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Lucy's Super Speedy Sakura trip: Fukushima 2019

Lucy's Super Speedy Sakura trip: Fukushima 2019

Apr 23rd, 2019, 12:47 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Jan 2003
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Lucy's Super Speedy Sakura trip: Fukushima 2019

About two weeks ago, I noticed the roundtrip airfare from Honolulu to Tokyo was $660 dollars, so I bought two tickets for the following week.

I knew the Tokyo cherry blossoms were already in bloom, so I did some checking on the forecasts and it seemed like Fukushima was the best bet for our dates. I was able to get decent looking hotels at:

--APA Hotel Fukushima Ekimae, next to the Fukushima train station for the first two nights,
--Moritaya Onsen Ryokan in Bandai-Atami Onsen- for the next two nights, and
--Hotel Mystays Premier outside of Narita for the final night.

I chose the APA hotel because, though there are lots of business hotels in Fukushima, selection was limited because I was booking just 4 days in advance and it had the best location and still had non- smoking rooms. I chose the Mystays for the location and free shuttles.

We started out on a good note as they had a very cheap price to upgrade to a United's Polaris Business class. Lie flat seats, nice meals, slippers, pajamas, toiletry kits, mattress covers for the seats, quilt, soft blankets, and a regular and tempur-pedic pillow. Only downside was that there are no Polaris lounges in either Honolulu or Narita.

Someone asked recently about the time needed to clear customs & immigration at Narita.We landed at 1:25 pm, and by 2:32 pm we were on a rail platform waiting for the train to Tokyo. The slowest part was a long, but fast moving, line in the JR office where we bought a regional pass and made seat reservations for the two trains required to go to Fukushima, about 200 miles north of Tokyo. There were probably 30 people ahead of me in line, but it moved quickly.

Train fare to Fukushima was 11,400 Yen each way (24,000 round trip), so the agent sold me two JR East passes for 20,000 Yen ( US$178) apiece. They were good for any five days within a 14 day window. Oddly, enough, no one ever stamped our passes, except the two times we made seat reservations, so at the end of our five days, we still could have used them for another 2 days! The passes covered all our trains from the airport and back; Shinkansen, airport express and local lines.

One note, at the Narita Airport ticket office, you can only make one reservation due to the long lines. We booked the trains to Fukushima via Tokyo Station. We booked the rest of our trains over the next 6 days no more that 2 hours before the train left, and always got good seats. If we’d had plans to go someplace with few daily trains, I probably would have made reservation in either Tokyo or Fukushima Station on that first day.

To answer another common question, we rode the Narita Express into Tokyo Station, carrying our 22” suitcases. We put them in the overhead racks, but there were plenty of spots (with locks) on either end of each car for people with bigger bags or who didn’t want to hoist up. All the trains we used on our trip had racks and shelves and we had no issues traveling with the two suitcases, and two school type backpacks.

The trip to Tokyo was one hour, then we transferred to the Tsubasa Shinkansen. Tokyo station is BIG, but I just flashed my Fukushima seat tickets to anyone in a uniform at Tokyo station, and they would point us in the right direction.

The ride to Fukushima was another hour, so we arrived about 5:30 pm. Our hotel was about 30 yards from the station’s west exit. With “APA” in big letters across the top, we saw it right as we came out the door.

One thing I should note to anyone who wants to travel in Tohoku, there are plenty of signs and message boards that are translated into English, but there are a lot less people in the service industry that speak fluent English. I speak a tiny bit of Japanese, but even train and tourist info offices were trickier that down in the Tokyo/ Osaka/ Kyoto/ Hiroshima areas. Our hotels usually had one or two people who could deal with standard questions, but we didn’t do much ‘chatting’ and I had to use google translate to ask food questions at our ryokan. Figuring out if the eggs on the breakfast buffet were cooked - or not- was pretty hilarious (and they were NOT cooked)

The APA hotel lobby looked like Las Vegas. Black glass, chandeliers, and lots of mirrors. They had a small convenience store off the lobby, a decent little cafe, “Spa” (men’s & women’s baths), and coin op laundry. Our first room was clearly a smoking room, but they changed us to another, despite the hotel being completely full. The new room was sparkling clean, but tiny, as I had expected. Just one double bed, hooks instead of a closet, a small refrigerator, and a Japan style bathroom with shower, deep tub, Toto toilet, and nice amenities. It was just fine for the brief stay, though the pillows were miserably flat. My DH and I just folded our puffy jackets up inside the pillow case and were fine.

