Japan - Tokyo, Sapporo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Kyoto
Japan - Tokyo, Sapporo, Yokohama, Kamakura, Kyoto Reviews
Feb 08, 2006
I was in Japan for three weeks in February of 2006. While there, I stayed mostly in Tokyo, but also visited other cities. The following are some tips and excerpts from my travel journal...
The biggest tip I can offer you is don’t rely on your credit card – very few places accept plastic, so bring plenty of cash. And many places close early (like 4pm), so start your days at dawn for productive sightseeing. The subway is the best way to get around Tokyo. On the trains, avoid the “Green Car” because it costs an additional ¥1,000 simply for the privilege of a more comfortable seat – and it doesn’t even include the fare.
Maps and a mobile phone would help if you and your friends end up going different places and want to meet up at a later time. If you go to the supermarket an hour or two before closing time, the discount stickers are abundant and you can stock up on perishables cheap (including roe of cod, i.e. fish intestines – if you want to try something new).
Pink or green omochi (a rubbery, doughy, blob of pounded, cooked rice stuffed with sweet bean paste, lightly grilled, and powered with a non-sweet sugar) are very good and snack foods available at most small stores. You should also give natto a try. I didn’t like it at all, but it’s popular among the Japanese. You can have it hot or cold. The sushi and sashimi in Japan is unbelievably good and can even be purchased fresh in 7-11 stores.
Roppongi has the Tokyo Tower (a replica of the Eiffel Tower). It’s cool to see and there is an observatory, but I didn’t care to pay the high ticket price for the view.
We took the subway to the Shibuya area. With more glam electronic displays than Time Square or Piccadilly Circus at its crossroads center, Shibuya was swarming with people and energy. We stopped for a picture with Hachiko (a dog statue and famous meeting spot).
One night we settled on Sukiya – a sort of diner with an eat-at bar, stool seating, and poor quality food. The pictures of entrees on the menu were helpful in selecting a dish, but my chopped fish on rice and seaweed was more of a dull salmon color than the appetizing, bright pink illustrated in the photo. The cold rice tea had a flavor of wet, burned toast, but the soup was good, and the price was reasonable.
Take the subway to Higasha-Ginza to Kabuki-za for Japanese theater, but get there early before the shows sell out. Kyoganoko Musume Ninin Dojoji is the show I wanted to see, but I wasn’t early enough and couldn’t get tickets, so I had to settle for the show following that one. I needed to kill an hour and 20 minutes until the show and I walked around until spotting a place with the red lanterns hanging outside, which I’d learned are an indication of a drinking establishment. I went up the stairs and inside Kikumasa Izakaya, but the waitress spoke no English and the place appeared to be more of a restaurant, so I went to Pronto next door, which had “café and bar” printed under its name on the sign. The place was cool with smooth jazz playing, a friendly staff, and the ambient sounds of Japanese conversations. I first tried Yaemaru mizuwali (sochū with cold water). My second drink was hot fresh yuzu citrus sochū (Yaemaru oyuwali with lemon), which reminded me of Theraflu at first, but I liked it by the bottom of the glass.
After the kabuki show, I returned with friends to Kikumasa Izakaya, the place I’d earlier found with the red lanterns out front. We had an excellent assortment of authentic Japanese dishes including squid sashimi, yakitori (kebabs of chicken hearts, livers, and other parts), fish with edible heads and tails, wasabi, and lots of sake! After we ate and drank we continued to Karaoke-kan Shibuya branch (the Karaoke bar featured in the movie Lost In Translation).
Lots of vendors offer free taste samples of some interesting foods in the Sogo mall in Yokohama. With independent stores sharing floor space for their kiosks, deli counters, and even supermarkets, it’s a different kind of mall than those in the US.
We rode the Vision roller coaster at Como amusement park. Como’s lights reflected spectacularly across the river. The coaster ride was good, but short for the ¥7,000 ticket price. Then we went to Chinatown to visit Kantei-byo shrine. It was magnificent and extraordinarily detailed – a beautiful façade to witness. After I ate, we left Chinatown for the subway home. We stopped a while for my Spanish friend to marvel at the gathering of classic, tricked-out, American hotrods. In particular, the cars hopping on air shocks impressed her quite a bit. Personally, I find them ridiculous, but apparently that silly part of American pop culture has found it’s way to Tokyo.
