Trip to Japan, May 2005

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Millions of men in dark suits, crowded subway trains, sushi, taxi drivers with white gloves, neon lights, earth quakes, capsule hotels, sake, sumo wrestling, samurais, geisha, bullet trains, toilets so advanced that you need an instruction manual to use them, manga, polite people, Lost in Translation….this is our trip report from JAPAN.

 

A short summary
Gard preparing for the Japan tripThe dream team Nikki and Gard on another adventure :-) This time we headed for Japan and we travelled in the period May 15th to May 28th 2005. We started out in Tokyo where we stayed for about a week. We used a Japan Rail Pass to get to Nagoya (the World Expo) and after that we went to Kyoto where we stayed 5 nights and we used this as a home base to see Kyoto itself, Osaka, Hiroshima, Kobe, Himeji etc. I hope that this trip report can help others that are going to Japan. Get in touch if you have any questions or comments and I’ll do my best to answer. All pictures are taken by Nikki and Gard with our Canon Powershot S1 IS camera (now available in a S2 version).

Feel free to check out the interactive Google map of Tokyo that I have made. Some of the attractions are marked on the map.

 

Prelude
So why Japan? Through movies and books we have become a bit fascinated by the Japanese culture. We also like to travel to destinations that are different compared to Norway/South Africa. One of our worries was that it would be a very expensive trip as the rumour has it that everything is expensive in Japan. Another concern was the language problem as we got an impression that English is not widely spoken. But we found out that the rumours where exaggerated and I hope that this trip report will show that.

 

Planning the trip
Planning a trip is important and, as usual, we bought a guidebook in the DK Eyewitness series from Amazon. This gave us some idea of what to expect but we also used the internet to try and get an understanding of what to see, what to do and where to go while in Japan. After searching for a while we ended up buying tickets with www.reisebutikken.no and we got the tickets for the reasonable amount of about 6500 kroner each (about 800€). We were quite late when it came to booking hotels in Japan. We started searching for hotels on different websites and local travel agencies and it was hard to understand where it would be best to stay in such a big city as Tokyo. Our travel agency came up with a suggestion to stay near Shinagawa station but I’m not sure that would have been so great…it seemed to be a bit outside of town. In the end we booked a room at The New Otani hotel in the Akasaka district. We booked the hotel using Expedia and it cost us 180 US dollars per night. In Kyoto we booked a room at Hotel Gimmond and we booked this directly on the hotels homepage (www.gimmond.co.jp/kyoto/khome-e.htm) and we got the room for about 95 US dollars per night. We also stayed a couple of nights at the Akasaka Excel Tokyu near the New Otani. This hotel was booked through Asiarooms and Expedia at about 160 US dollars. We were quite happy with staying in the Akasaka area by the way. From the subway station Akasaka-mitsuke it was only a few minutes to Ginza, Shinjuku and Shibuya.

 

I’m sure that I will get some feedback saying “Gard, why didn’t you stay in a ryokan instead?” For those who are not familiar with the term “ryokan” it is similar to a B&B where you get more traditional Japanese accommodation but most of the time it also includes sharing bathroom/toilet facilities with others and there are sometimes curfew restrictions. Well, we did think about this and we gave the Andon Ryokan serious thought but we came to the conclusion that we wanted to stay at a traditional hotel.

 

The trip begins

Map provided by:  www.worldatlas.com

On Sunday May 15th we went to Stavanger airport and took a short flight to Schiphol in Amsterdam and there we boarded the Japan Airlines (JAL) plane that would take us to Japan. We took off at about 8pm and we were quite please too find out that the plane was not completely full which of course made it easier for us to get some sleep. We were quite impressed with JAL. The crew were polite and helpful, the toilets were cleaned all the time (and how often do you find the toilet roll folded like at a hotel in a plane?) etc. For flight meals we could choose between a Japanese menu or a Western menu. Nikki and I went straight over to the Japanese menu and soon we were chasing peas with the chop sticks and drinking green tea :-). Well, we are not that bad actually when it comes to using chop sticks due to previous experience in countries such as China and Singapore. The Boeing 747 had little screens for each seat by the way and it was possible to choose between movies and games. So the 11 ½ hour flight was not all that bad.

 

At about 2 pm the next day we landed at Narita airport. Going through immigration and customs was pretty efficient and soon we were in the arrivals hall. We had not brought any Japanese Yen (from now known as ¥) or travellers cheques so the first thing we had to do was to find an ATM. This was not a big problem and soon we had local cash in our wallets.

