Taking the JR Beetle ferry from Japan to South Korea

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Months prior to our trip, I’d bought our ferry tickets from Fukuoka/Hakata*, Japan, to Busan, South Korea, online at http://www.aferry.com/jr-kyushu-beetle-ferry.htm. This site makes buying international tickets easy for English-speakers and I found the fares to be actually cheaper than on the Japanese and Korean sites. Both Japan and Korea offer daily ferry routes between Hakata and Busan. The Korean fare is slightly cheaper, but the Japanese “JR Beetle” runs twice daily and offered a more convenient time for us, so I went with that.

[*Hakata is the former name of the city of Fukuoka and both the train station and a port are still called Hakata. This can be a bit confusing when you’re looking for trains as well as ferries since the natural inclination is to look for the name of the city as it is currently known.]

Instructions with our tickets informed us that we needed to be at the port at least 45 minutes prior to departure with printed ticket receipt in hand. Our hotel recommended we arrive an hour early. On a rainy morning, we caught a cab from the truly-lovely Grand Hyatt Fukuoka to the Hakata Port and found ourselves in a nearly-empty modern facility. Apparently, we had more than enough time.

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At the service counter, we exchanged our printed receipt for a real ticket and we were charged an expected fuel surcharge of approximately $20pp then escorted to a nearby machine to pay an additional $5pp for a government tax.

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Japanese government tax machine

We were directed to a 2nd floor waiting area where we eventually showed the receipt from the machine to emigration along with our passports before being allowed into a second waiting area with several duty-free shops. Downstairs from this waiting area was yet another waiting area by the entrance to the pier.

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Escalator to 2nd floor waiting area of Hakata ferry port

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I’d seen photos of the JR Beetle, but I was still a little surprised at how small the hydrofoil seemed for this 3-hour crossing of the Sea of Japan. With the weather increasingly inclement from yet another typhoon to the south, I had to wonder how smooth this crossing would be.

 

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Inside the JR Beetle
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Interior of JR Beetle; tv screens showed an Asian movie once we got going

We were a little disappointed to find the so-called “food service” offered no more than a few snacks and a pack of sandwiches. Opting for the sandwiches and a beer, we settled into our lunch soon realizing that eating was a little tricky in the not-all-that-smooth ride. We hurried to finish our lunch before we got further out into open waters.

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Within 15 minutes of departure, a couple across from us was visibly sick. They disappeared not to be seen again during the voyage. Moments after they left, a woman walking down the aisle fell into David’s tray, sweeping his beer to the floor. She refused to stay down, though, getting up to fall several more times before a ferry attendant got her back to her seat. But not for long. She was up and falling several times during the journey. Meanwhile a young couple ahead of us started making multiple trips to the bathroom, he gripping her upper arm firmly in support. David and I watched all this, hoping we wouldn’t be next. Fortunately, we were fine and even dozed off during the jostling ride.

Despite the rough trip, we arrived in Busan on time. The terminal in Busan is even larger and more impressive than the Hakata Port.

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Busan ferry port

It’s an easy walk from the Busan ferry terminal to the huge Busan train station. Turn left out of the ferry terminal past the taxis and then cross the drive into the terminal before taking the crosswalk across the main street to the blue-windowed Busan Station. The first elevators you come to will go up to the north side of the station, but you’ll have to go around to the front to enter the station. A second column of elevators (further down the main road away from the ferry terminal) will take you to an entrance to Busan Station main hall (and a nice viewing platform offering photo ops of the new Harbor Bridge). Our hotel, Almond Busan Hotel, was just beyond Busan Station, so cutting through the station made for a quick, easy walk.

