TOKYO – DAY 16 – FINAL DAY!

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Can’t believe this 16 day trip is coming to an end! I was flying out around 5 p.m. so we only had a few hours before we had to head to the airport. After checking out and stowing our luggage at the hotel, we were headed to our first destination, Tsukiji Fish Market.  Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the world’s largest fish markets and is well known for its tuna auction. My friend who attended the auction said it was a good experience to try once but we decided to skip as we just did not have the time for it and plus we did not want to get up so early in the morning! You have to be there around 4 a.m. in the morning and sit in a waiting area for an hour before you are let in to see the auction. As tourists, you are only allowed to be at the auction for approximately 30 minutes.  The market was originally scheduled to move to a new location in Toyosu in November 2016 but it is now estimated to be delayed until winter of 2017/2018.

The Tsukuji Fish Market is only a 5 minute walk from the Tsukiji Shijo Station and took us only 20 minutes to get there from Shinjuku. The market occupies only about 2 blocks but is comprised of multiple rows of vendor stalls and restaurants. Other than fish, you can also find other seafood and local produce. As we were strolling, we tried some of the seafood such as scallops that were freshly cooked which were very big and juicy. We also bought some dried scallops and kelp to take home.

We picked a restaurant and sat down for breakfast. There are many different restaurants to choose from but we picked the one that had pictures of the seafood that we wanted to try. The restaurant was very big with 2 floors and a large sushi bar. It was definitely the priciest breakfast we had on the trip but it was well worth it! We ordered clam miso soup, two assorted sushi sets, deep fried prawns and some scallops nigiri sushi. I honestly felt like the seafood here was probably the best I’ve had by far! The seafood was so fresh and sweet even without any seasoning. The blue fin tuna really does melt in your mouth! Although it is fatter compared to regular tuna, you do not find it too filling.

After having a very satisfied meal, we went on to our next destination, the Ameyoko Shopping Street. There are actually two adjacent shopping streets in this area so be sure to check out both. There are a good variety of shops here but compared to the Takeshita Dori, I found this one to be less crowded and less to see. We really did not have the quota to buy anything more so we only spent about 30 minutes here before we headed to the Tokyo Sky Tree.

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We were really running behind on time so we decided not to go up the Tokyo Sky Tree. We took some pictures of it from far away and just spent some time checking out the stores in the area. From there, we headed back to our hotel to pick up our luggage.

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We had some difficulty getting a taxi so we ended up missing our scheduled Skyliner ride! We had booked a set time for it in case the Skyliner was full if we had purchased it the day of. However, looking back now, that really seemed like a bad idea as the train was really not as busy as we had anticipated and it really limits the flexibility of your schedule! Not to mention, we had to pay for the ticket again and we lost our reserved seats! We only had to pay a portion of the ticket (not the ticket reservation portion but the general ticket) but that was still approximately $30 CAD per person! We got on the next one and luckily made it to the airport on time for my flight. The ride took approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes but it was a very smooth and comfortable ride.

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From there, it was a 10 hour long flight back to Vancouver. To make matters worse, there was a huge delay with my flight as they had found an issue with the air conditioning. We were trapped on the plane for almost 2 hours! A horrible ending to the trip but at least we made it home safely!

Reflecting back on the trip now 9 months later, it was a really busy and jam-packed itinerary! However, it was really a lot of fun and filled with memorable experiences! I spent a significant amount of time planning this trip because of the long duration, the commute between multiple cities and language barrier.  Many of the websites were not in English or in poorly written English and some information was just not available (i.e. operating hours of some smaller temples). Despite all the planning, there have been times where it was very frustrating such as the time where we spent so long commuting to a place only to find out that it was closed or when we got lost and we found ourselves just circling aimlessly. Communication was challenging at times and as a result led to some unnecessary spending! However, if you talk to anyone who has been to Japan, they have likely gone through the same thing. It is part of the experience of traveling in Japan and although it was dreadful at that moment, looking back, it isn’t such a big deal after all! Japan is a country with such a unique and rich culture. Each city has its special attributes which makes it very different from the next, such as its food or people. I love the serenity, simplicity and friendliness of the small towns we visited but I also enjoyed the bustling, modern and fast pace of the metropolitan cities. Japan is a country that you will fall in love with and want to visit again and again. I really look forward to my next trip here but that would likely have to wait another year or two as it is also an expensive place to visit!

