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Trip Report 20 Days In Japan: We survived Sakura!

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Japan Trip Report

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 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!


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.


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.

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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    Thanks everybody! Here's the next bit.

    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.


    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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    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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    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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    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.
    Kyoto though you could spend 5 weeks there and not see all that there is. There were a few gems you missed there too.
    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".
    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.
    There is A LOT more for you to see in Japan - I hope this isn't your only trip.

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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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    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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    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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    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:


    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.


    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!


    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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    "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"

    it's actually the biggest headache for the people living in the coastal areas of japan, especially for residents on the sparsely-populated shores of the Sea of Japan. Because of the ocean currents (Kuroshio )and the Westerly wind, most of the trashes from Korea/northern China float into the Sea of Japan. City officials in the Chirihama area of Noto, for examle, collect garbage on the beach almost every day as is shown in , it's simply impossible to keep up with it (especially when the westerly wind is strong). is a beach on an remote uninhabited japanese island located between western Japan and South Korea, while is a beach in the Fukui area (southwest of Kanazawa) Vulnerability to floating garbage differ from place to place, but i stopped swimming in the Sea of Japan 15 years ago because of the worsening situation.

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    Love the detail you noted, like that cartoony wild animal sight, we decided it was probably a racoon too but we never saw any!

    We said the same about the litter, we figured it was being washed in from elsewhere as we've never seen litter on the streets of Japan, people just don't litter. It's one of many aspects of Japan I much appreciate!

    As we were there in low season, I figured that there must be much more frequent beach clean-ups in summer when the beaches are full of visitors.

    I think we had the opposite experience of Kenruoken, I was expected it to underwhelmed - although I knew it was slated as one of the top 3 in Japan, we'd seen to many wonderful gardens on previous trips that I couldn't imagine what might make it different, even though I'd seen photographs. But in person, I absolutely adored it - I think for me it was the way that every pace I took, ever time I turned even slightly, there was a whole new view, a whole new area of garden with its own little design details - a stepping stone bridge, a rock garden, unusually trained trees... and how the winding paths and winding streams made it seem that the entire garden was so much bigger than it was. We didn't visit the villas or teahouses but I was utterly captivated by the garden!

    Loving your report! x

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    Great report bringing back memories of our last trip to Japan. You were lucky with the weather in Kanazawa. When we were there, it rained 3 days out of 4. And it was cold, to boot.

    We loved Kenrouken Garden, even in the rain. And there was a small museum (can't remember the name) in the garden or very near it, that was interesting and kept us out of the rain for a bit.

    I'm looking forward to more of your report.

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    I'm glad you enjoyed Kanazawa. We were there in a downpour our whole three days, but still saw a lot. Next time, I'd stay longer (and see if I can arrange for drier weather).

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    Hi pthomas156! I'm really enjoying your trip report so far! Haven't gotten to read all of it yet - will try to get through more tonight :)

    << I have to thank Rachel from the Fodor Forum for suggesting Backstreet Guides for our first day in Tokyo>> I am so glad you were able to join a Backstreet tour and that you enjoyed it so much!! :D It was a great way for us to see so much of the city in our first few days. Everything we learned from our Backstreet guide was invaluable! So happy to hear you had a wonderful experience with them as well.

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    Wow, I am really feeling lucky now about our weather in Kanazawa and especially Noto, which wouldn't have been as gorgeous without the sun. Kanazawan, thanks for the info about the beach litter, so interesting. Kavey, you are so right on about the unusually trained trees in Kenrokuen. Japan has also made me appreciate bark (and greenery without flowers) like never before. Rachill, thanks again for Backstreets!

    On to the next bit:

    April 16 ON TO KYOTO

    We rose leisurely, shared a breakfast plate at the Travel Cafe, and were at the train station by 11. The best thing about this train system is that there are so many trains you don't even worry about the schedule. When you want to go, there will be a train for you. Even during cherry blossom season we never made a single reservation in advance. We went to the tourist info center in the station and asked where to find an ATM (7-11 store) and how to get to Kyoto. No bullet train, but the Limited Express took only 2 hours. We had a little trouble figuring out how to buy these tickets on the machines, and the line at the ticket office was long, so we looked for a set of machines with an attendant. The young attendant spoke some English and helped us buy the tickets. We were almost foiled when the machine asked us for our credit card pin, which like most Americans we don't have, but we had just been to the ATM so we had cash. It was about $60 a ticket. The machine was kind of confusing (What are ladies' seats? Turns out there are ladies-only cars) so we were glad we had our helper.

    On the platform we showed the attendant our reserved seat tickets to make sure we were in the right place and she showed us where to stand to board Car 2. These marks are precise. We bought some chips at the 7-11 on the platform and had a smooth journey through mountains and hills and farmland to Kyoto.

    The Kyoto station is enormous, very modern, packed with the usual food stores. We looked for somewhere to get a snack of maybe sushi, so we walked across the street from the station, but it was 3 pm, an awkward time. Many restaurants close between 3 and 5. We spotted a McDonald's -- would we end up there!? Then we realized there was a vertical mall across the street from Mickey D's, Yodobashi, with a sixth floor full of restaurants that stay open all day for weary shoppers. We picked out a cheap and cheerful modern restaurant, Shirikujicho, whose amazing plastic food display we liked and shared a plate. We followed the menu instructions "how to enjoy rice from a wooden tub." Hilarious. A lot of dishes were various ingredients (raw or cooked fish, pork etc) that came on top of a wooden container of rice. "Enjoying" involved scooping rice into a bowl, placing three condiments in it, tasting it, then adding the main ingredients from the tub. Only about $10.

