A spring itinerary covering some of the highlights of Honshu beginning in glorious Kyoto, taking in onsen towns, snow covered mountains and pretty towns before finishing up with five nights in thrilling Tokyo.
Kyoto – 3 nights
We began our long journey from Perth to Japan at 6.30am and spent the whole day on Air Asia – Perth to Kuala Lumpur, Kuala Lumpur to Osaka Kansai. We were not stopping in Osaka and had arranged limousine bus transfers for the 90 minute journey to our accommodation in Kyoto – all went very smoothly and we were glad to have had point-to-point transfers as it was a bit cold and wet and we would have struggled to find our apartment so late.
Our stay was at Guesthouse in Kyoto Sun Rich – a fabulous find close to Kyoto Station. These apartments were compact but had everything you could think of – TV in the bath, a tiny kitchen, living area and sleeping loft. The owner, Jun, was incredibly hospitable and came to chat with us when we arrived even though it was very late and our keys had been left for us.
The following day we headed towards Kyoto Station to get our bearings and validate our Japan Rail passes. The station was only a 10 minute walk from our apartment and we tried breakfast on the way – our first experience of the Japanese ‘order via vending machine’ system. Ordering from pictures, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised to receive a mixed grill and egg and chicken on rice.
Arriving at Kyoto Station, we were confronted by a huge, busy, mall-like agglomeration of transport, shopping and food – so first stop was the info centre where helpful volunteers made everything intelligible and recommended an all day bus pass to see local sights and turned out to be very easy to use.
First we took the bus to Ginkaku-ji – the Silver Pavillion. Not really silver at all but a beautiful Zen temple nonetheless, set in stunning gardens.
As with a number of temples in Kyoto, we discovered that the walk up (as they are usually uphill) to the temple is often a delightful pedestrian zone full of small shops and stall selling all sorts of treats and trinkets which makes things very festive. After our temple visit, we stepped into a traditional teahouse for whipped green tea and snacks. We also walked past a lovely honey shop offering samples of a hot drink made with yuzu flavoured honey – truly delicious and warming on a somewhat damp day.
From Ginkaku-ji it is an absolute must to take a ramble down the ‘Philosopher’s Path’ which begins at the temple and wends its way past a number of other temples and follows a canal lined with cherry blossoms. Unfortunately it was unseasonably cold, so the blossoms were not quite out - but the trees were budding and looked beautiful anyway. A very pretty walk – we were surprised to see huge carp in the very clean canal and stopped at some very pretty shops along the way, including Yojiya – the Kyoto based cosmetics shop which is great for gift shopping and also has a magnificent garden.
After wandering the Philosophers Path and making our way to Heian Shrine, we hopped on another bus and headed to the famous Nishiki Market. Very busy and lively, we spent ages searching for a vegetarian restaurant I had read about – Yaoya No Nikai, until a helpful girl in a shop actually left her shop and took us to a shop we had walked past several times – turned out it was actually upstairs in a fruit and veg shop selling $40 strawberries and $60 melons. Fortunately lunch was a little less expensive, and comprised a bunch of interesting veggie dishes.
We then hopped on another bus headed for Kiyomizudera – a huge wooden temple and one of the iconic sights of Kyoto, especially in cherry blossom season. On the way down we encountered more little shops and wandered around the old town of Higashiyama – preserved to movie-set like quality, it is a beautiful area, made even more so by girls dressed up as geiko or maiko. For special occasions friends often get together and dress up and they look great – if a bit embarrassed by the attention they get.
Back at our accommodation, we headed down the street to a local Shochu bar, joined by Jun from the apartments. Shochu is quite different to sake, its better known cousin, and our local had a range of brews which we tried along with umeshu – a delicious plum wine that I sampled more than a few times in our three weeks.
The following day we ventured a bit further afield by train to Arashiyama. We visited a lovely temple, but the highlight was a wander through a bamboo grove and a ride on the ‘Romantic’ train ride – a lovely open air ride along the river. We also visited the garden of an old black and white samurai movie star, which offered lovely views across Kyoto.
