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Chasing Sakura in Japan Part 1

Tokyo, Matsumoto & snow monkeys

overcast 50 °F

I put Japan on my bucket list after talking to Harumi while in Fairbanks AK chasing the Northern Lights. She convinced me that visiting Japan during cherry blossom season would be the best time. I checked on the Internet and found out that the first two weeks of April was historically the best time for peak cherry blossoms or 'sukura'. I had seen many photos of the 'snow monkeys' of Japan and also a TV clip. I decided to include that as well. I enter the tentative departure date of March 21, coming home on April 12. This would give me 3 weeks to see what I could of Japan. After much research, I got a R/T trip LAS-HND on United Airlines stopping in SFO. The departure time was OK, only 2 hours in SFO between flights, good arrival time in Haneda. I paid $519 total and started planning what cites to visit and where I would stay. I would use Airbnb again as they are usually cheaper than even some hostel. You are staying with a family that can help with what to see and how to get around. I booked my Tokyo room and then found out that Miho was book for April 10, 11th when I would return to Tokyo for my flight home. I then decided to book all my rooms before leaving Las Vegas. I worked on a schedule and booked rooms in 8 different cities, hoping to catch the cherry blossoms at peak somewhere while I was in Japan. I ended up averaging $30 a night for my 21 day stay. I put it all on my credit card and would have the airfare and rooms paid for before I left Vegas. All visitors to Japan make a decision on whether to buy the Japan Rail Pass or not. You have to buy the JRP before arriving in Japan. I was going to spend the first 3 days in Tokyo, the next 3 in Matsumoto so I would not need the 21 day pass. The 14 day pas was $411. I decided not to buy the JRP and to use the bus system instead. I would use Jetstar Japan to fly down to Fukuoka from Tokyo. That flight was much cheaper using the trains.

The weeks went by and it was now time to fly. My nephew took me out to McCarran at 6 am. United Airlines uses T-3 which is easier to access than the main terminal, T-1. Used the kiosk and got my boarding passes for both legs. Good flight into SFO and only 2 hour wait between flights. It was a 787 Dreamliner to Tokyo, very comfortable plane even in coach. Decent food and into Haneda (HND) a bit ahead of schedule. I had booked a phone for my time in Japan. US phones won't work there, different systems. If you have a smartphone, you can buy or rent a SIM card. I have an older flip phone and decided to rent a phone from 'Softbank'. I found their booth at HND and she showed me how to place a call in Japan. Changed $200 USD into yen and followed Miho's instructions on walking to her apt. The Keikyu subway goes right into HND and makes it easy and cheap to get to her place. I bought a PASMO Card and put 2,000 yen on it. Her stop is Keikyu Kamata only 300 yen away. I got out at Kamata and followed her instructions. Miho put up photos on walking instructions from the East exit of Kamata. I was there in about 15 minutes. I found the right apt. and she answered on the first ring. Miho has a dog and he does not seem to like male guests. After being introduced to him and giving him a treat, he settled down enough to not be bitten. She showed me my room, bathroom, and the small kitchen. I had bought an egg salad sandwich at a Family Mart next to her apt. building. That would do for dinner. Since I was alone, I decided I was not going to eat in restaurants. I would have scrambled eggs, toast and tea when I have the use of a kitchen. When I say I had lunch while sightseeing, it will be a sandwich and some fruit. I am going to try and exercise daily to not lose my level of fitness. Walking everyday will be easy since I am here for sightseeing. I also plan to do my stretching, sit-ups each night as well. Time on my laptop, read, take my sleep pill and then bed. From now on, when I say 'nightly routine' you will know what I mean. I took a shower, nightly routine and and one very long day was over.

