Japan: Autumn Colors Galore

In November 2014, we spent 3-weeks enjoying the spectacular autumn colors of Japan. We started with large cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka then moved on to Kyushu in the south and also Hokkaido in the north. It was a lovely trip of fantastic cuisine coupled with scenic beauty, thoroughly enjoyed by all.

2014 Japan Photobook 2014 Japan Travel Map Tokyo: Harajuku Tokyo: Harajuku Tokyo: Harajuku Soba Tokyo: Yoyogi Park

 

Tokyo
11/09/14: The Harajuku area of Tokyo is conveniently located adjacent to our Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. We managed to sleep in until 10am then headed for a fine soba lunch at Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki (鎌倉 松原庵 欅, 東京都渋谷区神宮前1-13-14 原宿クエスト4F原宿クエスト4F) on the shopping street Omotesando, where we watched a soba making demonstration. After lunch, we explored Omotesando then Takeshita Dori where the kids got to roast & season their own sembe rice crackers. It was interesting to see all the malls fully decorated for Christmas already during this 1st week of November. We also visited the Meiji Shrine in Yoyogi Park where we observed many families dressed in traditional costumes and also a wedding ceremony accompanied by giant monkey and panda characters. We seemed to have arrived a few weeks too early to see autumn color in Tokyo. The evening ended with dinner at the sushi bar of Kyubey in Shinjuku Keio Plaza Hotel.

11/10/14: Our original plan was to start our 1st day in Japan at Tsukiji Fish Market but the it is closed Sundays. We were also informed that the auction begins at 5am with admission limited to 60 visitors. We would need to arrive by 3am and be prepared for a long wait. So instead, we opted for a leisurely 8am breakfast at a sushi bar facing the market then meandered through the different stalls. It was still worthwhile even without observing the actual auction.

After the full morning at the market, we moved onto the neighboring Ginza and wandered around Mitsubishi Department Store. We enjoyed a fantastic lunch at the tempura bar at Tenichi tempura bar (http://www.tenichi.co.jp/). At home, we are used to tempura being cheap, fast food. Here, it was a fine dining experience. The pieces were served individually, fried to perfection using sushi grade seafood with a price commensurate with quality. In the evening, hubby returned to Ginza for an amazing dinner at the 3 Michelin starred Sushi Yoshitake (http://sushi-yoshitake.com/).

11/11/14: Explored the sprawling Ueno park on a dreary, drizzling day. When we arrived at the subway station to witness a camera crew filming police picking up trash. Somewhat puzzling. Although there’s a zoo and several museums, we opted to wander through the temples and watch the street performers. Then we crossed the street to the Ameyayokocho shopping district. For dinner, we met up with the Remsik family at Fuku Kushiyaki in Yoyogi-uehara for a meal of grilled meats. The kids enjoyed meeting and playing with their charming 6-year old daughter.

Kyoto
11/12/14: Made full use of our Japan Rail Pass and took the noon train to Kyoto. We stayed in the Granvia Hotel inside the Kyoto Train Station. Shortly after arrival, we enjoyed a basic, classic sushi dinner at Kappa Zushi on a very narrow road along river in the charming, historic Geisha districts.

11/13/14: Took a day trip by train to neighboring town of Arashiyama to visit the Monkey Park atop a steep hill where the kids enjoyed feeding the macaques. It was interesting that the humans had to stay inside a caged shed while monkeys roamed free outside. Finally at Tenryuji Temple, we saw autumn colors in their splendor and visited the spectacular Bamboo Forest. Back in Kyoto, we finished the evening with dinner of amazing fugu course at Igarashi. Every course, from appetizer jello, sashimi, grilled meats, soupy stews and even the sake was made from fugu, the notoriously poisonous blowfish which must be prepared by an expertly certified chef. The service was superb. Because we had kids, we had a private room and were always served by 2-3 people. We didn’t see any other customers. At the end of the meal, all 3 staff came out to wish us farewell and had their photo taken with us.

