Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

Goodbye, Land of the Rising Sun: 10 favorite things about traveling in Japan

As my two week journey in Japan wraps up, I admit I’ve grown quite fond of the Land of the Rising Sun.  It’s not a place that really matches my travel style– I like traveling in less-developed countries where different cultures meet and whose locals are more friendly and open– and some things drive me crazy (the lack of trash cans, the crowds of tourists, the way people look like zombies on the train, not very walkable cities…).  Despite those annoyances, there’s something positively huggage about this country, where everything is safe and everyone bows to each other.  Since physically hugging Japanese people would probably frighten them, instead I compiled a list of my favorite ten things about traveling in Japan, as my little love song this shy and humble country. 1) Excessive Amounts of Cuteness Japan is the land of bowties, ruffles, pastel colors and grown-ups who carried around stuffed creatures. Tokyo City, University of Tokyo and Tokyo’s top attractions have their own cartoon characters that smile and invite you to take selfies with them and want to be bought as charms for your cell phone. There are smiling, meticulously dressed shop girls in pigtails cooing “konnichawaaaaa…” as a siren song to invite you into their stores or restaurant. People in advertisements sparkle with a magical glow as they skip around in the sunshine, reaching almost disturbing levels of adorableness. 2) Signs That Make You Smile The average Japanese people you meet on the street can be a little standoff-ish, shy and hard to get to know but happy-go-lucky signs around the city reveal their unspoken good intentions. After briefly chatting with my barista at Starbucks, I received my coffee with a handwritten, “Have a good day in Japan!”, complete with a crooked smilie face. A bright yellow sign outside a Laundromat on my walk to the University proclaims unquestioningly “Today is a Good Day!”. A sign amidst a small patch of flowers on a random busy street in Roppongi urges passerbys “Let a flower bloom in your heart”. Simple messages like these remind me to appreciate the small things. 3) Appreciation of Art & Music From flower arrangements to calligraphy to free handmade origami creations outside the currency exchange at the airport, the Japanese appreciate quiet, simple and profound expressions of beauty. I often found elderly people making their own art with watercolors at the lake in Hakone, a dingy under-the-bridge bar street in Tokyo and even at on a university campus. In addition to an appreciation of art, they value classical music (which I appreciate much more than the awful J-Pop whose popularity I don’t really understand). During my time in Tokyo, I stumbled upon many free concerts that caused busy business to hang up their cell phones, put away their tablets and appreciate the music. Volvo sponsored a lunchtime concert every afternoon at the Shiodome, a shopping mall sponsored Japanese kids singing Broadway tunes and even the Robot Restaurant (a gaudy, touristy, un-classy place where Japanese girls battle automatons in their bikinis) put on a piano and flute concert while people waited for the real show to begin. 4) It’s Always Naptime! As someone who missed their entire felucca cruise in Cairo because I fell asleep immediately upon entering, the Japanese have an impressive ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere. Sitting, standing, in trains and buses, at bus stops… someone always has their eyes closed. Since Japan is so safe, you can sleep soundly knowing your wallet won’t get stolen or your cell phone swiped and auditory announcements regularly announce your location in Japanese and English to decrease the chances of you missing your stop. 5) Japanese Kids in School Uniforms Japanese kids are absolutely precious, especially when dressed in school uniforms. Every school and age group seems to have a different outfit with extensive accessories. Almost all kids have hats- I’ve seen sunny yellow caps with brims like duck-bills, suede bowling hats, floppy fisherman’s hats and peppy athletic baseball caps, all snugly secured with a chin strap. I’ve seen grey fleece Harry Potter capes, Scottish kilts, lots of knee socks and marching band pants. It’s so much fun to watch teachers try to control an energetic swarm of similarly-dressed school children with mischievous grins on their faces and ants in their pants. 6) Japanese Fashion, in General You’ll have to check out my people-watching post, which pays tribute to all the latest Tokyo trends, for details but walking the streets of Japan never gets old. Males and females rock platform shoes and it brings me back to the 90s when the Spice Girls reigned supreme. Japanese grannies sport rainbow colored workout wear with...

