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Trip Report Trip Report - A magical 3 week+ sojourn through Japan

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First a little bit about ourselves. This trip started because my girlfriend was taking long service leave and asked me to go to Italy with her. I countered with “Lets go to Japan for three weeks and then you can continue on to Europe and I will return back home to husband and 3 kids”. So the die was cast.

We are both about 50 something and as you already know I have a family whereas my girlfriend is single. We have known each other since schooldays so are pretty well aware of each others foibles and our travelling styles and interests are fairly similar. The last time we travelled together was to France about 5 years ago.

The first hiccup in our plans was that, in light of the escalating cost of fuel, Qantas cancelled the direct Melbourne/Tokyo route completely on which we were booked. Of course, that meant hundreds of other people were also having to rebook as well with whom to compete. Our concern was organising it so that we were still on the same plane. Our bookings were independent of each other, I was using Frequent Flyer points (hard to get the plane you want at any time) and my friend was on an ultra cheap deal with Finnair which likely meant she wasn’t at the top of any list as to priority. Fortunately Qantas were really quite accommodating and flights rebooked without any real angst.

A quick run down of itinerary for those who want to know if this trip report is going to cover places they are interested - Kiso Valley (Tsumago/Magome), Kyoto, Himeji, Miyajima, Okayama, Kurashiki, Shiraishi Island, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, Takayama, Matsumoto and Tokyo.

There aren’t going to be any wonderful restaurants reviews as for the most part we ate quite simply. In light of the fact that my friend was going to be travelling for the better part of three months, not to mention the Aussie dollar started to nosedive about 5 weeks before we left, we had to contain our costs. For us, seeing Japan was more important that eating our way around Japan.

Our accommodation covered pretty well everything on offer in Japan from a $25 a night minshuku, typical Japanese business hotels, 4 star western hotels, modern and traditional ryokans plus a one night splurge at the very upmarket Iwaso Ryokan on Miyajima.

We had an overnight flight from Australia so arrived at Narita early morning. We were through immigration very quickly and found the booth for the Airport Limosine Bus quickly. We got tickets to the Grand Prince Akasaka and picked up a rental phone from Softbank. Getting a rental sounded like a really good idea at the time so I could contact my family at home, but this phone ended up becoming the bane of my life.

The bus trip intoTokyo of course took the better part of two hours, but the bus taking you direct to the hotel was a real plus. Having to battle the trains and the subway with luggage, not really knowing exactly where the hotel would be in relation to exiting the subway, was just something we didn’t need to work out after an all night flight.

Both of us were just amazed at how big Tokyo is. It seemed to go on forever. In fact, throughout our trip we could never get over how just how built up the developed areas of Japan are. Coming from Australia we are a lot more used to city or town, absolutely nothing for quite some time, another town, nothing etc. What Japan considers to be a “small” town was to us a city for the most part. Of course there are undeveloped parts of Japan which are beautiful and pristine and you could see mountains in the background wherever we were but this certainly struck us. In Australia it is just not possible to travel for hours on end on a train and it is built up all the way, such as Tokyo through to Hiroshima.

After leaving our luggage at the Hotel we headed out to the Ginza area. Enjoyed just meandering around and was quite excited the first time I saw a group of women wearing kimono(e)s. Can someone tell me what is the correct plural for kimono? I had of course hoped to see some women in kimonoes but was quite surprised at the number of times we did during the course of our trip. Whilst hardly common it certainly was not uncommon either.
Although neither of us are really into shopping, and certainly can’t afford designer labels, we checked out some of the exclusive label shops. Warning, don’t try to take a photo in the Chanel shop. They don’t like it - but of course they were extremely polite about telling me “no”.

From the moment we arrived at the airport it was wonderful to see that so many people in the service industries do really bow to you. It really made us a feel that we had headed off to a completely different culture.

For lunch we decided to try out a small Japanese restaurant we saw down in a basement. It was only after we sat down and saw the menu did we realise that we are completely unable to differentiate between Chinese script and Kanji script, so we celebrated our first meal in Japan by having a Chinese meal.

Before we left I had taken the precaution of getting a card printed up which stated in Kanji that I was allergic to mushrooms which I duly showed each time we had a meal. Having shown the card, the waitress indicated there were no mushrooms in my meal. When it arrived about 15 minutes later it looked wonderful with three different types of mushrooms on top. Fortunately my girlfriend’s meal was mushroom free so we simply swapped and quite enjoyed each other’s meal.

Actually this was the only time I had trouble and the card was a godsend because mushrooms are very popular in Japan and most of the wait staff had either very limited or no English at all. All I had to do was hand over the card and they would give a big smile of understanding and let me know if my choice of dish was OK. If anyone else has allergies I ordered the card through www.selectwisely.com.

We were both blown away by the variety of food available in the basement of the large department stores. There were quite a number of products that we couldn’t even guess what they were or would taste like. It was experience in itself just to wander around them. It is something you must do. The packaging up of some of the produce was wonderful to behold but also incredibly wasteful. A woman bought a cake (family size) which was then boxed up in cardboard, which I expected, but it was then packaged in a larger box with padding around it so it couldn’t move, then placed inside a paper bag which was obviously made to fit the dimensions of the box and, finally as it was raining, completed covered in a purpose made plastic bag so nothing was exposed to the rain except for the handle for which small slits had been made.

When we finally returned to the hotel we were very pleased with our room (booked for an excellent price through Expedia). The room was a good size, especially for Japan, and we had 2 kingsize single beds. Wonderful view of the lights of Tokyo and, of course, we got to play with a high tech style toilet with all its various options that we had heard about. My friend is determined to buy one if she ever finds them in Australia!

Had a wonderful walk in the evening around the environs of the hotel. Lots of small shops and restaurants, neon lights and people, even a small local shrine and cemetery. Pop into a Pachinko bar to see gambling Japanese style. Lots of bright flashing lights and the noise levels are deafening.

For the next instalment we head off to Kiso Valley for “old” Japan.

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    Sounds like a fun trip so far. Kimono plural in Japanese would be, I think, kimono. In American English it would be kimonos. Good that your allergy is a visible one.

    I had the same impression of Tokyo, when taking the bus from Shinjuku to Narita Airport - that the city just kept going on and on.

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    Colduphere, I hadn't considered your suggestion but I like the sound of it. May be I have been missing out all these years because of my allergy - a few magic mushrooms could really liven things up.

    Mrwunrfl - I was just about to post the next part of my report when I saw your comment. You are certainly one of those persons who deserve a thanks for help in organising this trip.

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    I must start off by apologising. The first thing I meant to say at the start of my report was a big thank you all those Fodorites who helped in planning our trip, whether it simply was through info gleamed from their own trip reports or those who answered particular questions. This forum is an amazing resource. There is virtually always someone out there who knows the answer to your query. My husband thinks that I am addicted to this site and if I read a list of indicators of what constitutes an “addiction” he may well be right. I should also note that www.japan-guide.com was also a great help in planning the trip as well.

    I mentioned that the rental phone I hired from Softbank was the bane of my life. It seemed a really good idea at the time. I was given the phone number before I left so I could advise those likely to want to contact me, the daily rental charge was quite cheap and there was no cost to me in receiving either texts or phone calls. Charges for me to phone home were steep, but the idea was that I simply would ring and say “Call me back”. They then rang the mobile using Skype so there was no charge to either of us – the perfect solution.

    The reality was a little different, some of which was my own ineptness, some of which was the phone. When we first got to the hotel in Tokyo I thought I better ring or text to let our families know we had arrived safely. Although there was an instruction book with the phone it did not give any details of what buttons to press for texting. It was quite different to any previous mobile phone I had and I couldn’t work out the button to press for a space and I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get some letters to come up. I decided that it would be better to wait until evening when I could take my time. Come evening I wasn’t really doing a lot better. (Eventually I did work out how to send a proper text but that was several days later after quite a bit of trial and error). I managed to get a rather garbled message together with no spaces and some missing letters but it was enough, but then I was unable to send it. I knew all the correct codes to get to Australia but it just wouldn’t go through. This in fact remained the case throughout the trip. I was able to do a “reply” to a text that had come in but seemed unable to send a text that I had initiated myself. Quite a number of the texts that I had sent were not received by my husband although they were definitely listed in my “sent” box not “out” box. The battery itself must have been rather past its use by date because sometimes by the time I I typed up a longer text, it would then be too low on battery to send it.

    After I had given up that night I decided I had better charge the battery but then realised I couldn’t. The charger they had given me didn’t fit into the power point as there were no “prongs” to insert. Both my friend and I could only guess that it was some special sort of charger to connect to a laptop or something similar. By the next morning the phone was completely dead. I thought I would have to find a Softbank shop to ask for help but didn’t see one that morning as we headed off to Tokyo Station and it wasn’t until we got to Kyoto 2-3 days later that I had an opportunity to look for one. When we arrived at Kyoto we asked the concierge where to find a Softbank shop. She told us but then said the staff there had no English and what was the problem. I told her I couldn’t charge the phone and showed her the charger. She looked at me strangely then took the charger off me and simply pulled the fully inset metal section upwards and lo and behold you have a proper plug. We both burst our laughing and then she joined in. I have never seen a plug which could do this before and it hadn’t occurred to us that the metal section could even be moved. I am sure she thought we must have been very technologically deficient. Well at least I could charge it but it continued to be a bug bear.

    We were heading out from Tokyo this morning (spending time there again at end of trip) and had no trouble getting the subway to Tokyo Station. Fortunately no change was required and because it was a public holiday the subway was not at all crowded. At Tokyo Station we then had to find the office to validate our 3 week Rail Pass. We would not have saved a lot of money by using the rail pass because we chose on several occasions to use bus instead in order to better suit our itinerary. Also we needed to get a full 3 week pass rather than a 2 week because there were a couple of places we wished to be on specific days and that didn’t make for the most cost effective route choice. Regardless of this, the JR Pass was wonderful because it was just so easy.

    When planning our itinerary I had extensively used www.hyperdia.com for our all train info. I found this to be an excellent resource. I had typed up a spreadsheet which listed all the trains. times, stops etc that we wanted to use during the trip. This sheet became probably the most important thing we were carrying around apart from passport/money. We knew exactly what time the trains left, what changes to make, platforms numbers, train names and numbers and arrival time, how many inbetween stations, name of station one stop prior to getting off etc . At a couple of the very small stations that we went to where the staff had no English I just simply got out the sheet and pointed out the name and time of the train we wanted and that solved all problems.

    The efficiency of the Japanese rail system is fantastic. When a train says it is leaving at 6.03 it leaves at 6.03, and don’t get on a train sitting on the platform at 6.01 without checking because it may well not be yours. It was not unusual at the larger station for a train to be leaving every few minutes. There were plenty of staff around and without exception we found them to be extremely helpful. They could certainly teach my home town a thing or two, where some suburban stations are now unmanned during non-busy periods and the ticket inspectors attitudes can leave a lot to be desired on occasions.

    The only real trouble we had was on arriving at Tokyo Station it literally took us half an hour to find the office at which to activate the JR Pass, despite being given a map and stopping to ask for directions several times. Once found, there was no problem though.

    We had about an hour to kill before we caught the train so we decided to pick up some food for breakfast and lunch on the train. It wasn’t too long before the Daimaru dept store was due to open at 10am so we stood outside because we had heard about how all the staff bow to everyone as they enter. This they certainly did, not only at the actual entrance door but at each of the individual food counters.

    Where we were heading to today was the towns of Tsumago and Magome. These places were two of the towns on the old post road (horse & buggy days) heading over the alps to the other side of Japan. When the railways were built they bypassed these towns and they fell into obscurity and neglect. It is only in the past 30-40 years that they have become popular again as probably amongst the most authentic of villages typifying “old” Japan. There is also a walking trail (about 7 km) connecting the two towns called the Nakasendo Trail.

    Whilst on the train we met a Japanese couple who told us they were also going to Tsumago and when we got off they made sure of where the bus was, asked the name of our accommodation and let the bus driver know. This resulted in the bus driving being very nice to us and dropping us off about 20 metres away from our minshuku (B&B) instead of at the bus stop. This was all very nice except that we hadn’t realised this (the bus driver had no English) and it took us about 1/4hr walking up and down, stopping to ask for directions before we found our place. The minshuku incidentally does not have any English signage at all to help you out.

