Introduction & Planning
This portion of our trip begins with our departure from the Tokyo Disney Resort. We are not new to travelling on our own in Japan, but last time you may recall that we used a Japanese travel agent to plan parts of the trip. We do recommended that agency (www.michitravel.com) if you are planning a trip to Japan and do not want the hassle (which is considerable) of booking everything yourself. However, it does add significantly to the overall cost. We do not recommend using a U.S.-based agency for this purpose unless you are using a specialist in Japanese travel.
Here's the gist of what we learned last time. If you have lots of rules about what you will eat and expect everything to be the same as it is at home, do not go to Japan! When you stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, you have no choice at all about what is served for dinner. It will all be exquisitely presented with impeccable service, but you won't know what most of it is. Just eat it! We didn't love everything we ate, but there is such variety at meals that you are sure to find something to fill up on. On the other hand, we had more than a few dishes that were absolutely delicious even though we don't know to this day what the heck it was. These affairs go on for at least two hours and are usually served in your room sitting on tatami mats at a low table. Practice using chopsticks before you go and you will make a wonderful impression. Sure, you can ask for a fork, but please don't! Most Japanese inns and hotels will accommodate a request for a Western-style breakfast, but in our experience the Japanese breakfasts are far superior.
Most Japanese people do not speak English or are reluctant to try if they do know some. Everyone is extremely gracious and tries to be helpful, but outside of the large international chain hotels, English will be very limited. Strangely enough, you are often better understood if you write it down and show it to them. Dave took the time to learn some Japanese using Rosetta Stone and it was very helpful. It was entertaining as well. The reaction from a Japanese person when he asked a question in Japanese was priceless. You can get by not knowing a word of Japanese, but do yourself a favor and learn some basics. Rosetta Stone is great for learning proper pronunciation (Dave was complimented many times on his "perfect" accent and he's terrible at foreign languages), but take a phrase book for vocabulary and helpful phrases. The disadvantage to asking a question in Japanese is that you will get an answer the same way! Be sure to learn how to say, "Please speak slowly."
The train system is efficient and easy to use. All major stations have electronic signs that alternate between Japanese and English. Ask for your ticket to be printed in English. You can use machines to buy tickets, but we gave up on that after the first time and went to the "Green Window" (which is really a separate room with a long counter) to buy tickets. The staff there always understood enough English to help us, although Dave asked in Japanese for what he wanted...sort of. He would say the destination station, two tickets, and either one-way or round-trip. He never had a problem getting what he wanted and the person serving him was always beyond helpful. Speak slowly and don't use slang. Better yet, go to www.hyperdia.com and print out the train schedule so you can point at it when you go to buy tickets. We did not have rail passes last time because we did not use the trains enough to make it worthwhile. Our Japanese travel agent pre-purchased any tickets that required seat reservations. This time we will have passes, but we will have to make seat reservations for the shinkansen (bullet train) and other trains that require them. Reservations are free with the pass. The people working on the trains generally speak no English at all, but we didn't have any reason to talk to them anyway. On the shinkansen they sell food and drinks from a cart after each stop, but we were always skipped over. We assume this was out of fear that we wouldn't understand what was going on. Had we wanted something we knew how to ask in Japanese. You can also buy bento boxes in the station to bring onto the train, as well. Every Japanese person we saw on the train whipped out their bento the minute the train started moving, so this is a common practice. Apparently, eating on the train is part of the fun. Please take your trash with you!
Finding food outside of your hotel in a small town is a bit of a challenge for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the language barrier. Japanese people prefer to have breakfast and dinner at their hotel, so this option is almost always available. If you are intimidated by eating out, book the meal package at each hotel. Another good place to find lots of food options you can understand is in large train stations and department stores. However, don't be afraid to walk into a restaurant on the street. Many times there are plastic food models you can point to in the window, pictures on the menu or just ask for the waiter's "osusume" or recommendation, the "teishoku" set meal in a Japanese restaurant, or the "seto" or "corsu" for the meal of the day in a Western style restaurant. Rest assured that the staff will go out of their way to be helpful when you are polite and patient. If you are loud or disruptive in any way, expect to be totally ignored until you go away.
We don't know why, but both of the guide books we use to plan trips (Frommer's and Lonely Planet) never suggest taking a taxi. We took taxis several times for short distances and had no problems. The fares were reasonable, too. We felt guilty for being dressed like slobs in a white linen-lined cab, but the drivers were always very nice and tried to be helpful. Not one of them spoke English though. The best bet is to have your hotel's front desk write down your destination and the name of the hotel on a card that you can show the driver. On the other hand, in a big city like Tokyo, taxis can be prohibitively expensive, so the subway or local train is a better choice. Busses generally do not have signs or announcements in English outside of the big cities, so they may be too confusing for the average tourist to use. Some towns have tourist busses that run on a loop starting at the train station and going to various sites. These are a good, reasonably priced option. In areas frequented by foreign tourists, Hakone, for example, there are English-speaking guides stationed at the main bus stops to help visitors choose the right one.
We highly recommend having name cards (meishi) printed with your name and address in formal Japanese and English. We handed these to front desk clerks at hotels and they practically fell all over themselves to complement us on our forethought. This is an unexpected courtesy that will gain all manner of respect. Just say, "I have a reservation," hand the clerk the card with both hands and the type facing them, and let the fawning service begin! We also gave a card to any Japanese person who took the time to speak to us and they reacted as though we had given them a gold brick. No kidding.
Probably the best advice we can give is to be soft-spoken, patient and flexible. It does no good for anyone to get angry or to act irritated. The squeaky wheel does not get the grease in Japan as it does in the U.S. They'll just think you are a jerk and the answer to whatever you are asking will be, "It is difficult." That means "No," by the way. Being polite and deferential will get you everywhere.
Our research includes both Frommer's and Lonely Planet Japan Guides because each skip different cities and cover others that we are interested in. The most recent Lonely Planet edition completely cut out coverage of the entire region where the tsunami hit the hardest, even parts that were not affected at all. Frommer's still covers cities that are open for tourists. As always, we rely primarily on www.tripadvisor.com for our hotel selections. We book directly through the hotels' website whenever possible, but this isn't always feasible for Japanese hotels. For those we usually use www.japanican.com and www.rakuten.com along with planning advice from Japanese websites such as www.japan-guide.com and www.jnto.go.jp/eng. We are not planning to stay at any exclusive ryokan during this trip, so we expect to be able to book everything online one way or another.
If you can find a U.S.-based travel agent proficient in booking travel to Japan, more power to you. Expect most of them to foist you off on a group tour operator at an exorbitant price. We found a Japanese travel agency that was very helpful and responsive. Our contact there planned every detail for us even though we didn't need quite that much attention (www.michitravel.com). She was more than happy to work in arrangements we had already made on our own. We recommend this agency if you want everything taken care of for you, but do expect to pay a premium for their expertise. However, the itinerary provided was so detailed that it was nearly impossible to make a mistake or get lost.
We rented a cell phone last time and we intend to do so again "just in case." As suggested by one of our helpful forum members, we will rent a mobile internet device, as well. Internet service in Japanese hotels in 2009 was often non-existent or expensive, although we expect this has improved somewhat by now. The service we received from www.rentafonejapan.com was flawless and the prices somewhat less than other providers, so we will probably go with them again.
July 23, 2013: As always, we will keep you updated as plans are made, reservations are booked, etc. Expect many changes along the way! The itinerary today will likely not be the same tomorrow. Most Japanese hotels do not take reservations more than three to six months in advance, so at this point it is too early to start. In the meantime, we are doing our research and getting preferred hotels and destinations in mind. Since we are travelling during prime cherry blossom season, we might have to eliminate some stops if accommodations are not available. Keep your fingers crossed that things fall into place! The exact departure date for this trip, or whether it happens at all, hinges upon our return to California via a cruise aboard Crystal Symphony departing from Tokyo on May 1, 2014. As of now, we have not pursued this booking. No reservations have been made as of today. Planning and research is nearly complete though. We intend to invite back the same house sitters we had for the Canyonlands trip. We will recruit someone new if they are not interested, but that is a last resort option only.
August 7, 2013: It has come to our attention that several of the towns severely damaged by the devastating March, 2011, tsunami are begging for visitors to come back to help the economy (and morale.) With that in mind, we are currently researching cities we can visit for this purpose. We are already staying two nights in Matsushima which was damaged, but not destroyed, by the tsunami. It is possible to visit nearby areas from here or Sendai, so we might add an extra day just in case we are able to arrange something. The mayor of the small town of Rikuzentakata issued a plea online asking visitors to come to his city. His entire town was washed away and had the highest death toll (about 2,000) of all affected cities. There is nothing left except one lone pine tree (of thousands) that has been preserved and replaced with a replica after salt in the soil eventually killed it. Problem is there are no hotels there, so we are considering staying in nearby Kesennuma and making a day trip to see for ourselves what happened. Kesennuma was also heavily damaged and trying to attract visitors. It is a small fishing and resort town with hotels located on high ground, so the option to stay overnight exists. We also considered Miyako, but the train connections are still very limited and it would be more difficult to get there. In any case, we'll do some re-arranging of the itinerary and see what we can come up with.
August 21, 2013: We adjusted the itinerary to include a stay in Kesennuma, one of the towns severely damaged by the 2011 tsunami. The stopover in Aomori has been deleted.
September 3, 2013: A short flight from Sendai to Hokkaido will replace a 5+ hour train ride. The schedule has been rearranged to accommodate this adjustment which will give us an extra day in Sendai (or possibly elsewhere after we think it over.) This change also allowed us to book our first reservation, at the JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo which is always sold out on Friday and Saturday. We booked a Corner Twin Room Non-smoking with Breakfast at •30,000 per night. This includes all taxes, service charges and free internet. By the way, for a general reference as we go forward, •100 is roughly equal to US$1.00. Take two zeroes off the Yen price and you'll be close to the US Dollar amount.
October 28, 2013: A minor change was made to the itinerary today, replacing the stop in Akita with Utsunomiya. This is a more logical stop to break up the time spent on a train. As far as sightseeing goes, Utsunomiya has a slight edge over Akita.
November 3, 2013: The reservation window for a few of our selected hotels has finally opened, so we're slowly starting to finalize our choices. The first is the hotel for our first stop after Disneyland in Matsushima. Here we booked a Twin Room (Sea Side) with breakfast and buffet dinner (which is said to be quite elaborate) for •31,000 per night...ouch! We booked through www.japanican.com. Our room selection is the least expensive available with an ocean view, which is pretty much the whole point of staying in this town. We might ask for an upgrade upon arrival and will be prepared to pay extra, if necessary. The website isn't specific enough about room types and what restaurant is included, so we chose the cheapest and we'll see what happens. Whatever we get should be fine. This is a classy place, so we expect it to be very nice in general. We don't know if internet service is available or included. It wasn't possible to specify non-smoking, so we'll hope for the best in that regard.
We went ahead and booked the Richmond Hotel Utsunomiya Ekimae Annex for the stop in Utsunomiya. Richmond hotels are part of an upscale Japanese chain of business hotels that get excellent reviews. This one is adjacent to the train station, which is convenient. We reserved a Precious Twin Non-smoking room (we have no idea why it is precious) with the Western-style Breakfast Package. Internet service is provided free of charge.
Since JAPANiCAN is letting us book this far in advance, we went ahead and confirmed the hotel for Otaru, as well. We wavered among several hotels and ended up with the Hotel Nord because it is the nicest hotel for a reasonable price that overlooks the scenic canal. We reserved a Premium Twin (Canal Side), No Smoking with breakfast. The rate is •18,360 for the first night and •20,250 for the second (Saturday). These are "Advance Booking" rates that save roughly 10%. Internet is included here, as well.
November 4, 2013: The booking frenzy continues! We have reserved an Annex Deluxe Twin Room, Non-smoking, at the Hakodate Kokusai Hotel. The rate includes a "famous" buffet breakfast. Saturday's rate is •17,400, Sunday is •16,500. Considering the rates at other nearby hotels, this place is a bargain. It is an older hotel, but the annex is new-ish and looks nice in the photos. We booked this through Rakuten Travel by clicking one of the links on this site, by the way, so we should get a small (and we do mean small) kickback (Note: We received a rebate of about 10% several months after our stay). This Japanese chain is classy and well respected similar to the famous Okura Hotels, but its hotels are older so the rates are lower to attract business. It worked in our case. Plus, it is another book-early rate that includes the breakfast for no extra charge (a savings of about $15 per person, per day.)
Next up is a reservation for Hirosaki at the Best Western Hotel Newcity Hirosaki. Boring, sure, but it is attached to the train station and gets good reviews. We booked Two Double Beds, Non-smoking for •14,240. This is the AARP rate and is •1,000 lower than than the AAA price. Go figure. All prices here include a full breakfast and internet access.
For our stay in Kamakura, we have selected the Hotel Kamakura Mori. This is a small, sixteen room hotel on the upper floor of an office building, so we aren't expecting much more than a bed. It does get decent reviews and the location is a one-minute walk from the train station right on the main street. It is pricy for what it is, but there aren't many choices in town because most tourists visit on a day trip from Tokyo. The rate, including breakfast in the restaurant downstairs, is •22,680 for Sunday night and •24,840 for Monday. Non-smoking rooms are not an option. We had to pre-pay through JAPANiCAN to book this far in advance.
And finally, for today, we have our booking at the Hiraizumi Hotel Musashibou. This is a traditional Japanese-style hotel, so we had no choice but to reserve a Japanese-style room which includes breakfast and dinner in the restaurant. There is no option to choose non-smoking which is, unfortunately, typical for this kind of place. The rate for the first night is •25,920 and for the second, which is a Saturday, •30,240. This is not a historic ryokan by any stretch. It looks like a concrete relic from the 1970's, but it is the only decent choice in this town. The upside is that the rooms have a private bathroom which is a must for us. We booked and pre-paid through JAPANiCAN, which is the only option in this case. We appreciate that the receipts from JAPANiCAN include the English to Japanese translation for the hotel name and address in case it is necessary to show to a taxi driver or ask for directions. This also comes in handy when forwarding luggage to the next destination.
The remaining cities will be booked whenever the reservation window opens for hotels in the area. As of today, we either can't book at all or the only hotels accepting reservations aren't our first choice. We'll check again next month for availability and go from there. The only hotels that can always be booked far in advance are Western chains, but what fun is that? We will wait to book our final hotel stay in Tokyo until we find out exactly which port Crystal Symphony will use.
November 9, 2013: On a whim we checked availability in Noboribetsu Onsen and found one of the hotels of choice could be booked through JAPANiCAN. So, we have checked another one off our list. We reserved a Japanese/Western-style Non-smoking room, including breakfast and dinner, at the Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu for •36,200 per night. This might sound like a ridiculous price, but this hotel is a bargain compared to the •60,000 rates at other hotels in the vicinity. It is also the only choice to get a non-smoking room. The room we reserved is over 500 square feet with meals served in the room. Where the meal is served isn't important to us, but the point is that this is one of those Japanese hotels with the fawning, traditional food and service that warrant the high rates. This is the only high-end Japanese-style hotel we will book for this trip, so it should be worth the splurge. As with many traditional hotels in Japan, we had to pre-pay in full, although it is fully refundable if we cancel the day before arrival.
December 18, 2013: We tired of waiting for JR Hotels to make rooms available directly through their website for Kakunodate, so we booked through Rakuten Travel. Being the height of cherry blossom viewing in Kakunodate, we were nervous about finding a hotel in town at a reasonable price. We have booked two nights at the Folkloro Kakunodate Hotel for •13,500 per night, including breakfast and wi-fi. The room type is a Standard Twin Non-smoking. This chain is owned and operated by JR-East, the railway company, and is adjacent to the station. It isn't much more than a full service motel, but it has a restaurant and gets good reviews. And, the price is right for Kakunodate where accommodations are very limited. We prepaid the reservation only to save the bother of doing so at the hotel, but the option to pay later was available. We should get a small kickback from Rakuten on this reservation because we clicked through a banner on this site.
Also, we booked, against our better judgment, our stay in Nikko at the venerable Nikko Kanaya Hotel. This hotel is about 140 years old and gets mixed reviews. Some say it is run down and tatty, others say it is charming and historic. One thing we can say with all certainty is that it is overpriced for what it is. Then again, everything in Nikko is and in this case you are paying for the ideal location. We chose a Standard Room A Type with no meals included (all rooms are twins of some sort). This is the hotel's description: "It is the standard guest rooms of our hotel. Almost all rooms from the 1st to 4th floors of the 2nd. Annex belong to this class, and all furniture spacious and cheery." We know that it is best to avoid the economy rooms at this hotel, but the "deluxe" rooms are WAY overpriced. By the way, had we opted to include meals, the only option was to include both breakfast and dinner; the additional cost would have been over $150 PER DAY PER PERSON. We opted out of the meal plan primarily because we're not interested in eating dated, fancy French food in Japan. Another annoyance is the inability to book a non-smoking room here. Apparently, they don't exist. We're picturing a room that has probably been chain-smoked in for at least 100 years, so anything better than that will be appreciated. The total cost for our three-night stay here, sans meals, is •90,090, or roughly •30,000 per night, which we were required to pay in full in advance. We think wired internet is available in the rooms based on some traveler reviews, but we're not counting on it.
January 10, 2014: Dave has been in contact with a representative from the city of Rikuzentakata regarding a possible visit. This town is one of the hardest hit during the 3/11 tsunami. The mayor and others have been working diligently to attract visitors and draw attention to their rebuilding efforts. We recommend reading the mayor's book about his experience, Let's Talk About It: What Really Happened In The Disaster Area, available as a Kindle book from Amazon. We have tentatively added the town to our list of places to visit, but we have not yet determined how long to stay. Therefore, changes are yet to be made to the itinerary. It was suggested to us that we do some volunteer work while we are there, so we are waiting to hear back about that opportunity before making any changes. The city is located north of Kesennuma, so it would be feasible to commute to Rikuzentakata on the JR bus that has replaced the washed out train tracks between the two towns.
A reservation was made today for our stay in Sendai. We were torn whether to stay at the Westin for a "western" break, go for the Metropolitan Hotel attached to the station, or just get a nice modern room and save some money. We opted for the last option and booked a Premier Twin (non-smoking) at the Richmond Hotel Premier Sendai Ekimae for •21,000 per night. All rates at this hotel include a complimentary breakfast and internet. By the way, the other two options would have run over •30,000 per night with no meals. We would have selected the Metropolitan, but their website is so screwed up that we didn't feel confident that they would know who we are when we arrive. Richmond Hotels are well known in Japan and get outstanding reviews for service and facilities. They are upscale business hotels, not luxury properties. This one (there are two in Sendai) is about a block from the station along the main boulevard. Oddly, Richmond Hotels does not ask for a credit card in advance.
January 14, 2014: We were hoping to use Bill's new Smartphone during the trip for internet access, GPS, etc., but we've determined that it would be less expensive to go ahead with our original plan to rent a phone and a 3g mobile wi-fi access point in Japan (4g is only slightly more expensive, but gets mixed reviews for reliability). We rented a phone previously from RentAFone Japan and were happy with their service and prices, so we will go with them again. We have estimated that it will cost us about $260 for both, with unlimited data use on the access point. To rent just a SIM card to use in our existing phone would cost over $350 and without it roaming charges would be astronomical, so it just didn't make any sense to do that. With the access point we can still use the phone to access the internet while we are out and about, if necessary. Supposedly it gets four hours of use off each charge, which should be sufficient to help translate menus or whatever else we run into.
Travel insurance to cover the non-refundable parts of our flight and medical coverage/evacuation for the entire stay in Japan was purchased from Allianz Travel Insurance for $260.00.
January 20, 2014: We're tweaking the itinerary again. This time we have deleted the stop in Utsunomiya to free up two days for the addition of Rikuzentakata, resulting in the cancellation of the reservation at the Richmond Hotel Utsunomiya Ekimae Annex. This pushes the stay in Kesennuma out two days. We are still awaiting information about the stay in Rikuzentakata, but whatever the final word is, we'll go there anyway for at least one night. If, for some reason, it doesn't work out at all, we'll find somewhere else to go for two days in the general vicinity. We have not made any hotel reservations for these cities yet.
January 30, 2014: Although we have not heard back on the volunteering issue, we went ahead and booked the hotels for stays in Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma. Rikuzentakata has only one hotel, the newly rebuilt Capital Hotel 1000. There, we reserved a Twin Room which is the only type available (all rooms are non-smoking) with no meals. There is a meal plan available for breakfast and/or dinner, but the price is more than the cost of the room itself. At •21,600 per night, the price is already quite steep, so we'll wing it with the meals. The original hotel was located on the coast. It was gutted by the tsunami and torn down. The new version is a simple modern structure built on a hill overlooking what used to be the town.
In Kesennuma, we booked a Japanese-style room at the Kesennuma Plaza Hotel. All rates here include breakfast and dinner. Non-smoking rooms are unheard of, unfortunately, so we'll just have to cope. Apparently there are some Western-style twin rooms in the hotel, but they weren't offered through JAPANiCAN, which is the only way to book. Some reviews state that westerners are put in the twin rooms regardless of what they have booked, but we'll take whatever we get. They also say that the entire hotel smells like an ashtray which isn't quite as easy to accept. We expect this hotel to be a Japanese version of a "glamorous" resort hotel in the U.S. from the 1980's. In other words, lots of pink marble, shiny brass and layers of sea foam green draperies. The nightly rate, including meals, is •25,920 which is quite reasonable for the type of place this is. It was not damaged in the tsunami because it is located high on a hill overlooking the port.
We're not sure we will try to get a response from the PR person in Rikuzentakata again. She has twice said she would get back to us in a day or so, but hasn't followed up. She has been extremely pleasant, however. We don't want to be pests, so we'll probably drop it and just see what happens when we arrive. Or, we might contact her again after we arrive in Japan.
All that remains as far as hotel bookings go is the room for our last two nights in Tokyo. We are waiting to find out for sure which port Crystal Symphony will depart from before reserving a room. There are plenty of choices, so we're not sweating it.
January 31, 2014: We bought our airline tickets for the flight from Sendai to Sapporo online directly from Japan Airlines. Using the special "oneworld Yokoso/Visit Japan" fare, we paid only $98.00, plus tax, for each one-way ticket. It is partially refundable if cancelled. The regular fare is $257.00, plus tax. In order to qualify for this fare, passengers must purchase the ticket outside of Japan, have a round trip international ticket and reside outside Japan. The flight is just over an hour and only offers economy seats. ANA offers a similar deal. The train fare for this route is about the same as the regular air fare, so this is a very good deal and saves a whole day of travel time.
February 21, 2014: We ordered our Japan Rail passes from Kintetsu International today. In order to cover our time in Japan we had to each buy a 21-day and a 7-day pass. The price of a Green Pass (First Class) for two is $2,226.00. We should receive our Exchange Orders next week that we will have to turn in after we arrive in Japan to receive the actual passes. Our plan is to start using the passes on the way out of Tokyo. While in Tokyo and at the Tokyo Disney Resort, we will probably buy prepaid SUICA cards after we arrive. They cost •2,000 that includes a •500 deposit that is refunded when the card is returned. Any remaining funds on the card when it is turned in are also refunded less a small service charge.
February 22, 2014: A mobile phone and 3g wireless hotspot were ordered from RentAFone Japan (www.rentafonejapan.com). The price is as already discussed above, plus any charges for phone calls over the included allotment. The phone should be waiting for us when we arrive at the Hilton Tokyo Bay. We used this company in 2009 and were impressed with their service. Their prices are considerably less than other companies we researched.
February 25, 2014: The Exchange Orders for our rail passes arrived today.
February 27, 2014: Our final hotel nights are now reserved at the InterContinental Hotel Tokyo Bay. We used a Chase Visa free night certificate for the first night and 35,000 IHG rewards points for the second. The lowest regular rate is •19,800 for Two Single Beds Superior with View, not including any meals. Internet is free for IHG Rewards members, but there is a charge otherwise. Ordinarily we wouldn't have chosen this hotel, but two free nights in an expensive city like Tokyo is hard to pass up. This hotel gets mediocre reviews, but the location on the bay is nice and it is close to the port.
March 12, 2014: RentAFone Japan emailed our rental phone's number and email address.
By the way, the descriptions of hotels found in the blog are usually copied word-for-word from hotel websites. We're not making fun of the grammar, but simply putting forth the official line to give you an idea of what we have to work with when choosing a hotel.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please post them in our Forum.
Day 1: Sunday, March 30 - Shinkansen & Train to Matsushima - Hotel Taikanso - Bill's Birthday
You will find coverage of our arrival in Tokyo on our Tokyo Disney Resort page.
Located half an hour outside of Sendai,
Matsushima is famous for its bay, which is dotted by many pine clad islets and
has been ranked one of Japan's three most scenic views for centuries. The small
town is also known for Zuiganji, one of the Tohoku Region's most important Zen
As mentioned on the Tokyo Disney Resort page where this adventure begins, we have to take three trains to get to Matsushima. We left the Hilton Tokyo Bay around 11:00 am, which is later than ideal, but still doable. Dave said, "Sayonara" to the housekeeping supervisor who has greeted us every morning in English and she almost passed out. Learning even the most basic Japanese has an entertainment value all its own.
It is raining for real today, so rather than walk to the monorail station we took the hotel's complimentary bus to JR Maihama station. Waiting for the bus killed about fifteen minutes, making Dave nervous about making the shinkansen connection in Tokyo at 12:26 pm.
We used our SUICA cards to board the train. We got on the first train toward Tokyo that arrived shortly after we got to the platform. The train wasn't crowded at all, which was nice because we're hauling luggage now. The train arrived at Tokyo Station in about twenty minutes or so.
Dave read a sign wrong and we ended up back on the platform to Tokyo Disney, so back up we went. This time we landed on the perfect route and didn't get lost again. Last time we were here there was a hallway of doom and then a stairway of death from the Keiyo Line into Tokyo Station. Those two things still exist, but now there is a moving sidewalk in the hallway and a huge escalator up to the station. That sure makes it a lot easier when carrying luggage!
As we rushed through the busy station, Bill asked Dave, "How do you know where the heck you're going?" "Who said I do?", was the answer. Well, he mostly knows where he's going or at the very least which train line he's looking for. In this case it is the Tohoku Shinkansen toward Morioka. We never got lost again, but there was a glitch when we arrived at the turnstiles for the shinkansen. We had never passed through an exit from the local train, so our SUICA cards weren't charged for the local train ride. The way these work is that you swipe them when you enter a station to board a train. When you disembark and exit the station at the end, you swipe it again and the fare is calculated and deducted from your balance. Since we never exited the station, this left them with a departure station, but never an end or a charge. Will that mean when we get to Matsushima we'll be charged for the entire distance? Who knows?
Our shinkansen tickets didn't work in the turnstile either, but when we showed them to the attendant he punched them and let us through. The tickets should have worked, but the turnstile said, "Please insert all of your tickets." Well, fine, but we only have one ticket. Oh well, no harm done. We assume they won't work on the way out either.
We found the correct platform after standing in the middle of a busy station staring at the signs for a few minutes. Eventually one of the names made sense and off we went to find the platform. A train was already there, but it wasn't time for our departure yet. However, ours was showing on the sign as the next departure. Whew, we made it!
Since Tokyo is the end of the line for the Tohoku and Akita shinkansen lines, they do a turn-around cleaning here. It is interesting to watch the team of cleaners board, food service come on to switch out the snack carts, etc. It is just like at an airport. When a group of cleaners came out, they lined up at the door and bowed to the passengers waiting to board. Then they closed the doors for a few minutes and reopened when everything was re-set. Someone flips a switch and all of the seats automatically turn and face the direction of travel.
We're traveling in a Green Car, which is the equivalent of First Class. The seats are about what you would get on a domestic business class flight, so there's lots of leg room and the seats are comfortable. The train we are on looks brand new. It is only 80 degrees inside, which sounds ridiculous (and it is), but we've been on shinkansen that are well over 90...on purpose...so we're not complaining. Apparently they have done away with the moist towel for Green Car service because we never saw a cabin attendant. The conductor never asked for our ticket either, as they always have in the past.
We thought they weren't going to sell food either, but after the third stop a guy pushed a cart down the aisle with drinks and snacks. He did it again after about an hour. The total time on the shinkansen was 101 minutes.
Of course, we arrived in Sendai at the precise minute printed on our ticket, 14:37. The next step is to find the JR Senseki Line to get to Matsushima-Kaigan station. Sendai Station is well marked with directional signs in English, so it is impossible to get lost. Our dilemma is what to do about our SUICA card charges. We ran into the same problem here as in Tokyo. Since we are transferring to a local train, we never passed through the exit gates of the shinkansen. The first gates we came to were for the local train.
Dave stopped and asked the attendant at the gate what to do. He explained the issue with the SUICA cards and the guy was very helpful, didn't scold us for doing anything wrong, and told us (in English) that we could pay at the end of the ride. He did something electronic to our cards, but he said we weren't charged yet. He pointed us to the correct platform and told us the next train would arrive shortly, which, of course, it did.
Our original plan called for taking a limited express on this route, but we got on the first train that came, a local. That only means that it stops at every station, so it takes a bit longer. There is no difference in price. The train wasn't crowded so we didn't inconvenience anyone by holding our luggage in front of us. Seating is along padded benches facing the center with standing room down the middle. Point is, if the train isn't crowded and no one is standing, luggage isn't in the way. Otherwise, it is a logistical nightmare because there is almost no storage at all. We had to put our bags in front of us on the shinkansen, too.
Dave was relatively confident we took the train in the right direction, but because it is raining and hard to see anything, we couldn't tell for sure which way the train was going. After about twenty minutes we arrived at the ocean, so we knew we made the right choice. Another thing that confused us is that the tracks now end at our destination station; they used to continue up the coast before the tsunami. The signs in the stations along the way list a destination that isn't where we are going. Apparently, they didn't change the signs because the ride did, in fact, end at Matsushima-Kaigan Station.
Matsushima-Kaigan station is basically just a concrete pad with sort of a cover over about half of it. It is pouring rain, so we got a bit wet before we made it to the covered part. The platform was crowded, so getting by with rolling luggage wasn't any fun. Then we had to carry it down the steep concrete steps.
Our SUICA cards freaked out the exit gate that flashed big red X's, so an attendant came over and scanned them with a handheld device. He spoke some English and was very nice. He didn't act like we are idiots or inconveniencing him. He told us to come to the window and he'd fix it, which he did. We have no idea what we were charged, if anything. He stuck the cards in a reader, pushed a few buttons, and gave them back to us with a smile.
Outside there was a guy wearing a traffic director outfit on standing in the pouring rain holding up a sign with a picture of a bus and a bunch of things listed in Japanese. We think he was directing people to various shuttle buses because we heard him ask the man next to us what hotel and he said, "Taikanso" which is our hotel also. We would have taken a taxi, but with the rain they were gone before we made it out to the street.
The attendant told us the bus would come at 40, which we assume means 15:40. Then he pointed at a bus turning into the parking area and said, "Taikanso". When that bus actually arrived at the curb he didn't say anything, so we weren't quite sure if that is the bus or not. The Japanese man who had been standing with us told us to go with him and that it is the bus we want. He didn't have to do that and it was very nice of him to help us.
Hotel Taikanso is on a hill overlooking Matsushima and hundreds of scenic islands that dot the bay. Well, that's the theory anyway, but with the rain there isn't much of a view. We arrived at the hotel, which is within walking distance of the station if you don't have luggage and/or rain, within a few minutes. Someone came out and escorted us to the front desk. Checking in was no problem, but the clerk spoke very little English. We expected that, so we're not complaining at all, but just stating a fact in case someone else cares. Nobody ever expects that either of us speaks a word of Japanese, so they try their best to speak English no matter what.
The desk clerk pointed out on an English printout which restaurant our dinner and breakfast is in and the hours for both. She said something about the onsen, too, but we don't care, so didn't pay attention. Strangely enough, she never asked for a credit card or any other method of payment. Dave filled out a name and address form and she copied our passports (required by law), but we didn't sign anything or swear we would pay. We booked through JAPANiCAN, but we didn't pay in advance. All rates here include breakfast and dinner in a choice of four restaurants. You have to decide which when you book. We chose the International Buffet, plus there is a formal French restaurant (the least expensive option), formal Japanese keiseki (most expensive), or a Chinese restaurant.
The same guy who showed us to the front desk took us to our room on the fourth floor of the main building. We stepped out of the elevator and our room was right there. We booked the least expensive twin room with a view and weren't expecting much even though it is $300 per night. The room, while worn and dated, is better than expected. There is a seating area with a sofa, two VERY low, rock hard twin beds, a wet bar, refrigerator stocked with drinks , and a large bathroom. The bathroom is all limestone. It has a separate shower with a huge soaking tub. The sink counter is so low it just about reaches our knees.
The floors in the room are real wood. There is a foyer area with a stone floor that can be closed off from the sleeping area. It sort of has the same layout as a penthouse on Crystal Symphony except larger. If it weren't so dated it would be very nice. It is clean though, sort of. The drapes are FILTHY and belong in a dumpster! Everything else looks OK and the TV is a new LCD flatscreen that almost fits in the hole the tube TV was in. The man who brought us up tried very hard to explain everything, including the light switches. Then he said they had provided us with "extra big" yukata in the closet. Dave said we are, "Okiisugimas" (too big) which amused him.
There is a console between the beds that controls the lights. We couldn't figure out how to turn on the floor lamp and the outlet by the sofa until we tried the bedside switches. There are also buttons to open/close the drapes, but they don't work. We're pretty sure everything in this room except the TV and the air purifier is straight out of 1980.
We'll never understand Japanese bathroom supplies. Here's this enormous bathroom with all the bells and whistles, but they only give you two bath towels and two plastic-wrapped hand towels with the texture of gauze. If you need a toothbrush, comb, hair scrunchie, or anything else like that, it is on the counter. Towels? Dream on. We know you are supposed to go to the onsen to bathe, but all of that is right here in the room, so shouldn't there be towels to match? Oh well, when in Rome...
It was about 4:00pm when we were finally settled in our room. The thermostat is all in Japanese and the A/C is putting out heat. We had to get out the phone and use the feature where you take a picture of a Japanese word and it translates for you. We finally figured out how to turn down the temperature and we opened the window. Opening the window made the heat turn on again, so back to the drawing board with that. The room sort of reeks...maybe stale cigarettes or something else, but once we figured out the fancy air purifier/humidifier they provide, that issue was resolved.
There is no internet available here except in the lobby, so we had to use our rented wi-fi hotspot. It is very slow, so we probably won't be able to upload a lot of photos from this stop, but we'll do our best.
Our dinner time is scheduled for 5:30 or 7:30, but we think she actually meant to write 5:30 to 7:30. Breakfast is from 7:00 - 9:30 am. We also had to specify when we want the housekeeper to come, so we chose 10:00 am.
We went down to dinner at 7:00pm. This hotel was built in many different eras, so it is quite convoluted to get anywhere. The buffet restaurant is in the basement. Once we got there it opened up to a lofty two story wall of glass that must be something to behold when there is a view during the day. There are gas tiki torches burning outside...don't ask, we have no clue. The restaurant is clean, attractive and modern.
When we arrived the host lit up when he saw our room number. At the table he asked whose birthday it is and then fawned over Bill. Shortly, a waiter came over with a split of sparkling pink wine that was very tasty. He kept telling us that it is free from the management for Bill's birthday. We were escorted to the buffet, handed trays and utensils (nobody else got this treatment), and sort of ushered along to be sure we got all the good stuff. The chefs behind the line also wished Bill a happy birthday, so apparently there was some sort of announcement to the restaurant staff. Dave didn't mention any of this at check-in. When a reservation is made through JAPANiCAN the form asks if it is a birthday or anniversary, so Dave figured he'd see what happens or if anything would happen. At the end of the meal a waiter brought over a plate of desserts with Happy Birthday written in chocolate sauce. They went above and beyond, that's for sure.
As for the buffet, it is very extensive. We're not sure we actually saw all of it. There is a huge section of Japanese food, another long display of cold salads with shrimp, BBQ beef, etc., a large table of kiddie food (spaghetti, corn dogs, etc.), and a counter featuring Western food and wagu beef. The beef was doled out by a chef, but there didn't appear to be any limit to it. Then there is sushi, sashimi, regular salads, desserts, fruit, etc. There are about ten choices of beverages including fresh juice. Later we saw another whole counter of more Japanese food such as noodles and toppings for them, rice, three kinds of soup, etc. Everything was very good and we'd gladly eat any of it again. The only weird issue is that some of the meat/chicken cooked in stews and sauces has bones in it. With nothing to eat with except chopsticks, it is a bit of a hassle. However, tomorrow night we'll just skip those dishes and have something else. This buffet has a much better selection than the expensive one at the Hilton. Click to view our first round of FOOD.
Although nobody said anything or looked annoyed when we arrived at 7:00 pm, it does appear that the designation of time for dinner actually does mean arrive at 5:30 OR 7:30. The reason we say that is because the restaurant was nearly empty when we arrived. At 7:30 the entire place suddenly filled up. There is no way that many people would show up right at the last minute by coincidence. In Japan, closing time means "get the hell out" not arrive and linger. Oh well, nobody seemed to care, so neither do we. Also, 95% of the guests were dressed in their matching Taikanso yukata and slippers. Since this is a hotel and not a ryokan, we were surprised. This is an onsen resort hotel though, so maybe that's what you are supposed to do on vacation. As expensive as this place is, we were also surprised there are so many young children staying. They aren't any problem, of course, but we wouldn't bring a kid to a fancy place like this.
After dinner we wandered through the souvenir shop and marveled at the array of food souvenirs. Japanese prefer to bring home candy and food rather than "stuff", so you'll find this all over Japan at tourist sites. Prices are very reasonable...most large boxes of cookies or other very fancy foods were less than $15.00.
We also checked out the lobby and lounge area. They are in the newer part of the hotel and look very nice with the exception of the faux French furniture. At least there aren't any swaggy drapes or crystal chandeliers. We're pleasantly surprised that the neither the public areas nor the room smell of heavy cigarette smoke. In the lobby there is a designated smoking lounge, so maybe smoking isn't allowed while walking around. No one was smoking in the restaurant. There is an ashtray in our room, but the smell isn't overpowering.
We were back in the room by 8:30 pm and ready to call it a night. The weather forecast looks more promising for tomorrow, calling for partly sunny. It will be chilly though, in the high 40's. We might as well get used to it now because we are only going to get colder when we reach Hokkaido.
Day 2: Monday, March 31 - Matsushima - Hotel Taikanso
It is clear and sunny today, but only in the mid 50's and extremely windy.
The view from our room certainly has improved with the better weather. Unfortunately, now we can see the hotel's pool, which is a swampy green color. Yeah, we get that it is only open for twelve seconds per year, but would it kill someone to throw some chlorine in it now and then?
We were up early today because both of us went to bed early. These traditional Japanese hotels don't let you sleep in. Breakfast ends at 9:30 am, and check out time is 10:00 am. Our assigned breakfast is in the same buffet restaurant and our dinner, so we had high hopes of it being as good as that.
All in all, it was a disappointment. There was a huge variety of Japanese breakfast items, but there were no plates or glasses to be found. No one seemed interested in re-stocking them either. Some of the food items were almost empty and not re-filled during the time we were there. We arrived at 8:30am, so it isn't like we got there at the last minute. All of the food we had was good, but a picky Westerner wouldn't find much to eat besides the usual nearly raw bacon, hot dog like sausages, and way undercooked scrambled eggs. For a place this "fancy" we were surprised they don't have any fresh fruit. All of it was from a can. We got enough to eat, but it certainly wasn't anything memorable.
The maid arrived at 10:00am, right on time, just as we were opening the door to go out sightseeing. We contemplated walking to town, but it is very cold and extremely windy, so we decided to wait the twenty minutes for the hotel shuttle bus. We felt sorry for the guy driving a van with the hotel name on it...everyone who came out, including us, asked him if he is the shuttle. We enjoyed standing out front watching the chaotic traffic jam that is caused by the most ridiculous hotel entrance we have ever seen. There is the usual porte cochiere that leads to the lobby, but the driveway dead ends under it. So, every car or taxi that arrives has to back up to get out. That would be fine except this hotel has over 1,000 rooms, so you can imagine that the entrance isn't exactly quiet.
Eventually, a hotel bus arrived (free, by the way) and took us to the train station. We need to stop here to visit the Tourist Information Office to get an English map. The man who served us spoke fluent English and was very informative. He said he was here when the earthquake and tsunami hit. It was creepy because the sky turned pitch black and then the snow started to fall as the tsunami came in. Matsushima was saved horrific damage because the islands in the bay abated the power of the waves. However, it still came over the seawall and nearly up to the second floor of the buildings on the main street. He said that they get tsunami warnings all the time, so nobody actually believed one would come. It was quite a shock to everyone when one so strong came ashore. He added that there was a lot of earthquake damage here before the tsunami came ashore and that he'd never felt anything like it before.
He told us that it has been difficult to get international tourists to come back. This is both because they think everything was destroyed and they are afraid of radiation from Fukushima (which, by the way is 60km north of here). Japanese tourists have returned, but they see very few foreigners. That's too bad, because everyone is very nice to us and seems quite happy to see us. We assured him we will tell whoever is reading this that it is safe to return, everything is up and running, and the locals are ready and waiting to host your visit. The locals are disappointed that nobody asks about the tsunami anymore because it means they have forgotten about it already. That's why we are here, to make sure nobody who reads this forgets!
We walked from the train station through the waterfront park across the street. There is no apparent damage remaining, but the tourist office guy told us that if you drive twenty minutes north there is total devastation. The only evidence we see here is a swamped grate in a drainage ditch and a couple of buildings being repaired. If you didn't know anything had happened, you wouldn't think anything had.
This town is famous for the scenic islands that dot the bay. Consequently, tourist boats are a big business. There were hoards of Japanese tourists flocking toward the pier for the next departure. We read reviews in advance and know it isn't something we would enjoy. Besides, with the high winds today it sounds like a nausea cruise more than a scenic one.
We walked along the waterfront toward a couple of historic sites north of the station. There is a low sea wall that has flood gates through it every now and then. It is probably only about fifteen feet above the sea, so it was of little use when the tsunami hit.
We passed our second choice of hotel, Matsushima Century, on our walk and it reinforced that Taikanso is the better option. It isn't terrible, but not quite as nice. It does have some signage in English which our hotel does not, but the rooms that face the view are all Japanese style. There is only one other hotel right in town and it looks very run down. We'll have to recommend Taikanso over any of the others we saw, but it isn't perfect either.
The first sightseeing spot we came to is Godaido, a temple built in 1604 by Date Masamune on a small island accessed by two short bridges. It has come to symbolize Matsushima, although it is quite small. There are large gaps between the floor boards in the bridges and it is said that if you trip you are not pure enough to cross yet.
We continued walking north toward the long, vermillion-colored bridge to Fukuurajima Island. When we got there, the women in the toll booth indicated that the island is closed due to the high winds. No problem, it is mostly just a botanical garden with views of the bay, so we're not really out anything by not seeing it. In the parking lot is one of many new signs warning people to head for high ground if there is an earthquake. These and other signs point to evacuation spots throughout town. The parking lot of our hotel is one such location, so we assume we are safe up there.
There are some women standing outside of several restaurants trying to drum up lunch business, but it is only 11:15 am, so we aren't interested in food yet.
It is a short walk back to the main street and the Date Masamune Historical Museum. This place is a wax museum, not a traditional museum. It depicts scenes from Date Masamune's life from birth to death and tells the story of all the things he did in his life. The museum starts with an odd display of more recent Japanese historical figures, but they are well done and maintained properly. All of the displays have English explanations, plus we were given English brochures explaining everything when we bought our tickets. The woman at the ticket window spoke some English and was very nice to point out that it is OK to take pictures. The sign says the admission price is •1,000 per adult, but we received a 50% discount for being foreigners. Ala Disney, the tour ends in a large gift shop where we did manage to find a couple of small items to use for Christmas ornaments. Prices for souvenirs are very inexpensive...mostly less than •1000. The two small items we bought were only •350 each.
We kind of wandered around the middle of the town until we came to the main attraction here, Zuiganji. It is considered the most renowned Zen temple in the Tohoku district, originally built in 1609 by Date Masamune. The admission fee is •700 per person. Tickets are purchased from a vending machine that accepted our SUICA card as payment. Very simple to do. The woman in the admission office gave us English brochures and was extremely pleasant.
Just to the right of the gate is a large cliff where caves were dug centuries ago for religious purposes and to house the remains of the dead. Some have religious carvings on the walls; others house bronze statues and stone monuments.
We knew we found the right place because the main part of the temple is closed for renovation and covered with scaffolds and tarps. No big deal to us, we're happy with whatever we have to look at. They have opened other parts of the temple not normally available to the public during the construction work. The kitchen building is open for viewing and contains a few items to look at plus a nice view of traditional Japanese architecture. You have to remove your shoes to enter, but this is the only time we had to do this all day.
On the way to the next building in the large complex, we passed through a hand-carved tunnel through solid rock. Someone must have been very devoted hundreds of years ago to accomplish this excavation and the caves at other temples. An uneven stone staircase leads up the hill to the elaborately restored Yotokuin's Mausoleum. It looks brand new, which may or may not be a good thing, but it certainly is intricately decorated with black lacquer and gold inlay.
There is also a modern museum on the grounds housing artifacts related to the Date clan.
The next temple on the tourist circuit is just a block or so south along a narrow street lined with restaurants. Entsuin includes Sankeiden, the mausoleum for Date Mitsumune. There is also a rock garden, large cemetery and other lovely settings amid a cedar forest. The admission is •300 per adult and can be paid with a SUICA card. As usual, the woman at the ticket window was very friendly, spoke some English, and gave us English brochures.
