Monday, June 2, 2008

Japan: Best. Country. EVER.

Japan is as close to utopia as it comes. Trains arrive every three minutes, vending machines take care of your every need, and people are so nice and helpful that if they don't know the answer to your question, they'll literally sprint over to someone else to help you find the answer. Plus, some of the toilet seats are heated. Genius!

Visiting Japan requires a lot of pre-planning. Two websites that were indispensible were (for maps and sightseeing information) and (for restaurant recommendations at any budget). It took me months to come up with the mother of all itineraries, with every day of our vacation outlined, down to the minute. And yes, I know that's crazy.


After landing at Narita airport, we took the Narita Express into Tokyo. One thing that all visitors should buy (if they're at least traveling as far as Kyoto) is the Japan Rail Pass. It can only be purchased before you arrive in Japan. This pass can be used on the Narita Express, all the JR Lines (the line we used the most), and most bullet trains. We saved a ton of money, and enjoyed roaming the train stations at will. All the major stations are like malls that just happen to have trains running out of them; there are nice shops and restaurants, there's no funky underground smell, and the floors are so clean that I wouldn't hesitate to picnic on them.

The first thing I noticed about Japan was the vending machines. They are everywhere. Sometimes there's three or four on one block, each one offering the same selection of drinks. You will never go thirsty.
Most of them offer teas (Paul and I tried a new variety every day), but others offer everything from rice balls to chicken fingers.

The machines are so ubiquitous, in fact, that I'd read in the New York Times that the Japanese have created a vending machine disguise, marketed to women who fear getting pursued by a would-be attacker on the streets late at night. (Of course, with the low crime rate, one can only assume that this is more a novelty item than anything else.) See if you can spot the camouflaged woman in this photo, which appeared on the Times:
We stayed at the Century Southern Tower hotel for our first two nights in Tokyo. It was a very fancy hotel (but not unreasonably priced, at $230 a night) three minutes from Shinjuku station. The hotel is located on a wide, pleasant street lined with restaurants, coffee shops, and a Krispy Kreme donut shop that constantly had a line out the door. The wait time was always posted on a sign; here, it was only 20 minutes to get your sickeningly sweet donut!

At every hotel we went to, we were given a night shirt and slippers. We also got stuff that I've always thought should be standard in hotels, like toothbrushes, toothpaste, and hairbrushes.
It was at this first hotel that I discovered how fancy the toilets in Japan are. Every one came with no fewer than four buttons for various functions. It turns out the toilets are also bidets--which should be mandatory for hygiene, if you think about it. Toilet paper alone can't do the job properly!
Our first location was Shibuya crossing, which is the Times Square of Tokyo. Crossing the intersection is like playing a scarier, real-life version of Red Rover Come Over.
Our first meal was spent at a fast-food udon shop, where you order and pay for your selection from a vending machine outside the restaurant, which spits out a ticket, which you present to the chef inside the restaurant, who whips up your dish in a flash. You eat your noodles standing up at a counter--a fun novelty that becomes not so fun after a couple of minutes.
The next day, we took a bus to Fujikyu Highland amusement park, near the base of Mt. Fuji. We were there to ride what was once the tallest and fastest roller coaster in the world (it was dethroned a few years ago).
Fujikyu has only three coasters, but all three were insanely scary. Or maybe we're just getting old; it's hard to tell. In fact, the signs at the park proclaimed that people over the age of 54 aren't allowed on the coasters!

Everyone had to get photo IDs at the park. The caption under your photo says: "Oh! Pretty!!"

The best snack at the amusement park was the grilled squid on a stick. It took two people to finish the sucker.

The best ride (after the coasters) was this one where you had to bike your way around the track. No wonder the Japanese are so skinny.

In Japan, every place has a mascot, and every mascot is made into a stuffed animal--even land formations. Fujikyu's mascot is Fuji Mountain, which looms over the back of the park.

