20 Days In Japan: We survived Sakura!

Old Apr 28th, 2016, 09:24 AM
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20 Days In Japan: We survived Sakura!

Japan Trip Report
4/7/16-4/25/16

My husband and I started out planning a 2-week trip to Japan and by the time we stuffed everything into the itinerary, it was 20 days! But that was OK, because we had recently retired and were enjoying the luxury of having time. It was our first trip ever using public transportation only, which I was worried about, but shouldn't have been. For travellers who love to be on their own but are leery of driving on the "wrong" side of the road in many countries, Japan is a perfect choice because transport is so easily left to others. Here's how our trip broke down:

Tokyo: 3 nights
Hakone: 2 nights
Kanazawa: 3 nights
Kyoto: 5 nights
Koyasan: 1 night
Hiroshima: 2 nights
Miyajima: 1 night
Flew home from Osaka

When I initially proposed this itinerary on the forums, some people thought we were too busy. But it worked out fine for us; we didn't feel rushed at all. A couple of general thoughts: April was warmer than we anticipated; I brought one of those compressed down coats that squishes down into a bag, and I only wore it one night. Money-wise, we were surprised at how cash-oriented a society Japan still is. Even some hotels wanted cash. So don't count on using your credit card for everything. And don't worry about making your own way through a country that doesn't use the Roman alphabet; before you can even get a confused furrow in your brow, a Japanese resident will be at your side trying to help you, even if they only know two words of English. These must be the kindest people in the world.

I tried out a new app called Track My Tour so my kids could keep daily track of us; it has some photos, so if you're interested in photos and a quicker summary of this whole trip, see Japan http://tmt.li/tPs9d. I thank everyone who answered my questions in the Fodor forums and who provided detailed trip reports so I could plan my own trip without fear!

Here we go!

April 7-8 GETTING TO TOKYO

We took off from Miami at 9:30 am, changed planes in San Diego and arrived at Tokyo's Narita with no problems between 5 and 6 pm the next day. I had read that the Limousine Bus would take us right to the ANA Intercontinental, where we were staying on our annual free night from having the IHG credit card and on a combo of hotel points and cash. We found the bus easily; it was a bit under $30 apiece for a ride that was a little over an hour -- and we were the first hotel dropoff. The pocket wifi package that we had booked through Rentafone was waiting for us at the hotel. By the time we got up to the room and settled in, we decided JAL had fed us so often and well that we weren't even hungry, so we just opted for a little CNN and going to sleep early.

April 9 BACKSTREET TOUR GUIDE

We took a taxi the short distance to the station where we were to meet our guide from Backstreets because I was paranoid about getting lost on the subway and holding up the group. At 9 am we met Mayu, our 25-year-old guide, and the other tour members, including couples from LA, Las Vegas and Chicago, and a man from Brazil. Mayu was incredibly organized, chipper and thoughtful and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing her culture through her eyes. We would be on the go until after 5, and we would walk 8 miles! We covered a lot more ground than we could have on our own because she wasn't stopping to figure things out.

Mayu took us on the subway, helping us figure out how it works, which was great. We started out at the famous fish market, which was very crowded on a Saturday. But we squeezed through it all, ogling all the different sea creatures the Japanese consider tasty, and going into several food shops where Mayu knew there were samples set out so we could taste some things (tiny chewy dried fish kids love as snacks). She suggested some specialties to try from street vendors, including a sweet with something I'd never seen before: a white strawberry. Extremely sweet! Other vendors were selling kitchen goods. Then she guided us into one of the numerous small sushi restaurants for a late breakfast. The places were all busy, but she had made reservations and they were ready for us. We all had 5 pieces of nigiri sushi that were excellent, plus tea.

After that we headed to Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple and a very popular one. It has a huge beautiful gate and several other impressive buildings. Mayu explained temple etiquette to us, including how to purify yourself with water before going into the temple and how to do the bowing-clapping-praying-bowing ritual. So interesting and we never would have known the nuances without her. We also bought little prayer boards, wrote messages and hung them up with everybody else's. Then she turned us loose for half an hour because between the gate and temple are dozens of shops and food places that made for great browsing. Nearby she pointed out the Tokyo Tower and the Asahi headquarters next to it whose building looks like a glass of beer with a foamy head --another thing we would have been clueless about!

We saw a lot of girls in kimonos, and Mayu told us that it's very popular for girls to rent kimonos and spend the day cruising around in these traditional outfits. She said it's popular among Chinese visitors as well. We hopped on a subway and had lunch in a lovely, quiet local noodle restaurant that we all loved. Afterwards, we walked thru an amusement area where adults were strapping themselves into belts and flying up into the air off trampolines. We cruised thru a mall, inspecting a plastic food store (had to buy a sushi fridge magnet), and then took the subway to a big pop culture area where maid cafes are the thing -- the servers are dressed up (kind of like milk maids!) and serve "cute" food with smiley faces for example that the Japanese can't get enough of. That led into the intense technology area with huge stores filled the latest and greatest tech offerings plus lots of anime. Here too were girls dressed up as characters handing out fliers.

We werent done yet. Back on the subway we went to the Yanaka district, the one historic architectural area that wasn't blown up in the WWII air raids. Walked around admiring the houses and then went thru a beautiful cemetery colored pink by Sakura in "petal-drop season." Mayu explained that the writing-covered sticks you see by each grave are from memorial services for that person. Then we really were done. We all thanked Mayu profusely and headed back to our hotels to rest our feet!

I have to thank Rachel from the Fodor Forum for suggesting Backstreet Guides for our first day in Tokyo. Our tickets were a little under $100 apiece and included both meals, and Mayu alone was well worth it. The best part was that we could ask her in English questions about local culture and really understand the answer. For example, we asked her about face masks and she confirmed that some people wear them because they have a cold and some people because they don't want to get one -- but she said she also wears one sometimes when she doesn't feel like putting on makeup! In short, she was a real person who spoke great English, and a fun resource. I booked a couple of months in advance for Backstreets during Sakura. I tried to get in on a sake tasting tour in Kyoto a couple of weeks before arriving and they were booked.

