Japanese travel experiences (W. Woess)

This text was written after a 5 weeks' journey to Japan in summer 2007.

Famous monkeys at the Tokugawa shrine in Nikko

Guidebook and other informations

I did not buy the Lonely Plante guide of Japan because its latest issue was not as recent as the one of the guide that I chose. Fortunately, I did take along some copies from the Lonely Planet guide. At equal weight, the latter turns out to be better organized and contain more info. On the website of the Japan National Tourist Organisation http://www.jnto.go.jp one can find useful material. In particular, for many places or regions of interest one can download pdf-files of 4-6 pages with clear outlines of the essential information. For daily weather forecast, I used http://www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html and http://www.weather-forecast.com/countries/101/locations. The second was in general slightly more optimistic than the first, the truth is in between.

Tigers in Nanzen-ji temple, Kyoto


In many hotels and inns, one has free internet access by wlan or lan. So taking a laptop along is useful for daily planning of the trip.


It is true that apart from Kyoto, and unless you are entering a university campus, it is hard to find people who speak English. It just needs your patience, if you made no efforts to learn some your host country's language. In some cases, it also seems that people are too shy to use the amount of English that they learned.

Shinkansen train / Ceremony at Kitano Temangu shrine, Kyoto

Travelling by train and bus

On the whole, travelling in Japan is easy, probably easier than for a foreigner in Europe. In particular, the train system is very well organized, and one finds all station's names in English. At each station, not only can one see its name, but also the name of the previous and the next stop. Using the Japan rail pass is very convenient, but one has to buy it (i.e., the exchange coupon) before entering the country. It is certainly worth its money ! At Shinkansen stations one can get a small booklet with all the Shinkansen timetables, plus some selected additional ones (airport trains, other main lines). One can also find it on the webpage of Japan Rail (JR), http://www.japanrail.com. For specific timetable search on smaller train lines, etc., one can use http://grace.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperWeb.cgi. At each bigger train station, there are lugagge lockers (not at the small unmanned stations of local lines, of course).
Travelling overland by bus is not as easy, as far as English names of the stops, readable timetables, etc. are concerned. In large bus terminals in front of train stations, etc., it is sometimes hard to find out from which place your bus will leave.

Goshikigahara Waterfalls in the Takayama area / Chuzenji-ko - Yumoto Hike in Nikko NP


All our guidebooks advertise the ryokans of the Japanese Welcome Inn group as a kind of ``true style'' accomodation while travelling in Japan. Ryokans are inns with some or several rooms where one sleeps on a futon on the tatami mat - covered floor. Besides this, the room will contain a TV, maybe a telephone, a small table 50 cm high with two cushions to sit on the gound. There are rules about (not) wearing shoes. Toilets and baths are common use. In particular, there is a common bath with a big tub (small pool) full of hot water ("onsen") where one can relax after having thoroughly washed oneself outside the pool. This is the Japanese variant of Scandinavian sauna. The most desirable case is to have true hot sprimg thermal water in that pool or tub. In traditional Ryokans there are spearate ones for men and women, but in the Welcome Inn ones that I saw, you can use it privately and close the door. In those cases, sometimes you have to reserve a half hour "onsen" use in advance (half hour is certainly enough). The Welcome Inn Ryokans are in several respects well adapted to the needs of Western tourists. One can reserve by internet or email, i.e., one does not need to overcome the language difficulties on the phone. The owners, even if the do not speak English well, are used to comunicating with foreigners. They can help you to reserve at the next place. Usually, there is Internet connection, there are coin laundries, and you meet other foreign tourists. On the other hand, I hardly ever saw a Japanese traveller in one of those Welcome Inn ryokans. They are westernized to a good amount while still trying to maintain some of the tradition. I would say that those in smaller places are good, but those in big towns may be less nice. We did not like the one in Kyoto, for example.
In the countryside there are many ryokans with true thermal onsen baths and mostly without foreign guests, where Japanese families go on vacation; they are different. I had a discussion with Japanese colleagues, who say that in former times, the downtown ryokans would be typically used by businessmen on business trips, but now these customers are lost because they go to the business hotels, which do not cost too much more. So trying to attract Western tourists may be an attempt to assure survival for those ryokans in bigger cities.
All bigger cities have those business hotels with common standards, many single and some double rooms with bed and small bathroom, TV, phone, small fridge, tea boiling facility, internet connection. They are not much more expensive than the ryokans. Breakfast costs additional 1000 Yen typically, but it may be better to have breakfast elsewhere. The advantage of those business hotels is that we are used to the room style. The disadvantage may be that they are all big and anonymous concrete buildings with a few 100 rooms.
Direct booking may be more expensive than via the web page http://travel.rakuten.co.jp/en. However, the English version seems to contain much less than the Japanese one. My Japanese colleagues are registered for this website, and it is very useful for booking accomodation all over Japan at good prices.

