Japan Trip Overview

My husband and I took a two-week trip to Japan with my mother-in-law this month.  This post is the overview, but there will be other posts featuring different aspects of our trip.  It was a great trip!

We (well, Keiko) booked a tour with Samurai Tours, and owner Mike Roberts helped us customize it so that we had some days with the guide and tour group and other days on our own.  Ours was a “Best of Japan” trip, and started in Tokyo.

Shibuya crossing in Tokyo

From there, we went to places west and south of Tokyo, avoiding the north.  This was the tour route anyway, but as a result we were never anywhere near Fukushima and we didn’t see any earthquake or tsunami damage.  There had been a tour option for the town of Nikko, but that was changed due to the loss of tourist traffic there.  Apparently many of the restaurants and shops are closed due to lack of tourism.

Our tour included travel on trains, subways, and public buses.  Samurai tours arranged our Japan Rail Passes which were useful in many places as a free pass for travel.  Only foreign tourists can get these passes, and they are good on shinkansens (bullet trains) and ferries and local train lines.  If you want a reserved seat on a shinkansen, you need an additional ticket for that reserved seat, but you get on the train by just showing your pass as you walk through the turnstile area.

Throughout our tour, we stayed in Japanese inns, or ryokans.  These are very traditional, and you must take off your shoes (either when you enter the ryokan or when you enter your room).  The floors are tatami and the beds are futons on the floor.  And the futons are not American-style fat futons, but thin Japanese futons that are at most 3 inches thick and are easily folded up and put away in a closet.  They provide yukatas (thin cotton bathrobes) for hanging out in, and slippers for entering the toilet room, and toothbrushes.  I will show you my toothbrush collection in a later post.

So, the overview.  Our tour started in Tokyo, as I said, and then we went to Hakone.  Hakone is a resort town in a volcanic caldera.  There are hot spring-fed public baths (including the bath at our ryokan), a caldera lake with regular touristy boats crossing it, and hot-spring-cooked “black eggs” which we ate.  Hakone is where we saw Mt. Fuji from!

The tour group wears yukatas for kaiseki dinner at our Takayama ryokan

Then we went to the pretty town of Takayama, famous for their festival floats and a style of lacquerware that emphasizes the grain of the wood.  We enjoyed the farmer’s markets and the old municipal building, the Takayama-jinya.  There are very few such 17th-century buildings left in Japan, as they were all made of wood and are very susceptible to fire, despite the ornamental fish on the roofs.

Koya-san was next, the world headquarters of the Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism.  We stayed in a temple, ate only vegetables, and learned that we are all Buddha.  We also had a meditation lesson and attended a morning prayer service.

Halfway through our trip we reached Osaka.  Our stay was brief, and it was very crowded despite the rain. Osaka was our only really rainy day.

Then we went to Miyajima Island, where we weathered the edge of a typhoon (mostly a wind event for us, with little rain).  Unfortunately, the high winds closed the ferry and the ropeway to the mountain top.  As a result of the ferry closing, there were few tourists so most of the shops and restaurants didn’t open.  We would have stuffed ourselves on maple-leaf-shaped stuffed cakes if the shops had been open.  That’s the local specialty.  That and rice scoops.

Kinkaju-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto

We had a sobering visit to Hiroshima on our way to Kyoto, where we spent the last three days of our tour.  There is a ton of stuff to do in Kyoto.  We skipped a lot of it.  There are shrines and temples all over the place, thousands of restaurants, palaces, gardens, and Monkey Mountain!  Of course we went to Monkey Mountain!

So, more posts to follow on specific aspect of the trip, with more photos!

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