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Just Back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 2: Japan

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Jun 18th, 2014, 06:37 AM
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Just Back from Borneo and Japan - - Part 2: Japan

For background, please take a look at Part 1: Borneo, recently posted in the Asia forum. This section reports on our brief stay in Japan - - Tokyo and Hakone.

At first, the Japan portion of the trip was going to be just two days as a stopover on our way home from Malaysia. I’m so glad we expanded it and we were inspired to plan another trip to Japan. I felt overwhelmed when deciding where to stay in Tokyo but my instincts told me that the financial district might be the right choice for us. I figured that we would arrive at Tokyo station from Narita and I knew there would be many subway and train lines nearby. Since DH and I are both economists, we wanted to see what the vibe was like in the area. Although the hotels are quite expensive, we were able to use one of the AMEX promotions and stayed 4 nights, paid for 3, breakfast included and a $100 food/beverage credit for the Shangri-la Hotel. Also important to me was the escort service the hotel provides to and from Tokyo Station because I was particularly paranoid about getting lost when first arriving. We’re really glad we stayed in this area and we loved the hotel. I also bought a data roaming package from AT&T to use with Google maps on my iPhone so that we wouldn’t get lost in our wanderings. It turned out to be a waste of money and we found it very difficult to use Google maps. Mainly because of the weather (rain) we didn’t spend as much time walking around various neighborhoods or even taking taxis at night to restaurants as we would have liked, but now that we feel comfortable in the city, we will do that next time. I apologize in advance that my reporting is not nearly as lyrical as the recent threads of MinnBeef and Russ (such outstanding posts!) and the wonderful threads of Fodorites who visited Japan this past fall.

June 4:
Although the flight itself from K/L to Singapore was fine, there was almost an hour delay deboarding in Singapore. First we had to pick up our bag at the Left Luggage counter in Terminal 2, then go through immigration and pick up our checked bags. It left us had only 6 hours in the Crowne Plaza Chiangi airport hotel, which included eating dinner and sleeping before we had to get up at 3:30am to catch our 5:50am flight to Tokyo. This was probably our most expensive hotel stay ever computed on a per hour basis. The hotel was great, lovely rooms and public spaces but we didn’t have the time to enjoy it (we couldn’t stay at the transit hotel this time because Malaysia Airlines wouldn’t forward our bags to Tokyo on ANA, which meant we had to go through customs and immigration to pick up our luggage and then recheck).

June 5. Because it was so early in the morning, the Skytrain in Chiangi was not operating, so we had to take a (very crowed) minibus from the hotel area to the terminal. We flew on a Dreamliner (B-787), which was very comfortable for the 7 hour flight. When we arrived and went through immigration and customs, we got tickets on the Narita Express to Tokyo station and bought Suica cards (much easier to do than I expected, probably because we weren’t jetlagged). As soon as we knew our car and seat numbers for N’Ex, I called our hotel to give them those details and someone met us on the platform exactly where we disembarked after the train ride. The Shangri-La hotel is around the corner from Tokyo Station, but even so we did need an escort or we would never have found it (the hotel starts on the 28th floor of the Marunouchi Trust building).

It was rainy when we arrived and we told that today began the official start of the monsoon season, that rain was expected for the next 4 days. Great, I had no idea. I hadn’t done any research on the weather in Japan when we planned the trip because the primary focus at the time was Borneo. Still, we could see parts of the city through the clouds from our lovely room on the 31st floor of the hotel. We unpacked and relaxed for a while as we were pretty tired from getting up so early that morning. For dinner, we randomly picked a restaurant on the 12th floor of the department store next to the hotel and had a delicious tempura dinner at an early hour.

