Honeymoon in Japan: Shirakawa-go

After Kanazawa, we decided to stop in Shirakawa-go on the way to Takayama. We didn’t know much about the town, but Eric had been captivated when researching about the amazing traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Initially, we had wanted to spend more time here and even stay in one of the farmhouses, but ultimately decided our best bet was just a day stop on the way through.

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We took a bus from Kanazawa toward Takayama. (If you are looking to do this yourself, book in advance because the seats fill up quickly. We did it in person as the first thing after arriving in Kanazawa). We stopped about an hour and a half into the ride at Ogimachi, which is the largest village in the Shirakawa-go region.

Our first course of action was to rent a locker – they were huge and we had no problem fitting both of our big bags in just one locker. We also, immediately bought our on-going bus ticket to Takayama. This was good because we saw later that the buses could easily sell out!

Ogimachi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the large amount of these unique farmhouses, some of which are up to 250 years old. Their triangular design helps them withstand harsh winters. They are quite large, often with multiple stories which allow the residents to both live and work within.

Our first stop was the open air museum. Many of the farmhouses from the surrounding region have been moved to this location in an effort to preserve them. As we wandered around, we were able to read about the construction of the houses and their various uses. We enjoyed being able to enter and explore the multiple floors in several of them. The first floors often looked like many of the traditional Japanese homes that we had already seen with bamboo mats, decorative screens, and open fire pits. As we climbed up the stories, the areas became more open and full of different kinds of tools used in farming. In the museum, we also saw some clothing and other artifacts that had been worn by and used by the original farmers.

After enjoying the picturesque open air museum, complete with gardens, colorful flowers, and rock strewn bridges, we decided to stop for lunch.

We ate at a traditional soba restaurant right near the museum. We both got the set meal which included Hida beef (a regional specialty) over rice and cold soba noodles with a soft-boiled egg. 

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Afterwards, we wandered through the main village. Here, most of the farmhouses double as shops, restaurants, or even places to stay. There were several others we could have paid to enter, but instead we just enjoyed the glorious day. The sky was a clear blue and the fields were a brilliant green.

We took the hike up to the Shiroyama Viewpoint which gave us a lovely panorama over the whole valley. After basking in the view for awhile, we headed back down the mountain.

By this point, we were quite hot and tired, so we stopped to get a Green Tea flavored ice cream and to rest and cool off in the shade.

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Overall, it was a lovely day and we thought it was well worth the stop. We were lucky that we headed back to the bus depot 25 minutes early though. Others were already lining up for the bus. We joined them and the bus came, loaded, and left 15 minutes before the scheduled time!

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Honeymoon in Japan: Kanazawa

Our next stop on our honeymoon through Japan was slightly off the “basic” tourist itinerary: the city of Kanazawa on the western coast. During the Edo period, Kanazawa was the home of the very powerful Maeda clan, and it was not very damaged during the war, so many attractions similar to those in Kyoto can be found.

What We Did

We allocated two nights and just one day for sightseeing, which was enough to see the highlights.

Kenrokeun Garden

Kanazawa’s most famous attraction is Kenrouken, a large landscape garden constructed by the Maeda clan and located in the old castle district.

We headed to the garden first to make sure to see it. As we were walking through the remains of the castle, we went by an information booth and were approached by an older Japanese gentleman who offered us a free tour of the garden. He explained that he was a part of a volunteer group of retirees who led these tours. He took us on a quick circuit of the garden, pointing out the top features, which include the Kojitoro Lantern (the symbol of the gardens, the Meiji Monument, the Midori Waterfall, and a fountain that is powered by gravity. We really enjoyed our tour and wanted to give our guide a tip, but he walked away before we had a chance!

We then took another lap around the garden by ourselves, pausing to take more pictures. We also bought a shaved ice (with green tea syrup) to cool off, as it was hot and humid. The garden was beautiful, but like many of the gardens we visited on our trip, the middle of summer is a little bit of a boring time to visit because you miss the spring blooms and fall colors. Still, it was a peaceful, relaxing place.

Higashi Chaya District

Like Kyoto, Kanazawa has a historic district that was once the designated area for teahouses (chaya) where geisha would entertain guests. The narrow streets with traditional wooden houses on either side evoke the feeling of the bygone era.

We paid to tour the inside of Ochaya Shima, a preserved teahouse from the 18th century. The upstairs had three different guest rooms, each with a waiting room where the geisha would perform. Downstairs was a kitchen, proprietress room, and dressing room.

