Cricket and I started our trip to Japan in September, 2004, a good eight months before we left. Originally, we had scheduled travel on an American Horticultural Society Tour. As the dollar fell, the agency kept increasing the cost. We cancelled the first organized tour we had ever booked and planned our own trip.
We had already booked a trip from Los Angeles to Osaka at that point and we had to transfer in Tokyo to Japan Airlines (JAL) because American doesn't have a direct flight to Osaka. We couldn't fly JAL directly to Osaka because we couldn't upgrade on JAL. It cost us an extra three hours but for $4,000 it was a forgivable hardship. Rule number one for overseas flights: Upgrade to Business Class. Never fly coach.
In the planning stage, we decided that the only ground transportation we would prearrange would be transportation from the Osaka Itami Airport to the Hotel. I did this by e-mail directly with the Westin Kyoto. The total cost was a reasonable $40.00 for the two of us to take a shuttle to a waiting cab on the outskirts of Kyoto. They transferred our luggage to the cab and delivered us to the door of the Westin Kyoto.
The Westin Kyoto was fabulous. For a rate of $430 per night, we stayed on the executive level and learned all about the city from Mika, our personal concierge. Spending an extra $100 per night for a first class hotel with a well trained English speaking staff is well worth it in a country like Japan where few people can speak English.
Kyoto is a beautiful city of 2.5 million people surrounded by forested hills. At the base of these are temples and shrines set among lovely historic gardens. The Westin is set at the base of one of these hills on the site of a nobleman's residence and noted garden. The garden remains intact on the hotel grounds. The Westin was well situated for our purposes, as we were mainly in Kyoto to see the Shinto and Zen gardens. It is across the street from the starting point of the Philosophers Walk, as well as one of the most beautiful gardens and temples on the east side of Kyoto, Nanzen-ji. We spent a few hours at Nanzen-ji but could have spent a full day. The previous afternoon we strolled along the Philosophers Walk which follows a tree lined canal, bordered by residences, shops and restaurants for about a mile. It ends at Ginkaku-ji, known as the Silver Temple.
Surprisingly, the temple was never finished and has no silver on it. On the way is a nice little Japanese-Italian restaurant called Terrazza. We had cappuccinos there on the walk back, but if you are tired, you can catch a cab near Ginkaku-ji. We were tired after our long walk and appreciated the wine and hors d'oeuvres being served in the Executive Level Lounge. They were included in the price of our room.
Mika arranged for us to have dinner in the Gian district. We were to be guests of the restaurant Yagenbori. This is not easy to find because in Japan, there are no addresses. So everything is by location. Follow a street turn left and then the first right etc. I will give the name and general location, but after that you are at the mercy of the taxi driver. Proceed to the Gion district. From the main street, Shijo, turn south on Hanamikoji. The restaurant is on the west side of the street about two thirds of a block from Shijo.
The next day we walked to the Heian Jingu Shrine, a relatively new shrine, built in 1895, with a beautiful garden. After visiting Heian Jingu Shrine, we took a taxi to the west side of Kyoto where we visited three shrines. Our first stop was Daitoku-ji Temple famous for its tea houses and rock gardens. Next we traveled to Ryoan-ji Temple famous for its Zen rock gardens. Next we traveled to the Golden Temple Kinkaku-ji which unlike the silver temple was actually covered in gold. Our last stop of the day was at the Kyoto Botanical Garden where we enjoyed an array of peonies and roses
We were told later that all Japanese begin life as Shinto because there are Gods for every wish (i.e. happiness, a good marriage, as successful career, etc.).Later many come to follow Buddhism because under Buddhism there is hope for attaining a state of perfect being and of future lives to work toward that goal. We walked through many gardens and discovered that the Japanese aesthetic, as discovered by Frank Lloyd Wright and the French Impressionists, is an inspiration to everyone who has the time to tour these beautiful estates. Moving about was easy. If the next garden was more than a mile away, we took one of the many cabs waiting near the shrine or temple gates. We were delighted with the clean cabs, uniformed drivers and sensible driving of taxis throughout Japan. The cabs have a driver on the right (as they travel on the wrong side of the road) and a back door on the left that magically opens to welcome you. The seats and the seat backs were covered in white cotton lace. I saw a limo go by that even had curtains in white cotton lace. No tips were expected anywhere, which resulted in no help with our luggage, except at the hotel, so pack light.
