Japan October 2016

I visited Tokyo, Matsumoto, Kanazawa, Gero Onsen, Takayama, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima for 3 weeks in October.

To say that getting to Tokyo from New York is a long journey is an understatement. The whole trip door to door 27 hours. Traveling in first class made a huge difference, I also had a charming travel companion. He is an ice skating coach to Olympians and National Champions, who was going to Tokyo for a promo film. It was most enlightening learning about the competitions and how the rules have changed.

Am staying in a very residential area off a shopping street with many many small shops and feeding places. It’s quite charming, yesterday morning as I was walking to the train a woman stopped me and told me her name was Yushi and if I needed anything to ring her bell.

The night I arrived, could not find my accommodations am staying in an AirBnB and true to reputation people literally walked me to where I needed to be.

First impressions Tokyo is the cleanest city that I have ever been to, not a scrap of trash anywhere despite no trashcans to be found.  The trains have upholstered seats, purple for the infirm and pregnant women, red for everyone else. There is a cleaning crew that gets on at the end stop and goes through each compartment.

A large amount of impressions have been gleaned riding the trains.
Rush hour puts New Yorkers to shame. You think the train is at capacity and all of a sudden you are pushed even further back. When people get off, not a word is spoken but somehow people move out of the way. Nobody offers a seat and I have never seen so many people nod off and fall sleep on a train on a regular basis as here.

At the JR stations there is a barrier that moves away when it’s time to board.
People line up in a most orderly way, the fact that you then gets pushed has nothing to do with lining up. There is an innate gentleness and politeness that I find very appealing. Everything seems to be so orderly. There is a junior high school nearby, I walked by yesterday as the school was starting. Everybody was in uniform and once they got to school removed their white sneakers and put on some kind of slippers.

Today I was in the park after having been to Tokyo National museum. It was totally unbelievable, There must have been at least 50 food carts, at a food festival, and no trash cans. Instead there were two small, that I could see, recycling stations and again not a piece of paper on the ground. Then I walked by a high school class sitting outside one of the museums having their lunch. Quiet orderly and seemingly content.

It makes me wonder, what creates a seemingly environmentally conscious society. So far have not seen any graffiti or any of the other urban ills.

Last night I went for probably one of the best meals I have ever had. It was at a place called Shirosaka, the chef used to work for the Japanese ambassador to the UN. Two years ago he opened this restaurant. There are 8 seats at the counter and 6 in a small room. The maitre d’/waiter used to work at Union Square Tokyo, and did a stint at USC in NYC as well.

I totally left it up to the chef who sent out the most exquisite and delicious plates. It started with one perfect oyster, followed by 8 or 10 courses one was more spectacular in a very understated manner than the next.
I will post pictures when I am able to. Apart from the fact that the food was so extraordinary
The evening turned out that way as well. One couple to my right ended up giving me their number in case I needed anything at all. A chef and his wife from Singapore, they were here for a hotel promotion with David Beckham, had brought a bottle of private label pink Champagne, that was shared by everyone. I consequently found out that he is a very famous chef named Justin Quek. Tomorrow night I am going out for dinner with another woman who was sitting on my other side.
It became a very intimate evening. and a lot of fun.

The weather has been hot humid and grey,

What I omitted because I was too embarrassed to tell you was that I managed to have my tablet either stolen or lost in United’s lounge at Newark. It was so very early in the morning, I left it on the table with my newspaper etc. while I went to the bathroom. Everything was cleaned up and I forgot that the tablet had been on the table and not put back in the bag, like a normal person would do. Didn’t discover it until I was airborne.

First thing in the morning after I arrived in Tokyo I went to Tsukiji fish market. That was not exactly a waste of time but almost because tourists are not allowed in until after 11 am when all the merchants are basically gone. For the Tuna auction, they only permit 150 per morning, with a waiting list. There was still lots to see and of course I had to have sushi at Sushi Zanmay, very well known place. My advice don’t bother it was good but not great.
  My first day was spent getting my JR railroad pass authenticated and going to the technology mecca of Tokyo, Akihabara this is heaven on earth for a tech nerd as well as anyone who is also into Manga and Anime.  i had read about renting a Wi-Fi for the duration but it seemed very pricey, especially since there is Wi-Fi at all my lodgings. With a little bit of help I bought a 30-day Sim card for $30 which connects me to the net when Wi-Fi is unavailable.

