Friday, December 2, 2011

Japan: Transportation

Tokyo from one of the government building's observatory.What a vacation we just had. Tons of positive emotions and amazing memories. Everything went great. We saw a ton of things, experienced a lot of new tastes, visited a lot of destinations. We visited Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

Now we just have to write it down to preserve the little details and after 3 days of contemplating I’m still not sure how to go about it — chronologically or in categories. I guess it will be a little bit of both and maybe the end result will end up being a kind of a guide for someone who is planning to make a similar trip.

Preparations


We did a lot of research before our trip. A great resource for researching a trip to Japan is japan-guide.com. We knew the cities that we will visit, but we knew very little about what exactly we want to see in those cities. We picked out the places and read up on transportation and getting around.

We put together a 17 page document1 with maps, schedules and our step by step plan. This was instrumental in us not getting lost a single time. We didn’t take a single wrong turn, didn’t get on the wrong train and never missed our stop.

We also made sure to pre-order a pair of JR Passes that can only be done outside of Japan, which was a right decision. With respect to learning some basic Japanese — we made no progress whatsoever and hoped that we can rely on English to get us through.

Getting There And Around


The first part was easy — get on a plane in JFK and wait for 14 hours. We did just that on early Friday morning and landed somewhere mid-day on Saturday. Upon arrival to Narita International Airport (one of Tokyo’s airports) we went through passport control, customs and everything else within 20 minutes or so — everything was fast and efficient.

Shinjuku Station.We made sure to go and exchange our JR Pass exchange orders for actual passes right in the airport, so we wouldn’t have to look for an exchange agency somewhere else later on. We decided to activate our passes from our 1st full day in Japan (Sunday). This way our JR Passes were active for all of our trip and expired on the last Saturday. On Sunday we were flying back out home.

Tokyo taxi.In order to get to our hotel we decided to use a limo bus service. Taxi cost ran somewhere around $300, so that was not an option and we didn’t want to experiment with trains while we were loaded with luggage. The bus picked us up right at the airport and dropped us off right in front of our hotel. It cost us ¥3,0002 per person and got us to our hotel in about an hour and a half or so. No problems.

Women Only car in Osaka.In Tokyo itself we were originally planning to get a one-day unlimited subway pass, but since we ended up activating the JR Pass one day earlier than we originally planned it turned out that we didn’t need the subway pass at all. JR has a good number of lines in Tokyo and one of the lines (Yamanote Line) runs in a loop through all the central areas of Tokyo that we wanted to visit. The only place that we took subway to was Roppongi Hills Tower, since it had no convenient JR access.

Shin-Osaka Station.As we have learned getting around Japan’s train system is extremely easy, especially after living in New York. Each station has signs in English, without an exception. The are signs specifying the name of the station, the next station in each direction and signs pointing to the lines and the list of station names that trains stop on on each line.

Osaka Station.Inside the trains there are also electronic signs that switch from Japanese to English all the time in almost all the cases. And to top it off in most cases there are announcements in English as well.

Small station somewhere along the way.Also I had all the maps I could find in PDF format loaded into my iPad and I had a Google-like maps in my iPhone that didn’t need the internet connection. All this was very helpful too.

Rapid Train to Nara.JR Pass, even though expensive, is very valuable. Just all the time that we saved by simply showing the pass and going through instead of fiddling with ticket machines, figuring out the rate fare every time makes it worth it.

On the train to Nara.Of course you have to do the math and see if the money part makes sense to you. Most cost comes with Shinkansen (bullet train) rides. We knew that we will go from Tokyo to Osaka, but if we wouldn’t also make a day trip to Hiroshima it wouldn’t have paid for itself.

Bullet Train N700 (newest) Series at Shin-Osaka Station.The pass costs $370 right now. The ride from Tokyo to Osaka costs $174 with a seat reservation and $250 for a trip from Osaka to Hiroshima and back. Reservations are another added value of JR Pass — the are free with the pass. So we made sure to have our seats reserved when we were taking Shinkansen anywhere.

700 Series Shinkansen.We used the pass everyday and everywhere. We used it to get around Tokyo, we used it to get to Osaka, we used it to go to Nara and Kyoto, we took a round trip on a bullet train to Hiroshima and we used it to get to Miyajima Island from Hiroshima — the train ride and then a JR ferry which is also covered by the pass.

Older 100 Series Shinkansen.Trains are always on time, and are minute to the minute exactly on schedule. Before boarding the train people make two lines on the platform near the markings where the door will open. Sometimes there can be several lines at a time — one near a circle and one near a triangle on the platform. Each train on the schedule board is also marked with a circle or a triangle, so you know where to line up.

Platform markings.When the train stops and doors open the line splits into two and allows the people on the train to exit in order. After everyone has exited people go in from both sides of the door. Everything happens quickly and orderly. People also mostly do not talk on the train to each other or on the phone. The trains are surprisingly quite inside because of this. I think Alena and I were the only ones who kept talking to each other — we were just too full of all the new impressions of things around us that we had to share.