April 10 TOKYO ON OUR OWN
We discovered a fancy pastry shop with a few tables and coffee to go off the hotel lobby. It was run by the 2-Michelin star French chef from the restaurant upstairs and had beautiful inventive goodies; I had a custard-filled Danish with real cherries.

We took off for the imperial palace gardens. We grabbed a cab because it wasn't too far but we'd have brain damage figuring out the subway changes. The first thing we saw was blooming cherry trees overhanging the palace moat with a swan swimming by. Gorgeous. We had not reserved weeks ahead to tour the palace, but we strolled the grounds. It was a pleasant change from the crowds of yesterday; plenty of people were flocking in on this beautiful day but the grounds are immense so it felt great. We had heard there might be free bikes but the entry guard said no.

Tho the high temperature was supposed to be 67 on a cloudy day, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it was at least 75 and all of Tokyo was overdressed. We were happy to see that the Sakura were still blooming and some of the many different irises were already blooming too. Remnants of the old castle provided high viewing points. We saw a beautifully blooming camellia grove, a lovely waterfall into a pond. These weren't the most impressive gardens we'd ever seen but for early April they were nice. We could see where our own landscape gardener got some of the simple ideas for our garden, such as a rock standing on end and a stone column standing on its own.

After almost two hours we were hot and tired. We walked over to a nearby station (Tokyo) to take the subway to Harajuku or "cool Tokyo." Takeshita street was supposed to be the magnet for fashion-conscious teens and it didn't disappoint. Endless wacky clothes spilled out of small contemporary shops. In between were lots of crepe shops, displaying rows and rows of plastic crepes wrapped around ice cream and fruits. Lots of candy stores also. But the most interesting thing was the kids who dressed up in all kinds of garb to parade down this street. Two girls would often dress alike in fancy short dresses even with pinafores, maybe holding a black ruffled umbrella. Their hair might be died or they might wear wigs. Their purses were usually unusual too, coordinating with their outfits. The shoes were amazing. But the crowding was just immense in this narrow street. People were flowing everywhere.

Soon we were hungry and tired of the crowds. We saw few restaurants among the retail. And the ones we did had long lines for tiny places -- the lobster shack had about 50 people in line! We tried wandering the backstreets but weren't coming up with anything satisfactory so we went into one of the many vertical malls to check out the Bill's Cafe that a shopgirl had suggested. Long line. Then I noticed that a modern accessories store called Hands had a cafe sign shining from the back. Voila, several empty tables. We shared an absolutely delicious plate of rice, avocado, greens, a runny egg, soy, and a lot of something raw and pale, which we assume was ground-up fish but could have been chicken. They even had beer.

Post-lunch, we walked along a boulevard known for contemporary architect-designed boutiques, which were interesting -- one even had a glass pyramid. We were done with crowds tho -- it was really like walking in NYC at rush hour (although not as bad as Takeshita street). So we headed over to the nearby famous Shinto shrine for some peace, passing some kind of protest in front of the grounds. We English speakers were clueless as usual!

The Meiji Shrine is set in 200 acres, and it was a long walk through a forest to the shrine. Along the way were long tall rows of sake barrels covered in straw and beautifully decorated, an offering by the brewers to the temple. Finally we got to the shrine, which was huge. You pass under a giant wooden gate. Our timing was good: just as we were finding a seat to rest, a wedding procession was lining up. The bride, in a white hooded gown, and the groom, in black, were preceded by several temple officials and followed by a fellow holding a red umbrella over the couple's heads. Following them was a long procession of their guests. The bride was Japanese and the groom was Caucasian, so the guests were a diverse crowd. Sundays are apparently popular for weddings.

In front of the temple were boards holding hundreds of small wooden plaques, on which people had written their prayers and wishes. I paid my 500 yen and wrote one. Someone else had written "Please don't let Trump become president!" It was a long walk back to station. I'm sure we could have done this better, but we ended up taking the train one stop to the appropriate subway station that would take us the longer way back to our hotel.

Chris wanted to eat at a small local place, but by now it was Sunday night at 7 and we weren't sure what would be open. The hotel is attached to a big complex with a bunch of restaurants in it. We asked the concierge if there was a noodle shop, and she said yes, but when she called, it was closed. So we went across the street toward where we had come from the station. We passed a couple of modern Chinese restaurants, a bunch of closed places, and finally decided on a small shop that was bright with fluorescent lights. We figured out that it was the kind of place where you look at the menu, then you choose your dish -- S, M, L -- by putting the appropriate amount of money in a ticket machine and it spits out your ticket. One customer and the lone worker helped us with this. Chris had a medium beef bowl with rice and I had a small duck udon. Both were good, but the udon was quite salty, even for me. I think mine was $3 and Chris's was $5. Cold green tea that I loved came with it. We sat at a booth and we were done in half an hour. We laughed that the only people we saw coming in here on a Sunday night were lone guys of various ages!

As this was our last night at the Intercontinental, we went up to the bar in the 36th floor to enjoy the view and a drink. Unfortunately the Tokyo Tower, the star of the skyline, can't be seen from anywhere except one Ladies Room (which a waitress happily escorted me to view, and it was ablaze in orange). Tokyo's skyline doesn't have that "pop" that Chicago and NYC have, but it was cool enough. I had a cherry blossom fizz, one of several special cocktails for the season. It was Sakura liqueur, a little champagne, and tonic water with a cherry blossom sprig in it. Tasty and beautiful! Of course it was $17 -- far more than dinner! We checked our phone pedometer: We had walked 8 more miles today.
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Old Apr 28th, 2016, 10:06 AM
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Great report so far! Looking forward to the rest as we leave in about 10 days.
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Old Apr 28th, 2016, 10:17 AM
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I'm so glad to hear you had such a wonderful time. Looking forward to the rest of this report.
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Old Apr 28th, 2016, 10:32 AM
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Lovely, look forward to reading more!
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Old Apr 28th, 2016, 06:13 PM
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Great start! Looking forward to the rest of your report!!
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 07:58 AM
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Thanks everybody! Here's the next bit.

