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A hungry mouse's (very sweaty) adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun

A hungry mouse's (very sweaty) adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun

Aug 19th, 2017, 05:48 PM
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Aw, thanks, sandgroper. I slacked a bit- will have to finish now


I had booked K's onsen hostel in Ito on a whim halfway through my trip. I emailed them about the possibility of cancelling due to the typhoon. They responded promptly. The typhoon has blown past us, they said. We hope you'll join us--and then they added extra bait (as if I needed encouragement)--the festival begins tonight, and we have a prime view of the lantern float, although you'll have to walk for the fireworks. Oooh. Well, in that case!

In reality, I had booked a private room there. Not only was it a good chunk of money to forfeit, as nice as my hostel in Tokyo was, it was also a dorm room. So since the weather was fine, I knew I'd regret staying in Tokyo. There are worse places than Tokyo to be in the heat...LA comes to mind, and Las Vegas, and I'm sure Rome is not fun...but even with its excellent transit, it's a struggle. Stairs figure heavily into it, for one thing. Not everything is air conditioned. A good portion of the places that are involve smokers. I'm feeling very tanned and toned but mostly, that would probably be due to water loss through sweat. Or hallucinations.

Anyway. Ito was also on my list because of the hanging Hina dolls of Inatori. But mostly, I cannot pass up a chance for one last onsen! When I come back to Japan, I'm going to budget more for lodging. I could do a whole month of onsen lodging and be as happy as a clam.

Atami is the Shinkansen stop, and then there's a local train that goes down the Izumi peninsula. Ito is the first stop. There is both a train and bus day pass for foreigners, and it is a really good deal give the price of the individual tickets. There's a foot onsen in front of the station.

As one might expect- Ito is a rather sleepy seaside town with an artificial beach, and being very close to Tokyo, it's a popular place for its proximity rather than its looks. Inatori, which I also visited, is an active fishing town, and Ito may be as well, but it feels more touristy than anything else. I thought initially that the many closed store fronts are empty and Ito may be struggling, but after my visit to Inatori, I think the lack of activity is actually due to Obon. People are away, or have just shut up shop because they don't expect much business.

Anyway, Ito may be a tourist town, but it's still got an active local community. And many turned up in their yukatas for the festival. The first night was the lantern float, and I loved that. Then fireworks. The second night was the taiko drum competition and then fireworks (of course).

Toro nagashi (lantern float) can happen for a variety of reasons, but during this season, it's thought that the flames guide spirits home. I know I'm not the only one who wondered where the lanterns end up; in typical Japanese efficiency, Ito has someone stationed downstream with a net to catch the lanterns which they then extinguish.

K's onsen is in a glorious historic bathhouse, overlooking the river. I could watch the lantern float from my balcony, which was wonderful, although it was more like a lantern race due to the high wind. 6700 yen a night, traditional Japanese rooms. I don't think this hostel actually has Western beds at all, so if that matters to you, it may be a reason to give it a pass. But I've stayed at a lot of great hostels, and just in terms of the facilities, this is probably my favorite. Ito itself is not worth going out of your way for, but this hostel definitely is. However, like all other traditional buildings I've visited so far, walls are thin and it is definitely not handicap accessible. No elevator and the floors are "half" floors, meaning to get to a bathroom, you'll be using stairs. The onsen could be hotter, but it's great otherwise. During lower seasons, you can purchase a pass to other ryokan onsen, but they don't offer it in August or other holidays.

The next day, I wandered around to see more of the town, and then caught a train to Inatori. Inatori is the birthplace of the hanging Hina doll, and every spring, they have an enormous celebration and display of these. I had the vague idea of buying one as a souvenir but the store in Kyoto didn't have anything I fell in love with, so that's the reason I wanted to go to Inatori. Unfortunately, even though it's listed on the map, I don't think the museum operates outside of Spring. But it's difficult to tell- it's one of those towns that doesn't have a lot of English information or speakers. I found one really promising shop, but it was closed so I had to limit myself to marveling at the pieces in the window. Caught the train back to Ito, napped until the taiko drum competition. And the fireworks were if possible even better that night!

