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Trip Report: Second Time to Japan - Sakura, Gardens and Castles

Trip Report: Second Time to Japan - Sakura, Gardens and Castles

Apr 19th, 2015, 10:40 PM
  #21  
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We arrived at the Kaburenjo Theater in the preserved Gion area, where the show has played annually since its inception in 1872. While waiting for the Tea Ceremony, we were able to wander around the lovely small garden out back, but in no time at all, they were calling us in. They filed a couple hundred of us into a room in the most orderly fashion imaginable, where a geisha (or geiko, as they are known in Kyoto) was seated on a platform, holding a teapot. Within two seconds of being seated, other geikos appeared with cups of tea and a small sweet made from rice and sweetened red bean paste. As we finished our tea and confection, people around us stood up and began to file out of the room. Wait. Was that it? Had the tea “ceremony” happened sometime during the three minutes that it took us to file in and drink a cup of tea? Something tells me that this might have been just a bit edited from a traditional tea ceremony, but I’ll just have to read up on it I guess, because we never found out. After taking a couple obligatory pics of the geiko on the platform, who sat serenely stirring her cup of tea, we were whisked out of our room and to our seats in the theater for the show; but what a show it was!

I have to admit, I may not be downloading the cast album from iTunes any time soon, but the sets and costumes were pretty amazing. The musicians and singers, playing traditional instruments, were seated along both sides of the stage, which extended down the sides of the theater, so we were surrounded by sound, color and action on three sides. Although we didn’t understand the words, it was easy to follow the theme from the changing of the fantastic scenery and costumes: pink cherry blossoms, deep purple irises, bright yellow sunflowers, burnt orange autumn leaves and blindingly white snow, each signifying, through color, song and dance, the changing of the seasons. Finally, the finale, when strands of cherry blossoms dropped from the ceiling and the entire cast came back on stage to celebrate the return of spring! I felt privileged to have been able to participate in an annual festival such as this, one which reached back in some form or another for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Apr 20th, 2015, 04:20 AM
  #22  
 
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Wow! Sounds like the start of your Kyoto visit went well in spite of the rain. Nanzenji too was one of my favorite temples; I so fondly recall the bamboo water feature that you described.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Apr 20th, 2015, 07:48 AM
  #23  
 
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I had very little idea of what a trip to Japan might entail, Russ, but you are giving me lots of great ideas.

The hotel in Kyoto looks terrific. are the prices there typical of what you pay in Japan? [about yen 27,000/night or £150]
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Apr 20th, 2015, 08:36 AM
  #24  
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@tripplanner,

Don't get me wrong, we would love to have seen blue sky and had dry shoes, but we certainly didn't let it stop us!

@annhig,

That was the most expensive hotel we went to on this trip (not counting a couple ryokan (traditional Japanese lodging), which included dinner and breakfast, which probably would come to less if you pulled out those costs). I went 4 star in other places, so you could pay a lot more or a lot less than we paid. Tokyo was about same as Kyoto, but outside Tokyo we paid between 14,800 and 19,500 per night, and we were generally happy with the accommodation. Don't know if you would be traveling solo or not, but lots of options for solo travelers in many places as well.

If you want more detail on Tokyo or Kyoto, you can also read my trip report from last year, which I geared more toward helping other first timers, especially tips toward planning. My best resource (besides this forum) was definitely japan-guide.com, which I read for hours. The "suggested itinerary" section is great because you can put in a number of days you want to stay, read up on those destinations, and the decide which ones to keep or delete. Here's a link:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2400_tokyo_19.html

We covered pretty much everything on this itinerary over the two 2-week trips (with some repeating) except Nagasaki.

FYI, one more day in Kyoto to go, and then we are into new places that we didn't go to last year.
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Apr 20th, 2015, 08:46 AM
  #25  
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Correction regarding the sample itinerary link I posted. We also did not go to Ise, Osaka or Hiroshima. This sample from japan-guide.com is really too much moving around and not enough time in each place, but it's good for starting your internal "where should I go" conversation, and then editing from there.
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Apr 20th, 2015, 01:16 PM
  #26  
 
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Thanks, again, Russ. I was thinking that the accommodation costs were going to be rather more than we like to pay [no more than £100 a night if possible] but that sounds quite encouraging.

