For over 30 years now I’ve kept a journal and found it difficult to do so when touring, so in 2010 I began to write ‘Postcards from…..’ for each of the tours I was on which became not only my personal journal but a record for each of the ladies travelling with me to keep as a memento of the trip. Their version contains many images of things we saw and did but here is a day by day of the fun and adventures we had in Japan in 2019…..
SUNDAY 10 NOVEMBER – TOKYO, JAPAN
We arrived safe and sound. The gang’s all here along with our guide Junko. Once we had all the ladies from all flights we boarded our private bus and made our way into the city, checked in to our hotel and were all looking forward to a good night sleep.
MONDAY 11 NOVEMBER – TOKYO SUMO DEMONSTRATION
What a great day we had for our first day in Japan. We set off by taxi to the Asakusa district where we most of the group enjoyed an optional excursion which was a Sumo demonstration and Chankonable Hotpot lunch. What a fun time we had learning a little about the history of this ancient sport and watching a little tournament between two retired Sumo professionals one of which ranked as high as #30 in Japan in his career. They were so much fun and the crowd were also able to wrestle with them and Lynne B., and Patsy gave it their best shot suitably kitted out complete with topknot. We enjoyed a lovely lunch before heading into the Nakamise shopping street, to explore and shop and then taking the trains back to our hotel. A wonderful start to our trip.
TUESDAY 12 NOVEMBER – TOKYO, CITY TOUR
Today we explored Japan’s capital with our guide Junko taking in some of the major sites of the city. It was a beautiful clear, blue sky day which started with Mt Fuji being visible from my room so I made sure all of the girls took a look before we set off as we may not see it again tomorrow.
Our first stop today was the Meiji Shrine, built in 1920 and set inside a beautiful forest in the middle of this bustling city with wide paths that allow visitors to wander through peacefully. As well as the beautiful shrine we saw a beautiful display of chrysanthemums, a wall of sake barrels and the offerings that are being made in the shrine from all around Japan in an effort to hope that good crops will be coming and a wedding procession.
We walked down Takeshita-dori Street which is one of the famous trendy streets for the youth of Japan and then on to the elegant Omotesando Street with all the top end shops before going on to see The Imperial Palace but only from outside of the grounds. While walking back to the bus we stopped to look at the magnificent solid bronze statue of the famous Samurai, Kusunoki Masashige and his horse. Just next to the statue was an ice-cream shop that sells soft serve ice-cream covered in GOLD LEAF! What will they think of next?
Our last stop for the day was the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa which was built in 7th century. Our day finished with a delicious Japanese meal at Musashino Japanese Restaurant in our hotel with our guide Junko which was a lovely experience. Off to Hakone tomorrow.
WEDNESDAY 13 NOVEMBER – HAKONE
We left Tokyo this morning by train and headed South West to Hakone in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. We walked over to visit the Torii Gate and then up to the Hakone Shrine. We enjoyed a cruise across Lake Ashinoko on Queen Ashinoko, a beautiful pirate ship and then did the Mt Komagatake Ropeway for spectacular views of Mt Fuji, only kidding, couldn’t see a thing. A nice train ride back to Tokyo to finish off a great day. We even had our first origami lesson today. Off to Nagano tomorrow.
THURSDAY 14 NOVEMBER- NAGANO
Today we left the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and took the bullet train to Nagano. The temperature here is much cooler compared to Tokyo and will drop down even more overnight. We dropped our gear at the hotel and walked up to have lunch. On the way we passed elegant old buildings and shops and watched a man making soba noodles. Our lunch was a traditional vegan meal that would be eaten by Buddhist monks. It was quite tasty and filling and we ate in a lovely traditional setting.
From here we walked to Zenkoji Temple, one of the most important and popular temples in Japan. It was founded in the 7th century. We walked around the temple grounds with Junko and a local guide who took us up inside the Main Hall which is a National Treasure where a ceremony including drums and prayers was taking place and we were able to sit on the mats and watch and listen.
Next most of us went down below the main altar through a pitch-black passageway to touch the “Key to the Pure Land (Paradise)”. One touch ensures eternal salvation. We saw two couples having their wedding photos taken here.
We all enjoyed this temple. It seems more welcoming than most.