Back at Kyoto Station, we explored the Station – quite an amazing building, and enjoyed okonomiyaki at a restaurant on the top floor of the station. Okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake, involving cabbage, noodles and other unexpected ingredients into a surprisingly tasty treat.
In the afternoon, we went to the fantastic Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine – famous for its thousands of red ‘torii’ or gates and homage to foxes.
Our last stop for the day was back to Gion for icecream at the wonderful Kinana. Situated in a back street near the main Gion drag of Hanamikoji, Kinana is wildly popular and we had to wait, but it was worth it for yuzu tea and amazing parfaits of soy based icecream – impossibly creamy and absolutely delicious.
Coming out of the door – and capping off a busy day, we saw a geisha rushing past in beautiful kimono. Only a fleeting glimpse – but more exciting than seeing a unicorn.
We rose early to pick up our bento boxes and catch our train to Kinosaki Onsen. A very pretty ride through mountains, and our first glimpse of snow.
We arrived at in the small spa town around mid day and found our accommodation without much difficulty on foot. Shinonumesou is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn and we were delighted by our traditional tatami room.
We then headed out for lunch at a local restaurant and to explore the town – incredibly atmospheric and traditional with a pretty canal down the centre of the town. We took the ropeway up a nearby hill, for a great view of the town and some snow. It was noticeably colder than Kyoto and a little wet – perfect onsen weather!
Back at our accommodation, our hostess showed us how to wear yukata – a cotton kimono usually worn around the house, but ok to wear out and about when ‘onsen hopping’. There are seven onsen or hot springs in Kinosaki and we tried four or five. The nicest was the first one, which had spacious indoor and outdoor baths with a waterfall. The whole experience of onsen hopping was truly lovely – it was nice to see groups of friends and family out and about enjoying themselves, everyone dressed in yukata.
The baths themselves are extremely well organised, right down to where you put your slippers, umbrella and so on. Some of the baths are very hot and only need a quick dip and all are segregated by sex.
Having enjoyed the baths for long enough, we returned to our accommodation and on sliding back the screen to our room, were greeted with the amazing site of our crab dinner set up in the room. Being close to the sea, crab is a speciality of the town in winter, and the spread included a number of delicious crab-themed courses – a little pickled salad, chawanmushi (a savoury custard), sashimi crab, cooked crab claws, and a DIY crab and tofu hotpot to which rice was later added to make a sort of risotto from the leftover broth.
After dinner the dishes were cleared to make way for our futons so we could just relax.
After a breakfast almost as impressive as our dinner, and one last stop at our favourite onsen, we were on our way back to Kyoto, this time for a temple stay in the north-west of the city.
We arrived at Hanazono Station, close enough to walk to Shunkoin – our zen temple lodgings and part of a larger temple complex dating from the 14th century.
For the rest of the afternoon we explored the area which is home to more of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines, including Kinkaku-ji – the Golden Pavillion, and Ryoan-ji – famous for its rock garden.
Dinner was a highlight, at Raku Raku, an idiosyncratic local izakaya with fabulous food. Everyone sits at the bar and chats with the very personable chef, Akira, who almost seemed to make up the dishes as he went along to notionally look like whatever picture we pointed at – setting fire to steaks and assembling a bunch of unlikely ingredients into a salad. The results were absolutely delicious, the atmosphere was great and washed down with several glasses of homemade plum wine, it was a night we remember fondly.
The following morning we explored the beautiful temple complex, seeing monks and hearing their chanting, before joining in our meditation class which was part of our stay at the temple. Led by Reverend Taka, the class does not have any particularly religious overtones but emphasises living in the moment and using meditation to do so. Reverend Taka remarked on the fact that ‘you will never be as young again as you are in this moment’ - which for some reason I found rather poignant, if a little ominous!
