Occasionally, business takes you to places you only dream about going. This is the case with a recent trip to Japan. The majority of our group had never been before, so everyone was looking forward to the adventure, though not necessarily the long flight. Starting in Toronto at 10:00am on Sunday for what was a relatively short 5 hour flight to Vancouver.

Following a two hour layover, we boarded the plane to Japan for the final 10 hour leg of the trip. The flight path takes you north over Alaska and across the Bering Strait, then down to Japan. Clear skies ensured an exciting view of Alaska. For hundreds of miles, the view consisted of a vast wasteland of cool white snow and shadows cast by the afternoon sun.

Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, we crossed the international date line, arriving in Narita Airport at 5:00pm Monday afternoon. Narita Airport is an hour drive from our hotel, the Shinagawa Prince, in Tokyo. Having been up for over 24 hours, the plan was to force ourselves to stay up a couple of hours more, then get a good nights sleep and start fresh in the morning. Everyone met in the hotel’s Yahoo Cafe for our first meal in Japan; beer and pizza. And, we learned quickly from our guide that tipping for any kind of service in Japan is considered rude. This is a custom that’s easy to get used to.

City Yet to Awaken

Shinagawa Prince Hotel hosts numerous fine restaurants, bars, shops and sport facilities. Inside the hotel, one can find tennis courts, a bowling alley and a 25 meter swimming pool. Interested in a movie, there’s an IMAX theatre actually in the hotel. The rooms, on the other hand, are tiny but clean. The bathrooms feature a raised floor to allow for an extra high bathtub to sink about 6 inches below the floor. Apparently, the Japanese like to take baths in high tubs. Okay. To each his own I guess.

I’m not sure if the hotel is soundproof or not, but it’s 7:00 AM as I write this and it’s dead silent. Very unusual, very unreal. Looking outside from the 28th floor, barely a car or pedestrian can been seen. The city has yet to awaken.

Our day begins with buffet breakfast at the Hapuna hotel restaurant. A wide selection of both Western and Japanese breakfast dishes are available. Everything from scrambled eggs and chili to more traditional fruits and salmon food items. Be aware though that breakfast here is quite expensive; about $27.00 Canadian.

This first morning we experienced the mad rush of commuters making their way to the office via the preferred vehicle of transportation – the train. The city had awaken. Common scenes of crowds jammed into trains rings true this morning. If you wish to travel by train in Japan, I suggest you review the train station map and count the stops till you have to get off. Chances are you won’t understand any of the conductor’s announcements. Depending where you end up standing (probably won’t get a seat) in the train, we might not be able to see out the windows properly to view the station signs.

By far the easiest way to get around here is by taxi. These vehicles, like everything else, are very clean. Almost all have some sort of white embroidered cloth covers on the seats. You would think the seats would get dirty, but they aren’t. The taxi owners must wash and replace the fabric frequently. They’re all pure white. Oh, and remember not to open or close the taxi doors yourself. The driver controls the taxi doors remotely. I didn’t attempt it, but I’m told they get quite upset if passengers touch the doors.

Famous Moto-Hakone Region and Cold Coffee

Today’s trip is to the Moto-Hakone region of Japan. Probably the most famous tourist area complete with a splendid view of Mount Fuji… on a good day. Unfortunately, it was too hazy to get a good picture, but the mountain could be seen far off in the distance. When travelling in the area you really should purchase the Hakone Free Pass which allows you to travel on all available modes of transportation for three days. Well worth the money as you will be doing a lot of travelling.

You will want to set aside a whole day to truly appreciate this adventure. Starting at Shinjuku, the Odakyu Limited express, known as the “Romance Car” train, zigzags up the mountain for about two hours before reaching the end of the line at Hakone-Yumoto. We stopped here for about 20 minutes, browsing the local shops, took lots of pictures and purchased cold coffee from the vending machines. There’s not a lot to see here, but after the long train ride it was good to get out and walk around a bit while waiting for the Hakone Tozan cable car to arrive.

