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April 2008 Japan Trip Report: Part I: Tokyo, Kagoshima, Kumamoto

April 2008 Japan Trip Report: Part I: Tokyo, Kagoshima, Kumamoto

Old Apr 21st, 2008, 09:54 PM
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April 2008 Japan Trip Report: Part I: Tokyo, Kagoshima, Kumamoto

My boyfriend and I travelled to Japan for 16 days and here's part I of our trip report! We got 2 week Japan Rail passes (45100 Yen each) and two mileage award tickets from Boston to Tokyo. Feel free to contact me at [email protected] with any questions.

Sun April 6: We arrived at Narita, on schedule, at 3: 30 PM. Initially immigratiion looked like it was going to take at least an hour but then they opened a second area and presto!!! we were done by 4:15. We scooted downstairs and got our railpasses plus two tickets on the JR N'EX service to Tokyo's Shinagawa station. Then, using our JR passes, we transferred to the Yamanote line to Tamachi station (one stop) to our hotel, the Villa Fontaine Mita ($130 for a "healing" double room) We had no clue how to get there but luckily, there was a very easy map at the JR station that we could follow, even in our whacked out, non-Japanese speaking, jetlagged state. It took us all of ten minutes to find the hotel and we were checked in by 6 PM. Great little business hotel, close to the train, comfy rooms, foot massager(!). Thumbs way up. After we'd showered, we headed out to to Shinjuku on the Yamanote line and had a quick, tasty noodle dinner on the restaurant floors of the Lumine Est dept store.

Mon Apr 7: After a delicious buffet breakfast at the VF Mita, we grabbed our backpaks and left them in a locker at Tokyo station. Thyen, using our JR passes, we hit Ueno Parl, Shinjuku, and Harajuku. Had a great kaiten-sushi lunch in a small shop across from Harajuku station. Afterwards, we headed over to Akhihabara to check out the elctronics and then made our way to Tokyo station, where collected our bags and took the "Hayabusa" night train to Kumamoto. Although it was an 18 hour journey, it was great for jetlag because we'd each paid $90 (even with the JR pass)for a single compartment with a bed and could rest.

Tues Arp 8: Arrived in Kumamoto at 12 noon and grabbed a quick lunch from a stall at the station then jumped on the LEX relay + shinkansen to Kagoshima. Since ot was gorgeous and sunny, we wandered around a bit, then headed over to Sakurajima using the tram and ferry. Checked into to the Furusato Kanko ryokan-hotel, which was amazing - private rotemburo in our room as well as public one over looking the sea. The dinner was a delicious,multicourse feast.

Wed Apr 9: Awoke, hit the the rotemburo again, and then breakfast, which was even better than dinner. By then, it was raining, so we just headed back to the station and caught the shinkansen back to Kumamoto by 3, where we stayed at the Route Inn Kumamoto Ekimae, which was, by far, the best bang for your buck of any hotel I have ever stayed in. For $80, we got: a lovely double bed, heated toilet, shower, onsen bath, delicious buffet breakfast, convenient location, and free internet access in the lobby. Further, the hotel had an "onsen" bath and a "relaxation room" with a massage chair. Marvelous,although a bit hard to find (while only a two minute walk from the station, it is across the street from the New Otani but sort of hidden behind another building). Although it was pouring, we headed out to Kumamoto castle, which was surrounded by cherry blossoms. We ended up have a lovely dinner at Umaya, a little yakitori joint in the JR hotel right by the staion - hot soba and udon noodles, pluys delicious chicken and veggie skewers.

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Old Apr 21st, 2008, 11:21 PM
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Thanks for the start of a great trip report, we don't get so many reports on this area on the board so very interesting.
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Old Apr 22nd, 2008, 06:38 AM
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Yes, thanks puttakka, please keep on going with your report Also please just post the remainder on the same thread - much easier to follow....
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Old Apr 23rd, 2008, 05:47 AM
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Okay then, I had planned to post in separate places, but I will post in the same place then.

