Friday, May 4, 2012

Japan: Random Observations

A small collection of random observations and random photographs from our Japan trip that has been accumulated as I was writing the rest of the posts about Japan.

Prayer plaques at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.The end of November in Japan is a great time to visit. We expected to see naked trees, but instead we saw plenty of autumn colors and a lot of green.

Street vendor wares at Ueno Market.There are a lot of people all over the place wearing face masks — in subway, on the streets, at work. Pretty much at any time in any public place you will see somebody doing this. People are courteous enough to keep their colds and flu to themselves. Too bad it is so uncommon where we live.

Tsukiji fish market. Yummy?When we first decided to buy something from a vending machine (which are everywhere) we were surprised that a hot bottle fell out of the machine. Turns out that vending machines sell hot drinks as well as cold ones. You can tell the hot drinks by a red label under the bottle and a cold by a blue ones.

Painter at Nara Park.You can buy a real unsweetened hot or cold, green or black tea from a vending machine.

We often had a hard time finding a trash can on the street, yet all the streets and subway stations are impeccably clean. Every train station has a very clean public restroom.

Stairs to one of Nara shrines.Everything except for the food costs obscene amounts of money. A Nikon — Japanese made — lens that I can get from B&H for $1,999 costs $3,000. Casio Pathfinder watch that I bought here for under $400 costs over $600. A compact flash card that I bought from Amazon for $55 costs $125 there. Dollar is extremely weak these days.

Kasuga Shrine.You are better off using your credit and debit cards while paying 3% for every transaction than exchanging money. The going exchange rate is going to end being worse than your credit card company will give you with that 3% charge included.

Prayer boards at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.While the spoken English of most Japanese is better than my Japanese — it’s not far off. They can handle a very basic English sentence, yet anything slightly more complex causes them to keep repeating what you first basic sentence was and laugh uncontrollably. It appears to us that when they are embarrassed they laugh.

JR Station in Osaka.In all our time in Japan I have seen many Japanese and many European cars and only one American car — some GMC truck. Japanese people seem to be quite a bit more patriotic with respect to their car choices than American people are.

Houses on Miyajima Island.People are extremely polite, but you will never know what they are really thinking about you. It’s as if everyone has a dual personality there. That somehow made us somewhat uncomfortable.

In Japan it is not customary to tip and could even be considered rude. That felt quite liberating actually.

Bicycles in Osaka.Japanese people dress very stylishly. Women wear super sexy skirts, stockings and boots. Man wear western suits with ties during the weekdays. I don’t think I have seen these kind of seas of suits even in Manhattan.
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Friday, April 13, 2012

Anniversary in Kyoto

One of the wooden wall at Nijo Castle.It has been almost 4 months now since our trip to Japan and yet I keep coming back to it, trying to write more and more about it. As I’ve said many many times before, this vacation of ours was amazing. And even the smallest references to Japan in our everyday lives fill up my heart with warmth. We’ve been to many places there that became special to us and one such place was Kyoto.

Planning


Originally we planned to stay in Osaka and make a couple of day visits to Kyoto. The express train ride was from 15 to 30 minutes long which is much shorter than our ride to Manhattan is. But later on we thought that Kyoto would be a great and very romantic place to spend our anniversary day and night at.

To make it even more special we made a reservation for a stay in Nishiyama Ryokan — a traditional Japanese inn — for the night of November 23rd. The stay also included a traditional Japanese dinner on the eve of 23rd and a breakfast on the morning of 24th. It also happened so that our anniversary of November 23rd fell on the same day as a national holiday in Japan.

Subway station.Our plan was simple — take a bullet train to Kyoto in the morning of the 23rd, buy the daily passes for Kyoto subway and buses and spend 2 days exploring the city with a stay and celebration in the above mentioned ryokan. We had the luxury of leaving all our bags in Osaka at our Hilton hotel, since we had a room there booked and paid for anyhow. And that’s exactly what we did.

Morning


On the early morning of our anniversary day we ate breakfast at our hotel buffet and soon after got on the train the schedule of which we confirmed via Hyperdia website — our JR station in Osaka was right across the street from our hotel.

Nijo Castle grounds.We got slightly confused by the signs at the station, since they were not specifying Kyoto on the train that we were supposed to take. When we asked for confirmation at the entrance booth we were told to take some other train which would get us to Kyoto later than the one we were thinking of taking.

It turned out that the sign at the station was actually specifying the last stop of the train (which makes sense) and Kyoto was one of the stops before that. So we did hop on the train that we planned to take and it worked out just right. In a little more than 20 minutes we were standing at the main Kyoto JR station right in the heart of Kyoto itself.

Inside Kyoto JR station.Our first order of business was to buy our passes for the local trains and buses — JR basically doesn’t have any lines to any of the places that we wanted to visit and we thought that instead of making it hard on ourselves by trying to calculate the cheapest and the correct fare to all the places we wanted to visit we would rather spend a little bit more money and just buy a pair of unlimited passes.