    Our booking was for 2 nights at Shimosagaya which is a very traditional minshuku (booked through Japanese Guesthouse site), I really enjoyed our time there. Of all the places we stayed this would have been the most authentic in terms of being traditional Japanese. It is a family run home (owners have virtually no English) and the house is about 150 years old. All the guest rooms are upstairs up a steep and narrow staircase. It’s amazing how just two days of climbing up and down those stairs can improve your thigh muscles! The bedrooms have traditional tatami mats and whilst not big, are not particularly small either. You need to share the one bathroom with the other guests (I think there 4 rooms altogether) but there are two separate toilets (hi tech western fortunately).

    I think that by the time we left they must have been muttering to themselves about the uncouthness of those foreigners. On the first evening I went downstairs to have a shower and when I opened the door to the bathroom, I thought “Oh – NAKED MAN”. I quickly shut the door and disappeared upstairs again. Of course that was who I sat next to the for dinner but he seemed quite unfazed about it all, so I didn’t feel too embarrassed. The owner must have realised what had happened because she came upstairs about 15 mins later to indicate that the bathroom was free. She then had a minor stroke because my girlfriend had got out the futons and was now lying on top of one, but without a covering sheet. So whilst I went and had a shower she raced around setting up the futons correctly. We realised afterwards that they would have set up the futons for us whilst we were having dinner. My other “’lese majeste’ was the following night at dinner when I accidentally knocked over a bowl of miso soup which then dripped off the edges of the tables onto the beautiful tatatmi matting
    underneath and we all scrabbled around trying to clean it up before it had a chance to stain the matting.

    The meals were served downstairs on the very low tables with just a cushion to sit on. The meals themselves were beautifully presented, about a dozen small dishes with a little bit of this and that, each time with rice and miso as well. I really enjoyed the meals although there were a couple of things I couldn’t really come at, in particular a grey soft squelchy vegetable dish. I think it was some sort of root vegetable. It wasn’t so much the taste as the consistency that I didn’t like. My friend declined the fried crickets, but I quite enjoyed them – nice and crunchy. Both dinners and breakfasts were different each time so you got to try a lot of different things. We were not given any option as to what time to eat breakfast or dinner so we had to fit in with their plans – not that we found this to be any sort of problem.

    The town of Tsumago is absolutely delightful. You feel as though you have stepped back in time a couple of hundred years. From the main street you cannot see any power lines, all the electric lights are enclosed inside a lamp so they just have a soft glow and there is not one modern building in the main part of the village. It is all just beautiful old wooden constructions. There were a number of shops to browse through and several places where you could examine the architecture of the buildings more closely. It was a beautiful day weather wise and we just ambled around slowly enjoying the village and the sunshine.

    After dinner we went out again, wearing the traditional yukata supplied by the minshuku and enjoyed seeing the town again after all the day trippers had disappeared. It was lovely and peaceful and there was a real feeling of serenity. We ran into the Japanese couple from the train. The wife was extremely giggly and was insistent that my girlfriend try on her sandals, despite the fact that there was no way her feet would fit into them. The husband just said “too much sake” which explained much. He also told us how it is traditional for every establishment to have their own pattern/design on a yukata which, among other things, make it easier for the police/locals to take those “sake affected” guests back to their home for the night when they have forgotten where they are staying!

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    Mara I am sorry to hear that your trip has been put off. I do hope that it is just a postponement, and not a long one at that.

    I was really very fortunate in terms of the timing of my trip. Whilst I was away my mother's health deteriorated quite a lot. If I hadn't been due to leave until say, next week, I would have been in a terrible quandry as to what to do. I would have felt that I couldn't leave her as she needs extra support at the moment. Then there would have been leaving my girlfriend in the lurch if I had stayed. She couldn't have postponed her trip because it is all tied in with her long service leave and the plans she had made for Europe with another friend. However, as said, fortunately I didn't have to make a decision.

    Any way, keep dreaming Mara, you will get there eventually if you have the determination.

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    I was awake the next morning at 6am and it was just perfect because I could hear the temple gongs being sounded. They were quite soft as it was coming from some distance away and it gave me a great feeling of calm and serenity.

    We spent the day doing the Nakasendo walk along the valley. The weather was perfect and we first took the local bus from Tsumago to Magome which I think was about a half hour drive. Magome is a bit bigger than Tsumago and also delightful. We spent the whole morning poking around the town.

    The variety of vacumn packed pickles. vegetables and other delicacies on sale were extraordinary. We noticed throughout Japan that it is very common to have tasting bowls set out so that you could sample the choices. We did in fact try a few, some we liked, some we didn’t, and there were a number that even after trying we still couldn’t guess what they were.

    Once again, there were lovely wooden buildings all over the place. Water was gushing down the gutters in the purpose made little channels. Apart from Tokyo and Kyoto I think every place we visited had canals or very large gutters with water constantly running. I can only come to the conclusion that Japan must have an incredibly high rainfall, with this much water around and this is after summer. Back in Australia, Melbourne is entering its 13th year of drought which is hitting us badly. There has been a huge amount of discussion as to how best deal with this. The government has recently announced a very large desalination plant is to be built but there is a lot of dissension about this. I think I have discovered the answer, we just need a very large pipe running from Japan to Australia. However, I will let someone else work out the logistics though.:)

    After we had lunch on the balcony of a simple little café but with the most amazing views over the alps we went to the Tourist Office. The first part of the walk is really quite steep and we knew that there was no way my friend could manage it. Following some advice from this board we decided to get a taxi to take us to the top of the pass and we would start walking from there. There was only one girl working in the tourist office and she had no English at all. She did recognize the word ‘taxi’ which seems to be fairly universal and after my friend drew some pictures of towns and hills, she understood what we wanted. (If I ever play a game of Pictionary I have to her on my side – she must be awesome at it). A long telephone conversation ensued and I thought this isn’t sounding good. She eventually hung up, picked up a set of keys and motioned us to follow her. We went outside and we are thinking that surely she isn’t going to drive us herself but that is exactly what she did! As mentioned she was the only person working in the tourist office and she just simply left it completely open. It is not just a small place with just a few pamphlets but quite substantial with a number of things for sale inside. She then bundled us into the back of her car and drove us to the top of the pass. The kindness of the Japanese is absolutely amazing. It would have been the better part of 20 mins before she finally got back to the Tourist Office itself. My friend had taken with her a number of pens which were highly decorated in a traditional Aborginal design which she then gift wrapped and kept at the bottom of her handbag. It was lovely to be able to hand over something small like that for these unexpected kindnesses as a way of saying thankyou.

    We thoroughly enjoyed the walk. We had the entire afternoon so just ambled along taking our time. We followed the river, passed through wooded sections, a bamboo grove, saw a couple of delightful waterfalls, rice paddies and some very traditional houses. We were quite stuck by the number and variety of flowers that were out, you would have thought it was spring rather than autumn. I think we probably only passed about 10 people during the whole of the walk. Our timing was impeccable (by luck). As the previous day had been a public holiday there no doubt would have been a lot more people doing the walk but we had it to ourselves. If you are going, I would suggest you try and avoid a weekend if possible as well as it is a popular weekend destination for the Japanese.

    It was dinner back at Shimsogaya again that night and another wander around the town in the evening. We met a couple of Dutch girls who had been travelling non-stop around the work for nearly 9 months and they said that Japan was their favourite destination so far.

    I can’t tell you how highly I would recommend these two towns for those wanting to experience the quintessential old Japan. I said to my girlfriend on our final night that I hoped we hadn’t down ourselves a disservice by coming here first, that everything else would be a let down afterwards. Fortunately this wasn’t the case but these couple of days remained as one of the highlights of our trip, possibly even “the” highlight. If you should go, do make sure you that book accommodation with the meal package included. Whilst there are a number of places open during the day to eat, certainly in Tsumago, there was nowhere to eat at night.

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    Thanks, Shandy. It's a long story but briefly, when I went to Japan last year I fell on the first day and broke my fifth metatarsal and had to go home. Now I have a knee problem and don't want to go starting off bad. ;-)

    Oh, are there pictures to go along with the trip report? Not that your descriptions aren't wonderful, but pictures are fun too. :)

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    Shandy, very interesting report. Have thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Would love to find out what did you purchase during your trip around Japan. I loved their tiny dishes so much, that I bought a variety of beautifully designed tiny bowls which I use now for a small scoop of ice cream.

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    Mara,

    What incredibly bad luck to hurt yourself on the first day of your trip and have to go home. I would have been crying buckets all the way home and for some time thereafter.

    My 3 kids still haven't forgiven me that when we were in Paris several years ago we did not allow them to go ice-skating at the top of the Eiffel Tower. None of them had ever tried ice-skating before and as we were at the start of a six week round the world trip, we were terrified that one of them would break a leg and wreck all our plans.

    Hopefully the knee issue goes away. I was a bit wary about my own knees before leaving. I have had arthritis in both knees for several years. A little over a month before we left my 17 year old daughter decided that it would be a really good mother/daughter bonding idea for us both to do a month "boot camp" at 6am in the morning at a gym together. I rather rashly agreed.

    At the very first session they did a fitness assessment. I didn't feel quite so bad when I realised
    that there were about six people who were obviously more unfit than me. When we back for the next session two days later all those people who I considered definitely worse than me didn't return :)
    When they said boot camp they really meant boot camp and I ended up with my knees giving me more trouble than I had had for several years. Fortunately in the week between the end of the boot camp and actually leaving they improved again and I really didn't have any problems whilst away.

    I do of course have a ton of photos of my trip but I haven't the slightest idea how to put them on the net. I will ask one of my kids how to do it.

    Ileen

    I am not really a shopper whilst I am on holidays, but I did pick up a couple of secondhand obi which I am using as table runners. A bought a lovely pendant from the goldleaf in Kanazawa plus a fabulous painting for peanuts in one of the most cluttered secondhand book stores I have ever seen.

    I was rather keen on taking back some crockery myself but decided it was too big and breakable so contented myself with some really fancy chopsticks for everyone instead.

    It is a tradition for me to buy something to hang on the Christmas Tree from every country I visit so I bought one of those tiny little faceless red dolls which are absolutely everywhere plus a very small bell from a temple we visited in Nara. It brings back a flood of memories everytime you put up the tree.

    Dogster - Thank you for your kind comments. I hope I can keep you entertained. Will be doing Kyoto next.

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    shandy - Yes, bad luck...maybe some type of jinx. ;-) I just remembered that I had to cancel another trip to Japan in '05 as I came down with shingles shortly before my departure. That was my trip to Kyoto which I was able to do in '06.

    There are many free websites where you can easily upload your photos assuming they are digital. Looking forward to seeing them when you get a chance....

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    shandy, thanks for the great report! I am on the road so apologize for the late response. I am enjoying your report and look forward to more helpful information from your journey thru Japan. Sorry to hear about your displeasure with Softphone......try rentaphone Japan next time if there is one

    Aloha!

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    Thanks, shandy, I'm enjoying your report. You must have laughed when you realized that the minshuku was very near where you were dropped off.

    You are right about not just hopping on a train. I did that once at Kyoto station, coming from Kanazawa and heading to Tokyo. Turned out to be a Nozomi. I sat in the area at the end of the car, near the exit. Showed the conductor my JR Pass and explained my mistake and that I would get off at Nagoya, the next stop. I am certain that he didn't understand English, but must have gotten the gist, as he didn't make an issue of it (he could have made me pay a fare since the train was not covered by the Pass).

    Anyway, glad to hear that you liked Magome and Tsumago. I learned recently that I won't have to cancel my trip to Japan in three weeks. I'll take yet another look at going to the Kiso Valley.

