Spring Elegance, Tokyo and beyond – It’s great Part 2

Earlier on in April, we had a great blog diary from one of our customers travelling in Japan on the Spring Elegance tour. Tina Vivona and her family from Illinois were in  Japan whilst governments still advised against travelling to Tokyo but continued to enjoy the spring weather, cherry blossom and the fantastic culture of this amazing country. Tina  gave us a fantastic insight into the trip as far as Kanazawa and her love for the country so far had shone through in the blog piece. Tina now gives us the final installment of life on the Spring Elegance tour (April 2011);

Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Lazy morning as our train to Kyoto isn’t scheduled (from Kanazawa) until around noon. Took a short walk to the Oyama Shrine. What a peaceful and relaxing place. Amazing how you can feel such seclusion just one block from a major thoroughfare. It’s so unexpected. Beautiful gardens. Fabulous pond with multiple stepping stones and platforms. Is it really possible for each garden to be more beautiful than the one before?

Quick stop at the arcade for some more takio drumming. Off to the train station. Two hours later we are in Kyoto. Taxi to the hotel. Check in and meet back in the lobby within 15 minutes so we can begin our evening tour of the Gion district. Gion is the famous entertainment and geisha quarter on the eastern bank of the Kamo-gawa.

First event for the evening was the Miyako Odori geisha performance at the Gion Kōbu Kaburen-jō Theatre. Beautiful to watch! Spectacular color. Another traditional Japanese
dinner followed ala bento box style. Special walking tour of the Gion district with a local guide in Kyoto. Fascinating history. Passed a maiko in the street. Saw Maiko and Geiko performing in the upper windows of a teahouse.

Cherry blossoms lining the street were lit and provided a glowing canopy. Truly enchanting. Ended the evening with drinks at an Irish Pub. It was open mike night. Entertained by belly dancers, a guitar player, a harmonica player, singers, and best of all, a Michael Jackson impersonator. Funny to see Western culture appreciated by the Japanese.

Thursday, April 7, 2011
Woke up super excited. Geisha makeover today. It was fun to watch myself be transformed. I almost didn’t even recognize myself. I got to choose the kimono I wanted to wear. I am so happy with my pictures. I know it’s such a touristy thing to do, but I am so glad I did.

While I was getting made up and photographed, Ross and my parents were exploring the Kyoto train station as it is an architectural marvel. I rejoined them at the Sanjusangendo Temple which house 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity, Kannon. Awesome sight to behold! Beautiful gardens with cherry blossoms blowing in the wind like snow.

Back to the train station for a lunch of curry. Japanese curry is not the same as it is in America. Did not disappoint. Off to see Kinkakuji Temple or the Golden Pavilion. Golden indeed as the top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. Magnificient. Love the way it reflects in the surrounding pond. Parted ways with my parents. They opted for some shopping while
Ross and I opted for more gardens. First, we took a moment to enjoy a snack and hanami (flower viewing), the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers, at Hirano Shrine. Then it was off to enjoy something new.Zen “rock” gardens.

Our first stop was at Ryoanji Temple, site of Japan’s most famous rock garden. Easy to see how these 15 rocks could inspire philosophical meditation. Next was a visit to Ninnaji Temple, a former imperial residence, where the gardens were great expanses of raked gravel. The grounds here featured many buildings to include a pagoda and bell tower. Simply beautiful.

Friday, April 8, 2011
Received a frantic phone call from Ross’ mom this morning. Apparently there was a 7.1 magnitude aftershock near the epicenter. We felt nothing in Kyoto and assured her we were fine. On our own today. No guide. Rode the Shinkansen, aka the bullet train, to Hiroshima from Kyoto. Practically had the train car to ourselves.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and the Atomic Bomb Dome. While walking between the two sites, an older Japanese lady stopped us in the street. She asked where we were from and seemed surprised that we did not seem afraid of the radiation. She mentioned it was nice for us to visit because most tourists had disappeared. She thanked us for visiting Japan and wished us a nice trip. It was a very nice moment. Again, I am glad we didn’t cancel the trip. Lunch featured Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki. Better than what we had in Tokyo. I highly recommend it and will most definitely try to recreate it at home. Headed for Miyajima Island by way of train and ferry. Enthralled by the giant red torii gate even though it was low tide. Able to walk out to the gate. Unexpectantly delighted by the wild deer meandering through town. Dazzled by the expansive Itsukushima Shrine.  Bullet train back to Kyoto. Back at hotel by 10:30 pm – Long, but memorable, day.

