Japan was a totally different experience from other places that we have seen before - very different from Europe and USA, but also from the other South-East Asian places like Hong Kong and Singapore. I really enjoyed this trip because Mayur planned the whole thing and guided us around - hats off to him! This was a particularly tough trip to plan since not many people go to Japan and its hard to figure out exactly what to do. But he tapped into his network, got the info, planned the trip, made all the reservations, and managed to include special experiences such as the Buddhist Temple stay. Thank you Mayur :)! So since I did not have to use my brain for all these sundry things - it was a fabulous break for me and I really enjoyed the whole trip. This time we were accompanied by another family - the Khatods - Aditya, Kavita, and Riya - so that made it even more special. In fact, we decided to go to Japan because they were thinking of going there.
Top tips for Japan:
- Time and Weather: Japan is a beautiful and vast country with many different kinds of experiences to try. You should plan to spend at least a week there. Different spots offer different pleasures during the varying seasons - snow in winter, cherry blossoms in April, etc. We visited in May which was the spring season and the weather was lovely. Slightly on the warmer side and the occasional shower but very pleasant otherwise. Beware of the crowds during the cherry blossom season!
- Food: Tokyo has a total of 304 Michelin stars and Kyoto has 135. Both the top the list with Paris at a distant 134 stars compared to Tokyo. Need I say more that this is THE gourmet place for food? Sadly, all this fine dining offers mainly non-vegetarian choices. We were left high and dry for veggie food. See veg options are available but not everywhere; now when you are visiting some place for sight-seeing you really don't want to take off for a couple of hours somewhere for a decent meal. That's what makes it tough. Bigger cities like Tokyo and Kyoto offers options like pizza, pasta, Subway, etc. But its best to carry your own food. Snacks are most useful while visiting places and cuppa-noodles can me made in the hotel room as hot water kettles are always available. All in all, nothing to cherish in terms of vegetarian food.
- Kids: There is Disneyland and Disney Sea in Tokyo. Reema loves gardens and flowers so she enjoyed all the traditional Japanese gardens with the koi fish and turtles. But there are also a lot of temples that may get boring for kids. Plan to have a healthy mix of activities for them - like the aquarium in Osaka, the bullet train rides, hot water springs, cable car rides - and they should be fine. Best for kids more than 6 years old though! Especially with the veg food situation.
- Money: As the gujju in me believes, so do the Japanese - cash works best! We had a money card with some Yen loaded onto it but it did not work. Thankfully we were able to withdraw all the money without any issues so it was fine. Stick to cash - Japan is a very safe country so no issues carrying around large sums of money.
- Transport: Shinkansen! What else can I say? The bullet trains rock and you can cover the entire breadth of the country without having to take a flight. We got a Japanese Rail Pass which allowed free unlimited travel on the bullet trains for a week and it was totally worth it. It also gave us some free local transport options in Kyoto and Hakone. In general, travel is not an issue. With Tokyo there is an excellent metro system. Kyoto had a good bus system but it was not as good as Tokyo. Travel to other place was also easy so no need for a car at all. In some cases, we had to take trams or cable car which were difficult to take big bags in. Japan has an excellent service to send off your bags to another city for a small amount of money - totally worth exploring. Another good option is store your bag at the bullet train station lockers which also works very well if you have medium-sized bags.
- Sight-seeing: Japan has a ton of cultural and heritage things to see and do - right from the spectacular temples all over the country to Geishas, Kabuki, Sumo wrestling, Tea ceremonies, what have you. The thing to keep in mind is to do different things. Temples, no matter how spectacular, have roughly the same pattern and start to get repetitive. So put in a blend of things - Disneyland, some temples, some ceremonies, a dash of culture, a pinch of food - make the alternative experiences count.
- Guide:The guide at japan-guide.com is the definitive guide to traveling in Japan. It gives you great information about all the places; the only problem is that it does not tell how places compare to each other and which ones are more special than others. For that look at reviews on tripadvisor and such but definitely get all other details such as tickets, timings, etc. from here.
May 17, Wednesday - Travel
First day of travel - nothing much to say. Reema and I went to Mumbai by taxi. Mayur joined us there directly from Bangalore. My parents and Uma also came with us to Mumbai as they had to go there anyway. The Khatods met us at the Mumbai airport. There was some confusion about our flights with code shares with a couple of airlines but it all got sorted out in good time. We had a stopover in Delhi for a couple of hours around midnight and then we reached Tokyo around 1pm on the next day 18th. The food was okay on All Nippon Airways but nothing to talk home about.
May 18, Thursday - Tokyo
Mayur figured out a bunch of things at the airport - mainly transport to get to our hotel with our big bags and an internet connection. He rented a WiFi router for our stay there which worked like a charm so we had connectivity no matter where we went. The router was simply mailed back to the company at the airport when we left back for India - quite a breeze and so convenient! We essentially took the Skyline train to Oshiyage and then to Hanzomon station where our hotel was located. Took us quite a while lugging out bags around but finally we reached the Monterey Hanzomon hotel. The good news was that it was close to the metro station and had two good grocery stores right next door do we didn't have to walk too far for food or transport. Here are the two girls gesturing with a Japanese lady who was trying to tell them something about the metro :). We freshened up at the hotel and started off to go to the famous Senso-ji temple in Tokyo.
