Fushimi Inari and Nijo Castle, Kyoto

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Fushimi Inari

With its 10,000 red torii gates flanking pathways through mountain woods, Fushimi Inari has to be one of the most spectacular, unique sights in the Kyoto area…and it’s close, free and always open. Awesome!

For 200 yen one-way (appx. $1.96pp), we caught the frequent local San-in train from Nijo Station (near our apartment) 2 stops to Kyoto Station and then connected on the Nara Line for a 5-minute ride to Inari Station, just across the street from the entrance to Fushimi Inari. (From Kyoto, the one-way fare is 140 yen.) The shrine is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice. Foxes are thought to be his messengers, so fox statues and votive offerings abound. read more

Daytrip to Nara

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Nara lies nearly due south of Kyoto and is an easy daytrip. Both JR and Kintetsu trains run to Nara, but the Kintetsu makes the most sense if you’re not tied to a JR Pass. The Kintetsu station sits just outside Nara Park which contains not only the Todaiji Temple with its enormous Buddha, but also herds of sacred deer.

You can’t buy the tickets for the Kintetsu trains at the machines downstairs in Kyoto Station. Instead, take the escalator up to the second floor (Look out the windowed alcove to your right at the top for a great view of Kyoto Tower.). read more

Affordable Kaiseki and friendly service: Kyo-ryori Kaji

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Picture-perfect appetizer course

I’d been wanting to try a kaiseki dinner, a traditional Japanese haute cuisine that’s as much art as food. With its extensive courses, seasonal ingredients, and careful attention to detail and beauty, these meals can be exceedingly expensive. When our AirBnB host, Eoghan, suggested Kyo-ryori Kaji (“Kaji”) as an affordable kaiseki restaurant, we had to go.

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Our friendly chef prepared much of the food right in front of us

We got off to a hectic start, by running late across town at Kiyomizudera at sunset, then hopping the wrong bus, so that we ended up catching a taxi and getting Eoghan to call the restaurant for us to explain the situation. (We could WhatsApp with Eoghan with my data SIM, but couldn’t make phone calls easily and didn’t have the number for Kaji anyway.) All this left us with no time to change out of the very casual clothes we’d been wearing all day in, periodically in the rain. I felt terrible showing up bedraggled and underdressed (David in shorts and me in cropped pants and a t-shirt), but the delightful people at Kyo-ryori Kaji welcomed us as honored guests and could not have been friendlier the whole night. read more

Kyoto on the Autumnal Equinox holiday

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High on my list of temples to visit in Kyoto (and there’s a long list to choose from!), was Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It’s probably Kyoto’s top sight and who wouldn’t want to see a Zen Buddhist temple with two stories covered in pure gold leaf?

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The first hints of fall color beginning to show at Kinkakuji. In a couple of weeks, the leaves–and the hordes of tourists–should be spectacular!

The history of Kinkakuji dates back to a 1397 villa that became a temple upon the death of its owner, but it has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, most recently in 1955. Kinkakuji inspired the similarly named Ginkakuji, or Silver Pavilion, we visited the day before. read more

Kyoto in the rain…and crashing a funeral?

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The first touches of color on leaves near the Choin-in Temple gate

Although Typhoon Malakas wasn’t a dangerous storm by the time it reached Kyoto, its effects lingered. For the first two days of our stay in Kyoto, it seemed we’d fallen into some bad travel mojo: Google let us down a couple of times, leaving us searching for bus stops it insisted were right under our feet… and always, just then, the skies would open up. So much for beautiful autumn in Kyoto! Not willing to quit, though, we kept on and discovered that one benefit of the rain was a decided lack of the crowds we’d been told to expect. I’m a sucker for a silver lining! read more

Beware the dread “semi-double” bed!

