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: 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: 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: 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.

 

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!