We were on the Shinkansen bullet train before 8am on Saturday and walked up to Himeji Castle at 9:30am.

I checked in on Swarm and saw that there are free guided tours in English that are excellent, and I’d no sooner declared that we should find out how to get one when an older lady heard us and walked up to lead our tour.  Later in the tour, another guide told us we had the best of all the guides, and we couldn’t disagree.  She was passionate about her culture and this castle.  We learned about its many defenses and explored every bit of each of its 6 floors.

The castle, which is also known as the White Heron Castle, is another world heritage site and is one of Japan’s 12 original castles, miraculously surviving earthquakes, fires, and WWII.  It’s the largest and most visited castle in Japan.  We were glad we made the trip over to see it.

On our way back to the train station, we stopped for some Kobe beef on sticks for lunch, and they were delicious.  Then we rode the train to Osaka, Japan’s 2nd largest city (about the size of NYC) for our rows 1 and 2 tickets at the National Bunraku Theatre, arriving just before 1:30pm.

No photography was allowed during the show, and being on row 2, there was no chance I could sneak a photo.  Before the show began, a comedian came on stage and gave an explanation of what were about to see, followed by a brief example of bunraku before the “feature” performance began.

The form of theater began in Osaka in the 17th century and is a sophisticated puppet show, with each puppet being operated by 3 actors.  The main puppeteer controls the head and right hand, and he’s visible to the audience, while the other 2 (one operates the left hand, the other the legs) are dressed in all black and have their faces covered in black veils.  At stage left are a singer and musicians; the singer narrates the story in loud, animated song, such that by the end of his shift, he’s covered in sweat and seemingly exhausted, and after a while, the wall and floor rotate, and a new set of singer + musicians take over for the next act of the play.  The actual show was nearly 3 hours long and was absolutely amazing to see.  We understood the story via English subtitles from a teleprompter above the stage and portable English listening devices with an earpiece we each rented for the show.  The children loved it, and we adults really liked it too!

That night for dinner was an experience I’d anticipated for months:  having Matsusaka beef.  Our reservation was at Yakiniku M in the Dotonbori neighborhood.  Matsusaka is one of the 3 types of wagyu beef (along with Kobe and Omi). The virginal black cows used for this beef are fed beer and given massages; in short, they’re told how beautiful and wonderful they are every day and live a life of luxury until they’re slaughtered and served to people like me.  It was absolutely the best meat I’ve ever had, and grilling it in the middle of our table was fun!

Here are a couple informational pages from our menu:

Here’s our sweet, tender meat as it grills to perfection:

And this?  Is beef sushi, and it was delicious, and I wanted to eat plates and plates of it, no matter the exorbitant cost (so I had seconds…and thirds).

After dinner, we explored the arcade and the shops surrounding the Dotonbori Canal running through Osaka, which was super crowded, noisy, and surrounded us with bright lights, giant billboards, and all kinds of interesting things to behold.  It was the most Japanese scene we’d seen in Japan.

Within the arcade was a place known for its delicious puffy cheesecakes–Rikuro’s, so we shared one for dessert.

After some Hawaiian coffee, we made our way back to the train station for a late night return to Kyoto to our final night of rest at the Azzurro Elefante before making our way to a new city the next morning on Fathers Day–Hiroshima!

Friday morning about 9:45am, we set off from our AirBnB and discovered a place called Cafe Green Door in a residential area, just a couple blocks from our home, which was a nice change from the previous days’ meats on a stick for breakfast.   We had eggs and coffee to go as we walked to the station and boarded a train for Nara, where we’d scheduled an AirBnB experience involving a bike tour of Nara park, where the deer are plentiful and friendly (and will bow to you for crackers), and  Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden structure in the world.  The sky was overcast, but the rain held off during our bike tour of the city.

I’m not as obese as the Tokyo Swallows baseball jersey makes me look.

Along the way, our guide provided the group (consisting of our family, a couple from Minnesota, and a girl from Australia) with a picnic sushi lunch along a river before we continued onward toward Nara park.  When we arrived and parked our bikes, a group of schoolchildren were singing outside the temple.  We walked inside and saw this:

In my head, giant Buddha statues are in every park, mall, and street corner in Japan, but this was actually the first one we’d seen in 10 days.  It’s the largest bronze statute of Buddha in Japan (15 meters tall).  The temple housing it was built in 752, when the capital of Japan was Nara.

We explored the multiple temples of Nara before spending time with its wildlife, the famous Nara deer.

Below is a deer cracker (or cookie?).  Our guide gave us each a stack of them, and the deer either smell or see them immediately, and they run up for snacks.

Nara is as known for its deer as its wooden temple and giant Buddha; even the plastic construction markers (where we have orange cones in the U.S.) are deer.  They’re everywhere.  Hopefully, they’re tick and Lyme disease-free!

Our tour ended, but not before Hiro took a selfie with him, as we gave him some of our Georgia jam as a “thank you” gift just as it started to rain.

After our tour, we took the train to Kyoto Station and the Kyoto Railway Museum.  The children loved exploring the insides and undersides of Shinkansen bullet trains, steam trains, and everything in between on the multiple levels of exhibits (plus the ones on the turntable outside) there.