11/14/14: Tofukuji is nestled in a picturesque forest of Japanese maples just starting to turn scarlet. Then we enjoyed the Philosopher’s Walk from Honen-ji to the Silver Pavilion Ginkakuji, stopping for snacks and souvenirs along the way. Hubby went out for kaiseki meal at Chihana (http://www.kyotochihana.com/). Despite its 3 Michelin star rating, he didn’t find the food terribly impressive.

Kyushu
11/15/14: Took the train to Kumamoto; we completely underestimated how crowded the ride to Kyushu would be. All reserved seats were taken, so the adult ended up standing for the 1st hour of the ride. Upon arrival, we rented a car and drove on the left side of the road to Kurokawa Onsen. It was a lovely 2-hour ride through charming country side and around the base of the volcanic Mt. Aso which was smoldering. We spent the 1st of 2 nights at the very classic Ryokan Shinmeikan (http://www.sinmeikan.jp/). This was our 1st ryokan experience and it was incredible! We were greeted warmly and served quite a feast in their dining room. The hot springs were carved into caves. The kids loves sleeping in futons on the tatami mats and walking around dressed in their yukata.

11/16/14: Started the day with a traditional style breakfast, then explored the photogenic town center of Kurokawa. The lower it latitude was compensated by the high altitude, so autumn colors were in their full glory. Grabbed a quick lunch of soba then headed toward the other end of town for the newly opened Miyama Sansou (http://www.miyama-sansou.com/). The setting was more like a rustic cabin or chalet but the room had a large, private public. We made a visit to Yamamizuki, the sister property, where their public bath was set along the river, beside a serene waterfall. Enjoyed a dinner of shabu shabu and tried horse sashimi, a renown delicacy in the area.

Shortly after returning to Tokyo, we learned that Mt. Aso, which had been dormant for 20 years, erupted just a few days after we left the region. The air quality was so poor that flights in and out of Kumamoto had been canceled.

Osaka
11/17/14: After the Kurokawa, our had planned to spend a few more days in Kyushu, either Fukuoka or Kumamoto, but we ended up heading back to Osaka’s St. Regis. This gave us the chance to visit this big city, hop to Nara, and return to Kyoto for Kiyomizudera. Unfortunately, to severe disappointment of the kids, we missed out on Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. They didn’t see the ads until the final day. With the limited tickets, we weren’t able to make it.

11/18/14: Spent a leisurely day exploring shopping centers of Osaka. For lunch, we walked along Dotomburi, admiring the giant mechanical crabs and octopus signs. In the evening, we strolled around Shinasaibashi Suji, the covered shopping arcade around Namba near our hotel before dinner. Discovered Lawson grocery stores which became our convenient favorite to pick up rice balls for breakfast and popsicle snacks.

11/19/14: Enjoyed a kobe beef lunch prepared teppanyaki style at Wagou near the Osaka Train Station. In the afternoon, we paid a visit to Osaka Castle and strolled around the gardens. The castle interior has been renovated and modernized as a museum complete elevator. Hubby went to Harasho Sushi for dinner where he got picked up and went bar hopping with an English speaking stranger.

Nara
11/20/14: Took a day trip to Nara. It was such an enchanting place with sacred deer roaming freely everywhere. The kids really enjoyed feeding them rice crackers, that are labeled as “taste bad to humans”. The deer were somewhat aggressive once they saw we bought the crackers, swarming and nuzzling. However, they seemed so tame before, when the crackers were just sitting, easily accessible, on the vendor stands. We started with a visit to Todaiji Temple, which boasts 2 large Buddha statues inside. The surrounding gardens were also very serene and picturesque. It was a perfect setting to take a lunch break while DD took her online literature class. Afterwards, we headed over to Kofukuji Temple which was under renovation. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a nice walk back to the JR Nara Train Station as we passed by charming souvenir shops. We finished the evening at Steak Ron, another kobe beef teppanyaki decorated like a western styled steakhouse in the Umeda area of Osaka. It is famed for serving Bill Clinton.