We're not likely to be doing a trip to Japan for at least 2 years [we have Cuba lined up for next January, and we probably wouldn't do another big trip until 2018, which seems a very long time away] but it's worth doing some forward planning!
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Apr 20th, 2015, 02:14 PM
  #27  
 
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Ann, FWIW, we were in Japan in 2011 and spent approximately US$150-175 a night on accommodations, staying at 3- to 4-star establishments. Back then 1 USD fetched about 70-75 JPY.
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Apr 20th, 2015, 02:19 PM
  #28  
 
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thanks, tp. of course prices may go up by the time we get there, but lets hope they don't go up too much.
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Apr 20th, 2015, 03:42 PM
  #29  
 
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Russ, this is a delightful report! Thanks for so much detail. No question, our next trip to Japan will be to see the Sakura!

ann, we used Hyatt points to enable us to stay at some lovely places - 6 free nights in Kyoto, and an upgrade to a suite at Hakone, for instance. I had expected Japan to be more expensive than it was for us. Restaurant meals were similar to Seattle prices.
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Apr 20th, 2015, 04:10 PM
  #30  
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@ annhig -- IME, one can find less expensive accommodations in Kyoto and other parts of Japan, though it takes some searching and, in some cases, a willingness to give up some of the accoutrements that many Westerners expect.

@ Russ -- still enjoying the great reminders of things seen and glimpses of things to be seen.
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Apr 21st, 2015, 05:23 AM
  #31  
 
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Good point, Kathie. I shall have to get amassing some points.

thanks, kja. I'm not sure what you're asking me to give up, but I'm open to suggestions!

Keep it coming Russ - I''m enjoying your account very much. This year, however, I'm glad to have stayed at home in the UK - the blossom here is outstanding.
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Apr 21st, 2015, 03:44 PM
  #32  
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@annhig - I think you would not give up anything that you would not expect to give up for budget accommodation anywhere: central location, service, and to a lesser extent a certain amount of charm (which is hard to quantify). You won't have to give up on cleanliness! I think of a Motel 6 or a Travel Lodge in the U.S. If all you are looking for is a place to put your head at night, then that's all you need.

OK, continuing with the epic...


Arashiyama

Today we had reservations for the Moss Temple and the Katsura Imperial Villa in the afternoon, so we decided that we would spend the morning in Arashiyama, just a bit further north. We took the Kankyu line train to the Arashiyama station, and then a taxi to the Otagi Nenbetsuji temple, which we had somehow missed last time. It is only a 10 minute walk uphill from the Adashino Nenbutsuji temple, which was our favorite from last year, so I was determined to see it this time.

It was still raining when we got out of the taxi, but we knew right away we were going to like it, in part because we had it completely to ourselves. It was such a nice people break from the crowds. Well, to be honest, we weren’t completely “alone”. The grounds are populated with over 1200 statues of rakan, devoted followers of Buddhism, in all sorts of poses, many holding any number of items, like goblets or what appeared to be cameras. The majority are covered in a thick layer of bright green moss. We probably spent an hour photographing them from every which angle.

After leaving the temple, we walked past the Adashino temple onto the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street, which also never seems to be crowded. There is a shop that seemed to have a better quality items for gifts than we had seen in most places, as well as unique food items, like whole roasted red bean candy with a variety of flavored coatings, which we never saw anywhere else. There is a quaint garden in back, and they served us tea as we shopped, which was nice after standing in the rain. It was a very relaxed and unhurried shopping experience.

We continued to walk downhill into town, passing through the bamboo grove and past Tenryuji Temple, the gardens of which I highly recommend. We turned right and walked down the main street through town, which was mobbed with tourists at this point, a stark contrast to the beginning of our day. We followed the street across the Togetsukyo Bridge, to a small park which contains a large concentration of cherry trees, which the crowds across the bridge had not yet discovered. The south side of the park was lined with old but restored wooden buildings which housed a variety of restaurants. We settled on shabu-shabu for lunch, which is thinly sliced beef and vegetables that we cooked in boiling water, while we sat on tatami mats at our low table. We were the only non-Japanese in the room, and the staff suffered our bad Japanese attempts graciously and with good humor. We were excited as we got ready to leave for the first of our two reserved afternoon visits: Saihoji temple, more commonly known as Kokedera, the Moss Temple.
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Apr 22nd, 2015, 02:45 AM
  #33  
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@ annhig, re: accommodations in Japan: "I'm not sure what you're asking me to give up, but I'm open to suggestions!"