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Tokyo, Japan: Top Spots For People-Watching And Surrounding Attractions

Before coming to Tokyo, I was a little disappointed with the lack of strangeness I found in Japan. Where were the Japanese grandmas with purple hair? People who pay extra to drink coffee in cafes surrounded by cats they can’t touch? Man carrying around life-size pillow woman? As much as I don’t like big cities and dreaded coming to Japan’s crowded capital, the quality of people-watching more than compensated for feeling trapped by skyscrapers and watching my life waste away on trains.  This is the quirky, crazy capital that I dreamed about encountering, where the best attraction is the people walking past.  If you want to plan your visit around the most “fashionable” and ridiculous parts of town , pay close attention where to grab a seat and enjoy the show. 1) Cosplay Teeny-boppers on Takeshita Dori Street- Harajuku  Take the train to Harajuku on any weekend (supposedly Sundays are especially good) to see pre-teen fashion at its most extreme.  Geered for a younger crowd, the street is packed with cheap 100-yen shops, all-you-can-eat-buffets, crepe stands and used clothes stores (its a great place to buy a used kimono!) and the central zone for Cosplay (costume play).  Here, Japanese girls rebel against spend their weekdays in long skirts and pious pig-tails with wild wigs, short skirts and dramatic make-up.  I saw giant tiger backpacks, boys in green alien spandex, another guy dressed up like Rainbowbrite, many girls dressed as poofy princesses toting matching purses and stuffed animals.  Even the surrounding streets take part in the insanity… eight kids dressed up as Mariokart characters waited at a red light, surrounded by taxis and normal cars. While in the area:  On the other side of the railroad tracks, visit Meiji Jingu, one of Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrines.  On the weekends, you’ll likely find traditional Japanese wedding processions passing through, with the priest in platform shoes and the bride in a massive white headdress.  The tourists tend to stay near the main shrine but if you want a peaceful place to relax, pack a picnic to enjoy at the spacious Yoyogi Park.  If you need a one-stop shopping experience for souvenirs, try Oriental Bazaar’s two-story shop which contains everything from kimonos, to samurai swords, to traditional ceramics. 2) Straight-Off The Runway Supermodels at SHIBUYA109 And when I say “straight off the runway”, I mean straight out of those fashion shows where models are dressed in duct tape and feather outfits that would never fly in real life… except in Tokyo.  Shibuya109 is an 8-floor department store for women fully stocked with small boutiques from Japan’s top designers with names like “bubbles mart”, “doll kiss”,”merry me”, “peak & pine” and “titty & co”.  Each boutique has a small corner store of themed clothing sexy schoolgirl, gothic wedding, army brat, etc.  So the shops themselves are highly entertaining and surprisingly un-repeatitive, despite a mind-boggling number of stores.  Even more amusing than the shops themselves, are the  shoppers who are living embodiments of these obscure fashion trends.  The crowd near Shibuya tends to be older and have more money to afford female catsuits with over-the-knee leather boots, boyfriends with matching designer purses, fake eyelashes (beneath the eye) and more.  If I come back to Japan, forget cherry blossom season- I want to come to Halloween in Shibuya- check out a video here. While in the area:  When I heard that people crossing the street is one of Tokyo’s top tourist attractions, I shook my head in horror at tourists reaching a new level of pathetic-ness.  Then I happened to be there to witness it myself and I was mesmerized.  3000 people per minute cross this five way intersection in an event more magical than the parting of the Red Sea.  From below, it looks like the ultimate mob scene… humans swarming like ants overtaking a piece of dropped fruit.  From on high (the 2nd floor Starbucks where all the tourists go to witness the action), its surprising organized (which is  probably not surprising when you remember you’re in Japan where everything is organized).  This is just one of those things you need to see for yourself to believe. 3) Flannel and Hiking Tights at Mt. Takao When a Japanese friend invited me hiking at a mountain an hour from Tokyo by train, I envisioned dirt paths, fresh air, pit toilets and an invigorating void of people.  When I arrived at Mt. Takao, I quickly realized that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Japanese people love to get outside and as one of the closest hiking opportunities, Mt. Takao is the most highly trafficked mountain in the world.  A chairlift or cable car short-cuts...

