Stu and I finally got to take our trip to Japan in October, postponed from 2015 due to my elbow injury. While I’d visited Japan a few times previously, and we’d spent a couple of days in Osaka in transit to and from Micronesia many years ago, this was our first chance to travel more widely and experience the country more fully, though we didn’t venture off Honshu except to stay on smaller islands in the Seto Inland Sea. We rode the shinkansens at breakneck speed (including the fastest - Nozomi), climbed mountains in cable cars, ferried to islands, resided in charming ryokans and a Buddhist temple, soaked in onsens, viewed magnificent art, admired breath taking scenery including clear views of Mt. Fuji, feasted on sumptuous exquisitely prepared meals, enjoyed the company of a Maiko (apprentice geisha) at a private dinner in Kyoto, learned about the local religion and culture, joined joyous festival parades and activities and toured temples, shrines and historical sites.
Our experience was so rich and varied that it will take quite a bit longer to write the detailed trip notes but all of the photos are posted in the Asia gallery on our website.
Here is our itinerary with some brief highlights:
Sightseeing: We started and ended in Tokyo. We had a guide,Tomomi, the first day and toured on our own the rest of the time. Hama-Rikyu Gardens; Asakusa, Sensoji Temple; Asakusa Shrine; Shibuya crossing; Meiji Shrine; Harajuku; Omotesando St.
Tsukiji Fish Market; Kabuki-Za Theater – wonderful Kabuki performance; Ueno Park; Tokyo National Museum; Imperial Palace Gardens
Nikko – our first shinkansen – day trip from Tokyo. Toshogu Shrine – site of 3 monkeys carving (See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa’s mausoleum
Hotel: Palace Hotel*** - modern and elegant overlooking the Imperial Palace gardens, highly recommended
Restaurants: Harutaka Sushi ***** amazing sushi, highly recommended; Narisawa *** - good but we felt it was overrated; Tapas Molecular Bar***** imaginative molecular gastronomy kaiseki, jaw-dropping views, highly recommended; RyuGin***** exceptional kaiseki, very highly recommended – our best meal in Japan; Sushiko Honten Marunouchi**** - excellent sushi in office building with extensive views, highly recommended
Sightseeing: Stopover on the way to Tsumago. Toured the Matsumoto “Crow” Castle 16th C. (oldest castle in Japan) and small museum on the grounds.
Sightseeing: Charming Edo period post town (where samurai entourages stopped over on the way between Kyoto and Tokyo to visit the Shogun) with beautifully preserved houses; Okuya Museum; Walked the Nakasendo Highway from Magome to Tsumago (old post route – 7.7 km). Magome Waki-Honjin Museum;
Ryokan: Fujioto Ryokan** – basic but very friendly with loads of character. Delicious local specialties served. It’s the best accommodations in an area that is well worth exploring.
Sightseeing: Autumn Festival – Karakuri (mechanical marionettes) performance, floats, lion dancers, parades, food stands; Sakurayama Hochimangu Shrine; Karakuri Museum;
San Machi Preservation area – traditional buildings, sake breweries; Jinya Mae morning market; Forest of 7 Lucky Gods – immense wooden statues; Hida-No-Sato (Hida Folk Village); Hida Kokubunji Temple (built 724 – 729) with 1200 yr. old Gingko tree; Higashiyama Teramachi – area with 12 temples and shrines; Shiroyama Park; Fuji Folk Museum;
Ryokan: Hoshoukaku*** – more like a hotel with ryokan elements; beautiful room with private onsen on balcony overlooking city and mountains; food not very good.
Restaurant: Hida Takuma** – steakhouse with delicious Hida beef. Recommended.
Sightseeing: Stopover on way to Kanazawa via bus. Village with traditional style Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses with steep thatched roofs, some more than 250 years old. Shiroyama Viewpoint – vista over town and Shogawa river valley; Wada House - largest remaining private residence from around 1800; Kanda House – sake brewing business, making tea over open fire pit; Doboruku Matsuri Festival Hall – lovely museum with festival objects, special unrefined sake (Doburuku) brewed for festival; Gassho Open Air Museum – collection of Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses and craft making
Sightseeing: We had a guide in Kanazawa to Omicho Market 270 years old; Kazuemachi and Higashi Chaya Geisha districts - Kaikaro teahouse; Gold Leaf Workshop; Kenrokuen Gardens; Kanazawa Castle; Shinise Memorial Hall – Old Nakaya Pharmacy; Nagamachi Samurai House district – Nomura Samurai House; Myouryuji Temple (called Ninja Temple) 1643 – secret passages for ninjas
Ryokan: Asadaya***** - our favorite accommodations of the trip. Traditional ryokan with superb service and food, high quality artwork and tableware. Very highly recommended.
Sightseeing: Tour of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum – Atomic Dome, Children’s Peace Monument, Memorial Cenotaph, Peace Bells, Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound, Gates of Peace, Memorial Tower to Mobilized Students
Sightseeing: Itsukushima Shrine with its “floating” Torii Gate; Toyokuni (Senjokaku) Shrine and Pagoda; Daisho-In Temple; Miyajima Ropeway – up Mt. Misen, then hike to observation platform on peak for glorious views of the Seto Inland Sea and back down to town; Autumn festival parades;
Ryokan: Kuryado Iroha**- comfortable with delicious food and attentive, caring service. Recommended.
