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TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

May 29th, 2014, 04:07 PM
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TRIP REPORT: Just back from first time to Japan!

Hello Fellow Fodorites!

Just got back from a two-week first-time trip to Japan and can’t wait to start a trip report on one of our favorite overall travel experiences. Before I do so, I must give thanks to kja, Kavey, Don Topez, mrwunrful and MinnBeef for the feedback on my questions before I left, as well as to the writers of the numerous trip reports I read as I was planning. Also I have to give credit to the indispensable www.japan-guide.com and www.hyperdia.com websites. If you are planning a trip and have not consulted these sites yet, please do so immediately! They will make your trip so much easier and richer as a result. I will try to include any other info that I think a first timer might appreciate, but if any of you veterans see any factual errors, please call them out so that I don’t confuse anyone.

Although we lived in Italy for a couple years in the mid-90’s, and traveled extensively throughout Europe and parts of northern Africa, this was our first trip to Asia. Because of this, we decided to start with a country that has a reputation for running smoothly and efficiently, and on this count Japan did not disappoint. We struggled with the decision whether or not to travel independently in Japan, but after reading many Fodors trip reports decided we could do it. All I can say is that if you have any desire to travel independently in Japan… then do it! We found it even easier than our experiences in Europe (where late trains and random strikes have thwarted many a planned itinerary), but from hotel bookings to train travel, there wasn’t a lost reservation or missed connection for the entire trip.

One thing I like to do before going foreign country where English is not the primary language, is to learn at least some of the native language. Although this is by no means necessary in Japan, for me it’s a great way to learn about the culture, as well as having experiences that I might not have otherwise had a snap if. So before this trip I purchased the first 30 lessons from Pimsleur’s speaking Japanese, although I only managed to get through the first 15 before leaving. This gave me the basics, such as “good morning, good afternoon, good evening, thank you, please” etc., as well as the ever useful, “I don't understand Japanese, do you understand English?”, which was a great way to break the ice when starting a new conversation or request. It was also helpful learning the numbers 1 through 10, as well as how to ask, “at what time…” and “where is…”, and understanding the responses. The course also gave me several phrases which I thought I would never use such as, “I am American” and the proper response to being told, “You speak Japanese so well”, which I knew I would never need. Don’t worry, you will be fine if you go knowing nothing other than hello, thank you and please. We found all subway and train stops to be written in English and most restaurants had English menus, or if not, at least pictures.

We started planning the trip last January, after having been fortunate enough to secure two frequent-flyer business-class award tickets through United, flying out non-stop from LAX to Tokyo Haneda on May 13 and returning to LAX from Osaka KIX via SFO on May 27. With a little fine tuning from Fodorites, we landed on the following itinerary:

Tokyo - 4 nights (with day trip to Nikko)
Hakone - 1 night
Takayama - 2 nights
Nara - 1 night
Koyasan – 1 night
Kyoto – 4 nights

It was difficult to drop Matsumoto from our original itinerary (I know it was a highlight for some of you), but we were very happy with how everything worked out in the end, and never felt like we had too much travel in a given day, especially with trains that run like clockwork.

May 13 and 14 – LAX to HND, and Tokyo
The only flight that was available using “saver” fare tickets had us departing at 1:20am, but I decided that this might be a good way to start getting into the Japan time zone. Given that we would probably not be able to get to sleep until about 3am Pacific Time, my hope was that we would sleep 8 hours, waking up about 4am Japan time, and that this would give us a head start into the time difference. While that might have been a good idea in theory, in reality we didn’t really get much sleep, and probably managed to make the transition worse in the end. But we arrived on time at 5am on May 14, not well rested, but running on adrenaline and anxious to get started.