What now follows are experiences and descriptions from several specific places.

Kyoto temples Kinkaku-ji and Nanzen-ji


There are many sources for sightseeing hints. Accomodation: the Welcome Inn Ryokans are all close to the station. The only reason to stay in this part of town may be because it is close to the station. Most of the many sights are in the parts of the citiy that are close to the hills delimiting Kyoto to the East, North and West. In those areas, it is also a bit cooler that in the downtown and station area. After a few Welcome Inn days, I moved to Casa Carinho Bead and Breakfast http://www.gotokandk.com/casa.html, which I found in one of the guidebooks. Very suitable for me (5 minutes walking distance from Kyoto Univ.), a traditional Japanese house with slightly spartanic, but nice Japanese style rooms, the owner is Canadian and his wife Austrian.
Public transport in Kyoto is efficient (a dense bus net with a clear map that you get in all tourist infos, and convenient 500 Yen day passes) and inefficient (much slower than transport in other cities) at the same time. (There are also two subway lines and some local trains, all belonging to different companies.) If it is hot, one may appreciate a rest in one of the air-conditioned buses while slowly travelling from one of the many wonderful sights to another.
Around Kyoto there are nice hikes, see Lonely Planet "Hiking in Japan". I liked Takao (NW, on the bus map), with 2 very nice temples (a 3rd one less interesting) and a nice trail to Kyotaki along a river in a valley (gorge) where one can even swim. From there, I also climbed up Mt. Atago-San, one of the higher peaks close to town. From Kyotaki, another bus goes back to Kyoto.

Himeji castle


This town has the best preserved castle in Japan. It is very reasonable to do this as a half day trip from Kyoto. From the Himeji Shinkansen station it takes 15 minutes walking to the castle grounds. The visit of the castle takes at most 2 hours. Then back to the station, one can buy lunch before boarding and recovering from the heat in the air conditioned train back to Kyoto.

Takayama / Shirakawa-go


is a smaller town in the mountains 2 train hours north of Nagoya and is worth a relaxed stay. It is touristic, but not in an exaggerated way (such as e.g. Hakone). There are a few very nice old style streets in the center, a walking trail that visits a series of temples and the remnants of the castle, and a few further sights. Also very nice is the open air Hida folk museum slightly outside of twon (SW), which gathers different types of old houses from the region, set up in a carefully maintained little village, instructive and pleasant. By bus, one can undertake day trips to several places in the high Japanese Alps, or to Shirakawa-go, a world heritage village with many straw-roofed old houses (bus service from Takayama is very slow, the place is a bit over-touristic).
Accomodation: we followed a hint and did not go to the Welcome Inn place, but to Minshuku Kuwataniya http://www.kuwataniya.com/english/english.htm, a very nice family-run pension comparable to a Ryokan, with mostly Japanese families as their guests. Warmly recommended ! They also have "Western style" rooms, and free bycicles at their guest's disposal.