April 11 HAKONE IN A RYOKAN
Got some help from the concierge booking a third night in Kanazawa which I hadn't yet done and online our hotel was now showing sold out. She had an elaborate conversation with the hotel and got us a room for three instead of a double for just a little more money. Good enough.

We splurged on a cab ($27) to Shinjuku station because we had luggage. We asked enough super nice folks for directions in buying a ticket -- both the Romance car, which goes slower than the bullet train so you can enjoy the countryside (about 90 minutes) and the Hakone Free Pass so we could get around town -- and getting to the platform that we finally made it to the correct train. I had read that you should board early so you have space for your luggage behind the last seat but our car had no space behind the last seat. Fortunately the train was not full so we (and numerous other tourists) piled luggage on empty seats.

Out the train window I saw backyard and community gardens with spring crops growing like crazy already. Must be mild here always. Someone's entire backyard was a plum orchard. On the other side of the train we could see the mountains of the Hakone area. No trash at all along the tracks, just like super-clean Tokyo. We wondered what the Japanese must think when they come to America. A lot of really terrible 1950s architecture, ugly apartment houses backing right up to the tracks. Wild mustard was in bloom. Closer to Hakone, orange trees started appearing in backyards. Cherry blossoms were still going strong here.

At Hakone-yumoto station we got off and stopped for a lunch-snack in a busy cafe. Then I showed the station info lady the address of our ryokan and she directed us to buses a block away that would take us to the next bus stop where the ryokan was. It was about 10 degrees cooler here than in Tokyo. Very pleasant. We wrestled our suitcases onto the bus and a few minutes later we were dropped off across the street from the ryokan, which fortunately I recognized from the photos.

Tonosawa Onsen Ryokan Ichinoyu Honkanas been in business since the shoguns ruled centuries ago. It's been remodeled several times, but you definitely feel you're in an historic structure. We dropped our bags, reserved a 30-minute time for the private onsen because we are not the type to hang out with other naked people in the community bath, and took off to sightsee. Our room would not be ready until 3, which was pretty much the case on this trip.

A staircase close to the ryokan led steeply up and up the hill to the train station at Tonosawa. We had a nice ride with views of the mountains speckled with cherry trees. We got off at Gora and walked 10 minutes to the Hakone Open Air Sculpture Museum.

We spent a good two hours strolling the rolling green hills of the museum which are dotted with sculptures. It's thick with Henry Moores, but the sculptors come from all over the world, mostly contemporary. Some move with the wind, and each is placed just so. A big round shiny metal ball reflected everyone and reminded me of Chicago's Bean. Some are whimsical, and all are fascinating. Midway, there's a pleasant cafe, windows looking out on the vista of sculptures. I had a marvelous ginger maple syrup drink -- a combo I'd never thought of.

Also on the grounds is a big Picasso exhibit -- the museum owns more than 300 of his works from all periods, from age 21 to death. The explanations of each piece are well done in English, and going through and seeing his glass "paintings", his regular paintings, his prints and many ceramics was almost like reading his biography. Lots of soap-operaish info about his women! We loved it and were happy we had a day and a half in Hakone so we could spend the appropriate amount of time in this lovely, unusual spot in the mountains. The last big sculpture was a crystal playground, kind of a pyramid with see-thru tubes that children can crawl through. Very unexpected, even divided by age (under 6 climb here) and offering a strict admonishment
not to climb on the outside (which would be tempting if you were 8).

We finished with some indoor sculptures (Calder, Modigliani), breezed through the gift shop (Pablo Picasso stuffed dolls) and checked with the front desk lady about whether we could get on the train at the closer station than the one where we got off. Yes we could -- it turned out that there was some problem with the platform on the north track and that's why we were directed to go to the stop past the museum and walk back. But the south track platform was fine so we just walked a couple of blocks (past some intriguing small restaurants) to the station. Twenty minutes later we were at our station high above the ryokan.

Right where the train stops were beautiful Japanese lanterns lighting up an open-air shrine whose paths wound up the hill. No one seemed to be tending it. We walked thru it, admiring the artfully arranged statues and plants. Then we climbed up the stairs and over the tracks and down the hill to the ryokan.

We knew they were ready for us because on the outside of the hotel "Pamela Thomas" was written on a board with a few Japanese characters on it (clueless) along with the names of other guests. Once inside we were instructed by a fellow with a little English and many gestures to put our shoes in a little wooden locker, take the key and put on slippers. He said our room was Yuri on the third floor. Toilet down the hall -- ugh! I had forgotten about that part of this reservation.

Our tatami room was spacious and spare. A little porch hung out over the river rushing down below. Not much of a view thanks to the mountain on the other side of the river, but the sound of the river was enchanting. The porch, thankfully, boasted two rattan Western chairs. We were happy our only alternative for relaxing was not the two Japanese seats on either side of the low table that was the centerpiece of the tatami room. We were surprised to see a TV! There was also a hotpot with teabags. The wifi didn't seem to reach our room so we were happy to have our pocket wifi.

A booklet on the table explained some critical ryokan info. It told us where our futons and bedding were located (closet) and how to lay them out. At the front desk, the gentleman with little English said that medium robes, or yukatas, were in the rooms but would my husband like a larger size? He opted for XL. The booklet told us where to wear the outfit (anywhere, anytime in the inn and even outside) and how to put it on. Essential info! Also in the booklet was the etiquette for the communal bath, with the same rules for the private family bath that we would be using (mainly, rinse before getting in).

