Honeymoon in Japan: Hakone

We were excited to head to the Mt. Fuji area after spending some time in Tokyo. We had decided early on that we probably weren’t interested in climbing Mt. Fuji during this trip, but Della was pretty adamant that she wanted to at least view it. We decided to head to the Hakone area which has several small towns that are known for their hot springs resorts (onsens) as well as views of the iconic Fuji.

Getting There

We used our Japan rail passes, which were incredibly easy and useful, to catch a train from the Okachimachi station near our Airbnb in Ueno to Tokyo Station. From there, we were able to take shinkansen (or bullet train) to Odawara which was only about a 30 minute ride. We had originally planned to just grab lunch in Odawara before switching to a bus to bring us to Hakone, but we realized that we were running considerably earlier than we had planned. We couldn’t check in to our accommodation until later in the afternoon, so we did a quick search of the lonely planet and realized the Odawara castle was in walking distance of the train station.

As we noticed in many train stations (and bus stations, and almost any transit stop), lockers were readily available to store bags. They weren’t necessarily cheap (about $5) and it took us a little while before we found a locker that was big enough for us to stuff both our large backpacks into, but we figured it was worth it!

We headed out and followed our phones (and a few signs) to Odawara Castle. The castle itself was lovely, very typical of castles throughout Japan. It was originally constructed in the mid-15th century but, like most castles in Japan, was destroyed by an earthquake. It was reconstructed in 1960, so it was in really great shape. We paid to enter the castle and climb to the observation deck on the top. Each floor had some museum displays, but much of it was only Japanese. The view from the top was quite beautiful though!

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After returning from the castle to the train station, we had a quick udon meal and headed outside to catch the H-Line train all the way to the town of Ashinoyu where we were staying for the night. We were quite pleased we had managed to successfully add a couple hours of sightseeing to our day!

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What We Did

Stay in a Ryokan

One of the things that we were quite excited about when planning our trip to Japan was to stay in a traditional ryokan. A ryokan is a Japanese style inn. We were intrigued by the possibility of diving a little deeper into Japanese culture. Ryokan are known for incorporating tatami floors, futon beds, and Japanese style baths. They are especially popular in hot springs regions like Hakone. They range in price, but we planned to live it up a little on our honeymoon and picked one that was on the fancier side: Kinokuniya Ryokan. We were especially excited because we knew that it would provide Japanese style private hot springs (onsen) baths.

We enjoyed the traditional and large room full of tatami mats and Japanese art. The ryokan provides special robes called yukata which you wear pretty much throughout your entire stay. We enjoyed putting them on and learning how to tie the obi belt.

One of the first things we did was to take advantage of our free 30 min private bath experience. We were lead outside to a separate small structure where we enjoyed the option of two lovely, warm hotsprings baths.

After heading back to our rooms, we got ourselves prepared for the provided dinner at the ryokan. Luckily, we didn’t have to do much as we were going to go in our yukata robes! Somehow we forgot to take our cameras or phones, but the meal was amazing. It was about 15 courses which included everything from soup to noodles to sushi. We did save the menu:

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While guests are at dinner, workers from the ryokan enter the rooms and set up the traditional Japanese futons for sleeping. We spent the evening reading, researching, and generally enjoying our accommodation.

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We took a trip to the public onsen as well. Japanese public baths are quite fascinating. You enter a large bathing room (one per gender) which includes one large (in this case hot spring water) pool. Around the outside of the room are individual shower stations. Traditionally, you wet yourself with water from the pool, cleaning your body, before you take a short soak in the pool. You then use the small stools in each shower station to wash. Shampoo, conditioner, and soap were provided. After you are clean, you can take another soak in the hot pool. We were a little nervous about trying this as it was traditional to be naked. But, we were fortunate in our first public bath experience that were both alone in our baths.

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There was one scare for us that evening though: at about 11:30 PM, right as we were getting ready for bed, we were both shocked to feel the ground shake. We were both terrified for a moment as we realized we were experiencing another earthquake. There seemed to be no commotion inside the hotel, no emergency actions of any sort, and everything seemed to be fine. We did a quick bit of research and found that there had been a 5.3 magnitude quite a ways north of us. We did find out that there had been very slight damage in Tokyo, but no one said a word about it at any point. It was clear that these are normal occurrences in Japan.

We enjoyed the included buffet breakfast at the ryokan before heading out the next morning.