Inside Kyoto JR station.The option that we chose was a 2-day pass covering two main subway lines and most of the city buses for ¥2,000 per person. That came out to about $50 for both of us and gave us the freedom of hopping on as many buses and trains as we wanted.

After spending ¥4,000 on the passes we came to a sad realization that we had about ¥1,000 left. To put that into perspective a can of soda or tea typically costs ¥150. We had dollars, but when in Japan dollars are only good to purchase yen. So we needed to find an exchange place. And from what we read the best place to exchange money was a post office. And to our surprise there was one right outside the station.

Staircase at one of the subway stations.We walked into the post office and asked a man at the counter if they do currency exchanges. He confirmed that typically they do, but today being a holiday the bank portion of the post office was closed. We went back into the station which had a large underground mall inside and tried to find another currency exchange place. It was too early in the morning and all of them were closed. In addition to that at the information desk we were told that chances are that they are closed for the day because of the holiday.

We found an ATM machine and tried using our ATM card, but the machine told us that our bank declined the transaction. We found a couple more — some were in Japanese and we could not use, and the ones that were in English kept saying the same thing as the first one did. It was becoming obvious that we had no way to get money, the entrances to all the places that we wanted to visit are not free and that this “little” debacle might just ruin our day.

Golden Pavilion


Bus to Kinkakuji.We still decided to take our chances that we’ll have enough money and go to Kinkakuji — Golden Pavilion. We needed to go to the northern end of Karasuma subway line which goes right through Kyoto JR station and from there get on the right bus — no direct subway service, hence the need for bus pass. Luckily for us we had it all planned in advance and had detailed directions on how to get there.

On the bus.We went to Kitaoji Station (15 minute ride) and there we asked for direction on how to find the buses. Turned out that there was a bus terminal right at that station and each bus stop had a list of bus numbers and places that the bus stops at — this made things very easy. Soon after we were on a bus where we were pleasantly surprised to learn that each bus stop also has an English name on the sign. Plus it appeared that a most people were going to the same place as we were, so we had no problem getting off at the right stop.

Temple map.And from the stop we just followed all the people to the temple. Funnily enough a number of locals, when spotting us, were instantly pointing out the direction to go to for us even though we weren’t asking. Also there were maps on the way on which the temple was marked by a swastika symbol. In Japan swastika is an ancient sign of the sun and even though there is a lot of bad stigma associated with the symbol in the west it is still widely used in Japan.

Near the entrance to Kinkakuji.When we got to the entrance to the temple grounds we were relieved to find out that the entrance would cost us ¥400 per person or in other words pretty much as much money as we had in our pockets. Also upon getting inside we were surprised by how crowded the place was — tourists from Japan and all over the world. We were having a hard time getting to the fence to see the temple.

Crowd at Kinkakuji.Forget about taking a good photo. Matters were further complicated by all the dark clouds covering the sky which meant that in order for me to take a beautiful photograph I had to rest my camera on something for an HDR burst. However I was lucky enough to find a good place on the wooden fence and as a result I managed to capture the Golden Pavilion and an illusion of tranquility that this place would project if all the people would suddenly disappear.

Golden Pavilion — Kinkakuji.We started walking along the path that would take us through the territory and were soon stopped by a shy Japanese girl (15 years old maybe?) apologizing and asking if she could talk to us. We noticed her nervous classmates nearby and her teacher encouraging her to be brave. Turns out she had a school project where she needed to find foreign tourists and ask them (us) several questions in English.

Kinkakuji.She had a hard time writing down our names, but was happy to find out that we were from New York — a familiar word that she knew how to write. She asked us several more questions and asked to take a photograph with us. We should have asked the same in return, but it didn’t occur to us at the moment.

Here we are.She was very happy and quite relieved that she has completed her project. It seemed that she was the first and the bravest out of her class. I think in their culture it’s a hard barrier to cross — to “bother” somebody. But it was no bother for us and we were glad we could help.

Kinkakuji.After that we covered the whole path rather quickly and decided to leave the temple grounds. If the place would be serene and quite we would probably spend much more time here, but since it was so crowded we decided to get out of the mob of tourists and just walk around city street. Plus there was nothing else we could do since we had no money to get into the next place we wanted to visit anyhow.

Hotel


Russian cartoon character — Cheburashka — seem to have taken over Japan.We spent over an hour walking through the streets. On our way we discovered several small temples, a whole bunch of closed banks, a number of restaurants for which we had no money and even got rejected at a local McDonald’s — they do not take credit cards.

Hirano Shrine.We were getting somewhat tired and hungry, so we decided to get back on the bus and go to our hotel. Remembering how there should be Wi-Fi available I thought that maybe we’ll try to call our bank and ask them to unblock our debit card for us in Japan. The bus took us to the same subway station that we were at when we got here. There we took a train back to the center of the city — the central station called Karasuma Oike. Here we jumped onto another train line called Tozai and went one stop to the east. Our hotel was located two blocks away. Very convenient and right in the center of the city.

