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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 24th, 2015, 12:42 PM
  #41  
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As someone who shares your love for Italy and the Italian language, I can tell you that the reason we went two years in a row is because it exceeded our expectations with regard to the kindness of the people, the ease of travel (the trains are always on time!), the food and the great blend of ancient and modern. After traveling throughout Europe, and living in Italy for two years, Japan feels "exotic", but in a very accessible way. When you get around to posting your questions, I'll be sure to chime in further.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Apr 24th, 2015, 01:13 PM
  #42  
 
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grazie mille, russ!
annhig is offline  
Apr 24th, 2015, 01:33 PM
  #43  
 
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Still following along and loving your report!
Kathie is offline  
Apr 24th, 2015, 02:43 PM
  #44  
 
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Thanks for the feedback, Russ. Your report is getting better and better; oh, the choices!
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Apr 24th, 2015, 04:57 PM
  #45  
kja
 
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You continue to bring back many wonderful memories. Katsura Rikyu, Daisho-in, seeing Itsumkushima Shrine at both high and low tide ... thanks so much!
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Apr 24th, 2015, 10:38 PM
  #46  
 
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Wonderful trip report, Russ! I remember you answered some of my questions when I was planning our trip.

The only places we went in common were Kyoto and Kamakura. We didn't have much time to spend in Kamakura, but loved the ryokan Kaihinso we stayed at. After visiting the Great Buddha, I was able to find the hike behind the Buddha I had read about and planned. It was a steep climb but beautiful, and ended at the "money washing" temple that you go in through a tunnel in the rock. Spectacular! It was pouring at times but we just decided not to let the rain stop us (we had to say that a lot, as we had rain for most of our trip).

In Kyoto,we also went to Kokedera, the Moss Temple. I was a real highlight for me. I even enjoyed copying sutras, and finished the entire page! It was rather peaceful and such an unusual experience. The walk through the vibrantly green mossy gardens was amazing in the rain. It brought the moss to life. Maybe because it was raining hard (or because everyone else finished sutras first) we pretty much had the gardens to ourselves and were able to take some beautiful photos.

Thanks again for your help. I'm in the process of writing a trip report so you can see what we ended up doing. It was a fantastic trip.
leslieq is offline  
Apr 25th, 2015, 04:32 AM
  #47  
 
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Russ, Russ, Russ -- please don't try and condense, I am sure I'm not alone in loving every detail and happy to read more more more. For example if you made any notes about your meal at Iwaso, I'd love to read that too.

Glad you found the energy to make it back to Daisho-in even after the routing error, as it was one of the places we really enjoyed, quiet and peaceful and loved the prayer wheels and tiny Buddha statues.
Kavey is offline  
Apr 25th, 2015, 07:20 AM
  #48  
 
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<>

I do as well. I insist on dragging the whole family to check out every hotel I considered and rejected.
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Apr 25th, 2015, 10:46 AM
  #49  
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@crosscheck: I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one ;-)

@Kavey: I didn't really take notes, so I'm writing just from memory. It was basically a multi-course kaiseki dinner, and we just found everything to be very good and fresh. A stand out was delicious beef dish, which was not something we had often on this trip. I was also intrigued by the on-the-table cooking method of the tofu course, which was placed in water in what looked like a cone of parchment paper, and then suspended by in a wire frame over fire. I expected the paper to go up in flames.

As for trying to condense, I've been resisting the urge to compare everything to our first trip (which was just magical). For example, our first ryokan on that trip was in Hakone, and we were the only non-Japanese guests there. As a result, it was very quiet, peaceful and relaxing, as we have found the Japanese people tend to be in these settings, at least in our limited experiences. By contrast, any less than perfect experiences we had on this trip (wrong turns and missed closing times not withstanding) tended to be perpetrated by non-Japanese tourists.

