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Delving into Kyushu, plus Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, and Tokyo

Delving into Kyushu, plus Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, and Tokyo

Mar 1st, 2014, 04:32 PM
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Delving into Kyushu, plus Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, and Tokyo

Now that the flurry of November trip reports has come and gone (they were great!), I figure it’s time for one more, before the reports from spring cherry blossom-viewing visits start to come in. This report summarizes a one-month trip my husband (J) and I took to Japan from November 9 to December 8, 2013. The trip was our third to Japan in the last 8 years. Somehow, like many others on this board, the country has gotten under our skin and we just keep going back for more.

On our first trip we did an amazing sakura-season 12-day walk on the Nakasendo Way with Walk Japan (walkjapan.com), in addition a week on our own in Nara, Hiroshima, and Miyajima. That trip introduced us to Japanese customs and etiquette for bathing and staying in ryokans, dining, and train and bus travel. On our second trip, in May/June, highlights included Tokyo, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, more of Kyoto, and two fine weeks in Hokkaido, where we rented a car. We were much less trepidatious on the second trip--there's nothing like experience to make you more comfortable.

Our Nakasendo walk had been so much fun that we decided to build this third trip around another Walk Japan excursion--this one a 10-day trek on the Kunisaki Peninsula of Kyushu--as well as spending 2 and a half weeks on our own, including a three-night side trip to the island of Yakushima, a couple nights each in Osaka, Kyoto, and Kurashiki, and a week in Tokyo.

For our flights into Kansai airport and out of Narita we scored free tickets using frequent flyer points; for internal transportation we decided to get a 21-day JR Pass. We compared the cost of the pass with the cost of point-to-point tickets, using hyperdia.com. We love Japanese trains, and using a pass made it a breeze as well as saving us about $100 each on the tickets. In advance of our trip we visited the JTB office in San Francisco to purchase the voucher that we would exchange for the passes once we got to Japan.

We made our hotel reservations using Japanican.com, agoda.com, booking.com, and rakuten.com. In the past we also found japaneseguesthouses.com helpful, but this time almost all our ryokan stays would be while we were walking in Kyushu, so we didn’t need jgh’s services on this trip.

Here are the links to my photos

Osaka, Kyoto, Kurashiki, Tokyo

Fukuoka, Kunisaki Peninsula


Nov. 9-10
An uneventful United flight from San Francisco to Osaka on November 9 was a good start to the trip. Frequent flyer silver elite status allowed us to upgrade our (already free) seats to economy plus, which made the 11 hours in coach more tolerable. (Sadly, we didn’t fly enough on paid tickets in 2013 to keep our status for 2014, so that perk’s gone for a while. Will have to work to get it back for next year!)

At KIX it was easy to locate and get tickets for the Nankai Rapit train from the airport to Namba station in Osaka--1,100 yen each ($11 at about 100 yen to the dollar). Though we were last in Japan just a couple of years ago, we had forgotten that the tickets come with assigned seats in specific cars, so of course we sat in the wrong places and had to be roused out of our spots by their rightful occupants. We found the correct seats in the next car, with just a little egg on our faces but otherwise no worries.

From Namba we took a short subway ride to Honmachi station. We easily figured out how to buy subway tickets at Namba but had a bit more trouble once we exited Honmachi station onto the dark streets and tried to find our hotel, the Arietta. After walking a few blocks—literally and figuratively in the dark—we tried to regroup by staring in the dim light of a streetlamp at the map I had printed from the hotel’s website. A passerby who spoke English tried to help (a typical occurrence on city streets in Japan). He didn’t know where the hotel was (also typical), but together we worked out that we had gone in the wrong direction. We regrouped, walked a few blocks in the opposite direction, and finally located the Arietta. In retrospect, we should have taken a taxi from Namba, given that we were exhausted and it’s always harder to find places at night than in the day. Note to self for next time.

The Arietta is a pleasant little business hotel on a quiet street, actually quite convenient to the subway, once you know the way, and walking distance to the main sights we wanted to see in Osaka. Thin towels, but otherwise just right, with a good continental breakfast included in the rate. I love Japanese business hotels! The front desk staff recommended a restaurant around the corner for dinner. Almost no English spoken there, but luckily there was a picture menu and the server was able to conveyed that we should, after settling into our enclosed booth and deciding on what we wanted, press the button on the wall and he would come back to take our order. A couple of beers and several tasty dishes later, we were pleased with ourselves for having managed to deal with all the logistics required in our first few hours in Japan.