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

Tokyo Day Trip: Hot Springs and Mountains in Hakone, Japan

If Tokyo’s cosmopolitan craziness has you yearning for fresh air, travel south for an hour or two for mountains, sleepy neighborhoods and onsens (hot spring baths) everywhere you look. I haven’t even gotten to the city yet and I was ready for some R&R. Immediately after reaching the Hakone-Yumata Station, you know time flows at a different pace. Instead of the uber-efficient metal trains you find around Japan, a charming, nostalgic red car chugging slowly along the tracks will pick you up. The train will stop a couple times, momentarily alarming the train, for the conductor to hop out, manually activate the switchbacks before you can continue on your merry way. Whatever stop you get out, it may contain a couple gift shops but you’ll probably have to wander up a mountain to find your accommodations for the evening. Hakone is one place where there’s not a convenient store within eyesight from anywhere but it’s kind of nice to experiment with mom and pop restaurants where you have no idea what you’re ordering. As with most tourist cities in Japan, Hakone has a fairly foolproof prescribed route through the town, that will take you five hours or so. It begins with a ropeway ride up Mount Owakudani, an active volcano probably responsible for the hot springs all over the place. If your day is anything like mine, you’ll inevitably encounter swarms of schoolchildren in matching uniforms and wide-brimmed hats. Judging by how many Japanese kids I saw along my trip today, they don’t go to school, they just go on field trips. Pre-teens dressed in yellow swarmed the ropeway station, girls gossiping and boys lovingly swatting each other on the heads. Ten-year-old kids dressed in white marched in perfectly straight lines on the trail to the hot spring. Toddlers in red uniforms held hands in pairs as they waited for the sightseeing cruise. Anyway, so once you advance past the army of kids, you will “float above” the trees as you ascend over 500 meters to the sulfur-smelling wasteland at Owakudani, formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. There’s a short (10-minute) hike through steaming streams with views of Mount Fiji on a clear day. Make sure to try the famous black eggs, cooked in the hot spring… it’s supposed to bring you seven additional years of life! From there, you’ll hop back on the ropeway to descend back down to Togendai-Ko port.  You’ll hop abroad an extravagant pirate ship (complete with a captain dressed for the occasion) for sight-seeing around the lake (including views of Mt. Fiji on a clear day).  I got out at Jakone Machi-Ko to walk by the lake, pass through the Ancient Cedar Avenue and check out the Hakone shrine (which was pretty minimal).  From there, you can hop back on the boat at Motohakone-Ko to return to the ropeways or I took the bus back to Gora. Hakone has a whole host of museums to chose from (several art museums, Hakone local museum, Hakone Museum of Art, Kitahara Toys Wonderland and even the Museum of Saint-Exupéry and The Little Prince… not sure why it’s here and not in France but that’s cool).  I had seen pictures from the Hakone Open-Air Museum, it sounded like a place I’d like and I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest. The sculpture garden hosts over 100 sculptures which rotate with the seasons.  Lucky for me, the leaves were changing which enhanced the experience further.  The grounds showcase the surrounding mountains and contain all sorts of modern metallic and funky colorful statues.  There’s also five exhibition halls to explore (sort of on the small side but still containing interesting pieces) and a foot bath onsen, if you need a break from walking around the extensive grounds. My favorite parts was a tower of stained glass with an observation tower on top, where you can look out on the surrounding valley.  They also had a knitted playscape where kids can play- I love interactive art like that! Song of the Moment: Volcano– Jimmy Buffet If YOU want to go to Hakone: It’s a less than two-hour trip from Shinjuku (Tokyo station) or Odawara Station. At both of these stations, you can buy a 2 or 3-day Hakone Free Pass which will cover all local Hakone transportation (ropeway, lake cruise, cable car, buses, train) and provides discounts on some museums. The trip can easily be done as a Tokyo day trip but I found it to be a relaxing place to spend the night, especially since your money goes much farther here and it would be difficult to find accommodations that include access to onsens… I spent one night at B&B Pension where...

