Our Visit to Japan
Finally the day had come and we were off again to visit our favourite country, Japan. First we had to fly to Germany to collect Jerome from my parents, but then we were on our way. Excited, and a bit tired, as we had only had 5 hours sleep, due to the flight via London Heathrow.
On the Plane
Once we had settled into our seats on the plane, Jerome straight away started watching films, normally I would mind, but I was too tired to really care and 12 hours on a plane can seem like forever for an adult let alone a younger one.
Descending to Haneda Airport
Somehow the hours passed and our plane was slowly descending into the land of the rising sun and for Haneda Airport.
View of Fuji-san
Jerome swapped seats with me (usually he gets to sit by the window) and we were lucky to sit on the right side of the plane to see Fuji-san while were making the last few miles into Haneda airport with no clouds in sight.
Fuji-san has always been important for Japanese people and ever since we climbed Fuji-san three years ago it has become a significant memory of our life together as a family. Most people always imagine Fuji-san covered in snow but this time of year it’s brown volcanic ash visible all the way to the top but it still hasn’t lost any of its magic.
Arrival at Haneda Airport
Once we had landed at Haneda and disembarked the plane, we could feel the heat despite the air conditioning in the building. First we headed to passport control, they checked our passport efficiently and fast, unlike some other countries, and then went to baggage claim where we waited for our many bags to arrive.
Buying Tickets for the Shinkansen
A lovely lady dropped us our bikes, yes, we even took them all the way from the UK to Japan, as we plan to cycle the Shimanami Kaido. We left the luggage hall and cleared customs and as usual when we land in a new place, first stop was to get some Yen from the cash machine. We also found the right place buy our tickets for the Shinkansen to Okayama, near the ticket machines for the metro. Okayama would be our first stop on our route planned for the holiday.
If you are planning on touring Japan by train, I would recommend getting Japan Rail Pass as it is a cheap way of getting around and includes some Shinkansen rides too. The Rail pass can be bought online through: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com.
Through their website we had also ordered a pocket wifi which I collected in the check in hall at Haneda airport (we landed really early and this seemed the easiest option as their counter is open 24 hours). The pocket wifi came in handy throughout our travel in Japan on many occasions. I had done some research before deciding on which company to rent it from and their pocket wifi seemed to offer the best value for money, speed and unlimited devices it can connect to. Most importantly, it seemed to work even in the most remote areas. We used it for everything from using google maps to instagram, and emails, but especially useful was the google translate app for the occasions when there was no English.
In regards to the Shinkansen tickets, we bought them from the travel agent, which is right next to the tourist information (useful for picking up some maps and guides) in the arrivals hall at Haneda International airport. There are similar places also in Narita.
Suica and Pasmo Cards for Tokyo Metro
Towards the exit you can find the ticket machines for Tokyo metro, where we charged our Suica/Pasmo cards. These are basically rechargeable cards (like the Oyster card in London) for the metro and train lines in the Tokyo area and can also be used to pay at vending machines and in convenience stores. There are children fares available as well if travelling with little ones. We still had some from our previous trips to Japan, it is useful to keep them, but they can be bought at the ticket machines. The ticket machines have several languages to choose from and there usually is a member of staff nearby to help. Off we went down to the Keikyu line to get to Shinagawa station. Thankfully most stations have lifts/escalators and therefore it was not a big problem to get around with all the suitcases and even our three folding bikes.
Getting into Tokyo
How to get into Tokyo from Haneda and Narita Airport, depends on your final destination and your budget. There are several options of transportation. The easiest option obviously would be to take a taxi but this can be very expensive and in the rush hour it will take a long time. The budget option is the Limousine Bus, which goes to all major stations and a lot of the big hotels directly, but it has the same problem it can take a long time and depending on the destination they can be infrequent.