Saturday, April 9, 2011
Another long travel day. Left Kyoto for Hakone by bullet train. In Hakone, we switched to the mountain railway for the long chug up the mountain to our hotel. Lots of switchbacks. Finally reached our destination, the historic Fujiya Hotel, at about 2:00pm. Exhausted by travel and inhibited by the rain, we decided to spend the afternoon at the hotel. Enjoyed a late lunch in the Orchid lounge sitting at the same table John Lennon and Yoko Ono shared while visiting in the summer of 1978. Explored the hotel checking out their hot spring
swimming pool, hotel museum, and shops. Nap before dinner. Tempura for dinner at a restaurant just around the corner and uphill from the hotel. A family run operation. Sat around an arched bar which allowed us to watch the tempura being made. Tried some interesting stuff. Unique experience.

Sunday, April 10, 2011
Enjoyed a formal breakfast in the dining room. No rain today, but lots of fog. Took the mountain rail to the Hakone Open Air Museum. What an amazing museum. Perfectly designed to move you through the gardens at a leisurely pace while viewing impressive sculptures. Popular place. Lots of families with small children. Took time to enjoy the hot spring foot
bath. Rejuvenating. Continued up the mountain by rail then switched to a cable car for the steep incline to the Hakone Ropeway Station. Boarded the arial trams that would carry us to Owakudani, known as the “Valley of Hell” in ancient times. In complete awe as we crossed the summit and descended into the volcanic valley filled with active sulphur vents and hot springs. Snacked on wasabi ice cream and Kuro-tamago, eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs.

We could not see Mt. Fuji due to the low visibility. Made our way back to the bottom of the mountain to do some shopping. Dinner tonight was Italian – What?! I guess my parents did deserve the break from Japanese cuisine. They had been good sports all this time.

Monday, April 11, 2011
Weather finally improved. Able to walk the gardens of the hotel. Breathtaking as always. Love the carp.

Journey back to Tokyo by mountain train, regular train, and then bullet train. Arrived at our home for the evening.Shinjuku, known as the skyscraper district. Lunch at a ramen noodle shop. Time for some more slurping! Meal purchased from a ticket machine. The Group split up. Mom and dad did some shopping near the train station in Shinjuku. Ross and I headed to Shibuya for some shopping. Stood in amazement and watched the crowds cross the street at Hachiko Square – one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world. If you have seen a movie based in Japan, you have probably seen this crossing. I thought Ginza was big. Well, so is Shibuya!

Had a nap at the hotel. Awakened by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake (later lowered to 6.6). Got out of bed to look out the window. Peeked into office building. Workers going on with their business like nothing happened. Went back to bed. Met up with group for our final dinner. Yakitori was on the menu this evening. Grilled meat on skewers. Joint was literally just a bar. Amazing how many people we crammed into this place. Fellow diner got us to try Shochu, his beverage of choice. Not bad at all. Said our goodbyes to our tour guide, Axel.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Today marks the official end of our guided tour with InsideJapan. Enjoyed one last breakfast with my parents. They finished packing and headed for the airport. Ross and me are staying an additional five days. More time to explore Tokyo and hopefully go to Tokyo Disneyland. As of today, rumor is that the park will open on Friday. Fingers crossed!
Sayonara! It’s been great!

It sounds as though they had a fantastic time in Japan and to be honest we are not surprised. Good to hear that Japan is carrying on as normal in areas many miles from the Tohoku region and that the Japanese welcome is bigger than ever.  Thanks for sharing your experiences with us Tina!

Pass me the corkscrew

The other evening I found myself drinking a nice drop of red and my mind was inspired to drift back to to my time living in the beautiful prefecture of Yamanashi. Why, you may ask, did this Argentinean vino remind me of my Japanese adventure? Well, though it may be a surprise to many, Japan is also home to a number of burgeoning vineyards, with arguably the best being found in…you’ve guessed it..Yamanashi!

For wine you need grapes, and these little orbs of goodness are abound in Yamanashi, particularly around the town of Katsunuma, about a 90 minute hop on the train west of Tokyo. Nestled against the eastern mountains forming the boundary of the Kofu basin, the soil is rich and fertile, so a perfect combination for cultivation. Though familiar varieties such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot are grown it’s the native Koshu grape that’s the star. Big and bountiful, the Koshu grape is a bright lavender color and the white wine it produces is light, floral and tasty.

The origins of these grapes are, inevitably, the stuff of legend. Allegedly in 718, a monk called Gyoki was visited by a sacred Bodhisattva who appeared holding a bunch of grapes. Inspired, Gyoki carved this vision in wood, enshrined it in a temple and proceeded to teach the people of Katsunuma to grow what would become known as the Koshu grape.

Yamanashi wine making did not begin until late 19th century, but has gradually been refined to the point where bottles of Koshu wine are beginning to turn heads and wet palates abroad. If you ever find yourself in Yamanashi at the beginning of October (and with beautiful lakes, gorgeous scenery and the ever present Mt Fuji looming on the horizon why wouldn’t you) be sure to check out the Katsunuma Grape Festival, a chance to (over) indulge in the grapes, but more importantly, the wines of this lovely region. Now, where’s that corkscrew..?