11/21/14: Due to misreading and misunderstanding, we missed Kiyomizudera on our previous trip to Kyoto. Fortunately, Kyoto is only about 15 minutes away from Osaka by the high speed bullet train. It was quite an impressive site. The alley leading up to the temple is lined with all kinds of quaint shops, including traditional kimino rentals. There were quite a surprising number of tourists, particularly Chinese, dressed up to take pictures here. The temple itself is perched above a forest of fiery maples with a pagoda visible way off in the distance. Numerous walkways provide visitors a multitude of views and photographic opportunities. We ended our final evening in Osaka with shabu shabu of different grades of Japanese beef. All excellent!

Sapporo
11/22/14: Flew to Sapporo for our exploration of Hokkaido, the island to the north. Boy was it chilly! It received 2 meters of snow the previous week. Thank goodness for underground walkways the lead straight from the train station to our hotel entrance then onto Aurora Town & Pole Town underground shopping malls. Dinner Sushi Zen (http://www.sushizen.co.jp/)

11/23/14: Took a day trip to the seaport town of Otaru renown for its ultra-fresh local seafood sashimi, sushi, and crab. Miserably cold! We started off on Otaru Sushi Street and found a nice little gem of a mom & pop shop. Since we arrive early, it was quiet and the chef was very chatty, offering detailed explanations about the different seafood and where they were sourced around Hokkaido. We were instructed to try the 3 kinds of crab: snow crab, hairy crab, and king crab. Got to try some steamed and sashimi style. For dinner we enjoyed crab shabu shabu at Kani Honke (http://www.kani-honke.jp/e/restaurant/hokkaido.html) in Susukino area of Sapporo, Then had ramen supper at Ramen Yokocho aka Ramen Alley around the corner.

11/24/14: Fully ready to leave the cold behind and return to Tokyo. Warmly welcomed back to Park Hyatt Shinjuku.

11/25/14: Met up with an OHS classmate at Isetan Shinjuku. The girls enjoyed hanging out and the adults had a lively discussion about literature and foreign service. Bought some bean sticks.

Hakone
11/26/14: It was a dreary, drizzling day as we embarked on the Odakyu Romancecar to Hakone. The local Tozan Railway wound through forests of vibrant fall colors to Gora then the Tozan Cablecar brought us up the steep hill to Sounzan Station, right across the street to the private elevator to ryokan Gora Hanaogi (http://www.gorahanaougi.com/). Warm, attentive service and beautiful presentation of cuisine.

11/27/14: What a Thanksgiving Day! Clear & sunny, spectacular view of Mt Fuji. Hopped on the Hakone Ropeway through Owafuku known for black eggs cooked by steaming sulfur deposits. Also ate black ramen and black chocolate ice cream. Took a cruise on Lake Ashi. Spent the afternoon at the Gora Art Museum and Garden for its lovely fall color. Finished the day at Hakone Open Air Museum for modern art sculpture and playground. Kids loved Woods of Nets and Garden of Stars labyrinth. Unfortunately, we arrived too near sunset and only got to spend about an hour or so before closing time.

We met guy from Hong Kong who had been to Mt Fuji 10 times and this was the 1st clear day he’s seen. It rained the day before and resumed raining the next day as well. Also made good use of our Hakone Free Pass which covered the train, cable car, rope car, cruise, and admission to local attractions.

11/28/14: The kids loved the Open Air Museum so much that we decided to make another visit in the morning after checkout. Then took the noon train back to Shinjuku. In the late afternoon, made a quick visit to Midtown before dinner with old UCLA friend in Roppongi at Sushi Shin (http://sushi-shin.com/). Luxurious desserts of Jean Paul Hevin chocolates and shell cookies.

11/29/14: Daytime visit to Akihabara’s Electric Town and had lunch at Odobashi where we replaced a dead Apple power plug and browsed their manga section. Dinner with the Remsik Family at New York Grill in hotel’s 52nd floor.