Typical Kyoto street. This one leads to our hotel.To get to our hotel we had to walk along a tiny street. There was enough space for a single car to fit and there was no sidewalk — we just had to walk along the road itself. Our hotel was easy to find and even though its entrance had a historically old look the building was quite modern. It was just decorated as an older structure. When inside we were greeted by friendly staff, but we were told that they can keep our bags (we had none), yet check in only happens later in the day — it was still too early.

We asked them about currency exchanges and they gave us map which was listing all the banks in the area, but as with other ones — they were all closed. I got on their Wi-Fi network and tried to dial 1-800 number on the back of my debit card via Skype. That didn’t work. So I called my sister, explained the situation, gave them all my information and asked her fiance to call the bank and to pretend to be me. They were keeping him on hold for a long time and we decided not to wait for it to work out and just went out to explore the area.

Street mall.On the map here we saw a long long street that was covered with a roof and littered with all kinds of shops, restaurants and temples. These malls seems to be a popular type of thing in Japan as we saw these kinds of places in several other cities. We walked there, but our mood was pretty sour by now. We wanted to drink, but couldn’t buy anything, we want to eat, but all the places only took cash and no credit cards. After walking through this mall for some time we were starting to feel down right depressed.

Then we saw a 7-11 with an ATM inside. We decided to try our luck again and see what happens. We were hoping that maybe Lenny was successful by now and managed to get our card unlocked. I inserted my card, entered my pin and requested a withdrawal of ¥10,000. The machine started thinking, dialing and then we heard a magical whirling sound lighting up a feeling of hope in us and then it spit out the money! We were ecstatic. Never before we loved 7-11 as we did at that moment.

Entrance to our ryokan.We took our new found fortune and proceeded to buy some food. Alena got herself some red bean ice-cream which she keeps cursing to this day and I got myself some cross of a bun with meat and a wanton. It was the most delicious wanton-bun thing I ever ate. We got ourselves some juice and tea and were on our way back to the subway station to proceed with our plan. Lenny has saved our day and our anniversary.

Nijo Castle


Gates to the castle. Palace is inside.Nijo Castle was located only 2 subway stops away from ours. It was the first thing that we put on our list of things to see when we were planning our trip since it was so close to our hotel. The hunger was gone, we were “rich” and an ancient castle was awaiting us. We were in a great mood.

Nijo Castle.Nijo Castle itself was built somewhere in early 1600s and is currently designated a UNESCO world heritage site. The castle has several high walls surrounded by moats, multiple ponds and gardens and a large palace which served as the residence and office of the shogun. And visitors were allowed inside the palace.

On one of the guard towers.We were asked to give up our shoes at the entrance and were welcomed inside. There was no photography allowed in there, but it was a very interesting self-guided tour. First thing that we noticed was the sound that the floors make — nightingale floors. When people walk on them they make a high pitched melodic squeaking sound. If we didn’t read about this before we would think that the floors were simply old, but in reality they were specifically designed this way so nobody would be able to approach the shogun without being noticed.

View from the tower.Inside there was a large number of different rooms and each one had its purpose. They had mannequins dressed in kimonos in most of them displaying what normally would be happening — a dinner, a meeting and so on. Shogun was always protected by body guards that were hidden from view behind different kinds of doors and closets. The place was quite huge inside. It took us at least 20 minutes to walk through it.

One of the paths inside the castle grounds.Afterwards we walked around the territory of the castle looking at the gardens, ancient buildings and taking photographs. It was all so interesting and unusual. So many great moments and memories — I can’t say this enough.

Ryokan


The sun was starting to set, we were tired and we were getting ready for our special anniversary dinner — we had to get back to hotel by 7pm — the dinner takes a very long time to prepare and has to be served at a precise time. We got back to subway and soon after we were at our hotel. We were warmly greeted, they showed us around, made some green tea for us and we had our dinner.

Our room at Nishiyama Ryokan.For dinner there were only 2 of us there, we tried a lot of different and unknown things for us, drank some sake and had a great time. The room was very cozy, the breakfast in the morning was equally great and a tea ceremony that they performed for us was very special too. Alena claims that it was the best tea she has ever had a chance to drink, although I myself didn’t like the taste — it was too bitter for me.

I’m running through this part because I’ve already written about the hotel and our dinner in much more detail earlier. I’m really glad that we decided to spend some extra money and book a room here. Maybe it’s not a 100% authentic ancient place, but it was a perfect place for beginners like us.

Tea ceremony.It’s a great tradition that we have — to do something special on each one of our anniversaries and this day is definitely one of the most memorable and unusual days to date.
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Tokyo

Tokyo skyline from the top of Roppongi Hills Tower.I’ve been meaning to write about our days in Tokyo for quite some time now, but I can’t seem to get into the right mood for it. What is making it especially difficult is my own doubts in my ability to convey all my memories and the warmth that exists in my mind while thinking of this magnificent city through words. But nevertheless I must try before everything starts to fade away.

Arrival to Tokyo


Narita Airport.We landed in Narita Airport in the middle of Saturday after a 14 hour flight. When we were done with our business in the airport that I wrote about earlier we got on a bus that was going to take us to our hotel. Now looking at bus schedule I see that the ride took us almost two full hours, but in my head it was much shorter. I guess all our surroundings were so interesting to us that the time passed by quickly.

