Tag Archives: Japan

Hiroshima in a Day

From Kyoto, Hiroshima is a must-see day excursion on the shinkansen train. It takes about 1.5 hours on the train and nothing can quite prepare you for how beautiful this city is and how extraordinary the full day excursion including Miyajima Island and the Hatsukaichi Temple are. Hiroshima was the first city, Nagasaki the other, that were obliterated by a nuclear bomb in August 1945 which effectively ended the second World War. 200,000 people were killed.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hiroshima is a vibrant, modern city with wide boulevards and beautiful parks. We took the shuttle bus to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. After a short walk from the stop, we saw the mangled structure of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Preserved in a sea of rubble and surrounded by the beautiful Peace Memorial Park, it is a melancholic and beautiful place to walk around. The bridge close to the dome carries two pieces of the original bridge. It is then a short walk to the Peace Memorial Museum where the tour of the museum takes 30-40 minutes. It is one of those places that you enter with apprehension, you see the after effects of a nuclear explosion, and you come out understanding why it is called the Peace Memorial Museum.

We then took the train back to the main station and connected to Miyajima – a completely different experience from the heavy heart of Hiroshima. Now we were back to the temples and a beautiful stroll through a town filled with deer freely moving throughout the streets and walkways. There were eateries and food stores that tumbled into the lanes.

Eventually we caught sight of the beautiful torii gate there that sits in the water with a 14th century temple that sits in the background. Sadly for us, the breathtaking torii gate was under wraps as they were sprucing it up for the Olympic games this year. But even so, walking out at low tide and looking at this incredible structure sitting in the sea, was enough. Looking back at the shrine also sitting in the sea, was breathtaking. This place was one of the great highlights of my tour to Japan and it is something that everybody should do.

Frankly, after a couple of hours of weighing the value of nuclear power, it was refreshing to get back to a little bit of Shintoism. We then took the train back to Kyoto in time for sushi and miso in the Gion area.

The Colors of Kyoto

Nothing really prepares you for Kyoto. This is the ancient Japanese capital which then moved to Tokyo in the 19th century. It is by far and away the most unique and amazing slice of Japan that you will ever see. Kyoto is teeming with people dressed in kimonos, and geishas and maikos jumping from house to cab to evening performance. If you happen to see a maiko walking through the streets, you literally stop in your tracks. There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of one of the geishas-in-training mingling with the crowds. Kyoto is home to the original royal palace, Nijo Castle, with its beautiful gardens, stunning gates, singing floors, and the replicas of the seated shogun and his gang.

On the surface, Kyoto is a small city dissected by a river that has restaurants and shops alongside. There is a modern area with department stores and an indoor central market that houses the main food market, Nishiki. This is an endless market of delicacies, spices, raw fish, and culinary delights. Nishiki is packed with ramen and sushi bars with lines of people waiting to get in. This is Japan after all where people queue and food stands tend to not have many seats.

Kyoto has more than 1,000 temples. But if you are temple and shrine hopping, you definitely have to visit Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion, just outside of the city center. It has spectacular gardens, and yes, a golden temple. It is staggering in all seasons but likely most beautiful in the autumn and winter when it is engulfed in golden leaves or is covered with snow. There is a delightful walking path here and a great souvenir shop where you can buy things that do not even look touristy.

But the area that carries the entire buzz of the city is Gion. It stretches alongside the main city street and is peppered with tiny alleys and houses. This is the geisha area of the city. From the tiny outpost of Gion, you can walk towards the famous Kiyomizu-dera Temple. The walk along the street leading up to the temple, and the temple itself, is probably one of the most stunning walks you will do in the world. It is a street lined with colorful kimonos, green tea ice cream, mochi, and fish on a stick.

From there, you can walk all the way down through the narrow and winding streets of Gion, passing possibly the most extraordinary Starbucks you have ever passed; a beautiful, pure ryokan-style shop that you will never see anywhere else in the world. There are beautiful tiny shops lining the street that sell incense, crafts, and Buddhas. You eventually spill out to a main square area with men that sell rickshaw rides and a giant Buddha looming in the background. You can rent colorful kimonos in any number of places here. Eventually you get to the Yasaka-Jinja Shrine before heading down the main street in Gion where the geishas and maikos live.

