Wednesday, April 1 - Depart Osaka, Japan -
Private car to Nara, Japan - Shikitei Ryokan
Nara Prefecture is situated in the west central section
of Honshu. The formation of an ancient nation started around mid-3rd century,
with the Yamato district as its center, and was completed by the late 6th
century. The capital was placed in Asuka, in the southern part of the Nara
Basin, located in the northwestern part of present-day Nara Prefecture, and it
prospered as the political and economic center of Japan until the early 8th
century. After the capital was relocated to Heijo-kyo (now Nara City) in 710,
many temples and shrines were built there under the direction of the imperial
family and aristocrats, and temple towns soon developed. Such temples and
shrines include Todai-ji Temple, which has the Daibutsu, the world's largest
Buddha statue, made of copper and gold, it is enshrined in the world's largest
wooden structure, Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall). Other famous temples include
Yakushi-ji Temple, which has wonderful old wooden architecture and a statue of
Buddha, and Toshodai-ji Temple which was founded by the Chinese priest Ganjin,
who came to Japan after difficult journeys and spread the principles of
Horyu-ji Temple, which is said to have been built in the early 7th century, is
known as the oldest existing Buddhist temple in Japan. The temple boasts of the
world's oldest wooden architecture, and there are many paintings and sculptures
in its possession. The temple is also inscribed as a World Cultural Heritage
Tourists visit Nara Prefecture throughout the year to see scenic spots such as
Mt. Yoshino-yama, known as the best cherry blossom viewing point in Japan, and
Nara Park, with its friendly deer which have been treasured as messengers from
Nara's time-honored attractiveness as an old capital is probably best
explored by walking. The best timing for your stroll around Nara Park area
is early in the morning, when you see deer roaming in the park in the
Shikitei is prominently located in the center of Nara
Park, within walking distance from Nara's major sites, Kasuga Shrine,
Kofukuji Temple and Todaiji Temple. Shikitei is the most luxurious ryokan in
Nara with only 10 rooms. The appearance with traditional flair matches
Nara's ambience. Rooms are also traditional Japanese style integrating
modern facilities inside so that you can have a comfortable stay. Fine
cuisine utilizing seasonal ingredients elegantly is served.
We're so happy
to be somewhere that isn't hot and humid! Woo hoo!!! It is
overcast and in the high 50's, which suits us just fine. According to
the forecast it will be slightly cooler and probably rainy in Nara by they
time we get there this afternoon.
In spite of the rock hard beds, we slept
soundly and didn't wake up until 8:00AM as planned. Here is a photo of
View from our room overlooking the airport terminal. We had
vouchers for the breakfast buffet in the casual restaurant downstairs, so
that was our first stop. The place was practically empty, maybe ten
parties total. We handed in our vouchers at the podium and were
directed to the buffet.
At first glance, it didn't look very appealing. On
second glance, it was even worse because the countertops were dirty and the
whole thing looked like throngs had been at it, which we highly doubt.
The food wasn't weird unless you looked through the Japanese section, but
even that was recognizable. We filled up our plates with samples of
almost everything. Looking at the full plates, everything was a
general shade of beige.
Although the food didn't look very good, it tasted
fine, good in fact. The pastries were excellent as were the sausages
with potatoes. Everything was fine. The restaurant itself looks
like something you might find at a tourist attraction...worn and stark...but
it was reasonably clean. It should have been spotless, but we're
After we filled up at the buffet, we took some photos of the hotel.
Aeroplaza that leads to the hotel is very modern and attractive for what
it is trying to be. The hotel
lobby is VERY 80's, although as we said
before it was built fairly recently, maybe five years ago. Here are a
couple more pictures of the public areas:
North Wing Elevators. If you don't look too closely, it
appears fairly upscale and modern, but then you start to notice the dusty
fake plants and tacky vending machines all over the place and it quickly
loses points. We'd say this is a solid 3-star hotel, but no more than
that. The staff is very nice and polite. Most of the ones guests
have to deal with speak reasonable English, so we haven't had any language
problems yet. It is perfectly fine for an overnight stop before or
after a flight, but we wouldn't recommend it for any other purpose.
way back to the room there were maids in the hallway with buckets and such
sort of in the way. We had every intention of just walking over them,
but two maids rushed out bowing and fawning over us because those horrible
buckets were maybe kind of in our path. Really, we wouldn't even have
mentioned it had they not made such a scene for "inconveniencing" us.
We're expecting a private car with a driver to pick us up in the lobby at
noon. Then we're off for about a one-hour drive to Shikitei ryokan in
Nara where we will be for the next three days. Just as we were about
to walk out the door, a bellman called to tell us that our car had arrived.
Well, what he said was, "Taxi....you...now," but we got the point.
Down in the lobby there was an English-speaking woman directing traffic to
the right place at the reception desk. Considering that Dave was the
only person there, it wasn't a difficult task. The payment procedure
was more complicated than necessary and we had no idea what the guy was
talking about, but it concluded successfully...we assume. Anyway, he
let us leave.
The same woman who pointed us to the right place at the desk, whisked us
outside to the waiting car where she, the driver, and a bellman attempted to
squeeze all of our luggage into the trunk. Eventually, two small
pieces had to go in the front seat with the driver, but such is life.
Our drive to Nara took about an hour and a half through non-descript
industrial outskirts of Osaka. Suddenly we entered a very long tunnel
and emerged on the other side in the suburbs. After a short drive
through the city streets near the train station in Nara, we arrived at
Shikitei. The ryokan is located across a small pond from the Nara
Hotel where we had originally intended to stay. That was a hotel, this
is a full fledged, sleep-on-the-floor-and-eat-fried-fish-heads Japanese inn.
A bellman, or whatever they are called at places like this, rushed out to
help with the luggage. In his extremely limited English, he told us to
come back at the 3:00PM check-in time. That is what we had expected,
so no big deal. It looked like it might rain so he gave us one of the
hotel umbrellas to take with us.
It was very chilly outside and we weren't dressed for it, so it was too cold
to walk around for 90 minutes. Since the Nara Hotel was just a block
away on the other side of the pond, we went there to take some pictures and
find something for lunch. The walk across the bridge was pleasant and
cherry trees blooming along the way. Some trees are in
full bloom, but many are only about a third covered with blossoms. We
didn't come to look at the cherry blossoms, so we really don't care one way
or the other. They are pretty, we'll grant you that. We came
tiny shrine by the side of the road decorated with fresh flowers.
driveway to the Nara Hotel is fairly
non-descript especially if you
don't read Japanese, but we knew where it was. The hotel is 100 years
old and it sort of looks it unfortunately. The outside is attractive,
but many of the modern renovations are eyesores. The wooden
reception desk hark from a different era. It's beautiful in its own
way, but we are very glad we didn't end up here. God works in
mysterious ways apparently. The
furniture looks original with inlaid wood side panels.
We wandered down a long wooden
corridor where we seriously think the
carpeting was the only thing keeping us from falling through the floor.
The "Dining Room" was at the end of the hall and that was where we were
headed...until we read the menu. French food for lunch, no thanks.
At least they had a restroom.
There was a beautiful
view of the pond and
Shikitei beyond from the
Backtracking and going the
other direction from the lobby we found the
Lounge that looks exactly like it must have when the hotel opened in 1909.
It was empty. There was also a glassed in porch where they were
serving tea. We looked at the menu and decided that would be enough to
tide us over until dinner tonight at the ryokan.
We were seated promptly by the window overlooking some
cherry trees and the
pond. This room was originally an open verandah by they looks of it
and it was enclosed with modern metal windows and a drop ceiling that didn't
go with the decor at all. The drapes were directly from 1975.
The service was very gracious and the waitress spoke very good English.
We both had a mixed sandwich plate that was essentially three entire
sandwiches cut into wedges, so it was plenty of food. The ham sandwich
was fantastic. The others were standard tea sandwiches with tomatoes
and cucumbers, etc. They were very fresh and good enough, but nothing
special. We had a choice of three different teas, but if one wanted
Earl Grey there was an extra charge of a few dollars. That's really
ridiculous considering that this tea arrangement for the two of us, plus one
pastry each cost over US$75.00!
When the check came the waitress told us to go to the front desk to pay it,
which was both odd and pointless, but we complied. The cashier didn't
speak any English at all, but it wasn't too difficult to figure out what he
wanted. Luckily we had plenty of cash with us.
From the hotel we walked back toward Shikitei pausing to read the historical
map of the pond on a big granite monument. We also took more
cherry blossoms since everyone seems so enthralled by them.
view across the small pond toward the Five-Storied Pagoda was
picturesque. We continued on toward Nara Park passing the "First Gate" where we will
probably start our explorations tomorrow.
Today we turned left and went to the famous
Five-Storied Pagoda that is
part of the
Kofukuji Temple compound and is the closest of the Nara Park
temple to the city. The park is famous for its
sacred deer wandering
all over the place. The minute someone would buy the deer crackers
from the vendor at the entrance, deer would immediately rush over for their
treats. They didn't bother the vendor since they probably knew she
wouldn't give them anything, but they were smart enough to know when a
customer bought something.
Some deer were in an
enclosure, but most of them wander freely all
over the park and into town. The
walk to the temple from our inn was
very short, maybe five minutes tops, so our location is great for walking
around the rest of the park tomorrow.
compound includes several
original buildings plus a current
a large central buildings. There are also
ruins in the grassy area nearby that are just
stones sticking out of the
grass now and then in a symmetrical pattern. The buildings still
existing here are the aforementioned
Five-Storied Pagoda, the
Tokondo Hall, and the
Treasure House. We didn't go inside any
of the buildings, but we might if time permits over the next few days.
There are also several small shrines where people were praying, lighting
incense, throwing offerings into a huge bin and ringing a gong. We
expected huge crowds, but it wasn't crowded at all. There were people
walking around, but no more than you'd find in any public park.
Unfortunately, this part of the park is surrounded by the jumble of modern
Nara, so outside of this raised temple area the city isn't attractive at
all. It is a small, easily navigated city, which is a plus. In
many ways it is more intimate and approachable than it more famous neighbor,
Kyoto, where we will be next week if things go right.
It started to sprinkle slightly and the temperature dropped a few degrees,
so we headed back to Shikitei for check-in at around 3:30PM.
To view a
video of Skikitei,
You will need Windows Media Player to play the file. Although the
building looks old, it is a modern structure. This
picture is the side of the building where our room is located facing Ara-ike pond.
OK, now we definitely
aren't in Kansas anymore! Thank goodness Dave had done a lot of
research on how all of this works or we'd be screwed about now! There
were several woman bowing down to the ground to us when we walked in.
Another slight plus is that Dave had also been trying to learn at least some
rudimentary Japanese because without it we would have had no clue what was
First up, lose the shoes and put on sandals. No dice on
the sandals, too small for us, so we went in stocking feet which was fine
with us. Several more woman bowed to the ground as we were ushered
into a small reception room for God only knows what. We knew (or
hoped) it wasn't our room because we had reserved one of the better rooms
Sorry we don't know the correct term for everything, so bear with us
when we describe this experience. The woman who will be in charge of
us had us sit on the floor of the reception room while she fetched a sweet
for us. It was something baked on the outside with a sweet bean paste
filling that was much more tasty than it sounds. Next she brought out the traditional tea
made with powdered green tea stirred with a whisk into a froth. We
expected it to be ghastly judging by the reaction of some Americans we saw
try it on a reality show, but it was fine. There was nothing weird about it
During all of this there was much bowing and scraping which is sort of
disconcerting to two American men watching a youngish woman do all that.
She didn't seem to mind though.
After the welcome ceremony, we were called
out into the hallway again where there were at least four young woman bowing
to the ground while we walked past them. Our attendant asked us to
follow her (we think) up the stairs to the second floor. The rooms all
have names, ours is Kakushô.
She slid the door open and we walked
into a foyer that sported a floor of loose polished stones with big rustic stone
steps. The loose stones are fairly deep, we didn't probe down into it,
but accidentally stepping on them we did sink a few inches. Lesson learned, don't
step on the rocks! You do sort of have to step on them to get to the
mini-bar and the tea making facilities in the corner though.
also an alcove with a
faux fountain with some flowers floating
in the stone basin.
We didn't know it at first, but the little
booth to the left of the fountain
is the toilet room complete with special toilet slippers. Come on, you
really need special slippers for a room that is maybe 3x4 feet in size...and
that's being generous. However, it does come with a more advanced
squirting toilet than the one at the Kansai hotel. This one heats up
the seat when you sit on it and has a blower to dry your butt when you're
done. There is
another room across the foyer that contains the
and other bathing facilities including a big
cedar tub for soaking.
main room is quite large with the sacred alcove (sorry we have forgotten the
name, but we swear we DID know it until we actually got here). There
is a small dressing room with a closet off to one side, which also contains
a flat screen TV and the telephone. We're not sure where you are
supposed to sit to see the TV, but the floor appears to be the best
location. There is a long, low table in the center of the room with
two legless chairs and armrests for eating. There is an Oriental
carpet under the table and under that is a heating pad, should you catch a
chill while on the floor. The floor is, of course, covered with the
traditional woven tatami mats, so it is somewhat cushioned even without the
carpet. No shoes or slippers are ever allowed on the tatami mats.
Attached to this room is a sort of enclosed
verandah with shoji screens
that open to a lovely
view of the pond and the Nara Hotel beyond.
This alcove has the only western-style chairs and a coffee table, plus a
large closet where the bedding is stored.
All of the flooring except for
the foyer and bathrooms is tatami mats, so no shoes or sandals allowed.
There are leather slippers provided, but they are too small for us.
Again, we don't mind at all not wearing them because we walk around barefoot
at home 24/7 anyway.
There is another small
tatami room also that has
a TV and table set-up, plus a full length mirror. We assume this
is intended for children or a larger number of guests than the two of us.
this is a modern ryokan meaning it is a new concrete building with up to
date plumbing and such, the interiors are all wood and shoji screens.
Doors to the rooms and the room dividers are all sliding doors, so you can
move them around to suit your purpose. There is air conditioning also.
The room smelled strongly of cigarettes when we arrived, so we were glad the
window opened to let us air it out. After doing that and figuring out
how to turn on the air conditioning fan, we were OK. We never did
figure out how to turn on the actual cooling part of the air conditioning, so we made do with
the fan alone.
green tea and two Japanese sweets. One was a sort of
gelatinous cube made of sweet beans we think. The other was similar to
the rice flour sweet we had on the airplane with the bean paste center, but
it was beautifully made to resemble a melon. These things taste good,
but the texture is something that requires getting used to.
returned with our
that are used for sleeping or lounging around the
inn. You can go outside and walk around in them also if you're really
into that, which we are not. She offered us a choice of either the
version with a top and pants or just the wrap around type, but somehow we
ended up with both. Our Japanese is rudimentary to say the least, so who knows
what actually transpired. Maybe she was just explaining why there were
four garments. She amused herself by bringing us sizes marked "LL".
They are big enough, but of course the sleeves are short as are the pants,
but we're not trying to make a fashion statement anyway.
Then she asked
for our passports to be copied (this has to be done by law in Japan).
When she returned she asked what time we wanted our dinner. We ended
up with 6:30PM. She also asked if we wanted a Japanese or Western
breakfast. After some hesitation we chose the Japanese breakfast, but
told her to ask us again tomorrow if we still want it. Dave's
extremely limited command of Japanese is the only thing that saved us today.
While the attendant is extraordinarily gracious and nice, she only speaks
a few words of English. When she told us her name, Mika, Dave said,
"Pleased to meet you," in Japanese which thrilled and shocked her. Mistake number
one, don't speak a foreign language you don't know much about because then
the other person will assume you can understand everything she says!
He did manage to say that he didn't know much Japanese, but she always
addressed Dave in Japanese from then on. Actually, that is sort of his
fault because later on during dinner he asked her to say the names of the
foods in Japanese so he could learn them. She still speaks to Bill in
limited English, so that is helpful. If Dave knows the subject he can
usually get the gist of whatever she is trying to say or ask.
We had about 90 minutes to kill
before dinner which was no problem with all the poking, laughing, putting on
the yukata and playing with the electric toilet.
When dinner time rolled around, Mika returned to put a white cloth on the
table and shortly thereafter started bringing in the food course by course.
We lost count of the courses, but we think there were eight deliveries
including dessert. Sorry we can't tell you what most of it was because
we either don't know or we blotted out the memory, but it was pretty to look
at. As best we can recall, the
first course was something jiggly in a
tiny covered bowl and something gelatinous served in a hollowed out tomato
half. The gelatin substance had pieces of shrimp, mini corn, a soy
bean and things like that in it. There was also a glass of sweet plum
wine that was very tasty.
Next up was sashimi on half a grapefruit and a
clear soup with a big shrimp dumpling and vegetables in it. One of the
sashimi was too chewy for Dave, but everything else was fine.
Something recognizable came next,
beef cooked on a hot rock. That
big black thing in the photo is the hot rock. There were two peppers
on top which neither of us tried. The dipping sauce was vinegar and
soy sauce with wasabi and hot mustard to add to it. This course was
next course was something Mika said was supposed to make
you strong. We'd guess she meant virile because it had clams and
oysters in some sort of fish custard. It wasn't as bad as it sounds,
by the way.
Can you figure out
what this item
is? That is a piece of
bamboo in broth. Don't get excited, that's how it looked after we ate
the slices of cooked bamboo and vegetable off the top of it. Fooled
you, huh? This is where things went terribly wrong when Dave asked Mika
in Japanese what something was on top of the bamboo shoot (it was dried
grated fish, by the way). She was beside herself that he spoke to her
in what was evidently perfectly accented Japanese because she commented on
that aspect of it. Hate to tell you this honey, but that pretty much
sums up his knowledge of Japanese!
There is a course at this point we
forgot to photograph, but it was a square of tofu with a small piece of
cooked fish on top. We don't remember anything else about it, so it
must have been OK.
This innocent looking
egg drop soup has something else
in it if you blow up the photo enough. There are teeny tiny little
fish-something with eyes in it, along with rice. It was good once you
got over the eye part. We sort of wished she hadn't told us about the
"tiny fish" because we probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise. It
didn't taste fishy, just eggy. Those dark purple things next to the
soup are pickled vegetables and they were very good.
Ah, finally something
you will recognize!
Dessert!! As you can see, it is a
strawberry, an apple/cream pastry and a cube of apple gelatin. When
Maki brought it she started telling Bill in Japanese what it was. The
word for Dessert in Japanese is "Dezaato", so it isn't too hard to figure
out, but she said it very quickly so he didn't catch that part. So,
Dave said, "How hard can it be? It's just Dezaato." Mika thought
that was hilarious and from then on spoke only Japanese to Dave. By
the way, in spite of the bowing and scraping she is very fun and she does
try to communicate, as do we. We're not sure, but we might have said
we don't like Japan. She asked us something that Dave knew was a
question, but didn't quite get the subject. So, figuring he had a
50/50 chance of getting it right just said, "No?" She didn't slap him
or anything, so it couldn't have been too terrible.
This exchange started
a conversation (If you can call it that) about, we think, where we came
from. When we said Hong Kong Disneyland during part of all of this,
she picked right up on it and ran with the subject, but again, we have no
idea what that subject actually was. In any case, she had fun, we had
fun, and everyone was laughing at the end, so it couldn't be all bad.
soon as the dishes were taken away she pushed the tables to the side and
started dragging the futons out of the closet. Just setting all that
stuff out every day would kill either of us in no time, but Mika didn't have
any problem with it. Shortly after finishing the bed set-up she came
back with a tray containing a pitcher of chilled water, two glasses and two wet washcloths,
plus a flashlight and a covered lacquer container. She launched into
an explanation of all this stuff, but we didn't catch on until she started
making earthquake gestures toward the flashlight and how to hold the wet
cloth over our face in case of a fire. We didn't get any of what was
in the covered dish, but when we looked it was a snack of four rolls of rice
wrapped in nori (dried seaweed) and Japanese pickles. Wish us luck on
the breakfast tomorrow morning.
We forgot to mention that we were informed
of the hours of the public baths on the first floor, but we didn't pay
attention because we're not interested in being quite that authentic yet.