A decent night's sleep, up 6 am and had some tea in my room. Miho has everything you need for coffee or tea w/o going into the kitchen. When I heard some noise, I went into the kitchen met Maria, Miho's mom. They share the back bedroom, front one for Airbnb guests. Had more tea while we chatted, then I got on my laptop then got ready for my first day of sightseeing. I waited until after 9 am before walking to the train station. I wanted to avoid the rush hour crowd. Found a 7-11 for a sand. banana. That would be my main go to meal when out sightseeing. I had to change trains to get to Ueno Park but it went OK. The trains in Tokyo have signs in English as well as Japanese and Chinese. On most of the trains I was on, they announce to next station plus it is on a reader sign above the doors. I found it difficult to understand the announcement but could read the sign. Off at Ueno, I walked to the huge park. There is a booth at the entrance and they have maps and will help plan your visit. Ueno Park is similar to New York's Central Park: huge and many different parts to explore. You cannot see it all in one day. I decided to visit the National Museum and headed for it, 600 yen entrance fee. I took plenty of photos and started to wear out walking the exhibits. I walked to a 7-11 close to Ueno Park, lunch. After eating, I found a quiet area with a lake and temples behind the national Museum. A few photos there and I found the one cherry tree that had blossomed this early. Micro-climate is what I was told. Took a couple of photos of it then I decided to walk the Ueno Zoo. It is only 300 yen for Seniors and they have a good selection of animals, including Panda bears. But, it was just packed with families and made it difficult to get around or take any photos worthwhile. After a few hours, I was tired and decided to head back to Miho's place. Train to Shinagawa, change trains to Keikyu line, off at Kamata. She had told me where a decent sized market out the West exit at Kamata. I found it and bought eggs, bread, apples, carrots. Everything is more than the US but not much choice. I am not going to be eating in restaurants, so I will fix BF & dinner at the places I am staying when possible. I followed the route back to Miho's and let myself in. Luckily she was home because her dog barks almost constantly unless she holds it. We chat about my day, shower, change into my flannel pajama bottoms plus t-shirt. I only brought 2 quick dry t-shirts so I wash them in the shower each night and switch to the other one. Fixed my eggs, toast, and tea. Nightly routine. Miho has a put a Western mattress on the floor, so I did get a decent night's sleep. However, it is difficult for me to get down to floor level. No furniture, so you read, computer while sitting on the floor. I was to find out that this is the norm in most Airbnb rooms in Japan.
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I was up at 6 am, had some tea. She has put a kettle, water, tea, coffee in your room. I waited until I heard someone was up and went into the kitchen. Chatted with Miho and her mom and waited for them to leave for work at 8:30. Then I fixed my breakfast and got ready for my day. I decided to visit another park and picked Hama Palace Park. The Tokyo-Yokohama metro area has 27 million people and is just too hectic for me. I did not need any more museums or places with huge crowds. Hama Rikyu Gardens is another oasis in the urban jungle of Tokyo. Plenty of photos and very peaceful walking in the park. The cherry trees had not bloomed yet, but it was a pleasant day and I enjoyed just walking the park. There is the Nakajima Teahouse for those that want to sit and enjoying their tea in a peaceful setting. I cross the Otsutaibashi Bridge and complete the circuit of the Park. Hama Rikyu is special for several reasons and being surrounded by high-rise buildings is one of them. You get a great contrast between the beautiful grounds of the park and modern Tokyo. Hama Rikyu is also at the mouth of the Sumida-gawa River. Their is a floodgate that allows the level of the lakes to change with the tides. There are still duck blinds visible from past times when the park was used for duck hunting.
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I saw they have a boat tour of the harbor and walked over to the landing. The one I wanted had already left, but if I took a short boat ride to Diver City Mall, I could get another boat to the Kasai Rinkai Water Park, 1,600 yen for both legs. I had an hour to kill at the mall so walked around a bit. I did find one tree that had blossomed by the mall: micro-climate again. I guess with direct sun plus the heat from the buildings, this tree popped early. Another egg salad sand plus a carrot and I was off on the second leg of the boat trip. It is quite a long way to the Water Park, but I did not take many photos as the weather turned overcast plus light rain. The 117 meter Ferris Wheel makes Kansai Rinkai easy to spot from a long distance. March is too cool for the Ferris Wheel to be open. It is quite a hike from the water taxi to the trains and I was ready to sit for awhile. I got some help from the train official on what train to take to Shinagawa. Then I changed trains for the Keikyu line. Off at Kamata, I had to charge up my PASMO card to get thru the turnstiles. You can run thru $20 USD (2,000yen) very quickly taking trains in Tokyo. I walked back to Miho's, nobody home yet. Shower, tea in my room and waited for them to get home. The dog barks if you go in the kitchen w/o Miho. Once they were home, I fixed my dinner, chatted with them and went to my room. More tea, computer to e-mail Brian in Matsumoto, nightly routine. Day 3 was over.