Back in Tokyo that night, we made our way to Tokyo Tower, Japan's version of the Eiffel Tower.
Our goal was to eat at the Tokyo Curry Lab on the second floor. The lab was beautiful, sleek and metallic, and the curry was pretty good, very spicy.

The next morning, we were off to Kyoto on the shinkansen, or bullet train. The journey takes three hours. You can buy a fancy lunch box to eat on board ($8 to $13). The contents of the lunch boxes frightened Paul, who bought a pork sandwich instead.
After dropping our bags off at the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) where we would be staying for the next two nights, we got an all-day bus pass for $5 and spent the day visiting temples. I thought Italy's culture and architecture was amazing, but Japan's impressed me even more. Everything is so old and beautiful. Our first stop was Sanjusangendo, which is a very long temple dedicated to Kannon. There are 1,001 statues of Kannon lined up in rows inside, a really impressive sight. We weren't allowed to take photos, but here is one from another website.
Next we went to Kiyomizudera, which turned out to be our favorite temple of all. There are many different shrines and activities at this temple.
The first thing we did was wander into a shrine where you descend a set of stairs into pitch blackness. A banister on your left is all you have to guide you through the tunnel, and the experience of going through it and coming back out into the light is meant to simulate emerging from the womb; the point is to be "reborn." Even though I can't remember my first birth, I'm pretty sure this one was more enjoyable.

Next, we checked out the famous love stones, located at the Jishujinja shrine. Two stones are placed 18 meters apart, and if you can walk from one stone to the other with your eyes closed, you are supposed to be lucky in love. Paul gave it a shot.

Then we climbed up to the main stage of Kiyomizudera, where the view is breathtaking.
And finally, we drank from the Otowanotaki waterfall, which is believed to have therapeutic properties, catching the water with cups attached to long sticks. Everyone has to share the same cups, which is kind of really disgusting, although the cups are supposedly sanitized at a UV ray table. Oh well, when in Kyoto...

After leaving Kiyomizudera, we took a bus back to Kyoto Station and then a train to Arashiyama, where we visited the bamboo forest. Awesome. Amazing. I think the pictures speak for themselves.
But our main reason for journeying to Arashiyama was to visit Iwatayama Monkey Park. The park consists of a climb to the top of a massive hill, then coming back down. Along the way, you encounter free-roaming wild macaque monkeys.
The climb was steep, and we were instructed not to look at the monkeys in the eye or engage them in any way. Of course, I completely ignored this advice and kept trying to get close enough to take photos of them. At one point, one of them decided that it didn't like being stalked, and it ran over and started to climb up my leg. I froze, imagining the monkey climbing all the way up to my face, but Paul came rushing over before that happened. He scared off the monkey, although it bit me in the knee first. Fortunately, the bite didn't pierce my clothing and I didn't even feel it--Paul told me that he saw it happen. And upon examining my pants, you could see the teeth marks. So note to anyone planning on visiting the monkey park: Don't wear shorts! Oh yeah, and don't look the monkeys in the eye or engage them in any way.
At the top of the hill, you go into a little house and feed the monkey chestnuts or apple slices from inside. It's kind of cool that you're the one who's trapped in a cage while the monkeys are roaming free outside. Despite my earlier unpleasant encounter, I was eager to participate in this activity, and it was a lot of fun.