Electronic sign at Osaka Station.Riding a bullet train is an experience in its own. First of all, the trains are gorgeous with their sharp noses. Inside they feel like a business class inside a plane and that’s in a regular car, not a green (luxury) car. Each chair has a lot of legroom, reclines, has a table and an electrical plug.

Bullet trains from Tokyo.Even thought the trains go at high speeds you don’t really feel it all that much. You’re generally looking at a distant mountains or towns and they move by at a normal pace. You only notice how fast the train is when you go by another train. You can’t even make out another train — just a big blur.

Inside Kyoto subway train.As I said before we took a Hikari express to Osaka from Tokyo on Monday and we took Hikari to and Sakura train from Hiroshima on the 25th of November (Friday). Sakura train appeared to be even more luxurious than Hikari was. There is a LED display at the end of each car with text scrolling in Japanese and English — “This is HIKARI superexpress bound for Shin-Osaka” and it lists the stops that the train will make and what the next one is.

Kyoto subway station.In Kyoto we bought a two-day unlimited subway and bus passes. It might not have made things cheaper, but it sure made things easier. A lot of locations are on the outskirts of the city and there is no convenient JR access in the city. But as in every other place everything was easy to figure out. Even the buses. That’s what makes the unlimited pass valuable — the pricing depends on the distance that you’re traveling in a lot of cases and with the unlimited pass you don’t have to worry about it.

Kyoto bus.We also took a tram in Hiroshima to reach the memorial park from the Hiroshima JR station. But again, reading about it beforehand and knowing what tram to take made it easy. Also there are maps available everywhere again. The tram costs ¥150 for a ride per person and all stations also have signs with English names, so we didn’t get lost here either.

Local train to Miyajimaguchi Station.On the last day we took a bus shuttle to Osaka Itami Airport, since there was no JR access to it — that’s why we ended up activating our JR Passes one day earlier than we originally planned. The ride to the airport cost us ¥620 per person and the bus stop turned out to be right at our hotel’s back exit — very convenient. The whole ride to the airport took only 25 minutes.

Miyajimaguchi Station.We decided to err on the side of caution so we left the hotel at 11am. We ended up near our gate in the airport somewhere before 12 — everything is just too efficient inside the airport as well. Our flight was at 2:40pm, so we ended up having to wait for almost 3 hours for our plane.

Hiroshima trams.We were flying from Osaka to Tokyo on Japan Airlines plane and they start boarding 15 minutes before take-off. And everything goes smoothly. From Tokyo we were flying AA non-stop to JFK and they started the boarding almost an hour before the take-off and everything was a complete mess.

Inside Hiroshima tram.The flight back itself was uneventful. The only thing that I wanted to mention about our flight from JFK to Tokyo was the fact that it took a really weird way to get there. The plane has flown all the way up to the frozen lakes over Canada, proceeded to fly over the north coast of Alaska (I could see all the frozen water below), then flew over the north coast of Russia and cut across Russia down to Japan passing by the western coast of Kamchatka. The flight back was much more along the lines that one would expect.

So as you can see our general day would start with us taking a train to a destination of our choice, then walking for 8 hours or so and then catching a train back to our hotel. Japanese public transportation system is very well developed. You can easily get anywhere you wish without ever needing a car or having to catch a taxi. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about transportation.

P.S. Every single subway or JR station and each bullet train has a super clean restroom available for general public.

P.P.S. Another very useful resource is Hyperdia. You can look up all the schedules for all the JR trains for any date and time, along with the pricing. The search itself is flexible enough for one to select only the trains that the JR pass will work on.

  1. The plan itself is specific to our itinerary and our hotel locations, but should be a good starting point for anyone. []
  2. Exchange rate at the time of our trip was at about ¥74 per $1. []
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Japanese Food

Plastic dishes.To try actual real Japanese cuisine or rather cuisines was as interesting and as important of an objective for us as visiting ancient Japanese temples and shrines. We knew some facts about Japanese food, but we had more surprises than we expected.

First lunch. Shibuya, Tokyo.For one thing it turns out that all the foods that we have at local Japanese restaurants such as sushi, rolls, tempura, yakitori, soba and so on — in Japan these are all different restaurants specializing in each one of those things. One place does sushi, another does tempura, third does something that we’ve never heard of at all.

We didn’t do much research on food before going — we only had one place that was “must visit” on our list. And that’s the place I will start with.

Sushi & Sushi Dai


Sushi Dai is a tiny “hole in the wall” type of restaurant located on the famous Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. As you can guess by the name — the restaurant specializes in sushi and is considered to be the best sushi restaurant in Japan, which in turn makes it the best sushi place in the world. I’m nowhere near being an expert on sushi, so I don’t know if it is true or not, but I can share my own impressions.

Sushi Dai sign.Having the reputation that it has this little place has a long long line all the time. It opens at 5am along with the market itself and closes before noon. It is said that the earlier you get there in the morning the faster you’re going to get in. It is also said that if the line is too long one might want to try to get into another famous restaurant a couple of doors down called Daiwa Sushi and see if the line is shorter there.