 

Staying at a traditional ryokan on Miyajima island

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Ladies’ onsen bath at Ryokan Jukeiso

For many years, I’d wanted to stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I hadn’t had the chance on my one previous visit to Japan, so a ryokan was high on my list for this trip. A typical ryokan offers a classic Japanese room: straw tatami mats on the floor, sliding paper doors, futons laid out at sleeping time, multi-course kaiseki meals, onsen communal (and sometimes private) baths, kimonos to be worn by the guests, often a lovely courtyard or garden. My parents spent a month in Japan for my father’s business when I was very young, leaving my brother and me with my grandmother and great-grandmother. Mom and Dad returned with foreign toys and books, and a full kimono and obi for Mom. Stories of Japan, strange meals, their hostess Keiko-san, tatami mats and futons seemed magical and exotic to my child-self and the idea of a traditional Japanese inn stuck in my mind.

When I started researching ryokan options, I was stunned at the prices: Top ryokans can break $1000/night–not something I was willing to do for the chance to sleep on the floor! (Besides, this wasn’t a short splurge trip, this was a 2 ½ month wander.) Kyoto is famed for its ryokans, but they tended to be very much on the high end and, besides, I’d already found an apartment I wanted. Our remaining cities in Japan were Hiroshima (because I really wanted to see the Peace Park and Museum) and Fukuoka, where we had to catch a ferry to South Korea. Neither of these cities offered much in the way of the ryokans I’d imagined. Also, I discovered that the term “ryokan” seemed to be applied on occasion to something more like a cheap hotel than the traditional lodging I had in mind. Caution was in order.

When I read about the island of Miyajima near Hiroshima, I thought I might be on to something. Miyajima is famed as the site of the sprawling Itsukushima shrine, raised on stilts to allow the tides to flow under it and its famous Great Torii Gate standing in the sea between the island and the nearby mainland. Miyajima is only about an hour from Hiroshima and is a popular day trip. Several online commentators recommended staying a night, though, to enjoy the island once the day crowds thinned. Researching affordable ryokans on Miyajima, I came across Ryokan Jukeiso. At 33,480 yen (around $330) for 2 persons, including dinner and breakfast and access to both the communal and private onsen, Jukeiso looked like a deal and just what I had in mind.

We arrived on Miyajima via the World Heritage Route boat, the more expensive of our alternatives, but a fun and direct trip from the Peace Park in Hiroshima down the river and across the bay, past picturesque islands. Although Jukeiso offers complimentary shuttle service, it doesn’t begin until 3pm and we arrived before that. Taxis were available, but since the day was sunny, we decided to do the 20-minute walk along the waterside and past the Itsukushima shrine instead. The boat dropped us off a short ways from the ferry port.

Other than one flight of stairs, the walk wasn’t difficult, even with our rolling luggage…except for the fact that the day turned surprisingly warm. We opted to stop for lunch en route just to get out of the sun. Continuing our journey, we arrived at Jukeiso perched on a hillside overlooking the Itsukishima shrine and the Great Torii Gate.

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Ryokan Jukeiso

Unfortunately, our first impression was the darkened steaming-hot lobby, apparently devoid of any air conditioning. When an older man appeared from the back, he checked us in without hassle and informed us we could leave our luggage since check-in wasn’t for another hour (3pm). Leaving our suitcases, we escaped the sweltering room as fast as possible. I quickly scanned my phone to confirm our room was air conditioned. Please, oh, please let this just be some problem with the lobby! Sleeping on the floor in an un-air-conditioned room was not my idea of fun!

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Fortunately, when we returned after exploring the island the lobby air condition was on and beginning to drive back the heat and humidity. Maybe they just turned it off during “off” times to save electricity?

Our kindly hostess led us up an elevator and down a hall decorated with bamboo to our room. We left our shoes in an entry vestibule before stepping onto the cool tatami mats of an antechamber with doors to sink and shower room and a separated toilet. A small refrigerator offered for-pay snacks. Sliding paper doors opened onto our main room, happily cool and devoid of furniture save for a low table flanked by two legless chairs and a smaller table with two “regular” chairs. A low ledge held a small flat-screen tv which we never turned on and a musical instrument of some sort. The opposite wall offered a large window. Our hostess showed us a closet with summer kimonos, holding them up to be sure we had proper sizes. She then gestured us to sit at the low table while she served us cold tea and cookies–a delightful break after our ramble in the hot outdoors–before leaving us on our own.