We absorbed all that, dressed in our yukatas, moved the furniture and laid out our futons. We were ready for our dinner reservations at 7 in the fourth floor dining room. The room was quite large and maybe a dozen Western tables were filled with people dining from the 6 pm sitting. We were shown to a table, and then the food started coming. And coming. And coming! A huge plate had thinly sliced pork that looked like bacon resting atop a pile of shoots and sprouts and scallions and cabbage and mushrooms. A tiny dish of three different appetizers (amuse-bouche size) appeared in front of us. The waiter turned on the shabushabu pot to boil
and told us the order to put the food in: meatball, pork, veggies. As we always have sushi in Japanese restaurants, we had never done shabushabu. So when we couldn't get the last meatball out with the big chopsticks they instructed us to use, I waved over a waitress and said "We've lost our meatball!" She showed us the container that had a couple of flat screened ladles in it to use to scoop. Live and learn.

Just as we were mastering that -- the pork was unbelievably good with two sauces to dip it in -- out came a big boat covered with sashimi and decorated with a whole fish, head and tail sticking out of the ice. Chris went back to the room for the camera (yukatas have no pockets). The sashimi alone would have been as much as we would have ordered in a restaurant. Then came a few more small dishes, including an absolutely delicious piece of tempura sole. We did our best and consumed a lot. Finally there was a fruity sherbet and a smoky black bean tea, my new favorite. We waddled back to our room.

At 9 we went down to the first floor private bath, which was through a small dressing area with sinks (and a hair dryer) then down a flight of wet stone stairs to the onsen or hot tub. Boy was it hot! We were supposed to rinse first outside the tub by pouring wooden buckets of water over us, but the water was too hot for that. A shower was there for washing and that seemed the better alternative for rinsing too. Chris, who doesn't like anything too hot, managed to get all the way into the tub but I couldn't get anymore than half my body. Too hot! And we have had a hot tub for years. I wonder if all Japanese tubs are this hot; this is from a natural hot spring after all. We took a washing-up shower then tried to get in again for a few minutes. I noticed the hot water seemed good for my nagging hip bursitis. By 9:25 we were back up to the small dressing room. By 10-ish we were asleep on the futons, which were surprisingly comfortable, and under the fluffy comforters, which were heavenly.

April 12 DOING THE HAKONE CIRCUIT

We would walk 5 miles today, doing the famous circle around Hakone by various means of transportation on the Free Pass. But first came breakfast at the ryokan, almost as elaborate as dinner with many different small tastes. This place is like a Japanese tutorial; it really helps you learn. We were given a diagram with the English names of all the dishes, drawn exactly as they were placed at our seats. So fun. Each of us had a whole small grilled fish complete with head. It was delicious. No coffee tho! Before we left, we made a reservation for the family bath for 8:30 as dinner today would be at 6.

We started the circuit by climbing up to the station and taking the train to Gora. At Gora we got coffee and waited in line for the cable car, which was like a little cog train. That hauled us up the mountain. After that we were supposed to take the ropeway, or gondola, across the volcanic area to the lake but because of a lot of volcanic activity below (noxious gasses) the ropeway had been closed the past couple of months. So a bus would meet us instead; bummer, because the ropeway was one of the places to view Mt Fuji. It seemed, however, that there had been a partial restoration of the ropeway. So a bus took us to a stop along the ropeway and we got on at the station closest to Lake Ashinoko. The closed area was also the one where you get out and walk around the steaming volcano pits. You can eat black eggs cooked in the sulfur pools. I had planned on doing the hourlong hike up there in the volcano field, but alas not today. You could see smoke pouring out of some pits to the side as the gondola made its descent.

By now clouds had come out, which would have obscured Mt Fuji even on the higher part of the ropeway. At the lake, the boats that ply the waters between the ropeway and the end of the lake were colorful square-riggers with golden lion figureheads on the bow. On a gray day everything just looks gray -- water, land, sky. Not much to see as you sail, except the boat is supposed to have a fantastic view of Mt Fuji which was nowhere to be seen. At the end, the boat stops at one small town then at another about a kilometer away. We got off at the second town and headed to The Bakery and Cafe for coffee and a little nosh. We bought a flaky pastry with chocolate and a whole roasted chestnut on top plus a fluffy French bread baguette with anchovy paste and garlic spread inside. We sat at the outdoor tables in some sun, which was trying to make a reappearance.

We had no idea which direction Mt Fuji was supposed to be. Our guidebook (by this point we were tearing pages out of it each day so we wouldn't have to lug the whole Lonely Planet guide around) suggested two places that had great Fuji views. One was an art museum that we couldn't find. The Hakone area has a distinct lack of signs in English. Another viewing spot was supposed to be an old Western-style house on a hill where the Imperial family used to summer. Chris thought he had spotted that between the two towns. So we headed out of town along the water on a nice pathway.

Pretty soon we came to something that looked official: eureka, the imperial summer house and its gardens, both free. The gardens were compact but lovely. I liked them even better than the Imperial Palace East Gardens in Tokyo! These were exquisitely manicured. Trees and shrubs had been trimmed just so, often to show their twisting, gnarly trucks and branches. The cherry trees were in full bloom here, no petal drop, and there were several varieties. The pathways wound up and down hills above the waterfront, and moss covered the surfaces in so many places it often looked like a fairy garden. I took a million more pix than I needed.

What used to be an estate is now just one building; a photo inside showed a traditional Japanese roof collapsed to the ground. We hoped it was an earthquake and not our bombing in WWII. But surprise: From the sidewalk in front of the house I looked up and there it was -- Mount Fuji straight across the lake. Its left side was still somewhat obscured by clouds but the right side and snow-covered cap were quite distinct and huge, towering over the other mountains. It stayed visible for an hour and everyone around us was quite pleased that we'd all hit it just right.

Back on the paths, a couple was taking their picture in front of Fuji with a selfie stick and so I gestured to them that I would take their picture. Then they insisted on taking ours. That happened all the time because everyone here is so thoughtful! (One exception: on public transportation, youth does not give up its seat for older people. We found that out of sync with the rest of the culture.) We strolled the lakefront back to our little town where we would pick up the bus to complete the circle by taking us back to the train station at Yumoto, which had looked interesting enough to spend some time walking around. We concluded that the gardens and the Fuji view were a nice way to spend the afternoon considering the lack of volcano hiking.