Continuing up the mountain via cable car for about ten minutes, we passed many “Hot Spring” hotels, some of them quite famous, or so our guide claims. He really could have told us anything as we didn’t have a clue. The cable car stoped at Sounzan where we transfered to a gondola for the final accent to the summit at about 1000 feet elevation. It’s along here, passing the Owakudani and Ubako stations, we got our first glimpse of Mount Fuji. Some of us tried to take pictures through the gondola windows, but they didn’t turn out.

We got off the cable car at Owakudani to check out the steam vents and geysers. Hopefully, if you go here, you bring a sweater as it gets windy and a little cool at this altitude . There is a very distinct smell of sulfur in the air. Owakudani is actually a crater made from volcanic eruptions almost 3000 years ago. There are lots of shops here and one can purchase wasabi sembe (crackers), black sesame seed candy and wasabi ice cream. All of which are supposed to be unique to Hakone.

Owakudani’s Black Duck Eggs

There’s a path that leads around the steam vents going up to a small shack where one can buy black duck eggs cooked in the hot springs. The water appears to be boiling; the fumes here are strong. Warning signs in both Japanese and English caution you to stay away from the fumaroles because of the danger of burns and toxic gas. Legend says these eggs are special and will add seven years to your life for every egg eaten. Anyway, I didn’t eat any, but some people said they didn’t taste too bad.

Back on the gondola, we head for Togendai on the tranquil shore of Lake Ashi. It was good to hang around here for awhile. The relaxing atmosphere, nestled in the valley among splendid mountains, provides a welcome respite. Here you can rent paddle boats. Some of the locals fish from the shoreline. Crossing Lake Ashi by boat, one of three replicas of British sailing ships, provides for great picture taking opportunities. If you’re lucky, you may get Mount Fuji in the background. The British ships are interesting, but we couldn’t find any explanation as to why British ships… here in Japan.

It takes about thirty minutes to cross the lake to Moto-Hakone. By this time we are all fairly tired. While our guide hailed a taxi to take us back to Odawara train station, we wandered around the local Buddhist graveyard, taking photos of tombstone statues all wearing red scarfs.

Traditional Japanese with a Twist

Traditional Japanese with a Twist
Dinner was at Jo-Joen Restaurant, a traditional Japanese restaurant with a twist. Our hosts felt that traditional Japanese food is sometimes difficult for foreigners to appreciate, so a Korean barbecue menu was selected. Appetizers included such delicacies as seaweed, jellyfish and raw octopus. Takes more than a bit of getting used to for sure, and many of us didn’t try these treats. Though I have to say I did and they weren’t all that bad. Safe to say I wouldn’t order these delicacies myself. The main dish featured pork, beef tongue and shrimp; all cooked by the guests in a barbecue pit in the middle of the table.

We learned how to drink Sake the traditional way. Served in a glass inside a wooden tray, one pours the Sake into the tray and sips from the corners. Salt is often dabbled on the lip of the “wooden cup”. We topped off dinner with a spicy, Korean fried rice dish that was exquisite. All in all, a very enjoyable evening and a highly recommended restaurant.

Funky Watering Holes and Yakitori Shacks

If you’re looking for something a little less refined, visit Shomben Yokocho (“Piss Alley”) – a lane filled with bars and open yakitori shacks at the west exit of Shinjuku station. This alley is an anomaly among the surrounding high-rise buildings, and survives due to the interest among the young and fashionable. Central to this renaissance is a “chotto” nomiya bar and art gallery called Albatross. Hidden in a time-wrap of watering holes, this bar is funky, friendly and difinitely different. Open seven days from 6pm till very late, often after 3am. There is a stated cover charge of Y500, but we were never asked to pay it. I believe if you buy enough drinks the barman, Rian-san, will forgo the cover.

