Monday, October 14, 2019

Discovering Japan: Recapping My Trip From August 13-30, 2019

Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto
The 15 full days—plus parts of 2 others—I recently spent in Japan represent the most time I’ve spent in a single country on a single trip.

And I would say that all of the days were well spent.

I wouldn’t necessarily nominate Japan as the favorite place I’ve been nor the first place tourists from the United States should venture, but this is essentially due to the many fantastic places I’ve been fortunate to visit.

This shouldn’t be construed as a ranking, but London, Paris, Italy, Spain, India and Peru are just some of the spots I don’t feel it wrong that I got to before going to Japan.

I’ve also been to Australia, Ireland, Israel, Cairo, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Brussels, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, various points in Mexico and Canada and many cities across the U.S., and have enjoyed pretty much everywhere I’ve been.

Now including Japan.

Senso-ji, Tokyo
I liked what I saw there. What I did. What I experienced. What I photographed. What I ate.

I might wish to have learned a bit more, about the culture, the people, the history and customs, but given the parameters of my trip—traveling solo, 3 weeks to allot at most, a somewhat limited budget, my age, physical shape, proclivities, etc.—I can’t say there is anything I would decidedly do differently.

A few days at a beach resort with a Japanese supermodel may have been nice, but what would be in it for her?

I tried to eat at the top-rated restaurant in the country—Den—but given the stringency in securing a reservation, I can’t say I would try any harder than I did.

Hiking a good ways up Mt. Fuji would likely be beautiful and spiritual, but my legs hurt each night just from traipsing around tourist sights in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Fans of anime or manga or martial arts or professional wrestling or sumo or karaoke may well have sought out spots that likely wouldn’t have meant much to me, and followers of Shinto, Buddhism and/or students of Japanese history undoubtedly would have had more holistic experiences at the numerous temples, shrines and pagodas I visited.

Feeding time, Nara
And while I managed to find sufficient food to eat each day, only once resorting to a Big Mac, others may well have had more delectable meals or delved deeper into Japanese cuisine.

So be it.

Because I had internet access everywhere I went—at no extra cost as part of my T-Mobile plan—I was able to post numerous iPhone photos to Facebook every day, from most of the attractions I visited.

In part due to this, and also because I found myself sufficiently knackered each night to rather sleep than write, I didn't post many recaps to this blog. But you can find pieces 1, 2 and 3 here. (In the past I've used my space for on-the-go posts, but didn't this time.)

And rather than recite what I did and saw on a daily basis, I think the following might be an efficient way to handle this travelogue. If you have any questions about specifics, please post a comment or contact me at

Shinjuku, Tokyo
Arrived: August 14
Departed: August 22
Returned: August 29-30

APA Hotel & Resort Nishi Shinjuku Gochome (8 nights), The B Hotel Roppongi (1 night)
Both of these and the hotel in Kyoto were booked on and selected based on a combination of price, location and offers of American Airlines frequent flyer miles in return. The APA was well-located in relatively quiet Nishi Shinjuku, steps from a subway stop. The room was small but satisfactory; front desk staff more perfunctory than friendly or helpful. Whereas a front desk clerk at the B in Roppongi was proactive in helping to get me onto a shuttle bus to the airport.

Tokyo Subway
Areas visited:
Shinjuku, Nishi Shinjuku, Chiyoda, Asakusa, Akibahara, Shibuya, Ginza, Harajuku, Tsukiji, Jimbocho, Minato, Ueno, Sumida, Roppongi, Tokyo Midtown
I enjoyed exploring all these areas, including Harajuku, the epicenter of teenage Japanese culture and upscale Ginza. But Asakusa, home to the Senso-ji Temple, would be the area I'd most eagerly seek out on a subsequent trip. Visiting Senso-ji at night was a particular delight, including a walk afterward through what once was a theater district. 

