JAPAN IN CHERRY-BLOSSOM SEASON
April 10-26, 2016
I had never been to Asia and friends convinced me correctly that Japan was a great destination so I signed on to a tour with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). I was not pleased with the operational policies of OAT which I will evaluate at the end of the photo-essay, but I enjoyed the trip despite that.
Sun. April 10 Day in the air.
Tokyo was an optional extra in the tour package, as is anyone would go to Japan for the first time and skip the flagship city. OAT does not book airfare from outside the US but I was able to find an excellent connection from Mexico City to Houston on United and a UAL code share to Tokyo with All Nippon Airways (ANA).
Mon. April 11 Arrive Tokyo
The day was unbearably long with 14 hours IAH to NRT alone. I got to the hotel in Tokyo at 7 pm April 11, 24 hours after leaving my home. OAT charged extra for the transfer by public bus and taxi. The group leader Akane Shinohara was waiting at the hotel to present my key and explain the next day’s events.
Tues. April 12 Tokyo
Our Tokyo hotel did not have a restaurant so we were given coupons for a mediocre breakfast in a diner next door. After a group meeting and introductions in the hotel, we set out on a Tokyo city tour by walking and metro. Maximum group size of 16 was a major inducement for this tour and, with three cancelations, we ended up with just 13 participants and our group leader.
Akane showed us how to decipher the scary metro map with 14 different lines and it was the first time I have ever been intimidated by a metro system. I also needed a magnifying glass to read the map. With her help we arrived at the Ueno district where we visited a Shinto shrine and walked through an area of old housing that had escaped bombing in WWII. We continued walking to the National Museum, an immense complex of buildings and gardens holding thousands of treasures from many centuries of Japan’s colorful past. An hour and a quarter did not do it justice, but that’s true of most grand museums and one can’t spend an entire day in just one place on a city tour.
After the museum we walked through Ueno park to a Japanese restaurant for a decent if not memorable lunch. After lunch Akane gave us the choice of one of two destinations both on the same metro line: an observation tower or the National Garden. Given that is was cherry blossom season the garden should have been a top priority for all, as you will see by the photos. But the group voted for the observation tower for which Akane must have been grateful since it involved so little walking. I decided to skip the tower since I hate heights and I decided to do the garden the next day while others were on an optional excursion. So I had time to rest, post my photos in my laptop and make notes. I made daily posts since I knew that after sixteen days I wouldn’t be able to remember one temple from another, and my family and close friends could follow my progress on Facebook.
Wed. April 13 Tokyo
More than half the group signed up for an optional excursion by local trains to Kamakura, the site of the first shogunate (warlord rule) in Japan, home to many temples and shrines. This excursion had to be booked 25 days before the tour began and cost 185 dollars. I felt the expensive Tokyo add-on should have included more than two half-day walking & metro tours and two lunches. And since the National Garden, one of the top three in Japan was not on the agenda, I preferred to do that. It was only a fifteen minute walk from our hotel.
The Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a natural and national treasure, probably not all that spectacular outside of cherry-blossom season or the fall change of colors. But not including it in the agenda during the blossom season is unpardonable. Only two other participants got to enjoy it and they didn’t go far enough into the garden to enjoy the beauty seen in my photos.
Once the imperial gardens designed by a French landscape architect in 1906, this is a paradise of 145 acres in the midst an enormous urban sprawl. There are formal French and English gardens as well as the stunning Japanese garden, teahouses, and bridges. Reflecting ponds double the visual pleasures. The greenhouse hosts orchids, bromeliads, and other tropical plants. The cherry and plum blossoms were past their prime having peaked early this year. But many of the 1500 trees were still in blossom, and the azaleas rivaled them for color.
Photos of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo Japan. There are too many to caption individually. Click on the first one to enlarge, then use your forward arrow on the keyboard to scroll through the rest.
