Archive for Travel Info

Tokyo is made of stairs

There are some things that travellers think they are prepared for, only to find that the guidebook said nothing about it. In this case, it’s that Tokyo is made of stairs. Well, mainly the subway public transport system; and not just Tokyo, but also Nagoya and Osaka too. As you will quickly realise on your first day here, it is tiring. Your feet may be sore, and your leg muscles worn, and you have quickly faded at the end of the day.


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Before you come to Japan, I strongly, strongly urge you to do a lot more walking as a part of your preparation. If you can use a stair machine, do. Sure, there are escalators and elevators, but stairs are the mainstay. Elevators are few and far between. Even though there is at least one elevator per station, these are impossible to find, or are very inconveniently located. So, if you’re carrying heavy suitcases, have a pram, or in a wheelchair, you will have troubles; so leave earlier than most people would. However, you will have a great time here. Bring high energy snacks to help you get about the place, but you will be a lot fitter for having lived or been here.


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Tourists to Japan now over 24 million annually

In 2015 the number of tourists to Japan was just under 20 million. However, 2016 saw a rise up to 24 million tourists (Japan Today). JT also reports that most visitors came from South Korea and China. Most travellers stuck to the so called “golden route”, and not visit the lesser known destinations in Japan. Japan Today did not define it, but it can only be supposed that the “golden route” must be the main guidebook attractions in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe.


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A young Japanese lady standing in front of Zojo-ji Temple, which Tokyo Tower in the background.

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5 things the Japanese tourism industry must fix before 2020



A young Japanese lady at Tokyo’s iconic Sensoji Temple, with Tokyo Sky Tree in the background.

 

The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020 are seen as a potential cash cow, despite no city since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics had ever been able to turn a profit. However, financial success is what is hoped, and that depends on getting tourists into Japan before, during, and after the Olympics. It also depends on tourists’ willingness to spend, and spend often. However, no one wants to spend money on things they are uncertain about. Currently, I have seen very little action or plans made to make it easier for tourists to Japan to spend, spend big, and spend often. Admittedly, some dodgy Japanese companies have made tracks into providing “free” wifi around the place. Better connectivity is meaningless, if tourists have no good or useful information to access. Here are five things that Japan must fix.



A young American lady leaving a restaurant in central Nagoya.

 

1. “English” websites

The Nagoya City Art Museum provides the perfect example of everything wrong with Japanese webdesign thinking. The Japanese version of the site is informative, interesting, updated, and provides news on what’s coming up. The “English website” provides a generic pdf document providing general information that is uninteresting, and suggests there’s nothing special here. This type of “English website” is sadly common. One vineyard in Shizuoka provides their “English website” link, which takes you to Rakuten; however, it only provides hotel booking forms, and all information about the attached winery is noticeably absent.

Speaking of noticeably absent, and that’s English on Google Maps. Toyota Car Rental is one guilty example; see this Kyoto example, zoom in a little bit more so you don’t confuse it with another rental agency. You can book a car on their English website, but find where the shop is on Google Maps? Nope, unless you can read Japanese. This is sadly common practice for hotels, temples, and other key tourist sites.

Another point regarding absence, are English websites. For instance, Japan Today has this page on “onsens” (hot spring resort hotels). The resorts listed here are in English, but after clicking on the link, you are often taken to a Japanese-only webpage, which is of zero value to international guests, and may appear to some guests as exclusionary. Try Hazu Gassyo for instance.

 

2. “English” menus

Have you ever heard of things like sundubu, chodofu, mulnengmyun? Two of them are my favourite Korean foods, and one is Taiwanese, but distinctly smelly. Of course, you know them right? Who doesn’t love a nice bowl of mulnengmyun on a hot summer’s day, right? Fortunately, I will give you some meaningful translations of these: spicy tofu soup, stinky tofu, and icy noodle soup respectfully.

However, Japanese are oblivious to this. Japanese assume you will understand words like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, ika, and so forth. It’s obvious to them, so when it’s written in the Roman alphabet it magically becomes English, and so apparently we can understand these. There needs to be a push to actually provide meaningful translation for Japanese menus. However, I suspect that Japan will attempt at solving a simple problem with overly complex technology. I’m sure someone will say, “Hey, let’s make a translation app”, and it will provide non-nonsensical output.

Already, some Japanese restaurants don’t use waiters, but have a machine near the front door with a computerised menu. You push the buttons for the food you want, get some tickets, give the tickets to the lady, find a seat, and wait for the food come. Sounds simple, right? Wrong. Such computerised menus are provided in only Japanese, and no other language. Also, typically, no one can provide quality help.



