15th June – Welcome to Tokyo
A direct flight from Heathrow to Narita and we three women were ready to hit the ground running. We activated our JR passes in the busy but very helpful office. As The Gate Hotel (review) was in Asakusa, we took the Sky Access Express train directly there rather than using the passes to the centre.
We had our first walk around the area while we waited to check in. Managed to shop in Uniqlo and have a lunch with the locals in a branch of Yoshinoya. We were impressed with our big, sleek triple bedded hotel room. With a Sky Tower view.
We had an early dinner in Sushi Zanmai directly opposite. Very fresh fish and cheaper than we had thought it would be.
16TH June – Cycles and the City
Our one full day in Tokyo. We tried to pack in as much as we could by taking a boat trip to Hama Rikyu Gardens before the bike tour we had booked. Not very many tourists around. It was a little like a smaller New York Central Park. Surrounded by the city skyscrapers.
We had lunch in the basement foodcourt of the Shiodome City Building. Highly recommend this. Once more we were eating with the salarymen and OLs and the food was cheap and delicious. Huge selection of food stalls.
Our bike tour was with Miracle Bikes. It was just the three of us and our guide , Soshi. A mixture of the big sites and the quiet areas of the city and an off the beaten track temple. We crunched fried grasshoppers and tried sweet sake and famous local nut biscuits. Saw loads in a very short time.
We had a walk before dinner and found that at 8pm on a Monday, Asakusa had virtually shut down. The three restaurants we had considered earlier were all shut. So were most restaurants and all the shops. We managed to find a branch of Tenya which was open and had a cheap but good tempura dinner.
17th June – Bullet Train to the North
We started the day with a walk around nearby Kappabashi Street though the fake food and kitchenware shops did not open until after 10am. We were chased away from a couple which looked open but apparently were not.
We arrived in Yudanaka in the rain. The local English speakers group were meeting the tourists from the train and making sure we all had our transfers arranged. Very kind and typical of Japanese hospitality. There was steam rising from the rivers and the drains in the town and a smell of sulphur.
Shibu Onsen is a sleepy two street town. Atmospheric and famous for its small onsen houses which guests staying in the town can use for free.
We prepared for this by using the hotel’s own onsen for the first experience and then venturing out in our yukatas with the big master key on our second night. Luckily we were on our own in each one. They were extremely hot but we tried them all except the onsen “ For Diseases of the Skin” which was literally scalding and surely impossible to soak in. Not for the locals, it seems.
18th June – Snow Monkeys and Shibu onsen
The inn owner drove us to the snow monkey area and we walked up through the forest to the famous naturally heated pool. It was much less touristy than we had feared and we easily spent three hours watching the monkeys with their babies. One mother had a rare albino baby. The monkeys sit and groom each other on the river bank with some of the youngsters playing in the pool.
It was peaceful and fascinating to be so close to these wild animals.
We walked back to the village and visited a local sake brewery. Not many shops in Shibu Onsen and some which look closed are staffed by aunties who hastily turn on the lights and beckon you in to entice you with chilli Kitkats. Buy the Kitkats. The dark chocolate chilli variety we bought here did not appear anywhere else on our travels and were our favourites out of the many we tried.
We ate a simple noodle supper in a café which was more like the front room of an elderly couple. Just us and one other table of locals.
We went down to the town car park in the light rain to see the fireflies. This was magical. Local volunteers were on hand to show visitors this fleeting natural spectacle. Do not miss the hotaru if you are here in June.
19th June – The Marvels of Matsumoto
Matsumoto was meant to be a pitstop but became an unexpected trip highlight. It is a compact, working town. Just the right size for a couple of days, enough to see and do and a friendly very local vibe. Quite possibly our favourite place of the whole trip.
The Richmond Hotel had a big triple room for us in a central location. We were impressed with the freebie bath and skincare goodies.
Matsumoto had the right sort of shops for us. A good department store, a multi-storeyed bookshop and, thrillingly, a branch of Daiso , the famous 100 yen shop.
20th June- Samurais in the Sunshine
Finally a break from the rain so we enjoyed the castle and the museum in full. Japanese tourists collected their rubber stamps to mark their visits. We bought Hello Kitty socks and more Kitkats instead.
Matsumoto has its own local delicacies: been larvae, horse meat and wasabi-flavoured ice cream. Horsemeat crisps, anyone ? We sampled just the ice cream. There was a local Frog Festival taking place and the locals embraced the theme, wearing frog clothes and carrying frog accessories.
We could have lingered but had to take the Nohi bus to Takayama driving through the mountain roads in a curtain of rain.
And the lovely dinner in the unique local restaurant, Heinraku (review).
21st June – Takayama temples and tourists
Takayama is touristy and busy. It has a great choice of places to eat and to stay but it feels a little artificial. We were based here for four nights so needed to make the best of it. Oyado Koto No Yume was very comfortable and a notch posher than our first ryokan in Shibu Onsen. Our tip: ask the maids to make up the beds with double-decker futons. Much easier on weak Western backs.
We had a browse around the riverside market and did the local temple circuit walk which took us to a quieter area above the town. There was a notice that bears had recently been sighted and to take care.
