Fun facts about Japan

 It looks like our trip is over and tomorrow morning we head back to California.  We’ve learned a lot visiting this wonderful country.  I just thought I’d share a few thoughts about Japan for those of you who may ever want to travel here.

1.  Japan has one of the best public transportation systems the world.  Look into getting a rail pass in the US before you come.  You cannot buy it once you get to Japan.  It will save you some money once you start taking trains and metros.

2.  Bring a handkerchief.  We didn’t know why the handkerchief department in the department store was so big, but we do now.  Most restrooms and many restaurants have no napkins or paper towels.  Most people carry a handkerchief in their pocket or purse for this purpose.  You can always spot the tourists – they are drying their hands on their jeans.

3.  Book your hotel near a train station!!  Everything centers around the train stations and getting to your hotel with your luggage is a lot easier when you’re close to the stations.

4.  This is a funny fact, but Japan has the best toilets in the world.  90% of the places we went have heated toilet seats, with warm water jets that clean off your fanny and private parts, have variable flush volumes, and have auto detectors to lift the lid, lift the seat, flush, and put the seat and lid back down.  Totally cool!!  I’m sure all you women want one for those guys who won’t put the seat back down!!

5.  Bring some sort of translator.  Japan is still a very closed society with not a lot of foreigners, and not a lot of people speaking English.  I used google translate on my iphone and it really helped a lot.

6.  Women in Japan are fairly fashion conscious.  They never go bare legged.  They always wear nylons or tights, even with shorts, especially in Tokyo.  In the outer cities, people are a little more casual.

7.  People in Japan rarely walk and eat or drink.  They consider it rude.  It’s rare to see people carrying StarBucks, even early in the morning.

8.  If you’re traveling with friends, most restaurants will not allow you to submit two credit cards to split a bill.

All in all, we found the country incredibly clean, the people amazingly friendly, and polite.  They would go two blocks out of their way to help you find something.

If you’re not really great at your communication skills, just brush up a little on your bowing and your pantomime skills.  You’ll be using both of those a lot!!

PS – We went back to the crab restaurant in Shinsiabashi and  yay!  We got in and had a fabulous meal!  The secret…go at 5 PM!

Last dinner in Shinsiabashi
Last dinner in Shinsiabashi

 

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Hiking at Fushimi Inari-taisha

We took the train today from Osaka back to Kyoto and exited at the Inari station to visit Fushimi Inari-taisha, a very important Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the God of rice.   How convenient that the train station is right across the street from the entrance to the shrine!!

Chuck & Ken at the Torii Gates
Chuck & Ken at the Torii Gates

Like many shrines,  this one had an impressive entrance with a giant torii gate front of the main shrine.  To the left and right are several additional support buildings to the shrine.  How lucky we were to see a Shinto priest chanting as we passed by.  Foxes are believed to be the messengers for Inari, which is the reason you’ll find many foxes on the grounds, holding a key to the rice granary in their mouths.

I think the main reason people come to this shrine is to hike the beautiful torii gate lined trails into the mountains, which start with two densely lined rows of gates called “1000s of gates” in Japanese.  The gates, which line the entire trail, are donated by companies with the donator’s name and the date of the donation inscribed on the back of each gate. The cost starts around $4,000 for a small gate up to $10,000 for the large ones.

The hike to the summit usually takes 2-3 hours, but if you’re an avid photographer like me, it will take you much longer.   The road is paved all the way…some parts are more level than others, some parts quite steep, and the torii gates get less dense, but there are restaurants and snack shops to rest along the way where you can grab a bowl of noodles or an ice cream, and stop to enjoy the view.

Chuck, Yol, & Ken taking a hiking break with ice cream!
Chuck, Yol, & Ken taking a hiking break with ice cream!

Trying to to get photos in this beautiful place without a lot of other people takes some effort.  As you can imagine, this is a beautiful peaceful place, visited by many.  The higher you go, the fewer people there are, and waiting to get the right shot gave us a chance to rest!!

