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TRIP REPORT: Just returned from first visit to Japan!

TRIP REPORT: Just returned from first visit to Japan!

Nov 21st, 2015, 10:07 PM
Join Date: Sep 2012
Posts: 2,321
Way to dive into such an amazing country on your first day. I'm enjoying your account, especially your initial reactions to the workings of a Tokyo train station to ordering food.

One point of clarification, though, on the metal containers at Sensoji. I'm not sure I would describe it as a game. It is an age-old practice among adherents of Mahayana Buddhism to ask the gods and goddess for advice and direction on an aspect of daily life; the asks range from something that can seem very routine such as whether or not I should make a purchase to more serious acts of marriage and childbirth.

I appreciate you sharing your journey with us and look forward to more.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 22nd, 2015, 03:29 AM
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Wonderful start to your trip report - I feel your excitement and enthusiasm and am looking forward to more. I hope to get to Japan in the not-too-distant future!
progol is online now  
Nov 22nd, 2015, 06:25 AM
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What a wonderful start to your trip, sounds like a great idea to book a guide and that you were assigned a lovely guide too.
Can't wait to read more!
Kavey is offline  
Nov 22nd, 2015, 07:22 AM
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Have to agree with tripplanner - surely no more a game than consulting the I Ching or Tarot cards is a game. You may not believe in it, but the people using it probably do.
thursdaysd is offline  
Nov 22nd, 2015, 08:55 AM
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Thank you all for your great feedback so far!

tripplanner001 - you're totally right and make a great point, thanks for correcting me. It may have been a language barrier thing when our guide explained it to us as a luck "game", but she also made sure that we knew the importance and significance of the practice.

Please do continue to point out any errors I may make as I continue to report on my trip, I don't want to misspeak or confuse anyone!
rachill_az is offline  
Nov 22nd, 2015, 10:27 AM
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November 8 – Tokyo

This morning we woke up to a very foggy and rainy day in Tokyo. We decided to head down to the Family Mart which was located at the basement floor of our hotel. We grabbed an umbrella and a few breakfast items, including a couple of pre-packaged fresh waffles which turned out to taste quite great.

Today we were heading to the 44th Annual Tokyo Motor Show at the Tokyo Big Sight event venue. My husband is really into cars and when we found out that we would be in Tokyo during the week of the annual motor show, my husband was ecstatic. We took a quick and direct 30 minute train ride from the Shidome station under our hotel to the venue. We arrived about an hour before the event opened and there were already hundreds of people waiting outside under their umbrellas. We joined the que and patiently waited. Unlike events in America where crowds seem to rush the event entrance when the doors open, here everything was very orderly and we entered the venue in a quick single file line. However, once inside, the excitement of the motor show made things a bit more chaotic! I followed my husband’s lead racing from exhibit to exhibit. I’m not a car person myself, but I will admit that I did have fun admiring some the new and innovative designs, as well as the very serious and futuristic car models. It was hard not to be excited when I was surrounded by such a high energy crowd of people.

After a few hours it was time to drag my husband back to the hotel (he did not want to leave!), but we had to get some lunch and rest before our evening tour of the city. We enjoyed our day tour with Rie the previous day so much that we joined her group tour for the evening, called the “Night Out Tokyo” tour.

We only had a couple of hours before we needed to join our group tour, so we decided to grab a quick lunch at the hotel. We stopped in at our hotel’s Japanese-French fusion restaurant and were greeted with a slightly awkward reception. We were asked if we had lunch reservations, which we didn’t, but we managed to get the last available table. We found ourselves seated right in the center of a very small 8 table restaurant, dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and flip flops. We quickly realized we were VERY underdressed. What we had hoped to be a quick 30-45 minute lunch turned into an elaborate 90 minute full service meal. While everyone made us feel welcome, we still felt slightly uncomfortable and tried to hurry through all of our courses as to not be an eye sore for the fancy restaurant.

We made it back to our hotel room for a quick one-hour power nap before we had to catch a train to the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine to meet our tour group for the evening. The Backsteet Guides keep their group tours to a maximum of 10 people. Lucky for us, there were a few cancellations so it was just us and one other traveler from Australia, along with our guide Rie. We arrived at the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine at 3pm and it was still lightly raining. The rain and fog made the shrine very magical as we walked under the giant wooden Tori gate through the forest-lined path. We had a peaceful walk while our guide explained the history and significance of this shrine. As we arrived at the shrine building, Rie pointed out the large tree on the far right of the shrine and two large trees that seemed to have grown into each other on the far left. The two trees symbolized love and was where you go to make a wish as a couple. The single tree was meant for individual wishes. Rie explained that to make a wish here, you must slowly clap twice, bow twice, make your wish, and then bow once (I think I got that right?). My husband and I made a wish together and just as we were making our final bow, we witnessed a Japanese wedding procession leaving the shrine. We watching quietly in awe of everyone dressed so beautifully in traditional clothing – it was very special to see.

