Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Places We Stayed

We stayed in some wonderful places in Japan, and I thought it’d be nice to gather descriptions and pictures in one post.

Tokyo—Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku

Our first place of lodging was the Oakwood Apartments Shinjuku in Tokyo, which are small efficiency apartments. This place was amazing—though it’s geared toward longer-term travelers, it’s open to short-term stays as well; we stayed for four nights. The website provides excellent written directions on how to get from the Shinjuku metro stop to the apartment building, complete with pictures of landmarks you’ll see as you walk. It was an easy 5-7 minute walk from Shinjuku station. The building is quite nice—a nice lobby with a 24-hour front desk (very helpful and English-speaking), a comfortable lounge, and computers with internet service in the quiet lower-level lounge. We didn’t get to make much use of the Sky Lounge, a top-floor lounge where you help yourself to a drink, but we did go up to enjoy the amazing view. Our room had a small kitchen and a washer/dryer, plus a wonderful bathtub with an “auto-fill” function—returning to the room for a soak after being crippled by extensive sight-seeing was the best part of our stay. We’d definitely stay here if we one day return to Tokyo.

Nikko—Nikko Park Lodge

If we planned our trip all over again, we’d do Nikko as a day trip rather than an overnight trip, but as it was we were glad to get to stay at the Nikko Park Lodge. It wasn’t the most centrally located lodging; it was about a 20-minute trek from the train station (mostly uphill—not fun with heavy bags), with no bus access (you have to walk back to the station to get a bus to the main sights). But it was very peacefully located in the woods, and very quiet. There’s a cozy common area with a wood-burning oven, where you can buy snacks and drinks; there’s a TV with a selection of movies, long tables, couches. For dinner, there’s nothing really nearby, but that’s fine since the Nikko Park Lodge offers several dinner selections, including curry over rice and spaghetti. We opted for the Zen vegan meal, which was delicious (about $20). Our room was on the shabby side, and freezing, but we had both a space heater and an electric blanket; things warmed up considerably once we switched them on. The private bathroom was small but fine, with a tub/shower.

Kyoto—Pension Kotomu

Pension Kotomu was our favorite lodging of the trip. An easy bus ride from Kyoto Station, it’s located just a few minutes downhill from Kiyomizo-dera, one of Kyoto’s most beautiful temples. The street is lined with shops and restaurants, and it’s centrally located enough that we didn’t have to use a bus while we stayed there. Our room was at the very top of a small building set behind the owner’s restaurant; it was pretty tiny, with room enough for a low table and two futons, which we rolled up and stowed in the closet each morning. On the table was an electric kettle, tea cups, a small teapot, and tea bags, and I had a nice cup of green tea every time we were in the room. There was a toilet and sink (no hot water), with a common bath/shower room three flights down. There’s an amazing tub—each day we reserved a time for the next morning’s Japanese bath. The owner knocked on our door when it was ready for us. The owner himself was a lovely person—very helpful, very nice, with enough English to more or less understand our questions, etc. When we checked in he gave us passes to the Kiyomizo-dera’s “Light Up” event; he gave us a bus map and told us how to get where we needed to go each day; and each morning he gave us a weather report and ensured we had umbrellas. We wouldn’t stay anywhere else if we visited Kyoto again!

Kyoto—Shunko-in Temple

The Shunko-in Temple is part of the Myoshin-ji temple complex, in northwestern Kyoto. This was a bit further out than it probably made sense to stay, but we were intrigued by the idea of staying at a temple. Our room was separate from the temple itself, divided from another room only by a sliding wall panel, which meant we had to whisper whenever we were in the room. There was a bathroom with a shower in the room, a desk, and a wall heater that worked well enough. The futons were not very comfortable—but there were additional pads in the closet that we could have brought out had we not been so tired. The best part of staying here was the meditation session and tour we had with the temple’s vice-abbott, who studied in Arizona. He led us through a 35-minute meditation and gave us a wonderful tour of some of the temple’s inner chambers. The other great thing about staying here was the free use of bicycles, which helped us see most of the temples and attractions in the area within one afternoon. Downtown Kyoto is easily accessible from the temple by bus, so we had dinner in that area both evenings.

Nara—Ryokan Seikanso

If this place were in Kyoto, it might compete with Pension Kotomu as my favorite lodging of the trip. Ryokan Seikanso is a restored geisha house, with rooms that seem to hold the secrets and ghosts of those who lived there before…Our room, at the end of a hallway, had multiple sets of sliding, paper-paneled doors, a sitting area looking out over an interior garden, and comfortable, flowery futons. There was a low table with an electric kettle, teapot, tea cups, and powered green tea. All the bathroom facilities were shared, but the huge tiled communal tub—filled scalding hot for the evening bath times—made this okay. The room was freezing, but it had both a wall heating unit and a gas heater, and once we closed all the sliding doors it warmed up quickly. There was a breakfast option, which we did not take, and we weren’t there long enough to enjoy the comfortable-looking lounge downstairs. But this was a lovely, wonderful place to stay even for one night, and it was just a ten-minute walk from the train station, within easy access to Nara Park and many restaurants and shops. We were quite sad to leave.

Tokyo—Sutton Place Hotel Ueno

Our last two nights in Japan were spent in Sutton Place Hotel, in the Ueno area in northern Tokyo. Though tiny, our room was comfortable, with a Western-style bed, a private bathroom with tub/shower, a desk, and a TV. The hotel offered free pastries, coffee, and juice each morning in the lobby area, and the vending machine room one floor below had free coffee and green tea, plus a variety of vending machine items (including a can of pre-mixed whiskey and water, which Andrew claimed would have “changed the trip dramatically” had he known about it sooner). The English-speaking front desk was helpful, even printing out a map when I asked directions to a certain 100-yen store. Also, they had a pre-printed stack of maps of the area, with 100-yen stores already marked—clearly I’m not the only one who succumbs to a slight fixation. The hotel was a very short walk from Ueno Park, making it a good spot for an exploration of the area, and just a five to seven-minute walk from the train station.


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