We got through immigration in a fast 10 minutes and had our bags 10 minutes after that. We exchanged dollars for yen immediately outside of baggage claim, at the rate of 99.60 yen to the dollar, which made it incredibly easy when dealing with prices in yen. (As a result, I’ll probably go back and forth between yen and dollars as I mention prices).
The first thing I noticed once we got outside was the humidity. It’s not that it was oppressive, only that 68°F in Los Angeles feels a lot cooler than in Tokyo, because it’s so dry. This really wasn’t a factor until the last couple days of our trip when temperatures reached the mid-80’s. In any event, we grabbed a taxi and made the quick 20 minute ride in to Tokyo. I had printed out the address of the hotel in Japanese ahead of time, so I just handed it to the taxi driver and we had no problems getting to the hotel. We were very surprised by how little traffic there was on the street. By this point it was about 6:00 AM and we were expecting the start of rush hour traffic, but we got to the Capitol Hotel Tokyu without any delays.

I had selected this hotel from Trip Advisor reviews, based on its access to four different subway lines, as well as comfort, while we adjusted to the new time zone. After consulting several discount websites, I ended up booking directly with the hotel, and was able to get a rate that was 30% off of the normal rate by booking more than 90 days in advance. (I kept checking various sites as we got closer, but the prices only went up after that). We were very happy that the room was ready, and were able to check in right away. Our room on the 25th floor was modern and comfortable, with views facing the northwest, towards Shinjuku. Looking down, we could see the Hie Shrine, right next door to the hotel. After a quick shower, this is where we decided to start our exploration, but not before a quick bite to eat.

When we went to look for breakfast, we realized the one downside of our hotel. A buffet breakfast in the hotel was going to run upwards of $50.00 per person. When we decided to explore the area around the hotel, we discovered that there was really nothing within a 10 minute walk. It was only when we went down to the level leading to the subway that we discovered a small cafe where we could get tea, coffee, and toast or a muffin. Coming from California, where there's no smoking in restaurants, we were especially happy to learn that there was a separate smoking room completely sealed off from the rest of the café, which was blissfully smoke free. Having finished our meal, it was time to explore!
Upon entering the Hie Shrine, we were pleased to find that we had it almost all to ourselves. Since we were in an area that was largely dominated by government and office buildings, the occasional sharply dressed businessman or woman would walk through the shrine. Every so often, one would stop to pull a rope attached a large bell at the front, clap twice, throw a donation in the box, say a quick little prayer, clap once, and be on his or her way; the entire process taking under a minute. This calm and serene scene was most certainly not repeated in our next stop, Asakusa.

One of the subway lines beneath our hotel was the Ginza line, which conveniently connected the Shibuya station at one end to Asakusa at the other. This was our first Tokyo subway experience, so it took few minutes to get oriented. There were machines in the corridor leading to the turnstiles which dispensed subway tickets as well as rechargeable plastic cards. I was looking for the “Suica” brand rechargeable card, which I had read about in my guidebook, but this machine seemed to dispense the “Passmo” brand. So I took a chance and put 2,000 yen on a Passmo card. I later found out that Suica and Passmo have more or less merged and the cards that can usually be used interchangeably. But what was also great about this card, besides not having to buy tickets for each ride, was that you can also use it for purchases at places like 7/11 and other shops. This is much more convenient than having to deal with cash all the time. My major faux pas came when it was time to go through the turnstile, when I inserted the Passmo card into the slot where a subway ticket should go, instead of passing it over the sensor on time and keeping the card in my hand. Fortunately there was a very helpful subway worker nearby, who was happy to open the machine and retrieve it for me.

Crisis averted, we entered the station and were surprised that, although we were riding in the middle of rush hour and the cars were full, it wasn’t the crush of people that we were expecting. It was tight, but not uncomfortably so, and people were overall very quiet and respectful. We rode to the end of the line, in order to see the famous Senso-ji complex in Asakusa, which includes a five-story pagoda, and the Asakusa shrine, among other buildings. Upon departing the subway train car, I was happy to see maps on the walls with numbered exits, showing which ones were closest to various sites. These maps became indispensable, especially in the larger stations, where taking the wrong exit could put you blocks away from your destination.

Our first observation of the area leading to the shrine, besides that of the giant multicolored gate with the enormous red lantern hanging from it, was the sheer number of people, mostly students, dressed in what appeared to be little blue and white sailor uniforms, broken up only by their colorful sneakers and Barbie backpacks. Despite the crowd, it didn't feel overwhelming. For the most part, people did not run in to us, we didn’t run into them, and everything flowed in a much calmer manner than a crowd of the same size might in the U.S.