Chasing the yen – getting the best deal on your travel currency

After some exciting blog posts in recent times, today I bring you a practical no nonsense bit of travel advice. It’s a little dry but it could save you a lot of money and that has to be a good thing!

Nobody likes paying commission on currency exchange but like death and taxes, this just seems unavoidable! “No commission” usually means a terrible exchange rate and finding the best place to purchase currency can be a time consuming process. However, this can be time well spent as the difference in rates can be substantial and if you are travelling to Japan for two weeks you will be spending a fair bit of yen.
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Monday night in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Monday April 18th 7pm

Last night was our final dinner of the first Hidden Japan tour of the year. We were in Shinjuku, the bright neon heart of central Tokyo. 

We ate at a traditional izakaya (Japanese diner). Earlier in our tour, we had a memorable picnic under the sakura that included scotch eggs, now with the salarymen below the skyscrapers in Shinjuku, our table contained grated yam, natto and raw horse amongst more conventional dishes. 

After dinner we went for a walk up to Kabukicho, the bright sprawling night-time entertainment district. Contrary to reports, all the lights were on – well the important ones were anyway, and there seemed to be alot of night-time entertainment going on – whatever that is.   

Stores are cutting back on non-essential electricity use. But walking around Shinjuku, we saw some machines are just too important to stop – like the pinball pachinko and the table-flipping stress-release game. We watched one gentleman almost snap one of these machines in half with his barely contained fury.

Our stroll concluded at Omoide Yokocho, affectionately known as Piss Alley. The atmosphere was lively, althought the crowds were thinner than usual. It may not sound a great place to eat, but there are some wonderful little dinner-dens here, including a 1940s counter bar that only serves eel. 

It`s now Tuesday morning, and my group have left Tokyo on the Narita Express train.  Fortunately for me, left in Tokyo, the cherry blossoms are still in bloom. I can still have a hanami picnic, although I doubt I can manage a whole pack of Scotch eggs on my own.

Hidden Japan group joins Spring Elegance group for last supper.


The table-flipping machine - crucial to the economic recovery.


A Piss Alley dinner den, don`t let the name put you off.

Chiba Prefecture. Who knew?

Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture

My colleague calls it the armpit of Japan. Well, Chiba certainly has a distinctive shape; a huge prefecture sticking out at a great ugly right-angle, like a protective claw around Tokyo bay. And it feeds the capital too, providing millions upon millions of cheap concrete apartment blocks that spew fourth commuters every morning. Like lemmings, Chiba-jin make the soul-destroying journey into the city for 12 hour plus working days.

So far, so depressing.

Chiba tower blocks

But recently and (it’s not often I type this) thanks to the mysterious powers of Google, I stumbled across a wonderful project that makes me think there may be more to Chiba than meets the eye.

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Matsumoto Castle Photo Blog

When asked which Japanese castle is my favourite, I was always torn between Matsumoto Castle (which overlooks the Japanese Alps and is known for its trademark black exterior) and Himeji Castle (not far from Osaka, a massive yet graceful white architectural masterpiece). Yet, as Himeji Castle is currently undergoing renovation and covered in scaffolding, I can now say without a doubt that Matsumoto Castle is my favourite castle in Japan. It looks especially good on a warm spring day like today when hundreds of Japanese are gathered on its ground on plastic blue sheets with bottles of sake and elaborate bento boxes.

Sitting out under the sakura I decided that I should write a blog piece on Matsumoto’s most famous sight… until I realised how difficult it would be to put in to words. (At least for an in-eloquent American such as myself) And so it was that I decided to take out my trust iPhone, switch on the Hipstamatic app and shoot away. While the shots are nothing special I hope they give an impression of the castle itself.

The classic view of the "Black Crow" castle

This was the view from where I sat sipping sake with the locals. A definite feeling of "the more the merrier"!

Another photographer walked in to this shot but I decided it was worth using anyway. After all, it gives perspective!

The sun set over the castle but the cherry blossom parties continued on!

Japan Unmasked and the people we meet along the way…

All of our group tours go far beyond scratching the surface of Japan’s beautiful culture but the Japan Unmasked tour is truly magical. The three photos below show only a few of the adventures we had along the way…. hot springs, snow monkeys, fish markets, bike rides through the countryside, boat rides, karaoke, great food, even better beer, little mountain towns, big mountain castles, ryokans, old ladies in kimono, bullet trains, Japanese gardens, ninja temples, samurai houses, modern art museums, Japanese curry, pottery, tea ceremony, tiny back-streets lined with red lanterns, a peek in to the world of the geisha, golden temples, Zen rock gardens, wild deer roaming underneath maple trees, the famous floating torii gate…. I assure that the list could go on for quite some time.

After watching the monk's morning ceremony, we convinced a couple of them to pose with us for this picture.

These two guys had walked to Kanazawa from Hiroshima but still had plenty of energy for this photo!

It may look like an innocent last night dinner but this we are actually warming up with a few drinks for a legendary night of karaoke!


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