Day 7: Kamakura and Tokyo

The good weather was back!  Not to be too boring in talking about the weather but it is so much nicer to be a tourist on a sunny day!  This was our last full day (v. sad) and we took a day trip to Kamakura.  We were supposed to go the day prior but I thought Kamakura would be way more attractive on a nicer day.


After sleeping in, we headed off to Kamakura via Subway and JR.  We arrived at the main station and walked up my favorite pedestrian shopping street, Komachi-dori.  We had a delicious croquette and soft ice cream on our walk.  Rose joined us for an hour as we looked around the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu Shrine.  Then we walked down Wakamiya-oji, the main thoroughfare.  It is pretty but especially gorgeous during the Sakura (cherry blossoms).  I felt that many places show off the sakura in their tourist pictures, which after awhile feels like a taunt, “Too bad you weren’t here last month.  It was really beautiful!”

Then it was time for lunch.  We finally went to a sushi-go-round, which was high on Mom’s to-do list.  We tried searching for the one she had been to last time but were unsuccessful.  We went to one on Komachi-dori and it was tasty.  It also had cooked shrimp sushi, which Mom really likes so it all worked out.

Two wise men: One reached Enlightenment, one has a Japan Rail Pass

Then we took the Enoshima Electric Railway to see the Kamakura Daibutsu.  It seems like an almost mandatory stop when touring Kamakura.  We were all a little wiped from a long but fun week of travel so we skipped the Hasedera, which is definitely worth seeing but sometimes, enough is enough.  We headed back to Tokyo to prepare for Robot Restaurant!

Words fail.

We went to the 8:20 show and it blew my expectations out of the water.  It was totally kitschy, ridiculous and AWESOME!  Afterwards, we stopped in the Shinjuku Station mall for some food and then headed over to the Mado Lounge for drinks.  This was the one disappointment of the trip because it closed at 10:30 and we got there at 10:50.  Big boo!  I was sad, but I had never expected a bar to be closed that early.  It usually isn’t but Golden Week hours had kicked in.  Bad sagoy:(

Anyway, we recovered nicely and went to a wine bar near the hotel.  Hooray for resiliency!  Then it was off to bed.


Day 6: Tokyo

This was our one day of bad weather.  The day before there was some rain, but the heaviest was while we were on the train.  Not today!  We got soaked but we didn’t let it stop us!

Start and end of the Cruise: Hama Rikyu (right) and Asakusa pier (left), with view of SKYTREE and the Asahi building

 After sleeping in, we headed downstairs for an American breakfast at the New Sanno.  It was delicious.  After we (over-)fortified ourselves, we headed out into the elements (so brave, ha ha).  First, we went to  the Hama Rikyu gardens, an old imperial duck hunting grounds now turned city park.  It’s very beautiful with lakes, gardens and a tea house.  It’s a funny incongruity to see such a beautiful garden flanked by skyscrapers on three sides (the fourth side is the Sumida River).  We were there to catch the Sumida River Boat Cruise.  There were two signs with different times and fortunately I listened to Dad (hi Dad!) and we caught the 10:00 boat up the river towards Asakusa.  The boat first stopped at Hinode Pier, which would be the place to catch it if you didn’t want to pay the garden entrance fee (only Y300, as are many historical tourist destinations in Japan).

Then we went up the river for a 40 minute cruise where we saw 13 architecturally different bridges, the sumo stadium (Ryogoku) and finally, Asakusa pier.  It’s a really nice, mellow way to see Tokyo from a different vantage point.

Sensoji Temple and Pagoda.  Not many pictures were taken today.

Asakusa was where we got soaked.  We walked up the Nakamise and bought some yummy rice cracker streets.  Then we went into the main building of the Sensoji temple, a famous Buddhist temple.  There’s an Old Edo feel to the area and in sunny weather, it’s delightful.  We made a dash for the train station in a (futile) effort to stay dry.  We took the train to Ometasando and ate in the cute, French-themed food court.  Then we walked down Ometasando-dori and admired the modern architecture.  We tried to find a wine bar Mom and I had been to last time but time passes and 6 years later, the wine bar was no more.  We strolled along the main Harajuku street which was interesting but a little sad since Mom was unable to find a Hello Kitty iPhone case for her iPhone 4 (single tear).  We tried hard though!