Sights/attractions explored:
Imperial Palace East Gardens, Imperial Palace Guided Tour, Tokyo Tower, Zojoji Temple, Tsukiji Outer Fish Market, Kabuki-za Theatre, Senso-ji Temple & Pagoda, Nakamise Shopping Street, Meiju Jingu Shrine, Takeshita Street (Harajuku), Shibuya Crossing, Roppongi Hills, Shinjuku Gyoen Garden
Imperial Palace, Tokyo
A mix of shrines, gardens and bustling, modern districts like Shinjuku and Shibuya. In addition to Senso-Ji (as mentioned above), getting to the Tsukiji Market area was fun, though the actual fish market has moved elsewhere (vendors, shops and food stands remain). 

Museums visited:
National Museum of Western Art, Edo-Tokyo Museum
I probably should have done more in this regard. The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo National Museum and sword, sumo and samurai museums were also on my shortlist. But I was happy with the two I visited, while considering the numerous shrines, temples, gardens outdoor museums of a sort. I enjoyed how the Western Art museum had a special exhibit covering its formation and initial collection, while Edo-Tokyo provided a good glimpse into Tokyo when it was long-known as Edo. 

Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo
Shiryu, Bocce, Suisen, Kizuna Sushi, Kaisendon, Tsukijiya, Meiju Jingu Café, Sekkaen, Marion Crepes, Harajuku Crepe Cafe, Suisen, Vie de France, Wadakura Fountain Park Restaurant, Peter Cole Irish Pub, Kani Doraku, Hard Rock Café, Ichiran Ramen, Yoshinoya
None of these would be considered high-end gastronomic splurges--as opposed to Den, which I couldn't get into--but all satisfied while enabling me to enjoy sushi, tempura, ramen, soba noodles, crab, Chinese food, Kobe beef, mochi, crepes, sake, a Japanese buffet and more. I mean no disrespect in saying that none of these demand being specifically sought out, though the crepes cafes were fun and the buffet at Wadakura Fountain Park Restaurant was worth being a bit pricey (3200 yen), especially given the nice location across from the Imperial Palace grounds. 

Show at Robot Restaurant, Tokyo
Live Events
Robot Restaurant Show, Yakult Swallows baseball game, Kabuki Theatre, The Parrots (Beatles band) at Abbey Road nightclub
The show at Robot Restaurant--the food service is really negligible--is crazy fun, something like the Japanese version of Medieval Times. On speed. Though some may find it sensory overload, as it's really loud with tons of flashing lights. I loved going to the baseball game, particularly at the venerable but fun Meiju Jingu Stadium (as opposed to the Tokyo Dome, home of the richer Yomiuri Giants; I didn't get there). I'm not sure which piece of theater I saw at Kabuki-za--I caught one-act of a larger production--and couldn't tell you exactly what happened in it. Still it was cool. Abbey Road and The Parrots were a delight, as they sang 4 sets of Beatles songs in English, though they spoke solely in Japanese. 

Great Buddha, Kamakura
Side Trips:
Kamakura (Great Buddha, Hasedera Temple)
I got to Kamakura on my own via trains (as opposed to a Mount Fuji bus tour) and enjoyed getting to and seeing the Great Buddha, and nearby Hasedera Temple was quite formidable. A small joint called Kamakura Dog had wonderfully elaborate corn dogs; mine with fried potatoes and cheese was so elaborate I barely noticed I got one without a hot dog. If I didn't tire myself out, I would've liked to have seen the Hachiman shrine and perhaps gotten to the beachfront. Overall, my plan just to stay in Tokyo and Kyoto and take day trips worked quite well, but Kamakura may have merited a bit more time. 

Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi
Mount Fuji (5th Station, Cruise on Lake Kawaguchi)
I wasn't sure if I should try to get to Hakone on my own to try to see Mount Fuji or to sign up for a bus tour. Although I likely could've gotten to Hakone pretty easily by train from Tokyo, I wasn't clear where I might head from there, which prompted me to do some Googling. I found an $82 tour via a company called Veltra, which put me on a bus tour seemingly run by Shinki Bus Tours, though the sign I was to look for at the Shinjuku Center Building was "Limon," which also adorned the bus. The bus took me and about a dozen others to what's known as Mount Fuji's 5th Station, partway up the mountain. On the way, the overcast sky prevented any good views of the mountain, and even at 5th Station it was hard to see the peak, but at least I saw the mountain. We then went to what seemed to be a French-themed resort--La Ville de Gaspard et Lisa--which adjoins an amusement park. There we had lunch before going to Lake Kawaguchi, first to ride up a hillside in a ropeway car, then to take a 20-minute cruise. On the cruise, I finally got a decent glimpse of the famous Mount Fuji. 

Takeshita Dori, Harajuku, Tokyo
Other Places of note:
Tower Records, Garrett’s Popcorn, McDonald’s, 7/11, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo Station, subway
I used to love perusing and shopping at Tower Records in Chicago (and Los Angeles, London and more), but the chain went out of business several years ago. But it survives as a separate company in Tokyo, although with the familiar red and yellow iconography. I went to a store in Shinjuku, and saw the exterior of an even larger one in Shibuya...It seems Chicago-based Garrett's has expanded far & wide over the years, but it was still nifty to see a store in Harajuku, where I sample Matcha-flavored caramel corn (and didn't love it)...McDonald's was fairly ubiquitous in both Tokyo and Kyoto, but didn't have Quarter Pounders with Cheese (or anything equivalent)...I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that 7/11 is the most prevalent store in both Tokyo and Kyoto, though there are also several similar Lawson convenience stores...The commuter train stations, of which Shinjuku is supposedly the world's largest, were an attraction in themselves and crazily mobbed. But I used them often, and the subways stations even more so. 

Additional comments:
I enjoyed Tokyo, especially the dichotomy of old and new. With its criss-crossing subway lines, it reminded me of London, Paris and New York, and the challenge of exploring it was much of the fun. 

Pontocho, Kyoto
Arrived: August 22;
Departed August 29

Hotel M’s Plus Shijo Omiya
Right near train and subway stations and major bus lines, the hotel proved quite convenient. And the women working at the front desk were much friendlier than those I had encountered at the APA Hotel in Tokyo. Though it took four clerks to help me buy a baseball ticket from a mobile website that was solely in Japanese, it was cool that they took the time to help accomplish this. Unfortunately, the game--a rare one to be played in Kyoto by the Orix Buffaloes, who mainly play in Osaka--was rained out. 

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Kyoto
Areas visited:
Gion; see sights visited
Although with approximately 1.5 million residents, Kyoto can be considered a big city, this is only about 1/10 the size of Tokyo. As such, it seemed like the "areas"--at least for a tourist--corresponded more explicitly with specific sights. Except perhaps for Gion, which I didn't get to explore as much as I would've liked because it rained the three times I went there. It has many old-style Japanese tea houses or buildings that look as such, and is famed as geisha district. 

Sights visited:
Kinkaku-ji Temple, Ginkaku-ji Temple, Tenryuji Temple & Gardens, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Togetsu Bridge, Iwatayamu Monkey Park, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Yasaka Shrine, Nishiki Market, Pontocho Alley, Hanamikoji Dori, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Pagoda & grounds, Sanjusangendo
Many of the major sights I saw--Kinkaku (the gorgeous golden temple), Ginkaku (meaning Silver Temple, though it actually isn't silver), Arashiyama Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Inari (orange Torii gates up a mountain), Kiyomizu-dera--had what I would term touristy (though still quaintly Japanese) shopping districts serving somewhat as gauntlets before you get to the actual attraction. But these sights in particular, along with the hundreds of golden statues at Sanjusangendo, were truly spectacular.

Samurai & Ninja Museum, Kyoto
Museums Visited:
Samurai & Ninja Museum
This is a small museum on the upper floors of a space within the Teramachi-dori covered shopping district, and clearly appealing to tourists. But I enjoyed it, as English-speaking guides gave a nice explanation and I got to throw stars (ninja weapons) and put on a shogun outfit and wield a sword. 

