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Dipping my toe into the pond of Japanese culture...

Dipping my toe into the pond of Japanese culture...

Old Jan 30th, 2010, 01:20 PM
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I'm enjoying your report too! Thank you!
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Old Jan 31st, 2010, 12:58 PM
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I'm travelling for work at present so will try to finish up soon!
Glad you're enjoying my ramblings!
J
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Old Jan 31st, 2010, 02:11 PM
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Sounds as though you had a wonderful time. I think we must be related. Your description of printing out the train timetable of all the trains you wanted and using it in areas where there was no English sounded just like me.
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Old Feb 1st, 2010, 05:01 AM
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Hello, I just came across your report by chance and really enjoyed it. I lived in Japan for 3 years until recently and your report really makes me realise how much I miss it all. I'm very impressed with all your planning. It's remarkable how easy Japan is to navigate with a bit of planning, if you don't plan a trip there and try to 'wing-it' with no spoken Japanese you can easily get completely lost. I now live in Indonesia and therefore miss the food, the public transport and the cleanliness! Can't wait for your next installments.
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Old Feb 1st, 2010, 06:36 AM
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Love this report. The service in Japan is unreal. Ruins every other place on the planet for us.
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 02:08 AM
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Okay - back on deck after a trip to an indigenous community in remote Outback Australia - a world away from Japan!

