Japan and Indonesia are a long way from Seattle (8 time zones to Tokyo, 10 to Bali) even if you are flying at 500 mph.The flight to our first destination, Japan, involved a direct flight to Taiwan and a transfer flight to Tokyo. Total elapsed time was about twenty-two hours including a four hour layover at Taipei. Nevertheless the trip is worth it. There's no place even close to Japan regards the beautiful cheery trees, Buddhist and Shinto temples, the impeccable transportation infrastructure, and the amazing organized life style that the Japanese have created on their island nation. They're not perfect but close to perfection in nearly all aspects of what are considered modern urban ideals such as public awareness of acceptable personal conduct, clean environments, effective recycling, and the social responsibility of each citizen. There is no trash along the streets, no graffiti, and very few indigents in the usual downtown locations. And they seem relaxed and happy with their situation. We witnessed no examples of rude behavior or dangerous driving practices there. If you like natural beauty, order, efficient living conditions and extremely polite strangers you will like this country.

Our first city to visit in Japan was Nikko. We arrived there after spending one night at an Airbnb near the Tokyo Nerita Airport. Scott, the owner of the BnB met us at the airport. He helped us right away to convert our Japan Rail travel vouchers into Japan Rail travel passes while we were still in the airport. He also helped us find an ATM where we withdrew some Yen and then took us to his place about 20 minutes away. Scott is an America who has lived the past 41 years with his Japanese wife Noriko, at her family's property near Tokyo. Her family owns quite a large area of land having been a farming family for generations. Owning land in Japan indicates the potential for great wealth since Japan has not much habitable land due to the rugged, volcanic geography of the islands. The total population of Japan lives on 13% of the land area. Their house sits next to the structure where we stayed which was essentially another house with one bedroom, living and dining room, kitchen and bathroom/toilet. They call it Guest house Kibara. The name comes from the nearby village. Next to our place sat an ancient structure dating 500 years back to Japan's medieval period. The ancient building was apparently a kind of fortress with extremely think walls and only two windows at the second level, one on either end of the building. Heavy wooden doors with wrought iron hinges and locks were formidable protection for the inhabitants. Our place was much more modern having several large windows and air conditioning, a high tech bathroom with an electic bidet and a tub/shower with ample hot water. The Airbnb deal came with breakfast. Noriko layed on a sumptuous, western style meal including a large helping of scrambled eggs, accompanied by steamed fresh veggies, sausage links with katsup, toast & coissants, jam, fresh fruit, and very good coffee and tea. Following breakfast we packed and still had time to wander around their beautiful grounds. The first thing we noticed was the bamboo forest. Nothing quite like that in the US that we've seen with large bamboo trees maybe six inches in diameter or more. There were azelias and rhododendrons very much the same as what we have in the Pacific NW. We noticed a familiar gound cover plant (weed) exactly like ones we have here. It has a particularly spicy taste and goes well in leaf salads. Their property is on a level grade above several other houses and fields so we could see quite a lot of the neighborhood that was comprised of well built homes and large vegetable gardens and also some rice paddies. This is located about 20 minutes from the Nerita International Airport. If you are planning a trip to Japan and need accommodations near the Nerita Airport in Tokyo here is the link for Scott and Noriko's Airbnb accommodation:

Scott & Noriko's Airbnb

He took us to the nearest train station where we caught a Japan Rail commuter train into Tokyo central station. There we boarded the Shinkansen bullet train heading north towards Utsunomiya where we transferred to a local train for the final leg to Nikko. The bullet trains are one of Japan's most notable technical achievements. Here's a link that provides a bit of history:


All things considered, these fast trains are more user friendly than flying between the cities in Japan. No check-in, no baggage limitations, no TSA, much less ambient noise, much more leg room, huge windows with something to see outside, very clean WCs with lots of space, snack carts with reasonably priced items, and just so much more space to move around in than even a wide body airplane. And Japan Rail's safety record is nearly perfect, much safer statistically than most airlines. In fact throughout its 51 year operating history there has never been a single passenger fatality attributable to the Shinkansen. Hard to beat that performance.

Arriving on time in Utsunomiya, we transferred to the local train to Nikko. Quite a different venue from the Shinkansen. The local JR train is much more like the European commuter trains that provide transportation within the cities and towns. Bench seats, strap hangers, much more ambient noise, and fewer WCs but still getting the folks to where they want to go safely.