We do know it was a few hours in the morning and longer hours in the
evening. This inn also has a "restaurant/lounge" that is open very
limited hours serving beer, wine and snacks in the afternoon, ice cream and
drinks for about an hour in the evening, and then functions as a place to
relax the rest of the time. We didn't see it when we came in so we
can't comment beyond the fact that it exists. We didn't venture out of
the room today once we had checked in.
It poured rain complete with
crashing thunder while we were eating. It is very cold tonight also,
in the low 40's we'd guess, maybe lower. Mika's gestures while talking
about the lightning were quite amusing to all of us. Hopefully she
will be around for all three days because although she is doing traditional
things in a traditional way, she isn't at all stuffy about it. We
expect our interaction with her will only get better as days go by.
Like sands through the hour glass, so go.....never mind, you know what we
Thursday, April 2 - Nara, Japan - Shikitei
Today's weather was nearly perfect for our planned walk around Nara
Park and its many shrines and temples. Mostly clear skies and a bit on
the chilly side, but that's fine when walking around all day. A light
jacket was enough to keep us comfortable.
Mika arrived at 8:00AM to put
away the bedding and prepare the table for breakfast. Luckily we had
set an alarm anticipating the she would arrive before the 8:30AM scheduled
serving time. Not that we needed an alarm though. Neither of us
slept very much because we didn't have the knack of sleeping on the floor
down yet. The main problem for us was that the pillows are too low and
there is no way to fold them over to make them bigger. Also, the
duvets are so thick and fluffy that they almost instantly made us too hot to
sleep. The room temperature was fine, but it was tricky figuring out
how much of our body to leave exposed. We'll have a better handle on
it tonight though. We weren't sore or anything close to it. The
futons were stacked two for each of us, so that part of it was comfortable.
Recall that we opted for the
Japanese breakfast in spite of being warned over
and over against it by friends. Besides being enormous, most of it was very good.
Each of us did find one item that almost gagged us. For Dave it was the
sashimi that was too chewy. For Bill it was the flavorless rice in tea
that almost did it. Everything else was great or at the very least
just boring. We might opt for the western breakfast tomorrow just to
see what it is, but if we had to take the Japanese breakfast we wouldn't
After breakfast while Mika was clearing the table, she asked if we
were going somewhere in a taxi today. Dave responded in Japanese that
we were going to Nara Park for the day. Once again she carried on
about how perfect his accent is. Now if he would learn more than four
sentences we'd be all set.
When we stepped out of our room, there was a
young man standing in the hallway waiting for us, we asuume. He asked
if we had our key with us and assured we did, led us down the stairs to
where our shoes were already laid out. They might have been there all
along, but we're not sure about that. In any case, he picked up long
shoehorns to help us put our shoes on, but that wasn't necessary.
Dave's shoes have velcro ties and Bill's are big enough to put on without
any help. The same guy walked us all the way out to the gate and
wished us a pleasant day. He spoke more English than Mika does, but
not by much. He was extremely friendly, too.
At around 10:00AM we
set off on foot for a grand circle tour of Nara Park's famous temples.
Just steps from Shikitei's front door is the
First Gate that we didn't know
at the time leads directly to Kasuga Taiga shrine. We were looking for
a garden that the guide book said was on the way to Todai-ji temple.
We never did find it in spite of wandering all over the place in every
imaginable nook and cranny looking for it. No big loss, but it would
have been nice to see it. Maybe we'll ask for better directions
We did stumble across a "museum" supported by a Japanese
corporation as a sort of goodwill gesture to tourists. There was a
chair you could sit in to experience a famous earthquake, but we passed.
No offense, but this building was basically just a glorified public restroom, but
we did pick up a good English map of the park. The man at the hotel
had offered one, but we thought what we had would be good enough. We
were glad later that we got the new one because it was more detailed and
easier to read. The security guard and the man at the information
counter were very polite to us and seemed happy to see a foreigner.
The upper terrace of the building had a
great view of the rooftops and Todai-ji beyond the trees.
There is a
small shrine right on the main thoroughfare leading to Todai-ji that was
quite scenic. It had a huge
cherry tree in bloom in front that looked like something from a
postcard. There was also a small
pond and many old stone lanterns covered with moss.
This area is a favorite stop for Japanese
tourists as well as foreigners,
but since Nara is a bit off the beaten track we are definitely a minority
here. We only saw maybe twenty foreigners the entire day and none of
those were Americans. Most were Australian, which would make sense
considering the proximity compared to the United States.
pathway leading up to Todai-ji was crowded, it wasn't ridiculous.
There was plenty of space to wander around. The first part of the
temple is the massive Nandai-mon, a huge
wooden gate housing enormous and
Nio Guardians made of carved wood. They look so real you almost
expect them to come to life before your eyes.
Beyond the gate is the
approach to Daibutsu-den Hall (Hall of the Great Buddha) which is the
largest wooden building in the world. It used to be 1/3 larger until
it was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1709. There is a lovely
with a waterfall to the right and tacky souvenir stands to the left.
If you want a cheap trinket, this is the place to get it.
There are more
figures in niches on each side of the
gate to the grounds of the
hall. There is an admission charge for this temple, so we had to go to
the left side and pay to get in (about $5.00 each). Once inside you
walk along vermillion colored
corridors of columns to reach the main gate
vista is amazing from the gate.
The colonnaded walkway
grounds of the hall and there are manicured shrubs and cherry
tress all around. Up huge granite steps you enter the
where one of the world's largest bronze
Buddha is housed. The
is huge at over 16 meters tall. It was originally cast in the 700's,
but was recast in the Edo period (Google it if you really care). It
has lost its head a couple of times in earthquakes and fires, but is always
In the same building are several other enormous sculptures of
all of which are very impressive. The solid wooden pillars are about five feet in diameter, maybe more. How they moved
those huge logs into position so long ago is anyone's guess, although if
we could read Japanese we might know from the signs.
Behind the Buddha
there is one
pillar with a tunnel through the base that is the same size as
the Buddha's nostril. It is said that anyone who can get through the
hole will achieve nirvana. There was a long line waiting to try,
mostly children. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the activity.
outside we snapped a few more pictures of the
approach to the temple
and a sculpture that supposedly has healing powers. Then , we
headed for the exit. There is a high threshold at the gate and an old
man in a wheelchair was trying to get out. His equally old wife and a
security guard were helping him, but he didn't have the strength to stand on
his own. He fell directly in front of Dave who cushioned his fall by sort of
catching him. It took both Dave and the guard to get the poor guy
upright again. His wife seemed glad to have the help. He should
have stopped by this
statue that supposedly cures whatever ails you if you rub it.
following a walking route from the Lonely Planet guide today and it was
accurate for the most part. We never found that garden, but we found
everything else with no problem. It did direct us to the next stop up
a road that was marked "No pedestrians", but other than that we managed to
find everything we intended to see and then some.
Up a winding path
through the forest are a couple of icons from the temple. One is a
statue and the other is a gilded bronze
spire from a past Expo that
contains all sorts of artifacts that we have already forgotten. It
sort of looked like a giant wind chime.
We continued up the hill through
the woods and up a lot of
stone steps to reach the
belfry of the temple. There is a small area of
shops and restaurants adjacent to it. Beyond that and up the steep
hillside are a few more halls housing a variety of shrines. A
stood right next to Dave while he was waiting for Bill outside the restroom.
He stood there for several minutes, completely happy to be there.
However, the draw for the tourists to climb up to the highest point is the
view over Nara, said to be the best. The view was indeed spectacular.
Call us shallow, but we were more interested in the fact that one can see
the now-defunct rip-off copy of Disneyland, Nara Dreamland, complete with a
poorly copied Matterhorn. From the looks of it we'd say it probably
deserved to go out of business, but it did last many years.
enough details on the shrines for now. Suffice it to say that we
walked and walked and walked. We saw shrines, temples, shrines,
temples and a big bare grassy hill that they burn once a year on a specific
date for some reason we can't recall. Obviously it has something to do
with religious beliefs, but really, who cares? The weirdest thing was
that although you could plainly see the entire hill from below, people were
paying an admission fee to actually walk on it. We passed on that.
We've seen grassy hills and we've seen them on fire being from California.
Keep on walking along a souvenir shop filled lane and you eventually end up
at Kasuga Taisha, another major tourist attraction and shrine. This
was where we crossed paths with the foreign tourists arriving in busses for
their fifteen minute tour. They were gone fast enough and we had the
place almost to ourselves. All of the approaches to the shrine are
lined with many hundreds of mossy stone lanterns. They go on and on in
every direction. The deer seem to like to lounge on the bases waiting
for handouts. Some of the lanterns are huge, others are just about as
tall as we are, but even those must weigh a ton. We'd hate to the the
ones who have to light all these things during the lantern festival, but it
sure must be a sight to behold. All of this is in a forest, so the
effect of the lighted lanterns in the night forest must be spectacular.
have no clue what we were looking at after the main part of the shrine, but
basically we followed a path up the hill that was lined with more lanterns,
vermillion shrines and red banners on bamboo poles.
Although we did manage
to buy some orange punch from one of the many vending machines in the area,
we were fading fast by about 2:30PM. So, we went back to the plaza
area to reach the main pathway back to our accommodation. This pathway
leads back to the First Gate, which is where the lanterns begin. Along
the way we passed hundreds more lanterns and a botanical garden. We
had enough energy left to go there, so we paid the admission of about $5.00
each and went inside. Yawn. Gardens in early spring suck.
Even the koi were bored, although who could blame them since their water was
filthy. Oh well, they can't all be gems.
Continuing toward the city
along the same pathway we finally passed the Nara National Museum.
Note that we generally do not do museums, so we have nothing to report about
it except that the building is beautiful from the outside.
deer, there must be thousands of them all over the place, we finally reached
the First Gate where we started. Turning left from the gate we arrived back
at Shikitei within a couple of minutes. It is maybe fifty feet from
there, so the location for this major sightseeing loop is perfect.
is an electric eye at the gate of Shikitei to alert the staff that someone
has arrived, but don't tell anyone. Let everyone think they are
psychic. In any case, a young woman rushed out as we approached almost
ruining our photo op of the
front of the building. She ushered us
inside where another young woman was bowing and scraping on the raised
tatami platform. You leave your shoes here before stepping up onto the
tatami and on to your room.
We stopped at the front desk to ask the woman
there if they could send our bags ahead to Kyoto. At first she didn't
understand, but shortly figured out what we wanted and handed us forms to
fill out. That's all well and good, but the form is in Japanese.
We will ask someone tomorrow to help us when we have the hotel address with
Seconds after we returned to the room, an attendant brought us
a sweet. This time the sweet was a firm gelatin cube with what we
finally decided was either a sweet coffee or bitter chocolate sauce over it.
It was actually really good, so that description is probably not at all
accurate. She asked what time we wanted dinner and we opted for
6:30PM, the same as yesterday.
The ryokan is full or close to it today, so
it is a bit noisier than it was yesterday. Considering that we think
we might have been the only guests here last night it should be quiet.
The inn is on a very busy street, but the room has double windows, so when
they are both closed you can't hear anything from outside. Since the
building is mostly wood inside, sounds do travel, but the fan on the A/C
masks most of it. Tonight we can hear talking and noises from next
door, but it isn't disruptive.
We were both so tired after almost no sleep
and walking around all day that it was almost impossible to keep from
nodding off. That wouldn't be an problem in a regular hotel, but there
is nowhere to lay down for a nap in a ryokan because the bedding is put away
each morning. Of course, we could drag it out of the closet, but we
don't want to buck the system.
Around 6:00PM Mika arrived to set up the
table. She was shocked when she asked in Japanese if we saw the
animals in the park today and Dave knew the word for animals. She is
very nice and a lot of fun, but it would be a lot easier if someone here
spoke at least enough English to answer a question. We don't expect
anyone to speak perfect English, but at least some would be nice. Not
necessarily for room attendants like Mika, but the front desk person should.
was ready to go and the food started being served promptly at 6:30PM as
requested. There were slightly longer lulls between courses tonight
because she was serving another room also, but it didn't matter to us.
Overall tonight's meal was far superior to what was served yesterday.
We have a feeling that because the inn wasn't very full that they cut down
on the food. There were more courses tonight also. So, here we
go again on the mystery food! Can you identify any of them without
looking at the explanation?
First the cold
appetizer course was served along with a different sweet wine. The
cube in the small dish with the green stuff on top is tofu in a light sauce
with wilted (on purpose) vegetable sprouts. The other bowl contains
cold items such as a big clam and vegetables. This course was much
more palatable than last night's offering.
second course consisted of sashimi like last night, but it seemed to be
of a better quality and not as chewy. It was fine. The clear
soup with it had a big crab dumpling in it this time. It was good
third course was a bowl of absolutely wonderful fish soup.
Everything about it was fantastic. We'd order it in a restaurant, it
was that good.
Next up was the
beef course similar to last night except this time it was cooked in a
teriyaki sauce. The meat had a lot of gristle in it that was impossible to
chew, but it had a nice flavor. It was also difficult to eat because
it wasn't cut up and the fat made it hard to bite pieces off of it.
This course wasn't the best, but it was mostly edible.
Following the beef
meal in itself. It was a big piece of baked pumpkin sitting in a
white cheese sauce. On top of that was a piece of grilled lobster.
The lobster wasn't anything special, but the pumpkin with the sauce was
interesting in a good way. We were almost full after this dish.
some of you might gag...this
dish was sliced abalone topped with a puree of cucumber and green
onions. While the abalone was chewy it tasted good. The cucumber
stuff on top was a nice compliment to the abalone, or maybe we should say it
covered up the flavor well.
last course of cooked food was an egg drop soup similar to the tiny fish
soup last night, except the fish were replaced with chopped bamboo shoots.
It was OK, but didn't have much flavor other than eggs. The other
small dish was Japanese pickles. We find it a bit odd that rice isn't
being served with dinner, but perhaps the rice in the soup is supposed to be
a substitute for plain rice. Personally, we'd rather have the plain
Dessert was the same apple gelatin from this morning, a green tea cake
topped with fruit, and a skinless mandarin orange that had been cooked in
sugar syrup (like canned orange segments only whole). Everything was
very good and interesting.
As mentioned before, this meal overall seemed
much higher quality than last night, but that might just be luck of the draw
depending on the menu. Last night was fine, but this was far superior.
Mika told us she would be back in twenty minutes, 8:20PM, to set up the
beds. She brought the midnight snack rice balls, cold water in a
thermos, the flashlight and wet towels for a hasty escape "just in case".
She also told us that she would not be here tomorrow and was it OK if we had
a "new girl". New meaning different, not a trainee. Like we have
a choice? Anyway, it was nice of her to tell us.
We thought we would
try asking her if she could decipher the luggage shipping form for us in
spite of the language barrier. She did explain what goes on each line,
but we were sure we wouldn't remember for more than two seconds. Dave
asked her to fill it out for us after he found the address of the hotel
written in Japanese on the Michi Travel itinerary. She filled in the
entire form in Japanese and was beside herself when we gave her our Japanese
name and address cards to copy from. She asked if she could keep them
and of course we said she could.
Here are a couple of miscellaneous items
for your amusement. Check out the
telephone instructions for this place. We know we are tall, but
Dave looks like a giant in
this photo. To his left is the sliding door to the hallway and to
the right is the door to the toilet booth.
Friday, April 3 - Nara, Japan - Shikitei
Today's weather is overcast and in the low 60's, but it doesn't
look like it will rain. However, one never knows for sure!
getting used to the futon thing, so we got more sleep than we did yesterday.
The futon itself isn't uncomfortable, but the quilt retains the heat way too
well. You would probably be perfectly comfortable sleeping outside in
the snow if you had it over you, no exaggeration. We adjusted the
height of the pillow using one of the floor cushions, so no problem with
Our breakfast schedule was the same for today, be out of bed
by 8:00AM. We have a different room attendant today, so things are
slightly different, but she is very nice. She is a bit more shy than
Mika, but still quite friendly and helpful. We're fairly certain she
understands more English than Mika did, but it is obvious she prefers it
when Dave speaks to her in his limited Japanese.
We selected the
Western breakfast for today just to see what they had to offer.
The spread wasn't as extensive as the Japanese breakfast, but it was still
plenty of food. There was a green salad topped with smoked salmon, two
tasty rolls with marmalade and butter, a plain omelet with two sausages on
cooked greens (all of this was cold, by the way, but we had done enough
research to know that was what we would get), a small bowl of vanilla yogurt
with strawberry sauce, sliced tomatoes with cheese, and the most incredible
cream of potato soup we have ever tasted. It was absolutely delicious.
We didn't know it was potato until Dave asked the maid in Japanese, but it
tasted familiar. In any case, it was wonderful.
The plan we had from
Michi Travel for today had us travelling by train to Yoshino to view the
thousands of cherry blossoms there. We have decided to pass on that
and wander around Nara some more. We think we have a better grasp on
the location of the garden we were looking for unsuccessfully yesterday,
plus there are some ponds with supposedly beautiful vistas nearby.
Then we might walk to the old part of town to see what's up with that (not
much is our guess).
The deer were back outside our window this morning
poking in the grass along the edge of Ara-ike pond. If the busy street
wasn't twenty feet away it would be quite idyllic. As it is, it is
very nice, we're not complaining at all.
Our plan for today was to do more wandering around to pick up a few
sights we missed, skipped or couldn't find yesterday. It couldn't be
easier to sightsee from this location because it is practically smack in the
middle of the major sites in Nara. The little road outside our window
leads through a residential area with tiny houses that might actually be
rentals, we're not sure. Since they are in the deer park, they
probably are the latter. The deer were particularly cute along the
Just a few minutes walking brought us to one of the most famous
scenic spots in Nara, Sage-ike pond. With the cherry trees in bloom
Japanese were starting to come out for a stroll to admire them and the
beauty of spring. The trees have a long way to go before they are in
full bloom, which may account for the lighter crowds than we had
anticipated. It looks good to us now, but apparently it becomes quite
a spectacle in a week or so. We saw them in full bloom last time we
were in Japan, so it wasn't a priority for us to see them now.
around the pond among the locals was very serene. There was a large
group of older people sketching the beautiful lake with its Ukimido Hall in
the center. There were row boats available for rent, but only one was
out on the lake. Young women were strolling about in their spring
kimonos and couples were cuddling on the benches. It really was quite
a vision. All of the ponds around here have huge colorful koi in them,
no matter how dirty the water may appear. This pond also had many
turtles about the size of dinner plates swimming leisurely near the surface.
From the park near the lake we could see across to the grassy hill below
Wakayama Shrine where we wandered around yesterday. Backtracking a
bit, we walked into a residential area, down some narrow alleys, and
stumbled across Yuga Shrine. The view from the terrace in front of the
shrine over the city was very nice.
From this vantage point, we walked
down hill through a charming residential neighborhood of small houses.
Some were quite old, but it was a mix of new with old. The newer homes
looked very nice from the outside.
We're not quite sure how we got there,
but we ended up in the old part of Nara, Naramachi, which was sort of the
goal for this afternoon. Getting there we followed no particular path.
We knew the general direction it was in, so we either followed groups of
locals or guessed where we should go. The city of Nara makes it
extremely easy for tourists by posting huge "You Are Here" maps near every
tourist site and at most major intersections. You only have to walk
about a block to find another one.
A Japanese couple stopped to examine
the same map we were looking at and we determined they were headed to a
temple that is in Naramachi, Gangoji Temple. This is a major
historical treasure, so we walked around the outside for a few photos, but
we didn't pay to go into the grounds. We could see most of it from the
front gate anyway, plus we are over temples and shrines already unless they
are really something spectacular.
After leaving the temple, we found
ourselves in the narrow streets lined with old shops and houses. You
really can't tell what is a house and what is a shop unless you examine the
front of the building carefully, but the stroll was atmospheric enough.
We did as the Japanese were doing and just walked around to soak up the
atmosphere. The area is full of nice restaurants, but it wasn't
feeding time for us yet.
On the way back toward the area of our ryokan, we
stumbled into a shopping street that had been covered with a glass roof.
