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Back from Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyushu. Questions welcome!

Back from Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyushu. Questions welcome!

Jun 24th, 2014, 02:32 PM
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Back from Kyoto, Koyasan, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyushu. Questions welcome!


Well, I've been back for a couple of months now, so I better put out a trip report before my next vacation coming up next week -- this time to Australia!

Thank you to all the Fodorites who provided knowledgeable and meticulous help with my trip planning. All the folks who responded to my transport logistics questions on this thread and others who posted trip reports. Your first-hand experience and knowledge are far more valuable than any guidebooks out there!

http://www.fodors.com/community/asia...ma-kyushu.cfm* 3/15 (Sat)Fly into Osaka from US (overnight in Osaka)
We visited the following places on this trip: Osaka, Koyasan, Kyoto, Arashiyama, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto, Mt Aso, Kurokawa

Took trains most of the time, and in Kyushu we rented a car and the driving was very easy. We picked up the car at Kumamoto train station near our hotel, and dropped it off at Kumamoto Airport before we flew out. Car rental was with Budget, and it was reasonable for about $50 USD a day.

Found that Japan was quite cheap to travel! You can find clean and comfortable lodging for under $100 USD and decent fresh food for under $10! Don't let the myth Japan is expensive to prevent you from traveling there! Well, it helped that the dollar was quite strong against the yen when we went, and it's great that taxes and tips are all included in the price, so no additional 25-30% tag-on at the end, as in the U.S.

Below is the itinerary we ended up following:
* 3/15 (Sat) Flew into Osaka from US (overnight in Osaka in Sheraton using hotel points)
* 3/16 Train from Osaka to Koyasan. Bought World Heritage transport tickets at Namba Station. Templestay at Eko-in temple in Koyasan-- it was the highlight of our trip, and so glad we didn't drop it! We booked directly using their website and asked numerous questions and always got prompt response in excellent English from one of their resident monks named Nobu. $200 USD a night for 2 including beautiful room, Koyasan vegetarian dinner and breakfast, afternoon tea/snack, guided meditation, guided morning prayer and fire ritual ceremony. We paid another $15 USD pp for a guided night walking tour of the Okunoin cemetery led by Nobu. It was worth it.
* 3/17 Spent another 1/2 day in Koyasan. Train back to Osaka and then to Kyoto.
* 3/18-3/21. Kyoto for conference. Coincided with a lantern festival where many temples and surrounding traditional streets were lit up with shops open late. Lots of beautiful and artistic giant flower arrangement exhibits along walking paths.
* 3/22 (Sat). Bought the 5 day train pass ($240 USD). Went to Arashiyama. Late afternoon train to Hiroshima on rail pass. Overnight in Hiroshima. Stayed at Sheraton in Hiroshima – biggest hotel room in Japan! Cool, contemporary look. We barely spent any time there though.
* 3/23 (Sun). Half day at Peace Memorial in Hiroshima. Afternoon ferry to Miyajima. Overnight in Miyajima at Kikunoya. Good location, but smoke smelling room, and main hostess wasn’t too hospitable by Japanese standards. We just needed a place to crash for the early morning hike the next day. $75 USD a night.
* 3/24 (Mon). Early morning hike up Mt Misen in Miyajima. Couldn’t find breakfast or food anywhere in the early morning before tourists arrived! Vending machines only sell drinks, not snacks! Train to Beppu. Overnight in Beppu. We stayed at this small inn for $75 USD a night, including an elaborate hot breakfast (with your own stove to cook tofu soup, and a small grill for fish) and onsite private onsens that you can reserve. It’s a great deal. Nothing refined like a ryokan but a great value. The room was probably the tiniest I’ve ever stayed in (something like 7x8 ft), but clean and contemporary and hip looking with very efficient use of space. I loved it! Since we got to Beppu quite late we stayed for another night and booked it directly with hotel and it was slightly cheaper than on booking.com.

