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This is Japan

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My latest holiday to this wonderful country has been a blast.  This time I visited the Kansai region and further west. Started in Osaka, then Nara, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Tomonoura, Kyoto, Arashiyama and Lake Biwa. In eight days!!! Have eaten lovely Japanese food every day, slept on comfy futons and tried to immerse myself in the culture and enjoy the people. Japanese people and very kind and go out of their way to help, and really appreciated my few Japanese words I’d learnt.  The biggest bonus was being at the Memorial with the Kyoto English group, and then the meeting (all 12 of us) the next day.


Travel tops: pack light and minimise baggage. There is just no rooms on trains and in hotel rooms for standard luggage. Things are more compact in Japan. Make use of the rail passes on offer. I used the Kansai-Hiroshima 5 day pass and the Icoca reloadable swipe card for trains.


A few pics will follow when I return home. Yes, I’m beyond tired, but just so happy to have returned here one more time. 

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think start in Osaka and move up to Tokyo, and follow the blooms, since the Sakura viewing season is very short. I went from 14th April for 8 days, and I caught the tail end of it. Be prepared for the crowds, since this is peak tourist season. And just enjoy how beautiful the countryside is - the cherry blossoms are everywhere! Take the Shinkansen or other fast trains and you’ll see glorious trees in full bloom all over the place, cultivated in gardens and growing wild.

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Some tips and advice I've learnt along the way (thanks youtube!)


My biggest tip is you must travel with a small suitcase and a back pack.  You can use a luggage forwarding service (which you pay for the luggage to go to your next destination, and you travel hands free).  But sooner or later you need to board the subways of the big cities.  You know how packed those trains are!!!  All stations have English signage, and inside every train they announce the stations in English.  Easy and safe travel.


Another tip:  If you stay at a Ryokan (family-run inn), they have beautiful rooms set up with futons to sleep on the floor with tatami mats.  No shoes on the tatami!!!  They provide yukatas (a type of kimono) and slippers which you wear in the ryokan.  They usually have segregated hot spring onsens where you must wash yourself in open bathrooms and be naked in the hot pool.  There is strict etiquette to follow, and I suggest you watch youtube to learn the do's and dont's.  (I went at midnight when there was no one there).  But it is a wonderful experience, you should try it.  I know that at some establishments, you can book a private bathroom for just the couple.  Definitely pay the extra and have the meals - breakfast and dinner.  It's superbly cooked and presented in little dishes of wonderment (I had no idea half the time what it was).  But it's local and very fresh.  Yum!


Ryokans are more spacious than hotel rooms in Japan, so be prepared for a snug hotel room.  Another reason big suitcases don't work well here.


Last tip: Language.  With such a polite culture, it's important to learn a few important phrases to help smooth along the experience.  I always think it is our duty to try to remember some basic phrases and words, and I know that the Japanese will welcome any attempt, however rusty, and with a giggle and smile.  They do try to speak English too, but they are reticent and shy about it.


Very last tip: They use mostly cash.  So use a travel card, loaded up with Yen, and take out what you need at an international ATM (at the airport when you land, then as you need to at 7-11 convenience stores, which are everywhere).  Use your travel card or credit card for the bigger department stores and hotels.  But for family run shops and inns (Ryokans), they only take cash.  The denominations are quite large, but you do get used to it.  And, the Japanese are very honest, so don't worry about the money when you pay.  They always show you on a calculator how much to pay, and help you count it out.  You can trust them (I know, it's weird!!).

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I tend to research my destinations on the net, and then just go with my own plans.  I avoid those bus tours, because of the inflexibility and being herded from one place to another. And you can do it yourself cheaper anyway.  Here are the places I visited just on trains, buses and other transport.


Day trips from Tokyo:
Hakone - this one is really good.  Views of Mt Fuji, beautiful foliage in the autumn, museums, lakes, ropeways, steaming boiling thermals.  It's got it all. Even a pirate ship!!!  You get there in comfort from Tokyo station Shinjuku (this is the biggest station in the world, massive!), on a train called the RomanceCar (how cute!!).
Nagano - via the Shinkansen in about 2 hours.  Then by bus another 30 mins or more to the Snow Monkeys.
Yokohama - easy 20 mins train to next big city, so much to do!  We only had time for this self-walking tour of the first European homes built.  Such a gorgeous architectural area, called Yamate.
Enoshima and Kamakura - Enoshima is one of the "cat" islands.  Though we had plans to go, the weather was typhoonal, so we avoided the coast (this was summer though, not in Autumn). Both beachside destinations are a short train ride out of Tokyo.
Day trips from Osaka/Kyoto
Kyoto - Philosopher's Path - This is a self-walking tour of sorts.  You just walk along the canal (about 4 km) and enjoy the beauty of the seasonal trees and flowers.  I went in the cherry blossom season.  Sublime!!
Kyoto - Arashiyama - Bamboo Forest - This gorgeous place is easily accessible on public transport.  Don't waste your money on a tour.  Just jump on the Randen (their tram)!  Also go on the Sagano Railway along the river - exquisite cherry blossoms in Spring, and Autumn leaves in Autumn.
Hiroshima and Miyajima Island - from Osaka it's only 1 1/2 hrs so easily done as a day trip.
Nara - the lovely place where deer bow to you!  Only 30 mins by train from Osaka.  Too easy!
Lake Biwa - Omihachiman - a lovely old Japanese town with canals and breathtaking views from the top of the mountain via a cable car.  Just 30 mins out of Kyoto by commuter train.
Other tours to do:
Shirakawago - I just caught a public bus for this from Kanazawa.  
Mt Fuji Five-Lakes - I never did this but I would if I had more time.  You can go right to the foot of Mt Fuji. 
Climb Mt Fuji - or just go to the 5th station.
See?  All of these could be done with a tour company ($$$), but with a JR pass and some research and planning, it is quite doable and much much cheaper.  Thanks to the internet, we have more choice and flexibility.  And, I think more fun!
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