Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Japan Wrap-Up

Sunday, April 6th, 2014

Hello everyone,

Some final thoughts about our trip to Japan and a few helpful recommendations from






It’s been over a month since mom and I returned from Japan, and 14 blog posts later I’m still struggling with how to adequately summarize our weeks in this confusing, enchanting place. It would be impossible to wrap this trip up perfectly with a neat sparkly bow as I’d prefer, but I’m going to try! After lots of reflecting, a little head scratching, and a few good fits of giggles, here is my best attempt at reviewing our top Japan experiences:

Best Place We Stayed


The Courtyard Tokyo Ginza Hotel

It was one of the pricier places to rest our heads on this trip, but the value of having an English-speaking staff was priceless to us. Not only were the rooms comfortable and (by Tokyo standards) spacious, but the concierge was enormously helpful in pushing us in the right direction when our heads were otherwise spinning. Since Tokyo was our first stop on our Japan tour, I totally took all of this for granted. But after weeks of navigating Kansai with little-to-no English spoken at our hotel & ryokan, I found myself breathing an audible sigh of relief to return to theCourtyard on our last night before flying out of Tokyo.

In addition to the wonderful staff and amenities, the location is perfect for exploring the city via walking and public transit. The hotel is walking distance to several subway stations and major sights, including the Tsukiji Fish Market, Kabuki-za, and many of Tokyo’s most famous eating establishments.

Best Thing We Ate



I have lived in very touristy areas of both Boston and New York City, and so while the eating options are numerous in Tokyo, I suspected it would be difficult to know where to get the most for our money. While we were eager to sample various Japanese staples, we didn’t want to get sucked into the overpriced, low quality tourist traps that any big city shelters in abundance. We found ourselves in just such a trap on our first night in Tokyo, and as we stomached some of the toughest soba noodles in all of Japan (at least as far as we could tell) we vowed to ourselves ‘never again.’ After that we got into the habit of researching our dinner options thoroughly before hitting the streets in an effort to make the most of our time and stomach capacity.

Now this didn’t always work mind you – we even found some of the suggestions by our guidebook and concierge to be disappointing. But we got it right when we googled ‘best ramen in Tokyo’ and picked Kagari out of our search results. I will never think of noodles the same after tasting this deliciously creamy concoction. And waiting in line for a seat at the eight person bar was probably one of the most authentic experiences we were able to muster while in Japan. Did I mention it was one of the cheapest meals we enjoyed in Tokyo?

Best Place We Visited



Our day with the deer and visit with the Todai-ji was a highlight of the trip, and while we saw many, many great sights in Japan, this one stands out to me as most impressive. The ease of getting to and around Nara also bolsters this day in my mind as one of the best of the stay. I would caution anyone visiting Kansai not to miss it.

Best Decision We Made


Japan Rail Passes

Japan has done a wonderful job of accommodating foreigners on their train system. Doing our research before departure, we discovered you must order this pass from your home country, and cannot purchase it once in Japan. I am so glad we discovered this. Not only did it make our travels and numerous day trips economically efficient, it saved us a lot of time in planning out our itinerary. For the most part we were able to arrive at the station, flash our pass to get through any JR turnstile, check out the signage to figure out which train was going where, and hop aboard without a problem. In the few instances where we required (or preferred) assigned seating, all we needed to do was show our pass at the ticket office, point to where we would like to go, and voila – tickets were handed to us! The only downside we discovered to the JR pass is that it does not cover tickets on the fastest line of bullet trains, but we found the second fastest shinkansen took us anywhere we needed to go just as well.

Highest Moment


Onsen Joy

There were many small victories on this journey through Japan, but to me, my highest moment is clear: discovering I loved onsens after all.

Biggest Challenge


Snowed in in Hakone

We traveled to the resort town of Hakone just in time to experience the biggest snowfall in the region in 130 years. 11 inches of snow shut down the area for three days, while we waited helpless in our overpriced hotel. The staff was more or less uninterested in helping us to make our international flight, even though we watched them go to great lengths to assist many members of a western conference make theirs. It was supremely frustrating to wait day after day without any idea of when we would be able to get out and little ability to communicate effectively with the hotel about our needs. Not to mention the snow shut down all excursions in the area, leaving us with nothing to do but sit in the lobby (and soak in the onsen, of course). Eventually the sun came out, and with it the breathtaking view of Mt Fuji we had traveled to Hakone for. It almost made missing our flight home worth it… almost.