 

There are several ways to get from the airport to the city. We decided to go for the Narita Express. In retrospect it would probably been easier to take the Airport Limousine Bus but hey…why make it easy when you can make it hard :-) We bought the tickets for 2950 ¥ and made our way to the train station under the airport and soon we started the 50 minute ride into Tokyo. When the train rolled out of the station the weather was nice and out of the window we could see rice paddies. But it didn’t take long before we came into the outskirts of Tokyo. We ended up at the HUGE Tokyo train station and we connected here to catch the subway to get to Akasaka-Mitsuke. Trying to walk through the Tokyo station, find the right line, finding out how to pay etc…and dragging along two huge Samsonite suitcases was quite an extreme sport and it’s easy to get stressed out. But we prevailed and it didn’t take us long before we were at The New Otani hotel. If we had done our homework a bit better I think that we could have take the Airport Limousine Bus and gotten directly to the Akasaka area for the same price.

 

How to get around in Tokyo? – Using the subway
The subway map can be confusing :-)I mentioned that it was a bit confusing when we arrived at the Tokyo station and we needed to take the subway. But it is not that tricky to take the subway around Tokyo once you understand the concept. First you find a tickets machine - obviously :-). A lot of the information is in Japanese but don’t let that scare you – some of the machines have English options. Insert money (the lowest fair was about 160 ¥) and once you insert the money the buttons will light up and you can press to get a ticket. Get to the right line, insert the ticket and keep it so that you can use it on your end destination. Fare adjustment machinesSo you are probably wondering how you can know how much it costs to go from one station to another? Well, the beauty is that you don’t really have to know this. Once you reach your destination you insert the ticket. If the gates close that means that you have to pay more. At each station there were fare adjustment machines and here you insert the ticket and you get information about how much extra you have to pay. And if there is a problem you can always talk to personnel at the stations. Apart from this it is just like taking the subway in London, New York City or Paris. You have to find out which line you want to use and get on it…in the right direction :-) Tokyo metro signYou can find more information on Tokyo Metro’s homepage. Sometimes it was a bit confusing when we found Japanese subway maps. But most of the time it was just a matter of looking around and then we would find an English map. Each station is clearly marked and you even get information about which station is coming up next. We tried to buy a weekly subway pass but we were informed that it is not possible to buy this. But you can buy a day pass for about 700 ¥. Be aware that there are also trains that run around in Tokyo and if you buy a day pass for the subway this does not give you access to these JR train lines.

 

From time to time the subway trains would be quite crowded. It was fun just watching people…most people where either listening to music from mp3 players, playing with their cell phones or sleeping. One guy tried to combine two of these things: playing with the cell phone and falling asleep. It was so funny watching him trying to stay awake :-)

 

Hello Tokyo!
Tokyo TowerSo how do you get to know Tokyo? Well, I guess you can either travel around on your own or go for a tour. We did both :-) In our guidebook they recommended going for tours with a company called Sunrise Tours and it seems like this Japan Tourist Board (JTB) operated company had tours for “everything” and all over Japan. We went to the tourist information in the Ginza area hoping that we could book tours with them but it turned out that we had to call Sunrise tours to book tours. Sunrise tours have a number of tours (as seen on their homepage) and we decided to go for the Cityrama Tokyo Afternoon. We were picked up at our hotel and taken to a bus station where we got a new bus and our guide. Outside Tokyo Imperial palaceThe guide we had was this older guy but his English was good and he was pretty funny. His name was Sato (apparently one of the most common names in Japan) and this also means sugar in Japanese. So he told us that we could address him as “sugar” or “sugar daddy” but not “honey” :-). Anyway, he told us quite a lot about the history of the city and Japan as we drove along to our first stop - the Tokyo tower. The tower was built back in 1958 and I guess the Japanese wanted to show the world that they could build tall building too :-) The tower stands at a height of 333 meters (which makes it taller than the Eiffel tower) and there are observation decks at 150 meters and 250 meters. Tickets to the observation deck at 150 meters were included in the ticket and we got a pretty nice view of Tokyo from there. The view is one thing…I guess we were most impressed by the welcome we got at the tower. A bunch of smiling women in colourful uniforms let us in and they also operated the elevator. The same scenario was repeated at many other attractions that we went to and it is something that we are not used to. At the base of the tower you’ll find a few floors with different attractions …an aquarium, a wax museum etc. We didn’t have much time to look at this as our tour bus were on a tight schedule…but we managed to stop by Baskin-Robbins on the way down to grab an ice cream :-). They have a great selection of ice cream - it was even possible to get green tea flavour!

