A month-long journey through Japan, by land and by sea

By Robert Ono
This article appears on page 6 of the December 2019 issue.

Hasedera Buddhist Temple in Kamakura.

A visit to Japan had been on my travel bucket list for a long time, and being retired allowed my wife, Betty, and me to spend a month there during cherry blossom season in March 2019.

Our itinerary would include two weeks of independent travel, one 9-day land-based organized tour and an 8-day cruise on Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess ($5,400 for two). The cruise provided a mid-trip break from packing and unpacking and a chance to easily expand the geographical areas we could visit.

While we enjoy independent travel, we realized the benefit of participating in an organized tour in Japan. Super Value Tours (El Monte, CA; 877/388-1777, supervaluetours.com), the operator for our ”Japan Classics” tour ($7,000 for two), had an excellent itinerary, hosted many of the meals in terrific restaurants and managed hotel stays and transportation seamlessly. Our guide, Miki Takanaka, added to the trip by providing interesting and relevant details about the places we visited and was always looking for ways to be helpful.

It would be a challenge to share descriptions of all the activities, hotels, meals and tours of temples, castles and gardens that were part of our month in Japan. Instead, I will focus on destinations that we found special and share lessons we learned that might benefit those planning to visit Japan.

Getting there

Visitors in rented traditional dress — Iyashi no Sato Open Air Museum.

Our nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Japan was through Narita International Airport. Our first task after landing was to pick up a pocket Wi-Fi device from the Narita terminal post office.

Before leaving on this trip, we had rented a portable Wi-Fi router over the internet from Japan Wireless (japan-wireless.com). As our US cell phones would not work in Japan, a portable Wi-Fi router ($5 per day) allowed us to use multiple mobile devices to connect to internet services, supporting map navigation, email, Skype calls and web browsing throughout Japan. The rental package included a small backup battery and an envelope with prepaid postage for return of the router at the end of our travels.

Stopping at one of several ATM locations in the airport, we withdrew yen to purchase tickets for an airport limousine (www.limousinebus.co.jp), actually a bus — a convenient way to travel to many Tokyo hotels (about $28 per person).

You could take the train, but it could require at least one transfer and a walk from the station to your hotel. Taxi service is very expensive, and the 40-mile trip from Narita to a central-city hotel would easily cost over $150. (Haneda Airport is closer, a little over 10 miles from central Tokyo, but it has fewer international flights.)

Much to see and do in Tokyo

One of our first stops in Tokyo was the popular Tsukiji Fish Market. Established in 1935 with an inner market for wholesale activity and an outer market for consumers, only the retail-oriented market remains, the inner market having moved to Toyosu Market in 2018.

We wandered through the many narrow walkways, browsing opportunities to purchase fish, meat, produce, fruit and cooking supplies. We tasted samples of tamagoyaki (rolled flavored scrambled egg), roasted adzuki beans and dashi (fish-based broth). Here and at other outdoor locations, street vendors were often selling grilled chicken (yakitori), fried balls of batter with octopus (takoyaki), grilled corn (yaki tomorokoshi), grilled fish (shioyaki) and crab on a stick.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the Tokyo National Museum (entry, $6 per person), taking the subway to the Ueno Metro station. The National Museum, established in 1872, contains one of the largest collections of Japanese art and archaeological artifacts, housed in six separate buildings.

With a planned visit of a half day, we spent our time in the Japanese Gallery in the Honkan building, which had two floors and 24 exhibition rooms containing national treasures of sculpture, armor and weapons, paintings, lacquerware, calligraphy, textiles and ceramics. English-language audio guides focused on a few artifacts in each room and were helpful for interpretation as we walked through.

Tokyo also has many beautiful gardens and parks, and a highlight of our visit was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden ($2 per person). In the Edo period, this 143-acre park was the residence of the feudal lord, becoming a botanical garden for the imperial family, and in 1949 it was opened to the public. The park has 20,000 trees, including about 1,500 cherry trees, many of which were blooming during our visit. The garden is easily reached from the central-city area via the Shinjuku-gyoemmae subway station.

One of the unique land-tour stops, not too far from Tokyo, was the Itchigo Kubota Art Museum in Yamanashi (about $13 per person). The museum contains displays of elaborately decorated kimonos created with labor-intensive attention to detail. If you appreciate extremely fine textile work, this museum is a must-stop destination.