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I was up at 6 am, did some stretching, my sit-ups and had some tea. I was waiting for Miho and her mother were up before entering the kitchen. They had to go to work again so I waited until 8:30 to say goodbye. I was to lock the door and put the key in the slot for the mail. After my BF, I cleaned up and then final packing. When I sure I had everything, I locked the door and walked to the train station. I need to get to Shinjuku Station for Matsumoto. Shinjuku is not only the major train station in Tokyo, it is also the bus station for many of the long distance buses. I was directed to the bus station by one of the workers and stopped at the Info booth. Most large train & bus stations have English speaking personnel to help visitors. I got in line and was directed to the line for Matsumoto, 1,100 yen. The bus is often half of the price of the train to many cities. It is usually a few hours slower, but I could not check in until 4 pm anyway so getting there a few hours earlier made no sense. The Japanese trains and buses leave on time. When they tell you 10:10 am, they mean it. The bus was comfortable, quiet, a good ride on good highways. I was impressed with the infrastructure in Japan. Clean, modern, efficient trains, buses, and highways. The bus stopped a few times for bathroom, food and we got into Matsumoto right at 2 pm. Brian had e-mailed me some photos on how to get to the Matsumoto Backpacker Hostel. I followed the photos Brian had sent me and walked to the hostel. A girl from Singapore let me leave my bag in the hostel and showed me the kitchen, common area, bathroom, shower. I left my bag in the entrance area and walked back to the train station. She told me where there was a grocery store close to the train station. I bought my eggs, bread, bananas, apples, enough for 3 days in Matsumoto. Brian showed up at 4 pm with his 2 yr old son. He is from Ireland and married a Japanese lady. He now speaks fluent Japanese and is a fount of knowledge on the Matsumoto area. There were now 5 of us in the common area next to the kitchen. Brian's place is traditional Japanese. There is a low table in the common are and plenty of cushions to sit on. There are no chairs. I found it very difficult to sit on the floor at this stage of my life. I did it, but it was not a pretty sight. No furniture in the dorm rooms either. Just Futon mattresses on the floor. There is no sense going to your room until you are ready to sleep IMO. I fixed my eggs, toast, tea and chatted until 9 pm. I was going to take the bus to Nagano, but found out they only run trains on the weekend. Brian gave me a handout on the steps from Matsumoto to Snow Monkey Park. We discussed my plans for tomorrow until it was 10 pm, time for bed.