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Tea and cookies to welcome us to our room

A laminated page on the ledge described in words and pictures the procedure for using the onsen baths in the basement floor of the hotel. I’d already watched a helpful video on youtube.com, and this instruction page confirmed that. Having reserved the private bath for that evening, we hadn’t planned to use the communal baths, but now that we were here (and hot and sticky from the day’s activities), we changed our minds. So, grabbing our kimonos, we headed for the baths.

As it turned out, I had the ladies’ bath to myself, but David did share his bath with a Japanese man and his 20-ish son. The procedure was the same for both of us, but I’ll just recount my own: I undressed in the dressing room outside the bath and left my clothes in a space provided. Neither clothes nor bathing suits are allowed in onsen baths.

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Dressing area of the ladies’ onsen

Taking a small towel from a stack provided, I entered the main bath area, took a stool from a stack and a plastic bowl and seated myself at one of 6 flexible shower handles to thoroughly wash my hair and body before entering the hot onsen bath. Then, it was time to just luxuriate in the hot water. Fish swam in a nearby aquarium and windows overlooked the hillside. I stepped out awhile to cool off in the shower head before reentering to steep some more. Thoroughly relaxed, I went back to the dressing room dried off with more of the tiny towels and put on my kimono to meet a similarly-dressed David back outside. Delightful!

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Interior of the ladies’ onsen

Although dinner is customarily served in the guests’ room in a ryokan, this ryokan no longer did that, but rather served dinner in a dining room. Not being a big fan of food and food smell where I’m going to sleep, I didn’t mind this modification at all. The dining room had a view over the Itsukushima shrine, the Great Torii Gate and the 5-story pagoda. Dinner was a set kaiseki-style menu of many courses. While we enjoyed it, we didn’t feel it rose to the level of the kaiseki we’d had in Kyoto. Still, dinner was enjoyable, interesting and filling.

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Back in our room, we found our low table had been moved to just below the window and two futons laid out in the middle of the room. The bedding looked thick and reasonably comfortable, but time would soon tell. First, though, we had our appointment with the private onsen. Donning our kimonos, we headed out again.

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The private onsen turned out to be a lovely L-shaped bath with a big open view overlooking the shrine, gate, pagoda and bay. We had a wonderful time soaking in the moonlit bath. What a great end to the day!

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Jukeiso’s private onsen

When we finally nestled into our futons, I found myself happily tired, but relaxed. The futon and fluffy duvet, both wrapped in cool, soft cotton, made a snug cocoon. The room smelled sweetly of the straw tatami mats on the floor and the barley husks that filled our small pillows. We drifted off to sleep in no time, sleeping soundly until morning.

Breakfast was a final, pleasant surprise. Wanting to have as authentic an experience as possible, we’d chosen the Japanese rather than the Western breakfast option. What we got was a veritable feast of many dishes that left us feeling like culinary explorers. More like dinner than breakfast to Western eyes, the meal was delicious and filling. The gentleman owner of the ryokan came by at breakfast to sign us up for the free shuttle to the ferry. [I’ll write about transportation options for getting between Miyojima and Hiroshima in a separate post.]

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Japanese breakfast at Jukeiso
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Jukeiso dining room

All-in-all, we really enjoyed Ryokan Jukeiso and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an affordable ryokan. Various room types are available, including western-style beds. Learn more at: http://miyajima-jukeiso.com/english.html (In Google Chrome, right click and select “Translate to English.”)

Between Miyajima and Hiroshima by boat, train & bus

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A World Heritage Route boat

There are several ways to get from Hiroshima to Miyajima and back. We decided to go over by the new-as-of-August-2016 World Heritage Route boat and return via ferry and train. Both options worked smoothly and there wasn’t a lot of difference in the total time for us. The boat is more expensive, but also more scenic and requires no connections once you board at the Peace Park.