We didn’t spend much time shopping in Tokyo, but we enjoyed a visit to the food hall, or depachika, in the basement of the Mitsukoshi Ginza department store. This area is a food haven for prepared meals, meats, salads, pastries and desserts. There were so many food items, it was difficult for us to choose what to buy. It was strawberry season, so I celebrated by consuming several depachika-purchased strawberry-shortcake desserts over our four weeks of travel.

While in Tokyo, we stayed at the Imperial Hotel ($300-$500 per night), our stay arranged for us by our tour operator. This historic hotel is beautifully furnished, and its Viking Sal serves a breakfast buffet with an extraordinary range of delicious Western and Asian foods.

Staying a month in Japan permitted us to become familiar with both Western-style and ryokan-style hotels. The traditional Japanese ryokans have tatami-mat rooms with futon floor mats, and many provide their guests with access to a common bathing area (onsen), often fed by natural hot springs.

At 6 feet tall and just reaching the age of 65, I found getting up and down from sleeping on the futon floor mat a bit of work, especially in the dark.

Bullet train to Kyoto

Springtime at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.

Taking the shinkansen, or bullet train, from Tokyo to Kyoto, we experienced our first high-speed rail trip. Moving at speeds up to 186 mph, it took our tour group a little over two hours to reach Kyoto.

From the rail station, our tour bus took us to the Miho Museum (entry, about $11 per person). Designed by I.M. Pei to integrate and blend into the nearby hills and forest, the museum houses a number of Asian, Egyptian, Roman and Grecian antiquities. About 250 items are on display at any given time. The location is somewhat remote, but for the independent traveler, it can be reached by bus from the Ishiyama rail station.

Kyoto is sometimes referred to as the “land of 1,000 temples,” and one of the most famous is Kiyomizu-dera. This very popular site is crowded during the day, so we timed our visit for 6:30 a.m. and were rewarded with a somewhat peaceful and solitary visit. Walking up the hill, we passed the Otowa Waterfall, with three streams from which visitors can drink representing love, longevity and wisdom. (Visitors were advised to drink only from one stream to avoid being selfish.)

Later in the day, we walked through the historic Higashiyama District, known as a location for geisha houses and kabuki theaters.

In Kyoto, we stayed at the 5-star Kyoto Hotel Okura ($150-$175 per night), with large, nicely furnished rooms. From the hotel, it was easy to walk to the historic sections of Kyoto or access the subway and train system.

Moving on to Osaka

There were many sites in and around Osaka that were highlights for us, including Osaka Castle, Nara Park, the Shinsaibashi-Suji Shopping Street, Hozenji Yokocho area restaurants and the Dotonbori entertainment and nightlife area.

The exterior of Osaka Castle is beautiful, especially when the cherry trees at the castle’s base are in bloom, and there is a platform on the top floor that provides a sweeping view of Osaka Castle Park, Nishinomaru Garden and the city.

A “must see” in the Osaka area is Todai-ji Temple, also known as the Great Eastern Temple ($6 per person). This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located next to Nara Park, and its main hall holds one of the world’s largest bronze Buddha statues, almost 50 feet in height.

As you walk around Todai-ji Temple and Nara Park, you’ll see many sika deer. These deer are protected, as they are considered sacred messengers of the Shinto gods.

Later in the day, our tour bus dropped us off for three hours of exploration on the very busy Shinsaibashi-Suji Shopping Street, along the Dotonbori Canal. Within this area are the cozy historic stone alleys of Hozenji Yokocho, where you can find the tiny Hozenji Temple as well as many small restaurants and shops. If you have time, enter Hozenji Temple and splash water on the moss-covered statue of the deity Fudo Myoo for good luck.

We enjoyed an Osaka-style okonomiyaki dinner with a glass of Asahi beer at Houzenji Sanpei (1 Chome-7-10 Dotonbori), a small, 20-person restaurant specializing in this savory pancake.

Kanazawa

Shinkansen (bullet trains) at Shin-Osaka Station.

My paternal grandparents lived in the Kanazawa area before they immigrated to the United States. This raised my curiosity, so Betty and I planned to spend a few days exploring the region.

If you seek a peaceful and tranquil temple to visit, Eiheiji Temple should be on your itinerary ($5 per person). There are 70 intricately carved wooden buildings and structures, most of which are connected to each other via covered stairways, walkways and halls.