Then onto tablets, the store I went into is the size of a city block and 6 stories high. After having looked at tablets and laptops I realized that I don’t read Japanese (big surprise) and the keyboards were useless to me. I then proceeded to the second floor where keyboards were sold.
Found this terrific small and light folding one for $20 which converts to a stand for my phone am writing all my missives this way. Who knew how easily it could be solved.

The weather has been very humid low 80’s and grey until today Sunday, when I decided to go to Kamakura, known for its shrines and temples, it’s an hour south of Tokyo. Sunny, clear blue sky and around 95 I saw the Buddha who was gigantic and very beautiful and one more shrine. Just could not muster up the energy to walk around. Justified my inertia that I will be seeing a lot in and around Kyoto. The humidity is really getting to me, apparently there are a lot of typhoons around.

Had a really great Sushi lunch at a place called Sushi go round, where the plates of food were on a conveyor belt you could also order from the Sushi chef. The line was long, to get a seat, with all Japanese waiting.  The food was really good and it only set me back  $12.50 for 8 pieces plus a bowl of baby clams.

Have discovered why so many people sleep on the train, it’s almost impossible to stay awake. The seats are soft and the ride is smooth.

With my new found friend e went to a Soba restaurant which was a new experience for me. First you order a lot of small dishes, with sake as usual each dish was delicious and a first for me. Hot Ginko nuts dipped in salt, sweet sour small fish and many others.
we finished the meal with cold Soba (buckwheat) noodles that you dip in soy sauce. The sous chef who is in charge of making the noodles gave me a demonstration. Totally fascinating to see how the noodles are cut by hand to exact likeness. http://www.ds-miyashita.jp/sobakiri.html

There are so many things in this country that are very admirable. Nobody jay walks even when the street is empty. When the light changes to green a sort of tune plays for the duration. As cars exit from a garage there is an alarm to alert the pedestrians. Many of the individual public bathrooms, of which there are a plethora, have a folding chair for a small child hanging on the wall they also have disinfectant dispensers to clean the seat before you sit down, not to mention all the different buttons that you push to clean your nether parts,

Monday was a very mixed bag. I started by walking Omotesando. A shopping street that is a combination of Madison and Fifth Avenues. Every luxurious brand that you have ever heard of plus some. I was not there to shop but to look at the architecture. Some of the buildings are stunning
I would have enjoyed it even better if the weather wasn’t so miserable. Hot, humid and intermittent rain.  The museum I wanted to visit was closed, it’s Monday. Being my last day I wanted to visit Takashimaya, which I did. Had a Caesar Salad and a coke on the top floor. Basement was all sweets. It was hard to decide between all the different restaurants. The elevator took forever so I started on the downstairs elevator, and there was a whole floor celebrating the food of Kyushu. Very fascinating, there were dried fish the size of pins and other kinds of seafood. In one corner was a sushi bar, after observing for a bit decided to sit down. This was yet another new experience. The chef made each piece individually and placed it in my hand to eat. I had abalone, sea urchin with caviar, tuna belly, bonito and some fish I didn’t know, all this washed down with sake. Most of the other people at the counter did a wine pairing.
It was such a pleasant unexpected experience. After having spent a rather boring day walking around this was usch a nice interlude.

Matsumoto and Kanazawa

There is one thing that I go ga ga over and that is a Japanese castle. The only reason I made a stopover in Matsumoto was to see the black castle. There is something about the design that moves me.

This castle did not disappoint it is really beautiful and I was happy to have seen it.

I almost missed it though, am not sure what it is about me and maps. I get lost as often as I find my way. This time it was most fortuitous I came across two 7 year-old girls who were both dressed in traditional costume in front of a shrine. Apparently it is a Shinto ceremony that takes place when a girl is 2 and then 7 years old. They were really cute. And I was happy to have been lost. 