Nikko is the end of the train line so no worries of missing the station. In fact the town is served by two train lines, Japan Rail and a private line. Not sure why but Japan has several private train lines as well as the national line, Japan Rail. They seem to co-exist and compete peacefully. During our time there we only rode on the JR lines as we had purchased travel passes. These were really a good deal and eliminated a lot of time buying tickets for our many rides. We did have to purchase subway tickets in Tokyo because the subway is not part of JR.

Once in Nikko we looked for our hotel. Didn't have to look far as it was located about 100 meters from the train station in the center of town. The hotel looked better in the photos than in reality. It was a fairly shabby older building. The check-in desk was located at the back of a really tacky looking little restaurant. We never saw anyone eat there the two days we spent in Nikko. We certainly didn't. The desk clerk was accommodating and friendly but hardly spoke a word of English. This is really unusual for a Japanese hotel in a major tourist center. Our room was on the 10th floor. Thank God the hotel had an elevator that worked. The room itself was just as dark and shabby as the rest of the hotel, definitely a candidate for a full renovation. The bed was ok but the condition of the furniture and fixtures was right out of skid road. How it ever got a 3 star rating baffles me. Later we came to find out that the hotel was not Japanese owned.... We discovered this when we ventured into the Asian Grill next door looking for something other than noodles and rice for dinner. The grill featured dishes that were definitely not Japanese cuisine. The main attraction was their beef steak dishes. Getting a decent steak in the typical Japanese restaurant is not possible since only special steak restaurants serve grilled beef except in traditional dishes such as sukiyaki which uses thinly sliced beef fried in a skillet.... not going to satisfy the need for a thick T-bone or New York Strip. Cuts of beef vary all over the world apparently because we found the same challenges in Europe. In Germany for example it is possible to get a typical American cut from certain steak restaurants especially in large cities where many tourists are dining. But get out of the big cities and into the countryside and finding your favorite rib eye will be a challenge. A cow's a cow you say, why the problem finding familiar cuts? Apparently the American beef culture just hasn't penetrated countries where eating beef is considered either a delicacy or a sin (if you are Hindu) or cooking a steak over a charcoal fire is considered barbaric or whatever. The closest we could find to an American steak in Italy was a cut called "entrecote" which is somewhere between a sirloin and a porterhouse. So be prepared for the beef challenge if you venture out of the US/Canada into the rest of the world. Perhaps Australia has similar cuts but since we haven't visited that country yet we can't say for sure. In New Zealand I would order lamb chops and skip the beef. But I digress....

The Asian Grill is owned by Bangledeshies, one of whom spoke excellent English. That explains the non-Japanese menu. The hotel hotel is also owned by Bengledeshies. That may explain the overall condition of the building and the rooms. Lack of money could also be a factor although the location in the middle of town next to the train stations is rather prime. We concluded that it's more likely a matter of cultural standards regards hotel accommodations than an issue of funds, but never having visited Bangladesh we are making an assumption.... only that.

We arrived Nikko late in the afternoon and a bit weary from hauling our bags along the side walk from the train station. Not really enough time to launch a tour of anything except the immediate area near the hotel that included several restaurants, souvenir shops, convenience stores etc. Decided to visit the tourist center in the private train station across the street from the hotel. Lot's of good information there with really helpful clerks who spoke English. We decided to buy bus tickets for a ride up the mountain to Lake Chuzenji which was formed when Mt. Nanti, Japan's sacred volcano, erupted and blocked the stream carrying the runoff from the surrounding mountains. Here's a link:

Lake Chuzenji

My dad took me fishing here in 1951 while we lived in Tokyo. He had been assigned to the Tokyo Ordnance Depot that was supporting the US Forces during the Korean War. He had returned from Korea after serving a year there in Pusan. I had dim recollections of the fishing trip and remembered a little about an old wooden hotel where we stayed. After we arrived by bus we looked for this hotel without success in the village, Chuzenjiko Onsen, that sits on the lake shore near the outflow stream where I believe we fished. A short distance downstream from the lake is a hot spring and a little further the Kegon Waterfall. Here is the link:

