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Kathie’s & Cheryl’s Impressions of Japan

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Nov 21st, 2013, 07:53 AM
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Kathie’s & Cheryl’s Impressions of Japan

This was our first trip to Japan. We were helped greatly in our planning by fellow Fodorites, especially Hawaiian Traveler, mrwunfl, DonTopaz, KimJapan, mara and Kuranosuke. Our thanks to them all and to all of the other generous Fodorites who answered our questions. You can follow Cheryl’s blog of our trip at http://www.cherylmarland.com/category/japan/ The photos on our travel photo website will be up soon – I’ll give a link when they are posted.

Lost in Tokyo.

We anticipated that the flight and getting to our hotel would be easy. We travel somewhere in Asia every November, but all the other times we’d fly into Narita only to have to change planes and have another 6 – 8 hour flight to Bangkok or Singapore. So the one flight seemed very easy. And I expected the jet lag would be less.

Our arrival in Japan was very easy. We had some trouble finding the ATMs in the arrival hall, but got yen and quickly bought our limo bus tickets. The bus trip was 90 minutes to the Hyatt Regency Tokyo. We got there in time to have drinks and canapes in the Regency Club. We both slept pretty well that night.

I didn’t really have a sightseeing agenda in Tokyo, instead, my goal was to get the “vibe” of the city.

Up early, had breakfast in the Club, then took the Hyatt shuttle to Shinjuku Station to purchase all of our train tickets. It seemed like the ticket office should be readily apparent, but it was not. We wandered 15 min or so before we found the JR ticket counter. I had carefully cut and pasted all of the train info from hyperdia.com into a document, so even though the ticket agent spoke almost no English, it seemed easy. The man handed us a stack of tickets and I saw they were entirely in Japanese. I asked the man to write what they were for, and he did write the destination on some of the tickets. (I learned later than the tickets could have been printed in English had we known to ask.) Not only were the tickets in Japanese, he had printed the seat tickets and the fare tickets separately – very confusing! We had the concierge at the hotel go through the tickets and write what they were for.

We headed out of the station to find our shuttle bus back to the Hyatt. Even though I had written down the exit number and the number on the sign where the bus stopped, finding it was not easy. There are very few signs in the station in English. We wandered for 15 minutes or so before stumbling across our shuttle stop. I figured we’d have an easier time next time we were in the station. We were both struck by the sheer number of people in the station, all rushing around. We had planned to take our luggage on the trains, but this experience gave us pause.

The new hop-on bus was offering free rides, and we felt that would be a good way to get oriented. So we walked to the Kieo Plaza Hotel, not far from the Hyatt, to catch the bus. With beautiful, sunny weather the double-decker open-air bus ride seemed like an ideal activity. The bus ride is a good way to see a sample of Tokyo’s modern architecture. The first stop was at Roppongi Center. We got off there to wander around and find a place for lunch. The shopping center was like a maze. Even though there was English signage, it was not very helpful. We had a guide to restaurants in the shopping center, but asking people who worked there where a particular restaurant was never got us an answer. While they all wanted to be helpful, they had no idea. We wanted the tempura place, but we knew it was closed in Wednesdays. I am very sensitive to msg, and I have a note written in Japanese saying I cannot eat msg. We stopped at several Japanese places, but all said they could not accommodate me. We chose an Italian place, but when we got inside, the lunches were $50 per person, and they had only one portion of the duck special, the dish we both would have ordered. There was no one else in the restaurant, which also seemed like a bad sign, so we chose to leave. We finally ate at an Indian place, which was ok, but not memorable food.

Of course, once we had eaten, we found many more promising places. We went back to the hop-on bus pick-up/drop off area and waited for our bus. The remaining stops on the route were of no interest to us, but again, we enjoyed the architecture.

Getting back to our hotel turned out to be an ordeal. The hotel had entrances/exits on four different streets and we would walk toward where we thought the Hyatt was from the map, only to find that we seemed to be going the wrong way. We went in circles for a while, then went back and asked the doorman, who got us on the right track. We were relieved to get back to the Hyatt.

We woke up the next morning to rain. In an effort to conquer Shinjuku, went to Shinjuku again to get Suica cards. Oddly enough, we could only find machines for the pasmo cards. We found the JR ticket desk again, and bought them there. I really wanted to use the machines, as I had seen a video on how to buy a personalized Suica Card from a machine.