We hopped onto a metro and about 30 mins later we were at Senso-Ji. The temple had already closed for the day so there was very little crowd and most of the shops were closing. But the temple was lit and it was grand! A spectacular first Japanese temple to see. It is surrounded by a labyrinth of tiny shops selling everything from souvenirs to clothes to local food. It has a beautiful grand entrance lit up by huge lanterns. A small red pagoda is also present in the temple courtyard. It was also our first introduction to local restaurants - they all have beautiful clay models of the bento boxes that they sell. Very very colorful and extremely appetizing - sadly none of us vegetarians could eat any of it. Not that it stopped us from taking lovely photos!
We also met some lovely young Japanese ladies traditionally dressed in kimonos. There was a cute fortune station right outside the temple. You had to pick a chopstick which had some Japanese characters written on it. You had to match the pattern of characters on a specific drawers which had papers of fortunes inside it. You chose your paper and if it was a good fortune, you could take it with you. If it was a bad one, you had to tie it to a wire right there, in the hope that you would get a better fortune next time around :). Reema tried this a dozen times until hunger hit and we had to leave! It was first night out and everyone was really hungry after the long journey. Riya also tried some local horse chestnuts that she loved. We all decided to get to a Subway and eat sandwiches - one of our many Subway visits :). We hopped onto a Metro, went and ate at a Subway and then crashed for the night. Here are a couple of more photos of and Hattori Hanzo swords on display (remember Kill Bill :)?) and Reema with her brand-new Japanese fan.
May 19, Friday - Disneyland, Tokyo
DISNEYLAND!! Need I say more :)? At this point we have now visited Disneyland multiple times in Anaheim, Florida, Hong Kong, and now Tokyo!! Having given thousands of $$ to Disney for their parks and merchandise, here's to it one more time! That just leaves Paris but I think its best just left alone now. We got off to a late start; breakfast at the hotel was reasonable but not a lot of veggie options. We ended up eating a lot of croissants in the entire trip! Disneyland was a few metro stations away. Tokyo has two Disney parks - Disney Sea and Magic Kingdom. We went to the latter and skipped Disney Sea since it is more geared for older kids and adults. We did the usual stuff there - Haunted House, Pinocchio's adventure, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Toon Town - Reema sat in a small roller coaster there, afternoon and evening parades, river boat cruise, train ride, tea cups ride, Star Trek adventure, etc. They also had a spectacular light and sound show on the castle facade after dark. The fireworks were canceled due to heavy wind but the castle show was unique. Sadly two of our favorite rides - Small World and Space Mountain were closed for renovation. The Tokyo park is the same size as Hong Kong but it was way more crowded - too many lines! May be it was a one-off thing being a Friday but we were expecting fewer people on a weekday. Food was the standard Disney fare with pizza, drinks, coke, and caramel popcorn. We had fun but Reema was also not that much into it like Hong Kong - thankfully she seems to have finally outgrown it :). Au revoir Paris!
May 20, Saturday - Tokyo
The first goal for the day was the Tsukiji Fish Market which is the traditional fish market in the heart of downtown Tokyo. The best fresh tuna is auctioned here at 3am! We had grand plans to reach there early but only got there around 9:30am. Turned out to be a good thing because they do not allow outsiders inside the market till 10am. There are two parts to the market - the inner market and the outer market. The latter has got nice shops, restaurants selling sushi, etc. but the real action is in the inner market. By the time we go it, the real show was over. The shop keepers were wrapping up their unsold fish and cleaning out their stalls. Surprisingly there was absolutely no smell there - all fresh fish kept on loads and loads of ice. All of us are vegetarians and we spent a couple of hours looking around the market! This place is a must-visit in Tokyo, even better if you can manage to get in when the fish is actually being sold. We saw a bunch of guys cleaning fish, filleting it so fast they could be champs on MasterChef, huge ice making machines which took slabs of ice and crushed it into little pieces - the whole place was just very interesting! We saw crabs, eels, entire octopuses, shrimp, tuna - name a fish and it was right there! Make sure to spend a lot of time in this exotic one-of-a-kind spot. People who eat fish will find it even more interesting with the variety of food served by the shops in the outer market.
Our next stop was the Imperial Palace East Garden. The garden was huge, most like a huge area filled with a couple of gardens, some buildings, and huge lawns. It had a very pretty Japanese Garden but we saw better ones in Tokyo itself on a later day. We were not able to see the palace itself at all. All in all meh! This place can be skipped - it is on all the tourist lists of places-to-see but nothing special. Next stop was Shinjuku - a nice trendy area in Japan. We took the metro to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building there. They have two towers which offer great views of the city for free. Each of the towers is closed on some day of the week but one of them is always open everyday. Sadly for us, that day both the towers were closed for electrical repairs :(. On the brighter side we found a Subway right in the metro station (which was humongous by the way!) and we ate our fill of subs for the day. The Met building had a huge beautiful courtyard with some lovely spring flowers scattered around in huge pots.