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Miyajima Island And Hiroshima Attractions In Japan’s Hippie City

Ok, so “the Hippie City” may not be Hiroshima’s official nickname but what could be more appropriate for a place that proclaims peace from the rooftops, is covered in rainbow blankets of paper cranes and has extreme flower power from omni-present gardens! After teaching a nuclear science course for years, I felt it would be a travesty to come to Japan without seeing the atomic bomb memorials so that’s why I ended up in Hiroshima. While you can easily cover the major city attractions in an afternoon, I found Hiroshima has something to offer everyone- large parks, beautiful waterfront views, excellent shopping and nightlife. And I found Hiroshima attractions to be very walkable. There’s street cars if you need extra speed but everything I wanted to visit was quite close. I think my visit to Hiroshima was rather typical so I don’t have a tremendous amount of insider tips to add. I started by wandering around the sculptures and gardens at the Peace Park, the A-bomb dome to commemorate the epi-center then visited the Atomic Bomb memorial museum (cheapest museum in Japan so far for 50 yen admission!). The museum wasn’t huge but it was poignant and moving and sometimes gross. You could see the tattered clothing of school children fried by the blast, shadows on steps from someone vaporized by the heat, pieces of skin and tongues containing cancerous growths resulting from radiation exposure. The exhibits made me tear up because for a relatively small country, Japan has had more than its share of tragedy: two atomic bombs, a nuclear power plant disaster and countless earthquakes, tsumnis, volcanoes and typhoons. As with all countries, Japan isn’t perfect but it’s uplifting to see a site that witnessed such devastation into a beautiful spot of peaceful reflection, that really makes you appreciate being alive. After the museum, I headed to Okonomi-mura, an international food hall in search of Okonomiyaki, the area’s famous dish. I headed up the stairs and pulled up a barstool at a packed, hole-in-the-wall place where students, couples and businessmen sat around a sizzling metal hot plate. Two chefs worked furiously to feed everyone with towering stacks of cabbage, bean sprouts, soba noodles, pork and egg. I later learned the dish originated sometime after WWII, when people mixed US Army flour rations with water, spread it on a hot plate and sprinkled it with spring onion. Now people like to stuff it with all the things I mentioned above and it makes an incredibly hearty and delicious meal. To work off some of my full stomach, I waddled off to Shukkein Gardens to witness whether gardens in Japan look anything like the Japanese Gardens I’ve visited in the West. I wasn’t disappointed. The whole gardens were arranged around a beautiful reflecting pond, which hosted lazily paddling turtles, greedy larger-than-life coi fish and even a few herons. Adorable arched bridges encouraged me to get closer to the waterfowl and there were plenty of gazebos to kick back and relax. After reviving my inner-Zen amongst the lily pads, I looped around to Hiroshima Castle, Gokuku-jinga Shrine and Central Park. You can pay to get closer to the castle (which is highly unnecessary) but the rest of the park is free to explore and the grounds behind the fort structure are quite extensive. On my way back, I found a small sculpture garden associated with Hiroshima Museum of Art and enjoyed the elephant found and giant, gleaming silver goddess. Miyajima Island Less than an hour away from Hiroshima city center, you can be transported to the magical, mystical island of Miyajima, supposedly one of the top three scenic spots in this country. It’s also a pilgrimage spot for rice lovers, since you can find the world’s largest rice scoop in the O-shamoji stop, if that’s on your bucket list. The postcard-perfect image of Miyajima is the vermillion Oh-torri Gate, perched on the Seto Inland Sea, welcoming visitors to the island. These torri gates usually signify the boundary between sacred land where gods live and non-sacred land, which is why you often find them at entrances to shrines. Although I knew what to expect, the combination of those gleaming gates and the glistening sea against a mountainous background, approach the island did feel like entering somewhere holy. When you land, you’ll encounter deer roaming everywhere, cheerfully munching on grass or bathing in river streams, not even disturbed in the slightest by foreign tourists. I started at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (actually the whole island earned UNESCO recognition), which is one exception to the“Shinto shrines are free” rule but it’s worth...