On a bus from airport to our hotel.We arrived to our hotel — Conrad Tokyo — at about 4:30pm, but since the day was very very rainy and we were even more “very very” tired we just settled on sitting in our room, looking through a rain covered wall-sized window of a suite, located on 37th floor, upon an evening Tokyo. It was really hard to believe that after so many years of wanting to visit this city and this country we were finally here.

Our hotel — Conrad Tokyo.

Getting Around


Our first order of business on Sunday morning (after eating our breakfast) was to figure out how JR passes work and how we’re going to get around Tokyo. Our original plan was to get our passes activated on Monday, just in time for our bullet train ride to Osaka, thus making them valid until the next Sunday. But since we decided that we won’t be using a train to get to the airport in Osaka on our last day we activated them 1 day earlier — starting from this very day.

We were thinking of getting an all day pass for Tokyo subway lines originally, but now that made little sense. What made it even more convincing was the fact that I assumed there is only one JR line in Tokyo. In reality it turned out that there are tons of them and 4 of them passed right by our hotel and our JR passes granted us free unlimited access to them.

One of the train lines near our hotel.Our hotel ended up being surrounded by all kinds of train lines. There was normal Tokyo subway, JR station and some other train company that I don’t remember. This was somewhat surprising, considering that New York City is serviced by one company, but I guess it’s kind of like NYC subway, LIRR and Path trains to New Jersey. Only in Tokyo they all seem to service the same areas.

We walked over to Shimbashi JR Station. The walk was about 10 minutes from the door of our hotel. First order of business — make reservations for our bullet train to Osaka — JR pass includes free reservations, and we felt safer knowing that we have our seats reserved as opposed to having to try to find an available seat in a non-reserved portion of the train. We made our reservation for an early afternoon, to give ourselves enough time to carry out our Monday morning plans in Tokyo.

Early Sunday morning on Tokyo JR loop line.At the same place we asked for some help on getting around the city and basically it all came down to using a green line named Yamanote Line. It was a loop line going through all the points in the city that we wanted to visit and our station — Shimbashi — turned out to be on the same line as well — very convenient.

After going into JR station (you just show the pass to the controller near the tourniquets and they let you in) we were a bit confused about getting on the train in the right direction — that is until we realized that each sign also has an English name of the line and a list of stations in English that the train stops at. That was the case everywhere.

Shinjuku


Shinjuku Station.Our first destination of the day was Shinjuku. Shinjuku train station is the busiest station in the world servicing a little bit under 4 million (!!!) people per day. Shinjuku also is an administrative center of Tokyo housing multiple government buildings.

Government towers with observation decks on top of each one.We didn’t really have an exact plan of exploring that area, until I remembered that the government towers had observation decks on the top floors. I also remember reading that people didn’t recommend going there as the access is free and because of that lines tend to be rather long. We decided to walk there anyhow, to see the towers themselves and we would decide if the line was worth waiting in. We were planning to go to Roppongi Hills Tower observation deck later in the day anyhow.

Early Sunday morning near Shinjuku Station.The thing is that we woke up very early on Sunday, since we were still running on New York time. While we were walking through Shinjuku streets everything was quite, even though the station itself seemed crazy busy. It was a nice warm autumn day. We’re in Tokyo and we have a great deal of exploring to do in the coming days. We were in a great mood.

Observation deck at one of the towers.Funny thing is that when we got to the government towers there was no long line. Not only that — we were there so early that there was no line at all. We ended up going to both observation decks (each tower has one) and looking at Tokyo from the top. The bad thing is that you have to look through the glass windows — great views, but not very suitable for photography. We saw a park with Meiji Shrine that we were planning to go to next, we saw Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills Tower, but mount Fuji which normally could be visible was hidden by clouds.

View from observation deck of one of government towers.After checking out the observation decks we walked around the square in front of the towers and started our walk south — all the way to Shibuya — a route that would take us right through Yoyogi Park and an adjacent Meiji Shrine.

Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine


After a short walk we passed under a large wooden torii gate and ended up in a big green forest. When planning our vacation we came to peace with the thought that we’ll have to see Japan during a winter times when all the tree would be long asleep — the very end of November. What we didn’t account for was the fact that Japan is located much more to the south when compared to New York. So not only the trees were leafless — they weren’t even yellow yet. Everything was very much green.

Yoyogi Park.The park itself was very serene. A wide road coverd in gravel, tall green trees leaning over it and very few people. We did notice that there were a lot of Japanese people wearing traditional attires — kimonos — mostly women and kids. Men were mostly wearing traditional western suits. As it turned out there was a wedding hall near the shrine and that’s why people were dressed up like they were.

Traditional wedding near the Meiji Shrine.The temple itself was the first one we got to see in Japan. There were a number of people praying there. They do an unusual to our eye ritual of throwing coins, clapping and bowing. Nobody can go inside. They all stand at special gates or windows and look inside. Photographing was also not allowed.