Arrived in Kanazawa station, which is spectacular

my hotel Kanazawa Garden Hotel was right across the street also adjoining the station is the main bus
depot.it was latish and I was tired so went across the street to the convenience store and bought some wine and a shrimp tempura dish which I ate in my room. The room was small but very compact. On the desk was a built in hot plate to make your tea in the morning. Comfortable bed and a perfect location. Included in my room rate of $70 was a breakfast buffet which consisted of Western and Japanese dishes.  It was not the first time and certainly not the last that I wish I knew Japanese. The scrambled eggs were the creamiest I have ever encountered on a buffet, I wanted the secret. Actually, eggs here are very good with a deep yellow yolk.

After breakfast I bought a day pass for the bus loops that take you to the man sights, There had been a typhoon warning, which didn’t seem to happen but I wanted to get to the Kenroku-en gardens before the possibility of rain. That was my first mistake of the day. The gardens were very lovely; they must be spectacular in the spring with cherry and plum blossoms. A few of the maples had just started to turn colours, now everything was green.

By the way if you are over 65 the entrance fee is waived. Saw the castle, of course and then went on to the 21st Century of contemporary art museum. Most of the galleries were closed to prepare for new exhibits. I loved the building but did not understand or enjoy the art.

Time for lunch which i had at the Omicho Market. Mistake #2 I went into a conveyor belt sushi place which was not particularly good. Half the market stalls had already closed but as I went further in I saw several other options for lunch. There were several stalls where they sold oysters, they were large but $7 and $8 each was a little too steep I felt, magnificent crabs starting at $65 and up. I saw Salmon roe in its sac and only wish I had had a kitchen…….
Mistake #3 I went to lie down after lunch and figured I would go to the geisha district later.
Well later never came because now the wind had started, I was in the district but was too scared to continue walking. I have never encountered such strong winds and was unable to walk, just wanted to get inside.

Later the wind subsided enough for me to leave the hotel and go for dinner. I totally lucked out at a very small restaurant in an alley behind the hotel. Had exquisite sashimi and grilled chicken. The wind really howled during the night I don’t think I have experienced this before.

Next morning I really realized the errors of my ways. I am sitting on the train and discovered that I could have stayed an extra day since I am not due in Gero for another 24 hours. Somehow miscalculated the calendar. I guess I wasn’t meant to experience Kanazawa, though it is a lovely city and I’d like to return.
Gero onsen

Sometimes mistakes or mishaps when you are traveling turn out to be blessings.
This is exactly what happened when I discovered that I had miscalculated one day in my schedule. I had bought a Sim card so I could go online when there was no Wi-Fi. Went to my trusted Booking.com and looked for a hotel in Gero. The name Bokansen came up with a reasonable rate of $70 and I booked it for one night. To my surprise and delight I am given a tatami room with a sitting area overlooking a beautiful garden and the river. Downstairs there is an Onsen, hot baths, with separate pools for men and women, as well an outside one in the women's part. The hotel is fantastic I think my rate was a mistake. It is a ryokan but on a large scale. When I was told that I could not have dinner the first night or the next morning when I wanted breakfast and again was told no I was very upset. It wasn’t until I booked both meals that I got it. I had a private dining room with most of the food preset. My private waitress who brought me a low chair when she saw how awkward it was for me to sit on the floor and made sure that everything was to my satisfaction. That's when I understood that they couldn’t just accommodate one more person. The unfortunate part was that nobody spoke enough English to be able to explain the rules and set up. Both meals were very very good.

Sadly they could only accommodate me for one more night so for the last two nights I moved to my original booking that was so bad, it’s hard to describe how run down and crappy it was, no maid service at all, and on top of that it was more expensive.

One day I went to Shirikawago a small village that has very specific roofs made of straw. It is very touristy, though I used public transportation, it was an expensive ticket and we were only allowed 1 ½ hour there I did get some good pictures though. Could just as easily gone to the local outdoor museum to see the Gasso houses.