 

The Asakusa Kannon templeThe bus tour continued past the National Diet building (maybe not the best name for the parliament building) on to the Imperial Palace Plaza. We had a short stop at the latter but the Imperial Palace is only open to the public twice a year - at New Year and on the Emperor’s birthday. Next was the Senso-ji temple (also know as Asakusa Kannon temple) - one of Japan’s oldest, most sacred and spectacular temples. Gard at incense burner at Senso-ji templeIt was pretty crowded and it seemed like the most popular spot was the large incense burner where people would try and catch the smoke to try to put it on the body part that was troubling them. Most of the temple is new - according to our guidebook it survived the big earth quake of 1923 but not the bombing of World War 2. We spent a bit of time walking in the street Nakamise-dori in the front of the temple. It is packed with stalls selling souvenirs, food, fans, dolls etc. Yes, we did walk out of the place with a little sumo wrestler statue :-)

 

At the end of the tour we were dumped at Ginza. It was not a big problem for us because we knew our way around. But it seemed like a few of the other passengers were a bit surprised by the fact that they were “dumped” there. We paid 4500 ¥ and the tour that lasted from about 1 pm till about 5 pm. The amusing guide made this a nice tour - recommendable if you’re want to see main sites with some informative bits of info here and there.

 

It’s a Sony
Kids playing at the Sony buildingBack in the Ginza area it was easy to get distracted. Nikki ran off to some of the department stores and I ended up in places such as the Sony Showroom and the Mac store. The Sony Showroom is a pretty fun if you like gadgets. Here I found several floors of stuff, ranging from cell phones, cameras, TVs, mp3 players to interactive games. I had great fun trying out the new PlayStation Portable which has not been released in Norway yet. But it was a bit tricky playing the games when everything was written in Japanese :-). I think I should have bought one because it was very cheap compared the ones that will be/are on sale here in Norway. I also had fun at the Mac store trying out the Ipod (in different versions) and surfing the net for free. The Mac store is located across the street from the Matsuya department store in Ginza.

 

Big is beautiful – the art of Sumo wrestling
Getting tickets for the sumo wrestlingThere are sumo wrestling tournaments 6 times a year in Japan with 3 of them held in Tokyo. And to our pleasant surprise there was a tournament in progress when we came to Tokyo. This is the national sport in Japan so we had to see this live. Once again Sunrise Tours (I know I’m repeating myself) had a tour to offer but we decided that it was a bit too expensive. I think Sunrise wanted about 10.000 ¥ per person. Sumo wrestlers getting readyIf you know Japanese I think that you can pick up tickets on the local convenience stores Lawson. We tried this option and had to abort it due to the language barrier. We also tried to get information about this at the New Otani Hotel and once again we ran into language problems and we were recommended to go for…wait for it….Sunrise Tours :-). We had read that it was possible to buy tickets (cinema and events) at a underground kiosk near Ginza station (near the police station at the infamously photographed street crossing). With finger pointing and body language we were able to book two tickets to the sumo stadium for about 5000¥ per person.

 

Short commercial break in the matchWe made our way to the sumo national stadium by subway. The inner, lower level was sold out but there were lots of seats available on the upper deck. Watching the sumo fights live was fascinating. To start with we were on the edge all the time because it seemed like the two wrestlers were about to clash into each other. But it turned out that there was a lot of warming up to be done first :-). There were lots of rituals such as throwing salt in the ring to purify it etc. But the actual match can be quite short (think “blink and you’ll miss it”). The final ended with the two wrestlers hurling into the ringside audience. Click here to see a video of the last match (about 0,7 mb in wmv format). I’m not sure that I would have wanted to pay a lot to sit ring side when there is nothing between me and two fairly large lads :-). The rules are quite simple (I think)…the first wrestler to step outside the ring or touch the ring with anything but the soles of his feet, loses. If you bring a radio you might be able to tune into English commentary. I would recommend seeing sumo wrestling…it was great fun seeing and hearing the Japanese crowd go wild when the wrestlers were getting ready for the match.