Used the onsen one last time the next day, and headed out of town. The festival was in full swing, which meant crowds and not much open. Something to consider, when deciding to go in August or not, would be what you enjoy doing. Smaller places- museums, shops, restaurants- are prone to closing or at least irregular hours during festivals and holidays like Marine Day.

I'm glad I went to Ito. If you're in Japan during festival season, definitely make an effort to visit the smaller places for their festivals. Events like the fireworks and toro Nagashi (lantern float) are more fun in the small, sociable towns. Everyone turns out, and there are always food and drink booths!

Next (and last!) Tokyo!
marvelousmouse is online now  
Aug 19th, 2017, 07:59 PM
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I hadn't been initially excited about Tokyo. After my first few days, I could understand the lack of enthusiasm for the city here. It's not a beautiful place; it's a scramble of 20th century architecture. There isn't really a central downtown core, more like a loose association of neighborhoods.

But. Then I returned for my final few days after Ito, and now, I'm a little disappointed I didn't give it more time. I would love to come back during a cooler season just for Tokyo. It's foodie paradise, and the city has a distinct energy to it. I'm not sure how to describe it, but Tokyo is its people, and how they interact with their city, from its trains to its restaurants to its parks. You have to work a little harder to find the little boutiques and interesting sights but they are there, probably down the next alley.

I will admit I did get lucky. The weather broke. It was rainy and cool for most of my remaining time. I was the crazy foreigner, without an umbrella, eating a shrimp sandwich on a bench in the drizzle; the server tried to lure me indoors, but the rain called to the PNW'er within. It was a great start to my time in Tokyo.

My hostel was Bedgasm in Asakusa, and this was a really nice hostel. The beds were very comfortable. The showers and kitchen were okay. The atmosphere and the staff make it what it is. The staff had a lot of great recommendations, and knew their neighborhood well. I ate sushi at a little local place one night; the kind of place you'd walk right by without a recommendation. The location is much better than my first Tokyo hostel; it has an active neighborhood, is convenient to transit, and it's an easy walk to the Asakusa shrine area, which is one of the more interesting places in Tokyo. Very crowded during the day, but a good place to explore in the evening. Lots of dining options, well lit.

I mostly did some light sightseeing and shopped. The mall at the sky tree is a good place to pick up souvenirs that you know you want; I got some beautiful wind chimes there. This is the location also of the best Totoro store I've been to, if you have children. There's a great big stuffed Totoro on display, snoring.

I went to the Asakusa lantern float one night, but it's a bit like watching paint dry while attempting to avoid being trampled by the crowds. I only made it 45 minutes and then headed to dinner. This is probably one of those occasions where it is well worth the money to go on a sightseeing cruise. Otherwise, show up a good hour early and bring a picnic.

Other tourist activities:

Aquarium Art- a fish art show dedicated to the decorative gold fish. Manages to be interesting, educational, and beautiful simultaneously, so it's impressive, but it's also incredibly crowded. It's near the Mandarin Oriental; the neighborhood is pretty much the equivalent of the Mag mile or 5th Avenue.

Milky Way at Tokyo Tower; they light up the two observatories at night. One has projections and one has lights strung to look like the Milky Way. I really enjoyed this; it's one of those classic tourist events that most people will enjoy. One of the projections is the ocean; it looks like you're walking with your feet in the tide. I'm easily entertained; it was rather thrilling to watch the whale shark leisurely swim past

Akhibara (sp?): unfortunately for my best friend in college, I do not love her enough to buy the overpriced anime collectibles here. But the area is a fun way to kill a few hours; I can't resist the capsule machines so I did bring a lot of useless trinkets home in my purse. Bring money if you have kids or impulse shoppers; you will spend a lot more than you wanted to.

Meiji: unfortunately is under construction, and it's probably (hopefully) more interesting when not.

I wanted to go to the fabric district, but if you are a textile enthusiast, check the Tomato calendar. The store closes for a whole week in August for obon !


A happy mouse is a full mouse. So, when I got back to Tokyo, I was debating between serious shopping or splurging on food. Food won (as it often does). I found:

Ten-ya: a chain of tempura restaurants- you order through a vending machine and bring your tickets to the server. (I still can't get over how cheap food is in Japan, my meal was less than 8 dollars here).