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TOKYO – DAY 15

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My last full day in Tokyo! Today we started at the Imperial Palace which is now the current home of the Royal Family. The Palace and the East garden occupy a large area of land. I think we must have gotten off on the wrong exit from the train because it took us forever to get to the Nijubashi Bridge, the most famous bridge in Tokyo as it is the main bridge to the Imperial Palace.  It was about a 15 minute walk from the train station to the closest garden entrance. From the entrance, we made a few loops inside the garden but were unable to find a way out from another entrance. Therefore, we circled back to the entrance that we came in and walked the outer perimeter to get to the bridge. From the garden, it was a good 30 minute walk.

The closest you can get to the bridge and the entrance of the Palace is still pretty far away. Therefore, after taking a few pictures, we were off for our next attraction, Marunouchi. Marunouchi is a business district with many western style buildings which resemble the Lombard Street in London and is located close to the Imperial Palace. I guess coming from North America, the buildings look very similar to the buildings that we would see in our business districts so we did not really find much to see here. After taking a stroll through the area, we headed off to Ginza.

This is my second time coming to Ginza and it looks just the same as I have remembered it when I came 6 years ago. The district is made up of a few blocks of brand name boutiques and shopping malls. The three of us are not really into brand names but we did come upon few stores that we really enjoyed visiting. The first one is Itoya which is a nine-story stationary store with 100 years of history. If you are a crafts person, you could easily spend a day here. I find the style similar to Muji but a little pricier. My second recommendation is the Ginza Tanagokoro store which is the world’s first Binchotan (charcoal) shop. They sell various products such as soaps and shampoos that are made with charcoal. The store is located on the second floor and is not very big. Their prices are not cheap but I bought a bottle of conditioner to try. I have now finished that bottle but frankly, I could not tell if there are any significant differences with my hair. Nonetheless, I had a great experience in that store as the ladies there were very nice and they also gave us two candles as samples along with my purchase and the candles are not cheap!  Lastly, I recommend checking out the Sanrio store which occupies 3 floors in a building. It is a flagship store and has the largest collection of products in the world. I am not a huge Sanrio fan but even I was tempted to buy something here as some of the merchandises are so cute and ones I have not seen elsewhere.

Last time we were in Ginza, we had crab at this fancy restaurant which costs us $100 USD per person. We were craving for crab this time as well so we found a crab restaurant close by and decided to splurge on our lunch. The restaurant offered a few different lunch sets to choose from and the prices were relatively decent for fresh crabs at a fine dining restaurant (around $30-$50 CAD per person).  My lunch set came with a bowl of kani don (crab meat on rice), crab miso soup and dessert. My aunt ordered a fancier set which came with grilled crab legs, crab motoyaki, crab miso soup, crab salad and dessert.  The crabs were very sweet and fresh. Service at the restaurant was also top notch. An expensive lunch indeed but well worth it.

We had a tight schedule today as we also had to squeeze in Sensoji Temple since we ran out of time yesterday. Before we went inside the temple, we strolled along the Nakamise Dori which is the souvenir street that leads right to the temple. There are lots to see here! One of the most popular souvenirs here is the ningyo-yaki (molded Japanese cakes). The traditional filling is red bean but now they also have other flavours to choose from. We bought some freshly made ones to try and they were so tender and sweet! After spending about 30 minutes here, we finally headed to the temple. Sensoji is Tokyo’s oldest temple and is famous for the giant red paper lanterns hung at the Kaminarimon (thunder and lightning) gates. We spent about 30 minutes taking pictures and checking out the temple which was sufficient given this is our second time here. There is also a small shopping area on the side street from the temple so we went there to take a look as well. Not much to see here but we did have some time to kill.

From Asakusa, we took the train to Akihabara, our final destination for the day. I had expected Akihabara to be a very colourful, animated and lively district based on all the research that I have done online.  However, it was quite tame in my opinion. I am not sure if we just did not venture to the area where all the maid cafes are located or maybe because it was quieter on a week night? We checked out most of the appliances stores in “Denki Gai” (Electric Town) such as Labi, Radio Kaikan, Ishimaru, and Sofmap. It was like a department store just for electronics! They had everything here ranging from rice cookers to massage chairs to hair curlers. There were so many interesting skincare appliances that I wanted to buy but I was afraid I would not know how to use them and some were too big to bring home. However, I did purchase some headphones and a thermos from here which were decent priced. In the area, we did stumble upon a few of the arcades and maid cafes but there were less than I had expected!

