Monday, March 3, 2014

Japan - Impressions, Travel Tips, and a List

It is both humbling and exhilarating to be a foreigner in a foreign land. Before our two-week trip to Japan, from which we returned this weekend, I had never been to the Far East. For those who are veteran globetrotters it may sound silly, but I'll confess I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of being literally halfway across the world in a place where we not only didn't know, but couldn't even decipher the characters of, the native language. But that fear was more than outbalanced by our love of Japanese culture and food, and the desire to experience them first-hand.

We needn't have been so concerned. Literally from the moment we arrived, we were buoyed by the graciousness, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit of the Japanese people. As we wandered our way through the Shinbashi subway station dragging luggage behind us, a kind lady - who spoke no English whatsoever - helped us figure out where our hotel was, and then walked with us for nearly ten minutes to guide us there. It was a scene that repeated itself throughout our stay. Whenever we were lost, whenever we needed help, someone was always glad to assist.

We saw so many beautiful things. We ate so many fantastic meals. But more than anything, I was won over by the people of Japan. That lady in the subway station. The sushi chef at the restaurant with three Michelin stars who bounded down three flights of stairs so he could see us off in the taxi after our meal. The dark-suited businessmen who bought us a round of sake at dinner in Kanazawa. These were the things that made Mrs. F and I feel welcome as strangers in a strange land, and which made our celebration of our twentieth anniversary even more special.

Over the coming weeks I will try to recap some of our best meals in Japan, several of which were among the best I've experienced anywhere. In the meantime, here are many random impressions, a few words of advice for fellow first-time travelers to Japan, a list of all the places we ate at that I can recall, and several expressions of thanks for many people whose guidance made our experience so much better.

(continued ...)

(You can also see a small sample of the pictures from our trip in this Japan Trip flickr set, and I've got a few more sets already posted: Sushi Yoshitake - 鮨よしたけ- TokyoMikawa Zezankyo - みかわ是山居 - Tokyo, Nihonryori RyuGin - 龍吟 - Tokyo, and Tsukiji Market - 築地市場 - Tokyo).

There are hundreds of small things - impressions, sensations, peculiarities - that I hope will not fade in my memory, and have jotted some of them down here. I apologize if they are trite, or stereotyped, or just plain boring:
  • the sight, and sound, and feel, of thousands of workers heading from the subway to their office buildings in the mornings - a wave of black- and grey-garbed humanity seemingly marching in unison.
  • the near silence while riding on even the most crowded Tokyo subways.
  • the little musical jingles for each subway train as they arrive at a station.
  • the trucks emblazoned with posters for girl bands blaring their music through the Tokyo streets.
  • the prevalence of stylized cuteness - "kawaii" - not just for kids' stuff, but for all types of businesses and products.[1]
  • the young women walking pigeon-toed in outrageously high-heeled boots and remarkably short skirts in 30° weather.[2]
  • businessmen carrying stylish "murses" - and I'm not talking about attaches or messenger bags.
  • the way everyone uses two hands to present a bill or accept payment, a small, graceful showing of attention and respect.
  • the sight of a taxi driver polishing his car while on break, of a Tsukiji fish vendor polishing his bicycle after his products for the day were sold (as if indoctrinated with the chef's mantra of "If you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean").
  • the scarcity of public garbage cans - which we always struggled to find - coupled with the incredible cleanliness of most public spaces, including the trains and subways.[3]
  • the toilets with space shuttle technology - seat-warmers, rear-washers, bidets, dryers, and deodorizers - contrasted with the traditional "squatting" toilets found in many public places.
  • the prevalence of wearing surgical masks (by some), contrasted with the rather extravagant, uncovered sneezing and coughing (by others) - and that there seems to be no equivalent to "Bless you!" or "Gezundheit!" or "Salud!" in Japan.
  • the lace covers on the seats of taxi cabs; the taxi drivers wearing suits and, often, white gloves.
  • the incredibly abstruse system of addresses in Japan, and the lengthy pregnant pause as taxi drivers would decipher and plot a course to any destination.[4]
  • the drive from Atami station to Tsubaki Ryokan, clinging to the side of a cliff with the ocean beneath, like a scene out of Miyazaki's "Ponyo."
  • the sound of the quickly shuffling feet of our traditionally garbed attendant at Tsubaki, and her and our game efforts to communicate with each other via iPhone translation apps.
  • the teenage girls in Kyoto dressed as geishas and taking selfies of themselves making peace signs on their iPhones.
  • the sound of unabashed slurping in the ramen houses.
  • the swing-era jazz music that seemed to be the unofficial soundtrack of every café and restaurant we visited that had any music playing.
  • the prayer ritual at Shinto shrines: wash hands and mouth at the "temizuya" fountain, then throw a coin into the offering box, bow twice, clap twice, say your prayer and bow again.
  • the sound of wooden prayer plaques rattling in the wind.
  • the smell of incense burning in front of the Buddhist temples.
  • the constant refrain of "Arigato gozaimasu!" ("Thank you!"), usually repeated about five times for every transaction.