We had spent a night in Osaka on a previous trip but had not seen anything of the city, so we wanted to see at least a few sights in the full day we had allotted there before moving on to Kyoto. First impressions: a bustling, clean city that sparkled when the sun came out from behind the clouds, which it did off and on throughout the day. To get more perspective on the city, we decided against the subway and instead took a fairly long walk through the busy city streets to Osaka Castle. The fall leaves were turning colors and the air was cool and fresh. A takoyaki stand on the castle grounds served up the battered balls of grilled octopus topped with sauce and dried bonito flakes—a treat before touring the castle. The castle was definitely worth a visit, especially for the panoramic city views from the top floor. The clouds cleared after a passing shower while we were inside, and the rest of the day gave us gorgeous sunshine, perfect for a walk through the well-tended riverside rose garden.

Our next destination was intended to be the highly regarded ceramic museum, but we found when we arrived that it was closed for two weeks. Darn! Instead we found a place for a good lunch and then walked on to explore the Umeda area. There were lots of shopping opportunities and the area was fully decorated for Christmas, which surprised us, but we subsequently saw similar holiday decorations in all the cities we visited over the course of the month. We had already decided that we would hold off on shopping until we reached Tokyo to avoid overloading our bags until the end of the trip, so no shopping for me. But we did spend some time with the friendly and efficient JR agent at Osaka Station, where we traded in our JR Pass vouchers for actual 21-day passes and reserved our trains for the trips we would be taking starting the next day. I had done my research on hyperdia to find the timetables and routes we wanted, so I handed the agent the notes I had made on paper and he soon had all our tickets printed out in English, as I had requested. So easy!

We took the subway back to our hotel for a break, intending to go out again to enjoy some nightlife in the Namba area, but jet lag suddenly caught up with us, so we soon nixed that plan and instead settled for snacks from the nearby 7-Eleven and a little taste of Japanese TV (a little is more than enough), and called it a night. We would have plenty of opportunity to enjoy Japanese cuisine in the coming weeks, so we didn’t feel too bad about missing out on the first night. On a two-week trip it would have been a crime.

The next day we had a few hours in the morning before taking the short train ride to Kyoto. So we headed back to the Umeda area where we stored our bags in a station locker and walk to the Osaka Tenmangu shrine, also called the Tenjin shrine after the famous festival held there in July, for a quick look. The shrine dates back to the 10th century, but its main building was rebuilt in the 1800s. We loved the calm atmosphere of this city shrine and its subshrines, tucked in among the busy shopping streets and high-rises of modern Osaka. I like to pick up ema, or wooden plaques, at various shrines I visit , and this shrine had an array to choose from. You are supposed to write a wish and hang the plaque at the shrine, but I generally prefer to take mine home with me. The one I chose at the Tenjin shrine turned out to be designed for wishing for a healthy delivery of a baby, which the shrine ladies took pains to explain to me (I thought it was just a cute fat puppy). I’m not in the market for a baby, but the plaque was cute so I acknowledged that I understood and tucked it away to bring home. Not sure what the shrine ladies thought of that.

We thought we would have time for a quick visit to the floating observatory at the Umeda Sky Building, but there was quite a bit of construction going on in the station area and we couldn’t find a convenient walking route to the building that would fit into our time schedule, so we skipped it and headed to the train instead. For us Osaka seemed to be full of “wanted to” and “tried to but couldn’t.” Nonetheless, our short time there convinced us that the city is indeed worthy of a longer visit, and we will definitely return if the opportunity arises.

Next: never enough of Kyoto
aprillilacs is offline  
Mar 1st, 2014, 07:10 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
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I saw the first group of your photos...very nice! Thanks for sharing!

Sounds like the start of an interesting trip report.

It's warming me up for my trip at the end of the month....
Mara is offline  
Mar 1st, 2014, 07:56 PM
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Great start, wonderful photos!
Thanks for the effort.
Looking forward to the next installment.
kalihiwai2 is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2014, 03:27 AM
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Oh wonderful wonderful, I'm already hooked!

