give pedestrians the right of way and in Kyoto the taxis skidded around corners so fast you really had to watch yourself. Most people respected red lights and did not jaywalk, even with no cars approaching. But when cars were coming fast and you started to step into the crosswalk, cars did not seem inclined to stop for you. We soon adjusted to this and were super careful when stepping into the street.

    DAY TWO:
    Prior to coming, I used a website that helps you make reservations at Kokedera (Saihoji) – Moss Temple. The website charges a small fee and has the reservation card sent to your lodging, but worth having to try to secure Japanese stamps for the self-addressed envelope the temple requires.

    This is one day we didn’t plan transportation well. It took us almost three hours to get to the temple, which is located in the Arashiyama area. We hoofed it to a train station, got off in Arashiyama, and then used GPS to wander through these wonderful narrow streets along a canal before finally getting to the temple just in time for our 1:00 reservation. As we left the temple and walked down the road, I found a bus that would have taken us directly to the temple from the Kyoto Station. Live and learn.
    The visit to Kokedera was one of the highlights of the trip and worth the extra steps of arranging in advance. You start out by copying sutras, done at small tables while kneeling. You are supplied with a calligraphy brush, block of ink and a tissue page of characters representing one of Buddhist sutras. It was easy to trace over the characters with the brush, and took about an hour. We both finished, but think some other people didn’t and it seemed ok.

    After copying sutras, we went into the extensive and gorgeous gardens. Impossible to describe the various shades of green in the lush garden carpeted with many varieties of moss. Our visit was actually enhanced by the mist and drizzle…the moss was plumped up and really at its best. There were several ponds, narrow stone paths, everything I had dreamed of. This is an experience not to be missed if you love gardens.

    We took the bus back to Kyoto Station and walked about 40 minutes back to the apartment. We had a dinner date with Peter and Yumiko. Peter is a friend of mine who lives in Kyoto (for about 14 years) with his Japanese wife Yumiko. They own an apartment about 20 minutes away from ours. It was quite an experience to have dinner at their apartment. It was modern and reminded me of something from the Mad Men set…lots of black and red accents. Peter is an Irish musician (as am I) and has stored his instruments in the built-in “shrine closet”…designed to hold the ancestors shrine. He showed me the Japanese kitchen…no Western oven. Rice cookers are awesome and hold rice hot for several days if desired. Walls are thick, so Peter and I were able to play some tunes without bothering the neighbors!

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    PART TWO: KYOTO Days 3-4

    DAY THREE
    Hubby decided to have a rest day and do laundry and shop. I walked over to Peter’s and because he knows what he’s doing, we didn’t waste any time figuring out how to get places. We visited the following World Heritage sites:

    NIJO CASTLE: this is the castle with the “nightingale” floors, which were made to squeak loudly when walked on to warn of intruders. The castle had a scaffolding over part of the outside, but it didn’t really detract. It was beautifully restored, with scenes of figures showing how the shogun and his retainers would sit and plan. Many walls had gorgeous gilt paintings (many of tigers).
    Peter freaked out as he lost his wallet at some point. But because this is Japan (!) he didn’t have to worry about someone stealing it. He retraced his steps until he found the rice ball vendor where he had last used it, who directed him to the lost and found where he was reunited with it.

    RYOANJI TEMPLE: We took a short taxi ride to the temple renowned for its Zen rock garden. We sat for quite a while just contemplating the spare but beautiful arrangement of rocks and raked gravel. It was serene and restful despite the other people there. There were other gardens as well that were lovely.
    Kinkaku-ji temple: This is the famed “Golden Pavilion” and our next stop. The first sight of the temple with its gilt exterior reflected in the pond below took my breath away. I believe this is the temple that was torched by a radical student in the 1950s (someone will correct me if I’m wrong, I hope). Hard to believe someone would destroy such beauty, but with everything going on in the world today guess it’s not as rare as one might think.

