Subject: Re: Malta - Recommendations
Hi Eric and other Ziners -

We spent five days in Malta and Gozo in May, and loved it.

In Sliema, it's wonderful to just walk along the Promenade. There are many good, casual restaurants all along the waterfront, and it's fun to take a walk before dinner, and choose where you'll dine.

You can take the ferry from Sliema into Valletta, a chaming city, with much to see, including The Grandmaster's Palace, the beautiful cathedral and Barracca Gardens with a great view of the harbour. It's lovely to take a 3-hour cruise of the harbour, for a good overview of the city.

Frances has mentioned the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxxlok - don't miss it. Also Tarxien, with its ancient temples, the Neolithic temples of Hagar Quim, and of course, the Blue Grotto.

The nearby island of Gozo is also wonderful, for a day trip, with its temple of Gigantija, an impressive Copper-Age monument. The capital of Gozo, Victoria/Rabat, has a gorgeous cathedral with a trompe d-oeil dome.

What we enjoyed most was the ancient walled city of Mdina in Malta. It was wonderful to walk through its silent little streets and to think of all that history.

If you're interested in shopping, there's beautiful glass made on both Malta and Gozo.

Malta and Gozo are so small that it's possible to see and do just about everything, if you're there for a week. Enjoy!

Margaret in Toronto

039254 From: Debby Date: Sun Sep 18, 2005 4:44pm Subject: Japan Trip Report (Long)

Hi Ziners,

Had a great trip to Japan, thanks in large part to much good advice received here on TheTravelzine. Here is my trip report.

15 April

I tried to send this a few days ago when I first arrived in Japan, but the Japanese keyboard defeated me. I am trying again, this time via my home server in Israel. I think and hope that I have deleted all of the Japanese characters that interfered and made this message unreadable. If this works great, I will continue doing it this way. If not, then my trip report will have to wait until I return home...

I am sitting here in Tokyo at 3.15 am. The computer keeps switching me to Japanese LOL.

I tried to start a blog, haven't succeeded. I keep making a mistake of some kind or other it just doesn't work for me. So instead I am starting a sort of blog here if that is all right with all of you.

The new Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion airport is large, airy and nice. Good open smoking sections, not like the old closed-in tiny room similar to the BKK airport smoking rooms.

I had determined in advance to take only minimal luggage and to carry it on board because of the change from El Al to Japan Air in Bangkok. Managed to get everything I need into 12 kilo only by ruthlessly discarding all kinds of little 'essentials'. Then ... I am told that only 8 kilo is allowed as hand luggage! Ooofff! Lots of talk and convincing - finally allowed because of need to change planes and airlines - Whew!

Lovely surprise on board. The plane is half-empty and I have a row of three seats all to myself! Stretched out and didn't have to worry about cramped legs. Nice! Had an 8-hour layover in Bangkok so I went to the Rama Gardens hotel for a swim and a rest. Indoor pool closed. Outdoors too muggy to enjoy. Showered and lay down to rest but too restless to sleep. Now more than 22 hours...

Back at BKK airport had a lovely foot massage. 1/2 hour for 400 baht, about US$10.

JL air - Surprise again! Same situation. Three seats all in a row empty for me to stretch out on. Only now I am in formal Japanese atmosphere, not relaxed, informal "family" atmosphere as on El Al. Have to consider if they would be insulted by me treating the plane like home and stretching out, so I didn't - until I saw Japanese people doing just that to sleep LOL So I did too.

Couldn't really sleep but I did manage to doze a bit. The food was very good but I tried a special soya sauce on the tray for the cold noodles - HOT!!! Glad that there was a cup of water and a yoghurt on the tray too!

Landed at Narita and now more than 36 hours without sleep. Suddenly discovered that I no longer had my camera and prescription sunglasses! I inquired at the Lost and Found at the JL offices in Narita - they weren't found in the cabin. So I must have lost them in Bangkok - I really liked that camera. Bought it cheaply at the Duty Free in London more than 10 years ago.

Then, exhausted had to take the train from Narita to Tokyo. I had decided in advance that the Skyliner wasn't worth while. Now tired as I was I discovered that I was early enough for the Morning Liner which is less expensive and makes only 2 extra stops, so I took that. Nice ride.

Watching scenery as train passes through the countryside. Suddenly realized that I was actually, finally, here in Japan! WOW!

