It's December 2022 and that meant a first family holiday in three years. We embarked on a 7 day trip to Samurai land. Landing at Nagoya Chubu airport after an overnight flight, the immigration was a little uneasy as the youngest son was not considered fully vaccinated to their requirement and qualified under the accompaniment of a vaccinated adult. The inbound declaration was done via app and the contents were rather many. It took about ten minutes per person's application and I did it while still in Singapore. Once cleared, the itinerary began by picking up the rental car, ETC and mobile Wifi router.
Day 1: Takayama
The drive from the airport took 3.5 hours together with a pit stop in between. Along the way, one could see the autumn colors and even a peek of snow at the mountain tops. We arrived at this small city around 2pm and headed for the accommodation, Takayama Wood Hotel. It is a stylistically designed place and I chose it for the proximity to the most famous street here i.e Sanmachi Suji. We immediately went to explore the area and kept within 300m radius along the narrow alley lined with craft shops, restaurants and sake breweries. The first item bought was ice cream and this was in 10 deg C condition. Strolling along the river canal, there were ducks and large carps swimming in the clear flowing water. The streets were beginning to empty as sunset approached at 430pm. As we headed back to hotel to take a break, we stopped by a sake shop for tasting. It was identified by a brown cedar ball hanging by the door, indicating readiness to drink. The idea was to buy a cup for 100yen and purchase a tasting portion for 100yen each. There were about 12 different labels, all from local breweries. But I wasn't impressed with any as they were highly alcoholic with a strong punch. Before dinner, I brought the boys to the onsen, an indoor and comfortable place with no one else to listen in our conversation. Ajino Yohei was less than 20m away as we ate the highly advertised Hida beef from the region. It was really delicious with enough marbling and yet not being too oily. The night was still young so we ended up back at the hotel lounge to experience a unique feature. From 5pm to 11pm daily, they provide free flow of drinks ranging from tea, sake to draft beer. Do what the locals do by having an ice cold beer for a good sleep.
Day 2: Shirakawago
The day started with an onsen bath and a good Japanese breakfast. At 9am, we drove off to a world heritage site that's 1.5h away. Welcome to the cosy and quiet village of Shirakawago. It's tourist season and the crowd was visibly increasing. The first activity was to take the shuttle bus that brought us on a 15min journey to the observatory deck. The sun was bright and air was cool as we settled down with some hot drinks, overlooking the village from that vantage point. This moment was memorable as I sat there, matcha latte in hand, enjoying the view with a calm heart. Then we hiked down and proceeded to lunch at Irori, a family restaurant, where we had soba and beef. A simple yet satisfying meal. The main street is about 700m long which branched out into paths leading to the many Gassho houses where locals lived. So we paid an entrance fee and visited the Kanda house. Inside, the living area was spacious and warmed by a fireplace. As one climbed to the higher storeys, the headroom and width narrowed. I wondered how would a frail person be able to handle the movement between the levels via a steep staircase. We wandered around for a while more before heading back to hotel. There was still enough time to shop and we strolled through, stopping by Yuzen to buy chopsticks engraved with personalized letters. Dinner was not so straightforward as we drove to 2 restaurants without reservation and were rejected. Luckily, the third one, Suzuya, had just enough seats to accommodate us. Instead of sushi and sashimi, we ended up having beef once again but no complaints, it was just as great on a cold winter night. The night ended with another beer at the hotel lounge.
Day 3: Kyoto
It was time to say goodbye to wonderful Takayama as we made our way towards Kyoto, specifically Fushimi Inari for a temple stop. 3h on the road later, we arrived and fortunate to find a parking lot right at the doorstep, given it's an extremely popular spot. There were many uniformed students accompanied by teachers. This temple is famous for the 10000 Senbon Torii Gates lining the way as one walked up the hill. We managed about 30min for a photo opportunity with the city landscape. Since it was still early, my wife suggested to include an unplanned visit to Kiyomizudera, another Unesco site in Japan. This temple was nearby and only accessible by a steep road. I made a mistake at a traffic junction and had to make U-turn which was nearly impossible unless one make multiple turns in a squarish manner to end up in the correct direction. Nevertheless, even after parking, we still had to walk uphill to arrive at the entrance. We spent about ten minutes inside as it was very crowded and light was fading. I quickly bought some amulets as souvenirs for office colleagues. On the way down, we had salted cucumber and chestnut ice cream as snacks. If only we had more time but it was decided to leave quickly before traffic worsened. Our next stay was at R&Run Kyoto Serviced Apartment, in the central area. This was a converted building owned by Issey san and his family who warmly received us with perfect spoken English. He's the owner's son and educated for eight years in America before returning to run the property rental arm of his family's multiple business interests. Finally, the missus could start a round of laundry washing to get the boys some fresh clothes. When dinnertime came, I had expected to easily find a restaurant at nearby Nishiki market but apparently not so. The one amazing thing about Japan is that, there are so many good restaurants that one can just pop in to enjoy a tasty meal. So we just randomly chose one after walking aimlessly and ended up at a level two Izakaya shop.