We all love the quiet of Nagano after the madness of Tokyo and the beautiful colours of autumn. A good walk back to the hotel to finish off a great day in Nagano.
FRIDAY 15 NOVEMBER – YUDANAKA SNOW MONKEY PARK
Today was all about these little guys, the Japanese Macaques or Snow Monkeys. The park is inhabited by around 700 monkeys who live in groups and come down to the thermal pools to bathe. As there is currently an abundance of food higher up and it’s also mating season they don’t frequent the pools so much so we didn’t see any in the water but we did see 4 on our way in to the pools. They appeared to be as curious about us as we were about them.
After the monkeys we drove to Obuse, a town famous for chestnuts where most of us tried the chestnut ice-cream and where we also had lunch. The Hokusai Museum was there so we made a short visit there to see the 2 festival floats which are classified as treasures for the region. From here we took the ‘Snow Monkey Train’ back to Nagano.
We had a spectacular blue sky day today with cooler temperatures but still glorious. The train journey there and back was beautiful passing market gardens, snow-capped mountains and the incredible colours of autumn.
SATURDAY 16 NOVEMBER – MATSUMOTO
After a short walk over the road to Nagano Station we took the JR limited express ‘Wide View Shinano’ to Matsumoto arriving at 10.49am! There was no program for today so Junko took us for a walk from the hotel to explore. As Matsumoto is the birthplace of the famous contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama, the City Museum of Art houses a permanent exhibition of her works titled ‘A Place for My Soul’ and it was wonderful to see and enjoy. We walked around with Junko exploring the town and were delighted to come across a group of ladies dressed in traditional kimonos who were happy to have their photo taken with us. In the evening several of the ladies went to enjoy the onsen experience and the rest of us enjoyed a meal with the locals in a lively eating place next door to our hotel.
SUNDAY 17 NOVEMBER – MATSUMOTO & DAIO WASABI FARM
Another great day today as we set off first of all to visit Matsumoto Castle and Yohashira Shrine. The castle, which is also called ‘The Crow Castle’ due to it’s black exterior, is one of the most beautiful in Japan surviving through the ages when many were either destroyed or allowed to fall in to disrepair. It is a ‘hirajiro’ castle which means it is built on flat ground rather than on a hill or mountain. It dates back to the 16th century and is classified as a National Treasure. We all removed our shoes and went up inside to explore after being accosted by a Samurai warrior and later a Ninja and Lynn and I climbed all the way up to the top for great views.
From here we walked down to Yohashira Shrine a Shinto Shrine built during the Meiji Period and dedicated to four Shinto deities which is rare even in Japan. We were lucky to get caught up in a procession today which was part of the Ebisuko festival making its way to the Shinto Shrine. Next we boarded a bus and travelled about half an hour out of town to the Daio Wasabi Farm which was very interesting. Using the natural spring water, the wasabi grown here represents 10% of all wasabi grown in Japan and is known as being the best in Japan. Many of us tried the wasabi ice-cream and other products and bought some to take home for gifts as well. We headed back to Matsumoto and in the evening some of us including our guide Junko had dinner with the locals at Tsunagu yokocho next door to our hotel which was a whole lot of fun and then over to ‘il nido’, a coffee and bar close by where we met the delightful Yoichisan which was equally as much fun. Off to Takayama tomorrow.
MONDAY 18 NOVEMBER – TAKAYAMA
A pretty cruisy day today taking the public bus from Matsumoto to Takayama. On arrival we did a walk around the old town in Kamisannomachi Street, dating back to the 17th century where wealthy merchants lived and then back to the hotel for check in. Later in the afternoon we went out to see a local show that some of the first group had seen and liked called Deko Naru-Za a Japanese traditional performing arts show. We all loved it and I particularly loved the drums. Part of the show was teaching the audience the art of using the fan. At the end of the show we got to dress in kimonos which was a treat. From here we found two little restaurants where we had dinner to finish off another great day.