Next day i went into Takayama after all I had planned my entire trip around the autumn festival that takes place 10/9 and 10/10. This way I went one day early before the throngs of people descended to get a chance to really see the town. It is very lovely and its reputation is well deserved. The center of town has several streets with old well preserved houses. One could already see that preparations were underway for the next day’s festival.

There are two Matsuri (festivals) a year in Takayama one in the spring and another in October. It starts in the morning the 10 Yatai (floats) are lined up on the street in front of the Hachiman Shrine in the northern half of the old town. The spring one is at a different shrine. This Matsura is also known as Hachiman Festival. Tucked into a corner of the packed square in front of the shrine, was the eleventh Yatai – the Hoteitai – that was to be the stage for the Karakuri Ningyo, a mechanical marionette performance, dedicated to the Kami or residing deity of the shrine. The three main puppet characters are the Hoteitai (the God of Fortune) and two ‘child’ dolls – a boy and a girl, all garbed in gorgeous silk brocade. The complex acrobatics of the little dolls atop trapeze like bars, and the leap onto Hoteitai’s shoulders elicit approving cheers from the audience. Once they attain their perch, Hoteitai’s fan splits open with a bang, and a Nobori flag unfurls bearing the message “Flaunt not your high virtues and knowledge, share them with the masses”

The remarkable experience for me was not only to be able to see this virtuoso performance but how people literally pushed me forward and parted so that I should be able to get a better view. After that a group of small children and teenagers came marching out banging on drums. They were so adorable in their costumes. One could tell that this festival is a real community effort by the men and women who are part of this. 4 of the Yatai went by during the day what an amazing sight, these 300+year old floats preceded by musicians and, being pulled by men in their respective costumes. The floats are highly decorated and carved. To be part of a ceremony that has existed since the 1700's was very profound.

The festival is held over two days but it is only on the first day that the floats are paraded around in the evening with lanterns glowing on all sides as well as lighting up the parade route. It was every bit as exciting as I had expected. The remarkable feat was seeing the floats turn the corner onto a narrow street at times they seemed to be tilting, unfortunately I had to leave before I had seen them all. Had a train to catch.

My adventures have now taken me to Kyoto.
Did do a write up about Gero and Takayama, but I want to edit before sending it out.

I got an early train to Kyoto and arrived around 11.30. The train station is amazing it like a complete city within itself, including a hotel. There are hundreds of left luggage lockers but I was unable to find an empty one.
My plan had be to leave it at the station and go sightseeing since check in was not until after 4 pm. Had lunch consisting of fried chicken and rice with an iced coffee. The coffee culture in Japan is enormous. There are cafes everywhere, the different varieties of beans are advertised and a coffee is around $4 everywhere there is usually only cake available, and the combination price is $10. I drink several iced coffees a day not always with cake. That is the other noted item, the amount of sweet shops is astounding with beautiful packaging and prices to match.
Here in Kyoto I have also seen several bakeries with French names, have not investigated if the baked goods is authentic.

Anyway I decided to see if I could enter my Airbnb early and arrived at 2.30 pm. It was yet another Japanese quirk with no proper directions just an address. In the end I had 3 women and a child helping me find the place.

Am greeted at the door that she is cleaning so I can not come in I smile and say no problem and that I will come back later. Since I have no idea where I am I go sit on some steps and at 3.30 think that I will chance it.
She won't answer the door I don’t get in until 4.30 and I am p……...d.. There is nothing I can do or even show how angry I am, so I ask her to show me the best way to a supermarket and smile my best smile.
Another Japanese quirk, which sort of makes sense, slippers to use in the house and separate slippers for the bathroom. I first saw it in the hotel but it is the same here as well.
I bought some very nice Sushi to eat at home.

My first morning I go to Gion the area where there are many streets with old houses and also lots of shrines and temples. As I get off the bus I see a real true to life geisha or Maiko as they are called here. I was too stunned to take a picture. As I start to walk around I see all these young women in kimonos, it turns out that you can rent them for the day $25-$30 and it is a hugely popular and thriving business.