After our class, we took a rather long series of train rides to Yudanaka – the gateway to a number of onsen towns including our next stop – Shibu Onsen.
Our ryokan at Shibu Onsen, Senshinkan Matsuya, was one of the nicest of our travels. Our lovely host picked us up from the station and we enjoyed using the hot spring at the inn. Dinner was delicious – amazing presentation of delicate dishes including an especially pretty cherry blossom cake for dessert.
The following morning, after an equally exquisite breakfast, our hosts dropped us to the entrance of what we had come to Shibu Onsen for – the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Luckily it was a perfect day – lots of snow, but sunny. It was quite slippery and a rather chilly 1.8km walk but we finally reached the park and were not disappointed – there were heaps of monkeys. Some were in the hot springs, others playing, fighting and feeding. It was a delight to see baby monkeys leaping around and we managed to get some excellent photos.
Our kind hosts had dropped our bags to the station, so all we needed to do was catch the bus from the park back to the station, and we were on our way again.
Our hotel in Kanazawa was a change of pace from the traditional Japanese inns, and sleeping on the floor. Hotel Dormy Inn is a 2 minute walk from Kanazawa Station – a very useful hub of train station, bus station and shopping centre all basically co-located.
Essentially a ‘business hotel’ Dormy Inns offer great value, if non-descript and compact rooms, with lots of great additional extras – a lovely public bath or ‘sento’ on the top floor, free laundry and a terrific (included) breakfast which everyone seemed to be enjoying whilst wearing the hotel-supplied jammies.
The hotel’s location meant the following day we could get an early start with our all day bus passes, and headed to Kanazawa Castle – a rather austere edifice in sprawling grounds, and Kenrokuen – the nearby and famous garden. It is a lovely garden and beautiful to see the plum blossoms still in bloom, but seeing it in the transition of seasons, the garden may not have been at its best when we visited.
Close to the garden and castle we visited the somewhat wacky 21st Century Art Museum. Mostly modern art installations, the centre piece and gallery highlight is Swimming Pool by Leandro Erlich, which is great fun and makes for interesting photos.
Then on the bus again – this time to the old samurai district. We didn’t see any samurai, but did have a peek into one of the houses which is open to the public along with about 500 other tourists.
More successful was our next stop – Higashi Chaya. Traditionally a geisha and tea house district, this area is well preserved and atmospheric. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of local specialty, Jibuni or duck stew in one of the delightful houses and took a tour of a former geisha house where we finished with tea and sweets. We also found an icecream shop – Chayu – which offers interesting local flavours ‘icecream-sandwich’ style between charcoal pancakes.
Back at the hotel, I decided to hit the shopping centre over the road which turned out to be quite a successful expedition for clothes and trinkets.
For dinner we hit a popular izakaya, Sen which had great cocktails and food.
After checking out of our Kanazawa hotel, we headed out into the rain for our bus to Shirakawago.
The town is only an hour and a half by bus from Kanazawa, and we were thinking there wouldn’t be any snow as there wasn’t in Kanazawa. Wrong. There was heaps of snow and it was falling when we arrived.
Shirakawago is famous for the wonderful Gassho-Zukeri or thatched farmhouses that exclusively make up this extraordinarily pretty town. We stayed in one called ‘Koemon’, which thankfully supplied us with gumboots for yomping about in the snow.
The point of the town is just to wander around really – there is an open air museum which we visited, but largely looks like the rest of the town. We also hiked up to the look out point – it was really snowing when we went up, but got some great photos.
Dinner at our Gassho house was rustic and delicious – including local specialties of the region – very tasty Hida beef and hoba miso, which is miso cooked on a magnolia leaf.
After dinner we braved the cold to visit the town onsen, which was quite beautiful and certainly helped to warm us up for what was a very chilly evening.
We awoke to the same snowy landscape and again took a wander around after our breakfast to soak up our last couple of hours in Shirakawago before our bus on to Takayama.