Travel the Hakone Loop

There seemed to be a typical tourist loop of sights to see in the Hakone region. We had purchased the Hakone Free Pass the day before which allowed to ride all of the buses, cable cars, and boats in this loop for no additional charge. We had stayed in the very small town of Ashinoyu which was on the east side of the loop. We headed back north to the town of Gora where we dropped our bags off at Ryokan Oyado Hakone Hachirinoyu. This was another, considerably less fancy, more western, ryokan. We walked to our first stop, a short but humid trip.

Hakone Open Air Museum

This is a large park like area which houses hundreds of statues and other kinds of outdoor art. We were intrigued by many of the sculptures as well as the Picasso building which is home to many of Picasso’s works. We spent several hours wandering around and still felt like we could have seen more.

In one area, there were hundreds of spiders weaving webs in the foliage. Della, in particular, was fascinated with watching them work building absolutely perfect webs.

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Near the end of our time at the Open Air Museum, we were excited to find a free hot springs foot bath. It was a great pick me up for our “museum legs.”

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Ropeway and Owakudani

After leaving the Open Air Museum, we got on a short cable car railway which took us back to the main station of Gora. From here we transferred to the Ropeway. We enjoyed the scenic ride up to Owakudani volcano. We were quite excited because up to about 2 days before we arrived Owakudani was closed. Owakudani is the area around the crater from the last eruption of Mount Hakone. It had been spewing a lot of sulfuric gas, so much that it had been closed to the public. While it was now safe enough to visit, there was still a lot of gas in the air so they gave everyone a wet towel to breathe through if needed.

We enjoyed viewing the crater, though it was difficult through the clouds and gas.

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The most exciting part however was eating black eggs. Owakudani is known for hard boiling eggs in the naturally hot water of the crater. The shells are blackened by the sulfur. Eating one is supposed to prolong your life by seven years. We purchased and ate 5!

 

On a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji from Owakudani, but this was not a clear day.

We got back on the ropeway and proceeded to the next stop.

Lake Ashinoku

The ropeway deposits tourists at a small town called Togendai where you transfer to a sightseeing boat across the lake. We actually just missed a boat so spent some time reading in the station while waiting for the next one. The sightseeing boat is decked out like a pirate ship which seemed a little odd to us.

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We enjoyed the ride across the lake, though it was too cloudy to see the iconic view of Fuji across the lake which we had been hoping for.

We got off the boat at Hakone-Machi hoping to visit the Hakone Checkpoint, but it seemed to be closed for the day so we headed on.

Old Tokaido

We walked along the ancient highway to Edo (Tokyo). There is a short section of beautiful cedar lined path. It was lovely to walk along and imagine the shoguns passing along this same highway.

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After walking along for awhile, we were able to get back to the main road and take a bus along the final part of the loop back to our ryokan.

Final Thoughts

We quite enjoyed our time in Hakone. Primarily, we enjoyed the honeymoon experience of staying in the ryokan. We wish the weather would have cooperated a little bit more during the rest of our sightseeing experience!

 

 

 

 

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Honeymoon in Japan: Day Trip to Nikko

During our time in Tokyo, we took a day trip to the nearby town of Nikko. Just outside the town are the mausoleums of some of the oldest of the Tokugawa shoguns, the rulers of Japan from 1603 to 1867. These tombs can be visited as part of elaborate shrines tucked into the wooded foothills of Nikko National Park.

To get there, we used our Japan Rail Passes to ride the shinkansen (bullet train)  to Utsinomoya, where we transferred to a local train that took us into Nikko itself (also covered by the pass). This transfer was quite easy to find and make.

Upon arrival at Nikko Station, we made our plans for the day. The main area of shrines is about two kilometers from the station, so we had to plan how to get there. We could have paid for a bus to take us, but we decided to walk there ourselves. It was slightly uphill so a little tiring, but not too hard.

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We stopped to admire the Shinkyo Bridge at the entrance to the park. This beautiful red bridge over a crystal clear stream was built in 1636. It cost a fee to walk over it, so we just viewed it from a distance.

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We decided to visit the main shrines/temples as part of a rough loop. The first stop was Rinnoji Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the Nikko area. However, as we approached the area where it was supposed to be, all we could see was a large ugly building that looked like it belonged in a generic industrial plant. We were confused, but then we noticed that it had a picture of the temple painted on it! As it turned out, this was an elaborate building built around the temple while it was undergoing major renovations.

The covered building is Sanbutsado Hall, the main building of the temple. Even though it is under renovation, you can still go inside for a fee. Inside the main level we were able to view three large gold statues of the buddha figures Amida, Senju-Kannon (Kannon with a thousand arms) and Batu-Kannon (Kannon with a horse head). Pictures were not allowed.