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    KYOTO (decided I should pop in some titles in case anyone is looking for a particular destination)

    It was off to Kyoto this morning, but first it was breakfast at Shimosagaya. Amongst all the dishes was a fried egg. Chopsticks were the only utensils supplied and I just couldn’t really think of how I was going to manage a fried egg with them, so as I had beaten everyone else downstairs by a couple of minutes I quickly picked up in my fingers and wolfed it down before anyone could see. I kept waiting to see how the Japanese actually did eat theirs with chopsticks, but unfortunately they still hadn’t got around to it until after we head left. Perhaps there were waiting for us to leave so they could do the same 

    We didn’t have any trouble catching the bus back to Nagiso to catch this train. We had been a bit concerned because the previous day we had waited for the bus to Magome and it didn’t come. The tourist office had provided us with a timetable in English and some of the bus times were marked with the stars and others circles. The stars and circles indicated whether the bus ran every day or was just on weekends/public holidays. It was a good system except that when they had typed it up they had incorrectly labelled the circles and stars so it was actually the reverse. We were therefore waiting for a non-existent bus.

    We were in Kyoto by lunchtime and had booked 5 nights at the Granvia Hotel at the station. Once again I had picked up an excellent deal on the internet on the hotels own website. I had been watching it for some time and jumped and made a booking when a really good deal presented. It was for a 3+ night booking in a superior room. We were extremely pleased with the hotel. Our room and bathroom was a good size and staff were very good. There are lots of restaurants to choose from but we didn’t actually eat at any of them, too pricey. When choosing the hotel for Kyoto I had been undecided as to whether we should go for nearer the old area or the station.

    I think that if you only have 2-3 days perhaps the old area might be better. Of course many of Kyoto’s attractions are spread out but if you only have a limited time you can cover quite a few things within a shorter period of time. If you have a longer time period, and especially if you are intending to do day trips as well, I would go for down by the station. It was extremely convenient having the bus terminal at our door to take you to the assorted attractions, never had to transfer on a bus to get where we needed to go, and every other bus goes to the station so no trouble about returning regardless of where you ended up at the end of the day/night. For our couple of day trips, obviously all we had to do was catch the lift downstairs and straight on to the platform. For the bus buy a ¥500 day ticket. They are available at the bus station, tourist office and I think some hotels sell them as well. Kyoto does not have an extensive subway system like Tokyo and the main form of public transport is the buses.

    Kyoto Station itself is a huge development with lots of shops, a large Isetan department store and lots of restaurants to choose from up on, I think, the 11th floor. We ate up there several times and particularly enjoyed the Spanish restaurant. There is also a fabulous food hall in the department store so a couple of times we bought food there and took it to our room. Hopefully you are a bit more observant than me though. I saw big woks with some sort of teriyaki chicken and bought some of that. When I actually opened it upstairs it wasn’t piping hot as I had expected but quite cold, those flames underneath the work were fake.

    After booking in at the Granvia we went to the Tourist Office at the station to ask how to get to the Kitano Tenmangu Shrine. We had already said that we had just arrived in Kyoto so she looked rather stunned that this was the very thing we were interested in seeing. It is considered rather a “lesser” shrine in terms of tourist attractions. However we explained that we wanted to attend the flea market at the shrine which is only on once a month on the 25th. so things became clearer.

    The flea market was good fun. As this market is really for the locals it gave us a chance to see what is on sale for them. There were hand made good, lots of cheap merchandise and a plethora of food stalls and a number of stalls to keep the kids entertained – the Japanese version of the ball in the clown’s mouth, a shooting gallery which looked like something I might have seen when I was little kid at a country fair. Forget the fancy moving ducks, it was just small packets of lollies, cans of drinks, little toys sitting on 3 tiered benches at which to take pot shots. At the food stalls, quite a number of them were cooking round ping-pong sized balls in griddle pans. We weren’t sure what they were but decided we had better try them as they were so popular (in fact we ended up seeing these all over Japan). We discovered they were squid balls but I can’t say we liked them. They were very soft and squishy inside. We did enjoy some chicken yakitori sticks later.

    For a shrine that is pretty low on the ‘go see’ list Kitano is really very impressive. We thoroughly enjoyed it. It was not crowded at all, despite it being a market day and there weren’t all that many westerners around at all. It is quite large and we felt the ¥300 to go see the Treasure Room was worthwhile – a small display of samurai outfits and an excellent display of painted scrolls. The mural down in the basement room is very good. There were several ceremonies going on whilst we were there which were fascinating to watch. The shrine is dedicated to someone who was amongst other things a great scholar and there were a number of school children who had come to ask for good luck in their exams.

    Later on we headed over to Pontocho Alley area. It was still too early to eat tea but we found, one block over a tea room on the first floor of a building. We could see the glow of the lamps from the street and ventured up. It was a great find. We spent a very enjoyable half an hour or so over our cup of tea, with rice crackers thrown in to nibble on and listening to the jazz music. We were the only people there during that time and we failed to see how they could make much money at all as they didn’t do any meals or alcoholic drinks. A couple of nights later we returned as we had enjoyed it so much. The owners recognized us immediately. Simply because I liked the place so much and I thought that may be they needed the money I ordered an icecream sundae as well. The cup of tea came promptly but it was nearly half an hour before the sundae turned up. We kept wandering what they were doing. We were once again the only people there, although another group eventually turned up. When the sundae turned up the answer as to why so long was self-evident. It was a work of artistic genius. The sundae was about a foot tall and they had created a prawn out of apple slices, one slice built on top of each other. It looked absolutely fabulous. Given that the sundae actually cost less than the cup of tea, this was obviously not a standard sundae. I wish had taken note of the name of the place but unfortunately I didn’t think of it at the time.

    Pontocho Alley was a delight to walk along in the evening. It was bustling with people and the entrances to many of the restaurants were exquisite. I can’t recall ever simply taking photos of restaurant entrances themselves before. We eventually chose a very small place, literally just 6 people max who sat at the bar. Once again we wondered how they could make money. We assume that rental cost must be very high in Pontocho Allley and they certainly weren’t trying to hustle people out after they had finished eating so there was space for more diners. We had a simple but good meal of a smoked salmon salad and fish and the whole thing only cost about $35 for the two of us including the cover charge. We were subsequently told that was incredibly cheap for a meal in Pontoncho Alley. Certainly a lot of the places we walked past we didn’t dare enter as they looked way out of our price range.

    When we got back to the hotel I spoke with my husband and he told me not to hurry home, the dog was now sleeping on my side of the bed! Problem is, now that I have returned he still wants to. I’ll let you decide if that means the dog wants to stay or my husband wants the dog to stay 

    The following day I had organised a goodwill volunteer guide to take us around Kyoto. www.geocities.jp/jellybeans_no_nakama/index.html I have never done this before so wasn’t quite certain what to expect. We were contacted by email and asked a few questions about what we were interested in and gave us a couple of proposed itineraries. I had assumed that she would spend about 3-4 hours with us but Kaori was absolutely amazing. She arrived at the hotel at 10am as arranged and it was about 7pm when she said goodbye to us. It was a fabulous day. The sites she took us to were excellent but the best part was simply talking to her and finding out about the Japanese way of life. She was a housewife about our age and was more than happy to answer all our questions and obviously keen to learn about our life and Australia. Kaori told us that her husband leaves for work each day at 8am and generally doesn’t return until 10pm. She said working this long is expected. As he must be in his 50’s, possibly nearer 60, you would not have thought he was working those sort of hours because he was trying to make a name for himself in the company. It was also interesting that she had no idea how much tax they paid or what medical insurance might cost them, despite being an obviously intelligent woman. The service was completely free apart from having to pay any admission fees for her and we bought lunch for her. I had also brought a gift from home which she was obviously pleased to receive.

    Kaori took us to Nijo Castle which us get to see a real “nightingale” floor. Both of us really enjoyed the series of books which start with ‘Across the Nightingale Floor” We went to a kimono show (free), visited a small shrine, Nishiki market with its incredible display of food, Kiyomizudera Temple, Yasaka Shrine and a walk through the older areas of Kyoto. Kiyomizudera is a definite must see as a temple. It was just getting on for dusk as we arrived and it looked lovely with the lamps aglow. Kiyomizudera has a large wooden balcony which overlooks the valley below and Kaori told us that it was a famous saying in that to make a decision about which there is no turning back is to jump off Kiyomizudera’s balcony. We also enjoyed going through Nishiki market with Kaori as she was able to explain to us what a lot of the food was used for or how it was made/prepared.

    Other places that my friend and I visited in Kyoto was the Sanjusangendo temple with its 1001 life sized statues of Kannon, the Godess of Mercy. It is housed in the world’s longest wooden building and rather mesmerizing. It is very different to any other temple that we saw in Japan and you should certainly try and include it if you can. We thoroughly enjoyed the Philsopher’s Walk. It must be absolutely spectacular when the leaves have changed colour. We never got across to the Golden temple and you can tell that we were becoming a bit templed out (had been to Nara the day before) because we didn’t even bother to go see the Silver Pavilion despite it being right there in front of us and a World Heritage listing to boot. We did stop at Nanzenji Temple but certainly wouldn’t list it as a must see. Admittedly we didn’t pay the extra money to see the garden as were visiting Kenroukuen later in the trip and, besides, it was still raining lightly.

    Had a great evening just wandering around the Gion area at night and actually saw several geisha, well 1 geisha and I think the other 2 were maiko (apprentice geisha). It must be difficult for them, the geisha in Pontocho Alley had several people who were literally taking photos of her just a foot away from her face despite it being quite evident that she did not want her photo taken. As we walked along one of the canals in the Gion area you could see across to one of the geisha houses and there were several of them kneeling at a low table and chatting together (not entertaining clients). We were rather surprised that they hadn’t simply shut the blinds as there were a lot of people stopping and staring, which included us I might say.

    Next, our day trips to Nara and Arashiyama.

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    Hawaiiantraveler, thanks for your comment. Would love to know how many times you have been to Japan. Your knowledge of Japan seems to be encyclopaedic. Enjoy the rest of your holiday.

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    ARASHIYAMA AND NARA

    We took two day trips from Kyoto. The first one was to Arashiyama. I was very keen to do the bamboo grove walk because the pictures of it looked great and once there we decided we would do the Sagano Romantic Train and the Hozu river boat trip as well. Arashiyama was covered on our JR Pass so that was good. Had little difficulty in organising the train and boat tickets. As it was a Saturday is was quite busy but virtually all Japanese. Loved the chandelier in the very small station for the Romantic Train. The train ride was about 20 mins in open wooden carriages and was very pleasant. The valley is lovely and, once again, would be superb in another month when the autumn colours were out. Mind you, considering how many people were around that day you might not even manage to get a booking on the Romantic Trip in autumn. As it was we had to wait 1 ½ hrs because the earlier train was booked out.

    Timing between the train, the bus and the river boat were all well co-ordinated. It was a touch confusing as to where to go next but we simply followed the others and that worked well The river boat takes about 20 passengers and the trip was a hoot. It took the better part of 2 hours to complete. We were the only two westerners aboard and the 3 man team (one poling, one rowing and one steering) had quite an act to keep the passengers entertained. We couldn’t understand a word but the laughter and merriment from the other passengers were so infectious that we couldn’t help but join in. The fitness level of the men must be amazing. It was bloody hard work. I had expected rowing to be the hardest, but from the amount of sweat pouring off the person poling, that was obviously the hardest Your could see why the 3 of them need to change positions every now and then. Views along the valley were good and we spotted a number of cormorants and blue herons along the way. There were several gentle rapids and periods where you just peacefully drifted along.

    The walk through the bamboo grove was quite good, but I must say we never actually passed through a spot which was the one featured on many of the photos I had seen beforehand so was a tad disappointed. Plenty of people were using rickshaws to have themselves taken around. We passed a couple of spots to stop for a coffee on the way and there were plenty of shops etc in the main part of the town.

    We didn’t explore either the temples or the monkey park whilst we were there. If you do the train trip do take the river trip back down if you possibly can, because that was definitely the highlight.

    Our other day trip was Nara (also covered by JR Pass) and it was fabulous. Although we went for the temples it was the deer that completely won us over. I knew there were deer at Nara but had vaguely assumed they were in a fairly large park and you could wander around amongst them. We were rather stunned to find the deer were all over the place, in the park, along the side streets, crossing major roads etc. We literally would have seen a couple of hundred of them. Fortunately we had been warned beforehand not to wear ripple soled shoes – it is very hard to get the deer poo out and we were glad that we had paid heed.