Harajuku is a must see. Along and around Takeshita Dori we observed Tokyo’s counter-culture youth decked out in facial piercings, (temporary) tattoos, a rainbow of hair and makeup colors, and flamboyant outfits. The styles ranged from pink Bubblegum Angels to black Goth attire and everything in between. Mounds of luggage surrounded the teenagers. They leave and return home in clothing that would meet the approval of their families and spend the day of “cosplay” (costume play) dressed up in fantastic costumes to mimic anime characters and punk musicians. Passing various vendors, and street musicians, we paused to sample tako-yaki (octopus dumplings) from a stand. The generous, toothless vendor gave us a couple of puffs free of charge and had a good laugh watching Clara dance around with an overheated mouth from the still steaming dumpling she’d just bitten into. Cautiously, I allowed mine to cool a little longer. It was light, delicate, and tasty, not to mention uncommonly nutritious for food from a cart.
Near the Yoyogi National Skating Center, we began a lengthy walk through Yoyogi Park and into Shinjuku to visit the Metropolitan Government Office for a free view. From the south tower observatory, we saw spectacular vistas of the endless cityscape.
My trip was in the month of February, so we went to the 57th Sapporo Yuki (Snow) Festival. While up north, we had an adventure climbing Moiwa-yama. If you get up that way, be sure to try Sapporo’s famous raman.
I also visited Kamakura. My first stop there was Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu (shrine) in Kanagawa prefecture. Kamakura is a wonderful, woodsy town. Off the main road, the homes blend seamlessly into nature with bamboo fences and lush full landscaping. The first temple I visited was under renovation, but was still interesting to see. I walked through upscale neighborhood streets and the Torii Gates to Sasuke Inari jinja (Shinto), a secluded shrine on a small mountain. Inari is Kamakura’s “god of the harvest.” Many miniature shrines (villages of tiny Inari) were displayed in clusters, content in the quiet serenity of the forested hills. I followed a path farther up the mountain around the shrine where I discovered a sign pointing me in the direction of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu). I found the enormous statue, but was too late to enter, though I still managed to get some pictures from the gate.
I left for Kyoto at 11am. The Tokyo Metro delivered me to Shin-Yokohama where I boarded the Tokaido Shinkansen (the “bullet train”). It was hot in the otherwise comfortable car because of the overcompensating climate control. The one-way ticket price was ridiculously high at ¥11,950, but it was a unique experience to ride the world’s fastest train. The country side through the windows, though too quickly passing for me to thoroughly admire it, displayed a still densely populated, yet more suburban and natural looking face of Japan. The train ride will give you a nice view of Mt. Fuji. My train arrived in Kyoto around 2pm and I checked into K’s House hostel. It was almost too nice (i.e., “western style”) to contribute to my Japanese experience.
The restaurants in Gion can be quite pricey (¥3,000 and up to twice that), but Kicks is a decent bistro where I had a unique crape-like dish stuffed with vegetables, meat, and a robin’s egg called okonomiyaki (literal translation is, “anything you want”). It was very good and only ¥650.
I entered Hgashi-Honganji Temple along my walk to Kyoto Station. The mother temple was massive and ornate with a delightful, traditional main temple where chance timing had afforded me the pleasure of witnessing a service begin. Shoes not permitted inside, I and a handful of other visitors knelt on the tatami mat floor while three monks chanted in low, harmonic tones.
Find the Tohoku Express reservation office to get a ticket for the little-known, cheaper bus line to Tokyo. The office is small and discrete in an out-of-the-way corner of the enormous Kyoto station. From Kyoto Station, catch the 101 bus to Nijojo Castle, but go early because traffic can make it a long ride and the castle closes at 4pm. Disappointingly, no photos are permitted in the castle. Golden wall paintings depict trees, birds, and big cats in a variety of scenes. Intricate works of open-wood transom divide the chambers. The exterior sights were even more enchanting than inside the castle. Shimogamo-jinia (shrine), among the oldest in Japan dating back to the 8th century, was next on my agenda. Then visit Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion). The grounds, coy ponds, and temple are magnificent and conjured a feeling of ancient Japan (in spite of the atypically monochromatic color of the temple). Shimogamo-Jina Shrine might also be worth a visit and try Gion for nightlife. You can save some money and stay above ground if you take the bus rather than the subway. You can get a ¥500 one-day bus pass will pay for itself my third ride. Where the Takano gawa feeds the Kamo gawa, concrete blocks, turtles, and rays create a footpath across the river. Yasaka-jinia Shrine is totally worth a visit. The shrine was very old and interesting and the free tour was a great bargain.