Kyoto weather was much like the East Coast and Virginia in May with a bit of humidity and usually a breeze. We missed the cherry blossoms which bloom in April. We had hoped to see the azaleas but they were mostly gone due to a hot spell. Sounds like Virginia. If we had come for the cherry blossoms, we would have arrived before the trees and bushes were leafed out. I decided that the only solution was to stay for two months and see the entire spring.
On the second evening we ate at a restaurant that is on most tours called Ganko-Nijoen. It was next to a canal and had beautiful gardens. The food was mediocre. We found that one of the beautiful aspects of Kyoto in addition to the gardens is a series of canals which crisscross the city. You'll recall that The Philosophers Walk follows a canal.
The next morning we enjoyed another Japanese American breakfast and packed to head to Nara. Nara was the ancient capital of Japan from 710 to 794, when it shifted to Kyoto.
Prior to leaving for the train station, we walked down the street for lunch to a restaurant that served okanomiyaki (economy yaki). What a treat! We were put onto this type of restaurant by my brother-in-law. In the company of a group of school children, we ate a combination of eggs, pancakes, cabbage and fish or meat, which was cooked on a flat grill in front of us. We discovered by observation that one cuts the okanomiyaki into bite sized portions (with a small spatula) while still is on the grill and delivers those portions to the plate, where one then employs his chopsticks.
We learned in our guide book that most of the bad manners in Japan are related to death or funerals. For example placing your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice is a sign of death. I assume some poor bloke left them in this position as he collapsed onto the table. Also, one never eats from a common serving plate or another's plate except at a funeral.
We took a taxi from the Westin to the train station. We found that the train station is divided into two parts. To the left was the Kintetsu train station and to the right was the Japanese Rail station (JR). Since we intended to travel to Tokyo on Saturday, we visited the right side of the station first. Most locations are marked in English as well as Japanese. We found the ticket sales office and purchased one way tickets in first class (Green) on the Shinkansin (Bullet train) to Tokyo for $350.00. That train left at 3:00 p.m. (Trains leave every hour.) We then journeyed to the Kintetsu line and bought a round trip leaving in one hour to Nara and with a return one hour before the train to Tokyo. The ticket sale at the Kintetsu window was not quite as smooth as the sale at JR. But after printing out some times on paper rather then saying them and rotating my fingers in a semi circle to show a round trip, our tickets were finally issued. They cost about forty dollars for two of us. The Japan Rail station in Nara is some distance from the park and old city where we were staying, whereas the Kintetsu line is almost within walking distance. Nara is quite hilly with several mountains (East Coast Mountains) bordering the East side of the park.
We were now nervously looking forward to our first visit to what is referred to as a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel). We had reserved our hotel through a web site and weren't quite sure what to expect. After a ten minute taxi ride to the Nara deer park, we were directed down a street full of souvenir shops and hundreds of school children with colorful caps and
backpacks. Looking forward was being replaced by just nervous.
We were directed left into a side street, where to our surprise we found Kankaso, a very Japanese B&B with wooden floors and paper Soji screens, all surrounded by gardens.
Our three days at the inn were filled with new discoveries. We had planned for all breakfasts in and two dinners with the middle evening out. This turned out to be a good decision. First our room was connected to the other structure with a wooden walk. I have attached a photo of the floor plan. There were two rooms, a porch on two sides and a bathing area. We were treated to a full Japanese dinner the first evening. I had ventured down to a grocery while Cricket rested and found the local wine store and a bottle of Veuve Clicqote Champagne. Dinner was served in the future bedroom with the champagne (we couldnt totally give up our western ways). Courses included soup with fish, sushi, rice and a variety of cooked and raw fish and vegetables. We were hardly able to rise afterwards as we were seated on the floor with cushions.
We were offered a hot bath in the family bath which was very hot indeed. When we returned to our dining room, we found it had been converted to a bedroom and we had a comfortable nights sleep. The next day we were treated to a breakfast in the central part of the house while our hostess converted our bedroom into a dining and rest area. The breakfast was almost as large and as varied as the dinner. We always wore slippers while we were in the Ryokan, except when we were on the bamboo mats in our room, where we wore stockings. Special slippers were left in the restroom. Most times we wore robes.