What I’d Do Differently


In my previous travels, I had always found that the longer I was able to stay in a place, the better experience I had. This is why I scheduled this trip to last nearly a month. In retrospect I realize now how ambitious this was. I hugely underestimated just how challenging a first-time visit to Asia could be, and by week two mom and I were starting to drag our feet. By the time we got on the plane home we were exhausted. Now that I have a better idea how to meet these challenges, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a trip of this length to Japan again. But for a first-time visit – I think we may have gotten just as much out of a 10-day trip as we did out of our several weeks.

I also realize now that it wasn’t necessary to schlep all the way to Kinosaki to get the onsen experience. Had I done better research I could have discovered just how prevalent they are, and used the time it took to get to Kinosaki and back again to see other sites. It was cool to view the Sea of Japan and taste snow crab at its peak, but the purpose of the excursion – to experience onsens – turned out to be more or less a bust.

On the Next Trip…


There are three places we didn’t make it to on this trip that were cut during planning at the last minute:

The Japanese Alps

We decided not to visit the Japanese Alps because… well, I live in Colorado, and questioned the reason in traveling to the other side of the planet to do what I can do at home. But the truth is, I love to ski! And I missed out on an opportunity to experience how a different culture shares my passion. I will definitely be hitting the slopes on my next Japanese adventure.

Tokyo Disney

We didn’t visit Tokyo Disney for the same reason we didn’t visit the Japanese Alps – I grew up driving distance from Disney World and my parents still live close by. But after experiencing just how different and particular Japanese culture is, I became very curious as to how it would mesh with the very western phenomenon of Disney. So next time I visit Japan, I will definitely be using our Disney Vacation Club points to explore this idea further. It’s on the way to the airport, anyway!


I was most disappointed to drop a visit to the monastic complex at Koya-san, but we didn’t have time to go both here and Kinosaki. Next time I will not miss out on the opportunity to wander the forests here and learn more about Buddhism by staying a night or two in temple lodgings.

I would also love to explore further south. A beach bum at heart, I have been dreaming about a visit to some of the more remote islands of Japan ever since I read about them in a feature of an in-flight magazine.

In Conclusion


Japan has definitely been the most challenging place I’ve visited so far. There are a lot of things I felt were lost in translation and plenty of potential experienced missed out on because of this. But the great challenges did lead to great joys. There were definitely things I would have liked to have done differently. But would I do it again?

You betcha.

Preferring Tradition in Tokyo

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Hello everybody,

For all of you who wrote asking for more, here it is, more about our adventures in Japan and our impressions of Tokyo. Lots of pictures too. This post comes as a courtesy from, written by my awesome traveling companion, who is also–very conveniently–a travel blogger.



Preferring Tradition in Tokyo



The chorus of the Cee Lo Green song “Bright Lights Bigger City” was on repeat in my head as our bus carried us into Tokyo for the first time. The city is everything you’d expect from one of the great metropolises of the world – first class food and shopping abound, especially in Ginza, the 5th Avenue-esque district we called home during our stay. Bright neon lights lit the way by night, and by day the streets were packed with cars and the sidewalks crowded with people.

But while Tokyo is home to some interesting modern architecture, I was actually surprised by how normal the city looked. I guess I was expecting Tokyo to be a futuristic mecca pulled straight from the pages of a Jetsons cartoon. And while some individual buildings certainly lived up to that idea, my stereotypical western view of a shiny, ultra-modern city was mostly erased by our first day on the ground.

That’s not to say that Tokyo isn’t shiny – actually, we found every city we visited in Japan to be immaculate. And I was very impressed with the relative ease and efficiency of the public transportation system – even for someone who knows zero Japanese like me.

But Tokyo surprised me. Because it wasn’t its shine I fell in love with, it was its antiquity. Most of the attractions I loved in the city were traditional temples, shrines, and neighborhoods. Call me a sucker for nostalgia, or maybe even a snob for the neon and new (as a former New Yorker, I’m not easily impressed with tall buildings), but I found myself much more drawn to the cultural sights then the polish Tokyo is often known for.

So what were some of my favorite parts of traditional Tokyo?



I have always been a huge theater lover, and seeing a traditional Kabuki performance was high on the list of things I wanted to do in Japan. As it turned out Kabuki-za – the premier place in Tokyo to catch a Kabuki performance – was located just down the street from our hotel in Ginza. But every time we passed the theater seemed to be closed, and with a packed sight-seeing schedule already, we knew some activities had to be cut. I resigned myself to crossing this particular want off my to-do list on another trip. We couldn’t make out what the Japanese signage in front of the building said anyway.