It was another wonderful day of hiking in the mountains beneath these beautiful gates in this serene and peaceful environment.

Shinsaibashi and Dōtonburi – Shopping & Dining in Osaka

They said that Osaka is a shopping city, but we had no idea to what extent until we visited the Shinsaibashi and Dōtonburi districts.  Both of these areas get their name from bridges that span the canal which run along side of the shopping area, the main place for shopping and dining in Osaka. These two areas seem to criss-cross each other, with the main activity of the hive being centered at the intersection where neon billboards and signs come crashing together creating their famous, giant, landmark logos.

Holy mackerel….This cross grid of shopping and eating establishments seemed to be a square mile big, and we were  stunned and amazed by the number of shops, the amount of places to eat, and the number of people that were here!   It was crazy!!

The shopping was an indoor outdoor kind of experience.  There were no cars allowed in this covered open area shopping street, and there were shops and restaurants on both sides that go on for what seemed to be infinity as you looked ahead down the block.  When we got to an intersection, and looked to our left and right, we saw more shopping in both directions again to infinity, and the scent of freshly baked, buttery pastry radiated out every time we passed a bakery shop.  Yum!

Installed in 1935,  there was giant neon sign of a runner on a blue track representing the Glico Candy Company, the most famous of the signs and the main symbol for this area.  Just tell the cab driver that you want to go to the Glico Running Man, and they will drop you off in the middle of all the action.

A block away was a seven foot animated crab hanging above the Kani Doraku Restaurant offering fabulous crab dishes, so popular that this four story restaurant had a two hour wait when we tried to get in!  We tried to book for the next night, and it too was completely booked except for walk-in diners.  Not to worry…there are thousands of other restaurants in the area that are equally fabulous.

 

As nightfall approached..all the neon lights came on, and lit up the area so blazingly bright, that you thought it was still daytime.  The crowds on the street tripled, and it was, again, a fabulous people watching experience with everybody just walking up and down the corridors,  looking for places to eat, and just hanging with friends. The restaurants were just amazing in their attempts to capture the hungry crowd, attempting to draw them in with gigantic signs advertising the types of food they offer, each more elaborate then the next.

I have never seen anything like these and to have blocks and blocks of them certainly made for a colorful and vibrant scene. Even though we had little interest in shopping itself, it was totally fascinating to see this area, the breadth of goods offered in the stores, the sheer number and varieties of restaurants, and the sea of people that live here.

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You don’t have to be a shopping fan to have a great time here.

Osaka Castle

We’ve moved to a different hotel,  27 miles from Kyoto to Osaka, the third largest city in Japan, after Tokyo and Yokahama.  Historically, this city is the commercial center for Japan, along with having a busy nightlife.  As fun as it was to stay in a Japanese ryokan, wearing kimonos around the hotel and sleeping on tatami mats on futons on the floor, we are thrilled to be back in a western style hotel and have a fluffy bed again!

We went to visit Osaka Castle, one of Japan’s most famous landmarks often seen in posters and advertisements for Japan.  Built in 1583, the castle is five stories high, with three stories built underground, with beautiful gold leaf adornments featuring cherry blossoms, fish, and tigers.  You can climb to the top floor for a magnificent 360° view of the the Osaka skyline.  A moat surrounds the castle, along with a formidable wall of interlocking granite built without mortar, designed to intimidate their enemies.   The castle has a long history of changing hands during many battles and wars throughout Japan’s history, but today is it a museum.

We’ve been so lucky with our timing during our trip with the cherry blossoms in Tokyo and Kyoto, but unfortunately we are at the tail end of the flowering here in Osaka.  I took these photos with the cherry tree branches in the photos anyway.  This castle is beautiful and amazing all on its own, but you can imagine how spectacular this must have been last week when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.