TUESDAY 19 NOVEMBER – TAKAYAMA
Takayama is best explored on foot so this morning we set off to explore this quiet and charming town. Our first stop was The Hida Kokubunji three-storey pagoda and The Hondo, a Buddhist regional temple built between 500 and 700 years ago which is now registered as an important National Cultural Property. In the grounds there is a Ginko tree that is 1,200 years old. We were lucky enough to have one of the Buddhist monks tell us a little about the history of the building and the treasures inside and were taken back behind the screens to see the beautiful statues and other items not visible from the entrance.
From here we walked up to and along the river to visit the ‘morning markets’ a small market selling a variety of fruit, vegetables and other food stuffs and a little bit of craft. Our next stop was the exhibition hall that houses the magnificent Festival Floats that are used during the Autumn Festival in Takayama in October. Many of the floats date from the 17th century and are decorated with complicated carvings, gilded wood, lacquering and beautiful detailed, decorative metalwork. Some have silk and brocade pieces on them that are worth around 40 million Yen! (half a million AUD).
With the touring program finished for the day we took a short walk down towards the old town where we split up with some of the ladies going off to further explore the old town, some going to check out the museum and myself, Junko and a few of the girls walking up to the Temple area to wander through the Higashiyama Shrines sitting high above the town.
I think it’s fair to say that all of the ladies have enjoyed Takayama. Our hotel is more traditional than the ones we’ve had so far with our beds being traditional mattresses on the floor, tatami mats throughout which means ‘no shoes allowed’ and an Onsen (Japanese hot spring) up on the 13th floor to enjoy anytime we choose. There is a 60% chance of snow overnight here in Takayama and where we’re heading tomorrow morning the forecast is for a high of 3 deg C and a low of -4 deg C so the thermals look like they’ll get a run.
WEDNESDAY 20 NOVEMBER – SHIRAKAWA-GO
Colder temperatures today as we left Takayama and headed for Kanazawa via the UNESCO World Heritage village of Shirakawa-go. On the way we could see the freshly fallen snow on the mountain tops but none so far today where we’ve been. When we arrived at Shirakawa-go we firstly went up to the lookout for great views of the mountains and the village. We walked down to explore the village wandered through the thatched roof houses and little shops and visited the Wada family House.
This house dates back to the 16th century and the family were very prominent during that time. The house is made of beautiful cypress timber and beams and no nails at all are used in the structure. It is built strong to withstand flood, typhoons and earthquakes.
We had free time for lunch and to explore before taking the express bus once again this time to Kanazawa.
THURSDAY 21 NOVEMBER – KANAZAWA
We set off to explore Kanazawa today on a chilly autumn morning using the public buses. Our first stop was Kenrokuen Garden (Six Attributes Garden), one of Japan’s “three most beautiful landscape gardens”. The area used to be the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle and was constructed by the ruling Maeda family during the 17th and 19th centuries. The garden also houses Seisonkaku Villa which was built by a Maeda Lord for his mother and is one of the most elegant samurai villas remaining in Japan.
From here we took the bus once more to Omicho Street to visit the busy and colourful markets filled with local seafood, fruit, vegetables and other interesting produce.
Another short bus ride down to Nagamachi Samurai District to walk through the narrow streets to visit the Nomura-ke samurai residence. This house was owned by the Nomura Denbei Nobusada family who served the Shoguns for 11 generations and were given land in Kanazawa in return for their faithful service. The building also houses a small museum with swords, letters and other interesting artefacts. We walked up to the main street and returned to the hotel on the public bus to finish off a great day out in Kanazawa.
FRIDAY 22 NOVEMBER – KANAZAWA
Well today was all about craft in Kanazawa. If you didn’t pay attention in Home Ec 101 or if art wasn’t your thing, today was a great way to just have some fun. We took taxis to our first stop this morning where we let out our inner craftsman and enjoyed a stencil dyeing experience all coming away with our own piece of art! On the same premises was a small kimono museum which houses some magnificent kimonos, some worth hundreds of thousands of Yen. Sadly no photos allowed of the kimonos but we were able to take a photo of one of the artists who was creating a colourful kimono. We also saw a short film of how the kimonos once painted are cleaned in the local rivers to take the glues and excess paint out of the fabric. It was all in Japanese but it was interesting to watch the process all the same.
Our next work of art was the gold leaf imprinting where we got to choose 2 stencils each to imprint on to a small lacquer tray using gold leaf. They turned out pretty good even if we say so ourselves and will be a lovely memento of our trip.