Kegon Waterfall

On the bus ride back to Nikko we got off at the stop nearest the Toshogu Shrine, Japan's most ornately decorated structure. The shrine sits among several other shrines built by various leaders during Japan's medieval period. Before hiking up the hill side to the shrines we looked at the famous Shinkyo Bridge, a classic wooden structure from the medieval period. The following links provide good photos and the story of each point of interest:

Toshogu Shrine

Shinkyo Bridge

The climb to the shrines during the mid afternoon heat pretty much finished us off for that day. We had arrived in Nikko during one of Japan's national holiday weeks so the places to see were packed with Japanese visitors. The wait line for tickets at the Toshogu Shrine was long enough to discourage a visit that day. We decided to head back to our hotel, have a bite somewhere along the way and freshen up. That evening we explored the local food store where we found an amazing selection of fresh sea food along with many products of which we had no way of knowing the contents. We did of course see familiar items like Coke, chips, and many other western products. Prices were not as high as we had expected. We bought several snacks for the next day. Since we'd eaten on the walk back from the shrines we decided to make an early to bed routine after taking showers in the shared bathroom at the hotel.

During the evening a new guest arrived in the adjacent room. The next morning we arose with plans to visit the Toshogu Shrine before departing Nikko. Of course the sun had disappeared and been replaced by a steady downpour. Lana had noticed the night before that the new guest had left some toiletries in the shared shower room including some special skin creams and other body care lotions. We speculated the our new guest was a gal..... we were wrong. On her way to the shared toilet she entered the connecting hallway in time to get a good look at the bare bottom of our new guest. A moment earlier and she would have gotten a full monty view.  He was tall, young and nicely shaped according to her report. Nothing like a pleasant surprise first thing in the morning.

Off we went in a taxi to visit the Toshogu Shrine in the pouring rain. Lana had a umbrella. I had only my water resistant parka having not packed an umbrella. Guess who got soaked?  But not before seeing the shrine which even in the downpour was worth getting wet for. Just now way to describe the many features that the Japanese wood carvers and painters created on the structures. It must have taken a huge amount of time and effort to decorate the buildings. The link for this shrine appears above and provides a much better description through the photos than I could ever present in words. The shogun's crypt is located at the highest elevation of the shrine. His remains are held by a cylindrical iron casket about the size of a 55 gallon drum. It is mounted vertically between two supports as is shown in the photos in the shrine link. To view the crypt one must ascend several flights of stone stairs. We were both breathing pretty hard by the time we finally arrived. It must have taken quite an effort to lift this structure to it position especially since it was done well before modern machinery was invented. The trip back down was a bit tedious since there were no hand rails and the stairs were covered with rain water. A fall could have been very serious. I'm surprised that the Japanese have not required hand rails at this site. Surely there have been accidents.

During the walk back to our hotel the sun came out lifting our spirits. We managed to find a small cafe where we had a bite before arriving back at the hotel. Once there we changed our wet clothes and packed to leave for the trip to Kyoto. We boarded the local train back to Utsunomiya where we transferred to the Shinkansen to Tokyo. After a pleasant hour and a half ride we arrived at the central Tokyo station where we transferred to another bullet train for the trip south. By this time we were getting pretty confident with the JR system and noticed how well their staff spoke English. This was critical since there is usually some confusion when transferring in a new station to a line you have never traveled on before. But we managed it well, even arriving in time at the new line to catch an earlier train than we had booked seat reservations on. As it turned out, there were no problems traveling without seat reservations. In every case we managed to find seats together in the cars that had open seating.

Arriving in Kyoto mid afternoon, we decided to take a taxi to the Airbnb apartment Lana had found that was located within walking distance of several points of interest considered to be of exceptional beauty and a shopping district located on the way to one of the more famous shrines. Here are links to the places we visited:

