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Seeking Feedback on Japan Itinerary: Okayama, Himeji, Hikone, Kanazawa

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Hi Everyone!

We just got back a month ago from our first trip to Japan, and feedback from Fodorites during the planning stages was invaluable. So I’m again turning to you, and your wealth of knowledge, to help me with the finer points of itinerary planning for trip number two. This time around, our priorities are as follows: cherry blossoms, gardens, and castles. Our itinerary is also influenced by some of our best experiences we had at locations outside of Tokyo and Kyoto. For example, Takayama, which was the perfect size to experience in one full day; as well our stays in traditional lodgings in Hakone and Koyasan, where the outdoor activities could be enjoyed for a few hours, and then we could relax in a uniquely Japanese atmosphere. So here is what we have landed on so far:

• April 1 – 4: Tokyo for 3 nights – we saw everything we set out to see last time, so this time will be more about riding bikes through parks to see cherry blossoms, and just random exploring
• April 4: Train from Tokyo to Kyoto, stopping in Kamakura for 4 or 5 hours on the way there.
• April 4 – 7: Kyoto for 3 nights – again, to see the cherry trees, pick up a couple missed temples and gardens and explore the city.
• April 7: Train and ferry to Miyajima - (depending on cherry tree blossoming reports, we may stop for a couple hours in Himeji, just to see the castle outside, if the blossoms are at peak bloom, and return later to tour the inside).
• April 7 – 8: Miyajima ryokan overnight - Our plan would be to arrive by 1pm and depart the next day about 1pm, so as to take some hikes and do some relaxing.
• April 8: Okayama - Arrive about 2pm, explore Korakuen Garden, Okayama Castle (optional), overnight in generic hotel near station
• April 9: Train to Himeji, 4 to 5 hours for castle, grounds and lunch, train to Arima Onsen, arriving about 3pm, overnight in ryokan and relax in onsen.
• April 10: Train to Kanzawa, stopping at Hikone Castle for 2 hours to see cherry blossoms, arrive in Kanazawa about 3pm.
• April 10 – 12: Kanazawa for 2 nights (I’m thinking this will be our Takayama-equivelent this time around, even though it is about 5 times the size).
• April 12 – Train to Yudanaka, arrive about 1pm, 3 or 4 hours to see snow monkeys at Jigudani Park, overnight and relax in Ryokan in Shibu Onsen, where guests can use any or all nine traditional onsen in town.
• April 13 – Train to Matsumoto, arriving about 12:30. Spend day seeing castle and exploring the town
• April 14 – Depart Matsumoto about 11:00 and arrive at Narita about 3pm.

The schedule we have above is based in part on hotel availability. Last time we had no problems booking rooms in mid-May, but now that we’re going in prime cherry blossom season, rooms seem to be a lot more limited. My main questions are primarily about how to allocate my time from April 8 – 10.

1) Regarding my current April 8 – 10, is the timing allocated fine as is, or could we try see all of these places with only one overnight stay between Miyajima and Kanazawa, and then add more time to Kanazawa (if it warrants it). I think I would prefer the pace to be a bit more relaxed than frantic.
2) If we keep the same schedule as above, any better suggestions for overnights than Okayama and Arima Onsen?
3) In your opinion, is two nights enough time to see the main sights and get a feel for Kanazawa, given that we have an afternoon the first day and a full day the second?
4) If I’m able to squeeze a night out of the schedule, as described in number one above, and I don't add it in somewhere else, I also am thinking about maybe adding in a visit to the Kiso Valley, but I’m not sure where it would logically go. I suppose I could end with two nights in Matsumoto and do it as a day trip. This is not a must do, just toying with the idea.
5) Another thought I had for the April 8 -10 dates was to try to spend a night or two in Matsue, but there were no rooms available. As an alternative, I thought about staying two nights in Okayama, and doing Matsue as a day trip. The problem with this is that it is 2.5 hours each way, and I would be going primarily to see the garden at the Adachi museum, which keeps winning awards, but the train trips will eat up a lot of time. I would still want to go see the garden in Okayama and the castle at Himeji, so I would have to cut out Hikone. That would be OK, but I read that the cherry blossoms at Hikone bloom about a week after Kyoto, so the timing might be perfect for Hikone. So again, unless someone convinces me that this is possible, this is not a must-do either.

Any feedback or suggestions that you have is appreciated. Thanks!

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