The tour starts with the rock garden just inside the traditional wooden gate. Then, you turn a corner and are on the approach to Sankeiden. There is also a rose garden and a more contemporary cemetery of polished black granite monuments. Another building on the grounds is in the process of having its thatched roof replaced.
From the temple, we walked back to the main street and toward the train station. We briefly contemplated finding a place to eat, but neither of us is particularly hungry and nothing nearby is appealing, so we kept walking south of the station toward Ojima island. We stopped to check out a store selling "Original Omiyage" and bought a couple of inexpensive items depicting the shinkansen we traveled on to Sendai yesterday.
After crossing the street, we walked down a narrow street past the Matsushima Aquarium. This is the kind of animal attraction that would draw the ire of PETA elsewhere. It is a small, somewhat rundown building with some kiddie rides and marine animals. We could see penguins swimming in a glass enclosure from the gate, but we weren't tempted to go in. It does seem popular with the locals though. The facility is just across the street from the sea and it was damaged in the tsunami, but it was repaired and re-opened quickly.
Continuing walking on the same small street, we came across a friendly man selling grilled skewers of seafood from a small window. His dog was out front checking people out as they walked by. We went up to see what he has to offer and ended up ordering a skewer each of the giant (and we do mean GIANT) scallops. He also had a whole squid and oysters, plus something else we didn't recognize. The skewers are basted in a soy based sauce. When he asked if we want to sit down or take them with us, we opted for sitting down. So, he ushered us into his small dining area (two tables) that is stuffed with his memorabilia and collectables. He gave us cups of tea to go with the food. The little dog became very interested in us the minute we had food in hand, but the owner told him not to beg, so he didn't. Well, he sat down and stared, but he didn't whine or anything. The whole event was very charming. If you want a mom and pop experience, this is pretty much the definition of it.
After following the walkway for a few more minutes, we arrived at a broad beach. Today's weather certainly isn't conducive to beach activities, but there are a few people wandering around looking at the view. There used to be a restaurant nearby, but it was damaged by the tsunami and torn down. Nothing remains but a concrete pad.
We found the stairs up to the newly constructed bridge to Ojima. The original was washed away in the tsunami and just recently replaced with a concrete version. In the old days, a great Buddhist priest practiced Buddhism on this island. There are caves carved in the rock, stone memorial tablets, and a couple of ramshackle, but charming, small temples. The island is small, but affords some magnificent views of the islands and the bay.
This brings us to a very sad note, unfortunately. We learned that one of our dearest friends passed away yesterday. In her honor, Dave put a pile of •1 coins in one of the temple offerings and rang the bells. We know she would have absolutely hated that, so we had to do it. We're not being mean; she would have found it hilarious. And the •1 coins? She'd be furious if we had wasted larger coins! If we could have found a mariachi band, yodelers, jazz musicians and a scat singer, we'd have added those, too! We know she'd be looking down and thinking, "What the HELL???"
We have now covered all of the tourist sites in Matsushima except the closed Fukuushima Island, so we wandered back in the direction of the train station to catch the hotel shuttle. Unfortunately, we missed it while Dave was adding some money to our SUICA cards and Bill was buying some bottled drinks (he had to find out what "Fruit & Salty" means!) So, we took a taxi instead. It only cost •650 and was well worth not having to walk up the steep hill to the hotel. The driver was kind enough to turn off the meter halfway up the hill so it didn't advance to the next highest fare. We didn't say anything about it; he did it on his own to be nice.
At 5:00 pm, the host from the restaurant called to ask what time we are coming. Nobody told us we had to decide on a time in advance, but maybe he is just being nice or perhaps trying to remind us to show up on time. Bill told him we'd be there at 5:30 pm, which we were.
The room was completely empty when we arrived and all the food was freshly set out and untouched. That didn't last long, but Dave was able to get a few pictures of the buffet: Cold Salads, Soups, Japanese, Kid's Food. The dinner buffet has something for everyone and isn't limited to only Japanese food like breakfast is. Bill ordered a glass of wine with dinner and it only cost •550.
Dave heard back from the dentist in Sendai and after a bit of back and forth about the date, he settled on an appointment tomorrow at 2:30 pm. That will give us some time to either think over what he wants to do and have time to return to the office, if necessary. Dave is concerned about the cost of something major (such as a root canal), but after looking up prices for such procedures in Japan it turns out it would be one-fourth what it costs at home. In other words, we can afford to pay cash for it and not be strapped for cash later on. We're not sure that's the road we're going to go down, but we like to be prepared for the worst possible scenario "just in case".
Dave nearly freaked out when he realized that all of the dates on his computer calendar are off by one day. He is pretty sure it was accurate when he made the reservations, but he checked everything just to be sure. We dodged a bullet because everything seems to be in order. We received an email confirming our arrival at the Richmond Hotel in Sendai for the correct dates.
We were back in the room by 7:00 pm and ready to call it a night. We have to be out of here by 11:00am tomorrow morning. There's no late check-out at a traditional Japanese hotel!
Day 3: Tuesday, April 1 - Train to Sendai - Richmond Hotel Premier Sendai Ekimae
With roughly one million inhabitants,
Sendai is by far the largest city in the Tohoku Region and one of the country's
fifteen largest cities. Sendai was the closest major city to the epicenter of
the earthquake of March 11, 2011. The tsunami devastated the city's coastal
outskirts but did not cause major damage in the city center. Virtually all
tourist spots reopened within a few months of the earthquake. The modern
city of Sendai was founded around the year 1600 by Date Masamune, one of feudal
Japan's most powerful lords. Many of Sendai's tourist attractions are related to
Masamune and his family.
The weather is beautiful today, sunny and cool. It is nice to be in a hotel that has windows that open wide to let in the fresh air and the sound of birds chirping.
We're up very early today because we both went to bed early (Bill was asleep by 8:30pm). We don't have to check out until 11:00 am and there's no reason to leave before that. If we get to Sendai too early we'll have to find something to do before checking into the hotel. Dave has a 2:30 pm appointment with a dentist about 17 minutes from Sendai on the train. We'll pass the station on the way into Sendai, but we want to ditch our luggage at the hotel first.
Breakfast this morning is the same as yesterday except the food isn't depleted. However, the container of chopsticks is empty and again, nobody seems at all interested in restocking it. The food is fine, no problem with that. Overall, the quality of food so far at every restaurant we've been to has been great.
Our final thoughts on Matsushima: It probably isn't on the radar of most casual foreign tourists, but it is definitely worth a stop for a night or two if you have seen the major sights elsewhere. The townspeople were very friendly and welcoming to us. It is apparent they are glad we came. Everyone we dealt with spoke some English. The people in the tourist office are fluent in English and make a concerted effort to offer their help. There aren't really any must-see attractions other than the usual temples, but the town is charming and laid back with the scenic bay dotted with small islands. We would recommend coming here just to get away from the frantic city life for a day, if nothing else. If you like oysters, this is the place for you. They are sold almost everywhere and in every form you can imagine.
Our final thoughts on Hotel Taikanso: It is difficult to rate this place. Is it a luxury hotel that is falling short or a mid-range that is exceeding expectations? We'll go with the latter because the price for what we got was reasonable. The room was huge by Japanese standards, although it needs an update to the decor. And please, throw the drapes in the trash! Service is very attentive and friendly. Everyone tried their best to speak English which we appreciate. We never expect the staff at a hotel in a foreign country to speak our language, but when they do we're glad to acknowledge their effort to make us comfortable. The hotel has done a good job of adding English signs and printed materials to help out foreigners, too. From what we saw of the other major hotels in town, this one is definitely the best bet. It doesn't reek of cigarette smoke at all, which was a pleasant surprise. So, we'd give it 4 out of 5 stars and we would be willing to stay here again.
We checked out at 10:30 am and asked the front desk to call a taxi for us. Someone came out and waited for the taxi with us and then told him where to take us. We could have done that ourselves, but it was a nice gesture.
The station is pleasantly deserted today so it wasn't too much of a hassle to haul our luggage up the stairs. We sat in the chairs provided on the platform and waited about fifteen minutes for a train back to Sendai. We thought that Matsushima-Kaigan is the last stop since the tsunami, but the train arrived with some passengers on board, so it must continue to at least one additional stop now. The train added passengers at every stop along the approximately 30-minute route and it was standing room only by the time we reached Sendai. Nobody gives up seats for old women or anyone else for that matter. First come, first served is the rule.
At Sendai Station it was easy to follow the plentiful English signs and find the correct exit that would put us closer to our hotel, the Richmond Premier Hotel Sendai Ekimae. At first we couldn't tell which elevated walkway to take to get to it, but after walking around briefly we saw the hotel and went right to it. The lobby is on the fifth floor. There is an attractive lobby on the street level with an elevator that takes you up to the lobby or your room (with a key). We arrived at the deserted front desk at noon, which we expected would be way too early to check in.
The English-speaking clerk asked if she could store our luggage for us, gave us a claim check, and told us to come back at 2:00 pm. Dave went back to ask her directions to the dentist and she printed out a Google map of how to get there. She also wanted to know when we would be back to check in, so we told her 4:00 pm.
We walked back to the station through one of the nearby covered shopping arcades looking for something for a light lunch. We found a cute French bakery where you make your selections yourself using personal tongs and a big tray. Then you take it to the check-out counter where they will heat it up and put in on plates for you, or pack it to take home. We got a bun with bacon and cheese, two brioche ham & cheese sandwiches, a mini ham pizza, and a berry tart. Everything was delicious and only cost •2000. At home each of the large pastry sandwiches would have easily gone for $10.00. And, every one of them was delicious. There is a big, glass-walled kitchen where you can watch the items being made from scratch.
We sat on a bench outside the station and people-watched until 1:00pm when we decided to take an earlier train to the dentist rather than risk being late. That was no problem and it only took a little over fifteen minutes to get there. Both the dentist and the receptionist at the hotel told us to take a taxi to the office from the station. That is easier said than done when there are no taxis to be found. The train station is literally in the middle of a residential area. So, we set off walking according to the map we were given, the instructions on the dentist's website, and blind fool luck.
To say we walked in circles would be an understatement. We probably saw every neighborhood street and back alley in the town! We tried to use the GPS in the phone, which did sort of work, except it kept turning us down dead ends and alleyways. Dave finally had enough, threw a brief hissy fit and went into a fast food place to ask if anyone knows where the heck this place is.
The two very nice young women working there tried very hard to help us. Dave was able to communicate with them in Japanese and one of them had actually been to that dentist. They were very helpful giving us directions, but our GPS led us astray again. Finally it dawned on us to put in the name of a bank on the dentist's map that also shows up on Google maps. That got us there. The building looks like the picture online and there is even a big tooth out front so we are sure it is the right place.
They were expecting us and the dentist came right out and talked to Dave in the waiting room. He kept saying his English is very bad, but it was fine and we were able to communicate. Even though the clinic is very busy, we didn't wait at all other than filling out a one-page form. Dave was called back right away for a panoramic X-ray and although the nurse didn't speak English it was easy to figure out what she wanted. Everyone there was having fun with it.
After that he was put in the "fancy" semi-private chair in the back. The doctor's assistant, who spoke no English, did a complete accounting of his entire mouth, tooth by tooth. She was extremely nice, as was everyone else in the office. Judging by the condition of Japanese teeth in general, they have probably never seen teeth in such good condition before! In any case, the office is pleasant and the people working there bent over backwards to be helpful.
The doctor looked at the X-rays and couldn't find anything wrong...no cracks or anything that needs drastic work. All of this started with a new ceramic crown and metal fillings replaced by resin a few weeks ago. Everything was fine until we got to Japan and then all hell broke loose. After a very thorough and thoughtful exam, the doctor said he thinks the teeth just need to be filed down because they are hitting together too hard and bruising the pulp. That is exactly what it feels like, so it makes sense. So, he did that, continuously checking to be sure it all fits together right, polished the teeth, and showed Dave how to apply a pain-killing gel with a miniature toothbrush that massages the gums. He also gave him some pain pills he said are only available in Japan and are fantastic.
For all of this treatment, as an emergency walk-in, the cost was only •10970, or about $100. That's about what it costs at home just to be seen by the dentist. If something is actually done it is way more than that. The exam itself is covered by Japan's National Insurance. Dave only had to pay for the actual procedure. So, if you need dental work while you are near Sendai, the place to go is Seiju Dental Office and Dr. Toshiro (Terry) Hashimoto! Thank you to everyone for being so kind to us.
Dave asked the receptionist to all a taxi, which she did. We were taken back to the station where we caught the next train back to Sendai. We were back at the hotel to check in at 4:30 pm, no worse for wear.
The receptionist told us that our luggage had already been delivered to our room, including the one we had sent from Tokyo. She explained that we get a free breakfast and there is coffee and tea service in the afternoon and evening, also free. Then she gave us a thin plastic card and told us to go to the machines on the wall (similar to the ticket machines at the train station) to pay. Then, the card will turn into our room key, which it did. Oddly enough, the room number and Dave's full name is etched onto the card. We're not so sure, even in Japan, that is such a great idea.
Richmond Hotels get rave reviews online and we can see why. The hotel is beautifully designed with a pleasant, professional staff. You need your key to get to the room floors and to activate the lights in the room. There is free wi-fi and wired internet access that actually works.
Our room is the most expensive (around $200 per night), a Premier Twin. This is a corner room with a view overlooking downtown to the train station. There is a long entry hallway that leads to a dressing area with a full-length mirror behind doors, a clever folding ironing board, and a wooden closet. The bathroom is off of this dressing area and can be closed off from the room. The room has two full sized beds pushed together and topped with fluffy duvets, robes and sleepwear. In the corner is a built-in mini-sofa, table and office-type chair. There is a huge LCD TV and a refrigerator that can be switched off to save energy. Oh, and the air conditioning actually works. There is also an air purifier like the one at our previous hotel except this room doesn't reek, so it isn't necessary. The bathroom is small, but well designed and attractive with a large soaking tub.
We started to sort of crash around 7:00pm, so we quickly pulled ourselves together and went out in search of dinner. We walked through the covered arcades and didn't see anything appealing. A guy standing in the middle of the walkway holding menus tried to sell us on a shabu shabu place, but his English wasn't good enough and we didn't know for sure what he was trying to tell us. We walked and walked until we ended up on the main street where we were approached by another young man with a menu pushing a restaurant on the fifth floor of the adjacent building. We figured we'd go for it and he promised us some free grilled beef.
OK, so now we can say we've been to a traditional Japanese Izakaya, which is mainly a bar with small dishes of food you order as you wish. We were put in a small private room and told to push the button on the table when we want something. The guy who lured us up here brought us English menus, but it didn't help much. Luckily there are pictures of some of the items. Our waitress didn't speak English, but she tried to be helpful.
We ordered the yakitori skewers, a sliced chicken breast dish, a noodles with chicken dish, and some sort of beef. The yakitori included five skewers of mostly fat and/or chicken skin with chunks of liver...not something we would order again! The sliced chicken breast was chicken sashimi. It tasted good, but the thought of eating raw chicken kind of takes the appeal out of it. The beef was good, which is the freebie from the hawker (he really is a cook here), but the noodle dish was fantastic. We were still hungry, so we ordered what ended up being like a grilled cheese sandwich except the bread is sliced sweet potato. It was actually very good and something we might try to make at home with some variations.
The only downside to this place is that it reeks of cigarette smoke. We'll probably have to burn our clothes after tonight. Otherwise, it was fine, we're glad we did it, and now we don't have to do it again. The total bill was •5800, including three drinks.
We walked the short distance back to the hotel and were done by 9:00 pm. There aren't any must-see sights in Sendai, so this is mostly a rest stop and a place to get our rail passes validated. The city is clean and neat, so it is pleasant to walk around. There are tons of restaurants and shops nearby. The train station is a block away. The street lamps are antique gas lights, which is a quaint touch.
Day 4: Wednesday, April 2 - Sendai - Richmond Hotel Premier Sendai Ekimae
It is another beautiful day here in Sendai. Temperatures in the high 50's, sunny, and a nice breeze.
We went down to the lounge for the hotel's free breakfast. It is about what you would expect at a U.S. midrange hotel chain, except with a Japanese twist. The freshly baked pastries, for example, aren't sweet, but filled with onion or ham and cheese. They're delicious, just a bit of a surprise. They also have a cooler filled with small plastic containers of cut up pineapple, citrus, green salad (all Japanese buffets have salad for breakfast), as well as the usual yogurt, dry cereal and such. It isn't a huge amount of food, but it is enough to get us out the door. They also have soft-served ice cream...go figure. The coffee machine makes several fancy coffees and there is a juice and soft drink machine with several varieties.
After breakfast we dawdled around until about 10:30 am before walking over to the train station to find the stop for the Sendai Loople Tourist Bus. Click to view the Route Map. Dave already knew where the ticket booth is by looking at Google Maps, so we had no problem finding it. A group of bitchy looking women in Muslim attire weren't having the same luck. They looked decidedly unhappy, although some Japanese were trying to help them.
Unfortunately, those same women ended up in front of Dave in the ticket line. However, he feels that is a good thing because he'll probably look pretty good to the ticket seller when he gets up there. Dave taxed his brain and asked for two day passes in Japanese. It must have been right because the woman handed over two passes (•620 each).
This tourist bus thing sounds good in theory and maybe it is sometimes. But, we HATED it! First of all, it is jam packed standing room only, it is hot (even the Japanese were checking the vents) and it lurched from side to side. Whenever it stops, which is frequently, everyone in the aisle would almost be tossed through the windshield. By the way, the buses are meant to look like old wooden streetcars and they do succeed in that illusion in more ways than one.
After what seemed like an eternity trying to remain standing in that sardine can, we arrived at our intended stop, Suihoden Mausoleum. We skipped the first three stops because we don't do museums or shopping.
When Date Masamune passed away in 1636 at the age of 70, and according to his last will and testament, the mausoleum known as Zuihoden was built for him here in Kyogamine the following year. Zuihoden was constructed in the gorgeous Japanese architectural style known as Momoyama and was designated as a national treasure by the former Japanese Imperial Government in 1931. In 1945, however, the original Zuihoden was burnt down in the war. The present building was rebuilt in 1979 and subsequently repaired in 2001 to more closely resemble the original mausoleum. This included fitting lion mask sculptures to the columns and tiles, and dragon heads at the four corners of the roof.
We got a discount off of the admission price for having the one-day bus ticket, so that's a plus for the bus. That brought the price down to •450 per person, a savings of about one U.S. dollar.
The approach is up a steep cedar-lined road, then some very uneven stone steps. At the top is a plaza with the gate leading up to the mausoleum. We have no idea how people got up the huge steps back in the day when they were a lot shorter than we are. We're not exaggerating to say that each step is at least a foot high. The carved and painted designs are quite intricate and must have cost a fortune to reproduce when the building was restored.
Our visit was diminished a bit because there is a Japanese tourist guide lecturing some tourists and blocking the front of the mausoleum. We went into the adjacent museum to kill some time, but he was still blathering on when we returned. We would have been bored silly if we could have understood him!
There are several other mausoleums a short walk away, but they are on a less grand scale. The approach to Kasenden and Zennoden is a similar set of steep steps, just not as many. Nearby are several other tombs, but the wooden protective structures have not been restored. From here it is a steep walk down more huge steps to the Children's Cemetery where the deceased children of the samurai (or something like that, you get the gist) were buried. On the way back to the bus stop there is a modern shrine that is still in active use.
We had to wait about twenty minutes for the next bus, so we sat on some benches and entertained ourselves with people-watching. We were amused by this sign for a hair salon across the street. It conjures up all sorts of images in our mind.
When the bus arrived lots of people got off, so we did as the locals do and barged into the first seats we came to and didn't move. There is no way we're standing in this death trap again. Well, OK, that's an exaggeration. They do look nice and are properly maintained. This is Japan after all.
The trip to the next stop, the Site of Sendai Castle, is relatively short, so not unbearable. However, there was a huge crowd waiting to board the bus, so if there are taxis here when we leave, as there were at the previous stop, we're giving up on the bus.
Nothing of the original castle remains today except the earth and stoneworks of the walls. The main hall of the Main Enceinte was dismantled after Sendai Domainís defeat in the Restoration War of 1868. The buildings of the Second Enceinte were destroyed by fire in 1883. The few remaining gates were destroyed in the bombing of Sendai in 1945. There is a modern museum at the entrance that we skipped. There are tasteful souvenir shops and restaurants, too.
The main reason people come here is for the view over Sendai. It is so clear today that we can see snow-capped mountains in the distance. There is also a bronze statue of Date Masamune on horseback and an old stone tower with the top covered in a plastic tarp. When we went over to look at it we found the reason for the tarp. On the ground, protected by a plastic shed, are the broken remains of an enormous bronze eagle that had toppled from the spire. We assume it fell in the earthquake, but that's just speculation. Dave can speak a little Japanese, but reading it would simply be ridiculous.
We could smell some meat grilling on the way out, so we searched around for the source. It is an upstairs beef tongue restaurant. Beef tongue is a regional specialty and yes, it really looks like a tongue. However, it is usually served grilled and sliced, so it isn't as repulsive as it sounds. As we have said before, "When in Rome..."
Nobody speaks English, but the menu has pictures and they did bring over an English version of the menu eventually. Dave forgot to ask since there are pictures, but that is one question he knows in Japanese without looking anything up. Dave ordered the Tongue Stew Set and Bill had the Thickly Sliced Grilled Tongue Set. All of the food was outstanding and we'd happily order either set again. The staff is extremely friendly and happy to see us, but what else is new?
We can see a line of waiting taxis outside the window of the restaurant and they were looking pretty good by the time we finished around 2:30pm. The same ones were sitting there the entire time, so when we came out the first in line was overjoyed. Dave told him to take us to Osaki Hachimangu, which is the last site on our list today. The taxi driver understood and off we went. The ride is fairly long, about fifteen minutes, so we felt it was well worth the approximately $13.00 we paid for the taxi. By the way, we came out ahead on the bus pass. If you pay individually for a ride it costs •260 at each stop, plus we saved •100 on an admission fee.
The taxi driver pointed us in the right direction for the shrine which is right in front of us at the curb. An odd thing in Japan is that you'll find these ancient structures sort of stuck in the middle of high rise apartments and office buildings. Once at the shrine you don't even know those modern buildings exist, but it is a shame that someone didn't think to limit development around the entrance to these places.
Again, the approach is up a set of very steep, uneven stone steps. At the top is the gate into the Shrine and the usual water trough and ladles to purify yourself before entering. We saw nobody do that, however, even though this is an active shrine and people are praying there. A monk came out of the shrine with a big broom-like thing made of paper streamers and went out to bless someone's new car in the parking lot.
Date Masamune ordered the construction
of Osaki Hachimangu in 1607. The shrine's deity, Hachiman, is the Shinto god of
war and considered to be a general guardian and protector of the city.
We were hoping against all hope that our taxi would be waiting, but no such luck. The next bus won't arrive for another 40 minutes. Dave planted himself on a low stone wall, while Bill contemplated trying to hail a cab. When he actually got the nerve to stand at the curb and wave, one stopped right away. The driver was very nice, but he didn't understand the name of the hotel at all. He asked Dave to write it down to see if that would help, but it dawned on Bill at that moment to show him our keycard and that did the trick. We have no idea why he didn't understand the name because it is never written or pronounced in Japanese, although it is a Japanese chain. No matter, the taxi delivered us to the front door for roughly the same price as our earlier ride. Money well spent as far as we're concerned.
A lesson we have learned is never assume there will be a taxi waiting unless you are at a hotel or major train station. We were stranded at the dentist office station yesterday and again today at the shrine, which is a major tourist spot. Still, it isn't horrific if there aren't taxis. Dave knows how to ask a shopkeeper to call a taxi for us if need be. He had to tax his brain and speak Japanese three times today and we haven't even left the big cities yet! Other than the group of Muslim women we saw at the bus station, we saw only two other non-Japanese today.
We went to a nearby convenience store to buy food for dinner tonight so we don't have to get dressed and go out again. We picked up a sandwich, salad, cold cuts, orange juice and a couple of small desserts. The woman manning the counter had a baby strapped to her back who was just oh-so-cute. Dave told the woman he is "kawaii" and she lit up and became his newest BFF. The two bags of food we bought cost less than •2000. So far, with the exception of the buffet dinner at the Hilton, food and souvenirs have been much less expensive than we anticipated.
After dropping our food off in the room, we went to the lobby lounge to see what they have to offer for the afternoon. Quite generously, the lounge keeps the beverage machine from the morning buffet and soft serve ice cream from breakfast, plus coffee and a large variety of tea sitting out until midnight free of charge. Theoretically, the ice cream is for topping the coffee according to a diagram on the machine. The ice cream is delicious by the way.
Nothing of note happened after we returned to the room. Well, OK, Bill prepared some laundry to send out tomorrow, but that's really it.
Day 5: Thursday, April 3 - Sendai - Richmond Hotel Premier Sendai Ekimae
Our day started with our first Japanese earthquake around 8:30 am. It was a 5.6 centered north of here near Rikuzentakata we will visit later. Rikuzentakata was on tsunami alert due to the Chilean earthquake with the seafront highway closed and evacuation centers offering shelter. Better safe than sorry! The Chilean tsunami did reach Japan, but it was only 6cm or something like that.
The weather this morning is pleasant, in the 60's, but that is expected to change as the day progresses. We expect light rain for tonight and tomorrow with cooler temperatures.
We started off with breakfast at the hotel, which was fine. We're a bit surprised at the amount of plastic packaging in a country that is short of space to get rid of waste. At breakfast everything is packed in individual plastic containers with a lid. Bananas at the market are individually wrapped in plastic, too. Everything is like that. And, if they are so short on energy, why are all building interiors heated to 80 degrees? No kidding, it is like a sauna everywhere we go. Back outside it is freezing, inside 80 degrees. That can't be good for you.
After breakfast we took our time getting ready to go to the train station to exchange our vouchers for Japan Rail Passes. We're only a block from the station and the elevated walkways make it easy to get around. There are escalators and elevators to reach the walkways from street level.
We saw the Travel Service Center when we arrived, so it was easy to find today. It is geared toward Japanese tourists booking domestic and international tours, so English is minimal. The main signs over the counter have English sub-titles, but nothing else does. Still, it was easy to find the well-marked JR Rail Pass Counter.
There was a bit of a line, but nothing out of the ordinary. The wait is mostly because every transaction takes an hour no matter what you are doing. Or so it seems anyway. From start to finish it took us 90 minutes to get our passes and book reserved seats for the rest of our trip.
First, a very helpful agent asked us to fill in simple forms with our name, passport number, and when we want to start using the passes. We each have a 7-day and a 21-day pass with different start dates. Then she took our passports and asked us to take a seat while they prepare the passes. This part took at least 45 minutes.
When our passes were ready, she directed us to one of the sit-down counters and went over everything to be sure the dates are correct, etc. Everything is in order, so we asked if we could make our seat reservations now with the passes even though they don't start until tomorrow. She said sure, bring it on (or something like that). By the way, she spoke very little English, but communicating was not at all an issue.
So, Dave pulled out the schedules he printed in advance from Hyperdia and went through them day by day. We're talking fourteen reservations that she had to hand-write onto a form. If we tried to do this at an Amtrak office there would be a lot of sighing and eye-rolling to be sure. Here, she acted like it is just part of her job to make us happy and book whatever we want, which, of course, it is. Why doesn't that occur to people in service industries at home?
After writing down all of our requests, she went off to produce the tickets. That took another 30 minutes or so, but we were just sitting there, so we didn't mind at all. Better to do it slowly and get it right than to have to fix it later.
She came back with our stack of seat reservation tickets and went through them day by day, noting slight changes from the schedule we had, and taking all the time needed to ensure everything is exactly as we want it. One train wasn't available and she chose an earlier train instead, but when Dave asked for a later train, she cheerfully ran off and came back with a new ticket. There was absolutely no frustration or any other kind of attitude other than being beyond nice and helpful. She even gave us a complete shinkansen schedule in English to take with us "just in case".
So, we have now booked all of our reserved seats at no extra charge, covered by our rail passes. Now the trick is to stick to the schedule so we don't have to undo any of this.
Here are a few tips to make your life easier if you have to do this yourself someday. Expect that the agent will speak little or no English and come prepared. She was thrilled when Dave produced the printouts from Hyperdia with the schedule we want. She had no problem reading English and translating it into Japanese for the form. We can imagine it would be an enormous hassle to start from scratch on this. Of course, it isn't necessary to reserve everything in advance. You can just go to the train station before departure and do it, but we like to be prepared.
We thought it would be best to take all of our tickets and passes back to the hotel before doing anything else, so that's what we did. Then we took our laundry down to the front desk. Supposedly, it will be ready in six hours. The desk clerk came running after us to ask if we want the shirts on hangars or folded.
A block or so from the hotel adjacent to the train station is the AER building. It is a huge department store at the bottom, then offices, and on the top 31st floor is an observation deck. We were supposed to have gone to this the day we arrived, but circumstances got in the way. So, we wandered over to try to figure out how to get to the deck. There aren't any signs pointing the way, so we figured we just give it a shot and take an elevator to the top. None of the signs or information in the building are in English, so we're just guessing where to go at this point. We only knew about this place from a guide book.
The elevator did indeed go to the observation deck, which is free of charge, by the way. We saw a handful of Americans there, which more than doubles the count so far.
The decks (one on each side the building) are glass enclosed with a semi-open top so you are sort of outside. It is a clear day so the view is amazing. A Japanese man pointed out the brown area we can see at the edge of town leading to the ocean used to be solid buildings until the tsunami washed it clean. We didn't realize how close to a major city it came.
In this picture, you can see our hotel. It is near the center of the picture and is light pink granite. The long tube structure is the covered shopping street that goes on for several blocks from the station. There are all sorts of narrow, very creepy, little alleys leading off from the main shopping area jam-packed with tiny bars and restaurants. We wandered through them the other night and kept thinking that we wouldn't be caught dead walking down alleys like this at home after dark...or in the daytime come to think of it. Here, women and children walk without fear at all hours of the day and night. It sure is refreshing! There are probably bad areas in Japanese cities as there are anywhere in the world, but we haven't seen them.
It was around 1:00 pm when we came back to earth and started foraging for lunch. Japanese department stores always have restaurant floors, so we went into the Parco Department Store next door to AER. Everyone else is going up to the 9th floor restaurant area, too, so it is easy to find by following the crowd.
Our department stores can only wish they are anywhere near as fabulous as the ones in Japan! The restaurant floor has at least ten full-sized restaurants of different types in a beautiful setting. We stopped at the first one we came to that appeared to be a tonkatsu restaurant. The fact that it has a picture menu played a big part in choosing it.
We were immediately ushered in and seated at a table. There is a button to push to summon the waitress, just like at the bar the other night. The restaurant is nicely decorated in a modern Japanese style. The menu offers about eight choices of set meals. Dave chose the tonkatsu set and Bill had the Beef & Noodle set. When the food was delivered, the waitress asked (in Japanese) if we are OK with chopsticks. Dave replied, "Iyo" which means "It's OK" and she almost fell over. The food was beyond plentiful and we liked everything on the tray. All of this food and the bill was only •1810, less than $20.00! It was so much food we could barely finish it all.
Considering how sedate people are in Japan in general, it sure is amazing how much shouting goes on in a restaurant! The staff yells out greetings when anyone arrives, the waitresses shout an acknowledgement when you ring the bell, the cooks shout when the food is ready, and so on. We've decided it makes for a festive atmosphere and maybe that's the point to it, but who knows? Of course, they don't do that in fancy places, but they sure do everywhere else.
After lunch we went back to the hotel to try to check in for our flight tomorrow, but JAL doesn't allow that for domestic flights. Oh well, we tried.
Back in our room, we immediately crashed and decided to nap for an hour or so. We'll venture out at dinner time to another department store restaurant floor. There were at least two noticeable aftershocks from the earthquake this morning, but nothing we don't feel all the time at home in California.
It started to rain at around 4:00 pm.
Close to 7:00 pm we forced ourselves to go out in the rain and look for food. We went back to the French bakery place we enjoyed so much the other day. We each chose a small pizza-like thing on black dough topped with tomato, basil, and cheese. Dave had a bun baked with chopped ham and cheese, Bill had a mini-sausage in puff pastry. We both had a berry tart kind of thing and a salad, plus two bottled drinks. The young man at the register was very pleased with himself when he announced the price, •2820, in perfect English and he beamed when Dave said it was perfect.
All of the food was to die for. No kidding. No wonder it is busy all day. We never had to wait, but there is a constant flow of people through there. Because of that, the pastries are always fresh from the oven and haven't been sitting out all day. There were eight chefs in the kitchen baking as fast as they can to keep up with demand.
The rain has been constant since early today and we expect it will continue through the night and into tomorrow. Looking at the forecast for Sapporo this week, it looks like we won't be warm (outside) for quite some time. Maybe they'll crank the indoor heat up to 90 degrees to compensate?
Day 6: Friday, April 4 - Fly & Train to Otaru - Hotel Nord
Otaru, best known for its canals and
weathered Western-style buildings, is located on Japan's northernmost island of
Hokkaido, northeast of Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital. Much of the city's character
emanates from a bustling craft center and the main canal.
It rained all night and is continuing today. We seem to have timed our travel days according to when it rains, which has worked out so far. It is a constant light rain, not a huge storm or anything drastic. It is cold though. In Sapporo it is only 36 degrees and that's where we are going.
There was a glitch with our laundry at the hotel and it wasn't sent out, so now we have two bags of dirty laundry to haul with us today. Better not to send it than to send it and not have it back in time for check out though. That's the only thing that has gone wrong at this hotel, so no harm done. Heck, it might have been a communication problem for all we know.
We had the free breakfast at the hotel and were back in the room by 9:30 am to get packed up and ready to leave for the train to the airport by 11:00am.
Our final thoughts on Sendai: It is a beautiful city populated by welcoming, friendly people. Unfortunately, it isn't covered in the tourist guide books, so it is off the radar of most tourists. True, there aren't any must-sees here, but if you need a nice place to escape in a sophisticated city, this is it. There are restaurants galore and shopping up the wahzoo, so book a room and have at it. There is no evidence of earthquake damage remaining, although there is a lot of what appears to be rebuilding going on. The point is the average tourist won't notice anything amiss.
Our final thoughts on the Richmond Hotel Premier Sendai Ekimae: We loved it. It is low key, but has all the services we need. We'd liken it to a Hilton Garden Inn or a Marriott Courtyard, except the breakfast is free. The rooms are small, but very well laid out...sort of like an upscale cruise ship stateroom. The staff is very pleasant and professional. All of them speak at least rudimentary English, but a few are fluent. We don't get the point of the automated check-in/out machines since you still have to talk to someone at the front desk, but we like technology so it is fine with us. The location is great, just a block from the station where you can find taxis and buses to anywhere you want to go. This is a shinkansen stop, too, so it is quick and easy to get around. The station is very nice with lots of attractive shops and places to eat, including a place that sells just-baked pies. We would definitely choose this hotel again and can heartily recommend a stay here.
We went to the machine in the lobby to check out, fully prepared to have to argue about being charged for the laundry that wasn't done. However, our balance came up as zero. Dave was standing there waiting for something to happen when a front desk agent came over and said, "That's it, you're done." Shouldn't it say, "Congratulations," or play a cutesy tune like everything else in Japan does? As we were walking to the elevator the woman who had dealt with the laundry issue earlier came over and apologized profusely to Bill for the mistake. She was so sincere we thought she was going to burst into tears. He assured her it is OK and we will survive.
We left the hotel at 10:45 am and walked over to the train station. The rain stopped just before we left the hotel and didn't start again until we were on the train. How very convenient! We used our passes to get through the ticket gate with no issues and our train to the airport was waiting in the station. Luckily we arrived early and found places for us and our luggage because others weren't so lucky.
The ride to the airport takes about 30 minutes. When we got there and showed our passes to get out we were told (very politely) that this isn't a JR train line and we owe •440. They accepted our SUICA cards for payment with no problem, so no harm done.
The train station is attached to Sendai Airport so we didn't have to go outside to get to the ticket counter. By the way, this is the airport that was swamped by the tsunami in many of the famous online videos and news feeds. You'd never know anything happened by looking at it now. It looks brand new. The scary part is that you can't see the ocean from the airport, so it isn't as though it is on the waterfront.
There was no wait at the JAL ticket counter, so we walked right up. They X-rayed our checked baggage before we reached the counter. We're not sure, but it sort of seemed like we caused a ruckus by checking Bill's large bag. The agent made a face and talked to a man standing with her, looked through our papers, checked our round trip e-ticket (we needed that to qualify for the el-cheapo domestic rate we got), and checked them again. Then they both sort of shrugged and took all of the bags. We have no idea what was up, but they never said anything to us about it.
The security checkpoint was so polite it was actually kind of fun. There was no wait and everyone there was beyond friendly and happy to see us. The bottle of water Bill had in his backpack caused a stir, but the guy just looked at it carefully, put it in a machine that weighed it (we think) and handed it back with a smile. Then we went off to find a place to sit to kill the hour before our flight.
While we were sitting there minding our own business, a policeman came over and asked Dave if he speaks Japanese. He said, "A little," but the guy immediately spoke perfect English and asked to see our passports or Japanese I.D. cards. We're pretty sure we were somehow profiled because he didn't ask anyone else for an I.D. No matter, he took down our information and asked where we are going. When we told him we're going to Sapporo, he made shivering gestures and said, "Oh, very cold there!" Yeah, no kidding, but we didn't find out just how cold until later.
Our flight started boarding at 1:00 pm and took off on time at 1:15 pm. This is the smallest commercial jet we've ever been on. We had to duck to walk down the aisle. However, the seats were comfortable and there was enough leg room as long as nobody reclined. And guess what? Nobody did! That wouldn't be polite, now would it? The plane only holds 48 people and it was maybe half or two-thirds full. The poor flight attendant was forced to make announcements in English because of us, as did the pilot.
The flight was just over an hour and uneventful. The flight attendant (there was only one) handed out chilled green tea and candies. At one point she brought us English versions of the in-flight magazine. The captain said there would be turbulence upon landing, but it seemed normal to us.
As we were disembarking, Dave apologized to the flight attendant for making her speak English, which she found hilarious.
We're not sure yet, but we think maybe the flight dropped us off in Siberia instead of Sapporo. It is snowing and there is a lot of snow on the ground left from winter. We thought we misunderstood the flight attendant when she said the temperature is currently 34 degrees, but apparently it is just that.
We were bused to the terminal and dropped off at the door into the baggage claim where our luggage was already laid out. How the heck did they do that? We just landed, waited maybe five minutes, drove to the terminal without stopping, and our luggage beat us? Wow.
From there we walked over to the connected train station to wait for our 3:34 pm train to Otaru. We would have made an earlier reservation, but we weren't sure how long it would take to claim luggage and such. Turned out it was less than five minutes. Live and learn. We could have gone to the ticket counter and changed it, but the waiting room has a convenience store and we're hungry. So, we bought a couple of sandwiches and a pastry for Bill (Dave still has a banana from yesterday), and killed time with a snack.
We walked down to the train platform about fifteen minutes early to find it waiting for us. This time our passes are valid and the attendant stamped them as being used for the first time. We have reserved seats, so we know we won't have to stand, but we were nervous about our luggage. However, there was some room behind our seats (the last row) for most of it. All of the seats were full when we departed, but people got off at every stop. The majority left in Sapporo.
An almost cartoonish, jolly conductor checked everyone's ticket from time to time. You are supposed to put your ticket in a little pocket on the back of the seat in front of you so he can look at them. He tossed out some riff raff who didn't belong in the reserved car. Of course, he was nice about it and so were they. The rest of the train was standing room only. Needless to say, it was way too warm on the train, so the windows were fogged up most of the time.
We rolled along past piles of snow and icy forests that made us think we'd taken a detour to Russia. Well, except for the fact that everyone here is very nice and not trying to steal all of your stuff. We were on the train for a little over an hour. It was boring, but not unpleasant.
Eventually we arrived on time, 4:46 pm, at Otaru Station. The platform is charming with electrified kerosene lamps. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore! It is still snowing and everything around the station is covered in white. We're prepared for cold weather, but this might be more than we bargained for. We did buy some gloves at Tokyo Disneyland "just in case" and it appears we will need them.
We walked out to find a line of taxis in front of the station. The driver understood where we want to go and it only cost •520, which is the minimum rate.
Our hotel for this two-night stay has a sort of European castle theme. There is music from Peter Pan playing in the motor court. It is very Old World-esque. Weird for sure, but it doesn't smell musty or like it is actually old. The young woman at the front desk sort of spoke English and we had no trouble checking in. We think we paid a deposit when we booked, but Dave can't figure out his own paperwork, so we'll have to trust them. She didn't ask for a credit card or anything else except a copy of our passports. Bill tried to ask about laundry service and all we got is a form entirely in Japanese.
We were given coupons for breakfast (we booked a breakfast-included rate), a 5% discount in the souvenir shop, something about a free or discounted beer somewhere up the street, and a weird caution: "Please do not use an overseas electric machine product. The explosion is caused. Please use the transformer when using it. The transformer is not lent in the reception desk." The electricity here is about the same as in the U.S., so we assume they are talking about European appliances, but even they shouldn't explode.
The room we booked has a canal view, which is kind of the focus of this town. The Soviet theme plays out well in the room, except the carpet isn't as ugly and is brand new. Overall, it looks like the hotel has been recently updated with new drapes and carpets. We have a typical twin room with a small sitting area, the toilet is in its own little booth across the hall from the washing up room with the sink and bathing area. There is a desk with an LCD TV and refrigerator. An air-purifier/humidifier is sitting in the corner. Supposedly there is air conditioning, but it can only be set to heat and the window doesn't open. We hate that. We turned up the air-purifier to full blast so the air would at least move around. There is free tea in the room, but if we use the coffee we are supposed to fill out a form and pay •270 for it at the front desk. It is a Keureg type machine. Oh, and there is a spray intended to be applied to your clothes, "Only after removing your clothes." There is free wi-fi and a LAN connection...we're using the latter with our portable router because we don't need a password with it and it is usually faster. The best thing about this hotel is that it doesn't smell of cigarette smoke at all. The hallways smell like new carpet.
We tried to compare the laundry form from the previous hotel with the new one to fill it out, but to no avail. So, back down to the front desk to ask the woman there to do it for us. She was very nice and with some hand gestures and pointing at various clothing items we think we managed to send it out. She said it would be done tomorrow afternoon. The price is much more than the previous hotel, but Bill is out of clothes, so there's no choice. This is why Dave packs twelve days' worth of essentials and disposable underwear!
At 7:00 pm-ish we went to the hotel's restaurant for dinner, being way too lazy to venture out in the snow and dark to look for anything else. This is another Japanese place trying to be very fancy European style, so we aren't expecting much. Fortunately, we were pleasantly surprised by both the food and the prices. Our waiter spoke enough English that Dave didn't have to pretend to speak Japanese again.
The menu shows about eight different set meals of various kinds. There are two Japanese sets, one with beef and the other fish. The rest are, we suppose, French inspired full course meals. Bill chose the Japanese beef set that came out all at once on a tray. Dave's Beef Sirloin Set was served course by course. The first was raw seafood, most of which was pretty tasty, but the slimy tentacle thing with a shell grossed him out. He can usually sort of swallow something gross without thinking about it, which is what he did here just to get rid of it. The soup course was the same corn cream soup we've had every morning at breakfast since we arrived in Japan. We like it, so no problem, but it isn't unusual. The beef was outstanding and was accompanied by rice (or bread, your choice) and a salad with a pungent wasabi dressing. Tea followed with a selection of small desserts. Bill got a smaller plate of desserts with his meal. With the exception of the slimy appetizer, all of the food was outstanding and we would order any of it again.
The service is very formal with eight million changes of silverware and such. Some creepy headwaiter-type guy brought out each course. He didn't do anything creepy particularly, but we got a strange vibe off the whole experience. Maybe if there had been more than three people in the place it would made a difference. In any case, we were happy with the food and the bill, including a glass of wine, was only •5866. This was easily a $100+ meal at home, no question. On the way out there was a lot of bowing and thanking us for coming, as per usual.
We were back in the room by 8:30 pm and ready to call it a night. Why does sitting around on various modes of transportation wear us out so much? Nothing about any of it was stressful in the least. Even the airport was pleasant. Oh well, it is just one of life's little mysteries.
Day 7: Saturday, April 5 - Otaru - Hotel Nord
It is freezing this morning...literally...it is 32 degrees and snowing. There was a short break when we could see the ocean from our room, but since then it has been off and on blizzard conditions. We'll still go out, but yikes!
We went to the hotel's breakfast buffet that we booked with the room. It fills half of the restaurant space, so there is a lot to choose from with both Western and Japanese favorites available. We loaded up on a variety of things, all of which were very good. The staff is pleasant and welcoming.
After breakfast we looked in the gift shop and saw a couple of trinkets we will probably pick up later. Then back to the room to fortify against the cold before going out to see a few sights around town. The main lure of Otaru is the waterfront canal district lined with historic warehouses that have been converted into shops and restaurants. There aren't many people out and about due to the weather, so we're not sure what we'll find.
We ventured out into the falling snow at around 10:30am to walk along the "romantic" canal to the old Nihon Yusen Co. (NYK) building. The canals are indeed very scenic and lit with authentic gas lights at night (so essentially it is pitch black after dark). There is a lot of snow on the ground, but a path has been kept cleared and it wasn't any problem walking. Click to view the Otaru Town Map. The shopping map given to us at the hotel states: "Enjoy walking up and down on romantic slopes in Otaru. Please feel and learn the historical background with building up your physique."