This was interesting, but even more fascinating was that the entrance fee also allowed you to get a cool view of the renovation works. If you look at the exterior picture of the building above, you will see that towards the top there is a projection with windows that wraps around the entire building. This is a walkway that offers views down onto the exposed old roof. We watched as workers meticulously shaped pieces of wood to be fit into the roof, replacing old rotting wood. We also watched another group pounding dowels into holes in large beams and then cutting them off.

For lunch, we walked back into town and found a place offering the local specialty, soba noodles with yuba (tofu skin). We got seated in the traditional section, so we sat on the ground with our shoes off. The noodles were quite good!

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It’s hard to see in the lighting, but the yuba was rolled into a cylinder shape

Refreshed, we headed back to sightseeing. The next stop was the main attraction: Toshogu Shrine, the complex surrounding the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This attraction was much more crowded than the Rinnoji, with many school groups visiting on field trips (identified by uniquely colored hats or kerchiefs). The main gate was covered over for renovation, but we were able to find some of the other famous carvings that make up the elaborate decoration of the shrine. We also hiked up a large flight of stairs to the actual tomb itself, which is much more austere.

Our final stop on the main shrine loop was at Taiyuinbyo, the shrine/mausoleum for Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu and the third Tokugawa shogun. This one was much less crowded, with no school groups, so it was a lot easier to take in the architecture and enjoy the serene setting in the green woods.

We then left the main area of shrines and visited the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a small gorge on the outside of town. Here a short path follows along a clear river rushing through narrow rock walls. The main attraction though is the dozens of Jizo statues lines up in a row along the trail. Each has been provided a red cap and scarf, lending the whole thing a mystical air.

After this, we felt like we had seen what we had intended to while in Nikko. We walked all the way back to the station and caught the trains back to Tokyo. We are glad we visited – it provided us a nice opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and see some unique and historic shrines and temples!

Honeymoon in Japan: Tokyo

It was quite a busy summer for us – we got married! We figured after traveling around the world together for a year, married life would be a piece of cake. The wedding and associated festivities were amazing, but we were also really looking forward to our honeymoon.

We had a bit of a hard time choosing a destination. We wanted to go someplace that was a little bit more expensive than other places, since we figured on our honeymoon we wouldn’t feel guilty about breaking our $100/day budget. Our top choices were:

  • Scandinavia – Eric has always wanted to go explore the natural wonders there
  • Italy – we have both traveled there, but not together. Plus great food and wine!
  • Japan-this was where we were supposed to end our RTW trip before we decided to cut it short after the earthquake in Nepal

Ultimately, we decided on Japan! We were able to squeeze in two-and-a-half weeks of adventure in between the wedding and heading back to work. Our first stop: Tokyo!

Getting There

If you’ve read other blog posts of ours, you can guess that we used miles to book our flights to and from Japan. For the flight there, we were able to find seats on the direct Denver to Tokyo flight on the 787 Dreamliner, purchased for just $5.60 per person in fees (using 35,000 United miles each, accumulated from signing up for United Mileage Plus Explorer and Chase Sapphire cards).

Another benefit of the Mileage Plus Explorer card is that is comes with free United lounge passes. We took advantage of the lounge in Denver and grabbed a quick snack before our flight.

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The flight itself took about 12 hours. The Dreamliner has a nice personal entertainment screen at each seat with a good selection of movies that we used to pass the time.

We arrived in Tokyo at 3 in the afternoon the next day. Narita Airport is far outside of town, so after landing we went to figure out how to get into the city. First though,we were randomly interviewed by a Japanese journalist about why were were coming to Japan. Hope our jet-lagged answers didn’t get edited out!

We were staying in the Ueno neighborhood, so we bought tickets on the Keisei Skyliner train which heads directly there. We also picked up our Japanese Rail passes for use on the rest of the trip (they are not valid on the private Keisei line). Train travel in Japan is very convenient, but you do have to pay attention to which company is operating the lines, as there are many private lines that the JR pass is not valid on. In retrospect, we should have just used the Japan Railways line which would have been included with our pass, and would have only required one transfer to get to Ueno.

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Our first experience on a train in Japan definitely impressed us – the interior was very comfortable and the train arrived exactly on time.

Where We Stayed

It is hard to find good, cheap accommodation in Japan. As intriguing as a capsule hotel sounded, we didn’t think that would be the most romantic for our honeymoon! Instead, we decided to book an apartment on Airbnb. There were a good number of choices, but we settled on a reasonably-priced one in the Ueno neighborhood.

