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...

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....

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

A Lightening Tour: Luxor, Egypt in 24 hours

Immediately after getting off the train in Luxor, I was swarmed: taxi drivers, hostel owners, souvenir sellers and cafe owners. I waved them away, called my host, but they followed me thinking that if they waved their hands more vigorously, I might actually buy something. So that’s how I traveled down the street of Luxor: talking on my phone to Ernesto, leading a parade of skinny Egyptian guys, brochure flags a-flying to shouts of “welcome!” And “maybe later?”. Fighting my way to the café where Ernesto (my host) told me to wait for him, a Finnish woman came to my rescue and shooed my followers away. She asked, “I saw that you needed help. Can I sit and wait with you? I wanted to go shopping but with Ramadan all the stores are closed. They’ll reopen in an hour. Maybe”. I happily made room and we chatted under the shade, covering our juices with our hands to keep out the leaves and bird poop that was raining down from the tree above. She married an Egyptian, owns a café and has lived in Luxor the past four years. When I asked her whether she lived living here, she shrugged. “It’s cheap, it’s where my husband is from and we built a house. I still don’t understand them- they’re always praying, shops are never open when you want them to be but Luxor’s nice. Even during the revolution, Luxor was safe”. I asked her if she spoke Arabic, and she sighed apologetically, “I know a few words. I should learn. Building my house taught me that. I thought I could communicate with the workers and tell them to paint the walls gold- I showed them too. I turned my back and all of a sudden, the interior of my home was bright orange”. I get the impression that ex-pats don’t make too much of an effort to integrate themselves and resign themselves to a chaotic existence. But at least it doesn’t cost much. Dripping with sweat, the pale-skinned, redheaded Ernesto eventually arrived, panting and complaining about finding a bus around the fast-breaking time. Since nothing operates as it should during Ramadan (somehow I doubt things operate on schedule, ever in Egypt). We bid farewell and good luck to the Finnish woman, stowed my luggage at Ernesto’s favorite café then headed across the street to the Luxor temple, which they keep open after dark. From a young age, back home in Uruguay, Egyptian culture fascinated Ernesto and all he wanted for his birthdays were books about this ancient civilization. He first came to Luxor in 2004 to study Egyptology, stayed near the Valley of the King with locals and was treated as one of the family. He returned twice since then, and when the government relocated the family out of the hills to new land in the middle of nowhere, Ernesto decided to build a house in the family complex and stay. I asked him whether he planned to stay forever and he replied, “who knows? Moving here just kind of happened. It only cost a couple month’s rent in Uruguay to build this house. I’m here now. Where I’ll be permanently, God only knows”. Approaching the temple, I felt instantly dwarfed by the massive structure. I walked backward, trying to zoom out enough to capture the entrance in a photograph. Ernesto gestured for me to walk further back, down a pathway lined with sphinxes, for a more dramatic shot. He claimed that the government hopes to continue this path from to the enormous Karnak Temple Complex, which makes this one look teeny. He explained how ordinary citizens weren’t allowed inside the temple and how the temple got smaller the farther you walked back, because of increasing restrictions about who can access it. Local Life in Luxor Our conversations about Egypt continued well after we finished the temple tour and took the ferry to his home on the West Bank. He told me about how his host family lost their tourist shop and source of income when the government relocated them but their hospitality for Ernesto never waned. In their current village, they deal with daily power outages, unannounced water shortages and even the “supermarket” was a sad sight: no bread, no fruits and veggies and you’ll have to battle your neighbors for chicken which sells out quickly after a shipment arrives. However, the family works through these difficulties together and Ernesto was proud to be a part of it. When we returned to his home, he pulled books out of his Egyptian library to show me pictures of what I would be seeing in my...