The main pedestrian street leading to the Asakusa shrine is lined with all manner of food and souvenir vendors. We spent a good hour watching Japanese pastries being made in shop windows, or little plastic “lucky cats” dancing on their battery powered pedestals. We sampled numerous confections, such as baked dough filled with red bean paste, or little fritters flavored with green tea.

The buildings in the shrine complex are all painted vermillion red, with accents of gold and green. This turned out to be a recurring theme for shrines all along our trip. Another regular feature was the fountain at the beginning of the shrine, although this one much larger than the one at Hie Shrine. We followed the example of the others, and picked up one of the many small ladles laying on the edge of the fountain, filled it up with water, and washed each hand with it. We took a sip of water from our hands and rinsed out our mouths, just like the other visitors, and let the remaining water from the ladle run down the length of the handle before setting it back on the edge of the fountain.

There was also a large cauldron filled with incense burning in the middle of the square. Crowds of people would come up to the pot and waive the smoke all over their bodies before proceeding to the shrine. This really felt like no place we had visited before and we really enjoyed taking in all the sights, sounds and smells.

In addition to admiring the architecture and the rituals, we also enjoyed watching the younger schoolchildren gathered around the various buildings making sketches for class. Many of them had world maps and asked where we were from, but got shy when we tried to reply in English. It occurred to me that they might not have understood what I said, so was actually able to break out a phrase I didn’t expect to use in Japanese, “Watashi wa Americajin des”, “I’m an American". (Forgive my spelling, if there is a correct way to spell Japanese in English. Pimsleur is all audio based, so I did not see any of this in writing). Apparently they were doing some sort of school project and this enabled them to place a sticker on the location of the United States on their maps. A few other children were eager to try out their English on us, so we got lots of “hello”, and a few “I love you”, which may not have been the most useful of phrases in that context, but certainly amusing!

By the time we finished in Asakusa it was about 11:30 AM, so we decided to go to the Edo-Tokyo museum, since it was only a couple subway stops away, requiring a change from the Asakusa line to the Oedo line at Kuramae. This was just a bit confusing, because we actually had to leave one station, walk a couple hundred meters above ground, and descend to another station, in order to pick up the second line.
Since it was about noon when we got there, we decided to have lunch at the restaurant on the top floor of the museum. We were shown counter seats which faced a window looking out toward the river to the east. Although the menu was not in English the pictures were very easy to understand. Our only concern was that Sam is allergic to shrimp and crab. Fortunately, I had emailed some Japanese friends before leaving in order to get the phrase, “I am allergic to shrimp and crab", in Kanji, which I saved as a photo on my phone. We showed this to the waitress before ordering and she steered us in the right direction. We use this process for every meal and it worked like a charm.

I thought that the prices were very reasonable for a museum restaurant, about $10.00 for rice bowl with meat or fish on top, and a bowl of miso soup, or about $17.00 for multi-course Bento box, also with rice and soup. Sam ordered cold sake and when a small desert arrived, the woman seated next to us wearing a traditional kimono, gestured that we should pour a little of the sake over the desert before eating. She seemed a very pleased and I gave her a very sincere thank you, “Arigato gozaimas”!

The visit to the museum was phenomenal. They have a group of English speaking free guides immediately to the right as you enter the museum. Their last guide had just left with a couple of other visitors and they eagerly asked us to join the group.
The guide was fantastic and very informative, as she explained the history and background of the various models, maps and exhibits. She seemed genuinely excited whenever anyone ask the question, especially when it led to some interesting bit of information that she might not have otherwise shared. Being on the tour, also give us access to the insides of some of the exhibits that we otherwise might not have seen. For example, there is an actual size replica of a traditional kabuki theater inside of which were various instruments used during the production of the show. It was fun to be able to test these out for ourselves. All together we spent about 3 hours in the museum and it was well worth it. If you're at all interested in the history of the Tokyo/Edo area over the past 400 years, or really enjoy incredibly detailed architectural models, I would highly recommend the trip to this museum.