The final activity of the program was sweets making. This was fast and furious and Miaggi-san took no prisoners. If you didn’t keep up, that was tough sweets. Our guide Junko did a great job interpreting as quickly as he spoke as well as taking videos of us doing our best to follow instructions. At the end of the day most of our sweets looked like the sample ones provided but I think Japanese sweets are an acquired taste. By this time everyone was ready for lunch so we walked down to the old geisha district to a lovely restaurant recommended by Junko.
It was a cold day today but we continued on and walked down through the Higashiyama Higashi Chaya District, the old Geisha district of Kanazawa with Junko which is a traditional neighbourhood with teahouses where geisha perform, plus shops selling gold-leaf crafts. From here it was back on the public bus to escape the cold and make our way back to the terminal and then a short walk to the hotel. Off to Kyoto tomorrow on the ‘Thunderbird #56’. Another great day in Japan!
SATURDAY 23 NOVEMBER – KANAZAWA TO KYOTO
Another great train journey today as we took the ‘Thunderbird’ to Kyoto taking 2 hours and 15 minutes and arriving at 13.11hrs. Everything runs like a Swiss clock here in Japan. After taking taxis to our hotel we rested up for a short while before setting out on foot to explore Kyoto with our ultimate goal being to explore the geisha part of town, the Gion District. Wow what a baptism of fire we had today in Kyoto. It was a public holiday and a Saturday so everyone was out and about in droves. Thank goodness Junko put up her little kimono on a stick so we could follow along diligently and not get lost. We huddled our way through Nishiki Markets checking out the weird and wonderful sights before continuing on to the Gion District where we were lucky enough to see some Geisha posing for photos. Etiquette dictates that we don’t take photos of Geishas going to and from work however as these ladies were posing for photographers and we just happened to go by, it was our lucky day. The lady on the right in purple is a Geiko (Geisha in Tokyo) as she is an accomplished Geisha. The lady on the left is a Maiko or apprentice Geisha. There are a few ways to distinguish them and one is their hair. The Geiko wears a wig and little hair accessories whereas the Maiko styles her own hair and has lots of decorations in her hair. After the excitement of seeing geishas we continued on to Gion Corner which is a theatre in the Gion District where we watched a variety of traditional Japanese performing arts in a one hour show. The show included a Tea Ceremony (Chado), a performance on the Japanese Harp (Koto), Flower Arrangement (Kado), Court Music (Gagaku), an ancient comic play (Kyogen), a puppet play (Bunraku) and Kyoto style dance by Maiko called Kyomai.
We took the public bus back to the area near our hotel where Junko worked her magic and got us in to a place for dinner which was a whole lot of fun. We seem to be quite a curiosity for the locals which can be quite entertaining at times. Everyone was happy to head home after dinner finishing off a jam packed day for a well-earned sleep.
SUNDAY 24 NOVEMBER – KYOTO
Although we had a bus to take us to some of the places on our program today, we still managed to rack up almost 17,000 steps on our various step counters so a big day out.
First up today was a lovely walk along The Philosopher’s Path, a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district through beautiful autumn leaves and past quaint little homes. This took us to the 15th century Ginkakuji Temple also known as ‘The Silver Pavilion’ even though no silver was used in the construction. Both of the buildings in this complex, Kannon-den and Togu-do are classed as National Treasures.
From here we went to The Golden Pavilion where we walked around the lake surrounded by spectacular colours of autumn. The garden and buildings are said to represent the Pure Land of Buddha in this world. It was destroyed by fire in 1950 when a novice monk deliberately set fire to it and then tried to commit suicide close by. He survived and was sent to jail. The pavilion was rebuilt in 1955 and gold leaf was used in the construction but it was necessary to redo much of the gold gilding once more in 1987.
Next stop, Ryonanji Temple with its beautiful Rock Garden. The original temple was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1499 and since 1994 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Rock Garden is a rectangular Zen garden with 15 rocks and using white gravel, raked into linear patterns that facilitate meditation and no trees and is maintained daily by monks.