We had delicious ramen for dinner at Menya Iroha in Kyoto station, and then we did something I’d wanted to do ever since getting to Japan:  karaoke.

We’d looked online to find a place that seemed family-friendly and conveniently located; we chose Jankara by Kyoto Station.  The children had never done karaoke before, and I worried they might be shy or hesitant to try it, but by the time I’d gotten to our room (after a quick stop for a draft beer), the girls were belting out “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”

There was Bon Jovi, Wham!, A-ha, Adele, Queen, Journey, and many other artists chosen, and before we knew it, our time was gone, and we were paying for an extra half hour and were way past the kids’ bedtime but were having too much fun to care.

I thought going to the whisky bar was my favorite evening activity in Kyoto.  No longer.

We walked out of the karaoke bar and by a dancing fountain light show before heading to bed after 10pm.

Another magical day and evening in Japan was finished; the next day, we were slated to explore Osaka, a new city!

Thursday, June 14, we rode a series of trains until we met Eric, a quad-lingual KKday tour guide originally from China who lives in Japan and was our guide for the “romantic” train taking us to a horse-drawn carriage taking us to a wooden boat taking us down the Hozu River, where 5th and 6th generation boatmen with wooden poles and oars guided us through whitewater rapids, and it was awesome.

The level of skill these men had was incredible.  I’ve canoed down the Chattahoochee and kayaked down the Hiwassee a few times; neither is nearly as narrow, winding, or filled with whitecaps as the Hozu, yet I’ve gotten stuck, flipped, or both many times.  These guys guided our craft through these waves with absolute flawless precision for 10 miles. The ride down even has its own Japanese phrase to describe it:  hozugawa kudari.  Just before the trip concludes, a motor boat pulls up beside your boat, and it’s full of snacks, grilled meat, and beer!  Naturally, I had to have a beer delivered in mid-air-refueling fashion, because it was hot outside, and how cool is that?

We walked through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove toward an area lined with street food vendors and shops, and discovered a cafe dedicated to a character my 11-year-old had fallen in love with our first day in Tokyo when exploring the stores under the train station:  Rilakkuma.

I had secretly fallen in love with this soft, plush, and mischievous little bear, too, but had kept it under wraps until it served me pancakes and ice cream, and before I knew it, I’d bought a Rilakkuma bear and even his friend, Chairoikoguma, for my office, and we loved each other with shameless abandon.

When back at the train station, we stopped to enjoy an enormous model train set with diorama of Kyoto that was my 9-year-old boy’s happiest of happy places.  For a few yen, you can operate one of several different models of trains through the various sites and scenes of Kyoto.  It’s 12.3 x 17.3 meters and has 2.7 kilometers of tracks, and every half hour, the lights dim for a night scene of the city, plus a constellation show!

A train ride later, we were at Nijo-jo Castle, which served as the residence and office for the Shogun when visiting Kyoto.

It’s protected by walls and moats, and the hallways connecting the various buildings have “nightingale floors” that chirp like birds as you step on them (which we’d read was designed to warn inhabitants of any intruders approaching, but our guide said it was just how the hardwoods were nailed in).  Built in 1603, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, like pretty much everything we saw in Japan. It’s also a great place to engage in public displays of affection with Rilakkuma.

That night, I’d been told I could finally do what I’d wanted to do every day since we arrived:  find one (or more) of Japan’s famed secret bars.  We went to Kanga-an:  the tiny bar hidden in a temple.  We walked by the ghost-like white statues, past a reservations-only vegetarian restaurant on the property, and entered the tiny bar next to a zen garden.

But when we got inside, it was empty.  I found a button and pushed it, hoping a bartender would appear and ask “What’ll ya have?”  but not really expecting anything to happen, as there were no signs of life anywhere around this tiny bar, but after a few minutes, someone did show up, and he told us they don’t open until 8pm.  We were 3 hours too early.  I was crushed.

Having struck out with the secret bar, my other desired grownup stop was Bar Cordon Noir, a whisky bar with 800 varieties that I’d read about online when looking for a place to sample some of the famously good Japanese whiskies.  We arrived just as it opened, at 7pm, and were the only ones there. The bartender brought me stacks of whisky menus and helped me choose some good selections that wouldn’t require a payment plan. I had the Taketsuru Pure Malt (17-years-old), a Kirin Pure Malt Fuji Gotemba 20th Anniversary, and a Hibiki Japanese Harmony (by Suntory, which was exciting, since it meant “relaxing time“) blend.  I had all of them neat, and I loved them–smoother and more delicious than any Scottish whisky I’ve had.  We also had some appetizers and some premium ginger ale that was outstanding, too.

The children had mocktails, and I even got to smoke my fancy new bamboo pipe.  I loved it.

My bride felt we should go before the regulars shuffled in, so we headed back toward our AirBnB, stopping for a real dinner at a pizza place that was absolutely delicious called Pizzeria Da Naghino that, as much as we’d enjoyed Japanese food for over a week, hit the spot as a 9pm second dinner.

Our 3rd day in Kyoto was finished, and every bit of it was awesome.