The famous Nagoya-based JR Central bullet trains at Tokyo Station use non-English terms in the Roman alphabet.
Similarly, JR trains need to address this issue too. You obviously can tell the difference between the “hikari”, “kodoma”, “shinkansen”, “nozomi”, and “Green Car”, right? Well, here’s a very important tip, “Green Car” does not mean an environmentally friendly benefit, it’s code for “1st class” or “premium”. Also, just so you know, “shinkansen” means bullet train, and the other words mean the different types of bullet trains, ranging from local (kodama), express (hikari), and limited express (nozomi, requires an additional ticket). See Wikipedia for more info.

 

3. Use internationally popular websites

Many Japanese tourist spots advertise themselves on Japanese websites like Rakuten. However, no one outside of Japan uses Rakuten. Rakuten bills themselves as an outward looking international company, but in fact, they’ve only ever made waves here in Japan. They have no effective presence outside of Japan, and have even closed some of their European offices. I’ve only ever booked a hotel once on Rakuten, only because that area does not use international websites like hotels.com. When travelling through many countries, it is far easier to use a few familiar websites like hotels.com, Tip Advisor, Google Maps, and others. These are international multi-lingual websites. Users have become accustomed to using them, and it’s easier to keep using the same website, rather than finding a new one that may or may not be good or complete, and having to learn how to use their system. But most Japanese tourist spots are not aware of this. They only advertise on local websites believing it to be the best.

In fact, if a tourist site does appear on Trip Advisor, typically there is little or no meaningful information. For instance, how much useful information can you get from this Trip Advisor entry? Similarly, there’s often missing information on Google Maps or it’s only in Japanese. Having no or little English information makes the tourist site appear to be a poor outfit, with little to offer. Consequently, foreign tourists look elsewhere for places to go. Providing lots of information on important websites is key. Better still, multi-lingual information.

 

4. Experiences, not food

For many Japanese people, when they think of travel, they think with their stomachs. They want to see things that they can post on Line or Twitter, which is evidence that they’ve done something interesting. So, architecture and pictures of food are important. However, Westerners don’t think like this. In addition to architecture, many Westerners may prefer experiences such as doing a tea ceremony, seeing a ninja show in Iga, experiencing a theme café, and such. These things are far more memorable than a plate of food. However, many Japanese hotels front-line their restaurants as being the main attraction (example on Hotels.Com). And honestly, to me, often the food does not look appealing, especially with the poor quality of photography often used. In short, what is missing is actual research on what foreign tourists want.



Food is a big part of Japanese people’s travelling experiences. People eating at a restaurant near a major tourist site in Tokyo.

 

5. Providing comforts

Kyoto is a great city. I love it. In Kyoto, you have to take over-crowded buses on over-crowded streets to get anywhere. Also, everything in Kyoto requires a lot of walking. You are guaranteed to end the day worn out and foot-sore. I cannot stress enough how important it is to raise your fitness levels and to have comfortable walking shoes for Kyoto. Additionally, there are no park benches anywhere. If you want to sit down and have some water from your own bottle, you have to sit on the ground. No one in Japan sits directly on the ground. Instead, you’re expected to go to a cafe and spend. This makes the Kyoto experience more grueling and more tiring than it has to be.

For couples, the hotels are a barrier. Last year I saw some hotels saying “women only”, which means in a small city like Kyoto in the last few weeks before your travels and all other rooms are booked out, there’s no where for a man to stay. In addition, twin beds. That means, couples cannot share a bed, but expected to live like strangers in two separate single beds (like this hotel again on Hotels.Com). This might be fine for Japanese travellers and couples, but this spoils the romantic experience for non-Japanese couples. Semi-double beds maybe too small for many foreign couples, and normal double beds are very rare or over the top expensive.



Trainee tour guides in Kyoto. Travelling through Kyoto involves an immense amount of walking, but nowhere to rest.

 

Of course, the list could be longer, but these are just some of the key points that stand out to me. A lot of the issues does seem to be language related. The Japanese education system emphasize test performance, but not actual communication. Consequently, it’s no surprise that tourist communication is a weak point of the Japanese tourist industry. Finally, an alternative way of viewing these five “problems” is that they are not problems at all. Instead, these contribute to a genuine travel experience akin to what early explorers might have had, albeit, in a modern age.

