Shingu, Kii Katsuara and Osaka

On our way back from Hayatama Taisha we made a long stop at a great little local clothing store called Mak Tub. Not sure what the name is all about but they had a good selection of Japanese made and or designed clothes, some of them organic. Score! I had to go into the women’s little apartment to try them on but it was my favorite of all of our shopping stops. My husband graciously waited on the bench outside and watched the world go by. The owner felt he deserved a fancy chocolate at the end of my shopping spree and he enjoyed it very much. Sadly there is no website but it’s right near the Shrine. We also stopped at a local makeup store where a gracious old man assisted me in choosing some Japanese mascara and an aproned older woman helped me select some garden tools at a dark and crowded hardware store which looked more like a garage.. I also bought a few postcards and a wee notebook at the stationers. No flashy shopping here just an old-fashioned experience and I loved it! I highly recommend shopping at Shingu. We also enjoyed seeing the fish and produce displayed on the outside of several stores. Citrus was in season and it was beautiful, varied and delicious.

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A fellow Shingu shopper

We looked around at the local restaurants but decided to eat at the local Lawson which is an Asian convenience store chain except way better than American convenience store chains. We feasted on my favorite little sandos aka sandwiches , karaage aka fried chicken, slaw and pickles. Sadly the pickles tipped into my shopping bag but happily nothing was damaged. Lawson also presents fabulous souvenir shopping opportunities such as candy and beauty items, little kawaii knick knacks and our favorite Oni beer.

We made our way back to the train station to pick up our bags from the luggage locker. We decided to take the bus back to Kii Katsura. Oku and inside Japan only included tickets for the longer trips although the both had rates and timetables for the shorter ones. We were becoming quite comfortable with the Japanese transportation system. With a15:00 check in time we were able to check out a store selling different types of fish products and other Japanese food and drink. I bought some plum wine.

 

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After our long trek we decided to treat ourselves to a night at Nakanoshima Hotel. Inside Japan called this the James Bond hotel and it does look like it’s out of an old James Bond movie.

It has huge rooms and  includes a generous kaseiki meal served in your room. We also tried out the private hot tub for a small extra fee.IMG_0916

 

IMG_0892 It’s on its own private island off of Kii Katsura and there is a free ferry that goes back and forth continually. I wish it was this cute turtle one but it was just plain. The Japanese have cornered the market on cute.IMG_0879

Every room that we stayed in came with a tea set similar to the one hereIMG_0919

And here is the toilet area of the bathroom. Even toilets out in the woods would have heated seats and a bidet stream. I thought it was funny that this one icluded Toilet slippers as the area was so small.IMG_0914

After our night of pampering we were ready for our last adventure in the amazing city of Osaka. After strolling back through Kii Katsura and procuring some lunch for our train ride with the help of a nice woman who left her shop unattended to walk me to the sandwich shop, we had a restful and scenic four-hour journey by train to Shin Osaka. A lot of it was along the beautiful coast. The scenery was just amazing. Further along we saw wild wisteria, tile roofing,old folks gardening, Japanese gardens, tea growing, people picnicking, schoolkids, rice paddies and vegetable gardens. A couple of nice women in the seats in front of us gave us each a little packet of fish flavored crackers, and there was an added bonus of tiny crunchy fish in them. We also saw this…IMG_1006

and other cute things along the way.

I wanted to stay near the Dontonbori area of Osaka so I booked us at the Swissotel Osaka.

I realized the hotel was attached to the subway station so we decided to show our Japanese transport chops and take the subway instead of the taxi. Go us! We were highly successful and were soon in our room with this view. Quite something!IMG_1043

Our extra bags which had been sent on ahead by takubin were waiting happily in our room. Since we were only in the city for 24 hours we headed right out again to Shinsaibashi shopping arcade. It’s easily the longest shopping arcade I have ever seen and there are people standing outside calling at you to come and shop. I wanted to get to a store called Tokyu Hands which is just outside the arcade. It’s has a reputation for having lots of craft supplies. I did buy a few pens and some gifts but I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be and pretty quickly headed back into the arcade where I picked up some Japanese dog biscuits and a stuffed Japanese beer mug for our dogs and green tea kit kats for my class back at home.

Inside Japan had arranged a Dontonbori food tour for us with Ayako Kiyana,a wonderful guide born in Osaka. It was really fabulous. Here is a YouTube video about eating in Dontonbori and here’s another one. We paid one flat fee for the guide services and the food and drink and we both had more than enough. We started out by seeing the famous crab restaurant sign. Then we moved on to the ubiquitous Osaka Takoyoki octopus balls. These are sort of like the mascot character of Osaka.Again, having a local guide was priceless because she took us to the best of the best and helped us order and pay.

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Ayoko buying Wagyu Tempura

Then, it was on to Wagyu beef tempura and beer. Yum! I had requested that we stop for okonomyoki and I was not disappointed. Stashing our bags in the bench seats and ordering more beer, we started with a delicious pork omelette, I wish I had one right now, while our okonomyoki was grilling on the table grill. It was everything I’d dreamed of and more. Ayako told us about she and her family would make it once a week at home and how there is a running 400 year old  battle between Osaka and Hiroshima about who originally invented the dish. I haven’t tried making it at home but there are lots of recipes online. I should probably make it to celebrate the anniversary of our trip.IMG_1064

Our final food stop was an Isekeya restaurant. It was most fitting as it was called the Tanuki restaurant! Tanuki is a common figure all over Japan. He is a shape shifting trickster/ Yokai and his name means get ahead. We sat around a huge grill , stashing our bags inside the cubelike seats. Patrons would request an item from the giant ice tray and the chef would grill it and hand it over on a giant wooden paddle. We sampled avocado, mushrooms, giant scallops, giant clams, chicken on a stick , prawns, quail eggs with sausage and sweet potatoes, and Ayako wanted to know if we wanted to try anything else! It was a great final Japanese meal, different then anything we had tried previously. Here I am going to insert Tanuki from the Isekeya as well as others from the trip. Sort of like celebratory tanuki fireworks.