Sakamoto

Sakamoto is eight miles from Kyoto, or 20 minutes by train.  We found a brochure in our hotel and based on a recommendation in broken Japanese by the concierge, we took a chance on the unknown today and headed for the Sakamoto cable railway.  The eleven minute tram ride is the longest in Japan which takes us straight up the hill into Mt Hiei, a hidden mountainous community which has been the home of  an entire network of ancient temples and shrines.

The Enryakyji Temple was established in 762, and is one of the most significant monasteries in Japan’s history, and has been named as a UNESCO world heritage site as an monument for Ancient Kyoto.  It began with 100 monks who lived in seclusion for 12 years to study and meditate.  At its strongest point, there were over 3,000 temples in its network hidden among this beautiful forest. Walking through this environment, you could feel a sense of peace and serenity far away from the hustle-bustle of civilization far below.

There are no photographs allowed once inside the main hall, and none are available on the internet, so their policy of no photos for privacy and seclusion from the outside world must be strictly enforced.

Enryakuji Temple - main hall entrance
Enryakuji Temple – main hall entrance

Once we left our shoes at the door and entered inside, it was definitely other worldly.  The lights and hallways were very dim as we approached two large windows looking down into the temple area.  We kneeled onto a heated mat and gave our eyes time to adjust to the darkness as the swirl of smoke from the incense filled room swirled around our heads.  A large Buddha took the main stage with smaller statues on all sides, with rows and rows of carved lanterns, glowing in the dark, like pumpkins on Halloween night.  So much was gilded and glittered, and flowered, all twinkling in the dark.  In this stillness, one lone Buddhist monk was chanting his long, slow, song.  It was surreal, as if we were on a movie set of a strange and ancient place and time.

The entire hillside is covered with temples and we could have stayed up here all day to hike and explore.

Here are a few more photos of some of the temples on the mountain….

On the Main Street in Sakamoto,we ran into a 4 day long street festival that happens once a year and the cherry blossoms were still in bloom!  We could not believe our luck…Here are a few photos from the street faire and parade.  For an unplanned destination, it sure was a day full of nice surprises.

Kyoto

We said Sayonara to Tokyo and headed 360 miles southwest to Kyoto on the bullet train. The ride seemed short because that train is so smooth and quiet. We just love the bullet train!!

Kyoto is a smaller city than Tokyo with a population of 1.5 million. It was also the capital of Japan for more than 1000 years until the capital was moved to Tokyo. Kyoto was spared from bombing during WWII, so luckily, it still has many of its prewar buildings, made of wood with shiny, tile roofs.

We were on a bus tour today exploring some of the famous temples, shrines and palaces. You can’t go to all these places without hearing about the history of Imperial Emperors, Shoguns, and Samurais.  Rather than give you a history lesson, I’ll let the beauty of these places shine for themselves and show you some of the highlights of Kyoto.  We are also very lucky…the cherry blossoms are still in bloom in Kyoto!!  Yay!!

The Golden Pavilion – a former shogun retirement pavilion, now a Zen Buddhist temple.  It is coated with 45 pounds of gold and surrounded by a beautiful garden.

The Golden Pavilion
The Golden Pavilion

Nijō Castle – The Residence of Tokugawa Shogun and a palladium for the Kyoto Imperial Palace.   – You saw it in the Shogun movie.  I loved the “nightingale floors.”  As the group of us walked across the floors, they squeaked, sounding like birds tweeting.  It was an alert to the samurais  to notify them if assassin ninjas were  sneaking into the palace.

The Imperial Palace – residence of the Emperor until the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1869.

Sanjusangen-do Temple – The world’s longest wooden structure in the world, 387 feet, houses 1,001 life-sized intricately carved  wooden statues of the Buddhist Kannon god dating back to the 13th century.  This god is said to protect against human suffering with its 11 heads, and 23 arms which represent all aspects of man’s life.

1001 carved statues of Kannon god.
1001 carved statues of the Kannon god.

Kiyomizu Temple:  Built in 798,  this ancient Buddhist temple was built totally without the use of nails.

