by Tori Ward, Cruise and Resort Specialist, ROX Travel
In the next couple of issues, I’m going to take a detour from the continuing series of train travel in Europe to share a trip I just completed to southern Japan that involved as many as five trains a day.
Osaka was our launch pad for two nights while we explored and attended a maiko dinner performance at the Ganko Mansion House Takasegawa in Kyoto. Maiko are geisha in training as they master the art of and music and dance.
The maiko performed two dances, posed for pictures and answered questions about this fascinating career. The geisha and maiko have become so harassed by tourists stopping them for selfies that a law recently has been passed that fines anyone caught stopping one of these women on the street or snapping unauthorized photos.
The following day we did a slow bus crawl to Himeji Castle and Gardens. The traffic was relentless, and I longed for the train. It was snowing cherry blossoms at this UNESCO World Heritage site as the trees were at the peak of their beauty and families were taking advantage of this once a year spectacle.
Advance tickets are definitely advised as the wait time to purchase can be well over an hour. Also, shoes are not allowed inside the castle that is one of the few if not the most beautiful castles from the 1600s in Japan that have survived. The gardens themselves are quite beautiful and you can keep your shoes on.
The bullet train station or Shinkansen was about a mile walk from Himeji where we boarded for the quick trip of just under an hour to Hiroshima. The trains are clean, quiet and fast with announcements in both Japanese and English. A quick pre-trip internet tutorial will explain how easy it is to understand how to find your train, car and seat.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum was an emotional, but necessary, stop for us where it was hard not to become emotional over the cost to civilians of international conflict. It was a reminder for us to never take a single day for granted or forget to let our children know how much we love them.
Another quick train ride delivered us to Miyajimaguchi Station where we walked to the ferry terminal and after a 10-minute ride, arrived at the island of Miyajima.
The island is a wonderful collection of walkable streets filled with pastry and coffee shops, but if you like oysters this is your world. Raw, grilled or fried, there are dozens of oyster bars and restaurants where service is quick.
Full of oysters and Sapporo we walked along the shore to Itsukushima Shrine, better known as the floating shrine where the red torii gate seems to float on the water at high tide. We wanted to spend more time there, but we were headed to Nagasaki, a train journey of over three hours.
Our stop in Nagasaki included the Peace Memorial Park, Glover Garden and the oldest standing Catholic Church in Japan, Oura. Glover Garden is a park where Thomas Glover, a Scottish merchant who contributed to Japanese modernization in several industries, had a house built in 1863. It is the oldest western-style house in Japan. The park with the residence museum involves climbing a hill, but once you ascend the views overlooking Nagasaki harbor are stunning.
In our next issue we will conclude our cherry blossom tour of southern Japan as we visit Kumamoto, Takachiho Gorge, Yufuin, Shikoku and finally Ritsurin Garden before heading back for a neon night in Osaka.
If you’re flying from the U.S. to Japan to visit western or southern Japan, try to book flights to Kansai International Airport. Both Tokyo airports are large and while friendly, the lines for both immigration and security were over an hour long at Haneda.
Have patience, a GPS, and a Japanese translation of where you are going if you take a taxi or Uber. Tipping is not expected or encouraged. (Download Google Translate or another language translation application.) Wear socks as many restaurants, shrines and other facilities prohibit the wearing of shoes indoors.
Be prepared to depart the train as soon as it stops. That means being up with your possessions gathered and moving toward the door before arriving in the station.
If you are lost either in a train station, airport or street just stop and look lost. Someone will help you and often walk with you to where you need to go.