After that we walked around in the trendy Shinjuku district of Tokyo. We saw some interesting buildings like the 'Scotch-Tape' building here. Here's one very interesting thing we cam across along the way. There was a huge touch screen monitor on the sidewalk of a main street. Two little girls were playing around with it - it had the map of the area with details of attractions, maps, and other information. Imagine having such a setup in India! It was never work and even if did, it would be vandalized in no time :(. The little kids were so tech savvy and yet used the screen carefully enough not to damage it in anyway. Our next stop was the famous 'LOVE Square' in Shinjuku. It was a cutesy place and we took some Patel photos there :).
Our next stop was the Mieji Jingu Shrine in another trendy district in Tokyo called Shibuya. It was located in a huge temple complex with a lovely garden, walkway to the main shrine, huge Tori gates, and huge woods in the middle of the city. The garden closed early at 4:30pm so we could not see it but the temple itself was open. It is an old temple made largely of wood with very few embellishments on the outside. On the way inside, there was a huge display of old beer kegs along the way. All Japanese temples (quite similar to some Hindu temples) have the tradition to wash your hands and feet with water before you enter the temple. The kids had a ball with the water fountains with their elegant bamboo ladles. We got very lucky inside the temple complex to view a traditional Japanese wedding going on. Although we did not see the actual ceremony, we caught the bride and groom walking after the ceremony to an adjoining garden for family photographs. The bride looked resplendent in a white kimono and there was a lady walking with her who kept adjusting her outfit and made sure she looked perfect :). We really enjoyed this non-touristy experience out of the blue.
Next stop - the very famous Shibuya crossing in Shibuya district. Right outside the main Shibuya metro station is the famous statue of the dog - Hachiko. As the story goes, this dog used to faithfully follow its owner to the metro station when he went to work, and wait for him at the station all day long till he returned. Hachiko continued to do this for more than a decade even after his owner passed away! This statue is a memorial to his loyalty and dedication, and there was a huge crowd of people who come there to pay their respects.
The Shibuya crossing itself is the Times Square of Tokyo. Very happening with huge lit-up billboards, shops, eateries, and loads of people! The crossing is an intersection of five main roads and all the traffic stops for pedestrians every so often. At that time, the whole square is jam packed with people who cross over, some just to enjoy that moment of crossing the world's busiest square :). There is a very famous Starbucks located on the first floor of a building right in the square - we grabbed a coffee there and enjoyed the aerial view of the square. We were all quite tired from the long day of sight-seeing so we just grabbed some bad pizza at an eatery there. We headed to see the Dominique Ansel bakery which is located in Shibuya itself a couple of metro stops away. The original bakery is in New York City and the chef there invented the cronut - which is a delectable mix of a donut and a croissant. I really wanted to try one and as it turns out, Tokyo was only the second place in the world, where they opened a branch of this bakery. As luck would have it though, the bakery was closed by the time we reached there. In fact, the cronut was just not to be eaten by us in this entire trip. But this part of Shibuya was very nice with branded shops just like Orchard Street in Singapore. Dead beat after a long day, we just crashed at the hotel at night!
May 21, Sunday - Hakone
Off to Hakone for a day trip today! This was our first experience to travel by the bullet train - Shinkansen and we were all very excited by it! We had to take a short ride from Tokyo to Odawara to get to Hakone. There are many different types of bullet trains in Japan - Nozomi, Mizuho, Hikari, Sakura, Kodama, and Tsubame. With the unlimited JP pass, we were not allowed on the super-fast Nozomi and Hikari lines but the others were fast enough for us anyway! The bullet trains are a wonder of the world - they are unbelievably fast - you cannot stare out of the window for more than a minute without feeling giddy. They run absolutely on time down to the last second, and are impeccably clean. At the end of each ride, their crew - two per compartment - cleans the entire train in less than 8 minutes. We actually waited one time to see this happen and it was amazing! They turn the seats for every ride so you are always facing in the forward direction as the train moves. Their staff such as the ticket collector and the servers always bow to each compartment when they enter and exit as a sign of respect. Mayur of course knew all of this before and hence was able to point it all out to us :). Otherwise the rest of us would have surely missed all these nuances! The train stations sold lovely-looking colorful bento boxes and a lot of people would eat in the long rides.
And now for the destination: Hakone is a lovely natural spot located a little outside of Tokyo and can be covered in a day trip. Here's the funny thing about Hakone - the journey is more interesting than the destination! There are a few things to see along the way but the main fun is that you travel by multiple modes of transport to complete the circuit of Hakone - train, cable car, rope-way, cruise ship, and bus! We ended up getting a bit late so we didn't really see some of the attractions such as museums and art exhibits but we took all the modes of transport. Its possible to do this circuit in one day at leisure but it will be a full day with a lot of travel. We also spent some time in a hot water bath which made us rush through the rest of it. But honestly, the hot water bath was the main attraction in our visit to Hakone. We first took a bullet train from Tokyo to Odawara. Then we took at train to Yumoto where we got off to go to a hot water bath also known as an Onsen. There is an information booth at Yumoto station where they tell you about all sorts of hot water baths. We went to one called Tenzan Tohji-kyo Onsen which was about 20 mins bus ride away from the station.
