Japanese Adventure


In May 2006 we traveled to Asia for the first time. Our friends Andy & Chiaki were married in the bride’s hometown — Isohara in the Ibaraki prefecture. We had been anxiously awaiting their wedding for years and were excited and honored to be a part of the festivities.Chiaki’s family was generous and kind to us (fitting of our image of the exceptionally polite Japanese) as we visited them during the first four days of our travels. We visited the local beach, tried native cuisine, experienced an authentic sushi dinner (made by Chiaki’s uncle), toured a sake factory, visited local shrines and temples, marveled at local galleries and art museums and witnessed Andy & Chiaki’s wedding at a local Shinto shrine. The open-air service within the newly renovated shrine was magical as a warm breeze brought well wishes for the happy couple.


We then headed for Tokyo with A, C and a group of their family and friends. Despite its size, Tokyo is an inviting, warm city. The natives are helpful and curious and always willing to assist English-speakers (the Japanese are perfectionists in everything they do and enjoy the opportunity to practice their English). Here, we visited a famous shrine in downtown Tokyo, Tokyo Tower, an authentic Japanese tea garden, Harajuku & Ginza (famous shopping districts), Asakusa (a shrine and local shopping arcade — fun new pearls!), the Sumo Museum, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tsukiji Fish Market (Yum, otoro tuna!), and we also made plenty of time to try the local favorites (Japan’s translation of Italian food, rice balls, Korean barbeque, okonomiyaki (japanese dinner pancakes with cabbage and assorted meats that you cook yourself and spread with Japanese mayonnaise, bulldog sauce (kind of like barbeque sauce) and fish flakes), and tempura.


Then, we traveled with the group to see Mt. Fuji. An attractive, but evasive (hidden by fog and clouds much of the time) mountain just outside Tokyo. During May, the Mt. is still snow topped and you’re not able to hike to the top, we just enjoyed views from the Visitor’s Center mid-way up. And then, we were off to see views of Mt. Fuji from other area lakes, and vantage points. But, alas Mt. Fuji kept to itself hidden and we enjoyed the vantage points without the elusive Mt.Then, another side trip to Enoshima (a small Island just outside Tokyo with views of Mt. Fuji and a picturesque rocky shore). And to Kamakura where a HUGE bronze Buddha dwarfs its visitors. According to the brochure, this Buddha can hold up to 5 humans in its hand.

After much fun with the group during our 9 days of travel together, the other American wedding guests traveled back to the US and G&K ventured out for a bit of independent travel.

During the months preceding our trip, we purchased many travel guides to help us to make good decisions and make the most of our travel time and budget. But, we found that Asian travel guides lack the detail and candid recommendations that we’d become accustomed to within Rick Steves’ European guides. After consulting many guides and resources, we decided to travel to: Takayama, Shirakawago, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka, Kobe, the Inland Sea, Beppu, Yufuin, and Hiroshima.

Takayama, a beautiful little town in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. This town is home to a photogenic shopping district — in fact, this shopping district’s likeness appears in many Japanese travel ads and materials. Here, we stayed in a Japanese-style traditional inn — called a minshuku. At first glance, we were nervous about the prospect of staying in a traditional inn because meals are included (and we were unsure of what to expect), you sleep on futons on the floor (as opposed to western style beds), and guests share bathing facilities. However, this inn made us realize that our fears were unfounded. The meals included tempura meats and vegetables, assorted sashimi, pickeled vegetables, miso soup, rice, and other local specialties. Each meal included an assortment of 10-20 small bits — a variety of new things to try. The shared bath was comfortable as well. In most cases (provided you time it right), others will not be in the joint bathing facilities with you. And the bath is optional (kind-off like hot tubs in America). You wash outside the tub in a shower area. However, rolling out the futons did prove a bit more daunting as the mattress and the comforters are very similar and easily confused. Yes, you may have guessed. During our first night in a minshuku, we had flashbacks of the princess and the pea. We stacked what we believed to be mattresses in order to make our bed. We later learned that we slept upon four comforters rather than what we believed to be four very thin mattresses. (Lucky for us that our next minshuku rolled out the beds for us while we were at dinner and we realized our mistake 🙂 For any who are planning their travels to Japan, we would definitely recommend staying in a minshuku for at least part of your visit.