    The deer love to be fed and there are plenty of places to buy special biscuits for them. Hopefully someone has taken note of the nutrition content of the biscuits because they munch them down in their hundreds. Some are quite insistent about wanting to be fed so if you have smaller children keep a watch. Both of us had rather sore hips where we had been repeatedly head butted when we weren’t feeding them. When I ran out of biscuits one decided to eat my map instead and we had a bit of a tug of war as I wrested it back from him. Managed to get it back with not too much missing but then he immediately came back for seconds. This time I lost the greater part of the map which was a bit unfortunate because we got rather lost later in the day without it.

    Nara was the first capital of Japan and the Todaji and Horyuji Temples are the oldest wooden building in the word dating back to the 7th century. It is really quite something. We also enjoyed the Kasuga Grand Shrine, not so much for the shrine itself but for the 3000 lanterns it contains. The museum was quite good but if you are intending to visit a major museum such as the National Museum in Tokyo you could safely give it a miss.

    There is a central area with a quite a number of restaurants to choose from. We went for an Okonomiyaki (Japanese style omelette come pizza) restaurant and thoroughly enjoyed cooking it ourselves at the table.

    We spent the entire day at Nara and certainly didn’t do the place justice – admittedly we spent an awful lot of time with the deer. If I ever get another chance to go I would certainly organise to spend an overnight there. I had initially been very keen to stop at Fushimi Inari on the way back but it started to rain as we were on the train and I was feeling quite foot sore, so gave it a miss. Instead of a lost opportunity I intend to consider it a reason to go back again.

    Next – Miyajima with stopover at Himeji

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    shandy, we are in the planning stages of our fifth trip to Japan next fall.

    Loving all the detail in your report. We are planning to be in some of your destinations next yr so am reading your report with great interest.

    Aloha!

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    HIMEJI AND MIYAJIMA


    It was only a one hour train trip to Himeji. As we had by now come to expect, the train left exactly when it said and arrived at Himeji to the minute. There was no shortage of lockers in which we could stuff our bags. For ¥600 yen we could get a locker big enough to take both our bags plus two small day packs.

    It is only a 10 minute walk up to the castle along a rather nice main street. It is possible to catch a bus but it is a very easy walk. As soon as you leave the station you can see Himeji and it looks quite spectacular. You can see why it is nicknamed the ‘white egret’ castle as it does look rather like a bird about to take flight.

    We enjoyed our time here and it is well worth the climb to the very top. It is quite steep climbing up and we were in awe of all the Japanese who were in their 70’s or 80’s and having no trouble.. In fact we noticed this wherever we went that older Japanese are generally much more able to climb stairs, hills etc than we would see elsewhere in the world. Our personal conclusion was that it was all those squat loos. They must give you fabulous thigh muscles and you would be exercising them every day (or at least one would hope you are exercising those muscles each day  We had on occasions wondered how the frail and sick are meant to cope with squat loos but it didn’t seem an appropriate question to ask). Don’t expect to see much in the way of furnishings at Himeji, the rooms are basically bare and it is about seeing the construction and architecture instead. View at the top of the keep is very good but once again we were amazed at the size of this ‘small town’.

    After finishing at Himeji we went to Kokoen Gardens which is about 200 m away. You can buy a joint ticket for Himeji and the Garden and save a little bit of money. The gardens are lovely. It is a series of separate gardens each done in a different style. We especially enjoyed the main garden with its large pond. It was just what I had visualised a Japanese garden should look like. There is a café/restaurant there and, although we found a menu for the restaurant, we didin’t actually find the restaurant itself which seemed rather strange. Perhaps it was shut the day we were there – there were very few people around. We did come across a rather nice display of children’s kimono though. If you have the time I would certainly recommend a stop at the gardens as well.

    As we walked back to the station we stopped at a secondhand book shop and the owner there told us that it was good that we had been to see Himeji as it is being shut soon for 5 years for major restoration.

    It was only another hour by train onto Hiroshima. From there we picked up the local train to Miyajima-guchi and the JR ferry across to Miyajima. The place was packed with day trippers and we were glad that we had organised two nights on the island so that it gave us a chance to see the place minus them. It had started raining before we got to Miyajima and we just loved the system they had of hundreds of umbrellas being freely available to all. Pick up an umbrella and then put it in a stand at the shop/hotel/temple when you arrive. Someone else picks it up and uses it for the next destination When it is time to leave just grab a new umbrella from the stand and head off.

    Our first night at Miyajima was spent at the Jukeiso Ryokan. They are a reasonable distance away from the ferry terminal so do take advantage of their free pick up/drop off service. It was a very simple matter to call them from the public phone at the terminal and they arrived 5 minutes later. On arrival we were shown up to our room and given a welcoming cup of green tea. Our room was Japanese style with tatami mats and a good size. The bathroom was small but we were to learn this is to be expected if you are not staying at a western style hotel. The room overlooked the water to the side and we could even see the torii gate lit up at night which was lovely. I had made a request for a room which overlooked the torii gate so it certainly pays to ask, especially as I noted from their own website that a torii view rooms should cost more than we paid. We had booked through Japanese Guesthouses. We did not order a meal plan so can’t comment on the quality of the food. I did use their onsen down in the basement which is quite large. It would easily take a dozen people without being crowded. There was no one there when I went so I had it all to myself. It seemed rather strange sitting on the side sitting at the side of the pool on a little stool and washing myself down first but when in Rome. Hopefully there were no CCTV cameras around as I made full use of the pool. Sat in blissful peace for a while but then tried out floating and swimming and generally making myself look a bit of an idiot.

    Jukeiso is on the edge of the forest and I really enjoyed a walk through the forest early the next day to Daisho-inTemple. I didn't meet another soul (except for the odd deer) during the walk until I reached the temple. I think I only saw one other person who was obviously a tourist whilst I was there. The few others were Japanese who had actually come to make devotions. I even got to join in a Buddhist ceremony, lots of chanting, banging of drums and gongs. I noticed that offerings of canned pineapple seemed very popular. It made for a curious juxtaposition with the lovely old elaborate shrine with the very modern cans of pineapple. I enjoyed this temple much more than the famous Itsukushima Shrine, probably because it was so peaceful. At the shrine it was hard to escape the crowds, although those views of the Torii gate are hard to beat. Also watch for all the jellyfish in the water, there were hundreds of them.

    If at all possible, do try and see the Torii gate at night because that is when it is at its best although the view during the day is very good as well. However, I would suggest checking on the tides if you are only able to come out for a few hours. I felt rather sorry for the hundreds of people who were heading back on the ferries to Hiroshima and had only see the Gate when the tide was out so it is sitting on the mud flats rather than ‘floating’ on the water.

    There were quite a lot of deer around but certainly not in the numbers they were at Nara and these ones weren’t expecting to be fed. Absolutely loved the deer who wandered into one of the shops and snatched some fake flowers from a display. We thought it was a hoot as we watched the shop owner chase him out again. Being up in the forest and coming across the occasional deer was an absolute delight. We also saw several badgers which we had not expected at all. One just sat and stared at us for about 10 minutes whilst we sat and stared at him. I’m not sure who was getting the better deal, the badger or us. As we had never seen a badger before this was quite a treat. Are badgers known for being inquisitive?

    Although it had rained in the afternoon the previous day we had woken to a superb day weatherwise and we made the most of it by going up to Mt Misen We took the bus up to the point where you catch the cable cars to the top but in fact ther cable car station turned out to be not that far away at all and we could have walked. The trip up on the cable car afforded us with fabulous views over the island, across to Hiroshima and of the Seto Inland Sea. When we got to the top we walked out of the cable car station straight into the arms of some 50 or so monkeys running around, screeching, preening, feeding (lots of babies) and having a great time grooming each other. We had no idea there would be all these monkeys around so it was a great bonus. We probably arrived about mid morning and I noticed that by lunchtime all of them seemed to have disappeared. I climbed up to the top of Mt Misen which, whilst hardly an easy stroll, wasn’t as bad as it first looked. The view over the Inland Sea only got better and better. I rather wondered if I had reached a state of grace because just as I got to the very top point the most beautifully marked butterfly landed on my shoulder and just stayed there for about 10 seconds before flying off. I also had a deer which came and walked along the track with me for a few minutes at the top which was rather special too. It is possible to get a very simple meal of ramen noodles both at the cable car station and at the very top of Mt Misen itself. When I walked back down to the cable car station I was quite hot and decided that it was time I tried one of the frozen ice with syrup confections that abound all over Japan but it was too sweet for me.

    This was the night of my one big splurge at the Iwaso Ryokan which was my 50th birthday present to myself. The drop off point for the bus for the cable car is right beside Iwaso so we walked in and registered. We then caused a bit of consternation because we didn’t have any bags. We had that morning popped them into one of the lockers back at the ferry terminal and they were still there. The girl at first thought we had been collected from the ferry (as probably 99% of their guests are) and somehow our bags had got left behind. Once we explained, they simply took the locker key off us and dispatched someone to go fetch. I felt like royalty. Our room was in the new building and had the river running alongside. It was quite traditional with tatami matting and had its own bathroom, albeit very small. I must say that in view of the cost (about $500) I would have expected some good branded toiletries in the bathroom rather than huge 1 litre no name pump packs. In fact, our room at the Jukeiso the previous night had been bigger. However, staying at the Iwaso is more about the experience. The service was excellent. All the women wore traditional kimono and I got a real kick out of seeing the girls kneel down each time to open and shut the sliding the doors. We were served green tea as a welcome.

    Iwaso is right on the edge of the forest and its surroundings are superb. Just waking along the river was a delight in itself and there were a number of deer wandering around. Both of us really enjoyed just simply sitting outside beside the river and soaking up the atmosphere.

    The dinner in the evening was superb. It was not actually served in our room but in a spare room across the hall and whilst we were gone the futons were made up for us. There were several courses to the dinner and each was exquisitely presented. I had advised them beforehand that I was allergic to mushrooms and so separate meals had been prepared for myself and my friend. I had been asked on booking in whether we would like some wine with dinner and so had said yes. When we went into the room it was sitting on the table and on seeing it was French I thought “oh oh, how much is this going to cost?”. It was more than I probably would have paid if I had chosen something off a wine list but it was excellent and the dinner was certainly deserving of a good wine to accompany it. When we first walked into the room it was not open and after waiting a few minutes I thought I would open it myself. So, of course, as one would expect I completely botched it and ended up with half the cork stuck in the bottle. When our waitress came back she was rather horrified that I had attempted it myself and it must have taken her a good 10 minutes to finally leverage the rest of the cork out. As she had no English whatsoever, we could only shown my chagrin and embarrassment at having stuffed it up with facial expressions and give her a good clap when she finally succeeded in getting the rest of the cork out. It was a bit of a shame that she had no English at all because we would have liked to have her explain a bit about some of the dishes we were eating. Breakfast the next morning was served downstairs in the restaurant and was also excellent. Definitely go for the Japanese breakfast rather than the western breakfast.

    After dinner we went down to the onsen. There is both an indoor (very hot) and an outdoor one (warm/hot). Once again there was no one else around and sitting in the outdoor onsen was fabulous. It is right beside the river which is spotlighted at night and was very peaceful. You could hear the noise of the river and rustlings of animals in the forest. Several racoons ran alongside the river whilst we were watching which just added to the magic of the evening.

    All in all, we had a wonderful experience at Iwaso and I am very glad we went. If the most important thing to you is value for money than I would have to say go for Jukeiso and I am sure you will be happy. However, if you are after fabulous service and a special experience then pay the extra for Iwaso.

    Next – Okayama and Kurashiki

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    OKAYAMA AND KURASHIKI

    Our next port of call was Shiraishi Island but we had allowed ourselves two days in which to get there. I had read in a guide book about going ferry hopping around the Seto Inland Sea and we thought that sounded an idyllic way to go. One of the books gave a suggested route but, despite spending ages on the internet trying to research how to do it, had been able to glean very little information. In the end we decided to wait until we got there and work it out on the spot. Well of course that all rather fell apart.