After the Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine, Rie took us to Takeshita Street in Harajuku. It was Sunday afternoon and even though the rain had just started to stop, we didn’t see as much “street fashion” as we had hoped. However, we did notice a ton of crepe shops which we thought was funny and also witnessed people hand making Japanese candies.

Our next stop was a yakitori diner at one of Rie’s favorite yakitori restaurants. She had pre-made reservations for us and ordered us a set menu which included skewered and grilled shishito peppers and a deconstructed salad with dipping dressing. Our main course included rice and 3 types of grilled chicken skewers – chicken breast with shaved cilantro, marinated chicken thigh pieces with grilled leeks, and a spiced chicken sausage. Everything was delicious. When I thought we were done, Rie gave us the opportunity to try something a little more exciting off the menu. She told us about the raw chicken sashimi which is supposedly popular in Japan, but that very few Americans have been willing to try it. My husband took the challenge and ordered the chicken sashimi – I was shocked and a bit worried but Rie ensured us that it was very safe. The server brought out a plate with a heap of raw chicken pieces. It was not something I was willing to try, but to my surprise my husband really enjoyed it and ate every last piece!

After dinner, we made a quick stop at the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, the infamous Shibuya Scramble. We watched as what seemed like hundreds of people crossing the intersection all at once. It was definitely nothing we had ever seen before in Arizona. Next we headed to Drunkard’s Alley which was a small pathway crammed with tiny bars, restaurants and izakayas. It was really very fun to peer into the small restaurants to see just a counter and maybe 5-6 seats. We also visited Golden Gai that evening which was very similar, but I think was primarily bars only. It made me think how such a tiny place could make enough money to stay in business, but each restaurant/bar we passed was packed full and very lively. It seemed like there were enough options in these alleyways to choose a different restaurant every night for a year!

We then headed to Kabukicho for the impressive neon lights. I remember thinking that it seemed like day time out because the streets were so bright under all the lights. Next up was Roppongi Hills and Mori Tower. By this time I was beginning to get very tired and my feet were hurting. The evening tour felt a little more rushed, but it was a great way to get a quick immersion into Tokyo night life and make a list of places we’d like to return on our own for further exploring. Near the Mori Tower, Rie brought us to a street that was lined with beautifully decorated trees in blue and white glistening Christmas lights. To end the walking tour, we took an evening stroll through a small garden that was illuminated for the autumn colors. It was a peaceful way to end a very busy evening.
rachill_az is offline  
Nov 23rd, 2015, 12:50 PM
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You're welcome Rachel. I just want to make sure that you had the correct information in the event that it can be more enriching to you and to others. And I continue to enjoy your report.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Nov 23rd, 2015, 04:07 PM
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I'm also enjoying your report! Brings back great memories of our last two visits to Japan.
curiousgeo is online now  
Nov 26th, 2015, 11:54 AM
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I have read your report.. you had really enjoyed this trip.
davidhaltson is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 01:31 PM
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Sorry for the delay on my next trip report segment! I had family in town over the holidays and it wasn’t until today when I could sit down to reflect on the next day of our trip.

November 9 – Kamakura

We had originally planned to visit Nikko for a day trip outside of Tokyo to view the fall colors. I had been following Japan-Guide’s Autumn Leaves Report in the weeks preluding our trip and it seemed as though most of the trees in Nikko were past peak. I had also read that many of Nikko’s temples were under construction. When I was planning our vacation I had a hard time deciding between Nikko and Kamakura for a day trip outside of the city. At the last minute, we decided to join Rie’s “Explore Kamakura” group tour instead of making the 2.5 hour journey alone to Nikko. We had loved our experience with Rie (Backstreet Guides) during our previous two days in Tokyo, so we though why not have her show us around Kamakura as well!