By this point it was about 4:00 PM and we were exhausted. We went back to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner. Since there did not seem to be a lot of activity around our hotel in the evening we decided to take the subway to Shinjuku to have a look around and find a place for dinner. We chose an exit from the subway at random and found ourselves in a crowded area filled with bright lights and massive signs. There were several “barkers” on the streets, saying something to us as we walked by. It sounded like English so Sam said, “What are they saying?" And I said that it sounded like, "sex”. It appeared that we had stumbled upon Kabuiki-cho, the red-light district. Since we suspected that this area was probably not known for their cuisine, we turned back toward the station where we found a small noodle restaurant, which seemed to have about eight tables, all occupied. The proprietor gestured for us to follow her and led us to a small elevator which we took to the fourth floor. We arrived to a darkened room, with about 8 tables but no customers. She turned on the lights and seated us. At first it seemed a little creepy being there all alone, but within 5 minutes every other table was occupied with diners. We ordered massive bowls of Udon noodles in broth, mine with shrimp tempura on top, for about $10.00 each. Satisfied, we headed back to the hotel to pass out after a fantastic first day.

First impressions: despite all of the amazing sights that we had seen today, we were most impressed with the Japanese people. From the hotel staff, to the store clerks, people on the train, and people we've encountered on the street, everyone has been unfailingly kind and polite. They even seemed happy at my feeble attempts to speak Japanese. More of the trip to come when I have a chance.
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 29th, 2014, 04:58 PM
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Great beginning! Love all your details.
lcuy is offline  
May 29th, 2014, 05:24 PM
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Bookmarking; planning a return to Japan after a 15 year gap, this will help me fill it!
Friendship_Bay is offline  
May 29th, 2014, 06:07 PM
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>>First impressions: despite all of the amazing sights that we had seen today, we were most impressed with the Japanese people.<<

Wonderful!

I didn't realize that you were studying Japanese before you left. I agree 100% with your view on learning some of the language and happy to know that you got to use it. You asked about the correct way of writing Japanese "in English". It is actually in Roman characters and called romajii. Your romajii is almost perfect.
mrwunrfl is offline  
May 29th, 2014, 06:08 PM
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More please. Soon.
mrwunrfl is offline  
May 29th, 2014, 06:54 PM
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Thanks lcuy and Friendship_Bay!

mrwunrfl - Thanks for the feeback!. I would not say that listening to CD's in the car for two weeks before leaving qualifies as "studying", but I was shocked at what I retained and wished I had finished all 30 lessons. Thanks for the "romajii" info. I was sure there was a better way to express that idea. Will try to get another installment out in a day or two
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 06:52 AM
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Glad you enjoyed your first trip to Japan. Our first trip to Japan was not long before yours - in November. While we are well-experienced Asia travelers, Japan is entirely different!
Kathie is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 07:20 AM
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Great detail - Following along and reliving our 2-week trip of last Oct-Nov as well...
Craig is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 08:19 AM
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Kudos to you for trying to learn a little japanese before your trip !!! It is always something I strongly advise, regardless of the destination language/country. It does make usually a huge difference in how you will be perceived, and also in your enjoyment of the trip.
kanadajin is online now  
May 30th, 2014, 01:45 PM
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May 15 – Tokyo Day 2

Well, day two got off to a rocky start. Between not sleeping on the plane and pushing myself too hard the first day, I woke up in the middle of the night with a massive migraine that even a double dose of meds wouldn’t fix. In desperation, I had the hotel call an English-speaking doctor, who arrived with an uber-powerful anti-inflammatory, which did the trick.

I had originally had wanted to start the day with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building to see the view from the observatory, but since the sky was hazy, and we were getting a late start, we decided to skip it and go to the Meiji shrine and Harajuku. We took the Chiyoda Line from the hotel to the Meiji-jingumae stop and decided we would find a place to stop for lunch on the way to the shrine. Based on our experience from the day before, we assumed that finding a place to eat on the way to the shrine would be easy. However, we saw only one place (that didn’t serve only sweets) on the street that we took, leading from the subway stop to the shrine. So we ducked in without paying much attention to the menu out front. Once inside, we found several people waiting in armchairs that seemed more likely to be found in the lobby of an office building than in the waiting area of a restaurant. But we were hungry, so we left our name and waited for a table.