The free-pass bus was already at the curb so we hopped in and got the last couple of seats. Later we realized we had nabbed "priority" seats for the old, infirm, or pregnant. But tho many people were standing in the aisle, none was older than us so we didn't feel guilty! At Yumoto Station we got out and wandered up and down the Main Street, which was lined with food shops, some quite fancy and others specializing in seafood. We were riveted by packages of odd seafood that we can't imagine anybody in America eating! The little cakes and cookies often had cute themes, like bunnies and piggies. The packaging was beautiful; do people mainly buy these as gifts? There were also many sauces and pickled things and jars of specialties that we could not decipher. We bought a small bottle of sake for a before-dinner drink in our room. Many of the shops had tasting pieces available of their fancily packaged cookies and cakes, some of which were Sakura-themed. Even Sakura popcorn.

We stopped at a funky coffee shop that looked more European than Japanese, with lots of statues and plants (loved the stacked-up white orchids in white pots) and artwork everywhere. It was eclectically romantically messy which is not Japanese! But I had a Viennese coffee with REAL whipped cream and Chris had a regular American. Nice hangout; I can't remember the name but I think it was French. Then it was back on the train. All in all, it had been a pleasant afternoon that was completely unplanned for!

We weren't sure what we'd get for dinner. Another kaiseki spread we assumed, but would it be the exact same dinner? The one the night before had come with a big plastic card that explained each dish in order on the table. Did that mean they always served the same thing? There was so little English here that we hadn't even bothered to ask if we'd have something different. We needn't have worried. Of course it was a completely different spread and of course it came with its own large hand-drawn plastic card explaining each of tonight's dozen dishes.

The emphasis was seafood. A fire under a big pot like a shabushabu pot was lit -- it was an onabe, a hotpot -- and the server said to let the seafood and greens cook for about 10 minutes. We had the three tiny appetizers again, this time including some slices of meat like ham. Yummy. Just as we were fishing some seafood out of the pot (clams not in shells? Scallops?) the waiter presented a whole grilled fish, a sea bream in sauce. Time to loosen our yukata belts! Just delicious. We were watching Japanese guests use their chopsticks. We tried holding them higher toward the end like they seemed to. That seemed to work well, not that we were having any problems anyway.

More small dishes were brought to the table, including one in a pearly shell that looked kind of like a clam or oyster. The waiter said it was a specialty of this area, an awabi. We didn't know what that was, but he lit a small sterno pot for each of us and said to cook it on one side for 5 minutes and then flip it to cook five minutes on the other. We looked at it cooking and were unnerved as it appeared to move. Then the waiter came back with a small dish with two pats of butter and some lemon slices. He said to put the butter on the awabi and squeeze lemon over it. So we did, and the butter melted a bit. The critter was too big to eat in one mouthful like an oyster so we each cut ours in a few pieces. (Tonight for some reason they brought us a fork and a serrated knife; we weren't sure why, unless it was a commentary on our chopstick technique. But the knife came in handy here.) It was was rich and mild and delicious. Later I looked it up and Google said it was a sea snail, an abalone.

We ended with a tiny scoop of strawberry ice cream and hot tea. It was almost 8 and our reservation for the private onsen bath was at 8:30. Once again it was too hot to endure for long but we showered up. My afternoon coffee worked on my jet lag. I was able to stay up until midnight reading and slept til 7.
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 08:14 AM
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What a wonderful stay at Hakone!

Our first Japan trip was at the height of the koyo - spectacular. We have promised ourselves that the next trip will be for the sakura.
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 10:12 AM
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Enjoying your report. Like Kathie, my first Japan trip was for koyo and my plans are to go back next Spring for Sakura 2017. Working up an itinerary now.

Looking forward to your next installment.
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 10:30 AM
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How wonderful!
Loving the report so far.
We didn't see Mount Fuji at all during our stay, the rare times the sun was out and the sky not cloudy, we were not in the right place to see it, and when we were, the clouds were low and obscuring everything! Ah well, a good excuse to return!
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 11:31 AM
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What a fantastic trip report. The best I have read in a long time! Keep it coming..
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 11:58 AM
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Enjoying your report as we are planning our own trip in October.
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Old Apr 29th, 2016, 03:05 PM
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Making me want to start planning trip #3. More please!!
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Old Apr 30th, 2016, 11:18 PM
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Interesting information re Hakone
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Old May 1st, 2016, 06:49 AM
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By the way pthomas - we are also from south Florida - living in boca. Where are you?
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Old May 1st, 2016, 09:23 PM
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The itinerary doesn't too busy for me - a lot depends on your travel pace, of course. Actually I would have put just one night for Hakone and used another day for someplace else like Nikko, Kamakura/Enoshima, Izu, Karuizawa or Kusatsu. Same thing for Kanazawa, unless you were using there as a base to go to other locations. Two days for Kanazawa would be enough, although the Noto Peninsula is worth exploring too (best to rent a car though).

One huge omission that looks like it's there is skipping Nara - it is one of the crown jewels of traditional Japan with some of the nation's very best sights.
https://goo.gl/Aw1y2o
Kyoto though you could spend 5 weeks there and not see all that there is. There were a few gems you missed there too.
https://goo.gl/uo1z5p
You haven't specified what you saw on Miyajima yet, but I hope you didn't miss the Daishoin Temple - in many ways, it is more interesting than the Itsukushima Shrine with the "floating torii".
https://goo.gl/FfmupZ
Actually around Hiroshima and the Chugoku Region there are numerous good places to see - one of the closest for you was Iwakuni, with its iconic bridge and mountaintop castle.
https://goo.gl/9uf4Px
There is A LOT more for you to see in Japan - I hope this isn't your only trip.
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Old May 2nd, 2016, 07:44 AM
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Adastra, this is a trip report, these people have returned from Japan, so no point in commenting on their itinerary. Of course they missed things - no one can see it all, no matter how long the trip!
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Old May 2nd, 2016, 01:41 PM
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Kathie - while the op is providing an excellent trip report, adastra's comments may be helpful to future travelers like myself, who are trying to come up with itinerary. Regrettably we all must miss good sites due to time constraints, but it is always nice to hear of options.
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Old May 3rd, 2016, 12:47 AM
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I have to agree with Kathie. It isn't that helpful (or nice) to do an after-the fact critique the OP's itinerary, especially when we don't even have all the details yet.