It was getting late and shops were starting to close so we quickly grabbed dinner at an udon restaurant in Yodobashi Camera after we finished shopping there. Yodobashi Camera has 9 floors which include 7 floors of electronic merchandise, a floor for restaurants (Gourmet Court on the 8th floor) and a driving range on the 9th floor!  If you are an electronic fanatic, you could probably easily spend a day in Akihabara. As for us tourists who just wants to do some browsing, I think 3 hours is sufficient.  Most stores close at 9 or 10 p.m. even on week nights so you can take your time here!

TOKYO – DAY 14

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Today we are headed to a nearby city, Odaiba. We first transited to the Asakusa Station to take the Tokyo Water Bus. There are 10 sailings per day and it costs 740 JPY per person. Unfortunately, we missed our sailing as we had difficulty locating the docking station so we had to wait 35 min for the next one. We went into the Matsuya Asakusa, a large department store, to do some shopping. I love Japanese department stores because they have a whole floor that is just dedicated to food! We bought some shrimp crackers and peach jelly here that were so good. Too bad we didn’t have time to go back and get some more!

We boarded the boat and it was a nice 35 minute scenic ride before we arrived at Hama Rikyu Garden, a public park located in central Tokyo alongside Tokyo Bay. We only had about an hour before our next sailing so we were not able to explore the entire park. However, walking at a swift pace, we were able to make a quick loop back to the dock. The park is serene and full of trees. I think this park would be much nicer during spring when flowers are in full bloom or during autumn when the leaves change colour. Since we went in the summer, there was not too much to see. The admission is 300 JPY.

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From there we took the water bus to Hinode Pier which costs 210 JPY per person and took only 5 minutes.  We walked to Shiodome Station from the Pier to take the Yurikamome elevated train to Daiba Station. The train tickets cost 320 JPY.  Three trains came by and they were completely packed on a Wednesday afternoon! In the end, we decided we were going to push to get on anyways so we each ended up getting on on a different cart.  The ride took 13 minutes but it was very bumpy. I felt like I was on a roller coaster as the train passes through a bridge and operates on a very windy track.

We finally arrived at Aquacity and Decks, a large shopping mall near the Daiba Station. There is a replica of the Statute of Liberty here and this is a great spot to snap a picture of the infamous Rainbow Bridge.

This was by far one of my favourite malls in Japan! The mall has multiple floors with shops and restaurants. We could have easily spent half a day here! It was time for lunch so we headed to the 5th floor and picked a place called Tsukiji Restaurant Gen-Chan which is famous for serving fish freshly imported from the Tsukiji Market. I ordered a grilled fish and my aunt ordered a fish tempura lunch set. My uncle ordered a chirashi don. All three meals were decent priced and proportions were very big. There are lots of brand names in this mall but some stores that I think are worthy of checking out are: Disney, Coca Cola, Daiso (occupies 2 stores!) and Shimamura. Shimamura is equivalent to Winners or Marshalls in North America. My aunt and I found some pretty good deals here like tank tops for 500 JPY!

We spent about 2 hours here and then we walked over to the next mall, Palette Town. This is a shopping mall with VenusFort (18th century European theme), Mega Web (car museum), an indoor amusement park, a concert hall and one of the world’s largest ferris wheel.  There were lots to see at this mall as well but the shops were more local brands. There were 3 stores here that caught my attention: a Totoro merchandise store, a pet-friendly café and this store which sells anime/manga merchandise.   We spent another 2 hours in this mall but once again, it was a mall where you could probably spend half a day.

We had originally planned to go to the Miraikan (Science Museum) but since it was closing soon, we decided not to go. There were mixed reviews about this museum and most people went there just to check out the robot which we figured we could skip.

We then walked to our next destination, Diver City Tokyo Plaza. This shopping mall was home to the only full-size Gundam statute in the world. There was also a Gundam café and museum inside the mall. However, I just read online that the Gundam statute was taken down on Mar 5 of this year. Also the museum was closed on Apr 5! I am not a Gundam fan but I am so glad I got a chance to check it out before they took it down! We quickly grabbed dinner in the food court and went on our way to do some shopping before the mall closes.  There is a decent selection of vendors in the food court. I tried the soba place which was quite popular but also took quite a long time as they make your order fresh. We spent about 2 hours here as well but one could easily spend close to 4 I would say.

As everything was pretty much closed after 9 p.m., we took the train and headed back to our hotel. It was a quick 30 minute ride from Shinjuku. Odaiba is definitely a shopping heaven! I highly recommend spending a full day here so you can shop until you drop!

