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Trip Report TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

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Hello Fellow Fodorites!

Just got back from a two-week first-time trip to Japan and can’t wait to start a trip report on one of our favorite overall travel experiences. Before I do so, I must give thanks to kja, Kavey, Don Topez, mrwunrful and MinnBeef for the feedback on my questions before I left, as well as to the writers of the numerous trip reports I read as I was planning. Also I have to give credit to the indispensable www.japan-guide.com and www.hyperdia.com websites. If you are planning a trip and have not consulted these sites yet, please do so immediately! They will make your trip so much easier and richer as a result. I will try to include any other info that I think a first timer might appreciate, but if any of you veterans see any factual errors, please call them out so that I don’t confuse anyone.

Although we lived in Italy for a couple years in the mid-90’s, and traveled extensively throughout Europe and parts of northern Africa, this was our first trip to Asia. Because of this, we decided to start with a country that has a reputation for running smoothly and efficiently, and on this count Japan did not disappoint. We struggled with the decision whether or not to travel independently in Japan, but after reading many Fodors trip reports decided we could do it. All I can say is that if you have any desire to travel independently in Japan… then do it! We found it even easier than our experiences in Europe (where late trains and random strikes have thwarted many a planned itinerary), but from hotel bookings to train travel, there wasn’t a lost reservation or missed connection for the entire trip.

One thing I like to do before going foreign country where English is not the primary language, is to learn at least some of the native language. Although this is by no means necessary in Japan, for me it’s a great way to learn about the culture, as well as having experiences that I might not have otherwise had a snap if. So before this trip I purchased the first 30 lessons from Pimsleur’s speaking Japanese, although I only managed to get through the first 15 before leaving. This gave me the basics, such as “good morning, good afternoon, good evening, thank you, please” etc., as well as the ever useful, “I don't understand Japanese, do you understand English?”, which was a great way to break the ice when starting a new conversation or request. It was also helpful learning the numbers 1 through 10, as well as how to ask, “at what time…” and “where is…”, and understanding the responses. The course also gave me several phrases which I thought I would never use such as, “I am American” and the proper response to being told, “You speak Japanese so well”, which I knew I would never need. Don’t worry, you will be fine if you go knowing nothing other than hello, thank you and please. We found all subway and train stops to be written in English and most restaurants had English menus, or if not, at least pictures.

We started planning the trip last January, after having been fortunate enough to secure two frequent-flyer business-class award tickets through United, flying out non-stop from LAX to Tokyo Haneda on May 13 and returning to LAX from Osaka KIX via SFO on May 27. With a little fine tuning from Fodorites, we landed on the following itinerary:

Tokyo - 4 nights (with day trip to Nikko)
Hakone - 1 night
Takayama - 2 nights
Nara - 1 night
Koyasan – 1 night
Kyoto – 4 nights

It was difficult to drop Matsumoto from our original itinerary (I know it was a highlight for some of you), but we were very happy with how everything worked out in the end, and never felt like we had too much travel in a given day, especially with trains that run like clockwork.

May 13 and 14 – LAX to HND, and Tokyo
The only flight that was available using “saver” fare tickets had us departing at 1:20am, but I decided that this might be a good way to start getting into the Japan time zone. Given that we would probably not be able to get to sleep until about 3am Pacific Time, my hope was that we would sleep 8 hours, waking up about 4am Japan time, and that this would give us a head start into the time difference. While that might have been a good idea in theory, in reality we didn’t really get much sleep, and probably managed to make the transition worse in the end. But we arrived on time at 5am on May 14, not well rested, but running on adrenaline and anxious to get started.

We got through immigration in a fast 10 minutes and had our bags 10 minutes after that. We exchanged dollars for yen immediately outside of baggage claim, at the rate of 99.60 yen to the dollar, which made it incredibly easy when dealing with prices in yen. (As a result, I’ll probably go back and forth between yen and dollars as I mention prices).
The first thing I noticed once we got outside was the humidity. It’s not that it was oppressive, only that 68°F in Los Angeles feels a lot cooler than in Tokyo, because it’s so dry. This really wasn’t a factor until the last couple days of our trip when temperatures reached the mid-80’s. In any event, we grabbed a taxi and made the quick 20 minute ride in to Tokyo. I had printed out the address of the hotel in Japanese ahead of time, so I just handed it to the taxi driver and we had no problems getting to the hotel. We were very surprised by how little traffic there was on the street. By this point it was about 6:00 AM and we were expecting the start of rush hour traffic, but we got to the Capitol Hotel Tokyu without any delays.

I had selected this hotel from Trip Advisor reviews, based on its access to four different subway lines, as well as comfort, while we adjusted to the new time zone. After consulting several discount websites, I ended up booking directly with the hotel, and was able to get a rate that was 30% off of the normal rate by booking more than 90 days in advance. (I kept checking various sites as we got closer, but the prices only went up after that). We were very happy that the room was ready, and were able to check in right away. Our room on the 25th floor was modern and comfortable, with views facing the northwest, towards Shinjuku. Looking down, we could see the Hie Shrine, right next door to the hotel. After a quick shower, this is where we decided to start our exploration, but not before a quick bite to eat.

When we went to look for breakfast, we realized the one downside of our hotel. A buffet breakfast in the hotel was going to run upwards of $50.00 per person. When we decided to explore the area around the hotel, we discovered that there was really nothing within a 10 minute walk. It was only when we went down to the level leading to the subway that we discovered a small cafe where we could get tea, coffee, and toast or a muffin. Coming from California, where there's no smoking in restaurants, we were especially happy to learn that there was a separate smoking room completely sealed off from the rest of the café, which was blissfully smoke free. Having finished our meal, it was time to explore!
Upon entering the Hie Shrine, we were pleased to find that we had it almost all to ourselves. Since we were in an area that was largely dominated by government and office buildings, the occasional sharply dressed businessman or woman would walk through the shrine. Every so often, one would stop to pull a rope attached a large bell at the front, clap twice, throw a donation in the box, say a quick little prayer, clap once, and be on his or her way; the entire process taking under a minute. This calm and serene scene was most certainly not repeated in our next stop, Asakusa.

One of the subway lines beneath our hotel was the Ginza line, which conveniently connected the Shibuya station at one end to Asakusa at the other. This was our first Tokyo subway experience, so it took few minutes to get oriented. There were machines in the corridor leading to the turnstiles which dispensed subway tickets as well as rechargeable plastic cards. I was looking for the “Suica” brand rechargeable card, which I had read about in my guidebook, but this machine seemed to dispense the “Passmo” brand. So I took a chance and put 2,000 yen on a Passmo card. I later found out that Suica and Passmo have more or less merged and the cards that can usually be used interchangeably. But what was also great about this card, besides not having to buy tickets for each ride, was that you can also use it for purchases at places like 7/11 and other shops. This is much more convenient than having to deal with cash all the time. My major faux pas came when it was time to go through the turnstile, when I inserted the Passmo card into the slot where a subway ticket should go, instead of passing it over the sensor on time and keeping the card in my hand. Fortunately there was a very helpful subway worker nearby, who was happy to open the machine and retrieve it for me.

Crisis averted, we entered the station and were surprised that, although we were riding in the middle of rush hour and the cars were full, it wasn’t the crush of people that we were expecting. It was tight, but not uncomfortably so, and people were overall very quiet and respectful. We rode to the end of the line, in order to see the famous Senso-ji complex in Asakusa, which includes a five-story pagoda, and the Asakusa shrine, among other buildings. Upon departing the subway train car, I was happy to see maps on the walls with numbered exits, showing which ones were closest to various sites. These maps became indispensable, especially in the larger stations, where taking the wrong exit could put you blocks away from your destination.

Our first observation of the area leading to the shrine, besides that of the giant multicolored gate with the enormous red lantern hanging from it, was the sheer number of people, mostly students, dressed in what appeared to be little blue and white sailor uniforms, broken up only by their colorful sneakers and Barbie backpacks. Despite the crowd, it didn't feel overwhelming. For the most part, people did not run in to us, we didn’t run into them, and everything flowed in a much calmer manner than a crowd of the same size might in the U.S.

The main pedestrian street leading to the Asakusa shrine is lined with all manner of food and souvenir vendors. We spent a good hour watching Japanese pastries being made in shop windows, or little plastic “lucky cats” dancing on their battery powered pedestals. We sampled numerous confections, such as baked dough filled with red bean paste, or little fritters flavored with green tea.

The buildings in the shrine complex are all painted vermillion red, with accents of gold and green. This turned out to be a recurring theme for shrines all along our trip. Another regular feature was the fountain at the beginning of the shrine, although this one much larger than the one at Hie Shrine. We followed the example of the others, and picked up one of the many small ladles laying on the edge of the fountain, filled it up with water, and washed each hand with it. We took a sip of water from our hands and rinsed out our mouths, just like the other visitors, and let the remaining water from the ladle run down the length of the handle before setting it back on the edge of the fountain.

There was also a large cauldron filled with incense burning in the middle of the square. Crowds of people would come up to the pot and waive the smoke all over their bodies before proceeding to the shrine. This really felt like no place we had visited before and we really enjoyed taking in all the sights, sounds and smells.

In addition to admiring the architecture and the rituals, we also enjoyed watching the younger schoolchildren gathered around the various buildings making sketches for class. Many of them had world maps and asked where we were from, but got shy when we tried to reply in English. It occurred to me that they might not have understood what I said, so was actually able to break out a phrase I didn’t expect to use in Japanese, “Watashi wa Americajin des”, “I’m an American". (Forgive my spelling, if there is a correct way to spell Japanese in English. Pimsleur is all audio based, so I did not see any of this in writing). Apparently they were doing some sort of school project and this enabled them to place a sticker on the location of the United States on their maps. A few other children were eager to try out their English on us, so we got lots of “hello”, and a few “I love you”, which may not have been the most useful of phrases in that context, but certainly amusing!

By the time we finished in Asakusa it was about 11:30 AM, so we decided to go to the Edo-Tokyo museum, since it was only a couple subway stops away, requiring a change from the Asakusa line to the Oedo line at Kuramae. This was just a bit confusing, because we actually had to leave one station, walk a couple hundred meters above ground, and descend to another station, in order to pick up the second line.
Since it was about noon when we got there, we decided to have lunch at the restaurant on the top floor of the museum. We were shown counter seats which faced a window looking out toward the river to the east. Although the menu was not in English the pictures were very easy to understand. Our only concern was that Sam is allergic to shrimp and crab. Fortunately, I had emailed some Japanese friends before leaving in order to get the phrase, “I am allergic to shrimp and crab", in Kanji, which I saved as a photo on my phone. We showed this to the waitress before ordering and she steered us in the right direction. We use this process for every meal and it worked like a charm.

I thought that the prices were very reasonable for a museum restaurant, about $10.00 for rice bowl with meat or fish on top, and a bowl of miso soup, or about $17.00 for multi-course Bento box, also with rice and soup. Sam ordered cold sake and when a small desert arrived, the woman seated next to us wearing a traditional kimono, gestured that we should pour a little of the sake over the desert before eating. She seemed a very pleased and I gave her a very sincere thank you, “Arigato gozaimas”!

The visit to the museum was phenomenal. They have a group of English speaking free guides immediately to the right as you enter the museum. Their last guide had just left with a couple of other visitors and they eagerly asked us to join the group.
The guide was fantastic and very informative, as she explained the history and background of the various models, maps and exhibits. She seemed genuinely excited whenever anyone ask the question, especially when it led to some interesting bit of information that she might not have otherwise shared. Being on the tour, also give us access to the insides of some of the exhibits that we otherwise might not have seen. For example, there is an actual size replica of a traditional kabuki theater inside of which were various instruments used during the production of the show. It was fun to be able to test these out for ourselves. All together we spent about 3 hours in the museum and it was well worth it. If you're at all interested in the history of the Tokyo/Edo area over the past 400 years, or really enjoy incredibly detailed architectural models, I would highly recommend the trip to this museum.

By this point it was about 4:00 PM and we were exhausted. We went back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner. Since there did not seem to be a lot of activity around our hotel in the evening we decided to take the subway to Shinjuku to have a look around and find a place for dinner. We chose an exit from the subway at random and found ourselves in a crowded area filled with bright lights and massive signs. There were several “barkers” on the streets, saying something to us as we walked by. It sounded like English so Sam said, “What are they saying?" And I said that it sounded like, "sex”. It appeared that we had stumbled upon Kabuiki-cho, the red-light district. Since we suspected that this area was probably not known for their cuisine, we turned back toward the station where we found a small noodle restaurant, which seemed to have about eight tables, all occupied. The proprietor gestured for us to follow her and led us to a small elevator which we took to the fourth floor. We arrived to a darkened room, with about 8 tables but no customers. She turned on the lights and seated us. At first it seemed a little creepy being there all alone, but within 5 minutes every other table was occupied with diners. We ordered massive bowls of Udon noodles in broth, mine with shrimp tempura on top, for about $10.00 each. Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel to pass out after a fantastic first day.

First impressions: despite all of the amazing sights that we had seen today, we were most impressed with the Japanese people. From the hotel staff, to the store clerks, people on the train, and people we've encountered on the street, everyone has been unfailingly kind and polite. They even seemed happy at my feeble attempts to speak Japanese. More of the trip to come when I have a chance.

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    >>First impressions: despite all of the amazing sights that we had seen today, we were most impressed with the Japanese people.<<

    Wonderful!

    I didn't realize that you were studying Japanese before you left. I agree 100% with your view on learning some of the language and happy to know that you got to use it. You asked about the correct way of writing Japanese "in English". It is actually in Roman characters and called romajii. Your romajii is almost perfect.

