Frances had been, once before, on a family guided tour in Japan when she was 10, and I had been most recently in 2003; so we picked a mix of popular and new places for our trip.
Since many people are familiar with Tokyo and Kyoto, I will share some of our favorite lesser-known places.
Matsue, on the Japan Sea coast, has one of the 12 remaining original castles in Japan and a small samurai quarter. I wanted to see the nearby Adachi Museum, with one of the best modern gardens in Japan, and lured Frances to it with the castle.
Half an hour or so away by train is Izumo Grand Shrine, where we were fortunate enough to see one of the inner shrine deities being moved during the every-60-year refurbishing of the shrine.
Later, we traveled the Kiso Valley, which runs alongside the Central Alps. We stayed in two of the preserved "post towns" (nightly stopping points) on the samurai-era Nakasendo highway, Magome and Tsumago, walking between them (a service will take your luggage from one town to the other).
There are no hotels, but a number of the old houses operate as "minshuku" — Japanese inns serving dinner and breakfast to their guests.
We stayed a night in Ogimachi, a small village in the Shogawa River valley. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site for the "gassho-zukuri" (praying hands construction) wooden houses with steeply thatched roofs, several of which operate as minshuku.
Frances's last stop with me was in Kanazawa, also on the Japan Sea coast, which is home to Japan's gold leaf industry and also to the famous Kenrokuen garden.
After putting her on the plane home, I traveled north for a few extra days, then I returned, already thinking of another trip. We'd had a wonderful time.
Each time I go to Japan, it seems easier to travel there, as there's more and more information and signage in English; and Frances tells me she'd feel comfortable traveling there self-guided also. So we may not travel there together, but each of us is likely to go again if we can.
Resources for the traveler to Japan:
• Two useful travel sites are www.jnto.go.jp/eng and www.japan-guide.com; while www.hyperdia.com/en gives you online air and train schedules.
• Best times for travel to Japan, unless you are looking for something special like cherry blossoms, are May and October, with moderate temperatures and no more than average rain.
• Flights through LAX are on average about $500 less than direct from SFO/SJC.
• Train travel is fast, comfortable, and inexpensive, especially if you get a Japan Rail Pass (I put $1,200 worth of travel on my $600 three-week pass).
• Almost every town/city has a Tourist Information Center, usually in or near the main railway station, with free maps, brochures, and advice.
• Many Japanese hotels charge by the person, not by the room; so if you're traveling with a friend you can often have a room to yourself at the same or nominally higher cost.
• Japan is still a cash-oriented country; but there are ATMs at post offices and 7-Eleven stores.
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