These traditional onsens are totally an experience worth enjoying! Our onsen had separate baths for men and women. We had to strip completely to get into the water!! There were some lockers where we left our clothes - we forgot to bring towels so we ended up paying some more to buy towels there. If you are planning to go to an onsen, best to carry your own towel and possibly some toiletries. They provide some in the changing rooms later on but there is no harm in having your own. There were multiple hot water baths progressing from lukewarm to very hot. They recommend that you do not spend more than thirty minutes in the hot water as it is quite dehydrating. Reema, Riya, and I totally enjoyed the women's hot water baths. We were the only foreigners in a bunch of Japanese women but they were not unfriendly. Interestingly they also had a bath with ice cold water and that was tough to get in to! After the bath, we had to change in a common rest room. They had stalls each with a little stool, a shower, a mirror and some toiletries. All the stalls were right next to each other with no walls or curtains. But it was impeccably clean and I did not feel uncomfortable at all. They also have fancy dressing rooms with hair dryers and stuff where you could do your make-up after the bath. Finally there were lovely resting rooms where you could just lie down and take some rest. They also had a traditional Japanese restaurant there but since we could not eat much there, we skipped eating a meal. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences in Japan. I wish we had more time to wait in the resting rooms but we wanted to see the rest of Hakone so we took a bus back to the Yumoto station.
We continued on the Hakone-Tozan Railway train to Gora. There were a couple of stops along the way such at the Hakone open air museum but we had run out of time so we skipped it. From Gora, we took the cable car to Sounzan. From there we took the rope-way to Tokendai - this was the best part of the scenic route. We got a lovely view of Mt. Fuji as well as the volcanic activity region with lots of sulfur sighting and smell! There is a break in the rope-way at Owakudani where there was a museum with lots of information about the area. The specialty food there was black eggs which have been boiled in the sulfur hot water; apparently if you eat one, it adds seven years to your life :). From Tokendai, we took a cruise ship on Lake Ashi to Hakone-Machi. There was another nice shrine there that we skipped due to lack of time and enthu. Finally a couple of buses and trains later, we were back at Yumoto and then Odawara, back to Tokyo. All in all Hakone was good with the highlights being the hot water baths and the rope-way. If you could just isolate these two activities, that would be a less hectic and more enjoyable day.
Once we got back to Tokyo from Hakone, Mayur suggested that we go to a vegan eatery located in Tokyo metro station T's TanTan - Keiyo Street. This was the most amazing local vegan food we had - I think this was the best meal we had in Japan! There was a long waiting time and they messed up our order in the middle too but it was totally worth it - a must visit for all vegetarians who struggle for good food in Japan :). With their ramen noodles in a variety of curries and sauces, it was whole new tasting experience for us. After dinner, we made our train reservations for Kyoto; even though we had a week-long JR pass that could be used at any time on the bullet trains, we made reservations for our journey to Kyoto so that we would get good seats in a reserved compartment for the long journey. Back to the Monterey Hanzomon!
May 22, Monday - Tokyo
We split with the Khatods today - they spent the day at Disney Sea - the other Disney theme park in Tokyo. Since reviews had said that it was more geared for older kids, we decided to skip on it. As luck would have it, there was a sumo wrestling competition going on in Tokyo while we were there. I had checked about buying tickets in advance while we were still in India, but it was quite expensive, Sumo is still very popular in Japan and tickets were sold out quite soon. However they sell a few last-day tickets for less (around Rs. 2500 per person) but you have to go early to the stadium to buy them - the ticket sales start at 8am. I really wanted to see the sumo wrestlers in action so we got up and reach the stadium at 7am only to discover that all the tickets were sold out :(. Enthusiasts had been standing in line from before 6am! Disappointed!! We saw a couple of young sumos walking around and managed to click a snap with one of them. Got back to the hotel quickly - we had left Reema alone since each person has to go in person to get the sumo tickets. Thankfully she did not wake up! We got ready leisurely and spent a lovely peaceful day in Tokyo.
Tokyo has a large collection of lovely Japanese gardens; there are special multi-day tours just to see all of them. We decided to spend some time at one such garden and see the beautiful landscaping. We went to the Kiyosumi Japanese Garden which was a medium-sized garden with lots of ponds and lovely Japanese Tea House. We enjoyed the turtles basking in the sun, the lovely landscaping, and particularly, feeding the fat koi fish. We walked around and just soaked in the atmosphere. We were very lucky to catch a photo shoot of a couple dressed in traditional Japanese clothes. The red kimono of the Japanese woman was especially beautiful and eye-catching, and she was gracious enough to pose for us. We spent about an hour in the garden and as we came out, we saw Denny's and decided to eat there. Reema enjoyed her French Toast, and Mayur order this funky-looking red bean dessert with ice-cream.
As we had only seen the Senso-ji temple from outside at night, we decided to pay another visit to see it from inside. It has some lovely ceiling paintings and we also enjoyed looking at the quaint little shops outside which were closed on the first visit. We did the same things with the bell ringing and the fortune telling as earlier. Next stop was the Dominique Ansel Bakery in Shibuya - I was determined to eat my cronut :). There was a long line at the bakery this time and sadly sadly sadly, the last cronut was sold out just as Mayur showed up at the counter :(. The lady at the counter was apologetic to the extreme just like Japanese people can be and offered us anything on the menu for free. So we enjoyed a coffee and a cookie shot which is a glass made of chocolate and filled with milk, tastes just like dunking an oreo cookie in milk and eating it. There were some other interesting-looking desserts as well but didn't really feel like eating them. Looks like the cronut will have to wait till our trip to the original bakery in NYC! After that we shopped quite a bit and bought souvenirs for family and friends at a nearby shop called the Oriental Bazaar - it was a well-organized and reasonable shop. Not the cheapest but some good variety of options for gifts. They also had some very expensive hand-crafted Japanese goods.
