Himeji Castle and Kobe Harborland-Japan Day 4

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Himeji Castle was one of my “musts” for this trip.  It also was one of the places we learned about in our Little Passports Japan kit, so I really wanted my kids to see the real thing.  Himeji was also a straight shot from Kyoto with our JR pass.  I had just planned to go and visit the castle then come back to Kyoto in order to attend a show of traditional Japanese performance arts.  After such a long day in Osaka the day before, I figured another low key day was in order. At least that is what I thought.

Given that I only planned to visit Himeji, we took our time getting out the door.  We took the shuttle to the train station and made an easy stop at the JR ticket office for our bullet train to Himeji.  It was going to take about 45-50 minutes to get there.  My daughter fell asleep before we got on the train and I employed reason 497 of “Why I love my Baby Jogger City Select stroller.” Since I had to fold it up and put it behind the seats, I just popped off the seat and laid it on the floor with my daughter in it so she could keep sleeping with no blocking of the aisle.  That left just me and the boys to have a little snack and be silly on the train until we arrived.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Nap time on the train in her stroller seat.

Just having some fun on the train.

Just having some fun on the train.

Once we were at the main JR train station in Himeji, it was really easy to find the way out and to see which direction the castle was in, being how you could see it the moment you walked out the train station!  So we started looking about and saw the buses.  Even though you could see the castle, it was still pretty far.  Japanese cities are like Paris, something looks like it is close, but really it’s 20-30 minutes away by foot.  We inquired in at a local tourist information center who said to take the castle loop bus around the corner.  So off we went, but we found that we had just missed it and it ran only every half hour.  Walking it was, and boy I was not disappointed.  Before we even got half way to the castle (which is a straight shot down the same street, directly out from the front of the train station) I was falling in love with this city.   The side walks were large and wide with very separate lanes for bikes, walkers and had greenery and lovely art statues every so often.  Little allies that were actually large and long shopping arcades shot off in all directions of the street.  I felt so comfortable to be walking along this street, despite the completely foreign language.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

One of many statues that line the street from Himeji station to the castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

Shopping Arcades off the main road to Himeji Castle.

As we approached the castle and picked up a brochure and map from the information center, I began to wish we had gotten an earlier start.  We probably wouldn’t have enough time to visit the zoo in addition to the castle.  It turns out Himeji is a place you should spend a couple days!  But alas, we had one, and less than that too.  It was time to get up to that castle and see what was in side this colossus.  I was really glad that I brought the Ergo this time!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle.  It was above 85 degrees F that day!

Walking up to the main keep of the Castle. It was above 85 degrees F that day!

To go into the main part of the castle, you had to take your shoes off and put them in the plastic bag that was provided for you.  What was not provided, slippers or socks.  So if you were wearing sandals, like the kids and I were, you walked barefoot if you wanted to see the castle.  Just a heads up, when you visit, perhaps you’ll want to wear tennis shoes with socks.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

Taking shoes off to go inside the castle.

There was nothing inside the castle except the incredibly steep stairs that were practically ladders.  You could see however the incredible wood build and design of the castle, Japan’s only major castle that has never been damage in a war.  There was a great view of the grounds and Himeji from the top however.  In all, it was a very beautiful sight to behold.  It lives up to it’s nickname “The White Heron” which is a symbol for the whole city and often manhole covers are adorned with a flock of flying white Herons.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Six floors of these steep steps up and down.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

Interior of Himeji Castle.

I was having such a nice time walking around the castle grounds and had seen many things on the road there that I wanted to go back to, I lost my sense of urgency to get back for the show in Kyoto that night.  I knew there would be other days to do the show in Kyoto, but probably wouldn’t get back to Himeji.  Unfortunately for me, because I only planned to see the castle that day, we had gotten a pretty late start and most things in the area, like the Himeji zoo next to the castle, all closed around 5:00 p.m.  Even though things were all closing up by time we finished the castle tour, I decided to take a stroll through the side shopping promenades that I had seen on the way to the castle.  We looked at a few shops and then came across a cupcake and pastry shop.  I had to go in and we splurged a little before dinner.

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts.  P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

Japanese interpretations of French and American desserts. P.S. Their version of Strawberry Short Cake is better!

As we made it back to the train station I tried to think what we could do with the rest of our evening.  I checked in at the JR ticket counter about Kobe.  It wasn’t a place I thought I’d make it to this trip but as I looked through my booklet for the Hyogo area (which Himeji is apart of) and it talked a bit about the Haborland of Kobe and a Ferris wheel and the Anpanman Kids Museum & Mall.  It looked like a fun sight, especially at night and I had read about an all you can eat seafood buffet right on the water with a great view of the light up harbor buildings.  So we hopped on a regional JR train and off we went.