All of the shrines and gardens were within easy walking distance. The deer park was called that because there were 1000 small deer grazing all over the park, usually on pellets purchased by 1000 school children from vending machines.
We visited the home of the giant Buddha, which is about five stories tall. The Buddha is housed in Todaiji Temple. Our next shrine was the Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is at the east end of the park, past a walkway of some 2,900 stone lanterns. In our travels we found the remaining 100 in other locations (several were in the garden of our Ryokan). The shrine was built by the Fujiwaras who were quite powerful and owned many other properties in Japan.
Behind the train station down the hill from the park is a very modern mall. On the street just to the west and behind the mall is a department store and the grocery, Paket. In Paket one can find fine bottles of French champagne and Bordeaux, but lets see you locate the sugar substitute. In the mall are various restaurants. And between the mall and the department store is an internet cafeand a fine Italian restaurant. Next to the department store is a Tullys and in the mall about half way and upstairs is a good pasta house. There you have it! All that you need to know about downtown Nara. ara.
The next day we visited Isui-en gardens located just in back of our Ryokan. The garden was small but very picturesque. In the afternoon after more pasta we visited the photography museum. The museum is a bit of a walk but worth the trip. The museum houses the photographic works of Taikichi Irie. He was known for his many photographs of Nara which are housed in the museum. The museum building is also a work of art.
The next day was a travel day. We bid farewell to our gracious host and headed to the Kintetsu Station. We boarded the train to Kyoto looking forward to our trip on the Bullet Train.
THE BULLET TRAIN & TOKYO
We arrived back in Kyoto in time to grab a bite at the rail station restaurant and to locate our train platform which is upstairs from the general service area. We boarded our train at about 3:00 PM for our two and one half hour trip. The train arrived and left on time i.e. within five minutes. We noticed, as we sped north, that all of the land between the mountains was occupied by industry, agriculture or residents. One highlight of our trip was a full view of Mount Fuji. Unlike the photos however there was little snow on top. Upon arrival at Tokyo station we took a taxi to our hotel.
When you go to Tokyo, if you want to live in the past, go to the Presidential Palace Hotel. If you want to live in the future, go to the Park Hyatt in Ginza (Lost in Translation). But if you want to live in the lap of luxury go to
the Four Seasons at Chinzan So.
The hotel sits in a high end residential neighborhood. Its centerpiece is a 15 acre garden. All of the rooms which are very large look out onto the garden. There are a number of formal and informal restaurants which serve various styles of Japanese and continental cuisine. The lobby areas were filled with fresh flowers and wedding parties, many of which were in traditional Japanese dress. We had a relaxing continental dinner and toured the garden where we found temples, waterfalls and tea houses-oh and by the way some of those 3000 lanterns from Nara.
The next day, a Sunday, we were off to two more gardens and a closer look at Tokyo. We visited the Rikugien or Waka poetry garden. The garden was in the center of the city and was once privately held by the founder of Mitsubishi. We next walked to the Kyu-Furukawa Gardens. The walk held a lot of interest as we passed by food shops, restaurants and small stores. Occasionally there would be a side street with stalls and no traffic. The focal point of the Garden was a very English house built in the late 1800s. In front was a rose garden in full bloom with dozens of locals taking photos with their cell phones. By the way our cell phones do not work in Japan-even if you have the latest tri-band GSM technology.
Our technology tour occurred on Monday with a visit to the West Shinjuku district and Yodobashi Camera. Here were five stories of every type of camera imaginable. The other amazing stores are the phone stores which sport the latest models with radio and TV.
Since we could not see Tokyo in three days we arranged for a tour through the hotel. We thus were able to hit the highlights in a six hour period, and still have a leisurely dinner. I would recommend Sunshine Tours. The company provides bus tours and private tours ranging from fifty to five hundred dollars.
I had planned to take the train to Narita Airport, but found out the bus was easier. There were no transfers and the journey was about one and one half hours from the hotel. As usual, it was good to be back home in southern California at journeys end.