10th March, Tokyo-Himeji

Another lovely day, with Fuji's snows glistening on the horizon.
After breakfast, Guy went off to check his shares on the Internet and send messages back home whilst Barbara and I shopped for lunch. Back at the local Lawsons (a supermarket chain) we bought nori rolls and sandwiches to eat on the train.
Ian and Maiko arrived with Anne at 9.45 and we met them in the lobby. Here they arranged for our excess luggage to be sent to KIX by Pasco, a local forwarding company.

TOO MUCH LUGGAGE

We knew all along that we had too much luggage but we had little option. Having spent 2 weeks on the QE II in warm tropical weather, we needed lightweight clothing and glamorous evening dresses and suits for Guy. Then in Japan, we needed warm winter gear suitable for backpacking. Flying back via Singapore, we needed lightweight clothing yet again.
We solved the problem by taking a suitcase and two backpacks in the case of Guy and I and in Barbara's case, taking three suitcases. We kept the clothes for Japan in the two backpacks and one of Barbara's suitcases and the rest of our luggage was to be despatched to await us at Kansai International Airport.
Ian found a local forwarding company called Pasco who would pick up luggage from our hotel in Tokyo and transport it to Kansai International Airport and keep it for us until we collected it one week later. This cost Y8400 (A$125) for 4 cases in total and whilst expensive by overseas standards, it was a bargain by Japanese standards and saved our backs a lot of strain.
Yes, they do have a website - http://www.pasco-bag.co.jp - but it is in Japanese. Translate it with babelfish - http://babelfish.altavista.com.  (Now there's a great service - thanks Alta Vista!!)

Happy to be down to backpacks, we set off for Shinjiku Station hoping to get our Rail Passes validated. However, it turned out the local JTB didn't open until 11 am so we paid subway fares to go into Tokyo Central and organised the Rail Passes from there. Believe me, it wasn't easy and if it hadn't been for Ian and Maiko, I have grave doubts we would have made our train to Himeji at 11.45am.

THE JR RAIL PASS

The JR Rail website will give you most of the information you need on this pass, which is terrific value. A 7 day Japan Rail Pass, costs A$457.00. This entitles us to unlimited travel on all JR trains, buses and ferries. Wow! It can only be purchased outside Japan and saves heaps of money. It can repay itself with a Kyoto-Tokyo-Kyoto trip alone!!!
We had purchased these rail passes in Australia. You have to validate the pass before it can be used and your time clock starts to tick immediately validation is done. This can prove a problem. The passes are only able to be validated at large railway stations and JTB offices but JTB offices as a rule don't open until 11am. So you lose half of your first day's travel.
It's also very difficult to find the JTB office to get the validation done. We were lucky that we had help from Ian and Maiko. Even so, it took Maiko, a Japanese-speaking Tokyo local, over an hour of questioning to find where the correct office was to validate our cards and actually get them validated. We also had to produce our passports.
So if you have a rail pass, allow plenty of time for validation.
Having said this, once you have the pass validated, nothing could be simpler. You just produce it at every ticket collection barrier and can reserve seats by going to the Green Window at most stations.
Buses are somewhat more difficult but if you persevere, eventually the bus drivers will allow you to travel free with your pass.
It's a great system. I can't recommend it enough!!! One of the few bargains in Japan.

I had selected this shinkansen because it had limited stops but we were in such a rush we got into a smoking compartment. Yuk! When Japanese people smoke, they SMOKE. Every one of them seemed to chain smoke throughout the entire trip.
Ian and Maiko gave us lovely T-shirts as a parting gift - as though they hadn't done enough for us!! They were so wonderful to us and it was tremendous to get to know them better. We shall have to reciprocate in Perth - I promised to take Maiko shopping!!
The train trip was uneventful,if smoky, and we admired the Japanese Alps on our right as we passed through Nagoya. We passed back through Kyoto but stayed on the train. Just before Himeji, we caught a glimpse of the Akashi Kaikyo suspension bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

Himeji Station was a much easier proposition than Kyoto or Tokyo and we had seen the Washington Plaza Hotel from the train. This was the hotel we had selected from the Lonely Planet Japan Guide. Unfortunately, it turned out to be far ore expensive than the price given in the guide - Y15500 (A$232) a double and Y8700 (A$130) for a single. However, Barbara was very tired and we decided to stay. Our room was tiny and the window faced a brick wall one metre away but we still had a bidet, a TV and a small fridge. The tiny bathroom was a one piece moulded capsule with walls, ceiling, floor, hand basin, shampoo and soap dispenser as part of the moulding. Only the toilet was added on afterwards. Quite amazing.
Another thing we noticed was that we were still given slippers, yukata (happy coats - thin cotton kimonos) and towels even in these hotels which are definitely cheap accommodation by Japanese standards.
We popped in to see Barbara and tease her about having the better room (she had a view of the main street), sank a couple of quick beers and headed for the shops leaving Barbara, already garbed in her happy coat and with her slippers on, to put her feet up for a while.

Himeji turned out to be more of a shopper's paradise than Tokyo and I bought shirts for the boys back home in one of the many shopping arcades. These shopping arcades stretch the entire length of a street and are mainly under cover with shops on each side and roads insecting them.
Stopping to buy an apple (about A$5) for Barbara, we spotted a sign that advertised curry so we took Barbara there for dinner. It turned out to be Japanese curry, which is basically fried breaded pork cutlet (Tonkatsu) with a glutinous gravy-like curry sauce but she enjoyed it - so we had a first! Some Japanese food that she liked and could eat!!

Guy was still hungry so we popped into one of those revolving sushi bars where Guy selected several pieces of sushi - only Y150 (A$2.25) each which was very reasonable. We finished the evening with coffee and cake in the tearoom of a local department store, where two giggling assistants couldn't work out what the gaijin wanted. We ended up with coffee and cake ... and icecream and cookies.
The shops in Himeji are lovely. We pored over some exquisite kimonos with matching slippers and handbags. The handbags were lacquered and amazingly expensive - Y58,000 (A$867) or more! Of course, the kimonos were pricey too - around the Y300,000 (A$4,500) mark, but I expected that more.
We had been told by a guide on one of our tours that every Japanese girl is given a "good" kimono by her parents at around this price. Unfortunately, she can only wear this kimono while she is young and single. Married or mature women wear a different type of kimono. So she only gets to wear this vision once or twice before it is put away as a family heirloom for her daughters. What a waste!!

We could see Himeji-jo, Castle of the White Egret, beckoning and went to bed early to prepare for a long day sightseeing. I spent some time reading up my Lonely Planet guide and mentally allocated at least two hours to walk through the castle, supposedly the best example of its kind.