Tsukiji fish market: I went here at night, so can't speak for the tuna auction or anything. But if you like sea urchin, you MUST go here. I picked Sushikuni, and it did not disappoint. A heaping bowl of rice and two different types of Uni!

Shirohige cream puff factory: Totoro shaped cream puffs. That's what you go for. But this is actually a lovely house. Bakery is on the first floor and cafe that serves really good pasta and salad is upstairs. So bring your kids or girlfriends and have a nice leisurely lunch. It's clear out in one of the neighborhoods but well worth the hike. The cream puffs have the expected flavors but they do seasonal flavors as well; the peach was divine.

I made one of those memorable traveling mistakes on my second day; I got in line for what I thought was a gyoza shop (that was a block further down) and it turned out to be shichirin (self cook on little portable BBQs). Pig and cow offal. Well, I was too much of a coward to admit my mistake and back out, and it was a successful endeavor. The beef tongue was especially delicious. Bonus: I did not light my hair on fire!

And then of course I went to the gyoza place for "dessert"- no nonsense older ladies just dump delicate fried gyoza in front of you until you surrender. It's the only thing on the nonexistent menu. Kameido Gyoza Honten. House rule is (apparently) 2 drinks, prepare to wait, and then get in and out.

And last but certainly not least:

I attempted to book a seat for dinner at Mandarin Oriental's Tapas Molecular Bar. They only seat 8 people per meal and called me to tell me that they couldn't fit me in for dinner but could I come for lunch. I'd never experienced molecular gastronomy before, so my curiosity won out. I think the only reason I did get a seat is that the other 7 people were part of family group. Obscenely expensive by most standards but so worth it. (I say most because I've seen the price of Alinea in Chicago. It's moderate compared to that). It's a very personalized dining experience, and it's basically a dinner with a show. The art of science and food. The meal starts with a small beaker of fluid that you pour over a tablet, which then turns into a hand wipe. The utensils are given to you in a small tool box; the menu is printed on the measuring tape within. I love food, but I dine out for the experiences I could not achieve at home. That's the kind of places that impress me, and Tapas was just fantastic. Minimum age is 12; it's not for fussy eaters but it would be perfect for a science oriented teen. My group ranged from 60 ish to early 20s and we all had a blast. Book well ahead if it's something you'd be interested in, and be forewarned that where they really get you is the price of drinks (this is the MO, though, so no surprise there.) I think my cosmopolitan was around $25- luckily it was very good indeed. Their drink list is classic historic cocktail oriented. The wine list looked impressive but the prices were breathtaking. And if you're bold, as well as cheap, the hotel lobby bathroom is worth coming in to check out; the MO lobby is on the 38th floor and the bathroom has enormous windows with a fabulous view.

If you get on the Haneda Airport Express, be aware that it involves no transfers and it does eventually end up at the International Terminal. Departures terminal is unfortunately not nearly as interesting as the arrivals terminal.

I headed back to the US with a brief stopover in LA for Disneyland. LA is, as usual, more of a culture shock than Tokyo.

I would go to Japan again in the summer, but I don't recommend it as a good time for a trip of a lifetime. I don't mind heat that much but the humidity took a lot of my energy. A lot of the stuff is outside; a lot of the historical buildings are NOT air conditioned. Transit is by and large amazing but it involved considerably more walking than I would have expected.

It's a much cheaper country than I would have expected. I certainly spent less than I did in London and Paris. It was closer to what I spent in Germany and Italy. The trains will be a significant portion of your budget, and I did notice that if you eat American food, you'll probably spend a lot more, and be disappointed besides- portions just aren't large and rarely taste right. If you're the planner and you have picky eaters, I would recommend doing a lot of research on what they would enjoy local food wise. It's not all about sushi and rice- the Japanese love savory food, they love chocolate, they adore soft serve ice cream. They're very focused on the seasons too- what is fresh, what is growing right now.

I think Japan shines for one group of travelers in particular. It's a truly excellent destination for solo travelers. At no point did I feel worried for my safety and I just can't say that about any other populous destination that I've been to. It's a really, really easy country to get around too. So if you're a novice (or nervous) solo traveler, Tokyo is in a lot of ways just one of the best destinations you could pick. It's easier than many American cities, and it's more convenient than Rome or Paris because it's so modern. I think one of the things that helps a lot is that Japanese society is communal but for day to day stuff, it's also very independent. Lots of solo folks out and about.

