Though the primary purpose of blogging our trip to Japan was to share the voyage with family and friends, I also did it with the hope that it might be of help to people (westerners in particular) traveling there.

That said, I’m including, in no particular order, some observations and tips that might help you plan (and survive) your trip to Japan.

Toilet Talk

No conversation about Japan is complete without a word or two about toilets.  Indeed, I think Japan might have the most sophisticated toilets in the world.

Toto is a name you will see quite often.  They are manufacturers of toilets–and not just any old toilets (although they make those too)–these toilets have seat warmers, bidets, warm air dryers, and general "spray" functions.

The toilet pictured above was in our room at the ryokan.  The buttons on the side displayed stick figure-like pictures showing what each one did.

Just when you begin to get used to toilets that do everything for you, including pick out an outfit and walk the dog, you enter a public restroom and find <GASP>, a squat toilet.  Look, I try to be open-minded about such things, but I was not a fan of the Japanese-style toilet.  I felt very vulnerable and self-conscious while using them, even though I had complete privacy.  And now when I look at the link above, I see I was facing the wrong way when I was using them–though I doubt it would’ve been easier if I was doing it right.

It should be said that many tourist attractions we went to included Japanese and Western-style options, so I really didn’t have to use the squat toilets very often, but I never knew what I was going to find in some places.  With the exception of hotel rooms, it was pretty much a crap shoot (no pun intended) as to what kind of toilet I’d find when I entered a restroom.  I took to giving Mick the thumbs up sign when exiting a restroom that had a western-style toilet.

Something I should’ve known, but for some reason didn’t, is that Japanese public toilets often don’t have toilet paper.  You will be a much happier camper if you carry some tissues with you, believe me.

When you get to Tokyo, you will almost immediately notice people on the streets trying to give you little packages.  I never took one because I figured it was just promotional stuff written in Japanese so I wouldn’t be able to understand it.  It turns out that while I was right about it being Japanese advertisements, they are wrapped around packets of tissues.  So take one–you might be thankful later.

Words to Travel By

While it’s true you can get by in Japan without knowing a word of Japanese, there are a few words and phrases you might want to learn in order to make your visit a bit more comfortable:

hai (yes)
ie (no)
sumimasen (excuse me)
domo arigato gozaimas (thank you very much)
kudasai (please)
nihongo ga hanasemasen (I don’t speak Japanese)
Numbers 1-10 (or at the very least, 1-5)
Basic food words for things you might need to ask for, like mizu (water), chicken, beef, beer, etc.

Without a doubt, the food/restaurant situation was the most stressful part of the trip for me.  Mick and I would decide it was time to eat then spend the next hour trying to find a restaurant that didn’t intimidate us.  Still, I managed to gain 5 pounds on the trip, so obviously I was able to feed myself.

I never heard anyone say sayonara (goodbye) in Japan, and the one time I used it I felt kind of silly–I’m not really sure when it would be used.  I think shopkeepers and waitpersons generally say something like arigato gozaimas (thank you very much) or doitashimashte (you’re welcome) instead of sayonara.  I took to saying arigato gozaimas when leaving since that generally seemed appropriate.  I rarely heard konnichi-wa (hello), but occasionally heard ohayo gozaimas (good morning).

Trains and Taxis

For us, taxis were by far the easiest and stress-free means of transportation in both Tokyo and Kyoto.  However, they are expensive.  Trains are a little confusing at first, but don’t let that stop you from using them. has a "tutorial" on taking the train in Japan.  For the most part, you will be using #3 in the instructions, "Buying Tickets at a Vending Machine."  Please note, however:

"Sometimes, the station names on the maps are written only in Japanese. If you are unable to find your destination and the corresponding fare, you can purchase a ticket for the lowest possible price, and pay the difference at the destination station."

This is good advice, since 9 times out of 10 the station names are only in Japanese.  In fact, you might even want to skip the confusion of trying to figure out how much to pay by buying the lowest price ticket and paying the difference at your destination.

Most of the guide books we used gave very specific information about what train(s) to take to a certain destination.  This made it pretty easy to get around on the train.

If you are planning on taking the shinkansen take the time to figure out in advance exactly what you want and write it down.  The guy who sold us the tickets spoke not a word of English and had Mick not prepared what we needed in advance, I’m not sure we would’ve been successful.

Make sure you have a map that is easily carried because believe me you will use it.  For example, don’t expect taxi drivers to know where you are going because they probably won’t, and don’t be afraid to show them your destination on the map.  If you don’t, they may not be able to get you to where you want to go.  They may or may not speak English, but overall it is easy to communicate with them, even if you just give the name of your destination and point it out on a map.

We never took the bus in Japan but friends have said it’s just as simple as the train.

Little Things That Make a Difference

Wear socks when you have to remove your shoes at temples or restaurants or whereever.  It’s not a faux pas if you don’t, but you’ll feel more comfortable if you do.

— Watch the locals and learn.  This is especially useful in restaurants because sometimes you are served things and you’re not sure how to eat them.

— In restaurants, you will often find a small cup on the table.  The waitperson will put your bill inside the cup and when you are done, simply take it up to the cash register at the front and pay.  Whether or not they put the bill in a cup, in all but one place (and this was the fancy french restaurant in the hotel) we had to pay the bill at a cash register upon leaving the restaurant, Dennys-style, so I can safely say this appears to be the norm.

