Fushimi Inari and Nijo Castle, Kyoto


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.

Fox statue outside Inari shrine

Walking uphill from the main shrine past many smaller shrines, we were directed to the first of many virtual tunnels of torii gates framing the paths on the mountain. A split in the paths made a one-way loop and the mobs of people funneled into this area made us wonder if Fushimi Inari was going to be a huge disappointment. Thankfully, the crowds thinned (and the tour groups disappeared) as we walked further up the mountain. The gates also be came larger than those at the early one-way section.

Early on, crowds are funneled into one-way lines through narrow torii gates…fortunately, this dissipates as you climb higher. [Note the lack of writing on gates while on the uphill climb.]
Yet another mountain shrine
Leaving the crowds behind. Looking back through the torii gates (writing visible)
Fox-shaped votive offerings

As we hiked ever higher, we walked past streams, waterfalls and small ponds. The forest air was cool and fresh, but heavy with humidity. We came upon several tea rooms with beautiful views and many vendors selling fortunes and votive offerings along with snacks. The mountain rewards the climb with sweeping views over Kyoto at Yotsutsuji intersection, high on the mountain, but still a ways from the summit. We stopped at a nearby stall and teahouse for mixed soft-serve ice cream: vanilla and “soy flour”. Delicious. We could have hiked even higher, making the loop past the summit, but with diminishing gates and a sense that not much was changing, we opted to turn back. We’d spent a couple of hours wandering the mountain. It would have taken maybe another hour to make the final loop.

Tea room beside path on Mt. Inari
View of Kyoto from Mt. Inari

Don’t miss Fushimi Inari if your travels take you to Kyoto! (Day trips are also possible from Nara and Osaka.)

Back in Kyoto from Fushimi  Inari in time for a quick lunch at the apartment, we decided to spend our last afternoon at Nijo Castle. We’d been admiring one of its watchtowers from our balcony since we arrived, and knew we didn’t want to miss it.

Beautiful interior entrance gate to Nijo Palace

Unlike other Japanese castles, Nijo was always meant to be a palace castle, not a fortified castle that happened to serve as a palace. Consequently there is something more delicate and beautiful about it. Original wall paintings have been removed to the nearby gallery, but reproductions let you see the palace has it must have been when used as a shogun residence. I loved the idea of being able to finally get inside a building, and this one in particular. Most exciting of all for me, Nijo Castle boasts a “nightingale floor,” something I’d read about for years, but never experienced. It was nothing like I’d imagined!

Nijo Castle interior

We decided to get an audio guide at 500 yen apiece, something I usually skip, but really enjoyed on this trip. Entry to Nijo Castle is another 600 yen. The walk through the sprawling castle was fun, but the absolute highlight for me was the experiencing the nightingale floor. Designed to make noise on purpose to alert the shogun to assassination attempts, the sound was not the squeak I expected, but high-pitched and truly something almost musical. David and I both first wondered if it was a soundtrack, so stopped and spent much time listening to the noise, trying to match it to our footsteps and those of the people around is. The chirping had a weirdly disjointed quality, seemingly removed from actual footsteps, but nonetheless resulting from them.

Nijo Castle
Nijo Castle garden

The Nijo Castle grounds actually encompass two palaces. The main palace with the nightingale floor and another castle within yet another moat in the center. This castle, built entirely of cedar, is not open to the public, although you can cross the interior moat and walk through the gardens and up to the raised foundation of a long-destroyed tower.


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.

I came across this term over and over in Japan: Selling a beefed-up twin bed room to two people. And, often the semi-ness of the semi-double is not clearly specified until a later screen (and sometimes not at all–I call if in doubt). You’ve got to be kidding! I love my husband, but he’s a big guy and neither one of us would get much sleep with the two of us crammed into a bed that size. And, I can only imagine the size of the room that goes with these beds, too. It’s hard to picture where luggage for two people would go either. Anyway, be advised.

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.]