Had to get off at Ueno-Keisei. Lucky for me it was the last stop. Then needed to find the Ginza line - people very nice and all helpful. A long walk underground, but probably seemed longer than it actually was because I was so tired and dragging my luggage, raincoat, a sweater, my duty free purchases...

Anyway, managed to make it to the right place and again nice, friendly people told me which train to take. The cars have a map of all the stations which light up to show which station you are at and which one is next! Also the stations are numbered so you don't have to read the names each time. I found my stop easily, was travelling in the opposite direction of the morning rush-hour crowd and so had no difficulties.

Finding the correct exit and getting upstairs was another story. So tired by now that I tripped and dropped all of my luggage a couple of times. Got upstairs finally and with the help of a great map from the hotel I was here and checking in within 10 minutes.

It is a business hotel. Nice room, good size, excellent light bulb in ceiling plus lamps. My room is in the back of the building - nice and quiet, some greenery outside the window, fridge in the room, hot water kettle, etc. Free bottled water, soaps, shampoo, shower cap and all.

Fell asleep at 11 am and slept till 5.30. Went out to eat. Desk suggested a really good Yakitori place near-by. Fell asleep again at 8 pm till 3 am. Now can't sleep anymore and am sitting here at the computer in the lobby.

At 8 I have a guided tour to Nikko. At the advice of a couple of Ziners it is better to take the guided tour there in order to go up the 100 curves road and to see the monkeys...

16 April

The hotel buffet breakfast is excellent with both western and Japanese foods available. I had a bit of both. Tried the omiso, (miso soup), a bit salty for my taste. Very strong fish flavour.

Took an organized bus tour to Nikko. Seems that unless you drive yourself that is the only way to go up the mountain with the 48 tight pin-curves and to see the wild monkeys. It is the weather that was wild. Cold, wet and rainy...

On the way we passed some houses flying fish shaped banners. The guide explained that these represented carp. When a baby boy is born people fly these carp shaped banners for luck. The carp can swim against the current and is considered a courageous fish. The banners are flown so that the new-born boy should grow strong and healthy.

The best of the Cherry Tree blooming season was over by the time that I arrived in Tokyo, the season was early and the wet and blustery weather had completed the destruction of the early blooms. As luck would have it the trees on the mountain road up to Nikko were in full bloom and we saw some beauties. In addition there was the special beauty of the wild cherry trees that only grow on the mountain tops. The guide claimed that these were not so nice as the domesticated varieties - I disagree, they are more beautiful to my eyes. The petals have a lovely silky sheen.

The rest stop was wild! They have vending machines for *everything* here in Japan. A hot cup of coffee or an ice- coffee, juice, soda, sandwich, ice-cream, noodles...take your choice.

In Nikko city we saw 300 year old Cedar trees and some fine examples of the typical Japanese Pine that is so often seen in Japanese prints. Seems that the more winding or twisted they are, the more that they are valued here.

It was pouring when we arrived at the shrine. They provided large red umbrellas for visitors, which I for one was very thankful for!!! I fell on some very high steps - half as tall as my own shin - and got a light scrape from ankle to knee. Interestingly instead of hurrying over to inquire if I need help as I would have expected, the guide distanced himself and I had to go to him to ask if he had some kind of wash/disinfectant for me to clean the open wound with.

Some impressive pieces at Nikko. Wooden carvings 8-9 hundred years old gilded with a thin layer of real gold like in Thailand. The Japanese Phoenix that the guide claims could visit only in time of peace. Correct me if I am wrong please, but doesn't the Phoenix rise in fire in time of war in western mythology?

A gorgeous GONG!!! Very low tone that carries for miles! We saw the priest ringing it by using a clapper on the end of a long rope that required real strength to pull back and then release to hit the bong.

Lunch was like a present - closed wooden, lacquered boxes with surprises inside. We had tempura, Yuba (tofu skim) and Soba (buckwheat noodles). Very tasty.

Continued on to the Lake which is an extinct volcano, 1,300 meters high. Nikko itself was only 600 meters high so the climb up that steep turning twisting road can be difficult to imagine. Very narrow and steep so that there are two different roads for traffic climbing and traffic descending. The 48 hair-pin curves on a zig-zag road are fun.

