14 days in Japan….Will Never Be Long Enough!
After a whirlwind action-packed 12 day tour of China, we arrived into KIX Osaka international Airport to begin our 14 days in Japan.
Sakura Gallery Hotel
Getting to Kyoto from the International airport is a breeze. Kyoto is a large, bustling metropolitan city that is conveniently accessible by rail, air and bus.
Train travel in Japan is part of the charm of this great city.
Kyoto was an excellent choice to have a base for 5 nights. The Sakura Gallery Hotel is located a short 500 metres walk from the Kyoto station and city precinct.
Sakura The Gallery Hotel – Great Location
Tiny Hotel Rooms
Sakura Gallery Hotel is a little different from the norm. Our large luggage made the hotel room feel very small and confined. The bathroom felt like being inside an Australian worker’s “Donga”. Don’t get me wrong, I’d stay at this hotel again…… location, location, location!
The hotel had a number of bonuses – complimentary men’s and women’s private hot baths, salt sauna room, communal laundry, excellent Wi-Fi, live music and a welcome drink each night.
The first day of our 14 days in Japan, we spent joyfully train surfing from one district to another. Visits to many of the famous landmarks on offer nearby.
Abundance of Attractions
Kyoto has an abundance of magnificent temples, shrines, Imperial Palaces, beautiful gardens and parks. Most tourist attractions in Japan close at 4:00pm. We made a special trip to the Nijo Castle but unfortunately it was closed. Bike tours are very safe and popular in Japan.
Kyoto Train Station
The Kyoto train station is a huge space-age futuristic hub consisting of almost everything. The precinct and public spaces are buzzing with locals and visitors. It is a hub for everything ‘Retail”. The cafes, restaurants and bars are loud and exciting. The station has information centres, ticketing offices, and the longest, highest escalators that I have ever seen.
The height and the size of the Kyoto Station Building is mind blowing. Each night, the “Big Stairway” situated between the escalators is illuminated with messages and beautiful images of Kyoto. This magnificent light show is a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. Major events and concerts are held here in the large open space.
You literally can spend an entire day and night inside Kyoto Station eating, shopping and people watching.
Kyoto Station Building – illuminated “Big Stairway”
Some Japan Rail tips:
Prior to leaving Australia, we purchased 7 day Japan “Green” Rail passes from Travel Japan by H.I.S. Travel Japan have branches is some of Australia’s major cities. The Brisbane office is found in the heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade off the Queen Street Mall.
A passport is required to purchase a rail pass and passes are available only through designated travel agencies or online. To purchase passes online, you need to allow 3-7 business days for delivery. A pass must be activated within 3 months of purchase.
Japan Rail Pass
About the Japan Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is by far the best and most popular pass available and covers the entire Japan Rail Network. If you plan to see a lot of Japan in a short time then the quickest form of transport is the super fast “Bullet Trains”. Passes are activated in Japan at a JR office at the train stations.
Reserve Your Seats
Be aware, you need to select the date you want to activate your pass. You can nominate the date prior to the date you plan to travel. Bullet trains are popular and it’s necessary to reserve seats and collect tickets from a JR office.
If you know the dates and times you plan to travel, you can reserve all your seats at one time which saves you lining up over and over again.
Included In Your Rail Pass
Reserved tickets can be exchanged at a JR office should your travel plans change. A Japan Rail Pass offers transport on JR ferries, some buses and sightseeing buses.
The Train Conductors hand gestures are amusing to watch.
Passes Not Accessible On All Trains
Japan Rail Pass cannot be used for travel on NOZOMI and MIZUHO trains on the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines and local subway trains. If you’re staying in a place for a few days and plan to use the local subway trains, its best to buy a IOCA card (from a JR Office) which is similar to an Australian “Go Card”. The stations have machines called “Fare Adjustment”, to top up your card. Funds remaining on a IOCA card are valid for 10 years.
Fare Adjustment Machine
A sign on a Japanese rail platform indicating a boarding point for women-only cars.