— You will surely read this elswhere, but it bears repeating:  At any of the numerous drink vending machines in Japan, you will have both hot and cold options.  The cold drinks have blue markings on the machine and the hot drinks have red.  I mistakenly bought a hot beverage at a vending machine once so just keep this in mind.

— You will be complimented on your "good Japanese" simply by saying arigato (thank you) or sumimasen (excuse me).  It is rude to accept a compliment in Japanese culture, but don’t worry, chances are you won’t know the words to accept it anyway.

— The bus (called Airport Limosine) from Narita Airport to your hotel in Tokyo takes forever, especially once you include the time spent waiting for the bus, travel time, and dropping people off at various spots.  Still, it is far cheaper than taking a taxi and it is exceedingly well organized (as are most things in Japan).   Unless you have money to burn, you will probably use it, just know it will take a very long time.

Helpful Resources

Websites: Japan
Japanese Guest Houses
Tokyo Trains

Lonely Planet Tokyo
Lonely Planet Phrasebook: Japanese
Fodor’s Japan
Just Enough Japanese

I started a new painting today–one that I think will take me awhile to complete since it is not my usual subject matter (dogs).

I started with a photo and a 12×16 blank canvas.  Based on the dimensions of the original photo (8×6), I penciled a 1 inch grid on the photo, then penciled a 2 inch grid on the canvas.  I then transferred my image to the canvas by sketching what was in each square of the original photo:

I decided to begin coloring my painting before finishing the sketch because my pencil was rubbing off as I drew.
This is a painting that will require many layers of color, so at this point the painting is very rudimentary, not much more than the sketch itself.

A bit more color:
At this point I kind of lost patience (as often happens) and I began coloring the entire canvas:

This isn’t entirely unjustified, as much of the remaining work is layering color over color, and I felt that painting the remaining base colors was the next logical step.

At this point I don’t have a lot of confidence in this painting, but it has miles to go before it’s completed.  Every painting I’ve ever done has a time when I’m certain it’s not going to come out right and then somehow I usually get it just how I want it.  We’ll see!

 Note:  You can view Mick’s photos of this day here.

We saved Harajuku for last because it was a Sunday, and that’s when the cosplay happens at Harajuku Station.  I wasn’t sure what else there was to see in Harajuku, but it turns out I didn’t have to worry–Harajuku is full of shops, from high end designers like Chanel and Louis Vuitton to quirky little places selling the trendiest of clothing and accessories.

Mick determined that it wasn’t too far a walk from the hotel to Harajuku, so we made our way through Shinjuku, which it turns out is crowded even on a Sunday morning.

I was in the mood to shop today, so I went into every shop that looked vaguely interesting:
In the store pictured above, they had some really cute tops that I was interested in buying.  The only size out they had was 2, but I figured they were European sizes, so roughly 1 would be extra-small, 2 small, 3 medium, and 4 large.  So how to ask if they had other sizes?  I would’ve needed at least a 3 and preferably a 4–unfortunately I only remembered Japanese numbers 1 through 3.

I was determined to find out if they had larger sizes, so I began by asking the sales person if she spoke English.  No.  I then went to the top I wanted and pointed to the size tag and said “san,” for 3, then I put up 4 fingers.  It took a few moments, but finally she said, in English, something to the effect of “only 1 and 2.”  Too bad they didn’t have larger sizes, but I did feel a degree of satisfaction from asking and understanding the reply.

We continued on our way to Harajuku.  Along the way we saw this building:
I know I’ve said over and over again how crowded Tokyo is, but here is just another example:
When we got to one of the main streets in Harajuku, we headed down a side street because the guide book said they were more interesting.  We ended up on a really cool little street loaded with shops.

Here was one of my favorites, at least from the outside (we didn’t go in):
It’s hard to read the sign in this photo, but the top says “Extra Dope Wear Select Shop.”  Classic.

Another cool looking place:
Home away from home:
Hard to read the sign, but it says “Santa Monica.”

We found an Italian bistro-type place for lunch.  Luckily, the waitress spoke enough English to ask questions and take our order.  I found that even western-style meals look Japanese:
After lunch Mick and I decided it was time to go to Harajuku Station to see the spectacle.  Boy, was it.  Although I thought there would be more people dressed up, it definitely didn’t disappoint.  Here was the view from a bridge approaching it:
Here is a glimpse of some of the “players:”
Gothic Lolita:
Basically, they just sit around letting people take their photos.  A lot of them were also putting on their make up there.

Our next stop was Takeshita Street, which according to Mick is the most crowded street in Tokyo:


It was an odd little street, filled with many different types of stores, but most notably, stores selling gothic-type clothes.

Mick was apparently enthralled by a woman cleaning the steps of her shop: By this time I think both Mick and I had had enough of Harajuku.  As we made our tired way home, I found a yarn shop:
I ended up buying some bamboo yarn, which I’ve been wanting for awhile.  It is surprisingly soft and the fabric it knits up to drapes really well.

As much as I loved Harajuku, I was ready to leave it by this time, and I was also ready to leave Japan.  We’d packed so much into the 9 days we’d been there that the beginning of the trip seemed a distant memory.

We ended this day, like all our days in Shinjuku, with a drink at the hotel bar: I think this photo pretty much says it all:
Goodbye Japan!  We loved you, but now I’m ready to sleep!