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P1040709We said goodbye to our lovely guide and strolled back to the hotel for a soak and a swim in the fancy pool. I did a whole bunch of packing and we said goodnight to Osaka  as we looked out over this view.P1040958

One of the many great things about the Swissotel Osaka is that it is connected to a huge department store called Takashimya. After we partook of the bounteous breakfast buffet I got in one final round of shopping. While it was fun to see all of the fashions and try some things on, I was happier with my purchases at the smaller local store in Shingu. If you do try on clothes remember that you will have to remove your shoes to go in the dressing room even in a big fancy store like Takashimaya. I did have a bit of fun in the smallish craft pop up upstairs buying iron on patches from a friendly and eccentric Frenchman. I did notice that the duty-free lines were long so plan accordingly.  My purchases were minor so I skipped it. We had booked a taxi to the airport and it came promptly. We were soon at Osaka airport sharing one last stack of wee sandos and enjoying the fact that there was an apple snack vending machine with cute rabbits.IMG_1092

We had a bit of a heart attack in Tokyo because we didn’t realize we had to go through security all over again and had spent too much time looking at all the fun stuff in the Tokyo airport. All was well, however we may have gained a few gray hairs. Soon we were back in the sky, heading to Boston.IMG_1096

On April 29th I wrote this on Instagram and my Facebook page

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Dear Japan,
Thank you for an amazing journey. Your people are kind and helpful. They are ever so patient with lost tourists and language barriers. Your cities are clean, safe and comfortable with reminders of humor and cuteness everywhere, not to mention the most awesome vending machines ever.
Your Shinto/Buddhist belief system encourages peace, reverence and a sense of ancient magic and hope everywhere. Your hot springs are healing. Your land and sea and rivers are heartbreakingly beautiful . We will hold you in our hearts forever.
Love ,
Christa and Arnie

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Arigato, Okini!

 

Self Guided Walking on the Kumano Kodo Trail with Inside Japan

The landscape and sense of pilgrimage on this hike was spectacular, which is not surprising because it is deemed a Unesco world heritage hike like El Camino. If you hike both you can get a special certificate deeming you to be a dual pilgrim. It was definitely more challenging than the pastoral Nakasendo trail hike however we had put in a lot of miles in the past week and were up to the challenge.I was still nervous about the last day which promised nine miles of walking, a lot of it vertical.P1040792

People have been hiking the Kumano for a thousand years making the pilgrimage to the three grand shrines, collectively called the Sanzan. The shrines share the symbol of Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow.  According to legend, Yataragatsu guided the first emperor of Japan through the impenetrable Kumano Mountains. The Kumano follows an organized religious tradition called Shugendo combining folk religion, northern shamanism, Taoism, Esoteric Buddhism and Shinto beliefs. Its devout followers are called Yamabushi.

Our tour company for this section of the trip was Inside Japan. I decided to go with two different companies because of the routes they offered. It was also nice to compare the two. They were both very good but I would give Inside Japan a slight edge. They were a little more prompt in responding and I felt like I had better communication with them. Our personalized trip was titled ” Kicking it on the Kumano” as titled by our agent Clint Kimzey. We could have contacted them in Kyoto anytime and they sent our tickets for onward travel to Hotel Mume. We also contracted with them to stay one night on an island off of the Kii Peninsula and one night in Osaka with a food tour. I had already booked a hotel in Osaka and they were fine with that.

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We arrived at Kyoto station with plenty of time to spare. We got to our track and walked down to where we would enter our train car to wait, not following my own advice of keeping an eye on the arrival/ departure board. I was so excited to ride the Limited Express Kuroshio 3 and Inside Japan had reserved really nice seats in the green car for us.  Being so early,  I wasn’t really paying attention to the time but my husband realized it was past the anticipated arrival time, something which is not the norm in Japan. Somehow our train had come and gone without us noticing! A worker came by and pointed us up the stairs where we were able to locate a ticket office. The agent immediately rerouted us but we would have to switch trains in Shin Osaka with a 7 minute connection. I was able to call the Inside Japan contact and tell him what had happened so he could alert our orientation guide in Kii Tanabe. Sadly we would be too late to hike to the first Shrine, Hongu Taisha, but with any luck we could still take the bus there.

We had a nice ride on the way to Shin Osaka and the conductor even let us sit in a nicer car even though we’d lost our reservation. In Shin Osaka we scrambled off the train to find the nearest agent I asked a nice man if we could please cut him in line because of our tight connection which was very rude and American, I know, but it was lucky I did because we made our train by a hair. It was also pretty crowded but at least we had made it and were on our way to Kii Tanabe. We easily found the tourist information office in Kii Tanabe for our orientation arranged by Inside Japan. It seemed as though you could easily stop in there and they could help you if you went in on your own. We did have an agent who knew our plans and where our rooms were reserved and she was able to call Ryokan Adumaya ahead to let them know we would be heading right out to catch the bus to Hongu Taisha and would need a late dinner. She also checked the bus schedule for us to make sure it would be possible. She showed us the route we would be taking over the next 3 days and gave us a map and a wonderful book about the Kumano Kodo. We had a bit of time before the bus so we found a funny little restaurant where we ate sandwiches and pork in the funny little town.

 

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Our bus ride took us up and up with many stops to the town of Yunomine Onsen. We checked in very quickly, declining the welcome tea to catch the 2:50 bus. We were altogether 2 hours behind our original plan. It was helpful that the agent from the tourist office was able to communicate our story to the ryokan. We were missing the Dainichi- Goe section of our hike. It looks lovely but at least we were able to see Hongu Taisha. Each shrine represents different deities and spirits and has its own attributes. Once we climbed the grand flag festooned staircase. we entered a very impressive complex of beautiful natural wood structures. The shrine office was closed but we could still tour the grounds. We headed back to the bus with plenty of time to explore the area around the gigantic Tori gate called the Otori, the largest in all of Japan. The surrounding field is the site of many festivals so if you go you might want to try to plan accordingly. Pleased with the recovery of our nearly lost shrine visit, we waited in the growing darkness for our bus which quickly brought us back to the ryokan for  a very sashimi dinner.