It is about four or five blocks walking along the canal to the end where there is a park and beyond it the NYK building. We sloshed through the snow to get over to it, but couldn't figure out where the entrance is. Dave finally barged into a building next door that has a historic marker sign in front of it. When he opened the sliding door, the office workers inside looked like deer caught in headlights before one of them finally came over. Dave pointed next door and she said, "Long vacation." OK, fine, be that way. Once we actually found the actual entrance there was a note on the door saying "Temporary Close".
We walked back along the canal, which is lined with picturesque old warehouses and a dilapidated can factory. Fishing boats are tied up alongside the stone walls now and them. There are HUGE light bulbs strung across them. The fishermen must get a tan from being close to those things!
When we reached the corner where our hotel is located, we crossed the canal and turned right along a street lined with old warehouses that now house restaurants and bars. The primary purpose being to scout out locations for dinner tonight. The hotel gave us coupons to Otaru Beer, which looks like a German beer garden of sorts, so we'll probably go there. It looked OK when we walked by and checked the menu.
One of the major historic sites in Otaru besides the canal is the "Wall Street of Japan". The street is lined with historic old bank buildings that are now used for other purposes. We turned right up the street toward the Bank of Japan Otaru Museum only three blocks inland from the canal. When we turned the corner we found a huge crowd of Japanese tourists lining up to take pictures in front of the tourist information building. Uh, OK, have at it. However, on our side of the block, we were the tourist attraction. Two young women came up and asked if we would take a picture with them. Their boyfriends didn't look very happy about it, but they took the pictures. We did the victory finger thing so we'd fit in, but we still don't know what the point is.
It seems that Dave's Indiana Jones hat stirs up some inner lust in Japanese women and they can't resist asking for a photo. The same thing happened the day it was raining at Tokyo DisneySea when he wore it. If we were into Asian women we'd be exhausted by now! Any hat that can make Dave look butch has some sort of magic built into it!
The bank building has been preserved, more or less, as it was back in the day except with some modern touches from updates through the years. It looks pretty much like any huge bank would look, but there are some interesting displays and it isn't 4,000 degrees inside, so we didn't mind. Admission is free, too.
When we came out of the bank a total blizzard was taking place. We're dressed for the weather, so it isn't a problem. It also lends a charm to the city and does make it more romantic as all the brochures keep telling us it should be.
Apparently the place to be in Otaru is one block inland from our hotel, so we followed the tourists until we came to the historic merchant district. Many buildings have been preserved and are still used as shops and restaurants. However, we're sure the old purveyors of fine silks and spices would be horrified that their carefully crafted buildings now offer granite aliens and tacky trinkets. We walked the length of the street, stopping now and then to browse through a glass shop. The city is famous for its glass blowers. We just had to buy a small Hello Kitty glass bauble to use as a Christmas ornament because it is just oh so tacky.
At the end of the street there is a replica of Vancouver's steam clock that didn't seem to attract much attention. Perhaps the huge store selling the ugliest music boxes we have ever seen absorbed all of the crowds. Who buys this crap? Apparently, Japanese tourists do because the place was packed and everyone bought something (except us, no way!) This stuff is, for the most part, gaudy, hideous, or both at the same time.
Buses started to disgorge Chinese tour groups at around 1:30pm, so we started back up the other side of the street checking out possible options for lunch. We bought a locally made glass toothpick holder from a small shop that wasn't overrun with tourists. We have no intention of using it for the intended purpose, but it is small, durable and attractive enough to buy as a souvenir. It was only •1000, too.
All of this historic stuff and then we turn a corner and there is Bob's Big Boy in front of a Victoria Station restaurant! At first we thought this might work for a quick lunch, but there was a line and no way are we waiting for that kind of food.
We had passed a big old warehouse that houses several small restaurants earlier, so we went in on our way back toward the hotel. Most of the restaurants out on the street all sell the same thing...big orange bowls of salmon eggs over rice. Actually, that is the most palatable option. If you want, you can take your pick from a water-filled table of live giant crabs and clams to be steamed and eaten right there. The shop keepers were all very pleasant. One woman offered us a sample of shredded dried squid, "Only available this shop." It was quite tasty! Another place was handing out samples of chocolate they make on the premises.
Back to the warehouse of restaurants, we wandered in and looked at a few menus. A woman standing outside of a ramen shop called out to us (in English) to come take a look. Dave asked her (in Japanese) what she would recommend and she said, "Miso ramen #1 and Pork Ramen oishii!" Oishii means delicious, by the way. It sounded good to us and she was thrilled we took her up on her offer. The young man who served us was very nice and Dave didn't have to speak Japanese anymore. We both had huge bowls of ramen in miso (choice of salt, soy or miso broth) topped with half a hard-boiled egg, sliced green onions, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and sliced roast pork. It was very good and filling, but way too messy to eat in public. Luckily we were the only people in there and the staff didn't stand and stare at us, so it was OK. Total cost was •2000 plus tax and that included one soft drink. Everyone was beyond nice to us, of course.
Although Otaru is off the beaten path for non-Japanese tourists, there are signs in English everywhere. The historic shops and other buildings all have English explanations. Around town there are directional signposts pointing to things of interest. When we walked into the bank building the guard at the door asked, in perfect English, if we speak English and handed us English brochures. A real effort is being made to cater to foreign tourists as much as possible.
It snowed off and on all day while we were out walking, but it never hindered us at all. In fact, it kind of enhanced the historic ambience. We were dressed in layers and were never too hot or too cold even though the high today was 36 degrees. The sun didn't come out over the canal until just before we got back to the hotel. By the way, we don't feel that we enhanced our physiques one bit, so we think we should get our money back!
We arrived back at the hotel around 3:30 pm to find a bus disembarking tourists directly into the lobby. We hurried in to beat them to the desk to retrieve our key before a line formed. Then we bought the tacky trinkets in the gift shop we saw yesterday (all of •350 for a keychain) and went back to the room.
Shortly after we were in the room our doorbell rang (so far, every hotel we've stayed in has had doorbells) and the young lady from the front desk delivered our clean laundry.
At around 6:45 pm we walked across the canal to the Otaru Beer restaurant for dinner. We were surprised to find it deserted on a Saturday night, but perhaps the weather played a part in that. We had to walk carefully because the slush on the sidewalk had already started to freeze. We'll be especially careful on the way back.
The inside of the restaurant is a typical brew-pub kind of atmosphere with lots of wood beams and copper kettles. The waitress getups are a sort of long frilly German-ish frock that more or less fits the theme. We were ushered in and told to sit anywhere, which we did. An English-speaking waitress came over and asked if we want English menus and brought them back for us.
The food is sort of German meets Japanese. Dave ordered the "Porkkatsu" which is a Japanese take on Schnitzel, but made with pork. He also ordered an individual Maguerita pizza. Bill ordered a pork salad and the Beef Steak Dinner. Both dinners came with Hokkaido fries. Japanese portions are much smaller than ours, so that isn't as much food as you might imagine. We had no trouble finishing everything, all of which was very good. Bill also had one of the local beers that he said tasted like cheap domestic beer, but was OK for the price. Service was very quick and friendly. Our total bill was •5366, including tax. Bill made an impulse buy at the register of two small Otaru Beer candles in miniature beer mugs that added •1200.
We are astonished at the reasonable prices we've found for just about everything. Hotels are relatively expensive, but not ridiculous. Food has been very affordable and we have found small souvenirs for very low prices. We usually don't buy anything large anymore, but pick up keychains or small items we can make into Christmas ornaments. We usually pay a minimum of $5.00 for things like that at home, but here they are running less than $4.00 for better quality. We haven't used up our first allotment of Japanese money yet, which makes us very happy. We only put hotels on credit cards and pay cash for everything else.
On the way back to our room we went to the top floor to look at the lounge we could see from the street. There was a waitress standing in the elevator lobby guarding the door like it is some sort of exclusive club, but she opened it and invited us in. Wow, talk about a flashback to the 1980's! We're talking dusty rose carpets and whitewashed oak furniture. It was very smoky and there were only two people there. No thanks, back to the 2000's for us. It probably has a spectacular view during the day with floor to ceiling windows around the circular room.
The forecast calls for snow flurries tomorrow, then we should be good to go with sunny weather for a few days in Sapporo. However, the temperatures are not expected to get above 50 degrees. We were comfortable today, so we expect to be fine for the rest of our time in Hokkaido.
Day 8: Sunday, April 6 - Train to Sapporo - JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo
Sapporo ("important river flowing through a
plain" in Ainu language) is the capital of Hokkaido and Japan's fifth largest
city. Sapporo is also one of the nation's youngest major cities. In 1857, the
city's population stood at just seven people.
It is a little bit warmer today, 39 at 9:00 am and most of the snow that fell yesterday is already gone. It is overcast and windy, but nothing drastic is going on outside.
Breakfast at the hotel was exactly the same as yesterday. Lots of choices and friendly staff. We were back in the room and getting packed up to leave by 9:30 am. We don't have to check out until 11:00 am, so we plan to wait until then to leave for the train station. Our train to Sapporo is at 12:04 pm, so we'll arrive well before check-in time there. At home we would hope to be allowed to check in early, but that is almost never done in Japan, so we'll probably have to leave our luggage and find something to do to kill a few hours.
Our final thoughts on Otaru: It is a very cute, historic town full of accommodating, friendly people. Everyone went out of their way to be welcoming to us. Almost everyone spoke at least enough English to be helpful and we never had a problem figuring out where to go. There are directional signs all over pointing out various sites and all descriptive signs have English sub-titles. You could easily visit Otaru on a day trip from Sapporo if you don't have time to stay overnight. It is only a 30-minute ride from Sapporo Station. However, if you stay over you will have the place to yourself after the daytrippers leave. It wasn't at all crowded during our stay, but it might be during the high season. It is touristy, but not as in-your-face as other Japanese tourist towns. The historic atmosphere is well preserved.
Our final thoughts on the Hotel Nord: We liked it once we got used to it. The room was nice and recently redecorated. We're not fans of the decor choices, but it is clean and comfortable. The staff speaks just enough English to be helpful, but they bend over backwards to figure out what you want. They acted like it was their fault that they don't speak English well enough to understand everything the first time. The food at breakfast and dinner was very good and reasonably priced. Definitely book a canal view to get the most out of your stay. It only costs slightly more than a room without a view. Our only minor gripe is that the A/C wasn't turned on and the window doesn't open, so it was a bit stuffy, but it wasn't hot. Overall, we were pleased with the choice and would stay here again.
We went down to check out at 10:45 am, which took all of five minutes. The front desk guy called a taxi for us and we were at the train station by 11:00 am. Our train is at 12:04 pm, so we have an hour to stand around. The train station is quaint with two window walls above the lobby covered with multi-colored hand blown electrified oil lamps that were made in town.
There are a number of attractive take-out restaurants and cafes in the station. One is similar to the French bakery place we liked in Sendai, but we're pretty sure it is a different brand. This one has whole loaves of bread, more sweet things and a bigger selection of sandwiches. Business is booming at all of these places. Anyplace that calls itself a "cafe" here sells cakes and sweet pastries with coffee and tea. Every one we have passed has been jam packed with a line out the door. Everyone is stick thin so it doesn't appear to be affecting anyone's physique in a negative way. Of course, the portions aren't the usual gargantuan American size either.
When our train finally showed up on the electronic sign at 11:30 am, we went through the ticket gate (we have to check through with a live person going in and out with the pass, but they are always very nice) and out to the platform. It is snowing again, so freezing outside. It isn't busy today, so we easily found a place out of the wind to wait for our train to arrive.
Our train pulled in and disgorged a throng at 11:45 am. We waited a few minutes for everyone to dissipate and wandered down the platform to our car. We have reserved seats again. This is the same train we came in on from the airport. There are only three seats occupied in the reserved car, so we had no problem stowing our luggage in the space provided. Only airport-bound trains have this space though, so it remains to be seen how we'll fare farther down the line with luggage on trains.
With fewer people on the train, it wasn't hot or uncomfortable at all. The trains on this line look older and sort of rattle trap, but the ride is perfectly smooth with easily audible, recorded announcements in Japanese and English before and at each stop. The conductor repeats the Japanese part of the recorded message word-for-word immediately following the English version. Why, we have no clue.
We arrived at Sapporo Station just after 12:30 pm where a rush of people boarded and filled up the train. We started to prepare in advance by collecting our luggage so we could jump off the minute the doors open, which is something we advise you to do if you come here. If you dawdle, you won't be able to get off the train quickly enough. You snooze, you lose, plain and simple. If this happens to you, get off at the next station and go back the way you came, but this time be prepared!
Sapporo Station is huge and sits beneath the JR Tower, which is where our hotel is located. There are also several malls that extend in every direction, including underground passageways lined with shops and restaurants. You can go all the way to the entertainment district of Suskino without ever going outside. The same can't be said for our hotel though. You do have to go outside briefly to get to the entrance, but it is covered.
When we arrived at the ground floor lobby, a bellwoman came over and took our luggage. Someone else directed us to a station at the front desk. Dave handed over his One Harmony card, which pleased the agent. One Harmony is the new rewards program created when Okura Hotels, JAL Hotels, and Nikko Hotels came under one umbrella. We think, but we're not sure, that Okura manages all of them now.
We stayed at the Nikko Kansai Airport last time and it was nothing like this. This place is beautiful with a refined, professional staff. It has a whole different vibe than that place did and that's a good thing. We were very excited when the woman at the front desk announced that our room is ready and we can check in now. Dave said, "Daisuki desu," which she found amusing (means "love it"). Or maybe he said he loves her, but whatever, it got the point across. We think perhaps having the One Harmony card worked in our favor.
We booked with a breakfast included rate, so we were given tickets for the 35th floor restaurants. We can choose between a traditional Japanese set breakfast or an international buffet.
A nice thing about Japanese efficiency is that you almost never have to argue about the details or remind them to give you breakfast tickets or vouchers at hotels. Things are always in perfect order ready for your arrival. Only once so far did we have to remind the front desk we are staying more than one night, but she immediately produced additional breakfast tickets. They also pull out every piece of paper in the key packet and explain in detail what it is for.
The same perky bellwoman came back to take us up to the room. She asked what the heck Bill has in his bag to make it so heavy. When we said we're in Japan for six weeks she was astounded. Our luggage is bigger than she is, by the way, and we only brought the smaller pieces. She also asked if we have any tattoos before telling us about the onsen (bathing) facilities. Dave answered, "No, we're the only two Americans who don't," which she found hilarious. Anyway, be advised that if you have tattoos you won't be able to use most of the public onsen in Japan. Tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia and are perceived as unseemly by the general public.
Our room is on the 25th floor (rooms start on the 23rd and go to the 30th). We booked a Corner Twin, so we have a panoramic view to the south from a gigantic window that wraps around the corner of the building. The decor is very nice with yellow-tone walls and carpet. There is the usual air purifier, flat screen TV, free wi-fi, a desk that flips to become a make-up table, refrigerator, tea making alcove, and a bathroom divided into two parts, one a wet room with the tub. There's a window in the bathing area that is a bit disconcerting, but since this is by far the tallest building in Sapporo, someone would have to make a real effort to look at us. And, if they succeed, have at it. We are especially pleased that the air conditioning works because the windows do not open. All of the towels, glasses, cups, etc., in the room are colored coded with an insignia so you always know which one belongs to whom. Nice touch.
Around 1:30 pm, we went down to look for something for lunch. Both of us would rather have taken a nap, but we were afraid we'd sleep too long. We found an interactive touch screen directory in English in the outer lobby of the train station that shows a bunch of restaurants on the sixth floor of the attached Stellar Place Mall, so we set off to find it.
That means walking through a section of the mall that is a huge GAP shop having a 40% off sale. There were three teenage girls yelling out something in ear-splitting, screeching tones while holding up signs saying "40% OFF!!!" It was a free for all with people everywhere. Once we got to the escalators it became manageable, but department stores at home would kill for business like this. Every floor (there are nine of them) is full of people shopping and buying. The store is beautiful, clean and modern with reasonable prices, too.
We aren't sure if this is one big department store or a mall of independent shops. It sort of looks like a department store because there aren't any doors or roll-down gates on the shops. The mall or whatever closes at 9:00 pm, but the restaurants are open until 11:00 pm, so how do they secure the merchandise? You have to take escalators down through the mall to get out. Hmmm...
We found the restaurant section and stopped at the first place we saw, Ginza Lion. Apparently this is the Denny's of Japan, but we didn't know that until we sat down. The hostess asked Dave something in Japanese that he didn't hear, so she repeated it in English, "Smoking or non-smoking?" He replied, "Kinen" for non-smoking...that's a word he knows by heart! Like Denny's, the service is perfunctory, but we were served quickly. Although we didn't have to yell for the waitress, everyone else did by calling out, "Sumimasen," and waving. That roughly means, "Excuse me," by the way. It is the same thing you say when you are barging through a crowd or you bump into someone.
Anyway, we pointed at the pictures of what we want on the picture menu, although it does have English explanations, too. Dave had the Hamburger Steak Set, Bill had the Rice Omelet with Beef (you read that right). The food was delivered quickly and the portions were generous. The hamburger set came with a plate of rice, also. The food was pretty good actually. It looks gross both in person and even worse, in the plastic version out front, but we liked everything. The total bill was •1840.
After lunch we walked the length of the restaurant floor to scout places for dinner. Most places still had a line out front, but we did see several we could try. This is just one of three malls/department stores attached to the train station with similar floors of eateries, so there is no shortage of options. Plus, there are restaurants on the 35th floor of our hotel, and a cafe off the lobby that was booming.
Back on the ground floor, we looked around the station for some tourist information to get an English map of the city. There was a commotion going on due to some sort of promotion in the center of the station. There were big inflatable white mascots bouncing around posing for photos. We have no clue what they are, but people were eating it up. We had to make a circuitous route through and around the station to the JR Hokkaido Information Counter. We didn't actually have to speak to anyone because they have nice displays of brochures and maps organized by language set up out front. We picked up what we need for Sapporo, Hakodate and Noboribetsu, so we're all set.
Then the trick is to find our way back to the hotel lobby and up to our room. How people find a particular store or restaurant around here is anyone's guess. Maybe they just wander around until they bump into something appealing. It would be nearly impossible to give directions to a specific location. And, we haven't even left the building yet!
We found our way back to the room where we watched the snow falling. Eventually, we napped for a couple of hours until it was again time to scavenge for food at around 7:30 pm. The night view from our room is as spectacular as during the day. The twinkling lights of the city spread out all around the hotel for as far as the eye can see. There are snowy mountains off to the right and a big domed sports stadium to the left. Not to mention an Eiffel Tower sort of affair smack dab in front of us that nobody could miss. It sports a giant lighted digital clock, so all we have to do is look out the window to find the time. It is at one end of Odori Park where the Sapporo Snow Festival is held every winter. Oh, and there is another underground mall below it that we can walk to from here without going outside.
At 7:30 pm we were foraging for dinner at Stellar Place again. The crowd has considerably diminished since this afternoon, but it isn't deserted by any means. We walked right into a restaurant that looks like an upscale version of the place we went for lunch. We were asked again, in English, for smoking or non-smoking and seated "outside" for non. Our waiter was very nice and spoke English. Although there was no English on the menu, it had pictures of everything and the waiter told us what is in the items we ordered without being asked to do so. Bill ordered what he thought was a pizza and entree set that turned out to be a big bowl of soup and an entree...he chose the hamburger steak. Japanese are very into that dish since it is served virtually everywhere. It is more like meatloaf than a hamburger. Dave ordered what looked like sliced beef of some sort. It was a thin minute-steak kind of meat with a hamburger steak (???), some gravy, a tiny baked potato that was really cute, and some vegetables. Both came with a salad of shredded daikon and a few other vegetables. We're going to have to start buying daikon at home because we both like it a lot. Dave had a choice of bread or rice, so he chose bread this time and gave half of it to Bill. We liked everything we had, but the portions are small so we ordered dessert parfaits also.
These parfaits are everywhere and seem to be the new big thing. Everyplace that serves them has a line out the door. Bill ordered one in chocolate. Dave asked the waiter which dessert to choose and he pointed out the berry parfait or the "French toast". Dave chose the parfait. The only odd ingredient in Dave's was corn flakes at the bottom of the glass, but otherwise it was strawberry ice cream, whipped cream and a variety of fresh berries. He likes Japanese desserts because they aren't huge and they aren't nearly as sweet as what we get at home, so he can have one occasionally. Bill's chocolate version was good, too, with the same corn flake base. But, it had some odd, gummy white balls in the middle of it that didn't go away when chewed. We finally decided they are supposed to resemble marshmallows. Nice try, but not quite. The total for all of this was •4850, which included a glass of wine. The desserts cost about the same as the meal sets.
There were several announcements preceded by some "stellar" sounding music that we presume were announcing the impending closing time. A security guard came out with signs pointing to parking and people started streaming down the escalators. We left the restaurant at five to nine and followed everyone out into the train station lobby and back to the hotel. Again, no evidence of any way to secure the merchandise in the shops without locking up the escalators, so how do they keep the restaurant floor open late? Maybe there are elevators that skip the merchandise floors, but we never saw them.
A person could stay in this hotel for a year and never run out of shopping and dining options. You'd never have to step outside at all if you didn't want to. That's probably a necessity when it is sub-zero outside. It never got above 36 degrees today and it snowed several times, but not enough to stick on the ground. It is supposed to be sunny for the next three days.
Day 9: Monday, April 7 - Sapporo - JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo
The weather today is sunny and clear, but very cold at 36 degrees. It did creep up to 45 before we left the hotel, but it never warmed up more than that.
We went to the 35th floor Sky J buffet for our included breakfast. A host intercepted us at the elevator lobby and asked if we want the Japanese breakfast or the buffet. When we opted for the buffet he pointed us to the right, though a bar area that is used in the evening.
Wow, this sure is a spectacular setting for a buffet! Floor to ceiling windows line the wall of a beautifully modern room. The buffet is the most extensive we've had yet, even exceeding the offering at the Hilton. There are long counters of baked goods, Japanese food, hot breakfast items including Western selections, fruit and salad, and many beverage choices. Certainly enough to fill a tray and then some. It isn't crowded, so very pleasant. We saw two more non-Japanese at breakfast, so that makes four besides us in the city so far. The food was very good and of high quality, as have been all of our meals in Japan. Everything looks and tastes freshly made no matter where it is. Needless to say, the staff working the buffet was very polite and friendly.
There is no rush to get out and about today because one of the places we intended to go is closed on Mondays. We moved that to tomorrow, so we will have a leisurely day of wandering around downtown Sapporo today. We finally left the hotel around 11:00 am and walked along the front of the JR Tower/shopping complex/department store/what-have-you building, and turned left toward downtown. In front of the station is a huge glass dome sort of thing that leads to the underground shopping we'll explore later. All of these complexes are connected underground, so it is possible to get almost anywhere without going outside at all.
We walked a few blocks until we arrived at the Former Hokkaido Government Building or "Akarenga" (red brick) completed in 1888. The interior of the building burned in 1909, but was rebuilt in 1922. In 1968, it was restored to its original state in commemoration of the centennial anniversary of Hokkaido. It is one of the few western-style structures from the Meiji era remaining that are this elaborate.
The grounds have several ponds and plantings that must be something to see in Spring. Right now there is still a lot of snow on the ground and the shrubs are protected against heavy snow with bamboo grids.
Admission is free to the interior. The steps to get to the front door are very high. We have no idea how smaller people of the day ever climbed up them. It was difficult for us to get up there. Once inside there is a grand entrance staircase that leads to several former government rooms now used as various exhibit halls. It took about an hour to wander through the exhibits, most of which are only explained in Japanese. We were given an English brochure when we arrived though.
Back outside, we kept walking toward Odori Park, the long parkway where the famous Sapporo Snow Festival is held in February. Our mission for today is to walk the length of the park, so we turned right and headed toward the Former Court of Appeals, another historic western-style building. The opposite end of the park is marked by the TV Tower we can see from our room at the hotel. There is still a lot of snow piled in parts of the park and all of the fountains are dry and/or surrounded by protective barriers. Some remnants of the Snow Festival remain such as broken wood forms and things like that. Gardeners are trying to prepare for the upcoming spring flower festivals, so they are in the process of clearing snow and replanting flower beds.
We arrived at the courthouse, but it is closed on Mondays, so we didn't go inside. It is a typical (to a Westerner) concrete/stone neo-classical building you'd find anywhere in America or Europe. It is interesting to note that each city in Japan has unique manhole cover design depicting something iconic to the city. In the case of Sapporo, it is snowflakes.
We contemplated going underground for the walk to the other end of the park, but it is so nice outside that we walked through the park until we reached the TV Tower. There are no tourists out and about today, so we have the place to ourselves. We wandered in and were directed to the elevator to the third floor where the entrance to the observatory is located. This is where we found our Japanese quote of the day: "Please get off on the 3rd floor." Make up your own joke here.
We paid our •700 per person admission fee and received coupons for •50 off a purchase in the gift shop. An extremely polite photographer with a green screen backdrop profusely apologized for inconveniencing us by taking a picture and assured us that we are under no obligation to purchase it later. Then we were ushered into the elevator to the top amidst much bowing by charming elevator operator. She played an English spiel that was so perky that Bill almost got diabetes and Dave had to go on insulin. We did learn that this Eiffel Tower-esque concoction is taller than the Statue of Liberty and supports the largest electronic LED clock in Japan.
Once at the observation platform, we wandered around by ourselves looking at the view we can see already from our hotel room. Still, when in Rome, so we don't mind at all doing this kind of kitschy stuff. We might not be quite so generous if it was crowded because the space is fairly tight, but today it is just us, a guard, and two women working in the gift shop. We bought a couple of tower trinkets and didn't bother digging for the coupon because it was less than •500 for two items. However, the clerk asked if we have one, so we handed it over and got the discount anyway.
There is a section of windows in the tower than leans outward floor to ceiling that is a bit vertigo inducing, but other than that it isn't at all scary up here. There is a great view of the length of Odori Park. Apparently it is nearly a requirement to come up here and look down on the Snow Festival if you are here at that time. We did buy the souvenir picture taken of us when we arrived for only •1200. It superimposed us on a background with the TV Tower.
The last "must see" place to go today in Sapporo is the famous Clock Tower, also designated (by Japanese) as one of the three most disappointing sites in Japan. No matter, it is there, let's go look at it. Apparently, the reason for the disappointment is that in photos they PhotoShop all of the surrounding skyscrapers out of the shot. In reality, it is a two story wooden building dwarfed by modern buildings on two sides. Still it is kind of charming and one of the last vestiges of a bygone era. The Clock Tower is a symbol of Sapporo. The building was constructed during the early period of Sapporo's development in 1878 as a drill hall of the Sapporo Agricultural College. In 1881 a clock purchased from Boston was installed. Today, the Clock Tower serves as a museum with displays about the building's history and Sapporo on the first floor. On the second floor are displays about the clock and a spacious ceremony hall that calls to mind the simple buildings of the colonial American Midwest. Our guide book advises that the interior is not worth the •200 admission price, so we skipped it.
It is now past lunchtime and we're in the mood for food again. So, we started walking the few blocks back toward the station. We decided to pop into the Tokyu Department Store since we know all Japanese department stores have food basements and restaurants floors. This particular store doesn't look as new or upscale as the ones attached to the station. The food floor is just as extensive, but not as crowded. One can find all manner of prepared foods in these places and there is one on just about every block. There are bento boxes, sweets of every kind, grilled skewers of meat, piles of fruit, you name it, they sell it here. The shop keepers are very friendly and it would be possible to fill up on just the samples they are handing out if you were so inclined. Most of the food is prepared right at the stall, so it is fresh. These places are so busy nothing sits around for very long and the prices are very reasonable.
We saw a lot of things that looked good, but these floors are geared more for buying food to take home. There isn't anywhere to sit down to eat right there. Only two places had small counters with four seats to eat food there.
We took the escalators up to the 9th floor restaurants not knowing for sure since all of the signage is in Japanese. Of course, as per usual, the top floor is wall to wall restaurants of every conceivable type. We walked into one that sells various bowls of rice with different toppings. All of these places have picture menus and plastic food displays out front, so ordering is very simple. Besides, the waitresses are so accommodating, they do all they can to be helpful.
The staff at this particular place didn't look overly happy to be there, but they were nice to us and we got our food quickly. Dave had a lunch set featuring a bowl of fried rice topped with slices of beef. Bill ordered what he thought was the burger thing Dave had yesterday with an egg on top, but it was some sort of semi-spicy rice with an egg on top. He liked it, so no harm done. All of the food was delicious. The sizzling iron bowls the food is served in are as hot as the surface of the sun, so the food is, too. All of this food only cost •1800. We're doing very well on food costs so far!
After lunch we walked back to the hotel through a maze of underground shopping malls to scout locations for dinner later tonight. We happened upon yet another food floor and picked up a couple of fruit bowls to take back as a dessert. They were OK, but are the first thing we feel is overpriced for what we actually got.
Luckily, there are directional signs everywhere in English because we have no idea where the heck we are in relation to the surface. It is very convenient having our home base above the train station because all the signs in the city point in that direction.
Back in the room we both promptly fell asleep until it was time to go out and look for food again at 7:30 pm. We have no idea why we are so sleepy because we've been getting plenty of sleep since we arrived.
We pulled ourselves together and went underground again to look for food. Don't ask how, but we ended up at another department store basement food hall connected to the station. Again, nice stuff, but nowhere to sit to eat it. So, we found the nearest set of escalators to God-only-knows-where and went to the top floor. Voila! A million more restaurants to choose from! No kidding, there must be thousands of restaurants in a one-block radius of the train station. In the Suskino entertainment zone elsewhere in the city, the advertising says there are 4,000 restaurants to choose from! And nobody here is fat.
Don't ask where we ended up because we have no clue where we are in relation to anything else, except we know we are in yet another fancy department store with an entire floor of restaurants. We went into a place that looked friendly, and it was. Our waitress was perky and the menu had pictures of various set meals to choose from. Dave had a sliced beef set and Bill had a combo set of the burger steak we see everywhere and fried shrimp. The food was fresh and delicious and only cost •2300!
On the way back we found the department store closed and escalators blocked off, so we had to take an elevator back down into the bowels of the earth to get back to the station. We noticed that the food basement we went through earlier is still open so we went to look for some small desserts to take back with us. The stalls close in fifteen minutes, so all of the perishable food places are having major sales and food is flying off the shelves. It is good to see that all of this cooked food is being purchased and not thrown out.
We found a place selling various cute little desserts and bought two of them for just •498 total. The clerk carefully packed them in a cute box with an ice pack and a cardboard spring so they don't move around and get messed up. FOR LESS THAN $5.00!! They were pretty tasty, too.
OK, now the trick is to find the corridor back to the hotel. There are endless hallways of shops going in every direction and then some. Up, down, all around the town. How the heck does anyone find anything around here? It probably doesn't matter since you'll never starve or run out of shopping opportunities no matter where you turn. Eventually you'll hit a subway or train station to get home. The best part is that everything is clean, bright, and friendly. Nobody hassles you, it is quiet, everyone is polite and minds their own business. We could get used to this!
We were back in the room by 9:00 pm and done for the day. The hotel's internet service is down tonight.
Day 10: Tuesday, April 8 - Sapporo - JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo
We're back online this morning and it is a bright, sunny 45 degrees outside.
Breakfast was again fantastic with several new items on the buffet. This is the first hotel buffet so far that has anything different from day to day which shows they are making an effort. The staff here really goes the extra mile to speak English to us, too.
We're off for a short train ride to Shin Sapporo Station, then a taxi or JR bus to get to the Historical Village of Hokkaido (Kaitaku no Mura). This is a collection of old buildings from around the island displayed in a natural outdoor village setting as they might have been in their heyday. It is a beautiful day to be out and about.
We only had to wait a few minutes for a train to arrive going in the right direction, so we wasted no time getting to Shin Sapporo Station. It is the first stop away from Sapporo, so maybe ten minutes or so, if that. The train was nearly empty.
At Shin Sapporo we could have waited for the JR bus, which we can use for free with the rail pass, but we took a taxi instead for •1300. Kaitaku no Mura is only about ten minutes' drive from the station, but the bus takes 30 minutes to get there.
Click to view a map of Kaitaku no Mura.
When the taxi dropped us off and sped away, we were kind of nervous that the place isn't open. There are no cars in the parking lot and no one walking around. We didn't arrive until after noon, so it isn't like we arrived at the crack of dawn. Once we got up the steps and into the entrance building, we saw other people and it is open today. Admission is •830 per person. We were given English brochures, but the receptionist didn't speak English that we know of.
Kaitaku no Mura is a collection of buildings, mostly from the Meiji era, that were brought here from around Hokkaido. The main entrance is the old Sapporo Train Station. Everything has been restored to like-new condition and the grounds are well kept. Well, they are from what we can see. Most of the ground is still covered in several feet of snow. Refer to the map above for the general layout of the place. It is quite large and it took us several hours to walk up and down the streets.
There is a street of houses, a school or two, a bank, warehouses, temples, churches and a separate area of farmhouses. We counted no more than ten people the entire time we were there, so we had the place to ourselves for the most part. The most incredible thing about it is that the buildings are open to walk around in and they are completely furnished. You do have to take off your shoes, but things are just laying around as they would be in someone's house and not glued down or protected in any way. In a newspaper office there are huge racks of moveable type faces that are just sitting there where anyone can take them. But, this being Japan and not America, nobody does and it is all still intact. This kind of display would last about ten seconds at home. What a pity.
We don't have any pictures for you today, sorry, but more on that later. Take our word for it that it is a very pleasant place to wander around and pretend you are living in a different time. There is a big pond that is still frozen, but the weather is very pleasant today for walking.
We're not sure exactly what time we finally wrapped up our visit, but we'd estimate it was around 2:30 pm. Luckily there is a taxi waiting because we missed the bus by just seconds. We would have had to wait 45 minutes for the next one, so we are happy to spend the money to take a taxi instead.
We quickly arrived back at Shin Sapporo Station and caught the next train, which happened to be a fancy express train, back to Sapporo. The conductor came up and started to explain that we don't belong on this train because it is an express (or something like that), but when Bill showed him the green car pass he thanked us and looked embarrassed. We are in a non-reserved car, so we don't think we did anything wrong. Maybe we look like riff raff or something. In any case, the train was very nice!
Back at Sapporo Station we decided to take a taxi to the Sapporo Beer Garden for lunch, which we did. The big deal here is a dish called Genghis Khan that is strips of mutton and vegetables grilled on an iron plate at your table. This isn't ordinarily something we'd do in a million years, but since we're here and you are supposed to do it, and we're hungry, why not?
The minute we stepped out of the cab and he drove away, Dave realized his camera is missing. We know it wasn't stolen, but we can't figure out where he lost it. He's very conscientious about keeping everything where it belongs just so something like this won't happen. We both wracked our brain trying to figure out where he could have lost it. The best we can figure is that it fell out of his pocket in one of the cabs or on the train. Oh well, nothing we can do about it now except buy another one. We transfer all pictures to the computer every night, so we only lost today's pictures.
Back to the beer garden thing...we went into a building marked "Reception" and the women at the counter, who are extremely well groomed and professional, asked if we want to go to one of the restaurants. Dave told her we want the Genghis Khan place, so she gave us tickets and walked us to the door, then pointed the way to the brick building across the way. This was the original Sapporo Beer Brewery and now houses a huge beer hall and the Beer Museum.
Everyone at the gigantic, empty restaurant is very nice, but this is about as much of a tourist trap as it is possible to be. We ordered the Genghis Khan that includes vegetables and were brought a platter of very thinly sliced mutton strips, a pile of bean sprouts and cabbage, and two slices of squash. The waitress poured a dipping sauce in a bowl in front of each of us. A waiter put of chunk of fat on the hotplate and indicated to swish it around, but that's all the instruction we got. When we sat down they wrapped our jackets and bags in plastic which should have tipped us off that this is going to be a mess. And the napkins aren't napkins, but huge bibs. Oh geez...
The cooking part worked out OK, but in no way shape or form is this tiny amount of food worth •4900. We were still hungry when we were done, no kidding. And yes, grease went everywhere and we absolutely reeked of Genghis Khan for the rest of the night.
After eating we went next door to the attached Beer Museum which is, as one should expect, a slick advertisement for Sapporo Beer. The people working there are beyond helpful and speak English. You take an elevator to the third floor and work your way through time to the present day. There is a huge cooking vat still intact (the same as the one in the dining area in the same building), some interesting displays of old wooden advertising posters and other memorabilia. You end up in a gift shop and tasting room on the ground floor. Samples are something like •200 for beer or •100 for soft drinks, so a good price. We didn't partake, but we did buy a tacky trinket for •400.
Dave kicked himself all the way back to the hotel about the camera thing. He decided to ask at the front desk if they can help find the camera. We've read over and over again that when you lose something in Japan be sure to ask for it because you often get it back. The first desk clerk didn't understand what we want, so she asked us to sit down and sent over someone who speaks perfect English. She was very helpful and said she would call JR and ask about it, but since we don't know which cab company we used that would be more difficult to follow up. However, she said she would call around and see if she could find it, which is above and beyond the call of duty in our book.
We asked the same woman for a recommendation to buy Bill some new shoes (his are making a weird noise he finds embarrassing) and Dave a new camera. She directed us to the attached ESTA shopping mall, so after cleaning up briefly in the room we wandered over there.
The first six floors are a gigantic BIC Camera store unlike anything you've ever seen at home. It is HUGE. It took us quite a while to find the floor where the cameras are. Dave wants the same brand (Canon) he had so if it is in Japanese he'll know how it works already. Eventually we found a similar model for a reasonable price, but then couldn't figure out how to go about buying it. Only samples are sitting out and there aren't tickets to take to the register or anything like that. The line at what appeared to be the camera department was very long, so we walked up to another counter where three clerks were just standing there. The guy there was very helpful and went to retrieve the camera from the back and then found an extra battery for it. He couldn't have been any nicer.
When he took us to check out he told us that we could get it tax free if we have our passport with us. That saved us 8% off the price which was already quite fair. Now Dave has some sort of tax form stapled in his passport with the visa he got when we arrived. We think that customs will just collect it when we leave, but we really have no clue. Anyway, camera dilemma solved and, yes, everything on the camera is in Japanese except, thank goodness, the buttons. However, the menus are exactly the same as the one we had, so we did manage to figure out how to set the time and date with no problem.
Next we took the escalators up God-only-knows how many floors to look for the shoe store the hotel recommended. We found it with little problem, but Bill thought the shoes looked cheap and ended up only buying new insoles. The shoe brands are the same as at home, as are the prices, by the way. Insoles certainly are cheaper than new shoes, so we'll hope this helps. It isn't a matter of comfort, but they are making a loud clicking noise when he walks.
As we already said, lunch was so tiny we weren't sure we'd actually eaten, so we went looking for the nearest restaurant floor for an early dinner. It is somewhere around 6:30 pm at this point. We ended up back at "Stellar Dining" in the Stellar Place Mall where there are at least twenty different choices. We went to a Chinese place. None of the restaurants, except a place only selling cakes and tea, had any sort of wait or line.
Dave ordered a set meal that offered a choice of two entrees plus rice, soup, a dumpling, and salad. Bill ordered three different dishes...shrimp, beef with vegetables and something else. Dave's entrees were fried chicken pieces and sweet and sour pork. The service was very friendly and attentive. The food was good, but not outstanding and a bit overpriced. The total with a glass of wine came to about •5900. At least we felt like we had eaten an actual meal and not just an appetizer.
We went back down to the food floor at the fancy department store to look for some small desserts to take back with us. Dave chose a sort of self-contained banana-strawberry shortcake and Bill had a strawberry tart. Everything in these stalls looks too good to eat. Of course, it was packaged with an ice pack and padded for perfection inside of a pretty box, all for less than •500 total. The way the saleslady treated us you'd have thought we spent millions of dollars.
We made it back to the room at around 8:00 pm where Dave tried to figure out his new Japanese camera while Bill sorted out laundry to send out tomorrow. By the way, the little desserts were delicious.
It's a miracle! Dave kept pushing buttons on the new camera and suddenly everything changed to English! Woo hoo!! We're back to normal.
Day 11: Wednesday, April 9 - Sapporo - JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo
It is another beautiful day in the mid 40's today. We have nothing on the schedule to do today, so we'll see what kind of mood we're in after breakfast.
Bill tried to call housekeeping three times to pick up our laundry, but no one answered the phone, so we will just leave it in the room and hope for the best.
The breakfast buffet again has several new items, but most choices remain the same. There is a lot to choose from, so it hasn't become tedious at all. We were the last ones out at 10:00 am when it closed. In Japan, closing time means, "Get the hell out," not arrive at 9:59 and start eating. However, we did see someone do that yesterday and the staff didn't act as though it was any problem. But, if you want to play by the rules, arrive at least 30 minutes before the posted closing time at a restaurant.
Back in the room, Bill tried calling for laundry pick up again to no avail. We sat around debating about what to do today when Dave noticed online that the Mt. Moiwa Ropeway reopened today after being closed for maintenance all week. So, now we have something to do after all.
On the way through the lobby, the lovely woman who helped us with the camera issue yesterday ran over to tell us she called around and won't know anything more until after noon. We said fine, and thanked her profusely for all of her efforts. Then we checked to be sure the Sapporo streetcars take IC cards as payment (they do) and started walking the seven blocks toward the station.
We re-traced our steps toward Odori Park to find the end of the streetcar line. On the way we spied some window washers quickly cleaning windows and rappelling down to the next floor. It couldn't have taken them more than fifteen minutes to do the entire side of the building.
We can't get away from Disney around here. Mickey and Minnie are displayed in the window of a very hoity-toity bridal salon. We spied a huge poster of the Asuka II (former Crystal Harmony) outside of the office of a travel agency.
One thing they have here that there is no way would last for a minute at home are dispensers of free bottled sand "So you won't slip on the sidewalk." All you have to do is return the empty bottle at any other dispenser.
We found the streetcar stop in the middle of the street one block past Odori Park. We expected some rattle trap contraption, but it is a modern articulated train. It costs •170 per ride no matter how far you go. It wasn't at all crowded, so the ride was pleasant and stops are announced clearly in English and on an electronic readout. We paid the fare with our IC cards with no problem at all. It took about twenty minutes to get to the Ropeway Iriguchi stop where we are supposed to start walking to the ropeway station.
There is supposed to be a free shuttle bus up to the station, but we didn't see it, so we walked. It isn't very far, but it is all up hill. Once there, we found a nearly new facility recently reopened after being completely rebuilt. We took the elevator to the fourth floor as instructed and bought tickets for the round trip for •1700 per person. We didn't know it at the time, but there were coupons in the streetcars that would have saved us a couple of bucks, but we didn't find that out until later.
Only three people are waiting for the next car, which is quite large, so obviously it isn't crowded. We probably didn't see more than twenty people total the whole time we were here, which is fine with us. Nevertheless, the facility is fully staffed and the attendant in the cable car gave her entire spiel to just the five of us. The cable cars look brand new, as does everything else.
The ride up takes just a few minutes and provides a scenic view over Sapporo. The cable cars arrive at a midway station where there is a gift shop, but we were ushered directly onto another mode of transportation to complete the trip to the top. They refer to these cars as a Mini-Ropeway, but it is more like a funicular system, also brand new. We had a car to ourselves, which was nice. These cars ride up a steep track rather than hanging from a cable.
Apparently, it is extremely romantic to come up here and look at the view since everything is covered in hearts. There is a "Lover's Satellite Sanctuary" outside with a bell that couples are supposed to ring after they attach a lock to the railing. When the bell is rung there is a "celestial" display of LED lights that shimmer over you. You can also have a photographer take your picture against a backdrop of hearts and a soaring rope light dove (we skipped it). Other than those two things, which really aren't as tacky as it sounds, the whole place is quite nice.
Of course, the real point is to look at the view. The mountain is still covered with several feet of snow in all directions. It is pleasant outside, but the building must be heated to at least 85 degrees. It is freezing outside and too hot inside. Jacket off, jacket on...
We heard an announcement for a 3D movie that is included in the price, so we wandered down to watch it. There was only one person besides us, but the attendant gave the full spiel and was very nice. The movie is basically a travelogue selling the four different seasons in Sapporo. It is well done, but there isn't much point to it being in 3D other than as a gimmick. We enjoyed watching it and it was free.
Dave broke the restroom and it made a huge racket that startled the attendants standing outside. The front of the sink cabinet fell off when he stepped back and it fell on the floor with a crash. It didn't hit him or anything, but the women thought something dreadful had happened. Dave came out, held up his hands, told them he didn't do it and they laughed. However, in reality he did do it when his shoe caught on the wood.
It was around 1:30 pm and time for food so we went into The Jewels Restaurant. This place looks very fancy, but there are only three choices of meals: Two versions of Hokkaido Soup Curry, and a Hamburger Steak Set Meal. We both had the latter and it was quite good. It came with very nice onion soup to start. The plates are attractively arranged for such a simple meal. Service is, of course, attentive and friendly. We were immediately handed English menus. The total bill was about •4900, which isn't too bad under the circumstances and the food was fine.
On the way back down to wait for the Mini Cable Car down to the Ropeway, we saw a fox outside in the snow. It was missing one of its back paws, but seemed to be getting around OK. A couple of women went outside and gave it some food, which it seemed to really need.
