Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 6 & 7 – Yakushima, Kumamoto, Takachiho, Beppu)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 6: January 23

For our last (half) day in Yakushima, we checked out of our hotel in the morning and drove to Kigen-sugi, which is also one of the major cedar trees on Yakushima, in terms of its age (over 3000 years old) and size. You can drive straight to this destination and a very short walk from the car park.

Those snow people were made by someone else!

After rain on the first day, and dry and warm weather on the second day, we had snow! As touched upon earlier, Japan was experiencing very strange weather and cold storms around the first week of our trip. It had snowed very heavily overnight and snow was piled quite thick on the mountains. Though Yakushima is quite south and tropical, it does snow during winter on the mountains, and some of the more difficult hikes are not recommended in snow. Yakusugi Land is pretty accessible and not much of an issue though. We had light drizzle for most of the morning.

After Kigen-sugi, we drove to Yakusugi Land, another major nature park featuring Buddha-sugi, Futago-sugi and Sennen-sugi. For short visits, most of the main cedar trees are located quite close to the car park, and there are much better hiking trails compared to Shiratani Unsuikyou from yesterday. Since we only had until early afternoon, we did the 80-minute trail. We were incredibly lucky that it stopped drizzling when we got to Yakusugi Land!

I was aiming for the 1:30pm ferry back to Kagoshima, so after our morning activities, we drove down to Anbo port, filled up the car’s petrol and dropped it off in the car park specified to us (at pick-up). We checked in for our ferry and had some time to walk a few hundred metres to the nearest supermarket to pick up some packaged food for lunch (and snacks including mochi, of course. Dango and mochi are my jam!). As before, the ferry trip was two hours.

On arriving back at Kagoshima, we took a taxi to Kagoshima-chuo station, where we were catching a shinkansen back to Kumamoto (~45 minutes)! I know my travel route is seeming ridiculous, but because Kumamoto is a pretty central and major city, I decided it served as a good base to get to our next two destinations.

We stayed at Hotel Route-Inn Kumamoto Ekimae since it was located right outside the station. We were really just in Kumamoto for an overnight stay and needed to be close to the station to pick up a rental car to drive the next day. I thought it was one of the poorer business hotels I’ve stayed at in Japan. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.

Also, it was snowing in Kumamoto again. It was still a big deal and people were exclaiming how rare it was to see snow. For dinner, we went to Hanatsuzumi, which was the quintessential family-run homely Japanese restaurant. We sat at a cosy low table (kotatsu-style but minus the heating) and had mixed nabe (seafood, meat and vegetables). I had some language barriers as the family members were trying to explain the contents to me but I didn’t understand one particular thing they were concerned about. I eventually figured out one of the items was fish guts so I tried to subtly make sure T ate all of those, haha. The nabe was actually a huge amount of food and we struggled to finish but we did the very best we could since it’s rude to leave food unfinished. The family were incredibly nice and friendly. They even gave us mandarins to take away as a souvenir!!

Back at the hotel, it was time for us to do laundry. This hotel did have a female and male onsen (bath houses) and it turned out the coin laundry was actually located in the respective gender-segregated areas. To enter the onsen area you actually need to get a key from reception. As you can imagine, this was quite bothersome. We chose the washing machine in the female section, so only I could go in there to access our stuff and I had to obtain a key each time. This was definitely inconvenient as I had to return to put the washing into the dryer then again to bring everything upstairs. (Also it’s just easier with two people and four arms.) We hung everything up overnight in the hotel as they hadn’t completely dried. After all that, we ended up sleeping quite late.

Day 7: January 24

We woke early and checked out of the hotel. We picked up another rental car. It was snowing heavily today and poor T had to drive us in a pretty serious snow storm. Even better, the rubber on our wipers kind of broke so they didn’t wipe half the windscreen and we had to make frequent stops to manually wipe all the solidified snow/ice off the windscreen! We took the drive very slow, and despite being another tiny car, it drove very well in the snow to Takachiho-kyou/Takachiho Gorge (east of Kumamoto). What was meant to be a 80km, 2-hour drive took at least twice as long because we were driving on mountain roads through heavy snow. Luckily there were practically no cars. For a while thought we were driving behind a taxi which kept worryingly slipping and sliding side to side…!