Note:  You can view Mick’s pictures of Day 8 here.

 It’s tempting to leave the Japan blog as it is–I’ve been home for almost a week and frankly, I’m tired of blogging it.  But there are still two good days not covered and they are begging to be blogged.  So here it goes…

Finally, Cherry Blossoms!

Our eighth day in Japan was probably the most beautiful.  Our plan was to walk from our hotel to Meiji Shrine and Mick had figured out a fairly direct path through a park (actually, upon reading this, Mick just informed me that it was probably the most indirect route we could’ve taken).

Somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten about the cherry blossoms, because I was surprised to see that the park was absolutely brimming with cherry blossoms and people sitting on blue tarps, enjoying them. The cherry blossoms aren’t just a tourist attraction–Tokyoites love them too.  And what’s not to love?  I feel so lucky that we got to see them. The park was absolutely gorgeous.  Everywhere you looked there were cherry blossoms and people.  I did see a number of gaijin in the park, but unlike us, they seemed to be gaijin living in Tokyo.

I guess I could fill this whole post with cherry blossom pictures, so I’ll end it with this one:
Our next stop was to be Meiji Shrine, which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the souls of Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken.  Emperor Meiji was an important figure in late 19th and early 20th century Japanese history and he is known as the symbolic leader of the Meiji Restoration and the subsequent industrialization in Japan.

Like so many historical sites in Tokyo, the original Meiji Shrine was destroyed during air raids in WWII.  The existing structure was re-built in 1958.

There were two weddings going on while we were at the Shrine.  Here is a photo of the bride and groom with their procession:
The wedding photo portion of the event didn’t seem very different from those in America:
About this time, Mick and I were starving so we made our way to what looked like a noodle shop. 
Again, no English was spoken, but it was pretty easy just to show them what we wanted since they only seemed to serve two different types of noodles.  Mick tried to order beer by saying “bi-ru,” but apparently he didn’t say it right because the waitress couldn’t understand him.  He ended up just pointing to the picture of Asahi on the wall and that was enough to get us two mugs.
It ended up being one of the best meals I had in Japan.  My noodles were in a very spicy broth and they were simply delicious.

Golden Gai

After lunch, we were feeling fortified enough to walk to an area called Golden Gai, which is a small district containing numerous small bars.  When I say small, I mean that some of them only contain like three seats.  Unfortunately, they were all closed this early in the day, but it was an interesting place just the same.  I could imagine what it would be like at night. 
  Next we made our way to a seedy area of Shinjuku called Kabukicho.  It’s billed as a red-light district, but during the day it doesn’t seem to have much going on. 

The place in the photo above was called “Honky Tonk Ladies.”  Only in Japan, I’m telling you.
Almost as soon as we walked into Kabukicho I wanted to leave.  Like most of Tokyo, I didn’t feel unsafe, but I did feel uncomfortable.  We made our way back to Shinjuku.

Another Lost in Translation Moment

When we got back to Shinjuku, Mick wanted to go to the Starbucks at Shinjuku Station crossing and look out onto the crossing, like Scarlett Johansen does in Lost in Translation.

Here we are, sitting on bar stools at the window:
And here is the view from those seats:

Here’s another look:

This is the view of where we were sitting from the outside:
We ended the day with a western-style meal from room service:

Tomorrow:  Harajuku Girls

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos and video of this day here.  You can read some of his thoughts about the trip here.

After a very long day on Monday, we are back at home, safe and sound.

Our seventh day in Japan began in Kyoto with a traditional Japanese breakfast:


What you see above is fresh tofu in a savory sauce.  The plate in front were different flavorings to put in the sauce.  Besides spring onions, I’m not sure what they were, but they added a lot of flavor to the broth.  Rice was also served.Img_0973

Next they brought us a tray with miso soup, Japanese pickles, fresh vegetables, and a type of smoked fish.  Although very different from a Western breakfast, it was all very good and a lovely way to end our stay at the ryokan.

When we checked out I bought a yakuta for a souvenir.   Mick wanted one too but they didn’t have his size.  Frankly, if I hadn’t lost weight, I wouldn’t have fit into mine either!  Despite what I’ve said about the Japanese all being small, like westerners, they come in all different shapes and sizes.  I suppose it’s safe to say that on average they are shorter and thinner (especially thinner) than westerners, you might be surprised by the variation. At the train station I took some time to buy some souvenirs.  Despite all the opportunites to buy stuff while I was actually in Kyoto, I think the sheer volume and choice overwhelmed me and I barely bought anything.  But I wanted to bring back some sweets and a Japanese tea cup for myself, and thankfully they had a big store at the station selling all sorts of things.

On the train ride back we had a lovely view of Mount Fuji.


I was looking forward to getting back to Tokyo because this time we were planning to stay in Shibuya, at a hotel called Cerulean Tower.  I knew Shibuya was a much more “happening” place than where we’d stayed for the first part of our trip and by this time I was looking forward to a little action.  After checking into the hotel, we went out for a little stroll just to get the lay of the land.

One of our first stops was to see Hachiko at Shibuya Station.   The story of Hachiko is famous in Japan:  you can read about it here.

A funny side note:  On April 1, Mick was reading the Japan Times, an English language newspaper.  A story on the front page said that during the night, the statue of Hachiko had been stolen.  Mick and I couldn’t believe it–we’d just seen it the day before!  Finally, Mick figured out it was April Fool’s Day and that the story was a joke.  What a relief–I thought the Japense police would suspect me of trying to take it home as a souvenir.