Regretfully the weather was bad enough that all we got to see were the backs of two huddling monkeys high up on a branch. Lots of pockets of snow up here from curve #15 and up---

We stopped at Kegon Falls but the weather defeated us, I stayed just long enough to grab a quick photo and back to the warm dry bus LOL

17 April

Breakfast today was really special. There was a pleasant surprise. In addition to all of the foods provided yesterday there was an additional tray filled with all kinds of special breads. I chose something green with seeds on it - it turned out to be a pastry filled with sweet bean paste. Delicious!

On the japan-guide site I had "talked" with a teacher from Australia. She teaches the Japanese language on their special distance-education program for the out-lying areas in OZ. Turned out that we would be in Tokyo on the same days, so we made arrangements to meet. Today she, and her Japanese friend Masa, took me to Kamakura to see the traditional archery (Yabusame) exhibition.

The trip was made on the mundane old subway [but it runs on the surface, not underground]! The cities of Tokyo and Yokahama have stretched their borders until they now merge into about Megapolis!

First we walked around the town of Kamakura for a bit, searching for Lyndie's favourite Okonomiyaki restaurant. Some lovely narrow old lanes, tiny houses with small but blooming gardens and trees.

Then hours standing around waiting for the Yabusame to begin. The Yabusame itself was slow but exciting to watch. There were long halts between the rides of each of the 4 competitors and again at the end of each round waiting for them to begin the next round. Then a sudden rush of powerful horses going at top speed, the shot of an arrow singing, crash of the arrow into the masking paper and board to hit the hidden target behind it... I was standing right next to the run-up of the horses, could actually have reached out and touched them. The polite clapping made a strange counter-point to the actual competitors moves.

Crowds! Crushing, pushing, pressing...I gave up my place before the end because of the pushing and shoving. The Japanese people around me seemed to take it in good part as part and parcel of the time and place. Also later when the exhibition ended people didn't seem to mind the physical closeness of everyone trying to leave the area through the narrow exit at once.

Afterward we visited the Hachiman Shrine. Long climb up large stairs worth the effort in every sense. I tried the fortune telling sticks - they have them in English too - and ended up tying the paper to the provided straw ropes to ward off the bad part of fortune.

We were awfully tired after standing there for so long and starved so we decided to leave the visit to the Buddha. There is a bigger one in Nara, which I will visit from Kyoto.

We searched again for Lyndie's Okonomiyaki restaurant. Masa found it. Okonomiyaki is kind of huge pancake made of different ingredients. The place was a small, dark room with a huge grill and an eating bar around it. We each ordered a different kind of okonomiyaki and shared them out between us. Quite tasty.

We returned on the train where I said good-bye to Lyndie and Masa. I got off at Tokyo station and they continued on. Then I proceeded to search the station - this is an entire underground city - getting lost makes one feel like Dr. Livingston (will never find one's way out alone!). Despite excellent signage it is all too easy to take a wrong turning and lose one's sense of direction entirely.

BTW - Forget the old idea that in Japan everyone smokes everywhere. The new laws are draconian. Smoking is forbidden even in some streets!

Finally found the JR Shinkansen Information counter but...I was sent from there to...and from there to...and from there to... Ooooffff! Seems that the ticket I wanted, the Puratto Kodama Economy Plan is considered a tour and not a ticket (Don't ask me why!). In the end I was finally directed to a certain tourist agency that sells the Plan - which includes a free drink on the train - and bought my ticket for the Kodama shinkansen to Kyoto for Wednesday. Excellent price, so worth the run-around, but I was oh so tired.

Took a further 25 minutes to find the correct subway and then I got on a train going in the wrong direction LOL. Had to get off at the next station and back track. Falling off my feet...

18 April

I decided last night tired as I was, not to set the alarm clock - whoooops! I slept till 11 am!! I was even more tired than I thought.

Went out for a local breakfast and did a couple of machine loads of laundry. Ironed the blouses and went to the local market to buy an obento (the Japanese "lunch box"). They are available everywhere with all sorts of different kinds of foods.

