JAPAN: Tokyo, Kyoto, Alps, Matsumoto, Himeji, Nikko, Mt Fuji, Kii Peninsula, Nara’s Horyuji

Months of research paid off handsomely for our self-guided group of four in my first journey to Japan, 2018 October 10 – November 8.

Japan favorite photos


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Our trip included 4 days in Tokyo, a week in Kyoto, and much in between. Coming from cooler Seattle, subtropical Honshu nicely extends fall foliage colors a month later. While our wives Barbara and Carol did a 10-day indigo-dyeing fabric workshop, Mark and I escaped into nature in the Japan Alps and Nikko National Park. Then back together, we four explored fabulous Matsumoto and Himeji Castles plus much more described below. Conveniently, history has packed the essence of Japan into central Honshu, the main island. As foreigners we qualify for the bargain-priced Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) which reaches most major sights.

Incredibly helpful, Google Maps on my smartphone with Japanese SIM simplified point-to-point navigation. Our SUICA transit cards (ordered in advance) eliminated fumbling with unfamiliar change on efficient local subways and buses, and also bought items from vending machines seemingly found everywhere (dispensing hot bad coffee in a can plus cold drinks). The impressively-reliable Japanese train network includes 200mph bullet trains (shinkansen), which resemble ground-hugging jet airplanes. My preparatory efforts to learn spoken Japanese were put on hold after arrival, as English signs and helpful locals sufficiently crossed the language barrier.

The following interactive Google Map shows where we went in Japan. During the trip, I would simply click a desired destination, and Google Maps would describe the step by step directions, visually and/or audibly, as desired via train, bus or foot.

More extensive galleries of Japan:

Below, see all my Japan photos and travel tips grouped by city and area (mostly by Tom Dempsey, some by Carol Dempsey). Or view them in sequential order in a single gallery at this link in my Portfolio (where you can Add to Cart).

Tokyo


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On our first morning in Tokyo, we dove into a high protein fish breakfast at Tsukiji Kagura Sushi (map), one of many restaurants in Tsukiji Outer Market in Central Tokyo southeast of Ginza. In Ueno Park, the big Tokyo National Museum helped us understand the sweep of Japanese history. We highly recommend a Sumida River Dinner Cruise on a Yakatabune traditional Heian Period Japanese boat, such as Harumiya company’s “Odaiba & Skytree route” via Rainbow Bridge. Seating is at horigotatsu low table with a sunken floor to comfortably stretch your legs. In Asakusa district, we visited the densely crowded Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Buddhist Temple, founded in 645 AD), which was completely rebuilt several times, mostly after World War II.

Destroyed by Allied firebombing during World War Two along with half of Tokyo, the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Garden was rebuilt in the 1960s and 1990s and is the home of Japan’s Imperial Family. In 1989, Emperor Akihito became Japan’s 125th emperor. 1,500 years of rule makes his Yamato Dynasty the oldest continuous hereditary monarchy in the world. Constitutionally, the emperor performs a symbolic role with no political power; and the role was similarly limited through most of Japan’s history.

Allied firebombing of Tokyo on 9 March 1945 was the single deadliest air raid of World War II (greater than Dresden or Hiroshima as single events), leaving more than 100,000 civilians dead and 1 million homeless. After Japan surrendered, the US occupying forces led by General Douglas A. MacArthur rehabilitated Japan between 1945 and 1952. Rising from the ashes, Tokyo is now a stunning technological wonder; and as of 2018 Japan has the world’s third largest economy by GDP. Not until 2010 did China finally surpassed Japan’s Gross Domestic Product. Shared history has deeply intertwined the economies of the USA and Japan. For example, the American convenience store innovator of 7-Eleven Inc. was rescued from mismanagement and became entirely Japanese-owned in 2005. 7-Eleven stores have spread widely across Japan.

Tokyo wowed us with some exciting modern architecture including: Tokyo International Forum; skyscrapers above Shibuya Crossing, the world’s single busiest pedestrian crossing; the beautiful greenhouse in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden; graceful Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower built 2008; a free city observatory 202 meters high in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (Tokyo Tocho); and the Godzilla (Gojira) head on Hotel Gracery in the Kabukicho entertainment and neon red-light district, spectacular at night.

Despite a dense commuter population of 38 million people, the metropolis of Tokyo is one of the world’s safest cities. Japan is the most civil society I’ve ever witnessed. Careful attention to detail is applied everywhere: to pristine food presented with a delicate aesthetic, to the abundance of clean public restrooms, and to decorative manhole covers. Many toilets fill their tank using a faucet on top where you can wash you hands while the water runs immediately after flushing.