As I’ve mentioned before we really lucked out with our hotel location. The fish market was a 10-15 minute walk from our hotel, so we didn’t have to take subway or anything else to get there. It also happened so that we were still running on New York time. We set the alarm for 6am just in case, but we managed to wake up at 4am on our own — perfect.

Red snapper.Now I want to mention that I’m not the biggest sushi fan in the world by any stretch of imagination and having sushi for breakfast was even stranger. But our hearts were really set on Sushi Dai, in fact so much that we watched a ton of videos on YouTube about people visiting it. One thing that stands out in all the videos is the fact that somewhere in the middle of the course that you’re getting served you get a thing that is clearly moving on top of your rice. That was making me quite nervous.

Another thing about this place is that from everything I’ve read it seems that majority of people have a really hard time finding it on the fish market. And even if you do you must be able to identify it by a sign which is done in the same style as all other restaurants on the market and obviously it is in Japanese. I had the sign printed out, but by the time we got to Japan I had it committed to memory anyhow. I also looked at a lot of satellite photos and maps of the area. I was just hoping that things would look familiar from non-satellite perspective when we actually get there.

Sardine sushi.I’m proud to say that we got to the fish market without making a single wrong turn. And not only that, but we also arrived to Sushi Dai inside the fish market without making a single wrong turn either. One thing was obvious — no need to identify the restaurant by the sign. It was the only place with a line and a long one at that. The time on the clock was 5:40am — we did take our sweet time showering and getting dressed.

I would say there were about 10 couples in front of us. The problem is that the restaurant fits about 10 people (not couples) at a time. We took our place in line — which still was in front of Sushi Dai at the time, but soon after the line grew bigger and eventually extended around the corner of the block.

Our chef at Sushi Dai.Right in front of us was a couple of older people — a Japanese looking man and a very Russian looking woman. It turns out that they live in LA and he travels on business to Japan very often. And when she comes with him they do a mandatory trip to Sushi Dai. A couple of times per trip if they can.

It took us about an hour and 40 minutes of waiting to get in. This couple went in ahead of us and we got in right after them. We ended up sitting next to them too at sushi bar (there are no tables inside) and we kept getting advice on how to properly eat each thing which was helpful.

Miso soup.We knew what we were going to order before we got there. Our choice was an omakase option — which means that it’s up to the chef to pick the best pieces for us — for ¥3,900 ($52) per person. The course consisted of 10 sushi items selected by chef plus 1 item of our choice at the end. It also included Japanese omelet, spectacular miso soup, hot green tea and one roll, but I’m not sure if it was one of the 10 items or not — I lost count.

The chef keeps making sushi pieces in front of you and keeps serving you piece by piece as he goes. The first piece was fatty tuna. I cannot forget its taste to this point. I never really ate sushi pieces in my life. I rarely order rolls with raw fish. Typically it is somewhat chewy, and I don’t enjoy the texture, nor the taste.

Sea urchin — uni.In Sushi Dai we were told to try not to use any soy souse as it kills the taste of the fish. We did as suggested and avoided soy souse except for the things that they said it was OK to use it with. Back to fatty tuna — it basically melted on my tongue. The texture was pleasant and the taste was great. I realized that this type of sushi not only can I eat for breakfast — I’m going to enjoy it too.

After that a couple of other fishes followed which were all great. Than we were served sea urchin (uni) which most people say is pretty disgusting in U.S. It was not bad at all. And somewhere soon after my nemesis has arrived. I saw the chef put some rice into his hand, then a piece of something on top of it, then a hard slap and then he lands it right in front of me on the table. And what do you know? The moving part was no an illusion. It sure is alive.

Red clam — this thing was moving.Good thing I knew this was coming, because if I were not prepared there is a good chance I would lose everything I ate before it. But now I was set on trying it. Not for the taste, but for the experience.

I grabbed it with my hand and stuffed it into my mouth. I didn’t feel any movement, but this thing was like rubber which would squirt out some nasty tasting juice at each bite. I declare it by far the most disgusting thing I have ever eaten. But I was ecstatic nevertheless about the fact that I did not chicken out and went through with it. I was really proud of myself for that. Although I don’t think I will try it ever again. I repeat, ever again.

Roe.After that we had a piece filled with roe, but that’s not a thing you can scare us with. In fact it was much more delicious than the one sold in Russian stores — it was not salty at all. I think it ended up being Alena’s favorite piece.

Either way by the time I ate my last piece I was full. I could eat no more. Alena felt about the same. Overall it was most definitely worth it. The food was great, the soup was great, the tea was great. Even the rice that they use was great. This is the experience that should not be skipped whether you are passionate about sushi or not.

Our chef was great — very friendly and helpful — had no problem explaining to us, dumb tourists, what was what and how it should be eaten and so on. Also most people did not use chopsticks and just used their hand. We did the same.

Rolls and baby shrimp sushi.I have to mention that when we got to the market Daiwa Sushi had no line and you could just come in. When we came out the line to Sushi Dai has gotten even longer. At this point Daiwa Sushi also had a pretty sizable line, but this one consisted mostly of European looking people. Sushi Dai line had mostly Japanese people, but a good number of patient westerners as well.