The next day, we got up and had a Japanese style breakfast in the cafe, then went out to the front of the train station. The city offers free shuttles up to Fukushima Hanamiyama (Cherry blossom viewing mountain) park. Supposedly they run every half hour, but this was a Saturday, and they seemed to just fill up one bus after another. The ride was about 10 minutes, and we could see the cherry trees off in the distance for most of it.

The park is in an area of rice paddies with what looked to be expensive homes all clustered around the park. I guess they have been planting trees for years, so there was a great selection of Cherry trees, quince, forsythia, magnolia, and others. Most of the rice paddies were dry, so tents were set up on some of them with farmer’s market, drink and snack vendors, bathrooms, and parking for cars and busses.

After 38 years of coming to Japan, we finally hit the blossoms at their VERY best. It was a beautiful day; sunny and cool, and the blossoms were gorgeous, There were several paths, and each one had a sign indicating the time needed and difficulty. We took the 30 minute path, and it was perfect!

In the beginning, we felt sorry for the residents to have all these tourists tramping through their land to get to the park. Actually the private fields were roped off. In addition, many owners were doing a brisk business selling things like sweets & coffee, dried fruits, grilled fish, grilled mochi, pickled vegetables, bonsai and other plants, honey, etc, from little tents or stands in front of their homes. Probably made a nice income for the 2 weeks of crowds!

We bought some nice snacks and souvenirs, then headed back to on the shuttle after about 3 hours. The main shopping area was on the east side of the train station, so we spent the rest of the day eating and shopping over there. We had dinner at a fun little sushi place, and after soaking in the “spa” baths downstairs went to bed early.

Next day after breakfast, my husband went back to bed and slept for a bit, while I did some grocery store shopping for stuff I love.

Our next stop was in the onsen town of Bandai-Atami. Most ryokans do not let you into your rooms till 3 pm, so we took a 1:00 shinkansen to Koriyama, a small city just south of Fukushima. We poked around the station and shops nearby, then got on the local train to Bandai- Atami.

Bandai Atami had a cute little train station, but we were super disappointed when we walked outside. All the shops seemed to be closed, the streets were empty and there were dried weeds everywhere, and no flowers or flowering trees. We were still early, so we decided to walk the 10 minutes to our ryokan. Adding to our disappointment, all the signs along the way were in Kanji, the complicated Chinese characters. My little map was in katakana, so I couldn’t even phonetically tell the names of the places. I kept saying, “I can’t believe I messed up this badly!” I saw an old man walking at one point, and asked hime where the Moritaya was, and he said “Mugai “ (ahead). I think in a few minutes he got worried, so he came back to us, and walked us to the Ryokan.

The Moritaya turned out to be a lovely choice. I wouldn’t call it a luxury ryokan, It looked like a midrange inn, but on closer inspection had a lot of nicer features. Our room was beautiful, and had everything we needed for an onsen stay. The beds were really comfortable.They weren’t your basic stuffed futons, but had something similar to a foam mattress. We had a private furo on the lanai outside our room. They also had a ladies bath, men’s bath, and two private baths overlooking the river. The water was straight form the hot springs and was the perfect temperature.

The food was amazing, served in a private room downstairs. We had two dinners and two breakfasts, and each one had some of the best ryokan food we’ve ever had.

Since we thought the town was so ugly, the next day we decided to take the local train further up its route to Aizu-Wakamatsu. The inn keeper drove us to the station, and a man was busy planting the entire front with spring flowers. We then realized the they had had a really cold winter with snow on the ground only a few days earlier. Being from Hawaii, we forgot that plants die when under snow all winter! In addition, the best part of town, including the public baths, was just beyond our inn.