It was very chilly, though not snowing, in Takayama when we arrived and we had a reasonable walk to reach our ryokan from the bus station.
Our ryokan, Oyado Yoshinoya, was located just outside the historic Sanmachi district of the city and some great souvenir shopping and hot snacks were to be found in the local area. My favourite was a little shop selling steamed buns – very much like dim sum buns – but filled with delightful fillings such as the local Hida beef.
The following day, with ‘Nohi Bus’ value passes in hand (purchased at Takayama Station), we headed out on a bus trip to the ‘Shin-Hotaka ropeway’ – a cable car in the Japan Alps. After the cosy ride up, the -8 degrees celcius on the mountain was rather brisk. We managed a few photos and a wander in the ‘tunnels’ created by the sizeable snowfalls before coming down again.
The bus also stopped at Hirayu Onsen, where we enjoyed yet more hotsprings, and probably the most beautiful of our travels with both huge indoor and outdoor hotsprings at the one we visited. After a dip we enjoyed a local snack – mitarashi dango and shiso juice which tasted like a cross between cranberry and raspberry.
Another half day journey by train from Takayama took us to the small town of Magome, in Nagano prefecture, for our planned hike along the ‘Nakasendo Way’. This was part of the old postal route between Tokyo and Kyoto and is a 7.8km hike between the two pretty towns of Magome and Tsumago.
Magome is quite an unusual town – the main street is super steep and hauling our bags up to our ryokan was a bit of a task in the rain, but we finally found Tajimaya Ryokan without difficulty.
We considered tackling the walk that afternoon before dinner, but the weather was so unpleasant we only made it to the edge of the town before turning back to have lunch instead at a little café.
We later found out why the weather was so bad – a typhoon which had affected many parts of Japan. We thought perhaps we would be stuck in Magome and unable to do the walk the following day. But there were compensations – a delicious dinner at the ryokan, followed by a local ‘Kiso Valley’ song and dance lesson from our host, whose family had owned the ryokan for over 100 years. We even tried the local cloudy sake – not to everyone’s taste!
We woke the following morning to find the rainy and blustery conditions replaced with lightly falling snow.
We decided to give the walk a go and rugged up. The first 2km of the walk was uphill mostly and slow going as it was quite slippery. It was extremely pretty though – we walked through woodlands covered in snow, small villages and no-one was on the trail so early as us so very peaceful. Slightly disconcerting though were signs and bells along the way to ‘Ring for Bears’!
About halfway along there was a rest stop with a fire and we chatted with the friendly caretaker for a while before carrying on. The rest of the walk was downhill to Tsumago, snow-free and well signposted.
Tsumago itself is a very pretty town and well worth a look around – we didn’t have much time as we had a train to catch – it would have been better if we had stayed in the area for another night.
Our trains to Tokyo passed the glorious sight of Mount Fuji before arriving at Tokyo Station. We successfully navigated our way to Aoyama, where we were lucky to be staying with a friend, who also introduced us to some amazing restaurants during our stay.
The first of these restaurants was Jige, near the Tsukiji fish market. Being so close to the fish market, it was no surprise that Jige’s specialty is tuna – we tried it sashimi style and slow cooked tuna cheek – unusual and delicious.
On our first day in Tokyo, we started in Asakusa – an old and touristy part of Tokyo with Senso-Ji - a busy temple surrounded by many little shops and food stalls. Within walking distance of the temple is Kappabashi-dori kitchenware district – a wholesale area for chefs to pick up supplies. We got a locally made knife and some lovely and reasonably priced ceramics before heading back to the temple area and the river for a boat ride to Odaiba.
We found Odaiba to be an odd place – a man-made island with all sorts of wacky architecture and shopping malls with unusual themes – we went to a Boardwalk and an Italian themed one.
We took the monorail back to Ginza for a look around shops and hunted for ‘yakitori under the train tracks’ – a bunch of tiny restaurants literally under the train tracks near the district.