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TOKYO – DAY 13

HOTEL

We stayed at the Citadines Shinjuku Tokyo. Given the location and how nice our room was, the price was a steal at $165 per night! Our room had two queen size beds with a divider in the middle, a decent size bathroom and a full kitchen! It was about 5-10 minute walk to the closest subway station.

TRANSPORTATION

We purchased the Tokyo Subway Ticket for 4 days along with the Skyliner Ticket (for our trip to the airport). The instructions on the website are so confusing! It turns out that you can only pick up the tickets at the two designated train stations closest to the airport. Therefore, we had to pay and go all the way to that train station to pick up our passes. Therefore, I don’t really know if it’s as good as a deal if you’re coming to Tokyo using transportation other than a plane…That pass provides unlimited use of the Toei and Tokyo Metro subway lines. You can choose between 1 day (800 JPY), 2 days (1,200 JPY) or 3 days (1,500 JPY). For the JR lines, we just used our ICOCA cards.

Tokyo has probably one of the world’s most complicated train systems because there may be more than 60 exits at some of the larger train stations (i.e. Shinjuku or Shibuya). What I find the most confusing about Japan’s train system is that the signs sometime trail off. Your destination is not for another 1500m let’s say, the sign will lead you a further 1,000 m and then it ends there. Therefore, it’s up to you to figure out that remaining 500m which sometimes could have you circling back and forth the station.  Google map isn’t the most user friendly in Japan as well. Unlike North America, where they will say “Turn left on _____ Street”, the instructions would be “Take the stairs and cross the street”. For that to work, you would need to make sure you are actually on the right flight of stairs! Not to mention, it always takes forever for Google Map to detect your actual location and you have to position yourself in several directions before you are heading in the right one.  Fortunate for us, we had already gotten used to the train system from the last 12 days but that doesn’t mean we still didn’t get lost in Tokyo…

 

ITINERARY

Just when we thought we were all “shrined” out in Kyoto, we decided to see two more in Tokyo! The first one we visited was Meiji Shrine which is the most famous Shinto shrine in Tokyo. It was dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken whom was known for opening up Japan to the West.

The actual Shrine is quite far away from the entrance. You have to walk through 15 minutes on a serene trail before you get there. The shrine is quite large in size with quite a decent space dedicated for getting a scribe and making wishes. We spent about 45 minutes at this attraction but you probably need about 1.5 hours if you really wanted to check the whole place out.

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After being in touch with our spiritual side, it was time to do some shopping! We headed over to Takeshita Dori which was quite busy on a Tuesday afternoon. There are boutiques lined up on both sides of the street. We did quite a bit of damage here as the clothes were very trendy and also very decent priced! From there, we walked over to Omotesando which is also a shopping district but has more high-end shops. We enjoyed the stroll here but we did not make any purchases. As we were in the area, I grabbed lunch with two of my coworkers from our Japan office. It was nice to finally meet them in person as previously we had only been communicating through e-mail or Skype. They took me to a decent Japanese lunch place nearby in a shopping mall where we grabbed a quick lunch.

After saying goodbye, we went off to the heart of Shibuya district where we walked through the infamous Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in Japan. It took us a while to find it as I could not locate the actual address of this crossing online nor on Google Map. We walked around to check out the stores and went inside Shibuya 101. There are many floors in this shopping mall so you could easily spend a good 3-4 hours here. We were on a tight schedule so only spent 2 hours here. This mall is a shopping heaven if you are looking for trendy clothes and accessories at reasonable price.

From Shibuya, we took the train to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building located in Shinjiku. You’re probably thinking…what is so special about this government building? Well, based on my research online, this is one of the best places to see Tokyo from up top for free! On a good sunny day, you can actually see Mount Fuji from here! Unfortunately, we came on a cloudy day so no luck in seeing Mount Fuji. However, we were able to see the sunset from there so it was still good. There were many people there when we went, probably also to catch a glimpse of the sunset. There is also a restaurant here and a souvenir shop. We spent about an hour here before we went for dinner.

As we were leaving the Shinjuku JR station, we came upon the Mr. Waffle Lumine store. I am a huge fan of waffles and they had some interesting flavours (i.e. earl grey, cheese, double sugar), so we decided to grab one to try. It was not bad and pretty decent priced (around 200 JPY) but I think the Belgian waffles I’ve had in Vancouver were just as good, if not better.

