Pleasant surprises on a carefully planned stay in Japan

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by Larry Taylor, Fullerton, CA

Japan is a land of contrasts: temples and technology, kimonos and karaoke, Buddhas and baseball. . .
My wife and I have always thought we would like to visit Japan, but we had heard stories about high prices and difficulties getting around in the congested cities. These perceptions led us to put off a visit.

But in spring ’04 we decided to spend four days in the Tokyo/Kyoto area after disembarking from an Orient cruise on the Crystal Harmony. We would “get our feet wet,” as they say, with this short stay. As it turned out, all our preconceived notions contrasted with what we actually found.

Because of the few days we had, we figured we should preplan as much as possible. After all, with a population of more than 26 million, Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world — not a place in which to aimlessly wander. For help we contacted the L.A. office of the Japan National Tourist Organization, or JNTO (phone 213/623-1952 or visit www.jnto.go.jp), which helped us immeasurably in setting our agenda.

Finding reasonable lodgings

The first things we realized upon arriving in Tokyo is that we didn’t have to spend a lot of money and it wasn’t hard to get around. First-class hotels ranged from $250 to $450.

But after reading JNTO’s “Your Guide to Japan,” we decided our best bet was to stay in the so-called business hotels at around $125 a night. These hotels appeal to travelers as well as locals. Accommodations are strictly “no frills,” but rooms are clean and comfortable. After all, we were going to spend our time sightseeing and didn’t need a pool, spa or fancy restaurant to return to.

The New Otani Hotel Group, one of Japan’s top hotel chains, owns the New Otani Inn (1-6-2 Osaki, Shinagawa-ku; visit http://
hrt.newotani.co.jp or, in the U.S., phone 213/629-1200), which fits into the business category. Its location, adjacent to Osaki Station, was extremely convenient — only a 5-minute walk to catch transportation. The rate included a full breakfast, with both American and Japanese selections.

Tokyo transportation

Getting around is easy and inexpensive in Tokyo. Among the cleanest cities in the world, it also has one of the most technologically efficient rail systems. If the schedule says 9:53, be on the station platform early, ready to board. Subways cost no more than they do in any large city (one-day passes about $7).

Signs and maps are in English, and personnel selling tickets speak enough English to answer questions, particularly if you point to your destination on the map.

Eating out

Dining can also be very reasonable, especially if you are adventurous. We looked for restaurants that the locals frequented, particularly ones that served traditional Japanese dishes.

For example, on our first day for lunch we found an eatery that specialized in noodle dishes, featuring udon (made from wheat) and soba (from buckwheat) noodles. It was crowded and no one spoke much English. We had trouble communicating, but by gesturing, and with the help of a kindly lady who spoke a few words of English, we got our orders across. By the way, everywhere we went people were eager to help us.

We thoroughly enjoyed slurping with our fellow diners, and the noodle dishes were the best ever — hardy, delicious and filled with vegetables and pork. With beer and Coke, our bill came to $10. As we left, we gave the chef a “thumbs up” and shouted “Ichiban” (“Number 1”).

Another day, we went to a restaurant that we heard specialized in a dish similar to egg foo yong called okonomiyaki. Our server presented us with a bowl of shredded cabbage with bean sprouts and scallions topped with a mayonnaise-type substance and an egg, adding meats or shrimp to our taste. We mixed it and spooned it onto a grill (built into each table), and when it began to harden like a pancake we flipped it over, eating this tasty entrée right from the grill. We enjoyed doing it ourselves while watching others eating variations of the same.

If you want the best sashimi or cooked seafood, go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Visitor can enjoy the spectacle of buyers and sellers bidding for the day’s catch, then go to a nearby restaurant for fresh fish direct from the market. An abundance of popularly priced places for dining is available. Most display in their front windows colorful plastic models of the food they serve, along with the prices.

Sightseeing in Tokyo

During our 2-day Tokyo stay, we left our room every morning with our destinations carefully planned. Among the sites we visited were the following:

• Imperial Palace — Visitors can get into the emperor’s residence only a few times a year, but the gardens around the palace are well worth seeing. We shot pictures from the prime photo spot on Nijubashi Bridge, where a corner of the castle can be seen peeking from behind the moat and surrounding wall.

• Asakusa Kannon Temple — This is the city’s most beloved Buddhist shrine, founded in the seventh century to enshrine a gold statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which was brought up from the Sumida River in a net by fishermen.

As it turned out, we couldn’t get close enough to see it. The day of our visit marked the beginning of the annual spring Sanja Matsuri Festival. Hordes of worshipers descended on the shrine. Men, women and children, all dressed in traditional garb, carried gold-lacquered shrines from the temple through the streets. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, inching through side alleys and passing traditional family shops and stalls selling a plethora of food and goods.