 



Like many tourist shops in Kyoto, this kimono rental store offers only limited and fragmentary information in English, and maybe none in Chinese. For information on how to rent a kimono in Kyoto, see this kimono rental blog post.

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Tejikara Fire Festival

I only heard about the Tejikara Fire Festival just a few days before it was held. I couldn’t find much information on it, and didn’t really know what to expect. It seemed to be one of those small local festivals that get passed over by the big inner city events. The mystery and the festival had to be explored. In short, I had minimal directions, and minimal info, and a camera. Here is my experience.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

When: Annually, on the second Saturday of April.

Time: Officially: 6.30pm to 9.10pm. Actually: Get there a lot earlier to enjoy the festival foods and atmosphere, and to find a good viewing point in the shrine. When I got there just after 6pm, things seemed to already be in full swing.

Where: Tejikara, Gifu. See Google Maps.

Transport: Take the Meitetsu train from Gifu (city) station bound for Inuyama, for about 8mins, ¥230 (Hypedia.com, 2016), then follow the crowd. Be sure to get two tickets, as there is only one ticket machine at Tejikara station, and the line up for it at 9pm will be crazy. Also, for your return be sure to get on the platform closest to the shrine for your return to Gifu city.

Links: Gifu CVB, Japan Travel, Japan Travel Advice, and more.

History: Apparently, it’s been a small local festival running for about 300 years, and seems to have a little or unknown origin.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

What: I’m still unclear as to what goes on. There are lots of fire fighters, and some fire trucks around the shrine. There’s lots of guys dressed in regular shinto festival outfits, sometimes topless. There are small shrines carried on the shoulders of groups of men from particular districts around the shrine. Each portable shrine has a different display. They stop at certain intervals in their approach to the shrine and set off firecrackers. I know from my Taiwan experiences that firecrackers supposedly scare off ghosts, so this might be related. There are loud bells being struck with hammers making a racket. The portable shrines are taken into the shrine for some sort of event, that I couldn’t see. You really need to get there early and stake out a spot.

Then when it’s dark large overhead lanterns are lit with fireworks running up guide ropes. Some of these fail, and it seems to be a challenge that the crowd cheer and applaud for. There are firework canons lit to create a vertical cascade of sparks, and some sort of story or performance of a traditional nature performed at the Shrine. I really need to go back, meet a local there and learn more. Usually, I’m on top of this sort of event, but I could not find a local to ask because I wasn’t in a position to this time. I’ll probably go back next year.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

Photos & licensing: These photos will be available at my agent Henry Westheim, and at my PhotoShelter portfolio.

Advice: Festival food is a little expensive, but the whole point is for it to be a social event, and have food that you normally can’t have. Take a fist full of change, and enjoy a range of snacks like curried french fries, fairy floss, toffee apples, deep fried chicken, mixed fruit drinks, and more.

A food stall at Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

A food stall at Tejikara Festival, at Tejikara Shrine, Gifu Japan.

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5 things to do in Tokyo

Tokyo is an exciting city with many things happening all the time. If it’s your first time, I really recommend you stay at a hotel in Asakusa (Google Maps), so you’re close to the rickshaws, Sensoji temple, kabuki theaters, the vibrant restaurant districts that are typical of Japan (but these ones have English menus), and a casual walk to Tokyo Skytree Tower.


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1. See the Shibuya Crossing

It is said that in peak hours about a thousand people cross at each light change (every two to three minutes). I guess this is in the evening when people are coming from and going to work, and going to a night out with colleagues. This is the crossing that has featured as “Tokyo” in various movies including Resident Evil, and has it’s own Wikipedia entry (Wikipedia). You watch could watch this fascinating coordination of people scrambling from the Loccitane Cafe (pictured, the yellow place behind the tree), the Metro station, or Starbucks 2nd floor in the Tsutaya building (pictured, to the right), and you might be lucky enough to get a rarely opening window seat. You’d have to case out the place and figure out who is camped out for a few hours, and who are there just for the view. The ones who are there for the view will probably be bored after about half and hour and leave. Be ready to grab your tray and claim a spot quickly. Interestingly, “Tall” is the largest size this Starbucks serves.


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2. Visit Sensoji Temple

Sensoji Temple is in Asakusa near the Asakusa Metro station on the Ginza Line. It is perhaps the oldest or first religious site in Tokyo, and the most visited tourist attraction. Despite the ominous promise of crowds, it’s not that bad, and other tourists are nice and respectful.