Takachiho Gorge is best visited in warmer months so that you can also rent a boat and paddle along the river and look at the waterfall from below. Apart from the gorge, Takachiho is also famous for inventing nagashi soumen, a summer cold noodle dish where noodles flow out with water on a slide and you have to catch them with your chopsticks! Unfortunately we also couldn’t enjoy this because it definitely isn’t available in winter. But we both love Kyushu so much that we are considering revisiting Kyushu in the future, and possibly visiting Takachiho again! We also didn’t get time to visit the shrine.

When we got to the gorge, everything was covered in snow and it was already like 2pm. There was one souvenir store and a soba restaurant (where we had a quick and late lunch). Staff in both places advised that it might be too dangerous to walk down to the gorge in these conditions. This was super disappointing especially as it was already so much later than we had wanted to arrive. Nonetheless we decided to just start walking and see how it was. It was manageable and they had probably exaggerated a bit. Certainly we had to be careful but it wasn’t so bad because it was fresh snow. It was freezing but so worth it! I think we saw other visitors once, and otherwise we had the whole place to ourselves! I enjoyed how pristine the snow had fallen on everything.

My not-pristine snow person

After our short but sweet visit in Takachiho, we continued on north to Beppu. This leg was just over 100km and meant to take just over 2 hours (but it took us around 3 hours). We gradually left the mountains and the roads became easier though the whole journey was very isolated and we rarely saw any cars. It also stopped snowing eventually.

After arriving in Beppu, we drove to our hotel, Umikaoru Yado Hotel New Matsumi. They had a car park that we had to pay for (since we were keeping the car for half of the next day). Because Beppu is a very famous onsen town, we were staying in a ryokan (traditional inn). It was really lovely and a nice change to have a spacious room. The hotel also used water from the onsen for the baths so we planned to try that after dinner (since I have never wanted to actually go into a communal onsen).

We walked out to a nearby restaurant, Toyotsune, for dinner. They specialise in tempura but have lots of other izakaya dishes too. The food was delicious!

While walking to and from the hotel, we noticed the streams and drains had steam coming from them from all the hot spring activity. I thought that was pretty cool! On the walk back, I also had a terrible slip and fall on a patch of slippery ice. I landed smack bang on my butt, but thankfully I was fine except for some bruising and pain.

Back in our room, we started to draw the bath. Unfortunately it took about half an hour of running the water before it was warm enough! We had been warned by the staff that the water would take a while to be hot since they were using water from the hot springs, but I thought half an hour was pretty extreme. Anyway, the bath was lovely but mostly a novelty (to say I had experienced the onsen waters of Beppu) since I never actually take baths.

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 5 – Yakushima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 5: January 22

We awoke to a glorious day of blue skies! We were so lucky to have gotten all the driving out of the way the day before and would be able to go hiking today in dry weather! It didn’t rain all day! Although I had specifically brought waterproof gear for Yakushima, including borrowing my cousin’s (large and heavy) waterproof hiking boots, I was definitely glad to see dry weather for hiking.

We had lunch at Yakudon, which featured a lot of really intricate and impressive cedar wood sculptures. My lunch set featured flying fish tempura. I had never heard of flying fish before and was incredibly amused when I watched them on Youtube – guys, FLYING FISH! We discovered it was quite a thing in Yakushima as the flying fish industry is based in Anbo (an area in Yakushima).

(Me, the driver, constantly wanting to stop to take photos.)

After lunch, we drove to Shiratani Unsuikyou, a nature park which features many famous yakusugi (Yakushima Cedars). The walk/hike wasn’t difficult though there are long stretches between major yakusugi where paths aren’t built (either no path at all or just small logs positioned as steps), and you just rely on strategically tied red ribbons to know that you’re still going the right way (as well as judging based on the ground what would logically be the “path”). I think we saw many one or two people during our 3 hour hike (see how the parking lot was empty except for our car). The park is just beautiful and so lush and green. We saw Yayoi-sugi (3000 years old), Nidai-oosugi and Sanbonashi-sugi (and possibly others that I didn’t jot down).