Shirakawago. We typically come upon at least one town or village that becomes the iconic destination for each trip. For us, Shirakawago was this Japanese destination. Nestled amidst the Japanese Alps, and with thatch roofed homes and wildflowers at every turn, Shirakawago is both interesting and beautiful. Here, we also stayed in a minshuku and enjoyed the company of a group of Japanese photographers who were in for the town’s annual rice planting festival. And we found lots of competition for the prime vantage points as the town was crawling with (easily) 50-100 “amateur” and professional photographers. The Japanese take their hobbies very seriously and we felt quite silly with our tiny travel tripod and small digital camera alongside Japanese amateurs with the biggest and best equipment. But, we did get great shots from this town and the Japanese “amateur photographers” were very kind in sharing their mega tripods with us to get that perfect shot. Take a look at our gallery to see the best images.Onward to Kanazawa. Home to one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens and to what was once a Shogun’s castle during the emperor’s reign. Also situated amongst mountains, this town is not to be missed. While perhaps silly to comment, this town also boasts an impressive train/bus station–one of the country’s best organized and complete.

Next to Kyoto. Home of Gion — the Geisha district where we saw modern-day geishas shuffling to and from their tea-house appointments at dusk. Beautiful, polite and demure, geishas were hunted by tourists and their cameras — we tried not to join in. Also in Kyoto, we took a jaunt down the philosopher’s path, visited the Golden Pavillion, the Toji 5-story pagoda, the city’s many shopping and nightlife districts and tried conveyor belt sushi. You just pick what you like and pay a set amount per empty plate at the end of your stay. AND they had an automatic been pouring machine — it tilted the glass to ensure the perfect pour.

Nara’s home to one of Japan’s largest Buddha’s, and our personal favorite — tame deer! An easy day trip from Kyoto (1-2 hour train ride from Kyoto), Nara is a bit touristy, but the friendly deer make it worth it for those of us who grew up idolizing Bambi.


Osaka, another large Japanese city, is situated on the sea. And Kobe is next-door to Osaka, also along the sea. Many may remember that Kobe was leveled by a major earthquake around a decade ago. It’s been fully reconstructed and is now a nice town once again. Most guide books note that Osaka’s a large, dirty city. We found it to be quite large, but not dirty. All of Japan was very clean. However, because it’s difficult to truly experience a large city as a foreigner without conversational Japanese, we opted to spend our time in more intimate Kobe. Visiting the city’s skyway (a cablecar/ropeway that takes you above the city for scenic mountain-top views) and mountainside herb garden made for a good day-trip from Osaka. And we then finished the day with dinner high above Osaka on the 25th floor of a local department store.From Osaka, we took an overnight ferry through Japan’s Inland Sea to Beppu — home to over 1000 natural hotsprings and its native masque monkeys (japanese snow monkeys). After surrendering our fear of shared baths in Takayama and Shirakawago (while staying in minshuku), we opted to do as the locals do and visit a number of the local hot springs and public baths. We took an outdoor mud bath and lakeside spring water bath (both hot, hot, hot and good for the skin). While a bit uncomfortable at a first, you quickly get over your American modesty and do as the Beppuians do. And we also braved the language and went for dinner amongst the locals (as we did throughout our trip)?

And then, a small side trip to Yufuin. The small hot spring town outside of Beppu. Here, we enjoyed trying local treats (creme brulee-wiches, yum!) and unknowingly had our most expensive lunch…this is where the “point and surprise ordering method” breaks down:^) Also a hilltown, Yufuin has beautiful mountain views and storefronts with character.

And, our last stop, Hiroshima. Emotions are on high as you see the city that was once leveled during World War II. A museum now stands at ground zero — declaring Japan’s hope for peace and the retirement of all atomic weapons. And a single structure left from the blast still stands along the waterfront at city center. Called the A-bomb memorial, this structure was built just prior to the blast and was the only one left standing after the blast.

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