    We grabbed a taxi in front of the mall and showed the driver our map from Hotel Mumé and the name printed in Japanese. He wasn't familiar with this tiny hotel but he found the street in the Gion district (pointing out landmarks in limited English, nice guy), and consulted passersby about the exact location. The staff from Mumé came right out to greet us and staff member Tai checked to make sure the driver didn't overcharge us (he didn't).

    Tai whisked us into the dining area in back, settled us into a couple of beautiful old Japanese chairs overlooking the rushing canal out the French doors, and did our paperwork. Then, over coffees, he gave us the 411 on the area marking sights on a map. He went to high school in NZ so his English is perfect, tho with a NZ accent! Haven't had such a thorough briefing since Designer Cottage in Christchurch NZ, ironically. We wanted to just wander around the neighborhood tonight so Tai gave us photo printouts of the front of a couple of local restaurants (we can't read the names in Japanese), and we went to our 4th floor room, Butterfly, to settle in. The hotel has 7 rooms.

    Butterfly ($256 a night) is dark with high ceilings and beautiful touches in reds and blacks. The glassed-in bathroom is shiny modern. I almost had a heart attack when the toilet lid automatically raised up when I entered the toilet closet! All Japanese toilets have bidets, but this one was especially elaborate, with a dryer function, water pressure control, even a massage button (couldnt figure that out). Man, do I want one of these!

    We dashed down for happy hour cocktails 5-7, and chatted with a young couple from Dallas. They were envious of our long retirement vacations and said they've been alienating their families by traveling over the holidays. I tried sweet plum wine, which I loved, but I was suddenly feeling a little indigestion. Too much eating maybe! We relaxed in our room for a while then went out to explore.

    The Gion is a beautiful historic geisha-entertainment district with lots of old wooden houses and cobblestone streets. This was Saturday night and a party atmosphere was pervasive. Lots of men roaming around and lots of ladies clubs with fancily dressed ladies out front. What were these exactly? Bars everywhere, on the fourth and fifth floors of newer buildings. Taxis and expensive cars with drivers waiting in various places too. We even passed a horse meat restaurant, good grief. I was just not hungry. So Chris picked out one of the few restaurants with a couple of tables outside, which turned out to be mostly Italian, Japanese-style. I had a pizza roll and a Coke, my go-to stomach remedy, and he had some sort of rice ball covered with egg maybe and a fruity sauce. Odd but he finished the whole thing. I could hardly wait to go to bed, tho I had dropped a bit of pizza grease on my pants and I had to search a Family Mart for spot cleaner and then wash my pants. They're my favorites! Walked 4.5 miles today.


    It rained til almost noon. We had breakfast at 8:15 and went back to bed. Chris slept while I did my journal. When the sun broke out, we left for a walking tour of the southern Higashi area. Tai looked at our map and suggested a route and what not to miss. We walked first to the grand Chion-in Temple, with one of the biggest gates in Japan. Impressive! Lots of people, it being a nice Sunday. We walked all around the buildings and the very cool cemetery and saw the 70-ton bell that they ring on special occasions. Huge. Much bigger than Liberty Bell. We were lucky to find a monk doing a prayer service so we watched for a while. We then made our way over to the temple down the street, Shoren-in, which was much smaller but had a nice garden and they let you ring their bell. Which I did.

    We followed the crowd to matcha ice cream; lots of vendors selling food. Tour groups everywhere. Rickshaw guys were pulling tourists around. A lot of girls and couples in traditional wear having their picture taken. The buildings looked historic and had lots of interesting detail. We spotted a cafe with a rare table outside, Cafe Gion, and stopped in for a coffee ( me) and Kyoto brand beer (Chris). Pear tart to share. Great people watching. Loved it. As we were walking home we saw a crane land in the street one over from ours, dubbed "the most beautiful street in Kyoto." We later learned the cranes hang out in a tree on that street and we would see them often. They stand for good luck and a long life!

    We wandered back through the Gion to Mumé, arriving in time for happy hour. We met Dave and Judy from California, whom we would become friendly with over the next few days. Full of humor and common sense. We bonded over our crazy tales of negotiating houses and moves in retirement (and getting rid of so much stuff that we hate to buy anything when we travel).

    We took off for a sushi bar across the river from Gion, Kappa Zushi. We walked over across the bridge, which was a lively spot with people hanging out and sitting along the river banks. On the other side was a six-story building completely lit up with diners in each glass "box." Interesting design! We turned right as soon as we crossed, into a narrow street stuffed with restaurants on both sides. Sushi, beef, everything. Some employees outside luring customers. But we didn't see our restaurant. Mumé had printed a picture of the front so we could find it. We thought it was supposed to be close to the turnoff, but people that we showed the picture to kept waving us farther and farther down the street. Finally we found it!

    We had counter seat reservations so we could watch the chefs. Lots of foreigners in this restaurant, but some Japanese. The sushi selections were exciting. Various levels of fatty tuna, which they weren't out of like in the US. Surprised that one of my favorites was spring onion. Japan has a way with onions. We had high grade fatty tuna, fatty tuna with leeks, a fatty tuna roll, horse mackerel, konbu with cod roe, sea bream from wakasa, and ark shell (our server's favorite; it was a chewy shellfish, very good). And probably more. It was $68.

