Japan travel - suggestions?

wasabi_(Z6a WesternNC)February 23, 2005

Hello all,

I'm planning (my first) visit to Japan in April. In addition to cherry blossoms, I would appreciate suggestions as to "must see" venues.

My bent, not surprisingly, is toward the country simple...the wabi-sabi if you will.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions.


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Hello Wasabi ---

As you probably know, you've picked about the very best time to visit Japan (as long as you're gone by Golden Week, that is). I'm jealous. (Especially since I can never get away then because it's such a busy month in the gardening business...)

Can you give more details about your interests (e.g., castles, "old Japan," north or south, beautiful views, unusual food, etc.) and preferred style of travel? Also, do you speak any Japanese? Are you charming with strangers or do you like to keep to yourself? (I hope these questions are not too nosy.)


    Bookmark   February 23, 2005 at 10:59AM
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wasabi_(Z6a WesternNC)


Your questions are more appropriate than nosy. Thanks for asking them.

I haven't been described as "charming" since I was a kid (and I'm not sure it fit even then). I do love people but also appreciate some alone time.

We (business partner and I) plan to spend five days in Japan and then on to China for ten days. We're on a wasabi and horticultural knowledge quest.

Except for hello, goodbye, thank you and badly pronounced sushi and sashimi terms, I don't speak Japanese. I do have a foster sister who lives in a suburb of Tokyo who teaches English and has offered to be our guide. She is arranging some wasabi farm and processing plant visits.

Views, fine food and natural experiences such as mountain areas and hot springs are also high on our list. As a former designer/craftsman, I'll drool over temples and old villages and such. As an old monk, I appreciate a good sit. I also want to visit Musashi's cave/shrine.

Suffice to say I've lived in the country and in cities.
I generally prefer the sensory experiences of the former.


    Bookmark   February 23, 2005 at 12:33PM
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Hi Sabi ---

Five days is not that long, but I'm sure you'll have a terrific time. It will help immensely to have the guidance of your foster sister around Tokyo.

Be that as it may, I would get out of Tokyo ASAP after visiting the best cherry tree venues (and wasabi-related stops). There are beautiful places in Tokyo, but so many more away from it.

If you only have time for daytrips out of Tokyo, I would highly recommend Kamakura. Engakuji is a wonderful ancient temple built up the side of a mountain with an ethereal sense at the very top. The closest station is Kita Kamakura. I'm sure your foster sister can recommend lots of other day trips within striking distance of Tokyo.

If you can blow 3-4 days traveling (might be worth checking out the rail pass), you might try this itinerary. My husband and I did this a few years ago. We went first to Matsumoto (about 3 hours pretty much west of Tokyo) where you'll find a wonderful castle, hot springs nearby, etc. The train ride takes you into mountainous terrain.

Next, head from Matsumoto toward Nagoya, stopping at Tsumago, where there is a preserved/restored historic village (a couple of hours is enough to see it). Don't eat the raw horse meat (a local specialty) by accident. The train ride goes through lovely country.

At Nagoya take the Shinkansen to Kyoto, max out on whatever siteseeing you can fit in, then zoom back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen.

You can actually do all that in a few days because the distances are not that great and the trains are wonderfully frequent and on time.

If you stay at a hot springs hotel, try to find one where you get a hotel/buffet deal (at a good quality place). The buffet dinner is usually absolutely fabulous, and it's all you can eat. Plus you can dip in and out of the bath pools, which often include an open air bath, to your heart's content. For a good place you might expect to pay $100 or $150 per person for this, but it's worth it if you like good food...

There are plenty of other good itineraries --- just one suggestion for the amount of time you have.


    Bookmark   February 23, 2005 at 4:46PM
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wasabi_(Z6a WesternNC)

Great thoughts, Lee. I appreciate your insights.


    Bookmark   February 27, 2005 at 10:44AM
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junkgirl(z7 GA)

Konichiwa Doug, I visited Japan a few years ago and can offer these suggestions from my experiences. Japan is a country where very few people outside of the big city (Tokyo) speak English. So someone who is fluent is a must. My cousin taught English at the David English House in Miyoshi (western Japan). Personally I was enthralled with the temples and graveyards. Especially the ancient Sho-gun/warload Buddhist graveyards. We spent the day in Hiroshima and Peace Park and that was to say the least a very moving experience. Also, if you should get that far away a trip to the island shrine of Miyajima is another nice place to visit. If you are in an area that has a castle, by all means, visit it. I believe there are still 7 castles from the Japanese middle ages available for tour. I was there in August and I could not believe the gardens and flowers blooming. One of the best souvenirs I bought was I went to the hardware store and bought seeds (flat and light weight for packing!) And another thing, if you get away from the city, you will be surprized at how friendly the Janpanese are. We had people come up to us and ask would we please talk to them so they could use their English. And Finally, a great place to buy cheap souveniers for for your family and friends is the 100 Yen Store. I called it the Yen Tree (like our Dollar Tree) Everything is 100 yen or $1. And like our Wal-mart, it's where Japan shops! Have a wonderful trip. Hopefully, I'll be goig back in August this year. Alice

    Bookmark   February 27, 2005 at 7:08PM
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Hi Sabi,

I also live in WNC.
Nice to found someone interested in Japan nearby.