Thurs. April 14 Tokyo
This morning we took the metro to the enormous Tsukiji Fish Market that opened in 1935. It will be moved closer to the water in November 2016 so that huge fishing vessels can dock adjacent to the market for unloading and auction. It is surrounded by hundreds of retail stores of all sorts covering about eight square blocks. The narrow aisles explain why the fishmongers are unhappy that so many camera-wielding tourists are obstructing their work and serious buyers. But it is a huge draw for the city’s tourism industry.
After touring the fish market, we had a lunch stop at a highly regarded sushi restaurant nearby. I felt sorry for the people waiting for hours to get into the tiny restaurant whose wait was longer because our group had reserved so many tables.
After lunch we took the metro to the Edo-Tokyo Museum whose collection depicts the story of the city’s founding as Edo in the early 1600s. The dioramas depict housing in the ancient city and holiday processions, a kabuki performance, the first cars imported from England and videos of modern tragedies like the incendiary bombings in 1945 that destroyed most of the city.
The remainder of the day and evening were at leisure. This was the day the tour without the optional Tokyo add-on began, but everyone had taken the option so there were no new arrivals. Akane arranged an optional dinner place near the hotel.
Fri. April 15 Tokyo
On this first day of the official tour, we enjoyed a bus instead of the metro, beginning our tour at Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, founded in 645. Destroyed in World War II, it was later rebuilt. Adjacent to it is the Shinto Asakusa shrine, and a large area of souvenir shops crowded by national and foreign tourists.
Next stop was the Ginza shopping district, with internationally famous name brands as well as local department stores. No one came to shop Guccci and Versace. We had time for lunch on our own with scores of take-out options in the basement food court with a nice dining area on the 9th floor.
After our lunch break we reboarded the bus and stopped at the Imperial Palace. After a long walk all we could see was an ancient guard house. The gardens are closed on Fridays.
From there we went to the Yasakuni war memorial honoring fallen soldiers from Japan’s wars, including controversial WWII “war criminals,” a term coined by the winners that the losers are not fond of.
In the evening we gathered again to walk from the hotel to a nearby Japanese restaurant for an unspectacular welcome dinner.
Sat. April 16 Hakone
This morning we boarded a bus to our next destination, Hakone, a popular tourist town in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park, famed for its hot springs resorts and views of Mt. Fuji. We stopped enroute at Lake Kawaguchito whose shores are bordered by cherry trees. Alas it was a cloudy day and we saw little of Fuji.
After a western-style lunch the bus continued up to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji where we enjoyed better views of the snow-covered mountain before check-in at our hotel in Hakone.
We donned kimono-style garments to wear to dinner, unmemorable Japanese dishes. Some of our group enjoyed the clothing-forbidden-gender-separated hot tubs in the hotel basement before or after dinner. I don’t like stewing in my own juice much less someone else’s but I relaxed there for about 15 minutes before retreating to my room
Sun April 17 Hakone
We had high winds and heavy rains this morning for our excursion in Hakone where we first visited a workshop for an ancient tradition of wood-cut artistry. Next we boarded a large vessel for a half-hour ride on Lake Ashi, but there was little to see given the rain. Our lunch in a waterfront hotel was the best of the trip since it was a huge buffet with wonderful selections of both Japanese and Western foods. After lunch we enjoyed a visit to the Narukawa Art Museum where the director explained the distinctive features of Japanese art before we viewed its beautiful collection. We were unable to do a nearby famous sculpture garden due to the wind and rain but the bus went on to another art museum, or those already tired went back to the hotel. We donned our garments again for another included Japanese meal.
Because of the rain, I couldn’t get good photos of the Hakone region, but you can see how beautiful it is from this google link: . https://www.google.co.jp/search
Mon. April 18 Hakone/Nagoya/Kanazawa
After breakfast we transfered to the train station and boarded the spectacular bullet train to Nagoya where we switched to a local train to Kanazawa. It was a clear day with great views of Mt. Fuji from the train windows.
Kanazawa is the capital city of Ishikawa prefecture, famous for its 16th century castle, many museums, and one of the top gardens in Japan. Before dinner Akane led us on an orientation walk from the hotel through the samurai area ending at a modern mall where dinner was included at an Italian restaurant.
