Templed Out?

By: kaibrown on May 23, 2006 - 12:47am
Are you two templed out yet?  I'm guessing from the recent photos and dispatches that you may be ready for something different.  I know I was after spending 10 days in the Japan Alps and only staying in Japanese style inns.  I was so ready for a nice hotel with a big bed!  So a few more suggestions before you guys have to leave.

I noticed that Kobe is on your list which I'm very excited about b/c I loved Kobe!  It has a bit of a western feel to it but is still distinctly Japanese.  The streets are wider, the sidewalks more pedestrian friendly and flowers on lightposts.  But there is still all the great Japanese shops and restaurants.  Sachi, if you haven't gone there already, you must go to this store called the Loft.  It's like a cross between an Ikea and Target.  You could spend HOURS in there!!  Such an awesome store and only a few blocks away from Kobe JR.  Another must see is the Earthquake museum, a quick subway ride from JR.  It's only a few years old and they did such an amazing job chronicling the experience of being in an earthquake.  Jason actually lived in a small town 15 minutes from Kobe during the great quake so it was an expecially personal exprience for him.  You may get information overload but it is still worth the stop.  And Lee, not to worry, the museum is VERY english friendly -- in fact the entire city is VERY english friendly.  Oh, and the little museum cafe is a pretty good stop for lunch too.

I know a lot of people skip Osaka to go to Kyoto but I actually really enjoyed Osaka.  A must see is the Floating Garden Observatory.  The view is absolutely amazing and the journey to get to the top is an experience in itself.  Try to go at sunset and you'll be in for a real treat -- lots of good, cheap restaurants to eat in the basement too.  Also look for the underpass from the train station -- we totally went the long way through an industrial part of town.  Try to avoid that if you can.  We also went to the aquarium where the main attraction is a huge whale shark and a sunfish (I had no idea they were so BIG!).  It was a nice break but it sure was crowded.  You could probably skip it unless you're into aquariums (which we are).  Last but not least, are you in the market for souvenirs?  We found this little shopping lane called "Sennichimae Doguya-suji" where they have more dishes and pottery than I have ever seen in my life!  It was very intimidating at first but we picked up a lot of dishes and cookware that you just can't find anywhere else.  Great prices and best selection I've ever seen.  It was a hassle to lug the stuff around (I'm assuming you'd mail it back home) but I've enjoyed everything that we bought.  The hard part is finding the place and sorry I can't help much with that.  All I can tell you is that it is near the Nankai Namba station and from there Sachi will have to ask questions.  I absolutely cannot remember how we found that place but it was worth the journey.

I must admit that Kyoto was not my favorite place.  It may have been because it the first 3 days of our trip and I was nursing a cold.  It may have been that I didn't expect such development in what I had imagined to be a traditional place.  And I got templed out real quick.  BUT, there were things I liked.  One of them being where we stayed -- Ryokan Shimuzu.  Inexpensive, convenient, a GREAT bath (that can be reserved for just the two of you) and a wonderful staff.  The rooms were japanese style but with an attached bathroom.  There was also internet access downstairs.  LOVED this place and would highly recommend it.  Another thing I liked was the Kyoto Station.  I think a lot of people don't realize the view you can get if you take the escalators up to the top floor.  I'm not afraid of heights but there is something a bit unnerving about taking an escalator at a 45 degree angle for 12 stories!!  Very very cool.  Oh and one last thing, if you stay at the Ryokan Shimizu or anywhere near Kyoto Station there is a wonderful Kyoto style restaurant.  It is served Kaiseki style and is known for it's vegetarian meals.  Although this was one of the first meals we had, I still remember it as the best meal on our entire trip.  It's called Izusen and is in a very nondescript building (really easy to miss) above a McDonalds right across the street from the Kintetsu Department Store (Surugaiya Building on Karasuma Shichijo Dori).

Yes, yes I know.  Not the type of things you think of when you think of Kyoto (I can hear Stacy now!) but that's what I liked!!