While her options may be good, she should be suggesting these things on a thread where the posters are looking for ideas, not interrupting a trip report to basically point out what she thinks the OP did wrong or missed.

I'm really enjoying your report pthomas...keep it coming.
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Old May 4th, 2016, 04:45 PM
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Oh believe me, I know we didn't do it all! LOL. I do not at all mind others pointing out something else that might be great to do. I could go back you know! And we are all just here to help each other have a good trip!

So here's the next bit:

April 13 BULLET TO KANAZAWA

As Japanese don't seem to have paper napkins for laps at mealtimes we discovered something to keep us from slopping soy sauce etc onto our clothes: we wear our yukatas to every meal. They gave us a new one every day in Hakone. Alas, time to go after today's giant kaiseki breakfast, complete with thick slice of grilled salmon.

We checked out; the bill was 51k yen for both days and all meals, or about $250 a day. We had read about ryokans that cost much more, and we were happy with our experience. The ryokan phoned the 100-yen shuttle bus to Hakone-Yumoto station and requested it stop at the inn at 9:30 to pick us up. Glad we don't have to lug our suitcases up the mountain to the local train station! At Odawara station we got off and found a ticket agent to book us on the bullet train to Tokyo and then the bullet from Tokyo to Kanazawa, both with reserved seats (about $150 apiece). We could have taken a cheaper slower train to Tokyo but we have a long way to go today. And I knew Chris would like the idea of the bullet train.

It really was super fast; when one goes thru the station it's like a snake-shaped tornado. This one was gleaming white and the front was streamlined into a pointed nose -- like a bullet! Between Odawara and Tokyo Station it was 30 minutes (Romance Car had been 85). It didn't feel much different than an Acela but it doesn't slow down when it comes to tracks it can't go fast on, which for the Acela is most of them. We only had 14 minutes to find our next bullet in Tokyo, so we did our usual asking of anyone with a uniform. This is a year-old bullet train cutting the time to get to the west coast to 2.5 hours and causing Kanazawa to get lots more visitors.

We didn't have time to get coffee in the station so we were happy to see a food and drink cart come rolling down the train aisle. We noted that when the servers leave each car, they turn around and bow to the passengers. Lots of bowing here. The conductor bows when he leaves the car too! (We bowed for everything everywhere, just in case; it was kind of like adding "very" to your thank you.) The ride was beautifully mountainous; the closer we got to Kanazawa, the bigger and more snow-capped the mountains became. Soon the mountain views were to the left, and an ocean view to the right.

The train station in Kanazawa is big and lively with a huge, friendly tourist info center that has a separate line for English speakers. Yay! We stopped there to find out how close our hotel, MyStays Kanazawa, was to the station. It was about two blocks -- we could see it once we got outside -- so we rolled our luggage over.

It was mid-afternoon already but it was supposed to rain tomorrow so we thought we'd better do the famous garden, Kenrokuen, today. There's buses, but we zipped over in quite a long cab ride because it was so late. Kenrokuen is considered one of three "perfect" gardens in Japan, and it was quite beautiful, but really all the gardens in Japan are inspiring in their own ways. We saw many on this trip that seemed its equal; perhaps it's the size? The tea houses we didn't have time for? The Sakura were going strong. Of course it eventually began to rain, but straight down, so everyone managed quite well with umbrellas -- if only we'd brought ours!

Eventually we grabbed a cab back, dried out at the hotel and consulted with Moé at the front desk, who spoke excellent English, about a place for dinner. Our first choice, a recommendation from somewhere online, had no openings. So she suggested Hacchouya, an izakaya underneath the train station -- a lot of restaurants are there -- and made us reservations. We walked over and were delighted with the choice. We appeared to be the only non-locals at this busy place. We had to take off our shoes and put them in a locker. We sat at a counter, and in rooms all around us were groups of folks in biz dress and socks having a good time after work. Two business guys were next to us, and what I found remarkable is that the one next to me was smoking and I couldn't smell a thing. What a ventilation system!

An English menu was produced from somewhere, and although none of the staff spoke English almost at all, we communicated. It was the first time we'd seen a buzzer at our seat to summon the server. What a great idea. The menu featured mostly small and medium plates designed to share; you keep ordering til you're full. We ordered some beautiful tuna sashimi and then cold soba noodles in dashi broth with grated white radish and bonito flakes. But slow-simmered pork belly was our favorite. Just exquisite taste. I think we ordered more but the one I remember was an escargot plate with the tiniest squid in each indentation with sauce and veggie pieces, even potato chunks. Liked that too.

We headed back to MyStays, which we liked a lot, by the way. We had a spacious double room in this practically brand new hotel (thank you, new bullet train) for under $100 each night. It's very modern, sparkling clean, and they give you pajamas to wear each night! While the location is two blocks AWAY from the city center on the other side of the train station, and there are no restaurants next door, the station and its underground are full of restaurants and other amenities. The hotel has a nice Travel Cafe for breakfast and it has a restaurant on the second floor that emphasizes local specialties. It also offers free washing machines and dryers, helpful after a week on the road. The laundry is next door to a nice library room that has a tv and the English Japan Times.

April 14 KANAZAWA: GOLD LEAF AND OUR FAVORITE MEAL

We grabbed a quick breakfast at the Travel Cafe: French toast, salad, yogurt and coffee for 5 bucks. Then we walked to the train station and bought a loop bus pass for the day. Our first stop was the Higashi Chaya District, one of three well-preserved historic areas that have long been geisha entertainment districts. Higashi is the biggest. We loved the old two-story wooden buildings along the river, and then we came to the similar central street that has (tasteful) shops and cafes on both sides. We went into the Shima Teahouse, which is now a museum; loved the geisha hair ornament display. On the street was a beautifully dressed young couple in traditional clothes involved in some sort of professional photo shoot. The area is known for its crafts, including gold leaf. We saw lots of gold-leaf products, including an entire dining table and chairs covered in gold. But when we stopped for ice cream (which you have to sit down and eat; you're not allowed to eat on the district's streets) even that was available with a gold-leaf topping!