When I visited Japan, I needed to keep all costs over which I had ANY control to a bare minimum so that I could take advantage of some of the costlier options that I sought while there. As a solo traveler, the purposes to which I put a room are generally just sleep and hygiene, so I went for low-end accommodations through most of my time in Japan. And because of that, I was able to afford a few splurges -- a night at a ryokan in Miyajima and a night at one of Koyasan’s temples – splurges that I could afford only because I skimped on other accommodations. I stayed at some places where space was very limited (sometimes extraordinarily so!), where breakfasts (if available) included only Japanese options, and / or where staff didn’t necessarily speak English. I always chose locations that suited my purposes, and as Russ noted, I NEVER sacrificed cleanliness. It is really hard for me to imagine that cleanliness or courtesy would EVER be in short supply at a Japanese accommodation. So when I said you might need to give up some things, I was thinking of things like space, ease of communication, Western breakfast options, etc.

@ Russ – again, my apologies for interrupting. I am really enjoying your ability to convey images through your words – you have gift!
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Apr 22nd, 2015, 07:53 AM
  #34  
 
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Russ and kja - thanks for the clarification.

I'll try to stop posting diversions - I think that I need to do some research so that I can ask some more sensible questions.
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Apr 22nd, 2015, 09:56 PM
  #35  
 
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Annhig, yay, create a planning thread and ask LOTS of questions, I was going to jump in but you're right, this is Russ' trip report, so I'll resist adding more diversion... but yay, go to Japan!!

Russ, I'm continuing to grin in pleasure as I read... MORE PLEASE!
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Apr 24th, 2015, 07:40 AM
  #36  
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No problem with the diversions! Trying to see if I can condense my posts a bit, but brevity has never been my best quality.

Although we arrived at the Moss Temple before our appointed time, the temple was already filled with at least a couple hundred people, kneeling on the floor and busily writing on large sheets of paper. A small wave of panic went through me as I realized that admission required the writing out the sutra in kanji letters, until we received a copy of the page, which had all the Japanese characters printed lightly on it. All we would be required to do was to trace over them with ink using a small brush; however, this too proved to be easier said than done. A few moments after we started, two monks came into the temple and started to chant the sutra, which lasted about 15 minutes. When they were finished, it was clear that it was going to take us hours to complete this task, until one of the monks took pity on us and told us that we were not required to finish. Standing up on creaky legs, we thanked him, turned in our “calligraphy” and entered the Moss Garden.

I must admit that a Japanese garden experience is not particularly “zen” when shared with several hundred others, so we were grateful to have been the one of the first into the garden. This was one instance when the persistent rain may have actually improved rather than detracted from the experience: the soft sound of drops on the umbrella, the murmur of water flowing through rivulets in the moss, and the iridescent quality that it gave the garden, glowing with a seemingly infinite variety of green, emerald, chartreuse, and jade.

By contrast, the Katsura Imperial Garden was only accessible by staying with a Japanese lead group tour which departed every half hour. We were given English language recordings to listen to, which were moderately helpful; however, while the group listening to the guide reacted with “oohs”, “ahhs”, and laugher for 10 minutes at each stop, our recording was limited to something along the lines of, “This is the moon viewing pavilion, from which the princess would view the moon”. I may be over simplifying a bit, but you get the picture. The garden however, was beautiful, even though it happened to coincide with the heaviest 60 minutes of rain during our stay in Kyoto.
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Apr 24th, 2015, 08:47 AM
  #37  
 
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The Moss Temple sounds lovely. Wondering if it is too much of a detour for a visit on the way from Kanazawa to Okayama... Perhaps it's one of the places we'll need to save for round three.
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Apr 24th, 2015, 09:03 AM
  #38  
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It depends on what your tolerance is for a lot of stops en route, but I would say if you are in Kyoto already, then try to get a reservation, but I would not necessarily suggest making a special trip just for that.
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Apr 24th, 2015, 09:19 AM
  #39  
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We awoke early the next morning for our Shinkansen trip to Hiroshima, followed by a local train and ferry, bound for the island of Miyajima. We toyed with the idea of making a quick stop at Himeji to see the cherry blossoms, as the prime sakura viewing was winding down, but thought better of it after checking the Japan-Guide.com forums, to discover posts about two-hour lines just to enter the castle grounds, let alone the keep. We had waited 5 years for the restoration to be completed; I suppose we could wait another 2 days to see it on the way back.