After a short wait, we were led to an escalator, which had us wondering if we had wandered into the waiting room for a job interview or maybe a corporate presentation. Sorry, I forgot to prepare my PowerPoint slides. It came with a sense of relief, when we saw that we had been led to the dining room and we were shown a table. Once the menus were placed in front of us it was obvious that we had come 6000 miles to Tokyo, only to end up in a Chinese restaurant! We had a laugh and decided to order a couple of set menus, which were about $15 each. The food was pretty good, presented “Japanese-style”, with each little dim sum served on its own little plate. The only item which seemed a bit suspect was the egg-drop soup, which had so much corn starch you could stand up a spoon in it, but regardless, we finished it all.

Having now had three meals in Japan, one thing I noticed that I really liked is how they leave the bill on your table immediately, either right after you have ordered, or as soon as the food has arrived. This is especially helpful when you are short on time, or just ready to go. No hunting for the server to get your check, and then waiting for him or her to pick it up and return with the change. With the exception of the most expensive dinners we had, we could take the bill to the cash register any time we were ready and pay. Service and tax are included in the total. It couldn’t be easier.

Now, fortified for the afternoon ahead, it was time to continue with our sightseeing. Just before going into the park where the shrine is located, there were three guys holding signs that said, alternately, “10 yen hugs” and “free hugs”. We speculated that they were doing some sort of college sociology experiment to determine if people would pay more for expensive hugs than for the obviously “inferior” free ones. We stopped to take their photos and they responded with thumbs-up and peace signs, the universal sign language for, “I’m having my picture taken”.

Unlike the shrine at Asakusa, the Meiji shrine is set in a large, spacious park setting. We entered through an enormous torri gate made from 1700 year old cypress trees, photos of which we took from every conceivable angle. Another popular photo spot was the location where dozens of old sake of barrels were stacked, painted in bright colors. With their unpainted cypress construction, the shrine buildings contrasted greatly with the colorful buildings in Asakusa, the only color being the green oxidized copper roofs. After a visit to the shrine, a stroll through the gardens was a pleasant break from the concrete and commotion less than a kilometer away. It was an oasis in the middle of the city.

Just outside the park, a short walk took us to the Takeshita-dori, the famous trendy shopping street beloved by adolescent Tokyoites. It was interesting seeing the quirky clothing and accessories for sale, with the occasional young girl dressed like Little Bo Peep, and the guys dressed in multiple prints containing stars, British and American flags, camouflage, and nonsensical English text, all at the same time. However, like many famous spots around the world, it seemed a much larger in my imagination than in reality, so therefore, less impressive in person. Of course, I’m not exactly their target demographic, so my opinion doesn’t really count. I was most amused by a sign advertising “Santa Monica crepes”, which must seem incredibly exotic to them.

Our next stop on our quest to hit the major tourist sites was the famous Shibuya Crossing. While we were there, we wanted to see a mural called “Myth of Tomorrow”, a striking and abstract depiction of an atomic bomb explosion, which was mounted somewhere in the Shibuya station. It took us awhile to find it, located in a sort of overpass above the street connecting the station buildings on either side. In addition to displaying the painting, this location provided an excellent vantage point of the crossing from up above, where we took the obligatory photos and shot a couple short videos of the masses of people.

Before leaving the hotel for the day, I had had the foresight to bring the vouchers that we had purchased for our seven-day JR passes, which we would need to exchange at a JR station for the actual passes. Since we were now at the station, we decided to take this opportunity to do this. Unfortunately, once we found the correct location at which to obtain the passes, I discovered that I had neglected to fully read the instructions. We would need our passports in order to make the exchange, and I had left them at the hotel. Fortunately, it was only four stops away on the Ginza line, and we were back, passports in hand, 30 minutes later.