    ARASYIYAMA: We took a train over to walk through the bamboo forest. Luckily I saw photos of it without people, as there were certainly crowds there when we visited. Peter says you can hear the bamboo clacking and sighing in the wind when more peaceful, but people were out enjoying it just as we were. One thing of note in Kyoto (especially around the temples): there were many women and men out in kimono, many of them rented at shops nearby. There were also several women who went through the laborious process of full geisha (“geiko” in Kyoto) hair and makeup. In spite of the fact of the rental aspect, the kimono were beautiful and fun to see. There were also rickshaws available in this area, and many of the dressed-up couples took advantage of this.

    We walked through the bamboo forest and up through a stone path to the top, where there are great views of the river below. If we had more time, we could have gone on a boat ride. We walked down a steep path to the river and walked for a ways. We saw a vendor with food for sale tying up next to a boat so that the riders could buy snacks. There is a super gourmet restaurant there (forgot the name) which we passed by.

    Train back to the apartment, where we picked up hubby and went to a Japanese pancake restaurant…(”En” is the English name) right by our apartment. Cooked tableside and delicious!

    After dinner took a beautiful evening walk around Gion (saw several maiko and a geiko slipping into a restaurant) and over to Marayuma Park to see the ancient giant cherry tree it’s famous for. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere there with couples still picnicking on blankets under the trees, vendors selling snacks,etc. It was not far from the giant lit-up Yasaka Pagoda, beautiful in the night, and the narrow stone streets leading up to Kiomizudera temple. I treasured this walk in retrospect, as when we visited Kiomizudera temple the next day the hordes were out.

    DAY FOUR
    We walked over to Tamahan ryokan, where we spent the last night in Kyoto. Tamahan is located on Ishibe alley, a small street renowned for its traditional architecture. As with the temple, we didn’t see an English sign indicating Tamahan (we later saw a lit sign at night) but Haraguchi-san had written the characters for us so we recognized it. We dropped off our backpacks and walked over to nearby Kiomizudera. In the daytime, the streets were so packed with people it was almost impossible to cross from one side to the other through the throngs. This is the only time the crowds were overwhelming, both in the streets and at the temple. There are many nice shops and food vendors (sampling green tea soft cones is a must). The temple entrances are gorgeous orange decorated wooden structures, while the temple itself is plain wood with a large balcony surrounding it where you have gorgeous views of the city below. There are many paths you can walk along once out of the congested temple grounds, and a hike that takes off from the rear of the temple.

    We spent all afternoon here, and returned to Tamahan for a kaiseki (sp?) dinner, a traditional multi-course feast served in your room at a low table. We had invited Peter to join us for dinner and enjoyed it with sake and tea. There were many courses, mainly cold as I remember and mainly seafood. I had to stretch my palate eating raw squid and octopus with tentacles (but not as much as a later ryokan dinner where one of the courses was baby wasps!)

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    TSUMAGO
    April 13
    Fujioto ryokan

    Thanks to my Fodor advisors, I knew to search for Nakatsuwaga train station to get to Magome. We had sent our luggage ahead to our next stop, so we had only day packs and our intent was to walk the Nakasendo way from Magome to Tsumago.

    This is the second and last time we were foiled by the weather. When we got to Magome, it was drenching rain coupled with a bitingly cold wind. We could hardly stand to walk the narrow uphill street in Magome to the top, let alone hiking to Tsumago. Several people indicated we would be crazy to try, so we gave it up hoping it would clear up in the morning.

    Magome is such a delightful traditional village, which we thoroughly enjoyed in spite of the weather. There is one central stone path that leads uphill through the village. The shops and residences lining it are of traditional Japanese architecture. There was a small canal running next to the stone path, with water wheels at certain intervals that were still in use. We loved it and wished we could have stayed longer.

    We took the bus to Tsumago and easily found the Fujioto ryokan (which had a sign in English, unlike several previous traditional lodgings). We checked in right away to a beautiful tatami room upstairs overlooking a nice garden. There was a “family style” bath which you could share together (usually the baths are segregated by sex). If you wanted a shower in the morning, you also used the family bath. There were shared bathrooms upstairs and down.