22nd June – Time Out
I stayed in the hotel with R who was not well that day. B went on her own to walk in Kamikochi and had her own adventures without us.
23rd June – Riverside and Rice paddy
The ride was fun and informative with Hiro our ever-cheerful guide.
The onsens here were a highlight and we wished we had checked in earlier to give us more time to have enjoyed them, especially the luxurious toiletries supplied.
The Michelin starred dinner was certainly a culinary adventure and it was lucky that they penned us into our own private room so that our sake-fuelled giggles did not disturb the more serious diners.
24th June – Travelling through Time
B said we could not leave Takayama without visiting the local equivalent of the Ulster-American Folk Park, so we took the local bus to have a look.
We liked the parasols they gave on loan on a hot day and the collection of ancient houses which was nicely done and not at all crowded. Quite serene and calming.
Then off to Kyoto via Nagoya and a late check in at the Sakara Inn which owned the apartment (white crane machiya) we rented.
Having an apartment for ourselves felt like a palace at this stage of the trip. The washing machine alone was cause for celebration. So good to have the space to relax and enjoy this atmospheric little local area of Kyoto by the canal.
25th June – Fushimi Foxes and Space-age Station
Kyoto was hot and seemed much busier than Tokyo. It was certainly more jam-packed with tourists. We went to Nishiki Market but thought it was a bit meh. Tokyu Hands was much more interesting for us and we bought loads of stuff. The favourite shop of the trip.
We had Fushimi Inari Taisha on our must-do list. But concluded in the end that you can have too many pretty orange inari gates. And temple foxes. But it was worth a visit despite the crowds.
Next, off to Kiyomizu-Deru and then down the winding streets following the Southern Higashiyama Walk in the Kyoto Lonely Planet Guide. Pretty shops but oh my, it was busy. Time to sample yet more obscure ice cream flavours in the shops and drinks from the vending machines. Bamboo charcoal ice cream and a yuzu shaved ice.
Kyoto Station at night was another of our trip highlights. Very Blade Runner and the restaurant choices were amazing. We ate in the Tonkatsu one and it even catered for vegetarians. The shops in Porta and The Cube were open until a very un-Japanese 9pm which was a big hit after all the early closings elsewhere on our trip.
26TH June – Hello Kitty –san and Harry Potter
R and I went to Universal Studios in Osaka. In the pouring rain, which may have kept the crowds down a little. We saw the Japanese passion for merchandise and for wearing it straight away.
We had our photo taken with the REAL Hello Kitty and swooped through the Harry Potter and Spiderman rides with our Express Pass. A good time was had by all except our tummies as there is no proper food in the park. Lonely Planet came to the rescue back in Kyoto with a lovely neighbourhood restaurant near our apartment called Asuka.
27th June – Nara deer and Gion lanes
It took us longer to get to Nara than we had anticipated and we thought it was OK. The famous park deer bowed and snaffled the biscuits, harassing the unwary. We did a small fraction of the temples and gardens until we got tired and went back to Kyoto.
We spent the evening doing the Night Walk through the Floating World again from the Kyoto LP guidebook. No geishas seen but bags of atmosphere as the street lanterns lit up along the canal and narrow alleys.
Dinner in Chojiro, a kaiten sushi restaurant .
28th June – Return to Narita
As the apartment was close to the Chion–En temple, B and I had an early morning walk around before packing up for the trip home.
We left some time for the shops of Kyoto Station though R and I got sucked into the food section of Isetan for our train bento finale.
From Tokyo Station we used our JR passes for the N’Ex and then picked up the hotel bus for Narita Tobu Airport hotel. This was cheap and functional. We had hoped to spend the evening at the Aeon Mall but the expected shuttle bus service did not work out for us and we ate yakitori in Narita town instead. Our last meal before the morning flight home to UK.
An amazing trip through a fascinating country that we felt we had just touched on in our two weeks.
Our trip highlights
We loved all the places we stayed in with no disappointments. Other random highlights were :
- The arcades of Asakusa
- Tokyo bike trip
- Shiodome City Building Food Court
- The Snow Monkeys
- Quirky little Shibu Onsen
- Onsens, local and posh
- The complimentary skincare and toiletries
- Japanese toilets!
- Takuhbinn luggage system
- Bullet trains and the JR pass
- Kyoto station
- Soft serve ice creams
- Bentos for the train
- Daiso and Tokyu Hands
Our random tips
- June is a very rainy month. About half the days of our two weeks. Macs and brollies much used.
- Buy the novelty Kitkats when you see them as there is a poor selection at the airport.
- The Lonely Planet Kyoto guide is worth getting as well as the main Japan guide.
- Use the Hyperdia app and website
- Learn a bit of basic Japanese even if just greetings and numbers to 10.
- The mifi was helpful at times but overall we did not need it as there was good wifi in all our locations.
- Take loads of cash and seek out a 7/11 shop when you need a ATM.
- Buy a Pasmo card at the same time as your JR pass. We used ours lots.
- If, like us, you enjoy a gin then bring your own Tonic water.