Josiah's Japan Travelogue #5
May 22 - June 15, 2017
|May 22nd- 23rd (Mon - Tue): Traveling to Japan|
Why another Japan trip? Well, for starters, I love it there and like to go back frequently (and it's been three years since the last time). Plus, Connie had never been, but wanted to. Plus my parents had promised to pay for trip for us as a late wedding present, which we never got to use last year thanks to having to switch jobs and move to Virginia. Finally, my parents had originally planned to go sightseeing with me in Japan back in 2011, but canceled at the last minute due to the big earthquake. Since then, I've been trying to get them to resurrect those plans. And having them around to help Connie and I with Zack will be really great. So this trip will be a bit different than my previous ones, which focused mostly on exploration. This time, we'll be mostly visiting places I've been to before, with me playing tour guide for everyone else. As such, I might not go into as much detail about some things and locations as in past travelogues, since I've covered them before. But anyway, on with the show...
|May 24th (Wed): Tokyo Basics Part 1|
|With this being Connie's first time in Japan, I naturally have to take her to some of Tokyo's major sightseeing spots. Today, we started out with an old favorite, Asakusa. If you don't remember, Asakusa is famous for Sensoji Temple and the surrounding shopping arcades, which are a great place to stroll, eat, and shop for souvenirs. Since we arrived a bit before most of the stores opened, we started out by exploring the temple and its grounds. I had forgotten just how many little shrines and statues were nearby, aside from the main building. Despite it being a weekday during the school year, the place got pretty crowded by mid-morning, with quite a lot of tour groups, many of which were made up of junior high and high school students.
After finishing up at the temple, we moved on to the shopping streets and arcades (covered shopping streets). They're mostly as I remember (including my favorite taiyaki place), but I think the owl cafe is new. What's an owl cafe? Well, it started out with cat cafes, where you can buy overpriced drinks and hang out with lots of cats. The idea caught on so much that the concept began to expand to include other animals, owls being one of them. While the idea of a cat cafe doesn't excite me much, I have to admit that I wouldn't mind trying an owl cafe sometime... Anyway, we walked around, browsed some shops, and ate lunch at a pretty good soba place before moving on.
Our next stop, Tokyo Skytree, the world's tallest tower (though not the world's tallest building, which technically isn't a tower), currently celebrating its 5th anniversary. On a side note, they currently have some sort of Attack on Titan promotion going on, though I didn't have a change to check out the details. The Skytree, fortunately, wasn't especially crowded and we were able to get tickets and head up pretty much immediately. While it wasn't quite clear enough to see Mt. Fuji, the views were still great. We could even look down at Sensoji.
After spending some time admiring the view, we headed down to explore the shopping mall filling the first few floors of the tower. There's some nice stores and restaurants there, including some otaku focused ones (most of which I don't remember seeing on my last visit), including a store selling Gundam inspired clothes (cool but way too expensive for me) and a Pokémon Center. We had a pleasant time walking around and stayed long enough for dinner before calling it a day. It wasn't especially late, but it doesn't hurt to take it easy the day after such a long flight.
|May 25th (Thu): Shibuya|
|Today didn't get off to the greatest start. While preparing everything for the day ahead, I realized that the vouchers for our JR train passes had been left back in Virginia. That was stressful and I got pretty frustrated with myself since I had somehow completely forgotten about them all that time. Despite referencing them repeatedly in my travel plan, they never got added to the packing list and I hadn't noticed them when packing the passports, despite them being in the same spot. Unfortunately, without the actual vouchers, there's no way to get the rail passes, even if you have the order confirmation info and everything. On the bright side, I was able to declare them lost to get a refund (though not for 100% of the price). In the past, we would have had to make do without rail passes entirely (or at least order new vouchers and have them shipped to our next hotel (forcing us to pay for tomorrow's expensive train trip)). But, just a couple months ago, they started selling JR Passes in Japan at a limited number of stations. You pay a small premium, so it's still much better to order them ahead of time, but it's way better than going without.
Anyway, after figuring out all the details about that, Connie, Zack, and I finally set out for Shibuya, Tokyo's center of popular fashion. After a quick visit to Hachiko, we headed into Shibuya 109, a famous mall made up of a number of little clothing and accessory stores, mostly focusing on Japanese brands. Not really my thing, of course, especially since the main 109 building is all women's clothes, but Connie enjoyed it and I have to admit that some of the outfits on display were rather interesting to see. After that, we ate at a family restaurant, did a little more shopping, and got back on the train.
Next stop, Harajuku. But, before hitting more shops, we detoured into Yoyogi Park to visit Meiji Jingu Shrine (and its collection of sake barrels). Part of the shrine is currently undergoing renovation, but we were able to enter the main courtyard. We also swung by the nearby garden, which is small but pleasant.
We were planning to browse the shopping streets next, but Connie was feeling a little off so I took her back to the hotel to rest a bit. I headed back out a little later but by then I only had about an hour before I needed to meet my parents (who were arriving from the US to join us) so I just walked around Shinagawa Station for a bit. On that note, there's a decent amount of restaurants in the area, but it's definitely not worth a trip there just to eat or look around.