But luck was on our side, and one morning as we headed to the subway we noticed a large crowd of people gathering outside of the theater. We decided to go closer and try and figure out what was going on, and before we knew it, we were buying tickets for the first act of the show – which started in just 15 minutes!


Our ‘seats’ were standing room only, and we stood on a bench at the highest point in the theater. But for only 1,000yen ($9.75 US) and absolutely no planning we couldn’t be more thrilled to be there.

The experience was fascinating. The show took place in many acts over the entire day. From what we understood from our translating ear pieces (only 100yen, or $.98US for a rental), the art of kabuki is less about telling a story and more about framing a picture. Each scene is designed to look like a traditional Japanese woodblock print. Sometimes a theater will actually present acts from different plays over the course of a performance, rather than performing acts from a single play chronologically. All of the parts are played by men, and when the audience likes a particular character, they call out the name of the actor in the middle of the scene.

Our tickets were only for the first act, which turned out to be just the right amount of time to get a feeling for kabuki while managing to stand in the back of a hot and crowded theater without fainting (about 1 hour). While interesting, it was also very abstract, and mom and I still had a lot of things to see.

Hamarikyu Onshi Teien


Once the imperial hunting grounds, this area has since been transformed to a beautiful public garden. Visiting in February, we were lucky to see a few plum blossoms blooming, and I can only imagine what this place looks like in the spring! Located right on the water and surrounded by a moat, the garden features a plum tree grove, a peony patch, and a large field of cosmos.

At the center of a beautifully landscaped lake within the park was a lovely tea house where we sampled matcha (powdered green tea) and red bean paste sweets served in the style of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. It turns out there are quite a few rules when it comes to when and how to drink your tea and eat your sweets. But luckily for us foreigners, the smiling ladies who run the tea house presented us with a laminated, English-language instructional guide.

Meiji Jingu


The Meiji shrine is one of the most famous in Tokyo, and is dedicated to the spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. The couple spearheaded Japan’s own industrial revolution, often referred to as the Meiji Restoration, and are some of the most celebrated figures in the country’s history.

The grounds are large and immaculately kept, at the center of which is the main shrine complex. We visited on a weekend and, although it was a bit crowded, this allowed us the treat of witnessing several wedding processions through the shrine.


Aren’t the bride and groom stunning? I was totally entranced by this couple as they passed. The bride in particular looked so beautiful and demure, and kept her eyes bashfully cast down the entire length of the procession. I loved it.

Setsubun Matsuri at Senso-ji


Another stroke of luck brought us to the Setsubun festival at Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. Setsubun celebrates the end of winter, and while  Punxsutawney Phil forecasted another 6 weeks of cold weather back in the states, the Japanese were welcoming spring by throwing roasted soybeans to purify and drive away evil spirits. At the temple, VIPs threw the beans into an eager crowd – apparently it is very good luck to catch a sack.

While it was fun to witness this special ceremony, Senso-ji warrants a visit even without the occasion. The grounds include a beautiful central plaza, a massive gate, a five-story pagoda, and a large, gorgeous, hand-painted main hall.

And leading up to the temple you’ll find what turned out to be my favorite market in Japan – Nakamise-dori. This long street featured all sorts of fun goodies – from souvenirs to handmade crafts, to foods of all types. It was here that mom and I faced one of our biggest culinary challenges of the trip – a gooey, slimy, salty ball of octopus and batter.


This is the ‘before’ picture…

Yes Tokyo is known for being modern and trendy, but it was the pockets of tradition that shined brightest to me.

For more about our Japan trip and other travel adventures, visit

Back from Japan

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Hello there,

I’m back from Japan. It was an amazing trip with lots of interesting experiences and tons of learning opportunities. I haven’t had a minute to write a post about it. For the moment, I’ll share with you my traveling companion’s take on the trip  and a few pictures.



The Japan Trip




Well single reader, after three weeks in Japan, I’m back at my home base tucked high in the Colorado Rockies. Japan was everything I thought it would be. At times it was totally beautiful, 100% enchanting, incredibly fascinating, and so, so rewarding. But it was also often very ugly, extremely disorienting, absolutely exhausting, and completely challenging.

Overall I’d say Japan was full of surprises. And if I had to describe the place in one phrase, I’d have to go with sensory overload.

I hope you’ll be patient with me as I organize my thoughts and feelings here on this blog. To be honest I’m struggling a little bit to come to terms with everything Japan is and how I was able to experience it.

Over the course of our journey, we visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Kinosaki, and Hakone. Consider the following photos a preview to the more detailed posts to come.

Until then!