• Ginza district — This is the Times Square of Japan, the place where East meets West. Exclusive shops, high-tech showrooms, restaurants and theaters abound in this section of wide avenues, elegant stores and gourmet restaurants.

• Ueno Park — This is Tokyo’s largest park, and in early April it is one of the best places to see pink cherry blossoms. It’s also a center for art and culture, with many varied museums, including the Tokyo National Museum. We were especially taken with an ancient statue in a corner of the park; it was of a Samurai and his dog and was dedicated to the fact that his shogun had banned killing animals.

• Edo-Tokyo Museum — Featuring large-scale models, this is the place to go to really appreciate Japanese history and lifestyles.

Kabuki theater

We’re theater lovers, so we had to see Kabuki, Japan’s traditional stylized form of theater dating from the 17th century. With all-male casts, it features vivid makeup, spectacular sets and costumes, and musicians playing percussive drums and stringed instruments at the side. Playgoers get so involved with the action that they yell to the actors on stage. This is Shakespeare to the Japanese.

We rented headphones and were able to follow the story in English. It was a unique experience.

Matinees and evening performances usually feature several plays and can last some five hours. However, it is possible to buy reduced-price tickets to see only a portion of the program.

Kyoto and Hiiragiya Ryokan

After two days in Tokyo it was time to go to Kyoto, and on this part of our stay we decided to splurge. First, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto ($260 round trip). With its futuristic design, it looks like it came right out of a science-fiction film.

We caught a late-morning train and were at our destination before lunch. We hardly realized we were going 240 mph. It took us about 90 minutes to make the 313-mile journey.

Our other splurge was to stay in a traditional historical ryokan inn, the Hiiragiya Ryokan (phone 075 221 1136 or visit ww.hiiragiya.co.jp). The doors in each room were sliding shoji screens; floors were made of rice straw matting. At night we slept on thick-cushioned futons rolled out on the floor — as comfortable as our mattress at home.

Tired from an afternoon of sightseeing, we took a soak in the cedar hot tub in our room. For families and groups, there is a traditional communal tub.

Relaxed and refreshed, we dried off and put on the provided robes, ready for a cocktail and dinner. As we were relaxing, looking out at the lovely garden outside, Keiko, the innkeeper, knocked on our door and invited us to meet a group of geishas who were in the lobby waiting to entertain a group of businessmen at a dinner party that night in the ryokan. We were invited to take photos. Indeed, this was a serendipitous experience.

Promptly at 7:00, a kimono-clad attendant came to our room and invited us to sit at a low table as she served dinner. Called a kaiseki, the meal consisted of eight small courses, each featuring gorgeously presented dishes, alternating between meat, seafood and vegetables.

Hiiragiya is considered one of the best ryokans in Japan, and our stay there will remain one of our fondest memories. Rooms start around $280 per person, which includes two meals, a kaiseki dinner and an equally fine breakfast.

Historical sites of Kyoto

There are so many wonderful places to visit in Kyoto that we should have stayed several days. With just two, we limited ourselves to visiting only the most popular sites, saving our final afternoon for a trip to Miyama.

• Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)— Built in the 12th century, it is Kyoto’s most celebrated attraction. Its gilded, 3-story pavilion is best appreciated if viewed from across Kyokochi Pond, where it appears to shimmer as it merges with its reflection in the water.

• Nijo Castle — On display here is the lavish compound from which shoguns ruled. Especially interesting are the various meeting rooms, each gorgeously decorated with scenes from nature, along with the great hall, where rulers received dignitaries on the raised throne.

• Kiyomizu Temple — Originally built in A.D. 798, the temple complex filled with fountains and streams is located in a lush hillside forest. We were especially taken with the grand view of Kyoto from the platform of the main hall.

• Ryoanji Temple — Famous for its serene, 15th-century Zen rock garden, this is surely one of most photographed spots in the world.

Fifteen rocks of various sizes are artfully arranged in sand. Sitting in a viewing area, visitors from around the world contemplate its meaning. Is it symbolic of the natural world or, as a popular interpretation puts it, a mother tiger and her cubs swimming in a river of white sand toward a fearful dragon?

• Kodaiji Temple — From a room looking out on the garden here, we took part in an ancient tea ceremony arranged for us, alone. We felt privileged to get this insight into Japanese culture.

Miyama

On our final afternoon in Kyoto, we took a guided tour to Miyama, 45 minutes through the mountains outside Kyoto. We had seen the crowded cities; now it was good to get out in the country.

Miyama is a popular tourist area, with a wide stream rushing through a canyon plus a lake nearby. A village of thatch-roofed homes has been set aside as a historical site. It was a treat to wander down lanes, greeting farmers planting rice in paddies or picking tea leaves just as their ancestors had done for centuries.