Torii gate at the entrance to the park.Also before entering into the area there is a hand washing ritual that consists of several steps that must be performed in the right sequence. There were even instructions provided in English. You wash one hand with a water from a special cup, then another one, then you put the remaining water into your palm and put it into your mouth. We did it as well. Really impressive temples and shrines though we found in Nara, Kyoto and Miyajima Island.

Harajuku


As we exited the park on the other side we ended up in an area called Harajuku. What it is know for is Japanese teenagers dressing up into different characters — kind of like Japanese Goths I guess. This is really the only thing that didn’t work out for us during the whole trip.

Condomania -- one of the stores in Harajuku area.We did find several girls posing on the bridge and a lot of people taking their pictures. When I tried to do the same some guy ran up to me and started sticking a poster in front of my lens that read that photography is not allowed. Kind of ridiculousness, but I’ve read about this before. When they see somebody with a professional looking camera this happens. Maybe they are trying to make money, maybe they are just assholes, who knows.

We ended up not getting any pictures, even with an iPhone, but we figured it’s not worth getting into an argument over, waved and moved on. Oh, well.

Shibuya


Shibuya crossing.Our next destination was Shibuya in direction of which we proceed to walk. Shibuya is probably one of the most recognized places in Tokyo. It’s kind of like Times Square in New York with tons of signs, people and a large crossing in the middle.

The only tiny street that we stumbled upon in Tokyo.What makes Tokyo much different from the other Japanese cities that we’ve visited (at least the parts that we’ve been in) is the fact that most streets are very wide and are very crowded. We’ve stumbled upon only one tiny street in Tokyo. Kyoto on the other hand is full of streets where there are no sidewalks even — houses on both sides and enough space for one car to drive through. There is a yellow line drawn right on the side and that’s where people tend to walk.

Anyhow, back to Shibuya. We’ve seen this place on multiple photographs before and while doing our research, so seeing it with our own eyes was quite exciting. The crossing is indeed big, but what makes it special is the fact that the lights on all roads around it go red for the cars at the same time and it gets instantly filled up by a huge crowed of people trying to cross the road in all directions.

View from inside Starbucks.We read a suggestions somewhere that we should find a Starbucks located on the crossing and go up to the 2nd floor of it. Inside there should be a good vintage point for photographs and just observing the whole thing in action. However we were not the only smart ones with this idea. Second floor was filled up with people and not only we could not find an empty table to sit near the window — we couldn’t really get close to the window at all.

LOHB restaurant — plastic dishes on display.However from Starbucks I saw a restaurant on the other side of the crossing on the 5th floor of a building. We figured we’ll go there instead if the price wasn’t too prohibitive and it was time for lunch anyhow. And what do you know? It turned out to be a rather decently priced place and the plastic samples of food in the window looked like something we could eat. The place was called LOHB and we ended up paying $40 for the two of us.

View from 6th floor at LOHB restaurant.Food was not bad, but the view was spectacular. They took us to the 6th floor (the restaurant occupies 2 floors) and sat us at the table that was right up against the window overlooking this famous crossing. We took some photographs, ordered some beer, ate our lunch, and just sat there trying to absorb the experience. We. Japan. Tokyo. Shibuya. Amazing and unbelievable!

Roppongi Hills


Roppongi Hill Tower is the rightmost building that sticks out of the skyline. View from government building observation deck in Shinjuku.The next objective on our list was to visit Roppongi Hills Tower — one of Tokyo’s skyscrapers. We were not as much interested in this skyscraper itself as much as we were interested in the open sky observation deck on the top of it and the views that it would offer us.

This is the only time when we actually had to take the subway line instead of JR line since there were no JR stops near Roppongi. The experience was easy enough. The only difficulty is that one must buy tickets and must pay the exact fair depending on the distance traveled. When we approached a guy manning the booth at the station to ask him about it he instantly pointed to a large sign specifying the fee for Roppongi Hills station. I guess we’re not the only ones asking this same question.

Us atop Rappongi Hills Tower.We bought a pair of round trip tickets at an automated kiosk and took the train to Rappongi station on Hibiya (grey on the maps) Line. Only 2 short stops away from where we were. The station exit was right inside the complex itself.

When I was putting our plans together I noted that we should try to obtain an advance ticket to the tower as it would lower the cost of admission slightly. But since we didn’t really know where to look for it we figured that we didn’t want to spend the time to save Â¥300 or so. However we realized that we indeed should’ve gotten these tickets — not for the money savings, but for the time aspect of it. It turned out that there was a HUGE line formed to buy the tickets spanning all the way from the ticket office to the street. Advanced ticket means you do not have to stand here.

Looking in the direction of Shinjuku. Yoyogi park on the left. Gov't towers (looks like a single building from this angle) in the center.At first we were slightly disappointed and even considered turning back and leaving. The line was huge, the price was quite high, it was starting to get dark and we didn’t even have our tripod with us. But we decided since we’ve made it this far we’ll go up. The line was moving pretty well and we got our tickets quickly enough. We ended up paying about $50 for admission. Not cheap.

