The Sweet Volcanic Breezes of Mount Aso

11:38 #JRtrain to #Aso #japan #Kyushu

JR Station in Kumamoto City

Enough with castles for now and the cramped living style of the business hotel. Many parts of Kumamoto City are attractive enough for a short visit. The beauty and the history of the city can be seen in a few hours. Most of the major attractions are located in the center of the city and within the boundaries of the castle complex.

The mall near the #kumamoto #castle
The Kumamoto castle depicted in lights

Rice fields and Distant Mountain Windmills on the way #aso #kyushu #japan
Views of rice fields and windmills along the way to Aso

It’s time to move on. We are both ready to get out of the crowded city and ready for some open air. The next stop is Mount Aso where we plan to hike up an active volcano and I will have my first visit to an outdoor public onsen. I have spent some time studying the property rules of conduct while bathing. I just hope I don’t unknowingly offend anyone.

THe Aso-Boy train leaving the mountain village Aso Kyushu - Japan
The Aso Boy Train we passed along the way

We will grab a local train to Aso from the JR station in Kumamoto instead of riding the slightly cheaper and faster highway bus. As I mentioned before, we have had enough with the business hotel, so I booked a room at a hostel called Aso Backpacker Base Hostel. The hostel was built in 2009 by a gentleman named Yoshi and his wife Miyong. Yoshi’s hostel continuously receives positive reviews on the major travel sites and is located a few hundred meters from the train station…sold.

Room with a view at the Aso Base Hostel
Room with a great view of Mount Aso and surrounding area

The ride on the fire engine red local limited express to Aso takes a little over an hour. From the views of young rice seedlings growing in stacked rice fields separated only by a few homes, some prized beef cattle and the grassy hills they feed on, it’s pretty obvious that this part of Kyushu is the agricultural heartland of Japan. I already knew that it’s going to be a place I will be sad to leave but happy to have visited.

The treasured cow of Aso Kyushu - Japan
The local treasure of Aso in front of the train station

I’m hoping that the weather holds so we are able to get at least one hike up to see the crater. It is the beginning of monsoon season and the viewing area of the crater does close literally ever time the wind shifts due to the dangerous sulfuric acid the volcano continuously pushes out. If it the authorities roped off the entrance due to the high levels of sulphuric acid then there’s always the alternative day in the Onsen.

Quick stop in Kyoto and on to Kagoshima in Kyushu

On our way to #KyotoStation #japan

Our stay in Kyoto was only a few days but we’re without regrets and are looking forward to what’s ahead. Our plans on where we are going in the weeks ahead are still pretty undefined. They mostly will be dependent on the weather, if we can find an apartment in Tokyo for the month of June, and if we get totally killed by the weak dollar. For now, we are just careful and try to just enjoy our time whether it ends up being 4 weeks or 7.

We want to make sure we do something new at the beginning just in case we need to go back to China sooner for whatever reason. We are already in Kyoto for a wedding so we decided to head down south and see more of the Kyushu Prefecture. We have been to Nagasaki and Beppu but the rest of the island is new to us and a prices for hotel and transport are more inline with the budget.

Flew #PeachAirline today from #Kansei to #Kagoshima wonderful :)

We decided to try Japan’s first budget airline called Peach. Peach is an affiliate of with ANA, much faster and cheaper than the Shinkansen, and offers great rates to the few cities it currently services. I’m looking forward to it.

We land in Kagoshima and take a bus to the center town where we booked a room. Our list of things to see and do includes biking 37 km around Sakurajima’s volcanic Mount Ontake (working off the wedding food), touring a Shochu Factory, and relaxing an Onsen. Beyond that, I hopefully will get rid of this cold and have some time to figure out what’s next.