I tried something that I had seen on the internet, but can't now remember the name of... a slice of a kind of rice roll with fish bits, veggies and what I think was a bit of hard boiled egg yolk. Anyway...very tasty. There was also a pouch of some kind of dough (tofu skim?) stuffed with sweetened rice. Yum! Tucked into the back of the box was a bit of marinated cabbage. A healthy, delicious lunch for only 550 Yen. At 6.30 pm I met Gerri and her husband Fernie ["met" Gerri here on TheTravelzine] for dinner here at the hotel. Nice people! We sat and talked over dinner for some 2 hours. I had a shrimp curry that Gerri recommended - she had eaten it for lunch. Also a nice fresh vegetable salad and a glass of wine - all for a very reasonable price.

Surprisingly perhaps, I was still tired and ready for bed quite early.

I am really pleased with this hotel. I have stayed in budget hotels in many countries. This one is probably the best that I have ever stayed at. Friendly, helpful staff free amenities including bottled water, free yukata, a nice room...this hotel has it all. Many thanks to all of you that recommended it!!

In Japan budget hotels are called "Businessmen`s hotels". This one at least appears to have as many tourists as business men.

19 April

Visited Sensoji Temple with the 5 storied pagoda. The avenue leading to the temple is lined with kiosks that sell everything! I bought a yukata as a present for the friend that is taking care of my cat. And a T-shirt with the adorable Welcome Cat on it too.

Lunch was fried rice with compoy sauce.

Tomorrow I leave for Kyoto. I'm not especially sorry to leave Tokyo, but I will miss the Asian Center Hotel- or Asia Kaikan as it is called in Japanese...

20 April

Got to Tokyo station really early and sat watching the staff clean out 3 different Nozomi super-speed expresses one after the other as each arrived and left again a few moments later. There were three girls to a car. They all ran through at top speed grabbed and ripped off the white paper head rest, twirled the seats to always face front - the direction of travel - one ran down the car throwing clean white paper head rests on each seat back, the other two arranged them, grabbed newspapers, candy wrappers, whatever off seats, brushed down seats?call this at dead run while they also wiped off the put-up tables, train after train after train...

Assembly line like organization. From where I sat on the platform it was the green cars (= 1st class) that I saw.

I finally had the chance to use the Puratto Kodama ticket I had such a hard time getting LOL. It was a nice ride, easy arrival. Lucky me: Rained the whole trip - stopped as I arrived in Kyoto.

The hotel room is large but no closet, only an open niche with 3 hangers. When I checked in the reception staff tried to claim that there is no smoking in the hotel. This after I reserved a smoking-permitted room in advance. When I said: "...then I can`t stay here..." I got an ashtray and an OK!!!!

Breakfast here is more expensive, 1050 Yen rather than 945 Yen as at Asia Central hotel in Tokyo. Wonder if it will be as good...

Am disappointed after the Tokyo hotel, but then that was unusually good. Nice room, 5th floor, good view with the former Imperial Palace Park across the street.

Going out to explore the neighborhood and buy milk.

Kyoto is much warmer than Tokyo was. Don't need a sweater here and must take out the lining of my raincoat or maybe buy an umbrella much as I dislike the pesky things.

Got nice and lost on my little walk. Strolled around for 1 1/2 hours. Lovely little back streets, tiny houses, very small but bright and cheerful gardens.

Finally came across a major thoroughfare. Stores, people,noise. Bought an obento with noodles, salad and a bit of fish for supper, a carton of milk (now that was some guessing game LOL), for my coffee and some crackers.

Best aspect of this hotel is the free Internet! Of course it is very busy and limited to a half hours use---will have to choose my hours carefully.

21 April

Breakfast at this hotel is pretty basic. Salad of lettuce, tomato and cucumber, scrambled eggs are tasteless. They are mixed with water and the breads are unheated. All in all it's eatable, but that's all it is. Note to myself - stay away from the potato salad, seems to be more mayo than potato.

Just for the fun of it I visited the only legal smoking room - hard wooden benches only.

Awake since 1.30 am - is now only 7.30. Have to wait till 9.45 for the Imperial Palace guided tour in English (reserved in advance over the Internet). Afterward am planning on going to Kyoto station for lunch and then to take a bus to the Golden Temple (Kinkaku-ji). I also want to buy a 1-day JR West Kansai Pass for my trip to Himeji.

Former Imperial Palace: Interesting. Very different styles from most simple and plain appearing to the grandiose Shogun style. Gravel surrounds all - raked into patterns of absolutely straight lines. Boggles the imagination of how the gardeners do it! Black gravel on the outer walks and white gravel within courtyards.