After my parents arrived, I got them settled in the hotel, got Connie and Zack, and we all went to Tokyo Station to pick up new rail passes. It was getting late by then but, fortunately, Tokyo Station has a ton of restaurants and we eventually settled on a nice little oyakodon (chicken and egg rice bowl) place before calling it a day. Tomorrow, on to Fukuoka!
|May 26th (Fri): Off to Fukuoka|
|We set off from Tokyo a bit later in the morning than I would have liked but the earlier shinkansen were mostly booked so we didn't have much of a choice. On the bright side, it did make the morning a bit more relaxed. Anyway, it was our longest train ride of the trip (a little under six hours, counting the time switching trains half way) and, since we didn't get an especially early start, it ate up a good chunk of the day. By the time we arrived and checked into our hotel (a nice Dormy Inn), it was too late to do any serious sightseeing so instead we walked around the Canal City Mall, watched the fountain show, got dinner, and did a little shopping for tomorrow.
Not an especially interesting or exciting day, but I'm glad we got it all out of the way.
|May 27th (Sat): Chiran|
|Since it was a shabbat, we decided to stick with more outdoors, nature oriented, activities. Of the things on the travel plan, a trip to Kagoshima made the most sense so we got on the shinkansen.
I have to say that, as I noticed before, Kyushu is a really pretty island with tons of hills, greenery, and nice farming towns. Unfortunately, the shinkansen goes through a lot of tunnels, which limits your view quiet a bit (fortunately, that's much less of an issue on the regular trains). After arriving at Kagoshima, it was onto the bus for a ride to the old samurai village of Chiran. It's a good bit out of the way, but worth the trip, at least in my opinion. I gave a complete run down of it last time, if you want more details (see the entry for Friday the 4th), so I won't do that again. But the different samurai gardens are still beautiful and even just walking down the street through the massive hedges is quite the experience. It's really a cool place.
We got back to Kagoshima a little later than I'd expected, but I figured we still had time to finish our plan for the day and take the ferry to the volcanic island of Sakurajima. I'd wanted to do that on my last visit, but hadn't had time. Unfortunately, Connie wasn't feeling her best and whoever wrote my Japan guide book was sorely mistaken when they said that the ferry terminal is a 10 minute walk from the station (it's more like 30) so, in the end, we walked around a bit but gave up on Sakurajima. Someday, I really want to base in Kagoshima for a few days, explore the city more, visit Sakurajima, and take day trips out to some of the more distant islands as well. Something to keep in mind for the future, anyway.
Oh, when looking for a place to eat dinner back in Fukuoka, I saw this (the sign says American Jumbo Burger). You might not be able to tell from the photo, but it looked to be around 8 -12 inches in diameter. And no, I didn't eat it.
|May 28th (Sun): Huis Ten Bosch|
|I couldn't plan a trip to Kyushu without a stop at Huis Ten Bosch, the amazing dutch theme park. It's a huge place, easily on par with a Disney Park in terms of both size and atmosphere. Last time, I was there on a week day and the place was a bit dead, so it was actually kind of nice to see it more crowded this time. Fortunately, it's big enough and spread out enough that lines were never really an issue. While a lot of the attractions skew towards an older audience, they've been trying to attract a younger crowd too. Last time I came, there was a big cross promotion with One Piece. That's over, but there were several smaller ones this time including Gintama and Patlabor. They've also added a large number of VR games (some are free, some cost extra). I only got to try a few, but one of them (a music game on the Vive) was a whole lot of fun and some of the other more elaborate games looks pretty cool as well. The tech push also extends to robots. One of the hotels is now staffed by robots (you'll never encounter a human employee) and they have a robot run restaurant as well.
While walking down Umbrella Street, I noticed that the ice bar (which was being renovated last time I came) was now open, so my parents and I stopped in to take a look. While the whole idea of a bar where all the furniture and decorations are made of ice is kind of weird, it's pretty neat too. Drinks are a bit on the expensive side, but they're served inside a giant ice cube, which is a pretty awesome. (Note my careful avoidance of describing the place as "cool".) We also watched a water show and went through the mirror maze before continuing on.
We ended up going our separate ways for lunch, and meeting up again in Adventure Land, stopping along the way to watch the rose parade. The ropes course there is still as awesome as I remember, and they were currently doing a promotion where you could try an extra challenge that involved completing the course while balancing a plastic egg in a bowl on your helmet. I managed to pull it off (which required very steady balance and repressing the urge to look up or down to check hand and foot holds), winning a One Piece charm. My mom did the course as well, but didn't attempt the egg challenge.
The rose garden was pleasant enough last time I visited, but it's naturally a whole lot better when the roses are actually in bloom. Something I don't remember from last time in the garden is a bungee jumping tower. Now bungee jumping is something I've always wanted to try, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. While it wasn't a super tall tower, the jump was a lot of fun, and surprisingly low intensity in terms of how much it jerks your body around. Of course, no one actually got a photo or video of me doing the jump. My mom drained my camera battery taking videos of Zack while I was climbing the tower and it died just before I jumped. Meanwhile, my dad tried with his phone but had some technical difficulties. Sigh...
Moving on, we walked through some other areas of the park (note that the photo only shows around 1/4 of the place at most), enjoying the sights, visiting the glass museum, etc. Looks like even the classic carousel got the VR treatment (it makes it look like you're flying around on dragons, instead of going in circles on wooden horses. On a side note, while we didn't really go into the haunted house area, I think it's possible to take the horror theme a bit too far. If you're curious, that's the sign for an actual restroom, not an attraction, though it just sounds wrong either way...
Eventually, we made it to another tech attraction, the game museum. Inside, it's mostly an arcade (with a mix of new and old machines, some free) and gift shop (complete with a small cafe), but they also have a pretty good collection of old video game consoles and some fun photo spots.