We stopped at the midway station to buy a cheap trinket and then continued down to the street. The free shuttle bus was waiting outside the door, so we got on and he took us back to the streetcar station where we started. We were the only people on the full-sized bus.
We continued on the streetcar, this time in an old tram car, in the same direction that eventually ends in the Susukino entertainment district of Sapporo. This is akin to Ginza in Tokyo, but far less crowded. There are the same huge neon signs and pachinko parlors on every block, plus God-only-knows-what goings on down the alleys. Every creepy doorway we walked by practically billowed cigarette smoke. This is the first time we have noticed a lot of smoking, so there must have been a change in Japanese laws. Smoking is not allowed in any shopping malls, train stations, on trains, or while walking around as far as we can tell.
We walked along the main street for a few blocks, passing long, seemingly endless covered shopping arcades and a giant Santa and his elves climbing a building (we have no idea why). Eventually, we decided to go down on Pole Town (a sign actually suggests that). The escalators took us underground to what seems like a never ending hallway of shops and restaurants. It literally goes on for miles and miles. Luckily all of the directional signs have English sub-titles, so it is easy to follow them in the direction of the JR station where the hotel is. Many hotels are connected to this underground city, as are the subways and trains. It is all very spacious, brightly lit and clean, so not at all sinister as it might be at home. While there are a lot of people walking around, it isn't unduly crowded or noisy, so it doesn't feel overwhelming at all.
After walking for miles, we arrived in the familiar territory of JR Tower and the Stellar Place Mall. Bill decided that the noise his shoes make is too ridiculous, so we went back to the shoe store we found yesterday. Finding it again in the maze of high rise department stores and malls was a chore, but we did find it. He found some stylish shoes he can use on the ship and for walking around. The clerk spoke some English and was helpful in finding a larger size. Everything on display ended in size 9 at the most. New shoes in hand, we found our way back to the hotel.
Our message light was flashing, so Dave called down and talked to the same woman who helped us yesterday. Housekeeping is freaked out by the inclusion of two sweaters in our laundry they are afraid won't be ready in time. Dave told her we tried to call, but nobody answered, so we had to leave it in the room because we were going out. At first she said there would be a rush charge, to which Dave agreed, but she called right back and said they are waiving the fee because they didn't answer the phone. Sounds fair to us. Supposedly it will be delivered to us at 9:30 am tomorrow morning. There is no further word on the camera though.
At 7:00 pm we went to the fancy department store across the station from the hotel to look for a place to eat on the restaurant floor (9th). These department stores are HUGE. This particular one is quite chic and upscale. The dump sale floor of this place looks better than our regular department stores! Like all Japanese department stores, the basement floor sells groceries and prepared food and sweets that are so beautiful you don't want to eat them. The prices are amazingly affordable. The individual desserts we buy are less than $3.00 each and they are packed in beautiful boxes with ice packs.
We went into the first restaurant we came to which is Akakuma Kitchen. It serves the same Japanese comfort foods as most of the places we have been going recently. Dave ordered a Pork Cutlet Set that came with spaghetti, rice, salad and fried chicken pieces also. Bill ordered a Giant Prawn Set that came with pumpkin soup, rice and vegetables. We assumed incorrectly that these would be light meals because they cost just •1300 each, but they are enormous servings. None of it is particularly memorable, but it was filling and all of it was edible. Service is perky and friendly.
On the way out Dave bought a small strawberry dessert from the food basement and we picked up a gift for the woman who has been helping us at the hotel in case we happen to see her in the morning. If not, we have some desserts to last us a few days. Because the store is about to close, everything is marked down, so Dave's dessert cost only •295. We're not exaggerating that at home each of these things would easily sell for $8-10 apiece and they sure wouldn't come packaged as nicely or be served so graciously.
We were back in the room by 8:30 pm and done for the day. We really hate to move on from this pleasant hotel and city, but such is life. We are just now starting to figure out where things are in this huge complex of buildings, too.
Day 12: Thursday, April 10 - Train to Noboribetsu Onsen - Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu
Noboribetsu Onsen is Hokkaido's most famous
hot spring resort. A large amount of Noboribetsu's many types of hot spring
water surfaces in the spectacular Jigokudani or "Hell Valley" just above the
resort town. Noboribetsu is part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
It's a travel day, so once again it is stormy and raining. It is also very cold, only 34 degrees. Good timing since we'll just be sitting on a train most of the time. We are up a little earlier today because we have a train to catch at around 11:15 am. We went for our last breakfast here and again it was very good...definitely the best buffet breakfast so far with a setting to match.
Back in the room, our clean laundry was delivered precisely at 9:30 am, as promised. The bellman was amusing; acting like it weighed 400 pounds when he handed it over. Hey, you don't have to haul it all over Japan, so man up!
We'll check out around 10:45 am to leave plenty of time to haul our stuff to the train platform and figure out where we are supposed to stand.
Our final thoughts on Sapporo: It is a lovely, modern city jam packed full of shopping and dining of every kind imaginable. There aren't a lot of must-see tourist attractions, but the city is so pleasant that we'd gladly come here just to relax. Better yet, we'd love to come back in February for the Snow Festival. This would be a good base for day trips to Otaru and other cities nearby if you are pressed for time and don't want to stay overnight elsewhere. The train connections are hard to beat from here.
Our final thoughts on the JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo: Loved it! This is by far our favorite hotel so far. It is low key with caring, gracious service. The staff speaks good English for the most part, the room is very comfortable with a breathtaking view and the location is perfect. It is pricey, but well worth every penny. We would definitely stay here again without hesitation. Book well ahead because it fills up quickly and is almost always sold out on weekends. Highly recommended!
At the front desk at check-out we did find Yuki, the lovely woman who was so helpful. She said that the treat we bought her is her favorite thing, which was very nice of her, but she might say that if we gave her liver on a stick, too. Still, she was a pleasure and made the whole situation a lot more palatable. When she heard that we had come from Otaru before Sapporo she said she lives there, so Dave told her she's lucky because it is beautiful. When she found out we stayed at the Hotel Nord, she made a horrified face. It was a little weird, but we thought it was fine. But, it did look like it had been updated recently, so perhaps it was a dump before.
We had plenty of time to find the correct platform in the train station. We only had to wait about fifteen minutes for our train to back into the station. It is one of the fancy express trains we were almost thrown off of the other day. There are only three other people in the reserved car, so we were able to find plenty of space for our luggage. The trick is to always be first in line for any train so you get first crack at what little storage space there is. In this case, it is at the back of the compartment. If this was any country other than Japan, we wouldn't be comfortable leaving our luggage out of sight, but we aren't worried about it here. However, Dave does keep a tight grip on our main bag full of tickets and money. That is always right with us. If someone wants our clothes, go for it.
Japanese trains are such a pleasure to ride. There is no noise and the ride is smooth. It is nothing like the bone jarring experience you'll get with Amtrak at home. The only complaint we have is that the cars are always way too warm. Otherwise, they're like an airplane with similar bathrooms and such.
The trip to Noboribetsu took about an hour and twenty minutes through scenic countryside. We started gathering our luggage before the train stopped because it stops for maybe thirty seconds at the most. You snooze, you lose, so be prepared to jump off the minute the doors open.
We were dropped seemingly in the middle of nowhere on a desolate, rundown platform. We had to carry all of our stuff up and back down the stairs to get to the town side of the tracks. We were the only people there, so we didn't cause any sort of spectacle, but it would have been a hassle if it was busy. By the looks of it, this station probably isn't ever terribly crowded.
A taxi was waiting right outside the front door. He didn't understand the hotel name at first, but we think he just didn't hear it. Dave showed him the printout we have from JAPANiCAN that has Japanese translations for everything and we were on our way. There is also a bus, but we're not bus kind of people. The fare was only around •1800 and well worth it. It took about fifteen minutes to drive up the mountain to Noboribetsu Onsen.
We expected the weather here to be worse than it was in Sapporo, but it is clear and breezy. It is cold, but not unpleasant.
The Hotel Yumoto is a typical Japanese style onsen hotel. In other words, a non-descript concrete block. It looks very dumpy from the street, so we are feeling a bit apprehensive at this point. The lobby doesn't help any...it is very dark, dingy and smells like sulfur from the hot springs. We know we are way too early to check in since we arrived just before 1:00 pm and check in is at 3:00 pm. The girl at the front desk looked terrified to have to deal with us, but she did manage to tell us to come back at 2:00 pm and that she would store our luggage for us.
Since we anticipated this scenario, we had already planned to walk up the single main street of town to the source of all the hot spring water, Jijokudani or Hell Valley. The Hell theme is played out all over town with granite shrines with devil figures, giant fiberglass devil clubs, and even some enormous devils to pose for pictures with. Yes, this is a tacky tourist town, which we knew in advance. It isn't quite as over the top as it could be though. It is mostly a bunch of huge onsen hotels and souvenir shops lining one winding street. The streetlights are crafted to look like birch trunks.
It only took about fifteen minutes to wander up the hill to the entrance to Jigokudani. To say the whole town reeks is a bit of an understatement. The hot spring water smells strongly of sulfur and it is running down the gutters all over town. It isn't unbearable, but it isn't pleasant either.
There is a paved walkway around one side of Jigokudani and a boardwalk out into the center of it. It is sort of similar to the boiling mud pots and sulfurous springs at Yellowstone on a smaller scale. A sign says not to touch the water because it is 80C. Some of the streams are lined with yellow sulfur deposits while others are milky white with minerals. Most of the water goes into pipes directly to the various hotels, so very little actually ends up at the end of the stream down the valley.
Other than several busloads of Chinese tourists, we are the only people here, so it isn't at all crowded. There were only four people walking along the street and we saw no one else at the hotel.
A trail leads off up the hill to Oyunuma, a volcanic lake that is 180C at the bottom. We weren't sure we were up to climbing up a billion steps and over the mountain, but once we got started it wasn't that bad. If the 80 year old Japanese women can do it, so can we. However, they are used to walking all over the place, we aren't!
Oyunuma is a steaming, bubbling lake lined with hot black mud pots at one end. Steam spouts from the top of the hill behind it, so we are well aware that this is an active volcanic area. We looked at it from the overlook, but didn't climb down to walk right next to it. That's way too much effort to expect of us!
On the way back, we were contemplating a sign and a tourist told us to take a certain pathway because it is all downhill. We already knew that, but it was nice of him to point it out. We turned off on what is marked as a "nature trail". What that means is it isn't maintained at all. However, it was all downhill and we managed not to slip and fall on our ass in the snow. It was also much shorter than going all the way back down to the valley and out. We ended up being deposited directly into the parking lot next to the souvenir shop.
After buying a tacky trinket depicting the devil character that is seen all over town, we started walking back toward the hotel. We stopped at a couple of other shops and bought another devil-type thing and some beverages. We also stopped at a 7-11 for some snacks just in case dinner is late. We don't know what the arrangements are for meals yet, so we're making contingency plans. The people working in the shops are all very friendly, so we're not sure what's up with the hotel staff.
We happened upon a huge shrine facing the main street with a giant mechanical figure sitting in it. This thing is at least 30' tall. Someone came up and prayed to it, but it looks like some kind of show since there is a sign with times posted next to it. It looks fairly complicated, so we might have to wander back up tomorrow on the hour and see what it does. This is in keeping with the display of plastic elephants outside of an ice cream shop.
We arrived back at the hotel around 3:00 pm and found it still deserted. The same "deer in headlights" girl is still there, but an older man had arrived who speaks some English. If the young lady had to serve us again Dave would have told her he speaks some Japanese so she didn't have a stroke, but that wasn't necessary. He doesn't like to make that announcement unless absolutely necessary because then the staff starts speaking Japanese to him assuming he has a clue, which he generally does not.
We were shown an English printout with all of the rules, meal times, etc. We were asked to choose a time for dinner to be served, so we chose 6:30-8:00 pm. Dinner is served in the room. Breakfast is served in a restaurant on the second floor from 7-9:30 am (must arrive by 9:15). The bathing situation was also explained and had something to do with the two baths switching between the sexes at various times so everyone gets to see both of them. We're not going to do that, so we didn't pay strict attention, but that is the gist of it. He didn't ask about tattoos or anything like that. We were told that our luggage is already in the room. We also had to choose a time for our room to be cleaned, so we chose 11:00 am.
A cheerless young woman in a kimono led us up to our room on the seventh floor. Basically all she said to us was to take off our shoes in the foyer of the room (there is also a sign to that effect), she put our keys on the table, and that was pretty much it. We wouldn't call this the friendliest place we've been, but it seems that they are worried about not speaking English more than anything. There were a couple of sweet bean paste filled buns on the table for us. That isn't as gross as it might sound. They are perfectly edible.
Our room is a Japanese/Western Combination room and is beautifully done. Everything looks brand new, so we assume it was recently remodeled. The hallways look new and modern also. We are very glad the drab lobby doesn't continue to the rooms! The lobby smells a bit of sulfur, but there is no smell of cigarette smoke as we anticipated. There are no unusual odors in the room.
Our room is very large with a Western-style table in the tatami area, two normal twin beds, a large LCD TV, and a refrigerator in a cabinet. Again, this hotel advertises air conditioning, but it isn't turned on yet. Luckily, the windows open and it is freezing outside, so we'll be fine. The bathroom has the most advanced robotic toilet so far, with all of the controls in Japanese. Dave couldn't figure out how to flush it, so he pushed all of the buttons one at a time until something happened. If you do this, be sure to close the lid or you might get an unexpected shower. Dave does know not to push the button with a pictogram of a butt on it. The bathing room ceiling is so low we might not be able to stand up straight, but it is new and modern. Technically, you are supposed to sit on the provided plastic stool and dump water over yourself with a plastic bucket anyway.
There is only one hand towel by the sink we are supposed to share, which is odd. Our bath towels and wash cloths are in a basket in the tatami room so we can take them to the bath with us. All we can say about that is it ain't happening! There are also yukata and size 3L sleepwear on the bed. Apparently, the desk clerk took note of our size when we arrived! But, we're tall, not wide. Our luggage is already all laid out for us.
We opened the window to cool off the room and almost immediately some Japanese singing started outside. At first it was kind of atmospheric, but that song went on, literally, for two hours non-stop. The same song! When it came to a close another one started that is still going on at 5:30 pm. It isn't bothersome, just weird. We hope someone isn't dancing to it all of this time. We're not entirely sure, but after leaning out the window it sounds like the music is piped in from speakers along the street for atmosphere. It wasn't playing earlier though and there is no one walking outside. We only saw two restaurants and they aren't open for dinner. All of the hotels here serve dinner to their guests, so there isn't much call for other dining options. That is typical of these Japanese resort towns.
After polishing off the snacks we bought at 7-11, we set up shop for the next two days. By the way, the bags of Japanese snacks are very good and much healthier options than anything we get at home. They do have potato chips and things like that, but the true Japanese items are made with nuts, soy and seaweed for the most part. We have really enjoyed all of them so far. Bill bought some sort of cake bars that are like homemade Fig Newtons and quite delicious.
There is no internet in the rooms here of any kind, so we're using our rented 3g hotspot again. It is much faster here than it was in Matsushima, but that isn't saying much. Still, it is better than no internet at all.
Promptly at 6:30 pm there was a knock at the door and our dinner service began. The woman serving our food is much more cheerful and friendly than the people at the front desk, so things are looking up. She brought most of our dinner on big trays and explained, in Japanese, what we are supposed to do with it. We understood that we are supposed to eat the sukiyaki when steam comes out of the hole in the lid. There is something else that is cooking that is a rice dish, but we aren't sure what she meant when she explained it. However, we figured out that she was saying to wait until the rice is cooked and then dish it out into a bowl. Everything else she told us, we already knew how to do, but it was nice of her to explain it. This included things like cracking a raw egg into a bowl to dip the sukiyaki in and using the tiny bowl of salt with the tempura.
She told us that there are two empty spaces on the tray and she will bring tempura and something else we didn't understand. She told us to start eating and not wait for her to come back. In a few minutes she brought tempura and something in a small covered bowl. It is a pinkish white ball that sort of looks like rice with some sort of clear brown syrup around it. It looks like it should be sweet, but it isn't. The best we can describe it is rice wrapped around a potato or something of similar consistency.
The other things on the tray are what we expect at a place like this. A plate of sashimi, a few small appetizers we have no clue what they are other than beautiful to look at, a hot fish custard that grew on us after the initial shock, grilled fish wrapped in paper, pickled vegetables, the aforementioned sukiyaki, and the rice dish that did eventually finish cooking. It has little things that sort of look like embryos in it that aren't chewable at all. That is the only thing neither of us liked. Dave didn't like one of the tiny appetizers and Bill wasn't in love with the custard thing, but we ate everything anyway. Overall, this set ryokan meal is much higher quality and more palatable than any we had in 2009 at much more expensive places. The sashimi was the best we have had in a very long time. We also prefer having everything brought to us at once rather than served in courses over several hours.
The maid brought miso soup and a lovely dessert plate of fruit and a tiny cake for each of us at the end. She told us to call the front desk when we are finished and she'll come back and clean up.
She arrived moments after the phone call. The person who answered the phone sounded very friendly, so maybe they woke up down there. The maid made gestures asking if we liked the meal and Dave said, "Gochiso sama," which thrilled her. Sometimes he dredges up the strangest phrases from his limited memory, but every time he does it seems to impress someone appropriately. Earlier, when she first arrived, she thought the room was chilly and she went to feel the heater. We definitely do NOT want the heat on, so Dave had to come up with something to stop her from turning it on. It dawned on him to say, "Iyo", which means, "It's OK," and she understood what he meant.
We feel a lot better about this place now that the maid was so hospitable. She couldn't have been any nicer or more pleasant, so perhaps we are on the right track now.
The weird music is still playing in the streets. There do seem to be a few groups of people wandering around now, so that's probably what you are supposed to do after dinner and a bath. We're lazy asses as you probably recall, so we'll be staying put for the rest of the night.
Day 13: Friday, April 11 - Noboribetsu Onsen - Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu
It snowed a bit early this morning, but by the time we were up at 8:00 am, it was clear and sunny. It is, however, very cold, in the low 30's. It never warmed up above 36 all day and the wind made it seem colder than that.
We were told to show up at the second floor restaurant for breakfast between 7 and 9:30 am. There is no one else around, but signs point toward the restaurant. Someone was waiting at the door and beckoned us in when she saw us. We think she is the same young woman who showed us to our room yesterday, but she is quite cheery this morning. Our dinner service maid was there and acted overjoyed to see us again. There were only two other guests there when we arrived at 8:30 am and no one else came in after us.
We have no idea what to expect for breakfast here since it isn't specified anywhere. Our reservation just says, "Breakfast included," but what that will be is up for grabs. Turns out it is a buffet just as extensive as the one at the hotel in Sapporo, but on a more intimate scale. Even though we are apparently two of only a handful of people staying here last night, the food is fully stocked and not at all skimpy. There is a section of hot Western-style dishes similar to everywhere we have stayed so far, a large selection of Japanese foods, a salad bar, two kinds of soup (miso is always available) and many beverage choices. We were handed trays when we walked in. Here are pictures of Dave's tray, and Bill's tray.
Our favorite item, not, was the dish accurately described as, "Diced Sea Urchin Guts". We tried to come up with a more palatable description, but "entrails" or "intestines" don't help that much. It is what it is!
As we were leaving, amid much bowing and well-wishing from the two women in attendance, Dave said, "Matta aimashoe," and the younger woman burst out laughing. He thinks that means something like, "See you later," but who knows?
After collecting our stuff, we went down to the front desk to buy tickets for Date Jidai Mura, which is our destination for today. Dave apparently asked correctly in Japanese for two tickets because the clerk handed them over and didn't laugh. We saved about $5.00 off the $25 admission price by buying them at the hotel rather than at the gate. We have coupons from the internet for a discount, but this price is much better. The hotel called a taxi for us from across the street, so we were on our way quickly.
The park is located about halfway between the hotel and the train station, so only about ten minutes by taxi. There is a bus also, but, as you know, we are not prone to taking a bus unless there is no other option. We feel that in the grand scheme of things, $13 for a taxi ride is a pittance.
We were deposited outside the entrance to what looks like a completely deserted attraction. There was a geisha clad woman manning the ticket booth who stamped the tickets we bought at the hotel and gave us maps in English. Click to view the map for Date Jidai Mura.
This place is a historical theme park depicting village life in the Edo period. What they have created here truly is a remarkable reproduction. It must have cost a fortune to build this place and from the looks of it we might be the only people here. We saw no one at the gate except a guy in a Samurai getup who asked to see our tickets. The first short street was empty, as well. Turning the corner down the longer merchant street we saw a few other tourists we later determined are on a tour from Malaysia. There are some buses in the parking lot, maybe four, and we later came across some Thai tourists in a group.
The buildings are amazingly detailed and accurate. There are a couple of pointless educational displays, three restaurants, and the usual souvenir shops, but from the street it all looks very authentic. All of the employees are dressed in period attire and made a point to acknowledge us whenever they saw us, even from a distance.
The main, and only, street leads to a central garden and pond surrounded by a few walk-through attractions and three theaters for the various scheduled shows. We arrived at 11:00 am and the first show is at 12:15 pm, so we stopped at the Goblin Cat Temple. Amid much sinister mewing and other haunted sounds, we entered the walk through attraction. This is about like those horrible haunted house rides at state fairs except you walk, not ride through it. There is no way we could have an attraction like this at home or it would be trashed in less than a day. In any case, it is so stupid it is hilarious. Various motion activated stunts took place as we passed them. A giant cat paw swiped at us from the ceiling, a hallway shook as devil cats stormed the windows...you get the picture. It really was funny, we have to admit.
Next door is the House of Monsters where an animated show is going on behind the glass out front. The glare was so bad we couldn't see it that well, but it looks like a bunch of animals dressed as humans having an argument, but we really don't know. Inside, you walk up to individual curtained displays and push a lighted button to cause something to happen. In the first one, several parasols come to life and stick out their giant red tongues. In another one, a seemingly normal Japanese woman is sitting calmly on the floor. Then, something possesses her and her head floats to the ceiling. Yes, really, that's what happened and that was the highlight. Oh, and get this, a Thai woman was actually terrified by the mannequin being spun into a web by a giant plastic spider. Have these people never left the house or what? We were amused by it, so we got our money's worth.
It is finally time for the first of three shows, the Ninja Show in the Kasumi Ninja House. We were each handed a piece of white paper the English instructions say to wrap a tip in and throw at the stage at the end. This was a tradition back in the Edo period and it is OK to put candy in the paper instead of coins. The show was about what we expected with some sort of humorous story featuring an old man teaching a younger guy how to fight. A couple of bad guys come down from the ceiling, people disappear through trick doors, and stuff like that. It was actually relatively entertaining and they take it all very seriously. It is well done for what it is and not at all amateurish. We didn't begrudge throwing •100 coins at them at the end. The theater was about half full with tour groups from Malaysia and Thailand. We are the only two Westerners in the park (we asked an employee).
The shows are timed so you move from one to the next with about fifteen minutes between them. We had just enough time to look in a reproduction of a rich person's mansion that is used to show how Samurai swords are made. The view from the steps of the mansion is impressive and shows the effort that went into making everything look very authentic.
The next show is the Oiran Show. This is supposed to give you the experience of the rich during the Edo period and has something to do with impressing a famous Geisha to win her hand. We had to remove our shoes and sit on the floor for this show. The best part about it is the hilarious woman dressed as a man who narrates and moves the show along. She is FANTASTIC and absolutely makes the show. She tossed in English explanations that are deliberately funny. The rest of the show is entertaining also, but she adds an extra element to it that made it the highlight of the day. We were encouraged to take pictures with the Geisha after the show.
The final show is a Nyanmage Comedy that our guide book suggests skipping because it is all in Japanese and we won't get it. However, the guy out front spoke English and we were given an English explanation of the plot (as we were everywhere else, too). OK, now here's the very pathetic part of this show. We were the only two people in this huge theater and they did the show anyway. Talk about awkward. We had no idea what was going on, so we made up our own story between us that made us laugh at appropriate (we think) times. The show involved some stuck up young woman pretending to be sick and going to the doctor to get away from her father (or something like that). Oddly enough, the mascot of the park, a giant white cat with a Samurai haircut, saves the day by making her realize she's been a total bitch and better get her act together (or something like that). There's more to it, but who cares really? We'll give the cast credit, they didn't skimp on the acting because it was just the two of us. We got the full on production which was pretty good under the circumstances. The same throw a tip thing happens at all of the shows and we felt so sorry for them that we threw a •1000 note and the two usual coins. The cast followed us out and we thanked them for doing the show just for us.
There are various historical displays scattered around. One of the more extensive ones depicts an apartment village from back in the day. We're not sure we really needed to see a depiction of the use of an outhouse, but we did.
Another walk through thing is a Ninja Maze. This is one of those fun house gimmicks with the rooms at odd angles and such. There are several doors you have to try to get through, etc. Floors shake, walls move, the usual. Again, it is so ridiculously dumb that we were laughing the whole time. At home this would be a lawsuit waiting to happen, of course, so it would have been shut down by lawyers long ago.
It is now 2:00 pm and time for some lunch, so we first checked out their soba and rice dish restaurant and then went to the ramen shop. However, we had fried dumplings instead of ramen. Dave had the set that comes with a huge helping of delicious fried rice. He made Bill eat half of it. The dumplings were very good, too. The whole meal cost less than •1500.
As we were leaving the girl working there came out and asked where we are from. We said California and she asked if that is in America. When we said yes, she said she loves America and hopes to go there someday. She was very sweet and tried to speak English with us. We were able to chat a bit and it was clear she was enjoying talking to us. We asked if this place is ever crowded because it doesn't appear to have a huge capacity in the shows or restaurants. She said that it is mostly tour groups from Malaysia, Thailand and China. In a month or so it will be busier for the summer and then again at Christmas when hoards of Chinese tourists come. Dave asked if there are many American visitors and she made a gesture meaning a tiny amount. Dave asked, "You mean the two of us?", and she said yes. Dave remembered that he brought Disney California Adventure pins with him that he bought last time we came to Japan and never gave away. He dug one out and gave it to her and she beamed with delight. She was truly so excited that it made our day.
On the way out we stopped and bought trinkets depicting the stupid Samurai cat character, then went to the ticket booth and asked if they would call a taxi for us, which they did. We arrived back at the hotel at 3:00 pm and hightailed it up the street to see the animated giant Buddha show, or whatever the heck it is supposed to be. We caught the last few minutes of it and it was, uh, unusual. He shakes his arms and his face changes from serene to angry while he bellows fortunes (or something like that) to the "crowd" (of three people, including us). Yawn. That thing takes up an awful lot of space for being so, well, not much. It looks like there is more apparatus involved behind the figure, so maybe it is changed for special occasions or something. Oh well, cross that one off the bucket list. At least it is free.
We stopped to browse in the shop across the street from the hotel. The owner gave us cups of tea and asked where we are from. She was amazed we are from the U.S. We bought a little devil character in an onsen, a devil chew toy for our dog even though he doesn't play with toys, and a lucky cat noren curtain just because it is so damn cutesy pie we can't resist.
When we walked into the hotel lobby, there were three people behind the front desk, one of whom was holding our key. Was she standing there for hours holding it hoping we'd come back or what? The front doors are frosted glass, so they can't see the entrance from the desk. They all seem quite happy to see us today. We still haven't seen anyone else staying here other than the two people at breakfast. This isn't the biggest hotel in town, but it is eight stories in two wings, so it isn't small either.
The welcome back treats on the table today are individually wrapped peanut butter cookies.
Dinner arrived promptly at 6:30 pm. We have a different maid tonight. This one is just as friendly and speaks a bit of English. Our dinner trays are completely different tonight, sort of. There are variations on a theme with some items. The tempura is crab tonight and has a regular batter on it. We liked the weird one last night better, but this was fine. The fish custard is shrimp tonight, which we liked better than the God-knows-what on top last night. All of the sashimi is different, but just as high quality. There is something au gratin in a clam shell we think is a piece of clam with potatoes. It was one of the best dishes. The rice that cooked at the table tonight has diced chicken instead of embryo, so you can imagine our relief. The simmered beef dish is thickly sliced beef with vegetables that went into a dipping sauce. It was very good, also. There wasn't anything we didn't like tonight. Miso soup came later with a dessert plate. The dessert included a bowl of almond gelatin (this has been on almost every breakfast buffet so far) a few small pieces of fruit, and two slices of green tea cake. All of it was nice.
We have never been served tea at this hotel, which is odd, but maybe you are supposed to make your own. There is a hot water pot and tea making utensils in a cabinet by the refrigerator. We don't care about this since we are always too hot anyway, but we thought that was a standard thing to serve after meals just about everywhere in Japan.
That odd street music started at 4:00 pm on the dot again. It doesn't bother us, but we aren't directly on the street. It must drive the merchants crazy. It is the same song over and over again with no end and no beginning. And, it is very loud. We're all for atmosphere, but come up with a few hours of different music, not the same one a million times.
We have no idea what wages are in Japan, but we assume they aren't very low. How all of these hotels and other businesses support this entire staff with no customers is baffling. There were three people at the front desk when we came in this afternoon, but we have seen no other guests today at all. The whole town is deserted except for the occasional tour bus and they aren't staying overnight. We know this is the off season, but surely management knows it will be slow and they don't need all these people standing around. Hey, it's not our money and it does make for good service, so who are we to argue?
The temperature dropped into the 20's after sunset.
Day 14: Saturday, April 12 - Train to Hakodate - Hakodate Kokusai Hotel
Hakodate is Hokkaido's third largest city,
located at the island's southern tip. Hakodate is best known for the spectacular
views to be enjoyed from Mount Hakodate and its delicious, fresh seafood.
As one of the first Japanese harbor cities to be opened to international trade
after the country's era of isolation, Hakodate has experienced notable influence
from overseas, and the foreign population's former residential district and a
Western style fort are among its main tourist attractions.
It is sunny this morning, but very cold. It never got out of the 30's today.
Breakfast at the hotel was the same except the specialty item today is "Salted Squid Guts". Yummy! Click to view Dave's Tray and Bill's Tray. There are more guests in the hotel this morning being a Saturday, but that means there are twelve people in the breakfast room instead of four.
Our final thoughts on Noboribetsu Onsen: If you are into the whole onsen experience then this is a great place to indulge. Other than that, there isn't much in the way of tourist attractions. However, it is low key and friendly. There are tons of huge hotels to choose from, but be sure to check Tripadvisor reviews before booking. Some of them aren't very modern, to say the least. Overall, if you are pressed for time you can skip this town and not miss anything important. We liked it, but we're into lazy days.
Our final thoughts on Hotel Yumoto: Once we got past the rundown exterior, we liked it a lot. The kaiseki meals are the best we have had in Japan, including our 2009 trip. The food quality here is top notch. Keep in mind that you have no choice what is served to you, so don't stay at a Japanese style hotel if you have a lot of rules about food. Other hotels in town are upward of $600 per night, so this place is a relative bargain. The service isn't as fawning as a fancier place, but it was certainly sufficient for us and we didn't feel we lacked anything we need. The rooms and corridors look brand new and are beautifully decorated. English skills are limited, but signage throughout the hotel has English sub-titles. We were given English instructions on how to use the bathing facilities and everything else we needed to know. We recommend this hotel.
Check out time at typical Japanese resort hotels is usually 10:00 am and the Hotel Yumoto is no exception. We were up by 7:30 am anyway, so it was easy to get our act together and go down to check out at 10:00 am sharp. The hotel called a taxi for us and the same guy who has picked us up three times already drove up. He is as amused by this as we are, so it is fun. He's also speaks some English.
Our train isn't until 11:37 am and we arrived at the station at 10:15 am, so we just stood around until time for boarding. We prefer to get to the platform early because we have so much luggage to haul up the stairs, but no such luck here. They will only allow you onto the platform seven minutes before boarding. Luckily this isn't a major station so there are only about ten people waiting.
We have reserved seats on the Super Hokuto today, which is as close to the shinkansen as you can get on Hokkaido. The train only stops for about 30 seconds, so we jumped on and had to rearrange luggage already on the rack to fit our stuff. We assumed, incorrectly, that our seats would be at the front of the train, so we went in that direction. No big deal until the train lurched to one side and Dave landed in the laps of a hapless Japanese couple. The man thought it was kind of amusing, but the woman wasn't at all happy about it. Of course, she didn't say anything and we did apologize, but we're sure she'll have something to talk about for quite some time.
Once we found our seats and settled down the ride was uneventful. It is boring just sitting there for over two hours, but there is plenty of legroom and it isn't uncomfortable particularly. It is, of course, way too warm in the train, but what isn't here?
We arrived precisely on the minute at the Hakodate terminal. There is no rush to jump off the train at terminals and there aren't any stairs to climb here, so it is easy at this end. Neither the stationmaster at Noboribetsu nor the one at Hakodate seemed interested in our rail passes and only wanted our seat reservation ticket.
There is a line of taxis at the ready outside the station, so we jumped in the first one for the short ride to the Kokusai Hotel. Upon arrival, it looks much nicer than expected. It gets middle of the road reviews and isn't recommended in any guide books. We chose it because it is much less expensive than the other options in town and is supposed to have a wonderful breakfast, which is included in our rate.
We were met at the door and our luggage was taken from us. The front desk agent didn't speak much English, but there wasn't much to tell us anyway other than where the breakfast restaurant is and which way to our room. Another woman took us and our luggage to the room. As far as we could tell, she didn't speak any English at all, but she was very nice.
Our room is in the new annex and the lobby is very modern and nice. There is a huge bridal shop (one of two in the hotel) with some, um, unusual dresses on display. The one outside the door to entice people in is a frilly pink number with sparkly crystals all over it. It if wasn't pink it would be quite nice. But, the real thrills come once you turn the corner and feast your eyes on the colorful Flamenco-style wedding gowns on the racks! Yikes!! We saw even more outlandish ones in a shop on the street later. We have seen weddings going on all over Japan and the brides have always been in beautiful white dresses, so who buys these flashy things?
The annex might be newer than the two original buildings on the street, but by "new" they must mean 1980. We're pretty sure the elevators are actually time machines that take you back in time. Our room is a symphony in dusty rose. Pink (filthy) carpet, a multi-color 1980's print pastel pink (stained) sofa, and a pink border on the wallpaper. Oh yeah, the drapes are pink, too. The furniture is white-washed oak with a faux stone pedestal coffee table. If it weren't for the stains, we'd overlook the decor, but this place looks so nice downstairs, what happened to the rooms? And, once again, a hotel that advertises that it has air conditioning and it isn't turned on. It also keeps turning itself back up to 80 degrees after we turn it down. The windows aren't supposed to open, but we discovered that if we unlatch them the wind is so strong that the cold air blows through the crack enough to cool the room down. There is an air purifier and the room doesn't smell bad, so it will be OK. And, it is very inexpensive. The service is top notch though.
We amused ourselves by chanting, "Auntie Em, Auntie Em," as the wind whistled through the crack in the window.
Our room has two twin beds with pink headboards, of course. The view of the bay is spectacular, so that's a big plus. There is a new LCD TV, very fast wired internet, a refrigerator and the usual tea making equipment. The bathroom is as dated as the room, but it is clean and has a drinking water dispenser. That's probably because the water is so softened it tastes salty. We actually have wash cloths for the first time in a week, too, so there are some good things about this place.
Rather than settle in, we went out in search of lunch at the nearby brick warehouse area. This is a shopping and dining area that has been installed in some of the old historic warehouses along the waterfront. There are picturesque fishing boats tied up along the marina and a few Japanese tourists wandering around. It is extremely windy, so it is very cold. The moment the waterfront runs out, you end up in the midst of tacky tourist shops and ice cream parlors, but overall it is quite attractive.
We walked into one of the big converted warehouses and went into a brewery restaurant that has a wide variety of food displayed out front. It is 3:00 pm and we have to eat dinner later, so we ate a light lunch. Dave had a Hokkaido Beef Salad and Bill had an individual pizza. The total bill was only •1500. The food was good and the service was friendly.
After lunch we wandered around the shops in the warehouses. The general area is pretty with statues and various nooks and courtyards. It is probably bustling in the summer with outdoor cafes and such, but it is empty now. We found a couple of restaurants for dinner tomorrow, but the shops are full of tacky trinkets aimed at the millions of bus tours that disgorge Chinese tourists on every corner. We didn't run into them until we were back on the main street in front of a huge, obviously tourist oriented, "factory" outlet. There are four buses parked outside. Still, the prices are very low for food and for souvenirs.
We walked back to the hotel at around 5:00 pm to clean up and rest before we have to go out tonight for the view from Mt. Hakodate. This is the big draw for tourists in this town and is considered a must-see.
When the sun started to set at around 6:30 pm, we walked toward the Hakodate Ropeway station. We could have taken the streetcar, but it drops off no farther down the street than we walked this afternoon, so we didn't bother. From there it is another ten minutes or so up the hill. It wasn't hard to find because there were 8 million buses full of Chinese tourists headed in the same direction, plus a handful of Japanese couples walking. The station is located in the historic foreigner district where there a lots of ethic churches and houses remaining. If we have time we'll come back and look around, but it isn't high on our list of priorities.
Everyone in Japan, China and Hong Kong must be going up the ropeway to the mountain because the line is all the way down the steps to the parking lot. There are five guys with lighted batons arranging tour buses. We got in line and quickly moved up to the landing in front of the entrance. Someone there was pointing to the ticket office inside the station. We went to buy tickets with the discount coupons we found while shopping today...saved us 10% off the •1700 round trip per person price.
Once we had our tickets we were supposed to go back to the end of the huge line, so we were standing there deciding which way to go. A young Japanese woman said to come with her and we could cut in where her boyfriend is waiting in line already. How nice was that? We ended up at the front where we boarded immediately. We couldn't believe it and she didn't want to talk to us or anything, she was just being nice because we're foreigners (and not Chinese would be another guess).
The ropeway cars are huge, so they cram a lot of people into them for the 3-minute ride to the top. There are two cars running, so even with the long line the wait isn't outrageous. At the top, needless to say, it is a tad crowded, but still manageable. Since it is freezing and windy outside, people don't linger at the railing for long anyway. We stared at the view, which admittedly is very dramatic, and started back down the back way.
We stumbled upon a place where they take your picture with the lights in the background, so we figured we'd go for it since nobody was waiting. The poor guy with the camera had to get up on a ladder in the wind to adjust the height because we are so tall. He was amused by it, so it was kind of fun. They mail the picture to your home, so we have no idea what it looks like. The price was reasonable, about •2000 including mailing costs. (Note: The picture was waiting for us when we got home.)
We hoped to outwait the tours returning to the bottom, so we ducked into a table service restaurant for dinner. There was no wait and we were seated at a window table with the same spectacular view we had outside. Dave ordered a Hokkaido Beef Stew set and Bill had Crab Spaghetti. Both were very good and reasonably priced for a tourist attraction, around •4300 total, including a glass of wine. Service was very friendly, although nobody spoke a word of English. The menu had English sub-titles and pictures.
After browsing the shop and finding a couple of trinkets for less than •800 total, we walked back to the ropeway station. The line was gone and we boarded the next tram down the hill. There are scores of taxis lined up, but the walk isn't that far, so we didn't bother. It only took about fifteen minutes to walk back to the hotel. Ordinarily we wouldn't walk through deserted streets at night, but we saw women walking alone, so we figured it must be safe enough for us.
We arrived back at the hotel around 8:30 pm and found the heat had turned itself up again <sigh>. What is it with Japanese and 80-degree rooms? We cracked the windows again and it cooled down quickly. We're hoping the hotel doesn't decide we are cold in the middle of the night and turn on the heat!
Day 15: Sunday, April 13 - Hakodate - Hakodate Kokusai Hotel
Once again, it is clear and sunny today...and freezing. It did warm up in the afternoon, but not a lot. It isn't windy anymore though, which does help.
We booked a breakfast included rate here, so we went down to the Azalea restaurant at 8:30 am. This hotel caters to tour and wedding groups, so most of the clientele is Chinese, not Japanese. All that means is the behavior of the children (and some adults) isn't as refined. It wasn't a problem, just an observation. The restaurant is busier than any we have been to so far, but there was no wait to be seated.
The selection from the buffet is as extensive and high quality as the one at the JR Tower Nikko in Sapporo. In addition, there are chefs serving cooked to order steaks, omelets and eggs. The hotel is "famous" for the steak and it didn't disappoint. It was delicious. Everything else was as expected and pretty much the same as all of the good buffets we've had. They didn't spell out that the squid in the tiny bowls is "guts" here, but it looks exactly the same. They sell packets of it in the gift shop if anyone wants us to bring some home for them.
The restaurant is attractive, as is the lobby, so the rooms are all the more incongruous. Service is attentive and friendly. The staff is impeccably dressed and groomed, so they are carrying off the luxury aspect in that regard.
Since the night view excursion we did last night is the main draw here, we will wander around to some lesser attractions today. The only thing mentioned in guide books, other than the historic "motomachi" western-style area we walked through last night, is a morning market. They sell freshly caught seafood and other things. It is located between the hotel and the train station, so we'll go there first and then take the streetcar from there.
On the way out of the hotel, Dave stopped at the front desk to ask if the streetcars accept IC cards as payment. Answer: They do not. So, we bought one-day passes for •600 each. A ride costs a minimum of •220, so we should break even with the passes since we are going a fairly long distance back and forth today.
We hit the sidewalk at 10:30 am toward the morning market, which is a couple of blocks from the hotel. Everyone else is going there, too, so it was very easy to find. You are supposed to arrive at the crack of dawn and have breakfast, but that's way too authentic for us. The first place we came to was selling live crabs out of an old fishing boat. You could buy one and have them steam it for you on the spot. No wonder the crabs were trying to get out of the boat!
The vendors were overjoyed to see Americans for some reason. We must be a real novelty for them. Several asked where we are from. One woman was particularly pushy trying to get us to sample some salmon eggs. She went after Bill first, but he wouldn't go for it. Dave was far enough away that she couldn't force it on him either. At the next stall a woman came out and tried to sell us on a bowl of rice with a choice of fresh (as in still moving) toppings. She wouldn't take "no" for an answer and said, "I don't speak English," in perfect English. So, Dave told her in Japanese that we already had breakfast. Well, that's what he meant to say, but what actually came out was, "Do you have breakfast?", so he made the situation even worse. Of course she has breakfast as she pointed out on a huge picture menu. He managed to say, "later" and we got away.
The market is made up of several side streets and warehouses full of vendors. Most of them are selling crabs and other seafood. Most exactly the same as the next, so it is no wonder that some are aggressively trying to hawk their wares. Others sell huge apples and other fruit that looks absolutely delicious. Several more vendors asked where we are from as we walked among the stalls. Others just said, "Welcome to Hakodate," when they saw us.
At a particularly popular stall people were waiting in line to fish for their own live squid from a big tank. Once caught, they'd hold it up triumphantly and hand it over to the proprietor. She then diced up the live creature and put it on a plate to be eaten as is. Gross! At first we thought she was cooking it, which is bad enough, but nooooooo...
After our stroll through the gauntlet of vendors (it really wasn't all that bad, but it is unusual is Japan for anyone to actively try to sell you something), we walked back to the main street to catch the streetcar to our next destination. We found the nearest station in the middle of the street near the train station. Signs are all in English, so as long as you know which way you are supposed to go, it is easy to figure out. Ordinarily, you take a ticket when you board that you turn in when you leave. The fare is calculated based on how far you traveled. With the pass, you just show it to the conductor when you get off. Stops and things to see at each stop are announced clearly in English.
It took about twenty minutes to get to the stop for the Goryokaku Observation Tower and Fort. From there it is about a fifteen minute walk along a shopping street to get there. We were surprised to find a large contingent of riot police blocking access to the street to the tower. Nobody appeared to be alarmed by any of the activity and they were letting taxis through, so we're not sure what was going on. They were in full riot gear though and we saw them wandering around the general area the whole time we were there.
It couldn't be easier to find tourist sites in this town. There are signposts in English and several other languages at major intersections and granite slabs etched with destinations embedded in the sidewalks. We knew we were going the right way when we saw another beyond tacky ice cream parlor aimed squarely at tourists. We passed another Japanese innovation we also saw in Sapporo. A car park elevator. You drive your car into the elevator and it goes away. It is retrieved at the push of a button when you are ready to go. It looks sort of like those conveyor belt racks at the dry cleaner except it goes up into a high rise building.
The police were sort of milling around trying to look inconspicuous when we arrived at the Goryokaku Observation Tower. A sign proclaims its 50th anniversary, but it looks brand new on the inside. The staff is impeccably dressed and extremely polite, although no English is spoken. Signs are in English though, so no problem figuring out where to buy tickets and such. It costs •840 per person for the elevator ride to the top. It isn't crowded today, so there is no wait. There is some sort of history lesson in the elevator that starts with the lights dimming and glowing historical figures appearing on the walls thanks to UV lights.
The observation platform looks new and modern. It provides a birds eye view of the fort and panoramic views all around. From here it is easy to see Mt. Hakodate in the distance where we went last night and how the ocean surrounds the peninsula that holds the town.
There must be hundreds of taxis trolling for business around here. At every possible place where a person could need a taxi, there are twenty waiting in line. There are at least fifty waiting outside the tower, which is more than double the amount of people in there.
On the way out we picked up the usual trinkets to commemorate the visit and wandered toward the fort. Fort Goryokaku is the only European-style fort in Hokkaido and played a major part toward the end of the shogun era and beginning of the Meiji Restoration. If you really care, do a Google search because that's all we know. It has been open to the public since 1911 or something like that. A long time anyway. All but one of the original buildings were dismantled, but the stone walls and moat are original. There are two bridges to cross to enter the grounds.
