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I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Ca
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I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

We normally enjoy rural and some adventure trips- previous trips included gorilla trekking in Uganda, camping in Ethiopia, Papupa New Guinea, India, self drive in Kenya and most recently self drive in Jordan and Morocco (I love my life). Except maybe, Bangkok neither of us are city folks. We love staying in small hotels and exploring local villages, markets etc. Suddenly, my husband claims he has always wanted to go to Japan! "Really? Why?" I say. He could not give me an answer.

What do you think? Are there places around temples that we would enjoy? Gosh, I don't even know if the weather is good then? Any Thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Narooma, Australia
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1. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Windes -

You MUST go to Japan. It's fascinating, and for a do-it-yourselfer you'll find travelling there a breeze. I've attached a trip report from our trip last year, which may be of assistance - as you'll see, I became mesmerised by things as basic as manhole covers! You may decide to go a little further off the beaten track than we did.

Please post a report of your experience (especially compared to places like PNG or Ethiopia) on your return.

JAPAN 17th to 28th October 2008

If you haven’t been to Japan, do yourself a favour: pack your walking shoes soon, and go.

We thought Japan and the Japanese were FANTASTIC.

The country is visually exciting – different to other parts of Asia…gentle…in contrast to say Thailand, form and shape are important, colour is less so…with a distinctive Japanese style (STYLE in capitals!) to many things (e.g the wonderful designs on very simple utilitarian things like manhole covers – so much so, I started photographing different manhole cover designs).

Also in contrast to other parts of Asia, there is (appealingly to us) no haggling or pressure to buy from shop assistants.

The country feels safe, and is incredibly clean – there is no litter, there is absolutely no graffiti.

Everything is ordered (you only cross the road, when the green light shows, at the pedestrian crossing at the corner!), and everything works so well. It’s easy to get around, even for 60-year-olds! (Forget group tours – explore on your own [you’ll discover a lot more and save at least

50%]). English signs are everywhere – especially at train and bus stops. Hotels are first rate, and hotel staff are courteous and helpful. There are (spotlessly clean, free) public toilets everywhere.

The food is superb…and so cheap! (outstanding meals for Y2,000; you can put together a picnic lunch to eat in the park for well under Y1,000!)

The people are incredibly polite, friendly (will talk to you in restaurants; we were ‘interviewed’ by a school group in Hiroshima Peace Park) and very helpful (see the two examples below of our ‘misadventures’ on trains; another example – enquired at Takayama Tourist Centre about availability of internet – “come in, use ours” – for free…and then they gave us two small Sarubobo Dolls!).

Perhaps the major surprise was the amount of Japlish. We thought the Japanese desire to get things working absolutely perfectly would have extended to ensuring translations from Japanese to English were absolutely correct – but that’s not the case. Two favourites: from Hakone (a major tourist area) “Building asks a smoked visitor in the outside smoking section that you cannot smoke in” [we think they were saying if you must smoke, you will have to go outside]. And instructions from a National [international brand!!] high-tech toilet: “When you sit on the seat, automatically the cold water flow. Wait for ‘off’, the lamp to wash. When you sit on the seat, ‘STANDBY’ lamp starts flashing. If you press (a symbol) upon seating, you may have a cold water spray…Contact front desk if the following occurs: ‘STAND BY’ lamp does not stop blinking. Cold water continues to flow, even after pushing the ‘SHOWER’ button.” [Hope you now know how to drive this toilet! {you can also use it just like a toilet in Australia}]

Another surprise was the amount of sampling used in Japan – one hotel gave us free sox, a free washer, a free set of nail clippers, a free pack of toiletries/cosmetic items for the lady; packs of tissues [promoting various things] are offered freely on the streets; many food items in markets and in department store food halls are displayed with samples to taste-test – you could easily help yourself to enough samples in the larger markets or food halls and then not have to eat lunch or dinner!

Another strong impression is that the Japanese are big on announcements. On trains, they sometimes seem to be virtually non-stop. Significantly, some trains even have “quiet carriages”, where announcements are not broadcast.