We hopped back on what we thought was a loop bus, but it wasn't. So we got off and weren't sure where we were. We consulted with a couple of teens who confirmed we were off the loop map. My pocket wifi didn't seem to be allowing my gps to work so I turned on my phone's cellular data for a minute to confirm our location. We got on some bus headed back in the right direction -- nobody seemed that concerned about the correct ticket -- and got off when we recognized something around Kenrokuen.

We went to the D.T. Suzuki museum because Lonely Planet said it was the top sight in town. We didn't get it. Architecturally, it was a lovely space. Suzuki, a prominent Buddhist philosopher, apparently helped introduce Japanese Zen philosophy to the West. But we didn't feel we learned almost anything about his philosophy by following the route in this museum. We wouldn't do it again.

We got back on the correct loop bus and decided to give the other historic districts a pass and just head back to the hotel. We got off at the train station and stopped in a French patisserie for coffee and a snack. It wasn't long before we had to head off for dinner to Fuwari, where Moé had made us reservations yesterday -- nabbed the last two counter seats so we could watch the chefs in action.

I will be forever in debt to the Tripadvisor reviewer who recommended this place. It was our favorite meal of the trip. From what I have gleaned, the chef, Fuwari, once worked for Nobu in the US, tho I have no firsthand info re that. He speaks English well and seems to take responsibility for English speakers in spite of all he has to do. His is a small upscale izakaya with maybe 10 tables and a counter. We were advised to sit at the counter; it is like a broadway play watching Fuwari and his crew (one of whom looks distractingly like Johnny Depp) flash their knives and arrange their foods. Besides, you'll want what they're making and if you're at the counter you can just point and say "Us too!"

We started with sake and beer. Our favorite cooked dish was the pork-wrapped ginger. Rich and exquisite. I could have eaten 3 of these myself but Fuwari was whipping up other things I wanted. Tempura lotus root, beautiful shape and a whole new taste. Grilled salted sand fish, yum. Deep-fried horse mackerel that came with potato salad, light and ethereal. After watching about six steak plates being prepared, we had to have one of our own. It came covered with scallions and laced with ponzu sauce; it was so tender we cut it with chopsticks. We thought we were full and done, and we were eyeing the pear sorbet. But then we decided we couldn't be so dopey as to leave without trying the pressed sushi, a regional specialty that we'd watched Fuwari carefully prepare several times that night. He layers sole and sweet ginger and rice in a white plastic mold and then presses it. He turns it out and cuts it into sushi pieces. I don't know what magic makes it fabulous, but it is.

Then came perfect pear sorbet. How good is it? So good it's the only dessert. But the real dessert was the bill. The server gave it to us and noted that they take only CASH. An American nightmare. But we hunted up the equivalent of almost $150, and then Fuwari saw the cash across the counter and looked perplexed. Staff meeting over bill ensued. It was the wrong bill. Ours was $70. For the entire thing. We hadn't been paying attention to how much each dish was, but as you can tell, we thought the dinner was worth $150! Many apologies issued, no problem. The man is an artist, and we felt lucky to be there.

We were in such a food daze we missed our turn and walked about a half-mile out of our way. It was a beautiful night, the window shopping was fun and we were glad for the extra exercise. Walked 7.5 miles that day!


April 15 DRIVING THE NOTO PENINSULA

We found the litter that's absent from all of Japan's streets: It's at the beach. We had rented a car that morning from the Toyota car rental right at the train station so we could drive the Noto Peninsula. They had a slightly bigger one than the most compact for $85 for the day; if we had asked MyStays to make us a reservation yesterday we might have gotten a less expensive one. The Toyota attendant programmed the gps for us and we were off. Chris loves to drive in other countries. Today he was driving on the left with the steering wheel on the right: a first!

(I must note that originally we intended to drive the Noto yesterday, but as the weather forecast for yesterday had been "100 percent rain" according to the hotel's report, we put it off til today, Friday. Yesterday dawned bright, sunny and cloudless and stayed that way all day. Fortunately, today was equally beautiful. The Japanese weather forecast was completely unreliable our entire 3 weeks, and I'm a New Englander used to unpredictability.)

The gps was enormously helpful and we had no problems getting out of town and onto the coast road(s). The exit for Chirihama Beach Driveway where you can drive on the beach was clearly marked in English. Soon we were cruising for 5 to 8 miles on a beautiful hard-packed beach that was straight as an arrow with ribbons of gorgeous white waves rolling toward shore. I've never seen a beach with such consistent wave action! The beach was dotted with huts or tents that appeared to be seafood eateries with simple counters. It was only 9:30 in the morning and it didn't look like anyone was in them yet.

What was odd, tho, was that litter was sprinkled all over the beach, mostly the kind that washes up, from plastic bottles to copious amounts of boat lines and buoys and floats. We wondered if the locals can't keep up with it or nobody cares that much til it's beach season. A few other cars were driving along too, and, impressively, a tour bus. Drivers stopped anywhere they wanted and got out and walked around and took pix. Only a few shells here and there. We left the beach at the last turnoff and quickly stopped at a large sort of rest stop that appeared to cater to people visiting that beach. A lady was grilling snails and maybe squid and corn on the cob at an outdoor window. Inside was a vast array of packaged foods, all the mysterious seafood ones and the usual elegant sweets. Lots of souvenirs and toys; I bought a pink scarf along with water and a crunchy snack. One gentleman manned a stand with some kind of paper thin stretchy stuff that I thought was tofu, but when he urged us to sample it, it tasted like fish.