Train station sushi box, Café Bear, Donguri, Way to Emue, Gyugyu, JIki Miyazawa, Trattoria Sette (Hyatt)
The sushi box isn't a restaurant; it's a box with maki in it, but I was impressed by how well packaged it was. Donguri introduced me to okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes with various stuffing or toppings), while Jiki Miyazawa is a traditional kaiseki restaurant with numerous courses created and served by the chef. I went there for lunch and had the lower of two price-tier menus, but still enjoyed it very much. 

Dotonbori Canal, Osaka
Side Trips:
Osaka (Umeda Sky Building + observatory, Osaka Castle, Dotonbori, Ganko (sushi), River Cruise)
An easy hourlong train ride from adjoining Kyoto, Osaka proved a cool place to explore. Though it isn't all that tall or new, the Umeda building felt really modern and has a nice observatory. Osaka Castle was rebuilt in 1931 and though the exterior is extraordinarily lovely, the inside is that of a modern museum. Worth a look but not all that exhilarating. Per a travel blogger's suggestion with high praise, I went to the nightlife area of Dotonburi seeking a ramen restaurant called Hanamaruken Namba Houzenji. I found it...closed. A couple doors down, Ganko seemed inviting as a large sushi restaurant in a basement space, and I enjoyed the food I had. I then went wandering to the Dotonbori Canal that gives the district its name, and was beguiled by a boat cruise led by a guide leading cheers. It only lasted 20 minutes but stands as one of the more overtly enjoyable moments on the whole trip. 

Todai-ji, Nara
Nara (Mister Donut, Kofuku-ji temple, Nara Park, deer walking all around, Todai-ji w/ Buddha, Totogin sushi-go-round)
Similarly, in terms of overtly enjoyable experiences, I don't think anything I did quite topped the few hours I spent in Nara. Kofuku-ji had a beautiful temple, pagoda and other structures, while the grounds, main shrine and giant Buddha housed within Todai-ji were all splendiferous. But adding to the merriment were deer. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of freely roaming docile deer that you could pet, photograph and--in buying deer cookies--feed. I just loved it. And I was also delighted to dine at a sushi-go-round restaurant. 


How does one measure or evaluate a trip or destination? By how much fun was had? By the memories or photographs? By some intangible vibe?

It has now been more than a month since I returned home from Japan, and a few weeks since I began writing this recap. Some of the exact experiences are slowly starting to fade, and while I think some of the sights/photographs displayed here are rather spectacular, none is as singular as the Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu or even Chichen Itza in Mexico, which I visited in April.

But, as I mentioned above, there is nothing I wish I had done differently. That bespeaks a great trip, and great experiences.

And while some additional interpersonal interactions may have been nice, to complement all the sights seen and places visited, there were some rather rewarding moments in this regard as well.

As I chronicled in this blog post, at a rather (but enjoyably) nondescript restaurant in Tokyo, a young waitress not only engaged me in some nice casual conversation, she wound up pulling out her laptop computer to show me a PowerPoint presentation she'd put together about sights she recommended a friend see in the city.

At the Yakult Swallows baseball game I went to in Tokyo, I carried on a great conversation throughout with a Japanese fan who spoke fine English, and even wound up friending him on Facebook.

While taking a tour of Tokyo's Imperial Palace, I met and befriended an American couple who were, like me, from Chicago's northern suburbs, though they now live in Florida. We would then meet for dinner in Kyoto.

Particularly in Kyoto, the hotel clerks were quite friendly and there and at the B Roppongi in Tokyo, their willingness to help with some logistics added considerably to my trip.

While feeding deer in Nara, I noticed some people photographing and filming it, and asked two if they might email the pix and video. Both did.

And from the guide on the tour to Mt. Fuji to the river cruise leader in Osaka to multiple guides & assistants at the Samurai & Ninja Museum in Kyoto to the staff at most restaurants I visited, I really did have several pleasant encounters with the Japanese people.

So, however one might measure it, going to Japan was a really great trip.



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