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    Thanks lcuy and Friendship_Bay!

    mrwunrfl - Thanks for the feeback!. I would not say that listening to CD's in the car for two weeks before leaving qualifies as "studying", but I was shocked at what I retained and wished I had finished all 30 lessons. Thanks for the "romajii" info. I was sure there was a better way to express that idea. Will try to get another installment out in a day or two

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    Glad you enjoyed your first trip to Japan. Our first trip to Japan was not long before yours - in November. While we are well-experienced Asia travelers, Japan is entirely different!

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    Kudos to you for trying to learn a little japanese before your trip !!! It is always something I strongly advise, regardless of the destination language/country. It does make usually a huge difference in how you will be perceived, and also in your enjoyment of the trip.

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    May 15 – Tokyo Day 2

    Well, day two got off to a rocky start. Between not sleeping on the plane and pushing myself too hard the first day, I woke up in the middle of the night with a massive migraine that even a double dose of meds wouldn’t fix. In desperation, I had the hotel call an English-speaking doctor, who arrived with an uber-powerful anti-inflammatory, which did the trick.

    I had originally had wanted to start the day with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building to see the view from the observatory, but since the sky was hazy, and we were getting a late start, we decided to skip it and go to the Meiji shrine and Harajuku. We took the Chiyoda Line from the hotel to the Meiji-jingumae stop and decided we would find a place to stop for lunch on the way to the shrine. Based on our experience from the day before, we assumed that finding a place to eat on the way to the shrine would be easy. However, we saw only one place (that didn’t serve only sweets) on the street that we took, leading from the subway stop to the shrine. So we ducked in without paying much attention to the menu out front. Once inside, we found several people waiting in armchairs that seemed more likely to be found in the lobby of an office building than in the waiting area of a restaurant. But we were hungry, so we left our name and waited for a table.

    After a short wait, we were led to an escalator, which had us wondering if we had wandered into the waiting room for a job interview or maybe a corporate presentation. Sorry, I forgot to prepare my PowerPoint slides. It came with a sense of relief, when we saw that we had been led to the dining room and we were shown a table. Once the menus were placed in front of us it was obvious that we had come 6000 miles to Tokyo, only to end up in a Chinese restaurant! We had a laugh and decided to order a couple of set menus, which were about $15 each. The food was pretty good, presented “Japanese-style”, with each little dim sum served on its own little plate. The only item which seemed a bit suspect was the egg-drop soup, which had so much corn starch you could stand up a spoon in it, but regardless, we finished it all.

    Having now had three meals in Japan, one thing I noticed that I really liked is how they leave the bill on your table immediately, either right after you have ordered, or as soon as the food has arrived. This is especially helpful when you are short on time, or just ready to go. No hunting for the server to get your check, and then waiting for him or her to pick it up and return with the change. With the exception of the most expensive dinners we had, we could take the bill to the cash register any time we were ready and pay. Service and tax are included in the total. It couldn’t be easier.

    Now, fortified for the afternoon ahead, it was time to continue with our sightseeing. Just before going into the park where the shrine is located, there were three guys holding signs that said, alternately, “10 yen hugs” and “free hugs”. We speculated that they were doing some sort of college sociology experiment to determine if people would pay more for expensive hugs than for the obviously “inferior” free ones. We stopped to take their photos and they responded with thumbs-up and peace signs, the universal sign language for, “I’m having my picture taken”.

    Unlike the shrine at Asakusa, the Meiji shrine is set in a large, spacious park setting. We entered through an enormous torri gate made from 1700 year old cypress trees, photos of which we took from every conceivable angle. Another popular photo spot was the location where dozens of old sake of barrels were stacked, painted in bright colors. With their unpainted cypress construction, the shrine buildings contrasted greatly with the colorful buildings in Asakusa, the only color being the green oxidized copper roofs. After a visit to the shrine, a stroll through the gardens was a pleasant break from the concrete and commotion less than a kilometer away. It was an oasis in the middle of the city.

    Just outside the park, a short walk took us to the Takeshita-dori, the famous trendy shopping street beloved by adolescent Tokyoites. It was interesting seeing the quirky clothing and accessories for sale, with the occasional young girl dressed like Little Bo Peep, and the guys dressed in multiple prints containing stars, British and American flags, camouflage, and nonsensical English text, all at the same time. However, like many famous spots around the world, it seemed a much larger in my imagination than in reality, so therefore, less impressive in person. Of course, I’m not exactly their target demographic, so my opinion doesn’t really count. I was most amused by a sign advertising “Santa Monica crepes”, which must seem incredibly exotic to them.

    Our next stop on our quest to hit the major tourist sites was the famous Shibuya Crossing. While we were there, we wanted to see a mural called “Myth of Tomorrow”, a striking and abstract depiction of an atomic bomb explosion, which was mounted somewhere in the Shibuya station. It took us awhile to find it, located in a sort of overpass above the street connecting the station buildings on either side. In addition to displaying the painting, this location provided an excellent vantage point of the crossing from up above, where we took the obligatory photos and shot a couple short videos of the masses of people.

    Before leaving the hotel for the day, I had had the foresight to bring the vouchers that we had purchased for our seven-day JR passes, which we would need to exchange at a JR station for the actual passes. Since we were now at the station, we decided to take this opportunity to do this. Unfortunately, once we found the correct location at which to obtain the passes, I discovered that I had neglected to fully read the instructions. We would need our passports in order to make the exchange, and I had left them at the hotel. Fortunately, it was only four stops away on the Ginza line, and we were back, passports in hand, 30 minutes later.

    Before leaving Los Angeles, I had used www.hyperdia.com to choose our exact train routes, dates and times, and printed out screen shots of our final selections, one for each day, detailing all of the necessary stops and connections. Immediately after obtaining our passes, we preceded to the JR travel agency located 30 feet away, right in the station. The incredibly helpful woman at the agency reviewed each day’s itinerary for accuracy. In one case, she discovered a discrepancy between the train number and the time of its departure, and made the necessary correction. She then made reservations for us for all trains that required them, printing out tickets with names and times in romajii text, so that we could read them. Even better, she put each day’s tickets in a separate small envelope, onto which she wrote the date pertaining to those tickets. This meant that we needed only to grab one envelope each day in order to have every ticket we would need for that particular day’s itinerary. The only way she could have made it easier would have been if she had accompanied us for the duration of the trip!

    The agent was also able to sell us a Hakone free pass, which would enable us to take all the necessary transportation during our two days going to and leaving Hakone. The only tickets which remained to be purchased were for the Nankai railway, which we would need to get to and from Koyasan, and which we would buy the day we needed them, from the Nankai ticket office in the station. Having successfully obtained our passes and reservations for the duration of the trip, we preceded back to the hotel to get ready for our first Kaiseki dinner.

    I had decided before leaving Los Angeles that we should do a Kaiseki dinner in Tokyo, and again in Kyoto, so that we could compare the experiences. I don’t remember how, but we came up with Akasaka Saryo for our Tokyo dinner, probably because we could walk from our hotel and I had read some good reviews. It was nice to be able to walk someplace from our hotel besides the Hie Shrine and our little breakfast café.

    The street was lined with very modern high-rises, occupied by offices, with car dealerships on the bottom floors. Since we had had the hotel make the reservation, they had printed out a photo of the front of the restaurant for us, which was very helpful. Even though it was in a modern building, they had designed the interior of the restaurant in a traditional Japanese style. It was in the basement of the building, and they had made it to look as if you’re walking down a flagstone path in an outdoor garden lined with bamboo and lanterns. Here is a link to a photo if you want to see this:

    http://www.bento.com/rev/3322.html

    Each table was located in a private tatami mat room, with sliding rice paper screens, beautifully painted walls, and a floral arrangement inside. Fortunately, under the low tables, the floor was recessed, so that we did not have to sit with our legs folded.

    All of the servers were dressed in traditional kimonos. I thought that this might have been a concession to tourists, but we actually saw quite a few women on the streets wearing kimonos, as well as servers in less touristy areas, so it didn’t feel as put on. We also saw this in many other restaurants on the trip. We found that we were the only non-Japanese diners, which made it feel like a more authentic experience, since they were not doing it just for those crazy Americans.

    I won’t go into detail on each and every course, but as we had hoped, the food was excellent, the presentation beautiful, and the servers extremely attentive. I was happy that there was not a lot of English spoken, as I don’t really feel like I’m in a foreign country unless a consulting my travel dictionary, which we did a lot. The hotel had told them ahead of time about Sam’s food allergies, and we could see that they had taken special care to leave out the shrimp and crab, while still including it in my courses.

    Although this was our first tatami mat experience, we were prepared to have to take off our shoes on arrival. I had also read about the “toilet slippers” that would be required in the restrooms. They made this process very seamless by leaving a pair of sandals on the floor just off the tatami mat, so it didn’t seem even remotely inconvenient when that occasion presented itself.

    Although this turned out to be our most expensive meal in Tokyo, it was actually the least expensive of our three kaiseki dinners. If this looks interesting to you, I read that they also have a great lunch deal for about 2000 yen.

    Final impressions on day two: still amazed at the friendliness and helpfulness of everyone. People go out of their way to help you. If you look lost on the street, they will ask you if you need something. At one point, I was going to recharge my Pasmo card, and was looking at the machine. A man came up, said something in Japanese, took the bill from my hand, put it in the machine with the card, pushed a few buttons and handed it to me. I thanked him and off he went. This was not a subway worker, just some random guy using the subway.

    Observation in 7/11: Hagen-Daz makes a carrot ice cream called “Spoon-Veg”. We didn't try it, but I like carrot cake, so why not?

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    Great report with terrific detail, russ_in_LA. Glad that the 1st night's medical issue was quickly resolved.

    Your point about "oases" that are a "break from the concrete and commotion" is right on target. The contrast between the tranquility of a park or garden and the hectic pace of the city that's just on the other side of a wall or hedge is one of my favorite parts of Tokyo.

    Looking forward to more.

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    Thanks Don!

    One other thing I meant to mention was that our Kaiseki experience prompted me to look up the word for delicious, "oishii". I felt that with 12+ courses, I needed to be able to say somthing other than "thank you" after each course, and "oishii" seemed like the best choice. After a couple of days, I finally asked someone how to say, "It was delicious". Using just the one word, I was afraid that the servers might be saying something like, "We are bringing you a new hot towel", and that I was responding, "Delicious!". I was hoping that saying a complete sentence might create the illusion that I was just starting a new thought, instead of giving a ridiculous response to something they had just said. Only they know if it worked.

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    Excellent report! I'm so glad that some of my experiences were helpful to you as that is what this forum is all about.

    Looking forward to continuing the read. Hope to hear that you loved Hakone. Seeing Mt. Fuji was one of the highlights of my travel life.

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    I'm enjoying your report. Keep it coming.

    A couple of useful variations: oishisou desu = it looks delicious; oishikatta desu = it was delicious. The same constructions work with any -i adjective.

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    Oishi or Oishi desu are perfect. Keep it simple so you will be better understood!

    Two other simple compliments are:

    Kirei or kirei desu (key-ray, pretty) for an attractive item

    ii or ii desu (ee, good)

    When you aren't sure what someone said, but you know a response is in order, the catch-all is "sō desu". It's like "it sure is" or, "I see..." The line over the o in sō means it is held for an extra beat

    BTW desu is pronounced dess. Your lips make the shape of the "u" at the end, but you don't sound it. (If someone does, they are likely angry or overly polite)

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    May 16 – Tokyo Day 3 – Nikko

    I had planned Nikko as a day trip for our third day, figuring that we would need a break from all the walking in Tokyo. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because so far we had walked about 10 times as far per day as we do in our normal day to day lives, and our feet were killing us.

    Today would also be the first day of our newly activated JR Rail passes. Had we delayed our Nikko trip by one day we could have covered all of our JR trips with just the 7-day pass; however, a huge festival was taking place in Nikko the following day, and as fun as that sounded, we wanted to try to see it with fewer crowds. Also, our return from Koyasan after our pass was set to expire would mostly be on the Nankai railway, with only the Osaka to Kyoto portion on JR, so the additional cost ended up being very small.

    We had reservations on a Shinkansen, departing Tokyo station 8:08 AM with a change of trains in Utsonomiya an hour later. Since our little breakfast café didn’t open until 8:00 AM, we arrived at Tokyo station at 7:00 AM to see what they had to offer. We didn’t realize what a breakfast wasteland we were staying in until we arrived at Tokyo station to find an embarrassment of riches. There were noodle soups and rice bowls, some with an egg on top, and several shops selling delicious French pastries. We opted for the pastries to make sure that we reached our train on time, not realizing at the time that few meals in a train station would take us much more than 10 minutes. We finished our breakfast and still got to our train platform 30 minutes early.

    As expected, the Shinkasen train was fast, clean, and comfortable, not completely unlike the TGV in France or the EuroStar in Italy, except that it ran on time. The change of trains in Utsonomiya was seamless, and the last hour particularly pleasant, with views of the trees and the verdant hills. We arrived to JR Nikko station just after 10:00 AM.

    Within minutes of getting off the train, a bus pulled up to the train station bound for the main Nikko attractions. We were happy to find that the bus accepted our Pasmo card for payment so we didn’t have to fumble for cash or even know what the fair needed to be. The first stop was at the Tobu train station about 100m away, where we saw that there was tourist information office. If you are coming in on a JR train, you could easily walk to the tourist office to obtain some information and maps, and pick up the bus from there. Just turn right from the JR station and it will be up on your right.