We stumbled upon a mall called Palette with 10 floors right beside the station and decided to look for a restaurant there. After doing some browsing at the Uniqlo downstairs, we took the elevator up to the 10th floor and had dinner at Tsukino Shizuku. It was a mid-range restaurant so it was a little on the pricy side but we were very hungry at this point so we decided to splurge. They are known for their home made dried bean curd so we ordered a savoury and dessert dish which had this ingredient in it. Both were delicious. We also enjoyed the deep fried shrimp which came on skewers. I recall the shrimps being very big and fresh.  We had our own little room which had a window view looking down upon the busy streets of Shinjuku. I also liked their automated ordering system. Although it was in English, it was a little difficult to figure out how to topple between the different screens.

By the time we finished dinner around 10 p.m., most shops in the area were already closed. After a long day, we decided to pamper ourselves even more and we ended up taking a taxi back to the hotel. Although we were already in the Shinjuku area and it was so late in the evening, it still took us about 15 minutes to get back to the hotel!

TAKAYAMA – DAY 12

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After a good night’s rest, we went downstairs for breakfast. When you check in, they ask you for your preferred breakfast shift and also if you want a Western or Japanese breakfast. We chose the later shift which I believe starts at 9 a.m. Each room gets their own table in the dining area where you are seated on tatami mats. The hotel staff brought out our dishes shortly after we were seated. The Western breakfast was not as good as the Japanese one but we decided to get both so we could compare. It was interesting to see that they even serve habo miso for breakfast! The food was delicious and very filling.

After a hearty breakfast, we checked out and went about with our day. We had some time to kill before our driver came to get us so we went to the Miyagawa Morning Market to check it out since it was just across the bridge. Before we reached the market, we saw a small stall on the bridge where an elder granny was selling dango (rice dumpling). We bought a skewer to try and it was chewy and warm. We also saw a stand which sells aburi hida beef sushi so we bought two to try. The owner was very nice and even posed for our pictures! The Morning Market covers about 3-4 blocks and it is where local farmers bring their produce to sell. At the Morning Market, there are also some souvenir stores adjacent to the produce/craft stalls.  We bought some shrimp crackers and egg roll to try. These were all freshly made that day!  We spent about an hour here and headed back to the hotel to meet our driver.

Our driver took us to the Takayama Showa Kan which is a museum showcasing old collection of toys and appliances from the early decades. The admission fee is 500 JPY per person.  There were not too many visitors at the museum which is really nice as the venue is not very big. We were able to take our time to take pictures and play with all the props. My favourite was the classroom collections and we even role played being teachers and students! :p Their souvenir shop sold classic toy items such as bouncy balls, Velcro darts, etc. which was very neat. We spent about an hour here.

Our next attraction was the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition. There is also a temple next door that is worth checking out for a few minutes. I recall there was an altar there where you get good luck if you can stick your chewing gum to the ceiling. It sounded like a disgusting idea so we didn’t try…

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The admission fee is quite pricy at 820 JPY per person and there isn’t a lot to see at this museum. However, I definitely recommend coming here as a trip to Takayama is not complete without checking out their famous festival floats.  When you enter, there is a short video in English that describes the float festival and the different floats. There are about a dozen floats which were built from the donations collection from corporate businesses. These floats are very expensive to make.  There is a rotation of the floats displayed in the hall while some are kept inside their storehouses. There is also this exhibition in the building next door which features some models of Japanese temples and buildings from different cities in the country. In total, we spent about 1.5 hours at this attraction.

Finally it’s lunch time! We headed over to Masago Soba which is famous for serving Takayma ramen. They only have one thing on their menu so the only choice you get to make is between two sizes! Masago Soba means Chinese noodles served in a stall and was a term used in the early Showa days. What makes Takayama ramen unique is its cooking method where the soya sauce and soup are boiled together in one pot. Also, the noodle used is thin and crimp served in little water. The soup base is made from chicken stock, bonito flakes and vegetables with thick soya sauce.

After we picked up the luggage from the hotel, we still had a little bit of time to kill so we headed back to Sanmachi Suji to grab one last hida beef skewer…yes! They were that addictive! Our driver then dropped us off at the train station where we were next headed to Tokyo, our final stop. Our driver was super courteous and gave us a 90 degrees bow for a good five minutes. The Japanese are so professional!

And so we began our four hour bullet train ride to Tokyo! It was our final chance to try the train station bento box so I splurged and got one with salmon roe and sashimi on rice. It was absolutely delicious and fresh!