After removing your shoes, you can enter many of the rooms in this Zen temple. The wooden structures, colorful trees and shrubs and outdoor sculptures create a calming environment.

To reach Eiheji from Kanazawa, it’s easiest to take the train from Kanazawa to Fukui and a bus from Fukui to the temple.

If you’re in Kanazawa, a visit to the 28-acre Kenrokuen Garden, next to Kanazawa Castle, is a wonderful way to spend an hour or two ($2 per person). We strolled along the walking paths enjoying the flowering cherry trees, ponds, streams, teahouses, flowers, lanterns and hillside views.

Our final outing from Kanazawa was a tour of the historic village of Shirakawa-go, a World Heritage Site, about two hours by bus from the Kanazawa rail station ($36 per person, round trip).

The village is best known for its many traditional thatch-roofed gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old. Many of the farmhouses are now being used as lodgings, restaurants and souvenir shops, as tourism has replaced some of the previous agricultural work, though there are still a few working silkworm farms.

There are no fees to enter Shirakawa-go village, but the individual museums and farmhouses may charge for entry (generally $3 per person).

A day in Himeji

Before you travel to Japan, it’s a good idea to check if there are volunteer guides available in the towns you’ll visit. (You can find a link on JNTO’s website [www.japan.travel].) We arranged for a volunteer guide from Himeji Goodwill Guide Kashinoki-kai to accompany us to Himeji Castle and Engyoji Temple. The cost for the guide was nominal (about $8), covering the guide’s transportation costs to reach our meeting location. We also paid for the transportation costs incurred during our day tour and for the guide’s bento box lunch.

We met our guide at the Himeji rail station and walked to Himeji Castle (entry, $10 per person). Also known as the White Heron Castle, this World Heritage Site is known for its large size and quality of preservation.

The 17th-century castle covers over 260 acres, with 82 buildings and a 150-foot-tall main keep. Visitors can tour each of the six floors of the main keep, reached via narrow, steep, wooden ladder-like steps. As an added challenge, the interior castle tour is done after removing your shoes.

From the castle, we took a city bus to the 10th-century Engyo-ji Temple, located at the top of 1,200-foot-high Mt. Shosha. While you can walk up Mt. Shosha to the temple, we opted to take the tram ride up to this Buddhist monastery ($14 per person for a combination tram-and-temple ticket).

Each year, pilgrims make their way to the Engyo-ji Temple, as it is one of the 33 temples on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage, the oldest established pilgrimage in Japan. Highlights for us were the Mani-den Prayer Hall, the wooden main temple set among a lush forest and the Mitsu-no-do building, which may have once served as a dormitory and dining area for monks in training. This latter building complex was used in a scene from the movie “The Last Samurai.”

Hiroshima

Breakfast at the Viking Sal, inside the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo.

During our visit to Hiroshima, we met with my wife’s relatives for a couple of day tours, lunches and dinner. Our first outing was to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, reached via a tram from the Hiroshima rail station ($4 round trip). The iconic building frame and remnants are all that is left of the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was close to the epicenter of where the atom bomb was dropped.

If you have an opportunity to visit the park, be sure to take time to enter the Peace Memorial Museum ($2 per person), which provides historical information on Hiroshima, the development of the nuclear bomb, its devastating effect on the city and population and the resulting human suffering. The details are graphic and powerful, serving as a reminder of the importance of peace.

Our second outing was to the island of Miyajima, about an hour by car from the central city area. The Itsukushima Shrine ($3 per person), another World Heritage Site, is located on this island, widely recognizable by the iconic red-orange torii gate that sits in seawater during high tide. Our visit was well timed, as in June 2019 the torii gate was to be covered with scaffolding for renovation.

Miyajima is well known for making tasty momiji cakes in the shape of small maple leaves. The cakes with adzuki bean paste filling are sought out by most customers, but I found the maple-flavored cakes to be equally delicious. The momiji cakes are even more tasty when you can eat one warm from a shop.

As a departure from our previous tours, we decided to take a tour of the Mazda Museum and manufacturing plant in Hiroshima, reserving free tickets in advance online (www.mazda.com/en/about/museum/reservations). The 90-minute English tour was particularly worthwhile and would be of interest to automobile enthusiasts or those interested in seeing how the automobile industry was developed in Japan. (Note: The museum will be closed January-March 2020 for construction.)