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The World Heritage Route dock across from the Peace Park in Hiroshima
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Interior of the World Heritage Route boat

The World Heritage Route boat leaves every 45 minutes starting at 8am from a dock just across the river from the Peace Park by the first bridge just south of the A-Bomb Dome. The cost is 2000 yen per adult, one-way or 3600 yen, round-trip. The boat is enclosed and air-conditioned and drops you off at a dock a short distance from the ferry dock on Miyajima.

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Inside a World Heritage Route boat
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Where the World Heritage Route boat docks on Miyajima

Returning to Hiroshima, we decided to try another route. We caught the 10 minute ferry from Miyajima to the “mainland” for the paltry price of 180 yen (approximately $1.80 each). There are two options which cost the same and run side-by-side: the JR Ferry and the Matsudai. Since we weren’t using the JR Pass, we chose the soonest departure which happened to be the Matsudai which isn’t included on the JR Pass.

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Inside the Matsudai ferry from Miyajima

Back on the main island, we walked left past the bow of the ferry and out of the port area. Then, we crossed the street to the local train station. A quick search on Google indicated that we’d be better off taking a JR train, so we walked a block down the street to the JR terminal. There, we caught a train for Hiroshima (all clearly marked for the platform opposite the station), but got off at Nishi-Hiroshima to catch the 25 bus which stopped nearest our hotel where we’d stored our larger suitcases. (The bus stop is just in front of the train station and the 25 Bus parking slot is at the far end, clearly marked by an overhead sign.) If you want to ride all the way back to Hiroshima Station, just stay on the train. The total for all this travel was around 550 yen ($5.50) each.

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Sign for the 25 bus (The Nishi-Hiroshima train station is just to the right of this photo across a small parking lot.)
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Interior of the 25 Bus

Get more information at: http://www.aqua-net-h.co.jp/en/heritage/

Hiroshima: Heartbreaking and beautiful

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Hiroshima Peace Park

There wasn’t all that much on my must-see list in Hiroshima, but what there was meant a lot: the Peace Park and Peace Museum. I also wanted to see Hiroshima Castle, but it’s a simple fact that all pales beside the remembrances of the dropping of the A-bomb on this city.

The park is an easy walk from our hotel, the Japanese business hotel Daiwa Roynet Hiroshima which is part of the Daiwa Roynet chain. It was super-conveniently located to the #1 tram from the train station (a 1-minute walk from the nearest stop), and an easy walk to the Peace Park. It was also just what I had I mind to complement our other Japanese lodgings: We’d done an upscale American chain, a Japanese apartment…now it was time for a typical Japanese hotel.

The Daiwa Roynet Hiroshima did not disappoint: Our welcome could not have been friendlier, although English was minimal. Since the skies had opened up yet again just as we arrived, we were offered two small towels at check-in in addition to those in the room; very handy for drying off ourselves and our luggage. We were also give our choice from a box of amenities including bath salts, a body sponge and various hair bands and clips for women. More amenities awaited–of course–in the room: toothbrush and toothpaste, foldable brushes, pressed night shirts that reach demurely to mid-shins on me, but are much more interesting on David’s 6’3″ frame. Our room is a compact, but well-equipped double-bed space with a fridge and Japanese satellite t.v. (I’m despondent that the sumo tournament has just come to an end! I love following sumo when in Japan and had been watching avidly in Kyoto.)

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum spans the entrance to the Hiroshima Peace Park. It’s a simple, but deeply moving memorial to what the dropping of a nuclear weapon means in human terms. [The museum is 200 yen/adult (appx. $2). The park is free.] Viewing clothing and other personal effects of the victims, along with twisted metal girders and roof tiles; fused glass; preserved biological specimens of scarred tissue, hair and even the finger skin and fingernail of a boy saved by his mother to show his father who had been away; and photo after photo of destruction and horribly burned human bodies left me feeling sick to my stomach. As it should.