 

After dinner we tried out the baths in the ryokan and then walked across the street to the public tub. It is an unusual set up where you buy your tickets from a machine and give them to the attendant who is sitting in the booth right next to the ticket machine. The hours are from 6 AM until midnight. We decided to get up early and try the historic Tsuboyu tub. There is a famous legend of healing about this tub called “Oguri Hangan and Princess Terute”. We  got special stamped certificates certifying that we had bathed there. The water is unbearably hot but fortunately there is a cold water tap for mixing it to a reasonable temperature. We decided to stop at the small Tokoji temple by the hot spring stream and  say a prayer together for a safe and successful hike. I figured we needed all the help we could get. It was a memorable moment.  Dressed in our matching yukata, fresh out of the historic hot tub, we rang the bell and bowed and clapped and bowed again. There is a little area of the onsen stream where visitors and locals boil veggies and eggs, It’s really, really hot. We also had a rare treat of onsen coffee in the morning, the only coffee we had encountered while hiking.

 

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Before our bus to the trailhead came I purchased some small amulets from the monk at the stand by the temple. A wooden boar/pig for me and a monkey for my husband, our birth year animals. A kindly monk was the salesperson. There was quite a variety of hikers on the bus to Ukegawa. We occasionally met up with a young  German couple from , an older couple from Connecticut and a young Australian woman along the trail, all aboard the bus. The Kogumotori- Goe section is a 13 KM five and a half hour hike with a mix of gentle ups and downs and ridge walking. Halfway through the hike there is an amazing view of the 3600 peaks of the Kumano that may well be the most beautiful sight I’ve seen in my entire life.IMG_0579P1040849

We saw lots of ferns with double heads called warabi, (Pteridium aquilinum) along the way. Our lunch stop was the Sakura- Jaya teahouse remains where we enjoyed our gorgeous boxed onigiri rice ball lunches with the Aussie woman (AW) and the Connecticut couple(CC).

 

From there we headed down into a valley where we came upon a group of Australian travelers and had a walking discussion about our dismay at the state of our country.

 

We were all headed toward Koguchi to Shizen No Le an old junior high school that is converted to a minshuku. It was a hearty walk and we were happy that we could buy a cold beer and enjoy the onsen at the schoolhouse .

 

At dinner the tour leader for the Aussies talked about the difficulty of the final walk along the Ogomotori-goe section to Nachi-San and the infamous Dogiri-Zaka which translates to “body breaking slope”. The group was all in our age bracket or older so we felt we were in good company. If their leader had faith in them then we felt we were similarly fit, which we were.

 

We started out shortly after seven to make sure to reach Nachi before the grounds closed. We had a little trouble finding the trailhead so we lost a half hour but it all worked out just fine. The hike was 14.5 KM with a hefty amount of uphill walking. It’s definitely challenging but if you are generally fit and don’t mind a good dose of uphill walking you will be fine though tired. You will also have a great accomplishment under your belt. I would say this hike is magical. The waroda-ishi rock is said to be the place where the three deities of the Shanzan would meet to have tea. It’s a huge moss-covered boulder with their symbols carved on it. There is a running river and a place where there are big egg-shaped rocks like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And then there is a view to the Pacific from the mountains. You could sit and gaze all day if you didn’t have to make it to Nachi Taisha before closing time.

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IMG_0750We reached Nachi Kogen park in good time thinking we could congratulate ourselves but there was still many downward stone steps before reaching Nachi Taisha. We treated ourselves with ice cream which we ate with our AW friend. We had plenty of time to explore Nachi Taisha. I was drawn to the statue of Kannon the goddess of mercy. I had quite a visit with her. I also walked through the amazing Camphor tree and was “reborn”. You are supposed  to walk through the tree carrying a prayer stick to make your prayer come true but I only learned that afterwards. In any case the hollow tree is 850 years old and it is pretty magical to be able to go inside of it.

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The falls itself is an object of worship. It is the highest waterfall in Japan and its spray is said to prolong one’s life.IMG_0763P1040905

It’s hard to believe we did so much in one day but we still had a walk to Mitaki Sanso in the small town near the temple complex and we saw some sights along the way.

 

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The hotel is cozy and they have cold beer, hot food and an onsen, also a view of the falls. By accident I opened the wrong room door and there was the couple from Connecticut! We ate with them and the German couple and we also saw our Australian friend. Soon I was in my futon listening to the sound of Nachi Falls in the distance.IMG_0801

In the morning we made our way to the bus stop and rode into Kii Katsura, a nice little fishing village.Our luggage was ours to carry once again so we braved the luggage lockers which worked splendidly. We would be taking a train to the final shrine, Hayatama Taisha in Shingu. We found our way to the temple, but I had set my sights on some shopping stops on the way back to the station. The shops aren’t flashy but they have a good local feel.We also enjoyed seeing displays of citrus and veggies and fish along our walking route to the final shrine.

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Cute soda can from the bus stop vending machine.IMG_0842

The shrines each have a different feeling. I would venture to say Hongu felt ancient and mystical, Nachi was impressive and whimsical and Hayatama was urban and businesslike. We passed under the vermillion tori gate with a sense of completing our pilgrimage. I’m so glad we got to go to all three shrines. My favorites list include the dragon at the purification fountain, and the outfits of the shrine maidens. They had a nice selection of amulets for sale as they did at Nachi Taisha.IMG_0835

IMG_0844I was also obsessed with this mini shrine behind the dragon fountain that had a huge bell and tiny foxes which appeared to be having a tea party. Foxes, I was told, are good for business so I said some business prayers.IMG_0833 We were able to see a shinto religious ceremony courtesy of the tour group from Australia whose leader had booked it especially for them. We didn’t go up the hill to the shrine under the rock but you probably should I wish we had. It’s called Kamikura Shrine, which is said to be the first shrine the god of Kumano descended to. It’s butted up a huge rock called Gotobiki rock. Once again I am finding out a whole lot writing this post trip.We also befriended a cat. We did see several shiba dogs and a couple of other small dogs but other than that we saw so few animals in general on our trip. The only farm animal we saw was one penned duck and we never saw any animals in the wild though we heard some great bird and frog sounds. In any case our Kumano pilgrimage was complete and it was wonderful. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

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Three Nights in Kyoto with a Day Trip to Nara

The train trip to Kyoto was uneventful and relaxing, about a three hour ride altogether. It’s amazing to see all the gardening that goes on from the train window. Lots of tea and veggies being grown on all available land.