After leaving the park, we made our way over to Ryoanji temple by train. Ryoanji is famous for its Zen rock garden, which features 15 stones set up in a design that was created in the 1400s. Just 14 of the stones are visible from any angle, and it's said that only through attaining enlightenment can you see all 15 stones at once. You're supposed to sit and mediate there for hours, but we were there for only about 20 minutes.
And finally, we wrapped up the day of temple hopping with Kinkakuji, the golden temple. The outer walls are covered in gold leaf, and it really is an incredibly beautiful sight.
That evening, we had dinner at an excellent conveyor-belt sushi restaurant called Musashi, where the dishes are only $1.37 each. There was stuff that I've never seen before, like this quail egg maki (the eggs are just barely cooked by the hot rice).Paul, who doesn't eat sushi, had only three plates, while I had at least ten.
For Paul's sake, we had to visit a yakitori (skewered chicken) place near our ryokan afterwards for a second dinner. Here is the pizza yakitori, which was quite good.
And finally, we turned in at Shimizu ryokan ($130 a night), which I found through All the glowing reviews are correct: This ryokan is a gem. My only complaint is that it was a seven-minute walk from Kyoto Station, although the walk was admittedly very pleasant and the streets charming. It just wasn't so fun when we had to do it in the rain on the second night.
At Shimizu, we were given robes to wear around the ryokan, and bathed in a piping hot onsen, or hot spring bath. That night, we slept on surprisingly comfortable futons on the tatami floor. OSAKA AND NARA

The next day, we took a train to Osaka, about half an hour away, to visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.
The sole purpose of the visit was to attend the Chicken Ramen Workshop, where you get to make your own ramen. The workshop requires each participant to know Japanese or to have a translator, so I'd arranged for two volunteer guides to come with us, Minako, who is about our age, and Mr. Takahashi, who is 71 and in better shape than I am. They belong to a wonderful organization called the Osaka Systematized Good-Will Guides Club and were both extremely helpful. Minako was very funny and outgoing, and Mr. Takahashi went so far as to attend a workshop prior to our arrival so that he could tape-record the instructions, transcribe them, and write down the translation for us!
That giant cup of instant noodles deserves an upclose shot.
The workshop was great. For just $5, you get a doo rag (covered with the museum's yellow chick mascot) to keep and, of course, the ramen you made. We started with just flour and water and ran the dough through a thinning machine several times, eventually churning out the noodles.

After weighing out exactly 100 grams of noodle, we watched the ramen get deep-fried by a professional and sealed in the packaging.
You even get to design the packaging yourself. Guess which one is Paul's design. (Hint: It's the one that makes no sense.)

After the instant ramen museum, our guides took us to Dotonbori, Osaka's famous downtown shopping district. We went to a restaurant to have okonomiyaki, the local specialty. It's basically an egg pancake filled with your choice of ingredients (pork, seafood, etc.) and covered in sauces. Then we wandered around the shopping district for a bit, before Paul and I headed off to Nara for the rest of the afternoon.
Nara is only about half an hour from Osaka by train. We were going there to visit Todaiji temple, which houses a huge Buddha statue, in what is the largest wooden structure in the world. We also wanted to see Nara's famous free-roaming deer. I was afraid we wouldn't be able to find the deer, but when we got to the public park that is the temple grounds, it was obvious that that wouldn't be a problem. They were everywhere. It was really cool to see them just hanging out. (The numerous piles of deer poop, however, was not so cool.)For $1.50, you could buy a small stack of deer cookies to feed them, which, of course, I had to do. The deer aren't interested in you until you have these cookies in your hands. Then they swarm! Many of them are quite aggressive, snatching the cookies from your hands and coming back to demand for seconds and thirds.

We made our way to the temple through throngs of schoolchildren and eventually got to view the Big Buddha, which was, indeed, quite big. Crazy big, in fact. It's hard to capture its enormity in a photograph.
This hole that this boy is crawling through is supposed to represent the size of the Big Buddha's nostril. The next morning, we went to one last Kyoto site, Fushimi Inari. This is the place with hundreds, maybe thousands, of red torii lined up to look like a long tunnel. The toriis go on for miles, but we only walked about a quarter mile before turning back.
There's a scene from Memoirs of a Geisha that was shot here, with Sayuri running through the toriis. I made Paul reenact the scene for my filming pleasure.