The bar opens onto the alley and is really, really tiny. We were six inside and all the stools were taken, though they claim a dozen people can fit inside. The atmosphere was social with the barman speaking in Japanese and sometimes English. The exhibit in the art gallery upstairs changes weekly. Access to the gallery is by a small staircase at the end of the bar. Once upstairs, watch your step because there’s a hole in the floor through which the barman passes drinks. Amazingly, only three people have fallen through in the last four years.

Art aside, drinking remains the main theme and is fairly reasonably priced – draft Heineken, sake and shochu are all Y500, cocktails from around Y500, and China’s fine Tsingtao beer is Y600. The barman will also roast peanuts for you over a small stove tucked in the corner. Due to its small size, the bar is often full, but if you get there early it’s not usually a problem. If you have to wait, there’s plenty of places to eat and drink along Shomben Yokocho.

The nearest train station is Shinjuku. Address is 1-2-11 Nishi-Shinjuku. If you ask someone in the area where Shomben Yokocho is located, they will likely be able to direct you. One word of caution. Although Japan is relatively safe, you probably shouldn’t go into the area alone at night. That being said, the hour or so we spent here was one of the most enjoyable of the whole trip.

Cityrama Tokyo Tour

Normally, when visiting a foreign locale I would recommend taking one of the organized tours available. Our group had a free afternoon and we all decided to take the Cityrama Tokyo Afternoon tour by Sunrise Tours. I have been on much better tours. Because of the city congestion, much of the tour time was spent fighting traffic getting to the next location. Once there, the time available to explore and enjoy was, in my opinion, severely restricted; often only twenty minutes. You would be far better off looking through the tour guides, deciding which attractions you want to visit, and taking the train. Anyway, the first attraction on the tour was Tokyo’s most recognizable, if not cherished, postwar icon; the Tokyo Tower.

In the postwar boom of the 1950s, Japan, needing to build a television and radio relay tower, erected its own Eiffel Tower. Completed in 1958, it entered the record books as the world’s highest self-supporting iron structure at a height of 333 meters, surpassing the Eiffel Tower by thirteen meters.

Mainly a relay tower for nine TV stations and five FM radio stations, the tower is better known as the city’s pre-eminent kitsch tourist destination. On the first floor you are surrounded by numerous souvenir shops. There’s also an aquarium with some 50,000 (rather small) fish. The third floor houses a wax museum and the Mysterious Walking World. On the fourth floor you find the Trick Art Gallery. We didn’t get to see any of these attractions, spending most of the allotted thirty minutes on the first observation deck which sits at an altitude of 150 meters. There’s another deck at 250 meters but going there wasn’t part of the tour.

The next stop on the tour was the Imperial Palace Plaza. The key word here is plaza. This is a large open area outside the palace walls. We stopped here for about twenty minutes, most of which was spent walking across the parking lot and grounds leading up to the palace gates. There is no access to the palace gardens, but you do get a good view of the Dual Bridges called “Nijuu-bashi”. The first bridge leads over the inner moat to the main gate of the Palace Court, while the second one leads again over the moat to another gate, “Babasaki-mon”, which is the entrance to the inner garden of the Palace.

Kannon – The Goddess of Mercy

Okay, now we are off to the Asakusa Kannon Temple, the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo. This is the attraction you really want to see in Japan. Also at this stop is the Nakamise Shopping Street, a colorful arcade leading to the temple and crammed with tiny food and souvenir shops. Due to our limited time, we were given four choices; follow the guide around and get an overview of the religious aspects of the temple, browse the temple ourselves, visit Nakamise Shopping Street, or stay past the scheduled departure time. This meant finding our own way home and no one opted for the last option.

As the temple is the real attraction, we spent our time roaming the grounds taking as many pictures as humanly possibly in twenty minutes. The Asakusa Kannon Temple, also known as Sensoji, is located in Asakusa, a central part of the Shitamachi (downtown), or the old town of Tokyo. Legend has it that two brothers, Hamanari and Tekanari Hikonuma, fished the statue of Kannon, the goddess of Mercy, out of the Sumida river in the year 628. They took the statue to their master who enshrined it in his house. Eventually the temple was erected to house the statue.