It was nice to just wander around Shibuya with no real sights to see.  Mick was amused to see a Japanese version of the Mac/PC commercial playing in one electronics store:

I’m not sure why he wanted me to take the picture below, but it illustrates an interesting point about Japan:

From the moment we got off the airplane, we noticed that some people wore surgical masks over their faces.  It varied depending on where we were, but I’d say one in 25 people or so wore masks.  We guessed that it might be due to lingering fears over SARS or some other contagious disease.  Apparently, we weren’t the only gaijin wondering.   Mick took a minute to research it, and it turns out that people wear the masks to prevent the spread of their own illness to others.  In Japan it is very impolite to spread ones germs–though judging from the number of people wearing masks, it doesn’t seem to be working in preventing colds.

Shibuya was indeed more action-packed than the area near the Imperial Palace, where we’d been staying before.  There were people everywhere and something happening on every corner.  We passed what appeared to be a television studio filming some kind of program: Shibuya is also home to Shibuya Station crossing, which was highlighted in Lost in Translation:

This photo does not do justice showing the sheer number of people crossing here at any one time.  It is simply incredible, but I’ll blog a little more about that tomorrow.

We decided to back to the hotel and have a drink in the bar, which had a spectacular view:

I took the opportunity to try shochu, which is Japanese spirits.  I asked the waiter what he recommended and ordered it, but I have to be honest, shochu is not for me.  It’s hard liquor and tastes like it–not really my bag.

I followed up with a nice big mai tai to wash the taste out of my mouth.  🙂

A nice man offered to take a picture of Mick and I:

Two more days to go!

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos and video of this day here.

Well, I didn’t think I’d have so much time to blog today, but we are at the airport with about three hours to wait until the plane takes off.  I might just finish all this blogging before we get home (though it’s doubtful).

Kyoto has like 1400 temples, shrines, and other such sites.  We had one full day to view them all.  Obviously, we had to be selective. 

Upon finishing a traditional Japanese breakfast (which I will blog about tomorrow), Mick and I hopped in a cab and went to Nijo Castle, which was the Kyoto palace of the Tokugawa Shoguns.


This photo was taken in the outer area of the palace.  We were able to tour the inside of the palace, but unfortunately they wouldn’t allow photographs or even sketching of the inside.  It was really fascinating, however.  In some of the rooms they had life-sized dolls set up to illustrate scenes in history or the purpose of a particular room.  It was cool to see a traditional Japanese "home" after living in our ryokan room for a day.  Though the palace rooms were much, much bigger, they weren’t all that different from the rooms we were living in.

All the visitors had to remove their shoes and leave them in the provided shelves.  Funny to tour a public place in your stocking feet.

Another interesting feature of the palace was the floor, called the Nightingale floor.  When walked upon it squeaked in such a way that it sounded like lots of birds tweeting.  This was done intentionally to warn the inhabitants of someone trying for a surprise attack.

After touring the inside of the palace, we were able to explore the gardens surrounding it.  They were so beautiful:

It became very windy on this observation deck:

This was the view from the other side of the observation deck:

By this time I had a hankering for some traditional kyoto sweets, which are hard to explain but are very delicious.  Basically, they consist of a small "tortilla" (I use this word very loosely) wrapped around some flavored bean paste.  Might not sound yummy, but I assure you they are.  The ones I am eating here are strawberry flavored:

Our next stop on today’s tour was the Golden Pavilion:

This photo is a contender for this year’s Christmas card, so don’t be surprised if you see it again.  Mick and I found on this trip that it’s easy to get someone to offer to take a photo of you simply by taking a photo of yourself (Mick and I’s standard photograph).  Almost every time we did it, someone offered to take a photo of us together, but then asked if we would reciprocate.


The Golden Pavilion is a very popular tourist spot, as witnessed by this photo:

Like Nijo Palace, the Pavilion had beautiful gardens surrounding it, as well as little memorials and offering places.
Here, tourists are trying to land their offerings (coins) in a small bowl at the foot of the statue:

Pachinko Success at Last

I’m sure you guessed that I wouldn’t leave Japan without playing pachinko.  In Kyoto, the pachinko parlours were a lot less intimidating than those in Tokyo, and this time we took advantage of the attendant and let him help us.

Here I am, boys and girls, finally playing pachinko!  It turns out it’s not all that complicated, but it certainly is a good way to get rid of some cash if you have a mind to do it.  Proceed with caution!

After we finally learned, a day didn’t pass in Japan when we didn’t play pachinko at least once.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ryokan

When we returned to the ryokan, the Okami brought us a delicious drink made with yazuya–it tasted like warmed lemonade.  After bathing and putting on our yakutas, we made our way to the dining room.  This is the view out one of the windows:

This night’s dinner was completely different than the one the previous night.  It started with fish topped with a broccoli-type vegetable in broth.

Next came some of that vegetable tempura I’ve come to know and love in Japan:
No meal (even breakfast) is complete in a ryokan without a little sashim.  Tonight’s featured different fish than the night before, but was similiarly presented:

How gorgeous is that?

Our next dish was Kyoto beef, lightly seared and terrfically delicious.