 

Elvis is alive – Yoyogi Park
Tokyo Rockabilly Club in actionThere are different parks around Tokyo… we went to the Ueno park but we soon came to the conclusion that it was not a real park…how can it be a park when you can’t walk on the grass? We met an American guy with a dog in a bag on the subway that day and he said that it was better to go to Yoyogi park in Harajuka. We eventually headed that way on a Sunday morning to take a walk and to take a look at the “goth” girls. Once we entered the park there were a few guys in leather with emblems on the back of the jacket. I didn’t take a closer look at them so I just assumed that they were from the local Hell’s Angels or something like that. Girl of HarajukaBut then they started carrying around sound equipment and I started wondering if they were a part of a rock band. All of a sudden they turned on the music and they started dancing! A closer look the emblems on the jacket revealed them to be the “Tokyo Rockabilly Club”. I guess Elvis has not left the building after all :-). Click here to see a video of the dancers (about 1.5 mb in wmv format). Many tourists come to the park on Sunday to take a look at the “goth” girls. In short there are lots of girls dressed in various…eh… unusual costumes. I tried to be a bit discreet when taking pictures of the girls (sometimes it is nice to have a camera with 10x zoom). Girls of HarajukaI wonder how the tradition came about and if they only wear these outfits on Sundays…and why do they keep on coming to the park? I guess they have become a tourist attraction because the rest of the people in Tokyo are quite well dressed. I guess some people would say that it looks kinda weird…but I wonder what is more weird…to dress up in a funny costume or take pictures of people in the funny costumes? For cartoon/animation enthusiasts there’s a Snoopy store across the road. If you turn left out the store and left onto the next road, just around the corner from that store is another overcrowded store. Lots of memorabilia and Nikki got to educate the store owners about the Anamaniacs (her favourite cartoon). If you continue down this road you’ll come to a shopping street of sorts - lots of stores (including a reasonable official tourist shop) on the main road and the side streets.

 

The Yoyogi Park was more of a real park by the way. People were enjoying their Sunday by playing in the park, having picnics, walking the dogs, jogging etc. And in the middle of the park you’ll find Meiji Jingu Shrine…it is very hard to miss the gate into the Shrine by the way…it is huge. At the entrance to the park there was a sign with all the stuff that you couldn’t do in the park…but it seemed like people were a bit relaxed about the rules.

 

Gadget heaven – Akihabara district
Nikki taking a look at gadget heavenJapan is often stylised as the leading nation when it comes to electronics, cameras, gadgets etc. So after we had been to Ueno Park it was only natural that we stopped by the Akihabara district. In this area you will find small and large stores selling everything you need when it comes to electronics. Strange stuff for sale at the fresh sea food marketI didn’t really need anything so I didn’t really look that much at the prices but the selection was very good. According to the guidebook it seems like Laox is a good place to buy stuff for tourists. Here they will be able to provide tax-free shopping, speak English etc. It is not only electronics that can be bought in the area by the way. There was a nice food market near by and it was fascinating to walk through it and look at all the fresh sea food that was on sale…it was possible to buy everything from red octopus legs, mussels, fish, prawns and other fish I’d never seen or heard of before!.

 

The different areas of Tokyo
Japanese schoolgirls posing at ShibuyaTokyo is so big that there is not really a defined “down town” area. The main places seem to be Shinjuku which is divided into two areas: the offices and the entertainment area. Then there is Ginza which is more of a shopping area and then there in Shibuya which is supposed to be for the younger and trendier crowd. I think all of these areas were worth the visit. Street crossing in ShibuyaWhen we first came out of the subway station at Shibuya we had to cross the street. All of a sudden we discovered that the big screen on the wall was showing a live image of the street crossing. Outside the station we also found the statue of Hachiko. The statue is of a dog that waited for his dead master for 10 years after the master died. Well, now it is Tokyo’s favourite place to meet and it was always crowded with people there. Neon lights of TokyoEverywhere we went we saw schoolgirls and schoolboys…they are hard to miss since they use uniforms. I guess Nikki and I stood out in the crowd because from time to time they would look and wave at us. I saw quite a lot of schoolgirls posing when they had their picture taken and they all showed the V sign…what is that all about? I have talked about the conformity of the people in Tokyo…but you shouldn’t be surprised by anything in Tokyo…one afternoon we even saw this guy taking his pet rabbit for a walk at Shibuya :-). When you walk from street to street they all look the same at night…lots of people, lots of neon lights. There seemed to be a combination of restaurants, bars, clubs, pachinko places, shops etc.