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3. Rent a kimono

It is possible for men and women to rent a kimono for the morning, afternoon, or the day in Tokyo and Kyoto. The best place in Tokyo is probably in Asakusa, near Sensoji Temple. It’s a small area, and so you don’t have to walk far wearing it, and have all the great photo ops you can imagine. A model of mine has written about this experience before, see here for Mariko’s kimono story.


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4. Try the food

DON’T do McDonalds! Ramen is a cheap, classic, healthy, and hearty food. It’s quick and easy to order, and is a real friend to weary travelers at the end of a long day. Also see previous blog posts on food, including ramen and sushi blog posts.


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5. See the sumo

Sumo is held for middle two weeks, every second month. It also is held in different cities. The schedule is January-Tokyo, March-Osaka, May-Tokyo, July-Nagoya, September-Tokyo, November-Fukuoka. Tickets go on sale about two months before the tournament, and can sell out quick. It is possible to book tickets online in English. See previous blog posts for more info about sumo.


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Bonus: Rickshaw rides.

Rickshaw rides are best had near Sensoji Temple, Asakusa. The rickshaw pullers have some English language abilities, lots of energy, and will tell you about the neighbourhood they’ll take you through, with lots of unique photo ops you’ll never get back home. They can even give you some additional advice and perhaps discount offers for other unique Japanese things like tea ceremonies and more.


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I’ve only been to Tokyo once for two short days, and couldn’t even scratch the surface of this busy city. There’s lots more to see and experience, including maid cafés, kabuki, Japanese tea ceremonies (held at some hotels), restaurant pubs, the city view from the Mori Building, and lots more. My advice is spend at least a week there, and may be do a day trip to Mt Fuji. Finally, make plans to go back for more exploration.


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My first trip to Tokyo and model shoot

It was my first trip to Tokyo, and it seems I got the best and worst of Tokyo weather in two days. Day one, 20°C; day two, 8°C. It was great working with Miyu, who knew exactly what to do. We were lucky and blessed with beautiful warm weather, and lovely breeze which was hinting at Spring and coming summer. However, day two was cold, dreary, and wet. Below is a sample of the shoots, and more photos will be added to galleries and portfolios in the coming weeks.

A young Japanese lady in Asakusa and Sensoji Temple, Tokyo. Gallery: http://ablyth.photoshelter.com/gallery/Miyu/G0000icZgc.Msf1o/C0000quDQSfYbu8k

A young Japanese lady in Asakusa and Sensoji Temple, Tokyo. Miyu’s Gallery.

Day two was a reprise with Ana, and a first time with Joanie. Both were fantastic to work with, and they worked great together. However, the glue of the operation was Ksara our makeup artist. She did a great job in keeping everyone’s spirits up on a cold and dreary day, and helped us all pull through and do well. Her work, her attention to detail, and commitment are all great.

The photos are available at Alamy, and my portfolio in these galleries, Ana, Joanie, Miyu, and Tokyo.

Young women sightseeing at Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo. <a href="http://ablyth.photoshelter.com/gallery/Ana/G00004.pqC18m0o8/C0000quDQSfYbu8k" target="_blank">Ana's</a> and <a href="http://ablyth.photoshelter.com/gallery/Joanie/G0000xEFX95vGJC8/C0000quDQSfYbu8k" target="_blank">Joanie's</a> galleries.

Young women sightseeing at Sensoji Temple, Asakusa, Tokyo. Ana’s and Joanie’s galleries.

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5 things about eating in ramen restaurants in Japan

One of the most well known foods in Japan is ramen (Wikipedia), however, it’s actually a Chinese food. There’s a few different kinds, and it’s a delicacy that each ramen restaurant (or franchise) wants to be distinguished from the competition. That is to say, each restaurant will have slightly different styles and tastes, but are generally quite similar. One restaurant I went to, the noodles were quite eggy in flavour, others not at all. Because it’s also a dish that Japanese people have very particular tastes for, there are options that you can request when ordering. You don’t just say “ramen”, and a bowl of it magically appears, there are questions. Of all the places I’ve seen, this place featured below is definitely the most visitor friendly with English info. So, here are 5 things about ordering and enjoying ramen in Japan.


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1. Street displays. Most places will show pictures of their products outside to lure you in. Here you can get a sense of what you want and the prices, and can compare to other nearby restaurants. As you can see, you can expect to pay between 690 to 900 yen (USD$6-10) for a hearty, healthy, and great tasting meal.