Trip Report Part II: Kurokawa Onsen and Miyajima

Thu Apr 10: After (miraculously) sleeping through the night, we awoke early and partook in a great buffet breakfast provided by the folks at the Route Inn, followed by a dip in the "onsen" bath. The nice front desk people at the Route in called our next accomodation, Ryokan Sanga, to let them know we planned to arrive around 3 PM at Kurokawa Onsen, our next stop. Then we headed over to Kumamoto station, where we spent a good half hour trying to make a reservation for the Kyusanko bus that heads over to Kurokawa from Aso. The day before, we'd secured seat reservations from Kumamoto to Aso- we were hoping to take the special "1962" steam locomotive but we couldn't figure out how and no one at the station speaks much English. We used a Berlitz Japanese phrasebook and managed to fumble through but everything takes twice as long because of the language barrier but the Japanese people are so polite and gracious and patient and helpful that I swore to take a Japanese class when I get home!!! Anyway, it was pouring out, so we just browsed around the shops at Kumamoto station for a while, and hopped on the train to Aso.

At Aso, we had an hour and a half before the 2 PM Kyusanko bus arrived, so we figured we'd kill some time wandering around the town, but there is nothing of much interest around the Aso station area, and we didn't have enough time to visit the caldera (which appeared to be closed anyway). Apparently there is a JR bus that is free for JR passholders from Aso to Kurokawa at 2:40 PM, which would have been great since the Kyusanko bus was 960 yen each, but no one seemed to know anything about it; plus, another hour or so of waiting around in the rain wasn't terribly appealing.

We arrived at Kurokawa around 3 PM, where the fantastic staff from Ryokan Sanga picked us up in their van and we bounced over to a secluded ryokan surrounded by green trees and forests as yes, more sakura!!! As soon as we got there, the staff at the front desk made a reservation for us for the next day's bus to Beppu. Then, we signed up to use the rotemburo (there are three family baths you have to reserve at night but the rest are first come, first served, plus there are public baths as well; in the morning, the private baths are first come, first served for whoever can get the key first) and spent a glorious hour soaking in an outdoor bath in what felt like the middle of the forest. It was heaven after a long day of travelling and made all the waiting around worth it. It didn't even matter that it was raining - in fact, it was better because we didn't feel like we should be taking advantage of the sunshine - we could just relax. It's better than going to the beach, where fun depends on the weather.

After the bath, we shuffled back into the main building, which was a traditional dark wood building, and settled into our room, which was a tatami mat with a separate little area for a sink and fridge overlooking the forest. We saved money by choosing a room without a private bath, figuring we'd just use the onsen anyway. Turned out to be a good call - we paid about $150 each, which sounds like a lot but was in actuality, a steal. Dinner was phenomenal - sashimi and small bites then course after course of fresh seafood, noodles, and rice,plus a hotpot and a simple dessert. After dinner, we took a walk around the grounds, which resembled a tiny wooden village with "houses" for each onsen - there appeared to be about twelve or thirteen different ones. We ended up using the public baths (separate for men and women) - by the time we'd returned, our beds were ready and we turned in.

Fri Apr 11: We woke up early (around 7) and raced downstairs to see if the key was available for the hinoki (pine scented) reserved bath (it was!) and then spent another glorious hour soaking and inhaling the fresh pine smell. Breakfast was around 8, in the communcal dining room, and was completely Japanese and delicious. The nice thing about ryokan breakfasts is that they obliviate the need for lunch - you are fueled for the day. The folks at Sanga were nice enough to delay our check out until 10:30 and they drove us (and a few other guests) over to the Kyusanko bus stop, where we picked up the Kyusanko heading towards Beppu. We had hoped to get into Beppu to catch the 13:12 train to Hiroshima but Kyusanko was late so we ended up having to make new reservations - no big deal, as the trains are very frequent. We landed in Hiroshime by 4 PM and then took a local train to Miyajimaguchi - very easy to find, depart frequently and the ride is about thirty minutes long. Then we took the JR ferry to Miyajima and landed on the aisland around 5:30. Deer everywhere!!! We had no idea where exactly our guesthouse (Mizuha-so - $50 per peson per night) was, but we were able to locate it on maps at the ferry terminal so we headed off towards the famous o-torii gate and were able to get a bit of a feel of the island by doing so. Tourist trap, no doubt, but a sincere once chock full of temples and beautiful trees and yes, more sakura!