So goodbye to Kyoto for now…

While we were in Kyoto we did manage to get some touristy things in like:

#Sagano Scenic #Railway Along the #HozuRiver in #kyoto

Take a boat trip back up the Hozu River
Front row seats on the Boat Ride down the #Hozugawa River #kyoto #japan

and check out some of the temples of southern Kyoto

#Tenryū-ji Temple in #Kyoto #Japan

Return to the Land of the Rising Sun

Early morning in the former French Concession
Early morning in the former French Concession
We said good-bye to Shanghai on Friday as we boarded our taxi in the surprisingly sleepy Jing’an District. The ride to Pudong seemed like more a demonstration on how our taxi driver could get us to the airport faster than his nemesis the speedy Maglev.  Of course, there are no working seat belts in this shaky compact and we are left to overlook the lack of safety and the speedometer and just watch the Shanghai skyline disappear behind us.  We reached the Pudong Airports in 45 minutes and the Maglev never managed to pass our vehicle.
The G train to #shanghai from #nanjing #china
The G High Speed Rail train similar to the Maglev but a little slower. Looks very similar to the Shinkansen in Japan doesn’t it.
Early start at the #PudongAirport #shanghai #china
Early morning in Pudong International Airport Terminal 2

The Pudong Airport is new and of course super-sized like most structures like it in the new China. We boarded our Air China plane an hour and after a 2 hour bumpy flight landed in Osaka. The short flight consisted of a watching Globetrekker episode where we learned how Ian Wright traveled around Las Vegas, and a Wonder Bread cucumber tea sandwich with juice.

View of #lakebiwako #shiga #japan
View of Lake Biwa from the room
The journey today ended in town of Zeze otherwise known as Lake Biwa just outside of Kyoto.  It’s been over two years since our last visit to Japan and the sticker shock hit us just little after getting off the JR train in Kyoto.  For example, in China a pastry costs 4 Yuan or about 75 cents at the corner bakery opposed to the 240 Yen or $4 dollar bagel without cream cheese from a kiosk in the Kyoto JR Rail Station. This just means that we’ll have to be selective in how we spend in Japan. This means still treating ourselves to things we love most.  This includes at least one trip to an Onsen, a few nice meals and many glasses of smooth sake and souchu.  We have an idea of what we want to see but the plans are loose so we have the option of cutting out if we end up going past our comfort zone.
The Candy Box Girls Bar in #biwago #japan #shiga
The Candy Box Girls Bar in downtown Biwako
Our plan so far is to stay here in Kyoto and visit a friend whose wedding brought us here in the first place. We will then fly south to Kagoshima using new Japanese budget airline called Peach and travel around the Kyushu region.  The details are still being worked out but so far we will be going to see volcanoes of southern Kagoshima and central Mt. Aso , see castles in Kumamoto and temples of Fukuoka and Nagasaki.
View of the Pearl Tower from the Bund in Shanghai
#Japan.  :) #LakeBiwako #Shiga #Kyoto
Quiet morning on shore of Lake Biwa

Takayama: A great day trip from Tokyo or Kyoto

Takayama has the looks of what “old” Japan used to look like.  Located in the mountains in the northern Gifu prefecture,  Takayama has been protected from modernization.  Well…to some degree.  The snowy winters,  fertile land for rice fields and mountain spring water make it a a perfect place for sake brewing. The snow can cut the population off from the rest of Japan but they pass the time by brewing sake from the fall harvest and while it’s brewing they can take relaxing breaks their hot springs.  Life sounds pretty good here.

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5 of the best things to while visiting Takayama are:

1.  Partaking in a  Takayama Sake Brewery Crawl (all give free samples)

2.  Touring Takayama’s Traditional Hida Village and outdoor Museum

3.  Visiting the Morning Market and take a look at what is in season, do a little shopping and enjoy a japanese snack along the river.

4.  After shopping, take to the Hot Springs or treat yourself to a night at a local Ryokan

5.  Take a walk around Takayama and see the temples and historical buildings that are located in and above the town

This town makes for a great day trip outside of Tokyo or detour when going to or coming from Kyoto.

By  JR Rail:

Tokyo -> Takayama

Takayama -> Kyoto

I’m on a budget so I stayed at the J-Hoppers Hostel that’s a 10 minute walk from the JR station and just about the center of town.  There are a number of great Ryokans to choose from if you want to upgrade 🙂

Kampi!!

What to see outside of Tokyo: Kamakura..shrines, the Giant Daibutsu and a great bar!