Politeness is a national virtue. Out of respect, no talking is heard on crowded commuter subways. Americans may be surprised that Japanese strongly frown upon pedestrians who smoke, eat, drink or talk on cellphones while walking. By most measures, the violent crime rate is at least 10 times lower in Japan than in the USA. Despite a quirky legal system which forces confessions, Japan incarcerates far fewer than the US (with a prisoner rate 13 times higher) or UK (3 times higher). Children can safely walk or transit unsupervised to school. Not everything is perfect in this male-dominated culture, such as the under-reporting of sexual assaults such as groping on crowded subways. But women and children apparently feel safe to walk most streets alone at night, unlike in many US cities.

Mount Fuji and Chureito Pagoda


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The dormant stratovolcano of Mount Fuji (3776.24 m or 12,389 ft), the highest mountain in Japan, last erupted in 1707–1708. Its symmetrical cone is snow-capped for about 5 months a year, as during our October visit. Overlooking Fujiyoshida City, a viewpoint by five-storied Chureito Pagoda offers iconic views combined with Mount Fuji in the distance (sadly covered by cloud by the time Mark and I joined Carol and Barb here, after their fabric workshop). The attractive pagoda, part of Arakura Sengen Shrine, was built as a peace memorial in 1963, nearly 400 steps up the mountain from the shrine’s main buildings.

Nikko: Toshogu, Lake Chuzenji


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Nikko features Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine, 1600s Toshogu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Tips: Get lodging with 6:00am breakfast or buy your own at a grocery the night before, in order to beat the crowds which fill up Nikko buses after 8:00am. Arrive at Toshogu Shrine’s box office just before it opens at 8:00am, as the site quickly becomes deluged with school groups and tourist hordes. This is an overcrowded, must-see wonder. Fall foliage colors were very nice at Ryuzu Falls and Chuzenji Onsen in late October 2018. Typically, peak foliage colors hit beautiful Lake Chuzenji around mid October. Ryuzu Falls was very nice, though crowded, even in the rain. Get off at Bus Stop #37, enjoy the falls, then walk 1 kilometer upriver along the raging stream, to less-crowded Bus Stop #38 to catch the next bus up or down.

Kyoto


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We devoted 7 nights to Kyoto, exhaustively exploring this amazing metropolis of 1.5 million people via foot, bus, taxi and train. Containing seventeen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is a cultural treasure house. Kyoto served as Japan’s capital and the emperor’s residence from 794-1868. Largely spared during World War II, Kyoto is a better place to see original historic buildings than Tokyo, where half the city was destroyed by Allied firebombing.

Tourist sights can get extra crowded in Kyoto on a Saturday, so we escaped to Kurama-dera. This peaceful Buddhist temple perches on a steep wooded mountain above Kurama, reached via an inexpensive private train plus funicular (cablecar), both not covered by JR Pass. Upon arrival, I learned that our planned 1-hour hiking trail between Kurama and Kibune was sadly closed until further notice, because two months previously, a typhoon had snapped trees and extensively damaged the grounds. Kurama-dera was nice and relaxing, but not as striking as our walk in “Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo” described further below.

Himeji Castle


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Himeji Castle is both a national treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Hyogo Prefecture. As a lucky exception, Himeji Castle was never destroyed by war, earthquake or fire and it survives as one of Japan’s 12 original castles. Starting as forts built in 1333 and 1346, it was remodeled in 1561, remodeled in 1581, enlarged in 1609 to its present complex, extensively repaired in 1956, and renovated in 2009-15. Displayed inside are historic samurai armor and swords. From the upper floors, view fish-shaped roof ornaments that are believed to protect from fire. Across the moat, we enjoyed the movie-set gardens of Koko-en. Himeji Castle starred in Akira Kurosawa’s striking 1980 film “Kagemusha” and 1985 “Ran”, and in the 1980 television miniseries Shogun (portraying feudal Osaka castle). We conveniently visited Himeji by train as a day trip from Kyoto, best mid week to avoid crowds.