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2. Ordering. Many places now have a machine that you put money in, push buttons, and get tickets. You give the ticket to the staff member. Often they’ll ask you these questions you see in the picture below. It’s quite ok to say in English “regular”, “medium”, or “normal” or in Japanese “futsu” or “zembu futsu” for ‘everything normal’. I recommend keep all communication simple and to single words, so there’s little chance of confusion. Once you start using English sentences, communication quality drops. Single words for simple communication.


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3. What’s in it? It’s basically a soup broth, either fish, miso, or pork broths, Chinese wheat noodles, a slice of pork, sheets of seaweed, maybe half a boiled egg, and some vegetable matter. This one pictured below also includes a local type of spinach, and spring onions. The varying flavour between restaurants is usually down to the broth and the secret ingredients they use. This one below is a common pork and pork-broth ramen, with some spring onions, local spinach, and seaweed. It’s actually my favourite.


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4. What to do. Actually, this picture below has pretty good advice. Once you get it, try it, and you can adjust it with condiments and seasonings that are usually on the bench near you. I usually like to add some diced spring onions, or a small spoon of mashed garlic, depending on how I feel that day. The particular restaurant I went to gives some rice for free that you can add to your noodle soup. You’d need the Chinese soup spoon to scoop it up. I never do, as it’s already a lot of carbohydrates, but it’s additional energy that weary travelers might actually need.


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5. How to eat. I eat it in the same way Korean ladies do, just because it’s easier, I look less of a fool, and perhaps less sloppy. Step one, use the chopsticks to load about a mouthful of noodles onto the small Chinese spoon (like the one shown below). Step two, once you’ve got a manageable amount on the spoon, then it’s easier to pick up the noodles as a bunch with the chopsticks and transfer the load to your mouth. Step three, repeat for each mouthful. Once you’ve finished, you can use the spoon to drink up the soup one scoop at a time. It may be a little salty though, so you don’t need to drink much, some people do finish it. Most places provide courtesy jugs of water, so you can wash the salt of your tongue or re-hydrate after a long day in the summer heat. Jugs are replaceable by the staff, so don’t worry about emptying the shops supply or the local lake. Also, there are tissues provided so you can wipe your mouth and the the surrounding bench of splashes.

The picture below also shows below the shelf the other condiments you can add to your ramen. Don’t add them all, just open and sniff and figure out what might be to your liking. As you can see, I was thirsty from a long day travelling and photographing, so the jug is almost empty.


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Bonus advice. Never settle on a “favourite way” to enjoy ramen in your first few visits. Try a variety of different flavours and combinations of condiments, at least until you can settle on something you are in love with.

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Visiting Sensoji Temple, Tokyo #POTW

This Photo of the Week (POTW) is of Miyu at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo (Wikipedia). This photo was taken on my first day ever in Tokyo. Yes, I have been in Japan for many years, and have never taken a trip to Tokyo ever before. I had just dropped my bag off at the hotel, not being able to check in until 3pm. I met up with my model and we made our way to Sensoji Temple and created a great set of photos.


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Miyu at Sensoji Temple, with Tokyo Skytree Tower in the background.

 

Sensoji Temple is probably the first religious site in the area that later became a town, city, and then “Tokyo”. It is said that in 628AD two fisherman came across a small gold statue of Buddha in the near by river, which also marked the approximate location that the temple should be. The statue is so sacred that it has long been hidden away from public view (if it still or ever has existed). Consequently, this temple was probably the first and oldest tourist attraction in Tokyo. The site was bombed in World War II, and has been rebuilt partly as a symbol of resurrection of the city. Today, it is the most visited ‘tourist site’ in Tokyo and possibly Japan for overseas tourists. I heard people speaking English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean, (probably) Thai and Vietnamese, and of course Japanese.

Photo galleries: Alamy, Ana, Joanie, Miyu, Tokyo.

Cost: Free.

Where: Closest subway station is Asakusa Station on the Ginza Line of the Tokyo Metro.

When: Any time of year. Best is obviously when the cherry blossoms (sakura) are in bloom, early summer, and Autumn with the changing colour of the leaves. Best to go early in the morning before 10am before the crowds get to thick, and in the evening when it’s beautifully lit.

What to see: Kaminarimon Gate, Sensoji Temple, Nakamise Street (shopping & souvenirs), Tokyo Skytree Tower (a 17min walk away), the kabuki and geisha districts.


A view of Nakamise Street filled with stalls selling souvenirs for tourists, and at the end if Sensoji Temple.

 

What to do: Enjoy the sights. Take a rickshaw ride and tour of the area. Enjoy a kabuki performance in the area.