We then drove to dinner but since it was a bit early to eat, we decided to go see Yaku-jinja/Yaku Shrine. We did get lost walking to it and almost walked into someone’s house but he pointed us in the right direction. It quickly got dark and it was actually quite creepy there since it was so deserted and eery. Despite being “in town” by then, we didn’t see anyone on the streets except the man who gave us directions.

We went to Toyotsune for dinner and I chose a dinner set that also featured flying fish – gotta have the local specialty!

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 3 & 4 – Kagoshima, Sakurajima, Yakushima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 3: January 20

In the morning, we took a bus to Sangen-en/Sangen Garden. The bus I wanted to take didn’t actually seem to exist (maybe I got the wrong information online) but I did find another bus. Sangen-en is another landscape garden which has stunning views of Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay.

One of the cutest things I saw for the first time was the little straw huts that the Japanese use to cover plants in the winter! I found them so adorable!!!

We also witnessed this cute scene where the man in the pond (staff) was trying to catch a fish, and the other visitors were cheering him on. Everyone was very pleased when he succeeded in catching the fish.

We then took the bus to the Kagoshima ferry terminal that would take us to Sakurajima. I mentioned in the last post that I was really excited to come to Kagoshima in order to visit this active volcano and Yakushima, an island close to Kagoshima. These were major destinations I planned around for our visit to Kyushu. The ferry ride between Kagoshima and Sakurajima is only around 15 minutes, so it’s really close (and the reason why the town gets a lot of ash when the volcano erupts). After arriving at Sakurajima, there wasn’t much around so we walked up the hill to a cafeteria for a simple and quick lunch.

I love that they are keeping track of Sakurajima’s eruption frequency on this board. As you can see, it had been quiet thus far in January and T were personally quite disappointed that there were no eruptions during our time in Kagoshima. In fact, it erupted over a thousand times the previous year, and after we left, Sakurajima did erupt!

We walked the Nagisa Lava Trail (around 3km), then took a bus from the end of the trail to Yunohira Observation Point. The Nagisa Lava Trail starts near the ferry terminal, and winds through the lava zone created from the giant 1914 eruption, showing all the vegetation regrowth since then. The Yunohira Observation is the closest observation point to the crater (2.5km away) and also the tallest at 350m.

We took the bus back to the ferry terminal and returned to Kagoshima. I also purchased our ferry tickets to travel to and from Yakushima, where we would be going tomorrow.

We walked around Kagoshima, stopping at a shochu store to buy (shochu) souvenirs, and many conbini since it was a bit early to have dinner but I had no other plans.

For dinner, we had ramen at Tontoro Ramen, which was apparently one of the best ramen restaurants in Kagoshima.

Day 4: January 21

We took a very early taxi to the Kagoshima ferry terminal. It was just easier with our luggage and the time of day to take a taxi. Our ferry departed for Yakushima at 7:45am and took two hours. When we arrived at Yakushima Miyanoura terminal, we picked up our rental car. For this rental car, I would be driving! Yakushima is very hard to navigate without a car, and especially so in winter when public transport is more limited. The island is manageable to drive around though – only 135km.

Yakushima is a subtropical island covered in cedar trees and known to have Japan’s oldest trees. It is famous for raining “35 days a month” and its ancient cedar trees, especially Jomonsugi, which is estimated to be 2000 to 7500 years old and the is the main attraction of Yakushima. Visiting Jomonsugi is like a pilgrimage to the Japanese, and in peak season, the trail to Jomonsugi is so congested that there’s barely any gaps between hikers. The roundtrip hike takes around ten hours (or more depending where you start) but because of the reduced access and shorter daylight hours during winter, it was not a good idea to attempt this hike. However we are hoping to return to Yakushima in the future to do the Jomonsugi pilgrimage!