Completed in 645, Sensoji was built to honor the goddess of Kannon. Most visitors enter through the Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate. This is the outer gate of the temple and one of the most recognized images of traditional Tokyo. Between the outer gate and the temple’s main gate, the Hozomon, lies the Nakamise Shopping Street. Here, one can buy typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukata and folding fans. This shopping street has a history going back many centuries.

Past the Hozomon gate stands the temple’s main building and a five storied pagoda. The Asakusa shrine, build in 1649, is located close to the main building. Near by is a fountain with ladles where people cleanse their hands and rinse their mouths to wash away impurities before entering the temple. Next to the fountain is a bronze incense burner. Worshipers wave smoke over their bodies to heal or prevent illness. There was so much to take in here we were almost tempted to skip the last leg of the tour and stay at the temple.

Unfortunately, the next, and last, stop on the tour was the Ginza shopping district and we had arranged to meet some of our Japanese friends there for dinner. Ginza, probably the most famous shopping district in Japan, is the end of the line for the tour. From here you have to find your own way back to your hotel, or wherever else you might be going.

Tsukiji Fish Market

Morning came early as we awoke at 4:30am to venture down to the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo’s most famous fish market and the world’s largest, handling over 2,800 tons of fish daily. The market is open early in the morning Monday through Friday and every other Saturday. At this time in the morning you will want to take a taxi and arrive before the tuna auction begins at 5:30 am.

This is the biggest event of the morning and tons of freshly-caught tuna are auctioned off. There are literally hundreds of vendors set up in stalls selling every conceivable type of seafood. This is a bustling market. Stay out of the way of scooters, small trucks, buyers and sellers hurrying around. There’s no time to accommodate tourists here. If you’re not careful you will likely get trampled, or at the very least, smacked in the leg by a wagon full of fish being pulled through the narrow aisles. Don’t wear your good clothes and be prepared to go back to the hotel for a shower.

Some of the vendors are genuinely friendly, pulling live fish and squid from Styrofoam boxes filled with salt water for the camera happy tourists. Moving through the stalls, most vendors are busy preparing various types of seafood for market. A lot of the seafood is sold to local sushi restaurants.

Initially, some of the group were thinking of having sushi for breakfast at one of the many small restaurants in the market, but after spending an hour watching fish being slaughtered and prepared, we were looking for something a little less traditional. Most of us had an American style breakfast back at the hotel.

The Oriental Bazaar

One of the last stops before making our way to the airport and the long return flight home was the Oriental Bazaar, located in Shibuya-Ku. This is surely the best place to shop for authentic Japanese souvenirs. Four floors offer everything from antique furniture to kimono’s, yukata, Japanese chinaware, screens, fans, books, ornaments, T-shirts and numerous other goods. This is where we should have come first to do our shopping as everything was here. The closest train station is Omotesando, but you might want to go to Harajuku Station and stroll through Takeshita Street on your way.

Takeshita Street, and the surrounding area, is well known among the younger, fashionable crowd in Tokyo. Once a quiet, humble place, Takeshita Street is now crowded with young people, especially on Sunday, wearing the latest gothic, visual-kei and cosplaying (costume playing) clothing. Fans of this style come “in costume” and stroll the street in droves. The area is also a great place to see live performers and bands playing on the sidewalk.

Lastly, being the end of March and the beginning of cherry blossom season in Japan, we pay a visit to Aoyama Cemetery, final resting place for many Japanese celebrities. This cemetery is known as one of the best places to celebrate the cherry blossoms in Japan. Among throngs of picnic-goers, we strolled under some 200 cherry blossom trees aligned down a 1 kilometer path through the middle of the cemetery. Having heard so much about cherry blossom season prior to our arrival, we felt fortunate to witness this beautiful spectacle of nature before returning home.

Reprinted from my Kidmoses blog, January 18, 2010