We met up with our group at the Kita-Kamakura Station at 10am. There were 6 of us on the tour plus Rie, and another guide she was training. We started our day by hiking through some mountainous trails that we were told were ancient samurai trails. We arrived at our first shrine for the day (I don’t remember the name) but it was love shrine ornamented with two large rocks at the entrance. Rie explained to us that the short, wide rock on the left represented the wife and the tall, skinny rock on the right represented the husband. The two rocks were tied together with a red rope symbolizing the husband and wife being bound together for eternity. My husband and I took some photos here and wrote a wish on an “Ema” (a wooden wishing plaque) that we hung near the shrine.

As our group was leaving the love shrine, we noticed 2 older men dashing around with a plastic bag and picking up something off the ground. Our guide, Rie, called out to the men in Japanese and excitedly joined them in picking up these small round pods. Our whole group joined in and we all started collecting the pods from the ground – not knowing what they were. When it seemed like we had collected them all, Rie explained to us that these were the seed pods from a very rare tree in Japan. About the size of a grape, and dark yellowish in the color, the outer shell of the pod had a rigid plastic look to it. If you shook the pod you could hear the little seed/bean rattling around inside. Rie told us that the outer shell can be used as soap and once it dissolves, you keep the inner bean as good luck. We each took one to bring home. I have been trying to research the name of the tree, but can’t seem to find anything. I think I might email Rie to find out what type of tree the seed pods came from.

Right around the corner from the love shrine, I noticed a large stone surrounded by a million tiny pieces of broken clay. There was a table of small clay bowls sitting next to the stone. I asked Rie about this and she told me that if you throw a clay bowl and break it against the stone that it is supposed to break your bad luck. This was exactly what I needed after being told I had very bad luck at the Sensoji Temple just a couple of days before. I donated a few coins, grabbed a clay bowl and threw it against the stone as hard as I could!

After some more hiking, we arrived at the Zeniarai Benten Shrine which we entered through a short underground tunnel. The shrine grounds were very atmospheric and I really enjoyed wandering around the complex. After lighting a few candles and burning some incents, we ducked into a cave-like area where we saw people washing their money in the spring water. Money washed in the water here is said to double after you spend it. My husband and I grabbed a basket and a 10000 yen bill and started washing! It was a very fun experience and everyone was all smiles and giggles washing their money. Once we washed our money we walked around the complex for a few minutes and found a lovely little Koy pond with a beautiful orange bridge. We had Rie snap some photos of us before we had to move on to the next stop.

We walked through town admiring the beautiful homes of Kamakura and before we knew it, we had arrived at the Great Buddha of Kamakura. The giant bronze statue was much different than all of the shrines and temples we had visited in the past few days - we were awe struck by its magnificence. The area was very crowded but as with most of Japan, it still seemed very peaceful. I picked up a few mini Buddha souvenir statues before we left for lunch.

Our guides took us to an Okonomiyaki restaurant for lunch where we had the option of traditional style seating (on a pillow with a low table) or western style seating. I was surprised that my husband and I were the only ones who chose the traditional style seating, but it was our first experience with traditional Japanese seating and we wanted to have the experience. Our server brought everyone out a bowl of ingredients which consisted of shredded cabbage, some kind of batter, a raw egg, ground beef, and pieces of chicken, clams, and shrimp. We were instructed to mix the ingredients together with the spoon and pour them onto the griddle which had been heating up. The best that I can describe Okonomiyaki is a “savory pancake/omelet.” The server showed us how to flip the “pancake” over and add toppings like soy sauce and seasoning. After about 10 minutes of cooking, we used the spatula to cut it like a pizza into about 6 separate pieces. This meal was delicious, and even though I am not a fan of clams, I ate every piece!

After a wonderful lunch we headed to the Hasedera Temple Complex which was quite large. We had about an hour to ourselves to explore the area. We first visited the benten kutsu cave which consisted of small maze-like tunnels featuring many candlelight sculptures. We then made our way up to the main temple, stopping at the Jizo-do Hall where there were hundreds of small statues. Arriving at the main temple, we first noticed the amazing view of the Kamakura coastline. We took some time to relax and take in the view before exploring the temple building. This temple was very beautiful and I liked the traditional white and brown colors. Time went by quickly in such a large temple complex, and before we knew it our hour was up and we had to go meet up with our group.

We took a small local train to Kamakura central where we had time to browse the local craft and food stores along Komachi dori. We ended up purchasing quite a few souvenirs here including some handmade soaps, tenugui hand towels, and a few tea cups.

The tour ended at the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine where we saw many young girls dressed in traditional Kimonos taking pictures in front of the beautiful scenery. We spent some time walking around the area before heading back down the shopping streets towards the train station and back to Tokyo.