    We rode the bus to the Toshugu area, which contains the Toshugu shrine, Futarasan shrine, and the Rinnoji Temple. We knew ahead of time that some of the complex was being refurbished, so we weren’t surprised to find the Rinnoji temple completely covered. However, we still bought a ticket to go inside the temporary building they had erected around the temple, which contained many of the temple’s statues and carvings. This enabled us to get a closer look at them then we would have had they been installed in their normal locations. It was also interesting to see that the temple was completely disassembled and laying in pieces on the ground. I would hate to have the job of putting that back together again!

    Although the Yomeimon Gate was covered with scaffolding, there were literally dozens of other buildings at the Toshugu shrine, including a fantastic 5-story pagoda, that were all in amazing condition, decorated with gold leaf and colorfully painted. Opulent, hardly begins to describe them, and the setting among the trees was beautiful. The main attraction is the Honden, or main hall, the pleasure of which was greatly diminished by the crush of people being funneled through a small corridor. Later, we went up a long flight of stairs to the tomb of Shogun Ieyasa Tokugawa, although the views are more impressive than the tomb itself.

    Since it was now about noon and our stomachs were starting to grumble, we decided to have lunch at small restaurant right in the temple complex. Given the crowds outside, we were afraid that we might not get a table, but when we were seated we saw that we were the only ones there, although it filled up quickly after that. It was fast, if not terribly inspired, and were able to get right back to our exploration.

    At first sight, the Futarasan shrine did not seem quite as interesting as the Toshogu shrine, however continuing our walk uphill toward the mausoleum of 3rd Shogun, Iemitsu, grandson of Ieyasa, led to a series of decorative gates, every bit as ostentatious as those at Toshogu. Almost no other people found their way to this shrine and we had it almost completely to ourselves. With its spectacular setting in the forest, gorgeous and well maintained architectural detail, and serene location, this turned out to be the highlight of the day.

    We took the bus back toward town, getting off at the sacred bridge for a few photos. From that point it was about a 1 mile walk down the main street to the station, which we spent leisurely looking into shops. Since we got back to the station about an hour before our train was departing, we had some tea at a cafe just across the street from the JRstation, and rested our weary feet.

    There was some discussion on this board before I left about whether a day trip was enough time for Nikko. As with most questions of this nature, it depends. The natural beauty of the area was unmistakable, and I'm sure we could have spent two enjoyable days taking hikes and exploring the region. We did not see the lake or the waterfalls or the onsens, but we did have an overnight stay planned in Hakone, during which would be able to enjoy the onsen and the outdoors. In the end we felt that for the temples and shrines in the Toshugo area alone, Nikko was a very worthwhile day trip from Tokyo, one that I would recommend.

    We arrived back in Tokyo about 6:00 PM without dinner plans, so we asked our hotel for a recommendation for sushi, since we had yet to have any so far on this trip. They made reservations for us at a place in Ginza called Seamon, located in a small space on the 6th floor of a non-descript commercial building in the main shopping district. I have no idea if this is a well-known place, or off the beaten path, but we had a very good experience there and the food was excellent. The most striking feature of the narrow room was the long red lacquer bar, where we were seated, so we could watch the four sushi chefs as they created our 9 piece omekase menu. We really enjoyed the flavors, which were clean and simple, all of which were served with some sort of subtle sauce or seasoning which complemented rather than overpowered the fish. They also served 3 additional complementary courses, which I thought was a nice touch.

    Up next: Last day in Tokyo - Great experience with Tokyo Free Guide!

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    May 16 – Japan: Day 4 - Last Day in Tokyo

    About a month before leaving Los Angeles, I emailed the Tokyo Free Guide organization (www.tokyofreeguide.com) to arrange for a guide for one of our days in Tokyo. Within a day I received an email from Mariko, a young Japanese woman who had spent some time in London, saying that she would be available all day on Saturday May 16. She asked me what we were interested in seeing, and I thought that it might be nice to have a guide in the Tsukiji Fish Market, and then let her choose some place in the area for lunch. We emailed back and forth a couple of times and nailed down an itinerary.

    I had this plan on my mind when I opened the curtains in our room on Saturday morning and was confronted with a stunning direct view of half of Mount Fuji, the other half hidden by the building across the street. Up to this point the weather had been fantastic, with highs in the low 70’s during the day and no rain; but the skies had been hazy and grayish, so it hadn’t even crossed my mind to look for a view of Fuji. However, today the air was crisp and sunny, with blue skies and views for miles. I knew that we would want to go directly to the Tokyo Municipal Government Building to see if we could get a direct view of Mount Fuji, but I didn't want to take Mariko in the opposite direction from where she had planned to take us. I thought that perhaps she might have a suggestion for some place closer to our destination.

    At 9:00 AM we met Mariko in the lobby of the hotel and the first thing she said after we introduced ourselves was, “If there's something else you'd like to do today, please let me know”. I mentioned Mt. Fuji, and the amazing view from our window, and she said, "We should go to the Municipal Government Building”. Fantastic! However, we had one super-quick stop to make first.

    The night before, we had been posting some photos on Instagram, when we noticed some other photos posted of the Hie Shrine, which included a stairway covered with dozens of red torri, similar to those that we would later see in Kyoto, at the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. Since there was a subway stop in that direction, we decided to walk through the shrine to see if we could locate it. Circling the perimeter, we came to the back of the shrine and found a stairway leading to the street below covered with over 100 red torri! We descended the stairway, getting lots of great photos in the process, and finding that it ended right near Akasaka Saryo, where we had had dinner two nights before. We had walked right past it without even knowing it.

    We arrived to our stop in Shinjuku, but in an area much different than Kabuki-cho, where we had landed on our first night. This area seemed very much a business district, clean and a bit sterile, with almost no one on the street. We made our way quickly to the Municipal Government Building, and found only a very short line for the elevator up to the observatory. We occupied ourselves for a few minutes by taking photos next to someone dressed as a giant yellow bull, advertising a nearby beef restaurant.

    As we had hoped, the view was fantastic. We could see a clear and completely unobstructed view of Mount Fuji, and in every direction the city stretched out in front of us. It was great having Mariko there to point out various landmarks, and we had high hopes that the weather the next day would be the same for our trip to Hakone, and a much more intimate view of Mount Fuji. But first, to the fish market!

    We took the Oedo line, which makes a complete circle around Tokyo. As we descended, much further than we had for other lines, Mariko explained that this was one of the deepest subways because it had to go below many of the existing lines. We arrived at the fish market a bit later than we had originally intended, but although about half of the vendors had already finished for the day, there were still plenty who we out in full force, and we enjoyed walking around and learning the Japanese names for various fish that we didn’t already know, as well as trying to identify fish that we were previously acquainted with only in the form of bite-sized morsels.

    As we walked around the outer market, Mariko explained to us that in addition to the wholesale market which we knew took place earlier in the morning, there is an intermediary market, where the enormous fish are cut into smaller portions for the general public to purchase. This area was a hive of activity, and we walked around admiring live crabs the size of vinyl LPs (remember those). We also shot a great iPhone video of two guys filleting an massive tuna, who encouraged the kids (I’m including myself in this) to get closer for better shots. They were very energetic, and they gave a great demonstration.

    As we moved farther from the fish market proper, all sorts of other food items were available to sample and purchase. We tried dried seaweed, sometimes soaked in water to make seaweed broth, and various dried fruits. I finally succumbed to the temptation to spoil my lunch by a gentleman grilling Wagyu beef on little wooded skewers….heaven on a stick.

    After the market, we walked towards Ginza where Mariko had a place in mind for lunch. We had told her previously the various types of Japanese food that we have eaten in Los Angeles, and said that we would like to try something we had not had before. She brought us to a place that specializes in Shabu Shabu, which is very thinly sliced meat and vegetables, which each diner cooks in his own private pot of broth, recessed into the counter in front of him. Incidentally, the name Shabu Shabu is onomatopoeia, based on the sound of the simmering broth. I suppose it takes a bit of imagination, but if we can say that a rooster goes, "Cock-a-doodle-do”, then a pot of broth can certainly go, "Shabu Shabu".

    We sat at a lozenge shaped counter with stools all around, and the work area in the middle. One worker was busily slicing wafer thin slices of beef and pork, while the other was serving them along with vegetables, noodles and rice to the hungry diners at the counter. It was fun to cook our own food, which took mere seconds, and dip it in a variety of savory sauces. Once all the food was gone, our server took some of the broth from each of our pots and served it to us as a soup, to which we could add little chopped scallions. It was a delicious, if not particularly challenging, new food experience.

    After lunch we walked down the main thoroughfare, which we found was closed off to traffic on the weekends. There were even tables and chairs set up in the middle of the street where people could stop to have a rest. This came as a pleasant surprise, because we had noticed while strolling through parks, temples and shrines, that there were really no dedicated places to sit. No benches on the streets, in the parks or the temples, no chairs in the subway stations.

    While I'm making random observations, we also noticed that there are no trash cans anywhere. Except for the train stations, which have bins for recycling and for garbage, there were none on the streets, in the shops, or the subway stations. What's amazing is Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities we have ever seen. In four days we have seen no litter, no graffiti, nothing. It ‘s amazing!

    Our last stop with Mariko was at the Takashimaya department store. I wanted to start with the food halls in the basement, but when we got there I thought we had accidentally wandered into the jewelry department. Each and every candy and confection was perfectly lined up in glass cases like little gems. We watched as a white gloved store clerk put two pieces of candy in a box, wrapped it with a bow, and deposited it into a little gift bag. Tiffany probably makes less of an effort than this.

    Sam wanted to see the floor with plants, flowers, and gardening tools, so we made our way up to the top floor. Just outside the gardening department, the store had created a little park on the roof, with grass and a garden and actual places to sit. There were families sitting on the lawn and children running around a fountain. We took a break at a small cafe where we enjoyed some tea, as we watched a young girl try to figure out how to use a jump rope. She finally decided that it was for tying up her little brother and dragging him across the lawn. He did not find this nearly as amusing as she did, but mom intervened before any major trauma ensued.

    Mariko indicated that it was time for her to go, so we gave her a small box of chocolates that we had brought with us from the U.S., wrapped in a red white and blue box, which we had placed into a shiny gift bag. We had read in our guide book before leaving that something like this would be the best way to say thank you. She seemed surprised, but delighted, as we thanked her for a wonderful tour.

    Since we were not too far away, we decided to take the subway to see the east gardens of the Imperial Palace. After a quick stroll through the gardens, we decided to head back to the hotel for rest before our last dinner in Tokyo.

    One thing I was determined to do while in Japan was to have some interaction with people other than hotel and restaurant staff. So in the weeks before departing Los Angeles, we reached out to anyone who had even the most tenuous connection to Japan to let them know we would be going. As it turns out, I have a cousin who is engaged to be married to a man who is half Japanese. He has a cousin, Tsuyoshi, who he said would love to meet us. So we agreed on tonight to get together for dinner, at a place of his choosing.

    Before meeting Tsuyoshi, Sam and I discussed whether or not it would be appropriate to give him a box of chocolates, as we had Mariko. We wondered whether or not he might think it was odd, so we decided that it might be better to just buy him dinner. So imagine our consternation when the first thing that he said was that his wife couldn’t make it, so she had bought us a gift, which turned out to be a lovely pair of chopsticks. Doh! We could have brought the chocolates for his wife, had we known that he was married, but it didn't even come up when we were sending each other messages on Facebook. Darn!

    Tsuyoshi took us to an Izakaya, which I would describe as a sort of Japanese pub. The focus is on beer and sake, but there are menus hand printed in Japanese plastered all over the walls. There were no English translations, and no photos of food, so I was happy to be there with a local. Walking in, we saw that the main room had western style tables and chairs, however in the back were small private rooms with tatami mats. It was quite smoky in the main room, so we were happy when he told us that he had booked a table in a private room. It was nice to see that the traditional Japanese seating was still in regular day-to-day use. We took off our shoes and padded in our sock feet to our table.

    While we were waiting, Tsoyushi explained that the Izakaya was owned by his friend from university, Shintaro. Soon after, Shintaro came in dressed in a traditional robe and holding an enormous bottle of sake, which he distributed generously. This was shaping up to be a fun evening! Since we had no idea what to order, we asked Tsuyoshi to order for us. After explaining Sam’s food allergies, my only suggestion was that he order something that we don't normally eat at home. What happened next falls into the category of, “Be careful what you wish for”.

    Pretty soon food started to appear. The first item was panko encrusted and deep fried burdock root, which I had never heard of. It had a vague similarity in taste to artichoke, to which it is related, and was quite good (although you could panko encrust and deep fry socks and they would probably be good).

    The next plate to arrive had a variety of meats on it, which turned out to be various cuts of whale meat. (Before proceeding, I want to say that I don't want to create any controversy on this website. Please feel free to send me a private message if you want to tell me that I'm a terrible person for eating this.) Tsuyoshi went on to explain the various cuts which included one that looked like a cross section of an intestine, which is, in fact, what it turned out to be. This was accompanied by a thick, green, gelatinous puree of sea cucumber which was impossible for me to pick up with chopsticks. We had thought that we were pretty seasoned Japanese food diners, but this proved to be a bit of a challenge.

    We didn't want to be rude so we tried each of the various cuts of meat and the sea cucumber, but it was not lost on Tsuyoshi that we were eating an awful lot of the burdock, and not a lot of anything else. Being a kind host, he ordered some sushi, which arrived family style, on a bed of rice in a cylindrical wooden bowl, along with some cold soba noodles.