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

On the train from Himeji to Kobe

Once we arrived, we asked for directions to Haborland and wandered our way through the station and the huge Umie shopping mall to get to the harbor shops and restaurants that is called the Mosaic, right on the water.  We came across and escalator that the boys begged to ride it down just to go back up.  Of course I had to say yes!

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe's Harborland.

Cool escalator in the Umie shopping mall at Kobe’s Harborland.

By chance, one of the first things we saw as we followed paths that looked like they lead to the water was the all you can eat seafood restaurant buffet called the “Fisherman’s Market.”  I saw some pasta and pizza in the window and figured I’d be set for the kids.  They saw us in to a table and through some patience and hand signals, we decided on how much we would be charged based on the kids’ ages, and whether or not we would eat just the food or the food buffet and the drink buffet.  There was a fairly wide selection of choices but all the pasta and pizza had seafood of course.  So it took a little convincing to try a few things even though they looked some what familiar to them.  They also had French fries and what would be close enough to fish sticks.  I made them try some new stuff and then let them have some comfort choices as well.  Plus, the dessert bar with a huge chocolate fountain was a big incentive!  What I liked about this place the most was that they had allergy cards at each station!  So I knew which things would contain wheat.  There was still a chance for gluten, but knowing which things had wheat was a big step because it also told me which things had soy sauce, which is often hard to figure out here since it is a common ingredient.  In addition to the food, the view was spectacular!

View from the Fisherman's Market restaurant in the Mosaic.  At Kobe's Harborland.

View from the Fisherman’s Market restaurant in the Mosaic. At Kobe’s Harborland.

We knew even before dinner that we were there too lake for the kids museum, but what we really came for was the view and the Ferris wheel.  And in that, we were not disappointed!

Ferris wheel at Kobe's Harborland.

Ferris wheel at Kobe’s Harborland.

In all, we had a great evening that was the perfect night cap to a fun day.  Now, we just had to get back to the hotel.  I took the risk again of having 3 sleepy children when we arrived back at Kyoto station.  But I was prepared!  Since I had packed my Ergo, I figured I could just put my 2 year old on my back in case my 5 year old fell asleep on the train. I could then push him in the stroller.  Sure enough, my 5 year old fell asleep, but so did my 7 year old!  To make matters worse, my phone froze up and was not working.  I was in a bit of a panic because I can’t handle being in a foreign place without my phone, just in case.  After a few failed attempts to find something I had to fit in the pin hold to pop out the sim to restart it, I asked a group of business man with my pointing and hand gestures if they had something that could fit.  Thankfully one did, the pin from the back of his name badge!  Good thing for me that people go to work late and come home late!  At 10:00 p.m. the train was packed with business men returning home from work!  With my phone fixed, my last feat was to get all 3 kids off the train.  All 3 dead asleep.

I was the evening’s entertainment. Our skit was an American single white female attempting to move a sleeping toddler from the stroller bassinette position to an Ergo, followed by transforming the stroller into an upright forward facing stroller in which a sleeping 7 year old was placed, then trying to balance a sleeping 5 year old on top of said 7 year old while on a moving train, then exciting the train.  There were several oohs and ahhs.  From there, I had no choice but to take a taxi back to the hotel.  As cheap as I am and hate paying for them, the safety of the kids still comes first and there was no way to get then onto two more subway transfers to the hotel.  But we made it, and I had never been so relieved to find my way to my bed!

Tokyo’s Asakusa District-Japan Day 1

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By 6:00 a.m. my 2 year old was wide awake, and the rest of us were quick to follow.  It was time to start our first day in Japan!!!  We finished up what was left of the airplane food and some of the granola bars and prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I had packed for the plane. I allowed the kids to watch some shows while I rearranged some of the luggage and backpacks and took a shower.  I knew we couldn’t get any official information from the front desk until 8:00 o’clock in the morning, which I also took to be the general starting time, or later, for most attractions.

The neighborhood of our hostel.

The neighborhood of our hostel.

One of the main reasons I went with the hostel that we did (K’s House Tokyo Oasis) was because a friend recommended their chain and I didn’t need anything terribly expensive for such a short single night stay. There also seemed to be some popular attractions in the area. The Senso-ji temple, the oldest temple in Japan, was just a couple blocks away from the hostel. There was also an amusement park and a short train route to the Skytree. Asakusa as also an older, more traditional area of Tokyo so I figured it would be a good starting off point. Once I got everything settled with the front desk for our official “check in” we found out we could keep all of our stuff in the room and didn’t have to check out until 12:00 p.m. I figured with our early start, we could see most of the stuff we wanted to before noon. So we headed out towards the temple to start our official vacation in Japan!

Senso-ji and Asakusa Temple.

Senso-ji and Asakusa Temple.