I had reserved a room at Hotel Mume, in the Gion area of Kyoto. The hotel provided a note for us to give to our taxi driver. I had arranged with the hotel to store our bags as we would be arriving before check in. Mume is a gem, a small boutique hotel with the river running by the cozy, elegant breakfast room/bar. I had emailed back and forth with them to reserve and the customer service was incredibly polite and speedy. The service in person was amazing. They helped with directions, taxis, takubin, tea, dinner reservations, all with incredibly good nature. It’s close to Gion and the Higashiyama area, and there are many restaurants and shops within walking distance. These are the areas I wanted to concentrate on.

 

I had hatched a plan to visit the Hello Kitty Cafe for lunch which I had google mapped and found out that it was well within walking distance of the hotel. It would also take us on a small exploration of the Higashiyama area. My husband very nicely agreed and I was happy to see that there were quite a few other agreeable men at the cafe. The food is all kittyfied and there are giant stuffed kitty -chans which the wait staff bring to your table for photos. As an extra bonus there is a Ghibli store right next door with a giant Totoro and lots and lots of Ghibli goods. In our journey to visit Kitty- Chan and back we got to explore our fabulous neighborhood complete with shrines and lots of people in Kimonos and athletic young men pulling rickshaws and kids in their school uniforms. We learned from our tour guide that most people rent their kimono from the many rental shops in Kyoto.

 

I’m a sucker for kawaii Japanese goods. I have a dollhouse full of them at home called Tanuki Towers.

 

We found our way back to Mume in time to meet our tour guide, Kenzo Sato, from Rowthorn Tours for and evening walk in Gion. He would be our tour guide for the next two days as well so I was hoping he would be a good fit for us and he was better than I could have ever imagined. He grew up in Kyoto and decided life as a salaryman was not for him. Good choice because he is an excellent tour guide. He was so personable and knowledgeable and he went above and beyond to tailor his tour to our interests and requests.

Kenzo showed us how to get onto the Main Street via a secret passage. Our first stop was a very fancy bakery Gion Sakai . They had a display of very select and delicious goods. In particular there were some brownie like pastries called shakaku made with whiskey produced in his home town. They each had a little elegant dot of gold leaf on them. You can see them on the website . We went back the next night and bought some for a snack and I bought some more to bring back as a treat for my daughter’s birthday. There are not many window displays in Japanese stores and this store is no exception. It has a traditional wooden front with white curtains hanging down over the entrance. We were really glad to have Kenzo point it out.

 

We walked by many small neighborhood shrines and temples. Kenzo told us about the history and culture of Geishas. We saw the Geisha School where young women are still trained starting at the age of fifteen in arts such as tea ceremony, dance, music and flower arranging. Being chosen to study as a geisha is  competitive and its a great privilege to be chosen. We were lucky enough to see a geiko and several maiko as well as a Geisha being sent from her geisha mother’s house to an appointment . They are paid about 300 dollars for two hours of their services.

We went through some more small neighborhoods and stopped at Kenninji Temple . We also visited Marishiten Shrine where we practiced our Shinto praying. It is not unusual in Japan for a buddhist temple and a shinto shrine to be in close proximity, sometimes even in the same complex.  There are many boar statues there which Kenzo said are good for back and leg strength. Before our trip I had successfully battled a nasty bout of sciatica so we returned the next day so I could purchase and write out a prayer/ thank you on a wooden boar prayer card as the shrine shop was closed when we arrived. These wishing plaques are officially called Ema. As I was linking this shrine I read that many people think the boar gives them good luck in gambling as well. I think I remember that Kenzo told us that but it’s fun to make the links and learn another thing or two.

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We took a circular route and saw the beautiful Yasaka Pagoda (featured image) in the twilight. Going up a back staircase on our way to Kodaiji temple we saw a film being projected on a building. It was all about Japanese folktale characters called Yokai which come in all forms from tanukis to old umbrellas. I have since done a lot of reading and researching about them and really enjoy the Kitaro graphic novel series by Shigeru Mizuki. My favorite is Nonnonba .  Kenzo left us at Kodaiji Temple where we enjoyed a beautiful light show . Before heading back to Mume, we had hoped the food stalls would be open in the temple area but they were not, so we had a bit of a struggle finding a place to eat and ended up at a funny toast, beer, rice place, yup…..whew! ….Big day… I’m glad we had heeded our daughter’s advice to spend three nights in Kyoto. There is plenty to see and do. Three weeks wouldn’t have been too long.

 

Fortified by Hotel Mume’s amazing breakfast of , freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, fruit, homemade jam, boiled egg, a selection of fresh-baked breads and homemade soup, we met Kenzo in the lobby for an all day excursion to Fushimi Inari, and several other locations in the Higashiyama area. We took a short subway ride to the shrine. We had told Kenzo of our Nakasendo hike and our upcoming plans to hike the Kumano Kodo so he had planned a fabulous hike for us at Fushimi Inari. We found our way in to this amazing complex of shrines through the back gate. He took us through all sorts of woodland paths. We saw magical little areas with stone foxes and orange tori gates, waterfalls, a bamboo shoot farm, a little shop with shrine offerings selling, sake and treats for the foxes in gift packs. We heard a family chanting for a relative as we walked and musical shinto frogs. We learned that the gates are donated by families and businesses as offerings in hopes of good luck. You will often see a pair of foxes one holding a message in his mouth and another with a ball that represents a god. Foxes are called Kitsuni.

 

Yotsutsuji intersection  was a beautiful spot on our way down where it was possible to look out over Kyoto. Kenzo pointed out two mountain tops and told us a folktale about how the two were nearly equal in height but they constantly argued about who was bigger. Finally one mountain lost its temper and struck the other mountain on the head which caused him to have a bump on his head so he actually became the bigger mountain because of this misdeed. A caution to keep your temper.

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Walking away from Fushimi Inari we went through a quiet neighborhood and stopped at Komyo–In, a serene Japanese garden. Again, this was so thoughtful of Kenzo as he knew we had an interest in gardening and the outdoors. We sat and relaxed taking in the peace of the ancient Zen garden. Kenzo pointed out the groups of rocks which stand for buddha and his disciples and told us that, in Japan, the saying “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”, is understood as, you should NOT roll or, sadly, you will gather no moss. Moss is desirable and it flourished in this garden. The openwork is structural but is exposed for its beauty.