The others didn't want to get back to the hotel super late, so we left before sunset (which was a shame, since it really lights up after dark). Everyone had a lot of fun and we didn't see half the attractions that Huis Ten Bosch has to offer. Once again, I loved it. It's a really great theme park with something for everyone. If I get to go again, I'd love to spend the night in one of the hotels (maybe the robot one) and really explore in-depth.
|May 29th (Mon): Beppu|
|Beppu is one of Japan's most famous hot springs towns, featuring the highest number of hot springs of anywhere in the world and 10 of the 11 different types of hot springs pools found worldwide. I really enjoyed it last time I went, so I included it on this trip as well. Like when I went before, we started out by getting on the bus to visit the "hells" (thermal pools which steam or bubble out from the ground). There's eight hells in Beppu, divided between two areas. We got a combo ticket for all eight but, based on my past experience, we skipped a couple that I had found to be less than impressive. If you want to read the full run down of the hells, check out my previous travelogue entry (see the one for Thursday the 3rd), but here are some highlights from this trip.
We started out with Oniishibozu-Jigoku, which is full of bubbling mud pools. And right next to it is Umi-Jigoku, one of my favorites, with its lily ponds and sea blue pool. As a note, they're currently doing some construction there and, while it doesn't prevent you from seeing the main sights, it means that the gift shop and the indoor lily green house are currently closed. Moving on, we skipped Yama-Jigoku and Oniyama-Jigoku (easily the least impressive of the hells), and made our way to Kamado-Jigoku, which has a large variety of pools and is a great place to try onsen tamago (eggs boiled in hot springs water). One neat thing there that I don't remember seeing before is one of the employees using a cigarette to make smoke bounce off the pools. Speaking of smoke, if you read my travelogue last time I went to Beppu, you might notice that there's a lot less steam rising from the pools in my photos this time around. The reason is that last time it was raining. While that generally detracts from outdoor sightseeing a bit, it does really enhance the steamy atmosphere of Beppu. Anyway, next we saw the piranha and other fish at Shiraike-Jigoku and then walked through the town a little to finish up the area. Then it was time for a short bus ride to the last two hells, the red (well, technically orange-ish) Chinoike-Jigoku and the frequently erupting geyser at Tatsumami-Jigoku.
Once we'd finished with the hells, with took a bus back to the station, taking a route through part of Beppu I hadn't seen before. It's a much bigger place than I had realized. Then it was off to Suginoi Palace, the nice onsen resorted I stopped at on my last visit. It was just as good as I remembered, complete with great view. We were even able to take Zack into the big shared pool, for his first pool and first onsen experience. We didn't stay super late (the others are a bit less tolerant of really long days than I am), but we did find a surprisingly good restaurant in Beppu Station (I good a local vegetable, mochi, and miso soup), before returning to Fukuoka.
|May 30th (Tue): Around Fukuoka|
At this point, the others wanted to take a break from train rides, and my dad and I had tickets for a baseball game (the local Softbank Sea Hawks vs. the Chunichi Dragons) in the evening, so we decided to take it easy an explore Fukuoka a bit.
Random Japan Comment: Baseball Tickets
|May 31st (Wed): On to Kyoto|
|There are quite a lot of shinkansen going between Kyushu and central Honshu (Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, etc.). Unfortunately, most of them are the ones that you can't use with a rail pass. With the pass, there's only about one train an hour, and it only goes as far as Osaka, so that limits things a bit. In the end though, we made it to Kyoto right around noon and headed to our hotel. While it was too early to check in, we were able to drop off our bags before heading back out.
Since it was getting close to lunch time, we ended up making our way north to Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping arcade focused entirely on food. That said, there are very few actual restaurants in it. But there are a lot of stores selling snacks, seafood, locally made pickled vegetables, and the like. I missed this place last time I was in Kyoto, but it's definitely worth a walk though and it's a good spot to snack. If you want a meal though, there are plenty of restaurants just outside of the arcade proper, and we found a nice place for lunch before heading back in.
Nishiki connects to a regular shopping arcade (which I do remember from before) on one end, so we walked in there a little bit before making our way back to the hotel to get our rooms. Since I was a good bit under budget on all the other hotels, we ended up splurging a little here, and got rooms at Hotel Kanra Kyoto, a sort of modern take on the Japanese ryokan (traditional inn). It's certainly fancy. Each room has an elaborate entry way, a large sitting and sleeping area, and even a bathroom with a large wooden tub.
After resting up for a bit, my parents and I went out to get supper. We took a brief look at the nearby Higashi Honganji Temple (which is huge, and has a cool fountain), but it was closing soon so we only saw the outside. Then we made our way back to Kyoto Station. We looked around the stores a bit, and came across a nicely done Lego recreation of the station, before settling down for a very traditional Kyoto style dinner. Finally, after watching the stairs, it was time to call it a day.
|June 1st (Thu): Kyoto Highlights|
After yesterday's long train ride, I decided we should stick around Kyoto for a day and spend more time on our feet instead. Our first stop, Fushimi Inari Shrine. Situated on the side of Mount Inari (named after the kitsune (fox) god), it's one of Kyoto's more famous locations. While the shrine itself is nice enough, the big drawl is the path behind it which winds its way up and around the mountain, all while passing under over 10,000 tori gates. It can be pretty crowded, but I was still able to get some good shots, since the crowds taper off considerably the further you go. In fact, once you pass this view point, they're fairly nonexistent. Along the way, there are lots of small shrines, complete with little gates, and a few small restaurants selling kitsune soba (so named because it contains inari (tofu skin), which is said to be the foxes' favorite food). If you make it all the way to the top of the mountain, you'll come across a statue for Inari (the god, not the tofu skin) and a path continuing down. I highly recommend taking the hike at Fushimi Inari if you're ever in Kyoto. At very least, you have to do the first few minutes and, if you can, continue on to the viewpoint. Personally, I think it's completely worth it to do the whole trail, since you'll come across lots of neat things like this little water shrine. But there are a lot of stairs and the whole thing takes, on average, 2 - 3 hours so, if you can't manage it, the viewpoint makes a good stopping place. Anyway, we enjoyed out hike then fought our way through the crowds and onto the train back to Kyoto Station.