I was very happy with our decision to visit Kamakura instead of Nikko. Because Kamakura was closer (just an hour train ride from our hotel) I feel like we were able to get in a longer day of sightseeing. Our day in Kamakura ended up being one of my most favorite days in Japan with the hiking trails, the love shrine, the money washing shrine, the Great Buddha, our Okonomiyaki lunch, Hasedera Temple, and Komachi dori shopping streets all being highlights for me.

I’m really glad we decided to join another walking tour as I don’t think we would have been able to see half as many places as we did in just one day. I think another reason I particularly enjoyed Kamakura is because we had a guide with us explaining the meanings and history behind each place we visited. There were so many times during the rest of the trip that we wished we had our guide, Rie, there with us to answer our questions. It was sad to say goodbye to Rie at the end of the day as we felt we had made a great friend.
rachill_az is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 01:45 PM
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Sounds like a great day. I loved okonomiyaki (which I haven't seen in a Japanese restaurant at home) but the places I ate it I didn't have to cook it myself.
thursdaysd is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 01:55 PM
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Excellent trip report thanks. Am taking your suggestions for the tours, they're not something we would normally do but I figure since Japan is so different they seem pretty decent and worth doing.
tjhome1 is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 02:07 PM
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Wonderful report, Rachill, Thanks for sharing your trip with us.
Kathie is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 04:13 PM
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Hello Rachill, I think I may have eaten okonomiyaki and not even realized what it was (it was on a night when we ordered more or less 'blind' from a menu.) But I didn't have the luxury of making it myself, as you did.

Looking forward to more of your report.
Sue_xx_yy is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 04:25 PM
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Really enjoying the report, Rachill! Looking forward to the next installment.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 05:20 PM
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tjhome1 - we are definitely not the "tour" type either but we were nervous about getting around on the trains and the language barrier, so we decided to book a private tour for our first day. The tour was 100% customizable and worth every penny. Having a local guide to take us off the beaten path, explain the history and culture, and not having to think twice about which train to take was priceless. We didn't have a guide for the rest of our trip after Kamakura, and we definitely saw less during those days with no guide. But we did have fun learning and exploring on our own too. I think having a guide for the first few days was great to help us get our bearings. If you end up booking a tour, make sure it is a small group or private - we saw plenty of sightseeing tour buses and they just looked miserable. The small group walking tours were great!

thursdaysd and Sue_xx_yy - it's great that you both got to try Okonomiyaki too! It was one of my favorite meals. If we weren't with a local guide that day, I'm sure we would have been ordering "blind" too!
rachill_az is offline  
Nov 30th, 2015, 05:35 PM
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Rachill, I enjoyed your report on Kamakura. It is on my draft itinerary for when I go back to Japan for cherry blossom time in spring 2017. Great to know I can see so much in one day there.
MinnBeef is offline  
Dec 1st, 2015, 09:25 AM
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Thank you all for the great feedback! I truly enjoyed Kamakura and would highly recommend it. I am looking forward to one day visiting Nikko if I can make it back to Japan.
rachill_az is offline  
Dec 1st, 2015, 09:26 AM
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November 10 – Kawaguchiko

After 4 nights in Tokyo, we were ready to pack up our things and head to Kawaguchiko for a relaxing night at an onsen resort.

We used a luggage forwarding service to send our bags from Tokyo to Kyoto (we brought an overnight bag with us to Kawaguchiko). I don’t know how we would have managed to drag our luggage around with us on the trains and I am so thankful to those who recommended the luggage forwarding service. Most trains we took didn’t have room for our large suitcases and it would have been extremely difficult to navigate the train stations with so much luggage. The luggage forwarding service was very simple and easy to use. We notified the concierge at Park Hotel Tokyo that we wanted to have our luggage sent to our hotel in Kyoto. When we checked out of the hotel in the morning, they simply kept our luggage and sent it off to Kyoto.

I will also mention now that we did not purchase a JR Pass for our trip. I read that a JR Pass is only really beneficial if you are making a roundtrip from Tokyo to Kyoto. Because we flew into Tokyo and out of Osaka, we felt that a JR Pass would not pay off. We were planning to get a Kanto Area Pass, but when we decided to forgo Nikko the KAP did not make sense for us anymore. For our entire trip, we bought our tickets “a la carte” and used a Pasmo card. We ended up spending a total of about $450 for all travel expenses for the both of us, not including taxis. The Pasmo card was an excellent choice - it covered almost all of our travels and was very convenient.