With our program done for the day some of the ladies headed back to the hotel and the rest of us continued on to visit the very, very popular Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I imagine on a Tuesday or Wednesday this would be a very serene and calm place but today it was mayhem. We know now it’s a very popular place for day trips for Japanese families and the fact that yesterday was a public holiday just added to the chaos. Given that, it was still worth the effort. We found our way to the train station all by ourselves and caught the train back to Kyoto station.
MONDAY 25 NOVEMBER- KYOTO TEA CEREMONY AND NARA
We had a wonderful day today starting with a traditional tea ceremony dressed in kimonos which were such a treat to experience. It can take up to 10 years for a lady to learn how to dress properly in a kimono. There is even a school you can attend to learn the art of dressing yourself and others.
From here we took the limited express train to Nara where we walked among the deers and explored the magnificent temples and shrines including the Main Buddha Hall at Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine. We finished off with traditional ramen noodles at a local restaurant with our delightful guide Junko. Today Lee celebrated her birthday and I think it’s fair to say she did it in style.
TUESDAY 25 NOVEMBER- KYOTO
Today it was time to don the apron and get our hands dirty in the kitchen. We took a cab ride to Sun Cooking School where for the next 3 hours we learned a little about Japanese food and created our own Bento Box lunch consisting of Gomaae, a spinach and sesame salad, teriyaki chicken, sushi, tempura and miso soup. It was a whole lot of fun and it was unanimous, we’re great cooks!!!
The rest of the afternoon was free and we all set off to do various things that interested each of us including some shopping, exploring or resting. Lynn and I braved the subway and regional train and went out to see the Inari Shrine with its 1,000 Torii Gates which was beautiful. We met back at the hotel and headed out to dinner at a traditional restaurant with 90 minutes of beer, wine, spirits and sake included. We had a great night to say the least.
WEDNESDAY 27 NOVEMBER – HIROSHIMA AND MIYAJIMA ISLAND
Today was a day for reflection and contemplation as we left Kyoto and travelled to Hiroshima setting out early this morning on the bullet train.
We visited the Peace Memorial Museum and Peace Park and walked up to the Monument to the Children and then over the river to The Dome. A sombre reminder that there are no winners in wars.
From here we took a fast ferry to Miyajima where we explored Itsukushima Shrine which was so beautiful. Sadly the Torii Gate is still under restoration so not able to be seen.
We wandered through the narrow lanes eating street food and amazing coffee ice cream while fighting off deer and then in and out of the little shops before heading back to the mainland by ferry then the local train to Hiroshima then the bullet train 🚅 to Kyoto and then the subway to Shijo, our local subway. An eleven hour day of touring and smiles all round. It’s been a good day.
THURSDAY 28 NOVEMBER – KYOTO TO OSAKA
After a lovely 5 days we were a little sad to say farewell to Kyoto as we took the JR Rapid train to Osaka which is our last stop for the trip. We walked to the hotel and dropped our gear off, had a stop for coffee and then took 2 different subway trains to Osaka Castle and visited. The castle dates back to the 16th century and is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks. Inside it’s possible to take the lift to the 5th floor and then walk up to the 8th floor for spectacular views over the castle and city.
We took taxis from the castle to Dotombori, one of the iconic areas of Osaka where we first took a boat ride on the canal with a crazy host and then had some free time to look around. Osaka is crazy busy and in the busy shopping streets are sensory overload with its giant crabs, octopi and puffer fish, after the smaller places we’ve been to. Kyoto was busy but this is loud and busy. More taxis to go back to the hotel to check in and have some down time before meeting up for dinner at a little restaurant close by our hotel. Today is our last touring day of the trip and tomorrow is a free day where we’ll explore, shop or rest as we like.
FRIDAY 29 NOVEMBER- OSAKA
Today was a free day so after a leisurely day most of us set off to explore Osaka. Some went to the Sky Tower, some to check out museums and others to the longest shopping street in Osaka, Tenjinbashisuji which is over 2km long. Tonight is our last night so we enjoyed a farewell dinner at a Japanese restaurant serving nabe, a traditional hotpot popular with sumo. We were treated to a private performance by the GOT Quintet with their rendition of ‘I still call Australia home’. It was a very moving experience. Can’t believe we’re off home tomorrow. It’s been a wonderful ride thanks to this amazing group of women who embrace each day and take everything in their stride and love life!!