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. read more

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. read more

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. read more

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. read more

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