For example, the first part of our dinner in a "private" room at Iwaso was very quiet and relaxing, and we had some nice interaction with our very sweet kimono-clad server; but half way through, a group of 4 was seated in an adjacent "room" (only separated by screens and open at the top). Maybe the illusion of privacy gave them the impression that they were the only ones there, but they were so incredibly loud that we could not hear our soft-spoken server after that, or even each other. Or course, if we were in a crowded city diner, or other such place, that would never have occurred to us; but contrasting this with our Hakone ryokan experience, it was a bit jarring.

I'll try to strike a balance between a laundry-list of what we saw and did, and my personal opinions and observations, so that the trip report doesn't actually end up longer than the actual trip! ;-)
russ_in_LA is offline  
Apr 25th, 2015, 11:19 AM
  #50  
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@leslieq: so glad you had a good trip! Can't wait to read your report. Yes, we had our share of rain as well, but like you, made the best of it.

Thanks everyone else for the kind words! More soon.
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Apr 26th, 2015, 12:42 AM
  #51  
 
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Russ, I completely understand -- the behaviour of others, however hard you try and block it out, can sometimes intrude in a really unwelcome way.

So far, I'm loving your report -- all the detail of what and when plus the wonderful insights on how you felt about it, what you thought. Just wonderful.

I'm so rubbish at writing trip reports, it's my guilty regret, but I try and share on the various random threads instead. But I DO love reading a good trip report!

Thank you and MORE PLEASE!
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Apr 26th, 2015, 10:01 AM
  #52  
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Korakuen Garden, Okayama

We awoke to another sunny day. Two in a row; a first on this trip! After a delicious protein-packed Japanese breakfast at Iwaso, and some quick shopping on the main street on the way to the ferry, we departed for Okayama. One ferry, one local train and a Shinkansen ride later, we arrived at Okayama, a bit before noon. I was feeling a little peckish, so knowing that I can’t function on an empty stomach, I suggested grabbing something to eat before heading to Korakuen Garden. We hurried through a mediocre lunch at a nearby Chinese restaurant and headed for what is considered one of the top three gardens in Japan.

Entering the garden from the north gate, we were immediately struck by how Okayama Castle in the distance seemed to be nestled in the trees of the garden, as if it were a part of it, even though we knew it was across the river. We later learned that this was a quintessential example of a technique called “borrowed scenery”, in which elements outside of a garden are incorporated in the view.

The garden was much more expansive than the gardens we had seen up until now, with large grassy lawns surrounding a pond in the middle, with a small bridge leading to a teahouse on an island in the middle. There was a large stand of cherry trees that still had a few blooms on them, but for the most part were already beginning to green out; however, toward the south there was a picturesque bridge over a narrow stream, above which hung dark pink weeping cherry trees in full bloom. We were not the only ones who decided that it was an ideal photo opportunity, as there were three pairs of brides and grooms, dressed in traditional wedding costume, lined up to have their photos taken in that very spot. With a very limited Japanese vocabulary at my disposal, I said to a passing bride, “utsukushi desu”, “you are beautiful” (or “it is beautiful”, I suppose I could have been more specific). Either way, the beaming bride replied with a big smile and a delighted “arigato gozaimasu”!

Speaking of my limited vocabulary, throughout the trip I had gotten into the habit of saying good morning, “ohayo gozaimasu” or hello/good day, “konichiwa” to various Japanese people that we passed by. It usually resulted in smiles, and mild surprise that we actually could string a few words together. We loved it when a group would reply back in unison, “ohayo gozaimasu”, like school children replying “good morning” to their favorite teacher.

As we were admiring another of the views in the garden, I offered “good morning” to a Japanese man and added on, “ii otenki desu ne?”, “nice day, isn’t it”? He agreed, and then asked me where we were from, and feeling very proud of myself, I answered in (I’m sure badly pronounced) Japanese, “I’m American”. Well, now he was off and running, with a long, and to me indecipherable, response. Unfortunately, all I could say in Japanese at that point was, “I’m sorry, I understand little Japanese”. To our surprise, he switched to perfect and almost completely unaccented American English.