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Clock counting days since the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the days since the last nuclear test (sadly, only 17 days)
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Girders warped by the bomb
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Fused Japanese roof tiles

When you buy your ticket to the museum, you’re given post cards made from recycled paper cranes that people gift to the museum. You can buy stamps at the museum shop and you’re encouraged to write and share your thoughts after visiting the museum.

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Mementos of Obama’s visit, the first sitting U.S. president to do so: a note wishing for peace and origami cranes folded by the president in memory of a girl who died of radiation-induced leukemia

Outside the museum, we wandered the park with its many memorials: to children, to Koreans pressed into service by the Japanese, to the tens and tens of thousands of victims. There’s the mound where bodies were cremated as they began to stink in that hot August, and the peace bell, and the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall, popularly known as the A-Bomb Dome which was 600m below and 170m to the southeast of the detonation. Everyone inside died and the building is preserved just as it was immediately after the explosion.

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Memorial Cenotaph with the A-Bomb Dome visible beyond
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Childrens’ Memorial with girl on top holding a crane, representing Sadako, a girl exposed to the bomb at two who died 10 years later of leukemia (She folded 1000 origami cranes in the vain belief they would grant her wish to be cured.)

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Chains of origami cranes at the Childrens’ Memorial

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Memorial Mound where bodies of A-Bomb victims were cremated and ashes interred

There’s also a Memorial Hall to the dead on the park grounds. Entry is free and there are videos and photos to memorialize the dead. Fountains grace the inside and downstairs of the Hall because so many of the vicims plead for water before they died. Much of the park is intended to offer peace and rest to the souls of the dead.

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The A-Bomb Dome
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Close-up of the rubble of the A-Bomb Dome

After the Peace Park, we made our way to Hiroshima Castle. Destroyed in by the A-Bomb, of course, the medieval castle has been charmingly restored and was a fun break from the somberness of the morning. The long defensive building outside the inner moat is free to explore and offers models of the castle as well as photos depicting how a Japanese castle is built. It’s 360 yen to enter the castle itself, but the exhibits of samurai swords, videos, the tower view, and the opportunity to try on samurai armor are all fun and well worth it.

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Outer moat and defensive wing of Hiroshima Castle
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Koi in the castle oat with a eucalyptus tree that survived the A-Bomb
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View from the top of Hiroshima Castle of the green dome of the sports arena and the A-Bomb Dome to the left of the arena

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.]
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Yet another mountain shrine
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Leaving the crowds behind. Looking back through the torii gates (writing visible)
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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.

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Tea room beside path on Mt. Inari
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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.

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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!

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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.

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Nijo Castle
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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.

 

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.).

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Kyoto Tower from Kyoto Station 2nd floor alcove at top of escalator

Then go to the end of the long hall to your left. Signs will direct you to turn right to the Kintetsu ticket counters which will be on your left inside a small glassed-in area. The woman at the door spoke English and came over to help complete our purchase of roundtrip tickets (1240 yen RT; 620 yen one-way). There are no reserved seats on this metro-like train. There’s a faster 35-minute Kintetsu with reserved seats for nearly twice as much. Kintetsu accepts credit/debit cards with a PIN only. The time varies slightly by train, but runs generally 45-50 minutes. If you want to use the JR, the time is about the same (and it costs 710 yen each way, if you don’t have a pass), but you are dropped off at a station about a 20-minute walk from Nara Park.

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On the Kintetsu non-reserved seat train to Nara

The star of Nara Park is Todaiji Temple with its huge Buddha statue, Diabutsu, the second largest in Japan. You approach the temple through the ancient wooden Nandaimon Gate.