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Fun, Cheap and Free Attractions in Kyoto, Japan

Traveling in Japan is notoriously expensive and there’s truth to that.  If you want a roof over your head and to travel between attractions, you’re going to need money to be here (unless you find a Japanese girlfriend with the Tinder app).  Because of space limitations and a shy culture, I’ve had minimal luck with couch surfing (except as a way to connect to fellow travelers).  I love to walk and have no problem walking an hour to a destination but despite what the brochure says “Kyoto: the walkable city”, there’s no way you can cover Kyoto by walking.  Despite these challenges, I’ve found some ways to have fun and keep things affordable in the “City of a Thousand Shrines”, including several free attractions in Kyoto.  Here’s some suggestions of budget-friendly ways to see this city (some of it applies across the country). 1) Shrines And Temple Grounds Can Be Visited For Free! In Japan, you have two main types of religious places of worship: shinto shrines (ninja) and Buddhist temples (otera).  As a general rule, shrines are free to visit.  Usually their names include “-jingu” and have a flowing water source with ladles, which should be used to purify yourself before entering.  The Japanese approach these altars by bowing twice, clapping their hands twice, bowing a third time then praying.  In Kyoto, definitely visit the Yasaka Shrine in the heart of Gion (the geisha district) and Fushimi Inari Shrine (the shrine of a thousand gates, which has a good hour-long hike to the top of the mountain) both of which are free.  There are smaller shrines throughout the city and since they don’t charge admission, it’s a great way to experience Japanese hospitality. Buddhist temples usually charge admission (300-600 yen) and their names are often end in -dera, -tera or -ji.  A large, FREE Buddhist temple right down the street from Yasaka Shrine is Chugen-ji, which provides a more realistic view of real-life Buddhist practice.  I don’t think too many tourists visit but I enjoyed walking around, seeing Buddhist graveyards and bumping into wandering monks, including the site scribe doing calligraphy in open room. Another tip for visiting temples is that you can often access most of the gardens and grounds for free.  For example, Kiyomizu-Dera temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and I didn’t actually pay to go inside (since usually you can’t see inside any of the buildings anyway) but I could explore the surrounding gates and gardens and cute stone figures dressed in colorful clothes.  Surrounding the temple, you can also find shops selling traditional treats, artisan crafts and souvenirs so you can shop too. I paid for the UNESCO Golden Pavilion temple since it was one of the reasons I came to Japan.  It’s a beautiful, glimmering serene building on a lake but your ticket basically just gives you access to walk around the lake so understand that’s what you’re paying for. 2) Day Trip to Saga-Arashiyama With a quick 20-minute trip on a train from Kyoto station (free if you have a JR pass), you can be transported to a serene, riverside mountain-side getaway with… you guessed it!  More temples!  But not only that.  Preserved historic villages,  a monkey park (~500 yen for mediocre macaque monkeys) and hiking opportunities.  In general, it’s a cute town, a nice change of pace and you can entertain yourself nearly all day, just by walking around.  3) Japanese Tea Party For penny pinchers who want to sip tea peacefully, you can find cafes around town with gardens who will give you access to their oasis, a cup of tea and a sweet for approximately 500 yen.  I bumped into several of these around Saga-Arishiyama but I’m sure you can find something similar in Kyoto too. For a tea ceremony experience, check out En in Gion area or you can consider creating or joining up with a private event at Totousha tea house (both cost ~2000 yen including snacks and tea).   Lucky for me, I had a friend-of-a-friend who lives in a beautiful “share” house in North Kyoto so I had the pleasure of attending a semi-traditional tea ceremony at the second location. Totousha runs matcha tea ceremonies in a beautiful traditional-style house with open walls, bamboo mats and decorations personalized for the occasion, which for me was a moon honoring ceremony.  There was about twenty of us in attendance, sitting in a circle behind out bamboo mats in candlelight, feeling the post-thyphoon breezes from the open door.  As a ceremony for friends, it was a little louder, more fun and less formal than a true traditional ceremony but it still lasted a few hours and followed the traditional sequence....