There were also many stores selling gold leaf products, something that Kanazawa is known for. We resisted the temptation to buy gold leaf ice cream!

Where We Ate

Hachiban Ramen (Ramen 8)

Our first night in town we had a little trouble finding a place near our hotel for dinner, so we decided to head back to the train station, given that we had already had good luck finding tasty, cheap meals at other stations. Not surprisingly, we were once again successful. We each got a combo that came with ramen and gyoza (dumplings). Eric got the miso broth ramen while Della got the pork bone broth ramen.

Jiyuken

While exploring the Higashi Chaya District, we stopped into this small restaurant for lunch. It felt somewhat like a diner from back home, especially since we sat at the counter and could watch the chefs work. Della got a “set plate” with an “omiken” (omelet around fried rice) and crab cream croquettes, while Eric got the plate of the day which had barbecue chicken and fried fish with rice. Both meals came with a cabbage salad and miso soup.

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Izakaya

For dinner the second night, we ate at an izakaya (traditional Japanese pub/small plate restaurant) attached to our hotel. We shared a variety of small dishes: potato salad, sushi sampler, croquettes and tempura vegetables.

Where We Stayed

We had a little bit of trouble finding a place that was affordable and located within walking distance of the sights, but we eventually settled on the Hotel MYSTAYS Kanazawa Castle. This is confusingly named, because it is not really that close to the castle – there are actually two Hotel MyStays in Kanazawa, and this one is on the castle side of the train station as opposed to other one which is on the opposite side.

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Our room was small, but comfortable. We took advantage of the public onsen in the hotel (gender segregated), using it for our nightly ablutions. The hot pool had an outdoor portion which was refreshing. The onsen was actually quite crowded with other guests, so the second night we attempted to go earlier. The provided yukata felt more like a bathrobe but was still comfortable enough for us to walk to and from the onsen in.

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The yukata can be seen on the bed- they are the darker brown pieces of fabric on the bed

Final Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Kanazawa – it was nice to see a city that isn’t necessarily on the top of all the tourists’ lists, and both the gardens and the chaya district were pleasant. On the other hand, it felt somewhat like a smaller version of Kyoto, so if you only have a small amount of time in Japan it may not be necessary to go both places, especially in the summertime when the heat and humidity are high and the colors at the garden are muted.

Honeymoon in Japan: Hiroshima

After Kyoto, we headed to the city of Hiroshima. Like probably most Americans, the main thing we knew about Hiroshima was that it was the first city in the world to have an atomic bomb dropped on it. We wanted to visit the city to learn more about this history, but also wanted to see what it is like today, as it has regrown into a modern, thriving city.

What We Did

Peace Memorial Park by Night

The atomic bomb that fell on August 6, 1945, exploded directly above a major neighborhood in the city. The blast leveled all of the buildings within 4.7 square miles, and started fires that destroyed many others. The area that was the decimated was never redeveloped; instead, the area was converted into the Peace Memorial Park.

Our Hiroshima accommodations were located within walking distance of the park, so we decided to head over there on the first night and walk through it.

The most prominent feature of the park is the “A-Bomb Dome.” Even though the bomb exploded very close this building (at the time it was called the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall), its skeleton remained standing. It now serves as a stark reminder of what occurred. It is lit up from all directions at night.

The park is also populated with many other memorials to those who died. The main one is the Memorial Cenotaph, a concrete arch covering a casket-like structure which lists the names of people who died during the bombing or afterwards from its effects. Over 220,000 names are listed. Near the cenotaph is a flame that was lit in 1964, and will remain burning until all nuclear weapons on the planet are eliminated.

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Another prominent monument is the Children’s Peace Monument, dedicated to the children who died as a result of the bombing. Surrounding the statue in the center are cases containing thousands of folded paper cranes; this relates to the story of Sadako Sasaki, who died from leukemia related to radiation from the bomb. She believed that if she was able to fold 1,000 paper cranes she would be cured. People can still fold and send cranes to the monument today in memory of her.

Our travels through the park at night were solemn, as there were not many other people there for the most part. However, on the fringes, we noticed that there were large groups of people playing Pokemon Go. The contrast was a little jarring.

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Peace Memorial Park by Day

The next morning we returned to the Peace Memorial Park to visit the parts that were closed the previous evening. We walked back by some of the same sights we had seen at night which provided for an interesting contrast. We also saw chairs being set up in preparations for the anniversary ceremonies – we were there on August 3, just three days before the anniversary.