After we got up to the observation deck we didn’t even look out of the window. We proceeded to go all the way up to the open sky deck on the top of the tower for the unobstructed views of Tokyo. The views were indeed spectacular and it was worth all the time and money that we spent to get here. I took one of my favorite cityscape photographs here with Tokyo Tower being the main subject — shown at the top of this post.

Observation deck itself.One mistake that we made was leaving our sweaters in a locker downstairs. The day was pretty warm and we figured we didn’t need them. But it was very windy and pretty cold on top. Alena was completely freezing so we ended up not waiting for the sunset and left. One our way out we accidentally walked into some massive Pokemon or something like that convention. Turns out there was a huge line to go here as well, but we managed to walk in through some back entrance somehow and got some kind of token handed to us there.

Christmas tree in front of Roppongi Hills Tower.And that was pretty much it for the Roppongi Hills visit. There was some museum there the admission for which was included into the price of our ticket. We walked a bit through it looking at some photographs of old Tokyo. We were getting pretty tired at this point, so we left and took the train back to the loop JR line.

Evening


Another point that we had on our list of things to visit was Ueno Market, but we were so tired from everything we’ve done and since we woke up at around 5am we decided to go back to our hotel, get some drinks and snacks at the executive lounge and turn in for the night.

Monday


We had a very busy day planned for Monday. We still had a lot of things to do and see in Tokyo and catch at train in early afternoon to Osaka. We planned to start out day early.

Early Sunday morning street in Shinjuku.

Tsukiji Fish Market & Sushi Dai


Our first thing to do was to go to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. By virtue of our hotel being a walking distance away (a pure accident) we didn’t have to worry about the train, so it made the logistics easy. A lot of people visit the market to see a tuna auction at 5am, but the auction had no appeal to us. What we wanted to do is to go to Sushi Dai or Daiwa Sushi — two very famous places that serve extremely delicious sushi according to the “Internet”.

Lines to Daiwa Sushi and Sushi Dai at 8am.And everyone recommends to get there as early as possible, as the line can get quite long later on. We set an alarm clock for 6am, but things came out even better because we still were on NYC time — we woke up at 4am ourselves. Now if we were in any other place than Tokyo we would have absolutely nothing to do this early in the morning — so it was good planning on our part to start things up with Tokyo.

Now I’m probably repeating a lot of stuff here because we wrote about our sushi experience before so I’ll just make it short — we got to the market very early, but there was already a line in front of Sushi Dai. Daiwa Sushi had none, but we decided to go for the best. We spent some time in the line, but got in quickly enough.

Crazy traffic inside the market.We had an amazing experience not just because the sushi was really good (this is where I became a sushi fan), but also because we’ve been anticipating this moment for so long. We’ve seen tons of videos of this place and a lot of explanations on how to find it — but it’s all bits and pieces — obviously doesn’t compare to the experience of actually being there.

After we were done with our super-breakfast it was still way too early. The market itself opens to the general public at 9am and it was only 8am. So we walked around the market shops for a short while and decided to do what we were planning to do a day before.

Ueno Market


Walk to Shimbashi Station.We walked to our Shimbashi Station and caught a train to Ueno Market. The biggest contrast that jumped out at me was a fact that on a work day there were tons of people dressed in business attire (mostly men) going places. There were men in suites and ties everywhere.

Monday morning.As an aside as far as closing goes Japanese people dress very stylishly and very well. It’s more relaxed on the weekend than on business days. That is especially true for women. They wear stockings that are slightly higher than a knee and very very short skirts. They mostly don’t believe in pants at all. And we saw on several occasions that when those girls walk their skirt jumps up revealing pretty much everything that the said skirt is supposed to be covering up — there really is little wonder as to why they have groping issues in subway.

Ueno Market early in the morning.Anyhow, when we got to Ueno Market — it still was way too early. The shops and street vendors were just opening up and bringing out their wares. What really stands out in my memory though is that the place was impeccably clean. We walked around for a bit and decided to go back to the fish market to see what’s going on there. This was also the place where we were brave enough to try a vending machine for the first time. And this was where Alena ended up with a hot tea out of a machine to our great surprise.

Fish Market Again


Fish market.We took the train back and walked to the fish market again — not a very short walk. By now we were already getting tired a bit from all the walking. The fish market itself has been past its peak busy time and majority of vendors were already closing up.

Inside the fish market.We walked through the numerous rows and saw all kinds of sea creatures being sold — from huge tunas to some strange things that I’ve never seen before. Basically not too interesting of an experience, but worth checking it out once. And soon after we proceed back to our hotel to get ready to leave.

Fish for sale.

Leaving Tokyo


We walked to our local JR station again and took the train to Shinagawa Station — a large hub where Shinkansen trains stop. We found our platform easily, bought ourselves a pair of bento boxes for the ride and got on our train which arrived exactly at the time specified on our reservation tickets.