|June 2nd (Fri): Okayama and Kyoto|
The weather report for Kyoto gave a decent chance of rain in the morning, but it was all supposed to clear up by the afternoon. So, we decided to take a half day trip to Okayama to avoid the bad weather and return after lunch to continue touring Kyoto.
Random Japan Comment: Japan with a Baby
|June 3rd (Sat): Himeji|
|Japan's three best castles (according to whoever ranks them) are Himeji, Matsumoto, and Kumamoto. I've been to all of them, and they're all great, but I'd say that Himeji Castle is far and away the best castle in Japan and really a must see if you're anywhere close to the area. It's also known as the white crane castle, due to its color. Actually, they did a lot of cleaning and renovations since the last time I was there, so it looks even whiter now.
Himeji is Japan's largest castle and, while it's been repaired over the years, it's not a recreation. The castle and most of the surrounding structures have survived to the present. Rather remarkably, when you read the history. The Japanese government was planning to demolish it at one point to build an army base (and did destroy a bit of the outer area), but a officer convinced them not to. Then it was auctioned off for the very low price of 23 Yen (which was a lot more back in the day, but still only around $2,200 by modern standards) to a developer who wanted to demolish the castle and use the land for other things, but the demolition cost would have been too high so he gave up. Later, it miraculously survived the extensive bombing Himeji received during WWII (only one bomb hit the castle and it didn't detonate) and made it through a major Earthquake with little damage.
We're fortunate it survived, because the castle is amazing. It features extensive grounds (with twisting paths to confuse enemies) and a large number of walls and outbuildings (some of which you can enter). Honestly, it's one of the most impressive old buildings, of any kind, in the entire country. Possibly the entire world. Naturally, you can also enter the main keep and get some good views from the top floor.
After we finished our tour in the castle, we ate lunch (we'd bought some bentos and rice balls and stuff the previous day) then got on a bus to Mt. Sosha, Himeji's other big attraction (and where they filmed part of the The Last Samurai). I didn't have time to visit Mt. Sosha last time I was in Himeji, but I'm glad we made it there this time around. The mountain is on the outskirts of the city (a 30 minute bus ride) and a short cable car ride (or a longer hike) up to the summit. Mt. Sosha is a sacred mountain covered with shrines and temples (somewhat like Mt. Koya, which I visited last time I was in Japan, though smaller) which you can walk between on pleasant forest paths. Or, if you're lazy, you can pay extra to take a shuttle bus from the cable car station to the main temple building. It's a relatively easy (though not flat) walk between the different temples and shrines. It's a pretty and peaceful area, and you can easily walk from the cable car to the furthermost structures and back in a couple of hours at a leisurely pace (much less if you hurry). If you're interested, you can even make reservations ahead of time to eat and stay in one of the temples.
I'm not sure if I'd rank Mt. Sosha above or below Mt. Koya, but they're both very nice and offer similar experiences (Koya is bigger and has more to see, Sosha is quieter is more peaceful) and I'd recommend visiting at least one.
|June 4th (Sun): Walking in Kyoto|
|With only a couple of days left in the Kyoto area, we decided to spend one in Kyoto and one in Osaka. Connie needed a bit of a rest, so she spent the morning with Zack while my parents and I went to check out the Kyoto Food Museum, which we'd seen advertised in a tourist book. It's a little off the beaten path, and not especially large or English friendly, but it was kind of interesting.
After that, we made our way through Umekoji Park (home of the new and very popular Kyoto Railway Museum) and down to Toji Temple, which my dad wanted to visit after frequently spotting its pagoda from the trains. It's Japan's tallest pagoda and situated in a pleasant little garden. The temple itself has a collection of large Buddha statues and, when we were there, was also hosting an exhibition for a local artist who uses porcelain techniques to create some very striking paintings. There also happened to be a flea market (mostly antiques) nearby, so we browsed there for a bit as well.
By then, it was about time for lunch so we met back up with Connie and tried out another healthy buffet before starting our afternoon touring plan, which involved following the Philosopher's Walk (also known as the Walk of Philosophy and a few other variations). The best starting point is at Nanzenji Temple (which we didn't visit this time around). From there, you can stroll down some pleasant streets and past Zenrinji Temple, which is a fun one to walk through, with multiple levels and lots of covered walkways, and famous for its Amida Buddha statue with a turned head. It also had some small but really loud frogs dotting its gardens when Connie and I went to visit. It's easy enough in the photo but, in real life, they were very hard to spot. Anyway, a bit further on you can start on the walk proper, which winds along a canal past houses, cafes, and little shops. It comes to an end near Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. Though, unlike the similarly named Gold Pavilion, it's not actually covered with silver. That was originally the plan, but the work was delayed repeatedly and then the idea was abandoned after the owner's death. Aside from the not so silver pavilion, there's a very nice stone garden and regular garden (with a heavy emphasis on moss). Basically, it's just a really pretty place.