    Walked back home thru lots of nightlife and girlie bars on that side of the river. Our side, which had been chaos on Saturday night, was much calmer on Sunday. Walked 7.5 miles today. Back in the room, we found that our toilet has become like a pet. We greet it when we go in and it turns on a light and opens its "mouth."


    Chris's birthday! A lovely elaborate breakfast once again, with potato soup. They make everything from scratch at Mumé. The croissants, the spinach rolls that look like leaves, even the yogurt in a Toshiba yogurt making machine. It tastes almost like sour cream, delicious. Nana gave us detailed instructions on getting to Arashiyama by taking the train and changing.

    We walked to the station right across the river, the first we'd seen that had ticket instruction signs posted in English; the key is to put your money in the machines FIRST to buy a ticket. That helps a lot. It was a quick ride there. Nana had advised us to take a cab up to the top of our planned route and walk down it back to the station. Good plan. It was about a $12 ride, well worth it. The trail was scenic instantly, with beautiful historic farmhouses with thatched roofs and big gates and intriguing landscape. We found the map wasn't to scale, which led to some confusion. We finally found the first temple on our list, Adashino Nenbutsu-ji, which was sneakily hidden up a flight of stairs from the road. It was the paupers' temple, where a monk has gathered hundreds of gravestones to commemorate this place for those who have no graves. Our guidebook said it wasn't a must, but we found it pretty stunning. There's also a sweet tiny temple for unborn children. Took lots of photos.

    The route has some tasteful restaurants and shops along it, and today few people seemed to be walking it with us at this point. In one shop a lady gave me tea to walk around with and admire her handbags, etc. The route itself, with pretty private homes, is as scenic as the temples.

    We stopped at Jojakko-ji Temple which also doesn't get much press but had the benefit of a beautiful uphill walk that led to a really nice observation point over the whole city. Well worth the climb. The moss everywhere and other small features were fun. We skipped a temple known for its moss garden because it seemed to be about a 10-minute walk off the route. So we sort of picked and chose. Each temple or garden had an admission fee of $5 or $10.

    Finally we got to the famous bamboo grove. It truly was mobbed, and that took away from the experience I must admit. It was beautiful tho, with the pale color of the trees enchanting. It would be a good idea to see it early or late. We headed back to the river through an area of town filled with restaurants and shops. Quite a contrast to most of that peaceful country trail. The shops were fun tho -- one was all about cats -- and the food shops were doing samples. We opted for strawberry ice cream and crossed the pretty river back to the train station. By tonight, it would be an 8-mile day.

    Back at Mumé, the staff was well aware of Chris's birthday. At happy hour, owner Hisako kindly popped a bottle of champagne in his honor and we and other guests shared and toasted. The perfect touch. We chatted with Hisako for a while. She's owned Mumé for 7 years. She tells an hilarious story about how she was a typical Japanese princess daughter whose main skill was shopping. The relatives were saying it was time to get serious. She thought she might be good at running a small hotel because she herself was a picky customer. With her dad's help she bought the building we were sitting in. She said he was really taking a chance on her. But truly, she has made him proud. She has the highest reviews on Tripadvisor. Personally, we have never seen service like Hisako makes sure Mumé provides. It's like it's her personal responsibility to make sure you have a wonderful time in Kyoto, including outside the hotel. This attitude pervades the entire staff. They cannot do enough for you. Like Fuwari, Hisako is an artist.

    Soon it was time to be off to Hiro, the BBQ restaurant that Mumé had made reservations for a couple of weeks ago. We had a lovely private room for this manly birthday meal. Our lovely young server in a kimono came in with the menu and brought us sake. She showed us the wall phone that we could use to call for her. Chris was the master chef tonight with the option of ordering anything he wanted. Hence the meal was meat and pickles. A super plan! He chose some regular exquisite beef, then moved on to cow's first stomach (as opposed to second or third or fourth, also offered). Surprisingly good. We had a few other meaty items including my favorite, marinated rib meat. God bless the Japanese, they have no fear of tasty fat. So so flavorful. Dinner was what we considered a low $97.

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    The rest of Kyoto:


    Had a late breakfast, 9:15. Broccoli soup today. Talked to Tai and to Judy, our new happy-hour buddy, and decided to skip the train trip to the town of Nara tomorrow in favor of more Kyoto. Judy said Nara was so mobbed yesterday she didn't even bother with the long line for the big Buddha which is the main thing to see. We still haven't seen the Golden Pavilion or walked the Philosophers Path in Kyoto.

    By 11 we were finally heading out the door to Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine and its orange gates. Tickets were only 210 from Gion station and we were there quickly. The street up to the shrine is filled with intriguing street vendors. But we pressed on to the shrine, which is dedicated to the god of rice and sake and is a gorgeous eye-popping orange. The buildings are just beautiful, but the most popular attraction is the thousands of gates that wind up into the hills. You can walk through them for as long as you want -- you could easily make a day hike of this. As you walk, the crowds walking with you begin to diminish (easier to take gate pix farther up) and you see a pond, statues, and lots of little shrines. We limited ourselves to about an hour's walk.

    On the way back to the train we fortified ourselves from the street vendors, who were selling everything you could imagine. The tiny perfect octopi on a stick were photo-worthy but we went with quail on a stick, a regional specialty. Small whole quail were BBQ-ed on a stick, and the vendor slides it off, cuts it up, and gives it to you in a takeaway dish. Very tasty and crunchy. We weren't sure whether to eat the tiny head, so we didn't, but later we learned it's edible. In one storefront, a man was using metal molds to make a kind of crisp cookie in the shape of a fox's face; the fox is considered the messenger to the god of grain foods, and fox statues are all over the shrine. We couldn't resist this pretty treat.