Initial Impressions Of Japan: Strange and Semi-Contradictory

Initial Impressions Of Japan: Strange and Semi-Contradictory

After an eternal flight, I landed in Narita airport with an electrified head of hair sticking out in every direction and red eyes from back-to-back red eye flights. Sure enough, just as I descended down the stairs to catch my train, a man with a giant video camera, mic man and cute translator lady swooped down and zoomed in. “Japan TV! Why did you come to Japan?”, the woman translated animatedly, spinning me in a pirouette to show off my intricately arranged multi-backpack system. I explained about research and tourism but they prodded deeper. “What are you most excited to see in Japan?”. I tried to awaken my brain, grasping for a more legitimate response than “Uhhh… I want to see strange things. Like the black squid burger in Japan”. The cute translator relayed my message in a shortened sentence, “She wants to go to Burger King!”. The camera and microphone man nodded their heads knowingly, waving the camera up and down and let out a “ah-ha!” as if it made perfect sense to fly to Japan from America to go to Burger King. What do I think of Japan so far? It’s a country that seems to have its act together, with trains arriving on maze-like tracks like clockwork, but underneath all the apparent organization, I’m not sure people actually know what’s going on. From what I can gather from my epic public transportation voyage and two days in Kyoto, “the City of Ten Thousand Shrines”, Japan is: 1) Efficient. Those bullet trains (and the public transportation system from bus to subway to local trains) are amazing, and it blows my mind to think that this week marks the 50th anniversary of the virgin voyage from Tokyo to Osaka. When I first picked up a train at Narita Airport, the people piled out quickly and efficiently, a flock of uniformed broom-carriers descended on the train, picking up trash, sweeping and switching the direction of the seats around in a two-second whirlwind, then disappeared as quickly as they came, kind of like the magical munchkins from Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. When I boarded my first bullet train, the conductor was neatly outfitted in a blue, brass-buttoned uniform complete with white gloves, double-checking the electronic programmed departure against an old-fashioned pocket watch and her iPhone. Not surprisingly, I think the train left on time. It’s probably the only country where you should program your watch according to the arrival of the trains because it’s THAT precise. In addition for their efficient transportation system, they are amazingly space efficient too. The toilets in my hostel have a sink built into the top of the toilets so when you flush, the water flows from the sink and that water is used to flush the toilet. Pretty nifty! And it reminds people to wash their hands… I like it!  Other toilets have remote control systems… I’m not sure what they control but it’s not unusual to find a toilet that plays waterfall noises and has heated seats. 2) Inconsistently technological. Even though Japan has earned a hypermodern, tech-savvy reputation, it doesn’t seem to pervasively translate into their society. Sure they have robo-priests that can conduct weddings ceremonies in five languages according to four religious traditions but is that really a good use of brain power? I’ve been reading “Japan Behind The Lines” by Dan Hill, an Australian who spent a couple decades here, and it provides fascinating insight into the Japanese life-style, from karaoke bars to bento boxes to school girl date clubs. He visited the headquarters of Japan’s world-famous 1.3 billion dollar earthquake prediction system. In 30 years of existence, it never correctly predicted an earthquake, missing at least ten including one in Kobe, which killed 7000 people and left behind billions of dollars in damage. Priorities, people! From a practical point of view too, free wifi is very hard to come by (you can get it in Starbucks or 711 but you need Internet to register to be able to take advantage…) and it took me hours before I could find an electronics store to buy a camera SIM card. I guess Japanese electronics are cheaper to buy and easier to find in the US… how does that make sense? 3) Xenophobic. When I first landed in Tokyo, showed people my train ticket to confirm that I was walking in the right direction, the first three people gestured wildly to wave me away, as if I were the devil. I have found people in Kyoto to be nicer, friendlier and more helpful but those first encounters in Tokyo were not positive. As a tourist, you can...