    When we had arrived at Hiroshima I had asked at the tourist office about how to get to some of the other islands and I had been told that what we were trying to do was impossible. We had then hoped that may be the staff at Iwaso would be able to help us out by contacting the ferry line direct for us. However the person at the desk didn’t have sufficient English to really understand what we were trying to accomplish. So, in the end we decided to take the ferry which goes direct from Miyajima to Hiroshima Port and make more enquiries there. (Cost about $20 as compared to going back on free JR ferry and train to Hiroshima but a good time saver and a very pleasant trip in itself). We still had no luck at Hiroshima Port. I had thought there would be an office for SKK who is a company which runs day tours around the inland sea, but there didn’t appear to be one at all and so ended up at another tourist office. After quite some time trying to communicate what we wanted to do they also threw up their hands in horror and said not possible. By this stage we were starting to get the idea that it was not meant to be and decided to simply catch a train to Kurashiki which was meant to be rather pretty instead.

    This we did and as we had to go through Okayama on the way we decided to get off and spend a bit of time there as my guidebook said the Korakuen garden at Okayama was amongst the three best in all of Japan. It was a gorgeous day and the gardens were only a short bus ride from the station. I have to say that we were both rather disappointed with the gardens. Japan is of course famous for its gardens and, as one of three best in Japan, we were expecting something spectacular. What we got was simply pleasant. They were not particularly big and there was a nice lake, some lily ponds, a small rice paddy field, a tea plantation and quite a lot of lawn. As proper lawns, especially large expanses of them, seem to be quite rare in Japan we wondered if this was part of the reason why the Japanese like these gardens so much. It was not permitted to walk on the laws and obviously a lot of care was taken over them. We had lunch (which we had bought at a bakery near the station) beside the lake which was nice and then headed back to the station. All in all, we probably spent only a bit over an hour actually walking around (and had pretty well seen everything) plus an extra half hour sitting have lunch.

    Our time in Kurashiki made up for our disappointment at Korekuen though. Our only mistake here was to choose a hotel close to the station because we didn’t want to have to carry our bags too far. We paid far too much money for what we got, a fairly souless Japanese business style hotel. The room was small, the furnishings very dated and well used, and the bathroom was tiny. It certainly wasn’t possible for two people to stand in there side by side and I have literally seen bathrooms in caravans which were bigger than this one. The entire bathroom came as a prefabricated moulded unit which you step into. The shower was over the area where you stand to use the washbasin so that meant the floor was wet for any subsequent use.

    The Bikan (touristy) area of Kurashiki was much closer to the station what we had expected and we would have done better to walk down to that. Kurashiki is mainly famous for the canal running through the middle of town. It is bordered on either side by large willow trees and has a number of bridges and is quite charming. It was most enjoyable wandering around. It was possible to take a punt for a short distance down the river which no doubt would have been very relaxing. Plenty of fish in the canal to watch and a couple of swans as well. These were the only swans we saw during the entire trip so perhaps they are not native to Japan and these ones had been brought in specially for a bit of extra atmosphere. There were a number of people who had set up the wares on the ground alongside the canal so we browsed through these and a number of second hand antique shops.

    Kurashiki has a lot of museums for its size and we visited the Ohara Art Museum which we enjoyed. Its main gallery is composed mainly of European art but there were also Japanese galleries in some of the other buildings as well. I knew that photography was not permitted of the paintings but it hadn’t occurred to me that included taking a photo through a rather delightful shaped window overlooking the town. They must have had CCTV because by the time I had walked the 4-5 steps back into the main gallery a guard was waiting to tell me off.

    We also visited the Ohashi house which was the home of a wealthy merchant and, whilst interesting, was not particularly special.

    Had our best Italian meal for our trip that night which we thoroughly enjoyed. Outside of the large cities there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of ethnic cuisine, except that Italian is popular. We went to several Italian restaurants when we wanted a break from Japanese food but overall found the standard of them to be not that great. They rather reminded me of what we might have seen in an Italian restaurant 40 years ago at home with a very limited menu of pizza and pasta dishes. I won’t even go near the chain of Italian places which has food to go like a McDonalds with no seats at all to sit down. I would have loved to have seen someone trying to eat their spaghetti whilst walking down the street.

    Next Shiraishi Island and my 2 minutes of fame on Japanese TV.

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    still enjoying this wonderful report. Since you made it to Shiraishi Island you must have found out that the ferries don't stop there from Hiroshima. At the Hiroshima port they probably didn't know enough English to explain that it would take a long time to catch the ferries to S island so better to go by train. I think you would have had to catch the three plus hour ferry to Matsuyama. Change ferries there for a several hour ferry to Osaka or Kobe. Get off there and take the train to back track to Okayama/Kurashiki all in over 14 hours or so

    http://www.amychavez.addr.com/is-dtl/directions.htm

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2355.html

    so how did you get on tv?


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    Hawaiian Traveller, we knew that Hiroshima to Shiraishi direct was not possible but had been hoping to do something like, Hiroshima, Omishima, Ikuchijima to Onomichi, then pick up train to get down to Kasaoka to pick up the ferry to Shiraishi. The intention had been to do it over two days staying on one of the islands along the way, possibly at Setoda.

    We were subsequently told by Amy (of the website you fave)that there are no longer any passenger services which would let you do this sort of trip anymore, it is really only freight nowdays.

    We did consider going from Hiroshima to Matsuyama and then train back to Kasaoka but decided that the cost of the ferry trip was rather expensive. To go to Kurashiki by train was free on the JR Pass so we went with that.

    Will do another longer post with next portion of trip in a couple of days. My mother has been readmitted to hospital and we have just found out she has Parkinson's Disease so things are not so great here. However, will get back to the report because, if nothing else, it lets me forget my worries.

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    shandy, I hope your Mom is in good hands w/competent physicians.

    When you get back here, we are all fantasizing re how you got on Japanese TV. My son and I also had a TV, well, more like a large screen, fame experience in Japan.

    Was it at least a little windy when you walked through the bamboo groves at Sagano? One of my fondest auditory memories from all my travels is the sound of the tops of the tall bamboo clanking into each other as they swayed in the breeze. It is almost a musical sound.

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    I think the title of you post sums it up- Japan is magical, isn't it. Other countries are colorful, or fun, or interesting. But for me, so far, only Japan has been magical. Just some kind of aura there.

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    I too hope for the best for your Mom! We will be awaiting your return.

    emd, are you planning a return to the magic soon? I know what you mean, I can't shake the want to return and explore more and more. I usually loose that feeling for a place after 2 or 3 visits.....not Japan for some reason

    Aloha!

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    shandy - I hope your Mum is doing okay...

    I agree with what you said about Himeji-jo - I couldn't believe the way some of those seniors just zoomed up the almost vertical stairways....

    The last part of your trip is where I am planning to go - could you share what business hotel you stayed at in Kurashiki. I was planning to stay at the Toyoko Inn there. It looks to be about halfway to the Bikan area.

    Looking forward to the rest of your report... :)

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    Thank you to all for your kind wishes.

    Mara, I am afraid I didn't take down the name of the hotel we stayed at in Kurashiki, but it was part of the station complex itself. It definitely wasn't a Toyoko Inn though.

    We did stay at a Toyoko Inn in Kanazawa and we were very pleasantly surprised by it. It was quite cheap and the hotel appeared to be quite new, or if not, recently refurbished. Yes the bedroom and the bathroom were both small, but they had really made an effort to make it look as bright and airy as possible. Fixtures and fittings were quite good and everything lovely and clean. There were coin washing machines/dryers downstairs, free internet, English newspaper and free Japanese breakfast each morning. I don't know that I would have wanted to stay there too many days in view of how small the room was, but for an overight it was absolutely fine. Also, I wouldn't necessarily expect the staff to speak English as it caters primarily for Japanese businessman. They didn't at Kanazawa but it was not a problem. Checking in and checking out is pretty much the same all over the world.

    I didn't really say all that much about the Ohara Museum in Kurashiki but should mention that if you like European art you should definitely go have a look. There were works there by Monet, Gaugain, Moglidiano, Picasso and Pissaro. We were rather astounded as to how this small provinicial museum had managed to acquire them.

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    SHIRAISHI ISLAND

    We heard about Shiraishi from an Aussie who had previously stayed there. Shiraishi is a tiny little island (pop around 700 I think) in the Seto Inland Sea just off the coast from Kasaoka – about a 20 min ferry trip.

    The Okayama Prefecture has several different locations, including Shiraishi, where they run the International Villas as a non-profit organisation. This is purpose built accommodation for international visitors only at a very cheap cost, ¥2500 per night. They are nothing fancy but are to give foreigners a chance to spend some time outside of the usual tourist haunts and learn a little about Japanese life. The Shiraishi Villa takes a max of 10 people, 5 bedrooms with a communal kitchen/dining room.

    We thought this sounded ideal, a chance to chill out for several days and spend some time in the local community, not to mention the incredibly cheap cost. You can only book three months ahead so I set the date in my calendar, not that I was particularly concerned. Shiraishi really only comes to life during the summer months when they do get quite a few Japanese who come to stay for a beach holiday. By the time we were coming the only bar and restaurant on the island had already closed until next summer. I was therefore rather flummoxed when I went to make my booking to find that it was already full. Someone had beaten me to the punch and booked the entire villa for their group.

    So what to do now? We had organised half our travelling arrangements to be on Shiraishi for the weekend of the 5th as it was their local festival that day where they carry a mikoshi (portable shrine) around the island and we thought it would be great fun to go and watch. I knew of a website for Amy Chavez an American who lives on the island (with her Aussie husband) and they run the Moooo Bar (never knew you could get so many clothes, bags, cups, other items with cow prints on them) which is the happening place on the island over summer. Amy is a great character, very effervescent, and in her spare time helps organise accommodation with the locals. After a few emails back and forth as to just what sort of thing we were after she suggested we stay at a minshuku called the Amano Beach House which was the same price as the villas, ¥2500 per night. The extra bonus of communicating with Amy was that we received a personal invitation to take part in carrying the local mikoshi.

    We knew we would have to do our own cooking on the island so we stopped off at the local supermarket at Kurashiki before we caught the train to Kasaoka.. It is quite an experience in itself to see what is available for the locals to buy. It just gives you that little bit of extra insight as to how they live. It was quite different as to what was available in the food halls of the fancy department stores. We were glad that we had bought some spaghetti earlier on the trip at the “speciality” section of the food hall in Kyoto because there was none available at the supermarket. Considering how popular Italian food is in Japan we thought this was rather strange. The food we had most missed on our travels was cheese and, although, this was a large supermarket the cheese there was limited to some small rounds of camerbert and Kraft style processed cheese (soft and flavourless). By this stage I would have killed for a good blue vein or nice strong cheddar. Anyway, we stocked up on some few things to keep us going for the 3 days and just as well we did. There is one small general store on the island but whilst we were there, there was hardly anything on the shelves, mainly nibblies and ice cream. Perhaps during the tourist season they keep a larger range of foods available.

    The train trip to Kasaoka was uneventful and it was only about a 10 min walk max to the ferry terminal from the train station so that was quite simple. (They were happy to look after our luggage whilst we had a browse around town until the next ferry left). We loved the sign in English with an arrow to the ferry terminal. I know that it is difficult for a number of the Asian races to say the letter “R” and it comes out as “L” but the sign to the Sanyo Kaisen FeLLy Boat seemed to be taking it a bit far.

    Whilst waiting for the ferry we met the group who had booked the Villa en masse and would you believe they were a group of Australians. It was turning into an Australian invasion. John who is a school teacher, and speaks Japanese very well, takes a group over approx once a year acting as a tour leader for them. He loves Japan and obviously can’t get enough of it. I suppose this is his way of indulging his love for Japan. Hopefully we didn’t take the shine off him. When I was talking to one of the women a day or two later I told her about what the two of us had done and intending to do. She was absolutely amazed that we could accomplish our itinerary without ever having been to Japan before or speaking any Japanese. However, they were very pleased with what John had organised for them and his leadership so I am sure they remained very happy.