Kiyomizu temple
Kiyomizu temple

At the bottom of the hill from this last temple is a winding, picturesque street open only to pedestrians, flanked on both sides by cute shops selling all kinds of Japanese souvenirs and treats.  Every store was passing out little samples of their beautifully packaged treats, and we munched our way down the hill on tidbits of red beans paste filled mochi snacks and cocoa powdered cookies.

Kyoto is a beautiful ancient city.  In today’s modern society, most Japanese women only wear kimonos for special occasions, but even Japanese locals love to come here to dress up in kimonos and walk this road to be part of their ancient past here in Kyoto.  There were even shops to rent kimonos for the day to take part in the tradition.   Just as we were leaving, we saw some tv cameras and wondering what all the commotion was all about…they were interviewing some authentic geishas.  Real geishas paint their faces white, we are told, because it makes their faces look beautiful in the candlelight, which is when you would see most geishas.  Their kimonos are much more elaborate.  What a perfect way to end the day in this colorful and ancient city.

 

Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market

Since we are in the land of sushi, we went to look at fish today.  The Tokyo Tsukiji Fish and Seafood Market is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and is one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind.

There are two sections:  the inner market is the licensed wholesale portion, where the auctions and most of the processing of the fish takes place, and where licensed wholesale dealers (approximately 900 of them) operate small stalls. The outer market is a mixture of wholesale and retail shops that sell Japanese kitchen tools, restaurant supplies, groceries, and many restaurants, especially sushi ones.

Kitchen Knives for sale outside the Fish market
Kitchen Knives for sale outside the Fish market

The market is amazingly huge and handles more than 400 different types of seafood and employs over 65,000 people. It is completely overwhelming to see the size of this warehouse along with the massive amount of seafood of every variety imaginable that’s processed through this facility.  It makes you think of the number of people on this earth and the staggering amount of food that is necessary to feed us all.

The doors open at 3:00 a.m. with the arrival of the products by ship, truck, and plane from all over the world. The auction houses estimate the value of the incoming products, and then they prepare them for auction.  The buyers also inspect the fish to estimate which fish they would like to bid for and at what price.

The auctions start at 5:20 a.m. and goes until 7:00am. Bidding can only be done by licensed wholesalers who operate stalls in the marketplace, agents for restaurants, food processing companies, and large retail outlets. There is a long line of tourists hoping to get into the auction,  but they only allow 120 tourists in each day, so chances are slim that you will get in.   If you go at 8am, you will still see a lot.  We didn’t get to see, but I borrowed this photo from the internet so you could see what happens at the morning auctions.

Examining the fish just before the auctions.
Examining the fish just before the auctions.

The purchased fish is then either loaded onto trucks to be shipped to the next destination or on small carts and moved to the many shops inside the market. There the shop owners cut and prepare the products for retail from the orders they have received. Frozen tuna is cut with large band saws, while fresh tuna is carved with extremely long knives that are over three feet long.  Something about this certainly brought images of Japanese samurai warriors to mind.

Beautiful packaging seems to be the Japanese way with everything, and their produce was no different.

In the end, we went to one of the sushi restaurants that borders the Fish Market for the most wonderful, melt-in-your-mouth sushi lunch ever.  I guess you can’t get fresher than catching the fish that morning, slicing it up, and walking it across the street.

Sushi lunch at the Fish Market
Sushi lunch at the Fish Market

Harajuku Girls

Japan is quite a fashion city.  The women really dress up.  It is rare to see anyone with bare legs…they almost always wear nylon stockings or tights with high heel shoes, even with their shorts!

We got off the metro at the Harajuku stop and found ourselves in a very fashionable, trendy area of town with lots of cool shops and tons of young people walking the streets. We’ve been noticing a fashion trend with a lot of the younger girls all over Tokyo.  Many of them dress and look like baby dolls. Word has it that this was a popular thing to do on the weekends in the Harajuku district. The girls would get all dolled up, and then would go hang out all weekend long. Those days seemed to have come and gone.  It has become less extreme, but more mainstream now.