On a bit of side note — this past weekend we went with Maruks to a local sushi place in Brooklyn. It was supposed to be a good place. Alena and I ordered the same sushi pieces that we ate in Japan to see if there really is a difference. Were we astonished or what by that difference. Local sushi hardly compares. The fish was chewy with a nasty after taste. The rice was stale or something. The only way I could eat these was covering them with ginger and wasabi and dipping them fully into soy souse. So basically quite the opposite of what one is supposed to do.

Possibly fatty tuna sushi.I think I could have been a big sushi fan as well if I had regular access to Sushi Dai though.

Traditional Kaiseki Dinner


Traditional Japanese multi-course dinner.One of the amazing experiences of our trip was a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner at Nishiyama Ryokan in Kyoto. We scheduled it to fall on the eve of November 23rd — our 5th wedding anniversary and it definitely made this date memorable.

Boiling pot at traditional dinner.There were 12 different courses served to us. I can’t really recall all of it — a lot of seafood prepared in different ways, a lot of vegetables, a pair of soups. Not everything was to my taste, but a lot of things were quite delicious. There was some boiling soup prepared right on our table and we were served by a woman in traditional Japanese attire. We also wore kimonos for the dinner which added to the whole experience.

Cooking tofu on the table at traditional breakfast.I would not do this every night, and I probably wouldn’t do it for the food, but the experience itself was really great. We ordered 2 bottles of hot sake which made things even better.

Dinner at ryokan.In the morning we were served a traditional Japanese breakfast which was not any less interesting than the dinner with more boiling stuff on our table. During the breakfast time the dinning room was full of people, but during the dinner we were the only people there so it made it feel like it was our private special evening. It was great.

Breakfast


Not much to say on this topic. As I’ve mentioned before breakfast was included in our hotels for free because of our Diamond VIP status. Both places had a large buffet with a selection of American and Japanese dishes. It was a great way to save time and money and we ate breakfast in our hotels every morning with 2 exceptions — Sushi Dai and traditional Japanese breakfast at our Kyoto ryokan.

Okonomiyaki


Okonomiyaki.Okonomiyaki is dish that originates from the western part of Japan. There are 2 distinct styles — one that is popular in Osaka and another that is popular in Hiroshima. I heard about okonomiyaki before and I’ve read about it and we definitely wanted to try it.

Okonomiyaki dinner.Okonomiyaki is kind of a Japanese omelet. It is made with some special batter and cabbage. You can have it loaded with a lot of different things — ours came with pork and squid. It is often prepared right on your table, which has a grill built in.

Okonomiyaki chef.We asked our chef to make it for us as we had no idea how to make it ourselves. We picked a completely random place that we ran into in some food-court maze in Umeda district of Osaka. I liked it quite a bit, but Alena found it to be just OK. Worth a try anyhow.

Tempura


Tempura in Japanese restaurants is completely different from what we get in ours. If here it is overly greasy and feels extremely unhealthy in Japan it is very light and quite delicious. We ordered a 10 piece tempura course in one of the restaurants near our hotel and came away pretty happy with our dinner.

Tempura.Interesting thing about 95% of Japanese restaurants is the fact that they all have plastic replicas of their dishes displayed in the windows — be it an upscale place or a simple corner place to grab a bite. We as tourist definitely found it very much to our liking — otherwise we would have no idea what to order.

Tonkatsu


Fried pork cutlet dinner.Tonkatsu or at least I think it was Tonkatsu is a Japanese pork cutlet. We weren’t sure what to do with dinner for our first night in Osaka so we went to one of the huge malls at Osaka Station City and picked out a meal by looking at the plastic dishes. It turned out to be very very good.

Bento Boxes


I was familiar with the term bento box before I came to Japan. It’s yet another type of thing that you can order in pretty much any Japanese restaurant in New York. There are different types of bento boxes, but each one consists of many sections filled with different types of food.

Bento box lunch on a bullet train.It is common to see bento box kiosks on JR stations especially in Shinkansen sections. We bought a pair of these for our trip on a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. I think the total for a pair was somewhere around ¥2,000 or so which comes out to $27.

Kobe Beef


And for the last, but not least I left Kobe Beef. Anyone who even remotely likes steaks have probably heard of Kobe beef. There are a lot of urban legends floating around about it — these are special cows that are feed with beer and massaged all day long or something along those lines. I’m quite sure that those things are not true, but it sure is famous.

Kobe beef.Now while most of the food in Japan is moderately priced and very comparable to prices of decent restaurants in New York, Kobe beef places in Japan are extremely expensive. In fact they are so expensive that we were considering for 6 nights whether we should visit one or not.

And even if you do want to visit one — they don’t seem to be easy to find. And when you do find them or somebody recommends you go to one you still better make your own research and make sure that in fact they do serve Kobe beef. After doing a bit of research we found a place right across the street from our Hilton hotel in Osaka — a place called Rio.

Teppanyaki.Now because the price was so high we decided that we’ll just go up to them and ask if we can share a meal and to our surprise they had no problems with that. So we made a reservation for Friday night and we kept it.