    The ferry ride over was enjoyable with all the little islands dotted throughout the Inland Sea, however on the mainland there is a lot of industrialisation.

    Amy also happened to be on the ferry as well so we caught up with her. She and Peter have been living on the island for about 12 years I think and obviously love it. They did say it gets very cold and gloomy in winter though and have taken to moving to another part of Japan during the winter. When we got off the ferry Peter was there with his jeep and took us down to Amano Beach House which was great. It would have been a bit hard identifying which house otherwise.

    Amy had told us that the Amano was a very typical house It was s a very ramshackle affair which seemed to be put together with basically anything they can find, bits of corrugated iron, pieces of timber etc. There are lots of things piled up all over the place outside the house such as large reels (presumably had rope for the boats on them), The kitchen and bathroom facilities can only be called extremely basic. There was a toilet inside (Japanese style) and outside a western style loo had been put in. The shower was in a sort of lean to on the side and not the sort of place you would want to linger overly long, although I must say the water was hot and the water pressure excellent. Our outdoor kitchen was under cover and consisted of one portable gas ring stove and a trough to wash things up in. Having said all this, our actual bedroom/living quarters was amazing. It had beautiful tatami mats and was very large, in fact the largest room we had anywhere. Futons were comfortable and the two household shrines were in this room which were quite elaborate. Our host had absolutely no English whatsoever and as she found it rather too nervewracking to handle receiving cash direct, we had to pay the money to Amy.

    The Amano is right on the waters edge and it was so peaceful just sitting outside overlooking the water. There were plenty of birds and also quite a lot of flying fish which was good entertainment in itself. I had no idea how high a flying fish could jump. The village was a 15-20 min slow stroll away along the waters edge, not that there was anything much in the village itself. Wandering around the streets the first evening was delightful as they had quite a lot of lanterns up and lit for the festival.

    The following day we took it very easy, luxuriating in not having to rush around seeing something or moving on. We eventually walked around the entire island which is only about 7km in circumference. Some glorious views along the way of the small islands. In the middle it is quite mountainous. There are quite a number of walking trails through the forested areas but after encountering a lot of spider webs I said “not for me”. We did encounter a couple of snakes along the way, but although I am paranoid about spiders, snakes don’t really bother me.

    The Sunday was the main festival day. Amy had told us that the island festival was in trouble because, like many of these places, the young people leave the island as soon as they are old enough for the bright lights and jobs on the mainland which means the local population now consists of predominantly older people. The previous year the festival had been cancelled because there simply weren’t enough able bodied people to help pull the mikoshi around the island. However this year they had got their act together again. There are 8 separate neighbourhoods on the island, each with its own shrine. Each neighbourhood takes it in turn to host the festival and they pull their mikoshi and puppet type figure sitting on top, around the entire island so he can go meet his “friends” at all the other neighbourhood shrines. The sake starts flowing at about 8am and continues all day long.

    We woke up about 6am to the sound of rain and it was such a shame for the locals because it bucketed down continuously all day without any let up. The day before and the day afterwards were perfect weatherwise. I think we had caught the very tail end of a typhoon which had hit a lot further south 2-3 days beforehand. At about 7pm I walked outside and within the space of a few minutes it stopped pouring, the strong winds stopped completely and for the first time all day we could see more than a few 100 metres. It was quite clear all the way over to the mainland. It stayed like this for about 15 mins and then the rain and the wind came back again. I could only think that it was the eye of the storm had passed over us.

    We walked down to Amy’s house at 8am as arranged to see what we should be doing in terms of joining in with the festival. However we never actually got a chance to help pull the mikoshi around because in view of the rain it was decided that only the host neighbourhood would do so. Of course that didn’t mean the festivities should stop all together and the rain was a good excuse to drink all the more sake, so there I was just after 8am drinking sake and eating prawns. None of the locals really spoke any English so they kept offering more sake instead and, of course, it would have seemed impolite to refuse 

    A cameraman had come over from the regional TV news station to film the festival and one of the locals was obviously very keen to be on the TV. He apparently decided that he had a better chance of making an appearance by dragging me into the picture. So he stood beside me beaming whilst the cameraman/reporter asked me a few questions (in excellent English) as to why an Australian was on this tiny island, what did I think of Japan etc. I have no idea whether it actually went to air but perhaps I had my two minutes of fame. Considering what the weather was like, may be it did as a change from showing pictures of the pouring rain.

    We all trudged up the hill to the main shrine on the island which I must say is really quite elaborate for such a small island. We spent quite some time there watching the ceremonies and then the two of us headed back down again in time to see the mikoshi being pulled through the streets. It was rather a strange sight. Everyone was in their festival “happy coats” and some didn’t bother to cover up at all, just allowing themselves to become saturated (it wasn’t actually cold), others had raincoats on top, others with one arm pulling the mikoshi and the other arm holding up an umbrella.

    By lunchtime the two of us were soaked to the skin and decided that we had enough and certainly couldn’t consume any more sake, so headed back to the Amano. As we are both bookworms we actually quite enjoyed the afternoon, just lying around, reading our books, listening to music and even an afternoon nap. I blame the sake. We had ordered Bento Boxes for lunch and instead of just eating them as is, we threw most of it into a wok and turned into this very strange type of fried rice. It wasn’t half bad in the end but Gordon Ramsay has nothing to fear, I don’t think we have discovered a new culinary masterpiece.

    It actually probably was quite lucky that we were at the Amano in the end because when I spoke to some of the people from the International Villas they said that the common room areas of the Villas was fairly small so with all 10 of them crammed in for the entire day there wasn’t a huge amount of room.

    The next day we woke to glorious sunshine. The locals don’t like to waste any time because by 6am all the festival lights were being taken down and they were burning all the bamboo they had cut to decorate their houses in piles on the sand. It didn’t take long to pack up and we strolled down to the ferry terminal to catch the 8.30am ferry and then train up to Kanazawa which was right on the other side of Japan.

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    Mara, I believe the Italian restaurant that we really enjoyed at Kurashiki is called Rentenchi and is on the main street. If you walking towards the Bikan area from the train station it is on the main street and on the left hand side approx a couple of blocks down.

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    KANAZAWA

    I was very glad that I had my spreadsheet that I compiled from Hyperdia before we left because when we got to Kasaoka station the attendant there was completely flummoxed by our request for tickets to Kanazawa. As he had no English at all, may be we were not getting across what we wanted. In the end we simply followed my directions on my spreadsheet which actually entailed going back 3 stations to where we could pick up a shinkasen to take us through to Shin-Osaka. Once at Shin-Osaka we originally thought that the man in the reservation office was telling us there were no trains to Kanazawa, he kept crossing his arms. After a couple of minutes we realised he simply meant there were no reserved seats left. Despite the lack of reservation there was absolutely no problem getting a non-smoking seat in the unreserved carriages so that was fine.

    We had been hoping to see a bit more of a rural scene as we traversed across Japan to the other coast but once again in was quite built up along the train line. We passed an absolutely huge lake along the way and the mountains looked lovely in the background.

    It was just before 3pm when we arrived which was pretty good considering the distance we had travelled with a ferry ride and several changes of train to boot. We were both taken with Kanazawa as a town. The station area itself is very modern, rather reminiscent of Kyoto station, and care had been taken with the streetscapes around the town to make them look pleasant. The old area of town, geisha and samurai districts both had a lot of atmosphere as well. Although it is city sized, it had a more intimate feel to it then the other places we had been visited.

    It was only a short walk to the Toyoko Inn which we had booked. I think there are about three Toyoko Inns in Kanazawa and the one we booked was Toyoko Inn Kanazawa-eki Higashiguchi. As you walk out of the station turn right on to the main road and walk down the street a few 100 metres and it is on the same side of the road as the station (about 5 mins) It is not particularly close to the attractions but all the buses leave from the station so we did not find that a problem. On returning to the station, several of the bus lines went straight pass the hotel so we were just able to jump off.

    This is a Japanese business hotel and, as such, you have to expect small rooms. However, the room was spotless, very modern and the furnishings of a good quality. The bathroom was equally small but also pristine. They have gone to quite some attention to ensure that it looks reasonably light and airy despite the small size of the room. They are plenty of toiletries on available, even a face mask! There is also a free Japanese breakfast downstairs in the morning, English reading newspapers, free internet and coin washing machines/dryers.

    Although it does not have "atmosphere", I would have to put this place down as one of the best value for money places we stayed at for our nearly four weeks in Japan. The place was full of Japanese businessmen, and seeing what they would typically expect to stay at is also a valid experience in itself. The staff at the desk had no English at all but checking in/checking out is fairly universal anyway so that was fine. The only time we had trouble understanding what was going on was when the girl presented us with a very large basket full of merchandise. Eventually we worked out that we were entitled to one gift each for staying. We opted for a carry bag each, one of those ones which fold up into themselves so you can pop them into a purse and then take out when needed.

    As check-in is not until 4pm they took our bags and put them down on the floor near reception until our room was available. Who needs fancy security and storage systems? They simply tied the two bags together and then put a very loose net over the top of them which had a number of bells attached to it. If anyone had tried to take a bag, they would immediately hear the tinkle of the bells and investigate.

    We headed off to the Higashi Chaya (geisha) district and had a very pleasant evening wandering around there. It is the largest geisha district in Japan outside Kyoto. All the buildings were timbered with vertical or lattice woodwork and had lots of atmosphere. We did a tour through “Shima” which was an authentic geisha house and virtually unchanged. We found it fascinating and although you could “do” it in 20 mins we would have certainly spent well over an hour there.

    One of the things I really enjoyed about Kanazawa was the quality of the shopping there. There appeared to be a lot more artisan type shops with one off or limited production high class merchandise. Elsewhere we had kept seeing the same things over and over again.

    Kanazawa is responsible for producing 98% of the goods made with gold in Japan and it shows. The Sakuda Gold Leaf Store is certainly worth stopping at for a browse even if you are not buying, although I did succumb to a rather nice pendant. There are two walls which are totally covered in gold leaf, one inside and one outside. That the one outside could stay in such great condition was amazing. It has been the most fabulous sheen to it.

    Whilst we were wandering around the area, a monk in full costume went from door to door chanting. I’m not sure whether he was begging (one of the storekeepers gave him money) or blessing the shops, or both, but he looked fantastic and really added to the atmosphere as it was descending into evening and all the lanterns had lit up.

    We read in the local paper that Kanazawa has three times the annual rainfall of England and that a local saying is that to forget your lunch is an inconvenience but to forget your umbrella is a disaster. I am pleased to say that whilst it was bit grey on occasions it fortunately didn’t rain on us.

    Other highlights whilst we were at Kanazawa were the Kenrokuen gardens. These were much more what we had expected in terms of a fabulous Japanese garden. The sculpted trees were fascinating, some of them had obviously taken 100’s of years. The lake was beautiful and it was very serene for the most part. When we first entered I thought this was going to be terrible because there were so many bus tours there, but once we moved further away we were able to escape them. We enjoyed a wander through the Seison-kaku Villa (extra cost) as well which are situated in the garden. It was really interesting to see what type of villa was built for the very wealthy and compare it to, say, a British stately mansion. It gives a good insight into the cultural differences between east and west. It had beautifully tatami floors, very little furniture, exquisite gardens which could be viewed from the balcony, Dutch ceramics built into the walls of all things, and a surprising use of colour on the walls upstairs. That was an indication of wealth in itself as the colours would have been so expensive to purchase, lapis lazuli etc.

    The Myoryu-Ji (Ninja) Temple was fascinating as well. It took a little finding but was well worth the effort. The temple itself was never actually occupied by the Ninja but encompasses a lot of devices used by the Ninja hence its depiction as being a Ninja temple. You can only go through it on a tour which is only offered in Japanese but we were given notes in English to read as we went though so we could understand what we were seeing. There were secret rooms, trapdoors, secret staircases, trick shoji doors which took you to different areas and special staircase where the guards hiding underneath could could see through to spear the enemies feet. There was also a room for committing seppuku (ritual suicide). Once you walked into the room, it was not possible to open the door to come out again, which probably rather helped you in making your decision about committing seppuku.