Sort of a 100-year-old version of a shopping mall. We bought several
of the yukata-type garments we wear at the inn from a friendly Japanese
woman who spoke American English.
We decided to look through the food at a local supermarket we happened
across. The produce looked fantastic! A huge array of beautiful
fruits and vegetables. Even the whole fish wrapped and ready to sell
were colorful and attractive. One could buy variety trays of
ready-to-serve sashimi, bento boxes, and more. We found packages of
the tiny fish that were in our soup the first night, among other exotic
creatures. There were many cakes and pastries, sandwiches, etc.
We bought some cookies and snacks for the road. We tried some when we
got back to the ryokan later and we think they were shrimp crackers with a
sweet shiny topping. Sounds gross, but they kind of grow on you.
Eventually we found ourselves on the main road from the train station to the
tourists sites, so of course it was lined with tacky trinket shops. We
finally found a tacky trinket that we could make into a Christmas ornament
that said "Memory of Nara" on it, so we bought it.
At the end of the
souvenir shops is supposedly the most famous view in Nara and the tourists
there proved it. That is not to say it was crowded, just that there
were more foreigners around than we usually see here. Generally we are
the only ones in sight. The point of this view is to see the
reflection of the Five-Storied Pagoda in Surusawa-ike pond. OK,
whatever, but it would be a lot nicer if they hadn't allowed modern buildings
to intrude on it.
It was nice, but not THAT nice, if you know what we mean. There
were some cute turtles in the pond and a convenient public restroom, so
we're not complaining. We don't recall there being any cherry trees in
bloom, but it might be more exciting when they are. There is one spot
where you can stand and get the famous view without the modern building in
From here we needed to go back to the ryokan to drop off our
packages before heading out again. The town is easily navigated on
foot and all of the major sights are located in the vicinity. It took
about ten minutes to walk back to Shikitei where we found that Mika had
returned to serve us for the rest of the day. No slight to the "new
girl", but we know Mika better and so it isn't quite as formal. She
offered to take our
picture together, then we took one with
Mika and Bill, and another with
Mika and Dave.
The point of going out again was to find the garden we
couldn't seem to find yesterday. It is about a fifteen minute walk
through the park and across a major road, but that's no big deal.
Where we went wrong yesterday was in thinking the entrance faced this major
road. Wrong, it is on a side street you access from a narrow alley off
the main street.
We had no problems finding it today, but first we stopped
at Yoshikien Garden because it had a sign out front that was offering free
admission to foreigners. We expected a dump like the botanical garden
yesterday, but it was absolutely beautiful. It was part of the nearby
temple, but it sort of seems like nobody is sure and that the story just sounds good.
Anyway, since it isn't on the major tourist maps there were no foreigners
there, just us and one old Japanese couple. The garden contains an old
tea house and other structures from ages long past. There was a sign
explaining in great detail how to look at an angle through the antique plate
glass window to see the ripple effect. A bit of overkill maybe?
The man from the old Japanese couple came over and started talking to us
about God-knows-what in Japanese. We know he asked if we are
American and when we said we are he started telling us something about the
garden. He was very nice, but we have no clue what he was talking
about. He seemed to like us because when we ran across he and his wife
a bit later she bowed deeply and was happy to meet us.
We saw two old
ladies looking at us from above in the moss garden. When we went up the
stone steps, they were at the top. One of them said hello to us in
Dave said, "Konnichiwa" back and she almost had a stroke. Her reaction
was priceless. She told us to be sure to go to the garden next door,
which we assured her was our next destination. It sort of seemed like both
of these groups of Japanese were very happy that two young (to them)
American boys would be so interested in their gardens. Believe us, the
pleasure is all ours. The garden was gorgeous.
destination was right across the drainage channel from the first garden.
In fact, the gate was less than fifty feet away, if that. It has the
same sort of back story that the first garden had except this one, Isuein
Garden, is more famous as a tourist attraction. There is a newish
small museum that is included in the price of admission, but we don't do
museums remember? This garden was similar to the neighboring one, but
much larger and more elaborate. Old houses are part of the ambiance
also, plus tea houses and such. There is a front and back garden, the
latter only revealed when you turn a corner. It incorporates the roof
of Todaiji Temple in the view and the hills beyond as well.
When you are gazing at the garden across the pond, it appears to be huge.
But, when there is a person standing on a pathway you realize it is actually
quite small and the large appearance is a designed illusion. There are
beautiful pond, streams, small waterfalls, stone bridges, stone pathways,
the aforementioned buildings, and a large pond in the back garden shaped
like the symbol for water. How anyone would know that without flying
overhead is anyone's guess. All we know is that the entire garden is
stunning now and must be breathtaking when the flowers are in bloom.
We were very happy to finally find it and glad we didn't skip it like we
usually do when something isn't right there in our face.
It was about
3:30PM by the time we finished touring the gardens, which were not crowded at
all, by the way. We found a pedestrian underpass to get to the other
side of the main road on the way back. Too bad we didn't know about it
yesterday, but such is life.
Since we had to walk through the deer anyway, we figured it was about
time to buy the deer crackers and feed them like everyone else does.
However, we wanted to find some deer that weren't already being bothered, so
we kept walking toward our ryokan until we found a large number of them
grazing in the grass. One of them
timidly came over and Dave gave him part of a cracker (the crackers are
about 3" in diameter and look like a thin, dry pancake). If you don't
have these crackers the deer won't give you the time of day, but once they
know you have them they come running. Well, strolling is a better
term, but you get the idea.
The deer aren't pushy, they just stand there
looking at you with those
big brown eyes. They are cute anyway, but when they want the
crackers they are extraordinarily charming. We wanted to feed the
younger, small ones, so we could give the big ones a small piece to occupy
them while handing out the big pieces to the babies. They were
so damn cute you can't believe it. Then we noticed that if you
aren't handing the food to them they
start to beg by bowing to you. How enchanting is that? And
if that doesn't work they start making a low whining sound that is just
pitiful. When you run out of food, all you have to do is hold up your
empty hands for them to see and off they go. Too cute!!
Shikitei, the electric eye alerted the staff that we had arrived at the
gate. Nobody came outside, but when we stepped inside they were
clambering around to greet us properly as usual. Shoes removed, we
started toward our room, passing the small front desk where the keys are
kept. Instead of giving us our key, the woman came out and ushered us
into the tea ceremony room again and we went through the ritual just like we
did when we first arrived.
Mika came to get us at the end of the ceremony. Let's just say you can't get lost around
here. We wanted to look at a floorplan of the inn that was on the
wall, but we decided it was better not to buck the system.
However, Mika noticed our interest, although we didn't realize it. She showed up shortly with tea and a sweet, then asked when we
wanted dinner. We told her the same time, 6:30PM, and off she went.
She did ask if we still want to send the two large bags to Kyoto tomorrow.
We weren't sure if it had to be done today or could wait until morning, but
she said no problem doing it as we are leaving. Then she searched
around for a
floorplan similar to the one on the wall and finally came up with the
emergency plan by our door. How's that for being proactive?
Nothing happened between
our return and dinner time, so we'll pick up with that. The
cold appetizers were an assortment of items, all of which were very
good. We're not sure what they were, but they were attractive and
sashimi course to follow was lobster, with a crab dumpling in clear
broth. We forgot to take a photo of the next course, but it was
stingray sushi and a small container of a brown soup with tiny balls of
something in it...we didn't ask and neither should you.
course, Mika said, "Shutter chance...koto music now." What she meant
was, photo op, someone is coming to play live koto music for you. With
that a young woman proceeded to set up a gigantic wooden instrument and then
played a piece for us. It was definitely a photo op because she asked
if we wanted a
picture when she was finished. It was a nice touch, that's for
This was followed by a
stew containing vegetables and two slices of duck. It tasted good,
but the thick layer of fat on the edge of the duck slices was difficult to
fish course followed that was two pieces of white fish in a beautifully
arranged basket made of husks of some sort decorated with a branch of cherry
blossoms. The fish was delicious.
beef tonight was thinly sliced and layered with eggplant, topped with
puff pastry. The pastry part was fantastic. The meat had a
teriyaki sauce on it and was grilled. It was very good also, but parts
of it were gristly. It wasn't as fatty as last night's and it had a
nice flavor. The eggplant was eggplant, nothing more.
to photograph the rice soup course, but it looked the same as the previous
two dinners except this time there were tiny mushrooms in the mix instead of
bamboo shoots. This soup has never had much flavor and tonight was no
Dessert was large slices of baked apples topped with ice cream. Mika
couldn't figure out what the English name for the flavor was, so she drew a
picture we thought was an acorn. After much laughing and
attempted guessing from both sides, she went to get someone who might know.
The young man from the door this afternoon came up with "Chestnut" written
on a piece of paper and we all started laughing. When we told Mika is
was the same as the Christmas song, "Chestnuts roasting on a open fire...",
she immediately got it.
After dinner, Mika came to clear the tables and set
up the beds. We chatted a bit about how we got here, how long we are
staying, etc. She didn't quite grasp the cruise part of it, so Dave
looked for a picture of the ship on the computer. She was overjoyed to
see the picture and flabbergasted that we are staying in Japan for so long.
When we told her we are going to Takayama and Hakone, she said something
like, "Oh how fun!". She also gave us some wonderful news, check-out
time isn't until 11:00AM. Woo hoo!
She informed us she won't be here in
the morning, so we gave her a fold-out map of San Diego and another small souvenir to
thank her for being so nice to us. She was overwhelmed and started to
cry, so apparently we weren't such terrible guests. After saying that
she hopes we will come back to Nara someday, she was off. Every day we
get more and more attention from the staff, so it is quite apparent that a
little respect and effort to learn the Japanese culture goes a long way.
Click to view the Nara Photo
Saturday, April 4 - Depart Nara, Japan -
Train to Kobe, Japan - Hotel Okura
is the capital of Hyogo Prefecture and one of Japan's ten largest cities.
Located between the sea and the Rokko mountain range, Kobe is also
considered one of Japan's most attractive cities. Kobe has been an
important port city for many centuries. Kobe Port was one of the first
Japanese ports to be opened to foreign trade in the late Edo Period, and the
city remains one of Japan's more cosmopolitan cities.
In January 1995, Kobe was hit by the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, which
killed over 5000 people and destroyed tens of thousands of buildings. A
decade later, the city is completely rebuilt, and few signs of the terrible
event are left.
Hotel Okura Kobe is a luxury 35-story hotel, overlooking the water on
Kobe harbor front, next to Meriken Park and the Port Tower, the symbol of
Kobe. Merging the finest in Japanese tradition with a full array of
luxurious amenities, the Hotel Okura Kobe offers the ultimate in elegance
and hospitality. The ideal Kobe hotel for leisure travelers, families, or
business executives, the Hotel Okura Kobe is close to numerous Kobe
attractions, the Motomachi shopping area, and is in the heart of Kobe's
Today's weather is overcast with rain predicted for later this afternoon and
evening. The temperature is about the same as it has been since we
As usual, we woke up about an hour before our scheduled breakfast time of
8:30AM. Theoretically, one could stay in bed until the attendant comes
to wake you up, but we prefer to be put together a bit before we have to
interact with anyone.
The attendant we have this morning is older than Mika and the substitute we
had yesterday morning. We lucked out getting Mika because it was
possible to break through her formal facade and have some fun with her.
We doubt we would have had the same success with the woman who took care of
us this morning. That's not to say she wasn't perfectly pleasant, just
that she took things more seriously.
We ordered the
Japanese breakfast this morning because we liked it so much better
overall than the western version. It is also a lot more food when you
pile the rice on at the end. We're not sure what everything was on the
tray, but we think the green shiny squares were seaweed gelatin, but it
might have been some kind of fish because it was quite firm. The small
bowl in the center is shredded daikon topped with tiny dried fish.
The bowl with chunks in broth we think was eggplant or maybe squash, but
whatever it was it was fantastic and the best thing on the tray by far.
Everything else was fine.
After breakfast we sorted out enough clothing to last us a few days until,
hopefully, we are reunited with our large pieces of luggage. The maid
came back to take the bags we are sending ahead about thirty minutes before
We opened the sliding door to the hallway at 10:45AM and were immediately
helped with our luggage by today's maid. Our hand luggage was bigger
than she, but she insisted on carrying it. At the reception desk two
men were putting our large luggage into plastic bags to be sent with the
luggage delivery service. The cost to send two large bags was about
The woman at the desk was extraordinarily gracious when giving us the
receipt for the stay. It was prepaid so we didn't owe anything.
The total bill for three days was about $2,500.00 which is less than we
recall the room rate being when we first looked at this inn on the internet.
We thought it was about $800 per night ($400 per person), but obviously it
was less than that. As Japanese ryokans go, this one was definitely
one of the most exclusive in the city and that price is about right for what
When we thanked the manager/owner for our stay, she said, "The pleasure was
all mine," and bowed deeply. She called a taxi for us and two
attendants followed us outside and waited until the taxi arrived, put
the bags in the trunk and put us in the back seat. They were still
bowing as we drove off.
That sums up our stay in Nara. Now we jump into the world of traveling
by train on our own.
The ride to the train station took about ten minutes and cost roughly
$12.00. The taxi driver was very pleasant and spoke English.
Japanese taxis are sparkling clean inside and out with white cotton covers
on the seats and seat backs. It began to rain while we were en route
to the train station.
We knew we were in the right place because it was under construction.
When we were traveling in Europe years ago, almost every site we visited was
covered in some degree of scaffolding, so we kept saying that we must be in
the right place because the scaffolding is up. It took us a few
minutes standing outside the station to organize our luggage, two carry-on
sized bags each. You have to manage your own luggage on the trains
and there is no where to store it except at your feet. The train we
are taking today is a regular commuter train, so we expected it to be
crowded because the station certainly was.
While Bill struggled to get his bags secured together, Dave went to buy the
tickets. You have the option of using vending machines or going to a
live person. The vending machines were limited in number and quite
busy, so he went to the ticket office to purchase them. There were
only two other people there, so it was no wait at all to be served.
Although the agents generally do not speak English, just stating the
destination, "Kobe," and holding up two fingers was enough to get the
correct tickets. The fare was less than we had been told it would be,
only about $28.00 for two tickets. Although we have to change trains
in Osaka, the same tickets works for the entire trip.
The station signs had English subtitles, so it wasn't too much of a problem
to find the right platform, or so we thought. A train arrived that
matched what we were looking for, but it was going in the wrong direction.
At the time we still thought we made the right choice, so be boarded.
Luckily there was a bit of a delay departing and that allowed us to realize
we were headed the wrong direction. We got off quickly and went
looking for the right train.
Trains to Osaka arrive every ten minutes, so it isn't a big deal to miss a
train. We went back down to the station to consult the electronic
signs again and compare them to the departure information we printed from
the internet before we left home. We highly recommend doing that
because it gives you more options in case you miss a train. Plus, you
can keep track of the stops to be sure you end up at the right place.
Once at the right platform, we boarded the correct train and found a seat
where we could fit all of our luggage. At the Nara station, the train
was not full at all, but at every stop more people got on than off. By
the time we arrived at Osaka station it was standing room only. This
segment took about 50 minutes.
Osaka station is a major transport hub, so it was VERY crowded and this was
at 12:45PM, not rush hour. But, then again, it is a Saturday and most
commuters seemed to be going shopping. This time we were more careful
to look at the signs and we found the right train the first time. In a
crowded station there is no room for errors, so we are glad we didn't start
here. You also have to be sure you are boarding at the correct
position because some long trains like this one (12 cars) are split at a
station and one string of cars goes to a different place. We just
happened to hear an announcement in English about that fact or we would
never have known.
We had to stand with our luggage on the train, but we found a spot by the
door where the seats fold up so we weren't in the way. A young
Japanese woman began talking to us, which is very unusual here. She
said she missed speaking English and was it OK to talk to us. Of
course we said we would be glad to talk to her. She had spent a year
in Canada on a student work program and her goal is to move there
permanently. She said she was a sales representative and was on a
business trip from Osaka and would be on the train for an hour. We
told her we would entertain her until we got to Kobe if she wanted to talk
and she was thrilled. Dave gave her one of his Japanese name cards,
which thrilled her even more. She wanted one of Bill's also, but they
were buried in the luggage, so no luck. Talking to this friendly woman
made the thirty minute trip fly by and we were in Kobe in no time. We
had to stand for the entire trip, but it didn't bother us at all.
The Kobe station wasn't quite as packed as Osaka because it is actually not
the main station in Kobe. That would be Sannomiya station two stops
earlier. We could have disembarked there and taken a free hotel
shuttle, but Kobe station is closer to the hotel and the taxi cost less than
$10.00. It was pouring rain when we arrived in Kobe and it continued
the rest of the day and into the night.
The drive to the hotel took just a few minutes and we had no communication
problems with the driver. The Hotel Okura the most prestigious hotels
in the city, but it looks like something straight out of the 80's inside and
out. We can't fault the service, however. Two doorman and a
female bellhop swarmed the taxi the moment we drove up. We were
escorted to the front desk and served promptly. Everyone we
encountered spoke English, so it was very easy for us.
Our room wasn't ready yet, so we were asked to have a seat in the enormous
lobby until we were called. The lobby looks very 1980's and the
furniture is a bit worn, but otherwise it is fine. It has a beautiful
view of the hotel's Japanese
garden and the Maritime Museum's soaring
roofline. We felt extremely out of place with literally every
other guest dressed in black suits and formal kimono. Every public
place you go to in Japan is as quiet as a cathedral and the lobby was no
Someone came to take us to our room within just a few minutes. We are
on the 28th floor with a view of the city and mountains beyond. Since
it is raining we can't see much, but it must be spectacular in clear
weather. The forecast for tomorrow does not include rain, so maybe we
will get lucky.
Our room looks recently renovated and is very comfortable. It is large
by Japanese hotel standards. We have a
deluxe twin, which means there are two beds that are larger than our twin
beds, but smaller than a queen size. There is a
built-in desk, a flat screen TV on the wall, and a
mini-bar/tea making area. The
bathroom sports another one of those electronic
Washlet toilets that are so fascinating to most visitors.
Personally we find them sort of gross, but to each his own.
Both of us were tired for no particular reason, so the rain was a good
excuse to relax in the room and save the sightseeing for tomorrow.
There isn't anything in Kobe that is a "must see", so if we only have time
to go to Himeji, that's fine. We would like to see a couple of minor
attractions in Kobe, but we'll see how much time we have left after
returning from our day trip to Himeji.
Rather than bother going out tonight for dinner, we went to the hotel's
casual restaurant, Cafe Camellia. Everyone we saw earlier was so
formally dressed that we changed into better outfits than jeans and
T-shirts, but we needn't have bothered. The restaurant was full of
families with screaming children, much to the horror of some of the older
Japanese customers. Only one family was really loud, and their
children were very unruly, all of the others were behaving properly.
The way service is handled in all of the restaurants we have been to so far
completely eludes us. There are so many people serving you there is no
way to know who to ask for anything. There is a sort of tally left on
the table in a holder and whenever you add something the person serving you
marks it on the check. When you are finished you take it to the
cashier for the total (no prices are on the tally). It's very
confusing to say the least.
Service so far at this hotel is amazing. There are so many staff
around that you can't get lost or do anything wrong. However, we are
definitely paying through the nose for it. We don't recall how much
the room cost, but we think it is over $300, probably more like $400, but
that isn't too outrageous for a Japanese hotel (the dump at the airport cost
over $200). We both ordered the Chef's Special Dinner that consisted of a
crab salad (very good), an entree of filet of beef with a peppercorn sauce
that was delicious, fruit with ice cream for dessert, and tea. The
food was outstanding, but the portions were minuscule. We ordered an
additional dessert each, a crepe filled with crème, topped with ice cream
and surrounded by berries and fruit. It was a reasonable portion and a
high, but fair for a hotel, price. Get this, the total came to almost
$150!! We won't be going there again except for the breakfast buffet
that is included in our room rate. Again, the food was fantastic and
the service very attentive, but that price is extortionate. We'd hate
to see the prices at their formal French restaurant.