This night’s dinner would also feature shabu-shabu, but this time, with fish and tofu instead of beef:

The citrus shown here is yazuya, of course.

The final dish was simply beautiful–a gorgeous box of sushi:

It was almost too pretty to eat, but of course I did my best.

There was a curious couple sitting next to us at dinner–a older man, like perhaps 65, and a younger woman, like around 25 (if that).  I assumed it was a father and daughter traveling together.  When we sat down, the woman said hello in English and throughout the meal I could see her paying attention to us.  Finally, toward the end she asked us where we were from and explained that she had lived in Australia for six years.  Of course her English was very good.  There was something she said, however, that implied that it was not her father she was with and Mick and I got the creepy feeling she was actually with a "boyfriend."  Hmmmm.  Maybe you had to be there to get what I’m saying, but it was kind of weird.

After dinner, Mick and I were determined to go out and see the geishas on Potoncho-dori.  This is a street they walk down at night, getting to their places of business.  Here I am, walking down the street by day because Mick didn’t get any that night.

Unfortunately, we must’ve been out too early (around 9pm) because we didn’t see any at all.

We ended up in a much more familiar place to the likes of us:

I have to admit it felt good to be in a place that might’ve easily been in England or even Santa Monica.

I’m loving Japan, but I am also longing for home…

We’re up early this morning, our last in Tokyo, so I thought I’d make one more post while I was here.  I am so ready to be home!  But on to more interesting thoughts…

There is no question, one of things I was looking forward to most about our trip to Japan was our stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, or guest house.  Friends of ours said that the stay in a ryokan was the highlight of their trip, and even though I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, I knew it would be a great experience.  This website gives a fairly good general description of what a ryokan is like.

Our ryokan was called Yazuya Hotel.  A yazuya is a citrus-type fruit, kind of a cross between a lemon and an orange, and it is very fragrant.  This was our first view of the ryokan:Img_0703_copy

There were many stone steps to go up before reaching the entrance to the lobby:


During the check-in process, they asked us what time we wanted to have dinner and breakfast the next morning, and whether or not we wanted porridge or rice (with breakfast).  Contrary to what one might expect at a ryokan, the staff here spoke English very well–I’m pretty sure that’s not the norm, however.  After we checked in, a lovely Japanese woman, called a Nakai-san, showed us to our room.  First, however, she led us to an area where we had to remove our shoes and don simple black slippers.  Our shoes were placed in boxes in a large cabinet, and were readily accessible whenever we wanted to go out.

Our room was on the second floor.  The stairs were steep and it was hard for me to walk in the slippers, but I managed.  I was so scared of doing something wrong!

When we got to the room, the first thing we saw was a small entry where you are meant to remove your slippers.  The floors of most ryokan rooms are tatami, and nothing heavier than a socked foot is meant to be placed on them.  One thing I learned on this trip is that as impractical as tatami flooring might be, it is very pleasing to walk on.  I’m sure they wouldn’t last two days with the sharp claws of Kramer and Stuart running around on them though.

Obviously, ryokans weren’t made for tall gaijin:

But I fit right in.

The Nakai-san explained our room to us.  There was a “living room” type area with a table, two chairs, and a chest which contained our yakutas and haoris.

The main room contained a low zataku table, and zaisu (legless chairs) with zabuton cushions placed on top.  Shortly after we arrived, the Nakai-san brought tea and Japanese pickles made from Kyoto vegetables as a welcome.

At this point, it was time to begin the relaxation.  Many ryokan have lovely gardens outside of its guestrooms, but ours did not.  Unfortunately, ours had a view of the busy street below:

We were pretty well shielded by shades, however, as you can see from the photo below.  It would’ve been nice to have a garden, of course, so if that’s very important to you, make sure you find out in advance.

Mick took a minute to review the some of the rules of the ryokan:

Bathing is a very important part of the ryokan experience, especially public bathing.  I chose not to participate in this experience, which I kind of regret now, not because I was self-conscious about public bathing, but because I was kind of just afraid of doing something wrong (a common fear I had on the entire trip to Japan).  However, our room did have a private bath so Mick and I were able to enjoy the tradition.

Before entering the bath, you must wash yourself, making sure that all soap is rinsed off.

Near the tub, there is a bowl of yazuya which are meant to be placed in the bath water.

The bath was fantastic–a great way to relax before dinner.
Even Mick liked it!  (Though again, the tub was not made for big gaijin).

After the bath, one puts on the yakuta.  When tying the robe, the left side is put over the right because the opposite is used for dressing the dead.

The yakutas are meant to be worn to dinner and around the ryokan, although it is not obligatory.  Mick and I opted for the full ryokan experience and wore ours to dinner and breakfast every day.

One thing that got a bit tiresome about the ryokan was the footwear issue.  There was a pair of slippers for every occasion–even for using the toilet (pictured below).  One is constantly putting on and taking off slippers in a ryokan.

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The routine is this:  You enter your room in slippers provided at the foot of the stairs when you enter the ryokan.  There is a small entrance area of your room where you slip off these slippers and leave them.  In the room you are either barefoot or wearing socks (preferably the toe socks called tabi).  When you leave the room you put your slippers back on, and go down the stairs, where you take off the slippers and put on a pair of geta, which is a type of traditional wooden clog.  You wear the geta into the dining room (some ryokans serve dinner in the room–ours didn’t) and slip them off before going to your table.  When you are ready to leave, the whole process begins again, but in reverse.