All in all- and keep in mind ymmv- Japan is not somewhere I fell in love with. I really want to see more of Asia because of it, but Japan is just not high on my return list. I'm not sure why. I liked it a lot; I just didn't love it. But the people are so courteous, the food is cheap, the beer is good, and the trains are amazing, so if you want to go- go! You won't regret it.

Thanks for following along!
marvelousmouse is online now  
Aug 20th, 2017, 03:50 AM
Join Date: Sep 2012
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Thank you for sharing. It was fun to follow along to some of the places I visited on my own trip and learn about others that I didn't. Japan is certainly on my return list, but perhaps during cherry blossom or foliage season.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Aug 20th, 2017, 04:56 AM
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Thanks for a great report! So glad you got to Ito.

I liked staying in Asakusa, but did not particularly enjoy Tokyo otherwise, and would advise a first-timer to start somewhere lower key.

Entirely agree about costs and safety. Japan is a very easy country to travel in, despite the language barrier, and aside from the trains costs are largely in the control of the traveler. You can spend a lot of money if you choose, but you don't have to.

There is a great deal of variety in Asia, do not take Japan as a template for other countries. South Korea and Singapore, maybe, but not China or SEA or (especially!) India.
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 20th, 2017, 05:12 AM
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Have so loved following along! Thank you for taking us along with you vicariously!
Kavey is offline  
Aug 20th, 2017, 09:10 AM
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Glad you enjoyed it!

I would love to see India especially. Thursday, did you go solo there, or is that one of the places you took a tour?
marvelousmouse is online now  
Aug 20th, 2017, 09:36 AM
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No, I did India twice solo. Back in 2001 it was ten weeks mostly by train. In 2010 it was six weeks in the south, click on my name for my South Asian TR. However, I have some serious doubts about the safety of solo female travel in India these days, and might at least arrange for a dedicated car and driver if not a tour if I go back.
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 20th, 2017, 09:58 AM
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Absolutely outstanding TR! Really enjoyed it – came upon it late and have just read it straight through. One tiny,niggling correction: Tenya, the tempura (actually tendon – tempura on rice) chain – is not a ‘buy ticket at machine’ place, which is one reason It’s so special. You sit at counter or table, order from menu (and there is always an English menu) and the food is served. Free miso soup, pickles and tea (or mugicha, cold barley water in summer). My standby is a child’s meal – Kotendon – which costs all of 450 yen. So glad you picked up on the energy of Tokyo. Japan is not Asia -hope you get to the other countries on your list and continue to write such terrific trip reports.
Boveney is offline  
Aug 20th, 2017, 10:31 AM
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Thanks, Thursday, I had wondered if it was recent. I've concerns about safety as well. And unfortunately that goes for several places on my bucket list.
Thanks, Boveney! It's always possible I was in the wrong place again. Sounds very similar, with the tea, miso, and pickles. I love Japanese pickles! And I really liked that so many places had complimentary unsweetened iced tea!
marvelousmouse is online now  
Aug 21st, 2017, 11:59 AM
Join Date: May 2003
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Have absolutely loved you trip reports. Unfortunately my trip to India was 10 years ago when a friend and I traveled together. You can get some really helpful and good information on http://www.indiamike.com/ which is much more current than my TR.

Am trying to put together my itinerary for my return trip to Japan in October, will post when I have it a bit more cohesive.
Nywoman is offline  
Aug 21st, 2017, 12:03 PM
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Thanks, NYwoman! And thanks for the link. I think India is probably several years away- right now I'm thinking cooler climate for next year
marvelousmouse is online now  
Aug 31st, 2017, 02:43 PM
Join Date: Nov 2016
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What a marvellous mouse. Have loved reading your Japan travel adventures, particularly the details you went into.
I didn't expect to like Tokyo at all so it came as a huge surprise to find I liked it a lot.
I'm sorry your travel report has come to an end when I just wanted to keep reading more, more, more. Thank you Marvellousmouse
sandgroper is offline  
Sep 1st, 2017, 11:28 AM
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Excellent TR, marvellousmouse!
patriciatbrogan is offline  
Sep 1st, 2017, 11:28 AM
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Excellent TR, marvellousmouse!
patriciatbrogan is offline  
Sep 4th, 2017, 05:07 AM
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What a fantastic trip report! I have been to Japan with my kids, and yes took them to Hiroshima and the museum/memorial, but experiencing it through your lense was new and fresh. This is why TR's are so fun and rewarding. I really appreciate the time you took to share such detail. I am sorely lacking on my TR's and I am feeling very guilty! Anyway, thanks again.
Lolazahra is offline  
Mar 8th, 2018, 08:14 PM
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Update- for the adventurous eaters, (but mostly for myself)

