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October 6, 2012 - First Trip to Japan, 17 Fantastic Days

Japan-Guide.com was an absolutely fantastic resource in planning our trip, and so first I want to take a moment to thank those who run and contribute to the site. Thank you!

Our itinerary was as follows:

Day 1 Arrive Tokyo, 2 nights
Day 3 Travel to Takayama, 2 nighs
Day 5 Travel to Nara, 1 night
Day 6 Travel to Kyoto, 5 nights
Day 11 Travel to Koyasan, 1 night
Day 12 Travel to Osaka, 1 night
Day 13 Travel to Hiroshima and Miyajima, 1 night Miyajima
Day 14 Travel back to Tokyo, 4 nights
Day 18 Leave for home

With our strong interest in food and drink, we really enjoyed eating and drinking in Japan.

Sightseeing was also a pleasure.

We were very pleased we'd mixed several traditional ryokans with Western hotels.

On our first night in Shinjuku the three places within the immediate vicinity of our hotel were a Starbucks, an Italian and this little canteen within a shop, with no English instructions whatsoever. However, we were determined to eat Japanese on our first night, but too tired to venture further afield. We used the photos to choose our meals, and enjoyed a quick and tasty dinner for 1200 Yen.

The best deals at this tempura restaurant were the set menus which came with several pieces of fresh seafood and vegetable tempura, rice, miso soup, pickles and of course, dipping sauce, daikon and salts.

I describe this restaurant as a shack just because it was a tiny and casual place just at the edge of Piss Alley. Again, we ordered using the vending machine, and had a really fantastic dinner for very little money.

We had three curry rice dishes during our trip, most commonly when looking to grab lunch whilst passing through a station on a travel day. Inexpensive, tasty, filling.

We loved eating in yakiniku restaurants - where each table has a round grill in the centre, and you order your choice of meat cuts and vegetables from the menu and the cook yourself. Noodles, rice, etc. are available too. Delicious and fun.

Breaded and fried pork, what could be simpler? We really loved the three katsu restaurants we visited, each offered good quality pork with great flavour, nicely crumbed and fried, and with that perfect side of cabbage and dressing to cut through the fat. Excellent choice for lunch or dinner.

We loved this DIY kushiage restaurant. Each table has a deep fat fryer embedded in it. You are provided with batter and breadcrumbs. And then it's just a case of selecting whichever skewers you like from the wide range on offer, dipping and then frying. It's a fixed price and time place.

These batter and cabbage "pancakes" are available across Japan, though there are many regional variations both in terms of the batter to filling ratio and the fillings themselves. In this restaurant, the okonomiyaki was made in the kitchen and then transferred to the individual hot plate in our table, but in other places, it was cooked from scratch on the plate in front of us.

Deep fried chicken, what's not to like? Available in casual cafe restaurants, and at street food stalls.

Unlike the UK, the food you buy at train stations, in the restaurants and cafes, in the shops and even in the little platform kiosks, is GOOD! Here's the katsu sandwich I had on one trip.

We only went to one sushi restaurant, and that was at Tsukiji fish market, but we did enjoy sushi and sashimi as part of the kaiseki meals served by the various ryokan we stayed in too. This one is an uni (sea urchin) sushi.

Light, steamed bun, filled with curry sauce and crumbed and deep fried. Cheap snack in station food court.

Another quick and easy option for lunch or dinner.

Staying in a higher end ryokan means you'll be treated to a veritable feast of beautifully prepared and presented dishes designed to showcase local and seasonal produce. This is an appetiser course in one such feast.

Japan has a great range of beers, including many by small craft breweries producing beers in the European and American styles. Look out for them in supermarkets / department store food floors. You can also find some great specialist bars in the large cities.

The reason I'm holding this so delightedly is that my name is Kavita. Friends have suggested this is a decaf version of me! But on a more helpful note, we fell in love with the ubiquitous vending machines all over Japan, on the street, in hotels, in stations, everywhere. They meant a cold or hot drink was always in reach, for a very reasonable 120 to 150 Yen. We particularly loved the canned coffees, something I already enjoy at home.

I didn't like it, but I'm glad I tried it!

We encountered and tried a vast array of local pickle specialities across Japan, something I'd not really thought much about in advance in terms of food I must try. Very enjoyable and part of nearly every meal, as a side.

We often saw vegetables sold in this way, covered in sand, in large wooden barrels. I'm not sure whether they were pickled or preserved in another way.

In stations especially, there are plenty of options for an easy breakfast or snack. Some of the boulangeries definitely rival France for the quality of their pastries and breads.

The two places in which we really enjoyed walking through preserved historic neighbourhoods were Takayama and Kyoto. Kyoto was far more crowded, however, whereas Takayama, even during the autumn festival, which was held on the days we were there, was far more peaceful.

This ryokan assigned us a delightful room with an internal verandah around two sides, with views out over a stunning traditional garden. On arrival, we were invited to drink tea in our room whilst they checked us in (passports etc).

I had been worried about the comfort aspect of sleeping on futons, as painful hips make it hard to get up and down from the floor. However, our hosts were always happy to double up the mattresses beneath our beds on request. And I used one of the small chairs in the rooms to help me get up and down. We slept very well and loved the traditional room design. We chose higher end ryokans with ensuite bathrooms with wooden bathtubs.

A national holiday I'd not been aware of meant some last minute changes to our itinerary a few days before departure, which involved a change in hotel too. This is the view from our hotel room in Shinjuku.

The Japan Rail Pass was excellent value, we used it a lot. The train system was very easy to navigate, with both signs and onboard announcements repeated in English after the Japanese.

Takayama is a small town and quite a journey from Tokyo or Kyoto, though not a difficult one. The preserved area of historic neighbourhoods is beautiful, though not enormous. The morning markets are well worth a browse.
On a regular day, perhaps a full day and night is enough here, should you visit, and could be combined with Kanazawa for the gardens. But during festival, the beautiful floats come out, taken around town both in the evening and during the day, by men in fascinating costumes. There are also lots of food stalls set up especially for the celebration.

We visited many, many temples and shrines during our trip, but I'd done lots of reading (here on Japan Guide) to select those which were most interesting, which gave us a wide variety of different things to see. It's easy to get "templed out" in Japan, especially in Kyoto, but if you choose a handful rather than trying to visit all of them, that shouldn't be an issue. We loved all those we visited.

Most temples / shrines allow visitors to purchase fortune slips or prayer ornaments. The slips are tied to strings provided. The ornamenents can be personalised with black markers provided, before being hung on the hooks provided.

Walk up behind the main temple buildings to marvel at the corridors of tori gates.

Rather than overnight in Hiroshima, we took the ferry to Miyajima Island, not far off the coast. It's a lovely resort island. Do visit Dasho-in Temple too.

An overnight stay in a Shingon Buddhist temple on Koyasan is well worth while. Our temple was the closest to the beautiful Okuno-in cemetary, which was very beautiful. Observing the monks in prayer in the morning was also fascinating.

Worth the ascent for the incredible views but even on the one rainy and cloudy day we experienced in Tokyo, it was very very crowded.

As a child at heart, I loved the chance to make my own cup noodles at the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka.

Book in advance to do the excellent, free tour of the distillery. Free English audio guides are available. Then enjoy the whisky library where you can, for very reasonable prices, try any of their enormous range of whiskies. The shop is upstairs in this same building.

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2012/10/06 - First Trip to Japan, 17 Fantastic Days