    We had to be back because we had late afternoon tickets to Miyako Odori, a theatrical performance by both apprentice and veteran geishas. It is held annually in April, during cherry blossom season, and is a very big deal. Mumé had sent us an email weeks ago, asking if we wanted them to get us tickets. We opted for the best tickets at about $40 apiece, which included a tea ceremony. The tea ceremony has turned into a herd-'em-in event where we could hardly see the two geishas doing the ceremony from the back of the big room where we were seated, and we downed our tea and small cake and hoped the performance would be better.

    The performance, only an hour long, was stunning. The group works for six months on newly designed kimonos for this event, and the sight of all these geishas doing traditional dances and playing instruments and singing in this amazing colorful garb against beautiful theatrical scenery was something I'll never forget. The theater rents English audio guides so you can better understand the performance, which I highly recommend. Our seats were in the second row (thank you Mumé!) of the large theater at Gion Corner. All around us were mostly locals who were well-dressed for this occasion. I was especially impressed by the elegant, understated kimonos worn by some of the local women, a clear step up from the $35 rented kimonos we'd been seeing everywhere.

    When we got back to Mumé we said to the staff that we had just run into Dave and Judy getting out of a cab to their restaurant for tonight. Then we went in to happy hour. Pretty soon Hisako was at our side wanting to know exactly where we had seen Dave and Judy. The restaurant had called and said they hadn't shown up. Hisako was very worried, especially because Judy was soon to have knee-replacement surgery and so she didn't have great walking stamina right now. Before you know it, she had dispatched a staff member on a bicycle to go rescue them! Later Dave and Judy said that they couldn't locate the restaurant, down a small street where cabs can't go, even tho they had a photo of it. Imagine their surprise and relief, they said, to see Miyuki from Mumé coming toward them on a bike! She led them right to their destination. Can you imagine any other hotel doing that? We were all agog.

    Hisako had already suggested that one of the staff walk us to Nanba, our Michelin-star kaiseki restaurant for tonight, because it's practically down an alley and some guests have had a hard time finding it. We had agreed. So when we came downstairs to take off, Hisako put on her coat. She was going to walk us herself. It really wasn't THAT hard to find; the entrance to the tiny alley was across the street from a Starbucks! But apparently many gpses haven't been able to pin down this one.

    This was truly a small place, with counter seats for 8 (maybe 6) and a couple of private rooms. The place was run by the chef and an assistant; his wife, in a kimono, served. Happily, she knew the English names of many ingredients in the many dishes and even had a dictionary to consult. Mumé had made this reservation for us a while ago, and at the time we chose the medium-priced kaiseki dinner, at 10000 yen each (other options were 8 and 15). It is omakase, or chef's choice from the best ingredients available.

    The first course was a delicious fish mousse graced by 4 other ingredients. Next up was a piece of poached fish in a lovely broth, decorated with snow pea pods. That was followed by a plate of four different kinds of sashimi. Now the down side to this for me is that I'm always interested in exactly what I'm eating, and sometimes the server was too busy to explain it to us, or to look up some words and we didn't want to be rude by being demanding about every course and garnish (cuz everybody in Japan is so NICE, you know). And I'm writing this by looking at my photos a few weeks later and I can't remember names anyway! The next two dishes were different kinds of roasted fish, one nice and fatty and extra tasty, both accompanied by mystery sides. Now of course all of this was exquisitely presented, as though Michelangelo were going to sit down and paint it. The colors balanced, the textures balanced, the materials of the tiny dishes complemented everything else.

    The next dish up won the cute award: two tiny tempura whole fish (sardines?) balanced on each other like they were swimming in the ocean; the pottery they rested on sand- and water-colored. Their teeny faces looked shocked that this was their fate! I was loosening my belt by now, only to face a big shrimp and a small whole squid with artful veggie pieces and a lime green sauce. I wish I could remember the next dish because it looks like a beautiful yellow pudding, but it was something much more complicated I'm sure. Then a bowl of beautiful herbed sticky rice. Finally: dessert! I loved the wine jelly that surrounded this dish of fruit sorbet with mango and blackberry pieces. But the chef wasn't done. Out came dessert number 2. It was Sakura-flavored and beautifully pale pink, but I'm not sure what you'd call it. Then green tea. The chef, who'd been a bit taciturn when we arrived, warmed up as dinner went along and we enthused about his art. At the end of this 2.5 hour performance, he walked us out and gave us a big bow and wave from the alley door.

    What a day! (And we had walked 5.5 miles.) The bill with tax and service charge had been about $250. While we liked the dishes and truly admired the chef's skill, we didn't feel we had the knowledge of Japanese cuisine to appreciate this experience to the fullest. If it had been French, we would have. But we were just as bowled over by the much cheaper Fuwari and Hori the BBQ. A word to the wise if you feel like you might be of our ilk. There is much more incredible Japanese food than there is time to eat it!


    Walked 7.83 miles!

    Breakfast began with cauliflower soup and pumpkin rolls studded with pumpkin seeds. Said Goodby to Judy and Dave. We exchanged contact info so they will visit us when they take a cruise out of Miami next winter. They spent $450 on a sushi dinner last night which makes our $258 kaiseki dinner look cheap! They were not happy about that as they didn't feel they were knowledgable enough about sushi to appreciate it.