My plans for Yakushima were fairly relaxed since it would be weather dependent. In true form, it poured the whole first day so we drove around one side of the island to the various sites marked out on maps.

How adorable was our car? It was tiny but comfortable and very easy to drive. The road speeds were slow enough that it didn’t matter that we were in a small car.

Much of the island was pretty deserted and we almost never saw tourists, even at tourist destinations. Even the town area where shops and hotels were located was really quiet. I guess winter is really not a popular time to visit Yakushima. We couldn’t even find a restaurant or anything for a long stretch, so we stopped at a supermarket. It thankfully had a bathroom (which I desperately also needed). We bought some food from the supermarket, warmed it up in their microwave and ate a very late lunch in the car.

We were driving down the western coast, which is definitely the quietest side of of the island (buses don’t even serve that side). The roads were, for long stretches, just single lane mountain roads for BOTH directions but we could go an hour or two without seeing a single car driving in the opposite direction. I guess that was one good thing about visiting during the super low season. Occasionally we would have to stop as there were animals in our way. We stopped at four waterfalls, including Okonotaki/Oko Waterfall, which is considered one of 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Japan loves a good list.

It worked out well that we just drove around the western side and stopped at the waterfalls, since it rained so hard all day. It would have been miserable to do any walks or hikes. We drove to our hotel, Yakushima Green Hotel, on the eastern side of the island (where all the hotels are) and checked in. The hotel had large rooms but was a bit old. Overall it was fine though.

We drove to have dinner at Izakaya Jijiya, which serves modern and fusion izakaya food. I hadn’t had trouble with parking the whole day because we hadn’t really been on residential roads, and most tourist destinations had parking areas. Unfortunately I could not figure out where to park nearby! We actually had to go ask at the restaurant, and they informed us of a parking area across the road where we could park for free. We enjoyed a nice dinner after a pretty tiring day. I was definitely sick of the rain though!

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (Day 0 & 1 & 2 – Travel, Kumamoto, Kagoshima)

See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro

Day 0 & 1: January 17 & 18

Our flight was at 12:30pm and I woke up at 6am (!) to shower and get ready. T’s parents drove us to the airport. We arrived around 9am and it took around an hour to get through to the gates. We had some breakfast at Little Ludlow and bummed around until our flight (with JAL).

Our first leg landed at Singapore Changi airport around 5:30pm and it only took around half an hour to clear immigration. I met my friend and she took us to the staff food court adjoined to the airport where we ate some hawker food. This was a great way to catch up with her in the few hours we had to transit since we didn’t have to travel anywhere.

We hung around until 8:30pm before going back to our gate. Our next flight departed from Changi at around 10pm. We landed at Tokyo Haneda airport around 5:30am (on time) but we had a domestic transit at 7:30am, which I hadn’t realised would be a problem. We had to clear immigration, which took around an hour because there were so many people, run out and find our checked luggage and re-check it in for the domestic leg. I noticed that a lot of domestic flights were cancelled due to severe snow weather. Then we had to catch a monorail for the domestic terminal! We made it to our boarding gate with 15 minutes to spare, so it was really a lot more stressful than I had anticipated!

All over the country, Japan was actually having abnormally cold weather with lots of snow storms and many unusual places experiencing snow. Our plane was actually delayed because they had to de-ice the plane… this seemed to involve a man on a crane hosing the plane down, haha. I’m just grateful we were one of the few planes not cancelled! Shortly before take-off, a flight attendant also came and informed us that our checked luggage had not made the flight and would be on the next flight (roughly an hour behind). This wasn’t a big deal to me because almost anything is better than lost luggage.

After landing at Tokyo Haneda airport, we waited at the boarding gate another two hours (the second flight with our luggage was also delayed). I did have to check that the staff member knew who we were and that we were waiting for our luggage. She was quite concerned about disrupting our travel plans but honestly it wasn’t a big deal to us. When the plane landed, a staff member informed us and we went to baggage collection, where someone else was waiting there with our luggage – yay! It was such a relief to see it.