Google Maps will actually tell you the next train going to your destination, give you the platform number (a vital bit of info when nearly everything at hand is in Japanese), and count down until departure. If you miss that train, you can re-search for the next fastest departure and it will find other routes as well.

screenshot_20160920-110118 Unfortunately, we discovered in Kyoto that while much info provided by Google is in English, Google often gives you bus, bus stop names and other info in Japanese characters:


This is where Google Translate comes in handy: Take a screen shot. Open Google Translate [choose Japanese to English, of course] and tap on the camera icon. Instead of taking a photo now, select the little box with a mountain scene in the bottom. This will take you to your recent photos where you can choose the screenshot. Let Google Translate scan and find the Japanese writing. When it’s finished scanning, you’ll see the Japanese writing (and sometimes other words) in boxes:


Then, just scribble over the Japanese writing with your finger and Google Translate will translate the words you’ve chosen into something you can read:


You can use the same method with screen shots of locations on Google Maps.

We use Google Translate all the time when we travel. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty amazing (and sometimes funny). Using the eye symbol feature (where available), you can translate live time. It’s like peering through a magic window into an English-language world wherever you are. It even preserves fonts in live-time. In Belgium, we’ve been able to look at a hand-written chalkboard menu in Dutch and see the translations, as if written in chalk in English. Wow. On our current Asia trip, we use the simple photo translate option for information plaques and the like. It was a huge help when I needed prescription eye drops in Kyoto and the pharmacist spoke no English. I could translate my needs by typing a couple of words in Google Translate on my phone (and pointing to my eye), then read the dosage information of the package by taking a photo in Google Translate.

You need an Internet connection to use Google Translate, unless you choose “offline translate” and download the language of your choice–a great feature.

Thank you, Google. I love technology!

Hakodate, Japan – Trying out a bargain tour guide


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.

When I’d asked him by email how we’d recognize him, he wrote back to say he was “a 5’7″ Japanese man with black hair and brown eyes” and would be holding a sign. (I’d been really grateful for that last, since the physical description did little to set him apart from the vast majority of his countrymen.) Anyway, I’d created a mental image of a slender man, dressed in typical Japanese business black-and-white. His emails indicated a pretty good command of English, but I knew Google Translate could have something to do with that.

As promised, Ken was front and center, holding up a sign with my name as soon as we stepped off the shuttle bus from the port just after 11am. In contrast to my imagined guide, he was round-faced and a bit rumpled, wearing a black t-shirt with a large graphic design, and army green pants with a thick chain hanging from the wallet he kept in his pocket. It was also immediately apparent that his English was limited. Oh well, he was there and he knew where to take us, so all in all, things were OK. Ken walked us briskly into the nearby train station to buy day-passes for the tram saying we needed to hurry so that we could experience the morning fish market before it closed at noon. We pitched in 200 yen for his ticket, a whopping $1.96 per couple.

We walked the few blocks to the market where we found a teeming mass of activity. Hakodate is famous for squid. In the center of a big covered market, we watched people fishing for live squid in a tank to be summarily turned into sashimi. At Ken’s urging, David prepared to join the queue, but when 9 school kids piled in ahead of him, he changed his mind…and one squid got a temporary reprieve.

Fishing-for-squid tank in the Hakodate Morning Market
Inspecting the goods


Ken’s English was limited, but it was great to have him identify some of the mysterious things for sale: whale bacon, smoked scallops (I’d thought they were caramel candies!), herring roe (the only item we didn’t like on our sushi lunch in Otaru–a strange, solid rubbery mass of tiny yellow beads) and so much more.

The covered market opened onto a busy, sunny street filled with vendors and tiny restaurants of all types. David bought a luscious slice of canteloupe, eating it perched on a bench beside his fellow customers. We bought “barbequed” scallops piled high on a shell and cooked on an open pit fired by a handheld propane torch until the broth around them boiled. Delicious! A little further on, I couldn’t resist squid ink soft serve ice cream that turned out to be surprisingly good…probably because there was little of the squid ink to be found other than the odd gray color.


“Barbequeing” scallops
David finishes off the last of the broth while the chef and his wife wait for the final thumbs-up
Squid ink ice cream!

Leaving the market, we headed towards restored brick warehouses which Ken explained were now shopping malls. Their brick construction and the brick pavers we saw on roads belied the strong European influences in Hakodate. None of our group was interested in shopping, so we breezed past more music boxes and souvenirs, stopping only for cold local beers and a melon drink at a grocery store/deli.

Our path took us up an increasing slope to Higashi Honganji Temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple. After repeated destruction by fires, the current building was erected in 1915 and was the first reinforced concrete temple in Japan. Apparently, the construction caused some concern, both as to whether the material was strong enough to hold the massive roof…and as to the purity or lack thereof of a material that people had walked on and therefore made impure. Geishas were hired to dance on the floor and somehow that resolved all. The temple shows some western influence, one main depiction looking as much like a Catholic saint as anything. Nearby Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox churches emphasize that influence.