Unfortunately, there's no train or subway stations near Ginkakuji. There are some buses, which work well enough, or you can backtrack to Nanzenji and get the subway near there. Connie made the decision for us, since she lost her phone back at the subway station. Fortunately, this being Japan, someone found it and turned it in to the ticket office so we got it back without any problems. And, after dinner at Yoshinoya (my favorite beef bowl chain), it was time to return to the hotel.
|June 5th (Mon): Osaka|
|For our last day in the Kyoto area, we headed to nearby Osaka. I visited Osaka for the first time on my last Japan trip and ended up liking the city a lot more than I had expected. I did originally have a travel plan for the day but feedback from everyone else ended up vetoing most of the main attractions for one reason or another so the schedule was a little bit slapdash between my knowledge and some places my dad had heard about and wanted to visit.
Our first stop was the Housing Museum. It features two different sections. The first is an indoor recreation of a street from the Osaka of a couple hundred years ago. You can walk through the buildings and they even have a show or two. I've been to a few museums like this in various spots and, while I wouldn't say this is the best, it's still fun to walk around. What seems to be especially popular is renting a kimono and posing for photos throughout the area. Even on a Monday morning, the kimono rentals were reserved hours in advance. The other floor, meanwhile, contains much smaller models of some scenes from Osaka's history as well as various apartment and housing styles throughout the years.
Once we were finished, we headed off to the Kuromon Market. It's one of the many shopping arcades near Namba and Dotonburi, but it specializes in food. It's kind of like the food shopping arcade we went to in Kyoto, but this one has more stuff to snack on and, as a result, we just did that rather than get a real lunch.
Afterwards, we passed by Dotonburi looking for a store my mom wanted to visit before doubling back to Hozenji Yokocho, a little street in the shopping arcade area, though this one looks a couple hundred years older than all the others. It's also right by Hozenji Temple, which is a little place tucked in the middle of the shopping streets and featuring a very unusual moss covered Buddha. Er, at least I assume it was a Buddha, being a Buddhist temple and all. Couldn't really tell for sure under all that moss...
We spent a little longer in the shopping arcades together before splitting up, with my Mom and Connie hanging out in a mall by Namba Station while my dad and I spent a little while browsing the shops in Den Den Town (Osaka's version of Akihabara). That was a lot of fun for me, since I've been avoiding anime and game shops so far this trip since I don't want to carry a bunch of purchases all over the place. I am, however, planning for a day in Akihabara once we're back in Tokyo.
Finally, we went back to Dotonburi to eat and ended up with a classic Osaka dish, okonomiyaki, before returning to Kyoto to pack for the next day's departure.
This was my third visit to the Kyoto/Osaka area and I still feel like, while I've hit most of the top attractions, there are still tons of things in the area that I've yet to see and do. It's a really fun part of the country, no matter what your interests are.
|June 6th (Tue): On to Matsumoto|
For our next hub destination, we set out early and got a train (well, two trains) to Matsumoto. It's a pleasant mountain town (well, more a small city, though it has a bit of a town feel to it) up in the Japanese Alps. I was there with my brother a long time ago, though only for one night.
Random Japan Comment: Matsumoto Station
|June 7th (Wed): The Nakasendo Trail|
|The weather forecast for the day gave a good chance of rain from mid to late afternoon, but the forecast for Thursday was even worse, so we decided that we'd go ahead with our plan to hike the Nakasendo Trail and hopefully finish before the rain hit. When my mom and I hiked it back in 2008, we took a train from Nagoya, but Matsumoto is actually much more conveniently located. As a note, Nakasendo is an old postal road that was used hundreds of years ago. The full trail extends all the way from Tokyo to Kyoto, though parts of it no longer exist. Now, the most popular section of the trail is an 8 km stretch between the old postal towns of Magome and Tsumago. Though it does extend much further in both directions if you want a more extensive hike.
Anyway, we started off the day with a train to Takamatsu followed by a bus ride to Magome (though you can actually hike that segment if you want to add on another couple of hours). It's a really neat town with old roads and buildings, many of which now house souvenir shops and snack stands. Speaking of which, local specialties include a unique type of steamed bun filled with vegetables, dango (mochi balls on a stick) covered with a miso walnut sauce, and various things made with chestnuts.
The ascent through Magome ends at a nice viewpoint and from there it's off towards Tsumago. The trail is clearly marked and goes through a very wide variety of terrain. There are forests, tiny farming towns, and overgrown paths. You can find some nice flowers on the way as well, depending on the season. As we neared the half way point, we did end up in a small rain shower. Fortunately, it wasn't too long before we reached a rest house where a nice old man offered free tea and homemade pickled ume (Japanese plums) and umeshu (plum wine). By the time we left, the rain had ended. Continuing on, we passed through some tall trees and reached a short turn off which leads to a pair of waterfalls. After some bamboo groves and small farms, we made a quick stop in a lone restaurant so Connie could get some soba (I snacked on miso walnut paste covered rice balls) and then it was time for the final stretch, past this straw horse and on to Tsumago. Like Magome, it's a neat old postal town with ancient buildings filled with souvenir stores and snack stands. And hey, remember this water wheel? I got a photo next to it back in 2008 and used it as my photo on this site (and Facebook, for those of you who are friends with me there) for quite a while. It's changed a bit since then (new wood for the wheel and a lot more plant growth on the wheel house), but it was fun to get another picture in the same spot.
From Tsumago, you can either take a bus to the town of Nagiso or walk there (which takes another 60 minutes or so) to get the train. Last time, my mom and I opted to walk. Today though, we weren't making the best time (I was the only one without some kind of lingering foot or knee problem) and the chance of rain was increasing, so we took the bus. Good thing we did too, since it started raining pretty hard soon after we reached Nagiso.