    We were seeing things in two spread-apart areas today, so on the advice of Nana at Mumé we took a cab to the Golden Pavilion in northwest Kyoto, $24. This temple on a serene pond is covered from head to toe in gold-leaf, and as it's a premiere sight in Kyoto, it was mobbed at 11am. Even orange-robed monks were taking selfies in front of it. The pond has lovely islands, perfectly tended in spare Japanese style. Bought a few amulets and admired the gold-flecked sake at one kiosk.

    We began walking to Ryoan-ji Temple which is famous for its rock garden. Zen gardens have a lot of dry landscaping, done with artfully arranged and patterned gravel and rocks. We had a map, and after we'd walked a while we decided to grab a cab because according to the map we were only a third of the way there in warm sunshine. Turns out map was out of scale. The cab only had to take us a short way. We paid to get into the rock garden; the temple appears to be an afterthought. The characteristics of Zen gardens are simplicity and restraint, but I must admit the famous garden was a bit anticlimactic. About the size of our small yard in Newport, with about 15 rocks arranged in white gravel raked into various designs. The only color was the moss on the rocks. We were not the most appreciative of this, but it did set us up to look at other such gardens that day which we found more interesting.

    At this point I realized I had left my little LUMIX camera in the cab. We quickly went back to the temple's cab line, but ours had left. We explained our dilemma to a driver standing near the head of the line, and he swung into action. He had an app that translates spoken Japanese into English, and he used that to ask us questions. He conferred with another driver and they called some sort of central cab office. I talked to an English-speaking man at central cab. He said they were sending a message to every cab company in Kyoto to be on the lookout for my camera. He took my info and our hotel name.

    We asked our original helper to take us across town to the Silver Temple ($22 plus BIG tip for helping us, which he initially declined). In the car, central cab called me back to get a little more info. The cabbie and even I were feeling pretty confident that the camera would be returned. He let us off near the temple. As the afternoon wore on, I did not hear any news.

    Apparently there were good intentions for the Silver Temple but it never did get covered in silver like the gold one. It's just a pretty temple that we didn't even go in, but the garden was very cool. It had a patterned sand garden much more impressive than the famous rock garden. The path wound up a short scenic bit into the mountainside; once again the moss was massive. A winding stream was rushing downhill, and the perfection in this country is so complete that a worker was standing on the rocks in the stream sweeping leaves out of it!

    The street up to the temple was lined with shops and some eating places. I had a hankering for shrimp tempura so we stopped at the cafe nearest the temple. Bought a few souvenirs (a tshirt illustrating various types of nigiri sushi for our son) as we continued down the street. One store was all about rabbits, which mean various good things here.

    The Philosophers Path began right at the end of the street, a beautiful path along a canal, with flowers sprouting on both sides. It was named this because a famous philosopher used to walk this route on his way to the university. You can rent bikes in Kyoto which would be a good idea for this side of town; we saw quite a few tourists on bikes. The path had walkers but was not crowded. On the street next to it were some really nice shops and some cafes that looked good. It took about 45 minutes to walk with a few photo/window-shopping stops. We saw a fancy bridal couple all in white having their photos taken on the path against the weeping cherry trees. The bride had a white dress that was long in the back and had a tutu mini skirt with a pink satin sash in front. I think her bouquet had glitter!

    The Nanzenji Temple was quite close, so we decided to end our temple-viewing in Kyoto there. The huge two-story gate was a jaw-dropper; you can go up to to the second story for the view which Chris did. Then we admired the mysterious red aqueduct, eschewed the highly-touted forest walk to the waterfall behind it because we were beat, and I went into the temple or maybe the abbots quarters to see the historic golden tiger artwork but mostly to see the Hojo garden. I was puzzled because you seemed to have to remove your shoes (and pay) to go to the garden but a foreigner explained that you view the garden on boardwalks. The gardens were few but this was unique. Most of them had a dry landscape component and a couple of incredible Japanese maples that were blazing red burgundy in spring. Not a must garden but cool.

    We wound our way back the mile or so to Mumé, helped along by a strawberry ice cream cone. At Mumé Tai greeted us with the news that my camera had been found! The central cab had called them to discuss getting the camera back to us. Tai said a cab might drop it off and if not he'd pick it up when he left work and get it to us by morning (what he didn't tell us was the next day was his day off). We collapsed into the river-view chairs for happy hour. Cute bartender (kuyi?) showed us the plum liqueur bottle from France that she had been using to make my plum and soda cocktails. I thought they'd been using plum wine, so now I'm a bit confused.

    After a rest in the room, Chris went out to the ATM at 7-11 -- the only place we could find Cirrus, which Tai said was usual -- because we think we need cash for our temple stay in Koyasan. He came back with my camera. The cab company had dropped it off! Amazing. We headed out to dinner at a little down-home place called Kappa. Tai and the staff eat there all the time. It's just a huge counter so people come and go.