It turns out that he is a retired professor, who had moved to Canada at age 26, and has been there for the past 40+ years. He was on vacation, traveling around and following the sakura wherever it was peaking. We admired the garden together and walked a little way with him, as he described where he had been and where he was going next. Even as we were in the midst of our own fantastic trip, standing in one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan, we found ourselves envying and admiring this quiet, gentle man, and his solo sakura trip around Japan.

When we came to the south end of the garden, we noticed that there was another gate, which led to a bridge over the river to Okayama Castle. As soon as we stepped out of the gate, we discovered a small but amazingly situated Japanese restaurant, with an incredible view of the Castle, realizing with mild regret that our hasty and unexceptional lunch could have been a relaxing and probably delicious one, and with a gorgeous view. Curse you low blood sugar!

We didn’t go into the castle keep, but we did walk over the bridge to get a closer look, as well as through the first gate, to a small plateau where a grove of cherry trees were well past their peak. In the end we felt that the best view was from the restaurant across the water, so we went back to a place nearby that was selling green tea ice cream, and contented ourselves with a tasty cone, and a delicious view.
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Apr 26th, 2015, 10:23 AM
  #53  
 
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Russ, your afternoon in Okayama sounds like pure joy. I'm making notes as I'm following along.
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Apr 27th, 2015, 08:02 PM
  #54  
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Kurashiki

When I was looking for suggestions for an area to stay in between Miyajima and Himeji, which would also be convenient for Korakuen, as well as have more charm than the area around the train station in Okayama (I know, I set the bar pretty low), Fodorite kja suggested Kurashiki. Since her recommendation for accommodation in Koyasan last year was right on the money, I decided to cast my lot with her again (no pressure). I have to say that, once again, it was a bull’s eye!

After running around from site to site the past week, we were looking forward to a small atmospheric town, with nothing in particular demanding our energy or attention. The ride from the train station to the Ryokan Kurashiki did not look too promising, as we passed by the same drab post-WWll buildings that seem to surround most train stations in Japan; but when the taxi turned onto a cobblestone street, with beautiful white-washed buildings with black tile roofs bordering a picturesque tree-lined canal, I knew it was going to be special.

Stylistically, the historic Bikan district of Kurashiki was very different from any Japanese town we had been to so far. The area is filled with former warehouses that were used to store rice, which was shipped in and out via the canals. The white stucco buildings were decorated with black tiles, bordered with thick white grout, which looked like it was applied with a very large pasty bag. This created a very distinctive pattern of black and white squares or diamonds, which we had not seen in other locations we had visited so far. Most of the attractive buildings have been converted into shops, restaurants and inns. This made for a very homogenous and charming town to stroll in, especially at twilight, when the streetlights along the canals would come on, reflecting their light romantically against the water.

We spent a couple hours going into an out of shops, surprised at the number of them that sold denim. Did you know that Kurashiki is the denim capital of Japan? Well, judging from the number of stores dedicated to the material, it is easy to believe. There were also a number of museums that I would have liked to have gone into if we had had more time, such as a museum of folk craft, an archaeological museum, a toy museum and one dedicated to art preservation and restoration. The one museum we had time for was the Ohara Museum, which contains possibly the best private collection of western art in Japan. Incongruously housed in a large, columned neo-classical building, it seemed to have one or two examples of every major artist since the late 1800’s, representing everything from impressionism to cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art, post-modern and more. There is also an annex featuring works by Japanese artists. In between the two is a very small but beautiful garden, which can be enjoyed from the street, even without entering the museum.

Since there was nothing to do in the area at night, other than stroll down the appealing and atmospheric streets, we really enjoyed relaxing in the ryokan. Like the rest of the town, it was made from a series of former warehouses, but the small alleys between the buildings were enclosed, becoming the corridors between the guest rooms. This gave it the feeling of walking outside, even when we were just passing between the various rooms. It brought to mind the covered galleries in London or Paris, or many of the fish and produce markets in Japan. We were served a delicious kaiseki dinner in our room, which was probably our second favorite meal, after the one at Iwaso.