We left Park Hotel Tokyo at about 9am and arrived at the Kawaguchicko station about 3 hours later. It was a very rainy day this day and we didn’t have the pleasure of seeing Mt Fuji as we arrived. However, the trees in Kawaguchicko seemed to be at their peak and the colors were absolutely beautiful. It looked like area was on fire with brilliant reds, yellows, oranges, purples, and pinks covering the landscape. We walked over to the information center at the train station and the concierge was able to phone our hotel to send a shuttle to pick us up. After just a few minutes, we were escorted to a shuttle bus by covered umbrella.

We arrived at Kozantei Ubuya, which is considered a ryokan. My husband and I had been saving up for our trip to Japan for over a year and we decided to splurge on the hotel’s best suite with an outdoor private onsen. It was by far the most we had ever spent for a one night hotel stay, but in our opinion it was worth every penny.

We were promptly greeted by the ryokan staff and sat down in a receiving room next to a floor to ceiling window overlooking the garden. We were given a hot cup of macha green tea (perfect for this rainy day) and a couple of tea sweets while someone went over all of our preferences with us for our stay. After reading online that ryokan was not frequented by many tourists and their English was minimal, I was pleasantly surprised by how well our greeter was at speaking English.

We were then escorted to our suite and had to remove our shoes in the hallway before entering the room. We were blown away by the beauty and size of the room. At 98 square meters (close to 1100 square feet) the room was almost the size of our house in Arizona! The first thing we noticed was the breathtaking view of Lake Kawaguchiko and the surrounding hills speckled with fall colors. The entire back wall of the room was floor to ceiling glass windows that gave the feeling of being outside when we were inside. There was a very sleek western style living room equipped with an L-shaped couch and giant flat screen TV (which we never turned on because we couldn’t take our eyes off the view!). A separate bedroom area opened up to the living room and a traditional Japanese dining space. As we opened up the sliding glass doors to a full length balcony we noticed some wooden shoes for us to use outside. The hotel staff showed us out private outdoor onsen which was giving off steam on this cold November day. We were also shown the shower which had an inside entrance and an outside entrance near the onsen. We were given a paper that described proper bathing etiquette for the onsen, in which you must shower first before entering the bath (hence the shower door that opened onto the patio). The suite was very contemporary while keeping the charm of a traditional ryokan room.

The price of the room included a traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner and an elaborate breakfast. After relaxing in our room for a few hours we changed into a traditional robe and pants given to us by the hotel and we headed down to the dining room. We were escorted to our dinner table which was next to a window overlooking the lake. Our appetizer course was waiting for us at the table along with a printed menu of our courses. The menu was as follows:

Deep-fried chestnut with noodle
House smoked pacific saury
Dried persimmon with Yuzu citrus
Chicken meatloaf with garlic and mushroom
Smoked salmon roll
Potato and sweet potato chip
Pine soba noodle
Sweet potato jelly
Grape and tofu sauce
Boiled spinach with black sesame seeds

Mushroom soup with shrimp and duck, ginkgo nuts, wheat cake, and citrus

Assorted fresh fish served in sphere made of ice

Kobe beef and assorted vegetables with dipping sauces
Kobe beef roll

Simmered Dish:
Simmered caramelized herring with flash fried eggplant in sweet soy sauce, Turnip, and Wheat cake

Vinegared Dish:
Surfclam and squid with seasonal mushrooms, yam, green beans, and citrus soy sauce

Rice and Miso Soup:
Soy-cured shellfish sushi rice and red miso soup


Our meal was served with a small glass of Japanese wine and hot green tea. Each dish was stunningly crafted and extravagantly decorated – it almost looked too beautiful to eat. It was my first time having Kobe beef and it was both delicious and fun grilling the beef myself on the hot griddle at our table. The most beautiful dish was the sashimi served in sphere bowl made of ice – it was the most amazing food presentation that I had ever seen. We tried many new things, most of which we enjoyed and some of which our taste buds did not agree with. Overall, it was a truly memorable dining experience.

After dinner we treated ourselves to a couple’s massage which was a relaxing way to end the evening.

Although we hadn’t seen Mt. Fuji that day due to the cloud cover, it was still the most beautiful hotel we stayed at and we enjoyed every minute of it. We went to bed early with hopes of waking up early the next morning to see a glimpse of Fujisan…
rachill_az is offline  
Dec 1st, 2015, 09:36 AM
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Kozantei Ubuya ryokan, wow!
curiousgeo is online now  

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