    Tsuyoshi stepped out for a moment, and we waited for the bill to arrive so that we could pay and properly thank him for his hospitality. When he arrived back he informed us that he had taken care of the bill. Now we really felt terrible! But he insisted, and there was nothing we could do, other than offer to reciprocate sometime in Los Angeles, an offer he said he planned to happily accept.

    After taking a variety of photos of Tsuyoshi and Shintaro striking fierce poses, we went for a walk through the neighborhood. This was yet another part of Shinjuku, different than both Kabuki-cho and the business area near the Metropolitan Government Building. The vast majority of the people on the streets looked to be about 20 years old, or roughly 30 years younger than us. We were in party town!

    Within a block we found ourselves in a warren of small alleyways, lined with dozens, maybe hundreds, of little bars, each with a capacity of five to six people max. This was the Golden Gai, which we had read about in our guide books. It was fascinating to see these tiny, old, two-story buildings in the middle of a forest of skyscrapers.

    Too soon, the night had come to an end, and it was time to say our goodbyes. It was a fantastic evening, and we look forward to the day that we can host Tsuyoshi and his wife in Los Angeles.

    Up next: Hakone

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    Regarding the absence of trash cans, my husband was in Tokyo a week after the sarin gas attacks. When he was Tokyo station he looked for a trash can and asked a Japanese business associate about the lack of receptacles. He was told they were all removed as a safety measure.

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    kalihiwai2,Kaveyon,Bokhara2,

    Thanks for the feedback1

    SeeHag,

    That makes sense, although it's even more impressive how clean the city it considering that there used to be trash cans and now there are not. Thanks!

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    What lovely experiences with Mariko and Tsuyoshi!

    We did similar for our guide, taking some English jarred pickled vegetables, as I knew Japanese love pickles but that our style is different so thought might be interesting. Was nice to be able to say thank you for the time our volunteer guide put into planning our day for us!

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    Hi Kavey,

    What a great idea. I had no idea how common pickles were, at every meal, even breakfast! Such a variety too.

    Work is getting busy, but will try for another installment in the next couple of days.

    Thanks!

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    May 17 – Day 5: Hakone

    Tokyo was a blast. I feel like we spent exactly the right amount of time there, and saw everything that we had planned to see, at a reasonable pace. We were especially happy that we got to spend some time with a couple of locals, and to see some areas that we might not have otherwise seen. But now it was time for a trek to the countryside, and with a little luck, a closer view of Mount Fuji.

    Before departing the hotel, we arranged at the front desk to have our bags sent ahead to Takayama via Takkyubin delivery service, absolutely best convenience ever invented for train travel. For only $13.00 per bag we were able to avoid schlepping our luggage up and down stairs, and onto and off of trains. We had printed out the address in Japanese for our hotel in Takayama before leaving home, so was very easy for the front desk fill out our paperwork for us, which they were happy to do.

    Armed with just an overnight bag each, we set out for Tokyo station. We would be staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan at our destination, which includes dinner and breakfast, but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find lunch on our arrival, so I wanted to get something at the station for the train ride. I was excited when I saw a sign advertising “Ekiben”, because I recognized from my Pimsleur lessons the word “eki” meaning train station and “bento” in abbreviated form. Two train-station bento-boxes, to go, please!

    Our Shinkansen departed promptly at 8:26, bound for Odawara, and we were surprised to get a few fast glimpses of Mt. Fuji from the right side of the train, where we could see that there were only a few wispy clouds at the base. Our guide book had warned us to avoid traveling to Hakone on the weekend, but we ignored it, and we were now crammed inside a train car, filled with half the popuation of Tokyo, standing for the final 38 minute leg from Hakone-Yumote to Gora. This train was narrower than the others, and the incline much steeper. I got a very clear understanding of the origin of the term “switch-back”, when I saw that the conductor would have to periodically stop the train and get out in order to switch the track back and forth from the one on which we had just arrived, to an adjacent one, at which point the train reversed directions and continued up the mountainside. Finally, in Gora, we changed to a funicular/cable car, for a steep 10 minute ride to Soun-zan.

    At the end of the cable car it is possible to transfer directly an aerial tram called the “ropeway”, where you can continue your ascent up the mountainside. However, we chose to exit because our accommodation was located a mere 100 meters away, at the Gora Hanaougi Sounkaku ryokan. Although check-in time was not until 2:00 PM, we wanted to drop off our bags before we continued with the “Hakone Loop”, which in addition to the cable car and ropeway, includes a ship on Lake Ashi and a bus back to Gora.

    At the ryokan, we were greeted by a young man who spoke almost no English, but we were able to confirm our check-in time. I wanted to ask him about lunch options nearby, but realized that that only phrase I could cobble together in Japanese was the rather crude sounding, “where is lunch?” Fortunately, he understood that I didn’t expect him to provide it, saying that there was a place at the first stop on the ropeway, called Owaku-dani. However, walking back towards the ropeway, we spied a row of rare and elusive benches, facing a beautiful mountain view. Remembering that we were still carrying our ekiben, we took full advantage of both the benches and the view, hoping that Fuji wouldn’t disappear behind clouds while we were eating our lunch.

    After a quick bite, we boarded the ropeway for the ascent to Owaku-dani, famous for its steaming volcanic vents, hard boiled eggs blackened by cooking in the sulfurous pools, and views of Fuji…and what a view it was! Just as clear as we saw from Tokyo, but about 100 times closer. There was still a slight veil of clouds at the base, but with Fuji’s majestic white peak jutting into the blue sky. There are few things that are so iconic, that they can unmistakably identify a place as being that place, and no other. With only today to really get a good look, we were grateful to have such beautiful weather and such an amazing view! We got out for a few minutes at the first stop so that we could have time to savor it.

    After taking it all in, we continued from the highest point of the ropeway down towards the lake, the amazing view now including the green, tree covered mountains framing the lake, and Fuji presiding over it all. At the bottom we changed to the boat for our 30 minute trip across the lake. It was a gorgeous and clear day, but what struck me was how impossibly green and lush the hillsides were, stretching all the way down to the lake. It’s not that we don’t have some beautiful human-assisted “nature” where we live, there are lots of beautiful parks and gardens, but in Los Angeles, the hillsides in their native state tend to run the entire color spectrum from dark beige to light brown, so the intensity of the green was very striking.

    Our ship finally arrived at Hakoni-machi, the first of the 2 stops it would make, but we got off there in order to walk through the Hakone Barrier, which is a replica of a check point that was built in 1618 on the road from Kyoto to Edo/Tokyo (correct me if I got that wrong). This location afforded us more views of the top 1/3 of Fuji, but not as impressive as those from the ropeway.

    After the checkpoint, the path goes through a cedar forest in a small ravine, with a hilly peninsula to the left and the road up and to the right, which we could see was absolutely packed with cars and busses filled with Sunday traffic. We couldn’t see the lake for a while, but when we finally passed through, the path veered back toward the lake and we were treated to the best views of the day. Unobstructed by mountains or clouds, Fuji floated over the still lake, with small boats in the foreground and a giant red torri on the lake shore below. That image is one of my favorites from the trip. I took lots of photos, but didn’t dare delete any of the previous ones, just in case. (If you have not already, see Fodorite MinnBeef’s trip report, with a harrowing Fuji photo experience, and you will know what I mean).

    At this point the last leg of the Hakone Loop is usually by bus back to Gora, but given the traffic jam that we were witnessing, we decided that it would be both faster and more enjoyable to just retrace our steps. This turned out to be a good move. The return boat trip and ropeway ride was just as beautiful, and far less crowded, and afforded us some additional Fuji views.

    Arriving back at the ryokan, we removed our shoes and didn’t see them again for the next 20 hours. When booking our accommodation, I had decided to book only two of the 13 nights in a traditional Japanese style inn, just in case we were not comfortable, so we were excited to see what it would be like. We were very taken by how meticulously maintained and well-designed everything was. Our tatami mat room was simply decorated, with a low table, two cushions, and higher table with two chairs. We dressed in the traditional yukata robes provided, which were told to wear to the onsen mineral baths, to dinner, and to walk around the grounds. The small wooden chairs were not terribly conducive to lounging, but we rested for a while, gazing out the window at the green tree covered mountains, trying to mentally Photoshop the power lines out of our view.

    There were two public onsen at this ryokan, one was completely inside, and the other with an indoor and outdoor pool. These two baths alternated each day between men and women. Since today the men’s bath was the indoor bath, we paid a little extra to use a private outdoor bath on the roof. This consisted of a large wooden tub, set under an attractive bamboo covering, and even the water spigot was appealing, made of wood and bamboo. It was great to soak outside, with cool mountain air and a view of the green tree tops. The next morning we thoroughly enjoyed a soak in the outdoor public bath, which was considerably more elaborate, with a waterfall flowing into the pool, and a second shallower pool to cool off in.

    Dinner was served at 6:30 PM and we were surprised to be shown to our own private dining room behind rice paper screens. The meal was an elaborate kaiseki, every bit as good as our first in Tokyo, with a dozen small courses of fish, beef, tofu, and seasonal local vegetables. Our kimono-clad server was delightful, and knew enough English to be able to explain each course as it was presented. We could get used to this.

    When we returned to our room we found that our low table had been moved aside and had been replaced with two futons covered by two comforters. The futons were surprisingly comfortable, although the pillow was paper thin. This was easily rectified by taking an additional comforter, folding it into thirds, and using it to supplement the pillow. Exhausted after a busy day, we slept better than expected.

    All in all, we had a fantastic day in Hakone. I’m glad we tried our first ryokan here instead of in the city, as it seemed somehow a fitting way to end a day spent enjoying nature.

    Tomorrow: Hakone Open Air Museum, Odawara Castle and Takayama

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    This is so interesting & I'm enjoying your writing enormously, Russ. Thank you very much.

    I can see myself following in your footsteps sometime in the next couple of years, very much influences by what I'm learning from your travels.

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    Loving your report.

    I've wondered why almost everyone seems to take the Halone loop in the same counter-clockwise direction instead of going against the flow. Good move to skip the bus and double-down on the pirate ship.

    Looking forward to the report on one of my favorite places anywhere, the Hakone Open-Air museum. [English football fans beware: one of the great pieces there is called "The Hand of God."]

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    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5205.html

    Great report brings back some good memories.
    We stayed at the Fujiya hotel , did the circuit, and walked the Tokaido trail to Hatajuku (nice marquetry crafts) stopping at the Amazake Chaya Inn. Then bus back to Hakone Yumoto ,railway and back to Fujiya.
    Your reverse course of pirate ship ropeway would have been better.
    Oh well next time.
    After reading your report an onsen stay iand return toHakone would be fun and may be an option.
    Thanks for posting

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    Thanks everyone for your comments! Now, continuing on with the saga...

    May 18 – Day 6 – Hakone to Takayama

    We were awake by 6:00 AM and eager to try our first Japanese breakfast of the trip. I had previously commented to Sam in Tokyo that I felt like I wasn’t getting enough protein in the morning by just having a muffin and tea, so I would run out of energy before lunch. All I can say is that a Japanese breakfast of fish, tamago (little bite sized pieces of omelet), tofu and miso soup was the perfect protein-packed start to a busy day. Today was set to be our longest travel day, 5 ½ hours to Takayama, and we still had a stop at the Hakone Open Air museum ahead of us, so we decided to get an early start.

    The museum features sculptures by renowned 20th century artists such as Calder, Moore, Giacometti, and several Japanese artists, distributed among the hilly park-like setting. It was a gorgeous day, and the azalea and rhododendron bushes were bursting open, painting large swaths of magenta along the garden paths, which would have been enough to make a visit worthwhile. But around every corner, there was also a spectacular modern sculpture, either tucked into a tiny niche of greenery, or in the middle of a large, grassy lawn. We enjoyed many familiar artists, and were surprised to learn that Henry Moore actually created some sculptures not entitled, “reclining figure” (although there were a lot of those as well). We were also introduced to some Japanese artists unfamiliar to us. Our favorite piece was by Taro Okamota called l’Homme Vegetal, which looked to me like the bulbous pods found on giant kelp, but on a monumental scale, painted bright white and protruding out of a central figure.

    We spent about 90 minutes in the park before continuing on our way to pick up the Shinkansen in Odawara bound for Nagoya. Arriving in Odawara about 2 hours before our connection, we decided to have a look at the large castle that we could see from the train station, and find a place for lunch along the way. We managed to take the only street that was completely devoid of restaurants, until we got to the entrance for the castle. Since we didn’t want to retrace our steps, we went to the only restaurant we could see, which was directly across the street from the entrance.

    Walking into the restaurant, we could see that it was packed. We asked the proprietress for table, and she responded with something indecipherable to us. I responded with my best attempt at Japanese, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand Japanese”, at which point one of the patrons said in English that there were no tables free downstairs, but that there was Japanese-style seating upstairs. We nodded our assent and were led upstairs.

    The upstairs was empty, save for one businessman, dressed in a suit and sitting cross-legged on the floor. Seated at a low table, we pointed at the photos of a couple noodle dishes on the menu. Soon after, several groups of men filled the rest of the tables, no doubt on their lunch break from work. We were clearly objects of fascination, as we could see turn heads and smiles at our attempts to speak Japanese with the server.

    When lunch was over and we got up to leave, one man in a group of men in their thirties asked me, in halting English, where we were from. Eager to practice my Japanese, I used one of my recently learned phrases to tell him that I was an American. At this point, the proprietress said something I never expected to hear in Japanese. She said that my Japanese was good. Finally, I understood why my Pimsleur lessons had taught me how to understand that phrase, and how to respond to it. Not because my Japanese was good, but because people are so nice in Japan they will complement you even when it isn’t true. I was so excited that I knew the properly modest response, so I blurted out in my bad Japanese, “oh no, my Japanese is not very good”! At that point the group of men burst out laughing, one of them who had been drinking a glass of water, pointing to his mouth to show that he and almost spit it out. We were so happy to have had a brief connection and shared a laugh. We had many such moments as these with fellow diners, school children or Japanese tourists, and they proved to be among the highlights of the trip.