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Nandaimon Gate with sacred deer roaming freely among visitors

Inside the temple complex, the Daibutsuden or Great Buddha Hall is the largest wooden structure in the world. Dating back only 300 years, its predecessor was even larger. Scale models behind the Buddha statue let you see the evolution of the temple. At one time, two large pagoda flanked the Daibutsuden, but they are no longer standing. Fire–due to war, accident and natural causes–has destroyed most Japanese temples at one time or another. Religious purification also leads to the dismantling and rebuilding of certain temples.

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Daibutsuden, The Great Buddha Hall, the largest wooden building in the world
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Daibutsu, the second largest Buddha in Japan
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Daibutsu and one of his attendant gold statues

The Daibutsu and his attendants are awesome sights, the sheer size hard to convey in photos. In addition to the models of the building behind the statues, there is also a column with a narrow hole in the bottom through which people were lining up to try to crawl through. Supposedly, this brings good luck (but a failed attempt could be really terrible luck if you found yourself wedged in the hole).

Protected as sacred, deer roam everywhere eager for the “deer cookies” sold at 150 yen/pack. The deer can get aggressive and the warning signs are funny. I found the primary hazard of feeding them is that deer hooves hurt on sandaled feet. The two I fed were pushy, so I had to keep backing up to keep from getting stepped on a second time. When I turned away to break the cookies into pieces, one even pulled on my skirt. Sacred deer spit. Must be auspicious.

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Pack of deer cookies
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Deer hanging around a box of deer cookies
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A mother with the youngest fawn we saw

Up a hill behind and to the right of Todaiji as you face it, is a path that wanders to a huge bell, rung every night at 8pm. Continuing on past the bell, a flight of lantern-lined stairs to the left leads to Nigatsudu Hall. This structure is one of the most interesting in Nara Park allowing you to wander its big deck for free, taking in the view over Nara, shrines and a small waterfall.

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Nigatsudu Hall

We walked beyond Nigatsudu and up Wakakusayama Hill (a wide grassy expanse with yet more deer) to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The shrine sits in an ancient forest. The building is large and houses many brass lanterns, but we weren’t tempted to enter. The draw of this magical place to me is the 3000 stone lanterns that flank every path leading from the shrine down toward the center of the park. The sight is incredible and I can only imagine how enchanting it must be when lit at night, which happens during festivals in February and August.

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Stone lanterns lining the paths between Kasuga Taisha Shrine and the center of Nara Park

As predicted by the nice lady at the Information desk in the Kintetsu Station, our leisurely wanderings through Nara Park took about 3 1/2 hours, including a stop for lunch at a noodle restaurant near the Nandaimon Gate.

 

 

 

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.

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First soup course

Dinner consisted of a number of set courses and three price options. Each price option contains the same number of courses of the same general description, but each option offers an increasingly augmented version of the course. Kaji doesn’t accept credit cards. Since we’d made our mad dash to get here on time and didn’t have time to get more cash, our decision was easy: it was the 3900 yen/pp (appx. $38.61 at the time) dinner for us. [Other options were 6000 yen ($$59.40) and 8100 ($80.19) yen.] This turned out to be an excellent meal, and although David would have tried a different version just to compare, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about our dinner.

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Menu page listing the courses offered and the price options

I took pictures of all but the opening “aperitif” which was nothing but a small splash in a saucer of a “September flower” liqueur that tasted not-so-appealingly of perfume. The least successful “course” of the evening.

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Sashimi course
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By way of comparison: This is the sashimi course for a neighbor’s 8100 yen dinner.
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Tempura was substituted for the grilled course.

Our chef did his best to explain each dish to us. His English was limited, but he did his best and was cheerful, friendly and engaged throughout the meal with us and with those dining at the counter beside us. A couple of times, he pulled out a map to show us his favorite area sites. We already planned to go to Fushimi Inari, but he also suggested Tofukuji Temple not far from Fushimi Inari. He also encouraged us to visit a shrine near the restaurant (and our hotel) that he explained had something to do with “god and money.” Sure enough, a later trip to the small shrine revealed a golden torii gate and people praying for financial fortune…and a children’s party with a cowboy making balloon figures. Japan is often mystifying to us!