    Dinner was one of the best we had in the entire trip. In comparison to Tamahan ryokan In Kyoto (where we paid an extra $150 USD to treat Peter to dinner in our room) the kaiseki dinner at Fujioto was very reasonable (and better tasting to Westerners I think). Unlike Tamahan, which was pretty much cold raw seafood that night, at Fujioto there was a small brazier which cooked a scrumptious little stew of local vegetables and local beef on a magnolia leaf). This was just one course of MANY. Keiko-san the chef was amazing and we made sure to tell her so. One of the courses was beautiful tempura, so delicate and beautiful. One of the courses was topped with a single sakura blossom, picked last year and pickled. One of the courses was marinated baby wasps…I managed to down one washed down with sake.

    Breakfast was wonderful as well. We woke up (on our 42nd wedding anniversary!) to “rain” instead of “drenching downpour” so the Nakasendo was on. The wonderful innkeeper at Fujioto kept our backpacks for us and suggested because we were in sort of a time crunch (we had to get to Karuizawa as our next stop) we should take a taxi to the Magome Pass and hike downhill into Tsumago from there. We took him up on the suggestion with no regrets. Several Fodorites suggested skipping the slog up from Magome and doing this anyway so I didn’t feel too shorted although I had planned the whole hike.

    We started hiking at 9am and were back to Tsumago by 11:30am. We started down the hill from the pass and saw the first of many “bear bells” hanging from posts that you were supposed to ring to alert the (probably non-existent) bears of your presence. I had read that there was a sort of “greeter” who offered complimentary tea to hikers, and as we approached a structure he indeed popped out and waved us in. There was a traditional stoked fire with hanging metal teakettle, and he served us green tea in exchange for us filling out a form indicating where we were from and what we liked about the area. You could donate something if desired, which of course we did. As we left, he gave us each a small wrapped gift...very sweet.

    We kept running into a group of hikers from Tokyo. As we came down the trail to a road, one of the men had actually waited by the road for us to make sure we found our way to the “male” and “female” waterfalls! Another example of the graciousness we were shown by Japanese people.

    We saw one of many rather funny signs obviously translated to English, which cautioned us to walk “with caution in the feet.” This was almost as hilarious as the menu that offered to serve me a “chubby animal” (lobster) and one that admonished us “do not touch anything doubtful.”

    It was thrilling to see the winding stone path (often through bamboo) that had so entranced me in the Japan Guide photos. The Nakasendo was everything I had hoped for (minus the rain, I guess). So atmospheric, especially in the misty rain. I followed an intriguing small overgrown path up a hill and found another small cemetery and shrines. Walking down to Tsumago, you hiked through a small village of traditional houses.

    It’s hard staying only one night in a place, and this is a time where I wished we had stayed two. There was time pressure either day we did this hike, as the first day we had to get to the ryokan by 6 for dinner and the second we had to make it to Karuizawa. Tsumago was flanked by two longer travel days, so the timing was a little more difficult. It did work out in the end, however.

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    HAKONE
    April 16-18
    Fujiya Hotel

    The Fujioto is one of those “grand” hotels that reminds me of what the British hotels in India must have looked like. Western but with all sorts of Japanese touches. Lots of different areas to hang out in, a gorgeous large garden to walk in behind the hotel, and men and women’s baths.

    The Fujiya is located in Miyanoshita, a small village in Hakone and on the “round course” of transportation. We had curry at the “informal” restaurant at the hotel, which was tasty. The other two restaurants (French and Japanese) required reservations and seemed especially expensive. Our tastes are much more moderate.
    One of the hopes in staying in Hakone National Park is to see a glimpse of Fuji-san. We never did, as the weather didn’t cooperate. In spite of this, we had a great time in Hakone. As I read in the Japan Guide, there are many forms of transportation you take to do a loop around the park. This involves a bus, cable car, train, “ropeway” (gondola) and even this huge pirate ship that looks like something from Disneyland!

    DAY ONE:
    Our first day was taken up with progressing around the “course.”
    Before starting, DH found an antiques store right across from the hotel which I really recommend if you are interested in purchasing something authentic. The store is Yamatoya, specializing in Uikiyo-e (Japanese wood block prints). The two proprietors are sweet and so knowledgeable …we learned so much about woodblock printing and Imari ware from them.