Skyline from one of the government towers.Thus the first part of our vacation came to en end. I have became so fond of Tokyo that it’s hard to convey. Writing all this down and remembering all the little details brings up this warm, pleasant feeling inside of me. Being in such a magical country and such a magical city with my closest friend in the whole world — perfectly unforgettable.
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За время японской поездки мы посетили довольно много мест: Токио, Киото, Нару, Осаку, Хиросиму и остров Миядзима. Токио, Осака и Хиросима дали нам возможность посмотреть на совеременную Японию; а на Миядзима, в Киото и Наре мы смогли представить себе как выглядела эта интереснейшая страна в прошлом. Итак, о местах, нас впечатливших.

Буддийский Храм Тодай-дзи


Todaiji Temple.Этот храм, находящийся в городе Нара и входядий в список всемирного наследия ЮНЕСКО, является самым большим деревянным зданием в мире. Также в нём находится самая большая в мире бронзовая статуя Будды — в высоту она достигает почти 15 метров.

Todaiji Temple.Это место нам очень понравилось. Храм находится на территории большого парка, где есть еще другие святилища, пагоды, прудик, лес и целое море совершенно ручных оленей. Людей там тоже было много, как, впрочем, и во всех туристических местах где мы побывали. В основном посетители были японцами, хотя изредко встречались и европейские лица.

World's largest bronze Buddha.Здание Тодай-дзи и правда очень большое, с высокими потолками, толстыми колоннами и свирепыми деревянными охранниками, из века в век несущими свой пост у входа в храм. В одной из несущих колонн есть узкий проход, якобы соответствующий по размеру ноздре Будды, и тому, кто через него пролезет будет даровано просветление в следующей жизни. Мы видели целый отряд японских школьников, со смехом протискивающихся через это узкое отверстие. Несмотря на заманчивую награду, мы с Даней не решились последовать их примеру — было очевидно, что в отличие от тонких подростков мы бы там застряли.

Wooden warrior.Зато мы пожертвовали храму ¥1000 иен ($13.5 по тому курсу), а в благодарность за это имели возможность написать молитву / пожелание на одной из черепиц, которые пойдут на реставрацию крыши храма. Я пожелала здоровья, удачи и счастья всей нашей семье.

Signing a roof tile.Бронзовая статуя Будды тоже очень впечатлила. Она просто огромная, и мне даже сложно представить сколько труда (и бронзы!) ушло на её изготовление и установление.

Japanese kids wanted to take a picture of them with Alena onto their camera.А еще перед нашим уходом из храма со мной попросила сфотографироваться небольшая группа японских школьников. Меня это несколько удивило и где-то польстило. Наверное, моя внешность (и рост) для них были необычны.

Замок Нидзё


Nijo Castle.Этот замок, расположенный в Киото и так же являющийся одним из обьектов всемирного наледия ЮНЕСКО, когда-то принадлежал сёгунам из рода Токугава. Нидзё состоит из несколькоих построек, воздвигнутых на солидного размера территории окружённой каменными стенами и рвами с водой. На территории также есть небольшой пруд и несколько садов.

Us at Nijo Castle.Главное здание, дворец Ниномару, имеет очень необычные “соловьиные” полы, которые “поют” при ходьбе. Я не уверена как строители добились такого эфекта, но знаю, что главной функцией таких полов была охранная — по таким говорливым полам невозможно было незаметно подобраться к сёгуну. Сам дворец оказался очень большим. К сожалению, в нём нельзя было делать фотографии или видео, так что придётся ехать туда самолично чтобы взглянуть на это необычное место и услышать как дерево заливается соловьиными трелями.

Кинкаку-дзи или Золотой Павильон


Kinkakuji. Golden Pavilion.Этот буддийский храм на мой взгляд является одной из самых узнаваемых японских достопримечательностей. Находится он в Киото. К сожалению, историческое здание было сожжено в 1950 году одним монахом-шизофреником. К счастью, в 1955 храм был восстановлен, а последние реставрационные работы были завершены в 2003 году.

Нам не очень повезло с погодой, но даже при хмуром небе павильон заманчиво сверкал своими золотыми боками и вызывал восхищение громадного количества туристов. Мне место понравилось, хотя посетителей не подпускали к строению слишком близко. Тропинка, куда нас пускали, была короткой, а народа было очень много, поэтому мы довольно быстро покинули окружности Кинкаку-дзи. Мне думается, что без толпы я бы с удовольствием погуляла там подольше, потому что место всё же красивейшее.

Синтоистское Святилище Фусими Инари


Fushimi Inari Shrine.Это место находится в Киото и примечательно очень большим количеством выкрашенных в красный цвет ритуальных врат тории. Тысячи этих врат составляют своеобразные тропинки, которые ведут на священную гору Инари. Так же на территории принадлежащей святилищу можно увидеть много статуй лис — такой почёт этим рыжим хитрецам оказан потому что по преданию они являлись посланцами синтоистской богини изобилия и риса Инари.

Мы не очень долго ходили по огороженным тории тропинкам — желания, да и времени уходить далеко в гору не было. Я видела фотографии этого места до нашей поездки, но меня немного удивил размер многих врат — они были довольно невысокими и я с лёгкостью могла дотянутся рукой до верхних перекладин.