It was a little small but quite cozy. It had a main living area with a futon which doubled as a couch and a bed, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a separate shower room (having these last two separate turned out to be the standard in all the apartments we stayed in). We enjoyed our first introduction to the fancy Japanese toilets as well!

Ueno was a convenient neighborhood to be based in: near a big park and multiple museums, plenty of restaurants, and easy transportation to other parts of the city.

What We Did

We had three full days to see as much as we could of Tokyo!

Ueno Park

This large park was located right by our accommodations. The southernmost pond was full of blooming lotus plants. We also explored a few different small shrines throughout the park.

Tsukiji Fish Market

We aren’t huge fish fans, but we had read that this giant seafood wholesale market was a must-see in Tokyo, and also was going to be moving soon so we needed to catch it now. We didn’t arrive until after 11 (no way were we going to get there at 5 AM for the tuna auction), and by that point everyone seemed to be packed up for the day already. We only poked our head in, but we were impressed by the scale of the structure. We can only imagine what a hive of activity it must be when the market is in full swing!

Free Walking Tour

One of our favorite things to do when visiting a city is to go on a free walking tour, since they offer an overview of the city at a reasonable rate, so we we were pretty excited when we saw the website for the Tokyo Free Walking Tour. As luck would have it, our first full day in Tokyo was on a Saturday, which is the only day of the week that the regular tours are offered.

The tour met up outside the iconic Tokyo Station (which feels like it belongs in Europe) and then headed to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. The emperor still lives in a different part of the Imperial Palace grounds, so we had to stick to the public gardens area. Our tour was lead by a team of two guides, who did a good job of pointing out the highlights of the gardens and filling us in on some of the history of the city and the palace.

An added bonus at the end was that they had “30-second kimonos” that were quick to tie on, making for an excellent photo opportunity.

Yanaka Neighborhood Walk

We followed a recommended Lonely Planet walking tour through the Yanaka neighborhood, the main attraction of which is a pedestrian street lined with all different types of shops. Of course our favorite was the 100 yen store! We also walked through the Yanaka Cemetery, which has thousands of tombstones of all ages.

Senso-ji

On the start of our second day of sightseeing, we visited the Senso-ji, a large Buddhist temple located in the Asakusa neighborhood. This was our first exposure to some of the classic Japanese temple elements: elaborate entrance gate, incense urn, fountain to cleanse your hands, booths to buy lucky charms, and so on.

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Edo-Tokyo Museum

The city of “Tokyo” has actually only existed since 1869, when the newly-established Emperor moved the capital to the city (Tokyo means “eastern capital”). Prior to that period, the city had been known as Edo. It started out as a small fishing village but rose to prominence as the base of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. This museum, housed in an interesting modern building, describes the history and culture of the city from its founding to present day. There was a lot of information to be read, so we had to rush a little at the end.

National Museum

The Tokyo National Museum, located in Ueno Park, is actually a collection of buildings housing a multitude of artifacts and exhibitions. Our “museum legs” were really kicking in, so we only visited two collections: the “Honkan” building which highlights Japanese art throughout the different periods of history, and the newly-renovated Gallery of Horyuin Treasures, which displays artifacts from an ancient temple in Nara.

Meiji Shrine

Emperor Meiji was the aforementioned emperor who established Tokyo as the capital of Japan and seat of the Empire. This Shinto shrine nestled in a wooded park in the middle of the city honor him and his Empress. Parts of the shrine were under renovation, so we didn’t see everything we could have, but it was still a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Harajuku

Just outside the shrine is the Harajuku neighborhood, known as the epicenter for Japanese youth culture. We walked down the main street, Takeshita Dori, and took in the atmosphere. Our most exciting find was Daiso: a mega 100 yen store, with FIVE floors of items. We spent a long time marveling at all of the different things you could get for the equivalent of a dollar. We also bought a crepe at one of the many stands along the street.

Shibuya

We couldn’t come to Tokyo and not come to the famous crossing located just outside of Shibuya Station. This intersection of multiple roads is stopped for just pedestrian traffic, and a flood of people from all directions crosses the street. We crossed ourselves a few times to experience it.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

The name sounds a little dry, but this is a great tourist destination. You can ride an elevator for free to an observation deck with great views of Tokyo in every direction. Unfortunately, we were there on a cloudy day, so we couldn’t see everything, but we still were able to spot many of the landmarks we had visited as part of the three whirlwind days!