It was my birthday, so we had lunch at Le Coup Chou, a recommendation from HawaiianTraveler. We took a taxi, as per HT’s instructions. It is located on a walking street, so the taxi driver let us out with a motion as to where he thought it was, and we gamely started looking. After several blocks, we stopped and asked someone who wasn’t sure but sent us off on another street. We asked again, and the man was able to tell us to go down two blocks and over one. Once we got there, it looked to me like the taxi driver was very close, but let us off one street over from where the restaurant was. The restaurant offers a fixed menu at lunch with two options – chicken or fish today. We also ordered a nice half bottle of burgundy. The food was excellent salad/mushroom timbale, then cream of celery soup, then a lovely, lightly sauced chicken breast, followed by coconut custard. Total about 7500 yen (cash only). What a wonderful birthday lunch!

We had a relaxing afternoon at the Hyatt before meeting Don Topaz for drinks at the NY Bar at the Park Hyatt. Great view, great company, a nice finish to my birthday in Tokyo.

Next morning, our goal was the Meiji shrine. We wanted to take the train, in part as practice for Saturday when we take the train to Kanazawa. I asked the concierge if there was a map of Shinjuku station, his reply “Shinjuku station very large, very confusing. No map.” Once we were dropped off, we followed the signs that said JR. Once inside the JR station, we found the platform pretty easily. The platform numbers are clearly marked. The train was crowded, but I’ve seen worse on the skytrain in Bangkok.

The shrine is listed as a one-minute walk from the train station. The guidebook we had said to take exit #2 from the Harajuku station, but we could find no exit numbers. We walked 10 minutes, asked and turned around… it was one minute the other direction. Once inside the gates I breathed a sigh of relief – for the first time since being in Tokyo, I felt like I wasn’t lost. We enjoyed the shrine, gardens and the chrysanthemum display. Walked back down the path, back through the gates to the street, and it didn’t look right. I asked a woman on the street which way to Harajuku station, and she said, “Oh, that is very far, too far to walk, but you can take the train from Yoyogi.” She pointed the way, and we were off. Obviously, we had come out of a different gate then we came in. We successfully negotiated our way out of Shinjuku and to the shuttle stop. The driver this morning pointed out that the stop was next to the Okyu Dept store… if we had only had that instruction previously!

We thought we’d go to the top of the Met Bldg next. I remembered that Bob mentioned they ate at a restaurant in that building. But we discovered the restaurant is a cafeteria. With my need to avoid msg, that was clearly not going to work. Back to the Hyatt, we found the restaurant in the lobby, Caffe, had a lovely lunch. The “Ladies Lunch” included an appetizer/salad bar, foie gras with a mushroom basamic reduction, a choice of entrees, dessert, and coffee or tea for 3000 per person. It was excellent, and I wouldn’t hesitate to eat there again. They had to other options for 1600 and 1900 yen.

Our first experience with the long-distance trains

After our observations of Shinjuku station, we made arrangements for our luggage to be delivered to the machiya house where we are staying in Kanazawa. The cost for two suitcases was just under 3000 yen. So we each took a small carry-on on the train. I was glad we were leaving from Sinjuku on a Saturday – it seemed like it should be less frantic.

Indeed, our last foray through Shinjuku was easier. We had learned from getting lost…again and again. We found the right platform easily. The platforms are clearly marked.

We knew we had just 19 minutes at Omiya to find our next train. Fortunately, the next train was a Shinkansan, and there are clear signs to the Shinkansan. We found our platform and got on the train. The seating is 2/3 and is double decker. I had tried to talk to the ticket agent about what we seats we wanted, but it was not possible. He gave us a window and middle on the side with 3 seats and we were on the lower level, so no view. Space was very tight on this train. We found space for our carry-ons, but I don’t know where we would have put suitcases.

At our next stop we had 11 minutes to make our train. As we got off the train, I looked around and saw no signs that were helpful, no board showing the trains and the platform numbers, etc. I turned and asked a Japanese man behind me where I would find the train to Kanazawa (I had all of the train info printed out) he looked and said follow me, that is where I am going. The next train was an Express Limited – I like these trains much better, more spacious and comfortable. Had we not found someone to help us – and quickly – there is no way we would have made the connection. There is more space on these trains – the woman across the aisle from us had her large suitcase between her knees and the seat in front of her. We resolved to use the luggage delivery service whenever we could.