* 3/25 (Tue). Beppu morning: took a local bus to go to 2 hells and then walked to the Hyotan public for a soak. It’s a pretty elaborate onsen with hot sand bath and multiple pools. Day use was something like $10 USD. The night before, we went to that old famous onsen for a soak – water was too hot but the wood building was huge and imposing.
In afternoon, used our train pass to go to Yufuin. Tons of Japanese tourists and shops that sell pretty much the same stuff – blah European style pastries, crème caramel, so-called art, everything mellow and pretty, etc. with Nora Jones soothingly croons in the background. All quite sickening actually. It’s like Japanese’s fantasy of European/Western lifestyle/aesthetics. Maybe the onsens are better, but the shopping streets filled with day trippers were too crowded and generic for me. In hindsight, we could have skipped Yufuin and Beppu, and spent more time at Kurokawa. On the way back to Beppu, we hopped out of the Oita station transfer stop to look for food. Wow, excellent food here! There’s a handmade udon shop right in the station. The chef was continuously making new batches. Amazingly fresh and delicious and so cheap -- $6 a bowl!

* 3/26 (Wed). Train from Beppu to Kumamoto in the morning. At the transfer station Hakata, again we hopped out and tried a bowl of their famous Hakata tonkasu ramen. Then back on the train to Kumamoto. Went to Kumamoto Castle and cherry blossoms were on in Kumamoto. Although rainy, it was so pretty. Stayed at a business hotel we booked at the last minute because it was close to the train station. I think it’s Tokyo Inn (?) that includes breakfast. But room was so smelly of cigarette smoke that I couldn’t breathe or sleep. They claimed there was no non-smoking room left in a 20+ floor hotel??
* 3/27 (Thur). Rented a car from Kumamoto train station and headed out first to the Gorge (I need to look up the name) with the famous Shinto legend about the goddess. Then drove up to Mt Aso, but access to the volcano was closed due to toxic fume. Disappointed we drove down and walked around that big open field with a lake. We stayed outside Mt Aso at a Pensione (need to look up the need), which turned out to be like a western B&B, nestled in the woods with victorian style houses and front porch and big yard. The whole area was like that, very nice and interesting and it’s more like somewhere in rural US than Japan. Never seen so much land and space in between houses in Japan! The hostess and host were so friendly and they didn’t speak a word of English. Western breakfast too. There were 2 private onsens on the premise for use.
* 3/28 (Fri). During breakfast at the above pensione, we checked the Mt Aso website and lo and behold, the fume was all cleared up and we had to rush to check out and drive up to Mt Aso. The host and hostess were surprised we were rushing to leave so early in the morning. It was so worth it to see Mt Aso bubbling and fuming away! I’d been monitoring their website before the trip and every day was pretty much closed. We were so lucky!! We did a long hike up to a peak with a panoramic view of Mt Aso and the surrounding area. Drove to Kurokawa after.
We couldn’t decide whether to stay in Kurokawa or which onsen, but by the time we booked it, the night before there was only one left at a reasonable price of $200 USD for 2 people, including meals and onsen. (I need to look up the name.) It’s an older property but we had a room with a view of the river and some cherry blossoms. All their onsens are private that you can just check out the wooden pass and use. Nice to be soaking together privately. We tried all of their onsens. Dinner was kaiseki with homegrown rice and vegetables. The old woman who served us was so kind and funny. We walked around the cute little village of Kurokawa, very picturesque with a flowing stream. Should’ve spent another night here and skipped Beppu and Yufuin! Kurokawa wasn’t even in Fodor’s guidebook! Thanks to Fodorites who reported about this gem.

* 3/29 (Sat). More soaking in Kurokawa and breakfast and checked out. Drove back to Aso City and visited their shrine and walked around the street with lots of gurgling spring water displays in front of store shops for sampling. Supposedly it has some curative power. Drove to Kumamoto airport in the evening and flew to Haneda (alternative airport in Tokyo) and back home in the USA.

Just a brief recap. I’m not good at writing lengthy detailed trip reports, but would be happy to answer any questions! Thank you.
JC98 is offline  
Jun 24th, 2014, 02:32 PM
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Sorry, reposted as a trip report, to make it easier for others to search for it.
JC98 is offline  
Jun 24th, 2014, 04:05 PM
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So glad you enjoyed it!

Koya-san is quite different than Haein-sa, isn't it!?!
kja is offline  
Jun 24th, 2014, 08:42 PM
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Thanks for the link to your planning post. Great idea to do that. It was helpful to recall your planning before reading your report.

That was Takachiho Gorge that you visited. The goddess being Ameterasu the sun goddess. How was your visit there. Did you visit the shrine area? What did you think of the gorge?