Where We Ate

Keisuke Ramen

On our first night in Tokyo, we wanted something simple and close for our first meal. Luckily, our apartment in Ueno was close to quite a few places. In the guide for the Airbnb, the host recommended the Tabelog website for finding a place that locals like to eat. We used this to find a ramen place that had good reviews. It was a little hard to find- restaurants in Japan are pretty small! We actually walked by the door the first time before realizing it was the right place.

We also got a crash course in another common feature in small Japanese restaurants: ordering from a machine. Before we even sat down, we had to pick out our items from the kiosk by the front door that looked like a vending machine. This one was especially tough because it had no English or pictures on the buttons! The waitress motioned that there were pictures around the machine that were in English, but we were having a hard time correlating them to the buttons. We finally just guessed based on the prices. We ended up getting two types of ramen, an order of gyoza, and a beer each. A delicious introduction to eating in Japan!

Ramen Street

The next day, we were meeting up with the walking tour at Tokyo Station just after lunch time, so we decided to grab a quick lunch at one of the restaurants on “Ramen Street,” a collection of well-known ramen shops on along one small hallway on the lower level of the station. We were running a little behind so we chose one with no line (most are very small so you have to wait for a spot to sit). We again ordered from a machine, and both ended up with a tasty bowl of ramen.

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Shinsuke

Located just next door to our apartment building was an izakaya named Shinsuke. An izakaya is a Japanese pub that serves sake and other drinks in addition to small plates of food (kind of like tapas). We went one evening and sampled two types of sake and a good number of the dishes (although sticking mostly to non-fish dishes). We tried the potato salad, fried chicken, simmered vegetables and the house specialty, tofu raclette (fried tofu stuffed with raclette cheese).

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Cafe by Ryogoku Station

After visiting the Edo-Tokyo museum, our plan had been to go to the nearby sumo district and dine at one of the restaurants serving sumo-style soup. Unfortunately, we didn’t take into account that it was the middle of the afternoon, and the place we wanted to go was closed. Instead, we found this small cafe by the JR station. It turned out to be quite good. We were again confused by the vending machine, but someone helped us figure out how to order. We had the choice of soba or udon noodles, and we both chose udon. This was our first udon meal of the trip and definitely wouldn’t be the last – we decided it was our favorite type of noodle!

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Siam

We ran into a similar issue that evening, as it seemed like many of the places in the neighborhood were closed on Sunday night. We just decided to eat at Siam, a Thai place that was open. It was enjoyable although a lot more expensive than actually eating in Thailand.

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Takeout meal place

After a long day of sightseeing, we decided to just get some food to go from a place we had seen in our neighborhood that seemed to serve ready-made meals. We perused the trays of items already prepared but ultimately both ordered something from the short-order menu (again kind of guessing based on pictures). Della got stir-fried veggies and Eric a fried meat dish (tonkatsu?).

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Piss Alley yakitori

Yes, the name sounds weird, but bear with us. While in the Shinjuke district, we decided to find this small side street, which they try to call “Memory Lane” – but it keeps its other nickname because back in the day it was a popular place to go get drunk. The street is very narrow, and has very tiny restaurants all along. We found one with some open stools and were surprised to see that the restaurant was just wide enough for our seats and the grill. We ordered some skewers of different meats and veggies, watched the proprietor grill them right in front of us, and then enjoyed!

Miyoshi

After determining that udon was our favorite type of noodle, we decided to look for a place near our apartment in Ueno for dinner that had it. The restaurant review site listed Miyoshi as having udon, so we decided to try it. It was a little hard to find, since the small Japanese restaurants often don’t have a sign out front. Also, when we first looked, it was Sunday, and as it turned out it was one of the closed places. Finally, on our last evening we were able to locate this small place. It indeed had udon and soba noodles. There was not an English menu, but through a combination of pictures and hand gestures we were able to order. Della had regular udon and Eric had curry udon which is udon noodle soup with curry flavor added.

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7-11/Lawson/Family Mart

You may have noticed that we didn’t list any breakfast places above. Since we had our own apartment, we decided to keep it simple and do breakfast ourselves. There was not a big grocery store nearby, but the convenience stores in Japan have an excellent selection of pre-prepared food for takeaway. Every evening, we would go to one of the nearby stores – 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart (depending on which corner we were closest to) – and would select a few items that looked good. We were often guessing, but were rarely disappointed. We got a lot of different rice balls and sushi rolls that were quite good. We also would often pick up beers and dessert from one of these stores as well for a cheap evening treat!

Final Thoughts

Tokyo was a great place to start our honeymoon trip in Japan. We feel like we barely scratched the surface of things to see and places to eat. We would definitely like to go back again!