    After lunch we made a quick spin in the Odawara Castle which, although reconstruction, was still exciting to see from the outside. The inside had several museum exhibits, but we didn’t have time to properly appreciate them. With ½ hour left before our train departure, we headed back to the station. The trip was uneventful until about if 1-1/2 hours before arriving at Takayama. At this point we had left the city behind and were traveling in a tree lined gorge, with a river below, which we crossed over several times. It was very picturesque, as we passed by fields of green tea and rice paddies. I found that instead of being tiring, the train journeys were actually very restful, a chance to get off my feet, relax and enjoy the scenery.

    We arrived and checked into our modern and nondescript hotel near the station, called the Hida Plaza hotel. I chose it because I wasn’t sure how we would feel after sleeping on futons the night before, so I wanted to be sure we had comfortable beds. I also found the idea appealing that it had two onsen, a Japanese –styled one in the basement, and a more modern one on the roof, with views of the city.

    Unfortunately, after arriving to our rooms, we discovered what would turn out to be, the hardest, most uncomfortable beds of the trip. I seriously contemplated sleeping on the floor because I thought it might be more comfortable.

    I decided to get my mind off this by trying the modern onsen on the roof, which turned out to be a good experience. It had the largest bath of any we have seen so far, about the size of a typical backyard swimming pool. It also had several baths of varying sizes outside, which made it possible to have a tiny bit of privacy since there were few others also using the facilities.

    After a good hot soak, I asked of the front desk for a restaurant recommendation. I requested some place that specialized in the locally produced Hida beef, which is similar to the more well-known Kobe beef. We got only a little lost walking the two blocks to the restaurant, mostly because the stairway from the street was located in the back of a garage of what appeared to be a residential apartment. Once inside it looked more like a market, with refrigerated cases containing plastic wrapped pieces of beef and bowls of vegetables. It was explained to us that we should choose a piece of beef, and they would bring it to our table.

    Having chosen our meat, we were taken to a grouping of tables that were all occupied, so they led us to what appeared to be a storeroom/office, clearing off a table that was piled with paperwork. Each table had a grill built in to the center of the tabletop, into which was placed red hot charcoal which had just been taken out of a large pot. The meat was brought to us, sliced and seasoned, and were told to go back into the market area to retrieve vegetables to cook on our grill along with meat. At that point the proprietress left the room and we never saw her again. It was actually fun cooking our food, so we really didn’t mind, except that it was the first dinner in which Sam did not have any sake, since no one ever came back to ask. Fortunately the beef was excellent, so we laughed, and left satisfied, if a bit perplexed.

    Tomorrow: Touring Takayama – One of the best days of our trip!

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    Hi russ_in_LA,

    I have two kids aged 11 and 9. Will a family trip to Japan with wife and kids this ages be a good idea ? Will the kids enjoy Japan ? Their highlight might be the Disneyland in Tokyo.

    Also we are pure vegetarians. In all the meals you mentioned, is it possible to get vegetarian options ? Is vegetarian food easy to get in Japan.

    Thanks.

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    Hi golfdude,

    One of the most entertaining and informative blogs that I found during my preparations for my trip was by a couple who are vegetarians. Here are a couple of links to their site:

    http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/japan-round-up/#more-10101

    http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/72-random-observations-about-japan/

    Be sure to scroll down to the bottom of each page you view for more links that will take you to additional related info. It worth the read.

    Note observation #55 under 72 random observations. Fish broth and bonito flakes are in everything, unless you specifically ask for them not to be. They suggest Kyoto as being the best area for vegetarians. I suggest that before you go, do a translation into Kanji of your food preferences (I used Google) and then have someone review it for accuracy. I made a screen shot on my phone to show each restaurant on our trip.

    As for your children, while I don't know their preferences, I just read that Tokyo is now the most visited of all Disney theme parks. There are also home-grown theme parks that might be fun. There are also tons of arcades with games all over Tokyo. If you would like some additional info, here are a couple links fwith info traveling in Japan with Kids.

    http://www.japan-guide.com/forum/quereadisplay.html?0+73942

    http://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Japan_with_children

    Besure to click around on some of the other links provided on each site above.

    If you go be sure to post a report. Have fun!

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    I highly recommend Japan for family travel, Golfdude, and our kids (now 26 and 29) agree with that.

    We first took our first child to Japan when she was 4 months old, and returned with both of them many times over the years. It is a terrific place to travel with children.

    Visually very "foreign", you don't need to speak the language or even know much history. Easy transportation, Food and water are clean, no personal safety issues, and the Japanese people are twice as friendly and helpful if you have gajin kids with you!

    If you want to travel on a budget, many youth hostels there will provide a private room for a family. Your kids will have fun with the kids on school trips that are always at the hostels.
    My husband and older daughter are both vegetarians. It was easy to avoid meat, but the fish broth is a little harder. At times, they just pretended it was vegetable broth, but usually were able to have plenty of good vegetarian food.

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    May 19 – Day 7 - Takayama

    Takayama turned out to be one of our favorite days of the so far, and great way to spend our halfway point in the trip. It’s not that there was any particular site that stood out, it’s just that it was uncrowded, interesting and a refreshingly slower change of pace. I will be eternally grateful to those Fodorites who suggested we spend all day in town instead of trying to go on a day trip.

    The best discovery we made is that we could rent bikes from the hotel for a reasonable rate and keep them all day. We didn’t come back for 8 hours! It was fantastic, as it allowed us to tour practically the entire city, and get off and back on when we wanted to take a closer look. I won’t give a blow by blow of the entire day, but here are the highlights:

    • Tour of morning markets – There are two of them, one by the river and one by the Historical Government House. Really fun, friendly people, with lots of samples of things to taste.
    • Ride down preserved streets in old town area – we went before stores were open, which was really nice, since the streets were too crowded for bikes when we walked through a bit later.
    • Touring some of the old local sake breweries.
    • Historical Government House - very well preserved, quite large and interesting to walk through.
    • Lunch in a tiny restaurant in the old town, with more delicious Hida beef served by a sweet girl and her mother.
    • We loved the Folk Craft Museum – not only for what was on display, but to see what one of the ancient houses looked like with furniture and day to day items. It was like going back 100 years in time.
    • Takayama Float Museum – interesting to see them up close. The town population swells to over 5 times its normal size during festivals.
    • Higashiyama walk and temples – there are about 13 temples set in the eastern foothills that are very accessible and make for a very enjoyable walk, with almost no one else around.
    • Hida no Sato – this is an open air museum comprised of houses that were moved there from various locations in the Hida region. It was interesting to be able to go inside, get a closer look at the construction, and get a feel for what life was like for the locals, as recently as in the 1960s. Since we didn’t go to Shirakawa-go, this made for an enjoyable 90 minutes at band of a full day.

    After an enjoyable soak in the Japanese style onsen at the hotel, we unwittingly had what I would describe as our only “American” dinner of the trip: A small Hida Beef steak, mountain yams, and vegetables. We were beefed-out after that, so it was back to our diet of fish, noodles, soup and rice for the rest of the trip.

    Next Up - Nara

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    Takayama and Koyasan (still to come) were pretty darn close to perfect days. I must confess, that we did ditch the bikes back at the hotel at about 3:30 and took a taxi to Hida no Sato. There was no way around it if we wanted to fit it in. It turned out to be a very good decision, and we even arranged to be picked up when it closed for the ride back.

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    Hi russ_in_LA,

    How much would be the typical cost in USD (excluding airfare to and from Japan) for a family of four (2 adults and 2 kids (ages 9 and 11) for 15 days from October 25th till November 10th ?

    Can we do this for around $4,000 USD ? We are pure vegetarians if that impacts the food costs in any way.

    Thanks.

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    > Can we do this for around $4,000 USD [4 people, 15 days]?

    It's hard for me to imagine how you would be able to come close to that number. Two of your biggest costs will be transportation (within Japan) and accommodation. JR Rail passes, which would seem essential for any sort of comprehensive tour for 15 days, would cost about $1900 (2 adult, 2 children, 14-day passes). And you'll need 14 nights accommodation, usually needing 2 rooms per night. Even staying at budget places, you're looking at around $3k for lodging, so you're close to $5000 before dealing with food (which can be done relatively inexpensively), local transportation, admission fees, etc.

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    I would agree with Don's assessment above. The only way you might get close is to start in Tokyo and end in Kyoto and do a 7 day pass in between. That would be $828 for a 7 day pass for 2 adults and 2 children. If you budget $120 per day for food (that's eating only rice or noodle bowls and drinking only water)and $150 per day for hotel (I found 9 in Tokyo that will take a family of 4 for that price)you would be able to stay for 12 nights at $4068. This does not count entertainment, museums, temples or subways. I think you could maybe do 13days/12 nights for $5000 all in, but it will be tight. In reality, I suspect it will be a bit more. Hope that helps.

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    Thanks for your budget feedback.

    We can go on this trip from October 18th till November 2nd. Is this the time of the year for the famous Japan autumn/cherry blossoms ? Is this unique only to Japan ?

    I am also confused between choosing Japan or Europe for this trip. Any suggestions on this ?

    Thanks.

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    Hi golfdude,

    Your dates are a bit early for autumn leaves in Tokyo and Kyoto, where you are likely to go on a first trip. You would need to go further north or to the mountains during your dates. Cherry blossoms are in April. Here is your best resource to get most Japan questions answered:

    http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e623b.html click on "essentials" for lots and lots of great info. I would start here first.

    I have a suggestion for getting the most out of this forum. I have found Fodorites to be extremely helpful, but not many are going to see your questions buried at the bottom of this trip report. I suggest that you start a new topic with a specific question. For example, your budget question was a good one. Then more people will see it, and respond to it, because the heading of the topic will match the nature of the questions being asked. Your question about Japan vs. Europe is probably too broad. You may want to narrow it down to one or two European countries, and then post the question again as a new topic in the appropriate forum. Hope that helps!

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    May 20 – Day 8 – Takayama to Nara

    We had been exceedingly fortunate up to this point, but after seven days of near perfect weather we awoke to our first day of rain. Since our train was not until 9:30, and decided to walk through the mist for one last pass through the morning market. We weren’t having much luck finding breakfast, but we did stumble upon a man with a very sunny disposition, making homemade marshmallows. These were nothing like the ones you would find in a bag in American supermarket. These were like 2 inch cubes of meringue, browned on all sides. Served with a cup of green tea, this proved to be a tasty, if not particularly nutritious, start to our day.

    As with all of our train rides on this trip, the four hour journey to Nara was a pleasure. We originally had planned to do an overnight in Nara, but at the suggestion of some Fodorite veterans, we decided to break up a 6 hour journey from Takayama to Koyasan. In the end, I’m glad that we did because once we got to Kyoto I knew that we would not have wanted to leave again to do Nara as a day trip.

    We arrived in Nara at about 2:00 PM, so we wanted to get as much done in the area of our hotel as possible, since our plan was to hit the sites in western Nara in the morning, on our way to Koyasan. As I did in my description of Takayama, I'll just hit the Nara high points:

    • The Nara hotel – although the service was a bit more officious than the other hotels, the location right next to the Nara Park could not be beat, and it was fun to look at the photos and plaques noting all of the worldwide dignitaries that had stayed there over the past 100 years.
    • Nara Park - large park filled with temples and shrines, with hundreds of tame deer that you can pet and feed.
    • Todajii Temple – billed as the largest wooden structure in the world, it’s not difficult to believe, famous for its 58 foot call Buddha inside. We especially liked the scale models in the back showing some of the previous iterations of the temple when it was even larger. It was also fun watching school kids wriggle through a hole in one of the columns, the belief being that if you are successful you have achieved enlightenment.
    • Kasagua Taisha – also located in Nara Park, this was far less crowded than Todajii, located up a lantern-lined path among the trees.
    • Kofukaji Temple – with its five tiered pagoda, this was especially pleasant to walk around in the evening, since it was close to perfect days to our hotel.
    • Naramachi – this area, also close to our hotel, had numerous narrow streets and alleys, filled with restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, we were not there during the day when everything was open, the only drawback to our overnight schedule. We did have dinner at a restaurant here which served local specialties such as sushi which has wrapped in a persimmon leaf, which looked pretty but didn’t really do anything for the flavor.

    May 21 – Day 9 – Nara to Koyasan

    The next day we were scheduled to travel to Koyasan. Since the train would pass right by the stop serving western Nara, we decided to stash our bags at the station for a couple hours so that we could see the Hoyujii Temple. It was interesting to see buildings famous for being the oldest in the world, and it was much quieter than the Temples in central Nara. If it weren’t for schoolchildren we might have been the only ones there.

    Since we were changing trains in Osaka, we decided we would arrive a bit early to the station for a hot lunch, before transferring to the Nankai line bound for Koyasan. This was the only portion of the trip for which we had not previously bought tickets since it is not covered under our seven day JR pass. We were able to buy a two-day Koyasan free pass, similar to the one that we bought in Hakone, and which would cover all of our transportation to and in Koyasan, including our return to Osaka the next day.