The Japanese train system is really remarkable. The trains are clean, efficient and they run on time. We read that Japan is trying to sell trains to the US, and have even offered to help with some of the infrastructure costs. I do hope the US will take them up on their offer, as our current rail system doesn’t hold a candle to Japan’s.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 09:28 AM
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OMG what a great start. I can remember doing just what you did on our first foray into Shinjuku Station lol. I wish we were with you two to guide you through but it looks like you came through unscathed and with first hand knowledge lol. I still get lost in there, ask Bob and Karen lol.

The pink vending machines are the only ones that sell SUICA cards. You probably remember now seeing pink vending machines amongst the others, those are the SUICA sellers.

Was Sugitasan at Le Coup when you went? When I told him you were coming to visit he said he had to go back to France for some cooking classes for a month around the time you would be there. Cute little place. Strange, I always use a credit card there but maybe they only do that for dinner?

Yes the Japanese train systems are the best we have been on and we've been on many worldwide. Can't wait to hear the rest of this story.

Aloha!
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Nov 21st, 2013, 10:08 AM
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Great start, Kathie - it is interesting to hear from another first-timer. Anxiously waiting for more...
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Nov 21st, 2013, 10:16 AM
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Wonderful reading, Kathie, thanks.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 12:28 PM
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Oh good, I've been waiting for this. I managed the train stations fairly well, it was the metro in Tokyo that drove me nuts!

Yes, the US train system is in a sad state, thanks to Congress' apparent desire to get rid of Amtrak altogether. It is not just Japan's system that is so much better, most of western Europe's is too.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 02:01 PM
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Thanks for reading. Here's more:


Lovely (but very wet) Kanazawa

The last leg of the train trip went though some very pretty countryside. We could see snow-capped mountains from the train.

We arrived in Kanazawa, and Rich (KimJapan’s husband) met us at the train, and we rode together to the machiya, Kikunoya. Kim met us there a bit later. It was a delight to meet Kim, someone I’ve known from Fodors for many years. The machiya is on a walking street near the river. It’s a lovely neighborhood. Having a whole house to ourselves was a real luxury! The house is very traditional with tatami mat floors and a tiny interior courtyard garden. We went out to dinner with Kim, Rich and Teaghan at a Japanese family restaurant.

More about the machiya : You sleep on futons, of course. We found them reasonably comfortable (and I was concerned because of my joint problems). More difficult for us, was the lack of chairs (there are “sit-on-the-floor” chairs). This made working on our computers difficult until I realized that a small table and small back-less bench in the kitchen was the best set-up in the house. This is not the best place for you if you have a bad back. The house is well-equipped and there are clearly labeled instructions for everything. A Japanese breakfast was prepared for us each morning, and the machiya was cleaned daily. Located in a fascinating neighborhood, our biggest regret was that the weather was so bad we never had the chance to just wander the area. Kim is a travel agent and she arranged our stay at Kikunoya. You can contact her at [email protected]

Our sightseeing agenda in Kanazawa was mostly gardens. Unfortunately, the rain did interfere. We saw the gardens that topped our list, but there were more we had wanted to see. Being from Seattle, it’s not often that rain derails our plans when we travel. But the rain was heavy, and the second day was quite cold as well. The second day was forecast to be less rainy, so we did some indoor things the first day.

First day sightseeing: DT Suzuki House – This is a place that I think was better in the rain. There is a mirror pond one overlooks from the meditation room, and the rain made it a fascinating pattern of overlapping ripples. The 21st Century Museum, an excellent modern art museum had a great special exhibit of participatory art. Thanks to Rich who gave us tickets for the special exhibit. We especially enjoyed watching the children interacting with the art. The Museum has a nice restaurant, so we had lunch there. Kanazawa Castle – there were relatively few visitors, so they weren’t running the English language tours. We wandered on our own.

Dinner at Bernard, Kim’s favorite restaurant. Wonderful, multi-course French dinner (with a Japanese accent) and wine for about $200 US, cash only.