Shade of Mt. Fuji in the Morning sun / Mt. Fuji peak and crater

Climbing Mt. Fuji

In addition to the above two links for weather forecasts, I used the following for the weather on top of the mountain. http://www.snow-forecast.com/resorts/Mount-Fuji.0to3top.shtml. It is worth while to wait for good weather. I had glorious weather and was accordingly happy. Friends who had had cloudy weather were much less enthousiastic, and so is T. Wheeler's somewhat badly-mooded report in Lonely Planet "Hiking in Japan".
Tradition wants to climb overnight, in order to see sunrise from the top. This also has the advantage of beeing cooler than in the sun. Also, the likelihood to have now or only few clouds is higher in the morning than later in the day.
There are four climbing, resp. descending routes. Gotemba (longest) and Subashiri trails are best for descending, Yoshida and Fujinomiya (shortest) best for climbing. It seems that most people choose the Yoshida trail, which has the advantage that if one does not make it in time to the top, one still can see the sunrise because the trail is on the Eastern slope. For the rest, I believe the Fujinomya trail is better: slightly less corwded, a little less steep in the final part, and relatively broad. The latter is useful, because the trails are crowded by inexperienced hikers who walk too fast but then have to pause too often: one will find space for overtaking. When I was already heading down Subashiri, I saw a long line of people queuing on Yoshida trail still trying to get to the top in the rapicly increasing heat, but all had to adapt their pace to the slowest of them.

Mount Fuji

It is very reasonable to climb and descend on different routes. In that case one can leave the luggage in a locker at the train station where one takes the bus to the selected 5th station starting point (Gotemba, Mishima, or Fuji stations). I started from Mishima (Shinkansen station). There are only 4 buses per day going to Fujinomiya 5th station, the last one at 17.30 (Summer 2007). The bus trip takes 2 hours. The bus stop is at the south exit from the Station; there is also an info booth where one can get a return ticket for the bus: it allows you also to take a bus down from another fifth station, and the overall price (3000 Yen) is only slighlty more than the one-way fare. I took Subashiri trail to descend, bus to Gotemba, then local train (southbound) back to Mishima (change at Numazu).
One starts out from slightly above sea level, bus to an altitude of 2400m, and then hikes upt to 3780m. Hiking itself is easy, and good sport shoes can suffice, but even experienced hikers may feel the fast ascent above 3000m. So if one is ready to spend 5000 Yen to rest for a couple of hours (say, from 9pm to 2am) in a dormitory with 50-80 or more other persons, then one can stay at - say - the 8th station (3200m on Fujinomiya trail), in order to adapt to the height and have a rest. I started from 5th station at 6pm, arrived at 8th station at 8.20pm, had a rest (no real sleep) until 2am, getting started 30min before the "wake up call" for the other sleepers.
Upon reaching the crater rim from Fujinomiya trail, it may still be dark, and one may miss the sharp left turn to reach the highest peak with the observatory: the trail passes just between the huts at the point where one reaches the rim.
On top one will be very happy to have plenty of warm clothes. Around the crater rim on all sides of the mountain there will e a few thousand people, almost all Japanese, waiting for sunrise. Most of them seem to prefer to stay close to the huts where the trails reach the crater rim. On the highest peak, I met at most 30-40 other people.

Volcanic egg eating at Owakudani /Pirate ship on lake Ashi in Hakone


This is a popular place Southwest of Tokyo, north of Mt. Fuji, steep hills, Onsen baths and lake Ashi in what is an ancient, extinct volcano. With good weather, one is supposed to have nice views of Mt. Fuji. However, it is touristic in an exaggerated Disneyland-like manner, with "Pirate" ships cruising the lake, a cable car in order to reach Owakudani,a volcanic place with fumaroles that smell of sulphur and where the main activity of all tourists is to eat hot eggs boiled in thermal water from the mountain (a much nicer spot of this type, almost deserted, is in Pozzuoli north of Napoli, Italy), etc. etc.
Hakone is a place where - trying to translate from Hesse - tourists from the country of the child-people may like to go. There is a Welcome Inn ryokan plus attached youth hostel with Western tourists only; they have a nice outdoor Onsen bath with hot thermal water. (One has to reserve in the morning for the coming evening's bath, but in our case someone - the landlady I believe - exchanged the reservations, thus adding to our frustration.)
In this case, I really blame the guide books which are unable or unwilling to convey the difference between the type of tourism that one finds in such a spot as opposed to other places such as Takayama or Nikko. However, like for Mt. Fuji, the appreciation my also depend on the weather (very cloudy when we visited).

Buddha statue and Zen temple in Kamakura


is a lively town on the Sea south of Tokyo, Japan's capital some 700 years ago. On can easiliy commute between here and Tokyo. The beach is relatively ugly, but the town is pleasant and has several very interesting sights, among which a giant Buddha statue (Daibutsu) and the particularly impressive Engaku-ji Zen temple, one of the most important ones in the country.
We stayed in a very convenient and comfortable small hotel ..... , which is very hard to find, because there are no English signs. (Ask until someone happens to know the place.) (No internet.)