My biggest fear was that I’m going to get disappointed. Our dinner in the end came out to ¥15,000 which is roughly $210. And that is for a single portion. So back to my biggest fear — I was thinking that it would really suck to pay so much money for a steak that I wouldn’t be able to tell apart from something that would get served in a local Hibachi place in Brooklyn.

Teppanyaki chef preparing Kobe beef.Kobe beef is often served in a teppanyaki style dinner (I always knew this process as hibachi, so I’m not really sure what the difference is). They started with different appetizers, vegetables and so on. They gave us two plates and split everything for us, so we didn’t feel bad at all about splitting a single meal. They made us feel comfortable.

Kobe beef was weighted on a scale in front of us to be exactly 150 grams (as it states in the menu). It turned out to be a bigger piece than we expected. I guess the reason is that it has a lot of fat in it. If you look at the meat you can tell that it looks different. A couple of strands of meat, a couple of strands of fat — like marble.

Kobe beef is almost done.When the meat was cooked and given to us — oh, wow! All the worries about it being “usual” were instantly gone. Had I known all along that it would be as it was we would go to this dinner without the slightest hesitation. The meat just melts away with a slight press of the tongue. I think it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten.

The closest thing that I can compare it to is a shish-kebab from a Uzbek restaurant. If you were to take a piece of fat that they typically put on the skewers and a piece of meat and merge them into a single piece you would get something somewhat similar. The fat becomes non-nasty and the meat becomes super soft.

Us visiting Rio teppanyaki to try Kobe beef.We were so happy we decided not to miss this opportunity and go. So not only did Japan ruin sushi for us it ruined steaks as well. How am I supposed to enjoy steak after that? And luckily for us one full course was enough food for 2 of us that we didn’t walk away hungry at all — we were quite satisfied.

Conclusion


What a rich country Japan is. So many things to try, so different from the ones we know. There are many more things that we didn’t have the chance to try in our time there, but I think we did good. Lots of memories, lots of great impressions that will stay with us for a long time.

However I will add that I was very happy to eat a good old American hamburger upon getting back home. I guess you need time to get used to the tastes of things that are so foreign to us.

P.S. A lot of photographs are going to be from iPhone, since we don’t have pictures of all our meals taken with D700.
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Япония — О Еде

Street vendor on Miyajima Island.Наша поездка в Японию удалась. Мы погуляли по многим новым местам, попробовали много необычных блюд, услышали много непонятных слов, увидели много красивых лиц, и в целом на мгновение окунулись в другой мир. Мне было одинаково интересно смотреть и на Японию, и на самих японцев. Очень хотелось пообщаться с ними поближе и попытаться лучше понять их обычаи и культуру, но такой возможности не было. Несмотря на то, что все были чрезвычайно вежливы, много кланялись и улыбались, я иногда остро ощущала себя чужаком в этой мононациональной стране. В целом же японцы произвели на меня очень и очень приятное впечатление, и я лично убедилась, что японские женщины не зря славятся своей красотой.

Plastic dishes.Вообще очень сложно писать о нашем отпуске, потому что он был очень насыщенным и от этого не знаешь с чего начать. В эту субботу мы ходили в местный японский ресторан с Маруками, и с тех пор мне очень хочется попасть на рыбный рынок в Токио и отведать вкуснейших суши из Суши Дай. Разница в качестве морепродуктов, риса и чая очень заметна — а это значит, что еще не скоро я смогу получать удовольствие японских ресторанов в Бруклине. Итак, о еде.

Суши Дай


Chefs at Sushi Dai.Вопреки распространённому мнению, в Японии есть очень много разных блюд, которые не включают в себя морепродукты. В суши-ресторан мы сходили только один раз, но зато как метко! Даня почитал на интернете отзывы о разных местах, и этот ресторанчик, расположенный на рыбном рынке в Токио, очень хвалили. Работает он в первой половине дня — с 5 утра и до полудня, и попасть без очереди туда невозможно.

Japanese omelet.Мы запланировали поход на рыбный рынок на утро понедельника. Наша гостиница находилась минутах в 15 ходьбы от рынка, что пришлось весьма кстати, так как метро в Токио закрывается на ночь. Мы проснулись в 4 утра (разница во времени между Токио и Нью-Йорком составляет 14 часов, и к понедельнику мы были на каком-то промежуточном времени) и в начале 6-го вышли из гостиницы. Благодаря тому, что Даня хорошо изучил карты еще до нашей поездки (а так же тому, что в моего мужа при рождении кто-то встроил компас), мы нашли и сам рынок, и нужный нам ресторанчик без каких-либо проблем. В 5:40 утра мы присоединились к очереди (которая, кстати, заметно выросла вскоре после нашего прихода), а в 7:10 нас запустили внутрь. Стоит заметить, что в целом ряду маленьких ресторанчиков, наш был единственным возле которого в такую рань стояла очередь. В очереди там и сям встречались европейские лица, но большинство ожидающих являлось азиатами (скорее всего японцами). Прямо перед нами стояла пара средних лет — муж японец с русской женой. Живут они в Калифорнии, но у него в Японии мама и бизнес, и каждый раз когда они прилетают погостить, то заходят в это место.