    Since we wanted to eat quickly, a nearby noodle shop caught our eye. This was our first experience with a type of fast service restaurant which requires the diner to purchase the ticket from the machine before entering. Fortunately there were large illuminated photographs on the wall next to the machine, with a laminated English language menu hanging from a chain. Having purchased our meal tickets, we gave them to a man at the counter who shouted out our order, and literally seconds later we were handed a bowl of noodles swimming in steaming hot broth, mine with shrimp tempura floating on top. At 400 yen each, it was the cheapest meal of the trip, but no less delicious.

    The train ride to Koyasan was not quite as slow as the last train on the way to Gora, but the funicular/cablecar was far steeper than the one in Hakone. It was as if we were going vertically up the mountainside. As with all the transportation we had experienced thus far in Japan, everything was perfectly timed so that upon exiting the train, the cable car was already waiting for us, and exiting the cable car, there were buses waiting to take us to our final destinations. There was even somebody standing at the top of the cable car exit handing out maps of the area which listed all of the sites and directing people to the appropriate bus.

    Besides the temples and the graveyard, the big draw at Koyasan is the ability to say in an active Buddhist temple, eating the traditional vegetarian diet as prepared by the monks, and sleeping on futons in traditional tatami mat rooms surrounded by the forest. This is not a word I use very often, but for us the experience was magical. It was quite possibly the best 20 hours of the trip.

    At the urging of Fodorite kja, we booked our stay at Shojoshin-in, which is right next to the Okuno-in cemetery. I realize that there’s always a risk in making a recommendation to someone, because who knows if their tastes are the same as our own, or if they will have the same experience. All I can say is, “thank you”! Our experience was most certainly impacted for the better by the fact that all of the less expensive rooms had already been booked, forcing us to pay a bit more than we had budgeted, but which turned out to be well worth the price. It was a highlight of our trip.

    Arriving at the temple at about 3:30 pm, we removed our shoes, had a brief check in, and were shown to our room which was actually a separate freestanding building next door to the main one, surrounded by a garden and backing up against a hillside. It was perfect. Walking in, we noticed that in addition to having a room with a low table and cushions, there was a separate room with our futons already laid out, which they had taken care to double for extra comfort. There was another room behind rice paper screens, the same size as our sleeping room, which was completely unused. All three rooms were connected by a gallery, with windows that looked out into a small garden. The rooms could each be closed off with sliding screens and would be perfect for two couples traveling together. On the opposite side of the rooms was another gallery which contained the washing area. In addition to two sinks, this included a wet room, with a wooden Japanese soaking tub. The only unusual feature was a urinal, which although odd, was certainly handy for two guys traveling together. The irony is that this was the night I was most concerned with in terms of comfort, and it ended up being one of the most comfortable places we stayed, and definitely the most charming.

    Since dinner would be at 6:30 PM sharp, we wanted to walk through the cemetery while it was still light. As the temple located closest to the start of the walking path, it could not have been more convenient. The path is about two kilometers long, meandering under the cedars, through moss covered tombstones, statues, and other grave markers. It is lined with stone lanterns which come on after dark so that you can walk the path at night. I realize that a stroll through a graveyard might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was stunningly beautiful. I could have spent 3 hours just going down little paths that branched off the main path leading to giant stone torri or grave markers that look like enormous moss covered chess pieces. However, since we knew we had a deadline, we continued toward the end of the path which included a group of buildings, including the Hall of Lanterns. I somehow missed reading about this temple beforehand because walking in took my breath away. There are over 10,000 lanterns that decorate the inside and outside of the building, including the basement where you can also see over 50,000 tiny statues of Buddha. It gave me goosebumps.

    We took a different path on the way back, passing a 10 foot high pyramid-shaped mound of little stone Buddha statues. With the dimming light of dusk, the stone lanterns came on, illuminating our path back to the temple. Arriving back to our room, we changed into our yukatas for dinner, putting on the provided wooden sandals, and preceded to the main building. Unlike our kaiseki dinner at the ryokan in Hakone, where we were seated at western height table and chairs, here we were seated on cushions at low tables, separated from otherguests by gold leaf covered screens, painted with scenes of birds and trees. Our food was served by monks and we’re surprised at how much we enjoyed the various preparations of tofu and vegetables. It was actually one of the more enjoyable meals of the trip.

    After dinner, we took another walk down the path to the Hall of Lanterns. It was eerie, but beautiful, walking through the darkened forest illuminated only by the lanterns along the path, and listening to the night creatures making their night creature sounds. Although the hall was now closed, the thousands of lanterns hanging on the outside were stunning. Returning to our room we enjoyed a hot soak in our wooden tub, and passed out on our double thick futons, feeling very fortunate that we were able to experience a truly special part of Japan.

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    "At the urging of Fodorite kja, we booked our stay at Shojoshin-in, which is right next to the Okuno-in cemetery. I realize that there’s always a risk in making a recommendation to someone, because who knows if their tastes are the same as our own, or if they will have the same experience. All I can say is, “thank you”! " -- Oh, I am so glad to read these words! :-) Yes, it is always risky to make a recommendation, but my experience at Shojoshin-in was positive enough to give me enough confidence to make it, even though your tastes could be different or the temple could have changed or our rooms or meals noncomparable.... Thanks for letting me know that you were pleased with your time there!

    And I'm glad your experience of Okuno-in was also as special as (if slightly different than) mine, as I didn't make it as far as the lanterns until my early morning fog-shrouded walk. I didn't think anything could make me envy another's report of a visit to Okuno-in, but you may have inspired me to find a way to return!

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    Yes, I love and recommend Shojoshin-in too -- and we stayed in the same private hanare you were allocated. We booked it deliberately so we could have private bathroom facilities as I was nervous about sharing at that time.

    It's available to larger groups, hence there being extra toilets in the corridor as well.

    Like you, we found it wonderfully comfortable and also enjoyed our dinner very much.

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    Kavey...yes! That's the marshmallow man!! They were super happy on a dreary day, and made us sit inside to eat our marshmallows and drink our tea. Certainly the most sophisticated marshmallow eating experience of my life!

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    Russ, I am reliving much of my trip (nearly 7 full months home now) through your outstanding report. I LOL'ed at your comments regarding my temporary tragedy with the Fuji-san pictures from the bullet train. I'm glad my mistake saved you the crazy thought of EVER deleting trip photos. When a 20 gig card can hold something like 2000 photos, why even think about deleting anything!

    I am very, very glad you had both clear weather and a still prominent snow cap for your Fuji visit. You couldn't have described that view from the ropeway any better...something so iconic that it could only be that and nothing else. I don't recall seeing whether you sampled any of the hard boiled eggs at Owakudani or not?

    Really enjoying your report and looking forward to your days in Kyoto.

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    May 22 – Day 10 – Koyasan to Kyoto

    We awoke at 6:00 AM the next morning so that we could go see the monks chanting in the temple at 6:30. Although I was there at 6:30 sharp, the chanting was already in progress and the few benches provided for guests were taken, so I stood in the corner next to the door with a couple of other stragglers. There were two monks chanting, sometimes alternating, sometimes in unison, sometimes varying their respective pitches enough to be pleasingly dissonant. Although I wouldn’t say that I achieved a meditative state, it was easy to lose one self in the repetitive drone of the chant and the overwhelming scent of incense. The ceremony lasted about 30 minutes after which we went back to our rooms to prepare for breakfast at 7:30.

    Breakfast was a slightly less elaborate affair than dinner, but still amazingly good for what amounted to tofu, prepared in a variety of ways. We checked out early because we want explore the town before heading to Kyoto, however, we didn’t realize that the bus that conveniently stopped directly in front of the temple only came once per hour until 10:00 AM, so despite our 8 kilometer walk through the cemetery the night before, we found ourselves walking two additional kilometers into town. Fortunately, we had brought our overnight bags to Koyasan, and not our suitcases.

    Reaching the center of town, it didn’t take long to make a round of the major sites which are mostly gathered in the same general area. The highlight was the Konpon Daito. This is a towering pagoda built in 1937 with a shiny red lacquer finish, and which contained one of my favorite interiors of any shrine on this trip. Because of its relative newness, the four Buddhas inside were still a bright shiny gold, and the columns were painted with colorful designs. It gave a great idea of what some of the other shrines might have looked like before the accumulation of several centuries of incense smoke and general grime.

    After a cup of tea and a pastry at a tea house across the street, we caught the bus back to the station for the trip to Kyoto. This is the one part of the trip about which I was a bit apprehensive, because it required a subway line trip from the Namba Station to the Osaka Station. According to Hyperdia.com, we then had 4 minutes to get out of the subway, enter the train station, find our correct Shinkansen track and board the train bound for Kyoto. Fortunately, we were leaving Koyasan an hour earlier than originally planned, so the pressure was off.

    Stepping off the subway in Osaka station, we were especially grateful for the extra time, since it did take us well over 4 minutes to figure out that we had to go outside of the subway station to get to the train station (or maybe we didn’t have to, but regardless, that’s what we ended up doing). Now that we had found where we needed to go, it was time to seek out some sustenance.

    There were only a couple of uninspiring choices on the ground floor of the station, but we noticed signs for many restaurants indicating that they were located on the 14th floor. Not realizing that we were in the bottom of a tower, we took the elevator up to what I would describe as a very glamorous food court. There were probably a dozen restaurants of various nationalities, as well as a variety of Japanese cuisines. We decided to try something we had not had before, and landed on Kushikatsu, which were skewers (kushi) of various types of seafood and vegetables, dipped in egg and covered in panko, and deep fried. Yum!

    We thought that we had ordered a reasonable amount by getting a 7 piece meal each, but with the obligatory soup and rice, it turned out to be quite filling. What I really liked is that they brought out a plate divided into 6 different sections, with a different sauce in each area. Then when they brought out the fish-laden skewers, they put them in another dish of the same design. The server then mimed that each skewer was to be dipped into the sauce corresponding to the same location on the other plate. So a skewer in section #2 of the fish plate was to be dipped in the sauce located in section #2 of the sauce plate. So organized!! As they brought out each course, the non-English speaking server would bring a list that had all of the fish listed in both Kanji and English, so that she could point to the English word to describe what we were eating. It was really fun, delicious and fast, which is really important when you have a train to catch! Well sated, we made it to our shinkansen with time to spare, and were whisked away for the quick 30 minute ride to Kyoto.

    KYOTO: Which I believe is Japanese for, “No matter how much time you have planned, it’s not enough!”

    I’m very grateful to the Fodorites who suggested that I needed to plan more time in Kyoto. Originally we had booked four nights, and were planning to devote one of my three full days to Nara, but after adding an overnight in Nara earlier in the trip, we were able to devote three full days to Kyoto. Like my Tokyo plan, I had divided Kyoto geographically, with the idea to see one of three regions per day: Eastern Kyoto one day, Central and Southern Kyoto the next, and Northern Kyoto/Arashiyama the last, but we know what they say about the best laid schemes…

    Before getting to sightseeing there’s the matter of our hotel. Originally I had booked four nights at Hotel Granvia Kyoto, located atop the train station, for both its good reviews and its central location. I had previously checked availability at Hotel Mume, but given their stellar Trip Advisor reviews, and having only seven rooms, they were sold out. However, MinnBeef’s recent trip report inspired me to ask to be put on their waiting list in the event of any cancellations. Less than a month later I received an email saying that they could accommodate three of our four nights, if I would not mind a change of rooms. We jumped at the chance, with the understanding that we would remain on the waiting list for our fourth night. We must have done something nice in a previous life because a month before leaving we were informed that another night had opened up, but only if we could change rooms a second time. Done! This was one of the best decisions of the trip.

    It’s hard to describe just how phenomenal the staff is at Hotel Mume. In a country in which kindness and good service is the norm, they take it to the next level. Because we are fairly independent and self-sufficient, sometimes it was almost uncomfortable how nice they were. For example, although we walked to dinner most nights, one night when it was raining we took a taxi to and from dinner. Although we didn’t know it at the time, taxis are not allowed on the street where the hotel is located after 9:00 PM. As a result, the taxi driver had to drop us about ½ a block away from the hotel. It was still raining, but we were sharing an umbrella so all was fine. So imagine our surprise when Miyuki met us on the street halfway from the taxi to the hotel, umbrella in hand. All I can imagine is that she asked the restaurant to call her when we left so that she could meet us on the street. We are not so fragile that we require this level of service, but this type of kind gesture was repeated three or four times per day for the duration of our stay; whether it was asking directions to a nearby pharmacy, only to have them write a detailed note in Kanji to hand to the proprietor explaining everything we needed, or asking for a recommendation of a nice garden to see, only to have them provide us with a map, annotated with the most efficient route to the nicest gardens in the area.

    The other fantastic benefit of the hotel was the location. Looking at a map before we left, it appeared that it would be too far east of downtown to be super-convenient; however I can’t think of a more ideal position in the city. It was half a block west of Higashiohji-dori, making it a five minute walk to the Yasaka Shrine, which is really the gateway to Maruyama Park, and some of the most important temples in eastern Kyoto. Walk 10-15 minutes south from here and you can be at the Kiyomizudera Temple. Walk 10 – 15 minutes north -and you can be at the southern end of the Philosopher’s path, and another grouping of important temples (these are both up hill, so do what we did and take a taxi and walk back).

    Going west from the hotel for two blocks brings you to the Gion –Shijo stop of the Keihan train line, convenient for going to southern Kyoto to see Sanjusangen-do Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, and even to Nara; as well as for connecting to the subway for Nijo castle. Continuing one block past the river brings you to the Pontocho, a narrow alley filled with restaurants one side of which has outdoor seating along the riverside. Just south of this is the Takashimaya department store. This might also be a great area in which to stay in if you want the hustle and bustle of the city, but the street where we were staying was super quiet, filled with antiques stores that were closed at night. Looking over a small tributary of the Kamo River, it was a nice peaceful oasis to wake up to each day.