I'm glad you're just starting your report now, makes me feel less guilty that I've not put anything together yet for our Oct/Nov 2013 trip... I do still intend to do that, though!
Kavey is offline  
Mar 2nd, 2014, 05:52 AM
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Great stuff! Looking forward to more, although you're making me miss Japan....
thursdaysd is offline  
Mar 3rd, 2014, 06:50 AM
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mrwunrfl is online now  
Mar 4th, 2014, 04:45 PM
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Nov. 12-14

We retrieved our bags and inaugurated our JR Pass, catching a noontime train from Osaka Station to Kyoto, arriving just 20 minutes later. I had forgotten how close the two cities are!

Since it was a little early to check into our hotel, we secured our bags in a locker at the station and crossed the street to check out what was available for lunch. We ended up catty-corner to the station at a pleasant place with very good bento boxes and beer, served in our private booth. The place was full. Sorry, but I failed to record its name.

We hadn’t forgotten the trouble we had finding our Osaka hotel, so we decided to take a taxi to Watazen Ryokan, our inn for the next two nights, which we had booked on agoda. So much easier! It was about a fifteen-minute ride, so the walk would have been long and we weren’t quite up for taking our bags on public transportation. At 1,040 yen per night for the two of us (we opted for no meals but did have a private bath), the Watazen was not glamorous but a good deal. Some of the finishings were a little tired, but the staff were friendly and spoke some English, they provided us with a useful map of the city with transportation routes highlighted, and there was an onsen in the basement if we so desired. I also loved the neighborhood, which was centrally located just north of Shijo dori but had a real local feeling, with wooden houses and shops interspersed among some larger apartment buildings.

Kyoto was unexpectedly cold, so we bundled up with all our layers for a walk to nearby Nishijiki food arcade and part of Teramachi merchandise arcade. We remembered the busy food market from our previous visit--it was packed, with both goods and people crowding the central aisle. Well worth a slow stroll, not that one could even think of making a fast walk with that crowd. We picked up a few things for a light meal back at the inn, but along Teramachi I had to remind myself--no buying until Tokyo.

We were up early the next day, since we had only one full day to soak up Kyoto’s beauty. We were thrilled to see that the maple leaves were turning! We decided to concentrate on well-known sights on the eastern side of town, most of which we had not been to on our previous trips. We had purchased a one-day bus ticket outside Kyoto Station (500 yen each) that allowed us to hop on and off as many times as we wanted and took us everywhere we wanted to go. The buses were generally crowded and slow but otherwise convenient, and you can’t beat the price.

First off was impressive Kiyomizudera, which, as always, was mobbed by school groups and other visitors. The autumn colors weren’t quite at peak but were gorgeous nonetheless. Most of the crowd clustered on the wooden terrace, giving me the uncomfortable feeling that the terrace would give way under the weight. But it’s still standing--all the more remarkable that it was built in the eighth century. Renovations are being undertaken on sections of the temple, but they aren’t too intrusive as yet (but apparently will become more so). The view across Kyoto was quite hazy, so to get away from the crowds we took a nice walk up to the Koyasu pagoda across the way, which gave us some breathing space and a lovely view back to the terraced temple.

After walking down the hill through the Higashiyama district behind a couple of pretend maiko (tourists in geisha gear, with their hired photographers snapping every move), we headed over to Shijo dori for lunch. We had a place in mind from a guidebook, but, as often happens, it was nowhere to be found. Is it just us, or are Japanese business simply impossible to find? Instead we headed into a crowded noodle shop (Yakura?) near the bridge and snatched an open table, where we really enjoyed slurping up the delicious noodles and soup in close proximity to our fellow diners.

Next it was back on the bus and a short trip to Sanjusangendo and its amazing Kannon statues. The austere building does not betray what’s inside--1,000 golden, human-sized statues flanking a larger Kannon. It was also fun to walk around the grounds and imagine the archery contests held there in ancient times. We lucked out on the weather -- the skies opened while we were inside and poured rain, but we were met with brilliant sunshine interspersed with clouds when we went outside.