Women Only Train Carriage
Tiny Things Can Made All The Difference
On a long walk exploring the district of Kyoto, we came across a tiny jewellery shop in the back-blocks specialising in retro mantle clocks. I couldn’t resist purchasing an exquisite Seiko Clock which works beautifully with my bedroom’s decor. While deciding on which clock to choose, I spotted a small ceramic owl in the shop window. I asked the elderly watchmaker the price and she wrote ¥0 on a scrap of paper. My heart sunk as I presumed she was indicating that the item wasn’t for sale.
The lady carefully packed the antique clock into a box as old as the clock itself. She then wrapped the gorgeous little owl in tissue and handed it to me. My eyes filled with tears and my heart swelled as I repeatedly thanked the old lady for her gift.
Vending Machines Are Big Business
Vending machines and small cosy food places are everywhere in Japan. The Vending Machines are filled with a selection of ice creams, drinks, booze and food.
An Abundance of Speciality Eateries
Small food places selling exquisite sweets and delicate morsels are displayed and admired in tiny shop windows. Some shops offer foods via an ATM type machine – view, choose and pay using a touchscreen. Guests take a seat and within a few minutes their meal is delivered on a tray. Like all eating places in Japan, they are pristine and very efficiently run fast food businesses. However, what stands out most is the excessive but “beautiful” over-packaging of food. Japan has yet to embrace “saving the environment!”
Japanese Bamboo Grove
Friends who regularly visit Japan told us to visit the well-preserved village of ArashIyama, only 20 minutes from Kyoto. The village is in the area of Saga-Toriimoto, which is famous for its picturesque bamboo grove. Add this place to your itinerary. It is a must see place and great location for taking photographs.
Romantic Train Tour
There is a slow “romantic” scenic train to the village that overlooks the rivers, gorges and forest. Booking are necessary in advance.
Hire A Kimono
Throughout the village, we noticed a number of Asian women wearing traditional Japanese kimonos. Mostly Asian women hire kimonos and stroll around being photographed by their friends and pesky tourists like myself.
Open to the public is a traditional Japanese tea-house and magnificent garden once owned by a famous silent movie producer which had lovely views overlooking Kyoto.
Bath Houses of Japan
There are many “Onsens” Hot Spring Baths throughout Japan. The spa resort in Agaryanse has both indoor and outdoor baths. There is a courtesy bus to and from the Ogotoonsen train station. The public baths cost ¥1700 and include everything from Japanese PJs, slip-on shoes, washer and towel.
What I loved most about this bathhouse was the sauna room. The sauna was packed with Asian women plus one westerner (me) and three workers. The workers individually fan everyone in the sauna room with huge-handheld cane fans. The heat is very intense, but the funny antics of the workers does distract everyone from the discomfort associated of heat exhaustion! From the sauna room, everyone (well mostly everyone – except me) plunged into a cold bath to snap themselves out of an induced coma. I opted to stand on the outside of the pool and splash cold water onto my red-raw body to the delights of my new “cheering” friends.
Visiting Miyajima Island
You can easily get from Kyoto to Miyajima Island by JR ferry. Ferries leave every 15 minutes from the mainland and Miyajima Island. Standing in the Seto inland sea, is the iconic and ancient wooden “O-Torii” structure. The island is widely known for this grand and unique construction. Mt Misen, the highest mountain on Miyajima Island has an impressive ropeway “cable car” system and a number of excellent observation decks. After the hordes of tourists exit, you get a glimpse of the pure beauty of the historical architecture, serene shoreline and lush green forests.
Deer roam freely on the island, they appear to enjoy sneaking up on tourists and frightening the life out of them. It is hilarious to watch the tourists jumping and squealing when their food is stolen out of their hands. Everyone loves photographing the deer and their presence does enhance the magical beauty of the island.
Japan Can Be Strange
In airports and on trains, keep an eye out for the young women wearing spectacles without lens. It’s obviously a fashion statement although when I asked a Japanese woman on a train, she said they do it to hide the dark bags under their eyes. Frames without lens wouldn’t cut it for me. I would have to wear an eye mask to hide my black circles!