 

Strange clouds at Fuji-san
Nikki and Gard at Mount FujiAfter climbing Kilimanjaro I think I should have been able to climb Japan’s highest mountain…Mount Fuji (standing at 3,776 meters or 12,388 ft). But climbing is only done in the summer months (July and August) unless you apply for a special permit. Mount Fuji is not that far from Tokyo …on clear days they say that you can even see the mountain from the city. Well, we decided that we wanted to go there and take a closer look at it even if we couldn’t climb it. We went for the easy option and went for a 12.000 ¥ per person day tour…with Sunrise Tours :-). Strange clouds at Mount FujiAt about 8am we were picked up at the hotel and the tour bus drove us out of Tokyo and towards the sacred mountain. The landscape changes quite quickly when you get out of Tokyo …the capital is located on a plain but it doesn’t take long to reach the Japanese “Alps”. I was quite surprised to see that Nagano (host of the 1998 Olympic winter games) is located only a couple of hours outside Tokyo. The landscape turned into hills covered with trees as we got closer to Fuji and after a short photo session/toilet break at the Fuji visitor centre we drove up the mountain to the so called Station 5, at about 2300 meters. At station 5 there were lots of shops selling Fuji this and Fuji that - you could even buy Mount Fuji air in a box. The weather was not great when we came to Hakone areaIt was very windy and cold at this level and the summit of the mountain was still covered in snow. There were some strange clouds formations above Fuji by the way…I’m tempted to get in touch with the Norwegian meteorologist Siri Kalvig to get some explanations :-). We didn’t stay long at the station because lunch was waiting for us at a hotel at the foot of the mountain. The lunch itself was boring...and it was pretty scary to see that it looked exactly as displayed on the Sunrise Tours brochure…how weird is that? :-) I think a Japanese menu option should also have been offered instead of only the boring western menu. Hakone aquariumThe weather was not great when we were there unfortunately and it got even worse when we reached Hakone and Lake Ashi. We took a boat ride across Lake Ashi to Hakone (known for it’s hot springs) where the bad weather prevented us from taking the cable way to get a spectacular view of Fuji. Instead we got access to a small aquarium. Soon we were on our way back to Tokyo and the 2 hour drive gave us time for a little nap. At about 7 pm we got dropped at the very busy Shinjuku station. According to the guidebook this is the busiest train station in the world…between 2 and 3 million people come through the station every day!

 

Daytrippin’ to World Expo
Toyota stand at World ExpoWe had read about the World Expo that was taking place in the Aichi province. When Nikki applied for her visa she indicated that she planned to visit the World Expo and it turned out that there was no visa fee this year :-). At first we were thinking about stopping over in Nagaoya on our way from Tokyo to Kyoto but we had trouble finding a hotel in Nagoya so we decided to make it into a day trip from Tokyo. We took the Shinkansen heading for Osaka (known as Shin-Osaka) - after less than half an hour we had a great view to Mount Fuji. After about 2 hours we came to Nagoya and at the station it was clearly marked where to go if you wanted to go to the World Expo. JR PavilionWe ended up taking another local train for about 45 minutes and then a mono rail to the gate itself *phew*. We paid 4600 ¥ per person and after passing a security control (where they confiscated our handy water bottles) we came into the huge Expo area. And when I say huge I mean huge. I guess it has to be big because there were quite a lot of people too :-). According to the Expo homepage there are more than 100.000 visitors on any given day. The problem with the crowds is of course that you have to stand in longer queues. And it seems like they have their own system when it comes to getting into the different shows. Scene from World Expo AichiFirst we had to line up at one place to get tickets…then you had to line up again to get into the attraction itself. The Toyota stand looked pretty nice but when we got there it was already fully booked for the rest of the day! But we walked around most of the day and went into shows where we didn’t have to wait in line too long. We also went to the South African pavilion and the Nordic pavilion. At the South African pavilion it was possible to buy different products like the tasty rooiboos tea. When we stopped by the Nordic pavilion (a joint venture between Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland) I asked a girl in English how long it would take us to get in. She answered in English but I then switched to Norwegian and asked where she was from. She looked like she needed a few seconds to grasp that I was not speaking English anymore :-) It turned out she was from Denmark.

 

Well, if you want more information about the World Expo check out their web page…there is lots of information on there. Get there early and be prepared to stay there the whole day because the place is huge. But you also have to prepare to line up especially when the weather is nice. We stayed there until 6.30 pm before we decided that it was time to return to Tokyo on the Shinkansen. Generally it reminded of Disney’s Epcot Center.