    On our second evening we decided to walk through the samurai district but got ourselves hopelessly lost along the way. We stopped in front of a supermarket and asked someone if they could show us where we were on our map. They couldn’t work it out and then got another couple of people to help. Of course, no one spoke in English and none of them seemed to understand our map (which was in English but they understood the name of the area we were trying to reach. Eventually they motioned us to follow a woman well into her 60’s carrying a couple of bag of groceries in each hand. This we did and once again, we were so struck by the generosity of the Japanese. We must have followed her for nearly half an hour and I’m sure we weren’t going towards where she lived. She would not allow us to help carry her bags, and when we tried to tell her half way there that we now knew where we were on the map she just kept walking and motioning us to follow. It was after 7pm by now and presumably she wanted to be at home preparing tea but she just kept going until she got us to the actual doorway of where we wanted to be.

    The samurai district was lovely to wander around with its earthen walled streets. We browsed through one very upmarket shop selling Japanese porcelain and other artefacts choosing what we would purchase if we had a ton of money. Unfortunately, practically everything in the shop was outside our price range. We then wandered along by the canal and which was lined with restaurants. Many of them looked enticing and you could easily have come every night for a week I am sure.

    We eventually had dinner at a very small establishment “The Cottage” and had a wonderful evening there. The restaurant could seat only about a dozen people max. It was owned by a Japanese woman and her English husband and they had just returned to Japan after 11 years in Ireland. We started off by being the only two patrons and had a great time chatting to our Japanese host. We had just finished telling her that Japan appeared to full of Australian tourists, that we couldn’t escape them, when in walked a group of six people. Of course they were group of 6 Australian travel writers doing a tour of Japan so we burst out laughing. The writers were good fun and a night of laughter ensued. One of them took quite a lot of notes of what we had seen and done so I am waiting to see if I get quoted in a local travel magazine. By the time we left, our Japanese host came out and gave us both a big hug and we were quite sorry that we were leaving in the morning and couldn’t return the following night.

    Next – Festival Time in Takayama and Shirakawa-go

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    SHIRAKAWA AND TAKAYAMA

    We had organised our bus reservation from Kanazawa to Shirakawa prior to leaving Australia. At first I thought how on earth are we going to do this as the website was only in Japanese but one of the girls from the Hida Tourist Office in Takayama arranged it for us. A reservation is required for this bus and thank goodness we hadn’t waited until we got to Kanazawa to do so as the bus was full. The trip itself was less than hour. As the bus drove through numerous tunnels there wasn’t a lot of great scenery along the way.

    Once we reached the Shirakawa valley itself it was a different story altogether. It was a beautiful sunny day and the valley with the river snaking through it, the farm houses dotted here and then and the mountains rising in the background was picture postcard perfect.

    We were a bit concerned at first at there not being lockers big enough to put our bags in (first time we had encountered this) but then realised that we could leave them at the Tourist Info Office for a small fee (¥300 per piece).

    The gassho-zukuri (thatched) houses are fantastic. There used to be hundreds of them through the valleys but the numbers declined steadily as the upkeep of them is enormous and rethatching is a major undertaking, not to mention very expensive. For the last 30 years the Preservation Society decides which 5 houses can be rethatched and allocates the money and manpower for it. It takes 200 men, two days to rethatch a house which gives you an idea of how big the job is.

    As we had until 6pm before picking up the bus again to Takayama we just spent the day slowly meandering around. We went up to the top of the hill to the lookout and had a quiet laugh to ourselves watching a professional photographer up there. He had a number of bench seat which he would rush around putting out as a Japanese tour group arrived, take a group photo of them all and then stack all the benches away again. 10 minutes later he would start the process all over again.

    We went though two of the houses open to the public and found them very interesting, especially seeing how they were put together at the attic level. Each of these thatched houses have 4 or 5 levels with full use being made of all the attic levels. Because of the winter snow the houses are steeply pitched which means that there are 2 or 3 levels within the pitched roof. The traditional industry was to have silkworms up at the top level. A fire would be lit on the ground level and the smoke and heat would permeate up through each level via the slatted floors. The heat would keep the silkworms happy and the smoke was good for keeping pests out of the thatch.

    A walk alongside by the river was delightful and in the later afternoon we stopped at a café. Once again we were the only two people and we had a delightful half an hour talking to the owner who was a connoisseur of classical music (which was playing in the background).

    If you are short on time you could certainly make do with catching the early afternoon bus without feeling that you had short-changed yourself. As stay overnight would no doubt be wonderful but we were quite happy with our compromise. We felt we had seen what we wanted to without rushing around and by mid-afternoon all the tour groups had gone so it was quite peaceful by then.

    It took about another hour to drive into Takayama and was virtually all by tunnels on their brand new road, which I think has cut the driving time in half.

    Our hotel in Takayama was the Rickshaw Inn and we quite happy with it. It was probably a bit pricey as compared to some of the excellent deals I had picked up elsewhere, but as it was the weekend of the Autumn Festival I knew that we would be paying top price. We stayed in a Japanese style room with private bathroom. For those who want a "Japanese experience" whilst still having western comfort this is probably a good in-between. If you are after a fully "traditional ryokan" experience, than this is not the place for it.

    The location was good, about halfway between the train station and the old area of town, So it was an easy walk to the station and an easy walk to all the attractions as well. The staff were very friendly and the girls at the front desk had good English. They get a lot of foreigners here. The communal loungeroom and small kitchenettte were a nice bonus, as were a number of books to browse through. There were some good touches in terms of prints, hangings etc along the corridors and do pick up a copy of their recommended restaurants.

    Our first morning we went and visited the Morning Markets and had a pleasant stroll through them. Because it was a festival weekend the market was much bigger than usual and there was a lot of food on offer. As we moved along to the street where the festival floats are located the crowds increased until just before the temple you could barely move.

    The Takayama Festivals (Spring and Autumn) are considered to be among the premier festivals of Japan and the highlight is the huge and very elaborate festival floats which are paraded and then hauled through the streets.

    The weather was great and everyone was partaking in the carnival type atmosphere. Literally hundreds of the locals are involved in the festival in one way or another and most of them were dressed in traditional costumes which also added to the atmosphere. As the festival is cancelled if there is any chance of rain (the floats are far too precious to be allowed to get wet) everyone was happy.

    One the highlights is the marionette performances so we stopped to see them but I have to say we weren’t very excited about it. You could see that it took a lot of skill but I wouldn’t be killing myself to try and get a spot to see the performance. In fact, we took the easy option and sat and watched in on a big screen in a tent beside the temple (nice and shady) instead of competing with the 100’s of people outside in the sun jostling to get a vantage point.

    Takayama is also famous for its shops and buildings from the Edo period and we had a most enjoyable afternoon wandering around them.

    In the evening we wandered up to the main street for the night festival. We secured a spot by sitting in the gutter of the road and had a great vantage point for watching the floats. I had expected it be much more than crowded than it was but as I suppose the floats are pulled for some distance and there are lots of places from where you can view them. Whilst waiting I bought some Hida Beef on skewers which the butcher shop behind was cooking. They were absolutely delicious. There is good reason why Hida Beef is so famous.

    The night festival is just sublime. The local school children came and performed a lion dance and the floats look enchanting as they are festooned with lamps. It takes quite some time to get all them lined up in the main street but we were not bored for a second. Once they are lined up everyone was able to get up and walk around them all and take photos. Those who had been pulling them were happy to pose in their costumes and have snaps taken, if they weren’t too busy consuming their bento boxes, beer or sake – which they no doubt deserved after all the hard work.

    All in all it was a fantastic night (apart from poor choice of restaurant for tea – we should have stuck to the recommended ones on our list from the Rickshaw)

    The following morning we went to the Takayama Museum of Art. We considered this to be the hidden gem in Takayama. There is very little advertising given to it and I didn't see it mentioned in any of the guidebooks I had, perhaps because there is nothing Japanese about it.

    It is a purpose built museum which specialises in Art Nouveau and has works by Lalique, Gallé, Tiffany and other famous glass makers. The Lalique glass fountain which used to stand in the Champs Elysee Arcade is magnificent and still in working order. There is also a Viennese Secession Room and a number of works by Macintosh of Scotland.

    Despite being the festival weekend, I think I saw a total of four other people during our entire time there. To be able to wander around the rooms all by ourselves was a luxury in itself. We had lunch at the restaurant there, sitting outside in the sun whilst overlooking the valley. My Hida Steak sandwich was wonderful.

    On the way out I noticed a plaque from Michelin listing the Museum as a 3 star attraction and we certainly agreed but, as mentioned, we were staggered that Takayama doesn’t promote it more.

    The former Government Offices (Takayama Jinya) are also worth visiting. We didn’t look at any of the old houses as felt we had sufficiently done that elsewhere or the Hida Folk Village.

    In the afternoon I did the Higashiyama Walking Course – sort of. A couple of times I missed the next section so had to double back until I found the right path again, It was lovely wandering amongst the temples and the trees though. The Walking Course eventually takes you up the hill to Shiroyama Park and once up there I managed to get myself hopelessly lost. It was getting fairly late into the afternoon and I was in fact starting to get quite worried as I wandered through the forest. I did have a bit of a map but none of the place names that I came across in the park matched those in the guidebook. However, eventually I did find one and finally made it to the top where you had a great view. Going back was actually very straightforward as I just had to walk straight down the hill into the old area of Takayama.

    I had been keen to buy a piece of silk that I could use to make a wall hanging but so far hadn’t found anything I fancied. Whilst in Takayama I had found some but then realised that it was in fact an obi (the wide sash that you wind around your waist in a formal kimono) and was only about a $1000 so that was out of the question. Then later on I came across a secondhand store which had quite a number of old obi’s. I found one there for only about $50 which I am now using as a table runner. There was no one in the store when I first walked in but after a minute two the shopowner had seen me and came running. He looked absolutely fabulous because he had been taking part in the festival and was all decked in a very traditional male kimono. I think I bought the obi just as much because he looked so great as for the piece of material itself. As my girlfriend and I walked to dinner we passed a material shop which had some silk in the window which looked absolutely stunning. I said that was it exactly what I wanted but unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. When we returned in the morning and I told the owner that I just wanted to buy about 6 feet from the bolt of material he was horrified. Apparently I had to buy the entire bolt as it was for a kimono – a mere snip at about $2500. At least I know I have good taste.

    Next – The end of our trip Matsumoto and Tokyo

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    MATSUMOTO AND TOKYO

    Despite having our JR Pass we had opted to take the bus across the Alps to Matsumoto and then pick up the train from there to Tokyo and it was worth it.

    It took a little under 2 ½ hrs to do the drive and the scenery was spectacular. No tunnels this time, just trees in their glorious autumn colours, mountains and the lake and dams. It would have been lovely to have had a car so we could simply stop off occasionally and take the time to appreciate the scenery There were quite a number of hydro-electric stations along the way and it really seemed very strange to me to see the power lines from the stations running up the hills in amongst all the trees. As bushfires are so prevalent here, any power transmission lines would have a large fire break around them.

    We spent several hours in Matsumoto so that we could go and see the castle there, which is only about a 10-15 min walk from the station. We obviously had not had enough of festivals yet because when we got towards the castle precincts we realised there was a soba noodle festival. Lots of demonstrations on how to make soba noodles, lots of food to try etc. The downside of this was that there were a lot of people who wanted to see the castle as well so we had quite a bit of waiting around in lines to view the castle as we moved from level to level. Despite this, enjoyed the castle. Once again, probably thought it looked more spectacular from the outside than from the inside though.

    As we walked back to the station we passed a small shop selling second hand books and prints. It has to be THE most cluttered shop I have ever been in. For every step you took, you had to stop and pick up all the prints and books off the floor and put them down on another bit of floor behind you. I bought one lovely old watercolour painting which was an incredible bargain. It is at the framers as I write this and I just hope he does it justice. It should look a million dollars compared to the paltry amount I paid for it by the time the framer is finished. My girlfriend ended up buying three prints as well and fortunately all four prints survived the trip hope in the cardboard tubes we bought.

