We wanted to step out of our comfort zone this year, so instead of flying east to explore another place in Europe, we flew west to Japan. Unlike Europe, where English is widely spoken and much of the food and culture familiar to Americans, Japan is still somewhat of an enigma. Yes we have sushi, Japanese cars, and campy Japanese horror movies, but these are no more culturally representative than American westerns, muscle cars, and Disneyland. Here are some observations from two weeks in Japan by two wide-eyed middle-aged American tourists.
From the moment we stepped out of Haneda airport Japan felt different. The taxis - throwbacks to 1980’s era Toyota Crown sedans - are immaculate. The rear doors pop open to reveal pristine seats with faux lace covers, the driver wears a uniform and white gloves, and the traffic moves in an orderly and respectful way.
We were hard-pressed to hear horns honking or sirens wailing which is of course impossible to say about NYC or LA. School kids in uniform wait for the light to change, graffiti appears nowhere as does street litter of any kind.
Are we dreaming from sleep-deprivation? No - the order, organization, and courtesies are endless in this culture. These people take great pride in the smallest of jobs. Takashimaya department store in Tokyo still has impeccably groomed, uniformed elevator operators! Every store manager and shop proprietor we encountered made a big deal of greeting us as we entered and expressing gratitude when we departed, whether we bought something or not. There is
enormous pride in presentation here with the smallest purchases getting great attention to packaging. And put your small change away as gratuities of any kind are not welcome here!
Miso-slathered vegetables? Meat buns? Sparrow on a stick? Many of the foods and meals and customs around eating are like nothing we see in America. No napkins or western flatware - just a wimpy wipe and chopsticks. And in more than one restaurant we were served a variety of grilled and raw fish, soups, vegetables, tofu, and dessert confections essentially as one course - it all came out at once. The wait staff returns only when signalled. The abundant sashimi on the menus and the Hida beef we cooked table-side were culinary standouts.
Ease of Public Transportation
With 127 million people living in a country the size of California you would expect an excellent public transportation infrastructure, and Japan does not disappoint. Tokyo has a vast subway network, rail lines, monorail, buses and taxis. The ticket and gate agents are only too happy to assist the confused foreigners. And the famous bullet trains (Shinkansen) keep time like a Swiss watch. A word of caution - don’t be careless with your train tickets. You’ll need to feed all ticket parts (including the receipt stub) through the turnstile, retrieve them you pass through and keep them safe on your journey so you can feed them through the turnstile at your destination.
Rather than stay in the busy central district we chose to stay just north in Asakusa, an area with fewer high rises and quieter neighborhoods. Our hotel (Hotel Richmond) was adjacent to Senso-Ji Temple, one of Tokyo’s most spectacular. Our first encounter was at night and the vermilion and gold painted sacred buildings - the five story pagoda and main hall in particular - are a large glowing and inspiring presence in the surrounding darkness of the park. The temple was rebuilt after WWII so it’s relatively new but it has a long history at this location.
The adjacent streets and alleys are lined with shops selling all kinds of goods - some of it touristy and some more genuine. There is a tourist information office nearby as well with a fantastic viewing deck several stories up.
With Tokyo’s excellent subway system we had easy access to the Ginza district with its exceptional department stores - large, historic buildings with many floors of housewares and clothing including departments dedicated to kimonos, and entire basement levels buzzing with shoppers and food purveyors selling all kinds of prepared dishes - fried and raw, salads, meats, seafood, sushi, sashimi, pastries and chocolate confections. Hard to choose what to try and, unfortunately, even harder to find a place to sit and enjoy it!
Not far from Ginza, we checked out the Tokyo International Forum - a spectacular glass and metal building shaped vaguely like a ship. It was not clear what it’s used for but it’s worth going inside to gawk.
Just a couple of blocks away is the Imperial Palace. Destroyed in WWII but since rebuilt, it still houses the emperor on the western end which is off limits. We managed to stumble onto a tour (conducted in Japanese) that took us by an enormous meeting hall and over the Nijubashi stone bridge but you’d do better to wander the parks and gardens at your leisure.
We only scratched the surface during our two hour visit to the Tokyo National Museum. Located in Ueno Park, the museum has large collections of Japanese sculpture, scrolls, illustrated panels, Kimonos, and costumes. Unfortunately, the audio tour did not sync particularly well with the gallery exhibitions; perhaps the flow was lost in the english translation. The surrounding park is lovely and has a zoo, gardens, and other attractions.
Kyoto feels smaller than a city with 1.5 million people, partly because it has lots of greenery surrounding the innumerable temples and shrines, and the forested mountains are easily seen to the east and west. We stayed across the street from the Kyoto Imperial Palace, a relic of 1000 years as the country’s capital prior to 1868, and it was an easy walk to Nishiki market - teeming with purveyors and shoppers but well worth the jostling to see the incredible foods.
Crossing the Kamo River on Shijo-dori we passed through the Gion shopping district to Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park. Here the tree-shaded walkways lead up to more secluded shrines and temples in the hills with lovely views back over the city.
On the western edge of Kyoto lies the famous Arashiyama bamboo groves. While the groves are beautiful (and a bit crowded), we did not realize til we got there that there is much more to see.
The Sagano Walk leads north to Gioji Temple with its mystical moss garden and Adashino Nenbutsuji Temple with its stone monuments to lost souls, among many others. The walk has guideposts and occasionally a map. Continuing on takes you through some beautiful clusters of heritage homes and shops. Beyond these the road winds up into the forested hills. Changing direction and walking east takes you to Daikakuji Temple, formerly home to emperors and subsequently converted to a Shingon Buddhist temple. Several buildings connected by elevated walkways cover the large site. A large pond completes the picture of serenity. All this is just a 35 minute bus ride from Kyoto proper.
A three hour train ride north from Kyoto takes you to Takayama in the Japanese alps. This small city of 92,000 (officially known as Hida Takayama) has a well preserved old town center dating to the Edo period. There are many restored timber-framed stores and residences, many of which are still in use and others open as museums. One such place is the Yoshijima Heritage House - a former residence and sake brewer. The self-guided walk through the building reveals massive ancient timbers high up in the roof, dark panelling alternating with rice paper room dividers and exterior wooden walkways framing precious gardens. The interior light and space and exterior roofline is reminiscent of Art and Crafts period design in turn of the century California. Takayama is known for its twice yearly festivals celebrating Spring and Fall with fantastic floats that are hand drawn through the streets.We were able to see four of these in the large purpose-built exhibition hall.
The city has several established walking routes. We walked a couple of miles through the Higashiyama temple district and eventually made our way up the steep hill to Shiroyama Park where the ruins of Takayama castle are purported to be (we could find none). The hill is covered with beautiful mature cedar and maple trees forming a dense canopy over the paths, but several locations along the way afford excellent views of the alps and the city. Also not to be missed is the wonderful morning market along the Miyagawa River.
More tips for Japan travel
- Many establishments outside of Tokyo do not take credit cards so be prepared to use ATMs. We found the 711s and Family Marts to be the most convenient.
- 711s in Japan have good salads and sandwiches if you want a cheap and easy meal.
- We found the pocket wifi invaluable for connecting our phones and tablets everywhere we went. For roughly $7 a day it was cheaper than our Verizon plan.
- Japan schools are in session till mid-July, and cherry blossom high tourist season ends in April or May depending on the region, so June turned out to be a relatively crowd-free window for us.
- We had an excellent AirBnb experience in Takayama, staying in a restored traditional guest house in the historic district and within walking distance of everything. Well worth investigating should you go.