Harajuku Girls - at the height of popularity
Harajuku Girls – at the height of popularity

We are guessing that this look comes from the ever so popular Japanese cartoons called Anime (short for animation). They are so popular (even in the states) that we see grown men reading the comic books on their way to work, and the images are used everywhere in Japanese advertising – magazines, billboards, posters, and girls used in ads all have the anime look.  Even the young men’s hairstyles are influenced by these comic book characters.

The look is characterized by gigantic eyes, heavy bangs, very short skirts and dresses, lacy petticoats, little girl lace socks and baby doll Mary Jane shoes.  Accessorize with ribbons, and bows, charm bracelets, large pupiled colored contact lenses, lots of false eyelashes, color your hair to light brown to blonde, and you’ve got the basic look.  In the Harijuku district, there are entire blocks of stores devoted to the little girl doll look.  And the girls are everywhere in Tokyo.  You can get the inexpensive version for $30 for a skirt, but you can also get a dress for $300.

Takeshita Street - where you'll find lots of stores for all things baby doll.
Takeshita Street – where you’ll find lots of stores for all things for the baby doll look.

Even though many parade around for show, some don’t like to have their picture taken, which is why I didn’t get some of the faces, but they were so adorably cute, how could I resist taking the shot.  The majority of these photos are of girls walking to and from the metro station or just around town.  Some establishments use the look to promote their business, but for most part, these girls are just going about their usual day.  It sure makes for fun and interesting people watching.

 

 

Sent from my iPad

Mount Fuji

We were on a guided tour today with Sunrise Tours…thank goodness for a bus so we could give our feet a day of rest.  Check in time at the bus departure was 8.30am, which meant getting on the metro during rush hour!!  Oh no…

The Shinjuku metro stop has 4 million people passing through it every day and we were going through at the height of rush hour.  We are just not used to dealing with this massive amount of people in at the U.S.  Despite the huge crowds, these people are obviously used to it, and everyone is calm and amazingly polite.  As soon as our metro arrives, everyone calmly entered he doors, but what we weren’t expecting was we start to feel the constant pressure up against our bodies as people start to jam into the cars to maximum capacity until you are smashed on all sides, like sardines packed in a can and there is no space on any side of you!  Yol and I started laughing hysterically at the rediculousness of our  situation.  As the train lunged forward to move, we thought we would fall down, but we were packed in so tightly, there was just no way you could fall.  In America, it would have been a pick pocketer’s delight, and I’m pretty sure the person next to me had a samsung in his pocket and a set of keys.  We finally came to a popular stop, and a massive wave of people started to exit the metro.  I felt like I was going to be swept out the car door, along with the tide of  departers.  Chuck had to actually grab my arm so I wasn’t pulled out with the current.  What a zoo!  I can’t imagine that this is how they go to work every day.

Packed like sardines on the subway
Packed in like sardines on the metro
Yol taking photos of the madhouse of people at the metro station.
Yol taking photos of the madhouse of people at the metro station.

It was a two hour bus ride to Mt. Fuji…nice to get out into the open spaces, away from the city.  The Japanese cherry blossom trees  are native to Japan and they are everywhere along the countryside…lining the freeways, along the rivers, dispersed throughout the foliage all along our drive.  It’s a beautiful sight.

When we arrived in Hakone, we had a traditional Japanese lunch, we transferred to a boat the a 15 minute ride across the lake, and then took an aerial tramway 7 minutes above sea level to finally see a spectacular view of  Mt. Fuji.  We saw some pretty awesome views of the mountain early in the morning, but as the day lingered on, by the time we reached the top, it was pretty hazy, and difficult to take great photos, but I did get a couple of good shots in the morning.