After we arrived around 7 p.m., we began to make our way to our hotel. As usual, we got lost getting to our hotel so we were pretty exhausted and hungry by the time we checked in. The luggage that we couriered from Osaka at our first stop had arrived safely at this hotel! We quickly settled down and went out looking for dinner! We were heading to the Tokyo Tower for pictures that night so we were trying to find a restaurant nearby. Unfortunately, there were not too many to choose from so in the end, we picked this fast-food franchise restaurant. We placed our order on a machine and waited for them to call for our meal. I don’t know if we were just hungry or if the restaurant was really good but our dinners tasted really delicious! I had the hamburger meal which came with a beef patty, a bowl of rice, miso soup and some potato salad. It was simple but fulfilling!

After dinner, we walked over to the foot of the Tokyo Tower to snap some pictures. .  I did some research to see whether it was better to go up the Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Sky Tree. It seems that most people online recommended the Sky Tree instead as it is taller and newer. Therefore, we just decided to make a quick stop here. A trip to Tokyo is not complete without a photo of this famous landmark though! At 10:30 p.m. we finally got back to our hotel. It was a long day so falling asleep was definitely not a challenge!

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TAKAYAMA – DAY 11

When you are dying to go on vacation again, you know it’s time to revisit your prior trips and reminisce about the good old days…Let’s see where I left off on my Japan trip last year…

TRANSPORTATION

Train

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After we departed from Kyoto, we headed off to our next destination, Takayama. It was a total transit time of 200 minutes with 2 train transfers from Kyoto. I was not too impressed with the bento box options at Kyoto so I just grabbed two onigiri (rice balls) for lunch on the train.

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This time we were taking a smaller train (LTD express) and not the bullet train for once. I recall that this leg of our journey was probably the most stressful one of all. The reason is because there is only ONE train going to Takayama each day so if we missed this one, we are screwed! Plus, there was only 5 minutes between our two train transfers so we had to mad dash for the second one at the train station. With the limited instructions we were able to get from the off-shift train conductor, we were able to figure out exactly where in the station we needed to go for our next train. As soon as the train door opens, we grabbed our suitcases and ran for it! Fortunately for us, one of the carts on that train was undone and that caused a delay in the departure. Probably had that not happened, we might have missed it! Thank God!

We were so exhausted from all the running that we all took a quick nap on the train. As we got closer, I woke up and witnessed the transition from an urban city backdrop to one of rural Japan outside the train. There were many green fields and flowing rivers which felt very relaxing and serene.

Taxi

At the train station, we were greeted by our taxi driver for the next two days. As the transportation options were limited and sparse in Takayama (a bus every 30 min), we decided to book a taxi which was more expensive but significantly reduced our traveling time. Since we only had two days in this city, we did not have a lot of time to spare.

Our taxi fare for the two days came out to be 9,450 JPY which is actually still pretty decent for 3 people with 3 pieces of big luggage. I made our reservation online and then subsequently corresponded with the company via e-mail. I sent my itinerary and they provided me with a quote of the cost. They also confirmed the itinerary shortly before we arrived which was very professional. They also have some recommended itineraries that you could follow which are less costly and if you were too lazy to plan. It was really nice that you can cancel just three days before your arrival date and no payment is due until your tour is finished. They also accept credit card payments which is super convenient when you were running out of yen like we were! If there are any restaurants you want to make reservations for, they can also do it for you for free!  Our driver was super nice and helped us take pictures, hold our bags (and shoes in the museums!) and load/unload our luggage.  The only minor complaint I have is that they claim that their drivers can speak English but I would argue that our driver could not even handle basic conversation exchanges. However, they do make it up with a big smile and lots of body language!

You can click on this link to find out more! http://www.joyful-taxi.com/english/

HOTEL (http://hidatakayama-yamanoiori.jp/)

After we were picked up by our taxi, we were dropped off at our hotel to check in. We had booked a ryokan for our stay and we were greeted by such a warm welcome with a sign with our name at the entrance!

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The check-in process was very quick and we were taken up to our room. The ryokan we stayed at was called Hida Takayama Yamanoiori. We paid 7,450 JPY per person which included breakfast the next morning. There are different prices for rooms depending on the amenities available. We wanted to book one with a toilet and a bathtub but unfortunately they were sold out as it is a small ryokan. We ended up showering when we went for the hot spring in the evening but we at least had our own private bathroom. Therefore, I highly recommend booking early! Also take note that they do not have elevators but you could ask the staff to help you bring the luggage to your room.