Second Day sightseeing: Kenrokuen Garden, our #1 destination in this city, is a lovely garden, one of the best in Japan. Here we saw some fall color, and the pines were trussed up to protect them from heavy snows. Stopped at the Tea House for tea and to get warm and dry briefly. We spent a couple of hours here, but would have spent more time if it hadn’t been so wet and cold. After this we went to Nomura-ke House and Garden; we really enjoyed this exquisite small garden. It was cold enough that I wished I had brought gloves. We had dinner at the Spice Box – excellent, reasonably priced Indian food.

We discussed our train experience with Kim. We decided to upgrade to the Green Car to Kyoto and take our luggage with us, as this is the one train trip where we have no transfers. We planned to send our luggage ahead from Kyoto to Hakone, so stayed with the tickets we had already purchased for that trip. Since we needed to take our luggage with us to Narita, we decided to upgrade to green car for those two legs. Kim took care of it all – and printed our tickets in English! By the way, the train tickets are fully refundable, so were only had to pay the difference in fares between the old tickets and the new ones.

Cheryl now has all the Japan photos up: www.marlandc.com/japan-2013.html
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Nov 21st, 2013, 02:09 PM
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Oh, HT, I forgot to mention that Sugitasan was not at Le Coup Chou when we were there. We still had a wonderful experience.

It is reassuring to hear from others that they felt lost as well. Rich pointed out to me that while we in the West expect north to always be at the top of a map, that is not a mapping convention in Japan, and confuses many Westerners.

I agree, thursdays, that Western Europe's train systems are better than the US, but the Japan Rail system is la creme de la creme as far as we are concerned.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 02:45 PM
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What a pity you had rain in Kanazawa! But great that you got to spend time with the Keefes - I haven't forgotten Kim taking such good care of me when I was limping around Japan.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 03:56 PM
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Great report Kathie and Cheryl - beautiful pictures of the foliage!
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Nov 21st, 2013, 04:05 PM
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Nice photos - don't know how Cheryl managed to make the rainy ones look so bright! I am going to get to work on mine this weekend. Cheryl was speedy...
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Nov 21st, 2013, 04:08 PM
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Stunning photos at Arashiyama(Tenruji)gardens. You were indeed lucky. So glad Fujisan showed herself to you. She hid from Bob at her usual first glimpse place at Owakudani and only showed herself when we were halfway down to the pirate ship....we lucked out.

Aloha!
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Nov 21st, 2013, 04:40 PM
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What a pleasure to read - and the photos!!! Wow!! It's been all of my pleasure to be able to finally meet so many Fodorites, all of whom have been wonderful!
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Nov 21st, 2013, 05:07 PM
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Lovely photos and very much enjoying your report.

As always your report is so clear and helpful to anyone planning a trip. And just enjoyable to read for everyone else.

I'm looking forward to the rest.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 05:51 PM
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Thanks to all of you for your comments on Cheryl's photos. Craig, she has started working on her photos while we are still traveling since she bought the the MacBook Pro with retinal display, so she came home with the photos and her webpage almost finished. She really did get fabulous photos. I'm impressed with how well her train photos came out - clear photos from the train going - what - 90mph? We were lucky to get some very clear weather after the hard rains.

The train trip to Kyoto was very pleasant, especially since we had no transfers. And we had no trouble with the Kyoto station. Really, it was only Shinjuku that was so confusing.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 06:40 PM
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Loving your report. Has me thinking about a trip to Japan. I forgot that when my daughter was modeling she lived in Tokyo for several months. I remember her talking about the trains and especially her sunrise climb of Mt. Fuji. That was back in 1991 and when she began to love everything SE Asia. Now she's teaching in China and spends all her school breaks traveling in the area. Her enthusiasm for this area of the world is one of the main reasons for our SE Asia trip.

Since we decided to do this trip I have been accumulating so much great info from this forum and TA. I really enjoy your reports and especially Cheryl's pictures. She is very talented. Looking forward to reading more.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 08:06 PM
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The rain did not hamper Cheryl's photos at all. Beautiful and you did get some great views of Fuji San. The gardens take on a different dimension in the rain, and still lovely and peaceful. It was a great trip for all of us , and unique we could do the same things, but everyone had a different take.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 08:23 PM
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i will go back to the pics shortly, but am enjoying your writing as usual..