The main site we wanted to visit was the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The main building was closed for renovations, but they still had a condensed exhibit open. This told the story of the bomb and described in detail the different aftereffects: a blast wave, fires, “black rain” and radiation poisoning.

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Inside the museum, where walls were made to look like the city after the blast

We found the museum (and the peace park in general) an interesting contrast to some of the museums we had seen in other countries, especially the War Remnants museum in Vietnam. Whereas that museum had definitely had a one-sided presentation about the evils of the other side’s actions, in Hiroshima the presentation attempted to remain neutral. It recognized that Japan had played a major part by starting the war. The focus really wasn’t on this though; instead, the focus of all the memorials was to express the desire to make sure that something like that never happens again.

We also visited the fairly new Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall, a Japanese government-sponsored memorial and center for learning. This was a very quiet and contemplative place. There were also some moving videos of survivors telling about their experiences.

Miyajima Island

One of the main attractions of the Hiroshima area is to visit the nearby island of Miyajima. Getting there from Hiroshima was pretty easy. We rode one of Hiroshima’s nice streetcars to a JR rail station, where we caught a train down the coast. From here we caught a JR ferry (included in our JR pass) over to the island.

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We arrived in the middle of the afternoon so we had to hustle through the sights of the island. To make sure and make it by closing time, we first went to the ropeway which takes visitors to the top of the highest peak on the island. This included a smaller car and then a transfer to a larger shared car. There were nice 360-degree views of the surrounding islands and the mainland although it was a little hazy. We would have liked to take a trail to some shrines at the very top, but we didn’t want to miss the last car down.

Back in town, we visited the main Itsukushima Shrine. This Shinto shrine is the site of the island’s most iconic vista, the “floating” torii gate. Both the gate and the buildings of the shrine are built over the waters of the bay, so when the tide is high they appear to be floating on the water.

When we first got to the island, the tide was low and there was no water under the gate. However, by the time we got back from the cable car and had explored the shrine, the water had started to come back in. This made for an excellent sunset viewing with the gate starting to float once again.

Before leaving the island, we bought some of the special “momiji manjū,” a cake filled with a sweet paste in the shape of the maple leaf. We got a few different flavors of filling and took them to the beach to enjoy. However, the local deer, free to roam as in Nara, kept pestering us so we didn’t linger.

We took the JR ferry back over to the mainland, getting one last nice view of the floating torii gate, illuminated in the evening light.

What We Ate

Okonomiyaki

The food that Hiroshima is most known for the the okonomiyaki, a savory pancake. Our Airbnb recommended a place nearby so we headed over for dinner. We were fascinated to watch the chefs prepare them in the open kitchen. We had okonomiyaki made with fried noodles (Della had udon, of course) surrounded by a thin batter and topped with a variety of chopped veggies and condiments. Our table had a built-in griddle that kept it warm while we ate. Della also enjoyed her sake here – the cup came in a box with a significant amount of overflow. We had to confirm on the Internet that we were supposed to drink that part!

Takeout from a Grocery Store

Our Airbnb host had also directed us to a nearby grocery store. We were so impressed with its selections of pre-prepared food that we ended up eating both a lunch and a dinner made from items purchased here (in addition to our breakfasts, also purchased here). We got some fried items, a noodle bowl, edamame and even some more okonomiyaki.

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Enjoying takeout okonomiyaki in the living room of our AirBnb

Where We Stayed

The Airbnb we found here was probably our favorite Airbnb of the trip. It had a good location for access to the Peace Park, the owner had left helpful instructions, the WiFi was fast, and it was quite spacious. We also enjoyed that the rooms were done in a more Japanese style, with a futon on the floor for the bed and tatami mat floors. We had a decent size bedroom and a large extra room that we used as a living and dining area.

Final Thoughts

To visit Hiroshima was a bit of a study in contrasts. On one hand, there are many sobering reminders of the devastation of the 1945 atomic bomb, and visiting the memorials and museum were emotionally tough. On the other hand, Hiroshima is still very much a lively city to visit, with fun day trips like Miyajima Island easy to take. We would recommend adding Hiroshima to any Japan itinerary, both for its tourist value and to allow yourself some time to learn more about the fateful events of August 6, 1945, and how we as global citizens can keep this level of destruction from ever happening again.

Honeymoon in Japan: Himeji Castle

On our way from Kyoto to Hiroshima, we visited Himeji Castle, one of the largest and most well-preserved ancient castles remaining in Japan.

The castle is in the city of Himeji, which is conveniently a stop on the shinkansen (bullet train) that travels between Kyoto and Hiroshima. The train station had big lockers to hold our bags, and the castle itself is just a 20 minute walk from the station, so the visit was quite convenient!