Seen around Tokyo: Mixed message gnomes (smiley face, wait, what are the gesturing?), dog boutique with gross dog and “cute outfit,” donuts in bags because that’s where they belong and a baseball poster made out of flowers

Then, it was off to the New Sanno to dry off.  That night, we went to Pizzeria Sole y Lune and had some delicious pizza right near the hotel.  Then it was off to bed!


Day 5: Nara

I woke up and was pleasantly surprised that my feet were still attached to my body.  I thought I had walked them off the day before but nope!  There they were, ready for another day!

On my “To Do Next Time” List

The weather, which had been amazing, was now starting to turn a bit.  It was cloudy with some drizzle but off we went to Nara after a little sleeping in (for Mom and Dad).  I walked around the neighborhood of our hotel in search of breakfast.  I found the Inoda coffee shop, which is quite famous but didn’t seem to have take-away.  It was a coffee restaurant.  I appreciate the dedication to the full-imersion coffee experience but that wasn’t what I was looking for that morning.  I walked passed a huge queue of people waiting for an Impressionist exhibit at the museum to open.  Impressionism- worldwide appeal.  After the line, I came upon Paul, a nice coffee shop/bakery that apparently has forty branches worldwide.  They had awesome coffee and croissants.  Yum, yum, yum!

Rock Garden- do you see the smiley face we painted on one?

Mom and I really wanted to see Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple with a famous 25 m x 10 m fifteen rock garden that is an object of meditation.  From any vantage, you can only see 14 of the 15 rocks.  There’s a small replica that is present for blind people to feel out but thanks to Mom and I, they think there are only 14 rocks!  Ha, ha!  Stealing rocks to trick blind people- so funny! [Just kidding!]

Ryoan-ji grounds

While the rock garden and temple are really cool, what Mom and I had both forgotten is that the grounds are absolutely gorgeous!  This temple was at the top of our favorites list.  We walked around the small lake and admired the irises, the beautiful residence, the trees- it was so tranquil and beautiful.  I highly recommend a visit here!

Next, we took a taxi to Kyoto main station and then the JR train to Nara.  At the station, we went to bus stop #1 and caught the bus to the main park Nara koen that has most of the main attractions.  I recommend the bus since it cuts off a mile walk and since we were already getting plenty of exercise, it was welcome!

CW from top left: Southern Gate, Daibutsuden, Daibutsuden and Deer outside the Gate

First, we saw the mangy Sika deer *ahem* messengers of the gods, per Shinto.  Bring some food.  Then those messengers will be all over you!  We walked towards Todaiji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 1200s when Nara was the first capital of Japan.  We entered through the huge Southern Gate with the two huge statues of the Nio on either side.  The main building is the Daibutsuden which houses the Nara Daibutsu, or Nara Giant Buddha.  The wooden structure is said to be the world’s largest wooden building and it is very impressive.  The Great Buddha inside is the world’s largest statue of the Buddha Birushana, a 500-ton bronze statue that is 49.1 m tall!  Inside to the right of the Buddha is a wooden pillar with a hole in it.  If you can crawl through it, good things will happen to you.  Various sources say you’ll reach enlightenment in this lifetime, you’ll be in good health, you’ll have good luck, etc. I don’t know other than there was a huge line of Japanese school kids getting pushed/pulled through so fast it reminded me of the Santa Claus scene from The Christmas Story.

The Big Buddha and assembly lines to get kids through the lucky column 

Katsuga Shrine with a Deer Warning sign thrown in 

Then we walked uphill (yay!  More hills!) towards the Kasuga Shrine, a famous Shinto shrine where we were actually lucky enough to see a Shinto ceremony in progress.  There were several men chanting and playing traditional instruments while 4 priests prayed in the middle of the room.  It was really cool and we felt like it was a serendipitous highlight.  There was also some beautiful wisteria on the grounds and we took a few pictures.

Lantern Forest (not the official name)

Then it was back down the hill through the Kasugayama Primeval Forest and the 3000 stone lanterns.  It was very serene and beautiful.  Then we waited in the rain (with umbrellas) for our bus, hopped on the train and headed to Tokyo.

We checked in late to the New Sanno.  Mom and Dad loved the hotel.  It is spacious and really nice.  They had been expecting Hale Koa level of amenities and it is definitely a step up from that but at half the price of other Tokyo hotels.  Score!

Shibuya crosswalk

We at a hodgepodge dinner of sandwiches and then Dad and I headed out for a quick visit to the Shibuya crosswalk with all the bright lights and teems of people.  Then it was off to bed.

Oyasumi nasai!