Location, Location, Location ……
Hotel locations are very important especially when you want to see a lot of a country in a short time.. There are a number of hotels close to the Ferry Terminal and station to maximise your time on Miyajima Island.
The Coral Hotel….OMG!
Well…the Coral Hotel might be in the perfect location to access Miyajima Island but seriously it needs an extensive reno. When we checked in the receptionist handed us a modem with detailed instructions on how to access the Wi-Fi. A First! Unfortunately, when we booked online, the only availability was a smoking room. The room was clean, but it stunk of stale “disgusting” smoke and with very outdated furnishings. The bedhead looked like something from the 70s and the electric kettle consisted of a square electric hotplate and freestanding jug – I’ve never seen one like it before. At the end of the day, the jug worked, and we managed to rest our weary bodies!
The following day, we caught a 25-minute local train filled with school children to Hiroshima. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about visiting Hiroshima as some aspects of war history play on my mind for some time afterwards.
In most train stations in Japan, you can leave your luggage in a coin-operated lockers for around 800¥. Large lockers are less available; you may need to go to a number of floors before finding a vacant one. We were between places and hotels, so we offloaded our luggage and caught a sightseeing bus directly outside the station. To our delight the hop on hop off bus was covered under our Japan Rail passes.
Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima was built very close to ground zero of the atomic bomb as a prayer for eternal world peace. It is dotted with numerous monuments dedicated to the victims. The A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum are located in a large public park. There are private tour available at the museum. A few elderly guides are survivors of the 6 August 1945 event.
History of Hiroshima
At 8:15am, the U.S. Airforce dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima then 3 days later on Nagasaki. The United States began studying the atomic bomb when World War 11 began in 1939. The United States were looking for an end to a long war. The bomb was dropped on Hiroshima to ensure the effects of the atomic bombing could be accurately observed. Potential targets were selected from cities with an urban diameter of at least 3 miles. The Japanese surrendered 6 days later.
The entire city of Hiroshima was virtually levelled. Over 146,000 (Hiroshima) and 80,000 (Nagasaki) innocent people perished between 6 August and 31 December 1945. Half died on the first day, the other half died a slow and painful death. Since then, others have died from an assortment of cancers from exposure to high doses of radiation. Many of those who managed to survive suffered irreparable physical and psychological damage.
The bomb was 3 metres long, weighed 4 tons and carried 50 kilograms of uranium. When the bomb exploded fierce heat rays and radiation burst out in every direction. A massive white mushroom formed in the sky, showering everyone below with “Black Rain” and shrapnel.
The museum is a collection of displays and belongings left by victims. On display is a melted tricycle owned by a 3-year-old boy who was riding out the front of his home with his best friend Kimi.
The toddler’s tricycle stands as a bitter reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. The story behind it was published as a children’s book by Hiroshima survivor Tatsuharu Kodama in 1995. “Shin’s Tricycle” is about a 3-year-old boy named Shinichi Tetsutani, who died in the attack.
His father buried Shin with his best friend Kimi and his favourite toy Trike in their backyard as he felt they were too little to be buried in a big cemetery. Shin’s two sisters also died on that dreadful day and were buried in the backyard. Shin’s parents always intended to give their children a proper burial in a cemetery. Forty years later, the parents dug up their childrens’ remains and the “Trike”. The next day, Shin’s father donated Shin’s “Trike” to the Hiroshima Peace Museum.
The photographs and other materials convey the horror, grief, anger and pain of real people. Having now recovered from the calamity, Hiroshima’s deepest wish is the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the realisation of a genuinely peaceful international community. Let’s all hope Hiroshima’s wish comes true!
From Hiroshima – Himeji Castle. I think Himeji is one of the most beautiful castles I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those breathtaking landmarks that you keep taking shots of – hoping the next shot will be better than your last. The day was rainy, dull and yet magnificent. The stark white multilevel castle looked sensational against the bleak grey sky.