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If there is one place to visit outside of Tokyo Kamakura is it.  The city itself can’t be fully seen in one day so see what you can and try to get back in the future.  Here’s a great online guide to Kamakura Shrines.  The city has many transportation options if needed but it is a very walkable city.

There are many places where visitors can buy a great meal or just pick up a snack.  The city is famous for its Purple Potato Ice cream if you want to try something different.  My favorite is the red bean or custard filled cakes that can be found in most towns throughout Japan.  Here they are shaped as the Giant Buddha.

If you are looking for a cold beer or cocktail after a long day of sightseeing then check out the local bar called the Bank. The place is tiny so get there early.  Don’t stay too long if it’s just a day trip.  The trains going back to Tokyo go a couple of times an hour but after 11pm the trip back to Tokyo gets longer and more arduous.

JR Online Travel Planner

General Guide to Kamakura

Buddist Hokokuji Shrine in Kamakura

Getting from Tokyo to Kamakura by Train from WikiTravel.com:

The fastest way in is by JR Yokosuka Line from Tokyo Station (one hour, ¥890) and Yokohama (25 minutes, ¥330). The JR Kamakura-Enoshima Free Kippu (¥1,110 from Yokohama, ¥1,970 from Tokyo) gets you a round trip from Tokyo to Kamakura (local trains only) plus unlimited use of Enoden and Shonan Monorail lines.

Getting to the Giant Daibutsu Statue in Kamakura:

The Great Buddha is a 5-minute walk from the Enoden Railway (a streetcar-like train) Hase Station, the third station from Kamakura main station.

Get a drink @:

The Bank, 3-1-1 Yuigahama, Kamakura-shi; tel: (0467) 60-6170; Open 5 p.m.-1 a.m. (3 p.m.-1 a.m Saturday & Sunday); closed Monday, and 3rd & 4th Tuesday of the month.

Where to go other than Tokyo or Kyoto: Beppu

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It’s 7:15am on a monday morning (weekend after spring-back daylight savings to boot) and I’m be-gowned and getting conveyed into the  tomb or otherwise known as an MRI machine.  I know, what does a MRI have to do with any trip to the spa to relax?  I guess it was a combination of what I was dressed in a cotton robe and quite ready to fall back asleep.  It’s kind of how I felt when my husband and I got to the sand spa in a town called Beppu in southern Japan this past October.

Getting into a very tight space where I can’t move and try not to think of the fact that it’s like being buried alive is one of those things that I really don’t enjoy.  We all have our cope mechanisms and mine is to use my imagination.  I imagine myself in a relaxing place where I was wearing a robe while being buried alive in the hot sand.  This place was the sand spa found in the village of Beppu, Japan. It was where I had visited months before while traveling around Japan for a month.   It was hard to relax at first.  Getting over the anxiety of being covered with the hot, steamy and heavy sand was difficult at first. After a fair amount of deep breathing and meditating, I was able to get to the point of total relaxation and I ended up enjoying the treatment.  My skin felt great and I would do it again…really. My goal in the MRI was not necessarily enjoy myself but to relax and get through it. I didn’t want to have a do over.  So, I forced myself to go back to Beppu and imagine I was again being buried in the hot salty sand.  It worked and I didn’t have to go in a second time.

The fall visit to the Sand Spa or in Japanese Suna-yu on the Beppu shore in southern Japan is Japans answer to Las Vegas.  It’s famous for its hot springs of various colors and mineral types and of course the sex, gabbling, African Safari Park, Rakutenchi Kid Park, Aquarium, a day of seeing monkeys at Mount Takasaki with all of this in a town that often smells of rotten egg or sulfer.  We decided to spend our days here relaxing and enjoying as many of Beppus Japanese Spas as we could visit.  It wasn’t possible to visit them all in 3 short days but it’s on the list of places to go back to in the future.

Best Budget Spa Trip in Japan: Beppu Sand Spa

It’s 7:15am on a monday morning (weekend after spring-back daylight savings to boot) and I’m be-gowned and getting conveyed into the  tomb or otherwise known as an MRI machine.  I know, what does a MRI have to do with any trip to the spa to relax?  I guess it was a combination of what I was dressed in a cotton robe and quite ready to fall back asleep.  It’s kind of how I felt when my husband and I got to the sand spa in a town called Beppu in southern Japan this past October.