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Train Travel in Japan

By: kaibrown on May 8, 2006 - 8:27pm
Train Travel is definitely the best way to get around Japan -- efficient, clean and quick.  Hard to beat!  The downside -- train travel is so well used and is such a part of the culture that it can be the most confusing way to travel around Japan as well.  Some pointers:

Shinkansen or Bullet Train
As you two already know, this is by far the fastest way to get around.  The train is so fast that it has it's own special train tracks and very limited stops.  It also by far the most expensive way to travel and really only goes to main tourist hubs.  If you want to get out and see "Old Japan" you will have to get off the shinkansen.

Limited Express (aka LEX)
In speed, this is the next step down from the shinkansen.  It uses the same train tracks as other local trains, but usually makes very limited stops and will skip several train stations.  (Warning: if you are going to an off the beaten path train station -- make sure that your train actually STOPS there!)  Seating is spacious and comfortable and for long journeys this is the way to go.  You will know when you are riding a LEX b/c you will be given 2 tickets.  One is the normal fare charge and one is for the "limited express" surcharge.

Express, Rapid and Local Trains
Everything else falls into this category.  Don't get "Express" and "Rapid" confused with "Limited Express".  Again, the key is if you've paid a surcharge, you're on a LEX.  The "Express" and "Rapid" trains are actually just local trains that skip stops.  You pay the same fare whether you take a local or an express.  If you are on a budget, look for express and rapids.  They can sometimes be as quick as a LEX but w/o the surcharge (often adds between 20-50% more on the normal fare).  You do give up comfort (the trains are usually much more crowded) and space.  If you are travelling a long distance and with luggage -- stick with the LEX.

Confused yet?  Bottom line - for short distances or for sightseeing, look for rapids and express.  They usually run more often and are cheaper.  For long journeys which includes luggage (i.e. travelling to your next overnight destination) look for the LEX.  They are worth the extra $$. 

Some other thoughts...

Luggage - Travelling in Japan WITH luggage is a pain.  There is just no way around it.  Train stations often don't have escalators or elevators and the trains are not designed for large pieces of baggage.  Not only that, but Japanese DON'T travel with luggage so they'll stare at you.  Whenever you can, get rid of your stuff.  There is a luggage forwarding service called takkyubin that I've never actually used but wished I had researched it more before we left.  Also there are lockers in the train stations but it's very inconsistent and often full.  If you're going to a very remote location, I would recommend leaving your luggage behind and coming back to get it.

More than just JR - You may be surprised (I was) but there are several other train companies other than just JR.  If you have a Rail Pass, you'll be looking to travel on JR as much as possible.  But oftentimes (again for the more remote locations) you may have no choice but to travel with another company (i.e. Nankai).  Don't let this throw you -- also, keep in mind that although travelling on JR may be free (again, assuming you have a rail pass) the other train company may be quicker and worth the extra cost.

Train Planning - When I was in Japan we were travelling to a new town every 2 days.  Yes, A LOT!!  We got into the habit of mapping out our next destination almost as soon as we arrived.  Picking up train schedules, asking questions, etc.  If you know what your next destination will be, it is worth it to do a little planning.  Especially if you want to use the LEX.

Ok, that's it for now...hope this helps.  I'm looking forward to reading your next dispatch!

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Old Japan

By: kaibrown on May 4, 2006 - 11:50pm
I loved Lee's most recent dispatch on Tokyo...I think I had a crush on Tokyo too the first time I saw it!!  But there is so much more to Japan than Tokyo.  I really really hope you guys will get out to see the Japanese countryside.  There is nothing quite like it.  Just spent two weeks in the Japan Alps region and really enjoyed it.  My favorites were:

Shirakawago/Kanazawa - These are two different towns but they are so close to each other and represent such different parts of Japan (plus most of the guidebooks don't really tell you who EASY it is to see them in the same trip) that you get a lot of bang for your buck.  Shirakawago has gassho zukkuri style of architecture and is a photographer's dream.  We went there in winter (which was wonderful) but were so envious to see what it looked like in spring and summer.  Just beautiful!  Kanazawa has some very cool sights as well -- a well preserved geisha district (it's not nearly as opulent as one would expect) and a samurai district.  Not to mention one of the best gardens in the country.  A large enough city that you've got lots of choices for shopping and restaurants, but small enough that you can easily see the sights in a few days.  In any case, for just a 2 1/2 hour train ride on limited express from Kyoto, this is a must see!!