Continuing our uphill climb, we boarded the gondola up to the Mt. Hakodate Observatory House for a sweeping view of the city and the surrounding waters of the Tsugaru Straits. The Hakodate Ropeway (gondola) tickets turned out to be the biggest expense of the day at 1280 yen pp, roundtrip ($12.55). Sure enough, after a little negotiation between Ken and a lady at the ropeway office, Ken was free so long as we paid for the group of six at once. No problem. We were a cooperative group and we settled up quickly.


We finally used our tram tickets for a long ride to Goryokaku Fort, a star-shaped fort of European design. The grounds of the fort are now a park and people rowed small rental boats on the moat waters. At the center of the fort the former magistrate’s office has been rebuilt and provides an interesting glimpse of classic Japanese architecture. Tatami mats felt delightfully cool under my bare feet, giving off a fresh scent of straw. The large wooden sliding doors to the building were thrown open as well as the paper interior doors allowing in both sunshine and a light breeze from the beautiful day outside.

20160915_155417 20160915_154635


Pleasantly tired and happy after our long day and nearly 6 miles walking, I thought it a perfect end to our tour. The rest of the group agreed and we followed Ken to the tram for our ride back to the train station and the ship shuttle bus.

It was 4:45pm by the time we reached the station and Ken had had nothing to eat and only a few canned soft drinks despite our offers. We felt guilty that he was to receive only 3000 yen for nearly 6 hours of time with us. Conferring among ourselves and worried about the Japanese aversion to tips, we offered him an extra 3000 for his dinner which he very happily accepted. We parted with positive feelings all around.

I’d recommend the Hakodate Goodwill Association to anyone looking for an unbeatable deal, willing to try an amateur guide with unknown language skills, and physically able to handle a good deal of walking, often uphill. (We walked about 6 miles with Ken.)


Cruise port details:

It’s about a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from the port to the train station. There’s no realistic way to walk. Celebrity and/or the city provided the shuttle at no charge.

Free wi-fi was offered just beyond the gangway in the passenger welcome area.

Japanese Docomo SIM cards

I’m posting onboard ship in the port of Otaru using a Japanese data SIM card I bought on eBay before leaving the U.S. I bought 2 of these cards which are by the Japanese company, Docomo, which my research showed to have the best coverage in Japan. The cards are for 8 days each, so we plan to use them back-to-back during our stay in Japan, using my Galaxy S7 phone as a hotspot for David’s Galaxy S7s and our laptop. Each card is described as “4G LTE, 3GB/8 days, unlimited.” The cards cannot be used with HTC, Blackberry, dual SIM phones or any smartphones made in China.

Approaching Otaru, Japan, this morning

The card starting working in the wee hours this morning, while we were at sea off the Japanese coast, but still some hours from the port of Otaru. The signal is strong and fast and both David’s Galaxy S7 Android phone and the laptop are connecting well with my phone’s hotspot.

I paid $26.98 for both cards, including shipping from Hong Kong. It took about 20 days for the cards to arrive, which was within the vendor’s estimated shipping time. He was very responsive to my questions and had good reviews, so I felt reasonably comfortable making the purchase. We might could have bought the cards in Japan and I read that visitor SIM cards are sold at Narita Airport. But, we are arriving by ship in Otaru where I could find no information about such SIMs and, even if we did find them, I had concerns about language issues. I also didn’t want to spend my limited time ashore looking for and waiting in a shop anyway if I didn’t have to. Given the reasonable price on eBay, it seemed a no-brainer to me.

I chose data-only SIM cards because we don’t really care about making calls–and should we need to, we can usually call for free using Google. The Internet, i.e., data, is what we really want and need for Google Maps, researching local sites, texting with home via WhatsApp, email, etc. Anyway, so far, so good!

UPDATE: I’ve been using the Docomo card for four days now and am generally happy. Sometimes, the connection is a little slow, but for the most part it’s been really good. Also, some of the sluggishness may be due to being offshore and to having other devices using my phone as a hotspot. Most impressive of all, not only did I retain connection when we were on a ship 15 miles off the Japanese coast, but I was even able to make a 30+ minute call to my son in the U.S. on WhatsApp with excellent quality…and for free!

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016