    A big menu listed lots of small plates for 390 yen, and another menu had sushi and seasonal items and daily specials, all under 980 yen. We ordered a small whole grilled fish that the young couple on the stools next to us had just demolished. They called it "hake" and said it wasn't on the menu but our server wrote it down. We also ordered tempura ray fin (fabulous), BBQ chicken with Welsh onions (3 small tasty skewers -- they do wonders with onions in this country), two pieces of deep-fried pork with green perilla and cheese that came with two really good sauces. After that I ordered two pieces of fatty tuna sushi and two of onion sprouts but they were out of the onions so we subbed mackerel. I think the two fatty tuna were $4, and the pieces overwhelmed the rice cake. We should have been eating here all week! Chris finished up with a glass of local sake. The server brought the glass and a glass bowl-type plate for it to sit in, then she poured out of a big bottle and kept pouring as the sake spilled over the glass and into the bowl! We and the Italians sitting next to us laughed at the drama! An older man sat down in the Italians' place and began talking to us in limited English about Trump. He knew that Trump and Hillary had won the New York primary yesterday. He was pretty astounded by Trump. Chris tried to teach him the word "idiot."

    Back at the hotel, our pedometers read 8 miles for the day. Tai had all our train directions for getting to Koyasan printed out for us. Pampering plus. He went over the ins and outs of our several connections. He said to leave our suitcases in our room tomorrow morning and he would forward them on to the Crowne Plaza in Hiroshima, our next stop after Koyasan. It would cost about $10 a bag, and we should pay the hotel in the morning and if it turns out to cost more the hotel will cover it! We would just take backpacks so we don't have to drag our suitcases onto crowded trains and then up the cable car to the temple city. This is a very common thing to do in Japan; there are baggage services and baggage storage places everywhere for people who are traveling by public transport. Hisako said to make sure we take an extra layer because it's colder in the mountains. She and Tai would both be off tomorrow so we said our goodbyes with lots of hugs and Chris telling them he'd never seen service like this anywhere, and he has traveled millions of miles for work.

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    WONDERFUL. We will be at Mume at the end of our trip. The specifics are so helpful because we were wondering whether we should arrange a guide in advance but it seems like they were very helpful with your itinerary. Did you make any other restaurant reservations in advance besides Hiro?

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    FromDC, a guide in Kyoto would be fun but because Mumé is so willing to help, you could easily go without. How long will you be there? They can help you sort out what to do when.

    Kathie I love the white gloves the taxi drivers wear -- and how clean the taxis are!

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    Isn't this forum terrific? we will be at Mume for 4 nights. I might get a guide for half a day just to get an orientation. I was in Kyoto and Nara more than 40 years ago, all I remember is the Golden Pavillion, I was there only 2 nights total.

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    Your report keeps getting better and better. We loved Mume and had our own amazing service stories from Hisako and her excellent staff. Loved the taxis as well. So many great memories. Our two trips are definitely at the top of our list of favorite travel destinations. Thanks so much for all the detail. A great read!

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    Outstanding report! Just caught up to your drive along the Noto peninsula and will catch up on the rest shortly. Does anyone know if it's possible to hook up with a day tour along the Noto from Kanazawa? As a solo traveler, I'm not a big fan of driving trips as you don't see much because you're too busy driving. Throw in driving on the left side of the road and I'd rather join a day tour that has been well received by other Fodorites/

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    MinnBeef, the info center in the Kanazawa train station is huuuuuuuge, as Bernie would say. I bet they would have the answer to one-day tours of the Noto. They certainly did provide a lot of info for people who were driving themselves. I believe the Japan Guide has some info on public transportation there.

    Here is my second-to-the-last installment of this report!


    Breakfast had carrot soup today; very nice but it can't compete with sesame rolls and croissants! My last Mumé breakfast. The yogurt tasted so much like sour cream that even Chris said maybe we should get a yogurt maker. We packed our backpacks.

    We set out for the Gion station. I was a little nervous with these connections but Tai had said not to worry. We employed our usual technique of asking the official in the booth near the ticket exit gates where we were supposed to go. We took the Keihan train line to Osaka then an Osaka subway to the train station for Koyasan. The last part was a bit confusing but the gate official said we were right, and on the platform we ran into equally confused Australian 20-somethings who were also going to Koyasan so we all felt better.

    The train to Koyasan was not cushy, just a regular commuter tho we'd be on it an hour and a half. It began heading up into tall, misty green mountains; it was a rainy day. The track twisted thru the mountains, a tribute to dynamite and engineering. We saw huge cedar and cypress trees and then a palm variation. Odd. At the last stop, everyone filed out and went right to a cable car train whose tracks were going straight up the mountain at an amazing angle. We squeezed on with everyone else (grateful not to have luggage, those with it were struggling) and the cable car lurched upwards. It was only 5 minutes but it was straight up. Then we exited to a bevy of station officials who looked at everyone's lodging plans and herded them onto city buses (290 yen). This is the only transport between the cable car and the town. Bus 2 dropped us off at the town center, and we stopped in Tourist Info for a map.

    The town is like the Vatican City of Shingon or Esoteric Buddhism, a major sect whose beliefs were brought to Japan in 806 by the monk Kobo Daishi. The town now has 117 temples, about half of which accept lodgers. The thing to do here is stay with the monks. Our temple, Henjo-son-In, was a 10-minute walk away, past the town's cafes and shops, and next to the museum. It was sprinkling pretty good now, and we were happy to find the temple easily.

    We entered through a beautiful garden, with rocks and patterned sand components, and saw the pretty wooden buildings. A monk greeted us and took our passports, then another monk showed us through the complex to our room. The lodging wing seemed brand new. Ours was a modern tatami room, quite spacious, with a couple of western chairs and table on the porch facing another lovely part of the gardens. Nothing was blooming yet but it was so well planned in textures and shades of green that it was quite delightful. The purple magnolia tree in front of the room next door was just about to burst, as was a reddish rhododendron. Everything is about a month behind here. There was also a low table and two floor chairs in the main room. The monk showed us where the bedding was and said our beds would be made up while we were at dinner. He pointed out our yukatas, which came with padded jackets for these chilly climes. We made tea in the room and had it with a couple of cakes that had been set out for us. It was nicely warm in there!