From Haneda to Tokyo
From Haneda, the monorail is another good option if you’re heading towards Ginza area or need to change to the Yamanote ring line, Jerome always used to like going on it as it is quite an unusual form to get around. We took the Keikyu line, which serves Yokohama and Shinagawa station. The train wasn’t very busy, given that it was very early on a Sunday morning, which was just as well with all of our luggage. Getting over to the Shinkansen platform was a bit of a trek and our backs started to hurt from carrying the bikes, plus our suitcases and trolleys.
Ebiken, Lunch Boxes for the Train Ride
We still had half an hour before our train arrived at Shinagawa, so Jerome and I went off to get some food and drinks, while Chris stayed on the platform. We had decided to get some bento boxes, because that’s what Japanese people do when you ride the train in Japan (some lines or stations are famous for their local delicacy bentos, called “Ebiken“). We went for the less adventurous ones, chicken terriyaki and pork katsu.
Waiting for the Shinkansen
Back on the platform we watched the Shinkansen come in and go leave again, there’s literally one every few minutes, they always on time, which always amazes us. They can tend to be very busy, therefore I would advise you to purchase a ticket with reserved seats, which is handy anyway when you travel with children or if travelling in a larger group. If you’re heading Kyoto/Osaka way, you will pass Fuji-san, which you would able to see on the right hand side of your train. This is why this side will always be busier then the left hand side of the train. Once on the train and settled we had our bento boxes and then tiredness took over.
Riding the Shinkansen
During our train ride we were unable to sleep, despite being jet lagged and tired, we played card games and watched the scenery go by. This was not easy as we went through lots of tunnels and at a speed of 300km/h but we could catch glimpses of the lush green rice fields, the thick overgrown forests and the architecture of the cities and villages we passed on the Shinkansen.
A Relaxing Way to Travel
Travelling by Shinkansen is a very relaxing way to travel, great if you have children as they can just get up and walk around. Also who wouldn’t want to ride on one of the fastest trains in the world. It always used to be one of the highlights for Jerome to go on a Shinkansen when he was smaller and I think he still liked it now even though he didn’t want to admit.
Car Rental in Japan
Three hours later we arrived at Okayama station where we left the train. We had booked a hire car from here, which we rented with Nissan through rentalcars.com as they are one of the few websites for car rental in Japan. You would need to download their app or call as for some reason it didn’t work on their website. The other options for hiring a car in Japan that we have used in the past and I can recommend would be Nissan or Toyota. Hiring a car in Japan is expensive, you would have to plan for around just under 100€ a day.
A Nissan Cube
We wanted a Nissan Cube, as we have driven it before and knew we would be able to get all the luggage in, even though some of the trolleys were on the backseat next to Jerome. We also love the design and shape of the Nissan Cube, it is very comfortable to drive and not a car one can get in Europe easily.
International Driving Liscence
If you consider renting a car in Japan you have to be aware of the fact that you will need an International driving licence IDP or a Japanese translation. Chris, being a UK citizen went to the post office with his drivers licence and got an IDP, me being German I had to have my driver’s licence translated, as Germany didn’t sign the agreement for the IDP. I used lingoking.com (79€), I had to upload the front and back of my driver’s license and the Japanese translation was then sent to my address here in London. From what I can understand, the translation is now valid until my passport expires, whereas Chris’ is only valid for a year.
Car Hire at Okayama
Nissan car hire was just a few steps from the back exit of Okayama station, I had saved the address on my google maps, and thanks to the wifi dongle it was easy to find. In general the English of the car rental staff is very basic but they had a leaflet with all the questions on it in English and we didn’t have any problems filling in any of the forms. We got the keys, it took us a few minutes to get all the bags and bikes into the car, we could see that the gentlemen helping us was getting worried we wouldn’t fit it all in. Poor guy!
Japanese SAT Nav
From our experience before all Japanese hire cars have SAT navigation, not that we were able to read the Japanese but it can be very useful for finding out where one needs to go. Together with google maps we didn’t need to bring an atlas anymore. All road signs are in both Japanese and English, so there isn’t any need to worry about not being able to find the right directions.