Aizu- W was about 45 minutes away, and we enjoyed this city. It was a former samurai town, and many of the buildings date back to the 1600s. There is a nice (reconstructed) castle and we could tell it would have been stunning if we’d come two weeks later, as the cold winter had put their cherry blossoms way behind schedule! All the decorations, night illuminations and food booths were up, but only a few trees had flowers.

Apparently, this was one of the last Tokugawa strongholds in 1864, and after they were roundly defeated by the Meiiji troops, the victors destroyed the castle. In the 1960s the town rebuilt it using old photos and paintings.

If you come here, they have a great tourist shuttle from the train station. Funky old busses hit all the tourist sites, and they gave us nice sightseeing maps with a lot of info. 210 Yen per ride or 600 Y per day. It was pretty overcast and drizzly they day we visited, but I’d definitely like to come back, maybe in mid~ late May, or in the fall to see the leaves turning.

The next morning, after lots of warm goodbyes from the staff at the Moritaya we took the 15 minute train back to Koriyama, then the shinkansen to Tokyo Station. We had lunch and window shopped for a while, then went back to Narita Airport.
Our hotel in Narita had a free shuttle from the airport every half hour, which was good, because it is about 10 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes to Narita town with no other transportation. They also have a shuttle into Narita town and the Aeon mall outside Narita. The hotel is only a year old. It seemed to have a lot of airline crews and some big tour buses. The rooms were new, quiet, and pretty large - for Japan! Ours had a beautiful view of the countryside, two full beds, and (yay!) BBC news on the TV. None of our other hotels had any English channels, my phone was is too small to really see what had happened to the Notre Dame the day before.

That night we went into Narita, and after doing a little exploring, got dinner at a conbini to eat back in our room. We were glad we did, as the hotel restaurant food looked really unappealing and way overpriced.

I wouldn't recommend this hotel if you are new to Japan and want an interesting last night in the city, but it served our needs well since we had early plans in the morning.

We checked out early in the morning and took the shuttle back to the Airport where we put our bags in the coin lockers and met up with the people at the “Narita Airport Transit & Stay Program”. They just started this program last year, and have they have a bunch of free tours for transit passengers. Some can be booked on the spot. For others you need to reserve in advance. We had reservations to see Sawara, a town maybe 20 minutes away by train. It is an old river town with a the classic river bridges, weeping willows, and historic homes and shops. My husband and I were the only “tourists” and we had a very fun young woman as our volunteer guide.

We walked around, took a half hour boat ride on the river, and had lunch in a great sushi & noodles place on a little back street. She rode the train and the boat for free, and even tried to pay for her own lunch, though we won that battle.

All in all, a very pleasant way to spend about 3.5 hours. They recommend you take tours that end about 5 hours before your flight, though you probably could get by with less. We wanted to do some shopping in the airport though, so were happy to have extra time to kill. We have a new grandson, and I wanted to get him a Bon Dance costume. Bon dances are big in Hawaii, and he’ll now be super cute at his first ones in June and July!

BTW, if you haven’t hung around Narita Airport in a while, they now have much more interesting shopping and dining options on the land side of security. Prices are better than in town for souvenirs, and they have crafts and clothing, even sporting stuff at great prices too. It's on the top (departures) floor in the middle section of Terminal 1.
lcuy is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2019, 08:46 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Aug 2005
Posts: 3,605
Great report. I have never been to Japan, but someday. The flowers sound gorgeous.

The raw eggs brought back memories. We hosted Japanese homestays and they loved it when we had leftover rice. Cold rice, raw egg and soy sauce was their perfect breakfast.
5alive is online now  
Apr 23rd, 2019, 10:03 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2003
Posts: 1,844
Thanks for sharing, I couldn’t help but smile at some of your experiences in Japan. Sometimes the glitches that happen along the way make the best stories when you get back home. Sounds like a great trip and loved all the details you wrote about.
curiousgeo is offline  
Apr 23rd, 2019, 10:06 PM
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Join Date: Feb 2003
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Meant to add there’s a temple in Nippori near the Yanaka Ginza where some Tokugawa holdouts fought. Musket ball holes are still there in the gates.
curiousgeo is offline  
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