I was up at first light. I see the room get light and I am up. I got my day bag ready and I was out the door by 7 am. When I stepped out the door I got a shock. It was cold and snowing! The weather had been OK the day before. Not today. I walked in the snow to the train station, bought a sand. and then an R/T trip ticket to Nagano 1,400 yen. I got the 7:30 train and settled back to watch the scenery, read my book. Nagano is only about an hour plus away. I got in at 5 minutes to 9 and found the Visitor's Center (VC). I was the first in line and she handed me probably the most requested handout they have. It pushes a combo train, bus, subway, entrance fee to the Snow Monkey Park (SMP) for 3,200 yen. Not sure it saves you any money, but is the easiest most convenient way to go. The bus was leaving in 10 minutes so I hit the bathroom and walked outside for the bus. This is where you pay for the day pass. Got on the bus and relaxed. It was going to be about an hour ride to the jump off spot. The guys across the aisle were from Germany and we got to chatting. As soon as they find out I am from Las Vegas I get the same question: What is it like living in Las Vegas? Now I find I will be asked another question almost every time: How in the world did Donald Trump win the election? I confessed that we were still wondering about that as well. Everyone from Europe I met was stunned we elected Trump. Me too. I believed all the Vegas bookmakers who had Hillary Clinton winning easily. We chatted about Las Vegas, the election, touring Japan. The driver announced we were at the start of the trail for SMP and we all piled off. There is a small building there and many of us went inside. There is an info desk, bathrooms plus is was warm. The route guide tells you that it is about a 45-minute walk to SMP. Perhaps when I was younger but now it took almost an hour. It is uphill most of the way and it started snowing quite hard as I trudged uphill. It was cold but walking helped. I stopped when I saw 2 girls taking photos of a money. Really they are 'macaques', the Northern most band. Macaques prefer a warmer climate but this group lives here because of the hot springs and probably the tourists. The Japanese provide food for them close to the hot springs and they have adapted. I gave my camera to one of the girls so I could have a shot with the monkey. He got mad as I did not give him anything to eat. Onward and upward, I kept trudging until I saw the entrance to the Park. The day pass gets you right in, no standing in line. It is 800 yen to enter the Park. I was surprised how many people were walking down the hill as I was going up. We were on one of the first buses this morning, hard to believe so many could have beaten me to the Park, got their photos of the monkeys and left. I think the ones I saw were staying in the lodges you pass while hiking uphill. There are ski resorts close by and these must have been guests of these lodges. I finally get to the hot springs that many of the monkeys soak in daily. It was cold today, don't blame them for relaxing in the hot water. I found the German guys and they took a few photos of me with the monkeys. it is a difficult shot as you are not allowed to feed or interact with them. You get as close as you think is safe and hope it turns out. I spent about an hour getting shots from many different angles and decided I had enough. There are bathrooms at the Park entrance, hit that and warmed up before heading downhill.
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You really need to pay attention walking back, most falls are going downhill, not up. I took it slow and steady and saw a bus parked much closer than where I was dropped off. A couple from Holland told me that if I had the day pass, I could take this bus to town. I pulled out my pass and we all got on. It was a local bus, not a tourist bus like we arrived in. The last stop was at a train station. It certainly wasn't Nagano, too small. I pulled my pass out and asked one of the guards if this train went to Nagano. Yes, so I got on. It really was a local train, stops every 5 minutes. It took an hour to reach Nagano. I had one of my bananas, some bread and headed for the VC. The same lady I talked to this morning said I had enough time to visit the Zenkoji Temple before my train to Matsumoto. Downstairs to the subway, several stops then walk 15 minutes to the Temple. I was tired but knew this was my only chance to see the Zenkoji Temple. Zenkoji Temples claim to fame is that it houses the first Buddha statue brought to Japan in 522AD from Korea. Over one million pilgrims come to Zenkoji each year. Since I am not a Buddhist, the shrines don't mean much to me. I got what photos I thought were interesting, then retraced my steps to the subway. There was a 7-11 by the subway station so I had lunch, then headed downstairs for the subway. I heard a train leaving while I was on the stairs. I missed it by about 1-2 minutes. I looked at a schedule on the pole and it was going to be 20 minutes before the next train. I would not be making the 3:10 pm train to Matsumoto. But, they have a 4:15 pm train so I killed some time in the coffee shop next to the VC. Bathroom, brushed my teeth and got to the correct platform. Back to Matsumoto at 5:30 pm and walked to the hostel. 100 yen for a towel, shower, then hit the common area to chat and fix my dinner. I chatted with several of the others staying here and found out what they had been doing today. Several were going to Nagano the next day for the snow monkeys. I gave them my camera to scroll thru my photos. My room was full tonight. 3 guys from Europe were going to teach English for a year in Japan and were staying at the hostel until their accommodation is ready. We talked until about 10 pm when we all agreed it was time for lights out. A full but satisfying day.