 

Babbling about Tokyo and Japan
Street performer at Shinjuku...not in the national uniformIt was quite interesting to walk around in Tokyo. In many ways Japan is like Norway…and in many ways it is far from Norway :-). Japan is really a strange mix between east and west for sure. First of all we noticed that Tokyo was a bit more crowded (to say the least) than Norway. Norway and Japan are more or less equal in size….Norway has about 4.5 million inhabitants while Japan has about 130 million people. So it goes without saying that Tokyo was pretty crowded for us :-). I don’t think that I have seen that many men in dark suites before…it seemed to be the national uniform. Street crossing in ShibuyaGetting off at Ginza subway station and reaching street level was cool the first time. Especially at night, where you are met by lights everywhere…neon boards and big TV screens advertising for Nikon, Vodafone, Samsung, Big Echo etc. Well, this was not the case only for Ginza …the same goes for Shibuya, Sinjuku etc. I love the pedestrian crossings in the big intersections …not only can you cross from one side to the other. You can also cross diagonally and this makes the whole intersection into a chaos for a brief moment…but then everything falls back in order again. And I guess this is typical for Japan: chaos and order hand in hand. Order is I guess a keyword for Tokyo and Japan. It seems like everything works and there seems to be guidelines to keep everything going without interruption. Work of art on displayPeople wait for the green light at the intersections…it seems like if you start jaywalking you might trigger a lemming effect – where people are so occupied with their cell phones they start walking without paying attention :-). I guess people don’t really look at the “No walking” signal…they all look at their cell phones…playing games or sending text messages. Just like here at home everyone seems to have a cell phone in Japan…even the kids. But in many places we saw posters advising cell phone users to keep the phone on silent to not disturb others…I guess it worked because we were never bothered by cell phones ringing. Talking about cell phone…Japan runs on a different system compared to Europe and well, the rest of the world I guess. So your cell phone won’t work if you bring it. I use my cell phone quite actively and it was a bit strange being “isolated” without having the possibility to send messages and call family and friends…I had the same feeling on Kilimanjaro.

 

It’s amazing to see a society with that many people working that well. At subway stations and train station people line up if front of the doors to make the stop efficient, there seems to be no crime to worry about. People would come into the men’s room and leave all their personal belonging at the sinks and then they would go into their cubicles to do their business. When they came out their belongings were still there.

 

Toilet in JapanAh yes, toilets in Japan - I think that is a subject that deserves a few lines :-). When we got to the hotel we discovered that we had gotten a toilet that was a bit advanced. Apart from the flushing there was also a spray/bidet function. I thought maybe this was only for hotels and better restaurants but we found these kinds of toilets more or less everywhere. So I guess the advice is to be aware which button you press when you are using the toilet :-). And it was so nice to go into the toilet at e.g. a KFC or McDonalds and find a toilet that was clean and functioning. Some of the fast food chains even had the toilet paper folded like they do at hotels …how cool is that?? :-) I remember going to a toilet near Times Square in NYC and the toilet looked like a mini war zone…no toilet paper, no lock on the door etc. Well, in Japan all the toilets we went to were nice…some even had heated seating :-). Be aware that the traditional Japanese toilet is a squatting type toilet.

 

Don't smoke and don't litterA bit more about chaos and order…in many places there are signs on the pavement signalling that there is no smoking there and requesting people not to litter. Well, it seems like people are reading and obeying. It is surprisingly clean in Tokyo and that is quite amazing considering the number of people that are moving around. What was also amazing was the scarcity of garbage cans…and if you find one it is not just a matter of throwing your garbage away…you have to recycle of course! Many places in Tokyo you will also see raised/patterned yellow pavement block. I think this is guidelines for blind people and it gives indication as to where they should be careful, where they have to turn etc.

 

When we came out from Ginza subway station, lots of people were lining up and it looked like it was something run by the red cross. I don’t understand much Japanese but it looked like it was a line for blood donors. One guy was shouting something in a megaphone and the line grew longer and longer. Well, it would be great to know if this really was a line for donating blood or not.

 

Tokyo is also vending machine heaven. No matter where you go you can buy stuff from vending machines….it is first of all drinks (sodas, energy drinks and coffee shots) but there were also machines selling snacks and cigarettes. There were even machines where you could buy beer which is pretty amazing. In Norway I think this would have been very temping for youngsters :-)

 

I guess you have seen pictures of people with face masks from Japan? I think this is used both for trying to prevent spreading germs if you have a cold and I guess to try to avoid catching something. But with the politeness of the Japanese people I think there is more focus on the first. I think it is a great idea but I’m not sure how much effect a mask like this has.