Day 4: Kyoto
This was one of the highlights of the trip as we went to the vicinity of Arashiyama. After parking near Saga Torokko station, we headed for Kameoka Torokko to board the Sagano Romantic Train that traversed along the mountainside and afforded beautiful autumn river views. 20min went by quickly and we alighted to hike along the famed path of the bamboo forest. It was a magnificent experience to immerse in the serenity even though people were everywhere. This felt a bit rushed as there were still other activities to complete. We had a quick meal at Sushi Naritaya which was only so-so and walked to the Togetsu bridge for a photo memory. Underneath was a large river with fast flowing currents, as if one was at a waterfall. With renewed energy in our strides, we started the hike up Iwatayama Monkey Park. It was certainly no walk in the park. The slope was curvy as we huffed for 30min to arrive at the monkey feeding station. There was a small hut designed to enclose tourists who would feed through grated windows after purchasing 100yen per packet of apples or peanuts. The wild monkeys were very active and well adapted to human presence as several handlers looked on. We were careful not to show any exposed items such as wallet or handphone as one unlucky visitor found out later. By now, it was about 3pm as we made our descend and stopped by a stall for snack break. From then on, we slowed down, watched the crowd and walked back to get the car. Arashiyama is definitely a place I would like to return again. At the request of the youngest son, we went to Ichiran Ramen for dinner, a first experience for the kids to eat in their own booths.
Day 5: Osaka
The car was utilized for its last day when we began an early morning journey towards Rinku Premium Outlets in Osaka. We arrived at 1030am and parked in P1 area, the mid point of the outlet shops as they were split into two big building sections. After a quick brunch at the food court, the shopping spree began. Due to limited time, it was preplanned to start at Adidas. We spent quite a bit of time trying out shoes for school and sport usage. Next stop was Under Armour and the aim was to buy tees and shorts. Then it was off to Coach for my wife to select her merchandise. I managed to sneak a last minute visit to Hugo Boss and that's about it. Among 250 shops, we only covered about six! Four hours later, we had to leave as the car needed to be at the rental shop by 4pm. Before that, we dropped off at Fraser Nankai Residence to check in while I made my way to return the car which was less than 800m away. It was still early so we brought the kids to Dotonburi and revisit one of the landmark points in Osaka after more than three years away. My wife suggested Chanko Nabe for dinner and that's what we got. A chicken hot pot filled to the brim with vegetables warmed our bodies on a windy and cold evening. Yet, the ravenous kids were able to add Macdonald's meal for supper.
Day 6: Osaka
There wasn't much planned as this was supposed to be a free and easy day. In the morning, we visited Kuromon Ichiba for some fresh kaisendon and thereafter left the kids in the hotel room to relax on their own. So it was just two of us who went on an afternoon of shopping in Shinsaibashi Suji. It's nice to see the usual joints still operating as we stocked up on pharmaceutical products and Uniqlo staples. For our last night in Japan, we went to an interesting restaurant called Zauo Fishing. The kids had a good time by skillfully catching a horse mackerel, flatfish and sea bream. We concluded the soy sauce way of cooking the fish was the best. The last stop was Takashimaya for some desserts.
Day 7: Singapore
The Nankai rapid express train was 3min walk away as we lugged 60kg of luggage onboard to the airport. Things went smoothly and after the immigration, we realized most of the shops were closed. So the only cafe and Family Mart were seeing very long queues. We settled on some vending machine drinks and sat at the departure lounge till the boarding call came. It's time to go home and plan for the next trip. The kids left feedback that they do not like too much walking (my phone app showed average of 15000 steps per day), loved the food (especially ramen) and enjoyed the casual intercity drive (750km clocked on mostly smooth traffic). Total in country expenses came up to $5000, worth every cent for the memories left behind. We will be back!
Tip: Wagauji Junmai Daiginjo Kumonoue, slight acidity, good body wrapped by mild koji paste