Tues. Apr. 19 Kanazawa
After breakfast we enjoyed a bus tour of this charming city beginning at the Kenrokuen Garden, among the finest in Japan and the only spectacular garden included in the agenda. Alas, the cherry blossoms had mostly fallen and the azaleas were just budding, so the garden was not as colorful as I had hoped. But the landscape architecture is the best I have seen anywhere.
Next we stopped at a gold-leaf museum where we watched a film on how gold leaf is produced and we viewed some valuable pieces in the museum gallery. From here we walked to lunch at a more western-style restaurant before visiting the 18th century home of a samurai (a class of ancient noble warriors) and a walk through the geisha district. Here we stopped to visit a teahouse where geisha’s perform. The owner explained the history of the house and how her employees of differing talents entertain clients.
We boarded the bus again for a stop at the Omicho Market with its colorful stalls brimming with vegetables, fish, meats, fruits, and flowers. Those not returning to the hotel could get dropped off at another museum. Dinner was on our own and another participant told me our hotel had a French restaurant on the 12th floor where he and I enjoyed a tasting menu.
Wed. April 20 Kanazawa
The program today featured an optional excursion to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, UNESCO world-heritage villages. The description did not inspire me, nor the 175 dollar price, and I chose instead to see more of the city on my own. I started in the Castle park and then passed through the Castle. It was constructed by daimyo (warlord) Maida Toshiie in the late 16th century, but went through various burnings and reconstructions.
From there I took a taxi to the samurai area where I toured an ancient home built by one of the Maida’s retainers, later owned by the family Nomura. It’s interior garden is beautiful but one cannot walk in it.
Thurs. April 21 Kanazawa to Kyoto
Before leaving Kanazawa for Kyoto, the group enjoyed visits with local families. Akane arranged roundtrip taxis. I went with another single traveler to the home of Keisuke Asai and his wife Itsuko who hosted us for a chat and tea in their suburban home. Both retired (retirement age in Japan is 60) Kei’s hobby is calligraphy and he painted a beautiful sign for each of us. They also gifted us a lovely chop stick set in laquer painted with cherry blossoms. I gifted them a large bottle of Mexican vanilla.
After tea we returned to the hotel where we boarded taxis for a luncheon restaurant near the train station. From there we walked to the station for our two-hour train to Kyoto, the former capital of Japan for over a thousand years (794-1868). It was spared from WWII bombing so hundreds of religious sites remain, including 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. In the evening we had a brief walking orientation tour from the hotel and dinner at a local restaurant.
Fri April 22 Kyoto
This was a really busy day with lots of beautiful stops beginning at the Kiyomizu-dera, another world heritage Buddhist temple founded in 778. The buildings today date from 1633. The view of Kyoto from the high hill is spectacular. Hundreds of school kids on excursions packed the temple grounds and the many souvenir shops.
The Nijo-jo Castle is my favorite of the four we visited. Another Unesco World Heritage site, (there are 17 in Kyoto) it was a shogun’s palace where feudal lords came to pay him homage. It dates from 1626 but some buildings suffered fires and were rebuilt in later times. The gardens are stunning with many azaleas and reflecting ponds.
Our third stop was Sanjusangen-do, a Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto which is famous for its 1001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The temple was founded in 1164 and rebuilt a century later after the original structure had been destroyed in a fire.
Taking a temple break, we had a nice lunch on the campus of Kyoto University before visiting Kinkaku-ji, better known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, another UNESCO World Heritage site. It dates from the late 14th century but burned in 1950 and was rebuilt in 1955, probably with much more gold leaf than the original structure.
The last event of a busy Friday, a fashion show at a kimono show room. After the show some women in the group bought kimonos. Prices ranged from 700 to 1000 dollars. Dinner was on our own.