I would really consider this a ryokan hybrid, because although the rooms had tatami mats and a low table like you might see at most other ryokans, it had a separate bedroom, with a low western-style mattress on the floor, instead of futons. This would be a great place for two couples or a couple with children, because there were futons in a closet which could be put down in the sitting room for additional guests. One other nice feature of the inn was that it had a private onsen that one could reserve for personal use. Since dinner was at 7pm, I booked it for 9pm, which was perfect after a post-dinner evening stroll to admire the area at night.

The next morning we had a rather elaborate breakfast in a small room which looked onto a lovely little garden. We were in the habit of always choosing the Japanese option, even when a western-style breakfast is offered, but I have to admit that I was seriously coveting the freshly baked croissants that another guest was enjoying at a nearby table. This only intensified when they brought a small grill filled with glowing embers to our table, accompanied by fish (and their disembodied heads) that we were to cook for our meal. I have to admit that, despite my obsession with the croissants, the fish was very good, even if I could not bring myself to deal with the heads; and the morning protein boost would serve us well at our next stop: Himeji!
russ_in_LA is offline  
Apr 27th, 2015, 08:09 PM
  #55  
kja
 
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Oh, I am so glad that you liked Kurashiki! You are describing exactly the things I most enjoyed about it -- charming, unique, atmospheric, absolutely lovely at twilight. And I agree about the Ohara -- impressive!
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Apr 28th, 2015, 04:02 AM
  #56  
 
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Love your description of Kurashiki, and very timely too. Thank you.
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Apr 28th, 2015, 10:21 AM
  #57  
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TP, the 2016 trip you are planning sounds like the second half of my recent trip. Kanazawa and Jigokudani Monkey Park coming soon!
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Apr 28th, 2015, 11:05 PM
  #58  
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Himeji Castle

It was another nice, sunny day, and we were excited as we left the Himeji station. We could see the castle in the distance, our anticipation growing more and more the closer we got. Stopping at the bridge leading across the moat to the first gate, the reality hit us. After a multi-year renovation, during which the largest castle keep in Japan was hidden behind scaffolding, we were finally about to go inside Himeji Castle! Along with Mount Fuji and the enormous torri at Miyajima, the view of that blindingly white, six-story castle keep, floating high againt the blue sky, was one of those indelible images that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life (along with the 4 dozen images burned into my iPhone).

In the days leading to this moment we were anxious and prepared for the worst. We had been checking the Japan-Guide forums every day to see how the lines were doing, and people were talking about 2+ hour wait times, as well as a limited number of daily visitors to the keep. So we approached the ticket window with trepidation, bought our tickets, and…we walked right in! We continued up the ramp leading to the castle keep, enjoying the view that it afforded from various angles, and kept walking right through the front door!

I’m very happy that we went to Hikone Castle before Himeji, because as impressive as it was, it would have paled in comparison. We took our time going up the first three floors, stopping to admire the architecture and the views. We finally hit a crowd on the fourth floor, but it moved along pretty steadily, giving us more time to read about the structure and history of the castle, as well as eavesdrop on any English speaking tour guides. Looking at the view from the top, we noticed a familiar pattern. The black roof tiles were held in place by thick white grout, just like the decorative tiles in Kurashiki. We learned that this was done at Himeji to help keep the tiles from flying off, and we wondered if this was then copied, for style if not function, in the surrounding areas.

The crowd continued to move much faster than it had at Hikone, since people going up didn’t have to wait for people coming down, and when we exited the keep, we found that only an hour had passed since we had purchase our tickets. This still gave us 3.5 hours to enjoy the castle grounds, have lunch and then explore the Kokoen Garden, before our train for Kanazawa.

As we explored the grounds, we learned that the Sakura Festival at Himeji had ended the day before, so while the pent up demand for touring the castle may have been part of the reason for the crowds, most of it seemed to be due to the festival. In retrospect, it was probably the perfect time to see it; after the crowds had thinned, but before the cherries had lost all of their blooms. We had been very fortunate to have seen the sakura in Tokyo and Kyoto at its peak, but our visit to Korakuen the previous day had lowered our expectations for the sakura on the castle grounds; so we very pleased to find the cherry trees in much better condition than we anticipated. In addition, a large portion of the trees were of the weeping variety, which blooms later than the others, so they were still laden with flowers. This enabled us to get a couple dozen additional pics of the castle keep, framed by the deep pink blooms.