Driving to Tamashima
Off we drove to our ryokan Bingoya in Tamashima, near the port of Kurashiki. It felt great to be back on the road in Japan. Remember to drive on the left side of the road. Thanks to living in London this wasn’t a problem for me anymore. It was starting to rain and we were hungry. We didn’t want to go for a proper lunch so we stopped in one of the local supermarkets to get some food and also importantly in this heat, lots to drink. Check in for ryokans usually isn’t until later in the afternoon, ours was 4pm and by the time we got through traffic and had some food we got there just in time.
Bingoya is tucked away in a little side street and has only 6 rooms dotted around the garden and up the hill. We parked our car right outside the front door of the ryokan, where the mama-san was waiting to meet us. She was a lovely lady, very polite and ever helpful, even though her limited English prevented us from having a proper conversation with her. She led us up some steps to our room, which was in a separate building to reception. It was a spacious traditional Japanese room with tatami mat flooring with a separate bathroom and toilet.
Our Traditional Room
We sat down on the cushions around the low table and our mama-san brought us some green tea and azuki bean biscuits to welcome us to Bingoya. She explained that breakfast would be served in the room next to us at 8am and how to get to the ofuro (private Japanese bath) and asked us what time we would like to go and have a bath. She also offered us dinner but as it wasn’t included in our booking and we were tired we felt we wouldn’t be able to enjoy dinner properly. She was kind enough to give us some recommendations for restaurants to have dinner which were close by.
Trying to Cope With Jet-Lag
By now time had caught up with us, having been awake for over 24 hours. Trying to cope with jet lag is never easy. We always found staying up as long as possible. Sticking to a daily schedule where you are and having food whenever it’s breakfast, lunch and at dinnertime. We decided to go for a stroll up to the temple that our mama-san had mentioned to us earlier.
Walk to the Temple
Going up the hill, sweat running down every part of our skin, we realised again how hot it is in the summer here in Japan, around 35C with very high humidity. We had remembered to bring a bottle of drink for each of us but they were emptied quickly. Jerome started to moan that he was too tired and couldn’t walk anymore. I had sympathy for him, as I was feeling exhausted and hot as well but was trying to stay awake for as long as possible.
The search for the closest vending machine (hey are usually everywhere) began. We couldn’t find one until we reached the temple, where Jerome dunked his head under the water tab to cool off. I wasn’t sure whether this conformed with the etiquette at a temple but there was no one else around.
Temple on the Hill
The temple itself wasn’t very big but it contained a few old buildings and a pond with lotus flowers and lots of graves dotted around the hillside.
Visiting a Temple
Not worth a special hike, especially if you have been to plenty of temples before but for us it was a destination that day and I always loved the sights you might encounter along the way. One thing for sure if the weather is fine, it had cleared by the time we started, you get a great view over the surroundings and the harbour in the distance.
Return to Tamashima
We took a different route back down into Kurashiki, along a very narrow steep road, past some interesting houses and gardens.
Dinner in Tamashima
For dinner that evening we went into Tamashima, unfortunately it being a Sunday evening meant the choices were limited and as we didn’t want to drive around forever we went to a very popular local Chinese restaurant Kouchin at the end of the covered arcade. We had some classic Chinese food, spring rolls, stir fried ramen and soup. The food was tasty and we can recommend it as a dinner destinations if staying in the area.
Relaxing in the Onsen
Back to Bingoya we went straight for a hot bath in the wooden tub, spacious enough to fit all three of us and we soaked in the hot water to relax our tired muscles. Then we went off to bed and I think we all fell asleep straight away…
Where to Stay:
Kurashiki: We wish we could have stayed at the amazing Toutou Gallery right in the heat of the Bikan Quarter
Shin Kurashiki: Bingoya’s traditional rooms are dotted among a serene garden, a short drive from Kurashiki
Okayama: There is a real dirth of good hotels but one cannot go wrong with ANA Crowne Plaza
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