Nakasendo Highway (Tsumago and Magome) - If you're not planning to go to Kyoto, you can more easily get to this piece of "Old Japan" from Tokyo.  These are two post towns connected by an old samurai "highway" where they have been largely untouched by the modern age.  The towns have been preserved in the original buildings and now hold small stores and traditional style inns.  Very cool and a great way to get away from it all.  

In any case, if you guys do make it down that way I can write more about logistics -- the trains are kind of complicated as you are a bit of the beaten path.  But in the mean time, I attached some photos to inspire you to get out there!  

OH!  And if you want a really good website for more alternative stuff to do...check this one out (he has a lot of interesting ideas for tokyo too).


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Eats under $5 and with no Japanese

By: truthchild on May 2, 2006 - 9:16pm

So much to say about food in Japan! Here are just the foot notes on some reasonable and easy places to eat:

  • Ticket vending machine restaurants are easy, cheap and great if you're a limited or non-Japanese language speaker. Look at the pictures or fake food in the window, match the characters, press the button, pay the machine and a ticket comes out. Take it to the person at the counter, have a seat, and within minutes (usually not more than 3) your meal has arrived. These diners are scattered everywhere throughout major cities in Japan and target businessmen and commuters who literally inhale their food and are out the door within minutes
  • Similarly there are GREAT gyudon (beef on rice) restaurants.  They cater to the fast pace crowd but you can find a yummy bowl of steaming teriyaki-ish beef on rice for $3. All you need to do is point at the picture in front of the register. No speaking necessary. My recommendation is Yoshinaru (bright orange signs with a bowl with steam coming out of it - EVERYwhere in Tokyo and major cities - www.yoshinaru.com) $3/bowl and always satisfying.
  • 7-11 (Seben ereben) and any convenience store are also an easy and affordable place to grab food on the go, and much better quality than the states. They have a variety of musubi, sandwhiches, ramen, pasta, salads and pastries everyday. Not to mention all your regular 7-11 stock. Again, absolutely no speaking necessary. This is the perfect place to stock-up for a Shinkansen or long train ride (bentos on trains run pretty steep and aren't quite so tasty). No place to sit down and eat at these stores though, and don't forget eating in public (on the streets, on transportation, in stores, etc., etc.,) is frowned upon unless you're on a long train ride or on a bench in the park. Big metropolitan city with Starbucks popping up everywhere, but rarely do you ever see someone walking with one anywere!) 

Getting around Japan

By: truthchild on April 24, 2006 - 8:47pm

You can't get around Japan without JR!! (Japan Rail)

 The Railpass is a DEAL if you're going to be traveling roundtrips or long distances on the Shinkansen. The unfortunate part being that the Railpass can't be used on certain express trains. However, that being said, I believe one way tickets used to be a couple hundred dollars, so for about $271 a 7 day JR Pass that gets you anywhere is a steal. (14 day passes are also available)

Their website has been updated recently and includes all the info you need including schedules: http://www.japanrail.com/ 

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Looking for a place to stay?

By: truthchild on April 24, 2006 - 8:39pm

Quick tip for making reservations in Japan. This is how we found all of our accomodations for our last trip. Pay attention to where the hotel/inn is located, walking distance to stations is ideal. Bus rides are not.


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Can't get enough of Japan

By: truthchild on April 24, 2006 - 8:34pm

With Sach and Lee already making their way through Asia, looks like I better start writing...course once I start who knows when it'll stop!
Thank heavens for the categories, for now I'll stick to sight seeing.

Chapter 1 - Sight Seeing

Aside for your normal temples and shrines, there are a couple of must sees in Japan.