We were prompted to visit Japan because of very low Jetstar fares to and from Kansai, Osaka ($553 each, including meals). Basically we then headed north, west and south in a circle from Osaka, using a JR Rail Pass (Y28,300 each for 7 days. Must be purchased outside Japan. A voucher is swapped for the rail pass at any major rail station and [recommended!] free seat reservations can simultaneously be made for long distance trips. JR Rail Pass also provides free passage on JR Ferries – including one to Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. JR Timetables are at www.hyperdia.com) and by selecting/booking hotels via the internet. JNTO in Sydney were also very helpful – we asked for maps, walking suggestions for the cities and towns of interest to us, and they sent detailed information to us.

First stop was KYOTO for 4 nights (Aranvert Hotel Y57,000 a double for 4 nights). First morning we organized all train bookings, and then a wonderful university student volunteer guide, Jyunko (through Good Samaritan), showed us some of the sights in the north and north-west of the city – the Golden Temple, Ryoanji Temple [with its famous rock garden], Ninnaji Temple, and then over to the Arashiyama area (including a walk through its spectacular bamboo forest). She also took us to a wonderful buffet all-you-can-eat-in-50-minutes restaurant that served local home-cooked style food. This was a great way to start the visit to Japan.

The next day we explored the east of the city ourselves – basically taking in 2 suggested walking tours and missing a third, because we walked the track to Mt Nyoigatake and then kept walking (the Lonely Planet instructions didn’t say to return by the same route!). We came across a stunning outdoor display of posters promoting Kyoto and we happened across a festival at the Ginkaku-ji Shinto shrine from which we had planned to start the walk. The following day we spent in Nara, and then visited the amazing Fushimi Inari Shrine (1,000 Torii gates – which ward off bad spirits – along a 10 km path up a hill…and hundreds of live cats!) on the way back to the hotel. An excess of temples and shrines! Kyoto also has an amazing, modern railway station.

Whilst in Nara we discovered that the local Governor has organised free admission for international visitors to, at least, 4 museums and one garden. This is in celebration of the city's 1300th anniversary in 2010. The museums offering free admission are the Nara Museum of Art (which includes a collection of 17th century woodblock prints), the Nara Complex of Manyo Culture in Asuka Village, the Nara Museum of Folklore, and The Museum, Archeological Institute of Kashihara. We happened across similar free admission at the delightful Yoshikien Garden.

Then it was to HAKONE for a night (Hakone Yumoto Hotel Asuka. Y18,300 a double including dinner and breakfast – the Japanese dinner and breakfast were wonderful! Thanks to the patient Manager for explaining what side dishes/sauces to eat with each course [we were the only non-Japanese in the hotel]). Lonely Planet’s description of the Hakone area is accurate: “you’re riding a conveyor belt” (train, train, funicular railway, cable car, ferry (actually Pirate Ship!), and bus (what an amazing bus ride it is, too!). Disappointingly (but not surprisingly), didn’t get a view of Mt Fuji. Bought and ate 6 black eggs – each of which is supposed to add 7 years to our lives!

Next stop was TAKAYAMA for 2 nights in a Japanese style room (Rickshaw Inn Y11,900 per night). Visited two morning markets, walked and walked through and around the outskirts of town, and visited the Hida Folk Village. Two great meals in a Chinese/Japanese restaurant.

Then, over the mountains for 2 nights in KANAZAWA on the west coast. The major attraction here is the stunning Kenrokuen Gardens (considered one of the 3 best gardens in Japan) and the magnificent Kanazawa Castle. Kanazawa also seems to be deliberately trying to be a 21st Century city – its 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is well worth visiting (a wonderful display of television and cinema advertising; discovered The Very Hungry Caterpillar [even though it’s not a 21st Century book!!] is also a favourite with young Japanese children; played an oversize football table game), there are sculptures all around town, explored and ate at their fish and fruit market, and had a great meal at a restaurant (suggested by the front-of-house manager at the hotel) specializing in local Kanazawa food. Stayed at the Toyoko Inn Korinbo Kanazawa (Y16,380 a double for 2 nights – including breakfasts, plus the numerous give-ways on arrival!).