Despite the slow pace, we all really enjoyed the hike. The scenery is beautiful and the variety of terrain keeps it interesting the whole way. Despite the length, it's also not a particularly strenuous hike. I've love to do it again some day, perhaps hiking a longer section of the trail.
Back in Matsumoto, my parents, who hadn't eaten lunch, wanted to go for a slightly early supper so I took them to a nearby yakitori restaurant, which was good and offered a lot of interesting chicken based options both in terms of the yakitori itself and the various side dishes. In fact, I actually went back there a second time that evening with Connie, who hadn't wanted to eat so early.
|June 8th (Thu): Monkeys, Miso, and a Castle|
|The weather report for the day really wasn't looking good, with a rather high chance of rain all day. But it was out last day in the Matsumoto area and it wasn't raining when we got up, so we decided to go ahead with our plans to visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park. I first went there with my brother a long time ago, but that was in the middle of the winter, so it was interesting to see everything covered in green instead of snow. Anyway, you can't go directly from Matsumoto to the park, you have to go to Nagano first. From there, you can either take a direct bus (the cheapest and fastest option, though there are only several per day) or take a local train to Yudanaka, followed by a shorter bus ride. The tourist info office at Nagano Station can give you all the times so you can choose the best option. For us, that was the bus, though we did have a bit of a wait.
After you arrive at the bus stop, it's actually still a 2 km (20 - 30 minutes) walk through the forest to reach the park itself. It's a nice walk though and, except for one staircase at the beginning and one at the end, it's completely flat. When you reach this onsen (complete with a geyser), you're just about there. Speaking of onsen, the monkey park has one just for the monkeys, and there are many famous photos of the Japanese snow monkeys lounging in the warm water on winter days. They're much less likely to go in the water when its warm, but they still tend to hang out all over the park. Note that this isn't a zoo or anything like that, these are wild monkeys who live in the area and often come to the area around the park. Fortunately, the weather was still good, so we were able to enjoy watching the monkeys without worrying about rain. There were lots of monkeys around, many of which were carrying babies. They're a lot of fun to watch and you can get right up to them. Though, being wild animals, you're not supposed to feed them or touch them. They're used to humans, but could lash out if they feel threatened. We had a fun time watching the monkeys, though Zack slept through the entire thing. I could post about a dozen photos of them if I wanted to, but I think the ones I already linked to make for a good sample.
When we were finished, we followed the trail back to the bus stop. There was some time before the bus, so I stopped in a little restaurant and snack shop back near the start and got a bowl or really good miso chicken ramen for lunch (everyone else just snacked a bit).
Once we returned to Matsumoto, the weather continued to defy the forecast by staying sunny and dry. Connie and Zack went back to the hotel to rest up a bit while the rest of us hurried over to the Ishii Miso factory for a miso tasting and a short tour (with a friendly English speaking guide). As it turns out, Nagano prefecture is famous for miso, with a significant portion of Japan's miso being made there. However, Ishii Miso is one of the few companies that still makes miso the traditional way, putting it in large wooden barrels where it ages for 1 to 3 years. Each barrel holds over four tons of miso and every six months they have to turn it by shoveling it out (by hand) into another barrel. The end result though, is very good. Another interesting miso fact that I learned is that "white" miso (even though it doesn't always look very white) is miso aged for one year (or one month, using the modern method which involves steel drums and controlled temperatures), while red miso is aged for three years. The factory also had a shop with a variety of miso based products (along with plain miso paste, of course), including miso ice cream, which is actually pretty good. All in all, it was a fun and interesting visit, and I'm glad my mom found it.
Finally, though it was too late to go inside, we took a walk around Matsumoto castle, another one of Japan's top three castles. Unlike Himeji, it was built solely as a defensive structure, not a residence. While not on the same scale as Himeji, it's still impressive and worth a visit.
After that it was time for dinner (Indian this time) and back to the hotel to get ready for our departure in the morning. I didn't have a lot of time to look around Matsumoto last time I was there, so I'm glad I got the chance to spend a little more time in the area on this trip. It's a really scenic and peaceful place and a great area to visit if you want to see a lot of Japan's natural beauty. I wouldn't mind going back again some time for some more hiking and the like.
|June 9th (Fri): Returning to Tokyo|
|Getting from Matsumoto to Tokyo takes two to three hours, depending on whether you take the shinkansen or the slower (but more direct) limited express trains. Actually, in our case, the shinkansen would have taken about three hours anyway, since we'd have had a long stop over in the middle. Anyway, we took the limited express and had a nice ride (with very pretty scenery) to Tokyo Station. From there, it was quick and easy to get to Ueno, which is one of my favorite parts of the city.