Back at the room after dinner we gazed at the
nighttime city view for a few minutes before closing the drapes with a
push of a button on the nightstand. There are also buttons for music,
turning off the room lights, and controlling the air conditioning. The
hotel at the airport had the same type of controls by the bed with the
exception of the electric drapes. The music also plays in the
bathroom, by the way. The bathroom is small by today's luxury
standard, but it is functional and has very high end amenities.
Nothing exciting happened after the thrill of the remote control drapes.
It was still raining when we went to bed.
Sunday, April 5 - Kobe, Japan - Hotel Okura - Day Trip
By Train to Himeji
Himeji Castle is located in Himeji City in the western Hyogo. It was
constructed in the mid-14th century, and after a three-layer castle tower
was built by the order of the man of power Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 16th
century, Ikeda Terumasa, a feudal lord of the castle rebuilt it further in
the 17th century. Its figure was likened as a white heron spreading its
wings, and thus called the Hakuro-jo, or White Heron Castle. It was
designated as a national treasure in 1931, and as the World Cultural
Heritage in 1993.
No rain today, just some slight overcast skies and
pleasantly low temperatures.
We had to get out of bed early enough for our included breakfast buffet
that ends at 10:00AM, so we were. The restaurant was jam packed and we
were asked to wait a few minutes for a table. There were large groups
being ushered in which to us is the main reason we would not stay here
again. It is literally overrun with groups of all sorts. The
service is impeccable, but all those groups and noise are a drag.
We were seated within a few minutes and went directly to the chaotic
buffet that was set up with no apparent plan. There were Japanese
dishes among the pastries, French toast next to the rice, etc. There
were four areas to get different things, so there was no organization to the
hoards trying to fill their plates. Everyone was polite, but the
arrangement made no sense at all. Of course, we did manage to get
enough to eat, but a hotel of this caliber should have a better grasp of how
to do a buffet. They do this every day after all. It probably
isn't this crowded every day, but still.
Our plan for today was to take the hotel shuttle to JR Sannomiya station,
which is the main train station in Kobe. We had to wait a few minutes
for the bus, but that wasn't a problem. The bus dropped everyone off
several blocks from the station, so many people had to drag their luggage
through the crowded streets. When we check out and have to take
luggage with us, we'll take a taxi.
We followed the crowd and ended up in the train station. Tickets
had to be purchased, so we looked around for the office where we could deal
with a live person instead of a vending machine. We couldn't find it,
so we tried the machine. There is a button for English and all was
well until we came to the destination and ours wasn't listed. We chose
one we knew was at least as far as Himeji and tickets popped out.
A lesson was learned yesterday to pay attention to the electronic signs,
so this time we found the correct platform right away. It doesn't take
long to figure out what the numbers mean, plus there are usually
announcements in English if you can hear them. All we needed to know
today was where to stand and we had no trouble figuring that out. The
train we wanted was a Special Limited Express, so there were only five brief
stops along the way. The trip to Himeji took about 50 minutes and was
uneventful except that the train was standing room only by the time we
arrived, but we had seats. Apparently it isn't protocol here to give
up seats to ladies or children because no one ever did it, including teenage
boys. We did see one young man offer a kimono-clad woman his seat, but
We knew we had arrived at the right place because the station was under
construction. It was also extremely crowded and everyone was going
Himeji Castle. There is about a 15-20 minute walk up a wide
avenue that leads directly from in front of the station to the gates of the
castle, so finding it couldn't be simpler. There are sculptures along
the way and the sidewalks are spacious. We have read and been told
that this was a drab city with nothing to offer except the castle, but it
looked fine to us. We wouldn't want to spend a week here, but a few
days would have been fine. In other words, we should have stuck with
our original plan.
Arriving at the intersection in front of the castle we knew we were in
the right place. No, it wasn't under construction, but there were
thousands of people everywhere. Tour busses disgorged groups and
entire families were there to enjoy the sakura season (cherry blossoms) on
the lawns of the castle grounds. Every square inch of the sidewalks,
bridge to the castle gate, and the
lawns within were covered with people.
Inside the grounds groups of people were picnicking on the grass. This
is a traditional thing to do during sakura, so we expected it, but not quite
to this extent. It wasn't unpleasant, in fact it was nice to be part
of it, but we never knew it was quite this popular. We'd swear
everyone in Japan was coming through those gates.
If you care about the details of Himeji Castle, do a search on the
internet for it. It's really old and one of the only authentic castles
left in the Japan. Most are reconstructions, but this is the real
deal. The grounds are beautiful with the
cherry trees in bloom.
We followed the
crowds and arrived at the ticket booth for the castle
itself. The grounds are open free of charge. Tickets are sold
from machines, but they were easy to figure out. Inside the gates you
follow a designated tour route through many gates, up winding stone
alleyways, through more gates, past beautiful stone walls, etc. You
are rewarded with the view from the terrace below the main castle keep.
There were also many
cherry trees in bloom in this area. Originally
there were more structures in this area, but they were lost over the years
to fire or whatever.
In the middle of the courtyard there was a huge
queue set up, but we
couldn't tell where it went or how long the wait would be. There also
wasn't a way out unless you finished the entire route that leads to the very
top of the inside of the castle itself. Eventually they started
admitting people again, so we joined the line and made it through the castle
without stopping again. Shoes must be removed and carried with you in
the provided plastic bags. That's a bit of a nuisance because the old
wooden stairs are very steep and narrow, so having one hand tied up isn't
the greatest idea.
The castle is five or six stories high, we forget exactly, but the point
is it is huge and made of enormous wooden beams. The huge decorative nail
covers (we were reminded many times that there are over 400 of them) are
metal covered in black lacquer. The building is in remarkably good
condition for its age and if we didn't know better we'd swear it was a newer
Climbing up into the castle with thousands of other people was no fun,
but was something that had to be done. After all, if the locals are doing
it, shouldn't we? Would we do it again? Not a chance!
Finishing the tour provides many opportunities for spectacular views of
the cherry trees and the castle buildings. It is so beautiful it is
like living in a postcard. It goes on and on with spectacular vista
after spectacular vista.
After soaking up the atmosphere, we headed back out into the hoards of
people in the park and on the lawns. We got some great photos from the
top of the walls overlooking the moat surrounding the castle grounds.
There were huge black fish in the moat that were scary enough to dissuade
anyone from swimming across.
Adjacent to the castle is Kokoen Garden that was once home to Samurai
houses. A garden was built here in 1995, but it looks much more
established than that. It consists of several different walled
gardens, each spectacular in its own way. Locals were out looking at
the emerging flowers and women in kimono strolled the gardens having the
pictures taken by pushy tourists, foreign and domestic alike. You'll
have to check our photo gallery for the images of the garden because its
beauty can't be described in words. There were a lot of people in the
garden, but nothing like the packed house next door at the castle. It
was very pleasant walking around admiring everything.
All that was left to do was perhaps find some food and make our way back
to the train station. There is a modern shopping complex across the
street from the castle, but they were way too crowded to bother with.
The sales people were also annoying constantly yelling at people to please
buy this or that.
There was a
food fair or whatever you call a bunch of booths selling
food. There were probably 100 booths selling every kind of food you
can imagine, including kebabs sold by a man so stereotypical he could have
come from Central Casting. We bought some fresh grapefruit juice to
revive ourselves and then just strolled around looking at everything.
The prices were high for what this was, but not outrageous. We bought
some fried pancake balls (that's what they tasted like, but the dough was
baked in a mold to form the balls). We were both tired and hungry
since we hadn't eaten since this morning and it was approaching 5:00PM, but
we didn't want to sit down and eat in a restaurant.
Back at the train station, Dave found the ticket office with real people
in it after seeing the huge line for the machines. There were only
four people ahead of him at the ticket counters, but there must have been
500 people waiting for the machines. Buying the tickets was as easy as
stating the destination and saying "two" in Japanese. We could have
just held up two fingers, but we're trying to be polite.
We caught the next train with just minutes to spare. It was full by
the time we got on, so we had to stand for the entire 50 minute trip, but we
don't mind doing that. The ride seemed shorter than going the other
direction, but we know it wasn't.
When we arrived back at JR Sannomiya station we looked for the ticket
office for buying our tickets tomorrow and found it right away. We
have no idea why we couldn't see it earlier today. Then we were off to
find the shuttle bus pickup location. We knew there was a big green
building across from where we were dropped off and a McDonald's right at the
stop, but we still ended up on the wrong street. We did find the spot,
but only after a lot of walking. At least Kobe's
downtown is relatively pleasant for a big city.
Then we had to wait for 20 minutes for the next bus. When it
arrived the driver wouldn't let us board because this is only a drop off
location and you have to board at the bus station across the street.
Would it really be all that difficult to tell us that ahead of time?
Wouldn't anyone assume you are picked up from where they drop you off?
Anyway, while the driver was ranting at us, a very nice young Japanese woman
who got off the bus asked in English if we wanted her to show us where to go
since she was going that direction anyway. We followed her back to the
station where the bus had already left even though he knew we were on the
way. GRRRRR. We gave up and took a taxi, which is what we will
do after we check out tomorrow.
Back at the hotel we figured we had better go look at the
Earthquake Memorial so we wouldn't have to do it in the morning. It was
about 7:00PM and dark by this time, but the memorial park is directly behind
hotel on the waterfront. The lobby of the hotel is on the third
floor, so we had to walk down to street level, then all the way around the
hotel to the back to get to the park.
There is a granite display area with
pictures and a video of the extent of
damage from the quake. Miles of piers and waterfront areas were
destroyed. We knew our hotel was existing at the time, but we thought
the Maritime Museum with its soaring sail-like roof was newer.
However, it was in the
photos of the destruction. We were surprised to see a picture of
Crystal Harmony prominently featured in a large photo depicting the
importance of Kobe's port.
Adjacent to the memorial is an area of damage preserved as it was after
the earthquake hit. There are
lampposts leaning over,
collapsed sea walls, and a
railing in ruins. The
overall scene left here was magnified by miles and miles of similar
The park area is a big concrete space with some streams and
fountains, but the views are magnificent at night. The soaring
roof of the museum is lit up, along with the iconic Port of Kobe tower.
There are sculptures scattered about as well, with
old and new boats on display outside. There is no way the
earthquake display or any of these boats could be displayed in an open
environment like this anywhere else. They'd be vandalized into rubble
in no time. No such problem here though.
Across the water is a shopping and amusement area called
Mosaic that was brightly lit and beautiful reflected in the water.
There was a multicolored building nearby made of
frosted glass or something that looks like it all lit up and surrounded
It was almost 8:00PM and quite chilly and breezy now, so we tried to find
a shortcut into the hotel. No such luck. We had to walk
all the way around to the front of the hotel again and then up to the entrance
on the third floor. At least we had a chance to take a picture of the
very 80's front entrance
waterfall and sign. The doorman looked askance at us because we
didn't use the center doors, but if you don't want people coming in from the
side maybe you shouldn't have automatic doors there? Just a thought.
We took a few more pictures of the
lobby and checked out the hotel's shops. The hotel is beautiful in
its own way and is well maintained, but the place has a aura of cigarette
smoke and martinis. You half expect Dean Martin to wander out of one
of the hallways. Only the lobby looks dated, the restaurant, elevators
and rooms look new and up to date. The lobby is huge and almost all
wood, so there's not much that could be done to update it without tearing it
all out and starting over. There are staff members everywhere and they
are extremely polite and helpful, so we really feel petty even mentioning
the decor. The rates aren't as high as say a Four Seasons or Ritz
Carlton, but the service is up to snuff.
After a brief stop at the room to freshen up, we went to the same coffee
shop in the hotel where we had the ludicrously expensive meal yesterday.
We knew there were things on the menu that were less expensive, so we were
determined to order those and not a "special". We had spaghetti
carbonara and what they referred to as "beef pilaf". Both were
outstanding, as was the cream of corn soup. The price was high as one
would expect for a hotel restaurant, but not ridiculous. The noise
level was also down to what we would expect in a hotel like this and there
were no groups either. The hotel seems to be fairly busy because even
at 8:30PM there were about 20 tables full of people eating.
Back in the room after dinner we promptly crashed. Here is a better
nighttime view from our room.
Click to view the Himeji Photo
Click to view the Kobe Photo
Monday, April 6 - Depart Kobe, Japan -
Train to Kyoto, Japan - Granvia Hotel Kyoto
was the capital of Japan for more then 10
centuries until 1886 and it still retains most
of its old world charm. Countless historically
priceless structures survive in the city today,
including 2 Imperial villas, 200 Shinto shrines,
1500 Buddhist temples and over 60 beautiful
gardens, which highlight the beauty of Autumn
Hotel Granvia Kyoto is an integral part of the
architecturally striking masterpiece, the JR
Kyoto Station Building, which also includes a
department store, museum, musical theater, and a
vast underground shopping mall. From here, hotel
guests have direct and easy access to major
destinations across Japan including Osaka (30
min.), Tokyo (2.5 hr), Hiroshima, Nagoya, and
Fukuoka. With its elegant accommodations,
including 534 beautifully decorated rooms, there
is simply no better place to stay in Kyoto than
the Hotel Granvia Kyoto. Moreover, with 13
restaurants & bars and fitness facilities, the
hotel is perfect for both leisure and business
visitors to Kyoto. Hotel Granvia Kyoto is
home to over 1000 pieces of stunning art based
on the theme of "The Contrast of Modern and
Traditional Art". The artwork of
Kyoto-based artists, some of the most famous in
Japan, is prominently featured among the
paintings, sculptures, and industrial art on
display and accentuated by photographs adorning
the guest rooms.
Today the weather is just about as perfect as it gets, sunny with pleasantly
Our day started with our included breakfast buffet in the
hotel's coffee shop. There were no groups today, so the buffet wasn't
chaotic, although most tables were occupied. The food is outstanding
overall and the service couldn't be more gracious.
We wanted to catch the 12:38PM train to Kyoto, so we went to the front desk
to check out at around 11:30AM. The process took just a few minutes.
The receptionist was remarkably pleasant, as is everyone at the hotel.
There is no way to get lost because someone escorts you to wherever you are
going, including outside to the taxi. The bellman even told the driver
where were wanted to go, although we could have done that ourselves.
At the station we went to the ticket office rather than deal with the
machines again. There was a line because this is also where foreigners can
exchange their vouchers for rail passes. Dave was behind some college
students who were trying to ask the ticket agent how to use the trains.
They didn't modify their speech, so she didn't understand them even though she
did speak some English. Finally, Dave asked where they were going and explained
to them how to get there. We ran into them again on the train platform.
We were on the platform so quickly that we were able to catch an earlier
train at 12:23PM. The "Special Rapid" trains come every ten to fifteen
minutes, so it isn't a big deal if you miss the one you want. These are
local commuter trains, so there are no reserved seats. We can't move fast
enough with luggage to get seats, so we had to stand for the entire ride.
It was shorter than our day trip yesterday, so standing wasn't a problem.
Our destination was the Granvia Hotel Kyoto, which is part of the modern
Kyoto Station complex. We can't imagine what the people who complained
about the entrance to the hotel being obscure were thinking. There are
signs all over the station pointing to "Hotels". How hard can it be?
We certainly had no problems finding it.
hotel is very chic and contemporary, by far the nicest hotel we have stayed
at so far. The service isn't quite up to the standard of the Hotel Okura,
but this hotel doesn't purport to be a 5-star property either. We'd say
the facility itself is nicer than the Okura, but the service level is more what
one would expect at a Hyatt Regency or Marriott. We were still intercepted
as we approached the front deck and personally delivered to one of the clerks.
lobby is quite dramatic with a black ceiling and contemporary decor.
We were checked in promptly and then she checked to see if our luggage had
arrived yet. Turned out it was sitting right there where we could have
seen it if we had known where to look. That sure was easy. We were
told to return after 3:00PM when check-in begins.
We set off to explore the
train station which is an attraction in itself. There are spacious
open plazas and escalators going everywhere. A gigantic staircase ascends
to a rooftop bamboo garden with views over the city. There are spectacular
views of the
Kyoto Tower across the street and temples beyond. We easily killed
about an hour wandering around looking at the
building. There are many, many restaurants and fast food outlets, plus
a full-sized Isetan Department Store in the building.
Around 2:00PM we started to get hungry, so we went to the enormous food court
to find something to eat. We ended up choosing a place with various set
meals. We were greeted immediately and seated by the window with a view of
the undulating roof of the station. At first we were given a Japanese
menu, but as soon as the host realized his mistake he brought an English
version. We ordered a set meal featuring tempura and a big bowl of soba
noodles in broth, plus rice, Japanese pickles and a small bowl of shredded
vegetables. The meal was very good and reasonably priced, about $10.00
There were signs all over the station advertising the opening of the musical
"Beauty and the Beast". We have seen that show in California, New York and
London, so we thought it would be fun to see it here. Unfortunately, it
doesn't open until the 23rd, so we are out of luck.
Back at the hotel at 3:00PM, we were given our keys without delay and told
our luggage was already in the room. Our room is on the 15th floor and has
view of Kyoto Tower and the main part of the city with
temples and shrines off to the right at the base of the hills.
This is by far the
nicest room we have had so far. It isn't quite as large as the one at
the Hotel Okura, but the amenities are far superior to that hotel.
We're not sure who thought black carpeting in the corridors and rooms was a good
idea, but it looks nice. There are electronic controls by the bed for
almost everything, free internet, tea making
supplies, and a large
flat screen TV. The
bathroom is large with a huge
bathing area and quite an array of
amenities on the sink. This place is more our speed. We are so
glad we didn't go with the Westin Miyako because we're sure it would have had
the same "old money" feel as the Okura did. We just didn't feel
completely comfortable in a place like that in spite of the gracious service we
Our original plan for tonight was to go out and look at the cherry trees that
are lighted at night. After considering it further, we decided to skip it
and stay in. Two full days of cherry blossoms has satisfied our desire to
see them, no matter how beautiful they may be with lights on them at night.
went to the hotel's casual restaurant, Le Temps, for dinner. You have the
option of a buffet or ordering from the menu for all meals. We chose to
order off the menu and we were very happy with our food. It is on par with
the extremely high quality of the Okura, but not quite as expensive. The
portions were also larger. The steak set meal was outstanding as was the
beef pilaf. Service was very attentive. The restaurant is large, but
very comfortable and attractive with high ceilings and interesting contemporary
decor. We looked at the buffet on the way out and we might try it another
night. There was a huge variety of food. Our room includes the
breakfast buffet, a Japanese breakfast in the Japanese restaurant, or the
"original breakfast" in the Italian restaurant. We have no idea what an
original breakfast is, so don't ask.
Since we have to be up early to meet our
guide at 9:30AM tomorrow, we went back to the room right after eating and were
done for the evening.
Tuesday, April 7 - Kyoto, Japan - Granvia Hotel
The weather today is perfect by anyone's standard, sunny and almost
warm. We had to be up early and ready to meet our guide at 9:30AM.
The hotel room has an alarm clock that slowly brightens the lights by the
bed instead of using a jarring buzz or whatever. We were already
semi-awake when it started to lighten the room about ten minutes before we
had to get up. We doubt it would wake us up from a sound sleep, but
could be that it would.
We have coupons for the included breakfast.
There are a lot of choices available with the coupons, but we wanted to try
the buffet in the casual restaurant. There was a slight wait, maybe
five minutes, but the restaurant is huge, so it wasn't much of a problem.
The buffet was very extensive and the food was quite good. We would go
back again and probably will every morning. They had both western and
Japanese dishes available.
We weren't sure where we were supposed to meet
the guide except that she would be in the lobby, so we stood around looking
for someone who might be a guide. Shortly we spied a woman
holding up a sign. She saw us at the same moment we saw her, so she
rushed over before we could make a move. Her name is Kimiko and she
said she is Dave's age later when he mentioned something about the 1950's.
The first stop was
Nishiki Market, a
covered street stretching several blocks in the center of Kyoto.
Small shops sell every kind of grocery item you can imagine:
more fish, flowers, sweets, meat,
you-name-it. Everything looked fabulous. Kimiko made us try
several dried things that are eaten with plain rice because they are quite
salty. She pointed out different unusual foods and ingredients,
explaining anything we were interested in.