Before leaving Los Angeles, I had used www.hyperdia.com to choose our exact train routes, dates and times, and printed out screen shots of our final selections, one for each day, detailing all of the necessary stops and connections. Immediately after obtaining our passes, we preceded to the JR travel agency located 30 feet away, right in the station. The incredibly helpful woman at the agency reviewed each day’s itinerary for accuracy. In one case, she discovered a discrepancy between the train number and the time of its departure, and made the necessary correction. She then made reservations for us for all trains that required them, printing out tickets with names and times in romajii text, so that we could read them. Even better, she put each day’s tickets in a separate small envelope, onto which she wrote the date pertaining to those tickets. This meant that we needed only to grab one envelope each day in order to have every ticket we would need for that particular day’s itinerary. The only way she could have made it easier would have been if she had accompanied us for the duration of the trip!

The agent was also able to sell us a Hakone free pass, which would enable us to take all the necessary transportation during our two days going to and leaving Hakone. The only tickets which remained to be purchased were for the Nankai railway, which we would need to get to and from Koyasan, and which we would buy the day we needed them, from the Nankai ticket office in the station. Having successfully obtained our passes and reservations for the duration of the trip, we preceded back to the hotel to get ready for our first Kaiseki dinner.

I had decided before leaving Los Angeles that we should do a Kaiseki dinner in Tokyo, and again in Kyoto, so that we could compare the experiences. I don’t remember how, but we came up with Akasaka Saryo for our Tokyo dinner, probably because we could walk from our hotel and I had read some good reviews. It was nice to be able to walk someplace from our hotel besides the Hie Shrine and our little breakfast café.

The street was lined with very modern high-rises, occupied by offices, with car dealerships on the bottom floors. Since we had had the hotel make the reservation, they had printed out a photo of the front of the restaurant for us, which was very helpful. Even though it was in a modern building, they had designed the interior of the restaurant in a traditional Japanese style. It was in the basement of the building, and they had made it to look as if you’re walking down a flagstone path in an outdoor garden lined with bamboo and lanterns. Here is a link to a photo if you want to see this:

http://www.bento.com/rev/3322.html

Each table was located in a private tatami mat room, with sliding rice paper screens, beautifully painted walls, and a floral arrangement inside. Fortunately, under the low tables, the floor was recessed, so that we did not have to sit with our legs folded.

All of the servers were dressed in traditional kimonos. I thought that this might have been a concession to tourists, but we actually saw quite a few women on the streets wearing kimonos, as well as servers in less touristy areas, so it didn’t feel as put on. We also saw this in many other restaurants on the trip. We found that we were the only non-Japanese diners, which made it feel like a more authentic experience, since they were not doing it just for those crazy Americans.

I won’t go into detail on each and every course, but as we had hoped, the food was excellent, the presentation beautiful, and the servers extremely attentive. I was happy that there was not a lot of English spoken, as I don’t really feel like I’m in a foreign country unless a consulting my travel dictionary, which we did a lot. The hotel had told them ahead of time about Sam’s food allergies, and we could see that they had taken special care to leave out the shrimp and crab, while still including it in my courses.

Although this was our first tatami mat experience, we were prepared to have to take off our shoes on arrival. I had also read about the “toilet slippers” that would be required in the restrooms. They made this process very seamless by leaving a pair of sandals on the floor just off the tatami mat, so it didn’t seem even remotely inconvenient when that occasion presented itself.

Although this turned out to be our most expensive meal in Tokyo, it was actually the least expensive of our three kaiseki dinners. If this looks interesting to you, I read that they also have a great lunch deal for about 2000 yen.

Final impressions on day two: still amazed at the friendliness and helpfulness of everyone. People go out of their way to help you. If you look lost on the street, they will ask you if you need something. At one point, I was going to recharge my Pasmo card, and was looking at the machine. A man came up, said something in Japanese, took the bill from my hand, put it in the machine with the card, pushed a few buttons and handed it to me. I thanked him and off he went. This was not a subway worker, just some random guy using the subway.

Observation in 7/11: Hagen-Daz makes a carrot ice cream called “Spoon-Veg”. We didn't try it, but I like carrot cake, so why not?
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 02:49 PM
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Great report with terrific detail, russ_in_LA. Glad that the 1st night's medical issue was quickly resolved.