We were able to tour a few of the other buildings on the grounds, such as a long covered corridor, conveniently called, “the Long Corridor”, and sections of former living quarters, such as the “Cosmetic Tower”, where Princess Sen purportedly prepared herself to worship at her shrine.

After a quick lunch of udon and tempura shrimp across the street from the castle entrance, we walked five minutes to Kokoen, a beautiful garden adjacent to the castle. This is a relatively recent addition to the site, constructed in 1992. Unlike the vast expanses of lawn that we saw at Korakuen, this was designed almost like a series of outdoor rooms. It was not possible to see them all at the same time, so as we walked through the garden, new views would open up. Of course, there was a beautifully situated restaurant and tea house, so once again, we found that we had eaten lunch too soon!

Altogether, we spent four leisurely hours really enjoying every inch of the castle, the grounds and the garden, and under mostly sunny skies; just about a perfect way to spend the day.
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Apr 29th, 2015, 09:08 AM
  #59  
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Kanazawa

Although the trip from Himeji to Kanazawa was a bit over 3 hours, it was comfortable and seemed to go by fast, first via Shinkansen to Kyoto (where we had time for a green tea waffle at the station – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!). From there it was on the Limited Express Thunderbird, which is similar to an IC train in Europe, and probably the next best thing to the Shinkasen.

We arrived to the Trusty Hotel Kanazawa about 6pm, where our luggage was waiting for us in our room, having shipped it two days earlier from Kyoto. One of the best things about Japan is being able to travel light between destinations. Although the room was small, it was clean and modern and the hotel was incredibly well located; about a 6 minute walk from the 21st Century Museum and Kerokuen Garden to the east, a 7 minute walk from the Nagamachi Samurai District to the west, and a 5 minute walk to the Oyama Shrine to the north, with an entrance to the Kanazawa Castle park just behind the shrine.

The hotel had made reservations for us at a restaurant called Seikitei before we arrived; so not knowing where it was located, we caught a taxi for the most memorable ride of the trip. Since Kanazawa was the furthest north we would be going, our hope was that we would not have missed the sakura here; however, we had not seen any cherry trees since we left the station. So when the taxi immediately turned onto a wide avenue with a center median, we were overjoyed to see that both sides of the street and the median were lined with cherry trees in full peak bloom. We had not seen such an amazing display since our first day in Tokyo. It looked like it had snowed, as these trees were filled with the whitest blooms, and the street was lined with red lanterns on poles, similar to the ones we had seen in Hikone.

When I commented to the driver, “utsukushi des”, it’s beautiful, he quietly replied, in very tentative English, “I think that…to me…sakura IS Japan.” My eyes started to water and I got a lump in my throat. So simple and so beautiful, it summed up perfectly the sentiment we had repeatedly witnessed from the Japanese on this trip. Moments like this made it even more special.

Two minutes later, it was over. It turns out that the restaurant is located on a street behind the 21st Century museum, so we could have easily walked; but no matter, it was the best taxi ride of the trip.

Our dinner at Seikitei was beautiful and delicious. We were greeted at the front door by name and shown to a private room that looked onto a garden. The low table was on a raised tatami mat, with space for our legs, which made it very comfortable. As it was considerably colder in Kanazawa than our previous stops, we were very happy to find that the floor beneath the table was heated! After a wonderful shabu-shabu dinner, served by our sweet and lovely kimono-clad server, we enjoyed a brisk walk under the gorgeous cherry trees, back to our hotel. I think we were going to like Kanazawa.
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Apr 29th, 2015, 02:45 PM
  #60  
 
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Glad you had a nice time at Himeji. Your taxi experience in Kanazawa sounds priceless. Looking forward to more.
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