How was your trip overall. You had quite a few stops and am wondering how the travel worked out for you. IIRC, the Miyajima to Beppu leg was a lengthy one.
mrwunrfl is offline  
Jun 24th, 2014, 09:55 PM
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How wonderful, sounds like you had a good trip.

We didn't overnight in Beppu as I'd read a bit about it and it struck me as quite a large and not particularly attractive city -- we visited for the Hells and a quick shopping trip to buy an extra suitcase (for all my purchases)!

We felt similarly about Yufuin - it was mostly packed with tourists browsing the mostly boring souvenir shops, not the charming small-historic street atmosphere I expected at all. I liked the patisseries, especially one we found towards one end of town, on the way in from our hotel. Surprisingly, given that we also stayed at some rather posh / expensive ryokans, the kaiseki dinner we had at this ugly exterior hotel was one of the best of the trip!

Kurokawa onsen was pretty and our ryokan was a stunner but actually, we didn't warm to the village as much as many visitors. (I'm surprised Fodor's didn't have it in their guidebook as it's very firmly on the Kyushu tourist trail, there was a fair proportion of non-Asian tourists in town when we visited). We liked it better than Yufuin for prettiness and atmosphere though.
Kavey is offline  
Jun 24th, 2014, 10:19 PM
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Want to know which ryokan you stayed at in Kurokawa.
rkkwan is offline  
Jun 26th, 2014, 03:47 PM
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Nice to hear from everyone (kja, mrwunrfl, Kavey, rkkwan) who helped me with the trip planning! Thank you for checking in and reading my report!

It was my 4th time to Japan, so the excitement wasn't the same as the first two trips, but we enjoyed it and didn't feel like we had to hit all the sightseeing spots. Only disappointment was Kyoto. Compared to 10 years ago when I first went there, Kyoto's grown so big and too touristy now, and in some areas totally morphed into tourist traps, losing its traditional ways that I’d fondly remembered and loved. I was quite heart-broken about that. Oh well...

In Kurokawa, we stayed at Ryokan Yunosako

We only booked it the night before we got there, and it was the only one left that's still reasonably priced. Everything else was $700 USD to $1000 USD a night! We almost booked the $1000 a night one by mistake due to our erroneous conversion of yen to dollars! Phew!

It was an older property and prob not as fancy as some of the ryokans Fodorites stayed in. It wasn’t right in town, but a short drive away. The room was smaller than the oom we had in Koyasan for our templestay, but at least it had an ensuite toilet and sink. My back hurt a bit sleeping on the futon on the floor. I should’ve looked as there were extra futons in the closet that we could have underlaid for more cushioning. The ryokan had 1 indoor public onsen and 3 private outdoor ones, all with views. You just needed to check out the wooden pass and put it outside the door of the onsen to signify it’s occupied. We did so many soaks in all the private ones. It was nice.

No one spoke any English there, but we got on well without any glitches.

The kaiseki dinner was served in our room. Their website claimed they served home-grown rice (tasted a bit less sticky than typical Japanese rice and perhaps a bit more fragrant) and vegetables. DH said he enjoyed the rice. Everything had a spring theme to it – served on tiny dishwares usually with some pale pink and green. I felt sorry for the server, who had to carry trays and trays of food up a flight of stairs to our room. And she was just a tiny (around 4 ft tall), grandmother type, but unusually very cheerful for an older Japanese. She kept on bringing more food, like 4x throughout the 1.5 hours meal. She didn't speak any English and kept on saying a bunch of stuff to us in Japanese, prob trying to explain the dishes. I kept smiling sheepishly and saying wakarimasen (don't understand, one of the few phrases I managed to retain by listening to Pimsleur Japanese right before my trip), and trying to mime my guess back to her. She'd bowl over with laughter. Maybe I got it all wrong. The only thing I guessed right was the horse meat. I made a galloping gesture, and she nodded vigorously and cracked up. So, we had horse meat sashimi. It was still bloody, so didn’t feel too great eating it. Only tried a piece raw and the rest we ended up throwing in the personal size boiling pot of soup to cook it.