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The view of the castle’s tower from the train station.

Fortifications were first constructed on the hill where the castle is currently located in 1333. After Tokugawa Ieyasu became Shogun in 1600, he awarded the castle to Ikeda Terumasa, who enlarged it to the complex grounds that we were able to visit. Amazingly, the castle has survived in its current form since then!

We were treated to some awesome views of the castle as we approached.

As you enter through the main gates, you walk along narrow stone paths along the walls. This meandering entrance supposedly prevents against attacks.

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Within the castle, we ascended up the 5 narrowing floors. Each floor is dark and covered in wood. There is little to no furnishing, but there are signs that explain what took place in each area.

We were a little surprised that the castle itself seemed to not have any living area. It seemed almost exclusively defensive.

After making our way up steep narrow staircases, we enjoyed the view from the top.

After descending, we were able to take in the view from a different angle, before heading to explore the rest of the grounds. We walked through the West Bailey, which did seem to have some areas where people lived. We read quite a bit about Princess Sen who was apparently a very famous Japanese princess. The main attractions of the West Bailey related to her.

After enjoying a few more fantastic views of the castle, we headed back to the train station.

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We stopped for quick bite of udon and to buy a used kimono for Della. We found the equivalent of a thrift store, even in Japan!

This was a really easy and fun stop off on our way from Kyoto to Hiroshima. We highly recommend it. Don’t worry if you have your bags because it was so easy to store them at the train station!

Honeymoon in Japan: Day Trip to Nara

During our time in Kyoto, we took a day trip to the nearby city of Nara. Like Kyoto, Nara was once the capital of Japan. It was actually the first permanent capital, starting in the year 710, but the influence of powerful monasteries also found in the city led the capital to be moved elsewhere by 784. Many temples and other impressive structures remain in the city from its era as capital.

It is easy to get to Nara from Kyoto, as many trains run daily. We didn’t head straight there though; while heading towards Nara, we stopped at one more famous Kyoto sight which was on the way: the Fushimi Inari Shrine.

This Shinto shrine is most well known for the thousands of vermilion torii gates that line the walkways that head up into the hills behind the shrine. The gates are donated as offerings, and there are a wide variety of sizes. The larger the gate, the larger the required donation. There are also many fox statues on the grounds, as the fox is considered to be the messenger of Inari, the Shinto god of rice.

After an hour or so of exploring the different gates, we hopped back on a train bound for Nara, which didn’t take too long. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at the train station (udon noodles of course) and then walked into town to see the sights.

The most impressive structure in Nara is Daibutsuden, the main hall of Todaiji Temple. The largest wooden building in the world, it houses a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha statue (Daibatsu) and also other sizable Bodhisattva statues. The original building was built in 752 as the main Buddhist temple in all of Japan – its power is the main reason the capital was moved from Nara. The current reconstruction, built in 1692, is only two-thirds the size of the original! Another interesting feature was a small hole in the base of one of the statues (the size of the Daibatsu’s nostril): supposedly, if you can crawl through without assistance, you will gain enlightenment in the next life.

Another impressive structure was Nigatsudo Hall, found on the hillside with a pleasant porch looking back over the city.

The sights are arranged around the large green space of Nara Park. This park is mainly notable for its large resident population of deer. They are considered sacred so are left to run free around the city. Vendors throughout the park sell special cookies to feed to the deer. We did feed the deer cookies, but focused on calm ones because we didn’t want to have the deer pester us like we saw happening to other people.

We also visited Yoshikien Garden. We had intended to visit the neighboring Isuien Garden, but it had an entrance fee whereas Yoshikien was free for foreign visitors. The garden is divided into three parts: the pond garden, moss garden, and flower garden. It wasn’t the right time of year to see any interesting blooms, but we still enjoyed wandering the grounds.

We ended up cutting our visit a little short, as we wanted to get back to Kyoto for the Geisha Corner show, and it was, as many places in Japan turned out to be, hot and crowded. Still, we enjoyed getting to see the historic sights and would definitely recommend it as a day trip for visitors to Kyoto!

Honeymoon in Japan: Kyoto

The city of Kyoto was the capital of Japan and the residence of its emperor for over 1000 years. Many shines, temples and other historical sites from this era still remain, so there were a lot of things we wanted to see and do! We split our days by geographic region of the city to make it easier for us to see as much as possible. We were fortunate to stay in the Gion area of the Kyoto which made several of the sites walkable.