June 6: Tokyo, first full day

We were not disappointed by the fabulous breakfast at the Shangri-la hotel. In additional to the high quality of the food, the coffee was good and strong, probably as important to me as anything else. Besides an outstanding buffet with all the usual items you expect from a 5 star hotel in Asia, you order an item from the menu with things like lobster eggs Benedict, scrambled eggs on an avocado biscuit with smoked swordfish and basil oil (I got that), blueberry pancakes (for DH), all kinds of omelets, etc. There were amazingly beautiful and delicious jellies on a tray next to the bread selection that were clear but tinted pink and orange. In them were floating bits of tiny orange blossoms and peach blossoms. There were some herbs in each one also, giving them a distinctive taste and aroma.

One of the few things I organized in advance for our Tokyo stay was a 3 hour tour with Yukari Sakamoto. She is a Japanese American who was raised in Minnesota, attended the French Culinary Institute and the American Sommelier Association. She was a sommelier at the bar made famous in the movie Lost in Translation at the Park Hyatt Tokyo and has written a highly regarded book about food in Tokyo. Our plan was to go to the Tsujiki fish market for a couple of hours, followed by a tour of one of the depachikas, which are the basement level floors in Tokyo department stores that sell all kinds of food. Yukari met us in the hotel lobby just before 8am.

The time we spent with Yukari was up there with our best travel experiences. We took a taxi from the hotel to the outer market area of Tsujiki. First we browsed some shops and looked at knives, utensils for prepping fish and seafood and other fish related paraphernalia. There were some amazing fruit and vegetable stalls and we got to see some new things and some of our old favorites. I snapped a photo of mangos that sell for $20 per piece. I didn't buy even though I was very curious about whether they tasted ten times better than the mangos we get at Whole Foods. We next went to the inner market. The public is not allowed to enter until 9am so that tourists don't interfere with the regular market operations. Most of this area closes at 10am so we were seeing the end of the work day. It was just fascinating. Yukari pointed out all the varieties of fish and seafood and we got a glimpse of all aspects of the market operation. We saw one fishmonger kill a fish in a special way of inserting a thin metal stick into the fish that kills it instantly. This causes the fish to stay fresher because there is little blood and hormones secreted that would spoil the fresh taste. There were so many highlights during this hour and we learned so much about the market operations that it wouldn’t be possible to write about them here but I got lots of photos and some videos which will help me remember them. Around 10:15, we took a taxi to the oldest department store in Tokyo, the Ginza branch of Mitsukoshi where we spent over an hour in the food hall. There were prepared foods, fresh foods of all kinds, sake, sweets, different cuisines and everything was displayed so beautifully you felt like you were in a museum. Yukari's explanations were incredibly helpful, we would not have really understood what we were seeing without her. Close to noon, she was ready to go home and we we're hungry so she escorted us to a small (8 seat) sushi bar in the corner of the food hall, run by a famous restaurant in Kyoto. We had a delicious sushi lunch with some fatty tuna among the other fresh fish. We were able to manage the subway back to Tokyo Station and found our way to the hotel without too many wrong turns.

It was a very rainy afternoon so we selected a close by museum that you would expect two economists would want to see: the Currency Museum, which was only 3 or 4 blocks from our hotel. What a little treasure. The museum is run by the Central Bank of Japan, and the exhibits trace the history of currency in Japan back to the 8th century. I really loved the explanation of the historical periods, especially the time when the government debased the currency in order to cover fiscal deficits, resulting in very high inflation. When this happened in the mid 1800s, the government was overthrown. At the end of the exhibit, there was a great display of various world currencies and how the notes vary from the yen. One display showed currency in countries that have denominations that are different than those of the yen: denominations of 3 or 25 currency units for example. Another display showed currency that is horizontal on one side and vertical on the other. Very neat place, we really loved it.