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Palette freshening course

Kaji also offers a simple, but classy atmosphere. It’s not elaborate or fancy, but certainly not a casual diner either. I found its understated decor warm and relaxing.

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Steamed course: minimally-seasoned steamed vegetables plus a squash stuffed with steamed seafood paste
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Pickles, miso soup and rice with green tea

Cold sake was our drink of choice. We tried two, but most enjoyed the Jyun mai daiginzzyou at 1200 yen which is smooth and dry. The Hon-jyozou (700 yen) was also good, but with a heavier rice-y taste that I associate with sakes more often found at home in the States.

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Sake and Shochu menu

We were given a choice of three desserts: 2 sorbets and an ice cream dish. We both chose the ice cream, mostly because we were intrigued by the sake gelée that came with it.

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Dessert: sake gelée, walnut ice cream with a large black bean and blueberry
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Drink menu
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Restaurant details

You can find Kyo-yori Kaji at www.kyoto-kaji.jp and at the address and number shown in the photo above.

 

 

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.

Although I really wanted to visit Kinkakuji, I had some misgivings since it happened to be the Autumnal Equinox holiday in Japan, a public holiday when people often flock to temples with their families. Hmm. We decided to go for it anyway, hoping the cloudy weather and threat of rain might work to our advantage again with regards to crowds.

Today, we opted to buy a Kyoto bus pass. At 500 yen/day (about $4.90), they’re a good deal if you plan to do some scattered sightseeing. A regular one-way ticket on a bus is 230 yen. (You get on Japanese buses in the middle and pay a machine by the driver when you get off.) Three “Raku” buses (numbered 100, 101 & 102) are included on this pass in addition to the regular city buses and they hit many of the top tourist sites in Kyoto. Lots of locals use them, too. A Raku bus picked up near our apartment and went directly to Kinkakuji in the west of the city without requiring any changes, so we were there in less than 30 minutes.

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At Kinkakuji: People toss coins at the bowl among the statues for good luck.

The rain held off and, not surprisingly, the crowds were pretty thick at Kinkajiju, but not as bad as I might have expected except around the main Golden Pavilion photo op. [Tickets are 400 yen. (about $3.92)] After walking the temple grounds, we had much fun sampling snacks set out at several food stalls just beyond the final shrine: sweet nama yatsuhashi, a Kyoto specialty, and more savory bites of crunchy little balls flavored with wasabi, ginger, curry, etc.

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David samples nama yatsuhashi, a soft, triangle-shaped Kyoto sweet with various fillings: cinnamon, sesame, chestnut, and many more

After a lunch break at the apartment, we decided to head to the east side of Kyoto to see Sanjusangendo. Despite the fact I can never remember the name of this temple, what I’d read about the many statues of Kannon housed there definitely stuck in my mind. I had to see this place!

Sanjusangendo exceeded expectations. Housed in a long, narrow temple redolent of smoke and incense, row upon row of the many-armed goddess of mercy stand, shimmering in gold. A huge statue sits at the center of this host, making 1001 statues of the goddess.

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Central statue at Sanjusangendo

Sanjusangendo is 600 yen (about $5.88), a bit more than some other temples, but well worth it my opinion. A highlight!

We stayed till closing at Sanjusangendo, but figured we still had time to make it to Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizudera) for sunset. Kiyomizu is known for its huge terrace overhanging a hillside, its views of Kyoto, and a holy spring. We were tired, it was drizzling on-and-off again, we debated, but we decided we could do it. (It’s this kind of thinking that has us walking 8-10 miles a day before we know it.)