Fortunately the rain had petered out overnight, and the sun was breaking through the clouds as we walked from the dock toward the famous “floating” torri. We had left our bags at the information counter near the dock, where the ryokan would pick them up, so we were free to explore, unencumbered. It was lunch time, so that was the first order of business.

I have this annoying (even to me) trait of wanting to see if, after months of planning and deliberation, I have ultimately made the right choice in hotel, restaurant, or even destination, so I suggested that we try to have lunch at the hotel Iroha, which I had considered before landing on Iwaso. We found it easily, located with a view of the bay, and backing up to a very lively narrow street, which was lined with old wooden buildings, and filled with shops and restaurants. Entering Iroha, we asked a staff member to direct us to the restaurant. As she tried to respond, she was interrupted by two different members of tour groups, who didn’t seem to be deterred by the fact that she was in the middle of a conversation with someone. In the end she explained that the entire restaurant was booked by tour groups and not available. Correct hotel decision confirmed, we set out to find sustenance.

We landed on a tiny restaurant which had a gentleman out front grilling oysters, one of the specialties of the area. We sat at the bar and had an easy decision to make: fried or grilled. We ordered one of each lunch menu, and the massive oysters that they brought proved to be the best we have ever had anywhere, plumb, meaty and delicious.

Satisfied, we continued toward the massive torri in the bay, which, given the high tide, did indeed appear to be floating. After taking an insane number of photos, we decided to save the Itsukushima Shrine for later in the day, when the massive number of day trippers would have left the island. Instead, we took the “rope-way” to the top for amazing views of the bay as well as the other side of the island.

Although it was possible to continue hiking to the summit, we decided to save our strength for the walking trail down, which would take us past the Misen Honda, which we were told was about a 15 minute walk, and eventually the Daisho-in Temple. The trail was much steeper than we expected, with a lot of stairs, which would have been fine, except for the fact that they were twice as tall as a standard height. After 25 minutes, something seemed wrong, so I decided to consult my map and discovered major trip error #3, we had taken the wrong path. Not only was this path most difficult of the three, but it was not going to take us past the Misen Honda. Ugh! I may have had a minor meltdown at that point, but with legs feeling like overcooked noodles, we finally made it down, and then partially back up the correct path, in order to see the Daisho-in Temple.

We ascended the stairs of the temple, lined with prayer wheels which have the sutra print inscribe on them. It is believed that turning the wheels has the same effect as reciting the sutra. By the time we entered, I was feeling good about life again. We really enjoyed the temple complex, the highlights being a cave filled with hundreds of lanterns, as well as another area near the entrance, filled with small statues of men, each wearing his own little colorful wool knit cap.

At this point, it was just a five minute walk down to the Itsumkushima Shrine, which was now almost completely void of people. As it was now low tide, it was interesting to be able to see the entire structure, the bottom of which was underwater when we last passed by. After touring the shrine, we walked out to the torri, which was also now stranded ashore. It was really interesting to see up close. One, because it’s impossible to appreciate just how massive it is from afar; and two, because it is made from non-milled tree trunks, so the natural and irregular contours of the trees are retained. Satisfied with our multiple perspectives of one of the most iconic views in Japan, we headed back to our ryokan for a good, hot pre-dinner soak in the onsen.

Without going into too much detail on Iwaso, I will say that we were happy with our choice. We stayed in a room in the older, original building, with a view that looked on to the forest and the small stream below. Deer wandered the grounds (indeed, the entire island) and were tame, ignoring anyone who didn’t have food for them. The onsen was located in the newer high-rise building adjacent to ours, and had an indoor and outdoor pool, also located above the stream, with the calming sound of the water adding to the relaxing setting. Dinner was served in a private dining room, although we noticed many people were also served in their rooms. It proved to be one of the best meals of the trip, including more of the amazing oysters. After a pleasant post-dinner stroll to see the deserted shrine and torii lit up at night, we slept well on our futons, exhausted after another busy day.
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Apr 24th, 2015, 11:13 AM
  #40  
 
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it all sounds quite delightful, russ, the odd detour not withstanding.

you are really whetting my appetite for Japan [and I love oysters!]
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