The meal was tasty. I regretted for turning down my own main dish, a small river fish, encrusted in salt and baked. The flesh was very sweet and not smelly at all. (I sampled DH’s.) I thought it was another smelly fish we usually get at breakfast and didn't want to waste it. I gestured to the grandma that I didn't want it and she looked puzzled. I rubbed my tummy to show I was getting full. And she made a round curve on her tummy to ask whether I was pregnant. Ha ha!

This was my second time having kaiseki. First time was just the week before on my business trip in Kyoto, where a Japanese colleague treated a bunch of us out for Kyoto style kaiseki. We had our own private room. It was good to have a local explaining the dishes and how to eat them. In the restaurant, a dish was leisurely brought out one at a time. But in the ryokan, a bunch of dishes kinda came out almost at once, so we didn’t know what’s the right order to eat them. It’d be nicer to have someone to guide you through the meal. We were just randomly eating different dishes simultaneously.

It's hard for me to believe that every ryokan actually cooked all these dishes themselves, esp the smaller ryokans like ours that have only 10 or so rooms. That's a lot of work to cook a bunch of dishes, and how do they make money? I'd want to find some expose on this. Maybe they're catered food, and they just plate them? Like one of the courses was a creamy young potato soup topped with a perfectly golden and flakey puff pastry. That's not easy to make, is it? And it's served in a small green bamboo cup (made out of a real chunk of cut bamboo—still bright green!).

Breakfast was served in a common dining room, and it was quite elaborate too, where each person got a personal size hot grill and iron kettle for soup, etc.

After we checked out, I went to look for the grandmother to say good bye and saw they had a big kitchen with lots of big pots and pans. Maybe they did cook something there, like soup and rice, but still hard to believe they actually make every single dish? Maybe I’m a skeptic. In the early morning, I saw her already mopping the floor. Wow, lots of work and she was always smiling and so cheerful.

Anyhow, the grandmother insisted on walking outside in the slight drizzle so she could say goodbye to my DH too while he was loading up the car to leave.

It was a nice experience. Our 2 top memorial experiences on this trip were: templestay in Koyasan and staying at this ryokan in Kurokawa. I could write more about Koyasan if anyone is interested.
JC98 is offline  
Jun 26th, 2014, 04:11 PM
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As I recall, you briefly considered dropping Koyasan from your plans -- I'm so glad you kept it in and found it so memorable!
kja is offline  
Jun 26th, 2014, 10:44 PM
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Thanks,kja, for noticing my wrong word usage -- memorable rather than memorial (which wouldn't be too desirable). Rereading what I just wrote, it was more like a stream of consciousness, not organized like the many excellent reports on Fodor's forum!

Yes, Koyasan was my favorite experience. Glad I didn't drop it.

Have you written your Korea trip report?
JC98 is offline  
Jun 26th, 2014, 11:09 PM
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OMG, JC98, I didn't even notice the spelling -- I was completely swept up in your message! I was so glad that you seemed to enjoy Koyasan, because I knew I had made a strong case for it, and one never knows how others will react....

I have not started posting my TR on South Korea, but have been organizing my notes in preparation. Once I get started, I hope you'll chime in, even if you are in Australia! (And I hope you'll fill us in on that trip, too.) Happy travels!
kja is offline  
Jun 30th, 2014, 10:58 AM
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sorry Beppu did not appeal to you. I'm hurt.(Grin!) It was my "hometown" for two years, when sewage ran in the streets, and the "hells" were completely unusable. Nevertheless it served as a warm and friendly town after all they had been through during the maniacal years. The citizenry showed their love and respect for the young American troops by honoring us with a white marble 4x4 plaque, standing next to the 60-foot pine they saved from the bulldozer. In 2007, many decades after the occupation, my wife and I visited and we were treated like royalty.
tower is offline  
Aug 19th, 2014, 01:45 PM
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tower, thanks for sharing your wonderful memory of Beppu. It must have felt nice to be so honored.

I liked the onsens fine, but thought it was kinda out of the way for us to get there. I was imagining it to be a smaller place where you can walk from onsen to onsen, but it's a very big city and quite spread out. Apparently, the Japanese consider it's the quintessential onsen town since ancient times, so they must know what they're talking about.

But cities must evolve and change with modern time. It's hard to have something preserved the old way forever.

Anyway, thanks for your comment!
JC98 is offline  
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