Once we got to the vicinity of where our guesthouse was supposed to be, we couldn't find it anywhere, and then asked half a dozen locals, who kept pointing us in the same general direction. Luckily, it was a beautiful day, so it wasn't so bad, being so lost. Anyway, we finally found it - it was a storefront. We actually had wandered in to find out where the guesthouse was - turned out, that was the guesthouse! We had a small tatami room on the second floor - there was shared communal bath, toilet, and sink. The room was spare and pretty clean and had a small TV. We dumped our stuff and left to explore the island - or at least the waterfront area - which is full of souvenir shops, hotels, and lunch spots - by 7 PM, the entire island had rolled up its sidewalks and dinner options were few. We ended up going to the Auberge Watanabe, a guesthouse which had been recommeded by the Rough Guide as a nice simple place to get a cheap bowl of noodles. When we arrived, the proprietor was a little surprised to see us, but we held up two fingers and said "futari" and once it was clear that he spoke English, we asked him if he had noodles. He explained that we could have udon noodles with either beef or wakame (seaweed) and we were psyched. The noodle bowls cost $6 yen each and were fantastic. There were a couple and a single traveller in the communal dining room wearing yukata, so they were probably guests, who were dining on a multi-course feast and they looked pretty satisfied, but we were in heaven with our noodles.

After that, we headed back to our simple little accomodation, turned on the TV and caught a Japanese baseball game, which sounded like a World Cup match with all the singing. Fans really get into it! Again, we managed to sleep through the night.

Sat April 12: Woke up around 8, caught the Red Sox-Yankees game on TV. and had a granola bar breakfast. We were transferring to the Kinuikkan Annex ryokan-hotel closer to the ferry terminal, so we grabbed our bags, and paid our hostess, who handed us two souvenir rice scoops as a thank you. We walked over to the Kinsuikan, which was supposed to be a ryokan but felt more like a hotel with meals, which was fine, but had none of the ambiance and charm of the Sanga or Furusato for the same price (about 150 per peson). we left our bags there and grabbed breakfast at Kohikan - a chain coffee shop right near the Kinsuikan Annex. The coffee was $4.50 a cup but it was the smoothest coffee I have ever had and served in real china. We split an order of pancakes and headed over to Mt Misen for a hike.

There are a bunch of different ways to hike up Mt Misen (including a cable car) but we just wandered around until we found a trail and headed up. The mountain area was completely quiet and tranquil, unlike the busy tourist trap below. The 2 Km hike up to the summit was breathtaking, as was the summit, where there was a small shop for drinks and ice cream plus fabulous views over the Seto Inland Sea. We hung out up there for a while, admired the deer and the sakura(!), and mosied back down. We spent a good six hours around the Mt Misen area and it was literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air.

Around 4, we headed over to the Kinsuikan, where our room was ready. At the time, there was free drinks and cookies in the welcome area, as well as internet, so we took advantage of that. We had booked a mountain view room but the front desk gave us an ocean view instead (and charged us extra $10 each) but we were too tired to complain. The "ocean view" was mostly a view of the ferry terminal, but whatever. I headed up to the onsen bath, which was commual bath on the top floor with, yes, more views of the ferry terminal. The toiletries (Kose) and towels were plush and the onsen wasn't too crowded, so I soaked the day away, and headed back downstairs to my room to relax a bit, and watch more baseball and the sunset. We had been asked to reserve a dinner time between 6 and 8, and we chose 8. When we got there, everyone had already finished eating, and were the last one. Our server was very friendly, but I felt a little pressure to eat quickly as her colleagues wrere scurrying around cleaning up. My boyfriend had no such worries, and he convinced me to relax and just enjoy the dinner. We made a note, however, not to select the latest time again. The dinner was delicious - again, starting with sashimi and various small bites, then rice cooked with oysters, and finally, a mixed grill with dipping sauces. When we got back, our beds were ready and we crashed.