We went back to the hotel to get ready for the evening activity: the Yomiuri Giants baseball game at the Tokyo Dome. Unlike in the US, tickets to the games are released on a staggered basis. For the June 6 game, the tickets were released for sale at 11am on April 18. I went online the moment they were available and got 2 seats behind first base. Good thing I got them right away because 10 minutes after I bought them, I went back online just to check things out and most sections were already sold out. We had a great time at the game. It was at least as much fun observing and listening to the cheering as it was watching the game itself. The stadium is domed (good thing because it was raining steadily) and seemed much more intimate than most baseball stadiums I have been to. The Giants were playing the Lions and it seemed like the small section of Lions fans were as loud as the rest of the entire stadium. They cheered CONSTANTLY when the Lions were up, with songs and flags and jumping. Mid game, I went to the food stalls and bought a chicken curry dinner and a crab sushi dinner. Both were very tasty. We saw that most people brought in their own food. I thought vendors would be coming around and selling food as they do in US games (for some reason I thought they would be selling bento boxes) but they only sold beer, soft drinks and Suntory highballs in the stands. This was a great cultural experience for us.

June 6 was one of the best, single travel days we have ever had.

June 7-8
Saturday and Sunday were our two last full days in Tokyo. We knew that it would be difficult to beat the great day we had on Friday and the weather continued to be very rainy. Tokyo has many "free guide" services and I have read great reviews about them in Fodors trip reports. Before we left home, I made arrangements for someone to show us around the Asakusa and Ueno areas. Luck of the draw, we did not get a very good guide. The guide was a nice person but just wasn't giving us explanations of what we were seeing and I had to keep asking to get any conversation going. We were fortunate, however, to see the beginning of a wedding at the shrine in Asakusa. After visiting Asakusa, we wanted to do something indoors because of the heavy rain so I asked to go to the Edo museum. But it wasn't working our very well, basically we just walked around the museum without any commentary (this was one of the main disappointments of the trip, the museum looked fabulous and I heard so many wonderful reports about it…we will go back next trip to Tokyo). So we asked to go back to our hotel, and had lunch on Ramen Street in Tokyo Station (first time using the vending machine to order lunch), then said our goodbyes to the guide about 3 hours earlier than expected. After a brief rest and with heavy rain we decided to explore Tokyo Station some more, including Character Street and the depachika in Damairu, the department store in the station. Character Street is in the lowest level of the station shopping area and has one small store after another, each one mainly devoted to paraphernalia of a special animated character. We recognized Hello Kitty and a few others. We bought some incredibly delicious pastries for a late afternoon snack, it being Saturday afternoon, Daimaru was mobbed and it was hard to choose because everything looked so scrumptious. We decided to stay in the hotel for dinner at Nadaman, their Japanese restaurant and had a wonderful sushi dinner.

On Sunday, it was raining only lightly and we had a great morning at the Meiji shrine. For a $5 admission fee, we walked through the special garden area, not realizing that the irises were in bloom and they were gorgeous. I've never seen so many different species and I got some great photos. We then walked to the Harajuku area and Takeshita Dori. This is a famous street where teenagers come on Sundays, dressed in outlandish costumes (called cosplay). We saw a few girls dressed up but saw more shops selling the costumes and it was fun to window shop. From there we walked to the Omotesando shopping area and had lunch at Maisen, which specializes in tonkatsu. We only had to wait 15 minutes, this is a pretty well known restaurant, so that wasn't too bad. We selected two of the set lunches from the photo menu, which included tonkatsu plus some sashimi and other little dishes. The meal came with green tea and we also each had a small glass of beer. We then walked Shibuya Crossing and enjoyed people watching, then took the Yamanote line back to Tokyo Station. We had a great dinner Sunday night at the beautiful Kushiro restaurant (in the Kitte Tower nearby) that specializes in grilled foods sourced from the Hokkaido area. DH was craving meat and we had wonderful, rich beef and pork. We found it on the website "bento.com". Like many cities, it isn't as easy to find restaurants open on Sunday but this was terrific.