The main administration building in the center of the fort was reconstructed recently, but only about a third of it was re-built. You can tour the inside for •300, but we didn't care that much. Other buildings are represented by outlines on the ground so you can get a feel for how it was laid out. It is a pretty place to walk around and free of crowds. It is probably quite a sight during cherry blossom season. We could hear what sounded like chanting and patriotic music from a rally on the streets, so maybe that's what the riot police are all about. We never saw any evidence of it, but the police were still guarding the intersection when we walked back to the streetcar stop.
We took the streetcar back to the hotel for a brief rest stop, then set out again in search of lunch. It is 1:30 pm at this point. We walked all the way through the brick warehouse district looking for a place recommended in the guide books only to find it out of business or closed for the season. No wonder we couldn't find it yesterday. We kept walking along the waterfront since other people seemed to be strolling around, but we never found more restaurants or anything else other than a nice view.
We turned inland up the slope to the motomachi district of historic old western-style buildings. We kept walking up the steep street to Motomachi Park where there are several old buildings. There is an old British Consulate and the centerpiece Town Hall. There is a green mansion that sort of resembles the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. We didn't go inside any of the buildings although it is possible to do so for a nominal fee. The view from this area is beautiful.
Since we missed lunch and are starving, we let a woman hawking ice cream on the corner lure us in. She also had some hot deep fried potato and cheese dumplings. They were about the size of a fist and wrapped in won ton dough, then deep fried. OMG, they were to die for!! The ice cream wasn't bad either. She was very friendly and seemed to appreciate our business. We sat on a bench out front and tried to juggle our food, then wandered off down the street following the few tourists we saw. Only one big bus tour wandered by us, so we avoided the big crowds today.
This area also has several preserved churches...a Russian Orthodox, for example...and other old buildings. It wasn't quite as fabulous and the guide books would have you believe, but it wasn't crowded and the area is pleasant enough for a stroll.
Bill needed to shop for supplies at a supermarket, so we went in to try to find him some deodorant. That is easier said than done when everything is in Japanese. Dave looked up the word for deodorant and asked a clerk. She understood him and took us directly to the room deodorizers. Oh well, nice try. We kept looking until Bill thought to look up brands on a "surviving Japan" website. He found what he wanted, but then we couldn't find it on the shelf. Dave finally got tired of futzing around and took the phone to show to the clerk and ask if they have anything listed there. She did understand him and took us to look for it, but to no avail.
We gave up and started walking back to the hotel. At the exit of the market they had stacks of the most enormous carrots we have ever seen. They were the size of an arm! One could feed an entire family.
We spied a 7-11 and went in to look for deodorant again and found it right away. So, a convenience store sells it but a full-service grocery/drug store doesn't? Go figure. We also picked up some snacks for the train ride tomorrow. 7-11 here has some wonderful snack foods!
The temperature today was very pleasant. It was probably 50 tops, but it wasn't windy so it was comfortable with just a jacket on. Yesterday we needed gloves and fourteen layers of sweaters under a jacket.
Back at the hotel, we sat around until it was time to go out and find some dinner around 6:30 pm. We walked back to the warehouse area along totally deserted streets. We only saw a handful of people all night. There is a "fancy" restaurant we saw previously that we wanted to try rather than more greasy fried food, so that's where we went. There were two people just finishing up when we arrived and no one else came in after us.
We each ordered pumpkin cream soup that was very watery, but otherwise tasted OK. Dave had the Hokkaido Beef dish and Bill had a Beef Stew. The portions were very small, but the meat was outstanding. With one drink each the total came to •6900, which seems outlandish, but this kind of meal at a fancy place at home would have cost well over $100. The minute we stepped outside they turned off the lights and closed...at 7:30 pm. We almost stopped at 7-11 on the way back to the hotel for more food, but we restrained ourselves.
A tour bus load of Chinese tourists arrived just as we did and were clogging up the lobby. They're staying in the old section of the hotel though, so it shouldn't impact us at all. But, that's what this hotel is surviving on, not individuals. There's nothing wrong with that and we haven't been bothered by it, but the point is that this isn't an intimate boutique hotel.
Day 16: Monday, April 14 - Train to Hirosaki - Best Western Hotel Newcity Hirosaki
During the Edo Period, Hirosaki was the
political and cultural capital of the Tsugaru Region, the western section of
present day Aomori Prefecture. The city remains one of the culturally richest
cities in the northern Tohoku Region.
It is another beautiful day here in Hakodate. Clear skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 40's.
We're up early for no reason except we went to bed early last night. The breakfast buffet wasn't as busy this morning, so it was quiet in the restaurant. It wasn't bad yesterday, but today is more as it has been elsewhere. The food is the same every day, but there is a huge selection. If you are into the squid entrails and such, you'll have even more to choose from. The beef chef gave Dave a double portion this morning. He must have looked hungry or something.
We'll check out around 10:30 am to give us plenty of time to haul our stuff to the correct train, then we'll park ourselves for the two-hour-plus ride through the undersea tunnel back to Aomori at the northern tip of the island of Honshu and then onward to Hirosaki. Both train rides are in reserved seat green cars (first class), so we expect they will be fairly comfortable.
Our final thoughts on Hakodate: The town has a more industrial/port feeling than the guide books led us to believe. It isn't the cute little town we expected. One night to see the night view would have been plenty. We don't mind that we stayed the extra day since we found plenty to do, but this isn't a destination anyone should go out of their way to visit. Most people stop here just to break up the long train ride and for that it is fine. The people are friendly and helpful as they have been all over Hokkaido. A new shinkansen line is expected to open between Aomori and Hakodate in 2015, so there will probably be an upswing in tourism after that.
Our final thoughts on the Hakodate Kokusai Hotel: Overall, it is a good value and the service is great. The issue is with the rooms. They desperately need an overhaul. At the very least the carpets need to be cleaned and the furniture replaced. Other than that, it was clean and we slept well, so we got what we paid for. The breakfast is fantastic. Would we choose this hotel again? Maybe. The price was a bargain for sure and we were comfortable enough. But, there is a very nice, new hotel up the street (La Vista) that we'd probably choose next time.
We arrived at the train station at 11:30 am, so we have about an hour to wait. The station is nice and modern with a few shops inside. We stood in the lobby for a while, then noticed that our train is already sitting at the platform. We might as well go sit on the train rather than stand in the station, so that's what we did. We were the first people on, so we had no problem stashing our luggage. The green car is only half of a regular car with the difference being more leg room and carpets on the floor rather than vinyl.
There were only three other people in the car with us. Unfortunately, two of them sat across from us and never shut up the entire time. Old men sure can talk incessantly! Of course, it was too warm in the train, but what else is new. An attendant pushed a cart selling snacks and drinks down the aisle after every stop.
We expected the part in the tunnel to be longer than it actually is. It is probably less than a fourth of the total time on the train. The time went by much faster in the green car section than the last train we were on for two hours. There is also some nice rural scenery to look at along the route backed by dramatic snow-capped mountains. We saw a lot of new construction for the shinkansen line that will connect Honshu with Hokkaido eventually. It looks like the heavy construction has been completed and they are putting the final touches on new stations.
The train arrived at Aomori station where we have to change trains for Hirosaki. Dave planned this well because all we had to do is get off the train and walk across the platform directly onto our next train. Same arrangement with the green car with just a handful of people in it. A conductor came to apologize that there won't be a drink cart on this train, so if we want anything run back and get it from the train we just left.
Dave is really into pissing off Japanese people this trip. He banged his luggage against the engineer's door while stowing it and caused him come out to see what was going on. Luckily he was amused and not annoyed. Americans are so silly you know.
This part of the trip was only 30 minutes, but we had to get ready with our luggage and stand by the door ready to hop off. Unless the stop is at a terminal you have less than a minute to get the heck off the train. You snooze, you lose.
We're not sure what the deal is with giant apples in Hirosaki, but there are tributes to them all over the place including an enormous statue of one in the train station lobby. We could see the Best Western from the train station, so walking there was very simple. It is just outside the door to the left. There is a bus terminal out front and a line of taxis. Why, we're not sure. There isn't anywhere to go in this town. We're only here to break up the train trips, although we will go explore a few minor attractions tomorrow.
The Best Western Newcity Hotel is nice. The woman at the front desk made a big effort to speak English. She asked if we want Best Western points or miles, gave us 5% off coupons for the restaurants in the hotel, coupons for a free welcome drink in the cafe, and our tickets for breakfast. Breakfast is included for everyone. The rates here are quite a bargain already, around $150.
The absolutely most ghastly wedding dress is on display in the lobby. It is avocado green with glittery sparkles all over it. And this is the one the shop is using to attract business? Oh-my-God!
Our room is small, but attractively decorated and has everything we need. There is a refrigerator in the desk, a flat screen TV with separate surround sound speakers, an air purifier, a weird pink humidifier that looks like a toilet seat, two full-sized beds and a picture-perfect view of Mt. Iwate that looks like a painting on the wall. Luckily, the window opens because, as usual, the air conditioning isn't turned on. What the hell? The best part of the room is the bathroom, which is attractive, but made for exhibitionists. There is a huge picture window into the room, so if you so choose you can be on display the entire time you are in there. Yes, there is a shade, but still, who finds this acceptable?
It was 2:10 pm when we arrived at the station, so we need to go in search of lunch. There is a three story mall attached to the hotel, which should be a good thing. It would be except the third floor is closed off and empty. The basement floor has one hair salon and a bunch of empty stores. The main floor has the hideous wedding boutique and a couple of souvenir shops. No luck in the food department here. The cafe in the hotel looks nice, but it only serves desserts (that do look delicious), so that's a no-go, too.
Every train station has food options, doesn't it? There is a shopping center of sorts attached to it, so there is some hope. The ground floor has a convenience store, a Mister Donut, and a cosmetics/drug store. The next two floors are cheap clothing and a •100 store. The fourth floor is empty. We've finally found a city in Japan with a depressed economy. Nothing is run down though. Even the empty mall attached to the hotel is properly maintained, but what the heck?
We ended up buying some prepared sandwiches, fried dumplings, salads and small desserts from the convenience store for •1500. We took the food back to the room to eat. We'll probably have to go to the hotel's restaurant for dinner since we didn't see anything at all near the hotel. At least we can use the discount coupons we received at check-in.
We went to the hotel's restaurant around 7:00 pm. Nobody there spoke English, but a head waiter/manager pointed at a sign board in Japanese to ask if we want the dining room or teppan. We indicated dining, so he showed us menus with the tiniest print in the universe. Apparently, we have to choose a set meal from a choice of two before we even sit down. One was •3190 and the other was •6190. We chose the less expensive option. All we know is that we get soup, an appetizer, a choice of entree (fish or beef), dessert and coffee or tea. There is no choice or indication of what any of these dishes consist of. There was a larger menu in his hand also, but we never were given an opportunity to look at it.
He seated us in a private room, probably to avoid being embarrassed by no one speaking English. We understood just fine what was going on, but the staff was obviously intimidated. A very timid young waitress came to ask what we want to drink. Dave already told Bill how to ask for red wine in Japanese, which he did and was understood. Dave asked for water and was understood. She seemed very relieved that we didn't make her speak English.
Silverware arrived with great flourish in a variety worthy of a cruise ship dining room. Remember folks, we are at a Best Western, not the Ritz Carlton. A variety of breads arrived that were very good. The soup course came, but we never could figure out what the flavor is. It had a foam topping on it that looked nice, but didn't taste like anything at all. The soup was a puree of something, but the flavor was so slight we couldn't ever get a handle on what it is. It was almost good, but needed seasoning of some sort.
Next was an appetizer in a crystal bowl that was beautiful, but again, very little flavor. There were a couple pieces of sashimi, a small roll of what tasted like tuna salad, a piece of grapefruit, and a sprig of lettuce. It looked as fancy as anything you'd get at the trendiest restaurant in the U.S. But, again, it didn't have much flavor.
The beef entree came next. There was a piece of filet that was very good, a small mushroom filled egg roll that had no flavor at all, and a tiny green square of maybe pea puree. Again, hard to tell because it didn't taste like much of anything. All of it looked beautiful, but a little salt wouldn't have hurt any of it.
Dessert came next and was a small piece of apple pie, we think, and a small scoop of ice cream. It was OK, but nothing special. Again, it could have been much better with some spices added to it. As it was, it was just OK. The waitress came back and asked in English if we want coffee or tea. Dave answered her in Japanese and she was very relieved. She also brought little meringue balls that were as expected, bites of air.
Overall, everything looked nice and was of high quality, but nothing stood out as special. Most of the food tasted like nothing at all, which is a shame considering the presentation. We couldn't get anyone's attention to bring us a check, so we finally gave up and just went up to the cashier. Our check was up there, but nobody ever gave it to us. Another couple also left without a check because it never came. In Japan, you do usually have to ask for the check, but how do you do that when you can't see anyone? The total, with the 5% discount coupon, was •7900. It was a better value overall than the dinner we had last night at the fancy restaurant in Hakodate, but we wouldn't eat here again.
We went down to the front desk to ask what we are supposed to do with our laundry. They told us to bring it down to them before 10:00 am. Well, sort of, we basically blurted out words until they said, "Yes," to one of them. Yes, we know we are WAY off the tourist track here, so none of this is surprising. We're just reporting what we experience. Everyone is very nice, no problem in that regard.
The streets around the hotel are surprisingly noisy. There is a big arcade across the street, but that doesn't appear to be where the noise is coming from. Maybe people are just more boisterous here? It isn't crowded on the street, but there are a few people walking around. It does look as though there might be some restaurants a block or so down the street the hotel is on, so we'll have to scout it out during the day tomorrow. There definitely isn't anything in the building where the hotel is that is worth going to. Hopefully the included breakfast will be fairly decent.
We do like the room. The beds are the most comfortable we have had so far, so the hotel must be meeting Best Western's standard rather than normal Japanese bedding. The carpet is even clean, which is a miracle, and there are no stains on the upholstered furniture. If the air conditioning worked we'd really be onto something here.
Day 17: Tuesday, April 15 - Hirosaki - Best Western Hotel Newcity Hirosaki
It's in the low 50's today, mostly sunny, and breezy. Perfect for walking around.
On the way to breakfast we dropped off our laundry at the front desk. The desk clerk had to adjust all of the prices on the printed form because Japan's sales taxes went up recently, but otherwise it was easy to do.
We went to the included hotel breakfast at 8:00 am and were surprised to find that it is as extensive as the one at the previous places where we paid a higher rate to have it included. This hotel is already a bargain, so a breakfast spread like this is icing on the cake. What this hotel is doing in a town like this is anyone's guess. It is far and away the best place to stay in this city, hands down. Check out our breakfast trays: Dave, Bill.
After breakfast we took our time getting our act together to go out. There is only one tourist area here, which is Hirosaki Park, the location of the remains of Hirosaki Castle. At one end is the Tourist Information Center where there are a few examples of the huge illuminated floats from the annual Neputa Festival. At the opposite corner is Neputa Mura where there is a larger display.
Dave asked in Japanese at the front desk for a map in English. After the clerk picked herself up off of the floor, she was happy to get a map for us. There is a new, glittery pink wedding dress on display for our perusal today.
We went to the line of taxis in front of the station and showed the first one the map and asked to be taken to the park. The map looks perfectly clear to us, but the driver didn't quite understand where we wanted to go at first. Dave pointed at the spot on the map and said, in Japanese, "Please take us here." Oh well, we did get there. There is supposedly a •100 per ride tourist loop bus, but we never saw it. We'd rather spring for a •1000 taxi ride anyway.
We were dropped off outside of the Otemon Gate to the castle grounds. That is where we asked to go, but we walked across the street to the Tourist Center first. We already have a map, but there are a couple of the huge Neputa floats inside and a nice shop. We bought a couple of trinkets so we don't have to think about it later, then walked back to the park. There is, of course, a cutesy character to represent the town. In this case it is a hawk, or maybe an eagle, dressed in a warrior outfit. There is a granite statue out front and you can buy any manner of representation in the gift shop.
The cherry blossom season starts in a couple of weeks, so workers are all over the park busily erecting lanterns along out perimeter outside and all over the park itself. They each advertise a sponsor of the festival, but when they are lit at night it must be beautiful. There are over 2,600 cherry trees in the park. Other contractors are working to restore the red lacquer bridges that cross the inner moat.
The castle itself no longer exists, but several gates and the castle tower are original or were rebuilt after fires in the early 1800's. There is no charge for the majority of the park, but the inner section where the tower is located charges •310 per person. We were given English maps when we bought tickets. The tower houses a small museum with armor and similar items on display. There are no English explanations though. We had to climb some very steep stairs that are more like ladders, but it is fairly easy to do. There are beautiful views of the mountain from the top floor.
We wandered around the grounds looking at the scenery, which is serenely beautiful. There is one other original building built in 1911, Butokuden Rest House, that was originally a martial arts training school. Today it houses a restaurant and shop. There are some stone foundations of a couple other towers, plus one that remains but is off limits to visitors.
There is also a botanical garden on the grounds, but we skipped it because nothing is sprouting yet and there is an admission charge.
On the way out through another old gate, we passed row upon row of food booths, games and shops being readied for the upcoming cherry blossom festival. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to attend.
Just outside the north gate and across the street is an old merchant house that is open to the public. You can do a Google Maps Streetview tour through it, which is what we did before arriving. It'll save you the admission to the small museum.
We walked along the street that skirts the park to the Tsugaru-han Neputa Village. There is a grocery store we were hoping would have the giant carrots we saw the other day. They did have some big ones, but they weren't nearly as impressive, so we'll keep looking. They did have huge apples (we found out that Hirosaki is "The Apple City") for just •100 each. Every shop sells something made of apples including an interesting boxed something or other.
In one shop a guy was making some sort of cookie with metal presses over a fire. The owner offered us samples that we liked, so we bought a package made with cashews. The cookies aren't sweet, so they are more like a snack than a dessert.
At the back of the small shopping village is a museum housing a display of more Neputa Festival floats. We're not sure of the proper name because all of the brochures and signs are in Japanese. The ticket seller did manage to tell us there would be a demonstration of music at 1:00 pm, but that's all we knew when we went in.
The first room we came to houses a gigantic float that is so big it doesn't fit in the streets anymore. A guy asked us to sit down while another man demonstrated the drums and flutes they play during the parades. When he finished he asked if anyone (of the 4 people there) wanted to come up and try, but everyone declined. Even though we saw the entire demonstration, he asked at the end if we understand Japanese. Dave said, "A little," so he said to wait a minute and came back with a script in English so he could read the entire spiel to us. He did a good job and we understood everything. They went through the whole drum playing bit all over again. He was very pleased when Dave complimented him on his English skills.
The gist of this festival is that local neighborhoods get together and make the lighted floats and lanterns. All of them are hand painted on paper over wood or wire frames. The artwork is very detailed. The huge floats are pulled along by hundreds of people while drums beat and flutes are played. There is a video of the parade and it is very impressive. We were told that there are over 80 parades during the festival period in August.
A ramp leads upstairs past several smaller lanterns and some other displays, then back down through a workshop where local craftsmen demonstrate woodcarving, lantern painting, embroidery and such. Of course, you can buy what they are making, but there is no pressure to do so. At the end of the self-guided tour there is a small garden that leads out to a large souvenir shop and back outside.
It is lunchtime and there is a small family-operated restaurant in the village, so we went in to see what we could get. No English is spoken, but we pointed to a couple of set meals on the menu and hoped for the best. From the photos we could have been pointing at fried fish entrails for all we knew. But, we ended up with the typical ground beef steak and tonkatsu. Both meals came with miso soup, rice, Japanese pickles and an apple salad. All of the food was very good. At one point a young man came out of the kitchen and showed us the phrase, "You can change it," on his cellphone while pointing at the rice. Maybe most Americans don't want rice or something, but we told him we like it and it is fine. The total bill for all of this food was only •1910.
We are quite a novelty in this non-tourist town. Everyone is taken aback by us, although they are very nice to us. We only saw a handful of tourists of any nationality all day. There were only six people in the float museum and a few local businessmen in the restaurant. There are, of course, 800 taxis waiting at every possible location for customers. We walked back to the closest taxi rank and asked to be taken back to the train station.
With few prospects for dinner tonight, we decided to walk around a few blocks to see what we can find for later. Answer, not much. An Indian man was standing outside of his curry restaurant who seemed very nice (and spoke English), but we're not sure curry is the best meal to have before a three hour train ride, so we'll pass on that.
We kept walking to what looked like a department store. This place looks more like a high rise discount mall than anything (it says "7-Eleven Holdings" all over it), but we did find some restaurants on the top floor, as usual. Nothing fancy like in a big city, but certainly edible. Whether they are open for dinner is anyone's guess. Walking in the other direction from the hotel we found a few places on the street that didn't look very appealing. There is a nicer department store/mall/whatever on this street, but the two upper floors are vacant. The only food is in a fast food court, so that's out. We'll probably end up back at the discount mall or the nearest 7-11.
We arrived back at the hotel around 3:00 pm. Shortly thereafter a rainstorm rolled in and it poured for a couple of hours. That was a perfect excuse for us to take a nap. Our clean laundry was delivered at 5:00 pm looking like a set of brand new clothes all sealed in plastic.
The rain stopped by the time we walked back to the discount mall for dinner. We went to the place with the biggest plastic food display and were the only customers in the place. Dave ordered the hamburger/fried shrimp set, Bill ordered the tempura set. The food was delicious! It is the usual Japanese comfort food we've found everywhere, but there was something extra good about this meal. The real reason we chose this place is for the cute little desserts they advertise in the window. Dave ordered one with berries and fruit, Bill had one with fruit centered around sweet bean paste and drizzled with caramel. OMG! Perfection in a bowl. This whole meal added up to •4100 and was four times more food and 100 times more tasty than the fancy meal last night at the hotel.
There must have been at least fifteen taxis lined up outside of the mall waiting for customers. If there were that many customers in the eight floors of that place, we'd be very surprised. It was dead. We walked back to the hotel, so the taxi drivers are still waiting.
Day 18: Wednesday, April 16 - Shinkansen to Kakunodate - Folkloro Kakunodate Hotel
Kakunodate is a former castle town and
samurai stronghold in today's Akita Prefecture. While Kakunodate Castle no
longer remains, the town is famous for its samurai tradition and its hundreds of
weeping cherry trees (shidarezakura).
Apart from the loss of its castle, Kakunodate remains remarkably unchanged since
its founding in 1620. The town was built with two distinct areas, the samurai
district and the merchant district. Once home to 80 families, the samurai
district still has some of the best examples of samurai architecture in all of
Kakunodate is also well known as the location of one of the Tohoku Region's most
popular cherry blossom spots. Around late April and early May, large crowds of
people come to see Kakunodate's special combination of pink blossoms and
It is bright, sunny and windy this morning. Temperature is in the high 40's expected to get into the low 50's this afternoon.
We're up early again because we went to bed early and we have to catch a train. Breakfast at the hotel was again very good and certainly better than any included breakfast at any Best Western in the U.S. This hotel would probably be a Best Western Premier at home. Bill had so much food in front of him that the waitress thought a third person had joined us. He lined up the food on a table for six and switched seats to get to the next set of plates.
Today is a make or break day for train schedules. If we miss either of our trains, our only alternative is to go back to Aomori and start all over again, requiring a change of four trains. We've done well so far, so let's hope that trend continues.
Our final thoughts on the Best Western Newcity Hirosaki: It is very nice. The room is small, but very well laid out with lots of thoughtful amenities. The price sure can't be beat especially with the fabulous buffet breakfast included. The bathroom is like a cruise ship with a large step to get into it, but it is attractive and works well. We don't know why they put a picture window in the wall, but hey, maybe someone gets a charge out of that kind of thing. English support is very limited, but good enough to get the job done and the staff tries very hard to be helpful. We would definitely stay here again if we are passing through. The only alternatives are a Toyoko Inn and a Route Inn across the street, both of which are budget business hotels with microscopic rooms. They both look nice and would do in a pinch.
Our final thoughts on Hirosaki: This town is WAY off the tourist track to put it mildly. Almost nobody speaks English, although we had no problems communicating. Signs pointing to tourist spots are in English. The castle park and the Neputa museum are the only real attractions unless you are here during cherry blossom season. There is a huge festival coming up soon for that purpose and they obviously go all out. From what we saw of the preparations, it is most definitely worth a look. However, we really don't see any reason to put this town on your itinerary other than as a break in a long train trip, which is what we did. We almost never book just one night in a town because we like a down day now and then, but one night is sufficient to see everything.
We checked out around 9:45 am and had plenty of time to get to the right platform to wait for our first train at 10:26 am. It is the same type of express train we arrived on, so the green car is very nice. Since this is just a stop for this train, there is no dawdling to board. Jump on the minute the door opens or miss it. We talked to a nice German man on the platform who is the only non-Japanese person we have seen in a week.
There were only three people in the green car, so we had no problem finding space for our luggage right behind our seats. The ride to Akita takes a little over two hours. Hell froze over and it wasn't hot on the train! In fact, the air conditioning kicked on at one point. So, we were comfortable the entire time. Everyone has this impression of Japan as over crowded with wall to wall cities, but all we passed for two hours were farms and small villages. We didn't see any sign of city life until we reached the outskirts of Akita.
By the way, the station at Hirosaki is the first one where the electronic signs didn't switch to English and all of the signs indicating where to stand for each train are only in Japanese. We found our train by comparing the time on our ticket to the sign and then matching up the Japanese on the electronic sign with the placard for the correct door. It wasn't a problem, but be prepared for this if you go off the tourist track. If we couldn't have figured it out, we had plenty of time to ask someone.
We arrived at the Akita terminal with about 30 minutes to transfer to the Akita Shinkansen for the rest of today's journey. That part was easy to do. Just walk about fifty feet and take an elevator down to the platform. A kindly ticket taker pointed us to the elevator because the escalator only goes up.
It is very easy to board and disembark trains at their terminal because there is plenty of time. We recommend arriving early in this case so you don't inconvenience anyone else with luggage and finding a place to stow it onboard. Our shinkansen train arrived about twenty minutes before departure and we were the only people waiting to board. Even so, there were only two other people in the green car, so there was never any sort of rush.
This is the flashiest shinkansen we've ever ridden. It looks brand new. The green car even has that new car smell. The seats are leather. The whole thing looks very futuristic. We were given slippers to wear on the train, but since we're only going to Kakunodate (the train ends up in Tokyo), we didn't wear them. A stewardess offered free coffee or tea, as well, plus the usual cart selling snacks and bottled drinks.
The first two-thirds of the ride was backwards. We felt like we slipped into some sort of time warp and were rewinding back to where we started. The electronic sign in the car said that we would change direction at the first stop, but we could flip our seats around if we want to. Nobody did that, so neither did we. As it turned out, the first station was 25 minutes away, so we only rode forward for about ten minutes. We never did figure out how the direction change worked. It seemed like we just went back the same way we came and stopped at Kakunodate.
We had to jump off quickly, so we gathered our stuff and went to the door the moment the stop was announced. That gives you about three minutes to get it together. These intermediary stops are very short.
Once off the train it was easy to walk through the station without any stairs or other obstacles for our luggage. The Folkloro hotel is just to the left of the train station (it is run by JR East), so it couldn't be more convenient. There is only one other decent hotel in town and it is very expensive. We chose to save some money and stay at the Folkloro.
JR's hotel website specifically says there is no English spoken here, which is fine with us. However, the man at the front desk was EXTREMELY respectful and seemed overjoyed to see us. He spoke enough English to tell us what we needed to know. At first he said we were too early to check in and that we could leave our luggage. He went away for a few minutes, we thought to get a cart or something, but came back to tell us we could check in now after all. He and another man fawned over us all the way down the hall to our room. Breakfast is included in the rates here, which is already very inexpensive.
We weren't expecting much considering the price, but the room is actually very nice and recently redone. We wouldn't have chosen dusty rose carpet in this day and age, but it is spotless, as are the two sofas. The draperies look brand new, too. The room is small, but clean and modern. The bathroom is again like a cruise ship with a huge step up into it, but it looks new, also. The air conditioning isn't turned on, no big surprise there, but the window opens. The train tracks are right outside, but the trains are so quiet they aren't at all disturbing. As usual, we have two twin beds, a sitting area with a loveseat and a full-size sofa bed, a refrigerator, air purifier/humidifier, a new LCD TV, and tea making equipment.
After cleaning up and sort of collecting our thoughts, we went out in search of the tourist information center and some lunch. We arrived just before 2:00 pm. We easily found the tourist center at the opposite end of the station in a building resembling an old warehouse. The staff there spoke English and gave us a map of the town. Then she gave us discount coupons for the two Samurai houses that charge admission and marked them on our map. Dave asked for restaurant recommendations, so she went to get some brochures and marked them on the map, too. Everyone seems appalled to see Americans even though this is a popular tourist town. Maybe Americans never go north of Tokyo or something.
All of the shops near the station are either out of business or closed for the season. We can't tell which, but there isn't anything close by. We decided to walk up the main street to find one of the restaurants recommended for dinner so we don't have to find it at after dark. The street leading from the station isn't anything to look at. There are shops aimed at locals and many derelict or closed businesses. It was hard to tell what is open and what isn't. It isn't derelict in a skid row kind of way, but it is old and ramshackle. The few people we encountered were very pleasant. We love how all Japanese towns have their own special manhole cover design.
After finding one of the restaurants, we walked back to the station to buy something for lunch at the attached convenience store. We ended up with a couple of packaged sandwiches and two bottled drinks for less than •700. We collected our key from the front desk amid much bowing from the man helping us (you have to turn in the key when you leave the premises), and retired to our room. Bill promptly crashed and fell asleep after eating lunch.
Around 6:30 pm we decided to walk to the nearest restaurant. Talk about rolling up the sidewalks! Nothing was open, including restaurants. So, back to the hotel we went. They have a small restaurant off the lobby, so at least we can get something.
The waitress brought English menus to us the minute we sat down. We both ordered a specialty of the area which is pieces of chicken cooked with eggs over a bowl of rice. The meal came with a salad, miso soup, pickles and a weird tofu square. Japanese people don't like chicken breast meat, so chicken is almost always dark meat with the skin and all. The meal was filling and edible, so we're happy. The meal sets were •1500 each, so a good deal for what we got. Afterward we walked to the convenience store in the station and picked up a brownie for Bill and some fruit for Dave, plus two bottled drinks, for less than •500.
We're surprised how quiet the trains are. We have had the window open since we arrived. The tracks are less than 50 feet from our window and the most we hear is a whooshing sound. The trains stop running at midnight anyway, so even if they were noisier it wouldn't be a problem. With the window closed we can't hear anything at all.
Day 19: Thursday, April 17 - Kakunodate - Folkloro Kakunodate Hotel
It is bright and sunny again, in the low 50's.
The free breakfast at the hotel was better than we expected based on reviews. It was equivalent to what you'd get at a cheap hotel in the U.S. with the addition of a bunch of unrecognizable Japanese items. Bill braved a little cup of something that turned out to be some sort of little brown bean with a very sticky coating. It stretched several feet and was almost impossible to break. We both tasted it, but didn't actually eat it. It sort of tasted like coffee. It wasn't repulsive, but we still don't know what it is. The "regular" food was scrambled eggs, sausage, steamed broccoli, potato salad (this is always on breakfast buffets), canned fruit, salad, yogurt, rolls and juices. Plenty to get started. If you add some of the fish and rice from the Japanese section, there's quite a lot to eat. Of course, miso soup is also available. The woman working there was very friendly and pleasant to everyone.
Click to view a map of Kakunodate. We'll walk the suggested route to the Samurai District today. That's the big (only?) draw in this town. There is also a long cherry blossom tunnel by the river, but we're too early for that. We'll go check it out anyway. We haven't seen any blossoms so far, but the trees appear to be ready to burst out in blossoms at any moment. The man we talked to yesterday said the trees are already blooming in Tokyo, so we'll probably see some eventually.
We're surprised that Kakunodate is so non-touristy considering that it is a shinkansen stop. The main street from the station is actually kind of dumpy and there is nothing in the vicinity of the station, except the tourist information center, at all aimed at tourists. There are plenty of taxis available and a flyer advises that they will take you on a guided tour if you ask. We assume that there are more shops and restaurants open once the cherry blossoms are out, but there's not much here at the moment. There are signposts throughout town in English that point to various sites (both of them), so the town is trying to appeal to tourists as much as they can.
OK, we found out why Kakunodate isn't very tourist oriented, but we'll come to that later. We started off walking from the hotel toward the Samurai district at 10:30 am. We had already walked the length of the main street last night looking for restaurants. We turned right at the T intersection and kept walking. The streetscape doesn't get any better along here and there still aren't any restaurants or shops worth looking at.
We might have mentioned earlier that there are only three hotels in this town. Not anymore...one of them, a big concrete monstrosity near the historic district, is in the process of being demolished. Good riddance! That leaves the Folkloro with its 20-something rooms and a very expensive faux-Samurai hotel with less than that. We walked by the latter and it looks nice enough, but we prefer the hotel where we are.
After about fifteen minutes we arrived at the historic district and the Samurai street. It is probably very atmospheric when the weeping cherry trees are blooming. It looks fine now with the black fences and mysterious gates leading to wooden houses. The first one we came to had all of the sliding doors open so visitors can see the beautifully painted interior screens and doors. There is no charge for most of the houses. Only two of the bigger ones charge a small fee. Some of the houses are quite elaborate with delicate wood carvings over the doors and such. A couple of them have thatched roofs.
The largest house is a compound of several structures including a white plaster storehouse, two story main house, and several outbuildings. This is one that charges admission, so we only looked at the outside. Not to sound jaded, although we are, but once you have seen one of these houses you have pretty much seen them all. One nice thing about being here in the way off season is that there is almost no one around. We only saw one Japanese tour group and just a handful of other people wandering around.
There are rickshaw rides available that were popular with Japanese tourists. Several old houses have been converted into shops and tiny restaurants. We found some very nice small items to buy. A major craft here is items made out of mountain cherry bark that is pressed and lacquered into trays, bowls, jewelry and canisters. We bought a pendant necklace to make into a Christmas ornament. The prices for the smaller items are very reasonable. The large items are a few hundred dollars, but certainly well worth that.
Another big draw here, in season, is a miles long tunnel of cherry blossoms along the river. We know the blossoms aren't out yet, but we have plenty of time to kill, so we turned down a side street toward the river. There were several small shops with extremely friendly vendors pushing their wares. The first one literally ran out into the street to give us samples. She was selling different flavors of miso paste she fed us on crackers. Two of them were so delicious we bought some. She was so grateful you'd have thought we spent hundreds of dollars, but it was only •800 total. She was so excited to meet us that Dave gave her a California pin that delighted her. She tossed in some packages of crackers in case we can't resist and have to eat it right away.
A woman at the next shop ran out to give us samples of sesame candy. It was also delicious, so we had to buy two bags of that, also. The two women there were very happy to see Americans. The one who was inside had to run out and shake our hand. We do appear to be quite a novelty here judging by the reaction of people on the street when they see us. Everyone makes an effort to try to speak English, too.
The next shop had the owner standing out front with samples of his sake. He forced us to try three different samples. Dave isn't a big drinker, but he kept going when Bill started turning it down. The first one he sampled was especially tasty, but hauling a bottle around with us isn't going to happen, so we didn't buy anything. The shopkeeper didn't seem to mind and was happy to keep giving us samples, but Dave's face was getting numb.
At the river we found another line of festival booths being set up. By the looks of the trees we'd say it will all be happening in a couple of weeks or maybe sooner. We only saw one tree in a yard that is showing buds that might open sooner than that. It is still quite chilly and there are a few piles of snow remaining in shady areas.
We would imagine that the tunnel of cherry trees in bloom is a sight to behold. They have strung lights along the entire walk, which is a couple of miles long, so it will make the blossoms glow at night. The river is picturesque as it is, but in a few weeks there will be thousands of people here walking around and admiring the trees.
Well, that pretty much wraps up every possible site to see in Kakunodate. We thoroughly consulted our map to be sure we hadn't missed anything. The time? 12:30 pm! And that is after we wandered the streets in case there are any restaurants along the back alleys. We found three in the middle of a touristy street, but that's all. And, they all offer the same menu available at the hotel for twice the price. Oh well, nice try. OK, OK, there is a shrine somewhere around here, but it isn't anything major. We even considered getting on the tourist bus and just seeing where we'd end up, but the rules for using it were, "Too hard," as Bill exclaimed after reading the brochure.
Wasn't that exciting? We stopped at the convenience store in the station to buy some sandwiches for lunch and went back to our room to crash. We also checked out the souvenir store next door selling the exact same items we saw earlier for double the price.
The woman at the hotel's front desk immediately handed us our key without being asked. The staff here seems to find us intensely interesting for some reason. We thought the man at the front desk this morning was going to hit his head on the desk he bowed so deeply. We do appreciate the fact that they are happy to see us and they certainly couldn't be any nicer to us. Our room had been cleaned while we were out, so all that is left to do is nap and wait for dinner time. Yawn.
A train blew its horn right outside of our window and scared the crap out of us, but nothing else happened all afternoon.
We went to the hotel's restaurant for dinner at 7:00 pm. That means we had to walk all of fifty feet from our room to the lobby. Bill ordered a Fried Seafood Set and Dave had an Udon Tempura Sashimi Set. Our meals were delicious! Dave had sakura (cherry) ice cream for dessert, Bill had "cake" that was white cake with a strawberry topping. The total for all of this including a glass of beer was about •5000. Our waitress was a total sweetheart. People here are just so nice!
An interesting note is that whenever you order iced tea in a restaurant, they provide you with a little cup of sugar syrup rather than granules that wouldn't dissolve as easily. Yep, they Japanese have officially thought of everything!
Day 20: Friday, April 18 - Shinkansen & Train to Hiraizumi - Hiraizumi Hotel Musashibou
During the Heian Period, the Fujiwara were
the most powerful clan in Japan. In 1105, Hiraizumi was chosen as the seat of
the "Northern branch" of the Fujiwara family. The city steadily grew in cultural
sophistication and political power, so that it even came to rival Kyoto, the
The weather is the same as usual, high 40's to low 50's, partly sunny.
We were up early and finished with breakfast by 8:00 am. There weren't quite as many choices on the buffet this morning and several bowls were empty, but we found enough to get us started without resorting to squid entrails and natto. The waitress ran over with forks, but we assured her we are fine with chopsticks.
It dawned on Dave that our train arrangements seem a bit complicated for today, so he went back to the drawing board (or computer as the case may be) and researched it further. We are keeping our reservation on the shinkansen from here to Morioka. Instead of changing to a local train at Morioka that makes 400 stops before reaching Hiraizumi, we will transfer to another shinkansen and go to Ichinoseki. Then we only have to ride a local train for eight minutes back up to Hiraizumi. Each shinkansen ride is about fifty minutes.
So, after breakfast we walked next door to the train station and reserved the new seats. At first the agent gave us regular seats, but when we pointed out that we have green car passes he immediately changed them and apologized for the error. We had no problem communicating with him in English, but we do advise writing down the exact train you want ahead of time, which is what we did. The ticket agents at train stations are always very patient and accommodating, so there is no need to be at all intimidated if you have to deal with them.
Our first train departs at 10:54 this morning, so we will check out around 10:30 am.
Our final thoughts on the Folkloro Hotel: It is a cute, small hotel that has a mom and pop feeling to it. It is owned by JR-East, but it really does feel like a small town hotel. The staff is extremely respectful and goes out of their way to be helpful. English is very limited, but we knew that going into it. It was never a problem. The free breakfast is sufficient. Dinner is very good and reasonably priced. Service is always friendly and efficient. The rooms are small, but newly renovated with all the usual amenities. We would definitely recommend this hotel, although there is only one other choice in this city. Be sure to book a "Family" room to get the sitting area...the price is the same for either type of room, which in our case was only $135 per night including breakfast. The free wireless internet is very fast and always worked.
Our final thoughts on Kakunodate: It is way overrated in the guide books. This is a half-day stopover at the most. There isn't anything here except the Samurai neighborhood, which is interesting, but not a must see. There are only a handful of shops of interest to tourists, no restaurants of note, and the town itself is depressed and ramshackle. We don't mean to paint an overly unpleasant picture of this place, but we want to be realistic. The locals are all very pleasant and readily spoke to us. We would recommend taking an early shinkansen, get off here for a few hours, and catch a later one onward to somewhere else for the night. There are lockers at the station where you can store your luggage while seeing the sites. At the most, arrive in the early afternoon, walk the Samurai neighborhood, stay the night at the Folkloro Hotel by the station and leave the next morning. Even in cherry blossom season, a single day is more than enough time.
We waited in the lobby of the station for about 30 minutes, and then went out on the platform to find the place to stand for our car. All train platforms are marked either on the ground or overhead signs with exactly where to wait for the proper car. When our train arrived we jumped on because the stop here is very short. We kept our luggage with us because the ride is only 45 minutes and there is plenty of leg room. A stewardess brought wet towels (paper wrapped in plastic) and offered us a choice of free beverages. She came by later with a cart of snacks for purchase. There were no more than four people in our car at any given time. The rest of the train had more people in it, but it wasn't anywhere near full. All of the scenery along the way is farmland backed with snowy mountains, so there is something to look at most of the time.
At our transfer stop at Morioka, we readied ourselves to jump off the minute the train stopped. It turned out not to be necessary because it took three tries for the train to line up with the proper place on the platform. It must be standard procedure because the stewardess told us there would be three movements and that's what there was before the door opened.
Our next train is just across the platform, but the signs said, "Out of service," so we weren't quite sure where to wait. We found a spot that looked right and were fairly certain we were correct. Bill was looking bemused while looking at the electronic sign and a Japanese woman came over to help us. She went and asked a JR worker if it is the correct place (which it is). That certainly was nice of her to bother checking on us, but it happens all the time. Just look the slightest bit confused and someone will offer to help you.
The next train backed into the station in place of the one that was out of service. We didn't realize this is the terminal for it, but we are always happy when we board at terminals. There is no rush at all because we are always early. This time we found a place after the last row of seats to stuff our luggage before finding our seats. Again, there were no more than four people in the green car after any of the stops, although people changed at each of the four stops.
The Tohoku shinkansen is by far the fastest one we have ever traveled on. The others have been fast, but this one almost felt like our faces were going to stretch back. Really, it was that fast. It is on its own elevated concrete track, so maybe that has something to do with it, but it was a huge difference. The train itself is a slightly different style than the Akita trains, but just as nice and new.
Our ride to the next transfer is about 50 minutes, but only because this train travels so much faster. The distance traveled is quite a bit farther than the one we took from Kakunodate to Morioka. There were no towels or drinks offered on this train.
We disembarked at Ichinoseki to transfer to the local train we were originally supposed to take from Morioka to Hiraizumi. We are very happy Dave made the change to the shinkansen because it is way more comfortable and fun that a regular train. It was easy to transfer from the shinkansen to the local train, but we weren't sure where the correct platform is. Dave went to ask the ticket gate attendant and she pointed us in the right direction. These off the wall places don't have as much English signage, so it never hurts to check just to be sure.
When we found the right platform, there was a train already waiting, so we got on and sat down. The local trains have bench seating along the sides, so we have to keep our luggage in front of us. It isn't a problem if the train isn't full, which this one isn't. We had to wait about 20 minutes for the train to get moving, but it was still shorter than taking the local all the way from Morioka. Hiraizumi is only two stops and about eight minutes away, so it wasn't a big deal at all.
There are no English signs or announcements on trains geared to local commuters, so Dave had to pay attention to the Japanese announcements. He learned how to do that last time, so it isn't a problem. We arrived as scheduled at Hiraizumi where most of the people on the train disembarked as well.
Right from the start, this town looks a lot better than Kakunodate. The configuration is the same in front of the station, but it looks more Japanese rather than ramshackle. It simply looks more upscale all the way around. It isn't as big a city, but it looks much better. We walked out and got in a taxi. The driver had pink highlights in his hair to match the cherry blossoms, but other than that it was normal. It only cost •610 to get to the hotel.
On this side of the mountains, the cherry blossoms are already blooming. There is a big one in front of the hotel's front door that is covered with flowers. Someone came out to help us in with our baggage and usher us to the front desk.
We're not expecting much from this hotel because the guide book said that it is the only game in town, so get used to it. The lobby looks fine and there isn't any pink carpet...yet. It isn't a new hotel and it does show some wear and tear, but it isn't as bad as we anticipated. It doesn't reek of cigarettes either.
The woman at the front desk did her best to speak English and inform us that check in time is at 3:00 pm and they will take our luggage for us. We knew we were too early to check in (traditional Japanese hotels never allow early check in), so we are prepared with something to do to kill time. Dave asked for a map in English, which he got, and we headed up the road to the Cultural Center.
There is a tourist loop bus that circles around the various sites in town, but we're only going a short distance today. We are pleased to see that the bus stop is right in front of the hotel, so it is very convenient.
The Cultural Center is free of charge. We were greeted warmly and given English brochures. This isn't a huge museum, but it serves to explain what we'll be seeing here. Most of the temples and shrines burned down long ago, so you have to know what you are looking at to really understand this area. The gist of it is that someone decided to build a Buddhist Pure Land on Earth and that's what he did. Even through various upheavals and wars people knew it was so special that it was always protected. Eventually most of the buildings were lost to fire with the exception of the Golden Hall that has been inside of a protective building since the Samurai era. The museum is well done and explains the whole idea along with displaying some archeological finds from the area.