From Shibuya, we went back to our hotel in Hanzomon and rest for a while. Next stop was the iconic Ginza district of Tokyo. We walked around in that area for a while - it was like walking around Fifth Avenue in NYC or Orchard Street in Singapore, although I have to admit that both of those are definitely more happening. We also saw the lit-up Kabuki Theater in Ginza. We were not able to catch a show because these tickets are also sold out well in advance. Our last stop of the day was Sake Tasting at Meishu Center. This is a neat little place where you can taste a wide variety of sake for reasonable prices. Our bartender was Chris from San Luis Obispo. He suggested that we try three types of sake - one dry, one sweet, and one expensive one. All of them were reasonably good - we actually liked the dry one the best. Since we were a bit hungry and still had to get back to the hotel, we did not drink too much. But it was a good experience. Of course, we later tasted many more types of sake in grocery stores in fancy metro stations too :). Went back to the hotel and enjoyed poha, maggi, and hot water baths!
May 23, Tuesday - Mt. Koyasan
Time to leave Tokyo and see other parts of Japan! Our next stop was beautiful Mt. Koyasan which is a hill station about 7 hours away from Tokyo; ideally one should go to Koyasan after spending the night at Kyoto; its a bit far from Tokyo. The thing is that most of the places in Koyasan close early in the evening so it best to get after latest by lunch. We only got there around 4:30pm by which time everything had closed down. The next day morning, we wanted to get going so we ended up not seeing a couple of nice places in Koyasan. Also you have to change transport lines multiple times to get to Mt. Koya so best to travel light. Japan has an excellent service of transporting luggage for little money from one city to another so we just sent our big bag directly to our hotel in Kyoto and we did not have to carry it around in Koyasan - good job Mayur! A Buddhist priest called Kobo Daishi founded a monastic center on top of Mt. Koyasan and since then this place as become a holy pilgrimage site.
We took a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka via Kyoto. From Osaka station we took a local train to Namba and then yet another slow train to Gokurakubashi. From here, there is a lovely five-minute cable car ride to Mt. Koyasan - very scenic and you can catch the return cable car along the journey. The contrasting red of the cable car against the green hilly background is a treat for the eyes. From the cable car station we took a 15-min bus ride to town and reached the Buddhist temple where we were staying - Hoon In, a Buddhist temple. There are more than 100 Buddhist temples in Koyasan and about half of them offer accommodation to tourists. Lodging at one of these temples in a fabulous experience to enjoy Japanese lifestyle and food. Although a tad expensive, this was the highlight of our tour and I would whole heartedly recommend it to everyone.
There are two main areas in Koyasan - the Danjo Goran Complex with a lot of temples, and the Okunoin which houses the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. Okunoin is far away from the the center of town and only a few buses run there at limited times. Its a 4-5km walk so you cannot reach there easily. We reached so late that the temple in Okunoin had closed for the day. We could not catch it the next morning as the buses start late and we would have ended spending the whole day at Koya. So do plan better and reach early to catch these beautiful temples.
Now to Hoon-In - it is a small Buddhist temple with lodging on two floors. We stayed on the lower floor. As we were two families, they gave us two rooms with an interconnecting room for a total of three rooms - the largest space we got to stay in Japan :). The floor was covered with straw mats and we had paper walls with wooden frames for walls and doors. Large cushions were laid out for seating and we had thick futons and comforters to sleep at night. In the middle of each of the three rooms, there was a small wooden tea table with tea cups, tea pot, green tea leaves, and some matcha cakes. We promptly made the tea and had it but none of us (except Mayur) enjoyed the feeka tea or the tea-flavored cakes :(. Too used to our super-boiled masala chai! The middle room also housed a private temple with an idol of Buddha, replete with decorations, incense et al.
The bathrooms in Hoon-In were common, albeit separate for men and women. These bathrooms were just like the ones at the hot water bath onsen but smaller in size. When we booked the rooms here, we were reluctant to go with the shared bathrooms, but they were quite comfortable and impeccably clean. The WC even had sensor-based lids which opened when you went into the stall. Quite a revelation even though we had regularly seen fancy Toto WCs while working in Google. The bathrooms also had a lovely hot water bath and I enjoyed a nice bath there post dinner all by myself. Very soothing and relaxing. It also got really cold at night so the comforters were totally worth it and required!
