Land of contrasts-temples and technology, kimonos and karaoke, Buddhas and baseball.
My wife and I have always thought we would like to visit Japan but had heard stories about high prices and difficulties in getting around congested cities. These ideas had led us to put off a Japan trip.
But the time came this spring when we decided to spend four days in the Tokyo/Kyoto area after we disembarked from an Orient cruise. We would "get our feet wet," as thy say, with this short stay. As it turned out, all our pre-conceived notions contrasted with we what we found.
Because of the few days we had, we figured we should pre-plan as much as possible. After all, with a population of 26 million, Tokyo is the largest city in the world, not a place to aimlessly wander. For help, we contacted the L.A. office of Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) which helped us immeasurably in setting our agenda.
Finding reasonable accommodations
The first thing we realized upon arriving in Tokyo is that we didn't have to spend a lot of money and that it wasn't hard to get around. First class hotels range from $250 to $450. But after reading JNTO's "Your Guide to Japan" publication, we decided our best bet was to stay in a so-called business hotels at around $125 a night. These hotels appeal to commercial travelers and locals. Accommodations are strictly "no-frills" but rooms are clean and comfortable. After all, we were going to spend our time sight-seeing and didn't need a pool, spa or fancy restaurant to return to.
New Otani, one of Japan's top hotel chains, owns the New Otani Inn in the business category. Its location, adjacent to the Osaki station was extremely convenient-a five minute walk to catch our train. As well, the rate included a full breakfast, both American and Japanese.
Getting around Tokyo with ease
To get around is easy and inexpensive in Tokyo. Among the cleanest cities in the world, it also has one of the most technologically efficient rail systems. If the schedule says 9:53, be on the station platform early, ready to board. Subways cost no more than any large city. (One-day passes are about $7.) Signs and maps are in English, and personnel selling tickets speak enough English to answer questions, particularly if we pointed to our destination on the map.
Looking for restaurants
Dining can also be very reasonable, especially if one is adventurous. We looked for restaurants which the locals frequent, particularly ones that served traditional Japanese dishes. For example, on our first day for lunch we found an eatery that specialized in noodle dishes, udon (made from wheat) and soba ( from buckwheat).
It was crowded and no one spoke much English. We had trouble communicating but by pointing and with help of a kind lady who spoke a few words of English, we got our orders across. (By the way, everywhere we went people were eager to help.) We thoroughly enjoyed slurping with our fellow diners. It was the best noodles ever-hardy and delicious, filled with vegetables and pork. With beer and Coke, our bill came to $10. As we left, we gave the chef a "thumbs up" and shouted "ichiban" (No. 1).
Another day, we went to a restaurant that we had heard specialized in a dish similar to egg foo yong, called okonomiyaki. Our server presented us with a bowl of shredded cabbage with bean sprouts and scallions, topped with a mayonnaise-type substance and an egg, adding meats or shrimp to our taste. We mixed it, spooned it onto a grill (built into each table) and when it began to harden like a pancake, we flipped it over, eating this tasty entree right from the grill. We enjoyed doing it ourselves while watching others eating variations of it.
If you want the best sashimi or cooked seafood go to the Ameyoko Tsukiji fish market. Enjoy the spectacle of buyers and sellers bidding for the day's catch and then go to a nearby restaurant for fresh fish direct from the market. Also there is an abundance of popular-priced places for dining, most have in front windows colorful plastic models of food they serve and the price.
SIGHT-SEEING IN TOKYO
During our two-day Tokyo stay, we left every morning with our destinations carefully planned. Following are among the sites we came up with:
Visitors can only get into the emperor's residence a few times a year. But the gardens around the palace are well worth seeing. We shot from the prime photo spot on Nijubahi Bridge where a corner of the castle peeks from behind the moat and surrounding wall.
Asakusa Kannon Temple
This is the city's most beloved Buddhist shrine. Founded in the Seventh Century to enshrine a gold statue of the goddess of mercy, brought up from the sea in a net by fishermen. As it turned out, we couldn't get close enough to see it. The day of our visit marked the beginning of the annual spring Sandja Matsuri Festival. Hordes of worshipers descended on the shrine. Men, women and children, all dressed in traditional garb, carried gold-lacquered shrines from the temple through the streets. We wouldn't have missed it, though, inching through side streets, passing by traditional family shops and stalls selling a plethora of food and goods.
This is the Times Square of Japan, the place where East meets West. Exclusive shops and high-tech showrooms, restaurants and theaters abound in this section of wide avenues, elegant stores and gourmet restaurants.