Nara: Horyuji Temple


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Among the major historic sights scattered across Nara Prefecture, I choose Horyu-ji, which is both a National Treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Horyuji Temple’s 122-foot-high pagoda is the world’s oldest wooden building. The wood used in the center pillar of the pagoda is estimated through a dendrochronological analysis to have been felled in 594. The Temple was founded in 607 by Prince Shotoku, an early promoter of Buddhism in Japan. The similarly old Kondo (Main Hall) was rebuilt in 1954 after a 1949 fire destroyed 80-85% of its wood. As sights in Kyoto can get extra-crowded on weekends, a 3-hour round trip train to Horyuji served as a quieter, relaxing escape on a Sunday, located outside of Nara city.

Matsumoto Castle


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Built 1592-1614, Matsumoto Castle and its red bridge reflect magically in the moat, in Nagano Prefecture. Matsumoto Castle is a “hirajiro” – a castle built on plains rather than on a hill or mountain. Matsumoto-jo’s main castle keep and its smaller, second donjon were built from 1592 to 1614, well-fortified as peace was not yet fully achieved at the time. In 1635, when military threats had ceased, a third, barely defended turret and another for moon viewing were added to the castle. Inside, steep wooden stairs lead to openings for dropping stones onto invaders, openings for archers, as well as an observation deck at the top, the sixth floor of the main keep with views over Matsumoto city.

Japan Alps: Kamikochi, Mt Hotaka


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Starting from Tokyo by early morning train, the Northern Japan Alps are easily reached by early afternoon to start hiking. I recommend the following 4-day trek from Kamikochi via comfortable mountain huts up to 10,190-foot Mount Kitahotaka (29 miles with 6980 ft gain), in Chubu-Sangaku National Park. I reserved just our first night in Tokusawa-en hut via internet. We purchased four days of lunch materials at a corner grocery and would rely on huts for dinners and breakfasts. Departing from Shinjuku Station via JR Pass, we arrived before noon in Matsumoto Station, where Starbucks supplies a roomy lounge to relax and sip a drink. An $80 taxi ride whisked us directly to Kamikochi Bus Station to start the trek. (The bus schedule was limited, with arrival times too late). Japanese mountain huts prefer that you arrive by 2 or 3:00pm, and advance reservations are recommended.

  1. 4.65 miles / 340 ft gain from Kamikochi Bus Station to Tokusawa-en mountain hut (1570m / 5150 ft elevation). The separately-curtained individual dorm cubicles, delicious gourmet dinner and hot shower/bath were a delightful surprise! Staff spoke enough English to help us book tomorrow night’s hut.
  2. Breakfast was a curious array of Japanese dishes. We ascended a scenic trail via Yokoo Valley, 7 miles with 2650 ft gain to Karasawa-goya mountain hut. I had staff use their two-way radio to book tomorrow night’s hut. Plus I walked an extra 2.4 miles with 1000 ft gain to Panorama Course overlook via a decaying trail exposed to steep slopes, secured where needed with fixed chains or ropes.
  3. On Day 3, I hiked from Karasawa-goya a total of 10 miles, with 2650 feet of steep ascent via a series of ladders and fixed chains to Mount Kitahotaka, then 5300 ft total descent to Tokusawa-en. Atop Kitahotaka-dake at 10,190 feet elevation, you can optionally dine or stay overnight at Kitahotaka Hut! But dense fog and a smattering of snow flakes at the summit quickly sent me hustling steeply back down the gauntlet of rocks with fixed chains. Heavy rain began upon arrival at Karasawa-goya, where I collected my remaining belongings to descend before dark, in time for a shower/bath and another gourmet dinner at Tokusawa-en hut.
  4. From Tokusawa-en back to Kamikochi Bus Station, we crossed Myojin bridge and looped back on the north side of Azusa River via pleasant boardwalks and peak fall foliage colors, for 4.9 miles with 340 feet descent. With no reservation, we caught one of the frequent buses onwards to Takayama city for two nights…

Japan Alps: Ogimachi in Shirakawago; Takayama


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Two nights in Takayama allowed plenty of time to take a day trip via bus to worthwhile Shirakawago. Ogimachi is the largest village and main attraction of the Shirakawa-go region, in Ono District, Gifu Prefecture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Ogimachi village hosts several dozen well preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some more than 250 years old. Their thick roofs, made without nails, are designed withstand harsh, snowy winters and to protect a large attic space that was formerly used to cultivate silkworms. Many of the farmhouses are now restaurants, museums or minshuku lodging. Some farmhouses from surrounding villages have been relocated to the peaceful Gassho-zukuri Minka-en Outdoor Museum, highly recommended, across the river from the bustling, more-touristy town center. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer”, as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.