It was only 2:30 pm when we finished the museum, so we went across the street to Cafe Tomato for some lunch. We have no idea what they serve, but we figured it has to be something that will at least hold us over until dinner time. There is nothing at all in English and the woman working there didn't speak English. There were pictures on the menu, but only of oysters and some sashimi bowls. Dave asked in Japanese what the waitress would recommend and she pointed to the sashimi, so that's what we ordered. What we got far exceeded our expectations based on the •900 price. We received a set meal with miso soup, pickles, and a huge bowl of rice topped with three kinds of sashimi. It was very high quality and some of the best we have ever had. The rice had seaweed and something pink sprinkled in it that gave it a slightly sweet flavor. It couldn't have been any better. Of course, if you don't eat raw fish, you're screwed, but we liked it. Dave isn't a huge fan of sashimi, although he doesn't mind eating it when it is served, but even he liked it.
We walked back to the hotel past a brand new shrine and arrived right at 3:00 pm to find the front desk woman waiting for us. Our luggage had already been taken to our room. An English speaking man showed us to the room. That's a good thing because we never would have found it on our own. We had to take an elevator from the lobby to the second floor, and then walk along a corridor attached to an annex to take another elevator to the fourth floor. Somewhere at the end of the first corridor is the restaurant we go to for breakfast and dinner. We were shown a convoluted route to the public baths, but Dave said we don't want to scare the Japanese people by going there, which amused the attendant.
The corridors of the hotel show a lot of wear and lack of maintenance, but that seems typical of hotels that cater mostly to Japanese clientele. We are in a Japanese style tatami room here because the Western rooms don't have private baths. So, we have a very large tatami area where the beds will be set up while we are at dinner, and a seating alcove by the window. There is a vibrator on the table that totally creeps us out. God only knows where that thing has been! We moved it as far away as possible. There is air conditioning, but it isn't turned on, of course. The window opens and it is cold outside, so we'll be fine. The bathroom is old, but clean, and has a shower/bath combination room like we had at other hotels. It must be some sort of modular unit because it is exactly the same as we have seen before. The little booth with the toilet is fairly unpleasant, but we'll survive. The tatami mats looks brand new, but everything else is a bit worn. We have a nice view over the town. Oh, and the little foyer where we store our shoes has, you guessed it, pink carpet.
The hotel seems to have wireless internet, but we can't get it to connect, so we'll have to go back to using the 3g rental modem. We'll try to remember to ask at the front desk about the internet service. Every time we try to connect it says the router isn't set up and do we want to configure it. If we knew the password, we'd do that.
With nothing to do until our 6:30 pm dinner appointment, Bill gave up and napped on the floor. That's the main drawback of Japanese style rooms...there is nowhere to lay down for a nap during the day except the floor.
We went to dinner at our appointed time, 6:30 pm. Dinner is served in a regular restaurant with tables and chairs. Our dinner trays were already on our assigned table when we arrived, but a waitress brought a couple of other items and lit the fire under the shabu shabu and a rice dish. The waitress is an older woman who sounds like she smokes 20 packs a day, but she is very nice and made sure we understood all of the food and how to prepare it. We like her a lot and hope she's there tomorrow, too. A couple of other older waitresses checked on us also. We already know what all of the food is pretty much, but we let them explain it anyway since it seems to make them happy to take care of us.
The selection of food is similar to the other place we had set meals served to us except there aren't any entrails or anything weird we don't recognize. Even the jiggly goo was good with not an embryo or eyeball in sight. There wasn't anything at all revolting and most of it was quite good. The tempura was a bit of a letdown, but everything else made up for it. It only took 45 minutes to finish dinner because everything is on the table from the start.
There was one other non-Japanese couple in the dining room and they didn't look very happy. Why are they staying here if they don't want to play along? Nobody came to our house and forced us to book a room here.
Our room magically turned into a bedroom while we were at dinner. All of the lights were turned off and the sliding doors closed to make it cozy. We're relieved that the maid didn't turn up the heat like they usually do. She left a pot of water for us, too.
We are way too big for this place. If we can avoid cracking our head open in the middle of the night we'll be way ahead of the game!
We still can't get the internet to work and Bill wouldn't let Dave reset the router in the hallway, so we're back to our 3g modem for the duration of our stay.
Day 21: Saturday, April 19 - Hiraizumi - Hiraizumi Hotel Musashibou
It is clear and sunny again, in the low 50's. We've been very lucky with the weather so far.
We're not loving this hotel. The Japanese room part is fine, but the hotel overall is very rundown. We had only lukewarm water in the shower last night and this morning. There are only gas station type paper towels in the bathroom for hand towels. It feels kind of like an upscale hostel. We can feel the floor through the futons, but we weren't particularly uncomfortable and we slept well. On the plus side, our room doesn't smell like smoke even though all rooms here are smoking. The staff is friendly. The condition of the hotel doesn't reflect the town though. It is very nice, modern and clean.
We went to breakfast at 8:00 am, which is only an hour into the two hour service window. Most of the food was empty or nearly so and wasn't restocked. We found enough to eat, but the food should have been re-filled this early in the morning. There were only four other people in the restaurant and two employees sort of bumbling around. The food we had was fine. Click to see Dave's tray or Bill's tray. And yes, Bill ate all of the slimy things.
We're having problems with our rented wi-fi device today. It says it needs to be recharged with time, but we are supposed to have unlimited access. We'll have to call them later and see what the issue is.
Dave called the phone rental place and the problem was fixed within five minutes. He reset the hotel's router on the way out, but it didn't solve anything, so we're glad the wi-fi device is working again.
Today we are taking the tourist loop bus "Run Run" to the various sites around Hiraizumi. Theoretically, it is possible to walk to everything, but a day pass is only •400 per person (or •150 per ride), so why bother? We left the hotel at 10:15 am and walked down to the bus stop. We had to wait about fifteen minutes because we didn't time our arrival very well, but it is a nice day and we didn't mind standing there. A large group of Japanese hikers walked by on the other side of the street and called out to us.
We disembarked at the second stop, Chuson-ji Temple. We bought our day passes for the bus from the driver on the way out. Everyone on the bus got off at this stop, so it must be the right place. There aren't any crowds around even though it is a Saturday. We saw a couple of tour groups, but they weren't an issue at all.
There is a steep slope to walk up to get to the grounds of the temple. There is a warning about it in the brochure, but it isn't all that bad. If you can't make it up the slope there is a back way in to avoid it. However, you would miss the atmosphere of an old road lined with enormous cedar trees. There are several small old temples dedicated to various people along the way. Most of them are decorated with beautiful wood carvings. There are too many temples on this hill to describe all of them, but they all contain some sort of spectacular image, usually in gold leaf.
A side path leads to some old stone monuments and a spectacular view over the river valley and farms below. The cherry trees are blooming here and the hillsides are mostly covered with them.
Close to the top of the hill is the main attraction, Konjikido or Golden Hall. There is an •800 per person admission fee that includes the grounds around the hall and a museum next door. Photos aren't allowed of the museum or the Golden Hall, so you'll have to survive on a picture of the protective outer building. The hall has been protected in some sort of structure since the Samurai era. The one built in 1911 is preserved nearby. The current structure is concrete. Here is a link to pictures and more information about Konjikido: www.chusonji.or.jp/en/precincts/konjikido.htm.
A short walk away is a historic outdoor Noh stage, a temple bell and more temples too numerous to mention individually. The whole area is very scenic with the tall cedars and pines lining the walks. It might be a bit of a nightmare in the height of the season, but today it is pleasant and not crowded at all. It is a lot cooler today than it was yesterday afternoon, so we're glad we brought jackets and didn't believe the weather forecast.
We easily spent a couple of hours wandering around. You would need more time if you really want to examine every structure in detail, but we feel we saw everything we wanted to see in that amount of time. There is no reason to take an organized tour here. The loop bus takes you to all of the sites and there are English explanations and brochures available. Every place that charges an admission today automatically handed us English explanations.
Of course, there are souvenir shops and restaurants at the base of the hill, but they aren't as in-your-face as they can be in more touristy areas. In fact, we found the shop keepers to be very warm and friendly. In the shop we went in to buy some souvenirs, the owners acted like we fell off of a Christmas tree. The figure dressed up as an Easter bunny outside of one shop was a bit on the kitschy side, but we admit it is cute. A restaurant had an animated figure out of geisha hawking a bowl of noodles outside the front door. We took a short video of it, but it is too big to upload here, so you'll have to take our word for its cute factor.
We wandered back to the bus stop. While we were waiting a very friendly Japanese man came up and asked if we speak any Japanese. He spoke some English and between that and Dave's limited Japanese, we learned that he is a photographer. He asked how we came to find Hiraizumi, how long we are in Japan, etc., and made notes. Then he asked if he could take our picture to include in the next edition of the magazine he showed us. We said it is fine with us and he took several pictures. He was very nice. We exchanged cards and he thanked us for talking to him.
The bus arrived and we moved on to the next stop, Takadachi. There is another steep slope and an uneven flight of stairs to reach the top. Daffodils and tulips are blooming along the roadway. There is a •200 admission fee, but the guy in the ticket booth was so grateful to see us that we didn't mind at all. The Takadachi Gikeido Hall was erected in 1683 overlooking the river below as a memorial to Takadachi. The hall contains a statue of the man himself. The view from the hill is worth the climb. There is a tiny museum housing some huge carved wood warrior figures, as well.
Rather than wait for the bus, we walked the short distance to the next site. Muryoko-in Ato Temple was built by Hidehira, the third Fujiwara lord. All of the buildings have been lost, but the process of restoring the excavated ponds has begun.
Again, we skipped the bus and walked along a residential street toward the station. This street is lined with weird Jetson-esque streetlamps, but is otherwise just a normal street. There are some very fancy houses in this area with lovely small gardens. We were tempted to knock on the door of one particularly attractive place, but of course we didn't.
We were kind of looking for something for lunch since it is 1:00 pm at this point, but we were more interested in walking the length of the main street to the next big attraction. After walking and riding to all of the sites, it is truly all walkable. But, to save time, the tourist bus works out fine. On the weekends it comes every fifteen minutes. Otherwise, it is every 30 minutes. Schedules are posted at each stop.
No restaurants jumped out at us, so we walked all the way to Motsu-ji Temple Gardens. All of the magnificent temples and pagodas were long ago destroyed by fires, but the gardens remained in good condition and the pond has been restored. There is a large pond outside of the main grounds that was once the focus of another temple, but nothing remains of the buildings there except some markers of a long lost gate. There were some kids playing baseball with their father. They called out to us in English as we walked by and were very cute.
There is a •500 per person admission fee to the temple gardens, but it is a large area and well worth it. There is a granite carving of the famous quote about the lost grandeur of Hiraizumi: "The summer grass, tis all that's left, of ancient warriors' dreams." That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?
There is a new-ish Hondo inside the gates with appropriately atmospheric incense burning out front. An image from between 794 and 1100-something is housed inside. A large painting outside depicts what the temple complex looked like in its heyday. Detailed records were kept of everything that was here from ancient times, so they know exactly how it was laid out. The descriptions match the excavated foundation stones exactly.
You can see the remains of the stone foundations of the bridge that lead from the gate to the main temple complex over the large pond. There are wonderful examples of stone landscaping techniques that are meant to represent a rocky shoreline. Otherwise, only stone foundation stones remain on the grounds. There are a couple of very old temples also, but nothing of the elaborate ancient buildings remains. Fairly recently, a perfectly preserved feeder stream for the pond was excavated. It is one of only two ever found intact in Japan. Another interesting feature is a peninsula representing a beach.
We decided to walk back up the main street toward the station, again in hopes of finding something for lunch. No luck in that regard, but we enjoyed looking at the lovely homes lining the street. There are some good examples of modern versions of the merchant houses of old where there is a shop on the street and a house behind it. There is no rhyme or reason to the hodge podge of houses and businesses in any town in Japan. Apparently, one may build whatever they choose anywhere they choose. That may not be precisely the case, but that's how it looks.
It was 3:00 pm by the time we ended up at the station again and we decided not to have a real meal this late. We went to the convenience store in the station for some snacks and found some small stuff to tide us over until dinner time. These Newdays stores don't have the extensive selection of prepared sandwiches like 7-Eleven does, so we ended up with some pancake sandwiches filled with bean paste (better than it sounds), a slice of fruit pound cake, and an ice cream bar.
We caught the next loop bus and were the only passengers on it until we reached the stop in front of the hotel. By riding it three times we came out ahead on the cost, saving •50 apiece over the individual ride cost.
We went to look in the hotel's gift shop before someone could grab us and make us go to our room. We didn't find anything to buy (and no one appeared to be working there), so we went to the front desk to pick up our key. The woman there handed us our key without asking our room number. We had to choose a dinner time again and she handed us a new meal coupon. Apparently we were supposed to have handed in yesterday's coupon with the meal, but nobody asked us for it, so tough luck. Now Dave knows how to say "6:30" in Japanese, so if we have to choose a meal time again we're all set. The woman at the desk thought he came up with it on his own, but truth be told he heard her say it under her breath when she was trying to figure out the English for it.
Back in the room, Bill made a bed out of the extra floor cushions in the corner and pretended to nap. This place is oddly budget minded. Besides the paper towels in the bathroom, we didn't get replacement "body cloths" as we have everywhere else. They were just hung up to use again. We did get new towels though and actual cloth hand towels. Our extra roll of toilet paper became our only roll. Did we mention that it is the texture and thickness of gas station rolls? Oh, and we now have four complete sets of toiletry bags...hair brush, razor, toothpaste/brush, etc. All of this stuff gives us something to talk about, so we don't mind all that much, but this place is charging way too much for what they are delivering.
We showed up in the dining room at our appointed time, 6:30 pm. The saving grace of this hotel is the food. It really is quite good. We were served by one of the older waitresses, which is a good thing because they are the only ones who seem happy to be here. The lady we had tonight was equally as gracious as the one last night. She explained everything and was very nice to us. Everything on the tray is a variation on what we had yesterday. Again, nothing outrageously weird and no unrecognizable foods. There was some sort of slimy green vegetable that Bill warned Dave he wouldn't like, but it was quite tasty. Sort of vinegary/sweet.
All of the tables in the dining room are full or have food trays waiting for guests to arrive. We have heard more people arrive tonight than last night, but being a Saturday that makes sense. It doesn't impact us at all one way or the other.
Our room was again transformed for sleeping in the 45 minutes we were out for dinner. Having all the food served at once does speed up the process quite a bit. No one rushes us out or acts like they need to clear the table.
Day 22: Sunday, April 20 - Train & Bus to Rikuzentakata - Capital Hotel 1000
Rikuzentakata was reported to have been
"wiped off the map" by the tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake. According to
the police, every building smaller than three stories high has been completely
flooded. Buildings taller than three stories were partially flooded. At the city
hall, water also reached as high as the third floor. While it is often reported
that 80% of the city was destroyed, the entire downtown, essentially the heart
of the community and its center of activity, was completely wiped out. The
train station and tracks were washed away, as well, and will not be replaced
Today's weather continues the trend of bright and sunny, in the high 40's to low 50's. Breakfast in the hotel dining room was the same as yesterday. Adequate with many dishes running empty. We found enough to eat, but it really isn't up to the standard that shows at dinner. The same older woman who served us last night was there and seemed thrilled to see us again.
Check out time is 10:00 am here, so we'll be on our way to the station shortly thereafter. We have two trains and a bus to travel on today to get to our next destination. This time we are going completely off the beaten track!
Our final thoughts on Hotel Musashibou: We doubt many Westerners will find this place acceptable, so in all honesty we can't recommend it. If you are up for an adventure and can put up with the quirks of an old hotel, then go for it. We like going to places like this occasionally because it gives us something to chuckle over, but don't come here expecting a lavish Japanese experience. The food at dinner was very good and the older ladies serving in the dining room were very kind to us. Otherwise, the staff isn't as welcoming as we have found elsewhere. Our recommendation is to base yourself in Ichinoseki and take the train to Hiraizumi for the day.
Our final thoughts on Hiraizumi: This town redeemed Japan after the disappointing stay in Kakunodate. It is a cute, modern small town devoid of high rises (except the hotel). In fact, the stairway over the train tracks is the tallest structure we can see from our room. Most of the town is upscale residential. The main street and the area in front of the station have been completely re-done and look ready to welcome tourists. The sites are easy to see on foot or via the tourist loop bus from the station. English brochures are given out at each site and there are signs in English explaining most important details. You'll have to be adventurous to find places to eat, but they do exist. The locals are very welcoming and helpful. The sites in Hiraizumi are definitely worth the effort to see.
We'll tell you right up front that our plans went totally of the rails today...
Everything started off on schedule. We checked out at 10:00 am and asked for a taxi to take us to the station. That resulted in us being taken there in the hotel's van for free with a couple of other families. Score a point for the hotel in the service department.
Things were slightly off kilter when we discovered that the departure time for our train is earlier than we thought. It didn't make any difference, but it would have been nice if that had set off an alarm in our head, but noooooo...
We arrived at Ichinoseki in just 8 minutes. Our next train should have been leaving in fifteen minutes from the platform across from the one we arrived on. Of course, we didn't notice that and went up the escalator and had to come back down again, but that didn't make us miss the train or anything. That's because there is no train at the time we expected. We arrived here at 10:15 am expecting to board another train soon. However, the next train on the sign isn't until 11:00 am.
No problem, we don't mind waiting. But, we aren't sure we are standing in the right place because all of the signs are in Japanese. Dave went to look around the platform for the marks on the floor for where to stand. In the meantime, a JR worker who was there to clean the train asked Bill if we are lost. Dave came back and said we think we are supposed to stand, "Over there," and the guy said that's correct.
Again thinking all is just peachy with the schedule, we parked ourselves to wait. A train arrived and just sat there, so Dave went and talked to the conductor. He said the next train is at 11:00 am and it isn't this one. OK, fine.
The man who had tried to help us earlier came over and asked to see our tickets. We only have rail passes, not tickets. He pointed out that the 11:00 am train is the Pokemon Train (you read that right) and it is all reserved seats. OK, so when is the next train to Kesennuma? 12:44 pm! Ugh, an hour and a half to sit around waiting. We could have gone to get tickets for the Pokemon Train, but get real. A train full of kids for an hour, no thanks. We will admit the train is cute. The second car is one giant play room full of giant plush Pokemon characters. The train stops at a few stations where characters come out and entertain the kids (or something like that). The point of it is to cheer up the kids in the disaster areas. There is only one of these per day.
We have no idea how or when the schedules were changed, but it must have been fairly recently. Dave looked on Hyperdia to confirm that we can still catch the JR bus in Kesennuma to get to Rikuzentakata. That still works fine, but the time isn't anywhere near what the original schedule said.
We bundled ourselves up and sat on the seats on the platform to wait. It was kind of chilly, so Dave went to check out the enclosed waiting area a few feet away. The heat that blasted out when he opened the door was like walking into a sauna. We chose being cold to sitting in a sweat box for an hour. While sitting there all alone on a deserted train platform, it occurred to us that if we were doing this at home we would probably never be seen again.
The same guy who has been helping us came back with a train schedule and marked the train we should get on. We had already figured that out with Hyperdia, but it was incredibly nice of him to bother to make sure we are all taken care of. Later, a Japanese man got off of a train in front of us and got on the one going where we just came from behind us. Just before it was ready to leave, he came out and checked with us to be sure we aren't supposed to be on that train. Wow, are people nice or what?
Eventually, 12:44 pm rolled around. Well, actually the train pulled in empty at 12:15 pm, and other people got on, so we did, too. The train wasn't at all full, so we easily found places to stash our luggage. This is a local train that makes 8 billion stops, which is why the ride takes almost 90 minutes. There is no other way to get to Kesennuma. This train used to go to Rikuzentakata and beyond, but now the tracks end at Kesennuma. Everything beyond that was washed away in the tsunami.
Other than there being no English announcements on the train, it was the same as all of the rides we have been on. However, this train isn't electrified, so it is a bit noisier than the trains elsewhere. With Kesennuma being the end of the line, it isn't any problem to figure out where to get off the train.
At Kesennuma, half of the station has been converted to a bus drop off area. The tracks have been removed. But, the sign said, "Drop off only," so we had to figure out where to board. We have twenty minutes to figure it out, so it isn't an urgent problem, but the signs don't make any sense. Dave went back in the station and asked the ticket collector on the platform where we should stand. He stopped what he was doing and walked us all the way outside to be sure we stood at the right place.
There were a few other people already in line, but only a handful. We're not sure what kind of space there is on the bus for luggage, so we're glad this is the beginning of the line. A bus arrived inside the station. A worker from the station came over to be sure we aren't supposed to be on that bus instead. Again, how nice is that? He assured us we are in the right place and went back to his job.
When our bus came we immediately found seats to hold us and our luggage for the 30-minute ride to Rikuzentakata. The bus ride was normal except for the fact that we drove along the coast. For the entire 30 minutes, every single town and bay we passed had visible tsunami damage. In Kesennuma, all that remains are empty foundations in many areas. It is mind boggling to see how widespread the destruction is up close and in person. And this is at least a mile from the water!
The bus dropped off some passengers at the stop for the Miracle Pine in Rikuzentakata before continuing to the actual station up the hill. We'll talk more about what is going on here tomorrow, but we'll say that it is stunning how huge an area was wiped clean. What is even more striking is how much work they have done to recover. Nothing at all remains of the downtown from the coast to the hills, a distance of about two miles by four miles wide. Literally nothing. They have scraped up all of the debris, including roads and building foundations. There is a lot of earth moving going on, too.
Shortly, we were dropped off at the bus station. That is all well and good, but what now? There is no way to walk to the hotel even if we knew how to get there. The JR ticket office is closed. A father/daughter and a single Japanese man were dropped off with us. The family was wandering around looking bewildered, but the man was apparently calling a taxi. So, Dave got the nerve up to ask him if he knew how we could get a taxi, too. He said sure, one will be coming. He is going to the same hotel we are and he speaks good English. Mind you, if this man hadn't helped us out of the goodness of his heart, we would still be standing there in the middle of nowhere. We have no idea what happened to the other people because when they asked the same man about a taxi he just pointed at a phone number on the wall.
When the taxi came he insisted we go with him! This is a total stranger, by the way. When we arrived at the hotel, the taxi driver gave each of us a plastic folder with pictures of Rikuzentakata before and after the tsunami as a gift. We insisted on paying the taxi fare for the man who helped us.
The hotel is only months old and still smells new. The man who brought us here told us to check in first. We think the desk clerks were about to have a stroke having to deal with us, but they did fine. The only glitch was when they said we had to pay up front, which the man with us said is the procedure here. That's fine, but we prepaid for this hotel. Dave searched around in his paperwork until he found the printout saying we had paid, and they just believed him. We were also given coupons for breakfast that we didn't know we are supposed to get. We didn't book with any meals here because the price was outrageous, so this is a nice plus. Needless to say, there is nothing around the hotel.
We were given key cards with the room number stuck to them. Uh, that's kind of a Hotel 101 no-no, but the way things are going here it appears they are reinventing the wheel. No matter, this is Japan, so we don't expect to be murdered in our sleep or anything. The nice man who helped us went up in the elevator with us. We thanked him again and went to our room.
We expected a sort of slapped together hotel with just the basics, but this place is very nice. The decor is attractive and the room has all of the usual amenities. There is a refrigerator, tea making equipment, an air purifier, free internet, LCD TV, twin beds and brand new everything. Bill opened the door to the bathroom and declared, "There's no toilet!" No worries, we found it behind another door in the room. It has a clever built in sink for washing your hands while the tank refills. After the God-awful bathroom at the last hotel, this is palatial.
There is a gut-wrenching view over what used to be the downtown of Rikuzentakata. This vast empty field used to be packed with businesses and homes from the ocean to the hill where the hotel now sits. The city hall building was four stories high and the water was up to the roof. The original Capital Hotel used to sit on the waterfront, but has since been torn down after being stripped by the tsunami. There was a shoal where 50,000 pine trees were growing all the way along the shoreline. Now there is only one, the so-called Miracle Pine at the far end of the harbor. You really have to see it for yourself to fully grasp the enormity of the tragedy that took place here just three years ago. What they have done to clean it up is truly remarkable. Nothing remains at all and they are already in the process of raising the elevation of the land below while leveling the hillsides to relocate people whose homes were lost.
We have been asked many times why we are bothering to go to Rikuzentakata when there is literally nothing left to see of the city. Click to read an article that explains why everyone with the means to do so should make the effort.
While we are pleased that we get breakfast at the hotel, we have no clue what to do for dinner. Is there a restaurant? Who knows. The only way to find out is to go down and ask at the front desk. Dave asked in Japanese if they have a restaurant here, but that got us a map of restaurants in the area. Can we walk to any of them? Nope, a ten minute car ride or an hour walking. Not happening. A man behind the desk came over and asked what kind of food we want. Answer: Anything. Then it occurred to him that this is Sunday and almost everything is closed. He had the young woman with him call her father because he owns a Chinese restaurant, but there was no answer. Finally, he asked if Japanese food is OK, and we said fine with us.
He called somewhere and said they are open and can take us. He asked if we want tatami or chairs and we said chairs. Then, get this, he said he would take us there in his own car!! And then he actually did! The man who had helped us earlier came down and said he's going out too and he might see us there, but he wanted to take a taxi on his own.
So, we were driven to the restaurant, which is really an izakaya, and dropped off by the hotel employee. He told them to call a taxi for us when we are done and left us there. The people at the restaurant didn't speak any English, but the woman serving us was very nice and made every effort to put together a meal for us. Bill ordered a beer and Dave ordered a "chuhai" which is a sort of highball that is popular in Japan. He just wanted to fit in. Eventually, the woman put together an order for us after Dave said, "Omakase shimasu".
We got several things to share: A big salad with shrimp and sliced eggs that was delicious, various skewers of yakitori, a rolled egg dish that we loved, and a selection of sashimi. We finished all of that off and pushed the button to call for more food. We are in a private room, so we can't wave down the waitress. They won't come back unless you call for them. A younger woman literally came running. We used the cellphone to translate items on the Japanese menu and ordered fried chicken and stir-fry pork. The chicken was odd...we had to chew the chicken off of cartilage, so we're not sure what piece it actually was. However, it had a great flavor. The stir-fry was bean sprouts and slices of pork with a slightly spicy sauce that was delicious. The total bill was only •4800.
On the way out we found the man who helped us earlier and chatted with him for a while. We finally introduced ourselves and he gave us his card. He said to email him if we want to. We plan to do that and thank him for being so nice to us. He asked if we wanted to stay and have another round, but we were too tired to do that tonight. If we see him again we might take him up on it. Everyone at the restaurant was very nice to us and seemed thrilled to have us there. When the younger woman found out we are from the U.S. she exclaimed, "WOW!"
A taxi came and took us back to the hotel, as promised.
Sometimes you find kindness in the oddest places. We had so many complete strangers help us today that we are totally in awe. Only in Japan could that happen with such warmth and genuine concern for a visitor.
Day 23: Monday, April 21 - Rikuzentakata - Capital Hotel 1000
The weather is overcast and cold today, but the forecasted rain hasn't materialized. It is about 50 degrees this morning.
We didn't realize just how much construction is going on below the hotel because yesterday was a Sunday. It sure is bustling down there today. There are earth movers, dump trucks, tractors, you name it, rushing around like they have to finish everything tomorrow. We can't see any way to walk to the Miracle Pine without crossing a construction site, so we'll probably take a taxi there and then find a way to walk back to the hotel.
The best thing about being in this brand new hotel is that it has a strong shower and lots of hot water. Heavenly! Unfortunately, the beds are like rocks, so our hip bones are sore this morning, but that's really nothing new in Japan. Our hopes were higher than reality is all.
We went down to breakfast around 8:15 am. On the way past the front desk, Dave held up the coupons and pointed down the hallway. The woman behind the desk ran out and led us all the way to the dining room. Well, it is actually a really nice banquet room, but it is set up for meals. She told us to get drinks from the buffet and then pointed at some Japanese set breakfast trays on the next table and asked, sort of, if that is OK. We said, yes, that's fine. For some strange reason, there is a chafing dish of sausages and a mostly empty tray of rolls on the buffet, also. Was there more earlier and it was taken away, or did they intend to serve just sausage and rolls?
Our breakfast trays arrived and are way more elaborate than expected, especially since we didn't book the breakfast included rate. Only the half raw, cold boiled egg wasn't edible. That's only because there was no way to pick it up with chopsticks. Everything else was fine, but we did have to clear out the remaining rolls to get enough food. We're never sure when we will eat again around here, so we don't want to miss any opportunity to fill up.
Who decided not to include a restaurant in the plans for this hotel? There is nowhere else to go that isn't at least ten minutes away by taxi. They certainly would sell almost everyone who stays here at least one meal a day. Sure seems like a missed opportunity to us. On the subject of taxis, why isn't there one always waiting at major tourist spots? You always have to call one. What are they doing in the meantime? Again, missed opportunities!
We have no clue who is running this hotel or if anyone has been trained at all. True, it is fairly new, but it appears that everyone is doing whatever they want with no organization at all. Everyone is beyond nice, so no problem in general, but someone really needs to get in here and train these people. It isn't fair to them because they are always frantically trying to figure out what to do on the fly. There are several very young women working here who are extremely shy which doesn't help them do their job. Again, they are very nice, but we hate feeling like we are scaring the crap out of them every time we walk by. Of course, that is exactly what we are doing, but it is unintentional for sure. We get the impression that they are afraid of everyone, not just us.
We went back to the room to figure out a plan of action for today. We thought yesterday that we could walk to the Miracle Pine (Ippon Matsu), but there is so much construction going on that we don't think that is wise. It is incredible how much work is going on. There must be at least ten massive projects we can see from the hotel. They are building a big sloping road to nowhere next to the hotel. The best we can figure is that it is an access road to the hotel. The current road is mostly dirt and appears to be temporary.
Around 9:30 am we decided to get our stuff together and go down to the desk to ask if we can walk between certain places, take a taxi, or what. Dave looked up the proper Japanese so he doesn't freak anyone out and off we went.
What we eventually got out of the front desk conversation is that we should take a taxi to the Miracle Pine and then we can walk from there. The second half of the conversation consisted of the woman at the front desk talking into her phone and showing us the translation. That's all fine, but Dave understood what she said in Japanese (she said it would take 20 minutes to walk between the places he pointed out to her). Everyone is so afraid they are going to offend us by not speaking perfect English, that they are almost paralyzed. Dave tries his best to let them know he understands them, but to no avail.
Anyway, we had them call a taxi for us and he took us to the Miracle Pine...sort of. We were dropped off in a parking lot in front of a makeshift cafe building with no clue which way to go from there. Dave does know where the pine tree is, but there is a HUGE construction project going on in the area, so we can't actually see the exact location of the tree from the highway.
No matter, we are already distracted like little kids by the enormous conveyor belt system they have built to bring dirt from the hill across the river to the town. Part of it is already delivering soil that is whisked away by an endless stream of dump trucks. More sections are being added to extend the action in several directions. The town is planning to build a huge raised area between the shoreline and the hills where a new commercial district will be built (or something like that). At the rate they are going they might be finished by next week! We are in awe of all the activity going on!
We started walking toward the river along a newly paved walkway that turned out to be the correct path to the pine. All over town there are these cutesy duck barricades set up. They're a bit incongruous considering the circumstances, but maybe they are entertaining for the kids.
After passing under the huge suspension bridge for the conveyor system, we came upon the first major scene of devastation. There is a six story tsunami gate at the entrance to the harbor that was swamped by the waves. There is damage up to the fourth level of the structure. There are thick metal poles that used to form a railing that were broken like twigs by the force of the water. This used to be a nice marina and boat launching area, but it was stripped bare by the waves.
The Miracle Pine sits alone backed by a wrecked solid concrete building. The water washed the soil out from under it and part of it collapsed. Other parts are completely missing. There were other buildings here also, but they have since been demolished and only foundations remain.
There is a sign at the bridge to the pine showing what it looked like before the tsunami. There were 50,000 pine trees on a shoal that fronted the shoreline. Now there is nothing except the exposed, broken roots and muddy soil. Only the Miracle Pine remains. It later died from the salt in the soil, but parts of it were preserved and it was recreated as a monument of hope and a memorial to the survivors. It is a very touching scene. They did a wonderful job of recreating the tree. It looks completely real.
On a happier note, the city has made incredible progress rebuilding the sea wall and restoring the protective waterfront. Much of the soil is being used to back fill the land after a miles long metal retaining wall was installed. However, a five story concrete building across the river still sits in its ruined condition as if the tsunami hit just yesterday. Just try to imagine a wave of water that high rushing up the river and over the sea wall, pushing tons of debris in front of it.
We walked back to the highway and started wandering along what was the bustling waterfront business district. All that remains now are bent metal posts and wrecked stores. A 12" thick metal sign lays bent and rusting, snapped by the rushing water. Farther along are the rusting metal frames of a building that was stripped bare. Adjacent is a still-standing concrete building that was gutted by the water. A gas station on the corner has been rebuilt, but its tall sign still bears the scars and shows the height of the wave.
Across a bridge are the remains of the original Capital Hotel 1000. It wasn't knocked down by the tsunami, but the concrete building was gutted and recently demolished. Turning inland, the view for miles is one of utter devastation. There are no structures left anywhere. What is really amazing is that all of the debris has been removed and any remaining buildings demolished. We have no idea where it went, but there are no large piles of rubble anywhere to be seen. As far as we know the piles are still collected inland waiting for a decision on what to do with it.
We decided to walk through what was the main business district in town. All Japanese towns have what we refer to as the "Yellow Brick Road" embedded in the sidewalks that lead to the train station and other important buildings. In this case, the yellow bricks lead to nothing but a short section of train tracks crossing the road and an empty stretch of land where the train station used to be. You may recall our photo from the hotel yesterday. From the former location of the train station, which is about a mile inland, the view back to the hotel is nothing but a wasteland.
Still, someone is maintaining the flower beds in front of a wrecked shop. It is impossible not to be touched every time we run across an offering in front of a shop or home. Streets to nowhere and empty fields are all that is left of a once thriving downtown.
We continued walking inland for over a mile. Block after block of nothing but concrete foundations and ruined sidewalks remain. Bent metal posts attest to the power even this far from the water's edge. Over a mile inland, the land was wiped clean.
The farther we go inland, the more numerous the sidewalk offerings become. We assume this is either where someone was killed or where they were found. Keep in mind that the ocean is not visible from here! When we reached the last street below the hills, we came upon empty driveways that once led to homes and businesses. Knowing that each of the countless curb cuts means someone's lost house or perhaps even their life is sobering indeed. Did they believe they were safe this far inland?
At the base of the hill where the debris field was concentrated, we found piles of collected shards, the broken pieces of shattered lives. A child's action figure is lost in the dirt. A large offering compelled us to add some coins to the ones already collected there. A rusty lamp that once graced a home or temple is abandoned by the roadside. Looking back toward the ocean from here there is nothing left.
We walked a bit up a residential street to the very edge of the destruction. This would have been where the piles of debris collected and crushed the homes that might not have been damaged by the waves. A temple rests at the very highest point of the water, stains showing on the bottom four feet of the gate posts, its granite entry posts knocked down.
Looking down hill from the very top edge of the damaged area, the sea isn't even remotely visible. This is at least four miles inland and uphill from the level of the downtown area. Just imagine the horror of that day. Who knew how high the waves would go? Where would it be safe? How do you pick up the pieces and go on when there is nothing left?
Hopefully, the people of Rikuzentakata have learned a valuable lesson not to try to defy Mother Nature. Apparently they have judging by the construction and leveling of hillsides to move homes to higher ground. After the debris was removed, they discovered old stone monuments erected in the distant past and long since forgotten. They delineated the edge of a devastating tsunami and warned that nothing should be built closer to the sea in the future. Maybe this time we won't forget and will learn from the past.
We have to express our admiration for the Japanese people and especially for the perseverance of the mayor and citizens of Rikuzentakata for not giving up. All of the reconstruction activity is a testament to their resilience and hope in the face of such utter tragedy. Let's all try to never forget what happened here as a tribute to those who were lost.
Needless to say, all this this walking around wore us out for a variety of reasons. But, we are still determined to find the convenience store shown on our map and the Rikuzentakata Gift Center. We walked up hills and down, across town and back. Nothing. Well, we saw some very nice neighborhoods full of attractive homes. New developments are being built high up on the hilltops, which is certainly a forward thinking move!
Eventually, and we do mean very eventually, we ended up where we started at the JR bus drop off point next door to City Hall. A lot of good that does us since there is no way for us to call a taxi from there. Hark, there is a 7-11 sign up ahead! We walked there through a construction zone, much to the amusement of the workers directing traffic. Although the 7-11 says "OPEN" all over it, it isn't. However, there are workers inside, so, as has become our custom, we barged in and asked them to call a taxi for us. Which, of course, they did. When all else fails, just ask!
We asked the taxi driver to take us to the Family Mart shown on our map from the hotel. We asked him to wait while we went in a grabbed some lunch...a fried chicken and rice bento, a sandwich, two salads, and two cups of strawberry something...all for about •900. Then we asked the driver to return us to the hotel, which he did.
There was a group of older Japanese women gathered outside the front door, coming or going, we don't know. We were quite the attraction for them on the way in.
The very friendly woman who helped us at the front desk earlier asked if our key cards are OK. We thought she was asking if we have them with us, so we said yes we do. Apparently she was asking if they still work, because when we got to the room, they didn't. There is some sort of construction work going on in the hallway outside of our room, so everything is covered with plastic. The hotel is new, so we're not sure what happened, but it doesn't affect us. Or maybe whatever it is caused the keys to be reset. In any case, Dave went back down and had the keys re-programmed and all was right with the world again.
We couldn't wait to undress and eat our convenience store lunches. Prefab food never tasted so good! Apparently, the lounge in the lobby serves lunch or something like that because there were dirty dishes sitting around. If the hotel wants to actually sell this food, they really should tell the guests about it. We'd sure rather stay here and have lunch than try to find a store that is open in the middle of nowhere.
We were entertained for hours watching the construction antics outside of our window. Watching the tractors move dirt and dump trucks bring load after load was highly entertaining for us. Yes, we're men, we get that we are simple. Small things, small minds and all that.
Just after we arrived back at the hotel the rain started. Once again we have timed the weather perfectly!
When dinner time rolled around, we both decided we aren't at all in the mood to hassle with going out again. We ate some snacks we had stocked up for just such occasions and caught up on a few "The Amazing Race" episodes via YouTube.
After re-checking the JR bus schedule for tomorrow, we found that the bus we wanted to catch around 10:30 am is no longer running. We'd have to sit around here until 11:30 (check out is 10:00), so we might take a taxi instead. Sometimes it is worth the cost to avoid getting stranded again! We'll see what kind of mood we're in tomorrow morning. Either way, we will arrive way too early to check in at the next hotel, but we'll find something to do after dropping off our luggage.
Day 24: Tuesday, April 22 - Bus to Kesennuma - Kesennuma Plaza Hotel
Kesennuma is a city located in the extreme
northeast of Miyagi Prefecture. It wraps around the western part of Kesennuma
Bay, and also includes the island of Ōshima. Its coastline forms the southern
boundary of the Rias Coastline National Park, which stretches north all the way
to Aomori Prefecture. The city borders Hirota Bay, Kesennuma Bay, and the
Pacific Ocean to the east and Minamisanriku, Miyagi to the south. The highest
point in Kesennuma is 711.9 m high, while the lowest point is at sea level. The
Ōkawa River flows through the city and into Kesennuma Bay.
The weather is the same, overcast and in the low 50's. Breakfast at the hotel was also the same except the green salad was replaced by potato salad today. That's not as unusual as you may think because it is a staple on every morning buffet we have had in Japan (along with pasta).
Dave asked the charming woman from the front desk (in Japanese) if we can take a taxi to Kesennuma. She said yes and that it would be about •4000 which we said is fine with us. She came back a little later after checking on it and said it would be •5000, but that's still much less than we expected. It is all arranged for 10:00 am when we check out.
Our final thoughts on the Capital Hotel 1000: It is a sparkling new hotel dropped smack in the middle of a vacant lot in the middle of nowhere. You probably aren't going to come to this town unless you are an adventurous sort, so the location won't be a problem. Be prepared with a cell phone to call a taxi when the JR bus dumps you by the side of the highway! The outside of the hotel looks very utilitarian, but the inside is beautiful. The rooms are very nice and have all of the amenities expected. We really enjoyed the view over the bustling construction below us. The noise isn't bothersome. The staff needs some training, but they couldn't possibly be any nicer or more accommodating. Please be patient. We truly felt that they appreciated us being here. We were very happy that breakfast is included, but if you book a room be sure to get the dinner package that is available through JAPANiCAN. There is nothing near the hotel for meals. We would definitely stay here again and would encourage anyone brave enough to travel here to do the same.
Our final thoughts on Rikuzentakata: What a remarkable place this is! Sad, sure, but uplifting, too. It is astonishing to see what they are doing. Their accomplishment toward reinventing the town from scratch is incredible. How do you start rebuilding when there is nothing left? Ask the citizens of Rikuzentakata because they sure do seem to be on the right track! You will have to be very flexible and willing to make a lot of effort to get here, but once you do you will be rewarded with genuine warmth and a welcome you will never forget. Come see for yourself what is happening here and take inspiration from the brave people of Rikuzentakata.
We went down to check out around 9:45 am. There were different people manning the front desk, but they knew about the taxi coming for us at 10:00 am. All we had to do to check out is hand in the key cards.
The taxi arrived precisely on time, of course. We piled our bags in the trunk and hopped in for the 30-minute ride to Kesennuma. The ride was fine, nothing new to report since we came the same way on the bus the other day. New tsunami inundation zone signs have been installed along the coast recently. We passed one small cove where all that remains is a bunch of empty foundations and a broken concrete sea wall.
We arrived at the Kesennuma Plaza Hotel at 10:30 am, much too early to check in. When we walked in the woman at the front desk called out Dave's name, so apparently they are expecting two giant Americans. She told us to come back at 3:00 pm and took our luggage to be stored. Then she decided we could come back at 2:00 pm instead because Dave spoke Japanese to her. Dave asked where the Shark Museum is and she gave us a map, apologizing that they only have brochures and maps in Japanese. Dave already knew sort of where the museum is, but he asked just to be sure. She told us it would take 20 minutes to walk there. The hotel is up on a hill overlooking the bay, but there is an outdoor elevator that goes down to the waterfront area.
In reality, the walk took maybe ten minutes at the most. The sidewalk along the route is either damaged, semi-repaired or completely non-existent, so it wasn't a lot of fun walking along a busy street. Most of the buildings along the waterfront have already been repaired. The water reached up to the second floor here, so concrete structures could be repaired rather than torn down. There is a gas station that still hasn't had its mini-mart repaired and an office building is all boarded up. Otherwise, you wouldn't know anything happened. Fishing boats line the waterfront. Several huge ships were deposited on shore by the tsunami, but the last of them was removed a few months ago.
There seems to be a problem with the sewers in town. There is a bypass in place at one point that makes the whole area smell bad. We assume it is damage from the tsunami or the preceding earthquake. The drainage ditches along the streets also haven't been cleaned out or repaired and the covers are missing, so walking is a bit treacherous. We thought it was just the hotel that smells like pee, but apparently the whole town does. That and fish guts.
The Shark Museum was destroyed by the tsunami which you can see in the background in one of the tsunami videos on YouTube. It is located on a peninsula outside of the bay area where the fish market and other shipping businesses are. The fish market was repaired very quickly, but most of the buildings in the area have been torn down and only foundations remain. Farther out on the peninsula, the land is being raised as it is in Rikuzentakata, so there is nothing left there at all.
The entrance to the museum is hard to find. There are no signs in English and the side facing the street is still under construction. It looks like it isn't open yet, but we saw an announcement about the re-opening on Facebook a few weeks ago. We followed a line of flags around to the back and found that there are some cars in the parking lot.
Still, where the hell is the entrance? The place with the doors wide open is a restroom. We went up the stairs and saw a tourist information center sign through some glass doors (on the inside, not outside the doors). We were going to go in and ask where the museum is, but once inside we saw a tiny sign in the corner and what looks like a ticket window. We rang the bell at the window and someone came out and operated the ticket machine for us (•500 per person). It is in Japanese with no option for English help. We don't expect English in foreign countries, but this place just opened. Kesennuma has been begging for tourists, but then they don't bother with English anywhere? It doesn't make sense.
No matter, the woman was very nice and ushered us into the museum. There is a tribute video to the tsunami victims and the town playing in the first room and interactive touch screens that we assume are recollections or tributes to victims. We caught the tail end of a movie about the tsunami in a large theater. When it was over, the ticket seller came after us and told us it would start again in twenty minutes. Dave was proud of himself for understanding every word she said.
In the next room are aerial shots of Kesennuma before the tsunami and in 2013, a model of three large fishing boats we assume are ones that washed up and were wrecked and a few other photos of the aftermath.
After this room the Shark Museum part begins. There is a life sized model of a shark and a few displays along one wall. A small theater plays videos of sharks. A few models of shark eggs and other things are displayed in plastic cases. A big shark model sort of comes to life via projections to show different types of sharks with the push of a button. Those videos are way too long and we lost interest halfway through the second one. We really hate to complain about something like this when so much work went into re-opening it, but it just isn't extensive enough to justify the time to see it, especially if you don't read Japanese.
There is nothing else open in the building yet, so perhaps later when there is more to see and do here it will be more worthwhile. For now, the only reason to come is to be supportive of their efforts.
Including the walk to the museum, the museum itself, and stopping at a Lawson store for supplies, we only managed to kill an hour. It is noon now, so time for us to look for food. Good luck with that. Every office worker in town is packed in the few remaining restaurants.