Святилище Ицукусима


Itsukushima Shrine.Это святилище тоже входит в список всемирного наследия ЮНЕСКО и находится на острове Миядзима. Главной достопримечательностью этого места являются врата тории, которые стоят прямо на воде. Эти священные врата, достигающие в высоту 16 метров, и правда смотрятся очень необычно. Меня их своеобразное одиночество и общий символизм (врата-граница/вход) навели на мысли о вещах вечных — рождении, любви, смерти, пути, цели, смысле.

И врата, и остров мне очень понравились. Мы немного побродили по округе, полюбовались на воду, поели очень вкусных паровых булочек с мясом, посмотрели как готовят какую-то местную сладость. Вобщем, от Ицукусимы у меня осталась куча позитива.

Мемориал Мира в Хиросиме


Atomic Bomb Dome.У меня были смешанные чувства по поводу поездки в Хиросиму. С одной стороны место известное, а с другой всё же жутковато ходить по земле, где не так давно мнговенно погибли тысячи людей.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.Мы посмотрели на Купол Гэмбаку или так называемый “атомный купол” — здание, которое находилось всего в 160 метрах от эпицентра взрыва, но тем не менее не было полностью разрушено. Этот мемориал был внесён в список всемирного наследия Юнеско в 1996 году. Честно говоря, в голове как-то не укладывались исторические реалии этого места, да и думать об этом слишком много не очень хотелось.

Мы так же прогулялись по парку, частью которого является атомный купол, помолчали минутку у вечного огня и посмотрели на братскую могилу. Там с нами пообщались три японки-христианки среднего возраста (они хотели нам вручить какую-то религиозную литературу) — у одной из них родители находились в Хиросиме во время ядерного взрыва. Им повезло (хотя в данной ситуации это звучит несколько иронично) — они не только пережили это страшное событие, но и дожили до весьма преклонного возраста (мама это женщины до сих пор жива).

Замок в Осаке


Osaka Castle.Посещение этого замка не входило в наши изначальные планы, но я рада, что мы таки туда добрались. Замок этот горел и страдал от разных бед не единожды, но японцы каждый раз его восстанавливали. Зная, что интерьер замка на данный момент не исторический, а вполне модерновый, внутрь мы не пошли (сие удовольствие стоило денег). Вместо этого мы полюбовались на 5-этажного красавца снаружи, побродили по окрестностям, купили кое-какие сувениры, поели мороженное — вобщем, получили удовольствие.

В окрестностях замка мы наблюдали интересную картину. Два пожилых японца удили мелкую рыбёшку в небольшом озерце и скармливали её терпеливо ждущим обеда котам. Коты тёрлись о ноги рыбаков и всячески выказывали им свою любовь. Нам до того понравилось это зрелище, что мы простояли там минут 5-10.

Тофуку-дзи


Tofukuji Temple.В это место, расположенное в Киото, мы отправились чтобы посмотреть яркие осенние цвета. Если честно, были немного разочарованы: во-первых, там были слишком много народа и чтобы посмотреть на какие-либо виды надо было проталкиваться сквозь толпу; во-вторых, сами виды не показались нам чем-то таким уж особенным. Мы прошлись по мостику, прогулилялись вдоль небольшого пруда, обошли вокруг сад камней (zen garden), и отправились восвояси. Думаю, что если бы не было толпы, а осенние цвета успели бы войти в свой пик, то нам бы там понравилось гораздо больше.

Храм Мейдзи


Этот храм является самым большим синтиостским святилищем в Токио и расположен в огромном парке. Попали мы туда в наш первый полный день в Японии. Было воскресенье, стояла отличная погода, и в парке было много посетителей. Многие японцы, особенно дети, были одеты в традиционную одежду. Из того что мы поняли, в этом храме часто проходят свадьбы (при входе в храм даже есть табличка с просьбой людей, не участвующих в каком-либо свадебном процессе, внутрь не входить), а свадьба — это хороший повод одеть кимоно.

Traditional wedding.Кстати, мы заметили, что многим японкам присуща характерная, несколько косолапая походка. Мне кажется, что происходит она от ношения гэта — традиционных японских сандалей, одинаковых для обеих ног. Мне кажется, что ходить в них очень неудобно, но японки довольно ловко в них вышагивают. Мы не раз видели специальные носки для этой обуви, напоминающие по принципу варежки, где большой палец получает отдельный отсек.

Park where Meiji Shrine is located.Еще возле храма мы омыли руки и прополоскали рты, зачерпнув воду деревянной плошкой из специального каменного бассейна. Такие бассейны мы видели возле всех синтоистских святилищ, но только возле храма Мейдзи мы увидели еще и инструкцию процедуры омовения, написанную по-английски (взять плошку в левую руку, омыть правую руку, потом левую, потом прополоскать рот).

Еще в этом парке мы полюбовались самыми разными хризантемами, которые, если я не ошибаюсь, являются императорским цветком и весьма почитаются коренными жителями.

Конечно, в Японии есть еще много прекрасных мест, где мы не побывали. Я надеюсь, что когда-нибудь мы снова туда попадём, и еще раз получим возможность полюбоваться прелестями страны восходящего солнца.
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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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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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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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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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