Daniel at Sushi Dai.Сам ресторанчик очень маленький и узенький. Не уверена сколько там посадочных мест — думаю, не больше 12. Мы заказали омакасе — курс на выбор повара, и остались очень довольны. Каждый из нас получил по 10 суши (плюс одну на наш выбор в конце завтрака), суп мисо, 4 кусочка рола с тунцом и сладковатый японский омлет. Еще в Нью-Йорке мы смотрели видео из этого места, и поэтому для нас не было шоком, когда одно из блюд — какой-то там моллюск — зашевелилось прямо перед нашими носами. Мне было страшновато это есть — всё-таки непривычно есть такие свежие морепродукты в сыром виде европейскому человеку — но с заданием я успешно справилась. Даня тоже сьел этот кусочек суши, хотя потом он откомментировал что большей гадости в жизни не едал. Еще мы ели тунца (жирного и обычного), морского ежа, красную икру, скумбрию, мелких креветок, окуня, угря и еще какую-то белую рыбу. Я помню, что окуня в Бруклине я прожевать не могла, а тут он мне так понравился, что я заказала его в качестве дополнительного кусочка. А еще мне очень понравилась красная икра — солёную красную икру я не люблю, а вот свежая была просто обьеденье.

Rolls and tuna sushi, I think.Завтрак нам стоил $50 на человека — не дешево, но оно того стоило.

Говядина Кобе


Kobe beef.Дегустация кобе бифа входила в планы нашей поездки. Мы точно не знали где, но надеялись, что в Осаке найдётся приличное место с умереными ценами (хотелось уложится в $100 на человека). Но то ли доллар сейчас настолько слабый (курс доллара к японской иене не был насколько плохим со времён второй мировой войны), то ли мы не там искали, но найти что-то дешевле $200 на человека мы не могли. К счастью, в ресторане, на котором мы остановились, никто не возражал разделить нам одну порцию на двоих. Хочется заметить, что так получилось даже лучше. Конечно, мяса могло быть и больше (мы получили 150 грамм мяса на двоих, но за счёт того, что в эта говядина очень жирная и соответственно относительно лёгкая, получился довольно приличный кусок), но закусок, овощей и риса входящих в цену ужина было более чем достаточно. Мы оба наелись до отвала.

Teppanyaki chef.Перед походом в ресторан мы очень боялись разочароваться ($200+ за ужин для нас довольно дорого), но получилось даже наоборот — мясо превзошло наши ожидания. За счёт его необычной “гранитной” текстуры оно было очень мягким (я бы даже сказала нежным) и сочным, и его практически не надо было жевать. Я очень рада, что мы побороли наши сомнения и попробовали этот деликатес.

Тэппанъяки


Teppanyaki.Кобе биф нам готовили в тэппаньяки ресторане. Не считая мяса, всё очень похоже на наши местные хибачи. Вкусно (особенно жаренный чеснок), но ничего необычного.

Традиционные ужин и завтрак


Traditional dinner at ryokan.На 5-летний юбилей нашей свадьбы мы останавливались в традиционной японской гостинице — рёкане. Мы решили так же попробовать традиционные ужин и завтрак, которые предлагались в этом месте. Ужин состоял из более 15 наименований, включающих в себя супы, сырую и жаренную на гриле рыбу, овощи, различные соления, рис, десерт.

Traditional breakfast at ryokan.Что-то мне понравилось, что-то было слишком экзотичным на мой вкус, но в целом мы остались очень довольны и хорошо наелись. Завтрак тоже был интересным и включал в себя успевший полюбиться мне омлет по-японски, рыбу, суп, варёный тофу, рис, соления и грейпфрут. Гостиничный персонал посоветовал нам одеть на ужин предоставленные рёканом традиционные халаты с накидками, что мы и сделали. Мне кажется, это добавило всему действу остроты, чего мы собственно и добивались.

Окономияки


Okonomiyaki dinner in Osaka.Это блюдо, представляющее собой жареную лёшку с капустой и мясом либо морепродуктами, мы ели в одной из забегаловок в Осаке. Было неплохо, но лично на мой вкус не более того. Я выбрала окономияки с осьминогом и креветками, а Даня с беконом.

Тэмпура


Tempura dinner.Я никогда не была большим любителем тэмпуры (обжаренные в кляре морепродукты или овощи) в Бруклине, но Японская темпура на голову выше местной. Не знаю в чём заключается секрет, но тесто в Японии было более воздушным, лёгким и хрустящим, и поэтому я с огромным удовольствием ела тэмпуру и в специализированном ресторане, и как часть нашего традиционного ужина.

Свинина в кляре


Fried pork cutlet dinner.К сожалению я не записала как называется эта ветвь японской кухни, но было очень вкусно. Эта свинина напомнила мне темпуру, но немного отличалась от вышеназванной по вкусу.