But the crazy first leg continues (I don’t think I’d ever do this again…)! We took a bus to Shin-Osaka station (25 minutes), exchanged our 21-day JR pass, booked some shinkansen seats, and activated our passes for our 3+ hour ride to Kumamoto, the first city on our trip. From Kumamoto station, we took a tram to our hotel, Richmond Hotel Kumamoto Shinshigai, which was located in the central shopping arcade of Kumamoto. It was a lovely hotel and exactly what I wanted. We checked in and picked up the pocket wifi that was mailed to our hotel. And so after 30-odd hours we were finally in our first location. Good gosh what was I thinking…

After relaxing for a bit, we left to walk around the area and find somewhere for dinner. We definitely wanted izakaya food!

We settled on Hakata Ichibandori, a quiet restaurant (I think we were one of only two sets of diners there) with a huge menu. It’s actually a chain restaurant, I think. The skewers were ah-mazing! Kumamoto’s specialty dish is basashi, horse sashimi. We ordered some and with some apprehension (none from T though because he’s game for everything), I tried it. It wasn’t bad, but also not memorable.

Day 2: January 19

Due to the weird cold weather Japan was experiencing, we actually had light snow in Kumamoto! Kyushu is the southernmost of the main Japanese islands and has a subtropical climate, hence why I chose to visit in January. Snow is pretty rare overall. Locals said it happens once every five to ten years or so. It was quite cold and windy though the light snow didn’t really continue into the afternoon. We were only going to sightsee around Kumamoto for half a day. First we walked to Kumamoto-jo/Kumamoto Castle, which is a modern reconstruction of the original castle, though some original structures still remain (such as the Uto Turret). Although it’s a modern reconstruction, the castle and its grounds are considered one of the most impressive in Japan, especially during sakura season. Very sadly, this castle suffered severe damages during the 2016 earthquake and it is still closed to the public.

I believe the structure on the left of the enormous tree is an original structure. We also went inside the castle, and at the top you can see a beautiful view of Kumamoto city, since the castle is perched on a hilltop.

We then walked back to the Shinshigai area to line up for katsu (Japanese port cutlets) at Katsuretsutei Shinshigai Honten, a very famous and popular katsu restaurant in Kumamoto. We arrived before midday and didn’t have to wait too long.

After lunch, we trammed to Suizenji-jojuen/Suizenji Garden, a landscape garden which reproduces the post stations of the Tokaido (including a miniature version of Mt Fuji).

The garden was so immaculate and beautiful. There were hardly any people, and in general I was surprised by how few tourists we saw in Kyushu until we got to Beppu and Fukuoka. (Honestly, it was kind of glorious compared to the rest of the trip)

I also picked up my first dango of the trip! (FYI I freaking love dango)

We trammed back to our hotel and picked up our bags to then take the shinkansen from Kumamoto station to Kagoshima-chuo station (around 45 minutes to arrive around 5pm). I was first introduced to Kagoshima from the taiga drama (period drama), Atsu-hime, in which the first half is set in Kagoshima, with the beautiful backdrop of the active volcano, Sakurajima. I was so excited to visit Kagoshima and Sakurajima!

It is very clear everywhere you turn that Kagoshima is also very proud of Sakurajima.

We checked in to our hotel, Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kagoshima (also excellent), and they had a great view of the mountain from the hotel! Sakurajima is so close to Kagoshima that it’s visible from almost everywhere.

We headed out to grab dinner. We went to Kagomma Furusato Yataimura, which roughly translates to Kagomma old hometown food stall village. It has a bit of a novelty factor, but it was really quiet and there really weren’t any tourists at all! We sat down in one tiny little stall (seated about two people on three sides so six to seven people total sitting around the chef). The store owner-chef (shopkeeper?) and the other locals were very friendly and chatted to us. One man said he/his company built a lot of important buildings around the world. One thing I always get in Japan is people exclaiming how far I’ve travelled (from Australia) to visit Japan. I find this so bizarre because I consider Japan one of the closest countries for us to visit!