At the end of the market is a
shrine to insure prosperity in business. Besides the usual
well, there was a mechanical fortune telling
machine and two
huge koi in a too-small tank. We all thought it was cruel to keep
such enormous fish in such a small tank, but it could be that they were just
on display and don't always stay in that tank.
We were expected at a house
for a private tea ceremony and bento lunch at 11:00AM, so we followed Kimiko
out to the street to hail a taxi to take us there. After a brief ride
through the narrow streets of old Kyoto, we arrived at the location of the
tea ceremony. This facility is a restored old house
set back from the street and surrounded by small
gardens. The hostess greeted us and showed us around the house
before ushering us out into the garden toward the
tea room. We had to put on wooden sandals and walk on wet uneven
stones to get there. She said the stones are uneven on purpose to
focus your attention on your surroundings. Her English was perfect and
she had a good sense of humor, so the experience wasn't stuffy at all.
the tea ceremony room she pointed out the scroll that had been chosen by the
tea master for today. It represented a nightingale because one was
heard in the garden this morning. We heard it when we arrived also.
After she told us what to do, she left and the tea master came in. He
was serious at first, but turned out to be very friendly. We won't go
into details of the tea ceremony here, but it was very interesting and the
implements used were over 200 years old, including the bowls we drank from.
The master complimented us on our ability to sit properly on our knees.
He told us repeatedly that we didn't have to sit that way the entire time,
but it seemed like the right thing to do. He seemed pleased that we
behaved properly and were interested in what he was doing.
Later when we
were chatting with the hostess, she said that when she took over this house
gardens were a total jungle and it has taken her four years to get them
looking nice again. Kyoto gardens use
moss instead of grass as a groundcover and it has to be swept daily to
keep it looking good and to spread the spores so it fills in well.
This moss grew back by itself after she cleaned up the overgrown trees and
foliage. It was very serene.
When we said that most people who come
there to experience the tea ceremony are probably interested in it so they
behave properly she rolled her eyes, so perhaps our behavior is more unusual
among tourists than we thought. Everyone seems to be thrilled with us,
so we must be doing something right.
Lunch was served in a
bento box at a regular dining room table. We were served
sake from a beautiful serving set along with it, plus tea, of course.
The lunch was similar to the foods we had at the ryokan in Nara and it was
very good. It is a lot more food that you'd expect from a small
lacquer box. We were stuffed at the end. Other than chatting a
couple of times with the hostess when she brought us something, we were left
alone to eat. No other guests were at the house while we were there.
On the way out, the master thanked us for coming and we noted that a zig-zag
pattern had been made with water on the stone walkway. We had been
told earlier that our on time arrival was very much appreciated (and very
unusual) because part of the welcome process is to wet the walkways and
garden stones for us. So, if you are late they have to do it over and
over again until you get there.
Our next scheduled stop was the tour of an
old merchant's home by the owner, but we had an hour to kill before our
appointment. The tea house was close to the Imperial Palace, so Kimiko
suggested we stroll in the that direction to take a look at it. On the
way she took us to a modern building housing some restaurants to show us a
garden that you'd never guess is hidden behind this non-descript
building. There was a large
stone bridges and
lanterns and more in a small space wedged between the building and the
one next door.
A short stroll away was one of the
gates to the Imperial Palace. There is a large
park surrounding the
walls of the palace itself that used to be the location of wealthy
Samurai, but they were abandoned after the capitol was moved to Tokyo.
The vacant houses were removed and the area turned into a public park.
After another short taxi ride, we arrived again in the old part of Kyoto
where Kimiko showed us the outside of the largest remaining old merchant's
house. It is not open to the public, but the outside is visible.
We then walked a distance through the
narrow streets of the old town to find the house we were to visit.
All of this is hidden by the modern buildings that face the larger streets.
Just walk a block and you are among a hodge podge of old and new buildings.
There are no zoning laws, so anyone can build any kind of home or business
they want to without regard for the harmony of the neighborhood, as Kimiko
We arrived at the villa for our scheduled tour and were greeted by
the most wonderful old woman imaginable. She was dressed up in her
Sunday best just for us as she ushered us into the front part of the house.
This large room fronts the street and was originally a shop selling white
silk fabric. The front of the house can be completely opened to the
street. She showed us a model of the house, then asked us to follow
her on a tour. The whole thing was very informal and was more like
visiting someone's home than a tour. In fact, that's just what it was
since she lives in the house.
The house is over 100 years old, so it isn't
in pristine condition which makes the whole thing even more interesting.
There are amazing
carved transoms that let the air flow through in the hot summer. A
smaller garden in the front of the house opens to rooms on three sides,
including the entry. Another
garden toward the back of the house is viewed from the main
living area. The shoji
windows are ingenious in the way they can be slide up and down so that
if you are sitting on the floor you can see the garden or closed for
privacy. Sliding screens above the doors can be opened to allow air to
flow through without opening the doors below. When we expressed an
interest in the doors and whether or not bugs were a problem in summer, she
opened a sliding panel in the wall and pulled out "screen" doors beautifully
made of matched reeds with spaces between them. She showed how you can
remove the paper doors and replace them with the reed slats to allow air to
flow in summer.
We were taken upstairs via a steep narrow wooden
staircase so we could go out on the tiny
balcony for a view of the
rear of the house which was originally used for storage of merchandise.
She lives in
this part of the house. She said even Japanese people want to sit
in real chairs, so that is why there were chairs for us to sit in at a
small table. She made fun of us because we barely fit in the
chairs, saying that we had to be careful not to take the chairs with us
stuck to our backsides when we stood up.
She offered us tea after she
decided we were really OK guys. The best part of the whole thing was
meeting this charming old woman. She spoke some English and understood
more, so it was very fun. She seemed to enjoy us and we felt likewise
about her. There was no rush to get us out at all. The solid
sliding paper doors in the interior had a golden pattern on them that was
made with gold dust. It looked sort of like clouds on one wall and
when Dave said that the woman was thrilled he noticed. That prompted
her to go off to search for a candle to show us how it looks in the candle
light because that is how the rooms would have been lit long ago.
back with a thick candle that uses rolled paper as a wick. It was
hilarious when she turned off the light over the table and said, "Shows
over, get out." She was very delightful. After chatting about a
variety of things, she offered to show us the
old kitchen. it is located semi-outside and is only used in the
summer because it is too cold to use in the winter. They have added a
small modern kitchen to use in cold weather, but we were told they prefer
the old one because it is so large.
The ceiling was
very high because if there was a fire it would go upward and they would
have time to warm the neighbors on each side of the fire so they
could evacuate. The house had twenty servants in its heyday and they
all had to be fed, so that is why the kitchen is so big. There is a
oven-like setup in one corner for making rice and steaming vegetables.
Large wooden cabinets line half of the wall with a stove next to it.
There is a water well right there in the kitchen, too.
Our hostess went off to get
some postcards with pictures of the house to show us how it looks during an
annual festival when the old houses are all opened up to passersby.
Afterwards, she said we could keep the cards even though she had ruined two
of them by spilling milk on the corners...this was really an authentic
experience! We were honored that she thought so much of us to give us
When it was time to leave we asked to take a
photo with her plus one with
she and Kimiko. We really enjoyed meeting her and we're sure this
will be the highlight of our trip. When we went back onto the street
she came out to show us a flip-down wooden bench that was used to display
merchandise in the past. She stood waving and thanking us as we walked
off down the street.
There was some extra time before our cooking class at
4:00PM, so Kimiko took us to a temple that is hidden among the surrounding
modern buildings, one of them housing a Starbucks. The belfry to the
temple is across the street and completely overshadowed by highrises.
This temple has the "navel of Kyoto" on the
grounds, said to be the center of the city. Originally it was part
of the temple building, but when the city streets were laid out in a grid it
had to be moved, but the navel remained where it was.
The blending of the
old and the new is part of the charm of Kyoto, but you have to look for
it. Surrounding the temple are beautiful
pond with swans and koi, a huge umbrella shaped
cherry tree, huge
lanterns, and a shrine full of stone
statues where people pray for their children. If the outcome of
the prayers is good, the person makes a red bib or knitted cap for the
statues as thanks.
Another short taxi ride and we were at the small
cooking school. Kimiko gave us some information written out in
Japanese so we can show it to people tomorrow to help us find various
temples in the hills outside the city. She didn't have to do that and it was
very considerate of her. She bid us goodbye and left us in the hands
of the teacher.
The "school" is very small and she told us she only takes
2-4 people at a time. She doesn't like to do groups because it isn't
as much fun for her. Her English was perfect, so we had a nice
conversation during the class. We didn't actually do anything
ourselves, just stood at a small table and watched her make it. She
gave us recipes for each dish. The main thing was to make a soy sauce
concoction sort of like a light teriyaki sauce that was an ingredient in
everything else she made. She gave us a huge bottle of it to take home
with us. You have to keep part of the mixture to add whenever you make
a new batch, so she added some of hers to get ours going.
five dishes, all vegetables except for the dried tiny sardines added to a
green pepper dish, we sat down to eat what she just made. She also
served us a potato salad-type of thing made with tofu instead of potatoes.
It was fantastic. Mostly we enjoyed the conversation while we
ate. She offered to call a taxi for us to take us back to the hotel,
so we took her up on it. All she had to do was dial the taxi company
and say about three words. We asked how they knew where to go and were
told that they do it all by computer from the telephone number.
A taxi with a woman driver arrived, which shocked even the cooking
instructor. She told her where to take us and we were back at the
hotel by 6:00PM. We knew we would be hungry later, but we didn't want
to eat another meal, so we went down to the casual restaurant and bought
some pastries from the bakery counter for later.
A hotel staffer saw us
walking toward the elevator lobby and rushed over to push the button so the
elevator would be there when we arrived. How's that for service?
We love this hotel!
Other than getting laundry ready to send out in the
morning, nothing else exciting happened today.
Click to see an amusing sign we found over a urinal in a men's restroom
Wednesday, April 8 - Kyoto, Japan - Granvia Hotel
Another perfect day in Kyoto! Warm and sunny. Everyone
we talked to said this is unusual and even the locals are surprised at how
beautiful the weather is.
We went to the breakfast buffet again, which was wonderful. The
restaurant wasn't as busy as yesterday, but the hotel does seem to be doing
good business. Before we went for breakfast, a call was made for
laundry pick up and the guy arrived within minutes to take it away.
weren't very efficient at getting out of the room this morning, so we didn't
make it downstairs to the train station until around noon. Our plan is
to travel by train to the Saga-Arashiyama area just outside of town.
The experience there is to see the how the old Kyoto was before becoming a
modern city and to listen to the wind rustle the bamboo groves according to
There was no problem buying train tickets with a return
from the person at the ticket office. The agents are very pleasant and
helpful in spite of limited English. Dave always addresses them in
Japanese so they have no problem selling us the correct tickets. The
man today even wrote down which track the next train was leaving from.
train was waiting for us. Kyoto is the end of the line for this
commuter train, so it just sits there until departure time. At
precisely 12:06PM the doors closed and the train started moving.
Because this is mostly a local commuter line none of the electronic signs
are translated to English. Dave has learned to discern the station
names from the announcements, so we have no trouble figuring out when to get
off. The train was full when we arrived, so we had to stand, but the
ride was only fourteen minutes with just two stops.
When we arrived at the
Saga-Arashiyama station we didn't know which exit to take. The station
is small, so it wasn't as big a deal as it would be in Kyoto, but we did
have to backtrack after checking the map more carefully. We were told
to take a taxi to Adashino-Nanbutsuji Temple and start our walk back to the
station from there. That was easier said than done because no taxis
were waiting at the stand.
We decided to walk since the map showed it was
less than a mile. This is a small town, so it wasn't difficult to find
out where to go. Basically we just turned toward the nearby hills and
then followed the locals. We found a big temple at the
end of a narrow street that turned out to be the
Gioji Temple, which should have been our second destination. No
matter, we'll check it out now and find the other place afterward. At
least now we have a frame of reference to start from on the map.
were very few people around the beautiful
grounds of this former nunnery and all of those people were Japanese.
It is always better in our opinion to visit these out of the way places
because they aren't as touristy as the bigger attractions. The grounds
were attractive and featured some spectacular old
cherry trees. The ornate
rooftops were certainly worth the visit.
We left through a
side gate and soon found a stream of locals heading for the hills, so we
followed them. The
narrow streets led through upscale
residential areas. There were some very attractive restaurants and
shops along the way, but we saved them for later on the way back.
two ladies near a huge cherry tree trying to get pictures of themselves,
so Dave offered to take one for them. They were thrilled that he
wanted one for himself as well. Later, on the way up another street
nice shops, an old woman stopped us to give us some candy just because
we were nice to one of the shopkeepers. Everyone has been extremely
welcoming to us and even though they don't usually speak English, they
always have something pleasant to say to us.
We accidentally found our
original destination, the
Adashino-Nanbutsuji Temple. Its claim to fame is the
8,000 tiny stone statues that are tributes to the dead. There is
also a large
bamboo grove on the grounds, beautiful multi-tiered
stone statues, ornate
path through the bamboo leads to a huge
cemetery bordered by cherry trees in bloom. At the end of the path
is a stone
fountain with images in stone around the center pillar. Women were
saying a prayer as the walked around the fountain pouring water over each of
the figures in turn. You can see in the photo that the figures are
quite slimy, but the only water touching them is what is poured over them,
so obviously this ritual goes on continuously.
After walking back down
bamboo, we continued along the road past the shops and through more
residential areas. We came across a neglected shrine featuring two
stone cat statues along with several huge stone monuments. All you
have to do is look down the side alleyways and you'll likely come across
We made our way eventually to a wooded area with
large cypress trees on the side of the road, then passed a green
pond, and turned through another huge bamboo grove. Among the many
upscale shops on the way, there was one selling all sizes of those big
scary ceramic bears we have seen everywhere. At the end of the
grove we found the north entrance gate to
Tenryuji Temple. The temple is famous for its
gardens, the oldest surviving in its original design.
This is the most beautiful garden we have visited so far. There
were so many
cherry trees it was almost artificial. The blossoms floated down
with the slightest breeze and carpeted the ground with
petal snow. The effect was magical.
water features, moss covered
hillsides, beautiful pink-flowered
shrubs that might have been azaleas, but we aren't sure. There are
so many plants about to bloom it must be breathtaking in its time. It
was so beautiful already it is amazing. The ornate temple buildings
blend right in with the gardens and ponds. The
forested areas look like they have been there forever, which they have
since they are hundreds of years old. You forget that all of this was
planned and planted it looks so natural.
Our next destination was a
bridge over the
Hozugawa River near the temple. We found the
crowds when we left the temple through the
main entrance, but it wasn't anything like we experienced in Himeji.
There were just more people on this main tourist street than we had seen all
day. There was a steady stream of people enjoying the stunning views
around the river. There were
cherry trees along the banks, on the
hillsides and in the parks. People were rowing
boats around in the river enjoying the sunny day.
On the stone banks
of the river, people had spread out their blankets for a
picnic or just sat on the walls to gaze at the view. One of the
nicest things about being here in sakura season is to watch how in tune with
nature the Japanese people are. Young and old, they are out enjoying
the blossoms and reveling in nature. It is quite touching.
crossing the bridge for more photos of the
boaters and the
cherry blossoms, we stopped for ice cream cones to revive us for the
trip back to the station.
The walk back to the train station took about
thirty minutes, but it was through attractive streets. We just
followed the old ladies and got there without incident. There were
already hundreds of people waiting for the train. When it arrived, the train
was already mostly filled, so we again had to stand for the ride back to
Kyoto. It was 5:00PM and rush hour, so by the time the train stopped
and picked up more passengers, we were packed in like sardines.
Luckily the trip only took nineteen minutes. Being rush hour the
trains stop at every station so that's why it took a bit longer.
the hotel, we cleaned up then went down to ask the concierge to fill out our
luggage forwarding form. She was very accommodating and went to get a
different form to get us a discount for sending two bags to the same
destination. We chatted about Tokyo Disneyland, which she and her
friends love. She wants to visit Hong Kong Disneyland so she was very
interested in what we had to say about it. Also, she said we might get
lucky and the crowds will be low at Tokyo Disneyland. School started
this week and it is the week before Golden Week when everyone is on
vacation, so that means it is slow the week before. We'll see1
We went to
the casual restaurant again tonight, but this time we opted for the buffet.
It was fantastic with an enormous variety of foods. There must have
been ten different dishes with shrimp in them and all were delicious.
There were huge fried shrimp also, plus meats, stews, curry, grilled beef,
pasta with a choice of sauces, pastries, crepes made to order, cakes, fruit,
fancy desserts, many choices of ice cream, etc. It couldn't have been
better and you could go back as often as you'd like. The waiter gave
us a coupon that saved us ¥500
off the regular price of ¥4300, so it was a
good deal for a fancy hotel. The service is beyond attentive with
dirty dishes removed seconds after you are finished so you can start all
After dinner we returned to
the room to pack up for tomorrow's journey to Takayama. We have to be
on a specific train because it will be a reserved seat on the shinkansen
this time, then a change to scenic railway also with reserved seats for the
final 2 1/2 hour leg to Takayama from Nagoya. Our large luggage is set
to be forwarded to the Marriott in Nagoya.
Click to view the
Kyoto Photo Gallery.
Thursday, April 9 - Depart Kyoto, Japan -
Shinkansen & Scenic Train to Takayama, Japan - Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan Ryokan
A hundred years after Japan was modernized, travelers discovered a small village
hidden high in the Japanese Alps. Cut off from the modern world, Takayama
had lain unaffected by the modernization of Japan.
Today Takayama can be accessed by an express train from Nagoya. Your
journey will take you through the most magnificent mountain scenery. The
center of town is still lined with traditional homes, shops, inns and sake
breweries from a time gone by.
A custom built modern building houses the Festival Floats for which Takayama is
famous. These are huge mobile shrines - spectacular creations with
flamboyant carvings, metal and lacquer work with complex marionettes and puppets
that perform amazing feats. Nearby is the Lion Mask Exhibition Hall
displaying over 800 Lion Masks and antique musical instruments.
Just outside Takayama is the Hida Folk Village, a large open air museum
displaying dozens of traditional houses which once housed farmers and craftsmen
in the region. These houses have been relocated here and preserved in
their original condition. From the Hida Folk Village are magnificent views
of the Japanese Alps. Made even more breathtaking during the colder months
when the autumn leaves make an almost unreal display of colored foliage covering
square kilometers of the mountainside.
Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan is a great place for a relaxing and luxurious
vacation in Hida Takayama. Here, you will enjoy the highest service
while staying in a room prepared with traditional aesthetic sensitivity to
the four seasons. For your evening dining pleasure, enjoy traditional
Japanese cuisine prepared with the freshest seasonal ingredients. Have your
choice of either Japanese or Western style dishes for breakfast.
The weather remains warm and sunny, which sounds good but in practice for
touring around it is a bit of a drag. Make it just a few degrees
cooler and we'll be happy again.
Before going downstairs to the breakfast
buffet, we called the hotel hotline as instructed by the concierge for our
luggage pickup. We fully expected to have to explain the whole thing
over again. When we told the operator we had bags to be picked up, she
asked, "Your next stop is the Marriott, correct?" How often does a
hotel in the United States get something like that right? The
bellwoman showed up within a couple of minutes with our form from last night
in hand, verified the information, and off she went with the bags. We
are continually amazed by the crisp appearance of all hotel employees'
uniforms. The bellhops still were the pillbox hats at all of the
hotels here and they always look amazing.
The breakfast buffet was as
wonderful as always. We could live at this hotel it is so fantastic.
The food is good, the decor is nice, the air conditioning works, and the
room is actually comfortable. And, the multi-jet shower is to die for.
Our shinkansen train leaves this morning at 11:38AM, so we had to stick to
more of schedule this morning than we have been. We already had
tickets pre-paid with reserved seats by Michi Travel that were included in
our package. Checking out of the hotel was fast and easy. The
receptionist even asked to be sure our luggage had been sent already.
couldn't be easier to get to the trains since the hotel is part of the
station. However, our tickets would not open the automatic gates, so
we had to show them to an agent. We were let through with no problem,
but the same thing happened at the shinkansen platform. From then on
we just went to the manned gate instead and had no further issues.
found the right platform after some brief confusion. The shinkansen
lines are not as well marked in English as the regular trains. We were
surprised because everything we read before we came stated the opposite.