Seeing everything for the first time in the daylight was less intimidating. For still being part of the crowded Tokyo metropolis, this was a sleepy neighborhood that was barely getting moving at 8:00 a.m. Within 2 or 3 minutes we were at the entrance to the Senso-ji temple grounds. The traditional images of Japan bloomed suddenly before our eyes. There were little shrines throughout manicured garden and pathways along a pond complete with a man-made waterfall and koi fish. As we wandered around the grounds we made our way over to the main temple itself. Here’s where I find myself ignorant. I really don’t know much about the Buddhist religion or any of the other religious practices in Japan. I made a point of telling the children that our primary purpose was to see how the buildings are different to what they’ve seen before and to just observe people. I reminded them that it was a holy place for the people of Japan, just like a church is in America and Europe. That we needed to be respectful of their desire for peace and prayer and to therefore, not run around and be loud. After walking through the main temple, we saw the area for the fountain and the incense. There was a statue of a man holding a dragon and the fountain has several dragon heads sticking out from around it, each a spout of running water. We watched the people use the ladles, made out of tin cups with a wood handle, pour water over each of their hands and some even drank it. I was confused about the drinking verses spitting out because people were doing both. The boys and my 2 year old naturally wanted to participate as they love any kind of water “play.” So I told them that they could do the hand washing but not drink it. This was a little complicated while trying to help all 3 of them without doing something that might be horribly disrespectful, which is my biggest fear for this trip. After they were done, I asked a Japanese woman there if she spoke some English and if she could tell us what the tradition/meaning of the fountain was. We were told that you are washing your hands and cleansing your heart, then you go to the incense and then you pray. I thanked her and we continued to stroll through the grounds of the shrine.

Cleansing fountain.

Cleansing fountain.

When the kids stopped by a tree for a rest, I noticed an elderly couple taking some pictures in the direction of our children. At first I wasn’t sure if they were just taking pictures of the shrine or my kids. But as the kids started moving around to different spots, his camera moved too. We then started to leave towards the market in front of the shrine and he began to follow in front of us, taking more pictures of Madelyn. It was a full paparazzi moment, something I was told to expect, and had also experienced when we traveled in European countries and came across Asian tourists. I take these things in strides as I know that the main motivation is curiosity and seeing a different people in your home country. This happened a few times throughout the day.

As we left the shrine we started to walk towards the river where I had seen some greenery on the map and I hoped to find a playground for the kids. About a 10 minute walk from the shrine we found just that. Along the west bank of the Sumida River, between the Skytree train bridge and the Kotoibashi bridge is the playground in the Kuritsu Sumida Park. It was a really cute playground with some traditional climbing structures with slide combos, a sand box, some free standing rocking toys, swings and a giant whale slide. Another feature of the playground, is one that I’m not sure was meant for the kids or the adults. It was an adventure type log course that went in a circle with beams, bars, and wood logs. All I know is that my kids had a blast climbing on it and occasionally an adult would come over and do a few exercises on a part of the structure. Our playground experience offered a picturesque view of the Tokyo Skytree in the background. My intention had been to talk to the tower too. I wanted to go to the top and our hostel host said it was a 20 minute walk to the Skytree from the hostel, and we had to at least have been half way at the park. As I looked at my watch I had to make a choice, it was 10:00 a.m. at that point and I knew that kids really wanted to check out the old amusement park near our hostel. I knew we could only do one of the two things and still make it back by noon. So, taking into account the popularity of the Skytree and my husband’s probably desire to see it over the amusement park when we all returned to Tokyo, we headed back towards the amusement park.

Playground in Kuritsu Sumida Park.

Playground in Kuritsu Sumida Park.

We decided to walk back through part of the shrine grounds on the way to the amusement park and encountered 2 young Japanese women dressed in Kimono. At first I thought, “Maybe they are advertising some tour or show in the area?” But then I saw that they were taking pictures of each other with their phones. Being how people had no problem photographing my children at will, I asked the two young ladies if they would take a picture with my kids. They seemed a little confused at first but then said of course. As I snapped a few quick photos, another group of Japanese women came by and went crazy over our kids with excitement. After I was done taking the pictures with the Kimono girls, the other women asked if they could take their pictures with my children. My little 2 year old girl was once again the most coveted of the three. When they were done, the Kimono girls came back over to us and asked if they could take pictures with their camera with my kids. Mason, Tristan and Madelyn took it all in strides and smiled and waved at the attention. As soon as we walked out of the shrine gates I saw a sign for kimono dressing. It became clear that it was that shop where the girls had gotten their clothing as an experience I’ve seen offered before in my research to get made up in full Kimono dress and then have a chance to walk around in a shrine area or special district.  What I learned from all of this is that the Japanese people are just as much of tourist in their home country as we are.