Sat April 23 Kyoto
Today about half the group took the 165 dollar optional excursion to Nara and Fushimi. I had read online about a spectacular garden not included in our agenda. The Kyoto Botanical Garden is the oldest in Japan, established in 1924. It covers 240 thousand square meters and contains 120 thousand plants of 12 thousand species. The conservatory houses 25 thousand plants of 4500 species. The cherry trees were no longer in bloom but the azaleas were prolific. The 2500 hydrangea had not bloomed yet and the tulips were on their way out. The peonies were just starting to bloom and I saw species new to me. There were scores of different species of fuschia in the conservatory along with orchids, bromeliads, and other tropical plants. The rose garden is enormous but the plants were just beginning to bud. This and the National Garden in Tokyo were my favorite spots of the entire tour and I regret the other participants missed them.
Sun. April 24 Kyoto
Today we enjoyed a Sunday morning boat ride on the Katsura River on the outskirts of Kyoto, landing at the foot of a hill with 220 steps leading to the Senkoji Zen Buddhist temple. The monk, Mr. Obayashi, joined us at the dock and led us to the temple where he conducted a question and answer session on Zen Buddhism, followed by a tea ceremony, and a meditation session. The Grand Circle Foundation supports the temple.
Returning by boat to our bus, we went to the suburban city of Kameoka (prefecture of Kyoto) at a Samurai house founded by the Heki family in the late Edo period (late 1700s/early 1800s). Here we had a sushi making class and lunch. The home features sliding doors and partitions with valuable paintings of cranes and other traditional scenes. The home is used often for filming Japanese traditional movies. The hostess led us through the making of temari sushi, sticky-rice balls decorated with slices of shrimp, salmon,and other ingredients, fortunately all sliced up so there was not much work involved. I have the recipes and a graduation certificate so friends might expect to see some of this on my table one day.
That evening Akane led us by metro to the Gion geisha district where we walked for about half an hour before breaking up for dinner on our own. One participant joined me at a steak house while the others went to a department store food court.
Mon. April 25 Kyoto
Today I joined a two-hour optional excursion by taxi and street car to the bamboo grove and Arashiyama gardens, built as a legacy gift to Kyoto by silent-film actor Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962). What a tribute to the actor that after enjoying his life at the villa surrounded by so much beauty, he bequeathed it to the city for all to enjoy.
We enjoyed green tea in the teahouse, then walked to the nearby Tenryuji temple with its lovely garden, although the botanical garden is far more spectacular.
We returned to the hotel by noon with the remainder of the day at leisure. I had lunch nearby then went on my own to the Higashi-Honganji temple established by a shogun in 1602 and rebuilt in 1895 after fire destroyed the previous buildings. I didn’t enter the temple since one needs to be in a group but it was worth seeing the ancient architecture. Nearby is the Shosei-en garden that was formerly part of the temple, not really comparable to the other gardens I had seen.
In the evening we returned by taxis to the geisha district for a Japanese farewell dinner in a small but attractive restaurant with a view of the river. We returned to the hotel by cab and said our goodbyes to the group and Akane.
Tues. April 26. Kyoto to the Osaka airport and departure.
After breakfast and a leisurely morning reading papers and posting photos online, the shuttle I had ordered picked me up at 12:30 for transfer to the Osaka airport, KIX, for my long flight to San Francisco where I arrived at 7:30 am and connected to a later flight to Mexico City, getting home about 11 pm, 24 hours from the time I left the hotel in Kyoto.
As one can see from the photos, Japan is a beautiful country and I am very glad I went. But since I intended to visit just once, I wish I had done it with a more inclusive and sophisticated agency. I know OAT has almost a cult following and many clients repeat dozens of times. I chose them primarily because of the 16 PAX MAXIMUM, and our group had only 13, so no complaints there. And there is NO SINGLE SUPPLEMENT, for which one needs to be grateful. As expected, our bilingual tour leader Akane Shinohara excelled in leading us, often on complicated public transportation. She was conscientiously attentive to the clients’ needs and whims.