    We got then got on the cable car and got off at Gora and went to the beautiful park there. It’s fairly large and has several greenhouses to walk through as well. Just as I said “hey, they should have a teahouse” one magically appeared. It’s an interesting 130 year old house converted to serve tea by a kimono-clad woman who taught us how to rotate the cup to sip the green tea she served. We then got to see the rest of the house, including the stone onsen below where everyone bathed.

    Back on the cable car to the pirate ship; we got on the last one at 5:00. The lake is beautiful and the trip took about 30 minutes. We met a Swiss girl on the boat who was going to the Hakone Shrine, so we all went together on the bus.

    The shrine has the iconic orange tori gates standing in the water to provide access to the shrine, which actually is across the street. We first found the walkway to the shrine itself, which was lined with orange lanterns turned on at dusk as we walked along the path. Gorgeous. We found the tori gate across the street, which is large and impressive when you stand next to it. Well worth a detour to see.

    Dinner was at a Korean restaurant close to the hotel…sort of bento box style and delicious.

    DAY TWO:
    We took a bus to Hakone-machi by Lake Ashi where the boat dock is. This morning we visited the Hakone Checkpoint. This is a restoration of the original checkpoint (Sekhisho) that the Tokugawa Shogunate set up to regulate travel between regions. There were 53 checkpoints designed to also control the flow of weapons and prevent women from leaving the regions they were supposed to reside in (per the literature provided).

    Leaving the checkpoint, we walked through the Hakone Detached Gardens. A very large garden with viewpoints and nice strolling paths.

    My goal was to find the ancient cedar path and walk along it to the old Tokkaido Road. It was a little difficult to find, in spite of looking “right there” on the map. We decided to GPS the old teahouse we knew was on the route, and found it that way.
    The entrance to the old Tokkaido Road is to the right off a street, no question. It was a magical hike, with the old stones lining the road and several plaques in English and Japanese explaining the history. The paths were actually built around 1620, replacing the old tatami lined road that needed to be maintained too often. There was a side trip to a small pond, Otama-go, which reminded me of this ancient narrow path we took up to a sanctuary in Riomaggiore (in the Cinque Terre).

    We made it to the teahouse, which has been serving tea for hundreds of years (and looks it, in a good way!). After a welcome break, we decided to take the bus back to Miyanoshita (and got the last bus, at around 5:00…you do have to pay attention to time in this area to make sure your desired form of transit is still available).
    Back at the Fujiya, I went to the women’s public bath for a soak and we had dinner at the same Korean restaurant. After dinner we were looking in the windows of another antiques shop and the owner appeared and invited us in. Nice conversation about history and how things were made, but no purchases.

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    KAMAKURA
    April 19
    Kaihinso Kamakura ryokan

    DAY ONE:

    We took a taxi from the Kamakura station and arrived at the ryokan around 3. We headed into the separate baths for men and women and relaxed for a while. Before dinner we headed out to see what we could find and ended up at the beach! It was a decent evening so we walked along the beach for a while before deciding to have dinner at Sea and Castle, a German restaurant. We had our last dinner in Italy at a Hofbrau in Genoa, so decided this was a nice tradition. Very sweet older woman Karla who runs the restaurant with her siblings.

    DAY TWO:

    Our last day in Japan! We awoke to a Japanese breakfast and asked them to hold our suitcases for us as we had a midnight flight out of Haneda and had all day to spend in Kamakura.

    DH found a store selling Kamakura traditional carved lacquerware, so we went in and eventually bought a beautiful plate.
    My goal was the Daibutsu Great Buddha, and a hike that took off behind the site. We had lunch on the way at a noodle place, which was unbelievably slow so got to the Great Buddha later than I had hoped. It was an incredible sight, seeing the huge metal cast Buddha. You could even walk into his tummy for an extra fee, but we skipped this.

    By now it had started to pour…DH bought a slicker as he had again lost his umbrella, and could hardly stuff himself into the largest size. He is not “Japan sized” as our friend pointed out.