Buddha parade/ Tokugawa shrine area in Nikko


left us very impressed. Even though built for rather nasty military dictators of their time, the Tokugawa shrine and adjancent shrines and temples are outstanding. Japanese "Baroque", not as sober style as most other temples and shrines in the country, very refined with many many little details.
The "Turtle Inn" ryokan http://www.turtle-nikko.com/ from the Welcome Inn group is one of the nice and kind ones. Most tourists come for day visits from Tokyo, evenings appeared quite deserted. There is a nice and simple little restaurant run by two elderly ladies that specializes in feeding Western tourists with Japanese food, on the right hand side when walking down the main street from the sacred bridge, very close.
Also, have a walk beyond the "Turtle Inn". Following the river, there is a place with a few hundred typical Buddha statues with red caps and shirts standing in a line facing the river. Above in the wood, there is an old graveyard.
There are frequent bus services uphill from Nikko to the National park and Lake Chuzenji and beyond to the little lake Yumoto. Further back along lake Chuzen-ji it is less foggy in case of rainy weather than close to the famous Kegon falls. We had a really beautiful and very easy hike from Ryuzu falls to the Yumoto lake falls through wonderful marshland scenery. This walk may be continued along the little lake, or extended to a 2day-hike as recommended by "Hiking in Japan".

Matsushima islands / Yamadera

Sendai, Matsushima and Yamadera

Sendai itself is not of great sightseeing interest, but it can serve as a good base point for excursions to various interesting places, such as Hiraizumi (see below), Matsushima or Yamadera.
Matsushima and Yamadera can by visited as two half-day excursions from Sendai. Matsushima is to the East, claimed to be one of the three most famous seaside sights of Japan. With good weather it is not so bad. There is another impressive temple, and the nature park on the island NE of the station that you reach by crossing a red pedestrian bridge, is nice, shady and green and offers nice views on the bay with the many little islands. I would not have wanted to take one of the crowded boat cruises of the bay.
Yamadera, 40 min by train to the West, is a temple area in a rather spectacular rocky mountain scenery, on top of a steep slope with many stone steps in the shade of cedar trees. Basho was here and dedicated his most famous Haiku to this place at a time when it was still a quiet spot. No more quiet, but nevertheless to be recommended.

Some treasures of Chuson-ji temple at Hiraizumi


This is a small town in Tohoku, between Sendai and Morioka. One can take the Shinkansen to Ichinoseki, then local train on the JR Tohoku line or the bus in front of Ichinoseki station (20 min trip).
The Chuson-ji temple area is not only nicely situated on a hill amidst hight cedar trees, but it houses outstanding art - in particular, the Golden Hall, a shrine from the 12th century with refined golden decorations, which is a national treasure and alone worth the visit. The other temple at Hiraizumi, Motsu-ji, is not as impressive.
Some of the accomodation (a ryokan and a minshuku) mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide haven been closed. I stayed at Ohsawa Onsen Ryokan, tel. 0191-46-2059, fax 0191-46-3146, a relatively big house from the 1960ies or 70ies with spacious rooms and very good food (dinner and breakfast) included in the price. It is about 20 min walking distance from the station, but the owners are ready to pick you up, resp., bring you to the station. (They asked slightly too much for bycicle rental, but in view of the positive rest, it was acceptable.)

Geibikei gorge excursion boat

Returning to Ichinoseki, it is a 30-40min train or bus ride to the East to reach Geibikei-kyo, an impressive little gorge with high rock walls where one can take a boat ride together with other tourists. (Here, once more, the guidebooks did not care to outline that one can enter the gorge only by boat - I expected to be able to hike.) At he end, you are let off the boat and can have a short, but nice walk. I continued for a few minutes beyond the last touristic spot and took a cool bath in the river, and there was nobody - as if there was an invisible wall to stop any individual initiative of the (99.5 % Japanese) tourists.

Lotus blossom in Kamakura

Last modified on August 18, 2007. Corrections of misspellings on May 3, 2010.