 

ITINERARY

After we checked in, we went off to our first attraction for lunch, Sanmachi Suiji. This street is probably the busiest street in town as it is where all the good food and souvenir shops are. The street is around 5-6 blocks long but there are lots to see. For lunch, we ended up just buying food and eating it on the go. We first tried their hida beef steamed buns which I find tasted a lot similar to the bbq pork steamed buns in dim sum. They were pretty pricy at 600 JPY each!

The best was definitely the hida beef skewers and sushi! They charge by skewer or by piece so you could really spend a fortune if you are trying to get full from eating these.  There are only three to four stands that sell Hida Beef so the line ups can get quite long. I like how they served the sushi on a shrimp cracker so it is less messy to eat. Depending on which part of the beef you ordered, the prices are different.

After filing our tummies and doing some shopping, we went off to the next attraction which is the Hida Minzoka Mura Folk Village.  This village is a showcase of 30 farmhouses that they had built in the Hida region during the Edo period. I know that there is another nearby Folk Village which is much nicer, but given the limited time that we had, we decided to go check out this one instead.  Admission is 700 JPY per person. There were not a lot of people when we went that day. At the entrance, you get to take a souvenir picture with some props and Sarubobo doll, the mascot of Takayama. It was not free but the picture was so nice we decided to buy it anyways. Our taxi driver came with us and took us to the homes that were more unique and worth checking out. In the end, we were able to check out a majority of the different homes in the 3 hours that we spent there. There are some special activities that you can participate in the homes (ie. Straw knitting and painting) which I found quite neat. There are some descriptions in English found throughout the homes with the artifacts. There is a souvenir shop but not much to buy here.

Our final stop before dinner was the Takayama Jinya. This is a former government house of Takayama which has now been transformed into a museum. The admission is 480 JPY per person and there are scheduled English tours during the day. We went an hour just before closing so we missed the last tour. We spent about an hour here walking around the house and reading about its history. It was a decent attraction but could be skipped if you are short on time.

I had made dinner reservations at Bandai Kado after reading all the good reviews online about its grilled Hida beef and hoba miso. There was only one other table there when we sat down for dinner at 6:30 p.m. Given that most people recommended reservations, I was surprised to see that the restaurant was so quiet. However, I quickly realized that July is not Takayama’s peak season. Most tourists come in Spring or Autumn for their float festivals. We ordered a hida beef sukiyaki, a grilled hida beef and a hida beef with hoba miso to share. The ingredients were very simple and fresh but tasted delicious. The hida beef, unlike wagyu or kobe beef, is more gamy but I find that it has a stronger beef taste. The hoba miso was interesting to try but I personally found it a little too salty. The proportions were decent size by Japanese standards but each of our dishes was about 8,000 to 9,000 JPY.

After our taxi driver dropped us at the hotel, we decided to do some exploring as we were still early. Just like Miyajima, Takayma is a small town so most of the shops were already closed by 8 p.m. After we made a stop at the convenience store to pick up some drinks, we wandered the streets and did some window shopping. The streets were quiet but you would run into the occasional people who also happen to be tourists. We quickly found ourselves back at Sanmachi Suiji where we were this morning. We checked out a few more shops that were still opened and bought some souvenirs. Takayama is also famous for their persimmons, Sarubobo dolls and sake breweries so we picked up a few of these items.  After we exhausted the last store that was opened, we headed back to our hotel to enjoy the hot spring.

Men and women had their each hot spring. This hot spring was much smaller than the one we went to in Miyajima and it was slightly more awkward as there were two other ladies there. Nonetheless, it was relaxing to soak in some hot water after a long day of traveling and walking around. We definitely had a good night sleep that night.

 

Kyoto – Day 10

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Our last day in Kyoto was a busy one! After breakfast, we took the JR line to Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, one of the most famous attractions in Kyoto. The shrine resides at the base of the Inari mountain and is known for its thousand torii gates. The gates are donated by individuals or companies and range from 400,000 JPY to 1,000,000 JPY each. The name of the donor is engraved onto each torii gate.

As we had gone on a Saturday morning, the shrine was quite busy. The rain obviously did not deter people from visiting. We were on a tight schedule that day. Since we were running late in the morning, we only went through half the trail and stopped at the main temple. Frankly, there was no much incentive to climb up to the top of the mountain as there will not be much of a view on a rainy cloudy day. Furthermore, the torii gate backdrop was looking very similar from one section to another, so we left after taking some pictures.