We left after we had tried everything we were interested in, because a couple of them were smoking. We also like hopping around and trying a lot of stuff in Japan. The sizes of izakaya dishes means we can try a lot of things in small portions. We went to another little place, where we tried some oden. This one was more like a small restaurant and we sat in our corner, rather than squished up against other customers.

Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 (3 week/23 days) itinerary and intro


This was my first holiday with T and we were both pleased to discover that we had similar and often complementary travel habits and priorities. T also discovered to his joy how much I enjoy trip planning because he hates thinking about it. So I get to plan all our holidays forever and ever, yay!!

It had been just over three years since the previous visit to Japan. The trip was my longest yet – three-ish weeks, meaning I could fit in first-timer must-see tourist places (my opinion) for T who hadn’t visited before, and I could easily expand the itinerary to include other sites that I want to visit for the first time. This trip was a monster to plan. We visited southern Kyushu and northern Hokkaido (briefly), and used the 21-day JR pass which is known as the most difficult JR pass to get your money’s worth out of. We exceeded the value significantly, which shows the distance and frequency we used it. Now I know we both adore Japan and T really gets why I want to keep returning to Japan for travel, there will be many more trips to Japan in the future. We are visiting again this coming April!

I chose January to February because it is the low season (and I love escaping Melbourne summers to enjoy winters) and timed it to visit the Sapporo winter festival.

The plan

    Visit the top “first-timer” places (if I designed a 1.5-week itinerary for someone’s first and last Japan trip) – Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Miyajima, Kawaguchi-ko – could not fit in Kawaguchi-ko and not great time to visit
    Sapporo Winter Festival
    Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (Otaru and Sapporo festivals usually overlap by a few days)
    Visit Himeji castle, often considered the most beautiful original castle in Japan – Was under renovation for many years when I wanted to visit in 2012
    Visit Kobe – Never been!
    Visit Kyushu including Yakushima (and Jomon Sugi) – Southern Japan would likely have a milder winter and Yakushima looked like a stunning island but we didn’t manage to visit Jomon Sugi because winter is actually not the right time to make the hike – oops!
    Visit Shirakawa-go and see the gassho-zukuri farmhouses – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit it in and because winter is still the best time to visit
    Visit Amanohashidate, one of the nihon sankei (three most scenic views of Japan) – carried over from the 2012 trip where I couldn’t fit this in but did visit Miyajima (one of the other nihon sankei

The worst part of planning Japan trips is everything that unfortunately cannot make it onto the itinerary! For resources, Japan-guide and Hyperdia were my indispensable best friends as per usual. To be the most time and distance efficient, I wanted to fly in and out of different cities, and ended up flying with JAL to Itami airport (Osaka) and departed from Narita airport (Tokyo) with stopovers in Singapore on both legs and an additional transit at Haneda airport (Tokyo) for the first leg to Japan. That made both legs pretty intense (considering Japan is not that far to Melbourne) and the first leg arriving in Japan especially crazy! I tend to find the combination of Tokyo and Osaka flights optimal since both cities have two major airpots and both cities typically end up on itineraries. I think I would look less favourably on spending 24 hours to get to our starting city (after our flight we had to take a shinkansen to our first destination!), especially as I hadn’t realised we would have to check-in again on the domestic leg (including hauling our luggage, which ended up missing our flight during the short transit – but more on that later). On the other hand, fewer airlines can string together Osaka and Tokyo routes, and I considered under $1000 for JAL pretty good at the time. The route also allowed me a few hours in Singapore – enough time to exit and leave immigration in order to meet my friend, who came to the airport.

Final itinerary

17 January – 10 February 2016

Click links to see the corresponding blog entry!