Then it was a couple of trains to Himeji – or at least that was the plan! Foolishly I left my backpack on the first train, when changing trains at Kyoto. I quickly reported this to the person in the Fare Adjustments office – who asked for details of the train (which was then on its way to Osaka). Within a minute, a 2nd station employee arrived to help. About 5 minutes later they advised the bag had been retrieved, that we should take the next train to Osaka, pick up the bag from the Lost Property counter (they gave us instructions on how to get there and wrote a note in Japanese to the staff there), then catch the train from Osaka to Himeji [thus going 2 sides of a triangle, instead of going direct from Kyoto to Himeji. All at no extra cost, because we had the JR Pass]. The backpack was waiting for me at Lost Property, and our journey was lengthened by perhaps 1 hour. What a contrast to what would have happened in Australia (if, indeed, the backpack had been recovered at all)!

HIMEJI has a great Castle dominating the town, and some amazing covered shopping arcades. We stayed at the Comfort Hotel Himeji (Y9,000, including a big, big breakfast). With assistance from the very helpful front desk staff at the hotel, dinner was tako-yaki (octopus balls, with a sauce) from a hole-in-the-wall take-away and akashi-yaki (the local version of tako-yaki) from a food court at the station.

The final day was a dash to MIYAJIMA ISLAND (and up Mt Misen by cable car to get a great view of the Hiroshima area and surrounding islands) in the morning (because this coincided with high tide, to see the red floating torii gate at its best), and then to HIROSHIMA Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Dome, before heading to the airport.

This last leg of the journey involved a change of trains at ShinOsaka and was designed to give us time to comfortably check in at the airport, use the coin-operated showers before embarkation and grab something to eat. Unfortunately JR cancelled the train we were supposed to catch (and had seat reservations for) from ShinOsaka to Kansai airport – so we were looking lost and perplexed on ShinOsaka platform when the train dispatcher spotted us and came to see if she could assist. She explained our train had been cancelled, and we would have to catch the next train – which would arrive at Kansai with no time to spare. We explained this, and within minutes another JR employee (armed with a timetable the size of a phone directory) was trying to help us by re-routing us on other trains. In the end this turned out to be impractical – so we reluctantly had to catch the later train (with new seat reservation tickets organized – without us having to request them – by the train dispatcher; and the 2nd girl giving us explicit directions on how to get from the train to our check in counter)…and we then sprinted across Kansai airport and arrived at the Jetstar check-in counter 1 minute before the flight closed. So a quick wash in a basin in the toilets was all we could have – and dinner had to wait ‘till very late on the plane. Again, the understanding and helpfulness of the JR staff was incredible – and a complete contrast to what we feel would have happened, had we been in a similar situation, in Australia.

In summary –

A great holiday.

Jetstar was good – very much better than the Bangkok to Melbourne leg we did 12 months earlier. Their meals were good. They even served prepared coffee (in contrast to providing a coffee bag and a paper cup of luke warm water on the previous flight)! And exceptional value.

All the places visited were fabulous, and different enough from one another to make everything interesting. An extra day in Miyajima and Hiroshima would have been welcome, as we didn’t do justice to that area. Pleased we went a little off the beaten tourist track to Takayama and, particularly, Kanazawa.

Not excessively expensive. All up, the trip cost us A$5255 – and this was at a time when the A$ had dropped about 40% against the Yen in the 2 months prior to our departure. (Internet advice suggested that one budget a total of Y10,000 for site entrances [typically entrance was Y300 to Y600 per site], Y20,000 for non JR transport [major expense was Hakone Free Pass, which was Y3,900 per person ex Odawara for a 2 day pass; most bus or local train tickets were around Y200 one way] and Y2,800 to Y3,200 per person per day for food [a noodle meal is about Y700; prices in a 7/11 type store in Hiroshima were Y126 to Y136 for a bag of crisps, Y147 for a can of Coke, Y136 for 500ml milk, Y115 for a 500ml orange juice, Y306 for a 500ml Kirin Lager, Y110 – 141 for a 160g yoghurt, Y185 to Y275 for 2 rounds of sandwiches, Y200 to Y1,000 for a pack of sushi for 2 people. In the markets, Y100 for a BIG apple, Y300 for a bag of mandarins, Y200 for barbecued cuttlefish or octopus on a skewer.]. We found this suggested amount to be generous.)

The time of year was good. Weather was comfortable, and the autumn leaves were just coming on (2 or 3 weeks later and they would have been absolutely spectacular).

Reviews of the hotels are up on Tripadviser.