Probably the most famous sight in Kyoto, apart from seeing a geisha, is the Fushimi Inari Shrine with its kilometers of bright red torii gates winding uphill and downhill. It’s a magnet for tourists and locals and people wearing kimonos walking hand-in-hand to the top of the hill. There are even wild monkeys here. This has to be accessed via metro or car as it is just outside of Kyoto. On a beautiful day, it is one of the great highlights of any trip to Japan.

Kyoto is also a hub city with a huge train station that provides access to all parts of Japan. With the ease of the shinkansen train network, Kyoto is not only beautiful but a great base to “hub and spoke.” I had purchased a 7-day JR Rail Pass. From Kyoto, there are short trips to Osaka, Nara, Himeji for the castle, Atami for the hot baths, Mt. Fuji if the weather is good, and Kanazawa for the spectacular food. Hiroshima is an easy day trip. All good as excursions.

There are plenty of steps and lots of walking needs to be done throughout Kyoto. But the walks are breathtaking, the sights are amazing, and if you are lucky enough to catch a geisha, you will have seen it all. But the highlight of Kyoto for me was being there during the New Year festival in the Gion area. I bought a palm leaf that was blessed by a maiko, caught a maiko and geisha at a food stand idly chatting, and played Konpira Fune Fune with a maiko, a drinking game that inevitably requires coordination, talent, and rhythm. Predictably, I lost big time.

Japanese Food Models

One of the most bizarre things that you can see and buy in Japan, are plastic replicas of food. There are shops that specialize in selling these as gifts. Believe it or not, they are so artistically revered that they were exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It all really started in the 1920s when Japanese artisans and candle makers developed displays of food that made it easy for people to order at restaurants without the use of menus which were completely uncommon in Japan. These things are so sought after by restaurants and by tourists that the market has been growing and growing. The level of detail in creating a display or a dish is extraordinary. Restaurants spend far more money for beautiful displays of their offerings than they do on the actual food itself. The plastic food manufacturers compete for an industry that conservatively runs at billions of Yen per year.

I brought back a piece of fake tuna sushi which is now beautifully displayed on my colleague’s desk. Honestly, it looks so good that every time I walk by I want to throw some soy and wasabi on it. The good news is that they last forever. You just need to keep them clean. They never fade, they rarely break, and they make great souvenirs!

Far Beyond the Average Train

Shinjuku Station in Tokyo is the busiest railway station in the world. It carries multiple train lines, including the metro and an above ground railroad, and is used by an average of 3.5 million people daily. It has a subterranean shopping mall and street that stretches for miles. It is teeming with people and it seems impossible that chaos would not be pervasive here. But, this is Japan and Japan is super organized and super functional. So it works.

The metro is clean and logical, and once you get the hang of it, you can get from one end of this vast city to the other in no time. All signs use the Japanese and Roman alphabet so you can pretty easily figure it out even if you do not know Japanese. Getting tickets at the automatic kiosk is a piece of cake and there are so many people that seem to work at the metro who can help you that nothing seems impossible to figure out. So you will never feel stranded. Ironically, nobody really speaks English. The culture is kind and forgiving and they are pretty good at sign language.

And then there are the Shinkansen trains. The bullet trains. Faster than any train on the planet – they rule the train world. They are awesome to ride on plus they are frequent and always on time. They travel around 225 mph and transport you across Japan in super elegant fashion. Nobody takes flights inside Japan when it simply makes sense to just take the train. Imagine this…Boston to Washington is currently 8 hours on our Acela trains. But on the Shinkansen it would be 2 hours. It’s extraordinary and perfectly configured. First class has a green cross to mark the carriages. Second class is barely second class and feels like first class in any other country. The doors of the carriages pull into the station precisely in sync with the openings marked on the platform.

The trains stay for maybe a minute and then they are gone. But the next one arrives within four minutes. There are six trains to Tokyo from Kyoto within 24 minutes. There are different types of Shinkansen trains and the faster they are, the more extraordinary the front of the train looks. And guess what? They are building a new one, the Maglev, that should be ready shortly and it travels at speeds over 300 mph. So, Boston to NYC would only take 40 minutes! City center to city center. I had a dream! You can buy weekly train passes (7, 14, 21 day), called the Japan Rail Pass, in either first or ordinary class travel. They have to be bought outside of Japan and it’s a fantastic deal. Traveling by train in Japan is one of the highlights of traveling in Japan. And it’s about to get even better.