Kinkaku-ji: Tons of people. School groups 7-17. The Temple is 3 stories, each done in a different style. The 2 top stories are covered in gold leaf. Surrounded by a quiet lake that reflects the temple like a mirror. Very aesthetic. Nice walks in area with beautiful gardens, trees. No grass, moss covers everything. Quiet, only birds singing since I have left the groups behind. NICE!!

22 April

Too tired yesterday to continue on to the Ryoanji Temple, so I went today instead. Very glad I did it. Much less people, school groups. Still difficult to meditate in Stone garden of Temple. People speaking all languages. Older pupils only. Would like to be alone and contemplate life, rock, mosses here... The simplicity and austerity encourage meditation.

Good weather. Sunny, slight breeze. Interesting bus ride. I took a JRbus instead of the city bus as yesterday. Much more comfortable. Driver more accommodating.

Highly recommend this visit to anyone travelling to Japan.

23 April

Visited the Himeji castle and town today. Took a local train from Kyoto to Takatsuki and changed there for the "Special Rapid" (Shin Kaisoku) (a simple matter of 6 steps across from platform 3 to platform 4) to Himeji. [Actually the shin-kaisoku runs all the way from Kyoto to Himeji. There was no transfer is necessary - but I didn't know that at the time.]

>From the station it is a pleasant 15 minute stroll to the Castle entrance. One passes through a park below the castle filled with families and lots of Japanese tourists. This castle is the only original one of that period still standing. It is not replica!! Only 1 of the original 3 moats is still extant. Eight of the original 33 wells still have water. The defense arrow openings are like none that I have ever seen in Britain or elsewhere - they are angled by wooden inserts to cover all approaches. The climb up to the castle keep is steep but well worth it for the view. The defense works are impressive. This castle held out against all invaders.

Coming back down I heard music in the park precinct and went to investigate. There was an exhibition by little girls of Japanese dancing - adorable - unless you`ve read "Memoirs Of A Geisha" by Arthur Golden, and realize that this is exactly what the very youngest Maikos had to learn...

After my visit to the castle I stopped in at a small Japanese restaurant off of the main street and had a great shrimp domburi with Bamboo shoots. The rice bowl was so big I couldn't finish it. Included a delicious Japanese soup, a small, lightly marinated yellow vegetable that was shaped something like a very dark yellow slice of lemon that I still can't identify and all for under 1,000 Yen. It is called a takuan - thank you Mei-Ching!

Sometimes free guided tours of the castle are available in English, which are said to take 1 1/2 hours. Today none were available, so I did it on my own. It took me about 2 1/4 hours to see the castle alone, then time in souvenir shop (of course). Then sat watching the dance exhibition for about 1/2 an hour. With lunch and all I got back to Kyoto about 5.30 pm.

I was able to return directly to Kyoto by shin kaisou without having to change trains. A pleasantly active day.

This evening did a laundry. There were 4 other people doing laundry at the same time so we had a nice chat. 2 young men from the US, a mature woman from Norway and a young woman from Canada.

24 April

Woke up early after a good night's sleep feeling well rested. Kyoto definitely agrees with me better than Tokyo did. I think that it is the slower, more relaxed and comfortable pace here. None of the frenetic racing around that *is* Tokyo.

There is an interesting walk that is in both my Kyoto Walks book and in the free info sheet handed out at the Kyoto Tourist Office. Think that I will try it today. For some reason they start at opposite ends and are differently arranged. The hand-out sheet includes travel instructions to the starting point and from the ending points, so I will follow that path, but take the book along because it gives better explanations of each stop along the way.

Later: Well the info sheet claimed that the time required for walking is about 50 minutes - HAH! Maybe if you do nothing but take a brisk walk up the hill, skirt around each of the 20 temples/buildings/sites on the way and then jog back, it might, just might, be done in 50 minutes - if the crowds of people will allow you to do that!

I spent 3 1/2 hours enjoying the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple and it's supplementary buildings, gardens and temples. Going back was slow because the streets are narrow, cobbled lanes with lots to see. I stumbled across a really nice tofu restaurant up one side street and had an unusually expensive - and delicious - meal there. I don't even know the names of most of what I ate. I was the only non-Japanese person in the place. A very large room with 2 huge marble fireplaces and a sun porch, all of which gave me the impression that it might once have been 3 rooms in a European style house.