Бэнто Бокс


Bento box.Из Токио в Осаку мы ехали на синкансэне — “поезде-пуле”. Даня купил в дорогу две коробочки бэнто. Идея таких коробочек, где еда красиво и аккуратно разложена по отсекам, мне нравится, но больше покупать их как-то не тянуло.

Зелёный Чай


Tea ceremony.За неделю отпуска я выпила не меньше ведра этого чудесного напитка. Нам повезло, и когда мы уезжали из рёкана, тётушка-японка в кимоно угостила нас чаем, сделанным в рамках чайной церемонии. У чая был насыщенный зелёнй цвет, вкуснейшая пенка и очень приятный терпкий вкус. Второй по вкусности чай нам давали в Суши Дай.

Tea ceremony green tea.Очень многие рестораны тоже подавали неплохой чай, хотя, конечно, с тем, что нам подали в рёкане они не могут сравнится. Я покупала очень много чая в торговых автоматах, понатыканных на улицах с удивительной частотой. Причём, чай в автомате можно было купить как холоный, так и горячий. Я очень удивилась когда первый раз мне выпала бутылка с горячим зелёным чаем, но потом мы заметили, что под горячими и холодными напитками было написано “hot” и ” cold” соответсвенно, плюс у горящих напитков на бутылках были оранжевые крышечки, а у холодных белые. Мы привезли домой 3 упаковки по 100 грамм листового зелёного чая — надеюсь, что когда он закончится, можно будет пополнить запасы с помощью интернета.

Vending machine with hot and cold drinks.А еще мы пробовали буллочки с мясом, приготовленные на пару на острове Миядзима. Очень вкусно! А еще мы ели ланч в районе Сибуя в Токио, но он не представлял из себя ничего особенного. Что мне показалось очень интересым и необычным — это то, что практически кажый ресторан на витрине высталяет пластиковые модели своих блюд. Очень удобно, особенно для иностранцев.

Hiroshima steamed buns at Miyajima Island.А еще хочется отметить, что Хилтон как всегда был на высоте. Так как Даня является “алмазным” членом хилтоновского клуба, то мы получили в отеле бесплатные завтраки и доступ в “executive lounge”, где можно было вечером попить чаю или спиртных напитков, и подкрепится сладким или лёгкими закусками. Завтрак в стиле шведского стола был просто шикарным и включал в себя блюда как европейской, так и японской кухни.
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Japan: Hotels

Why is it so hard to completely enjoy the moment when you’re in it and why do you only fully realize how great it was when it is behind you? I would love to turn up at one of JR stations right now, going to some new unexplored place.

I was planning to make this post ahead of my food post, but since Alena did hers we wanted them to be out at about the same time. So now — a couple of words about the places we stayed in.

Hilton HHonors & Planning


As we have said before our hotels were covered by Hilton HHonor points, which made this vacations much cheaper for us than it otherwise would’ve been. We also didn’t have to shop around for bargain hotels and had a peace of mind going there knowing that Hilton is Hilton.

Tokyo Bay view from Conrad Tokyo.Hilton points are more efficiently spent if you can stay at a single place for 6 or more days. Therefore we originally booked our hotel in Osaka (no Hiltons in Kyoto) and figured that it will be our main hub of visiting everything around it and I think it worked out quite well for many reasons.

From Osaka we made trips to Nara, Kyoto and Hiroshima. On the last day we were so tired that we didn’t want to make any more trips, so we spent it checking out Osaka itself. If we were staying in Kyoto all this time we probably wouldn’t even come to Osaka at all.

Conrad Tokyo. One of Hilton properties.After making our Osaka reservation we had more than a 100,000 points left. So when looking for hotels in Tokyo we went with the most expensive one they had — Conrad Tokyo for 2 nights.

Since we didn’t really know which location would be good, the hotel choice was pretty much random. Otherwise we just have one rule — no airport locations. Those seem to often be in shady areas and far from anything interesting.

Subway line. View from our room in Conrad Tokyo.In addition to the fact that our hotels were free we happen to have Hilton Diamond VIP status. What that practically means is that we can book the cheapest room and get upgraded to an executive floor and an executive room, get free access to executive lounge (food and alcohol for free), get complimentary breakfast and free internet. In one word — NICE!

As we kept doing our research it became apparent that we would like to spend at least one night in a traditional hotel — ryokan. Since we definitely wanted to dedicate more than one day to Kyoto — Kyoto was our choice. We decided to book one night at Nishiyama Ryokan. We figured we’ll just leave our things in Osaka in our Hilton and just go explore Kyoto without having to worry about carrying bags with us.

Conrad Tokyo


Our room in Conrad Tokyo.This was our first stop in Japan. We got here from the airport on a rainy night and were helped up to the hotel registration on 28th floor. At first this appeared strange to us, but only later on we realized that most of the building is actually an office tower and the hotel itself is located on the top floors. The check-in was quick. We were upgraded to the 37th floor which was an executive floor and a top floor of the building. I always ask for the highest floor possible for a better picture taking opportunities out of the windows.

A couple of the words about the room itself — it probably was the most impressive one we have stayed at yet. If we were to book this very room for money it would’ve cost us $1,000 per night — we did the math while we were booking.