 

We hopped back on the subway and walked to a local ramen bar where we had some instruction on how to slurp noodles properly. We were in the urban area of Higashyiama and Kenzo kindly asked if there was anything I wanted help with as far as purchases. I actually wanted to get a certain sort of face washing granules I had read about so he helped me find them at the huge Matsumoto Kiyoshi , a Japanese drugstore chain with many, many branches. When I was paying he taught me that it is considered polite to offer your paper money to the cashier with both hands and place it on the tray. It is best not to fold money either. We also learned that in Kyoto the add the words Okini after arigato ( thank you). So you would say ” Arigato Okini” or thank you very much. Sometimes they just say Okini. The local people seemed to appreciate us using the added word and we have since named our puppy Okini.

Our last two sights for the day were Shoren-in Temple and Kiyomizudera Temple.  Shoren -In boasts a beautiful 800 year old camphor tree just outside which made me think of Totoro the wood-spirit. There is also a beautiful garden an impressive giant bell which you can ring and some interesting artifacts and history as it used to be a dwelling for priests. It’s not crowded so you can have a very close up and personal visit.

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Kiyomizudera Temple is very much more crowded and very impressive. It is quite a large complex with many beloved religious rituals including the drinking of healing water from a waterfall and a love charm. The roof of the huge stage there was being replaced which was a sight in itself. This happens every 50 years and it is scaffolded and thatched in the traditional way. There were many school groups there and we were lucky to be approached by a charming very shy young lady who was assigned to interview tourists as part of her school trip. Her young friend was bolstering her shy spirit as she posed us questions about our thoughts on Kyoto vegetable. It was memorable.

 

It was a busy day but we still ended up being back for the cocktail hour at Mume. My Japanese drink of choice was plum wine. Yum. We had our favorite dinner of the trip at a Wagyu beef steak house attached to a butcher shop which the Mume  owner had recommended . Kyo no Yakinikudokoro Hiro Sembon Sanjo Honten a short walk from the hotel on Sanjo Street. It is the first restaurant where I have ever left my shoes at the front door. We had our own private little room with a grill built into our table and a buzzer for the waitress. There was a picture menu in english and we ordered some different cuts of meat, some veggies and a rice dish. Our kimono clad server would bow outside our room,  bow when she came in and put the food down, and bow again on her way out. And this was no little bend at the waist. It was a full on your knees head to the floor all three times. Yikes! It was culturally impressive as well as amazingly delicious!

After appreciating another fabulous Mume breakfast, the next to the last before we were back on the trail eating fish and rice, Kenzo met us in the lobby and we took a taxi to the train station to go to Nara. He pointed out the entrance we would be using the next day on our journey to the Kii Peninsula and the Kumano Kodo. It is only a short trip to Nara from Kyoto. It was April 22, Earth Day, there was a small celebration going on in the park with some vendors selling and a cut school group in hot pink tee shirts, doing a choreographed band/vocal performance. Kenzo told us they were singing a song from a popular television show about two teenagers in love and episode after episode nothing really happens.
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Our first stop was Isuien Garden, a gorgeous traditional Japanese walking garden. We got to see some gardeners in action. Traditional Japanese gardening is truly an art and it takes years to become a master gardener. The gardens were owned by a family that excelled in the craft of bleaching threads which was necessary in an area with so many people involved in religious roles. We also got to see a thatched roof close up which was really interesting after seeing the roofing project at Kiyomizudera Temple the day before. The thatching was about two feet thick. There were also shells on top which were to scare the birds away.

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Then we headed towards Todaiji Temple meeting lots of wonderful Nara deer along the way. Interacting with the deer ( sika, in Japanese) is a really amazing experience, not to be missed. Actually, I think there is really no other choice than to interact with them whether you buy a bag of deer crackers from a vendor or not. They really do exchange bows with you and seem to be old souls remaining in the area. I  highly suggest a day trip to Nara if you are spending some time in Kyoto.

 

We went on to see a series of amazing shrines and temples starting with the most impressive Todaiji Temple . It’s an amazing immense wooden structure built by 2.6 million people in hopes of inspiring Buddha to protect Japan. There is so much history here. I really enjoyed seeing all of the visiting school groups in their uniforms, and watching them try to fit through a hole in a post which is called the nostril of Buddha.

 

The giant Buddha statue and the Kannon and Kokuzo statues on either side, as well as the guardian statues may well be the most impressive artifacts I have ever seen. I also loved the wooden doorway guardian stepping on an oni and Binzuru who was banished to the outside of the temple for his misdeeds.

 

We also saw  Kofukuji Temple, and Kasuga Taisha Shrine and we visited a small calligraphy store where Kenzo demonstrated his calligraphy skills for us.  I loved all of the lanterns around the shrine. They were given by shrine benefactors much like the gates at Fushimi Inari but longer lasting. I could take a million photos of them.

 

I had mentioned to Kenzo that I wanted to try chagayu which is rice cooked in tea and he scouted out a local restaurant for us in the old district. We would never have found it without him. It was a fitting meal as it was probably similar to what the folks who worked on the temples ate. We walked back to the station through Nara Machi and through a small shopping arcade where we were able to purchase a basket of white strawberries that were more economical than the one we saw in Tokyo. We headed back on the train and said our goodbyes to our amazing tour guide. I’m certain our stay was a thousand times improved because of his wealth of knowledge and experience and desire to share Kyoto and Nara with us.P1040494

Arriving back in Gion , I did a bit of quick souvenir shopping at the iconic Yogiya and went back to Gion Sakai for shakaku for my daughter’s birthday. They were securely boxed and I was impressed that the salesperson pointed out the expiry date for my approval. We had a hilarious dinner at a tiny place in a covered arcade some  British folks from the Mume happy hour had told us about. There was a set meal and a sake tasting with an emphasis on the saki tasting. We shared the restaurant with a table full of saki salesmen whom the owner and her daughter would take turns sitting with. Every so often a small grilled fish or a few beans on a plate would be served to us but the owner in her classic white kapoggi apron would come by about every fifteen minutes with a new cup of sake with a full description of its merits and which part of Japan it hailed from. At one point we each had three cups of sake  and no food. When the nice woman came along with yet another type of saki we had to try hard suppress our laughter and I’m not sure we did very well. It was just one of those times in life….. and then the sake salesmen sent us some special sake. We realized we would need to ask for the check if we were to be in good condition for our journey onward in the morning. We had a nice walk home. Luckily, before dinner, I had packed for the most part and weeded out all unnecessary items into a few bags  to send on to Osaka by Takubin which I was able to do at the front desk. We were ready for our Kumano Kodo adventure!