After dropping off our bags, we headed into Ameya Yokocho (the big collection of shopping streets) to look around and to get lunch. In the end, we split up pretty quickly. I was able to go to a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant for the first time this trip, so that made me happy. I also had a chance to browse a bit in the big toy store across from Ueno Station. I never really buy anything there, since I know where I can get all of it for a better price, but it's still fun to look. I also bought a new and much easier to handle suitcase (luggage management has been a pain on this trip) since Ameya is a good place to find really great deals on them. Oh, and did I ever post a video of this before? Well, if not, I did now. And I can't forgot to show the view from our hotel room, which looks out over Ueno Park's lotus filled pond. Dinner at Pepper Lunch (one of my favorite Japanese restaurant chains) wrapped up the evening.
|June 10th (Sat): Ueno Zoo|
|Since services weren't until the afternoon, we decided to spend the morning walking around Ueno Park. Speaking of which, here's that lotus pond up close. Before long, we passed by Ueno Zoo and my dad decided that it would be fun to go in and see the panda. One of the first things you notice about the zoo is that it's cheap. Only 600 Yen ($6 or less) for an adult, and kids are free through age 12. We arrived a few minutes before the zoo opened and lined up. After getting in, pretty much everyone made a beeline for the panda (it's the zoo's star attraction) so there ended up being a line. We got in early enough that it wasn't a big problem, but you might want to watch out for that if you go (as a note, by the time we left the zoo the line had shortened a decent amount). After the watching the panda a bit we walked around some of the other exhibits. Some highlights included the white handed gibbons, tiger, tapir, and bears. There was also a dark building for nocturnal animals, one of which looked like a cross between a badger and an armadillo. It was pretty cool, but the area was too dark for me to get a decent picture or video.
Overall, Ueno Zoo isn't one of the better ones I've been to. It's not especially large, and some of the animal habitats are a bit cramped. But it's cheap, conveniently located, and features a few rather rare animals (like the panda). And hey, how many zoos have a pagoda? So it's not a bad place to visit if you're in the area.
Later in the afternoon, we met up with some old friends of mine for services and later dinner. It was a lot of fun to catch up and Zack really enjoyed all the attention.
|June 11th (Sun): Shopping Day|
|My dad and I both wanted to visit the big flea market while in Tokyo, so we all headed there this morning for around an hour of browsing. As always, it was fun to look around, but I didn't see anything I really wanted this time. After a bit of walking around in Ueno, Connie and I took my parents to the train station and saw them off (they flew back to the US late in the afternoon). It was a lot of fun traveling with them and I hope we can do this again sometime. In fact, they're already talking about potential plans for a future Japan trip, so I'd say that I accomplished one of my goals.
Once they were safety off, Connie and I got some udon then headed to Akihabara. She wanted to see it and, while I've mostly been focused on what the others wanted to do on this trip, I really wanted one decent shopping day. She and I browsed together for a while, then I helped her and Zack back to the hotel before continuing on my own. While I was a bit rushed (the trip is almost over and I had a list of things I wanted to track down), I still really enjoyed it. It's just so much fun to shop there. And this coming from someone who generally finds shopping pretty boring. Most of my favorite stores are still around and I managed to find the majority of the items on my list for decent prices.
One big change I noticed is that the restaurant floor in Yodobashi Camera (a favorite place of mine to eat) has undergone some serious renovations, including a number of changes to the restaurant lineup. On the downside, a couple of restaurants that I liked are no longer there. However, there are some pretty cool looking new ones and, overall, I think the update is a positive one. On a side note, I ate at a sushi place there and they had a wasabi leaf roll, which I'd never seen before. The menu said it was really hot but wow... I like wasabi and I could barely eat it, even though there wasn't that much of the stuff and it was surrounded by a bunch of rice and seaweed.
|June 12th (Mon): Tokyo Sightseeing and the Ghibli Museum|
|I went to the Ghibli Museum once when I was first in Japan and I really enjoyed. I actually did try to go again, but never made it due to how difficult it was to get tickets. This time though, with Connie also being a big Ghibli fan, we wanted to go if possible. Originally, if you wanted to go to the museum, you had to get tickets either through certain travel agencies or go to Japan and buy them from a ticket machine in a Lawson store. Getting them at Lawson required some Japanese knowledge and, unless you bought the tickets far enough in advance, there was a good chance the day and time you wanted would be sold out. Yes, day and time. Due to its popularity, all Ghibli Museum tickets must be purchased in advance and let you enter the museum at a set time (give or take maybe 30 minutes) on a set date. More recently, they added the ability to purchase tickets online (there's a link on the Ghibli Museum web site). Tickets are for the following month, and go up for sale on a specific date and time so you really need to known when sales are opening and grab your tickets as soon as they go live since they disappear fast. If you're a bit late, you might have a tough time trying to find an available date and time that works with your schedule. I did mange to get Connie and I a pair, though we got stuck with a 4 PM admission time (the museum closes at 6).
Anyway, we kind of had to schedule our day around that museum visit. After a walk around the lotus pond in Ueno Park, we headed up to Asakusa for a bit so Connie could buy some gifts for friends. Then, since it was in a convenient location for getting to the Ghibli Museum, we took the train across town to Nakano and killed some time in Nakano Broadway (the shopping arcade and mall known for its anime and game stores (especially figurines). It's currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, which is impressive, though I don't think it had an otaku focus for anywhere near that long. As always, it was fun to browse the different stores and see what I could find. We also got some sushi for lunch, so no complaints there.
Finally, we got back on the train for a short ride to Mitaka. From there, the Ghibli Museum is a pleasant 15 minute walk through a quiet residential area. Though there's also a bus if you can't or really don't want to walk (it does cost though). The museum itself is situated in Inokashira Park (yes, the same one that you can visit in Persona 5), which is also a nice place to spend some time. Anyway, you can't take photos inside the museum, but the outside areas are fine, so I made sure to get a group photo with the Laputa robot and also get a shot of some soot balls. The museum itself hasn't changed too much since my list visit, other than adding a few references to the newer films. But there was a different short film showing (they change those every so often). This one was about an old couple who help sumo wrestling mice and it was pretty amusing. The one non-permanent exhibit currently running is about the food featured in Ghibli movies, complete with plastic models, concept sketches, and even full size recreations of kitchens featured in a couple of the movies. We had a good time exploring the museum and finished in just under two hours, so the late admission time worked out ok.