The Bento

Imagine the lunch that you bring to work every day. A microwavable pasta sauce, a Lean Cuisine, maybe your own concoction of carrots and hummus, or a granola bar. And then there is bento – Japanese lunch boxes. They are found practically everywhere in vending machines, but most impressively, they are found mostly in train stations where people race for the train and can grab their lunch box to-go. They are beautifully presented in colorful boxes with a perfect depiction of all of the amazing ingredients inside. They are almost too good to eat. Walking through a bento food stand and looking at the various options is almost as thrilling as eating them. There is eel, sushi, sashimi, chicken with rice and seaweed, roe, and noodles. You name it. All perfectly compartmentalized with the perfect sashay of soy sauce and wasabi (real wasabi) with a pair of chopsticks of course. Grab a drink and you have been fully “bento-nized”.

Bento boxes are different wherever you travel. Outside of Tokyo, the bento will represent the local cuisine and ingredients of that city or town. Then there are holiday bentos such as the specially prepared boxes for New Year’s packed with poached tiger prawns, root vegetables, roe, and chestnuts. A bento is an amazing meal. The origin of bento comes from Makunouchi which literally means “between acts”, as they were originally packed for a light meal to be enjoyed between intermissions of lengthy kabuki plays.

Tokyo Sights

Honestly, Tokyo is not a city of great sights. Yes, there are palaces and significant shrines here and there, but it’s more or less a city of feeling. Of foreignness and touch. With taxi cabs where the drivers wear gloves, where the car doors open for you, and where the interiors are immaculate with sometimes lacey curtains. Where citizens might not speak English but are nonetheless polite, courteous, and bow to you. There are crazy train stations that work and are reliable.

Tokyo is a city that sprawls for miles and miles with huge skyscrapers and narrow, compartmentalized houses side-by-side. It is a city of small, ancient bars juxtaposed against giant skyscrapers. This is no more dramatically illustrated than in the Shinjuku area of the city. Here, the Golden Gai District, an architectural relic, is a cluster of six alleys connected by even smaller passageways, with over 200 tiny bars, often with room for only six people, that burst into life at sundown. This is where you can pick up a bowl of ramen, some sushi, or a beer before the unenviable prospect of a 1.5 hour minimum commute to the outskirts of this sprawling metropolis of 9.3 million. Tokyo is even where the busiest intersection in the world is. No kidding. It is a series of zebra crossings that literally buildup with people who wait diligently and patiently for the red light to turn green. By the time that the light has turned green, there are thousands of people crisscrossing across multiple different streets. Traffic waits until their light signals that they can go again. In Japan, order is everywhere. There is no jaywalking and no jumping lights.

Tokyo is a fashion show with its elegant strip of designer stores and cafes for people watching in the Roppongi District. It has more style than any other city I have been to in the world. And Tokyo is a city that hits you in the face. If you are sightseeing, you’ll go to the Imperial Palace Plaza, you’ll visit the Meiji Shrine and Atsakusa Temple, and will certainly see the second tallest building on Earth, Tokyo Skytree. And sometimes, you might just be walking through shopping malls, and yet it does not feel like any old shopping mall. You are almost certainly the only Western person walking through this mall.

I went to the Tsukiji outdoor fish market and ate ridiculous amounts of raw fish. Even though the indoor fish market has moved from this original location for wholesale purposes, it left behind a vibrant bunch of small stores and sushi places that serve fresh seafood and those delightful steamed buns that you see everywhere in Japan. There is always a line outside of the best places. It is easy to get there on the subway. Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to get there at 5:00 am anymore because the wholesale market has moved to the suburbs. But the outdoor market is quite content for you to show up at 10:00 am or later.

I saw Japan in both the fall and in the winter and both times I was blown away. But Tokyo for me was about the buzz, the pace, the order from chaos and the sheer size of it all. It was an adventure and at one point I thought how much it looked like New York – but then I blinked and it simply couldn’t be NYC. There is too much order, it is too clean, and it feels too foreign in its absolute homogeneity. The colors, the skyscrapers, the tiny bars, the traffic, the fashion, the lines outside of popular lunch spots. Trust me, this is like no other place in the world. Hop on a plane, fast!