During our visit to Hiroshima, we stayed at the Sheraton Grand Hiroshima Hotel (phone +81 82 262 7111; marriott.com), conveniently located next to the rail station. Being close to the rail station also meant that there were many restaurants within walking distance. Our room ($300 per night) was almost 400 square feet and well furnished.

We took advantage of a half-off discount at the hotel’s Japanese restaurant, Miyabe-Tei, and were rewarded with a terrific kaiseki-ryori dinner. (The regular price is ¥9,000, or $83, for seven kaiseki dishes and 90 minutes of all you can drink.)

Cruising in Japan

Several cruise lines are now focusing on Japan travel, and Princess Cruises (phone 800/774-6237, princess.com) has devoted the Diamond Princess, a 2,670-passenger ship, to this market. The ship includes Japanese menu items in its restaurants; a Japanese specialty restaurant for sushi and kaiseki-type meals; announcements and excursions in both Japanese and English; an onsen-style bathing area, and automated washlet toilet seats in the cabins and public area bathrooms. We also noticed a large number of bilingual staff members on board.

Cruising in Japan offers a convenient method to see different ports and avoid the need to arrange daily transit, meals and hotel details. The disadvantage is that you have only one day in each port, often limited to about eight hours. This time limit makes it difficult for an in-depth exploration of any particular area.

The quality of the ship excursions can also vary widely. For example, the guide for our ship-sponsored Nagoya excursion wasn’t prepared, as she needed to read attraction descriptions from printed material. I’m not sure we would take another cruise in Japan. Instead, we favor land tours or independent travel to allow extended time in each location.

We thoroughly enjoyed our month in Japan. We were drawn to the temples, castles, historic areas and food, and the courtesy, helpfulness and service-oriented attitude of the Japanese people were unlike that of any other destination we’ve visited. In addition, the trains and rail stations were immaculate, and we didn’t see litter in the streets nor any graffiti.

This trip left me with plans to arrange another visit, this time to the islands of Hokkaido and Kyushu. I anticipate there is much to see and experience on the other islands, as well as regional foods to try.

Hints for first-time visitors

Before your trip to Japan, check to see if a JR Rail Pass (jrailpass.com) will cover all or part of your transportation needs. The JR Pass provides a significant ticket discount compared to the cost of over-the-counter train-ticket purchases. A JR exchange voucher must be purchased from your home country before you arrive in Japan, then, when you’re ready to use your railpass, you exchange the voucher for a railpass at a JR Pass Exchange Office (typically, at an airport or main train station).

Make sure when you arrive in Japan that your passport has a Japan entry stamp from Immigration, as the JR Pass Exchange Office must see the stamp to issue your JR Pass paperwork.

If time permits, ship your large suitcase(s) from your current hotel to your next hotel and pack a small carry-on bag. Some trains are packed with travelers and/or luggage, so lugging a large suitcase into a train cabin can be cumbersome at best.

Generally, we found that if our bag was shipped from a hotel by 10 a.m., it would arrive at the next hotel the following day by 4 p.m. The hotels we stayed at were very helpful in arranging luggage shipment to our next hotel, which cost about $15-$20 per piece, depending on luggage size and weight.

It’s considered impolite to talk on your cell phone while you’re in a restaurant or riding public transportation. Some trains have special booths for cell use.

You might get hungry during a long train ride, so it’s a good idea to pick up a lunch box at the train station. Most stations in Japan sell ekiben lunch boxes ($5-$10), with seemingly endless choices, so it can be difficult to select just one. They all look delicious! You can also find vending machines that sell beverages, including beer, at most rail stations and retail areas.

Pedestrians at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. (About 2,500 people cross the intersection at a time.)

Carry a small plastic bag for personal trash, as there are few public garbage cans. It can be some distance before you find a trash can in a public location.

You can often find ATMs that accept international bank cards at Japan Post Bank office locations and at 7-Eleven stores.

Carry a small hand towel with you during the day. Most public bathrooms are very clean but do not have paper towel dispensers. At best, you might find a hand dryer.

When visiting a home in Japan, be sure to remove your shoes when entering the residence. The host may provide slippers for you to wear in the house; it is bad manners to wear these slippers outside. You may also find a set of special slippers just to use while you’re in the toilet area.

Taxi etiquette is a little different in Japan. The taxi driver will push a button to automatically open and close the rear passenger door for you. The doors are not to be touched unless you are prompted by the driver. Seat belt use in Japan is required.

Tipping your taxi driver and/or other service staff is unnecessary.