    We could see a beautiful red temple through the trees from our room, so, as it was only 4 and dinner was not til 6, we took a walk. Just as we did, the rain started coming down more heavily, but we persevered. Our temple was directly across the street from the complex with the town's main temples, so we wandered over in the rain through the huge red gate we saw from the room and past a big pond with arching red bridges to a giant pagoda temple that was brilliant orange and white. We climbed the stairs and entered to be confronted by a huge golden Buddha flanked by four almost equally large golden Buddhas. What a sight! Adding to the sumptuous effect were half a dozen pillars painted with characters in brilliant colors. This is easily the most elaborate temple we have seen on this trip. An English sign indicated that it's the tallest building in Koyasan. After that the rain drove us back to our room, where I tried to dry my socks with my electric curling iron.

    Our vegan kaiseki dinner (Buddhists do not believe in harming critters) was in a modern japanese-style dining room with western chairs and tables. Our table said "Pamera Thomas" in big letters. We sat down to about 9 different tastes of things in bowls and dishes. We picked up our chopsticks and more food kept coming from the hands of our monk servers. Tempura. Cold soba noodles. My favorite: a square of silky sesame tofu with a dot of wasabi that was so smooth and creamy. The tempura had a dish of salt with it instead of soy. What wasn't delicious was at least interesting and it was all beautifully presented. We had hot sake, which was great on a damp chilly night. We finished with the sweetest honeydew melon.

    By 8 we were back in our room. Our futons with pretty pink comforters had been laid out. The pillows had rice or something like it in them! We were not up for the communal bath, so we dressed in our yukatas with the warm jackets and took some self-timed photos -- not selfies. We turned on our pocket wifi and caught up in news and emails and pretty soon it was time to sleep.


    We were up at 5:45 and dressed for our 6 am prayer service with the monks. In the temple a few rows of seats were set up in front of a huge altar area. Half a dozen guests were already there. Right on time four monks came out and lit incense and rang bells and chanted in a deep baritone for 40 minutes. One was dressed in navy blue and white and the others wore orange and beige robes. Candles were scattered in the altar area and there seemed to be a gold Buddha in the distance. It was a big altar. When it was over, the Japanese folks knew to follow the monk downstairs and motioned to us to follow. We began stepping on a path of square cloths occasionally stopping to bow to a Buddha statue. After paths to about 6 Buddhas, we were done.

    We went right into breakfast. An array of dishes was once again at each place. This time only an additional miso soup arrived. Breakfast wasn't quite as interesting as dinner, but it was pretty.
    Then we packed our backpacks and by 9 we had paid -- they let us use a credit card which apparently many don't -- and we were off to sightsee. The first thing we saw outside the big temple complex was a row of monks in straw hats chanting for relief aid for the earthquake victims in the south. I asked Chris to donate so I could take their picture, and he only had a 1000 yen bill -- no coins -- which he wasn't happy to part with. But he did, and I took the pix. Hey, it was for eathquake victims!

    It was a lovely dry morning. We walked to the famous town cemetery, which is the other big sight in town besides the temples we had seen yesterday. The easiest thing would be to take the bus or a taxi to the top of the long cemetery and walk back down to town. But signs said it was 2 kilometers to somewhere in the cemetery so we decided to walk. We strolled past several of the temples I had seen mentioned in tripadvisor and couldn't get into. They looked beautiful, similar to ours.

    The cemetery was fabulous, full of tall, ancient cedars and cypresses sheltering more than 200,000 tombstones of every kind. The moss was everywhere, glowing bright green on headstones and statues and trees. Some gravestones were centuries old. The paved path wound through all of this and the statues climbed up the mountainside under the forest. In the morning mist, we felt like we should be looking for Hobbits. Lots of the small statues had bibs on them, asking for care for children. Not too many people; no tour groups. Quiet. At the top was a bridge with tall statues. People lined up to throw ladles of water on these gods to help their deceased relatives.

    At the very top is the Torodo, a sacred pavilion with 10,000 lanterns, some of which purportedly have been lit for centuries. Regular people were chanting a rosary to the Buddha here. In back of the building was the big attraction: a mausoleum where founder Kobo Daishi is entombed, not dead but eternally meditating while waiting for the arrival of the Future Buddha. Even more people were saying the rosary here, lighting candles and incense; we joined in the latter. This is the only place we experienced people chanting aloud. Apparently every Buddhist wants to be represented, if only by having a lock of their hair buried here, so they will be in line when the Future Buddha comes.

    By now it was sunny, and we were peeling off our many layers. We walked back through the new part of the cemetery, where even corporations have tombs (Nissan). All polished granite here, no moss. But it did lead to an exit road and the bus stop, which Chris found in the parking lot across the street. (We saw no taxis.) A bus came in a few minutes and we hopped aboard for the middle of town and a quick tempura-and-rice lunch near the info center. At the stoplight, there's quite a sight: a diagonal crosswalk to the info center as well as the ones forming a square. Had its own directional green man! A nice fellow at the center helped me figure out the transportation scheme to Hiroshima -- one cable car, two trains, a subway, and then the Shinkansen or bullet train. Whew!

