Our Golden Week Road Trip (Pt. 1)

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Another year, another Golden Week.

I prefer traveling by car through the Japanese countryside. Free of the hassle of suitcases, you can absorb the roadside vistas of Japan’s imposing mountains and cozy villages.

For those unfamiliar with Golden Week, this is a group of official holidays (April 29th – May 5th) in Japan that give most workers around a week off. Everyone travels. Good luck getting a ticket on anything. The lines are huge everywhere. Reserve where you’ll stay in advance or risk having nowhere to sleep. We made that mistake one year and had to stay at what turned out to be a very shady love hotel with a heart-shaped bed.

In preparation I packed up for our long trip.

That night I called my dad and learned something I never knew about my childhood cancer. I had always assumed that having one kidney meant I had 50% the kidney function of a normal person. Turns out, that’s wrong.

Losing a kidney as a small child is very different from losing one as an adult. Since I was six and my body still growing, my remaining kidney doubled in size to deal with the extra work. It actually operates at a lot bigger capacity than one kidney normally would.

That was a relief to learn.

In the morning we left at 9 pm, stopping for quick cafe lattes at 7-11 before heading to Kamikochi in Nagano Prefecture. Kamikochi is a beautiful area nestled in the Japan Alps.

There is something odd about the light in Kamikochi. Maybe it’s because we’re higher up, but it seems unusually bright.

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The freezing-cold water sparkled like gems.

The hike was gorgeous. The rivers glittered the color of gems. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to explore the hiking trails very deeply.  We’ll have to try again another time.

(More about Kamikochi)

The winding roads to our Japanese Traditional Inn, or ryokan, left me carsick. I don’t get carsick easily. Probably trying to use my laptop had a role in that. Our ryokan was very hard to reach and it’s also quite exclusive (only six rooms in the place).

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Good luck getting in. There are only six rooms.

This Inn is a natural onsen, not an artificial one. That means the soothing, hot water bubbles up naturally from the ground. The bath area was heavily calcified from the heavy-mineral water.

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Heavily-calcified bath

The room itself was one of the most cramped I’ve ever stayed at in a ryokan.

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Not a lot of room.

It was very cozy, and none of the guests in our neighboring rooms were noisy. I always enjoy staying at ryokans, well except for one thing. This one is very hit or miss for me.

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Traditional Japanese food is not for everyone.

My husband loved the meal. It was an extremely well-prepared meal, full of rare delicacies in Japan. I am just not a fan of koi meat, as I learned by eating it in this meal. (Koi is the fish you see swimming in ponds in Japan.)

My husband didn’t care much for koi either, but he enjoyed the meal more than I did.

I hate to pick at such a lavish meal, yet I couldn’t bring myself to eat most of it. I eat in small amounts, which works out fine since my husband tends to finish my meals. My parents told me that I’ve always been a picky eater since I first started eating solid foods.

I don’t think I’m picky (I’ll eat a wide variety of stuff), but I find it hard to force down things I don’t like. Some people can do that, I can’t.

Since the public baths were side by side and no one was using them at the time, my husband and I communicated over the wall that divided the baths by gender. It was sweet, almost something out of an anime.

Here is my video about the events of Day 2:

On the third day, we headed for Kyoto. After a long drive, we parked and went straight to Nanzen-Ji, one of our favorite temple grounds in Kyoto where you can see the aqueducts that still feed water to Kyoto from Lake Biwa.

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They’re popular for photo ops.

After exploring Kyoto’s aqueducts we stopped in at Tenju-An, a small little temple in the area with a beautiful garden in the back. It’s 500 yen to enter, but look at the view.

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Just stunning

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                           Just chilling ~

We left near closing and headed for our hostel, one of the big ones that was crowded with tour buses. Luckily, my husband learned from previous mistakes and got us a room in the far corner, away from the noisy Junior High School students who were on a school trip.

Here is a better summary of our day:

The third day was the last of the good weather. On the fourth day the weather turned grey and sour. At least it didn’t rain. Ironically, we went to Ginkaku-ji, or the Silver Temple.

We tried to get a tour of the Imperial Palace, but alas, all the tours for that day were filled. We still walked around the massive grounds.

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I feel small

The pollen count skyrocketed, leaving my husband a sneezing mess. It became so bad that we stopped a pharmacy for an emergency run on anti-histamines. The pollen was through the roof this day.

The fifth day started bright and early. We rose at the crack of dawn and beat the crowds to Fushimi Inari. (You can see my post here for why you should visit.)

The next morning we got up at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds to Fushimi Inari, one of my favorite places in Kyoto.

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Only in the early morning can you get shots in the pillar without people

Best of all we got free parking by arriving early. The weather was perfect and it was still possible to walk among the columns with only a trickle of people. A couple hours later it was a very different story.

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I really like the blend of nature with the vermillion pillars. 

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No people

I actually didn’t know we reached the top until we were twenty minutes passed it. Then my husband mentioned, “Oh yeah, we passed the top earlier.” It doesn’t stick out at all. Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the top because I didn’t know we were there.

No wonder, despite climbing up three times, I can never remember what the top of Fushimi Inari looks like. It’s a lovely trek up, just don’t set big expectations for the peak.

After returning to the car, we still had time to spare. My husband floored me by discovering this treasure that I had never even heard of:

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So off the beaten path that there was hardly anyone here

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Thirteen Story Pagoda

Tanzan Temple is a hidden gem in Nara Prefecture, one way off the beaten path and rarely visited by tourists. It’s home to a thirteen story pagoda, which is supposed to be the tallest in all of Japan. Since few come, even on holidays, we could enjoy this leisurely without worry about crowds or people walking into our shots. The biggest issue were the bugs hovering around.

We slipped off our shoes and wandered around the inside of the temple, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.

Next post is about the end of our Golden Week and Japan’s Art Islands. The weather took a bad turn and things did not go as smoothly.  Check out PART TWO.

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