One removed one's shoes at the entry (TG!) and sat on low chairs. The table had a sunken burner in the middle of it for the main serving of the meal - large white cubes of tofu in boiling water, which were removed with a special strainer spoon and dipped in tiny slices of spring onions and then in a brown (soy?) sauce. They were very soft - wow! - did I have all kinds of problems with my chopsticks! I was offered a spoon but laughingly refused it, so the waitress laughed too and so did people at a near-by table. Fun!

There were battered and fried vegetables. I know that one was eggplant and one was sweet potato. Of the other 3 one was quite hard to bite into but all were delicious. There were 2 solid pieces of a form of miso, with its own sweet sauce served with an orange frosting, each on their own chopsticks. A large bowl of rice and 3 balls of something that I also dipped in the (soy?) sauce. A pot of green tea, of course.

Left the restaurant so full I could barely walk. Began going downhill in the general direction of the bus I needed but took lots of interesting turnings. Discovered Maruyama Park and sat in the sun for a while to watch people and enjoy...

The Japanese are great tourists in their own country but rarely go abroad. I've read that only 2% of them travel to other countries for pleasure annually.

Visited the Jishu Shrine dedicated to matchmaking and the 30 meter tall Ryozen Kannon but missed the Yasaka Shrine. The whole Higashiyama district requires a couple of days at least.

On the way home went up to the top of the Kyoto Tower - don't waste the money.

25 April

Joined the "Johnny Hillwalker" walking tour today. His real name is Hajime Hirooka-san. This is not an orientation tour but a detailed look at a very small section of the Higashi district. In 5 hours we covered only 3 km. going up and down very small lanes. The emphasis is on artists and their homes and on history. Fascinating.

It is not the "Philosophers Path" as mentioned on the Internet. We were able to observe some interesting aspects of actual home production, as practiced in Japan, of fans, ceramic work and rope designs.

We visited the biggest Buddhist Temple, the Higashi Hongan- ji. This is an Amida Buddhist Temple, which means that it is the Japanese version of Buddhism, not the original imported Chinese version. It is not a usual tourist spot, but is private. Not usually used for worship, since individuals normally go to their small, local temples which are never open to the general public, nor to tourists. This temple is the headquarters of 9,000 smaller local temples. It was destroyed by fire 4 times. The current building is from 1895. It is now undergoing repairs.

We visited lots of small craft shops which are also the homes of the craftsmen. Then the Shosei-en garden. A private garden with a pond, ducks, giant carp and very Japanese style landscaped gardens. We had a snack of Inari sushi - on the go - which is *very* non-Japanese. They just don't eat in the streets not even ice-cream. On trains, picnics in parks and such yes, but not while walking.

Hajime san took us to visit an elementary school - the only one left in this whole district. The birth rate is dropping so seriously that this year they had an enrollment of only 33 new 6 year olds.

The tour ended at 3 pm. I had hoped to go to the Heian Shrine today after the walking tour but the weather clouded up and it looked like rain. The day was warm and I didn't have even sweater with me, so I returned to Kyoto station by bus and had me a sit-down cup of coffee - - - ahhh. How important the small pleasures of life can be.

Not having had my usual big meal in the middle of the day I got really hungry about 7 pm. Went out to look for a likely place to eat. Had to borrow an umbrella from the hotel. Found a nice little workers/students restaurant. Someone suggested that I try the "tem do" (or "ten do"?). Well - it turned out to be exactly what I had eaten in Himeji on Saturday - and I did enjoy it. Thanks again Mei Ching: it is tem doh shortened from tempura. [It is usually written "tendon"] There was in addition a bottle of dried spices on the table. Looked interesting, all kinds of lovely colors: pink, green, black... After testing it carefully (LOL) I shook it all over my rice. A crisp and savoury flavoursome addition. If I understood correctly it is called furikake [or perhaps turikake].

26 April

I found Kintetsu Rail easily by following signs and am now on the Express train to Nara. The trip is about 45 minutes, costs 610 Yen o/w.

As usual houses, built up areas all along the railway tracks that make everything seem like on great megalopolis here, but this time on the way to Nara, there were also some nice green areas, parks woods, small fields and agricultural areas.