Heian Shrine

Yasaka Gion Shrine

Maruyama Park

Chionin Temple

The Airbnb apartment we rented was compact, well organized, clean, and very functional. It was situated along one of the recommended walking tour routes shown on our visitor's map. There were four tour routes on the map and we were only able to finish one of them in the 3 days we spent in Kyoto. But even so we came away feeling like we had seen as much as we could handle and still have time to enjoy ourselves, cook our meals for the most part and chat about the things we'd seen each day. There are something like 1600 temples and shrines in this city. No way anyone is going to visit them all in 3 days. So we just did what we could with the time we had. Near our apartment were several convenience stores not unlike those found in the US except that most of the products were of Japanese origin. Still it was not too difficult to figure out what we needed so we stocked up on the basics for most of our meals. One way to keep down costs is to prepare some of your own meals if your apartment is equipped with a kitchen. And you can get creative using new ingredients when you can't find exactly the supplies you use at home. We did eat at a few local cafes and restaurants. The selections were all tasty and about what you would expect if you have eaten in Japanese places in the US. The prices were not particularly steep as we had been led to expect. Our last day we were hoping to eat at a Japanese steak house. We located one along the walking route as we were returning to our apartment. They were closed as it was mid afternoon so we jotted down the phone number and called them after we returned to our place. Yes, the had open reservations. So we made one for that evening.  Then we got to thinking about the menu and prices.... Turns out the cheapest menu item as about $200 per person.... needless to say we didn't eat steak that evening.

The next morning we hailed a cab and headed to the train station to board the Shinkansen for Tokyo. By now we were feeling very confident about traveling by train. Although we had seat reservations we boarded an earlier train so got to Tokyo an hour earlier than planned. Arriving at the central Tokyo station we had to find the local train to get to our hotel which was just a bit north of the Imperial Gardens. Following directions Lana had from the hotel site we managed to get off at the correct stop. Now it was a challenge to actually find this hotel since it was located on a side street about 200 meters from the train station. I guarded the bags while she reconnoitered the surrounding streets. Eventually she found the hotel but it took quite a long time even with a hand held GPS. The hotel was really quite nice, grand even and very new. Our room was quiet and elegant. Tastefully decorated in a modern but solid blend of finished wood cabinets and closets accompanied by a kitchenette with granite counter, stainless steel sink, microwave, two burner induction stove top and even a washer/dryer. The bathroom/toilet was high tech Japanese with an electric bidet/toilet and stall/tub shower. The beds were just right for me. I like them firm. Lana likes them softer. Says it fits her curves better. We could have enjoyed staying at this place for a week or more. Just relaxed for the rest of the day after finding a small cafe not far from the hotel where we had an early dinner.

The next morning we got up early to visit the Fish Market, one of the highly recommended tourist sites in Tokyo. What we didn't realize was getting up early meant getting up at 3 am. So we arrived at the Fish Market around 9 am too late to view the auction. Seems they start the auction around 5 am and only 60 people are admitted to watch. People actually queue at 4 am to get in this place.

Tokyo Fish Market

Next we used the subway to take us near the Imperial Palace Gardens. We lucked out and found a tourist info center just near the subway exit that provided maps, and folks who spoke English. The Imperial Palace is only open to the public twice a year. Our visit didn't correspond to either of these days so we could view it from across the moat that surrounds the inner grounds. We were able to see the famous bridges, Meganebashi and Nijubashi, that lead to the Emperor's private residence.

Tokyo Imperial Palace

Then we walked several hundred meters to the East Gardens to see the gardens and the ruins of the Edo Castle that was built by the Tokugawa dynasty in the early 1600's when Tokyo was then called Edo. Edo became the political center of Japan even though the capital remained in Kyoto until the Meiji restoration moved it to Tokyo in 1868. For those of you who have viewed the movie, Last Samurai, the plot is based on the struggle between the new imperial family, the Meiji, and the samurai who were still pledged in fealty to the Tokugawa Shogun. The involvement of US cavalry officers in the struggle occurred when Captain Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) was hired by the Japanese Emperor to train his army in the use of modern weapons.

Massive would be the best description of the East Gardens. The Imperial Gardens are to Tokyo what Central Park is to New York. Acre after acre of well attended grounds, trimmed hedges, pathways, ponds, even sections of woods left more or less in the plain state of nature. The ruins of Edo Castle are now an elevated foundation of granite blocks with stone stairs ways leading to the summit. From there one has a great 360 degree view of the city and the Imperial Palace Gardens. The castle was a wooden pagoda, the highest in Japan at the time. It burned 19 years after construction and was never rebuilt.

We departed Tokyo by air for Bali from Haneda Airport. Tokyo has two. The feeling was that we'd only just seen a miniscule number of interesting places in the country. Overwhelmed was really the case. So much history, art and beauty in this country. No wonder the Japanese are so proud of their history and their culture.

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