THANK GOD FOR MY MAN. we could never have done it without him, and the fabulous linda to correct him when he made a rare error.

kanazawa and hakone were the highlights of this brush with japan trip for me. food and taxi costs were a bit off putting, but we started our trip with full knowledge of that. local neighborhood restaurants offer excellent food at much more reasonable prices we found.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 09:44 PM
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Getting lost in Shinjuku station is easy. So is getting lost walking from the station to the Hyatt Regency.

Shinjuku station is said to be the busiest train station in the world with over 3.5 million passengers per day. On my first trip to Japan I emerged from the N'Ex into Shinjuku station and I think that at least 3 million of that days passengers were that at that moment. Trying to make sense of the map in the station almost made me cry. I stepped out side to get my bearings and, looking around, realized that I was at the south entrance and so then found my way to Hilton shuttle.

I think a regular car on a Tokaido shinkansen Nozomi might be better than the Joetsu shinkansen Max Toki you were on.

Thanks for staring your posting sooner! Didn't want to wait for the end of the weekend.

An error? Say it aint so Bob. Linda is fabulous.
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Nov 21st, 2013, 10:39 PM
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Photos... Not bad for a brownie hawkeye
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Nov 22nd, 2013, 01:34 PM
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Koyo in Kyoto

We both describe ourselves as temple fanatics, so we were really looking forward to all of the wonderful temples in Kyoto. For us, this was the heart of our trip to Japan. And we did get to see a lot of temples. Surprising to us both, we found the temple gardens more compelling than the temples themselves.

We opted to take taxis in Kyoto. The buses were absolutely packed, and we would have spent more time in transit than in visiting temples, shrines and gardens. Thus, we spent an average of $50 a day on taxis in Kyoto. The trip to Arashiyama was more, about $70 total. Taxis in Japan are so nice! The cars are all perfectly clean, and have white seat covers. The drivers are all dressed in suits, and no one will cheat you by taking you far out of your way to get a higher fare.

We were fortunate to be in Kyoto near the peak of the koyo. We saw wonderful fall colors everywhere.

Cheryl’s photos offer a complete catalogue of the temples we visited. I simply want to highlight a few of our favorites.

Tenryo-ji, in Arashiyama was our favorite. You can enter this temple complex either from the main street or from the Bamboo Forest. I recommend entering from the Bamboo forest. The fall color there was at its peak, and the lovely reflections in the water intensified the effect. We got there as it opened, which was great, as even an hour later it would have been quite crowded. As we left the complex, we heard the monks chanting, a lovely end to our visit.

Also in Arashiyama we visited the garden estate of a famous actor, Okochi Denjiro, the Okochi-Sanso Villa. This was a lovely garden estate. The admission fee includes tea at the end of your garden walk.

Another favorite of ours was the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Famous for its thousand vermillion Torii gates, it is a visually arresting sight. It was raining the day we went, I expect it would be even more spectacular in on a sunny day.

We visited Tofuku-ji Temple specifically for the koyo, and the colors were spectacular. This temple was absolutely packed with visitors, who like us, were there to ooh and ah at the fall colors.

We walked the Philosopher’s Path. The gardens around the Ginkakuji Temple (at one end of the path) were really lovely.

The temple next door to the Hyatt, Sanjusangendo Temple, was the one with the most interesting interior that we saw. It contains 1000 gold kannon figures. Of course, no photography was allowed inside so we had to content ourselves with the experience of it without photos.

We met up with Shelley and Jim, fellow Fodorites one evening for dinner. Following HT’s suggestion, we met on the 11th floor of the Kyoto Train station. The station was packed, as there was a of tree-lighting and concert going on so we had to wait to get a seat in a restaurant. We had a fine time talking travel. Getting together with people I “know” from Fodors is always fun.

We stayed at the Hyatt in Kyoto, which was lovely. The people at the concierge desk were always helpful – we had them write our destinations in kanji for us. When we arrived, we were given a certificate that gave us $30 off of dinner in any of the Hyatt dining venues. The certificate could be used again and again, and we used it almost every night. A previous group of Fodorites had a bad experience at Trattoria Sette, but I have to say that both the food and the service were excellent while we were there. We also ate one evening at the Grill, which was also excellent.

All of our nights at the Hyatt Kyoto were free – two free nights for signing up for the credit card, the other four nights free with Hyatt points. Thus, our rate did not include breakfast. The breakfast buffet is quite pricey, but we ordered a la carte for an average of $25 a day for the two of us. We thought that their French Toast was just fabulous.
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