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 Tanukis at a yard sale in Nara- machi

Self Guided Walking on the Nakasendo Trail with Oku Japan

We headed out at a pretty fast clip, not knowing yet how to judge the posted times on our itinerary (three hours, 5.2 miles)  from Magome to Tsumago. Starting off on a very steep flagstone road, complete with cheerful primroses,  through the historic little village, we hoped we hadn’t overestimated our hiking ability, but the terrain proved to be varied and anyone who is in relatively good condition and takes a good walk every day should be fine on this trail. Also as an odd side note, along the way there were fully functioning toilet facilities complete with heated bidet. Oh Japan.

 

Japan Day 3-6

For this part of our Journey we used the tour company, Oku Japan. We have done self guided walking tours with other companies in France and Italy and had wonderful trips each time. This was no exception. They company plans your hiking route, makes all the lodging reservations, provides most of your train tickets and arranges to have your luggage sent from point to point. We have not had one luggage glitch so far. It has just sailed smoothly along from place to place, it’s wonderful! You are often able to customize your lodging.  They also provide an itinerary with detailed directions and sometimes GPS files. You are walking alone, but you also have a contact person in country so they can help with emergencies. It’s maybe a little bit cheating, but it sure has worked out well for us. The best of both worlds.

We have a pair of collapsible lekki trekking poles that we use quite a bit during our hikes. Even my husband who is a minimalist is a fan. We have one pair and we each use one. I wear soft Anhu hiking boots while my husband prefers sneakers. My favorite rain gear is Patagonia’s Torrenshell poncho. I carry a small Topo Designs day pack and he carries a pack with a hydro insert so we can have water breaks easily.

We had reserved a taxi the night before to take us to the train station with plenty of time to navigate the train station in the morning. We had already received our ticket packet from Oku Japan upon our arrival at the hotel. I had double checked the time on a very useful site called Hyperdia. It has all the updated schedules to get you from point to point in Japan. We went through the ticket gate that was manned by an actual english speaking person and had him check our tickets. We were able to do this on every transfer during our two-week journey. I was pretty nervous even though I had done tons of research on the Japanese train system in advance. By the end of the trip we opted to take a local subway to our final destination in Osaka instead of a taxi and we only had one scheduling mishap the whole time. Luckily the announcements and departure/ arrival boards are in Japanese and English. My best advice is to keep your eye on the board. Also the trains play really fun arrival music.

Our first train was from Tokyo to Nagoya. We had plenty of time on the platform to browse the bento box shop on the platform. Then we boarded the shinkansen, Nozomi 103 bound for Hiroshima. We were happy that we were able to see Mount Fuji. I was amazed at the amount of time we were able to see it for. It’s pretty huge I guess. My husband and I are decidedly different on our approach to departing the train. I like to be waiting at the door well in advance with my luggage while he waits until we actually arrive. As you can tell by now I’m fairly OCD and his approach sets my teeth on edge. Anyhow our first Shinkansen ride was under our belts and we felt pretty good. It didn’t seem as fast as we had anticipated though. Then we took a smaller JR train, Wide view Shinano number 9, from Nagoya to Nakatsugawa bound for Nagano. The small train stations are super navigable and we felt ever more confident. From the train station we found our way over to the bus lanes and talked with an American woman traveling on her own. There was a busload of many nationalities all ready to hike the Nakasendo Trail. The bus ride took us up and up stopping at many different villages along the way to our destination in Magome, the 43d post town on the trail. We were happy to see there were still cherry trees blossoming as they were pretty much finished in Tokyo.Waiting for us in Magome was the driver who would bring our bags to the inn while we hiked. We stopped at a local soba place, Juri, where no English was spoken. The soba was great but the local roasted rice balls were the star of the show. I used some of my limited Japanese ” Mizu , Kudasi..”  along with some improvised sign language and scored a glass of water.

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We headed out at a pretty fast clip, not knowing yet how to judge the posted times on our itinerary (three hours, 5.2 miles)  from Magome to Tsumago. Starting off on a very steep flagstone road, complete with cheerful primroses,  through the historic little village, we hoped we hadn’t overestimated our hiking ability, but the terrain proved to be varied and anyone who is in relatively good condition and takes a good walk every day should be fine on this trail. Also as an odd side note, along the way there were fully functioning toilet facilities complete with heated bidet. Oh Japan.

It began to rain lightly and we put our rain gear to use. Gently up and down we went ringing the bells along the trail to scare the bears away. We never saw any bears but there were many warning signs posted along the trail. We met a few other hikers on this portion of the trail. We entered a woodsy section of the trail and saw our first Jizo statues. It felt good to be back in the woods and out of the busy city. Walking peacefully all day through new and beautiful territory and ending up at a nice inn with a tasty dinner. Our idea of  a  perfect vacation.

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A special spot along the way is a barn like teahouse which is run by a couple of old men who volunteer their services to their community by keeping up the teahouse tradition in a most jovial manner. I actually saw them on YouTube before the hike and they did not disappoint. These friendly characters served up tea, sweets, pickles and humor. We passed a fish farm, an impressive Tanuki statue, and a life-sized straw horse. Johnny- Jump ups were in bloom. In a little under three hours the post town of Tsumago appeared. We walked down a street with traditional buildings on either side. Our Minshuku Daikichi (traditional style inn) took a wee bit of searching to find but we were soon through its tiny door enjoying a hot family bath in a real cypress tub. Of course, we had exchanged our slightly soggy shoes for Japanese slippers at the front door.

 

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We donned our provided yukatas and headed for the dining room where we sampled a kaiseki meal with roasted grasshoppers, green tea salt and delicious whole roasted river fish while conversing with an Australian family and an Irish couple. The Australian family was multi generational and the youngest boy had had about enough of the Japanese food. His mum was coaching him to say politely that ” It wasn’t to his liking”.

We rolled out our futon, put our heads on our traditional buckwheat pillows and soon fell asleep listening to the pouring rain.