The Tourist Info office at the Nara train station is staffed by some very pleasant people. I received a free map and a detailed explanation. It is possible to walk in a great circle to see the major sites.

There was a sudden electric storm with pouring rain, thunder and lightening. Everyone ran for cover under the roof of the Great South Gate - including the domestic deer LOL. I hope those pictures come out well! It was all over in about 20 minutes or so.

The Todaji Temple is huge and impressive. It is a simple, unpainted wooden building - but it is also the largest wooden building in the world. The Buddha and the guardians are meant to overawe. They succeed. Lots of school groups as usual.

Outside of the buildings there are large rolling green fields (no need to cut the grass with all the deer roaming around freely), small babbling brooks, tiny waterfalls, trees and quiet, quiet, quiet. The school groups were left behind, just the occasional tourist or small family group. Lovely. Felt the tensions melting away... Usual ponds with giant carp and gravel pathways.

Yes, one can become "over-shrined", just as one can become over sated with museums, art and churches in Italy. I decided to skip a couple of extra shrines. Found a small quiet European-style coffee shop across the street from the Nara National Museum up on the 2nd floor. Delicious, moist, homemade orange cake, perfect coffee. Nice ending for a long day on foot.

One interesting side note. The monks and priests of this temple take a special interest in severely handicapped children, mostly with CP. The first sign that I have seen of any interest in children with special educational needs in Japan.

Arrived back at Kyoto station at 6 pm and felt right at home, I knew exactly where to go and how to get there.

Oooops - just lost another pen. This must be the fourth one that I have bought :~0

Went back to my workers/students restaurant for supper. Soup, noodles (udon) with tuna fish, a salad and a pot of green tea. I picked up a sweet bean paste pastry to have in my room with coffee later.

27 April

While on the walk yesterday I talked a bit with a young American woman. She mentioned that during the month of April only there are daily performances put on by the Geisha themselves, not the Maiko only as usual. I called them this morning and was lucky enough to get a seat for this afternoon, which includes a tea ceremony. A bit expensive, but what heck - it is my last evening in Japan and it is not likely that I will be able to return.

Am now off to Fushimi Inari. A stiff climb up to the top of the mountain (233 meters) and much of it stairs. Anyone that has been reading this trip report knows just how much I adore stairs :~0

At least 3 times I thought that I was at the top, then the continuation of the path that seemed to lead down suddenly started climbing again. I took it real slow with lots of rest breaks.

I was very lucky today. Almost no tourists and only saw 2 school groups. I thought that I was doing great - actually reached the top and was on my way down again when I met up with an 81 y.o. woman with her 50 y.o. son doing the climb! So much for my pride LOL. To top it off she had had heart surgery! She didn't speak any English but her son explained that she has done the climb every year of her life and wasn't ready to stop. He had come along to slow her down!! How embarrassed I was at being tired and of thinking that I had done something special...

Stopped for a cold green tea at one of the rest spots. A woman and her husband began asking lots of questions in fractured English. Took me a while to translate and answer (but I couldn't have used Japanese at all except for my "gonnichi wa" that began the conversation). She mentioned that she lived near-by and pointed out the area. I asked her if she climbed Fushimi Inari often, but she was absolutely sure that I was asking what time it is! I tried again and again, in different words and found out repeatedly that it was nearly 3 pm. :D Two more times - complete confusion. She must have thought that I was really weird asking the time again and again :D

When I finally reached the bottom my legs were shaking from exhaustion, even if I'm not 81!! Had to sit down on the step and stretch them out straight in front of me. After 15 minutes I suddenly realized that it was already 3.15 pm and I had a ticket for a tea ceremony and Geisha dance at 4. Yikes!!

Barely made it to my hotel by 4. Ordered a taxi and ran upstairs to at least wash my face and hands. No time for a shower - ugh!

The tea ceremony was a farce. The less said the better.

The Spring Blossom dance however made me forget even the discomfort of not showering and changing clothes. I had an exceptionally good seat - right under the musicians, below the entry walkway of the dancers and just 9 rows from the stage. It was an entrancing performance.

The dance told the story of one entire year from Spring Blossom time in the life of a Geisha. Included an agricultural scene in the summer, a fight between a palace guard and a Samurai, the loneliness and abandonment of winter and of course, the beauty of re-birth in the Spring.

