I'm back from my trip now, so in return for all the tips I got over the emails, here are some of my reflections from our three week trip to Japan.
- The garden of Shoren-in, Kyoto. We visited this one just after the crowds of cherry blossoms (and people) at the Heian-jingu, so it was particularly peaceful. What I liked so much about this was the way that garden and building flowed into each other, with strips of garden in between the various buildings.
- The dinner spreads at the nicer Ryokans we stayed in. One of the frustrations of eating in Japan is that it's difficult to order and experiment with the food, so having a ryokan dinner just gives you a spread full of lots of inscrutable dishes was always fun. If you don't stay at a Ryokan we got a similar meal at Ganko Nijo-en (see tips).
- Japanese hospitality was remarkable. Even when our common language was confined to little more than 'thank you', we saw time and time again how people would naturally go out of their way to be helpful. The level of service was better than anywhere else we've been.
- The hike up Misen on Miyajima with views of the inland sea.
- The moss garden of Jizo-in, Kyoto. The really famous moss garden in Kyoto is Saiho-in, but the reservation process for getting in was alarming. Lonely Planet led us to Jizo-in nearby.In fact the carpets of moss and tree roots were so beautiful. American and English gardens tend to treat moss as a weed that disfigures lawns - but we find a moss carpet much more attractive than a lawn.
- The hot bath before dinner at a ryokan - just the thing to feel relaxed before the splendid dinner.
- The volunteer English speaking guide at Himeji-jo.
- A lunch box of fried eel in the Kassui-ken restaurant inside Koko-en in Himeji. It was obviously set up for tourists, but it made me fall in love with fried conger eel.
- The language barrier was particularly tough in Japan. I've traveled often to places without knowing the language, but I found Japan quite hard to deal with (compared to Europe, or even with Thailand). Not being able to decipher the written language was difficult, although thank goodness most of the signs of the rail lines had roman text.
- We didn't find much guidance on hiking at this time of year. Most of the hiking in the Lonely Planet hiking book was high level and needed to be done in summer. Miyajima only had a map for the one day hike we did. Getting hiking information was generally hard. The one area we ran into with decent hiking information as the Fuji Five Lakes region, north of Mount Fuji.
- Using the trains to get around worked very well. The signs and information on the trains and in the stations stopped us from ever feeling lost. Make sure you get a Japan Rail Pass before you go to Japan (as you can only get it abroad) as it's both convenient and a good deal.
- Make sure your luggage fits in the luggage lockers. Before I left my contact Miwa Sato very helpfully gave us the dimensions of the largest locker size - 100cm by 60cm by 30cm. The dimension to watch is the smallest one as many bags I looked at were very close to the depth of that minimum size.
- If you don't like the hassle of moving hotels, consider spending the entire trip based in Kyoto. There's tons to do in the city with all the temples and gardens, there are plenty of day-trip options to interesting places within an hour or two on the train, and the Lonely Planet hiking book suggested some nice sounding hikes. I'm glad we wandered around the country a bit, but I could imagine enjoying a Kyoto only vacation for a couple of weeks.
- We got our accommodations by turning up and asking at the tourist information for the town we were in. In all cases we found the tourist information to be very helpful, with particularly gold stars going to the people at the Hiroshima Shinkansen desk and at Matsumoto. Not just did they give excellent advice on Ryokans (for Miyajima and Matsumoto), they also spoke fluent English.
- Two restaurants we really enjoyed in Kyoto. The first was Karyo-an, an atmospheric grill place we got from the Kyoto visitors guide. There they grill up various things in front of you, serving you the food on lovely ceramics, and there's also an English menu. It's on the east side of Kyamachi, just south of Okie on the third floor of the Yurika building. The second is Ganko Nijo-en which serves mixed dinner spreads comparable to what we got in the Ryokans, with a splendid Japanese garden to gaze on. It's also on the east side of Kyamachi, just south of Nijo (and in the Lonely Planet). There's a picture menu to guide you, although you will need to be able to decipher Kanji numbers for the prices. It also takes credit cards - a useful treat for those final days when you want to avoid a last trip to the ATM machine. Sadly both places have their signs in Kanji, which I don't have to hand here.
I'd like to pay thanks to various people who met and looked after us. Microsoft were their usual excellent hosts in Tokyo, leaving us with nothing to worry about during the business part of our trip. Miwa Sato solved a couple of critical problems. Yoshi Nagase hosted us at the Tokyo XP user group. Naoya Maekawa, his colleague from the XP Kansai users group and their families joined us for a fun afternoon away from the guidebooks in Kyoto.