Day 4: Kyoto

Matsuda-san, pointing out his name on the temple donor wall

 Day 4 was a nice day because we left the tour guiding to someone else.  My XO and his awesome wife highly recommended 松田 和久 (Kazuhusa Matsuda) of Meet Us Kyoto as a tour guide.  He’s a retired banker.  He used to be the Kyoto Branch manager for a large Japanese bank.  For five years, he gave tours on the weekends only and kept it a secret from work.  Now he’s retired from banking but gives several tours a month, depending on how busy the tourist season is.

The main gate and aqueduct of Nanzen-ji

We met him at 0900 in the lobby of the hotel and had a cup of coffee before heading out.  The plan for the day was exploring the Eastern part of Kyoto by following the Philosopher’s Walk.  After that, we were going to go to Daitokuji, a complex of several smaller sub-temples.  Next, we were invited to a tea ceremony hosted by Matsuda-san’s wife and finally, we would get a tour of Nijo castle.  What a jam packed, awesome itinerary!

Nanzen-ji aqueduct

We took the subway from our hotel to the start of the Philosopher’s Walk.  There, we saw Nanzen-ji, an old Buddhist temple.  There was a really neat large wooden gate.  We explored the ground, including the European-inspired aqueducts.  We walked to the top and it was really beautiful and serene with the sound of flowing water.

Small shrine (Rokan-ji) along our walk with animal guardians.

Rokan-ji with the shiny copper roof and animal guardian.

We headed down the path for about a mile, and then went uphill to take a course parallel to the Philosopher’s Walk that was less touristy and had several cool temples.  We saw a neat temple (Rokan-ji, based on the map photo I took) with several animal guardian statues.  Matsuda-san actually donated to the temple to help replace the copper roof.  He thought it was “too shiny” but that it would fade over time.

Entrance to Honen-in
Gardens of Honen-in

Then, we walked some more (theme of the day) to Honen-in, with a beautiful garden and small lake.  There was also a small raked sand garden that was very tranquil.  Finally, we approached the end of the Walk at the Ginkaku-ji, or Silver Temple.  We loved this temple!  It was styled as a tea house and not silver, in fact, since the patron ran out of money before silver leaf could be applied.  The gardens are what completely captivated us though.  They were so gorgeous.  There was some mild drizzle that day which really made the green moss especially vibrant.

Sand Garden at Ginkaku-ji

Silver Temple (Ginkaku-ji) and grounds

After the walk, we headed to Daitokuji.  First, we had lunch at a yummy soba-ya.  While we were eating, I looked up and saw that Matsuda-san was profusely sweating.  I was nervous since he had said he was feeling under the weather that day.  He said he was fine and later, explained that he thought that’s when his fever broke because he felt much better!  He said, “Soba is my medicine!”


Daitokuji has lots of sub-temples and Matsuda-san brought us to his favorite, Koto-in.  There is a beautiful tea house with tatami mats and gorgeous moss garden.  Inside, there’s a lamp that marks the gravesite of the patron.  A back corner of the lamp is missing because the master liked the lamp so much, he damaged it rather than give it to a higher up that had requested it!  It sort of looked like every other stone lamp we had seen and when asked what was special about it, Matsuda-san said “It has a beautiful shape.”

Now, THESE are some lamps!

Next, we went to Matsuda-san’s house where his wife Noboku hosted a tea ceremony.  We were very nervous since we didn’t know what to and right before she gave Dad the tea cup (he was first, ha ha!), she let us know that the cup was a 400-year old antique.  Fortunately, none of us chipped or broke it!  Phew!

Nijo Gate and the source of the Nightingale Floor sound

Finally, we headed to Nijo Castle.  Two really cool things I learned is one, the hall that shows the feudal lords gathering is actually the room where the Shogun received and handed back power to the emperor (the two events were separated by several centuries).  It was amazing to see the room that had so much history, which was now filled with feudal lord mannequins.  Two, I saw how the Nightingale floors make the sound, with two metal spikes at the edge of several floorboards.  
It was a great day and we were pretty pooped.  Still, we found the energy to go to Gion Corner to watch a cultural show.  It’s a little cheesy, but it’s cool in that it shows dancing Maiko, which we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.  We ended with dinner at Iyemon salon, a restaurant right next to our hotel.  It was delicious!  They had a nice mix of Japanese food and some Western dishes for some comfort.  We had an awesome grilled tofu dish that was sort of pizza-like, a seafood pasta gratin, grilled ginger pork and two orders of assorted tempura.  We had a wonderful dinner and then headed off to bed.