After Fushimi Inari, we took the shinkanesen to Hakone, a mountain town about an hour from Tokyo. It's where the Tokyoites go for a long weekend. The town has many fancy ryokans that feature onsens supplied with hot spring water by the nearby volcano. People go to bathe at these onsens and take in the view of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate, and we got a cloudy, rainy, and blustery day. We couldn't even see where Mt. Fuji was, let alone get a clear view of it. We purchased a Hakone Free Pass (which is not free at all, at $39); it allows unlimited use of all the charming public transportation around Hakone, including the switchback train that climbs up into the mountain, the gondolas that are supposed to give you an awesome view of the valley and Mt. Fuji, and the cartoonish ship that takes you across Lake Ashi.

At some points during this journey, we were literally in the clouds, which had descended upon the mountain, and I wasn't able to see ten feet in front of me. While we were in the gondolas, the winds blew our gondola around as if it were a toy. And that isn't a white wall behind Paul, it's the windows of our gondola, turned completely opaque by the clouds.

At one of the gondola stops, you could get out and explore Owakudani, the great boiling springs, and sample the black eggs that are the local snack. The eggs are dipped in the springs and their shells turn black, but on the inside you'll find a regular hard-boiled egg. Lake Ashi features a red torii sitting picturesquely on the lake's shore, and that was our reason for braving the elements to go on the boat. By that time, it'd started to really come down and the wind was blowing like crazy. A smarter person would have found shelter to maybe nurse a bowl of udon, not taken a boatride.

The highlight of our Hakone stay was our ryokan, called Taiseikan. It was our most expensive hotel, at $400 a night. (So we stayed for only one night.)But it included a five-course kaiseiki dinner and an equally fancy breakfast, served in our room, so maybe in the end, it wasn't that expensive. The hotel has its very own funicular, which you must take to get to it. Taiseikan's location is spectacular. It's perched on a cliff and overlooks a gushing river. That night, for $10, we reserved the private outdoor onsen, which was fantastic. We didn't bring a camera (because we had to bathe butt nekkid), but the next morning I went back to take a picture of it.


On our final full day in Japan, we headed back to Tokyo on the shinkansen, stopping off in Yokohama on the way to visit the Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. Yes, another ramen museum. This place was really fun (and in fact bills itself as a "ramusement park"), designed to look like Tokyo in 1958, the year ramen was invented.

You can try a dozen different styles of ramen from the various "shops," and I'd read that you can get sample sizes, but couldn't figure out how to order those. So we approached the shop with the longest line (the thinking being that it'd be the best of the bunch) and each got a huge, soupy bowl of pork ramen. It was salt heaven.

Back in Tokyo, we checked into the modern Metropolitan Marunouchi hotel ($200 a night), located right next to Tokyo Station. Then we visited Sensoji temple, in Asakusa, but both felt that it wasn't as impressive as the Kyoto temples. It's a classic attraction, though.
That night we took a cue from Frommers and ate at Kanda Yabusoba in Akihabara. We sat on tatami mats to eat, and the soba was excellent.

The next day, we were supposed to fly out at 6 pm, so we decided to spend in Harajuku, where there's good shopping and the Meiji shrine. It was raining again, so the visit to the shrine was not that pleasant, although the grounds were beautiful. There are giant cypress toriis on the path to the shrine, and other interesting things, like a beautiful wall of lanterns.

We went souvenir shopping after that, stopping at the Japanese version of FAO Schwarz, called Kiddyland. It's five floors of extreme cuteness. (Well, three floors of cuteness, two floors of boys toys.) When you're inundated by adorable things, you start to feel this weird sensation, like you're going to burst. I wonder at what age I'll feel less compelled to purchase a stuffed animal for myself.

Where else besides Japan will you find buttered toast as a stuffed animal?

And I thought the Snoopy perfume was hysterical.One final restaurant was Maisen, a katsu place, and then we were off to the airport, our Narita Express train arriving exactly two hours before our flight, because that's how things work in Japan. Now why can't the U.S. be the same way?