All About Eating

Even more than the bathing, the ryokan experience is about food.  Ryokans use this opportunity to serve traditional Japanese cuisine, much of which is produced locally.  I have truly never had an eating experience like it.

I was very nervous at first because again, I was nervous I’d make a faux pas.  The staff was so nice, however, that I soon felt comfortable.  At our table, which was kind of a Japanese-Western hybrid (you sit low, but there is empty space below the table so you can sit as you would at a chair), there was a menu, napkin, and chopsticks (this photo only shows the napkin and chopsticks):

The same Nakai-san who showed us to our room brought a drink menu and we ordered the local sake.   
Now the real fun began.  The first dish they brought was abalone:

Before I continue–if you don’t like sashimi or sushi, a meal at a ryokan is probably not for you.  They can make allowances for vegetarians, but need advance notice.  Next came roasted bamboo:

I had to ask how to eat this.  It turns out that it is very similar in taste and texture to an artichoke.  It smelled wonderful.  Presentation is a huge part of the meals served.  I’ve never seen such beautifully presented food.

The next dish was sashimi.  One thing I learned in Japan is that wasabi is not served with sushi–only sashimi.  Sushi is eaten only with soy sauce.  In this picture, the clear liquid next to the soy sauce is a type of vinegar.

Next came a kind of roasted fish which Mick forgot to photograph until after he’d eaten some.
The food just kept on coming!  The next course was the most delicious shabu-shabu I’ve ever had.  Like tempura, the shabu-shabu in Japan is quite unlike anything I’ve had in the U.S.  I have a new appreciation for it.
The final dish was rice mixed with egg and yazuya.  It was had a very soft consistency and was very delicious.

The meal ended with fruit and a traditional Kyoto sweet.  They also served green tea.

While we were eating, a maid set up the futons in our sleeping area.  The photo below is the cupboard which all the bedding was stored in.

Unfortunately, Mick never got a photo of them all set up for sleep, but suffice to say it looked very inviting.  After such a long day and that huge meal, we tumbled into the futons for a nice sleep, preparing us for the sight-seeing of the following day.

Next chapter–More sights in Kyoto.

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos & video for this day here.

It being April 1 here in Japan, I’m obviously a bit behind in blogging since Mick’s birthday was on March 28.  Still, I don’t think I’m doing too bad a job keeping you all up-to-date on our trip.  That said, this will probably be my last post until we get back to the U.S. on Monday.  We leave Japan tomorrow (April 2) at 5pm and arrive in Los Angeles at around 12pm the same day.  On with the post!

Kyoto Bound

So, today was the day Mick turned 40, and we began it by checking out of our hotel and walking to Tokyo Station to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.  Read Mick’s thoughts about buying the tickets.

We arrived in good time for the train and went to wait on our platform.  Navigating train stations in Japan is really pretty simple since most of the signs are also in English.  The most confusing part is actually figuring out what fare to pay since quite often these signs have no English translations.  It’s not a big deal though because if you pay the wrong fare you can just go to the fare adjustment window when you get to your destination and pay the correct amount to leave the station.

Here comes the train!

We found our seats, which were very comfortable.  I love train travel so I was looking forward to the trip.  Almost immediately after the train left, an attendant came by with a cart selling snacks and drinks.

Since the ride to Kyoto was about 2 hours, I decided to use the time to get some of my blogging done.  In this picture, I am blogging about our day in Nishi Nippori and Ueno.


Even though blogging this trip has taken some time, it has been a wonderful way of recording everything we’ve done.  We are doing so much that it’s easy to forget this thing or that, and writing about it along the way has made it easier to remember.  I don’t regret the time spent at all.

When we arrived in Kyoto, we took a taxi to our ryokan (which I will blog about in excruciating detail in my next post).  We couldn’t check in until 3pm so we left our bags and began our sight-seeing.

One of the first things we saw was the five-story pagoda shown above.

Our next stop was at a small shrine, where I purchased an offering.  They came in all different colors and I chose a white one because I thought my writing would show up better.  I wrote "World Peace" and a peace sign.  I also wrote "Santa Monica, CA, USA," and the date.

I tied up my offering like the rest of them (all of the ones I saw had Japanese writing on them).

By this time, Mick and I were both pretty hungry.  We stopped at a traditional restaurant that served tofu.  I was particularly interested in it because they served yuba, which is made of tofu skin.  My friend Tracy had mentioned how good it is so I wanted to try it.  It was very good, but you had better like tofu if you want to try it because otherwise I doubt you’d like it.  Mick ordered another tofu dish.  Both of our meals included tempura.  Japanese tempura is simply delicious–much better than any I’ve had in America (I think I might’ve already said that somewhere else).  I’ll miss it.


Despite the look on his face, Mick really was enjoying his birthday lunch.

After all that worrying I’d done about having to remove my shoes in Japan, would you believe that this (day 5) was the first time we had to do it?  The restaurant had tatami mat flooring, so we had to remove our shoes at the bottom of the stairs and leave them on shelves.  This is me, putting my shoes back on.

Our main sight-seeing spot on this day was to be Kiyomizu-dera, one of the most visited temples in Kyoto.  The walk leading to it was full of interesting sights itself, however.