There were no English announcements on the platform at all, but the large
electronic signs did alternate between
Japanese so it was easy enough to find the right place to wait.
Each car number is marked on the floor and with an electronic sign above, so
finding where you belong once you find the platform is very easy.
train arrived exactly on time, which was expected of course. Our car,
a Green Car (First Class), was only about half full, but with reserved seats
it doesn't really matter. The seating is like business class on an
airplane with lots of leg room. That's good because some of our
luggage wouldn't fit in the overhead rack.
Our trip to Nagoya was non-stop
and took only thirty minutes, which was a good thing because the train was
not air conditioned. Everywhere we go in Japan, the interiors are way
too warm to suit us and this was no exception. Otherwise it was
comfortable. An attendant handed out wet towels and a woman selling
bento boxes came down the aisle during the trip.
Once at Nagoya station,
we had to change trains to the Hide Wideview Express for the two and a half
hour ride to Takayama. We stood in the wrong place for the train, but
all that meant was we had to walk to the opposite end of the platform when
it was time to board. There was plenty of time and it wasn't an issue.
The seating on this train is spacious also, it is only 2-1 and the train has
huge windows to view the scenery. We rode backwards to the first
station where the train switched tracks for the journey through the
mountains to Takayama. There were some beautiful gorges with a river
at the bottom along the way, but from the breathless descriptions we had
read before coming here we expected more. At least the air moved on
this train, but it was still too hot when the sun was on our side of the
Time passed quickly and soon we were at Takayama station.
This is a relatively small old town, but the area around the station is all
modern buildings, nothing special. We found a taxi right away and
quickly arrived at
Kachoan, which is near the older part of town and the
To view a video of Kachoan,
CLICK HERE. From the outside this property looks just like the
pictures, but that's where the glitz ends. Two women rushed out to
take our luggage which was bigger than they were and we're talking hand
luggage! They insisted on carrying it for us. Inside the
is a raised platform where you leave your shoes before stepping onto the
tatami. This isn't a traditional ryokan experience like we had in Nara
though. The staff in the lobby were in regular hotel uniforms and
there is a front desk and an elevator.
The lobby carpet was very worn, as
was the front desk. Everyone was very nice to us and spoke reasonable
English, but this isn't at all what we had in mind. We might as well
be in a regular hotel. Thank goodness we had the traditional
experience already or we'd really be disappointed.
We were shown to our
room by a uniformed interpreter and the room attendant who speaks no
English. We do think she speaks some, but is too shy to say so.
The room isn't as large as the previous ryokan, but the bathing facilities
and toilet area are much nicer. There are two bathtubs and
wash areas, one
inside and one
open to the air through bamboo slats. The outdoor one looks very
Although we are on the third floor we have a semi-private
garden outside of the sliding glass door. There is a separate
sitting area from the
tatami room that has a western chair and ottoman, plus a small sofa.
A big deal to us is air conditioning and apparently it is not turned on yet
because it only allows the heat function. We were told to open the
door if we wanted it to be cooler. Big help honey, we could have figured
that out ourselves.
We're not quite sure what was going on with the meal
selections, but whatever we chose for tomorrow requires us to go downstairs
and be taken to a restaurant in a private car. Meals are included, so
that's fine, but the options weren't clear when we chose the type of meal.
Tonight we have to go downstairs to the hotel's restaurant, tomorrow we go
to an outside restaurant, and we have no idea what happens the third night.
Breakfast is always in the restaurant, but we knew that in advance.
However, you still have to pick a time for both dinner and breakfast, just
like on a cruise with two seatings.
Right now, we aren't thrilled with
this place, but we'll see if it grows on us. We are happy to have
larger bathrooms here than we did in the first ryokan, but the service is
somewhat impersonal. Everyone is polite and nice, but it is more like
the service in a hotel than we had in the previous ryokan.
Dinner time rolled around, so we went down one floor to the
restaurant. Each group gets their own private tatami room in the
simulated village. The tables have leg wells with heaters in them.
No need for the heaters, but the leg wells make it easier to sit on the
floor for almost two hours. Click for "Tonight
The young woman serving us spoke rudimentary English and she is
very nice, so we had no problems communicating with her. The servers
are not as subservient as they were at the first place. There was no
bowing to the group during dinner at all. Not that we are into that,
but it is part of a traditional experience.
You can read the descriptions
for the various courses from the menu posted above, so we will just state
what course it is with each photo.
Raw Fish, "Care
for a shrimp?",
Rice and Miso Soup,
This meal was far superior to what we had at the first ryokan
in quality. The presentation was about the same and at the first place
the quantity was larger, but the flavors tonight were delicious. At
this place the broths actually have a flavor. The beef we grilled
ourselves at the table was outstanding. The service was prompt and
polite, but we didn't have any interaction with the waitress other than the
usual pleasantries. Nothing wrong with her, just pointing out that
this experience is quite different than the more traditional one.
all, we might prefer dining in this manner because we don't have to talk to
anyone. She just brings the food, sort of explains how to eat it and
leaves. At the end she confirmed our breakfast time for tomorrow and
that we are to return to the restaurant then. Another difference in
service here is that we will not have the same person serving us throughout
our stay. We're not sure we like that since that means getting used to
each person's language skills all over again.
By the way, we were told to
wear our yukata to dinner, but we didn't. We only saw a few other
people and we'd say only half were wearing them. We liked the version
with pants at the other place better. The ones here require an obi to
be tied around them to keep them closed, so we probably just won't bother.
Another observation about wearing the yukata outside in the streets:
Nobody does it. We have seen not one single person in any city where
ryokan are located walking around the streets in yukata. Don't believe
what you read, it may be permissible, but you'll stand out like a sore
When we returned to the room the
futons were laid out in place of the table.
These are the same as the ones at the first place except there are fluffier
pillows than the rocks we had there. As we expected, the maid had
closed all the windows, so it was too warm in the room. We opened
everything up again. As long as it is cool at night we should be OK.
The semi-open air bathroom is a lot nicer than the other one, so we might use
it instead even though the toilet is in the indoor bath.
We didn't go out
after dinner even though we read that walking through the old part of town
at night is "atmospheric". It is only two small blocks away across a
small river, so we will probably do it tomorrow if we aren't worn out from
touring around all day.
Dave tried soaking in the huge
stone tub in our
open-air bathroom tonight. He started running the water to fill it
before he started showering. You have to be clean in Japan before
getting in the bath, that's the rule. The tub is so large that the
water was only about six inches deep after fifteen minutes of running the
water full blast from a huge faucet. Talk about a waste of water.
But, it was very relaxing!
Friday, April 10 - Takayama, Japan - Honjin
It's another warm and sunny day in Takayama!
There is an
advantage to going downstairs to the restaurant for breakfast...nobody
barges into the room at the crack of dawn to put the beds away. This
place is definitely not a traditional ryokan experience, but it is starting
to grow on us. The carpet in the lobby is still filthy, but we're not
staying down there.
When we stepped out of the elevator our keeper was
there with clipboard in hand to be sure we went to the right place for
breakfast. Come on, we're not that stupid! Anyway, we were
ushered into the same private dining room we had last night (we think we
have this room for the duration of our stay). We selected the
Japanese breakfast after our success with the one at the first ryokan.
table was already full of the food you see in the photo above when we sat
down. Then the waitress brought miso soup, an entire steamer full of
rice, scrambled eggs, green tea, and plum gelatin with a whole plum in it.
We got a different kind of tea at the end of the meal. The stuff on
the brown leaf on top of the little grill is Hoba Miso, which is a specialty
in Takayama. It is sort of a thick Miso paste with green onions.
It is cooked over a flame on a leaf (sorry, we forgot what kind, but it
looks sort of like a magnolia leaf) until it is bubbly. You eat it
with plain rice as a topping. After removing the leaf from the grill,
we had to cook a whole river fish that had been opened up flat. The
entire meal was wonderful. Nothing was inedible or boring. So,
the food here continues to be excellent. The woman who served us was
very friendly also.
We seem to be breaking through a bit of the
officiousness that greeted us, so it isn't quite as awkward as it was
yesterday. Part of the problem is the English-speaking keeper who
follows us around to be sure we are OK. She is very nice, but we would
prefer to be left alone. We know they are just trying to make things
easier for us, so we would never complain, but it is an annoyance.
breakfast we set off to explore the
morning market in front of Takayama Jinya, the only remaining old government building in Japan. It is only
about a block away from the hotel, so our location is perfect. The
market was pretty much pointless in our opinion. We can't imagine
anyone finding this an attraction. There were at the most twenty
booths of locals selling vegetables and crafts, but they were all selling
the exact same things. Well, OK, to be fair, one woman was selling
flowers and another some kind of meat, but everything else was the same.
There is a large market along the river we will check out tomorrow.
market is held directly in front of the
Jinya, so we wandered in to look at
it. It is the familiar Japanese design we have seen before except on a
larger scale. Considering its age, it is probably in better condition
than our hotel, which is relatively new. The building is a rambling
corridors, shoji screened rooms, waiting rooms,
living quarters, and even a
torture room. Outside is a store house
housing various artifacts of the era and showing where the rice collected as
taxes was stored. It wasn't crowded at all, so it was enjoyable.
After taking the tour of the Jinya, we wandered over the nearby bridge,
stopping to watch some
huge carp in the rushing
river below. A big
yellow one was trying to figure out how to get up over the low waterfall.
Some big orange ones were looking for food just beyond the bridge.
other side of the river is the old
merchant houses preservation district.
It comprises several blocks along the river. The houses are similar to
the one we visited in Kyoto where the owner showed us around and explained
how the front can be opened to the street as a shop. The ones here are
still being used for that purpose, or as restaurants,
sake breweries, or ryokan. It was
interesting to us having learned the layout because many of the shops we
went into still have the interior
courtyard gardens from their days as
private homes. It could be they still are private homes since the
upper floor and the back were off limits. We found some interesting
small items for souvenirs in two of the shops.
After walking the length of
the old houses and back, we hopped in a taxi and drove the short distance to
Hida no Sato, the
Hida Folk Village. They have collected very old
farmhouses and other buildings from villages all over the Hida district for
preservation here. The setting is lovely around a
big pond that was
originally a source of irrigation water for Takayama.
Upon entering the grounds a nice young woman offered to take
with our camera and then with the village's camera. The photo was
available a few minutes later for purchase, but it was nice that there was
no pressure to buy it. She had all sorts of stereotypical props such
as coolie hats and paper umbrellas to use, but we declined all except the
lucky monkey dolls she pretty much forced us to pose with.
After the photo session we wandered through the
village poking into all
of the different houses. There is no way in hell you could have
something like this anywhere else. There is no one to prevent you from
stealing the implements on display or otherwise vandalizing the buildings.
They keep oak fires smoldering in the
hearths unattended. The smoke
preserves the buildings and keeps the humidity at a proper level to keep the
ropes tight that hold the roof together. If we didn't know better we
would swear this was a real village and not a collection. We spent
over an hour wandering around.
There is also a craft village where you can
watch artisans at work and we did look at the demonstrations, but they
didn't hold our interest at all. Plus it felt weird when we were the
only people there. We'd say that there were never more than ten people
in the entire village at any one time. That made it even better to
imagine that it was a real village.
We asked the girl who took our photo
if we could walk to the
Takayama Museum of Art down the hill. she
indicated that we could easily do that, so off we went. In the
distance we could see the
snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps (they
probably have an official name but everything we have calls them that).
We skipped the museum of teddy bears that we passed on the way.
Everything seemed to be either closed or out of business. It looks
like there must be crowds at some time of the year because there are parking
areas for busses and large touristy shops. We didn't go into any of
the shops, but some were open.
Walking to the
art museum was easy and only
took a few minutes going downhill. The museum houses a collection of
glass, plus a Lalique fountain that came from a shopping arcade in Paris.
The woman selling tickets was shocked that we had
¥2000 notes. We asked if they were new or old and she said they don't
make them anymore. When we used them one time to pay for a taxi the
driver seemed shocked to see one, but he took it without any problems.
We have used them a couple other times and nobody reacted, but apparently
they are rarely used. We have a whole stack of them, so we might pay
for one of the hotels with the rest of them so we don't keep freaking people
The museum had some beautiful pieces
of glass: perfume bottles, vases, lamps, etc. In our opinion
they could have been displayed and lighted a whole lot better, but we
enjoyed looking at the collection anyway. The other gallery in the
building houses decorative arts from the 1900's. The pieces looked
like they just came off a showroom floor they were so perfect.
The museum is very modern, but fairly small.
We didn't see anyone else in the galleries the whole time we were there.
About six people were in the tea room on the ground floor. Nobody was
in the shop. All in all, there were more people working there than
visiting and it looks like that may be the norm. We were glad we came.
Because the museum is so dead all the time there
are no taxis waiting, so we decided to walk back to the hotel. It took
about thirty minutes, but it was over flat ground so wasn't a big deal.
It wasn't particularly pretty along busy city streets, but it wasn't
unpleasant either. Plus, we got to see some local shops and other
things one would miss just hopping from attraction to attraction.
Finally back in the vicinity of the hotel, we
bought some weird fruit juice drinks from a vending machine. These
machines are literally everywhere, so there is no danger of going thirsty.
We have no idea what some of the stuff is, but the machines dispense both
hot and chilled beverages. We even saw a machine selling floral
When we arrived at the
ryokan there were two manager-types out front, four women in kimono, our
keeper, and then two more men to push the button in the elevator. If
we had received a welcome like that yesterday when we arrived we might have
had a better first impression of the place.
A major drag of staying in this type of place is
that you are constantly bothered by the staff. We got to our room hot
and tired as you would expect. Two minutes later the keeper and the
room attendant were ringing the doorbell to bring us sweets and green tea.
Then they sat down and wanted to chat. We wanted to be left alone.
But, of course, we were pleasant to them and we do appreciate the effort to
be hospitable, but it does get tedious after a while. We are happy
that we don't have the meals in the room at this place because we have a bit
more control over comings and goings.
keeper asked us something about what we wanted for breakfast
tomorrow...something involving either a boiled egg or a steamed egg.
When she could find the right words to explain the difference she said it in
Japanese that Dave happened to understand. That finally broke the ice
with the maid, so maybe we can bypass the interpreter from now on. We
confirmed that we have to be downstairs at 6:20PM to be driven to a "sister
restaurant" for dinner, that we want the Japanese breakfast tomorrow with
some sort of eggs we have no idea what they are, and that we can go as we
are to the restaurant (dressed as slobs basically).
Fast forward two hours and we are ready to go to
dinner. Down in the lobby were about six people waiting to grab at us,
take our shoes and be sure we made it the twenty feet to the car parked
right in front of the door. We were driven about five minutes away.
Even we could have walked, but that option wasn't offered to us.
There was a woman standing outside the entrance
bowing to us as the car drove up. Inside there were a couple more
manager types welcoming us. The restaurant was called "The Alice" and
it looks like someplace that tried to be hip, but failed, so now they are
doing weddings and occasions.
Here is where it gets weird. We were
shown to our table which was the only table set for dinner. There was
no one else in the place except us and the waitress. The upholstery on
the chairs and the banquet was absolutely filthy. We didn't even want
to sit on it, but since these were our slob clothes anyway we did.
This place looked like it hadn't been touched up since it opened years ago.
The decor was contemporary and would have been really nice if it wasn't so
run down. Obviously it is owned by the same people who own the ryokan
since they are in the same general condition.
The sole employee served us food that came from a
dumbwaiter in the back. Everything we had was delicious, including a
snail shell filled with, um, some sort of giant diced snail, we assume.
fish course was attractively arranged surrounded by vegetables.
The big deal for this meal was the Hida Beef that ended the meal. This
region is famous for it and it is supposed to be better than Kobe beef.
It was fantastic. There was also a cabbage soup and a sorbet course
before the beef. Everything was exceptional, but we just couldn't
figure out why they would send us there. Did they maybe think we would
spread the word or what?
When an American couple walked in and asked for
a table the waitress told them the place closed at 8:00PM (it was only
7:15PM) and indicated there were no tables available. That took balls
considering that we were the only people there the entire time up until
them. This was a Friday night, don't forget. What the heck???
When a monk came in and sat down, he was readily served an entire meal from
the menu. Very, very weird.
dessert we were asked what time we were being picked up, but we didn't even
know how we got there let alone what we were supposed to do afterwards.
The waitress must have called the hotel because the car came right away and
took us back. On the way to the car, about ten feet tops, Bill tripped
slightly on the step outside and the driver almost had a stroke. He
asked several times if he was sure he was OK, which he was.
We were back at the hotel within a few minutes.
This town rolls up the sidewalks after dark. Most shops and
restaurants were already closed at 8:00PM. We have a coupon for a
discount in the hotel's shop, so we went to see what they have. Not
much, didn't buy anything. So, back to the room we went where we
stayed for the rest of the evening.
Saturday, April 11 - Takayama, Japan -
Honjin Hiranoya Kachoan Ryokan
It's still warm and sunny here in Takayama.
We were up early to keep the schedule for our breakfast at 8:30AM.
to find our own way the thirty feet from the elevator to the restaurant this
morning. We think we might have strained something figuring it out by
ourselves, but we'll get over it. The moment we stepped through the
curtains we were greeted and taken to a different private room than we had
previously, but otherwise essentially the same.
cold dishes are always
waiting on the table when we arrive, then the waitress piles on enough other
stuff to fill the entire table with bowls of food. We had to cook our
own Hoba Miso this morning, but the fish was already cooked for us.
The "onsen egg" was a cold soft boiled egg still sitting in water. We
would have attempted to eat it except there was no way to pick it up with
the chopsticks and no way was an entire cold, soft egg going in our mouth at
once. Pass. Everything else was good, but nothing stood out as
special this morning. There is always plenty of food even if it isn't
all our favorites.
After breakfast we collected our stuff and went out
walking in the opposite direction from yesterday. The hotel is less
than a block from the
river where the larger of the two morning markets is
held, but we had to walk about six block parallel to the river to reach it.
On the way out our keeper said to be careful because it will be very busy
today and quite crowded. We find that a little hard to believe because
it was completely dead yesterday.
We stopped for some photos at the bridge
crossing near the
market that sports some weird
bronze statues, then wandered past the stalls. This market
wasn't any more exciting than the one at the jinya except there were more
stalls selling identical products. Every fourth of fifth
be offering something different such as intricately made candies, plants or
flowers and those were the only ones with a "crowd". We're talking
three or four people, not throngs. We wouldn't consider the area busy
at all, but there were more people walking around than we saw all day
The permanent shops fronting the river walk were more
interesting than the stalls backing to it. A shopkeeper was offering
free samples of his version of peanut brittle. Dave tried it then
bought a small package which totally thrilled the man. We like the
sweets and desserts in Japan because they aren't as sweet and similar things
would be at home. The same is true of sodas from the vending machines.
They taste more like, say, orange, than of sugar.
We turned right toward
the hills following directional signs in English to the Yatai Kankai, the
festival float exhibition hall. Takayama is famous for its festival
when fourteen of these huge, intricate floats are carried through the
streets. The festival is in a few days, but we won't be here (planned
it that way on purpose, by the way). We had to walk past several
old houses and shops similar to those we saw yesterday, but not
quite as old.
The float museum is adjacent to a
huge shrine, so you can't
miss it. At the hall we were offered the chance to have our photo
taken to purchase at the end if we like it. These are the most polite,
soft sell salespeople on the planet. They literally apologize for
bothering to even ask you if you want a photo. We rarely get photos
together except on a cruise, so we took her up on it and did purchase it at
the end of the tour. It came in a souvenir folder that was quite nice.
At the door into the hall we were offered an English-language audio guide,
but we passed on it. Still it was a nice gesture to have it available
at no additional charge. The exhibit shows four of the
as they would look during the festival. These things weight up to 2.5
tons are require 80 people to carry. Well, the
big gold one used to,
but they have replaced it with a smaller one because they can't find that
many people to carry it these days. Each float is owned by a Takayama
neighborhood and you can see the tall
float barns as you walk around the
city streets. The ones on display are rotated every few months to give
all of them a chance to be displayed.