After freshening up a little bit, we started to walk towards the Daimon Gate at one end of Koyasan which marks the entrance to the town. A majestic red gate with two guardian statues on either side. The weather was lovely and made for a lovely environment. We walked back to the temple in time for dinner at 6:30pm. Dinner was a lavish vegan affair. There was a huge assortment of food including rice, radish, tofu, sesame tofu, clear soup, sea weed, and different fruits and vegetables. Every sat in a common hall on the floor - pretty much like a Maharashtrian pangat. One of the monks who spoke English explained everything to us and served us as well. Sadly though, barring Mayur, none of us really liked the food and were fairly hungry at the end of it :(. The taste and texture of the food was very different from what vegetarians are used to. Other foreigners with us had no trouble finishing the food though. Post dinner, we had regular coffee which was very welcome :).
We finished dinner pretty late so there was still some time till the deadline when the temple gates are closed for the night. We left the kids at the temple and walked around the Danjo Goran Temple Complex. It was a lovely evening and we walked around seeing a bunch of lit-up temples and gates. One group had come in a guided tour as a part of a conference and we joined them for a bit listening to details of the different buildings. We spent a nice and peaceful time there. When we got back, apparently our kids had gotten a bit confused about our whereabouts and created a bit of a ruckus, even though we had explained everything to them. But the monks were all very understanding about it. They had given us Yukatas - a simpler homely kimono to wear in the temple so we posed in them and took some photos for memories! By then, it had gotten pretty cold so we all slept off in our warm futons and comforters. I did take a lovely bath and enjoyed a dip in the hot water bath all by myself - very soothing and relaxing.
May 24, Wednesday
This morning we had an early start as it was mandatory to attend the prayer in the temple at 7am. Mayur and I decided to go for an early walk at 5:30am. We first walked along a nice hiking path which eventually goes to Okunoin. Then we walked around in Danjo Goran Temple Complex to see it by day. We also bumped into Aditya and Kavita. We all got back around 6:30am, woke up the kids and attended the prayer ceremony on the first floor of the temple. There was a lovely temple there and the priests recited an elaborate prayer. It was very similar to a Hindu prayer ceremony. After the prayers, we ate a simple vegan breakfast again, very similar in style to the dinner the earlier evening but less elaborate. We packed up from the temple and took our bags to the bus stop. Along the way, there are a couple of grand temples which we saw. Then we took the bus back to the cable car, down to Gora, and the train back to Osaka. The Khatods spent the rest of the day seeing the aquarium in Osaka.
We took a train from Osaka to Kyoto but we got off a couple of stations earlier at Yamazaki. This houses the famous Suntory Distillery of Japan where they make their own whisky. The distillery is a short 10-15 mins walk from the train station. You can also store your bags at the train station if need be. They have a specialized tour with whisky tasting included but we were not able to make it in time for the slot that we had signed up for. So we were not able to see the process to make the whisky but we took a tour of their museum and tasted some whisky at the end. Their whisky library was quite unique and looked beautiful with bottles filled with various shades of colors of whisky along two walls and we walked right down the middle. We tasted four different types of whisky which was just about alright. We liked the Yamazaki but it was sold out at the shop counter on the first floor. The premises were maintained very well with manicured lawns and flower beds everywhere.
After Yamazaki, our next stop was a short train ride to Kyoto. It was raining a little but when we reached Kyoto. We first took a bus to our hotel which was a bit far away - 25 mins bus ride - from the central train station. It was a nice hotel although a bit crowded with three beds in our room! We left our bags there and freshened up a bit. We had signed up for a traditional tea ceremony at a local tea house but we got very delayed due to the rain and had to skip it :(. So we took a bus to the Kiyodiju-mera Temple Complex. We had an all-day bus pass in Kyoto but be careful which buses you board since some of them are not allowed on the pass and we ended up paying extra for our rides a few times. The temple complex was the largest one we saw. The temples were located at many different levels so we had to walk quite a bit up and down. There were some lovely water fountains, massive gates, huge brass bells, ponds, a cemetery, and lovely temples. We spent some leisurely time there before heading out to do some shopping. There is a long line of lovely shops outside of the temple complex and there are some really nice items there. Again not the cheapest but it was worth the time and money spent there. After that, we went to a Subway, ate a hearty meal, came to the hotel and enjoyed lovely hot water baths before crashing for the day! This hotel - M's plus - has amazing bathrooms and we really enjoyed the tub baths we all took there everyday :).
May 25, Thursday
Miyajima and Hiroshima today! This is a full-day trip from Kyoto, its not worth trying to get to it from Tokyo as you will spend a lot of time in travel. There is a lovely shrine in Miyajima - famous for its floating Tori gate - and it is lit up in the evenings. Will the entire temple of stilts that are covered with water during the high tide, it is a lovely sight! If you have some time to spare, I would suggest doing an overnight stay in Miyajima. Its a romantic place and the temple is only lit up at night. Mostly the high tide also occurs early in the morning or late in the evening so to catch the submerged temple and Tori gate, staying overnight is a must. We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima. We missed the train by 10 secs! That's how punctual the trains are - heartbreaking but then we spent 20 mins waiting for the next train and it was fun watching them all whir by :)! From Hiroshima we took another local train to Miyajima, and then the ferry to the temple. Along the ferry ride, we saw the submerged Tori gate. As the high tide had receded, the gate was not as submerged under water but still looked pretty impressive. Same for the temple. From the ferry station, the temple is a 15 mins walk along the water. There were many deer there and Reema really enjoyed petting the friendly ones. The Miyajima temple itself was very peaceful and serene. We were lucky to catch another local Japanese wedding at the temple - this time we saw quite a bit of the ceremony, the subsequent photo shoot, and the bride-and-groom take a ride in a hand-rickshaw along the market. Walking back, we saw the local market and ate some local cookies and ice-cream.