Up next: Hakone
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Jun 18th, 2014, 06:39 AM
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June 9-10: We got an early start on Monday for our overnight trip to Hakone. I wanted to be sure DH had a Shinkansen experience so we took the bullet train from Tokyo Station instead of the Romance Train from Skinjuku. We brought only a small backpack and left all of our luggage at the hotel until our return the next day. It was easy to get the tickets and Free Pass at Odawara, and we began the Hakone Circuit. We took the Hakone Tozan Railway, then the switchback train bound for Gora. The conductor got out of the train several times during the brief trip to switch tracks and go "backwards". From Gora we took a cable car up to Sounzan. After the cable car, we took a rope way one stop to Owakudani. Along the way you are supposed to be able to see Mt Fuji but it was much too cloudy. Big Boo. We realized that seeing Mt Fuji was not to be on this trip. As most people do, we got out at Owakudani to walk around and see the geothermal activity. The place really does smell like sulphur but we did not buy any black eggs. Then we took the next rope way to the pier at Lake Ashi. We just missed the pirate ship sightseeing cruise by 2 minutes and we started to wait for the next one, scheduled to leave 35 minutes later. But as we were waiting on the "individual" queue, the group tours began boarding the boat. There must have been 500 people walking through and we could see that people were already standing on the top deck. With very dark clouds rolling in, and really feeling travel fatigue, we decided to skip the cruise (I was a bit bummed about it because I was looking forward to being on the lake). But at this point we were really traveled out and ready to relax at the ryokan. We backtracked on the rope way, cable car and switchback train and finally got off at the Miyanoshita stop for the Hakone Ginyu ryokan, close to the very small station. Wow. Our enormous, traditional Japanese style room had a bedroom area, a dining room, an indoor deck, an outdoor deck, two toilet rooms (each with a urinal also), a pantry, a room with a vanity and sink and two tubs filled with hot spring water - one indoors and one outdoors. The reception area of the ryokan where you enter is on the 5th floor and all the rooms are below. Ours was on the 4th floor and was the only guest room on the floor. The view of the hillside and mountains was green and spectacular and we could hear the rush of the river below. Our attendant showed us how to put on our yukatas, and we were shown the two piece pajama set, the vest if we were cool and the special Japanese socks. It was difficult to tear ourselves away from the room but we wanted to see and use the public onsens. The settings were gorgeous and the water was very hot, so we each spent only about 10 minutes in the public baths. At this ryokan, the baths switch times for male and female at different times of the day. That’s because one is significantly larger than the other so with the switch gives both men and women the chance to enjoy the different areas. Afterwards, we mostly sat on the couch on the outdoor deck staring at the lush view, enjoyed our private onsen and had cocktails until dinner time (we chose the 7pm time slot). We were really looking forward to kaiseki. There were about 10 small courses of beautifully crafted and presented food. Thankfully, our attendant gave us an English menu and explained the dishes to us. Her name was Hilary and her English was hesitating but pretty good. She even laughed at DH’s jokes but we’re not sure she really got them. In one funny exchange, I told her we wanted to order some dry sake from the drinks menu to accompany our dinner. She gave me a puzzled look and said that the sake is wet. So I explained there were two meanings to dry and she kept repeating wet-dry, sweet-dry and laughing. She told us she is also studying Spanish and wants to go to Latin American. That was a first for us, most people we met said that that want to go to the US. The table in the dining room of the ryokan is set below the floor level so we sat on chairs without legs and our legs dangled in the "hole" under the floor. It was quite comfortable, I had been afraid we would have to sit on our legs lotus style for dinner. Anyway, the dinner was incredibly delicious and lasted about 2 and a half hours. After dinner, we had a soak in our outdoor tub before going to sleep on the futons that had been laid out on the floor in the main room. We slept very well on them. At 8:30am, Hilary brought us a wake up coffee served in magnificent hand made cups and then began serving a multicourse "Western" breakfast, which was much more Japanese-like than American (the American part was that it included an omelet with ketchup). One more soak, time to go, checkout at 11am and back to Tokyo for our final afternoon and evening.

