: views from the Hill

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

I'll be with you in cherry blossom time ...

As luck would have it, that's when we arrived.

As luck would have it.

Japan - cherry blossoms

Hana-mi (cherry blossom viewing) is a BIG DEAL in Japan. The weather reports for weeks beforehand track and predict when the cherries will bloom and which weekend will be the "official" weekend for sakura viewing so that everyone can make their plans. (Typical plans: picnic in the park under the cherry trees with friends. Drink sake. Maybe to excess.)

All the usual sites were swarming with locals on holiday to see the cherry blossoms. Some of the sites were open free for the public in honor of the season. Several of our guides warbled the sakura song over the bus speakers for us. (Some better than others, but all with enthusiasm.)


A few years back, we decided to take the oldest grandchild on a trip with us, sans parents or siblings, after she turned twelve. My friend Susie had done this with her grandchildren and thought it was an excellent experience. Twelve is just old enough, she said, and not too far into the teen years. A perfect age.

"Anywhere in the world," we told W. (Disney* and USAn spots excepted. ...)

W. chose Japan because she likes sushi and octopus and squid and gardens and anime and manga. Could we arrange all that? We could.

We started planning long before she had her bday in January.

A woman on our trip last fall to Xingiang Province (China) and the Hunza Valley (Pakistan) said she'd made a trip with her grandchild at about that age and suggested we use the service she had, a service that arranges group tours for grandparents and their grandchildren.

Um. No.

The point wasn't just to go traveling with a grandchild. The point was to have adventures, to break out of your cocoon, to get lost and found again. We wanted to do this trip as a welcome-to-the-rest-of-the-world, not as a guided and safe tour with a batch of other twelve-year-olds and their grandparents.

We'd arrange for touring so we could get to and around the sights, but we would not be caught in a group with the same people for day after day. We'd be on our own -- with the safety net of tours booked and hotel rooms and transportation arranged.

We confab'd on a date with her mother. Which should it be, after school gets out in June (when it can horribly hot and sticky in Japan) or sometime in spring (when W'd have to miss some school for the trip)?

We settled on Spring Break which, when teamed up with a teacher-in-service day that the students got off, gave us enough time to fly W. out from the wilds of the back of beyond, layover one day in San Francisco (in case her flight out was delayed), fly to Japan and spend nine days or so poking around, fly back and layover one day in San Francisco, before sending her home in time for her family Easter. She'd only miss a few days of school.

We set up plane tickets on our own and arranged hotel rooms and transport and Sunrise tours with JTB, on the advice of a work mate of his nibs, who had successfully taken her own family groups to Japan using JTB's services. "Here's what we offer," JTB says. Choose the poshness of hotel you'd like. Tell us what you want to see. Abracadabra!

If we were taking a train from here to there to get to a hotel they'd booked or to hookup with a sight-see they'd arranged, a JTB staffer would make sure we had our tickets and didn't miss our rendezvous.

The trains in Japan run on time.


25 Mar W. arrives from the hinterlands, flying solo. Southwest allows twelve-year-olds to fly without requiring "unaccompanied minor" status. W's first adventure: flying on her own without an adult keeping tabs on her. We made sure the flight was non-stop; we didn't want her to have the adventure of missing a connecting flight. Southwest gave her mom a pass that allowed her past security so she could sit in the waiting area until W's flight boarded.

27 Mar Leave SFO before lunch.

28 Mar Arrive Narita. Airport bus to hotel in Shinagawa district.

29 Mar We grabbed a Sunrise Tours shuttle from our hotel that took us to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal next to the World Trade Center. We turned in our chits for tour tickets and boarded our Sunrise tour bus for a morning tour of Tokyo spots: Tokyo Tower, Imperial Palace,

Imperial Palace, Tokyo

drive through Ueno and the Akihabara on way to Asakusa Kannon Temple

Japan - Asakusa Kannon Temple

and Nakamise Shopping Street. The tour ends (surprisingly, eh?) at the Tasaki Pearl Gallery which gave us an explanation of how cultured pearls are produced, gave us an opportunity to look at their wares (Shop! Shop! Shop!) and then, very nicely, drove us and the other scores of folk who had also been dropped off at Tasaki back to our hotels.

His nibs and W. went back to Akihabara by train to check out the manga offerings. Some buildings had five! six! floors of manga!

30 Mar The bus picked us up at the hotel again and took us to the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal, again. We were starting to get a feel for how JTB worked. We caught the Sunrise tour to see Toshogu Shrine at Nikko,

Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

Irohazaka zigzag drive up to Kegon Waterfall and Lake Chuzenji at the foot of Mt.Nantai. Irohazaka zigzag driveway down the mountains, and bus back to Tokyo with a drop-off in the Ginza district after dark when all the neon was blazing.

The bus had a problem getting to its usual stopping spot in the Ginza when the driver found the left lane of the street blocked off. When the guide tried to move the cones so we could pull up to the curb, a police officer came over and yelled at them.

"I've never seen this before," our guide said, as the bus circled around for ten minutes to find a spot to drop us off somewhere near the train station.