Japanese traditional Lunch
Japanese traditional Lunch

 

To get back to our hotel, we had our first taste of Japan’s bullet train.  Since we were far  away from town, there were no crowds at the station, and it was quiet as we waited on the platform.  We felt a sudden rumbling and wondered it was,  and before we knew it, at close to 225 miles per hour, a bullet train flew through the train station, and disappeared into the tunnel, just seeing a glimpse of it as it rocketed through the station.  Holy mackerel, these things are lightening fast!  We felt like the suction from the speed would have just pulled us right off the train platform!

The Bullet Train
The Bullet Train

 

At the bullet train station.
At the bullet train station.

Once inside, the trains are slick, immaculate, and looked like new.  Amazing!  We could certainly learn a few things from the Japanese when it comes to mass transit.

 

Robot Restaurant

Our hotel by the Tokyo train station was a business district called Chiyoda. Every morning we watched the parade of workers in their black uniforms rushing off to work.  It seems like almost everyone wears a black suit, white shirt and tie, with women wearing black suits as well. It’s a very formal look. We have moved hotels 15 minutes west to a new district called Shinjuku, where the mood has changed completely. The plethora of neon signs reminds me of Times Square New York and Hong Kong, the crowd much younger and punkier, and the streets are filled with shopping, and night clubs.  It’s a buzzing hive activity, and we were just amazed at the number of people crossing at an intersection.

Shinjuku - the night club area
Shinjuku – the night club area

While perusing Trip Advisor, Chuck found the top two things to do in Shinjuku were #1:  Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and #2:  Robot Restaurant.  Really?!  Japanese robots are crazy cool. Girl robots even cooler.  Add sexy girl dancers, turn it into a cabaret show,  and you have a new type of entertainment for our times of the video games generation.

When you first walk in, you already know something is different than anything you’ve ever seen.  The band members at the entrance are wearing costumes that look like they are out some Japanese Space comic book, another riding on a giant fembot, gliding around the floor.

FemBot!
FemBot!
Greeters
Greeters

The elevator to the waiting room is fully crystal mirrored on top, sides, and bottom with led lights reflecting all around to a dizzying effect.   The waiting room is all decked out in gold and mirrors, like a Liberace palace gone crazy.  On our final descent into the basement, where the show takes place, there are giant butterflies painted on opaque glass walls, topped with three foot long glazed geckos and day of the dead skulls.  It’s all crazy bright and busy.  As we walk to our seats, we pass right by giant robots sitting quietly in the dark, stacked on top of each other, and we wonder how that’s all going to play into the show.   The stage is set up like a wide runway, with stadium seats with small tables along on both sides.  The three rows of tiered seats assure that there is not a bad seat in the house and everyone will get a great view.

What follows is a fast-paced revue of dancing girls, glitz, seizure inducing flashing lights and special effects synchronized with the massive LED screens covering the walls and ceiling integrated into each routine. The dancing and bikinis are PG13 and the girls are all so adorably cute.  How could you not like little Asians in bunny costumes playing drums and singing to Dreamgirls? Dance routines currently run from taiko drumming fantasies, to battling space robots with giant tarantulas, to army girls draped over the neon tank and an airplane flying overhead bringing in girls in on trapeze swings.  Sometimes you’re not exactly sure what the theme is, but…does anybody really care?

The highlight of the show is the appearance of the huge terminators which seem to almost attack everyone sitting in the front rows, along with the gigantic, busty  warrior- princess Fem Bots, mounted with five dancers, which glide aound the dance floor.  All the robots have moving parts – arms, legs, head, fingers, torsos, and mouths.  Add flashing laser beams and sound effects, LED clad robots on space age bikes, CP3Os, and sequined bikini clad dancers and you genuinely feel as though you are living inside a terminator Sci-Fi movie. I’m sure while you’re reading this, you’re going to think I was smoking something funny, but this is the wackiest, most zany, wackadoodle show I have ever seen.  It was an hour and fifteen minutes of great fun for $60.  It’s a MUST SEE if you’re ever in Shinjuku.   I don’t think there’s anything like this anywhere else in the world…not even Las Vegas!