What to eat: Surprisingly, there are a lot of restaurants that say they have English and Chinese menus. A lot of restaurants have pictures or wax samples of their food on display out the front. It is possible to find a good hearty meal for under ¥500 (USD$5), but more usually about or under ¥1,000 (USD$10). Also see food.


A ramen restaurant in Asakusa.

 

Where to stay: There are many hotels in the area, which are reasonably priced. This area is on one of the main subway lines, which gives good access to much of the other interesting places in Tokyo. The Ginza Line of Tokyo Metro gives you straight line access to the famous Ginza district, and Shibuya.


Friends enjoying dining out at street eateries.

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5 things about visiting a sushi restaurant

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

A chef working in a sushi restaurant in Japan

There’s some simple things that you to know about in a real Japanese sushi restaurant. There’s of course a lot more you can learn if visit with a sushi aficionado, but let your orientation to Sushi Restauranting 101 begin here.

1. When you first sit down. Step into the door and look for a young shop assistant who’ll ask how many people you’re dining with, and then he or she will direct you to a place to sit. Near your place is the hot water dispenser for your green tea. Usually at each section along the conveyor are tins with green tea powder. Just put one heaped spoon in your cup and add water. Place the cup against the large round button, and push. Of course refills are allowed.

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Using the hot water dispenser for green tea at a sushi restaurant in Japan

2. What to do. You’re free to take any plate you like from the conveyor, but once you take the plate etiquette is you keep it. Even if you don’t eat it all, never put a half consumed plate back.

3. Plates are colour-coded. Each plate pattern equals a certain amount of money. There’s usually a chart somewhere on the walls that shows you the value of each plate design. Keep your own plates and never trade with other people, and never put them back on the conveyor. When your finished dining, tell one of the young waiters that you want the bill, “okaike kudasai”, and he or she will tot up the bill based on the number and types of plates you’ve stacked up. Typically plates cost from about ¥220 to about ¥650, and you’d have about six plates to a meal. I’ve never paid more than ¥1,500 for a good meal that gives me lots of energy for the next day.

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A salmon plate at a sushi restaurant in Japan

4. Ordering plates. Yes, even if what you want to try isn’t currently doing the rounds, you can order from the menu. Usually on quiet evenings they don’t put out their whole menu, as it’d be wasted at the end of the night. The menu almost always includes a range of tuna, salmon, octopus, squid, salmon roe, shrimp, and egg servings. Usually sake, beer, and Japanese style deserts are available.

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

A small dipping bowl with soy and wasabi a sushi restaurant in Japan

5. This little plate is for your soy and wasabi. It’s not the usual soy sauce, but one that’s especially formulated for sushi. Pour some onto your little dish. Add a small dab of wasabi on the side, and stab at it and mix it into the soy sauce. Gently dab the rice part of your sushi into the soy and then put the whole lot into your mouth in one go. But be aware that usually there’s already a dab of wasabi between the rice and the meat. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, wasabi is hot, and in large quantities it has the magical powers of sinus clearing. So be conservative at first on how much wasabi you add to your little dish.

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

A stack of plates after dining at a sushi restaurant in Japan

Bonus. Finally, if you’re unsure about something, do what I do. Just stop and watch what other people are doing. In all my travels, for any new experience, it’s almost always better to be chaperoned by a local who can give you a little guidance, inside info, and interesting personal accounts of something. In short, it’s more fun with friends, especially if they’re locals. Enjoy.

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5 Things to enjoy in Nagoya Japan

It’s kind of hard to believe that this city needs an introduction. It is home of the Toyota Motor Corporation, it’s parent company, and the other subsidiaries, and the swathe of other automotive related companies. It is the home of the famous JR Central bullet trains (the white and blue-stripped ones) that service between Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto, and Osaka. The shape of modern Japan evolved from the Battle of Sekigahara (site is a 20 minute train ride from Nagoya station) where Japan was unified by Nobunaga Oda (born in Nagoya Castle), and Ieyasu Tokugawa (born in nearby Okazaki Castle). Tokugawa was the first Shogunate of Japan in 1603 and the Tokugawa Clan had remained the rulers of Japan until the Meiji Restoration era when the US sent naval ships to force Japan to open up to foreign trade. The Tokugawa Clan survives today, though they seem to be based in Tokyo, and manages the Nippon Yusen shipping company.


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A fashionable young man riding through Sakae.

More photos of Nagoya are on my portfolio.