Brisbane, Australia
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2. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Yes, it is a good idea to first read a guide book, or look at http://www.japan-guide.com for ideas.

Having recently come back from doing a second trip to Japan, I would suggest you might enjoy the rural areas there. The big cities are interesting for a while due to their incredible crowdedness and activity, but if you don't like cities, it's nice to escape them to the countryside.

Japan is not going to be anything like the places you mention, but is nevertheless a fascinating place. I find the temples incredible, although too many in one day can be a bit overwhelming.

If you head up into the mountainous areas such as Koyasan and the Northern Alps you'll find beautiful scenery as well as temples etc. Summer isn't a good time to go due to the heat - Spring or Autumn are better.

Aoyama Dori and San...
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3. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

I absolutely recommend you go to Japan, if you are this adventurous. The difference between the places you mention and Japan is going to be safety. You absolutely do not have to worry about your own safety. You can have a great time exploring rural Japan.

tokyo
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4. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Another item that is different is Japan is a lot more developed then some of the mentioned places. Famous temples might be found right in a busy city or near a busy city, though are are some exceptions, but again it entirely depends on what you plan to do, that's where reading up on a guidebook and reading up on the culture helps, I've known people who have an image of rickshaws and geisha walking everywhere and are surprised to see how developed and different everything is from their imagine.

Aoyama Dori and San...
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5. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

My interpretation of "developed" means concrete. You will see concrete everywhere, even in the most outlying rural areas. If people live there then there is certainly Ministry of Construction money flowing in to provide employment for the locals. That means building things out of concrete, including lining rivers, shoring up hillsides and building ferro-concrete buildings of dubious usefulness. Japan pours more concrete than the US. That's not per-capita, either. That's in absolute terms. And we pour a lot of concrete here in the US, too.

Tokyo, Japan
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6. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Please come to Japan and explore our nation! I really like to hear your trip report -- impression, episodes, good or bad.

Google Japanese travel agents called JTB, H.I.S., IACE, etc.; the air ticket price to Japan is not so much expensive than you think.

And if you like to explore rural places, you really need a car to explore the country. Shinkansen go fast in a long distance between big cities; but you have to take a local bus and the schedule doesn't run often.

Do you like mountain? Or Ocean? We both have nice scenery places. I often go to Hakuba or Shiga Kogen for hiking, fall colors, and skiing. Even in Tokyo, Oku-tama area is rural; and good for day hike.

Please check this website. You will know Japan's typical tourist destinations.

jnto.go.jp/eng/…index.html

Tokyo, Japan
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7. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

P.S.

National Parks of Japan

www.env.go.jp/en/nature/nps/park/index.html

Hakuba mountains

http://www.tokyu-hakuba.co.jp/english/

Ca
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8. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Thank you all! You are very generous with your suggestions and time. It's wonderful to see such passion for your love of Japan. I've printed out the travel report and plan to spend the weekend doing research from your different post and suggestions.

It looks like there is a good chance we're going to Japan!

Tokyo, Japan
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9. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

<The country feels safe, and is incredibly clean – there is no litter, there is absolutely no graffiti.>

Thanks, 60yoAussie, for the wonderful report!

Unfortunately, graffiti is upon us. The Odakyu line, from Shimokitazawa onwards towards Shinjuku, the Yamanote line around Shibuya/Ebisu -- you'll find scribbling along train tracks, main roads, pedestrian bridges, as well as store shutters. There was one group that even painted the wall surrounding our house many years ago.

Idiots. They're usually punks who enjoy making loud noises on their motorcycles and they scribble the name of their group. Another group will then come and scribble their name over the other "team's." It's an endless cycle.

The lesson there is to erase, erase, erase. If the entire neighborhood fights back and keeps erasing, the kids get tired of the cat-and-mouse chase and move on.

I've noticed recently that it's not as bad as it used to be. Maybe with the bad economy, the punks can't buy paint. LOL

Yes, Windes, DO come. You'll love it. It's a whole different world than self-driving in Kenya -- fer shure!

Aoyama Dori and San...
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10. Re: I don't blame you if you say Read a Guide Book

Mama, is there bosozoku infestation in your neighborhood? Those guys are amusing. A friend of mine (US Marine) beat the snot out of one when they started making too much noise in his neighborhood. After that incident they never came back.