Summer Trip to Iceland: Reykjavík

After our year-long trip around the world, we knew that we still wanted to travel, but we would have to limit our travels to the summer months when Della was on summer break. This meant that often we were travelling to places that were quite warm. Traveling in warm weather is not terrible, but it can lead to faster burn-out or general unpleasantness.

Therefore, in 2017, we decided to look for a location that would still be cool (but not too cold) in June or July. Ultimately, we decided on Iceland. Plus, we had read and heard so many great things about the beautiful countryside, so we figured we should hop on the bandwagon and check it out for ourselves.

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Preview of our time in Iceland, showing our typical cool weather dress. Also, you should be impressed by Della’s jump, since she was jumping FOR TWO!

Flights to Iceland are known for being affordable, especially if you can travel on off-peak times. Many low-cost carriers use it as a base to get to the European continent. However, summer is probably the peak season to travel to Iceland, so we didn’t see any great bargains. Instead, as in years past, we figured out how to use airline miles to get there. Using miles earned from signing up for the Delta Gold SkyMiles American Express, we were able to find a fare from Denver to Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavík (on the outskirts of Reykjavík), for $5.60 per person.

The journey consisted of two legs: first from Denver to JFK (New York), then an overnight flight from JFK to Keflavík. The flight from New York to Keflavík is less than six hours, so actually pretty short. The downside was that since it was so short, we didn’t really sleep very well.

We landed in Keflavík at around 7 AM, with our bodies thinking that is was just 1 AM. Our first task was to get from the airport into Reykjavík itself, since the airport is is over 30 miles away from town. There are no great budget options to get there. We booked with one of the private bus providers, Gray Line, and chose the option that would drop us off at a hotel (vs just the main bus terminal). We were a little confused when on the outskirts of the city we were shuffled off of the bus, but then we were just transferred to a smaller van to drive through the narrower streets of town.

Accommodations in Reykjavík are quite expensive. Even a room in a dorm is about $50 a person if you want to stay anywhere near the old town. We found an Airbnb in a good location close to town that was a better deal than that, so we decided to just book that. It turned out to feel more like a guesthouse – the place had nine different rooms, a couple of shared bathrooms, and two shared kitchens. The downside was that there was no reception desk, so we had the weird feeling of never really interacting with any sort of host. But, it was within walking distance of all of the attractions we wanted to see, and cheaper than many other places would have been.

Since we arrived so early, we couldn’t yet check in to the Airbnb. Fortunately, the host agreed to let us drop off our luggage in a storage area so we could at least go do something before our afternoon check-in. Then, it was time to explore Reykjavík. Here’s a soundtrack to get you in the mood to read about our two days there:

The Airbnb was located just down a hill from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in Iceland, and one of Reykjavík’s most famous landmarks: given its location on a hill overlooking the city, it can be seen from miles around. We sat in the pews and enjoyed the sound of the pipe organ, then paid to take the elevator up the observation deck to look out over the city.

We decided we had enough energy to go ahead and do something we did elsewhere around the world: take a free walking tour. We went with the highly-rated CityWalk tour. Our guide Eiríkur (Eric) led us through the main attractions of the small city center: the Parliament house, a square built over the graves of some of the original settlers, an old neighborhood with colorful houses (to brighten up the day in the dark and dreary winters), the (unguarded) office of the Prime Minister, and a hill overlooking the city. Certainly not as many architectural gems or spots of historical interest as the other places where we did these tours, but we did enjoy getting a feel for the city and the culture of the Icelanders.

While on the tour, we had seen a restaurant called Restaurant Reykjavík advertising a lunch buffet for $23/person. Given that other places had just a hamburger for $20, we felt like this was probably a good deal and headed there for lunch. We enjoyed getting to sample the different dishes, many of them seafood.

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Enjoying some soup as part of the buffet

Now that we had killed enough time, we returned to our Airbnb and were able to get into our room. We took a light nap, but not too long in hopes of avoiding jetlag.

We did emerge in the evening to get some dinner. We walked to the nearby Café Babalú, a quirky little place with a small food menu. We were happy to get some hot soups. Eric got the traditional Icelandic lamb soup (they love lamb in Iceland).

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Walking back from dinner, we got our first real experience of the Icelandic summer: it never really gets dark. Around 11 the sun would set, but it would only ever feel like dusk. The sun would rise again a few hours later, but we never stayed up to confirm this. Luckily, neither of us had issues sleeping even in the light. Using a face mask or even just covering your face with a blanket was good enough for us.

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This picture was taken at about 10 PM. It never got much darker than this

The next day, we were a little tired, but still wanted to see more of Reykjavík. Since it was a Saturday, we made our first stop the weekly flea market. This was a great location to look for souvenirs based on the prices we would see later in the trip. We also  had a chance to try the local delicacy of fermented shark. One bite was enough! We had lunch at the cafe in the flea market. Eric got another local favorite: a hot dog. (They could be found all over, but this turned out to be the only time we sampled one ourselves).

We next stopped at the museum “Reykjavík 871±2” (“871 plus or minus 2) which is built around the ruins of a hall from from Iceland’s Settlement Age. The amusing name for the museum comes from the fact that historians can’t agree on an exact date for the oldest part of the ruins, so they just decided to include the margin of error in the name.