Harajuku on a Sunday afternoon - Young Tokyo fashion is something entirely in itself (think loose flash dance socks to the knee), but it's nothing compared to what you'll see on the corner of Omotesando at the entrance to Yoyogi park on a Sunday afternoon. Take the Yamanote line to the Meiji-jingu/Harajuku Station. if you're in a crunch for time exit at either end of the station (the closer end is Meiji-jingu-mae) and hang a right, but if you have the time give yourself a treat and walk down my favorite street in all of Japan, Takeshita-dori, where you're packed shoulder to shoulder by the bustle of young fashionable Japanese looking for a good buy, hang a right at the first real street, then another right on Omotesando. (Suddenly you're hit by real Western Culture: GAP, J-Crew, Starbucks, oh and Condom-mania) However, keep going up the street and BOOM, your in the middle of a cross between a cult, a costume party and the 60's, 70's, 80's all combined. It's unforgettable and unlike any fashion party or gathering you'll ever see again. (Don't be shy with the camera, we were polite at first and took pictures subtley from a distance, till we realized their preference was to pose as people snapped happily away)

 Tsukiji Market is another must-see and an experience all in its own. Tour books often have this written up incorrectly or not enough. They say get their early, but after it's officially open to the public. The real action happens earlier between 5am and 6am when the HUGE masses of tuna (I believe they average 200 lbs) are auctioned off to restauranteurs and wholesalers. (Did I mention that this one open market supplies the WHOLE of Japan and the Westcoast - well I thought I read that somewhere, and it's certainly busy enough to make me believe it) More species and types of fish for sale than you've ever seen in your life. So if ANYONE has just a smidge of appreciation for seafood or sushi take the time to wake up early, you don't see too many foreigners, but as long as you're able to weave through the frantic masses of crowds and little motorzied delivery trucks, you're fine. Don't forget to stop for sushi and sake at one of the numerous shops on your way out. Follow the locals or the men in knee high boots, they know where to go. It is the freshest possible sushi your palate will ever have the pleasure of experiencing, and pretty affordable as well.

Shibuya Crosswalk I've been to Tokyo numerous times and the throngs of people, never cease to amaze me, but never more so than at this one intersection in Shibuya. I wish I could tell you more of exactly where it is. You'll know when you're there, when you're trying to cross the street at the same time as HUNDREDS of other people and you get so turned around you can't remember which side of the street you were trying to get to. I'm not 100% positive, but I believe it's the Hachiko exit of the station (Hachiko is a famous dog and statue rendezvous point)..I do know that the best vantage point is from the second floor of Starbucks that's either adjoining or a part of the Seibu Department Store. This is also a great area to hang out at night, the lights, the crowds the feel is amazing. I've never felt more IN Tokyo then in that exact spot (or corner).


Ouch...hmm..that was only three sites and I've babbled your ears off (or worn your eyes out)...better stop for now. I did try to warn you and I haven't even gotten to temples yet!!! 

 Jya matta ne!  Stace





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Escaping Tokyo: Off the beaten track in Japan

By: Genn on October 12, 2005 - 8:30am
There's more to Japan than Tokyo and Kyoto. :)
Here are some suggestions for 1-3 Day trips that will get you out of the cities and let you experience the country and culture.
Miyajima Island
This island is just a short train and ferry ride away from Hiroshima and deserves it's fame as one of the 3 most beautiful places in Japan.  It's home to some beautiful temples and alot of wild deer.  I was lucky enough to be there just as the fall leaves were turning colours and it was easily the most beautiful spot on the trip
It's like a minature kyoto. There's an amazing traditional market place as well as an early morning farmers' market along the river. The Hida village is fun to ramble around and on some days you get the chance to meet people practicing traditional crafts.
There's a Hakone free pass you can buy that allows you access to the Buses, ferries, trains, and cablecars in the area. The area is a great place to explore for a few days. The's an open air museum, the sulpher springs on a nearby mountain, a beautiful shrine in Hakone-machi, the ferries on lake Ashi-no-ko, and 2 possible views of Mt Fuji (weather permitting)
Naruko Onsen
Getting to Naruko is a little tricky (you have to leave the shinkansen lines and start travelling by local trains). But it's worth it: The hotsprings are marvellous.  There are some beautiful hiking trails, a wooden doll museum and several ski hills nearby.
This collection of temples is built on a mountain side in Yamagata prefecture. Climbing up is a little tough but the view is spectacular.  The area is also famous for a Haiku by Bashou: Stillness. Penetrating the Rocks. The voice of a Cicada.

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