    Walking south from the hotel will bring you to the central area of Gion, filled with preserved wooden buildings, restaurants, and lots of tourists, some of which we would see dressed as Geishas and being followed by photographers taking their photos. We saw real Geishas too (Geiko, as they say in Kyoto), but they were outnumbered by the tourists.

    So anyway, in case I wasn’t clear…we liked our hotel.

    That evening we had reservations for a kaiseki dinner at a place called Karyo, which had been recommended by the hotel. We walked to the historic area of Gion, just across the street from the Gion Corner Theater where you can see traditional Japanese performance. Unlike our other kaiseki dinners, where we had had private rooms, here we were at a bar facing the kitchen, seated on low upholstered chairs that were incredibly comfortable. It was fascinating watching the chefs prepare our meals. While I imagine most restaurnant kitchens are noisy and frenetic with activity, this one was so quiet, more like a laboratory, scientists calmly and precisely executing formulas that they knew by heart. It was clear that hours of preparation preceded our arrival, because with each order, plates were assembled quickly and perfectly using chopsticks as their only the utensils. It was like a temple to gastronomy, a Zen kaiseki. Oh, and it was delicious.

    That evening we retired to the Flower room, the largest (and most expensive) room at Mume, our home for one night. Located on the top floor, it was nice and bright and had a balcony, which was nice for watching the river rush by below.

    Next up: Philosopher’s Path, beautiful gardens and allergy attacks

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    kja: I can't say that you didn't warn me!

    MinnBeff: It's a deal, although I think that you are more likely to be passing through LA than I am through Minneapolis. BTW, we did not eat the eggs in Owakudani. We had just eaten lunch, and the sulfer odor was a bit much for us :-).

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    How lovely.
    We too arrived on time (that we had been given on arrival) at the monk's morning session, but found that they had already started, clearly some time earlier as other guests were quietly sat on the benches.

    Hotel Mume was one I looked at too but it was fully booked. I chose Shiraume Ryokan which is very nearby, on the same stream, I think, and agree the location is excellent. Perhaps on another trip, I'll be able to try Mume too.

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    Hi Kavey,

    Based on the reviews and the photos, Shiraume looks like an excellent choice as well, and definitely a more traditional experience. The locations are almost identical, and in fact, Shiraume is on a more "preserved" historic street. Mume was great, but I think they might be about equal as far as service.

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    Yes I was very happy with Shiraume and indeed, when we returned to Kyoto last autumn, we went to visit Tomoko-san with a gift, a belated thank you for her kindness in taking me to the local hospital, translating, sorting out the transport and even leaving us a little meal in our room because she knew we'd miss dinner being in the hospital (we'd not booked a meal that day).

    We didn't try for Mume on the second trip as were working to a budget and I found absolute steal bargain on room in Kyoto Rotal Hotel and Spa, also a superb location.

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    May 23 – Day 11 – Kyoto

    At 7:30 AM we were the first to come down for breakfast, which meant we were fortunate enough to snag a table with a view of the canal. Breakfast each morning was ample, consisting of a delicious pureed vegetable soup, such as asparagus or kabocha squash, which varied each day. There was also a fruit salad with yoghurt, a hard-boiled egg, juice, coffee or tea, and an assortment of fresh baked goods which also changed daily. The jams and preserves seemed artisanal, with varieties such as apricot, kiwi, and even avocado, which was surprisingly good.

    We had saved Kyoto for the end of the trip because we had heard so many good things about it. In a way this plan may have backfired a little because all the energy we had expended over the past 10 days was finally catching up with us. With this in mind, we decided to take a taxi instead of public transport to Ginkakuji, or the Silver Pavilion, and walk along the philosopher’s path back to the hotel.

    We got there just as it opened, along with 400,000 schoolchildren who arrived at the same time. The architecture of the pavilion was beautiful, but what really struck us was the garden. The dry garden at the beginning was really interesting because, in addition to the raked designs that we were expecting, there were also some three dimensional “sand sculptures” in unique geometrical shapes, such as a 5-foot tall cone with the top chopped off. To be honest, they appeared too unstable to remain that way for long. I don’t know what held them together, or if they were even still standing at the end of the day. The other feature of the garden that struck us was how much moss played a decorative role, and how impossibly green it was. It was as if the entire landscape was painted in fuzzy, green, fluorescent paint, and then somebody turned on a black light. It was iridescent.

    As beautiful as it was, if the purpose of a garden is to induce a meditative state, then this was certainly not going to happen in this crowd. With that in mind, we decided to proceed down the path toward some of the lesser known temples which were blissfully devoid of people. Honen-in made for a pleasant stroll through a bamboo forest, where the path was flanked by two large mounds of sand in a kind of 3-D trapezoidal shape, like a long skinny square pyramid, with the top chopped off. This plateau had been raked into designs of overlapping concentric circles. We had read that these mounds were altered regularly, and were meant to symbolize the changing of the seasons.

    Perhaps our favorite stop along the path was Anraku-ji, a small unassuming temple, about which we had debated whether to even enter. Walking onto the grounds, we could see that there was some sort of meeting happening inside the main building, so we were hesitant to walk by the door in case we might disturb someone. However, a monk walked by and urged us to continue into a series of tatami matt rooms, with wide open doors that beautifully framed a gorgeous azalea garden, with carefully shaped bushes just beginning to burst into color. Sam shot one of my favorite photos of the trip, a lone woman seated on a red rug, bordered by rice paper screens, and looking out to the garden beyond. It was a calm and serene moment, and we stayed a while to enjoy it.

    Among the other highlights were Eikando, with some amazingly colorful and well preserved columns and cornices, and Konchi-in, with its famous dry garden (although I still preferred the “wet” ones). Along the way we stopped at a small shop where a pleasant Japanese woman offered us tea, while Sam tried on a yukata, which he ultimately purchased. The best part was as we were leaving when we thanked her with, “arigato gozaimas”, and she responded that in the Kyoto dialect one says, “okini”. I asked her if this was less polite, or inappropriate for us to use, and she said that it was not. You can’t believe what delighted responses we got for the rest of the trip whenever we thanked someone with this phrase: smiles, bows or comments that we spoke just like someone from Kyoto! It even opened up further conversations in shops, restaurant and taxis that we might not have otherwise had - another favorite moment from the trip, which cascaded into a dozen more.

    We didn’t go into Nanzen-ji temple, as it was mostly covered in scaffolding, so we had lunch at a restaurant on the main street leading up to the temple which was lined with many options. It was a beautiful day, verging on hot and sticky, so we decided to sit at western tables outside facing the street. It was not until the end of the meal that we noticed that there were also Japanese-style outdoor tables facing a beautiful pond and garden. This was a recurring theme in Kyoto restaurants, where we noticed that the best views tended to be from the Japanese-style seating areas.

    Sometime in the previous hour, Sam had started having an allergic reaction to something and his itchy eyes were driving him mad, so we decided to a taxi back to the hotel so that I could try to buy some eye drops and antihistamine. As I mentioned earlier, the staff at the hotel was extremely helpful and wrote down everything I would need to request at the pharmacy. It was quite warm and humid by the time Sam started feeling better, so we decided to take a taxi to the Heian Jinju Shrine, since we seemed to be really enjoying the gardens at this point, and it was highly recommended by Mume.

    The complex of buildings was quite large, with the largest red tori gate found anywhere in Japan, but it was the gardens were here to see. They seemed to be broken into three distinct areas, the first of which was a series of meandering paths through filtered shade, which helped cool things off a bit. We passed several areas with irises that had yet to bloom, or water lilies that had only buds. Were mildly disappointed because we could imagine in a week or two when the garden would be a riot of color, so we were super excited as we rounded a corner to the back of the shrine, where we were confronted with a large pond filled with hundreds of irises topped with deep, concord grape colored blooms, and dozens of water lilies, looking like floating candy hearts. Crossing the pond was a series of stepping stones in a lazy s-shaped curve, which we walked onto so that we could get up close for some of the best garden photos of the trip.

    Continuing to the largest expanse of the garden, we could see a wooden covered bridge crossing the lake, which even had benches from which we could enjoy the view. Throughout the garden you can see the occasional couple, dressed in a suit and kimono, having wedding photos taken. Sitting next to one such bride, I looked up the word for “beautiful”, so that I could pay her a compliment. I didn’t want to sound creepy by telling her that she was beautiful, so I pointed to her kimono and said, “Utsukushi desu”, to which she replied, “thank you”… in perfect English.

    After an aperitif at Hotel Mume, we walked 10 minutes to dinner, in an area just west of the river, on the narrow Pantocho pedestrian street. It was quite comfortable outside, without need of a jacket, and the riverside was filled with people enjoying the warm evening, as well as all the outdoor terraces of the restaurants lining the riverside. We had an enjoyable dinner of kushi, similar to what we had had for lunch today before, but sitting at the counter so that we could enjoy explanations of what we were eating as it was being served. We enjoyed walking along the Pantocho after dinner, as it was very atmospheric and lively. One could probably eat at a different restaurant every night for two months and not hit them all.

    Walking back I commented that, up to now, I had budgeted almost exactly the right amount of time for each of the areas and cities that we visited, but today we had done just about half of what I had hoped to do. We had only two full days, and some tough choices, ahead of us.

    Up Next: Higashiyama, Sanjusangendo, and Fushimi Inari Taisha

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    Completely off topic, but we just finished watching the Japanese film called Departures which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2009. One of the most moving films we've seen in a long, long time. If you have not seen it, rent it now! Keep a hanky handy.

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    May 24 – Day 12 – Kyoto

    So we got an early start, trying to beat the crowds to Kiyomizudera, and to make up for lost time from the day before. We arrived about 10 minutes before they opened and were pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t already mobbed. We had no trouble making our way to the famous veranda to enjoy the views, and loved exploring the shrine up the hill above, and watching people trying to walk with their eyes closed between two stones placed 59 feet apart. Although succeeding is supposed to ensure that true love will materialize, I think that it really proved that you don’t have to be drunk to fail a field sobriety test. Afterwards we walked down the path, past the waterfall where the line was quite long to drink the water to ensure longevity. We opted instead to make the best of the time we had left by enjoying the views of the temple from the trail. A spur in the trail led us to a red, three tiered pagoda, from which there were also fabulous views of the temple, and even better, no crowds.

    This was in the southern of portion of the stretch that we had intended to see the previous afternoon, in an area called Higashiyama. We proceeded downhill through cobblestone pedestrian streets lined with preserved wooden buildings, similar to the ones we saw in Gion. Although it was just as touristy at that part of town, we found this area more enjoyable to wander in. We were surprised at the quality of many of the goods for sale, much of it comprised of expensive lacquer ware or ceramics, in addition to the normal tourist fare.

    As we rounded a corner, we saw up ahead a massive Buddha statue resting a on a single story building. This turned out to be the Ryozen Kwannon, which is the shrine to the Unknown Soldier from WWll. Upon entering the shrine we were given incense which was lit for us so that we could place it into a large metal receptacle in front of the 80 foot tall Buddha. We were the only people there, so it was a nice peaceful break from the more popular attractions. Right next door was the Kodaiji temple, with a stunning garden, as well as a bamboo forest. We enjoyed the views of the rolling green moss covered hills from the temple, and glimpses of the giant Buddha next door between the enormous stalks of bamboo. There was a beautiful series of prayer wheels spinning out front which were powered by the wind. We watched for a few minutes as a bride and groom had photos taken in their traditional attire.

    After Kodaiji, we continued down as the cobblestone path to Maruyama Park, which is supposed to be a prime spot for seeing the cherry blossoms in the springtime. After a spin through the park we continued downhill to the Yasaka Shrine, one of the most recognizable buildings in Higashiyama, just to the east of Gion. The main building had hundreds of paper lanterns hanging from it, and we were surprised to be able to witness a wedding ceremony going on inside. Nearby, in a juxtaposition of ancient and modern, it was amusing to see three geishas in their beautiful kimonos, texting on their mobile phones.

    From this point, it was only a 10 minute walk to the Shijo Station of the Keihan Railways line, which would take us to the Shichijo station near the Sanjusange-do temple, famous for its 1000 golden statues of the many-armed Kannon. Today was by far the hottest and most humid day of the trip, so we’re grateful to be underground for a few minutes while aboard the train; however, arriving at our destination was the first time in the trip that I felt a bit frazzled. Maybe it was the heat, or fatigue; or perhaps I had gotten too used to Tokyo and its orderly subway riders who wait in line for the escalators and always stand on the left and walk on the right, but for the first time on the trip the crowd seemed chaotic. I then got a bit flustered when I discovered that my Pasmo card would not let me out of the station because it needed to be reloaded.

    After managing to escape the station, the four-block walk to the temple seemed much further in the heat. But we arrived at the temple, along with many tour buses, and placed our shoes in one of the thousands of cubbyholes which lined the entrance. It was imposing sight, seeing the 1000 golden life-sized statues which filled the main hall, but too soon the overwhelming scent of incense, and the push of the crowds, compelled us to move on. Once back outside, we enjoyed walking the perimeter of the grounds under the bright red covered walkway with green painted window screens which made for some striking photos. Overall, if this had been one of the first things we had seen on our trip, I think it would have made a much better impression, but in the end it felt a bit like an obligatory stop. I’m glad we saw it, and I don’t need to rush back.