There are a lot of Malaysian and Chinese tourists and selfies are the word.
At one point in front of a temple a couple of girls in costume asked me to take their picture
because the tripod wouldn’t stand stlll. For five minutes I became the official photographer as more and more young girls asked me. They were all so cute I took quite a few pictures for myself as well.

Just walking around is such a treat, my charger for the phone is not working, it seems to discharge the power. No biggie I’ll go and buy a new one, not so quick. I checked several stores and they were around $40. I thought this was the country for electronics.
Apparently it is for the Taiwanese they buy space heaters, rice cookers and all sorts of electrical appliances because it is so much cheaper. That is the information I received from two women I had lunch with.

After having travelled all over the city yesterday seeing the toro gates at Fushimi which are part of a huge temple complex with long streets lined with food stands leading up to the site. I walked up part of the path but the toros go all the way up the mountain and then down, I took a picture of the path instead.

Then I took the JR train to Arashiyama to see the bamboo grove and some of the very many temples and shrines. Some were founded as early as 700. There were beautiful gardens attached. Had ramen at a small place which was so tranquil.

On purpose I had booked Kyoto for the longest stay, 6 days, I will barely be able to scratch the surface of what there is to see and do.

Now I am off to the food market and then more temples.

It’s hard to believe that I had 6 whole days i Kyoto and as predicted barely scratched the surface. The day after my long walk I was so tired and my thighs really ached I did carry on though. I spent one day in Nara another old capital. Beautiful temples and a large park where the deer roam freely. These deer are not shrinking violets by any stretch of the imagination. Several wanted to chew on my shirt and one old buck head-butted me on the thigh. There are a lot of vendors in the park that sell deer crackers, they are used to being fed. Am almost rethinking my decision to stay on Miyajima the island next to Hiroshima. There are free roaming deer there as well. Then again the oysters are beckoning. Have to say there is nothing charming about these deer, except they look cute.

The food market in Kyoto, at Nishiki was an interesting experience. It has been called the kitchen of Kyoto, but there is none of the abundance that one associates with food markets. It is abundant in food stalls, cooked food to purchase, sweets and even discount drug stores. Yet it is so Japanese in its refinement. Vegetables are packaged in cellophane the fish carefully arranged as is the meat.

Had an interesting lunch consisting of cooked oysters, which I didn’t care for, However the raw oyster from Hokkaido was so superb I ordered another one and received two with the explanation it was so small. The owner has a friend in NYC that owns a Ramen place in Harlem, which has received a Michelin mention.

My last day I went to Ryoanji a temple known for it’s rock garden, what is never mentioned is that it also has lovely grounds. I then happened upon Ninnaji temple, which I wasn’t going to enter, but luckily changed my mind. As I approached a Shinto priest was saying goodbye to two monks.

I think the photo came out well. The temple was very large with many buildings beautiful gardens and several very carefully raked areas. As I was leaving I asked how they were able to rake so perfectly with no foot steps showing. It turns out the monk who does it was standing right there. He showed me and said it takes him 3 ½ hours every morning. It also turns out that he is the artist who painted the original, for the entrance ticket which is lovely.

I can hardly wait to return, there is so much beauty here. It is an easy country to travel in since the infrastructure and transportation is so well laid out. The very frustrating part and also the difficult part is that very little is in English or non-Japanese writing.

On my way to Osaka I discovered that the train was continuing onto Himeji. Easy decision to remain on the train. Left my suitcase in a locker at the station, every station has them. Took the bus to the castle, got my pictures and returned to catch the train back to Osaka.

I am traveling with a JR pass that has to be purchased outside of Japan. It gives you unlimited travel on all their trains, except a few Shinkansens, as well as all JR inner city lines. A really worthwhile investment.

Osaka,Hiroshima and Miyajama

Managed to time my arrival at Osaka Harbor Tower hotel just in time for check in. Again, my JR ticket came in handy since they operate a train that runs in a loop around the city and my hotel was right on that loop My room was on the 34th floor with a great view.