The time came, too soon, to return to Tokyo for our flight home the next day. We now tell our friends not to hesitate to visit this wonderful country.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

by Larry Taylor, Fullerton, CA

Japan is a land of contrasts: temples and technology, kimonos and karaoke, Buddhas and baseball. . .
My wife and I have always thought we would like to visit Japan, but we had heard stories about high prices and difficulties getting around in the congested cities. These perceptions led us to put off a visit.

But in spring ’04 we decided to spend four days in the Tokyo/Kyoto area after disembarking from an Orient cruise on the Crystal Harmony. We would “get our feet wet,” as they say, with this short stay. As it turned out, all our preconceived notions contrasted with what we actually found.

Because of the few days we had, we figured we should preplan as much as possible. After all, with a population of more than 26 million, Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world — not a place in which to aimlessly wander. For help we contacted the L.A. office of the Japan National Tourist Organization, or JNTO (phone 213/623-1952 or visit www.jnto.go.jp), which helped us immeasurably in setting our agenda.

Finding reasonable lodgings

The first things we realized upon arriving in Tokyo is that we didn’t have to spend a lot of money and it wasn’t hard to get around. First-class hotels ranged from $250 to $450.

But after reading JNTO’s “Your Guide to Japan,” we decided our best bet was to stay in the so-called business hotels at around $125 a night. These hotels appeal to travelers as well as locals. Accommodations are strictly “no frills,” but rooms are clean and comfortable. After all, we were going to spend our time sightseeing and didn’t need a pool, spa or fancy restaurant to return to.

The New Otani Hotel Group, one of Japan’s top hotel chains, owns the New Otani Inn (1-6-2 Osaki, Shinagawa-ku; visit http://
hrt.newotani.co.jp or, in the U.S., phone 213/629-1200), which fits into the business category. Its location, adjacent to Osaki Station, was extremely convenient — only a 5-minute walk to catch transportation. The rate included a full breakfast, with both American and Japanese selections.

Tokyo transportation

Getting around is easy and inexpensive in Tokyo. Among the cleanest cities in the world, it also has one of the most technologically efficient rail systems. If the schedule says 9:53, be on the station platform early, ready to board. Subways cost no more than they do in any large city (one-day passes about $7).

Signs and maps are in English, and personnel selling tickets speak enough English to answer questions, particularly if you point to your destination on the map.

Eating out

Dining can also be very reasonable, especially if you are adventurous. We looked for restaurants that the locals frequented, particularly ones that served traditional Japanese dishes.

For example, on our first day for lunch we found an eatery that specialized in noodle dishes, featuring udon (made from wheat) and soba (from buckwheat) noodles. It was crowded and no one spoke much English. We had trouble communicating, but by gesturing, and with the help of a kindly lady who spoke a few words of English, we got our orders across. By the way, everywhere we went people were eager to help us.

We thoroughly enjoyed slurping with our fellow diners, and the noodle dishes were the best ever — hardy, delicious and filled with vegetables and pork. With beer and Coke, our bill came to $10. As we left, we gave the chef a “thumbs up” and shouted “Ichiban” (“Number 1”).

Another day, we went to a restaurant that we heard specialized in a dish similar to egg foo yong called okonomiyaki. Our server presented us with a bowl of shredded cabbage with bean sprouts and scallions topped with a mayonnaise-type substance and an egg, adding meats or shrimp to our taste. We mixed it and spooned it onto a grill (built into each table), and when it began to harden like a pancake we flipped it over, eating this tasty entrée right from the grill. We enjoyed doing it ourselves while watching others eating variations of the same.

If you want the best sashimi or cooked seafood, go to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Visitor can enjoy the spectacle of buyers and sellers bidding for the day’s catch, then go to a nearby restaurant for fresh fish direct from the market. An abundance of popularly priced places for dining is available. Most display in their front windows colorful plastic models of the food they serve, along with the prices.

Sightseeing in Tokyo

During our 2-day Tokyo stay, we left our room every morning with our destinations carefully planned. Among the sites we visited were the following:

• Imperial Palace — Visitors can get into the emperor’s residence only a few times a year, but the gardens around the palace are well worth seeing. We shot pictures from the prime photo spot on Nijubashi Bridge, where a corner of the castle can be seen peeking from behind the moat and surrounding wall.

• Asakusa Kannon Temple — This is the city’s most beloved Buddhist shrine, founded in the seventh century to enshrine a gold statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, which was brought up from the Sumida River in a net by fishermen.

As it turned out, we couldn’t get close enough to see it. The day of our visit marked the beginning of the annual spring Sanja Matsuri Festival. Hordes of worshipers descended on the shrine. Men, women and children, all dressed in traditional garb, carried gold-lacquered shrines from the temple through the streets. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, inching through side alleys and passing traditional family shops and stalls selling a plethora of food and goods.

