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Trip Report—-Autumn colors in Japan

Seeing a couple of questions about Japan in the Beyond Europe forum the past few days reminded me that I intended to write a report on our November trip to Japan, but the holidays got in the way. Now I have time, and I want to write about the trip, both to relive the highlights and to encourage others to visit. It is a wonderful place to see and experience.

My husband and I are avid hikers, and we like to “travel to hike.” Our trips to Europe are usually a mix of independent travel and some guided hiking with one of two companies we like, MT Sobek or REI Adventures. For this trip we liked the MT Sobek trip timing and itinerary. The 10-day trip started in Kyoto and ended in Tokyo, with five days between for visiting mountain areas and walking the famed Nakasendo Trail that originally linked Kyoto and Tokyo. The start date was November 10, at the beginning of the autumn color season, and we added four days on the front end to fly over and spend some time on our own in Kyoto, where I had been with my son 20 years ago.

Flights from Seattle go directly to Tokyo’s Narita airport, landing in late afternoon. I decided we would spend the night in Tokyo and take the train to Kyoto the following day, rather than change planes and continue to Osaka, the closest airport to Kyoto. I booked a “splurge” hotel (The Strings) near the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo, which we could easily reach by the Narita Express train from the airport, and from which we could take the Shinkansen “bullet” train to Kyoto the following day.

A word about train travel in Japan, and logistics in general. I wrongly assumed we should purchase our tickets online in advance as we do for European train travel, but it turns out there is no price benefit, and it is quite difficult to do. So my plan was to buy them in the airport station when we bought our Narita Express tickets. Wrong again. The agent for the Narita Express sold only those tix, and advised we would be better off buying the Shinkansen tix at Shinagawa station. So we tried that, standing in two different lines only to be told they just sell same-day tickets at those windows. We were directed to another area “outside” but at this point, after the 9-hour flight from Seattle, the hour train ride in from the airport, and two unsuccessful queues, I gave up. Ever the inveterate “advance planner”, I totally surprised my husband by suggesting we just show up at the station the next morning and buy our tickets when we were ready to go, as all the Japanese seemed to be doing. This turned out really well—-we were free to choose our own schedule in the morning (taking a 2-hour walk around the university area) and then mosey over to the station to buy tickets when we were ready to go. No stress about getting to the station in time for our train.

You have probably heard that the Tokyo trains stations are huge and terribly crowded. Huge yes, but only crowded at commute hours. And very well-signed, with signs in both English and Japanese. It was much easier to navigate than I expected. And very well-organized, right down to lines on the platform indicating where one should queue for the car and particular seat numbers.

More logistics——most bank ATM’s in Japan will not accept North American debit cards, but you can count on finding a friendly ATM machine at a 7-11 convenience store, and these are all over. (They also sell tasty caramel custard in little plastic cups if you are craving something sweet.). You do not need much cash in the city, but in smaller areas there are shops and restaurants that are cash only, so be prepared. You can also pay for food and drinks in convenience stores and train stations with a prepaid SUICA card that you need for the subway and local trains. But you’ll need cash to buy that card from the machines. You can get a refund (in cash) for any amount left on the card, plus the 500 yen deposit, at a Tokyo train station before you leave.

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Upon arrival at Kyoto Station, we followed the yellow “exit” signs to the taxi stand. I showed the driver the prints-outs from our hotel in the Gion district,, with the address and directions. I also studied up on how to say certain things in Japanese, so I could way, “here, please” to the taxi driver (few of whom speak English). Of course you will also learn Hello, Good morning, thank you, etc. These are easily found online so I won’t go into detail.

I booked a small (10 rooms? ) boutique hotel in the Gion district for our 2 nights before meeting the tour. It was Hotel Ethnography Shinmonzen, and was just about perfect, although the breakfast was a bit sparse. I chose it on the basis of the location (excellent) and the mix of Western and Japanese style. Our room had a large window looking out onto a private garden; very peaceful and relaxing after a busy day. The decor was Japanese (including tatami-covered floor but with very comfortable Western beds which my husband appreciated, as he was not looking forward to sleeping on futons on the floor. The bathroom was Japanese in style—-shower is next to, not inside, the bathtub (in Japan you shower before entering the bathtub, at least in the shared hot pools). Since he hates climbing into a bathtub to take a shower, this was perfect. And the toilet, a Toto bidet/toilet we found almost everywhere, even in public bathrooms, was in a separate compartment, with special shoes provided. (Get used to that).

We had 3 days to spend in Kyoto before meeting our tour, and made good use of them. On arrival day, after checking in, we walked to Nijo Castle a mile away, which was very interesting, especially the “nightingale floors” which squeak to warn of intruders. (Note; do not expect a European-style castle when visiting Japan. Instead, look forward to lovely art on the walls, no furniture, and a beautiful garden).

The following days we went to the Silver Pavilion (Ginkaju-ji, the Sento Imperial Palace, and the famous Fushimi Inari shrine, with its thousands of vermillion Torii:

We took the Keihan Railway early train from the nearby station, arriving around 8 am, with no crowds. By the time we finished the walk to the top and back, the shrine area was so packed we just wanted to leave. But the experience was well worth the time. You can explore the japan-guide website for more information on this and other sites in Kyoto. In fact I found lots of good information on this website.