First order of business, Osaka Castle which is surrounded by a great park. There is a little Choo Choo train that takes you to the castle through the park, as a senior it only costs $1.
On the way I saw an area for children to learn to ride unicycles, with bars to hold onto. A woman collecting a large bag of Ginko nuts that were spread all over the ground. Families enjoying a picnic in the woods or just generally walking about. I met an American couple, she was walking with cane and by association I was allowed to ride the elevators even to the top floor. The castle is probably more of interest if you are a follower of history. There is a large model of a battle on one of the floors but otherwise I did not find it of great interest.

One of the reasons that I ended up in Japan was the food in Osaka and Dotonbori in particular, NYTimes had an article and it sounded so appealing. The street and some of the side streets are the home to a massive amount of restaurants. I was not able to see the open air with a few seats, though I certainly tried. In the end I finally found a restaurant serving Okonomi-Yaki the famous pancake I was not impressed, it looked good with lots of greens but it was bland.
Back at the hotel, I watched English speaking TV for the first time. One program which was hosted by a young Swedish girl speaking perfect Japanese dealt with the growing of tomatoes and the many varieties. It ended with her making a sandwich cake decorated with tomatoes. The next program was about a technician who makes prosthetic limbs. It was very fascinating and it made me appreciate my legs, achy or not. It was also nice being in a hotel room with a view.
On check in to the hotel I had opted for the breakfast it was $18 but considering that a coffee and pastry is $10 I went for it. Am I happy that I did, the breakfast room was on the 51st floor with a gorgeous view. What a wonderful way to start the day. The selection of items to eat was very large and varied, and again fantastic scrambled eggs.

Took the train to Hiroshima, left my suitcase in a locker at the station and took the JR sightseeing bus to the Peace Memorial Park
I started by going to the A-bomb dome and the continued into the park. There were two volunteer guides who were explaining and showing the different parts of the park to two Dutch girls. Fortunately I was able to join them, the guides were probably in their 60’s and their family stories brought home that even today there are repercussions. It is hard to imagine, with the knowledge we have of the horrendous consequences of nuclear warfare, that there are still so many warheads around the world and more being developed.
It was a very sobering experience listening to the guides as well as seeing the different attractions, I therefore opted to omit the Peace Memorial Museum.

I spent my next to last night on the island of Miyujama home to the famous O-torii. Getting off the ferry I got teary eyed it was so beautiful. The hotel where I stayed was only a few minutes from the ferry station. My room was small with a futon on the floor but most comfortable. Since this is one of the 3 most visited tourist attractions in Japan and only 30 minutes by train from Hiroshima, the amount of day trippers is overwhelming. Consequently, there are very few restaurants open past 6 pm and there are a lot of souvenir shops, actually it seemed as if an entire street was nothing but.

The next morning, I had a Japanese bath which was just like an Onsen except the water did not come from underground springs. There was a Yukata (a summer kimono made of cotton) in my room with towels. I went down to the basement and in the women’s section was this heated pool. It’s such a lovely way to start the day.

Then it was time to see this O-torii gate. I did not realize that it was part of a temple which I should have. The walk around was very lovely being surrounded by water. As I was leaving it was high tide and everything was flooded. The Torii was unfortunately being repaired but it did not take away from my excitement of finally being there and seeing this Japanese icon.
Next time I will stay for several days to explore the island. There seemed to be a fair amount to see and do during the day.

The few deer that I saw were very well behaved
they barely acknowledged the visitors. Then it was time for my 6 hour trip to Narita. Somehow I managed to get on the wrong Shinkansen, the one that my ticket was not valid for, but it didn't matter, I didn’t get kicked off but was able to stay in my seat since the train was not full.

I fully expected the hotel Nikko Narita, that I had booked at the airport to be a total dump, especially because of the low rate and being so close to the airport. How wrong could I be, very as it turned out. The room was nice the restaurant really good and the bed comfortable I was sorry not to have time to explore it further. I had booked my hotels except one with Booking.com and they were all excellent, the one I booked with Expedia was really terrible.

It was with such mixed emotions that I left Japan to go back to New York. I will return though and hope it won’t be too long before I do. My goal is now to accumulate as many airline miles as possible since flying first class is the only way to survive the long trip in my opinion.