Your point about "oases" that are a "break from the concrete and commotion" is right on target. The contrast between the tranquility of a park or garden and the hectic pace of the city that's just on the other side of a wall or hedge is one of my favorite parts of Tokyo.

Looking forward to more.
DonTopaz is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 04:03 PM
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Thanks Don!

One other thing I meant to mention was that our Kaiseki experience prompted me to look up the word for delicious, "oishii". I felt that with 12+ courses, I needed to be able to say somthing other than "thank you" after each course, and "oishii" seemed like the best choice. After a couple of days, I finally asked someone how to say, "It was delicious". Using just the one word, I was afraid that the servers might be saying something like, "We are bringing you a new hot towel", and that I was responding, "Delicious!". I was hoping that saying a complete sentence might create the illusion that I was just starting a new thought, instead of giving a ridiculous response to something they had just said. Only they know if it worked.
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 07:09 PM
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Saryo looks nice. The complete sentence would be: Oishii desu = It is delicious. So, they got it, it worked.
mrwunrfl is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 08:07 PM
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Excellent report! I'm so glad that some of my experiences were helpful to you as that is what this forum is all about.

Looking forward to continuing the read. Hope to hear that you loved Hakone. Seeing Mt. Fuji was one of the highlights of my travel life.
MinnBeef is offline  
May 30th, 2014, 08:20 PM
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I'm enjoying your report. Keep it coming.

A couple of useful variations: oishisou desu = it looks delicious; oishikatta desu = it was delicious. The same constructions work with any -i adjective.
someotherguy is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 11:49 AM
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Oishi or Oishi desu are perfect. Keep it simple so you will be better understood!

Two other simple compliments are:

Kirei or kirei desu (key-ray, pretty) for an attractive item

ii or ii desu (ee, good)

When you aren't sure what someone said, but you know a response is in order, the catch-all is "sō desu". It's like "it sure is" or, "I see..." The line over the o in sō means it is held for an extra beat

BTW desu is pronounced dess. Your lips make the shape of the "u" at the end, but you don't sound it. (If someone does, they are likely angry or overly polite)
lcuy is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 12:48 PM
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Thanks everyone! Once I learned it, we ended up using "Oisiikatta desu" the most, because I was usually finished when I said it. More to come soon.
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 12:50 PM
  #18  
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Of course, I meant to type, "Oishikatta desu"...
russ_in_LA is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 01:01 PM
  #19  
 
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Love your report!
SeeHag is offline  
May 31st, 2014, 03:17 PM
  #20  
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May 16 – Tokyo Day 3 – Nikko

I had planned Nikko as a day trip for our third day, figuring that we would need a break from all the walking in Tokyo. It couldn’t have come at a better time, because so far we had walked about 10 times as far per day as we do in our normal day to day lives, and our feet were killing us.

Today would also be the first day of our newly activated JR Rail passes. Had we delayed our Nikko trip by one day we could have covered all of our JR trips with just the 7-day pass; however, a huge festival was taking place in Nikko the following day, and as fun as that sounded, we wanted to try to see it with fewer crowds. Also, our return from Koyasan after our pass was set to expire would mostly be on the Nankai railway, with only the Osaka to Kyoto portion on JR, so the additional cost ended up being very small.

We had reservations on a Shinkansen, departing Tokyo station 8:08 AM with a change of trains in Utsonomiya an hour later. Since our little breakfast café didn’t open until 8:00 AM, we arrived at Tokyo station at 7:00 AM to see what they had to offer. We didn’t realize what a breakfast wasteland we were staying in until we arrived at Tokyo station to find an embarrassment of riches. There were noodle soups and rice bowls, some with an egg on top, and several shops selling delicious French pastries. We opted for the pastries to make sure that we reached our train on time, not realizing at the time that few meals in a train station would take us much more than 10 minutes. We finished our breakfast and still got to our train platform 30 minutes early.

As expected, the Shinkasen train was fast, clean, and comfortable, not completely unlike the TGV in France or the EuroStar in Italy, except that it ran on time. The change of trains in Utsonomiya was seamless, and the last hour particularly pleasant, with views of the trees and the verdant hills. We arrived to JR Nikko station just after 10:00 AM.