They weren’t kidding when they said it was one of Kyoto’s most visited spots.  There were tourists everywhere


Kyoto is known for its shopping, particularly its traditional crafts and sweets.  One of its specialities is Japanese fans, which is one of the traditional crafts that originated in Japan, not China (unlike pottery and dolls).

Kyoto pottery is some of the finest in Japan:

For Mick’s birthday, I bought him a beer glass, and then later I bought myself a tea bowl. 

Another specialty of Kyoto is sweets:

You couldn’t walk two feet without seeing one of these sweet shops.  Even a sumo wrestler needs his sweets!


Kyoto, particularly Gion, is known for its geishas.  I’m not sure if these women were real geishas, but they looked pretty anyway:

One option for those too tired to walk:  a rickshaw.


When we finally got to Kiyomizu-dera, we turned around on the steps and Mick got this picture, which I love:

Here we are at the entrance:

Kiyomizu-dera is beautiful and unique among the temples we’ve seen, as it is built into a hillside with 139 giant pillars supporting part of its main hall:

The view from this spot is wonderful–and inspires the question "Have you the courage to jump from the veranda of Kiyomizu?" which is a Japanese saying asked when one sets upon a daring new venture.

Mick purifies himself, above, while I ring the prayer bell:


I took a moment to rub the Buddha for good luck.  The woman ahead of me took it very seriously.  She was rubbing that Buddha like there was no tomorrow, then rubbing parts of herself–her hair, shoulders, back–even her bottom!  I settled for a quick rub on my hair.


On our way back to the ryokan I was lucky enough to see some corgis.  I’m actually surprised by the number of purebred corgis I’ve seen here.

Kyoto, far more than Tokyo, captured my imagination.  I really loved it.  This Japanese tour bus says it all:

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos of this day here.

On our 4th day in Japan, Mick and I decided to take a day trip to Yokohama.  One of our guide books said that while going there is interesting, it isn’t necessarily better than going to Nikko or Kamakura.  But for some reason it appealed to both of us and since it was just a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo we decided to do it.

Our first stop when we got off the train was the Yokohama Museum of Art which displayed a lot of traditional Japanese art done in the early-mid 20th century.  The special exhibit was the collection of Kojima Usui, a Japanese art collector and author (among other things) in the early to mid 20th century.

Our next stop was the tallest building in Japan, the Yokohama Landmark Tower.  It has about 70 floors, and the world’s second fastest elevator (about one floor per second).  The observation deck and restaurant at the top boast a gorgeous view, but it would’ve been especially beautiful at night.

Next we went to a buffet restaurant at the top of the hotel at the Landmark Tower.  It was a lovely buffet which included both Japanese and Western food, though most of the guests on this day were Japanese (I don’t think I saw any westerners, which is something you start to do in Japan–look for the other westerners).  During lunch, I reminded Mick that it was his last day of being a thirty-something.  He promptly ordered a cocktail to get through the sharp pangs of regret (of course I joined him). 

Yokohama is one of the few cities in Japan that has a Western influence in a chapter of its history.  In 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Yokohoma with a request (demand?) from the U.S. that Japan open its ports to trade with the U.S.  As a result, Yokohoma became a port city with a Western presence for over 100 years, though much of that has been destroyed either by earthquake, fire, or bombing in WWII.  The monument pictured below is the site of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity between the U.S. and Japan.  Mick just thought it would make a cool picture.

There is a lovely section of the Yokohama waterfront called Yamashita Park which is a very nice walk (and loaded with people walking their dogs, which of course I loved).  There is a Japanese song about the Girl in the Red Shoes.  The story of the song is a bit complicated, so read the link if you’re interested.  This statue commemorates the Girl in the Red Shoes.

As with any city, Yokohama has many museums, some more important than others.  During our walk we passed the Silk Museum, which we decided might be interesting.  The only reason for it’s existence is the promotion of silk, as it is located in the upper floor of a silk factory.  It was interesting however, and having never given a thought to how silk was made, I did learn a bit.  I bought a pair of black silk toe socks called tabi in the gift shop.

Another museum we went to was the Yokohama Doll Museum.  I have loved dolls since I was a child, though I was almost too tired to go into this one.  There were hundreds of dolls from all over the world and it was cool to see, however I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it unless you happen to have an hour or two in Yokohama with absolutely nothing else to do.

One of the main reasons I think both of us were attracted to Yokohama was its China Town.  Of course I love the China Towns I’ve visited in America and I thought it would be cool to see one in Japan.  Turns out it’s just like the ones in America!  There were loads of restaurants and junky souvenir shops.


A nice lady caught my attention because she wanted to give me a hand massage with these plastic things she had on her fingers.  Being the tired traveler I was, I couldn’t resist.  As she massaged, she explained what each point in the hand affected in the body, such as the neck, head, liver, legs, etc.  Next she started massaging my legs with some kind of wooden rolling pin type thing.  I would’ve been happy to stand there all day but I started feeling guilty.  I ended up buying a pair of shoe insoles with pressure points on the bottom which are actually very comfortable.


I think Mick has a fascination with the plastic food here because he keeps taking pictures of it.  It’s funny because sometimes this "food" looks very appetizing and other times it just looks dusty and plastic.  This was one of the good ones:


On our way back to the train station there was a Hawaiian-themed restaurant in an Airstream trailer that I thought was funny, so I made Mick take a picture.  Japan is full of quirky stuff like this.