Day Eleven:
Kyoto
Our last day in Kyoto and we attempted (somewhat successfully) to conquer the bus and subway system. The buses are particularly complicated at first glance, so I was pleased when I worked it out with only one wrong bus caught!
The essence of the bus system is the map. On the map, each stop has the number for all the buses that pass through this stop. The idea is that you look at the stop where you are, and then the stop you want to get to, and find numbers that match, eg if there is a number 50 listed for both stops, then you know you can get from one to the other on bus number 50. As is standard (it appears) throughout Japan, you get on at the back of the bus, and then pay on the way out at the driver's end. There is a signpost at each stop which lists the times of the buses, so you can work out when your number 50 bus is coming through. Sounds complicated, and the map looks horrendous, but it can be done!
Anyway, our first destination was Kinkakuji - the famous Golden Pavilion. We got there by a combination of subway and then bus. It was a drizzly overcast day so I was expecting it to be a little dull, but it still managed to shine beautifully. The gardens were just awesome and the mist off the ponds around the pavilion gave it a really special atmosphere. We arrived at opening but it was still quite busy. I can't imagine how much busier it would get at peak tourist season.
After the aforementioned hiccup on the buses, we made it to the Silver Pavilion. It is being renovated, so really it just looked like a bit of a shack, but the gardens were my favourite yet. They had a great stone garden.
The Silver Pavilion is at one end of the famous "Path of Philosophy" which was our next destination. Not sure what to expect, it turned out to be a delightful walk down a small canal that is lined with cherry trees. We found a tiny art gallery along the way where we bought a couple of wood-cut prints (we try to always bring home some sort of art work from our travels) and went into a few other temples along the way. At the end of the path, we were limping and templed out so we caught the subway to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre (don't bother - it has the same stuff at higher prices) and then a bus heading closer to home.
Dinner was interesting - the outside of the restaurant looked nice and the menu had pictures so we ventured in. On being seated we discovered the large grill plate that was our table. Hmmm, this should be interested. With the help of the pictures and an English menu, we chose a chicken stir-fry type dish which was placed onto the hot grill for us, and then a Kyoto pancake, topped with noodles, cabbage, beef, pork and cuttlefish. It continued cooking on our hotplate while we ate, and we covered it in sauce using a large paint-brush! We had to progressively strip off items of clothing as we got hotter and hotter from the hotplate - not a good look! For dessert we went Japanese - Green tea icecream, black sesame icecream and red beans. An acquired taste!
Hobbling home we got lost trying to find our townhouse (all those little alleys look the same). Finding a small pharmacy, we hit the "I'm lost" button on my iPhone, and handed them the card the owner had given us with the address on it. Worked a treat and we were soon home again.
We really enjoyed Kyoto, loving it's little pockets that wait to be discovered and would thoroughly recommend time spent here.
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 03:03 AM
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Day Twelve:
Mt Koya
Our final night was to be spent with the monks on Mt Koya.
Planning our route here from Kyoto was the one that had stumped me the longest. It all seemed so complicated, with lots of different rail lines, subways and different available passes (like JR's Kansai Thru-pass vs the Nankai Railways Koyasan World Heritage Ticket). Our host at the townhouse had done some research for me also and provided a spectacularly complicated route for us to take. In the end (after probably quite a few hours of research both at home before we left and on the laptop in the townhouse) we decided that ease ruled over any potential savings so we just bought our tickets as we went along. A nice lady at the information desk at Kyoto station had provided us with a handout which showed us what we needed to do.
We took the JR train to Osaka, and then changed to the JR Inner loop to Shinimamiya. There we bought our next ticket, to Gokurakubashi station on the Nankai railway system, and from here we caught the cable car up to Mount Koya (included in the ticket price, which I'm sorry I can't remember any of these prices but it didn't amount to all that much in the end, maybe around 2200Yen each). Our host dropped us off at the station which saved us quite a walk with our baggage and we had breakfast at the station before departing on this 3 hour-ish journey.
It was an interesting ride - the train heading up into the mountains on a windy track. The cablecar ride was pretty steep too. From the cablecar station you have to catch a bus into town. The staff at the bus counter had great English and asked us where we were staying before telling us which bus and which stop we needed. We rode all the way to our temple lodgings and even though it was only midday, they let us check in. We were staying at Shojoshin-in, at the entrance to the cemetery, booked through Japanese Guest Houses, for 22,200 yen including dinner and breakfast. They are obviously very used to non-Japanese speakers as they had everything they needed to tell us printed out in English for us. There were instructions for bath times and protocols, when to be back for dinner and where to wait to be taken for dinner, and the details of the morning ceremony we were to attend. Our room was lovely, with cosy futons and a little table with a heated "skirt" to tuck your knees under (if you can sit like that). There was a gas heater in the room which kept us quite cosy when we were in there.
After settling in we went exploring. First off we stopped at the information centre right near the cemetery and hired audioguides for the area (check out this useful website http://www.shukubo.jp/eng/index.html )for 500 yen each. We kept these until we left the next morning and they were excellent. Scattered throughout the Koyasan area are markers with the number for the audioguide on them - great idea.
We followed our noses to Kongobuji, the Head Temple, and listened to our audioguides all through the complex. We bought the combination ticket that lets you get into six of the main sites in Koyasan so after leaving Kongobuji we visited another couple of places before heading back to our lodgings for another Japanese bath before dinner. This time there was just a smallish wooden tub which they reckoned would fit three people. I'm glad I was on my own because I think it would have been a tight squeeze.
Dinner was served at 5.30 sharp. A phone rang in our room to inform us to head downstairs for dinner. We were met at the bottom of the stairs and shown into a room where all the people staying at the temple were to have dinner. Each couple or group was separated by a paper screen, but as the bloke next to us was a young Aussie, we moved ours so we could chat over dinner.
The cuisine here is strictly no meat, fish, onion or garlic and was really quite tasty. We ate everything, enjoying most of it! On our way out we saw that the other non-Aussie groups seemed to have hardly touched their food. Seemed a shame.
One of "the things to do" on Mt Koya is to visit the Okunoin cemetery at night. So, that's what we were going to do! I think dusk is probably the time to go, when there is still some light, but that is when we needed to be back at the temple for dinner so it was pitchblack and freezing cold when we got there. Undeterred, we rugged up and braved it, walking about halfway up the path before the lights seemed to get further and further apart and we really couldn't see much at all. We decided to turn back and started playing with my camera, opening the shutter up for 20 seconds at a time while DH danced around with his torch. The effect is a trail of light not apparently related to any person, and it quite freaked the kids out until we explained how we'd done it. The other cool thing we did was to find a statue, focus the camera on it, open the shutter for 10-15 seconds while DH "painted" the statue with light. It lights it right up and creates really interesting shadows.
Anyway, while we'd been away, the staff at the temple had put some awesome hot water "bottles" in our beds. Made of plastic and quite large, they seemed to keep their heat for hours. It was really cosy under the covers, which was just as well since DH didn't want to leave the gas heater on overnight, and it was literally below freezing now!
Great day behind us, we slept well.
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 03:33 AM
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Day Thirteen:
Mt Koya, and the journey home.
We set our alarm for early as we were to attend the morning Buddhist ceremony with the other guests and the monks. It started at 6.30am, with the monks kneeling in front of their altar, and the guests on a bench behind them. There was one gas heater burning, with an elderly monk sitting right beside it on one side, and the young Aussie from dinner towards the back of it. It was honestly absolutely freezing cold, and we had come down without jackets, so despite probably being in both of their personal spaces, I quietly sidled in to claim a small patch of the heater. DH wasn't so fortunate - he was over a metre from the heater and had a draft blowing straight down his back from a crack in the screens. Despite the discomfort, the ceremony was beautiful, with the monks chanting and playing symbols and gongs. All was still and I found it quite moving. The ceremony lasted about 30minutes and then we went straight through to breakfast. At 7.30, an hour after we had been in the ceremony, we noticed a thermometer inside the temple which read -3 degrees Celsius. It had probably been colder at 6.30!
We went back to our room and packed, leaving our bags with the office while we explored the cemetery in the daytime. This area is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Japan, with the belief that the monk Kobo Daishi (who established the area around the year 800) is in eternal meditation in his mausoleum at the far end of the cemetery. We still had our audioguides so learned about some of the historic gravestones along the way. Closer to the mausoleum, photos are prohited. In front of his mausoleum is a temple staffed by helpful monks who seemed keen to tell us about the place. A family group were visiting and chanting their prayers at the temple which added immensely to the serene atmosphere. It really is an interesting place and well worth a visit.
Leaving this area we wandered around town further, before sadly picking up our bags to make our way home.
This journey involved the bus, cable car, train almost all the way back to Shinimamiya in Osaka, and finally the airport train to Kansai airport. We bought the rail ticket at the station at the bottom of the cablecar, again with my printed out instructions - so very handy!
We arrived at the airport with several hours to spare so we found our way to a lounge where we were able to buy the use of a shower for 500 yen each. It was luxury (we hadn't been allowed to have another bath at the temple) and we stretched the experience out as long as we could, repacking our bags, putting away our down jackets and changing into clothes a little more suitable for the Gold Coast climate we were going to be landing in.
It was an overnight flight, and remarkably we slept for around 7 hours. All that walking and cold must help you sleep!