What We Did

East Kyoto

Our first day was spent in the Eastern part of the Kyoto. The initial sites were within walking distance of our Airbnb in Gion.

Kiyomizu-dera

This temple, the name meaning Pure Water Temple, was built on the site of the Otowa Waterfall. The waterfall still flows here but it has been divided into three separate streams. Each stream is supposed to bring a different benefit to your life: one for longevity, one for success at school, and the final for a fortunate love life. The lines were incredibly long when we visited, so we decided to skip the traditional sipping from the streams. We felt OK about it because we had already eaten our black eggs in Hakone (for long life), have already graduated from school, and were feeling pretty lucky in our love life already (yay honeymoon!)

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The temple’s most impressive feature was a large wooden platform which extended from the main hall. It was high above the hillside below and offered fantastic views of the city of Kyoto.

Another part of the temple we enjoyed was the Tainai-Meguri, a small attraction underneath one of the main temples near the entrance. We had to pay a small extra fee which allowed us to go down the stairs into a pitch black area. The only way you knew where to go was by holding onto a banister shaped like prayer beads. At the end of the tunnel, you reached an amazing spinning stone, which you could spin to grant yourself a wish. It was a somewhat mysterious and really fun experience!

Finally, we also liked the Jishu Shrine which was dedicated to the deity of love and matchmaking. We read about two stones in front of the shrine which are placed 18 meters apart. It was said that if you could walk from one to the other with your eyes closed, it would you bring you luck in love. It was so crowded, we skipped that one too. We thought about buying a good luck charm, but settled on just taking a picture of it instead!

Streets of Higayashima

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Heading down from Kiyomizu-dera temple toward Higayashima

On our way out of the Kiyomizu-dera temple, we made sure to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour of Higayashima which is one of Kyoto’s well-preserved historic districts. It is full of small restaurants and shops. We did a bit of shopping while we enjoyed the traditional narrow lanes and wooden buildings.

We also particularly enjoyed watching many of the people strolling around in traditional kimonos. Throughout the city, there are many kimono rental shops and it seemed as if many people took advantage of it to make the most of the photo opportunities in these historic streets!

Kodai-ji Zen

We continued our walk to the Kodai-ji Zen Buddhist Temple. We were particularly impressed by the amazing rock gardens. At this temple, they consisted of raked gravel which looked like rivers and hills.

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We also loved heading up the hill behind the temple, enjoying the beautiful buildings, lovely gardens, quaint teahouses, and finally an expansive view over the city.

Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion

After returning to our Airbnb for a quick break from the heat, we took the 100 bus out to the Ginkaku-ji. We thought they had a fun system at the bus stop to let passengers know when the next buses were approaching. A little picture of a bus would appear in consecutive circles as it got closer to your stop.

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Despite being called the Silver Pavilion, Ginkaku-ji actually has no silver coloring. It was named this way to differentiate it from the Golden Pavilion in which it was modeled after. The structures of the Silver Pavilion were quite nice, but what really struck us was the beauty of the gardens.

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We visited at the end of the day which made for some very nice late afternoon sun. The shadows made viewing the gravel decorations a more interesting experience.

Also, the gardens were amazingly lush and green.  Our favorite were the moss gardens which looked so springy and light that we could almost imagine laying down for a nice nap. Della kept thinking she was going to see fauns or nymphs emerging from the shadowy groves. It was so lovely, we didn’t really want to leave!

 

West Kyoto

We spent one full day in Western Kyoto. We walked to Gion intersection near our Airbnb and caught the 12 bus all the way to Kinkaku-ji. The ride was about 50 minutes, so we were quite pleased that we were able to get seats on the bus (many others had been standing room only)!

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion)

This time, the name really meant something! The main attraction here is the Zen temple whose top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.

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The temple sits overlooking a large pond which makes for some lovely photo opportunities.

Unfortunately, most people are thinking the same thing which means it was quite crowded and we had to jostle for position to get the good shots.

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However, the path does lead the crowd around the temple so that you are able to view it in its beauty from all sides.

While the main attraction was quite amazing, the rest of the grounds were a little disappointing, especially compared to the gardens of Ginkaku-ji. We had expected to spend at least a couple of hours here, but were actually quite finished after only one.

Ryoan-ji

We walked to our next stop, a Temple which is home to Japan’s most famous rock garden, Ryoan-ji. We enjoyed seeing the rock garden as well as the Hojo, the head priest’s former residence. However, we were a little underwhelmed. Perhaps it was the fantastic heat, the large crowd, and/or the starkness of the rock garden, but we didn’t have a super Zen experience and were anxious to move on. This was another spot where we spent considerable less time than we had budgeted.