On the way back to Ueno, we swung by Akihabara so I could introduce Connie to the Yodobashi Camera food court. We ended up getting sukiyaki, which made for a great way to finish up the day.
|June 13th (Tue): Hanging Around Tokyo|
|We had been thinking about doing something up around Nikko today, but the weather wasn't looking good and Connie's been having some foot problems this trip, so we decided to just stay in Tokyo. Probably for the best, since it rained most of the day. Anyway, we started off at the Tokyo National Museum. As I've mentioned before, it's an excellent place to go if you want an overview of many different types of Japanese artwork and crafts, including lacquerware, swords and metal work, painting, textiles, etc., etc. While there are a few items on permanent display, most of them are regularly switched out, so I always see a lot of new things every time I visit. Like this sword, which once belonged to a hero in green who- Just kidding. That Tri-Force like design is actually the triple fish scale crest of the Hojo family. I wonder if the similarly is intentional...
Once we'd finished exploring the museum, we headed to Odaiba and began working our way through the various malls, from the fancy to the kitchy. Unfortunately, they full-scale RX Gundam which used to stand outside Diver City isn't there anymore. On the bright side, that's only because it's being replaced with a full-scale Unicorn Gundam. Though it won't be finished until later in the year (along with a new a set of museum exhibits focused on Gundam model kits) so I'll have to wait until next time to see it. I did manage to find a new gradient shirt though to replace my old blue one (which is falling apart). It's not quite as good as the old one, but better than nothing. Expect to see it in some future photos. One thing I was not able to find was good jeans, but I'll write more on that another time.
Anyway, we had a fun but didn't stay in the area too late. Back in Ueno, we split up for dinner. I went back to Akihabara for a few reasons. First off, I had some points on my Yodobashi Gold Card that I wanted to use up. Also, I wanted to check out the new Square Enix Cafe they added on the ground level. It's smaller and not as fancy as the main one, but it's a whole lot easier to get to. Finally, I wanted to check out a do it yourself kushikatsu buffet I'd seen in the food court. Kushikatsu is an Osakan food which is essentially breaded and fried stuff on a stick. And I say stuff because just about anything edible goes (meats, vegetables, cheese, sweets, etc.). Normally though, it's fried for you. However, at this buffet (it's a chain, by the way), each table has a fryer and you get to grab your pre-skewered items, and fry them up yourself. It's fun, though my first batch didn't turn out too well. The instructions weren't that good so I had to learn from watching others. The key is to fill a bowl with batter and another with panko (break crumbs) and cover your skewered item first with the batter and then the crumbs before frying it. The other trick is figuring out how long to fry everything for. On the one hand, with raw meat involved, you don't want to undercook things. But they fry pretty quickly so it's very easy to burn them if you're not careful. I got it down after a little practice. Aside from the kushikatsu, they also had some salads, a make your own cha gohan bar (rice with assorted toppings and tea, often used to end a meal) and a dessert bar (currently dedicated to everything matcha). While it wasn't a quick meal by any estimate, it was fun and I enjoyed the food as well so I'm glad I got to try it.
|June 14th (Wed): A Little More Tokyo|
Although we went up the Sky Tree back near the start of the trip, Connie wanted to visit Tokyo Tower too, so we set off after breakfast, arriving just a little after it opened. Although it's been functionally replaced by the Sky Tree, Tokyo Tower is still open for business as a tourist attraction and it's still worth seeing. It's also a lot cheaper than the Sky Tree, if you're on a budget. We took the elevator (instead of the stairs) and spent some time admiring the view. It's not nearly as high as the Sky Tree, so there are some other buildings blocking things, but it's still impressive. And, of course, there's the glass floor.
Random Japan Comment: Clothes Shopping
|June 15th (Thu): Goodbye Japan|
|And another Japan trip comes to an end. Fortunately, staying right by Ueno Park makes it super easy to get to the airport. Just get on the the Skyliner from Keisei Ueno Station and you're good to go. We left on the early side, which was good since it was far from a smooth process. First off, we were flying to China instead of the US, like I usually do, so we had tickets on a China Eastern flight. Well, their web site and the sign in the airport said that they were in Terminal 3, which is a rather long walk from the train station. We make it all the way there (with tons of luggage), only to be told that China Eastern is actually in Terminal 2, back where we'd started. So that was a big waste of time and effort. Once we actually get to the check out counter, we end up at the very back of a long line (which we really should have been in front of considering when we'd arrived at the airport). Unfortunately, checking in wasn't without issues either. For one thing, they were really picky about carry on bags. They insisted on weighing one (the first time I've had that happen) and told me it was too heavy so I'd have to check it. They also made a big deal about the size of another carry on and came and measured it themselves (it was fine). Then there was another problem with Zack's middle name not showing up on the reservation even though it's on his passport (and the two need to match exactly). Now I'm positive that, if there was a middle name box on the form when I made the reservation I would have filled it in (they had my middle name, after all), so I'm going to pin that on their computer system. Once we actually got checked in (it took a while), getting through security was very quick and easy. While I've flown out of Terminal 2 a lot in the past, we were in a different (more remote) part of it this time. It required a lot more walking to get there, but they had a Yoshinoya nearby for lunch, so that was a plus. And with that, we were finally off to China...around 45 minutes late, since it was a China flight and all...
Goodbye for now, Japan. I'll be back soon, I'm sure.