Sun April 13: Got up and again, Sox-Yankees on the TV. We noticed a trend of the same three teams - Sox (Dice-K & Okajima), Yankees (Matsui), Mariners (Ichiro), always on TV and felt a little bad for Hideo Nomo, stuck in obscurity on the Kansas City Royals, and only getting face time when his team was playing, you guessed it, the Sox, Yanks, or Mariners. We headed down for breakfast, which again, was a fantastic mix of rice, seafood, and pickles, and to my boyfriend's delight, sausages!

Overall, the Kinsuikan Annex was nice but it lacked the ambiance and special touches that made Sanga and Furusato such a great deal. The Mizuha-so was far cheaper but expensive for what it was - very bare bones. Again, it's a heavily touristed area with lots of foreigners, so I wasn't expecting too much. If I had to do it again, I would try and snag a room at one of the other cheaper options for the first night and then either Iwaso or Momijo-so for the second night to get a taste of the local cuisine. We stayed at the Kinsuikan to save a little money but I wish we'd paid the extra $50 or so to get the better experience. Overall, it was nice staying on the island for two nights because the island is so quiet and peaceful and special once the daytrippers are gone.

We checked out and then headed on the ferry back to Miyajimaguchi and then Hiroshima.

Once we got to Hiroshima around 11:30 AM, we checked our bags in the lockers( about $12), and took the local train (20 minutes) to the Atomic Bomb peace park area. Very moving experience. Again, misty rain and sakura(!). We crossed the street and checked out the Hiroshima Carp baseball stadium (full of little ones and families, getting ready for the 1 PM game) and just people-watched. Then, we headed back to the train station to catch the 1 PM train to Himeji.

Arrived at Himeji, oriented ourselves, and headed towards the castle. It is a 20 minute walk on a street that leads from the station. It couldn't be easier. About halfway (around 10 minutes), we stopped at a little storefrotn called Menme, known for the handmade udon noodles. There's a counter, where the staff is literally making noodles,and a couple of small tables. We grabbed a seat and ordered two bowls of noodles with tempura, slurped them up, and headed towards the castle.

The walk to the castle was tons of fun. There were some rockabilly types with Elvis hairdos rocking out to 50's music and teaching people to dance. It was Sunday, so families were out in full force. There was a cake exhibition in town and lots of pictures of a happy dancing castle celebrating its 400th birthday. Cute cute cute. When we arrived at the castle (around 3), there were no English guides (but there were sakura!!) so we did a self-guided tour for about an hour and a half. A guide would have been brilliant, but what can you do? The castle was just a sideshow, anyway; more enchanting were the Japanese families who set up picnic with little kids running around everywhere - we couldn't take our eyes off the little tykes.

At around 5 PM, we headed back towards the station. It was raining, so we ducked into a department store, poked around, and caught the 5:59 shinkansen to Kyoto.

We arrived at Kyoto around 7, hopped on the subway to the Iwakura neighborhood in northern Kyoto, where our friend's brother picked us up and took us to their home. Although the day seemed rushed (Miyajima! Hiroshima! Himeji!), it really didn't feel too rushed. We were happy to kick back with Asahi beer, Tamba (local) wine, and a fabulous BBQ dinner our friends put out for us.

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Old Apr 23rd, 2008, 06:43 AM
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A lovely report - thanks.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2008, 10:49 AM
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Great, thanks for sharing...
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