The 10-hour 787 flight left Denver around noon and was smooth the entire way. I started getting a cold a few days before the trip and my ears refused to pop on the descent, causing a fair amount of discomfort that carried over to the next few days. I managed to make it to Narita, get through customs, retrieve my bag from the baggage claim, track down an ATM, get back through security, check my bag again, get on a short domestic flight to Fukuoka, take a subway to the right station, pick up my 14-day Japan Rail (JR) pass, and find the hotel on minimal sleep. As I was about to head to the nearby 7-11 for some food, I caught (Chris) Pratt, Adam, and Julian in hallway. Success! (Chris) Glass arrived shortly after I did and our trip was underway.
Pratt had planned a low-key first day, so in the morning we met for breakfast, re-packed our backpacks for an overnight, checked out of the hotel, and made our way to the steam train to Hitoyoshi (SL-Hitoyoshi), leaving our luggage in lockers at the train station. All of us were sleepy and it was raining, so we enjoyed winding through the Japanese countryside. After a couple stops, rainy, arrived in Hitoyoshi, where we walked around town while waiting for next train. We grabbed our first bento box on the station platform then took the Isaburo 3 train to Yoshimatsu, where we transferred to Hayato-no-Kaze 3 train. We stayed overnight in Kagoshima.
In the morning, we rode the Shinkansen (bullet train) back up to Shin-Tosu station and transferred to the Kamome 5 train over to Nagasaki. We wandered around town, stopping to wander through Dejima, a Dutch trading post and nationally designated historical site. From there we grabbed lunch, our first Japanese-style meal. Afterwards, we grabbed a trolley to another part of town and walked to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was interesting, but very crowded and hot – we walked through quickly and then visited the park created where the bomb landed.
We walked across town to the Mt. Inasa ropeway, which took us up to the observation deck. Over drinks, we rested in the restaurant as sunset approached and after taking photos, we walked back to the JR station. The Shinkansen took us back to Hakata Station, where we picked up our bags before catching another train to Hiroshima for the night. Our JR passes allowed us unlimited first class travel on any JR train (and some others) based on availability, which meant we traveled very comfortably.
In the morning, the group talked about ideas of what to do for the day. Pratt, Adam, and Julian opted for a sake day while Dan, Glass, and I chose to visit Itsukushima and the floating torii gate. The three of us took a light rail train and then ferry to the island. We walked around with all the other tourists, looking at pagodas and shrines and commingling with the local deer population, who didn’t seem at all fazed. After a quick coffee and pastry puff break, we continued wandering around the grounds. We ventured into the woods to walk the trails to the ropeway, but found it was too busy to attempt, so we walked the back way to the ferry along the road. Once across, we trained back downtown and walked to a pizza place before visiting the A-bomb dome park. Tired, we bussed back to train station to meet up with the others before our train to Okayama for the night.
In the morning, we again left our big bags at the train station and carried our backpacks on the ferry to Naoshima. Upon our arrival, we took a small bus to the Benesse House hotel. It was too early to check in, so we left our packs and walked around the island to see some of the art exhibits. While wandering around town looking for the art houses, we stumbled upon a cafe for lunch. Restored, we continued the art house walk, visiting a handful of houses that had been abandoned and turned into art installations.
From there, we took the bus back to the port for a visit at our first public bath, which we had to ourselves. We had been walking close to 10 miles per day, so it was a great relief to stop and soak for awhile. Afterwards, we headed back up to the Benesse House to check-in, enjoying champagne on the gift shop patio before moving to wine on our own balconies as the sun was setting. Later on, we walked down the hill to another Benesse building for dinner. Amazing! There were a number of courses, each better than the last. It was here I decided to be adventurous and try the fish being served. Butterfish was delicious, however the texture of abalone was less than ideal. Once finished, we got a ride back up the hill to the hotel and rode the 6-person monorail up to the top of the hill to visit Oval, the hotel’s bar, for a nightcap.
The hotel was mostly concrete and it was hot, so most of us didn’t sleep very well. We had a buffet breakfast then headed back to the port. We took the ferry to Inushima, a nearby island that is part of the Benesse Art Site. The group split up and wandered through various art houses and a former copper refinery-turned-art installation. We regrouped at a small restaurant for a delicious curry lunch and local beer. Again, we boarded the ferry, which took us to Teshima. Most exhibits were closed or closing for the day, but we did manage to see one exhibit, the heartbeat exhibit, at the end of a long walk near the beach. Because we were visiting off-season, we decided to change our plans and head back to Okayama early, where we picked up our stashed bags and got new tickets and bento boxes for an earlier Shinkansen to Osaka. At this point I had exhausted my limited clothing selection, so I washed my clothes in the hotel room sink.
The next day was a down-day for Adam and I. We relaxed in the morning, doing our own things, while the rest of the group got up early to go see the Fushimi Inari shrine and it’s world famous torii gates. My back had been hurting since the first day in Japan, so I needed to lay low and rest. I found breakfast and took a local train up to nearby Kyoto, finding an ATM and snacks while killing time before meeting up with everyone. We took the train to Tenryu-ji zen temple, wandering the grounds and taking pictures. Pratt had arranged for us a lunch at Shigetsu, a Japanese-style vegetarian restaurant. Most everything was delicious, though we were all having trouble sitting on the floor for so long.
The group walked back to main road of the temple to Arashiyama Station and took the train to where we could walk to the Ryōan-ji temple and Zen rock garden, followed by the Golden Temple. Later we caught buses to the Higashiyama District (old Kyoto) as the sun was setting. We walked to one temple, but found a line around the block, so we walked to another only to find another massive line. There were people everywhere and we were all tired and overwhelmed, so we ducked down an alley to get out of the crowds. Wandered down a side street and found a perfect spot for beer, horse jerky, and meat buns. We caught another bus t0 Kyoto station to take an express train back to Osaka. After a quick dinner, I fell fast asleep. We had done so much walking and the humidity that day was remarkable – Pratt even asked if I was okay because I was sweating through my clothes and onto the backpack.
The next morning we were to begin hiking, the reason for the trip, so I had to re-work what I was carrying in my suitcase and backpack, saving some for a bag Dan set aside for overflow items.