After that stop, the gps voice went haywire and kept wanting us to go back to Kanazawa. We couldn't figure out how to turn her off. Fortunately, as we were heading north and she wanted us to go south, we could usually do just the opposite of what she suggested! I did turn on my cellular data for a minute tho to download the northward map. I had learned that you could do that, then turn off your data and still use the map. My philosophy was simply to keep us on the road closest to the coast, no matter how tiny, so I said "turn left!" a lot.

The west coast, fronting on the Sea of Japan, is the wild, most scenic side of the peninsula. It has all kinds of cliff views and caves and tons of boulders and some amazing rock formations. It reminded us of the Oregon coast and, because of the cliffs, the drive up the Pacific coast Highway in Northern California. The east side, on the bay, is quieter and seems to be where resorts and vacation houses are. We stopped numerous places to admire the views or walk through a park to the water. Some parks had elaborate staircases leading up and down cliffs. You'd usually find little souvenir and ice cream shops catering to nature lovers. And of course restrooms. Love the Japanese for so many convenient clean restrooms! At one stop we tried black sesame soft ice cream (good, not sweet) and at another tried vanilla mango, which was soft ice cream that the server poured mango syrup over. Yummy. And they don't give you napkins even for ice cream! Of course, as there are no garbage cans either, there'd be no place to throw them.

We found that mango ice cream at a rest stop for one thing we were looking for: the thousand rice paddies terraced down to the ocean. We saw a lot of cars in a parking lot and knew something to see was close. The stop was high on a cliff and from the parking lot you could see terraces of green and watery and some not watery rice paddies floating down to the blue ocean. A couple of people were hoeing. You could walk down on paved trails all through them. Some people did that, including one tour group; there were a few buses in the lot. We noted that most tour groups we saw anywhere were Japanese or at least Asian; we've only seen a couple of caucasian groups in a week. We stayed on top and ate ice cream and enjoyed the view. We kept hoping we'd see somebody grilling oysters but we only saw snails.

By early afternoon we weren't even at the top of the peninsula yet, so we needed to pick up the pace. We wanted to see the fishing port at the big town, Wajima, so we drove around there, tons of boats and lots of traditional old wooden houses in varying states of repair. Not much WWII bombing there. Some ladies in galoshes were drying fish on woven platters. We had already missed the morning market and we didn't have time for lunch so we didn't go into the town center. Seemed like a promising spot for an overnite tho. The car had to be back by 8 and we weren't relishing driving on mountainous coastal roads in the dark.

We missed the most scenic lighthouse, which was a 15-minute walk into a park; we were told this by a fellow at a small resort on the rocky coast at the tip. We'd seen the lighthouse's picture and it was small and we are from Lighthouse Central so we didn't turn back. Almost no signs up here were in English so we relied on signs with drawings of an attraction to let us know it was there. The alert to the lighthouse was probably in Japanese. We noticed a lack of international driving symbols too. No exclamation points for danger, for example. We were just blithely clueless thru the whole drive, but few cars were plying the peninsula itself. There was a cartoony sign to watch out for what we think meant raccoons crossing the road. We saw no road kill anywhere, but lots of hawks.

Once we turned onto the eastern coast, it was beachier and calmer. Shortly after Suzu, about 4, we hopped on a bigger highway that took us through the interior of the peninsula and made tracks. The two-lane highway had occasional passing lanes. GPS Lady was back in sync with us now that we were going south, which was great because my phone was running out of juice, I hadn't brought a car charger, and I apparently brought the wrong plug (blackberry) for the portable battery. Couldn't get Chris's phone gps to turn on even using cellular data, whiskey tango foxtrot? As we neared Kanazawa GPS Lady announced we'd reached our destination and stopped talking. My phone died. We had reached the highway above the driving beach and the sun was setting over it in a big peach ball. Fortunately we started spotting signs for the train station about 10 miles out and started to follow those. Eventually GPS Lady kicked back in and while we didnt know if she was directing us to the right place by now, we kept the faith. We arrived safely back!

We walked to the hotel, reflecting on the day. It had been fun to have the freedom of a car for a change of pace, and on such a gorgeous day we thought the Noto's west coast was stunning. Plus, it was crowd-free. We wouldn't call it a "must" but we love remote coastal drives so it added variety to our three-week trip.

By now it was almost 8, so we gave the hotel restaurant a try. It was quite busy with what appeared to be local folks and business workers; none of the staff spoke more than a few words of English. Kind of makes us wonder about the idea that Japanese kids take English beginning in elementary school. Then why do so many people not speak it, even young servers? Maybe like Americans, they don't get much chance to use what they learn. Anyway, the people are so kind that language doesn't matter; they invariably help you

Anyway, the hostess produced an English menu. Kanazawa Jiwamon Cuisine Nami No Hana turned out to have quite an intriguing menu, emphasizing local ingredients such as the famous veggies from the Kaga region, talking up local seafood offerings and listing about 10 local sakes.

My husband, who likes to try the oddest food possible, was worried that a hotel restaurant would not cater to odd. Especially on the English menu. He ordered both the spit-roasted pig gut and the deep-fried chicken gristle. Then he asked the waitress, who spoke no English, whether the dishes on a separate piece of paper that was printed only in Japanese (daily specials?) were also in the English version of the menu. She shook her head with a look like, you don't want to know. So he randomly pointed to one of the mystery dishes in Japanese and ordered that. It turned out to be a small grilled fish on a skewer that smelled weird but tasted good.

As for me, I went with the radish salad (tasty and must have zero calories) followed by a tempura of local goodies from shrimp (so sweet) to lotus root (eat it for luck). We've been in Japan for 9 days so far and I hadn't had much chance to have tempura so I was pleased. Back in the States I had imagined we'd be eating tempura all the time! Add in a beer, a glass of sake and a cassis and soda, plus rice, and our bill was a reasonable $40-ish dollars. Thanks to all that driving, we'd walked only 1.5 miles!
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Old May 4th, 2016, 09:28 PM
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What a great report full of detail. Keep it coming.
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