Photos ( not mine) of the famed Gion District with its lovely canal and bridge, just 2-3 blocks from our hotel:

The weather in Kyoto was perfect, much warmer and sunnier than we expected. So much so that I felt the need for a short-sleeved Tshirt and a sun hat, neither of which I brought. Shopping opportunity! Always a good way to experience the local scene. The problem was that the tshirt shops we passed on the way to the temples and shrines we visited did not have my size (very small). I thought we might find something at Uniqlo but we could not find the store in Kyoto station. We finally succeeded at Montbell, in the Nishiki market, which I recognized as a good outdoor store, but never realized it was actually a Japanese brand. As for a sun hat, all the shops and stalls only had winter hats, but I finally found an affordable (2000 yen) cotton bucket hat at a vintage clothing store, also in the Nishiki market. I probably will not wear it ever again but it sufficed for the trip. And buying it was quite fun.

Running out of room but before I move on I just want to say how kind and friendly the Japanese people are. I was nervous about the language barrier but it was not an issue at all. We felt welcome in a genuine way wherever we went, and if we had questions or needed help someone would show up and offer help.

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After three days enjoying Kyoto on our own, we met our tour group (7 people total, plus one guide) to begin our guided journey. We spent another 3 nights in Kyoto, with daytrips to nearby areas such as the Arashiyama bamboo forest, and Nara, the ancient capital (before Kyoto and Edo). Then we traveled by train and funicular to the scared mountain of Koyosan to spend one night in a Buddhist temple after exploring several temple grounds, one beautifully illuminated at night. The maples were at their prime here, and it was hard to stop taking photos of them against the clear blue sky. That night it rained, and the next morning the paths were littered with those beautiful red and golden leaves. . .

We spent the next four days on the Nakasendo Trail, hiking some of the best sections with transport to and from various points along the trail. Our lodging was in two different little mountain inns, and a very nice ryokan for 2 nights. In these, as in the temple inn, we had true Japanese tatami rooms with futons for sleeping. The only furniture in the room is a low square table in the center of the room when you arrive, with a tea service set and a thermos of near-boiling water. And some square cushions to sit on. The table is moved aside when it is time to bring out the futons and make up the beds. Generally this happened while we were at dinner, but in one inn we made up our own beds. The futons were very comfortable, although getting up off the floor was a bit of a challenge for my husband.

Speaking of dinner (but also of breakfast), the food at these places was incredible——beautifully presented on 8-10 little plates and bowls at each person’s place. A feast for the eyes as well as the palate. It was the best food we have had on this type of tour, and that is saying a lot (we ate very well on the Tour du Mont Blanc, and in Patagonia). But this was a whole level above. I don’t know how they do it. (The one thing we missed was vegetables, as in green salad and things like steamed broccoli. But these were not in season, so most of the vegetables we saw were pickled.)

I will link to the tour we did if you are interested in the itinerary. It would be possible to duplicate the Nakasendo part on one’s own, but takes a lot of planning. We met people on the way who were doing that, and some were stressing over train schedules or other details of their itinerary.. I was happy to have the planning done for us and just “show up.”

Our guide Ryoko was fantastic. Fluent in English, and familiar enough with American culture to be able to explain the differences with Japanese life and culture. She taught us a lot about history, religion, food, and customs, often using her own hand-drawn visual aids. She arranged some special “off schedule” experiences for us with her discretionary funds, including sake tasting and a Shinto blessing ceremony for our safe travel home.

Resources I used for the part of our trip I did plan were the TripAdvisor Japan forum (very helpful with specific questions), a couple of Kyoto guidebooks, and several websites:

I encourage all who have an interest in branching out from Europe and experiencing a fascinating, exciting, and beautiful place to GO! Spring and fall are the best times; summer is hot and humid. Winter is nice too (the last time I went to Japan was over Christmas and New Years), but the landscape not as beautiful.

While Japan is very busy in Sakura (cherry blossom) season in April, and autumn foliage season in November, I would not miss going at those times just to avoid crowds. The beauty of the maples and other trees was a highlight of our trip, and we managed to avoid the crowds by careful scheduling (or our guide did it for us).

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Lola, a pleasure to read your report! Thank you! Japan is on the list! Of all the places in Asia, it’s at the top!

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Thank you so much. I bookmarked this entry as we are going to Kyoto in November and am looking so forward to the trip. Yours sounded amazing.

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Lola, thanks for this wonderful report, which brings back some great memories. My daughter and I visited Japan for two weeks in January 2011, when my niece was working in Kyoto. One thing that amazed me was how beautiful the gardens were even in winter. I would love to get back in the spring or fall one of these days, and I’m very intrigued by the walking tour you did.

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Tammy, Japan is a natural for you Alaskans---fairly close, and a great place to go in November when Anchorage is gloomy! Or during April break-up. Your Alaska Airlines miles can be used on Japan Airlines ( but you might have to go via Seattle).

Nancy, let me know if you have specific questions on Kyoto. I was intentionally brief above. I also added a link with photos around Gion, and will re-post it here:

The interesting thing here was the sight of so many young women dressed in (rented) kimono having their photos taken on the famous bridge or next to the canal. We asked our hotel hosts if this was a special holiday and the answer was no, just a normal weekend during fall color season.

We could easily have spent more time in Kyoto and may go back for a week next time.

Kathleen, if you are interested in guided walking, REI Adventures does a similar trip that includes time on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage path as well as the Nakasendo Trail. Or if you prefer self-guided, you could look into the information on the Kumano Kodo path here:

My sister and her family walked sections of the Kumano Kodo using resources from that website, and had quite an adventure. (actually I think the adventure was when they got lost in Tokyo).