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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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. Alёna 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 Alёna 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 Alёna 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 Alёna 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.

Alёna. 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 Alёna 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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Friday, November 4, 2011

Japan Planning

Japan Rail Pass exchange orders.Chances are that in two weeks time we’ll be somewhere 30,000 feet above ground on our way to Japan. We’re reading and planning and reading and planning. We have a write up for a good number of days already. We have a detailed plan for Tokyo and Kyoto which should cover half of our vacation. We know how we’ll get around (subway, buses, trains) and we know what we want to see.

The night of our 5th anniversary we’ll be spending in Kyoto, in a traditional Japanese ryokan — Nishiyama Ryokan. It includes a traditional dinner and a traditional breakfast. Should be a very memorable day and hopefully not in the way that 2009th one was.

Also we still have to plan out our trip to Hiroshima and a nearby island of Miyajima, a trip to Nara and what we want to see in Osaka if anything. Only 2 weeks left and still a lot of reading and research to do. One of the great resources turned out to be japan-guide.com — wealth of information.

P.S. We already got our Japan Rail Pass exchange orders in the mail — not cheap at all, but should make things easier and save some money for us overall. These are only available for foreign tourists.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Japan Trip

Our planned route.Yesterday we finally did something that we wanted to do for a long long time now — we booked a trip to Japan for our 5th wedding anniversary. My mom graciously agreed to look over Arosha for the duration of our vacation. We expect this to be one of our most unique vacations to this point. We’ve traveled all over U.S., been to Canada, Mexico and even Ukraine. And even though we had many amazing vacations nothing has been as “foreign” to us as Japan will be.

The plan is very simple in theory. Only practice will show how well we’ll fair in the country where we don’t speak the native language. We’re flying1 out on November 18th on a non-stop flight to Tokyo. We’ll spend 2 nights2 there and will catch a bullet train to Osaka where we’ll spend the other 6 nights3 of our vacation. From Osaka we plan to visit Kyoto, Nara, Mount Koya, Kobe and maybe we’ll make a day trip to Hiroshima. We’ll fly back home from Osaka4 on November 27th.

We have managed to cover all our hotel costs with our Hilton points. When you stay a stretch of the time at a single place the price goes down, hence 6 nights in Osaka. Now we need to do a LOT of reading and figuring out when, how and what we’ll do when we’re there. Maybe learn Japanese ahead of the trip?

P.S. Maybe Sasha and Misha will join us. They are researching the prices for hotels now.

  1. American Airlines and Japan Airlines for $2359.20 round trip for the two of us. []
  2. Conrad Tokyo for 100,000 points for 2 nights or $984 per night. []
  3. Hilton Osaka for 157,500 points for 6 nights or $483 per night. []
  4. Plane change in Tokyo, then non-stop flight to NYC. []
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