Japan Alps: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route


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A snowy crystalline scene greeted us at Tateyama Murodo Sanso mountain hut. At 8000 feet (2450 meters) elevation, Murodo is the highest point along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, which offers lodging, hiking and views of the Tateyama Mountain Range, in Chubu Sangaku National Park. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route carries visitors across the Northern Japan Alps (Hida Mountains) via cable cars (funiculars), trolley buses and Tateyama Ropeway. Completed in 1971, this transportation corridor connects Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture.

Tsumago to Magome: Nakasendo trail; Nagoya


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At a minshuku (family pension) in Tsumago, a tasty Japanese dinner of unfamiliar food included sweet fried crickets. Sleeping on hard futons dampened our enthusiasm for cultural submersion. Then a pleasant walk on the historic Nakasendo trail took us from preserved Edo-era Tsumago to Magome. I was more comfortable in the Western-style beds in the small efficient rooms of Sanco Inn Nagoya Shinkansen-guchi Annex in the bustling beehive of Nagoya.

Kii Peninsula: Nachikatsuura, Kumano Kodo


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A heartfelt highlight of the trip was on the Kii Peninsula, where two nights in Nachikatsuura allowed a short walk along a Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route to Seiganto-ji Temple by Japan’s highest waterfall, Nachi-no-Taki. A colorful sunset over the fishing boat harbor followed cruising scenic coastal sea stacks in late afternoon. In Nachikatsuura, every morning except Saturday is a fascinating morning tuna auction, worth attending twice. A delicious maguro (tuna) dinner at Katuragi restaurant included tuna sashimi, fried breaded tuna and user-cooked tuna.

Japan travel tips

  • The most complete, useful and well written online Japan reference is: Japan-Guide.com. The printed Lonely Planet guidebook is also useful.
  • Absolutely essential for transit and navigation in Japan, Google Maps requires a Japanese SIM card in your smartphone. We ordered our Japanese SIM card in advance, which works nearly everywhere (on all trains except in tunnels). Unless your “Wi-Fi Calling” feature requires it, don’t get the portable Wi-Fi device, which costs more than a SIM, adds bulk (the size of a pack of cards but 5 ounces) and must be charged separately and has much shorter battery life than your phone.
  • Google Maps is the best navigation app, much superior to the Maps.Me app or Garmin devices. Google Maps only work online in Japan; that is, downloadable offline maps aren’t available for Japan (unlike maps for many other countries like USA which are downloadable in chunks). In contrast, Maps.Me maps CAN be downloaded for offline use, but I gave up on using them as they have fewer landmarks and sometimes led us down blind alleys. Using a navigation app, when starting from a standing stop, you must move about 30-50 feet before determining if your direction is correct relative to the map. Find out which way is north on your map and use a Compass app to help determine directions in the real world. Confusingly, Japanese printed maps show East upwards, with North left (instead of up). Tall buildings in Tokyo sometimes interfered with GPS accuracy by several blocks, without my knowledge, for a few minutes at a time. Many place names have multiple entries across Japan or even within the same city. Try to find locations as links from official websites. Addresses in Japan are inscrutable and often inconsistent when romaji words are typed into Google Maps. Realize that an objective such as a restaurant may be in a multi-floor building, so read its description carefully. As Google Maps guides you within a few meters, examine building directories on the surface street. In dense, disorienting Tokyo surrounded by sun-blocking tall buildings, we circled completely around Bangkok Café before determining that it was far above us on the 10th floor of a large multi-use building.
  • Allow extra time getting through Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest railway station, which handles more than two million passengers per day. Try to find out ahead of time which exit is required to reach your hotel or destination. With 200 exits, Shinjuku Station frequently confounded our route finding! Finding your way into the big stations was usually well signed. But arriving via train or subway into the belly of a huge unfamiliar rail station can make difficult finding the right exit. Smartphone GPS not working underground and intermittent lack of English signs makes route finding difficult through a multistory rats’ nest of twisty passageways with no sense of direction. Stopping to look at your map will often attract a Japanese local to attempt to help you.

Why do Japanese commonly wear surgical masks in public?

In 2003, medical supply maker Unicharm released a new cheap, disposable, effective mask for hay fever sufferers, launching a boom in mask popularity. In Japan, surgical masks are worn in public for many reasons: preventing sickness in oneself; avoiding spreading of sickness to others; warmth; increasing privacy; reducing unwanted social interaction; fashion; and precluding the need to wear makeup.