Iceland was populated starting in the ninth century by Norse settlers – also known as Vikings. Many left Norway due to banishment for crimes or conflict with the monarchy there. Also, much of the early population consisted of slaves from Ireland which was also under Viking rule at the time. There were no indigenous people on Iceland, so the settlers were free to set up their farms wherever they felt like. Due to the isolation, the Icelandic language is said to be closer to the Old Norse than any of the other current Scandinavian languages.

The main structure that the museum was built around was a traditional Viking hall/longhouse. Interactive exhibits described the best guesses for how the hall was used. Also on exhibit was the turf wall from 871±2. There were not too many large trees in Iceland even before the settlers came, so thick turf walls were the primary pieces of wall construction and insulation.

We also visited the National Museum of Iceland, which describes the history of Iceland from the Settlement Era up to the present day. Iceland has gone through a few different major periods: the Settlement Era when Vikings migrated from Norway, the early Christian era when the country converted (peacefully) from paganism to Christianity, a period of rule by the Norwegian kings, then a period of rule by the Danish, and then finally a moved toward independence that was finalized in 1944. The exhibits were numbered, which Eric appreciated in terms of keeping us on the right track.

We then took advantage of the sunny weather and walked through a park back to the main part of town. We walked into the iconic Harpa (concert hall) and marveled at its beautiful glass walls.

After another rest break back at the Airbnb, we headed out for a late dinner. Unfortunately, it seemed that the late light fooled us and we maybe waited too long, as we had a hard time finding a place still serving food! The first place we tried had just run out of food, then another had just closed its kitchen, and another was completely closed. We finally settled on a Thai restaurant, getting our standard noodle and curry dishes. It was good, but significantly more expensive than getting the food in Thailand!

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Overall, we think that two days was sufficient to get the highlights of Reykjavík. The sights aren’t mind-blowing, but it is a pleasant, walkable city center. If you can get past the sticker shock of all of the prices, you can definitely have a good time!

Honeymoon in Japan: Takayama

Our final major stop on our honeymoon in Japan was the city of Takayama. We really enjoyed our two nights here, with the pretty mountain backdrop and the city’s charming old town.

Getting to Takayama from Kanazawa was easy: we were able to book a bus from Kanazawa that included a stop at Shirakawa-go.

Since this was our last stop on our trip, we decided to splurge again and stay at a fancy ryokan. We picked the Takayama Kanko, located on a hill above town. Our traditional room came with a nice balcony overlooking the city below.

As part of renting the room, we got to reserve a session in a private onsen once per night. The first night we chose one of the indoor onsen, and the second night we got an outdoor onsen located on the roof of the hotel. Both were quite pleasant and romantic.

Our room also included a traditional breakfast each morning. We went to the dining room (in our yukata) and were treated to a multiple course meal plus access to a buffet. The first day the main dish was meat in a miso sauce cooked on a large leaf on our table.

As we walked into town the first night, we discovered that our visit coincided with the Tanabata Festival. This festival, also known as the Star Festival, celebrates the alignment of two stars that only meet once a year (symbolizing the meeting of two deities). All along the streets of old town were bamboo trees and branches on which strips of paper with wishes written on them were hung.

As part of the festival, one of the main street was filled with food stalls and entertainment for the local families. The first night we both got stir fried noodles and a Sapporo beer. The second night Eric stood in a long line to get takoyaki, deep fried balls of dough with octopus. It was fascinating to watch the owners of the stall quickly make the balls the satisfy the high demand.

We only had one day to spend in Takayama, so we focused our visit on the old town.

Our favorite attraction was the Takayama Jinya, an old government building dating from the 17th century that has been turned into a museum. We ended up going by twice. When we first went by in the morning, we found out there was no English tour until the afternoon. However, the very pleasant worker informed us that there was a concert of koto, the Japanese harp. We sat in one of the tatami mat rooms and listened to women both young and old play a recital.

When we returned later for our tour, we were happy to see that the friendly woman was the guide. She did a great job of showing us the different rooms in the complex and explaining how they were used when the building served as government offices.

We took a break from sightseeing in the middle of the afternoon to sample a local specialty: sake! There are a good number of sake breweries in town, all identifiable by sugidama (balls made of cedar branches) hanging over the entrance. Through some research, we decided to visit the Harada Sake Brewery (found on Sanmachi Street). Here we were able to pay 200 yen (about 2 dollars) each for the ability to sample one taste from each of the 14 bottles in a cooler. It was interesting to taste the different types, which were labeled dry, fruity or moderate. There was also one unfiltered variety. Best of all, we got to keep our sake cup as a souvenir!

We also took a lunch break at a small restaurant where we both were able to sample the local Hida beef (specialty beef similar to Kobe beef) – Eric over soba and Della over udon.

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Our only other attraction we visited was the Takayama Museum of History and Art, a free museum about the city. The various exhibits were housed in old, renovated storehouses. There were not too many English signs but a provided guidebook told us the highlights of the rooms. The rooms covered some of the history of the city and its rulers, plus some of the customs and social groups.

Overall, we really enjoyed our time in Takayama. We would definitely recommend adding it to your Japan itinerary. It is a sister city to Denver, so hopefully we can take advantage of that connection and return again soon!

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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.

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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!