    Although we had planned to take the train to the Fushimi Inaria station, it was easier to just take a taxi. The driver dropped us off at the bottom of the street leading to the entrance of the shrine, which was lined with small shops and restaurants. We chose a particular noodle house, because you could see the chef making homemade noodles right in the front window. We were the only ones there at first, so we were a little concerned that maybe we didn’t make a good choice, but it was air conditioned and we were there, so we sat. Sam ordered a rice bowl with pork and egg, and it came with a side of homemade udon noodles. I had cold soba noodles with shrimp tempura. Much to our surprise it phenominal! It turned out that the egg on Sam’s bowl was raw when it went on, so the heat from the hot rice cooked it just enough to turn it into a nice thick sauce, sweetened slightly by the rice, and his noodles had that nice, toothy, starchy quality that you could really dig into. I’m so happy that his portion was so large that I had to help him finish it. This was exactly the recharging that we needed. After lunch we walked up the hill past dozens of vendors selling street food which looked so good that I almost regretted having already had lunch.

    So, what can I say about one of the most famous and photographed shrines in Japan? It was fantastic! With over 10,000 red torri gates lining the paths that snaked up the hillside, I was surprised at how densely placed they were, creating an almost solid tunnel for us to walk through. Thank goodness that it was a few degrees cooler in the shade that they provided, because it was a good steady climb and it didn’t take long to heat up again. Fortunately about 2/3 way up, right after the point where the paths split to the left and the right to create a loop, we stumbled upon a couple teahouses where we could stop for some refreshment. After far too many pics of the incredibly photogenic torri, we slowly headed back down, stopping to get a closer look the dozens of small shrines along the path.

    We thought for 2 seconds about taking the train back. The station was right there and it would have been easy, but suddenly a taxi materialized and the decision was made for us. We were quite surprised when we got into the cab, only to hear the driver listening to a Willie Nelson song. When we commented on it, he proceeded to tell us how much he loved American country music, and then he started thanking us for helping rebuild Japan after WWll, which I wasn’t expecting at all (especially after what had transpired to necessitate the rebuilding). So we told him how much we were enjoying Japan, and I was able to use my new word from the day before when I said, “Nihon utsukushi desu”, Japan is beautiful, to which he responded by thanking me, and bowing deeply…while driving. It was surprisingly moving.

    That night for dinner we had yakitori at Wake Wabe, back on the Pontocho. We sat at the bar where we are served by Toshi, the owner. He explained that we were going to eat virtually every part of the chicken, and then presented us with a platter of five appetizers that included chicken skin, chicken feet, chicken liver, and I don’t remember what else, pretty much everything but the feathers. I have to admit that there was nothing that I didn’t like, although I may not go rushing back next time were are in town. However, Toshi was charming, and an expert at social media, as he took our picture and posted it on his Instagram site on the spot, and we took his photo and posted it on ours, and then we all friended each other on Facebook. He was a lot of fun, and since returning home, we’ve had the privilege of watching him get married via his postings. The world keeps getting smaller.

    Tomorrow: Last full day in Kyoto – Kinkakuji, Arashiyama, Nijo Castle

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    "Afterwards we walked down the path, past the waterfall where the line was quite long to drink the water to ensure longevity. We opted instead to make the best of the time we had left by enjoying the views of the temple from the trail. " LOL! It's tricky to weigh things out, isn't it? How much time "lost" to standing in line for how much time "gained" by sipping the water??? I remember reading once that for every 20" workout, one added 20" to one's life. Hmm.... So I can extend my life for the length of time through which I endure mindlessness and discomfort, giving up this time when I am reasonably fit both psychologically and physically, to have more time in my decrepitude? Interesting. My workouts have been a bit less committed since then. ;-)

    ooh, I can't wait to hear your thoughts about Nijojo!

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    May 25 – Day 13 – Kyoto

    We awoke to cooler temperatures and a dark foreboding sky. Taking a taxi to Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion, we arrived about than 10 minutes before opening, along with every schoolchild in the greater Kyoto prefecture. It started to rain just as the doors were opened, and a river of umbrellas flooded through the gates. Despite the crowd, the first glimpse of Kinkakuji was breathtaking, with the misty rain creating an impressionist painting out of the reflection in the lake. We enjoyed the garden immensely, along with the different views of the pavilion from various points along the path.

    We briefly contemplated going to see Royan-ji’s famous rock garden, but when we saw the bus loads of people we decided that our time might be better spent going directly to Arashiyama. We had the taxi drop us off up the hill at Adashino Nembutsu –ji. As soon as we entered the grounds we knew that we had made the right decision. Spread out in front of us were over 8000 small stone Buddha statues, packed together into the cemetery. Walking in the deserted garden in the drizzling rain, it was another one of those magical moments that happen when you least expect it. Circling around to the back of the temple, we discovered a lovely bamboo forest, with stone steps bordered by a bamboo railing leading up the hill. Stopping on our way up, we could hear nothing but the soft whisper of the water as it filtered through the trees. We spent several minutes watching leaves float slowly to the ground, creating drifts along the path.

    The road leading downhill from the temple toward the town was lined with well-preserved wooden buildings. Through one of the shops we could see a small beautiful garden in the back, so we entered to get a better look. Since we were the only customers, the proprietress showered us with attention, bringing us cups of hot tea as we looked around. Normally when I shop I like to get in and get out, while Sam can linger for hours, analyzing every item in the store; but the staff was so hospitable, and the setting so inviting, that even I found it difficult to leave. We were impressed with the quality and prices, and managed to take care of all our gifts in one fell swoop. We laughed with the owner as we practiced our bad Japanese while she beautifully wrapped each individual gift.

    After an ill-advised detour to see a temple that looked much closer on the map, we found ourselves a the entrance to the famous bamboo forest near town. We were hungry and decided not to enter it at that point, thinking that if we walked straight ahead it would lead us into town, but somehow we ended up in a large park along the riverside with no idea where the town was. My guidebook had recommended a restaurant called Sagano, which specializes in the traditional yudofu cooking, so I asked a man in Japanese if he knew where to find the restaurant. He gestured for us to follow him into a non-descript building, down the corridor of what appeared to be a senior center, passing a group of folks socializing. Coming up to a door on the other side, he pointed to a restaurant just outside. He had resourcefully had taken us down the most direct route, through the middle of the building next door, and right onto the doorstep of our destination.

    We were seated at western style tables next to a wall lined with clay jars decorated with kanji script. The table had a burner built into it, onto which was placed a ceramic bowl with large white squares of tofu. The meal had some similarities to the cuisine that we had eaten at Koyasan, but with a few upgrades. For example, one of the items was a ball of tofu and chopped vegetables sitting in broth. In Koyasan, their version ended up disintegrating into a soggy mound in the bowl, whereas here it maintained a firmer texture, similar to a matzo ball. In addition, the middle had a nice crunchy surprise of a gingko nut filling. After lunch we noticed that there was an incredibly beautiful garden in the back, so we strolled down the paths filled with wet moss positively glowing in dazzling shades chartreuse, jade and emerald green.

    Once we left the restaurant, we realized that we were a minute away from the Tenryu-ji temple. I felt like I should have bought a guide book called, “It’s the gardens, stupid,” because here was yet another stunning example of that which Kyoto seems to excel. Is it possible to overdose on too much beauty? Exiting the garden, we realized that it had led us directly onto the path through the bamboo forest that we had bypassed earlier, although we had taken an extra-long and circuitous route to get there.

    Since we were trying to fit as much in as possible on our last full day, we decided to walk to the JR train station that would take us to Nijo Castle, back in central Kyoto. Just as it had in Arashiyama, the sprinkling seemed to suppress the crowds a bit, but did not detract from our enjoyment. We loved the gold and multi-colored gate, leading to the palace, which reminded us a bit of the decoration at Nikko. Inside we were able to view the cavernous rooms lined with reproductions of the beautiful screens, which we would enjoy at a closer proximity at the museum next door. As we walked through the castle grounds, we asked ourselves how this had not ended up higher on our to-do list in the first place. The gardens were beautiful and the azaleas were in full bloom. It was a great way to finish up what turned out to be our garden tour of Kyoto.

    After the castle, we enjoyed a little shopping in central Kyoto, which eventually led us to the food halls at Takashimaya. We decided that we would buy a couple of cream puffs to take back to the hotel, but we were having trouble understanding the question that the lovely young saleswoman was asking us, something about, “how many times…” Although we had not understood, she wrapped up the pastries in a box, and then placed them in a gift bag. Arriving back at the hotel, we discovered that she had also put in a small container filled with dry ice. It then occurred to us that she was trying to ask us how long until we were going to eat them, and not knowing the answer, she considerately packed them to stay cool, just in case. Wow!

    That evening, we had a final blow-out kaiseki at Kikunoi, in a private room with a gorgeous view of the garden outside our window, and the soothing rain tapping on the window pane; a fitting end to our final evening in Japan.

    Tomorrow: Chion-in and Shoren-in temples and homeward bound

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    May 26 - Day 14 – Kyoto and after

    Since we were leaving Kyoto at noon, I had not planned anything particular, so it felt a bit like a bonus day. We decided to use the morning to explore two of the temples closest to our hotel that we had somehow missed. Chion-in was being renovated, so the main building was covered, but there were lots of other buildings that were fun to explore, including the largest gateway in the country, and the building which houses the heaviest bell in Japan, which reportedly takes 17 monks to ring. The highlight for us was a small pavilion located on the hillside at the highest point in the complex. The walls were open on all four sides, affording views over the roofs of the temple buildings, as well as over eastern Kyoto. Because it had rained the night before, we were mesmerized by the steam rising from the thatched roofs as they were heated by the morning sun. Since we were the only people there, we sat on mats distributed across the floor and enjoyed the sound of a nearby waterfall, appreciating the quiet solitude.

    We descended through a graveyard to the street below and continued next door to Shoren-in, which you can easily recognize from the enormous camphor tree out front, its moss covered roots slinking like green serpents at its base. This brought back some pleasant childhood memories. We had a camphor tree in our front yard growing up, and when we were asked in school to draw a tree, this is what immediately came to mind. The temple contained a series of rooms with beautifully painted screens, which looked out onto more attractively landscaped gardens. Like Chion-in, this seemed off the main tourist track and provided a calm and peaceful place to reflect.

    We spent our final couple of hours walking the streets of Higashiyama, picking up a few last minute trinkets, and witnessing a traditional wedding in the open air pavilion of the Yasaka shrine. Back at the hotel Mume, we said goodbye to Hisako and her wonderful staff, thanking them for wonderful stay, and vowing to return someday.

    Final Thoughts:

    Thank you for following along as I relived our trip. Along with our photos, this was a great way for me to remember all of the highlights of the trip, and I hope that it is helpful to others as they plan their trips. As I mentioned in the beginning, we loved the sights, sounds and tastes of Japan, but it was the people that we encountered that really made this especially memorable for us. Although it’s not necessary to learn more than hello, thank you, and please in Japanese, I felt that our small additional effort paid us back 100 times with bows, smiles, and laughter.

    A few days after returning home, and halfway through this trip report, I couldn’t get my mind off of the feeling that we had unfinished business with Japan. So we did something we’ve never done before…we booked a trip to the same country two years in a row! We arrive on April 1, in time for the cherry blossoms, excited to see some of the places we had to omit from our first trip, and anxious to say hello to some of the old friends we made along the way. Thanks again to all the Fodorites who helped in our planning stages. You will be seeing a separate posting with questions on a new itinerary very soon. We can’t wait to do it again!

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    Fabulous trip report. We're going for 3 1/2 weeks in mid-October and I've made this required reading for my husband.

    As far as returning so soon we did the same thing once. Spend two weeks in September in Ireland. Fell in love with the country and most importantly the people. Went back the following May for another two weeks. No regrets.

    Photos, please!

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    Ceezee, us too!
    We went to Japan for our first visit in September/ October 2012 and returned in October/ November 2013. I'd have gone again this year but husband "suggested" three years in a row was excessive and I should give somewhere else a chance this year!

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    Thank you so much for reviving many wonderful memories and letting me see both familiar and new places through your eyes. I'm looking forward to the threads about your next journey!

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    Yes, I could see a third Japan trip in our future, but probably not for several years. In the meantime, I'll focus on trip #2. I'll try to see if I can get photos posted sometime in the near future. I'll post a link when I do.

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    I have just read your report in one sitting while I am supposed to be researching something else! Thank you thank you for taking the time to write such a wonderfully detailed report.

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    Outstanding trip report, Russ. The Japanese are the kindest people I have met on my travels thus far. And that is awesome that you are returning next year to fill in open items. I have done that twice...once visiting Italy 3 years in a row from 2001-2003 and then visting Istanbul in 2011 and being so blown away that I went back in 2012 to spend 16 days in Turkey. I've never regretted either decision.

    Looking forward to reading next year's trip report!

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    Thanks, Beef! We lived in Italy for 2.5 years from 1997 - 1999 and still went back 2 more times in the 2000's, and then we went to France twice after that. We love Europe, but we always end up so exhausted that it takes 2 to 3 years before we have the energy to go back. I think the fact that everything ran so smoothly on our Japan trip is playing a big roll in our decision to go back so soon.

    P.S. We loved Turkey as well!

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    russ_in_la, I have five things to say to you!!!!!!

    1) that was seriously the best trip report I've read in all my years on Fodors!
    2) I am sleepy and have bags under my eyes because I kept waking up last night to read more (never going to forgive you for this!)
    3) you have made me even more excited to go to Japan, which wasn't even my idea but the idea of my 12 year old.
    4) I went to Italy 2 years in a row twice! And I even returned this summer twice -- once in June and then again at the end of August! I was supposed to be born there!
    5) the rest of my comments will be posted under the thread I started which you commented on which began my sleepless night!

    Your report was a gift to Fodors! I have links saved for days!

    Take care.

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