 

Street scene from ShinjukuIf you have seen the movie Lost in Translation you will remember that Bill Murray plays an American star that goes to Japan to advertise for Suntory whisky. When we came to Japan we found out that Suntory is actually a real brand and it is a big brewery that makes whisky, beer and soft drinks. It also seems like it is popular to use American stars to advertise for stuff…Liv Tyler advertised for…eh…yogurt maybe. And Richard Gere had an ad for something that looked like an insurance company or a spa retreat of sorts. Politeness is another keyword…in more or less every store we went into we were greeted by more or less all the people working there. And when we left we would hear all of them say something to us again. An Australian lady we talked to in Hiroshima had her opinion about the politeness. She said that there are so many so there is a need for guidelines and politeness to make the society work.

 

Get connected – finding internet cafes
Outside smoking area at ShibuyaWithout a cell phone and without my normal dose of internet time I felt a bit disconnected from the world. When we came to Tokyo we also needed to book extra nights at hotels (yes, the planning was not optimal :-). So one of the first nights we went looking for an internet café in the Shinjuku area. We tried to ask several people…some said they didn’t know, some didn’t want to speak English. But in the end we found a guy that knew where we could find one…we followed his instructions and I guess this is when we learned that you also have to look up when looking for stuff in Tokyo. The internet café was located on the 4th floor. We found the counter and we asked for one PC and both Nikki and I went to find our designated PC. But then the clerk indicated that Nikki had to wait in the lobby. We couldn’t quite understand why but I went off alone…soon I found out why I had to go alone…my PC was in a tiny cubical where there really was only room for a PC, a nice chair and one person. I’m not sure why it is necessary with cubicles like this. It was not unique for this one café …it was the same at other places we went to. One place we even got a two person cubical with a sofa in it :-). The tricky bit when using a PC in Japan is of course when they keyboard switches to a Japanese character set…but that is part of the fun I guess. I think we had to pay about 500¥ for about 30 minutes on this first internet café.

 

Wasabiiiii - Eating and drinking in Japan
Ramen noodles in Shinjuku areaIf you mention food and Japan in the same sentence to a person I think the first word that comes to his mind is sushi. But Japan has a lot of different stuff to offer. We tried to be adventurous when eating and we tried to cover lots of different stuff. We had read and heard that Japan is expensive but it is pretty expensive to eat out in Norway so we were not terrified by the prices in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you want to save money and eat cheap you can go for noodles (the most common being “ramen”) everyday. Ramen noodles are served in e.g. chicken stock with a few slices of meet (we usually got pork) on top. A meal for two with a beer normally cost something like 1500¥-2000¥ (about US $ 13-18).

 

Another plate with sushiSushi is another must when you go to Japan. Sushi is basically raw fish that comes in different shapes and sizes but normally it is served rolled in rice or on top of rice. Finding a good place is always the tricky bit….Nikki at a sushi place in Kyotowe walked past one sushi place in Kyoto and there was a line of locals waiting to get a seat and that is normally a good sign. So we lined up and we got seats after a few minutes. In the middle of the restaurant there were a couple of sushi chefs working and shouting and they kept putting new dishes on a conveyer belt…and then we could help ourselves to the dishes we wanted to eat. We just watched the locals and followed their example :-). I think the people around us got a kick out of watching us because it was clear to all to see that we didn’t have a clue :-). But eating the sushi is quite easy…use the chopsticks or your fingers to dip it in a soy sauce and then ease the whole thing in at once. Sushi was not really to my liking…the taste of the wasabi (the Japanese horse raddish) is not my favourite taste. Here is a short video from the sushi place (about 0,6 mb in wmv format).

 

Sashimi in tokyoOne night we went to eat at a department store called Takashimaya in the Sinjuku area. Many of the department stores that we went into were more or less built up the same way…the basement floor was a food market, then shopping in the next few levels and on the higher levels there were restaurants. We went to a Japanese place and had stuff like sashimi, tempura etc. Many of the restaurants have a display of the different dishes on the menu on the outside of the entrance. These displays are really works of art because everything is made out of plastic. Well, it did save us a few times when there were no English menus :-). If you are hungry at lunch time it is of course possible to stick to the well known KFC, McDonald’s etc. But it is also possible to buy small lunch boxes (“bento box”) at e.g. department stores.