These things are HUGE, maybe forty
feet tall or more. They feature intricate gold-leaf
carvings and some
marionettes that do amazing acrobatics. They are hundreds of
years old, but they are so well preserved they look like they were made
Included with the ticket to the exhibition hall is admission to
the nearby museum housing a complete reproduction of the
The models are
works of art in themselves and they cover a huge room with
computerized lighting that is supposed to simulate sunrise and sunset.
We waited for the big thrill of the lighting change and almost missed it
because it was so exciting. What a yawn. Still the models were
beautiful so it was worth the stop for those even if the lighting was not quite
what it should be.
The plan next was to follow a walking path through the
hills. There are two paths, one that is mostly scenic and another a
distance away along a string of old shrines. We were looking for the
first one because, well, we're sick of looking at temples and shrines.
To be completely honest, we were tired of doing that days ago, so we're way over them now.
We looked at the map and tried to find the path, walking aimlessly through a
residential area, to no avail. Eventually we gave up and went back to
the temple where we started and tried to find it again. Still couldn't
find it, so we kissed that activity off as a bad deal and went to find the
pathway through the shrines. We figured it might keep us busy long
enough and that the path might be scenic by itself and we could pretend the
shrines weren't even there.
Although we did have to walk quite a distance
small river, we found signs pointing the way to the walking path
with no problem. Unfortunately, the pathway once found was not scenic
at all, in fact it was mostly back alleys behind some houses. The
temples are literally shoulder to shoulder, but they are not
very attractive and the setting doesn't do them justice. There are
modern houses butted right up against them.
We did walk past maybe six or
seven of them, ending up at one behind a cemetery in the cedar groves that
was somewhat scenic. At least it was shady and there was a nice breeze
blowing through. By the way, we were literally the only people on this
path. We only saw other people when we sat down to rest in the cedar
forest for a few minutes. Three old Japanese couples were playing some
sort of game on a flat area and the women came by to use the restroom near
us. Every one of them said, "konnichiwa," when they walked by. A couple
of tourists staggered up the road, but those eight people were all we saw in
It was around 1:30PM by now and we declared ourselves done for
the day. Bill is getting over the cold he has had for the past week
and Dave is just starting it, so neither of us were particularly energetic.
We decided to walk down to the hotel and be done for today. We have
seen everything planned for this stop and more. Takayama was somewhat
of a disappointment. Nothing here was a "must see", but we did enjoy
it. Two days would have been enough though and we would have been
happier in a regular hotel.
We stopped to get some
drinks from a vending machine, belted those down (it isn't polite to
eat/drink while walking in Japan) and kept walking toward the hotel.
Takayama is a small town so as long as you are headed downhill it is easy to
get everywhere on foot. When we got closer to the hotel we stopped
into a convenience store to buy some items for lunch to take back with us.
We bought some sandwiches, bananas, ice cream, and some huge donuts and
cookies for under $20.
Back at the hotel we sort of surprised them and
made the guy at the door scramble to find our shoes. Then there was
only one set of the "big slippers" for us, which caused another dilemma.
We don't care about any of this, but the managers sure do. We got our
key from the front desk and by then our regular keeper was there to tell us
she would be up at 2:00PM with the room attendant "for a visit". OK,
whatever, suit yourself honey.
That gave us twenty minutes to go to the
bathroom and freshen up before we had to "visit". What this means is
that the room attendant will bring tea and sweets while the keeper asks what
time we want dinner, what version of dinner we want, and things like that.
Strangely enough, a man who spoke perfect English came up with the waitress
we had at dinner the first night. Where has he been the whole time?
His English was very good, not perfect, but good. Our regular
attendant and keeper were in the lobby twenty minutes ago, so we have no
idea why they didn't come up. That's one of the big problems with this
place. There is no continuity with the staff so you can't bond with
anyone like we did at the "real" ryokan in Nara. It all seems like a
put-on. The downfall of this place is that it is trying to be
something it isn't. Pick one. Are you a hotel or a ryokan?
You can't be both successfully.
Anyway, the new keeper determined we want
dinner at 6:30PM, the Japanese version, and breakfast at 8:00AM, the
Japanese version. That prompted him to say, "You really like Japanese
food." Well, duh, but most ryokan don't offer you a choice, so we
didn't expect an option for dinner. Again, are you a ryokan or a
We were also informed that check out time is 10:00AM, so we will
have to bring our luggage down to the lobby by then and kill an hour before
going to the station. The hotel will take us there in their private
car, which is nice. They would have picked us up also, but we took a
taxi because it was less complicated.
The attendant brought us the traditional thick foamy green tea and a
sweet, then regular green tea and another sweet. The sweets here have
been packed like something from a store rather than the homemade ones we had
at the first place, but they are very good. The one we had upon
arrival was an exclusive of the hotel and it was fresh, but that is where it
ended for the handmade stuff. She also offered us "today's socks and
bath set". We have no idea what the point of this is. Apparently
we get whatever color socks we want and a washcloth for each day, but we have no
idea why. The same items are provided in a cloth bag and in both of
bathrooms. We're going to assume these are gifts and take them with
us. They are packaged as though that is the point. The cloth
printed napkin at the first dinner we were told was a "present". The
whole experience here is very weird.
Eventually we were left alone, so we
pulled out our store-bought lunch. Everything from the store was
fantastic. The sandwiches and donuts were so fresh they could have
been made right in front of us. The bananas were chilled, perfect
after a long walk. We saved the giant cookies for later. We
would come back to Japan just for the fantastic western food, let alone the
Both of us promptly fell asleep after we ate. That
is saying something because the futons are put away during the
day. The only furniture we have is a tiny sofa and a rocking chair.
Bill conked out on the tatami while Dave hit the sofa by making himself half
his normal size. Sounds fun doesn't it?
Actually, we are enjoying
the experience and the weirdness will give us something to talk about,
that's for sure. We had read somewhere before we came to Japan that it
was like being dropped into a "Bizarro World". That's an apt way of
describing it. It's logical when east and west don't collide, but
when a hotel tries to be both western and Japanese like this one does,
something gets lost in translation.
We have neglected to mention a strange
feature in Takayama that happens at 10:00AM (or thereabouts) and at 6:00PM.
In the morning, some electronic chimes play then a woman's voice makes a
very loud announcement that sounds like it might be a prayer or wish for a
happy day or something like that. At 6:00PM the same chimes play a
short melody that is the same every night. It is so loud it is
startling, but it is charming in its own way. It also makes sure we
wake up in time to get ready to go down to dinner!
Our room attendant was
standing outside of the elevator when it opened on the restaurant floor to
bow and usher into our private dining room. We were served by the same
young woman who brought tea this afternoon. If she was our attendant
all the time we might be having more fun.
Dinner was good again. We
preferred the first night's menu, but that's luck of the draw.
Everything was nicely presented and was top quality. The food
throughout our stay here has been exceptional. Click for "Tonight
Menu". You can read the descriptions for yourself, but here are
Appetizer, (We did not receive the "Wild Plants" Course),
Soup (Yes, that is a fish fin sticking up...Bill got the eye staring at
Rice Course, Dessert (no photo, we assume you know what fruit looks
Although the ryokan experiences have been interesting and we did
know what we were signing up for, we're getting tired of the regimentation
of it. We enjoyed it, but we wouldn't necessarily want to do it again.
Oh yeah, we are doing it again. Oh well.
We returned to the room
after dinner and that was pretty much it for today. While we were at
dinner the table was moved out of the way and replaced with futons.
This happens in reverse while we are at breakfast. The room is cleaned
while we are out for the afternoon.
We have to get up a bit earlier tomorrow because of the 10:00AM check out
time, but we're usually awake before the alarm goes off anyway.
view the Takayama Photo Gallery.
Sunday, April 12 - Depart Takayama, Japan -
Scenic Train to Nagoya, Japan - Nagoya Marriott Associa Hotel
is the capital of Aichi Prefecture. A leading industrial city, Nagoya is
especially noted for its chinaware, timepieces and machinery. Surrounded by
beautiful valleys and attractive historical sites, it is home to Nagoya
Castle, built in 1612 and reconstructed in 1959, and Atsuta Shrine, one of
Japan's most sacred Shinto shrines. Visit the original Noritake
factory museum and the nearby Port of Nagoya Aquarium.
Often regarded as one of the best hotels in Japan, the Nagoya
Marriott Associa Hotel is ideally located in the heart of the city center,
easily accessible from the all-new Central Japan International Airport.
Served by a wide array of transportation network, it is right above 11
floors of JR Takashimaya Dept Store and 2 floors of gourmet outlets. Our own
10 outstanding restaurants and 17 function rooms are a stand-alone
state-of-the-art convention center (total of 4,200sq m)! We have the
largest, luxuriously-appointed guest rooms in Nagoya, featuring
complimentary high-speed internet-access and panoramic views in all its 774
regular rooms, Concierge rooms and suites. It is no wonder that this is the
most popular and convenient hotel for both business and leisure visitors!
What is with this warm weather? So much for heavy jackets in Takayama.
The weather has been perfect all three days. It is pleasantly cool at
night which is a good thing because our ryokan hasn't turned on the air
Breakfast was at 8:00AM this morning since we have to check out by 10:00AM.
Again there was no one outside the elevator to show us where the restaurant
was just in case we forgot in the last twelve hours. We were seated in
yet another private room and the service began. This time we waited until
entire breakfast was placed before us for the photo. If you manage
to eat everything they give you, you'll be stuffed by the end of the meal.
Hoba Miso has been served at every meal.
Dave is getting sick, a cold most likely. Bill is just starting to
recover from his. It seems like 90% of Japan has a cold judging by the
sneezing and hacking going on, so this is no big surprise. We're
surprised we escaped it this long. Luckily we have nothing to do
except sit on a train for a bit over two hours to reach our next
destination, Nagoya. This stop was planned specifically because there
isn't anything important to do there. In fact, the two tourist
attractions of any interest at all are closed on Monday. That is a
great excuse to do nothing except catch up on sleep.
This ryokan is very regimented. No lolling around in the room past
check-out time here. We had to go out and wander around to kill an
hour before the complimentary ride to the train station in the hotel's
Mercedes. The street are slightly more crowded today, but nothing we
would consider off putting. All we did was walk through the old town
again, browse a furniture store, and sit on a bench and make fun of tourists
for an hour.
Back at the
ryokan we waited a few minutes for the car to return from dropping
someone else off at the station. They shoved our luggage in the trunk
and off we went. The keeper we had the whole time and a manager-type
man stood on the sidewalk bowing until the car was out of sight. They
must cringe when the light doesn't change quickly.
We arrived at the tiny station about twenty minutes before our train
departed, so we had enough time for a bathroom stop. Then we boarded
the train and sat there for two hours until arriving back in Nagoya where we
started this leg. This train wasn't as new as the one we had to get
here, but there was plenty of legroom and nothing to complain about.
The trains like this have a beverage cart similar to what you would find on
an airplane, but we didn't buy anything.
We reached Nagoya station precisely on time at 2:01PM. The Marriott
starts on the fifteenth floor of one of the huge towers connected to the JR
station, so it couldn't be any more convenient. We expected it to be
hard to find the elevator to the hotel lobby based on guidebooks we read
beforehand. We have no clue how anyone could have difficulty finding
the hotel elevators. There are red Marriott signs on every single
overhead sign from the train platform to the elevator lobby. In other
words, we walked directly to it and were at the fifteenth floor lobby within
minutes of disembarking from the train.
When we rounded the corner from the elevators and started toward the front
desk that was perhaps fifty feet away, three hotel employees rushed over and
insisted on carrying our luggage to the front desk. Check-in was
speedy, no problem at all, and they didn't even ask for our credit card.
We had two 5,000yen Marriott checks to apply to the bill, which was no
problem. Or we think it wasn't a problem since we didn't get a
We asked about our luggage delivery and the bellwoman ran off to check on
it. She came right back and said it was already placed in our room.
That service is fantastic! It costs about $20 to send two huge bags
from hotel to hotel anywhere in Japan. If we did that at home it would
cost hundreds of dollars and we'd probably never see it again. The
concierge at the Granvia where we sent the luggage from even called the
Marriott to let them know our luggage was coming. And remember, no
One of the reasons we chose this hotel was because of the free internet.
Imagine our annoyance when there was a sign on the desk saying, "NEW, high
speed internet for only 45yen a minute!" That's about 50-cents a
minute by the way. Dave called the front desk and informed them that the
confirmation we had in hand said internet service was complimentary.
She immediately said, "No charge for you because you booked before we
started charging for it." Now we'll see if she really prevents us from
being charged or we have to argue to have it removed. This hotel is
very expensive, so charging for internet service is very petty in our
Otherwise, the hotel is beautiful and the service very gracious and
attentive. Everyone spoke English well and was friendly and pleasant.
They're actually more personable than the people at the ryokan we just left.
The room was quite spacious especially by Japanese standards. We have a
deluxe twin on the 41st floor. Twin beds are more common in
Japanese hotels than kings, but they are wider than our twin beds.
The decor is opulent and the
bathroom has every amenity one can imagine. We have a view over
the city beyond the shinkansen tracks far below. It should be
spectacular at night. Nagoya is a large, modern industrial city.
Toyota had its original factory here that is now a tourist attraction nearby
Nagoya castle is also nearby, but it is a reproduction. Here is a
scan of a postcard of the hotel
tower and the attractive
To view a video of the Nagoya Marriott,
Being both tired and somewhat sickly, we planned to do nothing except get
our laundry ready to send out and rest. We called room service and had
a very good, but expensive, meal. That's about it for today!
Monday, April 13 - Nagoya, Japan - Nagoya
Marriott Associa Hotel
It's a beautiful day in Nagoya. Warm and sunny. We can
see for miles from our 41st floor perch.
We started our day by calling for a laundry pickup, then went down to the
15th floor Pergola Restaurant for breakfast. Looking around the lobby
on the way to the restaurant, this is a very beautiful hotel. The
elevator lobbies are different on each public floor and even the doors
are beautiful. There is a huge
concourse where the ground floor elevators arrive for the offices below
us. It is a soaring space with glass elevators. From the 15th
floor to the 52nd floor is the Marriott Associa Hotel.
The Pergola restaurant was pleasant and very large. We haven't seen
many other guests so it doesn't appear that the hotel is very busy. We
opted for the buffet this morning. It was fine and the pastries were
outstanding as we have found all over Japan. The service here is
top-notch, but that is the norm everywhere we have been. You can't
walk twenty feet without someone asking if you need help finding something.
We thought the price of the buffet, about $25 each, was reasonable for a
hotel like this.
After breakfast we wandered around the
lobby to take a few more pictures, went out to the concourse for some
photos of the
view, then down to the
street level to wander around briefly. This is a sick day, so all
we're doing is resting. Dave had brought some prescription flu
medication with him and it seemed to work because he's functional today.
Yesterday and last night was fevers and chills, but nothing like that today.
We purposely planned this stop as a break from the sometimes frustrating
travel issues in a foreign country. This hotel is beautiful, but there
is nothing Japanese about it so it could be anywhere. That's exactly
what we had in mind.
We happened upon a
garden show along the plaza above the entrance to the JR station below
the hotel. It was a pleasant diversion as we wandered around outside.
Nagoya is very nice for a big city. There isn't much to do here for
tourists, but it is a good stopover place for a few days break from
JR station concourse was buzzing with activity this morning. This
part of the station is relatively new, so the signs are easy to follow.
The shinkansen tracks are the farthest away, but signs point the way.
We will be taking a shinkansen tomorrow to our next destination.
We were trying to kill time while our room was cleaned, but they were still
working on it when we returned. That gave us another opportunity to
explore the hotel, so we went up to the 52nd floor lounge that all the guide
books tout as being a must. They had just opened the doors for a lunch
buffet, but we were the only guests there. We sort of freaked out the
hostess by walking in just to look around, but such is life. The smell
of cigarette smoke lingering in the fabrics was enough to signal us that no
way would we be going up there when it is open.
Our room was cleaned after that brief detour, so we went back and camped out
for the rest of the afternoon. Other than napping and receiving our
fresh laundry from the most impeccably uniformed hotel employee we have ever
seen, nothing happened.
We did manage to get dressed and go downstairs to the Pergola Restaurant for
dinner. They offer a choice between a buffet and ordering from the
menu. We chose the menu option. Everything was very good, so the
trend of excellent western food continues. Bill horrified the waitress
by ordering two enormous ice cream sundaes. We've seen how much
Japanese people can eat, so she shouldn't have been all that surprised.
After dinner we just went back to the room to pack up for our trip to
Hakone-Yumoto tomorrow. The shinkansen ride is a little over an hour,
then we have to change to the local train to get to our final destination.
Click to view the Nagoya Photo
Tuesday, April 14 - Depart Nagoya, Japan
-train & Shinkansen to Hakone-Yumoto, Japan - Hotel Kajikaso
Hakone is one of the most popular sightseeing areas in
Japan. With Mt. Fuji as its backdrop and featuring Ashino-ko Lake,
intriguing museums and traditional hotels and ryokan, Hakone's varied
geographical features and famous hot springs (onsen) are must experiences for
Since the Meiji Period, Hakone has been a hot spring resort area for domestic
and overseas tourists. During the Edo Period, Hakone prospered as a bridge
town connecting the east and west of Japan. It was one of the fifty-three
Tokaido stations operating from Edo Nihombachi in Tokyo to Sanjou-oohashi in
Kyoto. Prominent visitors to the area have included the likes of Charlie
Chaplin and Helen Keller. With one of the most famous hot spring resort
areas and amazing views of Mt. Fuji, Hakone is a must-experience destination for
tourists from around the world.
Hotel Kajikaso is proud to offer a wide range of
Onsen Hot Springs facilities including, an open-air bathing area, a
rock-lined bathing area, and a large bathing spa with wooden bathtubs made of
Hinoki (Japanese cypress). We also provide guest rooms with open-air
bathing facilities, so you can enjoy the luxurious and relaxing Onsen experience
in private. Exceptional Japanese cuisine is also another
outstanding feature of Hotel Kajikaso, where you can enjoy traditional Japanese
cuisine with fresh seafood from Sagami Bay.
It was pouring rain this
morning and that is the expected weather condition for tonight, as well.
No matter, we are traveling to our next destination from Nagoya and all we
have to do is get there and sit down.
We went to the breakfast buffet in
the lobby restaurant again this morning. It was good, as usual.
The hotel doesn't seem to be very busy because there were not many guests in
the restaurant and nobody was at the front desk checking out. We
brought our large pieces of luggage down with us on the way to breakfast to
forward to Tokyo Disneyland Hotel. That was no problem and was taken
care of quickly without any hassle at all.
Our shinkansen reservation has
us leaving Nagoya at 11:22AM, so we went down to check out of the hotel at
10:30AM. There were no internet charges posted to our account, as
promised, so we were quite happy not to have to argue about it. They
had also properly reduced our room rate to ¥23,000
from the original price of ¥28,000 by applying the two Marriott Rewards
certificate we had turned in when we arrived. We didn't realize it
until later, but the price when we booked the room was ¥36,000, so not only
did they adjust the price downward without being asked, but it made this
hotel a real bargain by Japanese prices.
All we had to do to get to the shinkansen station
was to take the elevator down to the station concourse and find the right
place to stand. The signs in Nagoya station must be newer than those
in Kyoto because they make a lot more sense to a non-Japanese person.
We quickly found the sign marking our train and where to stand for our car.
As mentioned before, the shinkansen system is very
modern, but what's up with turning up the heat? It had to be at least
80°, if not 85°. We're sure it was heated to that temperature because
it was raining and pleasantly cool outside. It was so hot it was all
we could do to keep from stripping down to our underwear. Really, it
was that hot.
After riding in the hermetically sealed oven
for just over an hour, we arrived at Odawara station where we have to change
to the private Odakyu train system for the short trip to Hakone-Yumoto.
There was a train waiting at the platform, so we hopped on, but had to stand
for the fifteen minute ride. At least there were four stops on the way
where the doors opened to let in the fresh air once in a while.