This being the 4th day of travel, Mick and I were both pretty exhausted by the time we got on the train to go back to Tokyo.  We joined the countless sleeping business men in a quick snooze.

Dinner on this night was to be a 7-11 (or the equivalent) special.  It turns out that convenience store food is pretty delicious in Japan, and not an uncommon meal for the busy Tokyoite.  On our walk back to the hotel from the train station we stopped and got sandwiches (which, unlike the American-type found in similar stores, boast the softest, freshest bread you can imagine).  Add some boxed sake from the mini-bar and we were set!


Tomorrow:  Kyoto bound and a new decade begins for Mick…

Note:  You can view Mick’s photos and video of this day here.

Though I am blogging our third day in Japan, it is actually the fifth day.  Mick is 40 today (March 28)!  Can you believe I’m married to such an old person?  I’m not sure this May-December romance can last, but we’ll give it a try.

We’re actually on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto and I thought I’d use the 2+ hour trip to get some blogging done.

So, for our third day, I’d planned a fairly detailed walk around “Old Tokyo.”  This walking tour was something I’d read in Little Adventures in Tokyo and it seemed like it would be a good chance to view some of the more traditional neighborhoods in Tokyo.  While I’d written up notes on the trip, I’d failed to write directions to each stop and of course that was one of the books we left at home.  We decided to modify our walk slightly and go further north to Nishi Nippori which seemed similar to the original walk I’d planned.

It started in a very large Buddhist Cemetery, which was beautiful and fascinating, but also a little creepy, as most cemeteries are.

Having come in through a side entrance, we took this path through a small part of the cemetery to a Buddhist temple called Tenno-ji.  There is a large Buddha here, cast in 1690.  It was magnificent.

After exploring the temple, we made our way back to the cemetery path.  Mick stopped to observe what looked to be some kind of prayer or offering nook.  I wonder what he was praying for?  To be 25 again, I guess.

There was a great variety of headstones in the cemetery, many of them as large as this one.  Not being familiar with the particulars of Buddhist burial, I don’t know why some people had such large stones while others were very modest.  I suspect it’s the same reason someone in the U.S. would have a larger or more elaborate stone than someone else–money.  But it could have something to do with a person’s status in the community.  Another tidbit to research when I get some time.

The stones in the photo below are more representative of most of the markers in the cemetery.

Upon leaving the cemetery, our walk took us through a residential area.  There was laundry, including futons, hanging off of many of the balconies, and I’ve since seen huge apartment complexes with laundry hanging on every balcony.  This is obviously a common way to dry clothes in Japan.

During this portion of the walk, we saw a temple or a shrine every few yards.  To my untrained eye, one was pretty much the same as another.  At first I thought it interesting that there were so many tucked into this largely residential neighborhood, but then I realized they’re no different than the community churches in America in that sense.

Eventually we became tired of seeing shrines and temples and went slightly off our path to a more “retail” area.  Of course I had to stop at the local pet shop and miss my dogs for a minute (alas, I have reached that point in the trip when I am longing for them).

This Indian restaurant called Darjeeling made it into the guide book and at this point we were really hungry.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t open yet so we had to look elsewhere for food.

Many of the neighborhoods in Tokyo have decorative arches or gateways at their entrance, kind of like you sometimes see in Chinatowns.  This gateway was the entrance to a street filled with novelty shops, restaurants, and different types of food shops, most very traditional.

We stopped at what I thought was a very cosmopolitan tea shop (given the area).  We were given tea as soon as we walked in and they had a wonderful selection of teas as well as guides in English expaining what was what.  They also spoke English and the nice lady explained what kind of tea we were drinking (sencha).  I bought some roasted tea (genmaicha) and another, which I will post the name of when I get a chance.

Our walk took us to Nippori station where we planned to get a train to Asakusa.   We must have looked confus
ed at the ticket box because a very nice young Japanese “salary man” asked us in English if he could help us.  His English didn’t turn out to be great, but he was able to help us figure out the correct fare and told us what station to transfer at.

The first leg of the trip took us to Ueno, which is a very big station.  It was tempting to go to the Hard Rock Cafe there, or even the English pub.

Mick couldn’t resist taking a picture of the plastic “pub food.”  You don’t find that in England!

Instead we opted for something more traditionally Japanese.  Somewhere along the way we decided to explore Ueno instead of going to Asakusa so we made our way out to the street.

There were loads of shops here, including the Gap and I’m sure other Western mainstays though I can’t remember specifically.  There were also lots of pachinko parlours and since this was much less busy than Shinjuku was we ducked into one, hoping this time to figure out how to play.  We gave it our best shot, and had a look at the machines themselves but I told Mick it seemed stupid to just try to play without having any idea what we were doing.  So again, no pachinko playing.

After exploring this vibrant area, MIck looked at the map and said there was a shrine and a temple close by.  We went first to Kanda Myo-jin, a Shinto shrine.  When we go there it looked like they were setting up for something (see the red carpet and photographer) and it turned out we got to see the procession of a Shinto wedding ceremony (see Mick’s photos for pictures and video–if they’re not up yet, they will be soon).

Here is a photo of the wedding procession:

Our last stop on this day was a temple called Yushima Seido, which was right next to the previous shrine.  It is said that Shinto and Buddhism coexist peacefully in Japan and it is evidenced in the proximity of the religions’ sacred sites.

Yokohama, here we come!