Day 00: Flight from Melbourne to Itami/Osaka via Singapore and Haneda/Tokyo [enroute]
Day 01: Arrival in Osaka; travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto] *JR Pass Day 1*
Day 02: Kumamoto – Kumamoto Castle, Suizenji Garden, travel to Kagoshima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 03: Kagoshima – Sengan-en, Sakurajima [Stay in Kagoshima]
Day 04: Travel to Yakushima, pick up rental car, Yakushima [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 05: Yakushima – Shiratani Unsuikyo [Stay in Yakushima]
Day 06: Yakushima – Kigen-sugi, Yakusugi Land, return rental car, travel to Kumamoto [Stay in Kumamoto]
Day 07: Pick up rental car and drive to Takachiho – Takachiho Gorge, drive to Beppu [Stay in Beppu]
Day 08: Beppu – Hells of Beppu, return rental car, travel to Fukuoka [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 09: Fukuoka, visit Nagasaki [Stay in Fukuoka]
Day 10: Travel to Kyoto – Fushimi Inari Taisha, visit Osaka – Umeda Sky Building [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 11: Visit Hiroshima, visit Miyajima – Itsukushima-jinja [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 12: Kyoto – Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto Imperial Palace, dinner at Sojiki Nakahigashi [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 13: Visit Himeji – Himeji Castle, visit Kobe [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 14: Visit Amanohashidate, visit Osaka [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 15: Kyoto – Ginkaku-ji, Philosopher’s Path, Nanzen-ji, Kiyomizu-dera, Higashiyama, Gion [Stay in Kyoto]
Day 16: Travel to Nagoya – Nagoya Castle [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 17: Visit Takayama, visit Shirakawa-go [Stay in Nagoya]
Day 18: Travel to Tokyo – Asakusa, Tokyo Sky Tree, Sumida Aquarium [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 19: Travel to Sapporo [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 20: Sapporo Snow Festival, visit Otaru Snow Light Path Festival [Stay in Sapporo]
Day 21: Travel to Tokyo [Stay in Tokyo] *JR pass day 21 – last day*
Day 22: Tokyo – Tsukiji, Roppongi, Odaiba [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23: Tokyo – Shibuya, Shinjuku [Stay in Tokyo]
Day 23+1: Flight from Haneda/Tokyo to Melbourne via Singapore [enroute]
Day 23+2: Arrive in Melbourne

Important costs (AU$ or ¥)

(Not well documented…)

    Flights: ~$990pp with JAL
    Hotels: ~$140/night for 2 (most expensive ¥35728 for one night at The Tokyo Station Hotel)
    Dinner at 2-Michelin star Sojiki Nakahigashi: ¥15000pp
    Kobe beef dinner (in Kobe): A5 120g-180g sirloin and flank/bottom sirloin (a bit of confusion on the cut) ~¥9000-11000
    JR pass: $676pp (21-day JR Pass)
    Return ferry to Yakushima from Kagoshima: ¥16100yen
    Car rental: ??

Note: T didn’t really buy anything and spent around $4500-5000 total for the whole trip (inclusive of flights) and I wouldn’t say we were frugal at all

Final thoughts

We packed one check-in suitcase (~17kg), one carry-on suitcase and one carry-on backpack (we packed a change of clothes in our carry-on plus anything we wouldn’t want to lose, such as cables and chargers). We packed a light duffel bag in case of shopping – which we ended up doing a lot of. The whole check-in suitcase ended up filled with souvenirs (mostly food and alcohol) so we additionally checked in the carry-on suitcase and duffel on the return flight (we haven’t needed to expand with the duffel bag for our later Europe or USA trips though). We avoided breakfast-included rates where possible because I find conbini so much more convenient and much cheaper, especially as T doesn’t tend to eat breakfast. I usually purchased vegetables or salad the night before to eat while getting ready the next morning (I find vegetables far too lacking when eating out). If still hungry, I’d grab something on the go while we were out for the day. As with previous trips, I mostly chose mid-range business hotels, which are small but clean and well-priced. Often it’s possible to find good ones near the main stations. I stayed at Hotel Sunroute Plaza (Shinjuku) for the second trip in a row because I really like it’s value and location. It’s reviewer ratings are lower than what I typically choose but having stayed there before, I knew what I was in for and it met all my needs as it did the previous time. One of my favourite things about travelling in Japan is that mid-range hotels usually have coin laundries. We only had difficulties with machines taken up by other customers once and had to leave and come back, but otherwise we were able to do our (planned) laundry every 4-6 days.