We knew we had arrived at the proper station
because it was covered with scaffolding and partially under construction.
The recently completed section of the remodel project is very nice.
There were English translation on all of the important signs so it was no
problem to find the taxi stand. We would have walked to the hotel
which was visible up the street, but it was pouring rain when we arrived.
To view a video of Hotel
Kajikaso, CLICK HERE.
To view some Hakone area promotional videos, click the title:
Welcome to Hakone,
Nature of Hakone,
Getting Around Hakone. The same videos in RealPlayer format:
Welcome to Hakone,
The Nature of Hakone,
Getting Around Hakone.
The taxi ride to Hotel Kajikaso took maybe
three minutes, if that. But still, it was raining so we can be
forgiven for our laziness just this once. When we booked this hotel we
knew it was a hotel and not a traditional ryokan. Unlike that place we
stayed in Takayama that claims it is a ryokan, but is really a hotel.
The lobby is large and a bit worn, but not bad. The girls at
reception freaked out because neither of them spoke enough English to help
us and Dave wasn't in the mood to let them know he could understand them.
One of them ran off to get a manager who did speak English. He told us
that check in time is 3:00PM, but today they could get our room ready by
2:00PM. That was fine with us, only about forty-five minutes to hang
around in the lobby waiting. When we sat down a waitress brought us
tea. Everyone who arrived after we did got the same treatment.
exactly 2:00PM a man came and told us our room was ready. He spoke
enough English to tell us what we needed to know, plus he had an English
printout telling us they are sorry nobody speaks English and they
hope we will understand that they will do their best in any case. The
rest of the information was about how to behave in a Japanese hotel, which
we already know. He gave us choices for dinner and breakfast times, so
we chose the same we have had all along, 6:30PM for dinner and 8:30AM for
breakfast. Meals are served in the room here and he told us to be
ready for them thirty minutes before the actual time so they can set the
table. That sounds good to us.
We booked this place because it is a
Japanese and Western rooms. We have one of the better rooms in the
hotel and unlike the lobby it looks brand new. You walk into a small
foyer where you lose your shoes. Step up to the wood floor and you
can go to either the
toilet booth, straight ahead to the
bathing area, then keep on going to the outside
onsen spa on the balcony overlooking the
river. The living areas are huge. We have a tatami room
where the usual low dining table is located, a
sitting area with a wood floor, a sofa and two chairs, plus a stunning
view above the
cherry blossoms to the
misty hills beyond. Out the other window is the river.
to this is a
bedroom with two semi-double beds, which was precisely the reason we
booked this place. We knew we would have had enough of sleeping on the
floor by now and we were right. We're still glad to get the Japanese
meals, but the futon thing we can live without. There is also a
mini-bar and two large flat screen televisions. We haven't figured
out how to work the air conditioning yet, but the windows open and it is
cool outside, so it isn't a big deal.
As promised, our room attendant arrived with
green tea and sweets to welcome us. She is very nice and friendly,
but doesn't speak a word of English. That doesn't stop her from
talking to us though, but we have no clue what she is talking about.
Well, OK, at one point Dave did figure out that she was telling us the
schedule for the public baths and that we can wear the large sized yukata
she brought to go to them. We booked this room with the private onsen
to avoid the public baths, so that wasn't information essential to us.
Hakone-Yumoto is the entrance to the Hakone area and is a cute little
mountain town. The direct train from Tokyo terminates at the station
here, then you have to transfer to the small train we took from Odawara to
continue up the mountain to the various sites. Since it is raining
today, we are waiting until tomorrow to go out. That will give Dave
another day to recover from the flu also. Those pills sure did the
trick. Most symptoms went away by this morning, but he does start to
fade earlier than he usually does.
This hotel has the most elaborate
electronic toilet yet. When you reach for the seat it springs open by
itself. Want the lid and the seat up? A push of a button on the
wall and voila! You even get two options for flushing, big and small,
at the touch of another set of buttons. We still can't get used to the
toilet spraying back though and the heated seat is just gross.
Sometimes we have figured out how to turn that feature off, but this hotel
isn't geared to foreigners at all, so no luck reading the labels this time.
Our room at Hotel Kajikaso is very beautiful besides being huge. They
did a good job of blending traditional Japanese design with modern
conveniences. Now to see if the food lives up to the room.
Dinner and breakfast are included as in most ryokan. We know we will
be served in the room, but we're not sure if the entire meal arrives at once
or is served in courses. The printed information we received at
check-in isn't clear about that part of the meal service.
We can't even
begin to tell you what even half of the things were that we were served for
dinner. Our attendant came in and set the table, then laid out a
huge array of food. What we started with included a square divided
dish with various
appetizers in the sections. One was a huge snail in its shell that
looked and tasted vile. There was also a little pot of something that
looked like pickled clams with sesame seeds, but it was awful also. On
the side was a bowl of what was probably
fish roe of some sort, but all we know is that you could have put an
entire fish in a blender and it would have been more palatable. We
also started with a pottery cooker to cook the
beef with vegetables. It was very good, but very fatty also.
We don't think that relates to poor quality though, that's just how it is.
There was also a huge
platter of sashimi that was surrounding the intact shell of a lobster.
Everything was OK except the little pile of God only knows what. Do
people really eat this stuff or are they just trying to gross us out?
We didn't have anything this weird up until now.
Next she piled on a
broth with dumplings and broiled lobster, both of which were good and
nothing to freak out over. Then came the thing we have all been
boiled fish head! Yes, we finally got it, teeth, eyes and all.
Check out the close up photo...those are teeth on the right and an eye
in the center. Yummy! Actually, the meat part of it was pretty
tasty once you got past what it was. We also got rice and miso soup at
This type of meal works better when it isn't all laid out in
front of you at once. You don't realize how much food it is when they
bring each course one by one. On the other hand, the meal doesn't take
two hours either, so it's a toss up.
We were told to call the front desk
when we were finished and the attendant would come back and take away the
dirty dishes. We did and she did, also bringing us a slice of melon
and a pitcher of cold water for the night. She also showed us where
there is tea if we need it during the night. Dave attempted to ask her
how the air conditioning worked and that resulted in her closing all of the
windows and turning on the heat. At least we know that air
conditioning means heating and does not cool until they switch over the
entire hotel. That has been the case almost everywhere so far and it
is a real drag. We like to be chilled at night especially when they
pile the beds with down-filled duvets. Oh well, now we know to stop
asking. Unfortunately, there is too much traffic noise here to leave
the bedroom window open all night, but maybe the sound of the river will
drown it out.
The next debacle was calling the front desk to see if they
could turn down the heat on the toilet seat. It isn't so bad in and of
itself, but it heats up the entire room because it is on all the time.
Someone came right up and looked at all the buttons, but he couldn't figure
it out. He knew what we wanted, we think. Then a maintenance man
came up who tried everything he could think of with the same result.
Nothing changed. Dave thinks he said he would come back tomorrow and
work on it. What is it with the heated everything around here?
We're always about to melt from the heat. It's not like it is 20 below
outside at the moment. It is raining, but it isn't cold.
rain, it poured non-stop all day and late into the night. The
weather forecast called for over an inch of rain during the day and another
inch over night. Sure looks like that will hold true. It didn't
make any difference to us today, but if it continues we will have to change
our touring plan for the area tomorrow. Everything to see here is
Wednesday, April 15 - Hakone-Yumoto, Japan
- Hotel Kajikaso
No more rain today, but it is pleasantly cool and partly
cloudy. The traffic noise didn't bother us at all last night, so we
were able to leave the windows open to keep us cool enough. Still, the
comforters that every hotel in Japan provides are so thick and insulating
that we are always too hot at some point during the night. It is a
science to figure out which part of your body to stick out and what to cover
up to achieve the right balance.
Our room attendant arrived at 8:15AM to
set up our
breakfast. As at the other ryokan we stayed at, the assortment of
food and the quantity were amazing. Breakfast wasn't as weird as last
night's dinner we are happy to report.
After breakfast the English
speaking man from the front desk came up to ask what time we want dinner
tonight and to explain some coupons the attendant gave us. She had
already told us they were for either free coffee or tea in the lounge
downstairs. This seems to be the substitute for her serving us tea
upon our return. We don't have too much trouble understanding what the
point is that she is trying to make, but it is nice of the hotel to make an
effort to accommodate us. Unlike at Kachoan, the interpreting here
isn't annoying at all and he doesn't hang around after he is finished
telling us whatever it is we need to know.
We dawdled around until
11:00AM, then started walking toward the train station where we intended to
get a taxi to the post of Moto Hakone. Our 3-day passes allow us to
ride certain busses, but the information we have said it takes forty minutes
to reach the port on the bus.
We took a moment to go to the middle of the
bridge that is adjacent to the
front entrance to
Hotel Kajikaso. Our room in
this photo is the one on the corner with the open windows, the third
floor from the top. Did that make any sense? Oh well. The
river is fairly nice and the sound of the water rushing over the rocks
is pleasant. There isn't a lot of traffic, but what there is has been
mostly drowned out by the river sound.
sidewalks of Hakone Yumoto are covered like they were in other heavy
snow areas we have visited. The
shops here are more high end than in other touristy places. As
usual, most tourists are Japanese, not foreigners. The Hakone area has
been a tourist destination almost since time began which is why there is
such an established transportation network. All of the "circuit"
transportation is owned by a private company and it all seems a bit Mafioso
to us. Every effort is made to sell you the passes, which are a good
price. What that does is force you to only ride on this one company's
modes of transport. There are others in the area, but their signs were
only in Japanese and were not geared toward foreigners at all.
outside the train station is torn up for remodeling the station, so it was
difficult for us to figure out how to get across the busy highway to the
area where taxis were waiting. We stumbled upon the bus stops where
there were several English-speaking guides greeting each person and asking
where you were headed. We told him and he pointed to where we should
stand. When the bus arrived he came and got us to be sure we got on
the right bus. Also, we did look at the signs with the schedules and
all of them had easy to understand English translation on them. We're
baffled why so many reviews and travel guides say getting around this area
While we were waiting for the bus we wandered over to the
river for some photos of the
man-made falls from the bridge.
On the bus we wove through the winding
roads through the mountains. There were many places to stop, but since
no one pushed the button to alert the driver we only stopped about three
times. So, the trip to Moto Hakone only took thirty minutes. We
were glad we saw the mountains and villages this way, but we wouldn't do it
The small port towns of
Moto Hakone and Hakone Machi are tourists enclaves on the shore of
Lake Ashi, a beautiful crater lake that is one of the major draws of
Hakone National Park. Moto Hakone is the more attractive of the two,
but neither have much to offer except souvenirs and restaurants. Our
goal was to complete the tourist circuit that is round trip from
Hakone-Yumoto using various modes of transportation all included in our
First we wanted to walk along the
Old Tokaido Highway, an ancient roadway lined with mossy stones and
lined with massive cedar trees. The trees were planted to protect
travelers from the snow and sun as they passed through the Hakone Checkpoint
up ahead. The tree-lined pathway is very scenic, but the mood is
shattered by the modern highway literally just ten feet away running
parallel to it.
Next up was a detour through the Detached Palace Garden.
This public park was once the garden of a palace that was destroyed in an
earthquake. It offers beautiful views of the shoreline and has many
interesting features. Of note are the
huge trees that are sculpted into bonsai shapes,
manicured shrubs as far as the eye can see, and of course blooming
cherry trees. We followed the mossy stone steps up to the main
grounds, then wandered around to find the viewpoint gazebo. The park
wasn't crowded at all, so it was very pleasant.
Even the locals couldn't find their way around which we found out when we
followed a group of old ladies trying to locate a
forest trail. Unlike most parks, this one was laid out in a very
casual way with only vague trails to follow. It was hard to believe
that all of these trees and shrubs were planted and not natural. Even
more amazing was that they can find enough manpower to keep all these
shrubs in shape!
On the other side of the garden is the
Hakone Checkpoint and Museum. This is a
recreation of the original checkpoint along the highway during the Edo
period (we don't know what that is either, so look it up if you care).
Let's just say that the museum and the checkpoint recreation are thirty
minutes of our lives that we'll never get back. What a waste of time!
Oh well, at least they had restrooms and vending machines.
Next on the
circuit was a
scenic boat ride across the lake to Togendai on the
distant shore. The
boats are extremely kitschy reproductions of pirate ships complete with
staffers dressed as pirates for photos and such. The boats are nice
and clean, so if you want something different this is it. The real
point is to take the scenic cruise across the large lake to reach the
ropeway, which is the next part of the circuit. We saw three of the
pirate ships and there was a replica of a Mississippi
paddlewheeler in the drydock.
ropeway terminal is attached to the boat dock, so transferring is easy.
There are restaurants and shops at each of these places of course. We
wouldn't want to be here when it was really crowded, but that wasn't the
ropeway carries visitors to the station at Owakudani, which is
volcanic area that belches poisonous sulfur gasses. The ropeway
itself is very nice. We had no intention of stopping since the time
was running out for today. But, we had to change ropeways at Owakudani
station anyway, so we walked out on the terrace to look at it. What a
disappointment that was! From all the hype we thought this was
something fantastic, but most of it is just a big
strip mine sort of thing where they are experimenting with whatever you
do at volcanoes. Is it really a good idea to drill holes down into a
steaming volcanic valley? Maybe there is more to it if you walk the
trail to the vents themselves, but we weren't up to that today. Maybe
There are dramatic
views down the mountain to Gora on the ropeway down the other side of
the mountain. Before reaching Gora you have to change to a funicular
that takes you steeply down the mountainside. All of this is included
in the pass and it is supposed to be part of the fun of coming here, but we
weren't having all that much fun having to stand the entire time (everyone
gets a seat on the ropeway, after that is it every man for himself).
the end of the funicular in Gora, is the terminus of the Hakone Tozan Train
that takes us back to Hakone Yumoto and later to the shinkansen station in
Odawara. There was a huge group of school girls in uniform waiting for
the train, so again we had to stand for the entire ride while they hogged
all of the seats and fell asleep all over one another. We can't blame
them for falling asleep. The trip took what seemed like forever,
stopped in all sorts of tiny places in the mountains. We were so glad
we chose to stay in Hakone-Yumoto and not have to use this old train all the
time. Call us jaded, but this rickety old train had no allure for us.
OK, so maybe we're tired and a tad sickly, but we still doubt we'd like it
much even energized and ready to go.
At least we landed back at the
station where we started. It is about a three block walk to Hotel
Kajikaso, which is pretty far when you are about to drop dead.
However, we made it much to the amusement of the welcoming committee out
front and the kimono clad woman at the entrance. There is a group of
some sort arriving, so they were out for them, not us.
You have to leave
your room key at the front desk in these kind of places, so we stopped to
pick it up. There was a note to ask us what time we want breakfast
tomorrow. Then the English speaking man came out and asked if we knew
what sukiyaki was and would that be OK to serve us for dinner tomorrow.
God yes! Bring on something we can recognize.
We stayed out way
later than we should have considering Dave isn't quite up to snuff today.
He managed to crash the moment we arrived at the room to try to revive in
time for dinner service in about an hour. After a coughing fit that
did seem to help his overall outlook on life once it subsided, the dinner
was brought in.
Ugh, goo and slime AGAIN? Actually, most of it
wasn't too bad and was recognizable, we're just touchy tonight. There
was lobster to grill ourselves on a tabletop burner, the usual
assortment of unrecognizable things, soup with dumplings and things like
that. Then came the big treat...an entire
abalone steak served in its shell. That is not something you want
to eat when you're not running at 100%. There was also a nice teriyaki
beef steak, so it wasn't a total loss. Basically what we've boiled all
of this ryokan stuff down to is that it is great to do it for the experience
once or twice, but that's about it. We're glad we did it, but we won't
be lining up to do it again anytime soon. The room here is the nicest
we have had so far, but we're really tired of playing the food game.
The rest of it is tolerable and sometimes enjoyable.
As far as the
Japanese food goes that we were served at ryokan (not counting this one that
is VERY weird stuff), the only items Bill can't stomach are the Japanese
pickles served with literally everything and the rice mixed with tea we were
served for breakfast at the first place. Dave can't handle sashimi
that has a snap to it and/or gets bigger as you chew it, and he's really
tired of those slimy pots of God-only-knows-what that look like something he
hacked up. We'd say that probably 50% of what we have been served in
these places is pretty good once you get past how it looks or what it is,
but the rest of it is so bizarre or so bland that it is hard to believe
anyone would eat it deliberately.
That wraps up another day in a Japanese
style hotel. We did muster the strength to wander down to the
lobby to look at it more carefully. It needs a refurbishment soon,
but it isn't as run down as the last place. It was probably pretty
flashy when it was new. The public areas have nice water features and
fountains throughout. The area
outside the public baths looks nice with trickling water falls and
plants. It all needs a sprucing up to match the rooms and upper floors
though. The carpeting in the hallways looks new and our room is
fantastic. The service is good, but not cloying like it was at the
last place. It is quite apparent that they are not used to dealing
with non-Japanese guests though. They all seem uncomfortable and
unsure around us, all except our room attendant who continues to be
delightful. Everyone is very nice to us, as has been the case since we
amusing sign we saw today. Make up your own jokes.
Thursday, April 16 - Hakone-Yumoto, Japan -
It's a beautiful sunny day here in the mountains, but Dave
is down for the count with his flu/cold/whatever thing. Taking the
mountain climbing train to the outdoor museum doesn't seem like the best
idea this morning. Our itinerary from Michi Travel says, "Relax at
your ryokan today." Sounds good!
Unlike the ryokan we stayed at previously, the primary draw to the ones
here is the inn itself, onsen, etc., so they don't expect you to go out and
sightsee. Every morning after
breakfast we are asked if we are going
out so they can either clean right away or wait until we leave. We
told them we were staying in.
A swarm, OK two plus our regular attendant,
of maids rushed in to clean up the room. One of them closed the
sliding doors to the bedroom area so we wouldn't have to see something as
unsightly as an unmade bed. When she opened them a few minutes later
the whole room was done. It probably took them fifteen minutes, if
We are so lucky that this place is comfortable for westerners!
It would be dreadful to be sick and have to sleep on the floor and have no
where to lie down during the day. Both of us spent the day lounging
around on the sofa and/or in bed trying to muster the strength to venture to
Tokyo Disneyland tomorrow. At least we know that hotel will have air
conditioning, recognizable food, and room service. Of course, we won't
be as inclined to stay in our room there, so this is the time to rest.
All we can hope for is that the heat isn't turned up in the oven of a
shinkansen we are taking to get there.
Nothing happened except a lot of
whining on Dave's part for the rest of the day. The setting is sure
nice here and we'd say our room has about the best view there is. So,
just sitting here enjoying the place was enough for us.
arrive until 7:15PM amid many apologies and bows. We didn't care
except all Dave wants to do is go to bed. Recall that we were promised
sukiyaki tonight. Yes, we did get it, but first we had all of
this stuff, including those whole
dried/salted fish. Dave ate three bites of the sukiyaki and four
spoonfuls of rice while Bill ate
everything else by himself. Almost everything, even he wouldn't
eat the whole fish.
When our room attendant returned later to clear the
dishes, she brought us a HUGE lacquer bowl (we're talking punchbowls here),
covering a rack of beautiful fresh fruit. Talk about being a mind
reader. That was exactly what Dave needed tonight. She said she
thought it would put some color back in his cheeks. How nice is that?
She continues to speak Japanese to us as though we have a clue, which is
kind of charming. Sometimes Dave can pick out a word so he gets the
gist of what she is asking, but most of the time he just smiles and say, "Hai"
(yes). Maybe that's how we got the boiled fish heads? Hmmmmm.....
We expect people to be nice to us at a Disney resort, but every single
person we have dealt with in Japan has been so kind and sincere it really
made the whole trip worthwhile. Old ladies talked to us in parks, shop
keepers were pleasant, strangers on the street helped us if we looked
confused, and service in all of the hotels was way over the top in
attentiveness. For that alone we'd say come to Japan. Everything
else you experience is a bonus.
Click to view the Hakone Photo
The story continues on the Tokyo Disney Resort page,