Like other shrines or temples in Japan, you can purchase the good luck charm here for different wishes (i.e. safety, health and love). You can also get your scroll reading as well. I did that for fun and the prediction was eerily true for our trip! I’ll explain more about this in my write-up for Tokyo…

An interesting fact I learn on the tour was that devoted Shintoist/Buddhists will visit each temple/shrine and get their stamp book stamped by the shrine staff. A small donation is expected each time, around 300 JPY. If they visit every single shrine/temple in Kyoto, that will cost a fortune! However, it is believed that if you do so, you will be able to go to heaven. Also, photos of shrine staff and the main temple area are prohibited.

Next stop was the Nishiki Fish Market. This fish market is the second most popular in Japan after the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. This fish market is easier to navigate through as it is in one straight row and it is covered. It is also less crowded and has more variety of items to choose from. Most of the items found here were seafood but you could also buy pickled vegetables, rice, oden and many more.

There are very few restaurants in this market and they are located mostly in the center of the market. They were also relatively more pricey probably because of its scarcity. Also, another thing I found surprising was that many of the food sold here are raw. In my mind, I was thinking it would be more like the night market where they have cooked items where you could buy and eat while strolling through the market.

We decided to have a light lunch here before we headed to our cooking class. The udon was not bad but a little pricey at 1,500 JPY.

We were running late for our cooking class so we decided to grab a taxi. It was very difficult to find a taxi at the Fish Market; we had to walk quite a while before we located one. Luckily, we got one in time for our Izakaya class at 2:00 p.m. I found this vendor, Cooking Sun, via Tripadvisor. Make sure you sign up early because these classes fill up fast as class size is small! Registration is very easy as you can do it all online.

The cooking class went from 2:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. and cost 7,500 JPY per person. It is on the pricey side but the experience was well worth it! The cooking class is held in a 100 year old home with a very large kitchen. We were each given a Japanese cooking apron and all the ingredients we needed. There was a printed copy of the recipe that we could take home. Our instructors spoke relatively fluent English and was very patient in teaching us how to cook.

There were 7 of us that day (two other couples from Australia and US) and we learned how to make gyozas, miso soup, rice with corn, pickled cucumbers, miso eggplants, a cold beef dish and green tea sorbet. It was really a lot of fun and I learned a great deal about Japanese culinary as well. The cooking class was a nice break from sightseeing and being out in the sun. Food also tastes better because you cooked it yourself!

Feeling satisfied from a good meal, we walked over to the Taiko Center for our 1 hour drumming class. I also found out about this activity on Tripadvisor and registered online. It costs 5,000 JPY per person in a class setting but there were no classes offered when we were in Kyoto so we signed up for a private lesson which costs 7,500 JPY per person. Yes, this is another overpriced tourist activity but heck, it was a lot of fun!

Our instructor’s English was very limited but was compensated by her bright smile. In that hour, you learn to play one song but you do it over and over again. It was actually quite a work out as you had to run around and alternate between the drums. My arms were so sore the next day…And my hair was a mess after that 1 hour as well :p

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We were told by our tour guide on the Gion tour that there are no closing time for the Bamboo Groves as it was just a public pathway. Therefore, we decided to go to Arashiyama to check it out. It took us 45 minutes transit to get there only to find out that it was closed!!! I was pretty flustered at this point since there was absolutely nothing else to do there. All the restaurants and nearby shops were closed.Feeling disappointed, we snapped some pictures at the train station and headed home…However, I must say, the train station was one of the nicest I’ve seen!

It was also our first time sitting on the Keifuku Randen tram line. The tram travels on the road rather then underground but it was still going pretty fast. You pay the fare when you get off and the train stations are usually in the middle of busy interactions. We took the tram back and decided to try the famous Tenkaippin franchise which originated from Kyoto. There are many locations so we googled for the closest location and headed there.

Many people were raving about this ramen chain so I had very high expectations for this place. When we got to the restaurant, I was surprised at how old school it looked! There were only a few items on the menu and the employees barely spoke a word of English.

However, when we tried the ramen, it blew my mind. Never did I have ramen with such rich soup base. The ramen completely absorbed the essence of the soup and you could taste it in each bite. The cha-shu was just so so but was well compensated by the soup base. We did not have opportunities to try it again before we left Japan but it was definitely my 2nd favourite dish on my 15 day journey!