We only made one restaurant booking, which including ringing up months ahead to book the Michelin restaurant (among my shortlist, this was the first one to accept a reservation from a non-Japanese patron – usually they would ask your hotel to book for you). For everything else, we looked up restaurants on the fly or just walked into a restaurants that looked alright. Most restaurants that came highly recommended from the Internet, we planned ahead (like the day before) and made sure to arrive early to minimise the queuing. It was hit and miss – I wouldn’t trust English reviews anymore. Notable restaurants will be discussed in subsequent posts. Overall the food was amazing and cheap – T is the most adventurous eater I’ve been to Japan with, and I think we were really able to eat very well for pretty cheap. In particular we are both fans of izakaya (and drinking Japanese fruit liqueurs), which we ate at for most dinners. My impression is that on average, most of our dinners cost ¥3000-6000 for two (with alcohol), proper lunches around ¥2000-3000 for two, and on-the-go quick snack/lunches around ¥1000-1500. This isn’t representative of Japanese food but these are the kind of places we naturally gravitate towards based on our taste and preference for Japanese food (casual and homely)… and occasion need to just keep moving and not prioritise food. Street food and conbini food is pretty awesome!

As mentioned above, we purchased the 21-day JR pass ($676 at the time but this moves with the exchange rate) which we picked up locally from HIS Japan because they had the cheapest AUD price at the time. We exchanged and used it upon arrival in Japan and I made almost all my reservations on the first day as well, for ease. With this, we literally zipped all over Japan and made some trips that seemed pretty silly if not using the JR pass (such as shinkansen travel between Kyoto and Osaka just for dinner).

For the first time, I also rented a pocket wifi. My previous travelling style had been without phone/internet and relying on maps and diagrams stored on my phone (or, I admit, hard copies printed and folded in my bag!). As my planning got more complicated, this method got more complicated for travelling through Japan. Now with T as my travel companion, he made it clear that Internet was non-negotiable. It is much easier to rent pocket (portable) wifi devices in Japan than to try and get a phone sim (it is now easier to get a data-only sim, but still harder and more expensive to get a sim with calls/text). We did some research on wifi coverage (since we would be visiting some pretty remote places) and daily limits in deciding on the company to go with (neither of us can remember the company or find the emails from that time unfortunately…). We chose to have ours delivered to our first hotel (also possible to pick up from major airports) and then return it via reply-paid post on our final day. This worked seamlessly and I believe many travellers who rent pocket wifi devices would agree that the process is very convenient for most companies. Our coverage was great even in Yakushima (except for maybe for some spots deep into our hikes) but actually it was surprisingly bad on long shinkansen rides. I am using a data sim for my upcoming trip so I will see how I get on with that compared to a pocket wifi.

I also discovered and bought my first goshuin-chou – a bit late from Kinkakuji though, so I missed out on several good opportunities earlier on! Argh! I almost filled my first book from the trip. We spent many days with no plans and just wandering the streets and obsessively going to teeny tiny shrines and temples annotated on Google maps and finding a priest or caretaker to give me a goshuin. I definitely surprised many poor priests/caretakers in some fairly obscure suburban shrines and temples. I am super proud of my first book and hope to collect many more books and fill them!

Unlike previous trips to Japan where I only used cash (pre-exchanged in Melbourne), we got the 28 Degrees credit card and used it for about half our expenses. I pre-exchanges only some cash, in anticipation for being able to use a credit card at most restaurants. This trip is where I noticed that more merchants were accepting cards than previously.

I also planned places where we would need to drive because public transport in Japan does have it’s limits! So for the first time, I had to rent cars and we both had a go driving (we rented twice). It’s actually really easy driving in Japan (especially in small towns). We got our Internal Drivers’ Permits just before leaving (received on the spot).

Camera: My beloved Canon G15 – unfortunately I dropped it a few times early on and then the focus didn’t work properly… this was my last trip with this camera although I tried to use it with difficulty for several more months. 🙁 I adored my G15 and should have taken better care of it.