    The hike took off from the road to the right of the Daibutsu complex as you exit, up some steep stairs right before the traffic tunnel. It was raining hard but I had really wanted to do this hike, so we kept going up and up through beautiful wildflowers and then lush forest. Our goal was the “money washing” temple, which we found after hiking for maybe 90 minutes or so.

    The temple is reached through a stone tunnel. It opens to a beautiful small temple complex carved into the rock. As with most temples, you can buy incense to burn and along with it you receive a rattan basket. You put coins in the basket and go into the temple to wash them for good financial luck.

    I hope we have it…Japan was not quite as expensive a rumored, but still probably the most expensive trip we’ve taken. At 16 days, it was also one of the longest.

    Our final dinner was at “Woof Curry” a hilarious name explained by the sweet proprietor that had something to do with a teddy bear character. Wet and bedraggled, we made it back to Kaihinso to pick up our luggage, take a cab to the station and get to Haneda. We transferred trains at Tokyo station and saw a train that looked like it had been packed by “train stuffers” who push people in at commute time. Wow.

    All in all this was a wonderful trip and we are eager to go again!

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    What a delightful trip report, leslieq! It sounds like you had a truly memorable experience and made the very best of it, rain and all -- kudos! I enjoyed the reminders of things that I, too, have seen, and I look forward to the time when I will be able to see the things that you have now seen before me and have brought to life with your compelling descriptions.

    "Todaji is huge, and apparently is the largest wooden structure in the world." I believe there is now at least one larger wooden structure, but I'm not sure it matters -- as you say, Todaiji is HUGE, and unlike any other current competitor for the title, it is OLD.

    I loved the idea of a small table with heater underneath! I don't remember hearing of them before. :-) And I have to agree -- you showed greater wisdom than your husband in your approach to the closed sliding doors in your room!

    "Side note: while in general I found the Japanese people gracious and kind (as expected), I did not expect that sometimes you took your life in your hands as a pedestrian!" And never ever, anywhere in the world, get between a Japanese person and his/her tour guide! IME, the most courteous Japanese person imaginable can apparently turn into an awesome rendition of a Pamploma bull under that scenario!

    Wonderful story about the lost wallet -- really, where else would THAT happen?!?!

    And thanks, leslieq, for your kind words to me and others who provided input on you plans. It's nice to see someone take one's words and turn them into a lovely travel experience. :-) Welcome home!

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    Thanks for this lovely report.

    I am trying to sort out my first Japanese stay. Your report along with the other fantastic info from Fodorites will help immensely.

    Kyoto is of course a main attraction. Could you tell me how you found the apartment? It sounds particularly interesting to me as I'm a potter and specialize in carved celadon. This Japanese trip will be part of a return to South Korea to spend time with potters there. It would be really interesting to have a little interaction with a Japanese celadon potter as well as somewhere good and reasonable to stay in Kyoto.

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    Hi Leslie! Thanks for the report, and so happy you had a good time, despite the soggy weather. We were caught in that April 13 downpour as well, and I don't blame you one bit for delaying your hike by a day. That was the one day that defeated us as well (in Matsumoto). Of course, your Tsumago/Magome description has me day dreaming about a trip #3...some day!

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    MaryW - I found the apartment on TripAdvisor. Look under Salon Haraguchi Tenseian

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g298564-d1388894-Reviews-Salon_Haraguchi_Tenseian-Kyoto_Kyoto_Prefecture_Kinki.html

    The Salon is a beautiful house situated around Marayuma Park, as I remember. I originally tried to book the house (you share with another family) but too late. Haraguchi-san then offered me the apartment. You can find reviews of the apartment under the same listing.

    The apartment was wonderful and at a great price. I will put up a review soon on TripAdvisor as well. If you're another celadon potter, this is the place for you! His studio is under the apartment and he let us see what he's working on. We originally wanted to purchase one of his works but way out of our price range - museum quality items.

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    Thank you so much. It looks perfect as a place to stay - both price and style. Being a potter makes it much more interesting. I will try to book early but as we have a good bit of flexibility I will also just change tining to suit.