The castle dates back to 1346 and to preserve the history and this important asset the castle underwent extensive maintenance and repair over 5 years – reopening in March 2015. When we were exiting, a random man working at the castle came up to me, directed Paul and I where to stand, grabbed my iPhone and took a couple of beautiful photos of us with the iconic landmark in the background.
Our accommodation in Hotel Dormy in Himeji was perfect – clean, walking distance from the station, next door to a 7/11 convenience store (beer and wine), hot-spring baths and loads of little restaurants in backstreets. We had a delicious dinner consisting of an assortment of grilled skewers and two amazing root vegetable salads in a place where everyone spoke Japanese!
Japanese eat salads made with yam, taro, cabbage, bean sprouts and mustard greens garnished with pickled ginger, deep fried shallots and a light dash of soya sauce. The thin broth soups are to die for. Nothing like the salty soups and miso available in Australia. You can easily pick the best restaurants in Japan – people line up outside waiting patiently for their turn. The wait times are never long because Japanese don’t generally linger in restaurants. All restaurants offer beers, but wine isn’t always on the menu. On a number of occasions in both China and Japan, I have taken my own wine, and no one seems to blink.
We spent the next two nights at the APA Hotel outside of the Kanazawa station. The Shinkansen line was extended to Kanazawa in March this year. With the opening of this new line, Kanazawa commuters can now be in Tokyo within 2.30 hours and vice-versa.
There is a number of interesting things to see in Kanazawa. Outside of the train is a bus terminus and ticket office. A one-day bus pass cost 500¥ which allows you access to the Heritage Flat Bus, Left and Right Loop Bus and various other buses.
The Kanazawa Castle and the famous Kenrokuen Gardens are well worth the admission fee of 310¥. The extensive landscaped gardens were built for strolling in. Although, the day was drizzling with rain, we were in awe of the magnificent shaped trees, moss ground covering, arched bridges and picturesque lanterns.
Behind the Kanazawa Castle is the newly opened Gyokusen-in Marc Garden that tourists don’t seem to know about. Based on old picture maps the garden was restored over a two-year period to resemble its former glory. The unique garden with a path around a central pond and spring also contains stone walls and the remains of old gardens. The low arch bridges, the different ground levels and high stone walls enhance the true beauty of the garden.
At the weekend, there are illuminations in the theme of a scroll painting projected onto the stone walls. The illuminations create images of sunset, evening, and the moon. This exquisite garden won’t remain a secret for long!
After a few train connections, we arrived in the old town of Takayama. The remaining town is over 400 years old and beautifully preserved – only brown and black architecture is permitted to be built or renovated so the harmony of the village is not ruined.
For two nights, we stayed in Japanese style accommodation at Yamakyu guesthouse with breakfast and dinner included. The guesthouse is located a 15-minute walk from the town. It was hilarious watching Paul getting into the eating position on the floor. He ended up opting for a padded low stool with a back because he’s not at all flexible. Sleeping on the floor was also interesting. Early in the evening, our host would move the low square table and chairs to the corner of the room and make up our beds which consisted of a thin mattress, doona and rock-hard pillow.
Our room had a private toilet and basin however showering and bathing is done in the public bathhouse. I’ve got the bathing process and rules down pat now. All the places we’ve stayed have been on the small side, the big bonuses about bathhouses are that they are roomy, well-equipped with new toothbrushes, hair brushes, blow driers, lotions and ideal for blow drying hair.
My preference is the outside baths – often big round deep ceramic tubs. It is very invigorating being submerged in 41-degree water with the feeling of cool air on your face. There is something to say about being nude and in conversation with total strangers. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look at the other women bodies and vice versa. That’s all part of the total experience. It’s liberating and a must do experience when visiting Japan.
50 minutes by bus from Takayama is the exquisite Shirakawgo “Gasson” style village. The village with a population of 600 people receives 13 million tourists each year. A Gasson style home is made from timber with a large sloping thick thatched roof which is supposed to represent “peaceful praying hands”. In the centre of the home is a fire-pit that heats the entire multi-level house through vents in each of the timber floors. The day we visited “Kanda” house, which means “divine rice field” inside was smoky because the windows were mostly closed as a monsoon was forecasted. Gasson houses were mainly engaged in raising silkworms and making fuming nitric acid, an ingredient of gunpowder.