I really think you should visit Kyoto (ancient capital). It only three hours away from Tokyo by Bullet train.


    Bookmark   March 10, 2005 at 1:10PM
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I am living in Japan and I have to second that motion to visit Miyajima via Hiroshima. It is a fabulous place and if you have the chance to go, do it, but try to avoid the weekend crowds.

I don't think it is absolutely necessary to have a guide with you outside the cities- people will be more than willing to help you (the Japan Sea area might be an exception) and you will begin to see your native language in a new way. Anyway, the Japanese are very intuitive and a little language goes a long way. Some cities, Like Matsusyama, have volunteer guides who are knowledgable and fluent and will take you to historic places for the price of transportation and a meal.

If I could make one other suggestion it would be to try to not see too much. It is tedious and tiring to travel here so choose a place where you can linger and discover.

By the way, the cherry trees have begun to blossom in on Shikoku. They stay in blossom a short time but the trees blossom northward up Honshu like an advancing army- something to consider if you are set on seeing them.


    Bookmark   March 18, 2005 at 7:35AM
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A nice article on " The Zen of Kyoto" in the March 2005 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

an added bonus is a 4 page article on 22 Secret Gardens in the U.S. and Canada - ' Soothing Places of Surprise and Sanctuary ' .

    Bookmark   March 23, 2005 at 7:42PM
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wasabi_(Z6a WesternNC)

Thanks for all the great suggestions! Our timetable has been pushed back, but we may extend the trip to try to pack more in. Kyoto and Miyajima are on the must see list. Thanks for the heads up on the Nat Geo article, Mich, and for the seed idea JunkGirl.


    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 9:44AM
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Whatever city you visit, find the International Center and mention your interests. They should be able to provide maps and brochures in English, as well as useful train and bus maps and schedules. Take a moment to look over the maps with the staff and ask questions about the symbols and transit graphics.

Don't try to do too much or you will experience too little! When you come across other Americans that look comfortable, strike up a conversation. This can be very valuable.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2005 at 2:56PM
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Gardener_KS(zone 5 KS)

Miyajima is a great place to visit. Be sure to stay at a Japanese-style inn. And since you will go through Hiroshima to get to Miyajima, plan to spend some time at the Peace Park and the museum. You'll never forget the experience.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2005 at 7:49PM
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If you are only spending 5 days in Japan and already have some of this time carved out for wasabi appreciation, I'd recommend that you not try to travel to Kyoto AND Miyajima AND Hiroshima AND Kamakura in your scarce few days. Especially if you are at all jet lagged you will not want to be on a tear. Kyoto is around 4 hrs from Tokyo by train, Miyajima is another couple of hours from Nagoya via Hiroshima (on the way to Kyoto) on another line, etc.- and Miya-jima is about as far from wabi-sabi as I can think of.

If I were you I'd read some of the articles on www.thejapantimes.com website and try to make some connections with people in or around tokyo (lots of expats write for the JT, and they frequently have articals on local botanical things, etc.). Tokyo's a magnificent city and for all the urban development there is a deep and abiding love of all things green- the bonus of urban planning is that there are parks all over. Most were incorporated into the city as "earthquake evacuation zones" but the bonus is a huge amount of green space per capita. Also, get a big fat guidebook and spend some time reading all of the day trip suggestions from Tokyo, and follow up with the JNTO or local references to get the skinny on any events or activities that the book didn't have room to print.

Easy day trips from Tokyo can be made to Kamakura (notable for it's hydrangea gardens, although it might be too early for them) and Shizuoka, which is near the base of Mt. Fuji and one of the greenest "subburbs" of Tokyo I've been to, easily reached by shinkansen. If you are flying into Narita and can change your departing flight to Kansai, then by all means go to Kyoto. If you go to Kyoto, take some walks up in Higashiyama, it's just beautiful, pituresque and wabi-sabi but accessible. I'm sure it's in the guidebooks though. If you have a guide who speaks some japanese you'll be totally fine, but don't let anxiety over a language barrier be a deterrent. Carry a phrasebook/dictionary, get a tokyo atlas (you will want this, there are few street names, everything depends on your map reading skills), do a little bit of cultural research ahead of time ("Culture Shock: Japan" is meant for expats but is a good introduction) and smile. Best of luck, enjoy your trip!

    Bookmark   March 28, 2005 at 3:31PM
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www.japantimes.com is the newspaper link, sorry. No "the".

One other suggestion, come to think of it, is to strike off north of Tokyo the the Utsunomiya area, which is kind of seen as a wooded, recreational area. Very green, with some notable temples and such as tourist destinations (Nikko is one example). There are also more hotspring resorts in this area, some of which feature extra curative elements such as naturally occurring sulphur water, etc. This area is also a bit closer to the Japanese alps, and you can encounter some crazy switchbacks over some of the "hills" ... fun stuff. Beware the wild monkeys ;)

    Bookmark   March 28, 2005 at 3:43PM
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