Our final stop of the day was the thirteenth-century Tofukuji Zen temple, a little farther south but still on the bus route. This was an awesome place to enjoy the brilliant leaves and the various patterned gardens--especially the rock and moss gardens. There were lots of people crossing the beautiful wooden bridges, but the spacious temple grounds seemed to be able to absorb them much better than Kiyomizudera had. Great photo ops at this temple!

We could barely keep ourselves from heading further south to the amazing Fushimi Inari shrine, but we were running out of time and had been there on our previous trip, so we had to forgo that pleasure. It was back to the inn for us, and a dining adventure.

We hadn’t done any homework on dining options prior to our trip, so we took advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the inn to search out some possibilities for dinner on Trip Advisor. A Turkish restaurant not too far away caught our eye, so we headed out to find it. Success! But no cigar. We did find it, but it was closed for renovation. We had a backup plan though--nearby was supposed to be a restaurant dedicated to tempura, Tenyu (324-1 Ebiyacho). We found the street fairly easily but walked by the restaurant three times before finally spotting a tiny sign, “Tenyou,” above the entry. We were fortunate to get seated though we had no reservation--there were places for eight people surrounding the chef, who cooked the tempura one by one in front of us. The short menu listed three options--pricey, pricier, and priciest. (The TA reviews hadn’t mentioned the cost.) We chose the least expensive of the three options, at 9000 yen per person, and proceeded to enjoy a delightful dinner consisting of eight small servings of different kinds of tempura, plus a small cup of miso soup, a cold tofu appetizer (delicious citrus flavor), and jellied pear for dessert. With a large beer and plenty of cold sake as drinks, the bill came to approximately $210 for the two of us. But it was a sweet place to spend our money. The young waiter spoke English and was helpful in guiding us and explaining the kinds of tempura we were served and how best to dress it. The chef was charming and meticulous. The tempura included shrimp heads and bodies (separate), bitter beans, uni (sea urchin) and nori, shiitake mushrooms, two kinds of fish, pumpkin, and a fried donut-like ball. All excellent! So glad we didn’t give up on our search.

A day and a half in magical Kyoto is simply never enough, no matter how many times you have been there. In retrospect, we should have gone straight to Kyoto from KIX and spent four nights there, stopping off in Osaka on our way to Tokyo, after Kyushu. Next time.

Next: by train to Kagoshima, on the southern tip of Kyushu
aprillilacs is offline  
Mar 4th, 2014, 09:56 PM
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"We had a place in mind from a guidebook, but, as often happens, it was nowhere to be found. Is it just us, or are Japanese business simply impossible to find?" -- LOL, you have captured a part of my experience of Kyoto that I had happily forgotten! On each of my first two evenings there, I walked around and around and around and finally selected a place other than what I had been seeking. There were other nights on which I did find what I was looking for, but I never again went out without taking careful note of the options I saw along the way.

Thanks for sharing your travels with us!
kja is offline  
Mar 4th, 2014, 10:17 PM
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Posts: 9,220
Yes. Completely agree, so hard to find addresses in Japan! We sometimes used our mobile wifi to use Google Maps, when out and about, because I have only a limited amount of walking in me on any given day and I didn't want to waste too much of it being lost and walking in circles!!!

The tempura place sounds lovely though.

Re: Watazen Ryokan, can I assume rooms were 10,400 Yen rather than 1,040 Yen a night? Otherwise, that is even more of a bargain that I could imagine! ;-)

Even after two trips, we've still not seen all the major temples we'd like to see, so I guess that means another trip is on the cards, sometime!!

Kavey is offline  
Mar 5th, 2014, 01:36 PM
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Thanks, Kavey, you are right. Those pesky zeros. They always come back to haunt me.
aprillilacs is offline  
Mar 5th, 2014, 10:04 PM
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I remember when I first started researching for our first trip in 2012. And I was seeing all these threads in Chowhound talking about the very top sushi restaurants, and how expensive they were, and that people weren't sure whether they had the budget. And I did the sums in my head, and couldn't understand the big deal about paying GBP £30 per head... and then a few seconds later, I realised, doh, it's GBP £300 per head!
Kavey is offline  
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