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    THANK YOU THANK YOU. going first time to Japan and was really lost on itinerary. Yours really helped a lot to focus me and realize I had too many stops going on. If you get a chance, could you or anyone comment on my itinerary I put in? thanks again. that was super

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    H2T - haha, I just posted a reply to your itinerary without realizing you already read my trip report! Feel free to write back if you have other questions. As I said, we chose not to go to Tokyo in order to have more time in Kyoto.

    mrwunrfl - Yes!! We did go to Karuizawa and remember you were the one who suggested it. If you scroll down in the trip report (sorry, waaaay too long; couldn't stop myself from writing and reminsicing) you will find what we did there. We stayed at Hotel Wellies and loved it. The weather was really horrible when we where there, but we managed to enjoy ourselves and get out hiking...in spite of a pounding hailstorm coupled with lightning and thunder!!

    Want to go back to Japan and pick up Matsumoto, Kanagawa and Takayama next time....if you remember, I wanted to go to Takayama but the major festival there dissuaded me due to the anticipated crowds.

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    Russ - wow, you're right; I missed posting Karuizawa. Note that the weather was terrible when we were there so we really didn't get to do the full range of activities that this area had to offer...so a little disappointing. We did love Hotel Wellies, though.


    KARUIZAWA
    April 14-15
    Hotel Wellies

    We took a taxi to Nakatsugawa station and bought tickets to Naka-Karuizawa station. There was another example of the kindness of people, as after we purchased our tickets and went down this long steep set of stairs to the platform, the ticket seller came running down after us and wanted to make sure we knew that we didn’t take the next train, but the following one at the platform. Wow! He actually left his window to run and find us to make sure we got on the right train. Much bowing and “arrigato gozaimas” ensued.

    As we didn’t have cellphones, we had been emailing with Chris Price, the Hotel Wellies innkeeper, as to our arrival time. He picked us up about 5:00, which was very welcome as it had been a bunch of quick transfers and other machinations to get to the right train station.

    Hotel Wellies was a welcome break from trying to speak our limited Japanese and having (as we joked) “fish heads and rice” for breakfast. I actually enjoyed the Japanese breakfasts except for the fish course…a little too much first thing in the morning. Chris is a jovial and wonderful host, having lived in many more places than we have even visited. He and his wife Noriko founded Wellies a few years ago and we loved it. Their daughter Mia was the third staff member and all were wonderful.

    Our bedroom at Wellies was on the second floor, #207. We were given a choice between the larger room we chose (with a nice sofa for reading) and a smaller room with a larger bathroom. Breakfast was fantastic (best bacon ever, which Chris makes himself, as well as delicious breakfast sausage).

    For dinner Chris took us to a restaurant that was renowned for soba noodle dishes, a specialty in Karuizawa. Very tasty.

    Chris asked us to have the restaurant staff call him so that he could pick us up as it was late and raining. His arrangement was that he picked you up from the station and took you back for no charge, but charged a small fee of 500 yen for other trips, which we found very reasonable and easier than a taxi.

    After dinner my husband crashed in the room while I took my book downstairs to the cozy bar/lounge area. A man and woman came into the bar and greeted Chris and Noriko as old friends, which indeed they were. There is a tight-knight “ex pat” community in Karuizawa, and Wellies is often the gathering spot. Judy was originally from Tennessee, and you sure could hear it in her strong Southern accent. She had an outsize personality and hair/makeup that reminded me of Dolly Parton, but was just hilarious. I sure enjoyed hanging out with the four of them and hearing Karuizawa stories such as the “big snow” that shut down the town and highways for 3 days. Judy told of a friend who was clearing a path through the snow and was gored in the leg by a wild boar, who came charging down her path and she couldn’t get out of the way. Yikes.

    DAY ONE:

    Coffee!! Bacon!!! Yummy English breakfast.

    Chris suggested a hike up to Hanarayama, a small mountain hiking area. He took us to the path and we set off on a beautiful hike. It was well marked for the most part going up and we hiked through bare trees with leafy undergrowth. We saw another wonderful shrine going up, and reached steep wooden walkways at one point. For the final uphill I left DH behind and charged up this steep set of black stairs to the top. Although triumphant at reaching the top, found the views were pretty obscured by the mist and clouds.