Bamboo Grove

Next we headed to Arayashima, excited to see one of the things we had been most looking forward to in our trip! In order to get there we caught the Randen Trolley cars and had only one (free) transfer. The Arayashima train station was hopping and had a beer garden! We decided to try a beer mixed with lychee juice!

Afterwards, we walked towards the Bamboo Grove. Every time we have looked at pictures of things to do in Japan, this was one of the top of the things on the list! As expected, the path lined with huge bamboo stalks was quite crowded. We were a little disappointed at first because the bamboo wasn’t as dense and it wasn’t creating the mystic atmosphere we were expecting.

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It turned out that we were just getting started. As we continued to meander on the path, the bamboo forest got denser and taller. The light flickering down between the swaying stalks created a shimmering, otherworldly feel.

At one point, we were surprised as a taxi drove by us down the narrow lane. We had been under the impression that it was pedestrian only.

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Despite the crowds of people, we were still able to truly enjoy the atmosphere!

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Okochi Sanso Villa

We had read that we needed to visit this villa of a former actor which was right behind the bamboo groves. The large grounds are full of beautiful gardens with flowers, Japanese maples, and moss.

There is also a small teahouse where you can enjoy tea and sweets as part of the entrance price.

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It was here that the weather first failed us a bit. Just as we were entering the villa, a heavy rainstorm came through. At first we were disappointed, but then we were able to enjoy the special beauty created by the rain! Especially when the sun began to peek through the clouds at the same time!

The gardens took us up into the hills which made for some lovely views over the city.

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Gion

Geisha Spotting by Night

As we mentioned before, we were quite fortunate to be staying in Gion, the famous geisha district of Kyoto. This meant that every evening we could go out and explore the area, enjoying the lovely cobbled streets and traditional wooden buildings and teahouses. We even caught a few glimpses of Geisha at work!

Kimono Rental

Della had been really curious about the beautiful kimonos she saw everywhere. In addition to noticing how lovely they were, we had both been reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” which had some interesting description of the parts that make up a kimono and how complicated they were to put on. For that reason, Della was really tempted when she saw some of the kimono rental shops that lined the streets of Kyoto. However, the idea of renting one for the day and trying to wear it and the awkward sandals for a day of hot sightseeing was not appealing at all.

So, when we saw that some of the places offered a slightly cheaper “photo” rate, we decided to do it. This allowed Della to be dressed in a traditional kimono and then pose for photos for awhile.

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While the photos were fun, the most interesting part was seeing how many pieces went into wearing a kimono. First there was an under-robe or shawl which included the white collar. That was tied tight around the waist with stretchy fabric. Next, there was padding added around the waist in the form of rolled up towels. This was also tied on. On top of the padding, a hard belt-like piece was added and tied on. Only then could we actually put on the kimono. The kimono itself has to be wrapped, tied, and clipped in order for it to hang just perfect at the right length. Finally, the obi belt was wrapped around and tied in a bow in the back which was a work of art itself. The look was finished with socks with a separate big toe and high wooden sandals. She also got to pose with a lovely umbrella and small bag.

Hassaku

We came upon this completely by accident, but we are so incredibly happy that we did. It was August 1, and we had planned to do a day trip from Kyoto to Nara. On our way to the subway, we made our way through the lovely geisha district of Gion. We had explored this area by night already, but definitely enjoyed the wood-slatted buildings by day.

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Right as we were about to hit the main street, we noticed a huge gaggle of tourist photographers sitting outside a teahouse. We were confused, wondering what they were waiting to see. We paused, knowing that if they were waiting, there must be something interesting or photogenic about to happen.

We waited, and we waited… The heat was starting to really get to us and we finally decided to head out. But right as we turned to leave, we ran into a kindly Japanese man. He attempted to start a conversation with us, though his English was very limited. What we did understand was that he was expecting to see maiko. We had recently learned that this was the word for apprentice geisha. Now, we really wanted to stay. We thought he told us that they were going to dance…

So, we waited… and waited some more. We were eventually rewarded by seeing several small groups of maiko walking up and down the street.

Later, we did a bit more research and learned that Aug 1 is a special day in Gion called Hassaku. Apparently, the geisha and maiko make their rounds of all the teahouses in the district in order to to thank them for their patronage throughout the year. We were so thrilled we could to witness this!