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The second day we got up early and had a Japanese breakfast of fish, rice , seaweed and Miso, and yogurt. We had an eight mile walk from Tsumago To Kiso Fukushima ahead of us. It was a pleasant journey through a couple of small villages, stands of bamboo and cedar forests. There was lots of water running alongside and some Hydroelectric Dams. We saw Primroses again and cherry blossoms, hooray! About an hour along the way  we stopped at a supermarket Norjiri and picked up some picnic supplies. My love affair with Japanese white bread sandos began here. They make such a comforting egg salad one. They also have tempting variety pack sandwich stacks. They are available everywhere and a nice foil to the food experimenting we were doing.

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The hike was well-marked and there were rest stops along the way. We met up with a young British couple now and then and we picnicked together. we were all going at a steady clip in order to make a 14:56 train to our final destination at the end of the hike. There was a later train available, just in case but we were really hoping for the earlier option. the last bit of the hike was downhill and we could spot the younger couple striding down the hill in front of us. There was a wonderful scent of cypress sawdust along the way at a sawmill. Lots of cypress items are made in the area. We all got to the station in plenty of time. We had hoped that there was a snack shop around but there was only a small train station, no snacks. After a short JR train ride we arrived in Kiso Fukushima. We had instructions to call that night’s inn, Komanoyu Ryokan and say very slowly OKU JAPAN and our name and the inn’s van would come and pick us up, which it did.

Exchanging our shoes for slippers at the door we were shown to our very large room and served green tea. There were tea making supplies included in almost every room we stayed in during our trip. We were given yukatas and found our way to the baths. This time we they were again separated by sex and each side had an indoor and outdoor bath. Hike , bathe, eat, sleep. I could get  used to this. The dinner here was delicious and bounteous. We were given many more courses than we were able to eat. The Ryokan offered a stargazing program but we opted for bed. I stopped in the lobby gift shop and purchased a few items and I also visited a small reading nook which had a large collection of graphic novels. When we returned to our room our futon were beautifully spread out for us and we slept well.

In the morning the van took us back to Kiso Fukushima. We stopped at the tourist office for information. My husband decided to take a morning hike to Gongen Waterfall . I was happy to go on just one hike that day and to explore the town instead. I found a small general store which had yarn and sewing items. I had a good time trying to communicate with the ladies there about the wool content in the yarn and we all ended up laughing a lot. I came away having learned the words Hit su JI for sheep and URU, wool and with 2 balls of Japanese yarn. I checked out a funny little museum and tried to figure out how to get to Kozenji Temple. I am terribly challenged by maps and when I see that “you are here” I think it’s great but I just don’t see how to get from “here” to “there”. I stopped into a store that sold mostly what looked like beans and the woman there got her dad who spoke English and he very kindly drove me to the temple in his car. The whole time we were in Japan I felt completely safe so I never thought twice about it. Truthfully, I think you could leave your pack in the middle of the street in Tokyo and it would likely be there waiting when you returned.The only thing I was worried about was finding my way back to the main street so I watched carefully on the very short drive. Kozenji has some beautiful gardens and is worth a trip.

My husband texted that he was back from the hike, which he enjoyed, and took a taxi to the temple. We walked back to the town together and picked up lunch at the convenience store, combini as the Japanese call it. We enjoyed our egg sandwiches, wasabi crisps and cake rolls, fizzy fruit soda and hot latte in a can at the train station and  boarded the JR Chuo line train for a brief ride to Yabuhara , starting point for the our 3 hour hike to Narai, the final post town of our journey.

In this spirit of safety and sharing we would often see umbrellas for borrowing along the way…..

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After passing through the small village of Yabuhara with its famous comb shops,this hike was a contrast to the day before being mainly through forested trails. The highlight is a small shrine at the tori pass with some lovely old stone statues. It’s just a bit steep but not strenuous. There are also several bear warning signs. I did quite a bit of loud singing and we never saw a bear, though I’m not sure my traveling companion appreciated the entertainment.

The order in which we planned our city walks and hiking routes worked out well because the hikes were progressively harder as we went along with lots of city walking in between. We slowly built up to our most challenging  hike on the last day of the Kumano Kodo .

The hike ends at the shrine in the beautiful old post town of Narai. There were many shops along the main road of the old town, including some shops selling cypress wood products along the way to our inn .  I stocked up on animal shaped baby spoons.

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I really enjoyed the Iseya Inn, est. 1818. The owner was so friendly and helpful. There was an umbrella pine family bath and the rooms were homey and cozy. The food was delicious, Crispy fried rainbow trout and chicken, shiso leave and a bowl of fresh mixed vegetables including bamboo. We shared the inn with a guided tour group ( also Oku Japan) and it was fun to eavesdrop on their group. In the morning we had a short walk to the station, where we ran into a couple my husband had met at the waterfall, and made our way to Kyoto.
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Reading list: Walking the Kiso Road

 

 

 

 

Tokyo Day 2 : Shinjuku, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku

I highly recommend the guides from Rowthorn Tours . We used them both in Tokyo and Kyoto and, though not inexpensive, it made the best use of our short city stays. No wasted time struggling with maps and transportaion .

Two Weeks in Japan- Tokyo,Hiking the Nakesendo Trail, Kyoto, Hiking the Kumano Kodo and one night in Osaka (April,2017)

We enjoyed Dormy Inns American breakfast and had our first experience seeing what a real Japanese breakfast buffet looked like. Fish, soup and seaweed, for sure. We took a quick walk around outside and managed to find our way to Shibuya Crossing and rushed back to meet our tour guide for the morning in the hotel lobby. I highly recommend the guides from Rowthorn Tours . We used them both in Tokyo and Kyoto and, though not inexpensive, it made the best use of our short city stays. No wasted time struggling with maps and transportation . Junko, a delightful middle-aged woman, breezed us through the neighborhood and onto the subway to Shinjuku. She brought us right to Isetan Department Store where we could see the shopkeepers greeting the customers for the day. The food hall was the most amazing with its 160 dollar melons and perfect white strawberries at ten dollars apiece. These perfect fruits usually given as gifts. There was a vast array of food  sushi, pastries, bread, veggies, sweets, meat, salts ….on and on. Then a quick trip to Golden Gai an area preserved from the world war two era. It’s composed of many tiny, tiny bars. Junko explained that it would cost a million dollars to buy one yet they are no bigger than a small storage shed. Moving right along we visited Memory Lane another World War two area, now filled with tiny food stalls.P1040176

Also in the Kubakicho area there is a red light district, loud pachinko parlors and the famous robot restaurant.