    The train trip from Matsumoto was rather long and boring for the most part, but the tedium was relieved by a shopping catalogue in our seat backs. It was of course all in Japansese but some of the pictures of the merchandise had us in stiches as we made more and more outrageous suggestions to each other, as to what they could be selling or what the purpose of the gadget.

    Our hotel in Tokyo was once again the Grand Prince Akasaka and, although we had only spent one night there, we almost felt as though we were returning home. It was wonderful to know exactly where we were going once we got to Tokyo station. Jumped on the subway line we needed, knew exactly what exit to take and around which corner to turn to get to the hotel.
    As I walked up to the hotel, the bellhop could see me from about 100 metres away pulling my little case behind me. He literally ran down to me and took all my bits and pieces. I have never had anyone run to me like that before, I felt like royalty. On another occasion, I walked up to the elevator and there was a bellhop there already waiting with a number of bags. There were only the two of us and I motioned her to go in first before me. The poor girl was so grateful that I had allowed her to share the lift with me. She had obviously intended to wait until the next elevator. It makes one wonder how they are usually treated.

    We were once again very happy with our stay at the Grand Prince. The concierge was very helpful and, although we completely confused the front desk with our bookings because the person staying in the room wasn’t necessarily the person who had booked the room and I, in fact, stayed in a different room each night (long story), they managed to cope.

    Before we started this trip my number one thing to do in Tokyo was to go see the old area of Asakusa and the Sensoji temple but after all our travels, and many temples later, I now didn’t really care less about seeing it – how things change in such a short period of time.

    We had an absolute ball the day we spent wandering around the Shibuya and Harajuku areas. As it was a Sunday there were lots of girls (and quite a few boys, and even a couple of boys dressed as girls) all done up in their weird and wacky outfits. They were a revelation to behold. There were lots of bands playing by Yoyogi park with 100’s of screaming girls egging them on. We came across yet another festival and saw a wonderful performance of people with drums - lots of very stylised movements.

    We wandered along the streets, gawked at some of the clothes available for sale and were amazed at the number of people crossing near Shibuya station at night and all the neon lights. We would literally have spent 20 mins watching the really large display on the Q-Front store.

    I had heard that Oriental Bazaar on Omotesandra Avenue was a one stop shop for gifts and, yes, we managed to buy quite a few. All in all, a really fun day and a great contrast to all the very traditional Japanese we had already experienced.

    Over the next couple of days we also went to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Actually, we went twice because the first day we went we nearly there and commenting on how it was good that we had beaten the rush on the subway before we worked out it was a public holiday. We didn’t get to see the tuna auction but had a great time just wandering around and doing our best to not get seriously maimed or killed by all the vehicles going every which way. I thoroughly enjoyed my breakfast of sushi but my two friends gave it a miss. (We had been joined by another friend who was continuing on to Europe with my girlfriend after I headed back to Australia).

    The Hama Detached Gardens were quite nice but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit them as compared to the other gardens we had already seen. We were both looking forward to the boat trip up the Sumida River from the Gardens to the Asakusa area but have to say we were both less than enthralled. It was really rather boring for the most part.

    Uneo Park is a good spot to wander around and we enjoyed the Tokyo National Museum. The metal work from the 8th century was stunning and worth the trip in itself as far as I was concerned.

    After three days it was time for me to head back to the airport. As it was getting dark as I left, the drive back to the airport was much nicer than the drive in. All those neon lights turned Tokyo into something of a fantasy land. The Japanese Eiffel Tower looked great all lit up and I am still wondering how I could not have noticed it on the way into Tokyo.

    Flew home with Japan Airlines and service was good. The only hiccup was when, after we had landed, and we were about to disembark we were all told to sit down again. Apparently one of the passengers was running a high fever and so we were all in temporary quarantine until a doctor had checked him out. Fortunately it was only a 10 minute delay or so before they let us off.

    Well, as you can guess by now, we had a fantastic holiday and I can’t wait to start planning the next one, whether it be Japan, Europe or somewhere totally new.


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    shandy,
    Do you remember the date that you rode the train to Matsumoto? I am interested in your report of fall foliage in the area. We will be doing a trip in the area next fall and wanted to get the dates narrowed down.
    Would you do an overnight in Matsumoto if you had another chance? We plan on renting a car a driving around a bit. Thanks again for taking your time to do this wonderful report. You help more than you know by doing this.

    Aloha!

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    Pat - what makes you thing the dog is still not in the bed and I am in the doghouse for having gone away minus hubby :) Fortunately I can say that I have reclaimed my place in the bed and the dog has taken up residence on a pillow on the floor beside the bed now. Unfortunately whilst I have been away he has taken up waking us in the morning to demand his breakfast - in the past he slept until we woke up if we were having a lie in.

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    Dogster - It sounds wonderful to have inspired someone to consider a new destination after reading my report.

    Japan was very different to any of my other trips. My husband and I are traditionally the "go to Europe" type and although, Europe probably continues to be my first love, I would love the opportunity to return to Japan again. Next time I would like to explore further afield and get to see the other islands. I also have to find a place to go see snow monkeys as well.

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    Hawaiian Traveller, it would have been the 11th October when we did the trip from Takayama to Matsumoto. Although we saw quite a bit of autumn foliage as we drove across the alps it would probably have been another couple of weeks before it was at its height. As for the rest of our trip we didn't see much autumn colour, we were too early. It was only the extra altitude that enabled us to see it in the Alps.

    I can't say that I would really recommend an overnight at Matsumoto. Apart from the castle itself there wasn't all that much to see. The shops were quite pleasant to wander around but no different to anywhere else we had been (apart from that wonderful secondhand book store).

    For myself I would prefer an overnight at Kamikochi or there was a place the bus stopped for a while. Unfortunately I have no idea of its name but you might be able to work it out from the bus schedules. It seemed to be a bit of a resort type area and there were a lot of Japanese there and the views nearby were stunning.

    I am feeling envious that you are planning your next trip. I am afraid I can't even contemplate one just at the moment.

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    HT- We once spent 3 nights in Matsumoto and really enjoyed the town. We stayed in a very old inn where the emperor once stayed. It was probably 15 years ago and there were no foreigners that we remember. The castle, museum, covered shopping mall and a night market were all enjoyable. We were there in March, so I can't comment on the leaves.

    Shandy: Thanks for a great report! All your details make for one that I'll print and save!

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    HT (that is so much easier to write), as you have probably worked out I would paying more attention to lcuy than me re Matsumoto. I would have only spent about 5 hours there so not sufficient time to make any real judgment. It just didn't immediately strike me as a place that I wished I had organised an overnight stop. Happy planning.

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    Loved your report shandy, I made some notes for my own JP itinerary coming up in Nov. Did you do Nara totally on foot? I'm thinking of maybe renting bikes for the day trip there. Also, was there something particular wrong with the Sumida river cruise?

    Went to Australia 2 yrs ago and so far it's been my fav travel destination, can't wait to go back down under!

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    Hi Anthony,

    We did do Nara totally by foot and I have to say that we were very footweary by end of the day. Of course, getting rather lost did not help. Actually, I'm lying because I have just remembered that we caught a bus back to the station at the end of the day - it was too far to walk back.

    I think renting bikes would be an absolutely fantastic idea as the assorted shrines/temples cover a reasonably large area. Our day at Nara was one of our favourites for the whole trip. Don't forget that if you want to see Fushimi Inara that it is on the same train line so is an easy detour on the way there or back.

    With the Sumida River cruise there wasn't anything particulaly wrong, it was just rather boring. For the first hour we didn't really seem to go anywhere at all, went from one landing spot to another, waiting a while, and then backtracked to first landing before eventually heading up river. Whether this is normal I don't know.

    I suppose we had expected to see a lot more water traffic. Admittedly it was a public holiday the day we were on it so I don't know whether that made a difference. The sights along the way were, for the most part, just somewhat interesting. Very little to ooh and ah at.

    I certainly wouldn't say, "Don't do the trip, it isn't worth it". Just that I wouldn't go out of my way to fit it in. If it does fit in nicely with your plans for that day, yes, go ahead with it.

    Hope you have a great trip. How long do you have to travel around and glad that you enjoyed your trip to Oz.

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    Am very late in catching this report. It is wonderful and makes me want to return to Japan. I was there as a 25 year old and didn't have a clue to what to see and do.

    Very well written and so descriptive.

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    The bus ride from Takayama to Matsumoto is lovely. We stopped at a bus terminal along the way in a small mountain ski town and used the thermal baths at a lodge on the far side of the bus parking lot. There were 10+ different baths in the ladies side, some inside and some outside. We were told we were the first Western tourists in the past several years. The thermal springs are so frequent in the area that hot water runs in gullies along the roads.
    We also bought old books in Matsumoto. Very good "flea" market near river. Loved the castle and the city.
    Best food bargain we found in Japan. In our hotel "Green Hotel", I think. They had "coffe shop" type of dining room off lobby. Pre fix dinner for $12.00, Western food only with self serve beautiful, fresh salad bar, soup, main plate of meat or fish, starch, vegetable, fancy dessert of cake, whipped cream, fresh fruit, plus 8 choice self serve ice cream buffet, and if not enough...one glass or wine or beer. Wow!! We ate there every night.

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    I just saw this excellent report today for the first time. So many memories of our trip to Japan. We, too, did the Nakasendo Trail. While it was a Sunday and the villages were very busy with Japanese bus groups, like Shandy, we hardly saw anyone else on the trail. I bought vegetable/herb seeds in one of the villages and am still growing my real Japanese herbs each summer.

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    Someotherguy, thank you so much for telling me the name of the resort near Kamikochi, as I would definitely like to spend a night or two there when I get a chance to return.

    Elainee, that's absolutely fabulous that you are still growing and no doubt eating your Japanese herbs. It beats many a knick knack that eventually gets put in the back of cupboard to gather dust. As someone who enjoys cooking, the idea really appeals to me. Unfortunately I can't take advantage of it because Australia's strict quarantine rules would never allow me to bring them in. They even confiscated the bath salts I brought back because they looked as though they had some sort of herb or seed in the packaging :)

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    Dry seeds in a sealed package doesn't seem to be a problem in US. I bring seeds back from where ever I find them. Most of the time the herbs are just like the ones I would have gotten here but more fun to me. Taking bath salts, now that is tooo much.

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    shandy, i too just stumbled on your fabulous report. it took my ex and i 3 3 week trips to cover all you did. good job! we enjoyed the fried crickets on the nakasendo. in a language snafu. i thought we were getting raw tuna but managed to wolf down raw horse meat at out minshi ku.

    as a big fan of woodblock prints we enjoyed the museum in matsumoto. we stayed a few nights in the shirakawa valley at the top of one of those incredible houses. and as an architect with an interest in the historic (as well as contemporary) we traipsed though every old building museum

    we were hysterical with the juxtaposition of the public spaces from frank lloyd wright's imperial hotel stuck against a hillside with a brick railway viaduct behind it

    each of our trips included 4-7 days in and around kyoto, including on one a few days in koyasan which included one of those only in japan multi mode transit trips w/ 2 minutes between departure and arrival

    we scheduled around festivals and shrine markets and became addicted to okonomiyaki. in was thrilled to discover that the infamous japa dog in downtown vancouver has an okonomiyaki sausage!

    thanks for the memories

    cheers and happy hols

    AndrewDavid

    ps spent almost 5 weeks in fabulous oz w/ the help of lots of kind aussies including the loan of an apartment in sydney. not sure if my trip report is still here. loved getting stuck for 2 days at the tully river crossing on the way to cairns

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    AndrewDavid, glad the report brought back some good memories for you. It must have been marvellous staying in one of the thatched houses.

    I hope to get to Koyasan some time and would like to get a bit more off the beaten track next time. However, if and when I go again it will be with my husband and I will be torn between showing him the places I really enjoyed and seeing some new places as well. Hopefully the trip can be long enough to encompass both.

    I have indeed read your trip report on Oz with much enjoyment and your getting stuck at the Tully has probably gone done in Trip Report folklore for the Oz board.

    Have a great Christmas and 2010.

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