We thoroughly enjoyed weaving through the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage site snapping unbelievable photographs of Gasson houses, rice paddy fields and colourful flowers in a state of awe and wonder. No matter the season, a visit to Shirakawago would be a breathtaking and memorable experience. Love to see it in winter with up to two metres of snow.
For the people who know my family and I well, will know that us “Martins” are notorious for our “toilet” talk. Before Japan, we spent two weeks in China on a bus tour with 41 wonderful Australians and Kiwis who were not fond of Asian squat toilets, the smells and sights associated with them.
I found myself laughing hysterically at the sight of my China tour group walking into a toilet and exiting faster than went in holding their nose and saying, “I can’t do it in there”! When a western-style toilet was on offer there was lots of “high-fiving” and a huge line up to match. Good news travelled fast when both Western toilets and free toilet paper was on offer. This was seen as a true blessing from above. Often the main focus back on the bus was the state of the hygiene in toilets rather than the magnificent excursion we’d experienced. To me, any toilet is a good toilet when you’re travelling because you never know where the next one is!
I believe dirty toilets in Asia are caused by westerners with dodgy knees, lousy aim – who don’t know which direction to squat. If toilets are high on your priority when you travel, there is an abundance of bathrooms in both China and Japan – many more than Australia and Europe.
The Japanese obviously love their bot-bots – you need an operational manual to work all the functions. The futuristic toilets are fitted with a heated seat, auto-lift lid and seat; self-cleaning and flushing; and various wash cycles! The public toilets have all the mod-cons including a baby’s change table and a wall mounted child’s seat to put the baby in – the toilets on “Bullet” trains are bordering on luxury. The vanity basins are fitted with hand sensors for soap, water and hand drying.
Lost and Found
On arriving at Solaria Nichitetsu Hotel in Ginza, Tokyo, my husband Paul realised he’d left his iPad in the front pocket of the train seat. We contacted the Tokyo lost and found centre and provided the details of the train, travel time, seat number and description of the lost items.
The very same thing happened to my brother on his visit to Japan. He left his laptop at a train station and after some stress the laptop was located and later returned to him in Australia for a small fee. I’d recently read that children are taught from a young age by both parents and in schools, the importance of honesty. The Japanese will make an huge effort to find the rightful owner of goods they find. Tokyo Metropolitan Police lost and found is a 4-storey warehouse filled with missing objects – all neatly labelled and catalogued.
On our way to the Imperial Palace, I spotted the Tokyo lost and Found centre. Within a few minutes the iPad was back in Paul’s hands. Paul is notorious for losing things on holiday and getting them back – it was no surprise that his iPad was returned to him. Tokyo has 13 million residents in the city and it’s hard to believe that 76% of lost items in this busy city are handed in.
Sumo Wrestling Museum
We were hoping to attend a sumo match but unfortunately there were no matches on during our stay. We did however visit the sumo museum and Tokyo museum which was interesting. After lots of walking, we located the iconic Skytree which is the world’s highest broadcasting tower.
On our second last day in Tokyo, I was woken around 5:30am by a 5.3 magnitude earthquake. It took a few seconds for me to recognise what was going on. The hotel shook and swayed for around 20 seconds. I was in Japan 39 years ago and I experienced an earthquake then too. At the age of 17, I remember being scared and excited at the same time. After this earthquake, I laid awake for a while waiting for the next tumour that didn’t come.
Hollywood Japanese Style
The Ginza district where we stayed is Tokyo’s most famous upmarket shopping, dining and entertainment district, featuring numerous department stores, boutiques, art galleries, restaurants, night clubs and cafes. On Saturdays many of the main roads are closed to create a wonderful pedestrian city. The famous Wako department store was built in 1932, the Seiko clock tower is the symbol of the Ginza.