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Up at first light, I went to the entrance area. I could stretch there w/o bothering anyone. Around 7 am the first girl got up and started using the kitchen. I kept her company until she was finished and then fixed my eggs, toast, tea. I just read my book and waited for more people to get up. Once the guys in my room were awake I went in and got my bathroom bag, teeth, shave and changed out of my PJs. PlanA was to walk down to the Matsumoto Castle and spend most of the day sightseeing. It about a 15 minute walk from the hostel to the castle. I stopped at some outdoor event and took a few photos of the crowd. It is Sunday and the Japanese are out enjoying the day. It was partly sunny, about as good as I could expect in late March. I approached the castle and see a sign on the left side that offers free English speaking guide to the castle. I went inside and chatted with the lady. I was the only one so far but told her I would wait for to see if others would show up. None did in about 5 minutes so she locked the door and we started for the castle. A couple of Westerners were approaching us and I asked them if they would like an English speaking tour guide. Of course they accepted so Sue & David from OZ joined us. There is a spot before the moat that the guide takes us to for a good angle of the castle. An advantage of having them along is that I now have someone to take a photo with me in it. Always a problem when traveling alone. We cross the moat and pay the 800 yen to enter the castle. There are several Ninja Warriors and other costumed performers outside the castle adding a bit of color. Our guide tells us about the castle, its history, the many rulers, etc. I might mean something to those that know Japanese history but does not mean much to us. We go inside, leaving our shoes, wearing protective booties. All wood floors and thousands of people tour the castle daily. We find out it there are some very steep stairs to go to the higher levels. Sue had injured here knee a few days ago and was not sure she could navigate the stairs. No elevators in Matsumoto Castle! She made it up and we toured the 3rd floor. There is a line up to the 4th floor, it only takes 1 person with mobility issues and the line gets much longer. I get up them but not easily. Sue decided to go back to ground level so David and I follow the guide up the stairs. Very narrow, very steep. I should have passed myself. The view is not enough different to risk going up then down those stairs. One misstep and you are going to hurt yourself. Photos of the surrounding area and we troop back to ground level. Once outside, our guide wishes us luck and goes back for another tour. I chat with Sue & David for a bit and then they head off as well. I walked the castle grounds looking for a better view of the castle.
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Outside there is a small City of Matsumoto Museum. Free with your castle ticket. I go inside and walk the exhibits. It is worth maybe 15 minutes. It might be important to someone from Matsumoto, but not anyone else. There are gardens on the other side of the castle and I head there after resting up. My feet & legs get tired after several hours of walking. The garden is free as well if you toured the castle. Plenty of photos and then I had enough sightseeing. I have a long walk back to the train station and head off. There were a few interesting photos of the downtown area as I made my way to the train station. I had lost my sunglasses in Tokyo and decided to replace them. Brian had told me a few stores to check and he gave good advice. The first one I checked had what I wanted for under $10. I bought an egg salad sand. and chocolate milk at a 7-11 and rested up before the hike back to the hostel. When I was ready, I made it to the train station and followed the route to the hostel. I took a shower and then hit the common room for some tea. I chatted with Brian about my plans after Matsumoto. I did not book a room for tomorrow as I would fly Jetstar Japan to Fukuoka on the 29th. This is from Narita and I thought I would just go to Tokyo, late bus to the airport late and spend the night there before my 8 am flight. He got out his phone and looked at hotel prices in Narita for tomorrow. He found a hotel for $45 with taxes and I decided to book it using my credit card. Had my dinner, more tea and chatted with the others until time for bed. Decent weather today and good sightseeing at Matsumoto Castle. Definitely one of the best days sightseeing so far.
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Up with the sun, sit-ups in bed, stretch in the entrance area. Had some tea and waited for the other guests to get up. Around 8 am I had my BF, then Brian came by. He does not live at the hostel, has a place with his wife & son close by. Clean up, pack, say goodbye and I head for the train station one last time. The bus station is right next door and I buy a ticket to Shinjuku, 3,500 yen. Good bus and a good driver. I think they all are. Japan probably would not tolerate anyone that was not a safer driver and kept to the schedule. One stop for bathroom, food, then into Tokyo around 3 pm. I walked to the train station at Shinjuku and used my PASMO card to Tokyo station. Reading online, I found out that it was cheaper to Narita from Tokyo station than from Shinjuku. Once at Tokyo station I made my way to street level and found the bus to Narita, 1,000 yen. You get in line and they load the bus. As soon as it is full another one pulls up. A guy from Peru now living in Tokyo is next to me and we chat a bit during the ride to Narita. Within 5 minutes a guy across the aisle told us 'no talking on the bus'. There are signs about mobile phones and talking, so we shut up. Once at Narita airport, I found a quiet area and had a banana, some bread. All the hotels run shuttle buses to their hotels so I found the proper area and waited for the Marroad International Hotel shuttle. About 20 minutes later the shuttle arrived and we were taken to the hotel. I showed my ID at the front desk and was given a key card. Great room, by far the nicest one I would stay in while in Japan. I took a shower, washed my clothes in the tub, set everything out to dry. I went downstairs and found a small 7-11 type store. They had an egg salad sand and chocolate milk. Bought that and had my 'dinner' in my room. The TV had BBC so I watched the first TV since I hit Japan. I then hit the floor and did my sit-ups, stretching. Sent a few e-mail, read and it was time for bed. I had a 5:15 wake-up call so turned in at 9 pm.
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Posted by vegasmike6 14:30 Archived in Japan

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Good read Mike, and looks like all your planning was was first class ! and it looked like you had a good trip, hope you left some eggs for the Japanese Mike ! cheers Allan

by TOBY TYKE

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