Sightseeing: The island features outdoor and indoor art installations and museums. We visited during the Setouchi Triennale – a major art festival. Honmura area: Art House Project Minamidera; Ando Museum; Art House Haisha; Harvest Festival child drummers on wooden platforms; Honmura Lounge and Archives; Miyanoura area: outdoor sculptures including Yayoi Kusama Pumpkins; Benesse House Museum; Chichu Museum; We also dined near the US ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, who was staying at our hotel.
Hotel: Benesse House** - 4 properties with minimalist rooms filled with art indoors and outdoors, views of the sea and exceptional restaurants. Best accommodations on Naoshima.
Restaurants: Issen**** (in Benesse House Museum) – excellent Japanese cuisine in an elegant setting; Etoile de la Mer***** (in Benesse House Park) – world class French cuisine with stunning views of the sea; Sparky’s Café* in Miyanoura – funky casual coffee house with tasty food; Uogashi 7070** - friendly service, very good seafood. We recommend all of these restaurants especially Issen and Etoile de la Mer.
Sightseeing: Day trip from Naoshima via boat; Teshima Art Museum; Shinro Ohtake (Needle Factory); Yokoo House; Tobias Rehberger Café & Art installation; We enjoyed the art on Teshima even more than on Naoshima.
Sightseeing: For one day we had a marvelous guide, Duncan, who taught us about the culture and took us into local shops and businesses (calligraphy implements, makeup brushes, fine paper, incense, religious texts printed using ancient woodcut plates, chocolate and kimono shops, in addition to visiting Gion (geisha neighborhood); the charming Higashiyama area , Yasaka Koshin-Do Monkey Temple, Yasaka Pagoda, Nene-No-Michi and Ishibeikoji lane (beautiful streets adhering to old building codes); Chion-In Temple built 1234, rebuilt 1604-51; Daitokuji Zen Temple 1319, rebuilt late 15th C; and Zuiho-In Zen Temple; The rest of the time, we toured on our own.
Nijo Castle 1603 – home of the Shogun Tokugawa; Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) – Shogun estate that became a temple; Ryoanji Temple with famous Zen garden; Ninnaji Temple; Jidai Matsuri – festival to celebrate Kyoto’s anniversary featuring magnificent parade with participants dressed in traditional costumes from all of the eras of Kyoto’s history; “Way of the Tea” demonstration in a private home
Inari & Nara – visited Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine with its thousands of stunning red Torii gates winding 4 km up Mt. Inari, then continued to Nara. Kofukuji Temple with its 3 and 5 story pagodas, Eastern Golden Hall with large wooden Buddha statue and bronze statues of 12 heavenly generals, National Treasure Hall with 11th C wood reliefs of the 12 heavenly generals and other valuable statues and objects; Todaiji Temple – world’s largest wooden Buddha; Kasuga Taisha Shrine;
Arashiyama – towering bamboo groves; Tenryu-ji Temple; monkey park with Japanese macaques
Hotel: The Screen*** – Modern boutique hotel with 7 semi-suites, 3 suites and 2 executive suites each designed by a different artist. Ours was designed by Jotaro Saito a kimono designer and had very dramatic décor. Unique hotel with gracious service and good location, we recommend it.
Restaurants: Kikunoi** - traditional kaiseki, lovely location and exceptional service though food was less enjoyable; Mizuki Sushi**** - excellent sushi bar in the Ritz Carlton hotel; Another C*** - modern casual kaiseki, delicious food and wonderful chef/owner; Ganko Takasegawa Nijoien***** - tasty kaiseki dinner in private room with performance by Maiko (apprentice geisha), an extraordinary experience. We had a guide to translate since she didn’t speak English. Katsukura** - delicious katsu on 11th floor of Tokyo station; Tempura Yoshikawa*** - tempura bar in a charming ryokan, dessert is taken in a beautiful adjacent room; Itoh Dining**** - teppanyaki with excellent steaks plus other scrumptious dishes
Mt. Koya (Koya-san)
Sightseeing: You reach the town via a scenic cable car up the mountain. We had a guide, Noriko, who took us to Okunoin Cemetery est. 997, the largest cemetery in Japan, highly prestigious; Torodo Hall (Hall of Lanterns) – more than 10,000 lanterns; Kongobuji – head temple of Shingon Buddhism; and Garan Temple with Konpon Daito Pagoda; We also attended the morning prayer service at our shukubo
Shukubo (temple lodgings): Shojiin – an elegant ryokan in a Shingon Buddhist temple with modern amenities and lovely garden; young monks serve a delicious vegan kaiseki known as shojin ryori in your room. Very highly recommended.
Sightseeing: Hakone Open Air Museum – sculpture park with some indoor art as well; Narukawa Art Museum – lovely collection of local art with wide-ranging views; Pola Museum of Art – must-see collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, modern European and Japanese works; Cedar Walk – ancient Edo period pathway; Hakone Sekisho - checkpoint for travelers established in 1619 by Tokugawa shogunate, now a museum; Hakone Ropeway – cable car over an active caldera with sensational views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day (yes, we lucked out!) which you can follow with a boat ride on Lake Ashi and exploration of sights on other side of lake. You can buy a discount pass that includes local transportation, the Ropeway and sightseeing boat plus discounts on museums and attractions.
Ryokan: Gora Tensui – conveniently located near Gora station and the Hakone Ropeway; beautiful facilities and lovely views; very good food. Highly recommended.