So, in summary, we had a great holiday in Japan and feel we have at least dipped our toes into some parts of Japanese culture. We visited some really diverse areas - from busy Tokyo to remote Iya Valley, and sacred Mt Koya. My preparation helped us have a smooth trip. I hope my report in some ways helps others to have a similarly smooth visit.

I'm now off to the USA forum to start planning a three week adventure with the kids in an RV, this September (after we've all been to Melbourne for a week in April). Can you tell I love to travel?? I hope I find posters on the USA forum as helpful as the posters on this forum.

Cheers all,
J
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 06:38 AM
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I'm just amazed, boggled and so, so, so impressed with this feat of research, travel and adventure. This is an object lesson in how to do it, even down to the 'I'm lost' button on the I-phone. True 21st. Century travelers. Inspiring!
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 07:25 AM
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Great thread, and a great inspiration to travelers everywhere.
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 08:33 AM
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dr j, thanks for the great report, you help out more people than you know by doing this. Have fun in the RV and enjoy America

Aloha!
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 05:12 PM
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Great report - and you cartainly experienced a wide range of Japanese sites and culture in a short trip.

Thanks especially for the tips on Koya san. I'll be going there this April so it won't be so cold for me, hopefully.

I'm also a great fan of the airport shower - just the thing to freshen up before a long overnight flight.

Have a gr4eat time planning for your US trip. As you know most of the posters on Fodors are from US and I now you will get heaps of helpful advise and have an awesome trip. You may find my US tr a help.

http://www.fodors.com/community/unit...-adventure.cfm

I too am a great travel planner with a France 2011, a Vietnam and US trip in the pplanning. Meanwhile there's Japan April 2010 and believe it or not, Gold Coast in September.
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Old Feb 5th, 2010, 09:39 PM
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Thanks eigasuki - I have bookmarked your report for my future reference! Have a great time with your trips!
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Old Feb 6th, 2010, 10:49 PM
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Thanks very much drjem for your very insightful report. We will be going to Japan very soon so found it a very interesting read indeed. Loved hearing you were Australian too!!! Well Done.
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Old Feb 9th, 2010, 04:42 AM
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drjem, please forgive me if I missed it in your trip report but was just wondering what you did for cash in Japan? Were you able to use your Australian ATM card anywhere. I understood you could withdraw cash from ATM machines in Seven Eleven Stores but had heard recently that that service was no longer available. We are heading to Japan in early April and are wondering what is the best way to deal with our day-to-day cash requirements. Any advice gratefully received.
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Old Feb 9th, 2010, 07:09 AM
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Your Aussie ATM card should work at the ATMs at Post Offices and the Citibank ATMs also accept international cards.

You can safely carry quite large amounts of cash with the usual sensible precautions and make use of credit cards - they often give a better exchange rate I'm told though that would depend on your bank.

Try not to use travellers cheques. I've got an ichimanen travellers cheque that's been to Japan three times because it never seems to be convenient to cash it in.
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Old Feb 9th, 2010, 03:32 PM
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Yes, hearing about the troubles with the 7-11 ATMs and mastercards, we actually took most of the cash we needed with us (about 240,000 yen) and used that almost exclusively. We withdrew cash on two occasions at a post office without problem, but it is limited to 10,000 yen only. Push the English guide and it is easy to use the ATMs. We only used our credit card a couple of times too.
I agree it is safe to carry reasonably large amounts of cash.
I may not have been looking too hard, but I actually don't remember seeing that many 7-11s either.
Hope that helps.
J
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Old Feb 9th, 2010, 07:12 PM
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drjem--enjoyed your report; what is the name of the iPhone app you used?
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Old Feb 10th, 2010, 02:05 PM
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I used "Lingolook Japanese" from the iTunes website. It had enough basics on it that it did come in handy.
J
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Old Feb 15th, 2010, 04:00 AM
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This looks interesting .... bookmarking to read with my coffee - errr ... green tea
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