Up next: last few hours in Tokyo
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Jun 18th, 2014, 06:43 AM
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Return to Tokyo, June 10:
When we arrived back at the Shangri-La hotel (which has copies of Lost Horizon in the bedside tables instead of a bible) after the switchback train, small train and bullet train, our bags were already in our upgraded corner room. Double wow. Floor to ceiling windows with views in two different directions from the 33rd floor. I had to force myself to leave for our last few hours of sightseeing because we were finally able to take advantage of the views from the hotel now that the sun had broken through (on our last day, of course). But we walked to and through the Imperial Palace East Gardens where the lawns and hydrangeas were beautiful and the stone walls were massive. These were not the gardens I remembered from my trip 39 years ago so I probably saw the West gardens at that time. By then it was very late in the afternoon so we couldn’t do any more major sights so we taxied to Takashimaya Department store for a browse, then a short walk back to the hotel.

For our final dinner we picked a tempura restaurant, Tenmatsu, close to the hotel that Yukari had recommended in her book. It was supposed to be a 9 minute walk but it took us 40 minutes to get there thanks to Google Maps. It was the only time we got lost in Tokyo so I can't complain too much but the timing wasn't great on our last few hours there. We finally found the tiny place and the meal made up for it. The chef was cooking just for us (it was late by then). He killed four wiggling shrimp while we watched and then cooked them. Obviously these were the freshest shrimp we ever ate! Lots of seafood and we selected the vegetables we wanted (eggplant and ginger for me, eggplant and pumpkin for DH). The walk back to the hotel probably took 5 minutes and by then we had to laugh about it.

June 11: In the morning, we got to the breakfast room just as it opened at 6:30 and I had my final dose of bread and lavender jelly, warm mushroom custard, the sweetest mango and melon, runny epoisses cheese, strong coffee, etc. along with one prepared dish. A point here to illustrate the wonderful service at the hotel. I had mentioned the special breakfast jellies from the hotel to Yukari during our tour, hoping to find some to buy and bring home but she said she hadn't ever seen what I was describing. When I returned to the hotel, I asked about them at the restaurant and was told that they were specially made by the hotel and not sold anywhere. Two days later during breakfast, I was presented with a gift of two jars of the jellies I had asked about.

We used the hotel escort service to the train platform (good thing, the departing Narita Express was at the opposite end of Tokyo Station and would have been difficult for us to find on our own despite the many hours we spent in and around the station) and after a one hour train ride, we arrived at the airport. Check in was easy, we had a small snack in the lounge and boarded the plane with lie flat seat pods so that we could sleep a bit and begin to adjust to the13 hour time difference.

After 10 months of (on and off) planning, it's hard to believe the trip is over. We had a spectacular time with probably a greater diversity of experiences than our other adventures, given that Borneo and Japan were our stops. For sure we had the worst weather on any of our trips (it rained, usually hard, almost every day we were away which is my definition of bad weather - - we knew it would be hot and humid) but we didn't let that diminish our enthusiasm, it only slowed us down and meant that we didn’t do as much sightseeing in Japan as we had hoped (even in Hakone, I fell like we were mostly traveling from place to place and not doing and “real” sightseeing because we missed the open air museum, the checkpoint, etc). I still have a long list of things I want to see in Tokyo and from reading so many wonderful recent trip reports, outside of Tokyo as well. I’m already taking notes for the next visit.