We walked along the water until the walkway is blocked off due to unrepaired earthquake damage. The former touristy area of town facing the harbor was destroyed and has mostly been cleared, so there is nothing much left to see. Dave knew there is a Recovery Village of small shops and restaurants around the corner, so we walked over there looking for food.
As soon as we walked in a woman came out of a shop and gave us samples of shark soup that was delicious. Other shop keepers welcomed us, but none of their shops look like restaurants. There is a "shot bar" that isn't quite what we're into and a couple of very tiny places selling fish eggs over rice. The one place that looks kind of good isn't open today. The other one has a line out the door. This market is supposed to be one of our activities for tomorrow, so we have to be careful not to use up all of our options before we even check in. Other small restaurants are so confusing that even Japanese people were standing out front looking bewildered.
There is a new restaurant nearby, so we wandered over there to see what they offer. God only knows because there are no signs out front and no indication what they sell. Two Japanese women walked up to the door and stood there looking baffled, so it isn't just us.
We gave up and walked back toward the hotel to what looks like a grocery store from the street. It is actually a fish market, so we went in and looked around just for the heck of it. It is the first one we have walked into that doesn't smell bad, so that's a plus. However, no food for lunch. The adjacent restaurant still has twenty businessmen waiting for a table.
Finally, we bought ice cream from a vending machine so at least we wouldn't faint in the street. Then we took the elevator back up to the hotel. We saw signs all over the elevator building with pictures of food, so the hotel must have a restaurant somewhere. We did find it sort of in a corner off the lobby. Speaking of the lobby, it is another spectacle in pink and chrome straight out of the 1980's. However, it was redone five years ago according to the hotel's website, so apparently this is how someone wants it to look. This hotel is another of those big old "modern" Japanese hotels made up of a jumble of buildings from different eras.
We slid open the door to the restaurant and wandered in. The waitress pointed us to the only two Western-style booths. We were thrilled because you have to take your shoes off at all of the other tables. But, they do have leg wells, so it is only partially on the floor. Dave asked the waitress what she would recommend (in Japanese) and she said, "Sashimi," so we ordered two.
What we got are two trays full of food. Not only was there sashimi, but tonkatsu, rice topped with sashimi tartar, miso soup, pickles, and some other sort of pickled seaweedy thing. And, each meal only cost •1000! Everything was delicious, too.
We wasted as much time as we could eating lunch and wandering through the shop in the lobby, but it is still only 1:30 pm. Dave thought maybe if we wandered around it might intimidate the front desk lady enough to let us check in early, which is exactly what happened. Just as we went to sit in the lounge, she called us over and said we can check in now. You just have to know how to work the system. We acted appropriately grateful for the favor, of course.
We got the usual printed instructions about the hotel, entirely in Japanese, but with an English explanation from the nice woman at the desk. Dave told her when we arrived that he understands and speaks some Japanese, which made it easier for her. When she couldn't think of how to say something she tried Japanese and that worked out fine. This is the first hotel we have been to so far that hasn't had ANY English printouts for foreigners.
We were given a dinner voucher for tonight and told where to show up at 6:30 pm. The dinner hours are the same as the previous Japanese style hotel. She asked if the set meal is OK and we said it is, but we're not sure what would happen if we said it wasn't. Then, we were pointed in the opposite direction and told to show up there for breakfast between 6:45 and 8:30 am. That is the earliest cut-off time so far, but we're usually up early enough anyway. We don't know yet what the meals consist of. We will get additional vouchers tomorrow for the next day.
A young woman showed us to our room, insisting on carrying one of our bags that is almost bigger than she is. In the room, Bill promptly bashed his head on the low doorway and caused the poor girl to have a stroke. She said she would go get us giant yukata in exchange for the normal sizes in the room, which she did. As soon as she left, the original woman showed up and asked if we have vouchers from JTB for our stay (we prepaid). JAPANiCAN doesn't give vouchers. All we have is a printout of what we are supposed to get and how much we paid, so Dave gave her that and she went to copy it. She came back in a few minutes and said everything is taken care of.
We asked about laundry service, but were told it would take three days, so Bill got busy rinsing out his delicates in the bathtub. Almost immediately after we sat down in the room, there was an earthquake. It wasn't anything extraordinary, but it was certainly noticeable.
Our room is Japanese style with a sitting area and a fabulous view of the bay through a wrap around window. It is in the "new" building and has a private bathroom with the same configuration as all previous Japanese hotels have had. There is a shower booth with a tub in it, the sink in the middle, and a robotic toilet in its own booth. The bathing room and toilet look relatively new, but the sink area is a bit dated. There is no air conditioning, but the windows open. We're not sure, but the heat may switch to air conditioning in the summer. The only control is a dial to adjust the air flow, not the temperature. There is a wired internet connection that is very fast, which is a nice surprise. The room is quite large and is in better condition than the hotel in Hiraizumi. Based on the extra futons in the closet, this room is intended to sleep up to six people. Apparently only two of them get to sit in chairs though. Dave ate the contents of one of the goo bags on the table, but Bill declined.
We love the cartoon informing us not to smoke in bed! Even though there are no non-smoking rooms in this hotel, our room doesn't smell of smoke. It is a bit musty, but it could be a lot worse.
We went to find the dinner restaurant and were intercepted by a waiter who directed us into the restaurant where we had lunch earlier. The same woman waited on us again. This time we had to sit in the shoes-off area, but there are leg wells and it wasn't uncomfortable for us. Part of the dinner was already on the table. There was a three part appetizer, a seafood salad-ish plate, rice with chicken cooked at the table, cooked crab claws (cold), a square of something in a bowl that turned out to be a cucumber salad, and an abalone in a metal covered dish that was still alive and kicking. That is until the waitress lit the fire under it. Thank God it ended up cooked because there is no way we're eating something that is still moving!
Later, we received large plates of sashimi, one type of which gagged Dave and he forced it off on Bill. Dave can't handle sashimi that doesn't go away and/or gets bigger when he chews it. Otherwise, he's fine with it. We also got bowls of stewed beef, egg drop soup, and later a dessert. There were a couple of standard things in the array also, but we have had all of them before on this trip in set meals.
There were only three tables with the set meals, so we're not sure if that is all the guests staying here tonight or if all rates don't include meals. They would have to serve in a larger restaurant if there were more guests staying. The restaurant is open for walk-in customers ordering from the menu, also.
When the waitress asked if we want drinks from a menu, Dave ordered a chuhai again. Bill asked for one also. What we actually got was shochu on the rocks. Shochu is the alcohol that is in a chuhai and it is essentially moonshine. It was used as an antiseptic in the Samurai days. Next time we might order sake to be on the safe side. However, it was actually pretty smooth with a nice flavor. Who cares if it is made out of God-knows-what in someone's backyard if it tastes good. More than one of these and we'd be unable to walk.
Overall, the food was fine. Nothing stood out as wonderful like some things have at other hotels with set meals during this trip. But, nothing was revolting either. Once the abalone was cooked, it was pretty tasty. But, it broke a Dave rule that food shouldn't look like what it is. In other words, no fish heads, chicken feet, or other recognizable body parts. An entire living thing on his plate is going way too far!
We decided to wander through the lobby after dinner. Wow, we thought the main lobby came out of the 1980's, but go toward the breakfast restaurant and you'll find the ugliest chandeliers on the planet and some of the grayest "white" Austrian curtains we've ever seen. Were these ever in style? Come on, the wall these cover must look better than these monstrosities. On the plus side, the piano sitting in the corner isn't covered with mirrors or rhinestones. We turned around when we hit the wall of cigarette smoke in the hallway.
Back in the room we found it ready for sleeping with the futons on the floor. The futon part isn't bad, but the tiny bean pillows don't work for us. Be sure to bring your own travel pillow to these places!
Day 25: Wednesday, April 23 - Kesennuma - Kesennuma Plaza Hotel
It is partly sunny and in the 50's to low 60's today.
After we doubled up the thin, worn out futons with extras from the closet, we were quite comfortable. Bill made an extra pillow out of part of a yukata while Dave used his travel pillow. With those in place, all was well.
We woke up early and dashed down to catch the included breakfast buffet before 8:30 am. The food is the same as we have had everywhere, so perfectly acceptable. They had a staff person doling out the rice and another one the miso soup. That seems odd since those two items must be the cheapest things on the buffet. Everyone was very pleasant, but no English is spoken.
The buffet is held in a huge, dingy, worn out ballroom from the 1980's. Or so it appears. Maybe it was redecorated twenty years ago, but it hasn't been cleaned or maintained since then. You can't see it in the picture, but the walls are stained and scuffed up and the big drapery contraption at the end of the room is caked in dust. The drapes were white at some point in history. The table cloths are vinyl. This hotel apparently was once very grand, but it is now a pale reflection of itself. It wasn't damaged in the tsunami and the lack of maintenance goes much farther back than three years, so that's no excuse. And what is it with playing the same cutesy tinkling song over and over again? OMG!
It does appear that this hotel is cutting back as far as possible on staff and services. We don't require a lot of attention, but after being in Japan all this time and seeing the staffing levels everywhere else, the lack of it here is very noticeable. One person at the front desk, no one in the gift shop, etc. There were a lot of people at breakfast, so quite a few rooms were occupied last night. We're sure it is difficult to attract vacationers now under the circumstances, so we can understand the issues they are facing just trying to survive until things turn around. On the other hand, they aren't doing anything to attract foreign tourists or make it easier for those who do show up.
We set out for a few hours exploring the harbor area at around 9:30 am. There isn't a lot of ground to cover as the town isn't as large as Rikuzentakata. It does spill over the hills to several other areas, but they are too far for us to walk to. From what we could see driving through yesterday, they are raising the ground level in those areas in a similar way to Rikuzentakata, so there is virtually nothing left except piles of dirt.
The waterfront area shows quite a bit of damage from the tsunami and the earthquake. Metal railings are bent by the water's edge, two huge piers were wrenched from their moorings and are missing, and the entire area at the end of the harbor was wiped out. A stainless steel memorial is banged up and bent, but still standing.
Nothing remains in that area except concrete foundations. Most of the buildings were torn down, not necessarily washed away. A relatively intact office building looks OK from a distance, but up close we can see that the underground parking garage is filled with mud and debris.
We have to question the decision to rebuild new shops and businesses in the same locations. If it happened once it can surely happen again. There are brand new buildings placed on the ruins of the old ones. For some reason we can't figure out, some of the streets have been raised about a foot from their former level. It looks like they laid down 12" of crushed rock and put an asphalt roadway on top. That makes all of the sidewalks half buried and the entrance to remaining buildings two steps down. What is this accomplishing?
There is a building we can see from our hotel room that is the most ridiculous thing we have ever seen. Not that it was attractive to begin with, but who decided that erecting a huge metal Quonset hut thing on the roof was a good idea?
A fisherman who tied up to refuel seemed quite happy to see us. He went out of his way to greet us as we walked by. A short while later there was a commotion in the same area as a fire truck and an ambulance pulled up on the landing. There were a lot of official looking people running around, but we couldn't see any reason for it. A few minutes later a patrol boat pulled up and they swarmed all over it, so apparently someone had been evacuated to town from either the nearby island or from a boat off shore.
Around on the other side of the harbor opposite our hotel is a sad sight. There is what must have been a very beautiful house that was either completely wrecked or so damaged it had to be torn down. The first floor garage door is smashed in. All that remains of the house is a front gate to nowhere. In back is what was once a carefully tended garden, now abandoned and ruined. We can't help but be touched by the thought that these aren't just ruined buildings, but each represents a family who lost everything.
The roadway fronting the ruins must have been completely washed out because a new road has been built that is about a foot higher than the old one. Or perhaps the waterfront sank that much and had to be restored. At the point is a sort of rocky outcropping topped with an old shrine with steep concrete steps to the top. Bill thought it was a private walkway and didn't climb up, but Dave decided he'd take his chances at annoying yet another Japanese person. It turned out to be a shrine, not someone's backyard. From this vantage point you can see just how far it is from the harbor to the opening to the ocean. It is at least five miles, if not more. The serene harbor is so beautiful today that it is hard to believe it erupted with such fury.
The rocks must have been a focal point for the harbor because there is a concrete walkway over the water with smashed lights that used to shine up at it. Most of the orange wooden railings were washed away, but the walk seems safe enough, so we followed it around to the other side. It doesn't go anywhere though. It ends abruptly where a new sea wall was built around the bend.
The far side of the bay is lined with ship yards and other support for the fishing industry. As if the earthquake and tsunami weren't enough of a disaster, they sparked a fire that burned the entire waterfront for miles along the bay. One of the ruined structures still stands, surrounded by new replacements on each side. The sea wall has been rebuilt in this area. Behind it is the flat area that is being raised to avoid flooding in the future.
We walked back the way we came, moving inland a block to see what we can see. In this area, too, most of the damaged buildings have been demolished. All that remains of an old building is its concrete storehouse section that is surrounded by new construction on two sides.
With nothing better to do, we decided to walk up the main street toward the train station until we get bored or find something to look at. This part of town was spared tsunami damage past the base of the hill. It is geared solely toward locals, so there isn't anything of interest to tourists. All of the souvenir shops and restaurants are in the part near the harbor that has been razed. We were amused by some stone statues in front of someone's house. People have left coins as offerings on them. We may have to try this at home to see if we can raise some easy cash!
We did find a supermarket where we picked up some supplies and a 7-11 where we stocked up on food for lunch. We have no idea what we would do in these small towns if it weren't for 7-11! The locals are always there buying lunch, too, so it isn't just us stupid foreigners. By the way, we haven't seen a McDonald's or KFC since we left Hokkaido. The only Western chain every town has is 7-11 and they have by far the best selection of pre-made food at very reasonable prices.
Walking back to the harbor area, we passed a few still-standing buildings that are awaiting repair or demolition. Some parts of a fancy shop remain in the washed out ground floor of one building. Another shows the level of the destructive water on its sign. Still another has a back wall broken out that allowed the water to completely gut the interior and carry everything out the smashed front window.
There is a second Recovery Village made of stacked temporary buildings that we walked through. The merchants greeted us as we walked by, but there wasn't anything interesting to a tourist in this one. From this area, which is about six blocks from the harbor, almost nothing remains.
The area that backs up to the steep hillside shows the most damage. All of the buildings that backed to the slope are gone. We assume that the piles of debris pushed by the wave would have piled up along the wall and crushed all of the structures here.
We walked the short distance back to the hotel, arriving just after noon. We went into the shop to buy some bottled drinks to have with lunch and had to summon someone from the front desk to ring it up. He was very nice, as usual. The woman who checked us in called out an enthusiastic greeting when she saw us. Dave asked for the key and for the coupons for tonight's and tomorrow morning's meals. We chose 6:30 pm for dinner again.
Up at the room, the maid hadn't quite finished yet. Japanese hotels have an odd system of cleaning rooms. They open all of the doors and do all of them at the same time. That's why rooms are never available until check in time. Dave pointed at our room and the maid started scrambling to finish it. First she told him it would be done "later". He was happy he understood what she said! Then she checked the room and said it would be just a short time, while apologizing over and over. Dave told her it isn't a problem, but she frantically finished it. All that had to be done was bring a fresh pitcher of water, but she insisted on doing that, too.
We sat at the table on the floor and ate our lunch. We really like the food from 7-11. It is always fresh and flavorful. The food is geared to locals, so it isn't the usual hot dogs and crap we have at our convenience stores. We usually get a salad, sandwich, and a small dessert each, for less than •800. That's pretty hard to beat.
After seeing Rikuzentakata and Kesennuma we are struck by how differently the two communities are approaching the reconstruction process. Perhaps Rikuzentakata being completely wiped off the map makes it easier in a way to get everyone to cooperate. The effort there appears to be coordinated with no single building left to block progress. In Kesennuma there is a more piecemeal approach to it. Some individual buildings are completely restored while one next door has been torn down and another one sits just as it was after the tsunami. Since the devastation here isn't quite as widespread or extreme, there must be a nightmare of individual property rights that have to be worked through to get anything done.
We'd hate to wish for utter devastation in order to move things along more quickly, but that does appear to be what happened in Rikuzentakata. We keep wondering how they managed to get all of the property owners to cooperate in Rikuzentakata in order to tear down and remove all of the wrecked buildings. Whoever accomplished that is a miracle worker.
We tried to nap on the floor with limited success, but the chairs are so uncomfortable it is the better option.
A busload of tourists arrived and checked into the hotel around 5:00 pm. As far as we can tell from the people we heard, they are Chinese. Now the corridors are very smoky, but we can't smell it in the room.
At 6:30 pm we went to the restaurant for dinner. Tonight's spread has a shark theme with braised shark fin and a little bowl of shark heart sashimi (tasted like nothing) with the crab legs. There was the usual 3-part cold appetizer plate, sashimi, the hot dish that cooks at the table (nothing still alive this time), a plate with cold sliced beef, a bowl of cold sliced octopus, sushi and a soup with a clam and a fish meatball in it. Dessert was a slice of grapefruit and one of honeydew melon with a cup of tea. Again, everything was fine, but nothing stood out as particularly memorable.
The lighting in the lobby is so bright at night that it is like staring into the sun. No exaggeration that it actually takes us aback when the elevator doors open. One entire wall is floor to ceiling glass and it isn't that bright during the day when the sun is shining! It doesn't help that the floor is shiny white marble and the columns are mirrored.
Day 26: Thursday, April 24 - Train & Shinkansen to Nikko - Nikko Kanaya Hotel
Nikko is a town at the entrance to Nikko
National Park, most famous for Toshogu, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine
and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
It is sunny and warmer today, expected to get up to the high 60's to low 70's. It will be a little cooler in Nikko though.
Breakfast at the hotel was the same as yesterday. The selection of food is nice with plenty of choices to please almost anyone. It helps if you like Japanese food though.
Our final thoughts on the Kesennuma Plaza Hotel: Not bad. We kind of got used to it. The lack of English was never a problem for us, but if you don't at least know the basics, you might want to skip the town altogether. The hotel is relatively inexpensive for the kind of place it is, so we can't complain too much about the lack of staff. The food was fine and the staff they do have is efficient and friendly. They all seemed glad to have us here. The room was very large and in better condition than some places we stayed, but there is room for improvement for sure. If we came to this town again, we would probably stay here since the only place with Western-style rooms is a business hotel by the train station that looks rundown.
Our final thoughts on Kesennuma: Don't come here unless you are very adventurous and can speak at least rudimentary Japanese. No one speaks English with any proficiency, which is exactly what we expected. If you do come, be sure you book a full meal package at your hotel because there are no other options for dinner (or other meals for that matter). We didn't see any restaurants when we were walking around town, although there must be some hidden somewhere. There are some tiny places in the Recovery Village for lunch, but that's it. Other than looking at the recovery effort and tsunami damage, there isn't any reason to come here until the tourist infrastructure is rebuilt. The locals do appreciate visitors, so you may want to come to show your support if nothing else. That is the main reason we came and we're glad we did.
Today is our last marathon travel day. We have to take three trains, including one shinkansen, to get to our destination in Nikko. This will put us squarely back on the main tourist track after being off the radar for the past several weeks. Frankly, we prefer being off the track and not feeling as though we have to run around seeing every shrine and temple there is. But, Nikko is a major "must see", so we couldn't pass it up.
We checked out of the hotel at 9:45 am and asked how to get to the station. The woman we have been talking to all along said that if we can wait until 10:15 they will take us in their bus at no extra charge. That's hard to beat, so we waited outside. The weather is very nice today, not too cold and not too warm.
The bus driver drove us and one other couple to the station. The front desk woman came out with a hotel flag and waved goodbye as we drove off. Earlier, when a busload of Chinese tourists drove away, the entire staff of the hotel was out waving flags. Still, it is a nice gesture. We have no complaints at all about the staff here. They were all very welcoming.
We had about half an hour to wait for our train at 10:44, but we didn't want to sit inside the station where it, as usual, is way too warm. A ticket taker outside told us we had to wait until closer to departure to stand on the platform, but when Dave asked if we could sit on a bench right outside the door he said it was OK.
JR has ripped up the tracks for another line that used to end at the station. They are using that part of the station and the old roadbed as a bus route. Apparently there is no plan to resurrect the tsunami-damaged tracks.
We took the local train back the way we came to Ichinoseki, which takes over an hour. There's nothing unpleasant about it except it is boring. From Ichinoseki we are taking the Tohoku shinkansen to Utsunomiya. We had to wait about 40 minutes for that train, but the station wasn't crowded and we didn't mind waiting. When a non-stop shinkansen went through the station it was so fast that it was actually blurry to look at. We almost felt like it was going to suck us out onto the tracks, luggage and all.
Our train arrived and we hauled our stuff to the green car and found our seats. The green cars rarely have more than a handful of people in them, so it is very pleasant. You are supposed to be quiet on shinkansen rides, so there isn't any talking above a whisper. There is even a sticker on the back of the seats telling people not to bother other passengers when using a laptop computer with, "Keyboard noises, etc."
This part of the journey took about an hour and 45 minutes. Dave fell asleep, so for him the time went by very quickly. He was surprised to wake up and find that the next stop is where we are supposed to get off. Luckily Bill paid attention to the itinerary and knew the stations. We arrived at Utsumomiya at 2:48 pm.
It was an easy walk to the Nikko Line through the station to catch the next train at 3:05 pm. This is another local train, but the ride is only about 30 minutes with six stops. The line ends at Nikko. There is also a more luxurious private train line to Nikko from Tokyo that includes the tourist buses, but we didn't mind the local train. We saw more non-Japanese people get off the train than we have seen in all of the past four weeks. We are definitely back on the tourist route, unfortunately. We thought it odd that a train with so many foreign tourists does not have any announcements in English. That isn't a problem for us, but be sure you know how to determine your station from the Japanese announcements if you take this line.
Nikko is very accustomed to tourists, so it is no problem to walk out of the station right into a taxi to the hotel. It would take about 30 minutes at a leisurely pace to walk from the JR or Tobu train stations to the tourist sites. But, it is all uphill. The town is a hodge podge of old and new buildings, some of them abandoned.
We arrived at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel around 4:00 pm. That is the longest travel day we have had so far. We generally try not to travel for more than three hours per day, but we can do more if there is nothing to see to warrant a stop. That was the case today.
Honestly, we were expecting a dump based on some of the reviews we read about the Kanaya Hotel. It is the oldest Western-style hotel in Japan and is celebrating its 140th anniversary. It is made up of several different buildings from different eras. There is a Japanese style building out front called the Dragon Palace. The rooms are all Western twins. We booked a standard twin because the prices are outlandish for anything better than that. So, we expect to get one of the old, dumpy rooms. Our reservation is for a smoking room because there were no non-smoking available when we booked.
Imagine our relief when the lobby is actually kind of charming. The woman at the front desk spoke perfect English and was very polite. She acted a bit surprised that we didn't book with meals included, but we were assured we can eat in the dining room and pay for it if we choose. The prices including meals are so outrageous ($150 per day additional, per person for breakfast and dinner) that we would rather get food from 7-11 if we have to. There is a Tea Lounge that looks like it was probably a smoking lounge originally, and a bar that has a fireplace designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The bar wasn't open, so we could only look through the glass door.
The hotel doesn't smell of smoke at all. A very nice older gentleman showed us to our room. He had a good sense of humor and spoke almost perfect English. He told us that if we go to the dining room we should show up at 7:30 pm and not when it opens at 6:00.
Arriving at our room in the main building, we still expected the worst. The hallways are straight out of "The Shining" with red carpet and everything. However, when we walked into our room, which is actually a suite, we were shocked to find it is completely modern. Well, modern from probably 1990 based on the decor, but the carpet, drapes and bedspreads are new and NOT PINK! The thing that gives away the decade is the whitewashed oak furniture, but it is in good shape and doesn't show much wear.
We have a huge room with a separate sitting area divided from the bedroom with draperies that can be closed. There are two sinks, one outside the bathing area, and another one in with the toilet and shower/tub. The bathing area looks brand new. If there was only a sofa in the sitting area instead of two wooden dining chairs, we'd be thrilled. There is plenty of space for more furniture, but nooooo. There is an ashtray in the room, but it doesn't smell of smoke at all. Maybe having an air purifier helps in that regard, but whatever it is, it is a huge relief. Our room is above the lobby and overlooks the entrance drive.
The biggest surprise is that there is air conditioning that actually works! We were scared at first because there are two big radiators in the room, but the man who brought us up referred to it as A/C and that is exactly what it is. When we asked if there is internet in the room, he went to get a DSL modem and hooked it up to the phone for us. It works fine and is way faster than what we have at home. Now we don't begrudge the rate as we did when we thought we were getting a rundown old room.
The man who informed us of the amenities and such told us that it might be a problem that we didn't book with meals included because the town rolls up the sidewalks at 6:00 pm. We decided to wander down the hill to look for dinner at 5:00 pm thinking it is still early and something must be open. There are at least ten restaurants within a couple of blocks of the hotel, all of which are already closed! We walked down the street toward the station and found two places open. The first one was full. When Dave opened the door of the second place the heat and cigarette smoke knocked him back onto the street. We gave up and went back to the hotel.
In the lobby we found menus for the dining room. The fixed price meals are over $100 PER PERSON. This is probably what we would get if we booked the meal package. One is a "trout" meal and the other is beef with a bunch of fancy French crap. There is also a "grill" menu that doesn't start until 7:30 pm. We were looking at that when the man who had taken us to our room came over and showed us the ala carte part of the menu. It looks decent enough, if somewhat overpriced, so we were OK with it. He asked if we like steak and beer, so we said, "Sure." Then he told us we would be better off going to a place by the station rather than eating here. He called to be sure they are open tonight and old us how to find it. How nice was that?
We found it where he said it would be, one shop past the fire station, but it took longer than ten minutes to walk there. It is downhill going, but all uphill coming back. It was smoky when we walked in, but only for a few minutes. There was some sort of drunken party going on in the back, but the dining area in front was about half full of normal people behaving properly. A guy stumbled out to talk to the waitress at one point. We were kind of hoping he would throw up or pass out to make it really entertaining, but no such luck.
We each ordered the Mixed Grill, a "Big Bowl of Salad" to share, and Bill ordered Minestrone Soup. Dave talked Bill into getting a chuhai since we didn't get that the other night when we ordered it. All of the food was fantastic. The mixed grill was pieces of steak, a charbroiled boneless piece of chicken, and a hamburger steak. It came with a few fries and vegetables. We added some sherbet that tasted freshly made for dessert. The total for all of this was only •6600, less than the price for a single meal at the hotel and far more food.
The guy at the hotel wasn't kidding when he said the town shuts down at 6:30 pm. Nothing is open at all. There are still a few people walking around, but everyone seems to go back to Tokyo at night rather than staying here. That is doable, but why not stay for at least a night?
Back at the hotel we asked if they have laundry service and thankfully they do. We picked up a laundry bag and the form to fill out. Dave has worn the same shirt for three days now, which he hates to do. Since it isn't hot it isn't horrible, but the thought of it grosses him out.
The man who sent us to the restaurant asked if we had beer. Dave told him he made Bill order a chuhai instead and he laughed out loud.
Day 27: Friday, April 25 - Nikko - Nikko Kanaya Hotel
It is a beautiful days here in Nikko. Sunny and in the high 50's to low 60's.
We're up early for no reason except we were so excited to sleep in real beds that we went to bed early. We went to breakfast in the dining room around 8:00 am and we seated at a table with a view over the little pond out front. We can't understand why the meal plan is such an expensive add-on because the menu prices aren't outlandish for a hotel. Dave ordered the set meal with choice of juice, choice of eggs, ham, bacon or sausage, a basket with the biggest piece of toast he's ever seen, plus a roll (both from the hotel bakery), and coffee or tea. Bill ordered ala carte, with the extra being a bowl of cereal. The total bill was •4400. For a meal in a formal dining room the rival of a Crystal ship, that's not bad at all. All of the food was delicious and the service polite.
When Dave went to pay the Bill, the maitre d' already knew our room number without being told. Dave said, "So we're the only Americans here, huh?", and he laughed. So yes, we're the only non-Japanese staying here. There were only four tables occupied when we were there, but most people probably get there at the crack of dawn to get started on their bus tour. We didn't see anyone in the dining room at dinner time last night. We forgot to mention that when the dining room opens, a woman came out and played some chimes to call guests to dinner. Probably in the past there were set seatings and they have continued the tradition of the chimes to announce dinner.
So far, we are enjoying this hotel. Maybe because we are so relieved that it isn't a dump. The only things that stands out as sub-standard are the amenities in the bathroom. The bars of soap are smaller than you'd get at a Motel 6. One was completely used up after just one of us took a shower. The shampoo and conditioner are in the tiniest tubes we have ever seen. They are about one-third the size of a finger, no joke. The print is so small that we can't tell which is which. So, if you ever stay here, bring your own toiletries! They do, however, give you a hair brush, toothbrush/paste, swabs, cotton balls, hair bands, etc. We always travel with a few bottles of shampoo and such that we have collected during our travels and we'd advise you to do the same. Most Japanese hotels don't have the small bottles you can take (they have large pump dispensers), so plan ahead.
We think we figured out why we were upgraded to a suite. The room we booked is a Standard Room and they are in the annex. That building is currently closed for renovation. Lucky us! There are some interesting details in the hotel if you take the time to wander around. There is a lantern built into the stairway railing that is original to the hotel. Today they had put two flower arrangements on the stairs. They were different when we went down the stairs later in the day.
The hotel was very fancy in its heyday. There is a small display of items from the old days of the hotel. The finger bowls are Baccarat crystal. The lounge we thought might have been a smoking room had a pool table and ping pong table in it back then. They still have board games to borrow from the front desk to continue the tradition.
Click to view a MAP of Nikko's tourist sites.
We took off walking toward the nearby shrine area around 9:45 am. It is a very short walk to the river and the famous Shinkyo Bridge. If you want to actually walk across the bridge there is a fee. But, if you do that, you have to come back and walk across the regular highway bridge anyway. Plus, if you are on the bridge, you can't see it, so what's the point? The guide books point out that if you wait until after 5:00 pm, the ticket office is closed and there is no one to stop you from walking on the bridge. Why you'd want to, we have no clue.
Cross the highway and you start climbing some steep stone steps up into the cedar forest and the hills behind Nikko. We detoured to the right to an unmarked temple where we found a huge red lacquered pagoda, among other typical buildings. Or maybe it was at a shrine? We couldn't see inside the buildings, so we don't know, nor do we care to be perfectly honest. It is pretty, that's enough. And, there were no other people anywhere in sight.
We kept walking up the steps with a waterway down the center, passing various scenes you expect to find in a Japanese painting. This leads to what is ordinarily the biggest draw, Rinnoji Temple. We knew we found the right place when we saw a huge metal building covering it. We knew beforehand that it is under renovation, so it wasn't a surprise.
When we went to buy tickets, the woman there said they are no longer offering the combination ticket for the three main temples. We will have to buy tickets at each place. She told us that this temple is under renovation (duh), but we bought tickets anyway. In some ways, being under renovation made it more interesting. They have removed all of the statues and other decorative elements and placed them on display. You wouldn't ever be able to get this close to most of them in their original locations. It is also interesting to see how they have disassembled huge Buddha statues. This way you can see inside and how the wood is carved. All of these priceless treasures are right there with no protection at all, so you really do get up close and personal with them.
There is a multi-story metal stairway to climb to see the progress of the renovation of the building. We expected to see them painting or replacing some of the wood, but the whole building is being taken apart. Only about two stories are still sort of standing. Everything else is stacked on racks to the sides awaiting restoration. It is an impressive operation for sure. No pictures are allowed, so we can't show you anything, but if you do a Google search you'll see what we are talking about.
It is a short walk up a historic old street to Toshogu Shrine. We're not exactly sure what we saw, nor do we particularly care because every bit of it is magnificent. Previously, there were separate admission fees for a couple of the famous sites on the grounds of the shrine, but now everything is covered under one price, which is a bit steep at •1300 per person (the other shrines and temples are around •500 per person). However, this is the big draw and is where we ran into the busloads of obnoxious German tourists who apparently just don't know how to behave. We don't mean to paint every German in a bad light, but if these people are the representatives of their country, then the rest of them will have to live with the stereotype.
But, we digress. Tourist hoards or not, you can't diminish the artistry of this shrine. There are so many famous sites here that it makes your head spin. You'll find elaborate gates (under renovation, of course) with scary demon guards, the five-story pagoda, a sacred horse stable complete with said sacred horse's butt in your face...this "barn" is decorated with carvings of the "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil" monkeys. There are three sacred warehouses, a striking holy water pavilion, carved fences, and another breathtaking gate.
Visitors pass through the famous Sleeping Cat Gate to climb an enormous stone staircase that winds up the hill for miles...well, maybe not miles, but it is a LONG way up. No wonder there is a defibrillator available at the top! All of this effort culminates at the Tomb of Iayasu Tokagawa.
Then, needless to say, you have to climb all the way back down the same way. These steps are very high, too. We have no idea how the tiny people of yesteryear made it up to any shrine or temple!
Back on the relatively flat grounds of the shrine are more amazing wood carvings, golden rooftops, black lacquer and gold doors, portable shrines and more.
From here it is a scenic walk down a wide gravel road through the cedar forest. The trees are so big they look almost artificial. Water cascades down troughs on either side of the road. This leads to Futarasan Shrine, we think. From this point on, we are guessing what we actually saw because absolutely nothing is marked or explained in English and the map is horrible. All we know for sure is that we saw a shrine and a storehouse for gold portable shrines, among other things. There were a lot of tourists here, too, so we're pretty sure it is something famous, but not as famous as the last place because the German busload skipped it.
We popped into a souvenir shop and Dave was wrangled in by an old lady working there. The temples bells started to ring at noon and she insisted he wait until all twelve had rung out. She seemed pleased that he took the time to listen with her.
We're fairly certain that the next place is Rinnoji Taiyuin Temple, but don't hold us to that. There is a dramatic approach lined with a couple of smaller temples and more elaborately carved gates decorated with dragon carvings.
The water pavilion here is the most fantastical one we have ever seen. Besides the incredible artistry of the roof, there is a stone trough that delivers the water to the font. The water starts at the top of the hill where it cascades from a bronze dragon's mouth. Under the roof, the carved and brightly painted wood has a wave motif.
Why this temple isn't as popular as the others is anyone's guess. There are some very impressive details here that rival any we have seen. Huge demons of every shape and color, each one different, guard several of the gates. Enormous bronze lanterns line the entries. Then we reached yet another breathtaking gate flanked by equally amazing towers housing drums and a bell. Maybe the five billion 12" stone steps keep people away?
Passing through this gate leads to the temple itself. If you think the front is amazing, just go around back for a completely different set of structures. Then you finally reach the Tomb of Tenkai tucked into the hillside and protected by towering stone walls. Dave told Bill to get busy carving when we get home because he's not getting any younger and he'll need a tomb like this at some point. Maybe one or two mossy stone lanterns would be nice, too.
Walking back toward the main pathway, we made a pit stop and came across our quote of the day in the restroom: "Please Use the Rest Room Cleanly"
It is nearly 2:00 pm at this point and we're running low on energy. We stopped into the first little restaurant we came to that happened to be a ramen place. One of the German busloads was just leaving, so it was quiet inside. Two other couples were there, but they were quiet and well behaved. The waitress brought us English menus right away without being asked. Dave ordered the Gyudon, which is thinly sliced beef and onions over rice, and Bill ordered the Yuba Ramen. Yuba is the skin that forms on top of tofu when it is fermenting (or whatever it does). It is sliced and served many different ways. It tastes better than it sounds. If you didn't know what it was, you wouldn't even notice it. The portions were enormous, everything was delicious and only cost •1800.
When another busload of Germans barged in we knew it was time to hit the road again, so off we went wandering down a street lined with souvenir shops. It started to rain slightly, so we ducked into a couple of shops, all selling exactly the same tourist crap we saw everywhere else. We had already bought our trinkets from a monk at a temple (the sign said we would, "Keep for a long time") and the old lady at the bell stop, so we don't need anything else.
It started to rain more heavily, so we waited under an overhang on the main highway for a while. Dave spotted a signpost showing distances to various sites, so we knew which way to walk back in the direction of the hotel. Tomorrow we will continue walking up this highway to more sites.
When the rain let up, we started walking downhill toward the hotel. At a major intersection there is an underpass that gets you to any corner of the road without crossing the highway. We used to have these at home until they became so dangerous they were all sealed up. Here, they are clean, there's no graffiti, and they don't smell like pee! We followed the river until we saw the hotel on the hill overlooking it.
All of the major sites in Nikko are walking distance from most hotels in town. The steps are VERY high and steep though, so you do have to be able bodied to handle them. All of the shrines and temples have these huge stairways to get to the entrance with no handicapped access at all. There are buses that stop at the outskirts of the temple district and that go to other sites, but there is no avoiding the walking and climbing here.
We checked out a few shops near the hotel and bought a couple of desserts from the hotel bakery that is on the street. Then we walked back up to the hotel, ate our desserts and crashed. We only woke up around 4:00 pm because someone knocked on the door to deliver our clean laundry. We were told it takes 24 hours, but we turned it in when we went out this morning, so it came back very quickly. Of course, each item is sealed in plastic and looks brand new.
At 6:00 pm we heard the chimes announcing the opening of the dining room and, like Pavlov's dogs, we began to drool. So, we pulled ourselves together and walked down the hill about fifty feet to the steakhouse there. This is the place we wanted to go yesterday, but it wasn't open then.
It looks like it is about to collapse on the outside, but it is nice inside with formal service from an attentive staff. We both ordered one of the set course meals. Our set included the appetizer of the day that was sliced chicken...maybe, we're not quite sure...with asparagus, tomato sauce, and other vegetables, pumpkin soup, yuba salad, tenderloin steak, and dessert. The gimmick here is that they give you a cloth bib (that no one wore) so that the sizzling meat won't splatter all over you when it comes to the table. The waitress quickly covered it with an absorbent paper that became drenched in grease. However, it worked and nothing hit us.
All of the food was outstanding, especially the beef. It is the best we have had so far, without question. This is also the second most expensive meal we have had, adding up to a total of •13000. It was, however, worth every penny, unlike the •15000 buffet at the Hilton the first night.
We were back in our room by 7:30 pm and done for the day. We'll continue our explorations of Nikko tomorrow. The weather is supposed to take a turn for the worse tomorrow, but this time we'll be prepared with umbrellas. There is supposed to be a sunny day following, then rain for the rest of our remaining days in Japan.
Day 28: Saturday, April 26 - Nikko - Nikko Kanaya Hotel
There is no sign of the predicted rain today...it is bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and 65 degrees.
We went to the dining room for breakfast where Bill amused the waitress by ordering so much food that there was no room left on the table. Why she found it so unusual is beyond us. We have seen Japanese people at a buffet and they can eat us under the table any day! Dave had the same set breakfast as yesterday with the addition of a small salad. The bill was •6600, but that's not bad for the amount of food ordered...well, not bad for a hotel dining room anyway.
By the way, we have about $1,500 left of the $6,000 in Japanese yen we started with, so we're doing very well budget-wise. We anticipated spending up to $10,000 on extras, but even using our cash to buy unexpected items (like a new camera and shoes) we are still way ahead. Japan isn't a cheap date, but most of the expensive things like rail passes and many hotels were paid in advance. We have had no problems with any of the prepaid hotels booked through JAPANiCAN or Rakuten Travel. All of them knew we were coming. A couple of them didn't understand the JAPANiCAN prepaid thing because we didn't have vouchers, but it was an easy issue to work out. Rakuten does give vouchers, but we never had to show them. If you use any booking service, be sure to bring the receipts with you just in case.
We'll get started walking to the more far flung sites today, leaving the hotel around 10:30 am.
It is a little over a mile from the hotel, uphill, to the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa. There are many more tourists here today since it is Saturday, but most of the people we saw are Japanese. If you ever come to Nikko, do not come on Saturday! The traffic is horrible, so it is very noisy walking along the main highway. Yesterday it was a completely different atmosphere. The temperature had risen to 72 by the time we got out on the streets.
We prefer not to walk along busy streets, but in this case there is no other way to get to our destination. The only thing unpleasant about it is the noise of trucks now and then, but that detracts from the lovely setting of Nikko. All of the shops and restaurants are open today, so it looks more lively. Once we passed the intersection where the bridge is, the crowds disappeared. Even if it is busy, it is easy to avoid the masses by staying away from the three main temples in the hills. By the way, we have yet to see anyone pay the fee to walk on the old bridge.
There are a couple of minor things to see along this route. One is a shrine that sits where an old Samurai house once existed. The other is the location where the Nikko Kanaya Hotel began as the Samurai House. It isn't open to the public, but it still exists. There is a branch of the hotel bakery in the parking lot next door. There are a couple of other shrines and sites shown on our map, but we didn't see either of them and didn't care enough to search them out. Once you see the shrines and temples in the hills of Nikko, everything else pales by comparison.
After about 30 minutes of leisurely walking, we arrived at the gate of the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa. There are similar villas in Kyoto and elsewhere, but they require advance permission to visit. This one is open to the public and is no longer used for official functions. It was restored and is in like-new condition, so it looks like a recreation. It is, however, authentic and is a Designated Important Cultural Asset.
The Villa is built around the former Edo residence of the Kishu Tokugawa clan, which was brought to Nikko from Edo in 1872. It was used as a temporary palace for the emperor and as the crown prince's residence until 1898. When the main three-story section of the residence was moved to Nikko, the villa was built around it. Three parts were used as the emperor's living and sleeping quarters.
As we approached the front entrance the guard spoke to us in English and told us where to store our shoes. Then we bought our tickets for •510 per person, and started the self-guided tour. There are probably more people here than during the week, but it isn't at all crowded. Everyone we saw here is Japanese. We are the only foreign tourists at the moment.
The tour starts in a series of connected reception rooms where there is a video with English subtitles describing the villa and how it was restored. The sliding doors are open throughout because it is such a beautiful day. That provides serene views of a courtyard garden and lets in a nice cool breeze. There are a few displays of beautiful original painted door panels and other relics of the past.
In the section of the villa where important dignitaries were received, the doorways are higher, so we didn't have to duck at all through this part. The emperor's receiving room is noted as the most important room in the house.
Upstairs in the oldest part of the house are the living quarters of the imperial family. Visitors climb some steep stairs and then we had to start ducking at the doorways again. The guard was amused when he warned Bill to duck and he told him he already has a scar on his head from hitting it on low doorways. The view of the garden from up here is beautiful. Back downstairs, the tour winds past bathrooms, sitting rooms for ladies in waiting, and several other function rooms.
After retrieving our shoes, we walked around back to the garden. There is a huge, gnarled old weeping cherry tree in full bloom. It is so perfect it looks artificial. There are several streams winding through the garden which visitors are free to wander. Down behind the garden there are three air raid shelters built into the garden hills. The emperor evacuated here during the war.
The view over the garden pond back toward the villa is so perfect it could be a painting.
Although there are no foreign tourists in sight, this is the first place in Nikko where everything is explained in English. Even the video has English subtitles. It is a shame that most tourists never venture beyond the famous temples because there are beautiful things to see that are away from the bus tours and crowds. We were impressed by the villa and definitely encourage everyone to see it. There is a bus from town if you aren't able to walk that far. The same bus also goes out to a nearby scenic lake if you are so inclined.
We started walking back toward the hotel, vaguely looking for a couple of shrines mentioned on the map. We followed some Japanese tourists and still never came upon anything else to look at except one dilapidated shrine to workers (or something like that). Next we tried to find a scenic gorge in the river to no avail. We did see a lot of Japanese people in full hiking regalia coming from that direction though. Since that suggests actual hiking and not strolling, we will admit we didn't make a huge effort to find it.
On the way to the villa, a woman handed us a flyer for 10% off at her restaurant, so we started back toward that direction. It is 1:00 pm now and way past our lunchtime! The restaurant is popular with tour groups, but they were all ushered upstairs, so it wasn't crowded in the ground floor seating area. Plus, it was entertaining watching the elderly tourists fall out of the restroom behind us.
Dave ordered Tempura Soba and Bill had a cold Soba and Tempura set meal. We'd love to eat at noodle restaurants every day, but it is so messy that we'd have to do our laundry all the time. Dave had to rinse out his shirt when we got back to the hotel. And, they don't give you napkins or anything else, so come prepared with your own. The bill for all of this delicious food was only •2100. The service was very friendly and the waitress spoke some English. Almost every shop keeper and waitress in Nikko is very accustomed to serving tourists, so communicating with them isn't as much of an issue as it can be elsewhere.
Back in the vicinity of the hotel we found the crowds. The sidewalks are jammed with people. It is still manageable, but we are very glad we saw the major sights yesterday rather than today. We had most of the temples and shrines to ourselves, which suits us just fine.
Nothing else exciting happened back at the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. There is a constant stream of cars in the driveway, but we have no idea where they are going. The parking lot is still empty. We were able to peek into some rooms down the hall from us that were being cleaned. They are all still the old original furniture, but they looked to be in good condition. We must have one of a very few modern rooms. Perhaps they wisely decided to stick with the antique look after re-doing just a few rooms. We also seem to have one of the largest rooms in the main building. The others are a decent size, but none that we saw would qualify as a suite. However, they have comfortable upholstered chairs and/or sofas that are much better than the stiff wooden dining chairs we have.
We decided to give the hotel dining room a try and went downstairs at 7:00 pm. We expected a crowd, but only six tables were occupied and it is a huge room. If you get the meal package, you get one of the set meals that are both about $100 per person. We could have ordered those also, but chose items from the ala carte section instead. We both had the corn soup, which is the same basic soup we've had at every breakfast buffet since we arrived. It is good, but always exactly the same. We also each had a small salad, which was OK, but nothing special. Bill ordered the baked trout entree and Dave had beef Stroganoff. Both were adequate, but not memorable. For dessert Bill ordered the sherbet and Dave had a fruit sundae. Both were very good.