Gion Corner

As we were walking around Gion, we kept seeing flyers for a show at Gion Corner. Despite the fact that it may be a bit overpriced, we decided to go for it. The show was an hour long and made an attempt to introduce many aspects of traditional Japanese culture to the viewers.

We saw a traditional tea ceremony accompanied by Koto music and flower arrangement,

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Gagaku (traditional Court music and dance),

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Kyogen, an ancient comic play, which was silly but fun since they had translated the story in the program,

Kyomai (geisha maiko dances),

and Bunraku (a puppet play excerpt). 

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It was definitely a full hour!

What We Ate

While we didn’t eat a lot of sushi (Della doesn’t love fish), we certainly ate a lot of noodles!

We ate Ramen in Gion, Eric getting the “specialty” and Della getting Gion black ramen with sesame seeds. We also enjoyed a lot of delicious Sake. 

We enjoyed a street food type meal at the Arayashima Station which included  some takoyaki balls and a fried corn and edamame mixture.

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On another evening, we ate dinner at a place that specialized in udon. Both of us got curry udon with sweet tofu – Della added tempura chicken and Eric a special cheese that was like cream cheese. We each got a highball which is plum wine mixed with soda.

Basically – you can never have too many noodles!

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Getting There (the hard way)

As we mentioned in our post about the Hanshin Tigers Baseball Game, we had a bit of an experience arriving in Kyoto. Sometimes, when traveling, small things just compound to add up to a mess!  The trip started fine: we caught the shinkansen from Odawara and had a pleasant 2 hour ride to Kyoto Station. We knew we had only a few hours before we needed to be back at the station to head to Osaka for the baseball game. But, we thought we would have plenty of time.

Our Airbnb had indicated that we needed to take the 206 bus toward the Kitaoji Bus Terminal. We headed out of the train station and immediately saw a 206 bus waiting that listed Kitaoji as a final destination. We ran and got on just as the doors were closing, thinking how lucky we were that we weren’t going to have to wait! The bus was crowded and we knew we needed to head about 9 stops to Gion. The 9 stops came, relatively slowly as we were in the midst of terrible afternoon traffic, but we didn’t see the sign for Gion. We were getting really hot and tired standing with our big bags. Finally, at one point, Della was able to maneuver in front of the city map displayed on the bus. We could tell we were on the right bus, headed north… But, all of a sudden, we realized that the bus went in a looped route. We were indeed headed towards Kitaoji Bus Terminal, we just had gotten on the bus that went on the west side of the loop instead of the east. This would seem fine, except that we realized in the approximately 35 minutes we had already been on the bus, we had only traveled a little less than a quarter of the loop. Based on that, we estimated we wouldn’t reach the Gion stop for over an hour. Oops!

All we can say is thank goodness for transit directions on Google Maps and our T-Mobile international data plan! We were able to recalculate and take a different bus which took us across town. We did have to wait quite a long time and then the bus took forever as it too had to fight through traffic. We finally arrived at Gion, but had to walk close to 10 blocks in the heat with our bags (instead of the 2 we would have had to walk if we had taken the right bus in the first place).

All in all, what should have taken us about 20 minutes took us about 1.5 hours instead. When we arrived at the apartment, we threw our stuff down, turned around and headed back to the bus so we could make it back to the train station in order to get to the baseball game on time! Frustrating!

Della’s family has always had a rule related to travel: When you buy a train ticket, always make sure to ask which train station it leaves from… We found out the hard way that there may be secret train stations in cities that you don’t know about. The two of us now have another rule to add: Always make sure to double check if the bus you’re taking goes in a loop, and make sure you check the intermediate stops on the bus sign!

Final Thoughts

There is so much to see in Kyoto that we are definitely glad we budgeted as much time as we did – and we could have spent even more time! It was crowded and hot though, so we really appreciated having a place to stay that was both easy to get to for a mid-afternoon break and was a good base for exploring at night when it was cooler and calmer. Kyoto provides a great look at historical Japanese culture, so any visit to Japan should include a stop here.

 

 

 

Honeymoon in Japan: A Home Run Experience at the Hanshin Tigers Baseball Game

Eric is a big sports fan, so on our round-the-world trip he was able to seek out a few local sporting events. He was excited to check out a baseball game while we visited Japan on our honeymoon, since baseball is one of the most popular sports in the country.

The way our itinerary worked out, the best chance for us to see a game was to go to a Hanshin Tigers game – they were playing at their stadium outside Osaka while we were in Kyoto. Koshien Stadium is one of the most historic baseball stadiums in Japan (built in 1924, and visited by Babe Ruth in 1934), so Eric was excited to be able to check it out.