The following day we started close to where we were staying – at the Aoyama cemetery. Though it might seem odd and morbid, the cemetery offers lovely quiet viewing of cherry blossoms when in season, and it was absolutely splendid and peaceful when we visited. We were able to walk through to Roppongi Hills along a beautiful blossom lined street.
At Roppongi Hills we enjoyed the viewing deck and Mori Gallery – a very interesting modern art gallery where Korean modern artist Lee Bul was exhibiting.
Staying at Roppongi Hills for lunch, we chose Atelier de Joel Robuchon – lovely food and service, and we sat at the counter watching the open kitchen at work. Lunch was so good we got some lush takeaway pastries and headed to Shinjuku.
After a quick look around the bonkers Tokyu Hands store in Shinjuku, we found the entrance to Shinjuku Gyoen – an amazing, blossom filled garden and one of the most famous and popular gardens for viewing blossoms. Along with what seemed like everyone else in Tokyo, we enjoyed our Robuchon pastry picnic under perfect cherry blossoms and felt our camera was somewhat humbled by the thousands of flasher models clicking away.
Following our blossom viewing, we headed to Shibuya – home of the famous Shibuya crossing of Hachiko Square and one of the centres of Tokyo’s youth culture. It made us feel rather old so we popped back to Omotesando – a top shopping area – for some good quality Japanese gifts at Oriental Bazaar.
We turned in early that evening – because the next morning we were up crazily early to try to make the line for the tuna auctions at Tsukiji fish market. With the famous market soon to move to a new location, we were keen to make the 120 person quota for the day and booked a taxi for 4.15am. Unfortunately our driver dropped us at the wrong entrance and we had to run to line up – we were almost the last to make the quota for the day and many others were turned away that morning. O the heartbreak.
We had to wait another hour or so in the cold before being shown through to the auctions. It was quite amazing to see – hundreds of giant frozen tuna and guys wandering around to inspect them. When the auction is ready to go, a bell rings and the auctioneers get going. All have their own energetic style and it sounds a bit like a song with all the auctioneers going at once. All the lots sell in a hurry – so the bidders have to be on their game.
After the auction we joined another line – this time for sushi breakfast at the market and a wander around the market, which has some very interesting goods on display.
The rest of the day we enjoyed a couple of cherry blossom parties with friends – including one in Yoyogi Park. Cherry blossom viewing parties in Yoyogi Park have quite a different feel to the more serious viewing in Shinjuku Gyoen. As alchohol is allowed in Yoyogi Park, the parties are not so much about the blossoms, but seemingly getting dressed up in the wildest possible getup and picnicking with your mates.
The people watching was truly spectacular and every square inch of park was covered in tarpaulins of the revelers.
The following day was our last full day in Japan – so we started out with a crepe for breakfast on Takeshita Dori – the main drag for the Harajuku scene. With some help from some 12 year olds, we also managed to work the photo booths which are so beloved of Japanese schoolgirls, and got some cute little stickers with our ‘glamour’ shots as a nice souvenir.
Then to Meiji Shrine – very close to Takeshita Dori, but the contrast could not have been more vivid. Awaiting us at the end of a wooded pathway was a beautiful, austere shrine with two traditional weddings taking place – such a treat to see them.
We then headed to Midtown – a high end shopping centre with one of the craziest sights of our travels – a doggy day spa that had to be seen to be believed.
More importantly, Midtown was also the spot for a teppanyaki lunch overlooking the cherry blossoms in the park below. Our lovely friend had chosen Teppanyaki Steak Kisentei restaurant as our goodbye lunch spot. Teppanyaki can be notoriously expensive – so if you are keen but on a budget – go for lunch, when the set menus are much cheaper.
AbsoluteIy the best steak of our lives, and the rest of the food – salad, veg and amazing garlic rice, was absolutely perfect as well. The perfect final lunch of our travels in Japan.