 

Getting ready for dessert from Cozy CornerI knew about the Japanese craving for fish before I went to Japan but I was not aware that they also have a sweet tooth :-). There were pastry shops, small restaurants (such as the Cozy Corner) selling just sweet stuff and it was easy to buy pastry at the local kiosk. The usual problem is of course that everything on the packets is in Japanese. I bought something that looked like a bun because I needed some breakfast before we went on a bus trip. When I started eating it, it turned out that there was something in it. At first it looked like chocolate but I think it was red bean paste. The use of red bean paste seemed to be quite common.

 

The coffee bar concept can also be found everywhere in the larger cities. Places like Starbucks (medium cappuccino is about 340¥) can provide you with the daily dose of caffeine if you get desperate. If you stay in the Akasaka area I would like to recommend Zoka coffee Roaster. They had great cappuccino and also pretty good caffe mocha. Water is typically 120/150¥ at vending machines and ½ litre of beer is about 300¥.

 

Paying at restaurants is not normally done by the table. Instead you receive a receipt that you bring with you to the cashier at the end of the meal and then you pay. And it doesn’t seem like tipping is expected or required :-)

 

Faster than the speed of light – the Shinkansen
Shinkansen trainGetting around in Japan is pretty easy and efficient. Before I went to Japan I had heard about their fast trains called the Shinkansen and from the guidebook I got the understanding that these trains are a national pride. Well, they are of course not as fast as the speed of light but they make it very easy and fast to get around in Japan. Before we went to Japan we were not sure how much we would travel around but we came to the conclusion that we wanted to see Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. Due to recommendations from travellers with experience from Japan we decided to buy a Japan Rail (JR) pass for a week. This gives you access to ride all JR trains in the period. The price of a one week ordinary pass is about 28.300¥ but there is one catch of course…you can only buy it outside of Japan – before you enter the country.

 

Shinkansen trains at the stationWhen you buy a rail pass you only get a voucher and this has to be converted into a rail pass and this can be done at different main train stations. We waited until the morning of our first train travel to do this…but you can do it right away you just tell the clerk which dates you want the train pass to be valid for. We did this at the Tokyo train station and it was quite a mission finding the right place to do this. So my advice is, once you know for sure when you’ll be using your JR pass, go there in advance and get it done so that you don’t have to worry about this when you are about to catch a train!

 

Signs gives information about train departuresOnce you have the pass it is easy…you just flash the pass at the entrance and find the right platform and then you are good to go. It is also useful to remember that there are three kinds of the Shinkansen: Nozomi, Hikari and Kodama. The Nozomi is the express train that has few stops and on the other scale is the Kodama which stops at several stations along the route. Nikki relaxing with a book on the trainThe JR pass is not valid for the Nozomi so keep an eye out when it comes to which train you board :-). When we took the train the first time we tried to reserve seats the day before but there were no seats left. We were worried of course that there wouldn’t be any seats left for us but let me tell you right away…there is no need to worry. On the Hikari trains the first 5 cars are free seating (some are also non-smoking) so you just have to line up and run on board when the doors open and grab a seat.

 

The Hikari trains can travel with speeds up to 270 km/h (about 170 mph) so it goes pretty fast. But the ride is comfortable, the toilets are clean, you can buy drinks and snacks etc. Keep your JR pass (and passport) ready in case of inspection.

 

Getting your hands on local currency
Before we went to Japan we read that it could be difficult to get cash from ATMs so we were thinking about getting some Yen before we took off. In the end we decided to stick to using our credit/debit cards. When we arrived at Narita we got cash from an ATM right after we went through customs and we started our normal procedure of using a combination of cash and credit card. But one night in Tokyo we started running low on cash and we were going to Nagoya for the World Expo the next morning. So we started the great search for an ATM that would accept our cards and that turned out to be quite difficult that evening. We walked from Tokyo station to Ginza and we tried all the ATMs along the route but the result was the same all over the place…no cash. Well, the trick for us was to use either a Citi Bank or the Postal ATMs. So the advice is: be sure to get cash when you can and use the credit card when you can.

 

On May 22nd we got on the train to go to Kyoto. Please check out page 2 for the trip report for Kyoto and our trips to Hiroshima, Osaka, Kobe etc.

 

 
 

 

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