    We wanted trek down another way and had a little bit of trouble finding the alternate trail, but saw views from the other side of the ski slopes that Karuizawa is famous for. We also saw these wooden shelters that signage indicated were lightning shelters. Good thing we made it down the mountain in time, as we would certainly have needed on of those lightning shelters.

    At the exit from the park, we walked down a small street winding through large luxurious (and mainly Western-looking) houses. At one point a Japanese pheasant darted across the road. I squirmed through a fence and found it in an open field…got a nice photo and it then fluffed its feathers and emitted a loud, raucous squawking.

    At that point it started raining heavily again. Up went the umbrellas and then suddenly it started to HAIL…not just pitter-patter hail, but knock-you-out hail. We were able to duck under a carport and waited it out. Then came the tremendous flash of lightning (thinking of those shelters on the mountain) and the loudest set of thunderclaps I’ve ever heard. We certainly did not win the weather lottery on this trip!

    We waited for it to rain, not hail, and walked over to Kumoba Pond (a lovely pond which I had looked forward to walking around) to snap a few water-logged photos and then decided to look for a coffee shop. We ended up at the JR station…had coffee…and then took a taxi to the Hoshino Onsen to warm up.

    This was our first onsen soak. We’d tried Japanese baths, but onsen are fed by naturally heated spring water and are often sulfurous. Hoshino was beautiful. I first soaked in the inside pool, then saw women bathing in a beautiful outside pool. Wonderful experience of bathing with Japanese women enjoying camaraderie and chatting away.

    When reunited with my husband, we had another laugh at something similar to the temple, where he would have had us spend the night in the ante-room instead of the lovely room they had set up for us. He never realized that there was a sauna (which he loves) or an outside onsen (which was much nicer than the inside one). Oh well, he did enjoy the inside bath.

    Dinner that night was at Hotel Wellies. We had arranged for Chris to cook dinner at the hotel that night, which was a great decision. He served scrumptious onion gratinee, followed by home-made beef stew and rhubarb crisp. Delicious! As we were finishing, the same two ex-pats, Tony and Judy, came into the pub and we all had a great time talking. Nice experience that you wouldn’t get at a larger hotel. Wellies is really a small inn rather than a hotel.

    DAY TWO:

    Hubby had to work this morning, so Chris took me to the Karuizawa Bird Sanctuary so that I could take a nature hike with a guide. It was very fun; guide Yuko with another young woman Nami. We saw 5 varieties of tits (the bird kind) and a darling Japanese pygmy woodpecker. I took a photo with Nami and noticed she made the ubiquitous sideways “V” sign that all Japanese tourists seemed to be making. When I asked her about it, she said it was the peace sign. Cool!

    Chris picked me up (I had intended to walk back but DH decided it was getting late). Luckily Chris downloaded LINE so that he could call me. Best app ever for communicating in Japan.

    Off we went on the Shinkansen to Tokyo, then transferred trains to backtrack to Odawara Station near Hakone. I found the ticket window for the Hakone Free Pass (a must) and was glad to see an English speaking helper there.

    After several transfers we made it to Miyanoshita, where the Fujiya Hotel is located. On to our next adventure in Hakone.

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    Thanks for your fantastic trip report, leslieq. As a result, we're staying at Tenseian Kiyomizu in Kyoto and are also considering a stay in Tsumago, so will check out Fujioto Ryokan, although I'm a little worried about my husband and his hiking abilities.

    I truly appreciate the effort you went through in order to provide such valuable information.

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    internetwiz...how awesome that you are staying at the Kiyomizu apartment!! Please give Haraguchi-san our greetings and let him know that you read about the apartment in my trip report. He was such a great host, really went out of his way. I hope you will let me know how things went.

    How far can your husband normally hike? Doing it the way we did was a lot easier than starting from Magome. My hubby has a sort of bad knee and we did it in the rain.

    You can write me at quintero@stanford.edu if you would like more details...

    Have fun!

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