Except for Turtle Island, we stayed at really lovely lodges and hotels; we met many interesting people both locals and other travelers; we saw areas of the world that are being protected by several governments because they are so precious and important to biodiversity; animals, birds, insects and other creatures that are beautiful in so many different ways; we got to appreciate the culture of Japan and the excitement of one of the world's great cities, even though we didn’t get around as much as we’d hoped. Our love of Asia was deepened by our experiences on this trip and we can't wait to return.
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Jun 18th, 2014, 07:05 AM
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Thanks for both of your reports. I am jealous that you were able to see a baseball game in Tokyo - makes me want to return. We also experienced a lot of rain in Tokyo, even though it wasn't monsoon season - it does make sightseeing difficult. Google Maps worked quite well for us when we were on foot (as well as saving us while driving) - sorry it didn't work out as well for you.
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Jun 18th, 2014, 08:05 AM
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Thanks, Craig, the baseball game really was a highlight. I've used Google Maps when driving with no problem so it never occurred to me that there would be an issue when walking in Japan. It was on my iPhone but we couldn't get it to show the direction we were walking in and the direction arrow kept rotating and moving around so we would lose our place. Every time we tried to stop and review, the path would cycle off and we would have to press "Resume" and the map would reload. It was actually a negative and we made some wrong turns because of it, as we didn't bring a backup map. Lesson learned: to practice with all software prior to leaving on a trip.
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Jun 18th, 2014, 08:33 AM
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I think we used the iPhone compass a couple of times to get our bearings when using Maps...
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Jun 18th, 2014, 08:41 AM
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we tried that too, it helped a bit
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Jun 19th, 2014, 05:59 PM
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And watching a Japan play in the World Cup reminded me of the cheering section at the Giants game.
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Jun 19th, 2014, 09:08 PM
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Glad to hear that you had a good time in Japan. I think you were one of the posters who was concerned about what to wear in Tokyo, with your guy preferring sandals and shorts. How did that work out?
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Jun 19th, 2014, 10:44 PM
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Lovely report. Really makes me want to return to Japan, especially to experience a ryokan, which we didn't get to do when we were there.
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Jun 20th, 2014, 03:15 AM
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Mrwunrful, I only wish he could have worn socks and sandals, it would have meant warm and sunny weather. Nope, long pants/jeans because of the rain. We did feel a bit underdressed but part of that was because we stayed at the Shangri-la while traveling with clothes that we needed for Borneo.
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Jun 20th, 2014, 11:46 PM
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I don't have an iphone (am Android all the way) but I do recall some colleagues telling me there were some serious problems with iphones and mapping technology, though I don't remember now whether they were talking about google maps or iphone's own mapping service. We relied on google maps in Tokyo, we would have been lost a number of times without it. We used it throughout Japan actually. As Craig said, sorry it was such a nightmare for you.

Seems like weather reduced how much you did but that you were able to really enjoy the time you had anyway.
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Jun 21st, 2014, 04:43 PM
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Absolutely, we loved it despite the weather. Because we didn't do nearly as much as we'd hoped, it means another trip to Japan for sure.
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Jun 22nd, 2014, 03:03 PM
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great report...

I have some rude comments about economists in Tokyo but I will hold back in hopes that you will make progress in DC...ok, maybe progress and DC don't belong in the same sentence..

what's next??
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Jun 22nd, 2014, 06:15 PM
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Bob, Abenomics has meant that visiting Japan is 20% cheaper, LOL.
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Jun 22nd, 2014, 08:27 PM
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we call that devaluation or currency fluxuations
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Jun 23rd, 2014, 06:26 AM
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yes and in this case it is one of the "arrows" of his policy along with fiscal stimulus and structural reform
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Jun 27th, 2014, 06:20 PM
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FromDC,

Thanks for the kind words about my trip report, although you have absolutely nothing to apologize about. I really enjoyed your posts and am so jealous that you were able to book Yukari for a tour! We tried before we left but she was all booked up for our dates. Although our particular experiences were different, I completely relate to your line that "June 6 was one of the best, single travel days we have ever had." We had a couple of those days as well, which I was not at all expecting on this trip. I read your Japan report first, so I am looking forward to reading your posts about Borneo as well!
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Jun 29th, 2014, 11:47 AM
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Russ, I just read your April itinerary and it really makes me want to return to Japan ASAP. DH and I never expected to fall in love with Japan as we did. I was all set on going to India for our next trip but I am rethinking. Hope you enjoy reading about Borneo and that you will put it on your list. We were the only Americans we saw in almost 2 weeks there (except for the US ambassador to malaysia and his entourage at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge).
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Jun 30th, 2014, 06:26 AM
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"June 6 was one of the single best travel days we have ever had."

Wow, I love that statement. I also had a day like that in Japan! actually one day and one night like that.

And nothing since then has come close either.

Your planning paid off. Next time, sit in the fan box seats in the outfield at the baseball game. Totally cool experience.
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