Day 3: Arashiyama, Kyoto

Little o-jizos

We slept in a little bit on Day 3.  Then it was off to the Western part of Kyoto to Arashiyama, a beautiful, less urban part of the city where we explored several temples and walked through beautiful bamboo forests.

We took the public bus with a few dozen of our new best friends for half-an-hour.  Hmmm, this was not the best way to start the day and may I suggest the train in the future?  Both the JR and Keifuku Electric Railroad head out that way and it may have been more enjoyable.  Also, the Randen line is a streetcar line that goes out that way.  That also may have been nicer.

Top: Tenryu-ji garden Bottom: Happy Dad on Tatami

We arrived and saw the Togetsukyo bridge crossing the Hozu river.  It was really pretty but I knew we had a big walking day ahead of us so we just admired it from the bus window as we headed to the Tenryu-ji bus stop.  Tenryu-ji is a beautiful Buddhist temple with gorgeous gardens that include the nearby mountains, Kame-yama and Arashi-yama, as part of the recruited landscape that is part of the garden view.  Shakkei is the term for using surrounding landscape as part of the garden composition.  The garden was designed by Muso Soseki (early 1300s), a master gardener, and it’s thought to be relatively unchanged from its original form.

The temple served as the only legal middleman for China-Japan trade in the 1300s-1400s.  As a result, it became very wealthy.  We thought it was really beautiful and Dad once again fell in love with walking on tatami mats.

Top: Washi paper fans Left: Flowers at Gio-ji Right: Bamboo forest

We walked around the gardens and then went out the North Gate to the Sagano Bamboo Forest/Trail.  It was really pretty, which is not how I ever really thought of bamboo.  I always thought bamboo was relatively common and almost weed-like since it grows so fast and spread but it is really pretty and the trail was so quiet.

We exited the trail and went to a cute coffee shop/pizza place for lunch.  It was clean, cute and airy.  The pizza was delicious!  I wish I wrote down the name.  I thought I had it on the receipt but when I asked Miyumi-san to translate, she said it just said, “Receipt.”  Oh.  *Sad trombone*  But if you want to go, make the a right at the bamboo forest t-intersection, walk past Okochi Sanso, make your first right and its the third(ish) building on your right (a field will be on your left).  After lunch, we went to a small shrine across the pond which ended up being the Shrine to the God of Hair.  This made for a very funny joke the next day when Dad told our tour guide that the day before he went to the shrine, he was bald!

Then…we started walking.  We found a beautiful washi paper store and bought quite a few things.  In return, they gave us a walking map and highly recommended Gio-ji.  I’m so glad they did.  It had my favorite moss garden of the trip!  It was so serene and pretty.  I highly recommend it, too!

Next was what I call “The Letdown Temple.”  I really wanted to see the temples with the expression-filled Buddhas.  When I came across the sign for Adashino Nenbutsu-ji and the 8000 Buddhas, I thought I was in luck.  Eight THOUSAND cool carved Buddhas.  Yeah!  Well, nope. The sculptures were more like lumps of rocks with some features here and there.  Boo hoo!  Where were my funny-faced statues?!?!?

YAY!  My favorite temple with scary guard statue (top right) and resident bell-ringer (bottom left)

Up the road!  Yes, uphill (woo hoo, parent torture tour continues!) about 10 minutes past the Ichi Torii gate (keep it to your left) was the Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple.  Notice how only the first word is changed.  Tricky, tricky.  Anyway, HERE was the temple I was looking for.  There were so many kawaii statues.  And although there are only 1200 instead of 8000. I was very happy!

Dad had my camera and documented his favorite thing: tourists taking selflies.  One picture is not a selfie (guess!)

The end of the temple touring day was nearing and since we were on the Western side of town, I wanted Mom and Dad to see the Golden Temple, Kinkaku-ji.  It was crowded and a very different vibe from Arashiyama but I’m glad we went.  We didn’t have time for Ryoan-ji, but fortunately we saw it our last day of Kyoto (foreshadowing!).

Dinner was tasty.  We went to a Kyoto place that I read about on a blog that must be in every guidebook because it was completely filled with white people.  That was a first for me in Japan- even base is more diverse!  But the gyoza were pretty awesome.  Then we went to a chain izakaya and ordered lots of delicious food in my very best J-english.  Then it was time for bed.  We had a tour guide the next day.