• Ginza district — This is the Times Square of Japan, the place where East meets West. Exclusive shops, high-tech showrooms, restaurants and theaters abound in this section of wide avenues, elegant stores and gourmet restaurants.

• Ueno Park — This is Tokyo’s largest park, and in early April it is one of the best places to see pink cherry blossoms. It’s also a center for art and culture, with many varied museums, including the Tokyo National Museum. We were especially taken with an ancient statue in a corner of the park; it was of a Samurai and his dog and was dedicated to the fact that his shogun had banned killing animals.

• Edo-Tokyo Museum — Featuring large-scale models, this is the place to go to really appreciate Japanese history and lifestyles.

Kabuki theater

We’re theater lovers, so we had to see Kabuki, Japan’s traditional stylized form of theater dating from the 17th century. With all-male casts, it features vivid makeup, spectacular sets and costumes, and musicians playing percussive drums and stringed instruments at the side. Playgoers get so involved with the action that they yell to the actors on stage. This is Shakespeare to the Japanese.

We rented headphones and were able to follow the story in English. It was a unique experience.

Matinees and evening performances usually feature several plays and can last some five hours. However, it is possible to buy reduced-price tickets to see only a portion of the program.

Kyoto and Hiiragiya Ryokan

After two days in Tokyo it was time to go to Kyoto, and on this part of our stay we decided to splurge. First, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto ($260 round trip). With its futuristic design, it looks like it came right out of a science-fiction film.

We caught a late-morning train and were at our destination before lunch. We hardly realized we were going 240 mph. It took us about 90 minutes to make the 313-mile journey.

Our other splurge was to stay in a traditional historical ryokan inn, the Hiiragiya Ryokan (phone 075 221 1136 or visit ww.hiiragiya.co.jp). The doors in each room were sliding shoji screens; floors were made of rice straw matting. At night we slept on thick-cushioned futons rolled out on the floor — as comfortable as our mattress at home.

Tired from an afternoon of sightseeing, we took a soak in the cedar hot tub in our room. For families and groups, there is a traditional communal tub.

Relaxed and refreshed, we dried off and put on the provided robes, ready for a cocktail and dinner. As we were relaxing, looking out at the lovely garden outside, Keiko, the innkeeper, knocked on our door and invited us to meet a group of geishas who were in the lobby waiting to entertain a group of businessmen at a dinner party that night in the ryokan. We were invited to take photos. Indeed, this was a serendipitous experience.

Promptly at 7:00, a kimono-clad attendant came to our room and invited us to sit at a low table as she served dinner. Called a kaiseki, the meal consisted of eight small courses, each featuring gorgeously presented dishes, alternating between meat, seafood and vegetables.

Hiiragiya is considered one of the best ryokans in Japan, and our stay there will remain one of our fondest memories. Rooms start around $280 per person, which includes two meals, a kaiseki dinner and an equally fine breakfast.

Historical sites of Kyoto

There are so many wonderful places to visit in Kyoto that we should have stayed several days. With just two, we limited ourselves to visiting only the most popular sites, saving our final afternoon for a trip to Miyama.

• Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)— Built in the 12th century, it is Kyoto’s most celebrated attraction. Its gilded, 3-story pavilion is best appreciated if viewed from across Kyokochi Pond, where it appears to shimmer as it merges with its reflection in the water.

• Nijo Castle — On display here is the lavish compound from which shoguns ruled. Especially interesting are the various meeting rooms, each gorgeously decorated with scenes from nature, along with the great hall, where rulers received dignitaries on the raised throne.

• Kiyomizu Temple — Originally built in A.D. 798, the temple complex filled with fountains and streams is located in a lush hillside forest. We were especially taken with the grand view of Kyoto from the platform of the main hall.

• Ryoanji Temple — Famous for its serene, 15th-century Zen rock garden, this is surely one of most photographed spots in the world.

Fifteen rocks of various sizes are artfully arranged in sand. Sitting in a viewing area, visitors from around the world contemplate its meaning. Is it symbolic of the natural world or, as a popular interpretation puts it, a mother tiger and her cubs swimming in a river of white sand toward a fearful dragon?

• Kodaiji Temple — From a room looking out on the garden here, we took part in an ancient tea ceremony arranged for us, alone. We felt privileged to get this insight into Japanese culture.

Miyama

On our final afternoon in Kyoto, we took a guided tour to Miyama, 45 minutes through the mountains outside Kyoto. We had seen the crowded cities; now it was good to get out in the country.

Miyama is a popular tourist area, with a wide stream rushing through a canyon plus a lake nearby. A village of thatch-roofed homes has been set aside as a historical site. It was a treat to wander down lanes, greeting farmers planting rice in paddies or picking tea leaves just as their ancestors had done for centuries.

The time came, too soon, to return to Tokyo for our flight home the next day. We now tell our friends not to hesitate to visit this wonderful country.