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Ivy covers the outside walls of the stadium, reminiscent of Wrigley Field

We purchased seats in the cheap outfield section (see below for details). As an added bonus, they were running a promotion for the game we went to, and we each got a free replica jersey as we went into the game!

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The game experience was just as exciting as we had been hoping for! Even though it was just a regular season game between two teams with mediocre records, the stadium was packed, and then fans are very into the game.

The biggest difference in attending a Japanese baseball game is how the fans interact while watching a game. While their team is at bat, the fans are constantly singing/chanting. The songs they sing are specific to the player up to bat as well.

The singing is coordinated by leaders at the bottom of each section (similar to the yell leaders at Texas A&M).

One of the most unique songs was for Mauro Gómez, the first baseman for the Tigers. Japanese teams are only allowed four foreign players on a game-day roster, and Gómez was the main one we noticed for the Tigers. He is known for hitting home runs, and we could hear the word “home run” in the song (we didn’t quite capture it in the video). The fans definitely seemed excited about the foreign players – they had special fans with their pictures. Eric was told by a fan that he looked like a famous Tigers foreign player Matt Murton.

The visiting team, the Chunichi Dragons (from Nagoya), had their own designated fan section near where we were sitting. While the Dragons were up to bat, the Tigers fans would sit quietly and the Dragons fans would start up their own cheers. They were pretty loud as well!

We were able to find some ballpark food that felt like something you wouldn’t get at a US game. Eric got yakitori skewers – two of chicken and one of squid. Della got udon noodles! There are tons of beer sellers (all female) wandering the stands, but we ordered beer from the counter since we weren’t sure we would be able to communicate well from our seats in the middle of the row.

Our seats gave us a nice panoramic view over the action and the mountains behind the stadium, especially as the sun set.

We thought it was fun that they use carts to smooth the dirt infield, and that they use a bullpen car to bring in relief pitchers.

The most impressive fan activity by far was the seventh-inning stretch. During the top of the seventh inning, the Tigers fans all started blowing up these long, skinny balloons with a plastic piece on the end. We hadn’t known to buy these balloons, but another fan was kind enough to give us one each.

Then, during the seventh inning stretch, a song was played, and at the end everyone released their balloons. The sky was filled with balloons, each of which let off a whistling sound as the air rushed through the plastic piece. A really fun communal experience!

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It was a close game throughout. The Dragons took an early lead on a big home run. The Tigers threatened multiple times but never could put together enough hits, and ended up losing 3-1. We were bummed not to get to see a win, but still were very glad that we took the time to experience this!

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Buying Tickets

There are third-party services that will buy tickets for you, but we found instructions on the Tigers website that were quite easy to follow, found here. You have to use a site that is only in Japanese, but that page will tell you which buttons to click. We chose the cheap outfield seats. The end result was a QR code that we took to a booth at the stadium on game day to get the actual tickets.

Getting There and Away

The game we chose was on the evening of the day we arrived in Kyoto. We were running a bit late getting into Kyoto (more on that in the Kyoto post), so we had to rush to get down to the game. It required a few transfers but ultimately wasn’t too hard. The steps to get to Koshien Stadium (the Tigers’ home stadium) were:

  • Bus from our Airbnb to Kyoto station
  • Local express train to Osaka station. On a JR (Japan Railways) line, so we could use our JR pass. It was quite crowded with commuters. Local express trains are faster than local trains because they make less stops.
  • Navigate through underground tunnels connecting the JR Osaka Station to the station for the private Hanshin line (the team is named after the Hanshin Railways company that owns them). We had been warned this might be difficult, but it was well-signed, and we started to see other people in Tigers yellow so we knew we were on the right track
  • Buy a round trip ticket to the Koshien station (since this private railway is not included with the JR pass). This is better than buying a single ticket because then you don’t have to wait in line to buy after the game. They had big signs for people heading to the game letting us know exactly what buttons to press to get the right tickets.
  • Ride the Hanshin Railways train for about 15 minutes to Koshien station. This was standing-room only since it was almost game time.

From the station, it is just a few minutes walk to the stadium.

Getting back to Kyoto from Koshien Stadium just required doing the above steps in reverse. The biggest hangup was that basically everyone in the stadium takes the train to get there, so there was a huge crush of people to get into Koshien Station – we probably had to wait at least 30 minutes before getting onto the platform. Both that train and the train from Osaka to Kyoto were standing room only.