I knew that the offal restaurant was probably not referred to as shichirin but did not know what else to call it- finally stumbled across it tonight. It literally is “offal bbq” in google search, and the name of the restaurant is “kameido Horumon”. It’s only open for dinner- 5-11 roughly. Apparently it’s exactly what I thought it was- bar food. Best with beer!

Those that use google translate may be either confused or amused or both- google decides “horumon” is hormone. So a lot of the translated reviews read something like “mmm, I love me some good hormone.”

According to this guy, some people think horumon is transliteration of hormone, and others think it’s a smushing of a phrase that roughly means parts that are thrown away. Interestingly, further south it’s more popular as hot pot. Further north, the popular thing is Yakiniku (what I had) and the cooking style appears to have been imported from Korea. Maybe. Wikipedia says that some claim it was a unique food from the postwar era. Learn something new every day. I’m going to have to try horumon hot pot, I think


Last edited by marvelousmouse; Mar 8th, 2018 at 08:48 PM.
marvelousmouse is online now  
Mar 9th, 2018, 10:52 AM
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Thanks for bringing back your 2017 report, mm. I missed it then (focusing on other parts of the world at the time) but am leaving for a monthlong visit to Japan in a couple of weeks (my 4th). Your report—writing style, mode of travel, insights on food and culture—is getting me in the mood, for sure. Will have to look for your other trip reports!
aprillilacs is offline  
Jan 13th, 2019, 09:26 AM
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Hi marvelousmouse! I just reread your trip report. I loved Takayama. How would you compare it to Kurashiki? I've read many comments saying Kurashiki isn't all that, and good for maybe an hour or two. If we're not interested in the museums there, is it still a good place to spend some time?
Tally is offline  
Jan 13th, 2019, 08:16 PM
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Originally Posted by Tally View Post
Hi marvelousmouse! I just reread your trip report. I loved Takayama. How would you compare it to Kurashiki? I've read many comments saying Kurashiki isn't all that, and good for maybe an hour or two. If we're not interested in the museums there, is it still a good place to spend some time?
Hi Tally! Are you planning another Japan trip?

it's not really a simple answer. They're not that much alike, so I feel like it's comparing apples and oranges.

Someone on TA described Kurashiki as "quaint and chill with history" and I think that's a perfect way to describe it. If you like smaller towns, Kurashiki is very pleasant. Fun to putter around, great for photos and people watching, good for window shopping. I spent a lot of my time in Takayama on a bike, I spent my time in Kurashiki just strolling. I'd recommend googling images to see if it appeals to you aesthetically. Takayama had a "wow" factor for me, and it really was one of my favorite places on the trip. Kurashiki didn't have that same "wow" factor, but I enjoyed it.

I would definitely recommend the toy museum, because I seem to remember that you have kids. And between that and the train station clock and canal, I think it would be memorable stop for the kids. I'm more or less a big kid inside and the swans and koi of the canal were a highlight.

I base a lot of my travel choices on unique lodging, and the main reason I'd return to Kurashiki would be if I found a traditional guest house that appealed to me. I think that did make a huge difference in my experience in Japan.

It's hard to speak for other people's experiences. I know people who have told me Paris is three days tops, and Venice is fine for a day trip. I could personally spend weeks in either. I'm not saying Kurashiki is worth weeks, but I certainly do think an hour is too short. So much depends on whether or not you "click" with a place. I tend to click with "quaint, chill historic" places. So it really depends on what calls to you
marvelousmouse is online now  

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