I’d thought to visit Jisyu-jinia Shrine, but it took me a while to find a bus stop and Kyoto Gyoen national garden and Imperial Palace were nearby, so I went there instead. Of course, the walled fortress containing the palace was closed and the garden was baron in the winter season, but it would surely be a great place to visit on some warm spring afternoon.
Heian Shrine, too was closed, but the façade was nice to see and I was introduced to a part of the city that I otherwise might have missed. There was a huge Torii gate as well as very modern-looking buildings in the Yoshidu area. I alternated between busses and walking down to Gion and Shijo-dori (4th Street). Some items on display in the window of a small consignment shop (Soko Seikatsukan) caught my eye from the sidewalk and I perused all of the great finds in the cluttered store. It was the perfect place for authentic gift and souvenir shopping; they had some nice furniture too. Short on cash and credit cards not accepted, I had to pass up the larger items I wanted and negotiated down the total price to ¥1,000 and $5.00. My ongoing hunt for nourishment uncovered a few establishments that I’m sure I would have enjoyed dining at had circumstances permitted. The specialty at one was priced at ¥11,000! And there were no other pictures on the hiragana, katakana, or kanji (Japanese language) menu. The juice, waffle, and baozi (Chinese steamed bread stuffed with beef) that I had gotten as “in case of emergency food” from Larson’s convenience store earlier had to suffice. At 9:55pm, we departed Kyoto Station for Tokyo. The seats were comfortable, but the heat was terrible.
Around 12:30, I turned off my light and tried to get some rest. With two seats to myself, I did manage to sleep, if restlessly, through the night. At 6am, I was back in Tokyo. I walked from the bus stop to Tsukiji (the famous fish market). I first saw the outdoor marketplace and at 7am sat at the counter in Sushizanmai for a magnificent sushi breakfast. On a full stomach, I resumed walking and came upon Namiyoke Inari Jinja (shrine) and then I found the Mecca of fresh seafood – the indoor wholesale market. It was like a wild tradeshow with marine carnage everywhere! If it grows in the Pacific, you’ll find it for sale (often still alive) in Tsukiji. What an incredible experience to see this wild frenzy of commerce and oceanography in person. Down to my last few hundred yen and reserving some of that for transportation, I employed great restraint and only bought one fresh scallop for ¥150. The market was absolutely worth getting up early for. Tracing each narrow isle, I was so captivated by the variety of aquatic creatures that I had to keep reminding myself to look up to watch the commotion of the people as well. Another small shrine overlooked the market, so I went to check it out next.
From there, I passed Tsukiji Honanji Bhuddist Temple and crossed the pedestrian bridge over Shiodome on my way to the Imperial Palace. As it turns out, the palace is only open on the Emperor’s birthday in December and New Year’s Day.
Sensō-ji (Asakusa Kannon Temple) was cool. At first, we thought Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) was the entirety of the monument. The gate with its giant paper lantern stands as an entrance to the flower festooned shopping lane (Nakamise) behind. At the far end of the street, however, stood another gate as well as a large temple and compound beyond. The inside was grand and majestic (as temples tend to be) and had more beautiful ceiling paintings than I’d noticed in other temples. Take in the sights around the temple grounds, stroll over to see the commerce of the adjacent covered doris (Hisagu Street), and grind some dust from Zenizuka Jizonsen “Kankan Jizo” stone into your wallet for financial luck.
I took the metro to Ueno where I saw the statue of Saigo Takamori (honoring Tadamasa Torii – painter of Kabuki prints) and illuminated animals in Ueno Park. There was also a nice overlook from which to observe the metropolis below. Back to the subway, I decided to skip Akihabara Electric Town in order to make sure I’d be on time to reunite with Clara. Arriving 12 minutes early, I tried to take some money out from an ATM, but the machine just said something to me in Japanese and spit my card back out.
At night you can sit outside San'en-zan Kodo-in Zojoji (temple) to listen through the walls and hear the monks play their charming music. Nearby are the rows of little statues of Jizobosatusu (the protector of children born as ghosts).
You might also try to find an onsen (a public bath – a sort of nude swimming pool – some are mixed, but women don’t bath naked with the men – bummer!).
Part of the Japan, three weeks in February 2006 travel blog
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