Within minutes of getting off the train, a bus pulled up to the train station bound for the main Nikko attractions. We were happy to find that the bus accepted our Pasmo card for payment so we didn’t have to fumble for cash or even know what the fair needed to be. The first stop was at the Tobu train station about 100m away, where we saw that there was tourist information office. If you are coming in on a JR train, you could easily walk to the tourist office to obtain some information and maps, and pick up the bus from there. Just turn right from the JR station and it will be up on your right.

We rode the bus to the Toshugu area, which contains the Toshugu shrine, Futarasan shrine, and the Rinnoji Temple. We knew ahead of time that some of the complex was being refurbished, so we weren’t surprised to find the Rinnoji temple completely covered. However, we still bought a ticket to go inside the temporary building they had erected around the temple, which contained many of the temple’s statues and carvings. This enabled us to get a closer look at them then we would have had they been installed in their normal locations. It was also interesting to see that the temple was completely disassembled and laying in pieces on the ground. I would hate to have the job of putting that back together again!

Although the Yomeimon Gate was covered with scaffolding, there were literally dozens of other buildings at the Toshugu shrine, including a fantastic 5-story pagoda, that were all in amazing condition, decorated with gold leaf and colorfully painted. Opulent, hardly begins to describe them, and the setting among the trees was beautiful. The main attraction is the Honden, or main hall, the pleasure of which was greatly diminished by the crush of people being funneled through a small corridor. Later, we went up a long flight of stairs to the tomb of Shogun Ieyasa Tokugawa, although the views are more impressive than the tomb itself.

Since it was now about noon and our stomachs were starting to grumble, we decided to have lunch at small restaurant right in the temple complex. Given the crowds outside, we were afraid that we might not get a table, but when we were seated we saw that we were the only ones there, although it filled up quickly after that. It was fast, if not terribly inspired, and were able to get right back to our exploration.

At first sight, the Futarasan shrine did not seem quite as interesting as the Toshogu shrine, however continuing our walk uphill toward the mausoleum of 3rd Shogun, Iemitsu, grandson of Ieyasa, led to a series of decorative gates, every bit as ostentatious as those at Toshogu. Almost no other people found their way to this shrine and we had it almost completely to ourselves. With its spectacular setting in the forest, gorgeous and well maintained architectural detail, and serene location, this turned out to be the highlight of the day.

We took the bus back toward town, getting off at the sacred bridge for a few photos. From that point it was about a 1 mile walk down the main street to the station, which we spent leisurely looking into shops. Since we got back to the station about an hour before our train was departing, we had some tea at a cafe just across the street from the JRstation, and rested our weary feet.

There was some discussion on this board before I left about whether a day trip was enough time for Nikko. As with most questions of this nature, it depends. The natural beauty of the area was unmistakable, and I'm sure we could have spent two enjoyable days taking hikes and exploring the region. We did not see the lake or the waterfalls or the onsens, but we did have an overnight stay planned in Hakone, during which would be able to enjoy the onsen and the outdoors. In the end we felt that for the temples and shrines in the Toshugo area alone, Nikko was a very worthwhile day trip from Tokyo, one that I would recommend.

We arrived back in Tokyo about 6:00 PM without dinner plans, so we asked our hotel for a recommendation for sushi, since we had yet to have any so far on this trip. They made reservations for us at a place in Ginza called Seamon, located in a small space on the 6th floor of a non-descript commercial building in the main shopping district. I have no idea if this is a well-known place, or off the beaten path, but we had a very good experience there and the food was excellent. The most striking feature of the narrow room was the long red lacquer bar, where we were seated, so we could watch the four sushi chefs as they created our 9 piece omekase menu. We really enjoyed the flavors, which were clean and simple, all of which were served with some sort of subtle sauce or seasoning which complemented rather than overpowered the fish. They also served 3 additional complementary courses, which I thought was a nice touch.

Up next: Last day in Tokyo - Great experience with Tokyo Free Guide!
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