We then took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima and got onto a local bus to see the nuclear war memorials. I only have one word for Hiroshima - heart-breaking! I was very moved to see the devastating effect that the nuclear bomb had on that little city. It was heartening to see how it has build itself up again but to have gone through all that - still gives me goosebumps :(. What the little children and their parents suffered from really no fault of theirs, was heart-breaking. At the actual site where the bomb was dropped, there still stands the original dome-shaped building which was damaged but not razed to the ground. They have retained the building as it is with renovations to keep it standing as a symbol to remember what they endured.
They also have a Children's Memorial to remember the little ones who lost their lives in this terrible conflict. One little girl developed cancer a couple of years after the bomb was dropped. She spent many days at the hospital and someone told her that if she folded a thousand origami cranes, her wish would come true. She really wanted to get better and live a good life so she did indeed fold her thousand paper cranes but sadly, she did not make it. So now children from all over the world send colored paper origami cranes which are hung in this memorial. They also keep origami paper there as well as in the museum if anyone wants to fold a crane themselves.
Further up, there is a lovely walk up to the museum. They have some nice small memorials along the way - a water way, a bridge, a little fountain, an eternal fire. The museum itself was closed for renovations so we caught some of the exhibitions. There was an old clock which stopped at the exact time that the bomb was dropped - 6th August, 1945 around 8:15am. Reema noted how this was a day after her birthday. They had displays of things damaged due to the bomb, stories of people who died and suffered, parents who could not find their kids and vice-versa - heart-breaking! They also had a very nice 3D visual of the exact few minutes when the bomb was deployed and how the entire landscape of the city changed in a few minutes. We did not spend too much time at the museum as it had already been a long day. I also could not bear to see more. Reema wrote a lovely note at the museum that people should not fight and be happy. So I guess she was also affected in her own way by the disturbing visuals there. On the other side of the museum there was huge and lovely garden en route to the bus stop which took us back to the train station.
We took the bullet train back from Hiroshima to Kyoto. Reema really wanted to eat pizza so we found a nice little pizza joint in the station itself. It turned out that the Kyoto train station is HUGE! There are lovely buildings around it which host a lot of eateries! You can also see the lit-up Kyoto Tower from there and enjoy the Sky park at the very top terrace of the buildings. The station also has a huge outdoor staircase which had a phenomenal light display all evening long for some festival. They also had school kids perform song and dance routines there during the day. We spent some time enjoying the lights and music before heading back to our hotel and our daily hot tub baths :)!
May 26, Friday
Last day in Japan - so to day - more sight-seeing in Kyoto! This was a nice and relaxing day in Kyoto. Our first stop was the Golden Temple Kinkaku-ji. Unfortunately we took the bus in the wrong direction and lost an hour in the morning :(. But the temple was absolutely spectacular. This temple and the Fushimi Inari which we saw in the evening were the two most stunning temples we saw in Japan. The Kinkaku-ji was very crowded so we did not spend a lot of time there. Also you are not allowed to go inside so it was a quick round of the temple from outside. We also saw a really funny sign at the temple - still cannot figure out what exactly they meant to say :). The Khatods then took off for shopping and we went to other places in Kyoto as we were already done with shopping in Tokyo.
We then took the bus to Nijo Castle. Took a quick look from outside but looked like most other castles and temples so we decided not to go inside. Interestingly all over Japan, and more so in Kyoto, we saw these groups of Japanese school children who were visiting new cities for sight-seeing. They had all been handed small books with information about the new city and they had to travel around on their own. Some of them spoke to us on Kyoto and we exchanged some words based on the little English they knew and Google translate :). They were all very happy to meet a foreign girl like Reema and asked to take her photo to which we obliged and also took some photos with them.
We then spent some time at the Kyoto station - I did some leftover shopping. Here are some beautiful Japanese dolls that we saw there. We all tasted some sake at the fancy grocery stores in the station and bought a bottle to take back to India. Then we all headed to Daiso which is the dollar-store of Japan. Some incredibly nice things there for 100 yen which is about 50 INR. We had a good time shopping there and picked up a bunch of stuff including souvenirs and gifts. All of it was of course, made in China :)! Reema still wanted to eat the pizza from the earlier night so we went back to the same eatery and ate some more pizza for the day :).
Next and last stop in Kyoto was the spectacular Fushimi-Inari temple. We took the JR line to Inari station from Kyoto and the temple is right at the station. The Fushimi-Inari temple was definitely one of the two best temples that we saw in all of Japan, along with the Kinkaku-ji golden temple. It has a long line of tori gate after tori gate after tori gate. It is a long walk to the top of a hill and along the entire route are tori gates right next to each other. They made for such a beautiful backdrop of orange with a dash of black against the lovely green. Along the way, there were small temples, shops, prayer notes, etc. Again a lot of crowd at this temple. We did not go to the top of the hill as it was tough to climb with Reema but it was a special experience indeed. We had checked out of our hotel so we just went back to collect our bags from the hotel, met the Khatods at the Kyoto train station and took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We grabbed Subways from the station to eat on our train journey.