Getting into a very tight space where I can’t move and try not to think of the fact that it’s like being buried alive is one of those things that I really don’t enjoy.  We all have our cope mechanisms and mine is to use my imagination.  I imagine myself in a place where the situation is reversed but has some of the same themes.  (the robe and closed spaces) My recent trip to Beppu is the quickest and best I could come up with.  It was a good choice.

The fall visit to the Sand Spa or in Japanese Suna-yu on the Beppu shore in southern Japan is Japans answer to Las Vegas.  It’s famous for its hot springs of various colors and mineral types and of course the sex, gabbling, African Safari Park, Rakutenchi Kid Park, Aquarium, a day of seeing monkeys at Mount Takasaki and it’s rotten egg smell.  We had just a few days were here for the Japanese Spas alone.

There are many spas to choose from in Beppu.  There are 8 onsen areas which include Mud baths, Drinking Spas (good for the stomach I guess),  Waterfall baths,  and Sand Baths.  There cater to families, couples and single travelers and prices go from budget to luxury.

We opt for the most interesting and budget friendly.   The first one we visited is called the Sea Side Sand Bath which is located down route 10 in Beppu.  It was a 15 minute bus ride from our hostel SPA Hostel Khaosan Beppu.  They have their own indoor spa but we decided to try ones that we could do together and not single sex.

The Sand Bath Spa was amazing and probably one of the closest Japanese cultural traditions I have had so far besides the usual Saki drinking and Sushi eating.  Here’s how it goes down:

  1. The visitor is given a cotton robe to use as well as a locker and towel.
  2. Out on the beach the attendant digs out a 2 foot trench where you in your cotton robe recline into.
  3. Next, they continue to shovel hot steamy sand on top of you covering you completely (everything except the head).  The sand is course and sometimes too hot and heavy for some.    I was one of those who needed to just close my eyes, do some relaxed breathing exercises and just try not to freak out.  I managed to keep everything under except my hands.
  4. Along the way, the ladies help keep you covered since if you tend to want to move  a little.
  5. When the 25 or so minutes of being soothed by the hot salty steam were over they unburied us.  We then showered off and had the option of soaking in there indoor onsen and showered off the black sand.

The attendants were great.  They off to take pictures and make sure that visitors were as comfortable as possible throughout the 25 or so minutes immersion.  They even put small umbrellas next to our heads when the sun got in our eyes.  At the end I was perfectly relaxed even after the claustrophobic panic feelings soon left.   I made it through with newly finished skin new and an appetite for more spa treatments.   What a great experience.   The budget part is that the 25 minute spa costs us $20 each.  We also had a day pass so we could hang out as long as we wanted to.

Some useful information needed for planning your spa trip to Beppu.

Train info: The best way and most economical way to travel in Japan is by getting a JAL Rail Pass before you depart.  We used a service called JTB USA here in New York City.  I take advantage of using services where I can make transactions in person.  The price is based on the current exchange rate which was 88 yen to the dollar so it came out to be $500 per person for 14 days of travel.  Seems steep but check out the individual trip changes and you’ll see for yourself.  It also depends on if you are going to travel beyond Tokyo and Kyoto which I highly recommend if you have the time.

The best site to start with is my favorite Seat61.com and it’s easy to figure out train schedules by using Hyperdia.com

A good place to visit before Beppu is Hiroshima.  There was a train that left Hiroshima in the morning and we just needed to switch trains once in Kokura.  We arrived in the late afternoon.  The scenery was wonderful as well.

Accommodation:

This is a place where you can find a fairly cheap and nice place to stay.  I just did the easy hostelworld.com search and found a place called SPA Hostel Khaosan Beppu.  They were very helpful with recommendations (they have put together their own guide of the area with details, prices and how to get there)  there was the free hot spring right inside the hostel for guests, free wi-fi and an overall relaxing atmosphere.  The convenience store was also a 5 minute walk away.