    But it all worked pretty well. We missed the suggested subway train because there just wasn't enough time to walk to the subway station from the train station. So we consulted one of the helpful info people, and they told us just to buy a ticket and take the next subway to Shin-Osaka for the bullet train. No problem. At Osaka, a huge ticket-agent line for the Shinkansen made us brave the ticket machine on our own. One of the info guys had suggested the 4:30 train but it was only 3:45 and Hyperdia on my phone said there were two Shinkansen in between. So we opted for reserved seats on the 3:59. We showed the tix to a uniformed person, and he said track 20. No problem! It was about 12000 yen for the whole Koyasan-Hiroshima route, with most of it for the bullet train.

    The train ride was spring-green pretty through hilly country towns and lots of farms. (I noted this Shinkansen actually had an outlet at my seat, but only one, and my seat mate was using it for his phone.) When we landed at 4:30 it had taken us about four hours to go all that way. The GPS says it would be 6.5 hours to drive.

    The street outside the station was thick with baseball fans in bright red shirts that said Hiroshima Carp. It appeared to be opening day of baseball, and the stadium was around the corner. I love that the team is named after koi! We took a cab from the station to the Crowne Plaza; later we learned how easy it would have been to take the tram but we didn't need to figure out yet another form of transport!

    The Crowne Plaza is in a great location, around the corner from the Peace Park. We checked in; room 1923 had a beautiful view and our bags, delivered from Kyoto. So efficient. For dinner, the front desk recommended a visit to the okonomiyaki street food building, where dozens of stalls specialize in dishing up Hiroshima's soul food, but we wanted more sushi. Sushi Tei was an interesting 8-block walk away, down a narrow street. It was just a counter (on the first floor at least) with about 20 seats, all locals. But it had an English menu available. A tank full of swimming fish was right behind the two sushi chefs who seemed delighted to deal with us. We wrote down the numbers what we wanted. Broiled conger eel sashimi, fatty tuna, ark, delicious horse mackerel, abalone. Bill was $60 with two beers and hot sake.

    We walked back past the Atomic Dome, illuminated at night. Under a full moon, the ruin of what essentially was Hiroshima's tall convention center was hauntingly beautiful. The bomb exploded 600 meters almost directly above it and left some stone walls standing. People from around the world contributed to finance its preservation as a wish that all such weapons be eliminated. For a complete contrast, we then walked down one of Hiroshima's pedestrian streets full of shops and cafes, buzzing with folks enjoying Friday night. It turned out to be a 7.5-mile walking day.

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    I hope you got to try okonomyaki in Hiroshima. We ate it in Okonomyaki Mura-the buildong with 4 floors of tiny restaurants that serve only okonomyaki. It is one of the meals that DH and I still talk about, because it was so delicious and so much fun to sit at the counter and watch them prepare the dish. For us, we felt like we had entertainment while dining.

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    Hotel Mume absolutely rocks! I had not heard Hisako's story but having chatted with her for the 3 nights I stayed there, I can totally see the whole picky princess thing! I can't wait to stay with them next spring for sakura!

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    I have been having a hectic time lately and didn't realize that my final day of this report did not post! So here it is, not that it's much beyond the thank yous.

    Shelleyk, okonomiyaki lost out to eating oysters for every meal! Minnbeef, when you are back at Mume, ask Hisako about starting her business. She tells a good story.


    Packed up and headed to the hotel's Japanese restaurant for breakfast, which I had paid to have included in our room rate of $135. We got the $24 Japanese breakfast with about 10 different tastes including grilled fish, yogurt and a big dish of rice porridge. The 3 "appetizers" or usual lineup of 3 tiny tastes, is so popular that they have it available boxed so you can take it home with you! One of the three was tasty even to me; I think it was fried sardines and Japanese pepper boiled in a sweet soy sauce. The biggest surprise was that one side of the restaurant is glass and looks out on a big beautiful Japanese pond garden that runs the length of the restaurant. Rock features with raked patterns, and the azalea pinks were in full bloom. Who would think this was on the fifth floor?

    Took a cab to the station and then went to the ticket agent -- this time there was no line tho we had come early just in case -- so we could buy our ticket with a credit card. We have the Bank of America Travel Rewards card which reimburses us for travel expenses so we wanted to charge it. The fare with Shinkhansen and another train to the Kansai Airport was about $110 apiece. I hadn't realized until we started this trip that there are extra seat charges in addition to the price you see on Hyperdia so I probably didn't calculate correctly whether a JR pass might have saved us money; I had thought it was a wash and it would limit our choice of trains (as you can see by this report our preferred method of train travel was winging it). Frankly, I still don't know.

    We had intended to make the 11:17 bullet train but we were ready to catch the 10:21 so we did. The JR Ltd Express got us to the airport at 1 for our 5:30 plane! We aren't used to the idea that trains won't be late -- or more likely, we might miss a connection because we don't know what we're doing. Neither train was crowded and we need not have paid for reserved seats.

    Kansai Airport has a ton of shopping; we picked up a few last food gifts and tried a sample of some awesome cheese cookies, which we promptly bought. Then we went to a kind of restaurant we hadn't tried yet: conveyor belt sushi! Great fun figuring out how to order on an iPad and watching our selections zoom toward us. First time we ever had nigiri with cheese, or squid and okra. Also got some final shrimp tempura. Soon we were on JAL heading for LA, where we had planned a 23-hour free stopover so we could see our brother and family.

    Thanks again to everyone on Fodor's Forums for all the advice and for taking time to write trip reports. I couldn't have planned this so well without you! And thanks for reading.

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