We also ordered bread...well, Dave ordered some and Bill ordered rice, but somewhere the waitress got confused and we both got bread. All of the baked goods are from the hotel's own bakery and they're nothing special. However, from the crowds at the hotel's bakery down on the street you would think it was made by angels or something. We've had some outstanding bread and pastries in Japan, so we know what special is and this isn't it. The term "resting on their laurels" comes to mind.
The meal cost •13000, which is less than the cost of a single meal plan dinner. That's what we paid at the steakhouse last night. The food was better there, but we got more of it, plus dessert here, so we felt it was a reasonable value and a decent option when not in the mood to go out. There is a separate grill menu that starts at 7:30 pm that is much less formal and expensive. The fancy French menu ends at 8:00 pm. Yes, it confuses us, too. And since when is beef Stroganoff French? Maybe when you spell beef as "boeuf" it makes it French?
We had the same surly waitress tonight as we did this morning. She is actually kind of funny, but she usually looks like she'd rather kill you than take your order. For some reason, she seems to like us, so she finds everything we do amusing. She was actually chatty enough to ask where we are from.
Tomorrow is a three-train day again, but each one is just under an hour. We're not looking forward to hauling luggage through Tokyo Station, but there is no avoiding it. By all means, if you can avoid changing trains at Tokyo Station, please do so.
Day 29: Sunday, April 27 - Train & Shinkansen to Kamakura - Hotel Kamakura Mori
Kamakura is a coastal town in Kanagawa
Prefecture, less than an hour south of Tokyo.
It is sunny and much warmer this morning...in the high 60's expected to get into the low 70's this afternoon.
We had breakfast in the dining room again, repeating the parade of food the same as yesterday. Our regular waitress found the whole thing very amusing. She actually chatted this morning, so apparently we finally broke the ice. Dave gave her a California pin when we left and she seemed delighted.
Our final thoughts on the Nikko Kanaya Hotel: Boy, were we relieved that it wasn't as bad as the reviews said! We enjoyed staying here. Maybe getting the upgrade to a modern suite helped, but we didn't see anything to indicate the hotel isn't keeping up on maintenance. One entire 3-story building is closed for refurbishment, drapes and carpets look new, and paint is fresh. Yes, it is 140 years old, so there are some quirks and a few places that might fall apart at any moment, but that is to be expected. The service is very formal and not as friendly as we have experienced across Japan, but everyone did their job. A few of them, especially the older staff members, are very charming and went out of their way to be helpful. Some of the younger ones have a bit of a 'tude, but overall everyone was very nice. We'd stay here again, no question.
Our final thoughts on Nikko: Definitely touristy, but absolutely worth a visit of at least a couple of days. You could do it as a day trip from Tokyo, but a few days makes it more enjoyable. There is a scenic lake nearby if you want to get out in nature for a day. Nikko is a must see on any Japan itinerary. Be sure your hotel serves dinner because the town rolls up the sidewalks at 5:00 pm.
We have three trains to catch today, but missing any one of them won't cause too much of a problem. We are back in the mainstream now, so alternative routes are readily available. Each train segment is just under an hour, with short waits between them. It isn't any fun with luggage, but we specifically planned it to avoid weekday crowds on the train. Let's see if that helps!
OK, so we lied about no more marathon travel days. Today was a bitch! Note the comment above and take heed about not changing trains at Tokyo Station!!!
We took a taxi from the hotel to the JR station in Nikko. The taxis here start charging when they leave the station to pick you up, so the price is double what it costs to get from the station to the hotel. That doesn't seem fair really, but it was only about $10, so not outrageous.
The train schedule changed since we made our initial plans, but we knew about it beforehand. That means there is a 45 minute wait for the train to depart Nikko. No one else is around, but the train is sitting in the station already. The ticket checker guy said it leaves at 12:01, which we already know, but it was nice of him to tell us. It is too hot in the train to sit inside, so we stayed on the platform until people started to arrive just before departure. We tried leaving the door open, but whenever someone would board the train they closed it. Force of habit apparently. But, really annoying when it is hot inside and very pleasant outside.
The ride back to Utsumomiya takes just under an hour. The ride is very rough and unusual for a Japanese train. Still no English announcements, which seems odd for a major tourist route.
The later departure from Nikko leaves us with just ten minutes to get to the shinkansen platform, but we easily made it. Once in the green car of the shinkansen, we were comfortable again, but only for the 45 minute ride to Tokyo Station where all hell broke loose.
Nothing actually happened that was so terrible, but OMG there are a lot of people!! And you have to walk twenty miles to change trains, so we missed the local train we were supposed to take. Then we couldn't tell for sure which way we are supposed to go, but a check of Googlemaps on the cellphone sorted that out. Trains on this line come every twenty minutes, so missing one isn't a big deal.
Thank God for green cars on local trains!! There is NO WAY we could have squeezed into the regular cars with our luggage. People were packed in like sardines when the train pulled in and not that many got off. The green cars on local trains don't need seat reservations. Tickets are sold right on the platform with an IC card as the only method of payment. However, our green rail passes are valid for this, too.
The issue is that there is nowhere to put luggage at all. So, we piled into two seats each and took up one with luggage. There is an upper level in the green cars that is very popular, but we sat in a small section with just three rows that was mostly empty. An attendant came and asked Bill where we are going because she didn't think we were on the right train. At first he thought it was a problem taking up seats with luggage or that she wanted us to move upstairs for a better view (which she did try to get us to do). Bill told her to talk to Dave, but she gave up (very nicely) and left us alone. Nobody else boarded the green car at any of the twelve stops, so taking up extra seats wasn't a problem. This part of the ride takes an hour. There isn't much legroom, but it is better than standing the whole way.
When we arrived at Kamakura Station, we found everyone in Tokyo rushing about. This isn't a big station at all, but everyone and their brother is here in Kamakura today. Apparently the good weather and cherry blossoms are bringing them out in droves. We have nothing planned for today except to make it to the hotel in one piece, so we're fine with the crowd. However, we had to walk about a block and a half with out luggage to the hotel through wall to wall people.
We aren't expecting much from the Hotel Kamakura Mori. It only has ten rooms and is on the third floor of an office building. It is right on the main street in front of the station and is the only decent option right in town. Most people come here on a day trip from Tokyo or elsewhere, so there aren't many hotels to choose from.
The man at the front desk spoke enough English to tell us what we need to know. He handed us an English explanation of the hotel and how to work the air conditioning. Then he showed us pictures of three options for breakfast: Japanese, Western, or Chinese. We chose Japanese because we generally get way more food that way. He told us to pick up breakfast tickets on the way downstairs in the morning. A nice woman showed us to our room, about twenty feet from the front desk. She spoke enough English to show us how to work the air cleaner built into the wall and tell us the hair dryer is in the closet.
There is no mention of internet here, but when we tried to connect it worked fine. We're surprised to see a "No Smoking" sign in the room, which must be something new. The room sort of smells of cigarettes, but it seems to be coming from the air conditioner, not the fabrics. We opened the window to air things out. We're very pleased that the air conditioning actually works. It is VERY noisy with the window open, so it wouldn't be possible to sleep if we had to leave it open at night.
We're back to pink everything in the room, but it is clean and looks relatively new. The room is small, but has everything we need. There are two twin beds, one with a trundle for a third person, a small table and two chairs, refrigerator stocked with drinks and snacks (at reasonable prices), a large LCD TV, and one of those typical prefab Japanese bathrooms. We booked a breakfast included rate. We could have included dinner as well, but there are a million restaurants and even a McDonalds in front of the station. The reason the hairdryer is in the closet is that there is not an electrical outlet in the bathroom.
We went out around 6:00 pm in search of food. That's no problem in this tourist town because there is a restaurant every two feet and three in every building. The stores are already starting to close, but the restaurants are still open. Whether that is the case tomorrow we'll have to wait and see. There is a narrow shopping street behind the hotel that is jammed with people and all sorts of shops and restaurants. We'll explore that tomorrow.
Eventually we decided upon a tonkatsu restaurant that serves all manner of fried things. It is run by a charming family with the grandmother cooking in the kitchen and the daughter serving. All of them were very sweet. The woman who served us spoke English and we were given English menus. Dave ordered a mix fry set, Bill had a pork cutlet set. This enormous amount of food, including a beer and a soft drink only cost •5200.
After dinner we wandered around looking for a place that sells desserts, but most of the stores were already closed. You'd think that the bakeries would want to catch the business of people leaving restaurants, but no one seems to have thought of that angle yet. We ended up at Baskin Robbins which is NOTHING like the ones we have at home. They also sell fancy desserts, so we picked up a couple and took them back to the hotel. Just like the fancy department stores where we bought this kind of thing previously, they were packed in a fancy box complete with a frozen pack to keep them cool for the 100 feet we had to go with them. We saw a guy chopping dry ice into a bag he put someone's ice cream into to keep it frozen on the way home. And, for these fancy treats with the equally fancy packaging, we paid only •660! And yes, they were delicious.
Dave received a notice that our travel insurance sent a check covering our claim for the dentist visit. It looks like they used a VERY favorable exchange rate, but it is close enough to suit us.
Day 30: Monday, April 28 - Kamakura - Hotel Kamakura Mori
It is overcast and in the low 60's this morning.
We picked up our breakfast tickets and went to the basement restaurant at 8:00 am, as instructed. It is a Chinese restaurant during dinner. Our trays were already set up for us. The waitress brought rice and miso soup to add to it. The Japanese breakfast here is VERY Japanese, including natto and a few unrecognizable things. We forgot to take a picture, but we'll be sure to do it tomorrow morning. Nothing was inedible except the natto. It isn't all that bad since it really doesn't taste like anything, but the stretchy part is too hard to eat without making a mess, so we can't be bothered. Dave made Bill eat his semi-boiled egg. Drinking a lukewarm egg out of a bowl just doesn't fly with him. Bill ate everything except the natto and the extremely gross pickled plum. Dave ate all of the pickled stuff.
The waitress kept trying to get us to drink coffee, but we stuck to the tea already on the table. She also tried to bring us forks, but at this point we are quite adept at chopsticks, so we declined. All in all, this wasn't our favorite breakfast, but it was edible and that's what really matters.
We'll set off to explore the sites of Kamakura around 10:00 am. There is a small electric railway to get to the Daibutsu ("Great Buddha"), and then we'll walk around the area and come back to the main part of town later. Click to view the Tourist Map.
The crowds haven't diminished in any noticeable way, so we'll have to suck it up and deal with it. At the train station we followed the signs to the Enoden Electric Railway, went through the JR gate, then came upon another gate. When we showed our passes to the attendant, he said it is not a JR line and we need to buy tickets (he was very nice about it). Then we noticed that the ticket gates take IC cards, so we tried that. Didn't work. We thought maybe we needed more money, so we went to the ticket machine and added •1000 to each one. Still didn't work. Dave asked the attendant what the problem is and he said we have to go out the JR gates and come back in through another set of gates. Whatever, it makes no sense, but doing that did work.
The platform was packed when we arrived, but everyone squeezed into the tiny train. We had to stand, but it only takes eight minutes to the station we want. Everyone got off at the same station. There were two attendants checking tickets and/or IC cards. Dave saw one of them point at the place to swipe his card, but Bill's guy just said, "OK", and didn't tell him about the machine.
We ended up on the narrow sidewalk with 18 billion other people. It appears that the schoolchildren who couldn't get into Tokyo Disneyland today came here instead. There are literally thousands of them swarming all over the place. That is in addition to the adult tourists. If it weren't so crowded, this would be a cute little street. We checked out some nice shops and bought a couple of small items that are better quality than the trinkets we usually buy. There are lots of places to eat and get snacks, too. Every shop selling ice cream had a line of school kids in front of it. The Golden Week holidays start tomorrow, so why are they already out of school? Or does every school go on a field trip the day before a week-long vacation?
Anyway, it sure isn't any problem to find the tourist sites in this town. Just get in the flow of humanity and you'll end up somewhere famous. In our case we ended up at the Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Kotoku-in (Temple). Apparently the Buddha has a magnetic attraction for school groups because all of them are swarming all over the place. In our opinion, they are being quite disrespectful, as well. We half expected laser beams to shoot out of the Daitbutsu's eyes and mow them all down at any moment. They're just lucky he is so serene! Again, if the crowds weren't here, this would be an inspirational place to visit. As it is, it is impressive, but the atmosphere is ruined by the ongoing ruckus.
The Daibutsu was originally housed in a huge wooden temple similar to the one in Nara, but a tsunami washed it away and it was never replaced. Only the foundation stones remain. FYI, the Daibutsu in not near the shoreline, so it must have been some wave to get way up here. Judging by the packed city from here to the ocean, nobody learned a lesson from it either. There are signs all over pointing to high ground just in case.
It is amazing that something so huge could be made in 1211-something! Buddha's giant sandals hang on the wall nearby in case he gets up and wants to stomp the noisy kids at his feet. You can pay a small extra fee to go inside the statue, but there was a line of screaming kids, so we skipped that adventure. The statue is so big it has windows built into its back.
We followed the swarm back in the direction we came from, stopping at the street leading up to Hase-dera (Temple). We expected another annoying swarm based on the number of people on the street approaching it, but it wasn't that bad inside. We used our IC cards to buy tickets (•500 each) from a machine, then entered the grounds.
There are quite a few people here, but they are adult tourists, so the atmosphere is as subdued and respectful as it should be. The gardens inside the gate are spectacular. There are rows of blooming peonies and other flowers everywhere. Every tree and shrub is manicured and placed just right so that it paints a picture of serenity. It is too late for cherry blossoms here, but the other flowers are compensation enough.
A number of small temples dot the beautiful grounds. There are serious statues as well as whimsical ones. The big attraction here is an enormous gilded 11-faced Goddess of Mercy housed in the main temple building. Pictures are not allowed inside, but the statue resembles THIS ONE that is much smaller. It is VERY impressive to say the least. It is almost compelling enough to make us get religion. Almost...
Another wooden building houses a rotating book rack and walls lined with sutras in floor to ceiling stacks. There is a restaurant with outdoor seating where they had to post signs warning of attack birds that will steal your food.
A steep pathway winds up the hillside. The slope is lined with hydrangeas that must be spectacular when they are blooming. Equally spectacular is the ocean and city view from up here. However, it is plain to see that the city is a disaster waiting to happen if there is another tsunami similar to the one that washed away the Daibutsu's temple! It is located to the far right in the hills shown in this city view picture.
We followed route markers past the temple belfry and to a cave carved into the solid rock hillside. Inside, the walls are lined with carvings in niches. Following the route through the cave, we had to bend over to walk through it. There is a part of the cave where you can buy tiny images to leave in dedication to whomever you choose.
We stopped into a •100 shop in front of the station just for the heck of it. It is here that we found our Japanese Quote of the Day on a package for a toilet seat cover.
We hated to leave the beautiful gardens and scenery of Hase-dera, but we have to get back to town, so back into the crowded streets we went. Back at the Enoden train station, Bill's IC card was rejected because he didn't check out when we arrived. The station attendant fixed it and was nice about it. Dave's worked fine.
The train was just as packed on the way back as when we started, but it isn't a long ride, so standing isn't a problem. Our cards worked to check out of the station and we started walking back to the hotel. The shopping street is hopping today, but what isn't?
When we arrived at the hotel, around noon, the woman at the front desk scrambled to see if our room is clean. It is, so we went to clean up and shed a layer since it is quite warm now. After resting for a few minutes, we hit the streets again in search of some lunch.
We ended up at the Chinese restaurant just up the street from the hotel. The staff was very friendly and welcomed us in. Although we ordered two different set meals, we both got the same thing, fried rice with sliced pork and a small bowl of egg drop soup. The food was delicious, so we don't actually care what we got. It was an enormous amount of food and only cost •1800.
After lunch we started walking up the street toward the next major draw in town, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. This shrine was important to the Kamakura shogunate as a center of politics and ceremony. There is an azalea lined promenade down the middle of the boulevard that goes all the way to the sea. Well, technically it does because the three torii are still there, but the actual center part starts in front of our hotel and continues up to the third torii in front of the shrine, about a mile or so.
There is a steeply arched stone bridge that was the important access to the shrine in the old days. Now it is blocked off and the hordes of visitors have to walk around it. The wide approach to the shrine is lined with small booths selling various kinds of food and treats. Most of them are selling one kind of fruit, like apples or plums, dipped in sugar syrup to make a sort of candied apple-type thing.
A path to the right goes to a small shrine on an island in the middle of a pond. One on the other side ends at a pond surrounded by ugly modern buildings.
At the end of the approach is the outer gate. Then another wide promenade that leads to the stone steps up to the inner gate in front of the shrine itself. Instead of the usual fierce guardians beside the gate, there are statues of stern-looking shogun staring out at us. The shrine itself looks brand new. You can't see anything inside of it because there is a big net in front, not to mention 4,000 people trying to pray in the middle of the walkway. The guards kept shooing them to the sides, to no avail.
Off to one side there are portable shrines in a sort of covered storage area. Some of them are in the process of being restored while others are complete and look like new.
We took a side gate to continue walking up the road toward Kencho-ji. We passed several old houses with beautiful gardens facing the street. There are large stickers on the streets telling people, "Let's Stop Smoking on the Street". We can testify that smoking has significantly decreased since we were here in 2009. Smoking is not allowed in most restaurants and none of the hotels we have stayed in have smelled like smoke at all. We saw several signs saying that smoking is not allowed while walking around in Kamakura.
The walk to Kencho-ji is about a mile and all uphill along a busy street. The sidewalk is very narrow, so it isn't the most pleasant walk we've ever done. It is noisy because of the traffic. As busy as it is today, it is particularly bad traffic wise. The cars are backed up for blocks at the edge of the shopping street.
Kencho-ji was built as Japan's first Zen training hall. The grounds are a designated national historic site. The front isn't very impressive. Between the gate at the street and the one where tickets are purchased is a parking lot for buses. Once inside, it is quite beautiful with peonies blooming along a tree shaded pathway down the middle. This leads to the inner gate with a thatched roof belfry adjacent.
Inside the temple is a huge Buddha that is in its original state rather than restored as the others have been in this city. Behind it is another temple with more statues and religious artifacts. Through a beautiful gold and black lacquer gate is the Hanso-bo. This is the protecting shrine of the temple. It was brought here in 1890. Adjacent is a monastery that is closed to the public. Up a peony lined avenue is a cemetery and more monastery buildings.
There are a lot of young school children running around the grounds here. It just goes to show that even Japanese children can be unruly when they are in groups with no adults around. We were tempted to tell them to be more respectful of their surroundings because they were so loud.
After walking all the way back down to the town, passing block after block of backed up traffic, we came to the other end of the jam-packed shopping street. It isn't quite as terrible as it looks in the pictures, but it is definitely very busy. We wandered into a few shops and looked at restaurant menus for later, but didn't find anything very thrilling. We made it back to the hotel around 3:00 pm where we crashed until time to look for dinner.
Around 6:30 pm we started walking around looking for a restaurant that appeals to us. The shops all close by 6:00 pm and roll down ratty, dirty metal gates that make the street look like skid row. If you showed up here at night you'd think you were in some third world country. It looks very nice during the day, but at night it is very unattractive.
We didn't find any restaurants we liked, so we walked back along the main street, still not finding anything. Eventually we ended up in front of the train station where we could see several restaurants on the second floor. We ended up at a noodle place. Dave had Tempura Soba and Bill had Tempura Udon. Tempura meals are the most expensive we have had as far as local foods go. All that means is that with the two dinner sets and two desserts the total bill was •4800, but that's still more than usual for noodles. The food was fantastic, so no complaints at all. The service was very friendly and we were given English menus without asking for them. Bill had a weird Japanese gelatin with asuki beans dessert. He knew it would be odd and it was. Dave had sakura ice cream and played it safe. It was excellent.
That just about wraps up our official sightseeing plan. Five weeks flew by and it is hard to believe we only have two more days in Japan. What a bummer! We don't plan to just sit in the Tokyo hotel for two days, but we'll have to see what we can find to explore once we get there. We have to check out of here at 10:00 am, so we'll probably have to find something to do to kill time until we can check in.
Dave re-examined the train schedule so we won't have to change trains to get to the hotel in Tokyo. The trick will be to get in the same kind of green car compartment we were in on the way here and find somewhere to stash our luggage.
Day 31: Tuesday, April 29 - Train to Tokyo - InterContinental Hotel Tokyo Bay
Fusing the vitality of a modern metropolis
with the stately elegance of yesteryear, Tokyo is truly unique. From the
timeless beauty of the Meiji Shrine to the glittering Ginza district and
impressive Tokyo Tower, this international giant is a complex blend of East and
West. Houses of wood and paper stand beside towering steel skyscrapers, while
kimono-clad women stroll beside teenagers who have created a fashion all their
Today's weather is the same as yesterday, slightly overcast and in the high 60's to low 70's.
The hotel breakfast was the same selection as yesterday with a different kind of grilled fish. Everything on the tray is cold, by the way, except the rice and miso soup that is brought to the table after we sit down. We wouldn't push anyone out of the way to get to it, but it is acceptable. As mentioned, they offer three choices of breakfast and show pictures so you know exactly what you will get.
Our final thoughts on the Hotel Mori: It is a bit pricey for what it is, but we liked it. There aren't many choices in this city, but even so, we would choose this place again. It has everything we need and a few special amenities we didn't expect. It is noisy because it fronts a busy street, but it is no worse than in any big city. The carpets in the room and in the lobby look new. Nowhere in the hotel smells like smoke and the air conditioning actually works. You can't beat the location, one block in front of the station and within walking distance of the major sites. The Hase area is easily accessed via the electric railway.
Our final thoughts on Kamakura: The sites here are well worth seeing, but be prepared for huge crowds. We planned very well to avoid crowds up until now. The number of people here rivals Tokyo Disneyland. No kidding. Do not under any circumstances come anywhere near here on a weekend or holiday! There are tons of shops and restaurants open during the day, but the city closes down very early. There are still a lot of restaurants open until around 8:00 pm, but after that you'll probably end up at McDonalds.
We checked out at 10:00 am and dragged our stuff to the train station. It doesn't appear to be quite as busy as it was the past two days, so we're relieved to find the train platform relatively peaceful. There is a train at 10:08 that we could have made, but we want to see how crowded the trains are so we have a plan of action ready for finding seats and a place for our luggage. The train that came in was nearly empty.
Our intended train departs at 10:18, so we don't have long to wait. It arrived and we jumped into the green car and grabbed seats at the back of the section with just eight seats in it. We were able to cram most of the luggage behind the seats so we didn't take up more than one seat for each of us. Not that it mattered since the two seats in front of us remained empty, but we like to play by the rules as much as possible. An attendant came by and asked if we are going to Narita Airport, but Dave told her we are getting off at Shimbashi Station. We're not quite sure, but it appears that they mark off seats on a wireless device because the indicator light above our seats changed to green after we talked to her. Empty seats are red. We can't figure out the point of this since you don't reserve a specific seat unless maybe they are practicing for when they start doing that.
The ride back to Tokyo takes a little less than an hour. It would be OK if the trains aren't always so hot. That part is miserable for us. Otherwise it isn't a problem. When our station came up as the next stop, we gathered our stuff and went to wait by the door. The attendant came through and inadvertently knocked Dave off balance, but no harm was done. She almost had a stroke, but he assured her he's fine, which he is.
We jumped off the train at our stop in the nanoseconds they allow for such things and went out to the street to look for the station for the automated train to the hotel. We couldn't see it anywhere. All we can see are endless streets full of bright lights, restaurants, shops, bars and lots of traffic. If we turn left and walk for a few minutes we'll be in the heart of the Ginza district, by the way.
After consulting Google Maps with the cellphone, Dave went to look on the other side of the station for the terminal and found it there. So we walked over and followed the crowd to the train. Luckily, we were able to board just after another train left, so we got seats. But, when we had to get off the packed train just two stops later, we had to mow people down to do so. We put on our "silly American" faces and everyone let us through.
Off the train we found ourselves alone again and finally rid of the crowd of people. The reason this train is crowded is that it goes to the entertainment island of Odaiba, so it is full of families and young people going out for the day. We plan to go over there tomorrow and wander around just for something to do.
It took only a few minutes to walk from the station to the hotel via an elevated walkway that connects several towers. At the front desk, we were very pleased that our dual reservation issue was properly handled and they know we are staying two nights. We anticipated a problem with this, but the guy at the desk didn't seem to find it unusual. Even though we are staying both nights for free using a reward certificate and points, we were upgraded to a bay view room. This is the first time we have ever received an upgrade from any rewards program. Leave it to the Japanese to play by the rules and get it right.
The front desk was also aware that we had shipped at bag and it is here waiting for us. In fact, it has been here for two weeks because it took only four days instead of the predicted two weeks to arrive. Bill thanked the front desk agent for not selling our stuff before we got here, which he found amusing. The best part is that even though we are four hours early for check in, our room is ready and we are free to go up. We were also offered a late check out (due to our rewards status), but we don't think we need that.
A bellman who is very tall and definitely not Japanese, told us he would bring our bags up in a few minutes. He speaks perfect English which we assume is the reason he is working here. He delivered all of our bags including the one we shipped, so we have everything as expected.
The reviews of this hotel are quite mixed, but it looks fine to us. There are some stains on the carpet and it is a bit dated, but otherwise it looks like an upscale hotel anywhere. The beds are certainly a welcome sight after the rock hard cots we have been sleeping on for five weeks. Some of the furniture is getting to the point that it should be replaced, but nothing is falling apart or anything drastic. We are very excited to have comfortable chairs to sit in! There is a desk with a wired internet connection, plus wi-fi that is free. We have a view of the bay and the Rainbow Bridge. We can almost see the port where Crystal Symphony will dock tomorrow afternoon. Our bathroom is very nice with a separate shower and deep bathtub. We are on a non-smoking floor.
We tried to connect to the hotel's internet, but it didn't work either wired or wireless. On the way out to find some lunch, Dave told the front desk agent about the problem and he said he would send someone up to check it. Although he didn't say anything, we know he just thinks we're being stupid.
There is a small mall attached to the hotel with several restaurants to choose from. We went to an Italian place overlooking the water. We each had a salad and a Margarita pizza. The food was good, but the pizza didn't really resemble any Margarita pizza we've ever had before. However, we enjoyed everything and the service was friendly. The price was high though, more in line with what we were expecting from Japanese restaurants...•5400.
After lunch we checked around the building to see what other restaurants we might like. Nothing stood out and there isn't anything else near the hotel. We could take the elevated train back to Shimbashi if we get desperate. We were given a 10% discount card to use at any of the hotel restaurants, but they are, as one would expect, very pricey.
We walked along the boardwalk fronting the bay just to check it out and to be able to say we actually did something today. There are excursion boats that dock here, plus another cruise ship terminal. Too bad Crystal Symphony isn't docking here or we could just walk from our room right onto the ship. We can easily see the port where the ship will dock across the bay though. If the ship isn't there tomorrow we'll start trying to figure out just where it ended up, but at this point we expect to find it nearby. From the end of the boardwalk there is a nice view of the water leading into Tokyo. It is overcast today, but it is probably spectacular at night or on a clear day.
We looked around at the street level for possible shops and restaurants, but there is nothing in the vicinity. It looks like the towers adjacent to the hotel were supposed to have such things, but the economy put a stop to it. The top floor of the restaurant area we went to earlier is blocked off and vacant.
Back in the room, we had a message to contact the front desk about the internet. They claim they checked it and it is working, so they sent someone up. Again, we're sure they just think we're dumb and don't know how it works. The same bellman came up who brought the luggage earlier. Dave said, "So they make you do everything because you speak English or what?" He said that isn't the case, but when Dave persisted (in a lighthearted way) he relented and agreed that is why he was sent up. He's very nice and once we broke the ice he lightened up and was a lot of fun.
He said his friends work in New York and they keep telling him to come there, but he likes it here just fine. We agreed with him and said we'd stay here over New York any time. We do like New York to visit, but we'd never want to live there. Tokyo is the same thing only cleaner and safer.
Luckily, the internet didn't work for him either, so it proved it isn't just us being typically dippy Americans. He tried everything and finally called someone else. They couldn't figure anything out either, so finally told us to call the tech support number for the internet provider.
Dave poked around for a while and managed to get it to work after waiting for about twenty minutes for the sign-up page to show up. Since then it has worked just fine. Go figure.
After dark we get a different view from our room. There is a futuristic building across the bay that puts on a lightshow on the entire side of the building. The Rainbow Bridge is beautiful at night, too.
We went to the Chef's Kitchen Buffet for dinner in the hotel. As with the Hilton, there is no indication how much it costs. The food is more upscale than the Asian buffet at the Hilton and soft drinks are included. As with all Japanese buffets, the desserts are first in the line. Then a few salads, some small Japanese items (like the squid guts elsewhere), a chef making sushi to order, a tempura cook making several different things to order, a roast beef carving station, several entrees in chafing dishes (one of which is labeled "Beef Gristle" and that's exactly what it is), and a chocolate fountain with fruit too small to skewer. There are also some sort of little pancake-type things you are supposed to use as a base for the fruit, but they were always out when we looked. Everything except the beef gristle was very good. The sushi was outstanding. There was a pork entree in the chafing dish section that was excellent. Desserts were nice, too.
Get this, the price is •7500 PER PERSON! We used our discount card, so we paid "only" •6399 each, but get real. That's ridiculous for what they are offering. Yes, the food is good, but it isn't that good. What a bummer because now we'll have to find someplace to go out for dinner tomorrow. By the way, this is the least expensive of the restaurants in this hotel. The service was friendly, so that's a plus.
Day 32: Wednesday, April 30 - Tokyo - InterContinental Hotel Tokyo Bay
Japan is weeping because we have to leave tomorrow! Well, OK, it is raining, but close enough. It isn't cold though, maybe in the mid 60's.
We had a great view of Crystal Symphony arriving this morning. Japan always goes all out for a Crystal ship's arrival, bringing out the fireboats and everything. Usually we are ecstatic when we see the ship arrive when we're in a foreign port waiting for it, but this time it signals an end to our stay in Japan. Bummer! We're not at all ready to leave yet.
The only choice for breakfast at this hotel is the buffet at the same restaurant we went to for dinner. Nothing wrong with it at all, except it offers the same or less than the lavish buffets we have had all over Japan for free. Here, is it •3500...•3240 for us with the rewards discount. There is plenty to choose from, in our opinion. Other Americans didn't look quite so pleased. We are happy to see cooked bacon for the first time in five weeks. Up until now it has always been mostly semi-raw. Apparently the Japanese like sashimi bacon.
After breakfast we walked around back to check the weather (it is still sprinkling) and to look for Crystal Symphony. The ship is exactly where we expected it to be, so we are in the right place. At least we know where it is so we don't have to go looking for it all over Tokyo.
We'll probably take the automated monorail over to Odaiba today just for the heck of it. The weather shouldn't be a problem. Last time we got wet we didn't melt or anything, so we're good to go for our last day in Japan.
Around 11:00 am, we took the monorail over to Odaiba. The train wasn't as jammed full as yesterday, but most of the seats were taken. The ride to the Odaiba station takes about fifteen minutes. Click to view a MAP.
This area is all built on landfill and is a showcase of modern design. There are large plots that are undeveloped, victims of the economic crash a few years ago. But, there are several large hotels, at least four multi-story malls, a gigantic arcade, and other entertainment venues. There is even a Statue of Liberty replica. There are stunning views of the Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo skyline from here, but today it is raining so it isn't quite as striking as it usually is.
We strolled up the central pedestrian promenade, turning left toward the Sky Wheel. On the way there, we spotted a towering Transformer in front of a mall complex that was popular with people posing for pictures. There are several sculptures and other vaguely interesting things to look at all over the island. Cirque du Soleil has a big set up in a vacant lot that is more elaborate than we have seen in the states. It is a tent, but it looks more permanent than a travelling show. Later in the day we saw a huge line of people waiting patiently to get in while it was pouring rain. It seems a little odd because the permanent show that used to be in a purpose-built theater at Tokyo Disney Resort closed a year ago.
We had to walk through a big, permanent display of Toyota cars and other technology to get to the Sky Wheel. There is an example of the car elevator parking lot inside, concept cars, and the latest models available. There are impeccably dressed young women standing at the ready to explain all you need to know about the cars.
For reasons we cannot explain, there is a hula show going on at the "Mega Stage" on the lower level, plus some tables selling Hawaiian gifts and crafts. We watched the show for a while because, well, why not? We're not sure, but it appears that the groups are from Japan, not visiting from Hawaii, but we could be wrong about that. In any case, the three we saw were very good.
It started raining very hard before we reached the Sky Wheel, but we are prepared and it isn't a problem. Nobody else seemed interested in riding the wheel in the rain, so there is no wait at all. The employees seemed happy to see us. Dave must have looked particularly stupid trying to use the ticket machine because an employee ran over and did it all for him. He didn't have a problem with it, he was just fumbling with his money.
When the Sky Wheel opened in 1999 it was the tallest of its kind. It takes about fifteen minutes to complete the circuit. The view isn't as awe inspiring as it would be in clear weather, but we did get a good view of Crystal Symphony at the pier across the way. We bought the picture they took of us when we arrived for just •1100.
We walked back through the Venus Fort mall to keep out of the rain. The shops are typical upscale brands we have in every mall at home. The inside of the mall looks like the Venetian or Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. There is a huge fountain under a dome in one courtyard and a fake Italian church at the end of another. A hula show was going on in front of the church facade. Apparently there is some sort of Hawaiian festival going on because the center of the walkways are filled with booths selling merchandise from Hawaii. The fake sky changes from day to night over the course of an hour or so. It does look very nice, but the stores weren't exactly booming with business. There were a lot of people in the mall though.
We went with the Hawaiian theme and stopped for lunch at a permanent Hawaiian restaurant in the mall. Other than the atmosphere, which was very unpleasant (noisy, filthy chairs, poor service), the food was pretty good and reasonably priced. We each had a set lunch that included a salad and beverage. Dave had the Taco Rice that is sort of like a tostada salad with rice as a base. Bill had an Avocado Hamburger Steak with Fries. The price was only •2300, so it was a very good value. However, we wouldn't eat there again. Besides the issues already mentioned it was about 1000 degrees in there.
It took us a while to find a way out of the building, but we finally saw a sign pointing to the "History Garage". We saw this building on the way here, so we know it is in the direction we want to go. We thought it would be more shops, but it is a large museum of classic American cars displayed in cute vignettes. It is similar to one of the Route 66 museums we saw on one of our road trips, but done with a bigger budget.
Back outside in the rain, we kept walking toward the end of the promenade. There are workers setting up for an Oktoberfest (yes, in May) in the middle of the walkway. We're headed to the Miraikan Museum of Science and Emerging Technology. That sounds more impressive than it is. This is the place where they demonstrate the ASIMO robot you've probably seen on TV. The admission is about •620 per person, which isn't bad if you are into this kind of thing. If you want to see a show in one of the simulation theaters the admission is higher, but we just want to quickly look around.
There is an impressive video globe hanging in the center of a ramp that goes up to the fifth floor. Otherwise, it is the usual interactive displays you'll find at every science museum. The advantage here is that most of the patrons are adults. However, the exhibits are WAY over our heads. There is no dumbing down of information here, that's for sure. Other than the robot demonstration (that we missed by ten minutes), there is a display of the living quarters of the international space station, an undersea exploration sub, and stuff like that. Again, if you are into museums, this is your cup of tea. We are not, and were bored after about fifteen minutes. Don't expect us to go to any more places like this in the future, 'cause it just isn't happening. This place is about as well done as it is possible to be and we still couldn't hack it. It just about sucked the life out of us as most museums tend to do.
We could have taken the monorail back from near here, but we decided to walk back to check out some of the malls on the way. We still want to buy some souvenirs to take back home like all good Japanese people do. But, after walking through three malls all we found were Coach and Tiffany stores and the like. Bill was thrilled to find a Rockport shoe store where they had his size, so he's all set for the cruise. The shoes he bought in Sapporo ended up being a little too tight. The clerk filled out the tax free form and added it to the one for the camera in Dave's passport. It saved us 8% off the price.
Finding nothing of the type of souvenirs Dave wants, we decided on a last ditch effort of looking in the two Japanese hotels nearby. The Nikko was too upscale to sell anything like that, so we went to the Grand Pacific. Voila! Crapola jackpot!! God knows we've seen 18 million of these stores all over Japan and then when we actually want to shop in one, we can't find one. Well, this place has everything we want and then some, so we're all set. Well, they didn't have the canned squid entrails we saw elsewhere, but you can't have everything. We can leave Japan as happy campers with our bags of weird food nobody needs or wants.
We contemplated taking the monorail all the way back to the JR station to turn in our SUICA cards for a refund. After doing some calculations, we decided it wouldn't make much sense to go to all that effort for $5.00, so we'll keep them for next time...or not...point is we can't be bothered. It is raining and we're tired, so screw the $5.00!
We made it back to the room at around 4:00 pm to find the message light on the phone flashing. Apparently the hotel forgot to collect some sort of tax on the luggage delivery. It isn't enough money to argue about it, so Dave went down to the front desk to pay it. The bellman we talked to yesterday was there, so while the desk clerk was trying to figure out how to process this thing, Dave talked to the bellman and asked about the best way to get to the port tomorrow with our extra luggage. Once the tax issue was straightened out, he took Dave over to the bell desk to talk about transportation options.
His colleagues couldn't grasp exactly where we are going. Dave said, "Harumi Passenger Ship Terminal," very clearly. "Yokohama?" "No, Harumi. I'm sure that is correct." "Takeshiba?" "No, definitely Harumi." "Could you write it down?" You get the picture. Dave then said, "If you walk straight ahead from where you are standing, jump in the bay and swim for a little bit, you will arrive at the ship. I saw it there an hour ago, so I know it is there." "Oh, you mean Takeshiba?" <sigh> Finally, she asked the name of the ship and when Dave told her all sorts of lights went on in her head and it all made sense. Well, sort of. Then she couldn't figure out what we are doing that we need a car bigger than a taxi to take us there (the bellman already explained this to her in Japanese, by the way). Uh, because the taxi drivers all over Japan have been freaking out over our small luggage. There is no way we will fit in a regular taxi with the big cruise bag, too. "Oh, but that isn't far enough to hire a car." Yeah, like duh, all we want is a van-sized taxi, not a car service. Ohhhhhhhh...
Now that she has connected with the information in her computer about Crystal Symphony, everyone is in a tizzy because it doesn't sail until 9:00 pm. Why do we want to get there at noon? Dave said, "We're special, they'll let us board then." Everyone was amused by that remark. Dave assured them that he knows what he's doing and we're not doing anything untoward by arriving at noon-ish. As you know, Japanese hotels generally frown upon guests who arrive before check-in time, so wanting to arrive at the ship so early is quite a radical request.
Anyway, Dave had fun chatting with the bellman who asked all about the ship, what it costs, what you get, etc. Let's just say he isn't very worldly, but he is very very nice with a good sense of humor. Turns out he is from Pakistan. Once the taxi thing was worked out, he said we are booked for a van at noon tomorrow and to please show up a little earlier. To that, Dave acted all huffy and said, "What are you going to do if we don't show up early?" Luckily he thought that was hilarious which is why we like him. It will cost •1000 in addition to the regular taxi fare, but that seems reasonable to us. Not that we have a choice anyway.
Back in the room, nothing much happened until we had to go out and forage for another meal. That happened at 7:00-ish. There is no way we're paying •7500 per person for another buffet, so we went next door to see if the Italian place is open for dinner. It is, so we went there again.
We ordered a salad, a caprese appetizer, and a couple of pasta dishes. The food was good and we had a nice view of Crystal Symphony all lit up across the bay. Service was very welcoming and friendly. We still think the prices are too high here, but we liked everything we ordered, so we can live with it. Instead of •7500 per person, that was the total price for everything.
After dinner we filled out our Crystal luggage tags and sort of arranged our stuff for switching into cruise mode tomorrow.
Day 33: Thursday, May 1 - Embark Crystal Symphony
The rain continued into late morning, then it started to clear up a bit. It still isn't cold, in the high 60's.
We went to breakfast at the buffet, as usual. A couple of things were different, but there isn't much they can do to vary breakfast. The food is good and we always find enough to eat, and then some. Our check arrived with our room number and name filled in without us giving them that information.
Our final thoughts on the InterContinental Hotel Tokyo Bay: MUCH better than we expected. We like the location on the waterfront and out of the hectic city. The lobby and restaurants are all new and beautiful. The staff is fantastic. Most speak better English than we do. The hotel is elegant, but not at all stuffy. Everyone is very friendly and helpful. Our room is not one of the recently updated ones, so it is a little tired. The carpet should at least be cleaned, if not replaced, but everything else is spotlessly clean. Some of the wood furniture is worn, but it isn't terrible. The upholstered chairs look brand new and the beds are plush. It is nice to be off the floor for the first time in five weeks. Japanese hotels, even with beds, feel like you are sleeping on the floor on a rock. The bathroom looks new with nice amenities provided. The shower is fantastic with great water pressure. This place is a great value compared to other InterContinental and similar hotels in Tokyo. The only thing that is overpriced is the food at dinner. All of the restaurants are VERY expensive. However, a short walk or train ride will take you to Ginza where there are thousands of places to eat. We would gladly stay here again.
Our final thoughts on Tokyo: We weren't here long enough this time to really do anything, but we would urge everyone to spend some time in the city. It is vibrant and exciting, with the added bonus of being safe and clean. Trains and subways are easy to use and will take you anywhere in the city. Just don't try to use them during the morning or evening rush hours and you'll be fine. We love Tokyo and we're sure we will return in the future.
We will check out a little before noon and make our way to Crystal Symphony for the return leg of our journey.
Without a doubt, this was one of, if not the best trip we have ever undertaken. There are so many superlatives about Japan that it is hard to sum up exactly what is so wonderful. But, we can say that the people of Japan are so very welcoming, gracious, and hospitable, that it is worth a visit for them alone. If you look at all confused or lost, rest assured that someone will help you. Dave's trip to the dentist provided an interesting insight into everyday life. And, it was very generous of the dentist to fit him in and make every effort to help him. Of course, it is also very nice that he fixed the problem!
Looking back on the places we visited, here are a few thoughts on each:
Matsushima: Charming small town with a few worthwhile sites. The people were especially friendly here. It is possible to see everything in one day, but staying overnight or for a couple of nights allows time to soak up the atmosphere.
Sendai: There aren't any must-see tourist sites here, but the city is modern and clean. It is a good place to rest and re-group before heading out again. There are many fine hotels in town. You could stay here and take the train to visit Matsushima if you can't handle a traditional Japanese hotel there.
Otaru: Beautiful, historic town centered on an old canal and banking district. You can see everything on a day trip from Sapporo very easily, but we liked taking our time and staying for two nights.
Sapporo: Loved it!! Great city, not too crowded, tons of shops and restaurants. Easy to get around, too. We'd love to go back to this city.
Noboribetsu Onsen: One night here is plenty. We liked it, but for most people with limited time in Japan, this is a place you can skip. If you are into the whole hot spring experience, this is definitely the town for you. There are lots of huge onsen hotels lining the main street.
Hakodate: This town wasn't as interesting as we had anticipated. We didn't love it or hate it. The ropeway up the mountain at night is worth fighting the crowd to see. Otherwise, there isn't anything all compelling about it.
Hirosaki: This isn't a tourist town and there is no real reason to stop here except to break up a long train trip. The hotel was nice, but that's about all we can say about it.
Kakunodate: Very disappointing. Dumpy, rundown city. The people are friendly, but the only thing to see is the one-street Samurai district. Stay in Akita or Morioka and come on the train for half a day. You don't need any more time than that to see everything. Better yet, skip it altogether.
Hiraizumi: Much better than we expected. This town made up for Kakunodate. There isn't much tourist infrastructure, but the sites are well worth seeing. We'd recommend staying in Ichinoseki and taking the train to Hiraizumi for the day rather than staying in the one hotel in town.
Rikuzentakata: The average tourist isn't going to make the effort to get to this tsunami devastated city, but if you do it is very interesting. The one hotel is very nice if you can tolerate some quirks. The locals really seemed to appreciate that foreigners would take the time to come see what they are doing to rebuild their town.
Kesennuma: It is easier to get to this city than Rikuzentakata, but it isn't as interesting. We really can't recommend taking time to get here at the moment.
Nikko: This is a must-see town on any Japanese itinerary. Don't miss it. You can see everything in two days, but do not under any circumstances come on a weekend or holiday. There is almost no information in English, although many shopkeepers speak English. Buy an English guide book to get the most out of your visit.
Kamakura: If you think Nikko is crowded, you haven't seen anything until you arrive in Kamakura! However, the four major sites are very worthwhile. But, you will be looking at them with thousands of other tourists and screaming school children. It is an easy day trip from Tokyo, but staying overnight makes it a lot more relaxing. You can see the main sites in one day if you are short on time.
Tokyo: What can we say? It has everything a tourist could possibly want. You could stay here for a year and never repeat a restaurant or shop. Yes, it can be crowded, but it is easy to get away from that if you so choose.
We can't emphasize enough how wonderful a country Japan is. Learn a little Japanese before you come and you will be rewarded many times over. The food is great, the culture is fascinating, and the people are delightful. Come see for yourself, you won't be sorry.
This adventure continues with the "Pagodas to Paradise" cruise aboard Crystal Symphony.
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