I understood not one word of the minimal amount of dialogue, nor of the songs - but it wasn't necessary. The formal beauty of the dance, the stage scenery done with lights and the costumes made it all comprehensible.

A marvelous finale for my visit to Japan. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Some additional thoughts and observations on Japan

1. Kyoto is a city of bicycles. School children, businessmen, mothers with small children, all ride. I even saw women in business suits with slim fitting skirts with nylon stocking and heels riding bicycles. These are ridden on the sidewalks, which are quite wide, not in the streets. All riders are highly skilled. They pass each other and the pedestrians with no effort and no accidents. If some one comes too close to a rider they can hop off and then back on without stopping. I saw a woman at least 52 or 53 y.o. do just that.

2. Do your homework for a trip to Japan. It is a good idea to check out all of the many different rail passes before making plans. Some very good bargains are available if you are aware, such as to Kyoto from Tokyo or to Himeji from Kyoto. Done the standard 'touristy' way on JR Himeji can run over 5,000 Yen for a 1-day trip, but with the JR West Kansai [1-day] Area Pass the round trip is only 2,000 Yen. Also the previously mentioned Puratto Kodama Plan good for Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka. Also in the opposite direction.

3. I found that eating a good dinner mid-day for approximately 1,200 - 1,500 Yen and buying an obento for supper in my room both a financial saving and a good way to sample local food.

4. If you drink coffee or like hot soup in the evenings bring your own. Green tea is supplied free.

5. Instant noodles are available in all Kombini (local grocery shop) in a variety of types and flavours.

6. Despite extreme courtesy and politeness in Japan young people do not get up for older people, pregnant women, physically disabled individuals or for women with small babies in their arms. There are special subway cars and seats within regular cars for them called "Priority Seats", but people don't seem to pay attention to the signs. Also on some trains there are special "Women Only" cars. As far as I could see, these signs too were largely ignored.

7. The Japanese are great dog lovers. Mostly small breeds and often carried. Someone mentioned that they are the second highest nation in expenditure on pets and pet products.

8. I never saw even 1 child mistreated or allowed to cry. Retarded children are part and parcel of the family groups that travel everywhere together.

9. Facilities for blind people are everywhere, even hotel elevator buttons have Braille in 2 languages. Facilities for the physically disabled or wheel chair bound person are less common. The subways mostly have escalators, but not always. Sometimes there are elevators, but again not always.

10. One thing I have to say that I *really* like about Japan - the seats are my size! My feet reach the floor!!

11. Safe at home I think that I can see more clearly some aspects of this trip. I found Tokyo overwhelming, perhaps even frightening. Too large, too frantic, too full of rushing, hurrying people. Not my choice of life much less of a vacation. Kyoto was much more relaxed and comfortable. I enjoyed my stay there much more.

12. All along all rail lines there are homes that actually abut the tracks. Wonder what these families do about the noise?

13. I made my reservations 7 months in advance - both hotels honoured the price quoted at that time despite the fact that they had since raised their rates.

14. Trains: Watch it!! There is the Express. Then there is the Limited Express, the Special Express, the Rapid Express and the Special Limited Express !!! And all that is aside from the Local, the Special Direct and the Limited Direct, not to mention the 3 kinds of Shinkansen (bullet trains).

15. Smokers: Look for places that advertise "coffee shop" for a sit-down cuppa' and a smoke. Also inside the larger train stations. Also on most outdoor train platforms you can still find a 'smokers corner' with ashtray. Never on subways.

16. Don't use taxis in Tokyo. The traffic is so bad that what should be a 10 minute trip can take an hour and the charges are high. One example: A taxi from Narita airport to Tokyo itself can cost US$ 200.00!!! In Kyoto OTOH taxis are convenient, and reasonably priced. They also have white, embroidered headrests! Be sure to have either a map with you printed in both Japanese and English or ask someone to write down the name of your destination for you - most taxi drivers do not speak English. At the same time, taxis are not really necessary. The public transportation system is great in both cities.

17. Noticed that when the average Japanese woman wears a kimono the obi is always tucked up in back. When a Geisha or Maiko wear a kimono the obi is sometimes tucked up and sometimes left loose and flowing, falling straight down her back. Anyone know the significance of this?

Photo album:

Safe travelling everyone! Debby - Israel