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Nubian Culture & Hospitality in Aswan, Egypt

Why did I chose Egypt? Well, that’s obvious. How could anyone resist the mysterious allure of glittering pharaohs, camel caravans in the desert anti-gravitational curling beards and mummy doctors who pull brains out of your noses. Why Aswan? Bloggers promised Aswan would be relaxing, felucca-filled (feluccas are Egyptian sailboats) city on the Nile and claimed it housed the majority of the Nubian population. Egypt would be my first trip to Africa and I thought these beautiful, dark people in flowing robes could give me more of an African experience than I would find in Cairo or Alexandria. When a Nubian couch surfer invited me to stay in his village on Elephantine Island, I couldn’t be more excited. Arrival in Aswan I arrived in Aswan slightly before midnight and the first person I met as I exited the airport was my Nubian taxi driver, Mohammad (who told me that every man in this country will be named Mohammad, Ahmed or Sherif). He hoisted my bags with a surprising amount of agility for a guy in a man-dress then warmly welcomed me to his beloved home of Aswan. After our preliminary introductions, he took it upon himself to teach me some Arabic and Nubian.  I promptly forgot both but Nubian is exclusively a spoken language and apparently not well-documented online so those words are lost forever.  The Internet helped me recovered some Arabic.  Firstly, I learned: “Welcome” (ahlan wa sahlan, which everyone says ALL THE TIME) and, secondly, “I love you” (ana b’hebbek). I didn’t know it at the time but this interaction uncovered the first grand truth of traveling in Egypt: if proclamation of love or marriage doesn’t come up within five minutes (usually less) of talking to a man, he’s not from around here. I’ve been called Madame and Shakira, had dozens of kisses blown my way and received over two dozen marriage proposals within 48 hours. Anyway, back to the taxi drive: Mohammad took me on an animated tour of Aswan, pointing out the new football stadium, an old-looking cemetery and a line of papyrus and perfume shops. Since I visited during Ramadan, the city really came alive at night. Blinking Christmas lights illuminated the mosques, shiny streamers decorated homes and everyone was outside: eating snacks, kicking around balls in the middle of street and smoking hookah in make-shift cafes. He dropped me at a dark ferry station where the teen fee-collector gorged himself on a plastic-bag full of pita bread. Sure enough, it was the wrong ferry station but Gasser, my host, sorted out the mix-up with a phone call to the attendant (once the boy stopped chewing) and came to my rescue. Brief History of the Nubian People Gasser is a 100% Nubian and proud of it. He had worked as a masseuse on cruise ships in Aswan but after the Egyptian Revolution, as with many working in tourism, he lost his job but now works in Sudan for a few months at a time. When the ferry dropped us off and we shuffled through dark, sandy streets to the house, Gasser shared the story of his people. Nubians used to rule the Pharaohs of Egypt in their kingdom between Egypt and Sudan but when the Pharaohs grew in strength they kicked Nubians out of Egypt. Although they lost their kingdom, Nubians slowly began to re-integrate themselves into Egyptian society but in 1960, when the Egyptian president decided to build the Aswan high dam, they lost their lands. Half returned to Northern Sudan and the remainder stayed in Southern Egypt. Gasser, like many of the Nubians who grew up on the banks of the Nile, was educated in Egyptian schools, learned Arabic and now Nubians peacefully co-exist with the Egyptian people. Gasser’s family lives on Elephantine Island, a small simple place without any cars. Gasser’s sister owns an incredible two-bedroom villa on the side of the Nile, which Gasser uses to host lucky couch surfers when no tourists occupy it. Nubians (and Egyptians in general) love Bob Marley (and Jamaicans claim to have Nubian roots) so he left me in paradise, with “Buffalo Soldier” playing softly. Essential Aswan: An Afternoon of Sightseeing Waking up to river breezes and the sounds of goats bleating, the next morning was incredible. I made myself instant coffee and watched Nubian boys fish from the shore with sticks and string and a felucca boat slowly sail by. Even though it was hard to tear myself away from this peaceful place, I packed my stuff, wandered through the Nubian village then took the ferry to the big city, which was basically deserted during Ramadan. I found a dusty...