Tokyo from our window. Twin government building towers are visible on the left.The ceilings were very high — at least 2 of my heights if not more. There was a large glass separating the bathroom and the bedroom. That wall had a motorized blinds as did the main window — the outer wall was all glass. Everything in the room could be operated by a multitude of control panels filled with buttons. The toilet itself had at least 5 buttons (which by the way is the case with pretty much every toilet in Japan) — sit warmer, auto-flusher, bidet and who knows what else.

Another thing that we enjoyed quite a bit was the shower system, strangely enough. It had a regular shower on the wall, but it also had a huge shower head sticking out from the ceiling itself. And what made it so great was that when you stand under it you feel like you are standing in a very strong rain, not shower. Big water drops are just going all over you. When we get our own house we are definitely going to look into getting one of these installed.

Other direction. JR tracks are visible on the ground.The views from the windows were quite spectacular as well. In one direction we could see all the way to government towers located in Shinjuku. From the windows in the lobby (on 28th floor) we could see Tokyo Bay and a big green park in front of the hotel which we didn’t get to.

But what turned out to be even better than the hotel itself was its location. Hotel was located in Shiodome neighborhood of Tokyo. Shiodome subway station on one of Tokyo subway lines was right downstairs. JR Shimbashi station on Yamanote Line (that loop line that goes around the city that I wrote about before) was a 5-10 minute walk away. And the famous Tsukiji Fish Market was a 10-15 minute walk away. I couldn’t have planned it better if I wanted to.

Alena. Conrad Tokyo.Anyhow, we really enjoyed staying at this hotel. Superb service that can be expected from any Hilton in the world.

Hilton Osaka


Hilton Osaka was a bit simpler than Conrad, but it was still a high-end luxury hotel that we expected. We got upgraded to the 30th executive floor and had a nice view of Osaka out of our window. We also had access to the executive lounge which we would visit every night. However we were so tired that we didn’t get to use the pools a single time.

Osaka from our window in Hilton Osaka.Every morning we would start by going downstairs for a complimentary breakfast which had a large selection of hot food. It was not a typical continental breakfast, but a full buffet filled with western and Japanese food. One morning we met that same couple that we stayed in line with to Sushi Dai in Tokyo — that was a strange coincidence.

Hilton hotel building is on the right. View from Osaka JR Station.And by a pure accident we again ended up in a great location. Osaka seems to have two “downtown” areas. One is Namba and another is Umeda. Our hotel was located in Umeda right across the street from a huge Osaka JR Station which was just rebuilt and reopened this year. It includes in itself a huge shopping mall with all kinds of restaurants and department stores. It also has a rapid service to Kyoto which takes 24 or so minutes and it was 1 stop way from Shin-Osaka station — where all the bullet trains go through.

Same scene as above, different time.The hotel also ended up being right near Airport Bus stop which was extremely convenient on our last day.

Nishiyama Ryokan


This was definitely the most unusual one of our stops. It ended up costing us $385 for one night, but it included traditional breakfast and a dinner which we talked about in our food posts. We stayed in a traditional Japanese room with 8 tatami mats.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Entrance.It turned out that November 23rd (our anniversary) is a national holiday in Japan. But luckily increased rates for hotels apply for the night of 22nd to 23rd. We wanted to spend our anniversary night in this location, so we paid the usual rate. The stay sure ended up being special.

Our room and Alena in her kimono.When we got to the ryokan we were greeted by a very friendly staff who checked us in and led us to our room. A woman dressed in traditional Japanese clothing explained to us a number of details about our room and Japanese traditions, showed us how to wear kimonos, made green tea for us and showed us how to sit properly at a Japanese table. She also insisted that we should try wearing the kimonos to dinner, even though we obviously could wear whatever we pleased. But we’re glad that we listened to her and it made the whole experience even more special.

Our host at Nishiyama Ryokan.We had a great dinner. We slept on the floor on special futons, which was also very comfortable. The personnel at the hotel was very helpful and friendly. The breakfast was not any less interesting and when we were about to leave they gave us a traditional tea ceremony.

One thing that seemed interesting to me was the fact that paper can provide very good heat insulation. Our room had a central bedroom and a separate smaller room which had windows. There was a traditional door between the two which mainly consisted out of paper. While it was very warm inside our sleeping room the outside room was very very cold. That was unexpected.

Nishiyama Ryokan. Lobby.We didn’t really know what to expect from this place, but we were so glad that we decided to spend one night here.

Conclusion


Overall the whole trip was great. We lucked out with our hotel selections, which aided us in our explorations of Japan. They were also a good part of our adventures, especially our ryokan stay. Oh so many many great memories already. What a week it was.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Arosha Video Update

We haven’t posted any Arosha videos in a while. So here are 2 brand new ones from yesterday filmed by Alёna.

Here Arosha is playing with IKEA net for toy storage. He finds it hilarious when Alёna pushes this thing over to him. Got to watch it with sound to hear all the laughing.

And here he is playing with Shublik. Listen to the song that happened to be playing in the background.
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