Junko told us that the pawn shops in the area were useful to the “hostesses” who receive many expensive gifts and want to trade them in for cash. Also, while gambling is illegal in Japan, there are small windows in the area where the prizes won at pachinko parlor can be traded in for cash. No photos are allowed in the pachinko parlors, by the way.

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Yup, Tokyo is VAST! The Government building area is in sharp contrast to Kubakicho, very clean and businesslike and modern. I was especially amazed at the drink vending machine in the government building where we purchased delicious and delightful pear sodas.  Thankfully, Junko showed us how to choose the size, ice or no ice, fizzy or still. The machine whirred and clicked and hummed until a little door popped open and there was a cold drink, lid perfectly attached. Very impressive. And not only that. There were quite a few other drinks you could get from the same machine including coffee, three strengths, hot or iced, with three different amounts of sugar or milk. Japanese vending machines are amazing. This one, in particular, has a place in my heart.P1040193

A brief note about why there are no trash cans in Tokyo. Some grumpy group apparently put poison gas in them and killed several people so the Prime Minister declared “No more trash cans for you!” They are slowly coming back but for now Junko carried our empty pear soda cups in her bag. Arigato.

Then it was back to our neighborhood on the above ground JR Line to Harajuku and the Meiji Shrine. The subway was pretty packed but we all managed to get on. Meiji Park/ Shrine was created to honor Emperor Meiji who opened Japan to the rest of the world and introduced the Japanese to wine, beef and milk. A forest was planted but was kept closed for 100 years to let different species take over. There are even tanuki there! I wish I had seen a real one but we did see plenty of statues during our 2 week visit. We said our first shinto prayers there and had our first lesson in Shinto Shrine etiquette. We got a little better at this as we went along but there’s a lot of steps to remember. It can be tricky to think of a meaningful prayer. Mine was usually based on peace,love and harmony. Then we ran into the Shinto wedding above. Quite a sight.

We went by an area that looked like a parking lot and Junko told us that was where people came to get their cars blessed for safety. Cost, 50 dollars or 5000 yen. She also told us about two old women who were arrested for putting oil on the pillars of the temple and showed us the oiled spot. Why they would want to do that was a mystery. Touring around with Junko was a treat worth every yen, we did so much and learned so much. She took us to a quiet lunch spot. I loved how they provided baskets to store your personal items in. We enjoyed lunch with her and she mapped out the areas we wanted to visit that afternoon and we said our goodbyes.

After lunch I went on a shopping spree on Otemesando at Kiddyland.I got some cool washi tape, some totoro charms and some peanuts pens. Also, they had a hedgehog Gashapon machine, along with many others. I am a big fan of hedgehogs. It was the best Gashapon of the trip.Then we headed up Takeshita street in a huge shoulder to shoulder crowd. It’s a really amazing experience. We reached my goal, Daiso, the famous Japanese dollar store, where I shopped wildly for a while. Many hedgehog scores and DarumaFuroshiki. We walked back towards the Dormy Inn just in time to meet a college friend of my daughter for a tempura dinner near Shibuya crossing. On our way home more random shopping at stall and convenience stores for fun Japanese goodies, face masks and  meji candy and nail clippers of famous Japanese steel.  Phew!

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Back at the hotel we arranged our bags for our upcoming three night hike on the Nakesendo Trail. I sent my days shopping haul on to our final destination in Osaka by the fabulous courier service Takubin. It’s really amazing and affordable and can be done at the front desk of your hotel. Sweet. We went to bed with thoughts of our upcoming Shinkansen experience in the morning and our peaceful Nakesendo  Trail hike ahead.

Two Weeks in Japan- Tokyo,Hiking the Nakesendo Trail, Kyoto, Hiking the Kumano Kodo and one night in Osaka (April,2017)

I wanted to write this in order to encourage other travelers to go ahead and get themselves to Japan. It’s an amazing country and, with a little planning, it’s quite possible.

Tokyo April 15-17th,2017- Day One

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This view of Tokyo was taken from the top of the Metropolitan Government Office building in Shinjuku. Tokyo is a huger city than we ever have ever seen before with 36 million people in the area. According to our city guide, Junko, three million people pass through Shinjuku station every day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself… I wanted to write this in order to encourage other travelers to go ahead and get themselves to Japan. It’s an amazing country and, with a little planning, it’s quite possible. We flew from Boston on a direct flight on Japan Airlines    over the North Pole (Hi Santa!). We are no spring chickens, just an older couple near our 60th year on either side. We’ve travelled and hiked a good bit in Europe but this was our first trip to Asia and I would go back in a heartbeat. The flight didn’t even seem that long, at around 13 hours. I walked around the clean. comfortable plane a lot and there was a huge list of free and fabulous movies, a fun bento box meal, snacks always available and even disposable toothbrushes and toothpaste. When we arrived in Tokyo we were picked up by Green Tomato Airport Shuttle  which was recommended by one of our hiking companies. The online form works great and a very cheerful driver was there to pick up our very sleepy selves.

I wanted to stay in Shibuya because we were only in Tokyo for a couple of nights and I wanted to see Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing and the Meiji Shrine which are nearby. Green Tomato dropped a few other passengers off so we got to see some other hotels. Ours, The Dormy Inn, Shibuya was a pretty low-budget one but central to all we wanted to see and clean with a very local feel, It has an onsen and free ramen at night and breakfast, both Japanese and American style in the morning, All of the correspondence  I had with them pre-trip was very cordial and easy. I definitely do not speak Japanese, although I learned a few requisite  courteous words, of course. I got some different little apps for my phone before we went. I also read The Cool Japan Guide which is a cute graphic novel and also Tokyo on Foot along with the usual guide books.

We were tuckered out but after checking in to our very tiny but comfortable room we hit the onsen and the free ramen. Here are tips on the ubiquitous onsen . My first onsen experience was very cool. This being a family sort of hotel, there was a family of what looked to be 3 generations of women with me in the onsen. This particular one had oranges floating in it and my husband said the men’s side had the too. Onsen, check. Ramen, check. To bed, check,check.