May 27, Saturday
Not much to write for today. We just grabbed a quick bite for breakfast at the hotel and took the fast train back to the airport. Saw cute robot for check-in at the airport. Straight flight back to Mumbai. A lovely view of Mt. Fuji from the airplane which was a bit scary as all the passengers went over to the left side of the plane to click such photos!! And Reema in her Yukata - a hurried buy at the airport which she promptly wore to Rishi's birthday party the next day in India. Arigato Gozaimasu Japan for a wonderful wonderful trip! And Sayonara till we visit again :)!
Just some random observations about Japan. It was a very different country from the ones that we have visited before. It was very modern and developed like USA and the European nations, yet at the same time, they have a lot of traditions and customs which makes it very much like India. The women still wear their traditional dress - the kimono - for special occasions just like we wear the saree in India. The kimono itself is something that needs to be draped (again like the saree), its not just a pull-on outfit. The women all dressed conservatively, even if they were wearing western clothes - skirts were long, sleeves were long, shoes were flat :). The women looked very elegant, not jazzy or cheap, even in the busiest metros. Amongst other similarities with India, in a couple of places, we even saw Indian-style toilets!
And that's where the similarity ends :). The people were very soft-spoken and helpful. Everyone adhered to the rules even in crowded places. People who wanted to stand on escalators stood to the left, and those who wanted to walk up the escalator went to the right. Not once in our entire trip did we hear people fighting or yelling at each other. The whole country is like a well-oiled machine. Its not a surprise that we did not meet any Japanese folks while we were in the US. Since their country offers them the latest of technology and yet retains their native culture with such a great sense of patriotism and identity, there is no reason for them to move abroad.
Its great how such a small country has achieved so much in about a span of 50 years. The country was devastated for all practical purposes in World War II. And yet they rose from that devastation like a phoenix from its ashes. They have the best of technology from the latest gadgets to smart phones to robots to the unbelievable bullet trains. And yet the culture persists - sumo wrestling, the Kabuki dance form, geishas, Manga comics, ikebana flower arrangements, culinary traditions, tea ceremonies, to name a few. We saw the most beautiful hand-crafted items made in Japan for sale in Japan. Hats off to the people of this country for being so creative and disciplined at the same time!
Hotels that we stayed in (my scale of 1 to 5 stars):
Tokyo - Hanozomon
Hotel Monterey Hanzomon ½
23-1 Ichiban-cho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 102-0082, Japan
The best part about this hotel was its location. The metro station was right across the street so we did not have to walk much to get to public transport, and there were two grocery stores within 50m of the hotel! The room was small but good and so was the bathroom. They had a hot water kettle in the room so we were able to eat some cuppa noodles and poha. The hot-water tub baths were also very welcome after long days of sight-seeing. In general, fancy clean bathrooms which made the stays very comfortable. They also had air purifiers in the room which we did not use. The breakfast was quite a spread but nothing we could really eat. For us, it was mainly cereal, toast, juice, croissants, and coffee. But I would pack some croissants for us to eat later in the day in case we got hungry.
Hoon-In Temple ½
283 Koya-cho, Ito-gun, Mt. Koya, Japan
Tel: None (use email)
This was the best hotel that we stayed at - it was a traditional ryokan with bamboo+paper walls, cane mats, mattresses and comforters, a traditional tea table and a personal temple for us in the room. Between the Khatods and us, they effectively gave us three rooms so it was very spacious. We had to follow some rules about noise, timings for food and prayers, restricted access timings, etc. since it was a temple but totally worth the different experience! They had vegan food which I did not enjoy much hence the 4.5 stars. They gave us yukatas to wear at night which were like casual kimonos. I whole-heartily recommend this place and the whole Koyasan experience! It was expensive but totally worth it. More in the review for the day that we spent in Koyasan.
Kyoto - Shijo-Omiya
Hotel M's Plus Shijo-Omiya
114, Nishikiomiyacho, Nakagyo-ku Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, 604-8365, Japan
M's plus was a more luxurious hotel than the Monterey in Tokyo but they gave us a room with three beds! Although that made for excellent space to sleep at night, there was no place left to keep bags or change clothes etc. This was definitely a notch above the other hotels and the bathroom was really fancy! We had tub baths every day that we stayed here. The breakfast left a lot to be desired - just some baked goodies and coffee did not really cut it. But again the bus stops were really close by and grocery shops around every corner. So we just supplemented with food from the local stores - Family Marts and 7-11s were literally everywhere.
Tokyo - Ochanomizu
The b - Ochanomizu ½
1 Chome-7-5 Kanda Awajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo, 101-0063, Japan
We just crashed here for hardly 7-8 hours. Just slept at night, ate breakfast the next morning and left for the airport. Not much to say. It was smaller than the Monterey Hanzomon and definitely a notch lower. It was an older property but close to the Metro station. It served our purpose to just stay for a few hours but I would not recommend this place for even two nights - not very comfortable. The breakfast was also very limited but didn't make much of a difference to us given that we could not eat most of things at other places anyway.