I knew in advance about their policy of baiting with a moderate price then adding on several expensive options, but I assumed I would be satisfied at the end. The base price for 13 days was $4,295. But Tokyo was not included. Who would go to Japan and skip the capital? That was an extra $795, not counting non-included meals and an optional excursion to Kamakura on local trains for $185. So without the option, 3 days in Tokyo included only lodging, two half-day excursions on public transportation, breakfast daily, and two lunches.
Without Tokyo, the program of 12 nights 13 days did not include four optional excursions: Shirakawa-go and Gokayama from Kanazawa, $175; Nara and Fushimi from Kyoto, $165; Traditional music in Kyoto by public transportation, $120; Arashiyama in Kyoto, $80. There was a post-tour option to Hiroshima $1245. Adding up the tour without Hiroshima but including Tokyo and the optional excursions thus cost $5815. It would cost another 300 dollars for non-included airport transfers if booked by OAT. A final tip for the tour leader is standard practice with all group tours.
An additional complication for me was departing from Mexico. OAT’s air contract includes only US departures. They do not have a toll-free number from Mexico but expect one to phone and be put on hold. I e-mailed to ask for air prices from 3 US departure cities to which I would add my flight from Mexico. I would not have wanted to wait while they calculated fares from those cities and was grateful to have the details printed in an e-mail so I could study them. But at the end of the quote was a snotty note, “Next time please phone.” I sent another e-mail to ask if they would book me from Mexico at whatever the non-discount fare. The answer, “yes, but you must be on the phone when we book.” So I called and got another operator. She said my person was on another line and any operator could help. So she reviewed all my e-mail correspondence and read it back to me without the added Mexico flight, at which point the line went dead. Had I phoned back I would have gotten a third person. At that point I just went online and booked my own air from Mexico to Tokyo with a layover in Houston for less than what I would have paid to connect with an OAT flight. Other participants had differing views on whether OAT airfares were a bargain. Others I have talked to praise the excellent service they have had from OAT operators when calling from the States.
Next, OAT does not provide transfers unless one books air with them. But I could buy a transfer for $175, which I did, given the language barrier and an intimidating airport. But my flight arrived early and there was no one waiting with an OAT sign. I wandered the airport for an hour looking at sign holders until finally the OAT rep paiged me. The 175-dollar service consisted of his buying me a bus ticket and putting me on the bus to the Tokyo city airport station where my cab fare to the hotel was reimbursed. Later I found transfer options online for much less than $175.
I had decided to make my own transfer from Kyoto to Osaka airport. I booked a shuttle service online for $35 instead of $125 OAT wanted, and I ended up on the same shuttle with another OAT passenger who had booked airfare with the agency so her transfer was included.
There were no included evening events other than our tour leader leading us to included and optional dinners and through two geisha areas. There were no included musical events or after-hours tours.
OAT’s literature says “…we constantly strive to provide you with the best accommodations…” Our hotel in Tokyo did not have a restaurant and we were were given coupons to go out to a diner nearby for breakfast. I missed the hotel group breakfasts I have enjoyed with other agencies. In Kyoto we were given 1000 yen per day to eat breakfast wherever we chose so there were no group breakfasts. Some went to McDonalds. Included in the package were breakfast daily, 6 lunches and 6 dinners, meaning 6 of each were not included. Only two of the restaurants were what I would call upscale.
OAT gave me a credit of $249 for my next tour with them. I see it as their overcharging me by that amount to provide an incentive for another tour.
I missed happy hour at a hotel bar which I have enjoyed on so many other tours. None of the hotels had bars. I am used to a happy hour with canapes before a gala welcome and farewell dinner. No such thing with OAT, no bar and nothing gala.
My quibbling is a personal opinion based on comparisons with tours I have taken with more inclusive programs. I understand that OAT fans know in advance what to expect and budget quite a bit for non-included expenses. They enjoy the small groups, cultural introductions, and family visits, and they believe they are getting “great value.” I don’t intend my different preferences in any way as a criticism of other people’s choices.