Space is notoriously compact in Japan so we resigned ourselves to the idea of a double bed in at least some of our lodging, but in searching hotels and apartments online, I discovered a nasty little trick called the “semi-double” bed. The first time I came across this term, I’d clicked on a listing for a “double bed” room that seemed like a surprisingly good rate. Getting right down to the booking stage, I saw the phrase “semi-double.” This was new. The listing had only said “double.” Having no idea what the term meant–but feeling suspicious–I did a little research. Sure enough, a “semi-double” is basically somewhere between a single and a double or full bed in width (110-120 cm), i.e., a somewhat bigger single bed. A double bed is usually around 140 cm and a twin around 90 cm. read more

Tokyo to Kyoto in a typhoon

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View from the Park Hyatt of the worsening weather

The sunny weather gave way to occasional mists and light rain in the days following our arrival in Tokyo as the first advance wisps of Typhoon Malakas reached the city. It wasn’t enough to interfere with our plans–other than nixing trips up Tokyo Tower, the Skytree or the Government building. The sweeping views with Mt. Fuji in the background that my boys and I had enjoyed on a previous visit just weren’t happening this time.

We got a light mist at the Meiji Jingu Temple, but the thick trees of the park surrounding it did much to shelter us. At least three weddings proceeded in quick succession while we were there; a veritable production line of brides. Clearly, it was an auspicious day with or without the rain.The clouds did drop the temperature pleasantly, so all and all, things worked out for the newlyweds and for us…if you don’t count my head of increasingly frizzy hair! read more

Off the ship: Tokyo and a favorite boat ride to Asakusa

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Nijubashi Bridge at the Imperial Palace

As David likes to describe it, after 15 days on a ship, we’re like a couple of baby birds kicked out of the nest when we land: What?! We have to figure out where to eat on our own?? Kind of pathetic. Despite the initial adjustment, we were more than ready for some time ashore on our own. Cruises are fun, but it was time to dig in a bit deeper.

We lucked into sunny skies our first day in Tokyo, the only real weather problem being a bit too much heat and a haze that made tower viewing of Mt. Fuji a nonstarter. We spent the first night onboard, so only baby steps required: taking a train from Shinagawa station (the station nearest the industrial port where the ship berthed the first night before moving to the nicer Yokohama cruise port). The ship shuttled us to Shinagawa, so all we had to do was catch a train to Tokyo Station. Easy, right?…Except for the total lack of English on the signage. Thankfully, helpful young ladies in uniform are stationed throughout area train stations and we were soon on our way. read more

Using Google Maps and Google Translate to navigate Japanese transit systems (and other useful things)

Our first full day truly off the boat with luggage in tow, we made our first travel error by hopping on a train going in the wrong direction. So much for my travel wiles! It’s not something I do often, but I’ve definitely done it before. Usually, I catch it sooner, though: It took me 30 minutes before I noticed we were getting more rural instead of the expected Tokyo skyline. A personal “best.” Aaargh. Oh well, easy enough to get on a train going the other direction; just an annoying waste of time and some extra schlepping of luggage. But, this was when I discovered a really great trick for navigating Tokyo trains, metro and bus: Google Maps combined with Google Translate. [Both require Internet connection (although there’s an offline option for Google Translate where you download a specific language; see below), so get a SIM card if you can. See my earlier post about NTT Docomo card. It’s been great for us.] read more

Hakodate, Japan – Trying out a bargain tour guide

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I arranged a private guide in Hakodate through the Hakodate Goodwill Association. http://www.hakodategoodwill.com/indexeng.html The Association offers tours for up to 6 people on a pre-arranged basis for an unbelievable 3000 yen total ($29.41) plus any expenses of the guide which was explained to be a day-pass for the tram (600 yen or $5.88) and maybe some entrance fees, although those might be free for the guide. How could I resist?

A few weeks before our departure, I posted on our Cruise Critic roll call and 4 shipmates quickly jumped on this deal. In about a week, I got an email response to my online application to the Hakodate Goodwill Association from a local named Kensuke (“Ken”) who agreed to be our guide. He responded promptly to my few email questions about payment and again the day before we arrived in Hakodate to give me a weather forecast and assure me he would meet our shuttle bus from the ship. read more