I’m definitely not much of a shopper while on holiday because I prefer to browse unusual things and observe the surroundings. It’s a totally eye-opening experience to people watch in the cosmetic section of large department stores. There are loads of female customers being pampered by very tentative attendants. Ladies are seated in front of mirrors having various treatments including miracle masks, makeup and receiving advice on skincare. Japan is the second biggest retail market in the world and customer service is a very important. After slipping in and out of department stores, we decided to take a JR fast train to see if we could get a glimpse of Mount Fuji.
We had one more ride on the superb Shinkansen fast train to Arawago then transferred to the local train to Hakone. We were excitedly looking out to see a glimpse of Mt.Fuji – no luck. Hakone is a popular destination as you can catch buses to a picturesque lake and further on a funicular to go higher up.
We ran out of time to go further so instead we walked around Hakone and tasted a couple of the local delicacies – yum. The ticket office attendant was kind enough to show up a webcam on Mt Fuji which was under cloud cover. At nightfall, we returned to the city’s main Tokyo station for a light meal. Paul had the largest oysters that we have ever seen!
On our last day, we wandered around the local Ginza area and Paul got a bit excited in a Cole Haan shoe shop. He had the attendant running around frantically getting various styles of shoes to try on. The 3 pairs of fantastic shoes fitted beautifully and looked amazing on him. He’d fallen hard for the three pairs and thinking they were only $50 a pair decided he’d take the lot. Lucky before the deal was closed, I checked my currency converter and realised they were in fact $500 a pair! That slowed him down a bit!
Japanese women are pretty, petite, giggly and act cute to attract men. They either dress very stylishly or cutesy. In the two weeks, I didn’t see any public display of affection in Japan. They !ust be horrified by the PDA in Australia
It Is All True!
Everything you’ve ever heard about Japan is true. They are polite, kind, respectful, well-mannered, shy, helpful, clean, formal, punctual and hardworking. Food is relatively cheap, nutritious, well-balanced and delicious. They eat a healthy diet consisting mainly of raw fish, green tea, seaweed and very little fat. These are some of the reasons why the Japanese live longer than the rest of us. The life expectancy in Japan is 84 with Japanese women ranking 1st and men 5th in the world.
There is an abundance of high-class sweets shops throughout Japan in posh department stores, quaint shops and bustling train stations. It’s great fun to look and taste sweets while taking a stroll.
There is no garbage on the streets because everyone takes care of their own rubbish. The only visible bins I saw were by-side vending machines and bins for cigarette butts in designated smoking areas.
There are a number of ways to get to the Narita airport from Tokyo. After some research, we located the Narita Bus Stop in the Ginza area and only a short walk from our hotel. The bus fare was ¥1000 compared to ¥3000 train fare plus a taxi fare ¥10,000 because the station was too far to walk from our hotel with oversized luggage. The bus journey took 70 minutes in a luxury coach with toilet however 90 minutes travel time is the norm.
What an awesome feeling it is to hear the distinct Australian accent together with the very moving Qantas song “I still call Australia home” when you board a flight for home.
Qantas Australia’s Number 1 Airline
We haven’t flown internationally with Qantas for a number of years and didn’t have any expectations. These days, we don’t fly business-class, opting for a stopover instead to breakup long flights. We had expiring frequent flyers points, hence why we flew business-class on our final leg. The Qantas plane had been fitted with the new business-class flat-beds. A big improvement on their old reclining seats. Whether I’m sitting or lying down, I don’t generally sleep well on flights so perhaps business-class is wasted on me. The 9 hours flight time flew quickly – eating, drinking and watching the latest movies in comfort.
Four internationally flights arrived into Brisbane at the same time. The lineup in customs was dreadful and hectic. Thank goodness, we had express “priority” cards as business-class passengers. It still took over 30 minutes to be processed with the crew and passengers with special needs. Why planes are scheduled to arrive the same time doesn’t make any sense to me! After a long flight the last thing you want is to lineup for over an hour to get through the immigration process.
For me, stepping through those custom’s sliding doors to the outside world is such a great relief. Excitement quickly creeps in knowing I will soon see my family and sleep in my own comfortable bed.