Tokyo's largest park, in early April, it is one of the best places to see pink cherry blossoms. It's also a center for art and culture with many and varied museums, including the Tokyo National Museum. In a corner of the park was fetching ancient statue of a Samurai and his dog, dedicated to the fact that his shogun had banned killing animals.
Edo was the former name of Tokyo. Featuring large-scale models, this is the place to go to really appreciate Japanese history and lifestyles.
Taking in Kabuki theater Kabuki-za
We're theater-lovers and had to see Kabuki, Japan's traditional stylized form of theater, dating from the 17th Century. With all-male casts, it features vivid makeup, spectacular sets and costumes with musicians playing percussive drums and stringed instruments at the side. Playgoers get so involved with the action that they yell to actors on stage. This is Shakespeare to the Japanese.
We rented headphones and were able to follow the story in English. It was a unique experience we wouldn't have missed. Matinees and evening performances usually feature several plays and can last some five hours. However, it is possible to buy reduced price tickets to see only a portion of the program.
TRAVELING TO KYOTO AND HIIRAGIYA RYOKAN
After two days in Tokyo, it was time to go to Kyoto, and on this part of our stay we decided to splurge. First, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto ($260 round trip). With its futuristic design, it looks right out of a science-fiction film. We caught a late-morning train and were at our destination before lunch. We hardly realized we were going 240 mph. It took us around 90 minutes to make the 313 mile journey.
Our other splurge was to stay in an historical ryokan inn, the Hiiragiya Ryokan. Doors in rooms are sliding shoji screens, floors are of rice straw matting. At night we slept on thick-cushioned futons, rolled out on the floor, as comfortable as our mattress at home.
Tired from our afternoon of sight-seeing, we took a soak in the cedar tub hot bath in our room. For families and groups there is the traditional communal tub.
Relaxed and refreshed, we dried off and put on robes provided and were ready for a cocktail and dinner. As we were relaxing, looking out a window on to a lovely garden, Keiko, the innkeeper, knocked on our door and invited us to meet a group of geishas who were in the lobby waiting to entertain a group of business men at a dinner party that night in the ryokan. We met them and took photos-indeed a serendipitous experience.
Promptly at 7 p.m., our kimono-clad attendant came to our room and invited us to sit at a low table as she served dinner. Called a "kaiseki" meal, it consisted of eight small courses, each gorgeously presented, alternating between meat, seafood and vegetable.
Hiiragiya is considered one of the best in Japan and our stay here will remain one of our fondest memories. Rooms start around $280 per person which includes two meals, a kaiseki dinner and an equally fine breakfast.
Visiting sites in Kyoto
There are so many wonderful places to visit in Kyoto we should have had stayed several days. With only two, we limited ourselves to visiting only the most popular sites, saving our final afternoon for a trip to Miyama.
Built in the 12th Century A.D., the temple of the Golden Pavilion is Kyoto's most celebrated attraction. Its gilded three-storied pavilion is best appreciated viewed from across Kyokochi Pond. where it appears to shimmer as it merges with its reflection in the water.
On display here is the lavish compound from which shoguns ruled beginning in the 15th Century. Especially interesting are the various meeting rooms, each gorgeously decorated with scenes from nature, along with the great hall where rulers received dignitaries on their raised throne.
Built in 798 A.D., the temple complex, filled with fountains and streams, is located in a lush hillside forest. We were especially taken with the grand view of Kyoto from the platform of the main hall.
It is famous for its serene 15th Century Zen rock garden, surely one of most photographed spots in the world. Fifteen rocks of various sizes are artfully arranged in sand. Sitting in a viewing area, visitors from around the world contemplate its meaning. Is it symbolic of the natural world or, as a popular interpretation puts it-a mother tiger and her cubs, swimming in a river of white sand toward a fearful dragon?
From a pavilion, looking out on a garden, we took part in an ancient tea ceremony arranged for us alone. We felt privileged to get this insight into Japanese culture.
On our final afternoon in Kyoto, we took a guided tour to Miyama, 45 minutes through the mountains outside Kyoto. We had seen the crowded cities. Now it was good to get out in the country.
Miyama is a popular tourist area, with a wide stream rushing though a canyon and with a lake nearby. A village of thatched-roofed homes has been set aside as an historical site. It was a treat to wander down lanes, greeting farmers planting rice in paddies or picking tea leaves-just as their ancestors have done for centuries.
It was now time to return to Tokyo to take the flight home. We had a wonderful time and would now tell our friends not to hesitate to visit this marvelous country.
To contact the Japan National Tourist Organization in Los Angeles, call (213) 623-1952 or visit the website: Visit Our Site, www.jnto.go.jp.
To inquire about New Otani Inn, call (213) 629-1200.