What's this? Turns out the left lane of the main drag had been blocked off for a political action march. Streams of people were marching down the main Ginza drag in the far left lane, making noise and waving signs. Multiple unions represented, hundreds of folks, signs.

The guide claimed she couldn't really tell what it was all about. She said she'd never seen anything like it before.

Man, I need to learn to be halfway proficient in kanji and kana. I wondered what the signs really said.

Had no grasp of the language this time. Oh,well. For sure before we go again. Caught the train back to the hotel.

31 Mar Leave Tokyo. Caught the shuttle bus at the hotel. Off to the bus station with our bags. Onto the Sunrise tour bus with our bags and on to Mt. Fuji. Up to the fifth stage for viewing. Snow. The bus continued on to Hakone and Lake Ashi. The winds were wicked up at the fifth stage and elsewhere. The cableride we were scheduled for at Hakone was swapped for a less gusty one as the cable we'd intended to ride had shut down for safety reasons.

01 Apr Our bags for Kyoto were whisked away and we bus'd to Odawara with minimum luggage to catch the Shinkansen to Nagoya where we picked up Kato-san, our guide for the next three days. Took the limited-express train to Takayama where we checked into hotel and walked about with Kato-san to the Yatai Kaikan Hall (festival floats) and the Kusakabe Folkcraft Museum and roamed the old town.

We stopped by a soy sauce manufacturer and had some delish miso soup and nuggets of sesame candy. I bought some tasty sesame candies for our beast sitter, who does not need any more trinkets.

Something to eat, I thought. That's the ticket. (Hi, Auntie K!)

Our hotel room's "third" bed this time was a tatami room instead of the sleeper sofa we were routinely given as our third bed. We let W. sleep in the authentic tatami room style.

02 Apr Miyagawa morning market in Takayama and shop! shop! shop! (I am such a shopper! as everyone knows ...) We took the bus toward Lake Miboro and along the Shokawa River. Folk museum of the old Toyama family. On to Shirakawago, a village under heritage protection.

Japan - Shirakawago

(Nothing like the protections at St Cirq Lapopie in the Dordogne, France, but still strict enough that it's no cakewalk to make a living or live in Shirakawago. The younger population is moving away. ...)

On to Gokayama for a demo of Washi paper making, including making our own to take home as a souvenir. Continue to Kanazawa, singing Karaoke on the bus. No, really!

03 Apr Kanzawa tour. Kanazawa Castle's Kenroku-en Garden. Lovely.

Japan - Kanazawa. Kenroku-en Garden.

Admission to the Kenroku-en Garden was free for the day in honor of sakura. Then we were off to Kutaniyaki Pottery kiln where we watched potters throw pots and poked our heads into the kiln building and elsewhere. I bought a very pretty little bowl made by the fifth generation potter/owner. On to Higashi-chaya street and the Eastern Pleasure Quarter with a tour of a geisha house then on to Farmer House "Shima".

Said "Sayonara" to Kato-san and off on a train to Kyoto. Dinner at a restaurant next door to the hotel and up a floor. The staff had no English, but they'd had their pictures out front, so his nibs put restaurant slippers on and went out with the purveyor to point out which dishes we wanted. I had tobiko sushi. His nibs had unagi. W. had grilled cuttlefish. We were all happy campers.

04 Apr Kyoto: Golden Pavilion,

Japan - Asakusa Kannon Temple

Nijo Castle, Kyoto Imperial Palace. Lunch at Handicraft Center. The buffet was booked out for anyone without a reservation so if we'd shown up there without a ticket, we'd've been out of luck. The buffet was just so-so. Why so popular? Busy times, these cherry blossom days. Sanjusangendo, Heian Shrine, Kiyomizu Temple.

Japan - Asakusa Kannon Temple

Popped on the bullet train and back to Tokyo. We wanted to get off at the Shinagawa station, where our hotel was, but the staff handing us our train tickets told us QUITE EXPLICITLY that we were to get off at the Tokyo station, that the JTB staff was expecting us at the Tokyo station and wanted to make sure we'd arrived before they popped us into a taxi back to our hotel in the Shinagawa area. OK. If you say so. Cost an extra 3000¥ and forty-five minutes, but they made sure we hadn't somehow got lost between getting on the Shinkansen and arriving.

05 Apr Hotel bus to Narita. Flight was to leave around 9:30a, but we had a three hour delay for "mechanical problems." Long line of people at the counter, rearranging connecting flights. Not us. We were back to SFO, through Customs some time after noon and home-again home-again riggety-jig.

Photos will get appropriate labels that reflect what they are better than DSCN6*** some time soon-ish.

For now, the batch of trip photos (sans labels) are here.

Added comment: Something we'd never had before on any trip we'd been on. We were the only Americans we encountered on the entire trip until we were in Narita waiting for a plane back to SFO. Throughout our Japanese adventures, we were always in English-language tours, but the tourists were from Finland, Wales, England, Australia (loads of Australians), a multi-generational family of eight from Singapore and tourists from other parts of the world eastwestnorthsouth.

No other Americans. How weird is that?

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