The amusement park we headed to next was literally one street away from the shrine and 2 from the hostel.  It is called Asakusa Hanayashiki, an old and very small carnival type amusement park where the term small is only to describe the surface area it takes up.  The little carnival has several rides overlapping in some areas to give kids over 20 choices of rides and attractions.  The cost to get into the park was 1,000 Yen (roughly $10 U.S.) for children age 6 and older and just 500 Yen (roughly $50 U.S.) for adults.  Children 5 and under were free to enter.  Then you had to buy the tickets separately to enjoy the actual rides.  A wrist ban for unlimited rides were available with prices varying by age.  Adults accompanying a child under 4 years old did not have to pay to ride (something that I overlooked in the English instruction sheet they gave me at the entry).  In total, we spend 7,800 Yen on entrance and ride tickets, about $62 USD.  But we could have saved $10 had I paid more attention to the part where I didn’t need tickets for myself.  The park was cute and had loads of rides for the whole family.  It definitely was a good choice and we got through all but one of the rides that my 2 year old was eligible for, which was quite a lot!  In all, we were there about an hour and a half.  Time quickly slipped away from us when I looked at my clock and saw 11:40 a.m. on the screen.  With the close proximity of the hostel, we were out of the park and at the door of K’s House in 5 minutes.

Asakusa Hanayashiki Amusement Park

Asakusa Hanayashiki Amusement Park

We checked out of the hostel and got directions to Ueno Station where I could exchange my Japan Rail Pass voucher for my actual pass.  The vouchers were purchased back in Seattle and are for foreigners only, they cannot be purchased in Japan, however, you then have to exchange the voucher for the pass in Japan.  The hostel staff directed us to a short walk to a subway station that would then take us to the Ueno station.  Again we encountered the subway entrances not having an elevator or escalator.  There was a neighborhood map next to the station which said an elevator was located around the corner. We walked in that direction and never found it.  Another maps said the station we need was just 1.2 kilometers away, under a mile, so I was hopeful we could just walk.  But soon the kids were tired of walking so I found a bus stop that went to Ueno. For a mere $1.50 we hopped on and were there in 5 minutes. The handicap/stroller area is smaller than European busses, but we fit and everyone was helpful in getting us all on, suitcases and all.

Signs were easy to get the passes and once that was done, we went into the JR office ticket office to get our tickets on the bullet train from Tokyo Station to Kyoto.  Getting to the platform to Tokyo station was easy.  They told us 3 or 4 and I just followed the signs.  The train came within 5 minutes of us getting to the platform.  The ride was quick and there were English announcements for each stop.  Next came getting us all off the train.  I did as I normally do, back the stroller off the train.  But this time, I was wearing flip flops and the heel hit the edge of the platform, pushing the sandal off my foot, and since I was in motion, my foot also moved back, allowing it to slip and fall down to the rail tracks!!!  I now just had one shoe, but needed to get the boys quickly off the train with their suitcases.  I got them off the train and away from the tracks amidst their questions as to why I only had one shoe on.  Thankfully, since we had all our luggage, I had a spare pair of shoes in the outside pocket of my suitcase.  Lesson learned, no more flip flops on train days!

My flip flop that fell down between the train and platform while I was getting off the train.

My flip flop that fell down between the train and platform while I was getting off the train.

Once inside Tokyo station, it was a bit more difficult to know where to go for the bullet train.  I forgot to ask which platform when I got the tickets and didn’t remember the Japanese name for the bullet trains (it’s Shinkansen by the way).  My ticket provided no useful information.  I went to a sign board to try to figure it out and while there, a beautiful young Japanese woman came up and asked me if I needed some help.  She direct me towards the Shinkansen train entrances where I then asked a worker for the platform number.  We still had 30 minutes to kill and picked up some snacks.

Kyoto here we come!

Kyoto here we come!

Once the train arrived, we had to wait about 10 minutes for it to get on so it could be cleaned by ladies in pink uniforms and gentlemen in blue jumpsuits. We found our seats and I got the kids settled in. To save money, we just did the JR passes for myself and my 7 year old. Children under 6 are still free if they don’t take up their own seat. I figured I could have the boys share one seat and my 2 year old could sit on my lap. With a fold up arm rest there was plenty for us to sit arm and arm, and there was also tons of space between the aisles so I put the blanket that I packed on the floor for my daughter. In about 2 and a half hours we arrived in Kyoto and made our way to the hotel shuttle pick up. And now, here we are for a full week in one place! My husband has a conference the whole week at the hotel where we are staying, so we have to still be completely on our own and invisible. Which is fine, I’m sure we’ll find plenty of adventures to take! But after 36 hours of solo travel and a foam and wood bed on our first night, I am thankful for a real Western hotel, for now.