Nagoya today, is a thriving city, with land prices that rival Tokyo and London. It has the world’s largest train station (by floor area, which includes a department store, offices, and a luxury hotel). It is steeped in history, and thoroughly a member of the 21st century.

 

Getting to Nagoya:

Nagoya is very well connected. It is serviced by a domestic airport at Komaki (on the Meitetsu train company from Nagoya Station), and the Centrair International airport (aka Chubu airport), on a different Meitetsu train line. Nagoya is on the main Tokaido bullet train line between Tokyo and Osaka. It can also be reached from Osaka by the cheaper Kintetsu train company. Commuting in the city is really super easy with the Nagoya City Subway (aka chikatetsu), Meitetsu, Kintetsu, and JR train companies. The buses are mainly part of the Nagoya City Subway system. The most popular transport ic card used is the Manaca (but buying single-use tickets with coins is normal, too).


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So, what is this best kept secret of Japan? Here are five things to introduce the city to you (there are of course more, but this is a start).

 

1. Nagoya & Inuyama Castles

These two castles are night-and-day different to each other. They are a world apart in so many ways. You must have a “castle day” on your itinerary. Firstly, see Nagoya Castle (Wikipedia). It’s a replica, or reconstruction, though the locals don’t put it that way. They prefer “rebuilt”, especially since the US air force fire-bombed the original. This reconstruction was completed (with concrete and an elevator for lazy samurais) in 1959. Today it’s a museum, and not a military strong-hold any more.

A young lady using a guidebook in Japan.

A young lady at Nagoya Castle. Buy this Cormorant Fishing photo

In contrast, Inuyama Castle (Wikipedia) is in original condition, with timbers hundreds of years old. Low beams to duck under, and a deck you can walk out on for excellent panoramic views, including the battle field of Sekkigahara, where the Tokugawa’s won Japan. There are great local festivals there, especially worth seeing the cherry blossom festival and portable shrines. Also, as seen below, there is cormorant fishing demonstrations at night for the middle months of the year. Because of the nature of Inuyama Castle, I’d really recommend you spend the morning at Nagoya Castle, have lunch in nearby Sakae, and then go to Inuyama Castle for the afternoon. It’s great to experience the modern, and then authentic in this order.

Cormorant Fishing
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Above, cormorant Fishing near Inuyama Castle

To get to Nagoya castle from Nagoya station, take the subway (yellow Higashiyama Line) to Sakae, and change to the Meijo (purple) Line. Get off at Shyakusho Station. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes. To get to Inuyama Castle (Google Maps), from Nagoya station, take the Meitetsu train company on the Inuyama Line to Inuyama station or the one after it, Inuyama Yuen Station. From Nagoya to Inuyama Yuen Station it takes about 30 minutes for about ¥600. Stroll through the town until you get to the castle. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.

 


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Nagoya Castle

 

2. Shopping

Ask anyone in Nagoya what their hobbies are, they typically reply “shopping, eating, and sleeping”. I agree, these are not hobbies per se, but this is how they do spend their time. The main places for shopping is in the underground arcades in front of and behind Nagoya Station. These are called Esca and Unimall. Also in Sakae at the street level department stores, back alley shops, and the underground arcade. Finally, young people love to hangout at the street level arcades at Osu. There are lots of fashion stores for women, electronics stores, and some bookstores. Osu often has events on, and the visually striking Osu Kanon Temple is worth checking out.

To get to Sakae, from Nagoya station, take the subway two stops to Sakae (¥200, about 5 minutes). To get to Osu from Nagoya, take the subway one stop to Fushimi and change to the Tsurumai (blue) line, and go for one stop and get off at Osu Kanon Station. Total travel time is about 10 minutes, ¥200. Follow the crowds to and past Osu Kannon Temple. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.


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Osu is the centre of Nagoyan youth culture, and shopping.

 

3. Restaurants / Nightlife

Nagoya is a Japanese-foodies heaven. There are restaurants galore everywhere around Nagoya station, Fushimi, Sakae, Sakae-Machi, and Osu. I cannot recommend one, simply because you cannot swing a cat without hitting it against some kind of bar, café, restaurant, or other eatery. Food is really cheap, like about ¥1,000 (USD$10) for a good plate or “set menu” of quality food. If you had to shoe-string it, you can get noodles or a bowl of beef and rice for under ¥400 (USD$4).


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Restaurants use curtains, like shown above, to indicate that they are open for customers.