A short bus ride later, we started hiking up the shop-lined street to Kiyomizu. The area is charming, its small shops and restaurants stylish. A 3-tiered pagoda welcomes visitors to the temple ground. Up more steps, we paid 400 yen (appx. $3.92) to continue on to the large wooden deck jutting from the main hall. A path wandered beyond that and along the side of a mountain, then down to Otowa waterfall. The stream supplying the waterfall splits into three parts here and people used cups on long poles to drink from the water. Each is said to have a different benefit: longevity, success at school and a fortunate love life. (Drinking from all three is apparently considered greedy.)

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Three-tiered pagoda at Kiyomizudera
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View towards the deck at Kiyomizu

With darkness setting in, it was time go. We had reservations at Kyo-ryori Kaji for a multi-course kaiseki dinner our AirBnB host recommended highly. I’ll review that fun meal in a later post.

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!

To start our day, and more or less on whim, we hopped the subway nearest our apartment and got off near the middle of a walk I’d seen recommended by Frommer. We ended up blowing off that itinerary, when we stumbled upon a “worship walk” through Chion-in Temple. The paved path wandered through temples and shrines and we were thrilled to find a full service in progress, seemingly open to the public. Inside, thick incense filled the large building (Honen Shonin Mido) while an older man in robe and headdress chanted before an elaborate altar, flanked by rows of younger monks, one beating a two-block “instrument.” Worshipers sat behind the monks in the main room. Along with other guests, we were met by smiling greeters and directed to seats removed from the main action, but with a clear view. The service was beautiful, and occasionally those seated in our immediate area would get up to either leave or pray at a side altar. Not until after we left and spotted a few signs regarding memorial and cremation services did I do a little research and realize we may have crashed a memorial service. Yikes. [Photography was forbidden inside or I’d share just how picturesque it was.] I actually highly recommend this visit since no one seemed to mind–in fact they were very friendly and welcoming even though we were clearly tourists–and it was a wonderful experience.

Our main target for the day was Ginkakuji, a famous Zen temple. Known as the Silver Pavilion, there’s nothing silver about it except for its original owner’s unfulfilled plans to cover it in silver leaf. Still, it is a beautiful place with a unique, stylized sand garden shaped to suggest waves and Mt. Fuji. It looked as if the weather had taken its toll on “Mt. Fuji,” and we arrived to find workmen putting the finishing touches on a big pile of sand shaped like a #4 coffee filter.

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Ginkakuji: The Silver Pavilion
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Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion): Men at work on stylized sand representation of Mt. Fuji

Even in the clouds and drizzle, a fair-sized crowd wandered the paths around the pavilion and up the hillside garden.

We took a beer pub break (I was with David, remember!) for lunch at  Tadg’s Gastro Pub which we really enjoyed and I’ll review separately. It didn’t rain throughout lunch, but five minutes after we set out for Heian Temple (a 20 min. walk) the skies opened up, sending us darting for cover under an awning until it lightened up enough for our umbrellas to do the job. The orange and green temple is immense and its gardens probably great (but too pricey on a rainy day at 600 yen).

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Heian Temple

We’d decided to head back home on the bus and hope for better weather later, when I noticed that the bus went past the Imperial Palace, a place we wanted to visit and not too far of a walk to our apartment. The rain had let up for the moment and it wasn’t like we were going to dissolve, so we decided to hop off at the palace. This turned out to be a great idea. We beat the last entry at 3:45pm by minutes so got to walk around the Imperial Palace (within the walls, but the buildings are not open to the public) with only a minimal crowd. The palace sprawls and the walking route lets you explore quite a bit. Although you can’t enter, you can view some painted screens in three of the receiving rooms through glassed-in sliding doors and certain temple buildings have porches open to the outside. The park surrounding the Imperial Palace is 1500 meters long by 700 meters wide.

The Imperial Palace used to require reservations and guided tours, but has just this summer switched to a free, no-reservation, self-guided policy. Excellent!

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The Imperial Palace, Kyoto
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Oikeniwa Garden in the Imperial Palace

 

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.