A lot of places, including department stores and regular shops, are open late, like up to 9pm. Note that Korean and Taiwanese stores are often open later. In Japan, though, there is a caveat. Most Japanese people don’t go out to mix and meet new people; that’s really rare. So don’t expect to find much in the way of pubs and nightclubs like back home. Instead, they spend time with people they already know getting drunk at restaurants known as an ‘izakaya’ (kind of a restaurant-pub). Food there is usually high quality. However, I’m finding (things are changing) that cheap prices is starting to equal cheap food. Good prices equal properly good food. Also, if you think you’re going to enjoy a good Italian restaurant, think again. It’ll be a Nagoya take on Italian style. So expect shrimp on your cabonara, Japanese-rice seasoning on your spaghetti, or a side of rice with a seaweed seasoning on top. The only thing that really annoys me is that cheap restaurant’s (or expensive restaurants scamming their customers) idea of salad is simply shredded cabbage with dressing. If you really did want to go to a pub or nightclub, these places are typically frequented by the expat community, so it’s a great way to meet expat locals. In Nagoya notable places include Shooters, The Hub, Coopers, and probably the best of the bunch, Red Rock (see Nagoya Info).

Regarding transport, be aware of the last train times for you. The last train is typically 11.50pm or just after midnight. Taxis are about, but expensive. Finally, Japan is not a rowdy, raucous type of country. So nights out are typically peaceful and light-hearted.


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Fashionable young women out at night shopping in Sakae.

 

4. Events

There are a whole bunch of things happening in Nagoya for much of the year. For instance (there are many others):


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Contestants in the Nagoya street dance competition, “Domatsuri” in Sakae, Nagoya.

 

5. Atsuta Shrine

This shrine attracts about 9 million visitors each year (Wikipedia), and is one of the three most important sites for Shinto, the state religion. The three important places are Ise Shrine, Atsuda Shrine, and the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Ise Shrine, two hours away in Mie prefecture, is like the Vatican; and Atsuta Shrine is like St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The third most important place is where the Emperor lives, the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. Each of these three sites have one of the three important relics (Wikipedia) that give the right to rule to the Emperor. There are no known drawings or photographs of these items, and so there is no independent verification that these items are housed at the purported locations, or even exist. The sword is kept at Atsuta Shrine, the mirror is kept in Ise Shrine, and the jade is kept in the palace in Tokyo.

At Atsuda Shrine, there are many little wooden buildings on the grounds, and each of these house a god of some specialty. Usually, there are retired men hanging around the grounds. Often, these men want to simply keep their English up, and so they like to just introduce themselves to tourists and offer a kind of free tour and some info. Take them up on their kind offer, they are friendly and actually quite informative. Take some sort of sweets to share with them; I’m sure they’ll appreciate it.


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There are festivals and events held often through the year. The shrine is insanely packed with people shuffling shoulder to shoulder on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of January each year. They return the previous year’s wooden arrow which brings fortune, pray for the new year, and get a new wooden arrow for the new year. Each year, these arrows are ceremoniously burnt as an offering to the Shinto gods. There is a ceremonial archery event on the 15th January. A lantern festival is also held in July. Every weekend there is something happening, usually Shinto style weddings, and Shinto-christenings for infants are often held here.

Take the Meitetsu train from Nagoya to JinguMae station (about two stops) for about ¥230, or JR for ¥190. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.


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One of the main buildings at Atsuta Shrine.

 

There is of course more to see in Nagoya. These are my picks, but you might find something more to your taste here at Nagoya Info, Trip Advisor, and Lonely Planet websites. However, I can offer you a…

Naked Man Festival, Kounomiya
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The Naked Man Festival, at Kounomiya, usually held in February each year.

 

Bonus: Nagoya City Art Gallery

This is the oddest thing I’ve experienced so far this year. I went to the city owned art gallery and discovered that they had an exhibition of not one, but a few Andy Whorhols, Calder, and a Chagall. They have a good permanent collection, and often something interesting on most times through the year. Annoyingly, the “English website” for this gallery is actually just an old pdf document, but it’s here, Nagoya City Art Museum (also see Trip Advisor, & Wikipedia). The gallery was designed and constructed by renowned Kisho Kurokawa between 1983 to 1987, and opened in 1988. It is a five to ten minute walk from Fushimi subway station, which is a 2 minute ride from Nagoya Station on the Higashiyama (Yellow Line), or 2 to 5 minutes from the Osu Kanon Station on the Tsurumai Line (Blue Line). Follow the signs, and see Google Maps. See Hyperdia.Com for train schedules and current ticket prices.

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