Of a more practical nature, I also note a few words of advice from a first-time traveler to Japan for anyone plotting a visit:

1. Your hotel concierge is your friend. One of the joys of travel for me is plotting out restaurant reservations. But in Japan, many of the best places will not even take reservation requests from anyone who does not speak Japanese. Even if they did, the time difference and communication difficulties will likely make it a difficult process. But we found our hotel concierges more than willing and able to fulfill this task.

We booked our trip on fairly short notice - three weeks - and I gave the concierge at the Park Hotel Tokyo some rather complicated marching orders. We had five days in Tokyo, and since I knew many of the places we wanted to visit had very limited seating and might already be booked, I gave them a list of about 20 restaurants, ranked somewhat in order of preference, but with different preferences for different nights (i.e., our first night in Tokyo we wanted sushi close to the hotel). After a couple initial questions - did we have any food allergies, did we object to cancellation charges - within twelve hours they came back with five reservations that fit our requests perfectly. They then promptly followed through on a couple later audibles from us.

When we arrived at the hotel, they had prepared forms with confirmations of each of our reservations, as well as print-outs with maps and addresses for each restaurant in English and Japanese (for the taxi drivers). I want these people to run my life for me.

In addition to assistance with reservations, we also got some very good advice from the concierges. When Mrs. F had grown weary of kaiseki in Kyoto, our concierge steered us to a local izakaya that was exactly what we were looking for. When we were unable to book reservations at a couple of places that had been recommended to us in Kanazawa, the folks at the ryokan where we stayed instead booked us at a tiny eight-seat sushi place in an old tea-house that was one of the best meals of our trip.

2. Google Maps is your friend. I was astounded at how efficient Google Maps was both in finding addresses and guiding us to locations - even in (relatively) more remote areas. It would not always recognize the "Westernized" names for places, but if you could find an address (even in Westernized form, i.e., "4-1-15 Nishiazabu") or the Japanese characters for a name, it would usually turn up the right spot. Its route-planning for subways was pretty consistently reliable, and for walking routes as well. Though the walking directions were sometimes a bit unorthodox - we took a back route up to Kiyomizu-dera temple that wound alongside a massive cemetery, rather than the well-trafficked direct path - they invariably worked, and often led us places we'd never have seen otherwise.

3. Mobile WiFi is your friend. WiFi connectivity throughout Japan is not nearly as widespread as you might expect of this tech-savvy country, and international data service always makes me nervous as to what I'll end up paying. We rented a mobile wi-fi router from Japan Wireless which, for about $85 for two weeks, was a great investment. It was waiting at our hotel when we arrived, and came with packaging so it could be dropped in the mail (or left with the hotel to mail) when we were done with it. We could connect all our phones and tablets, the device could be slipped into a small bag, it would hold a charge for about six hours of constant use, and we were connected just about everywhere we went other than on some train routes. Honestly, I don't know how we would have managed the trip without the combination of Google Maps on the phone + mobile WiFi.

4. The Japan Rail Pass is your friend. If you're planning to travel around the country at all, a Japan Rail Pass is likely a good investment. We got ours through Inside Japan Tours, where a 14-day pass cost $425. Since we took trains from Tokyo to Hakone, from Hakone to Kyoto, from Kyoto to Kanazawa, and from Kanazawa back to Tokyo, I'm sure we came out way ahead. Note that the JR Pass does not cover local subways, something it took us a little while to figure out when we first arrived. For that, I'd suggest getting a "Pasmo" card, which can be used at most railways, can be "re-loaded" at machines located in every station, and can also be used as a debit card at many vendors in the stations.

5. There are better ways to/from the airport than taxis. I've been told that a taxi from Narita airport to downtown Tokyo will cost hundreds of dollars. For about $25, the Keisei Skyliner train runs directly from Narita to Nippori Station or Ueno Station in about 45 minutes, where you can connect with most Tokyo destinations by rail or subway in another 20-30 minutes. Alternately, the Airport Limousine Bus costs $30, picks up or drops off directly at several Tokyo hotels, and takes less than 1 1/2 hours.

6. Information is everywhere on the trains and subways; use it. If you pay attention and read closely, the information you need to get around is usually available somewhere, in English. Every sign, every ticket, has meaningful data on it if you know where to look. Conversely, if you don't pay close attention, you can easily end up on the wrong train - as we did when we got on a "limited express" train that arrived at the same platform as our "express" train, but four minutes earlier, and which overshot our destination by about 100 miles because it didn't stop at all the stations. Of course, one of the passengers kindly helped us figure out where to get off and which train to catch to backtrack to the right station.

7. Don't assume your plastic will work. I have heard that the magnetic strips on U.S.-issued credit cards are antiquated compared to what is used in Japan, and that many Japanese card-processing machines will not recognize them. Whether or not that's the reason, my Citi AAdvantage Mastercard was pretty much useless there. Fortunately, my American Express worked, and was accepted virtually everywhere that took cards (though some restaurants do not take credit cards at all). Likewise, many ATM machines will not recognize U.S.-issued ATM cards - we had better luck when we used the JP Bank machines at major train stations.

Here is where we went in our fourteen days, covering Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Kanazawa. I'll do my best to recount some of the highlights over the coming weeks.

Sushi Yoshitake - Tokyo (Ginza) (recap(pictures)
Le Pain de Joel Robuchon - Tokyo (Shibuya) (picture)
Mikawa Zezankyo - Tokyo (Fukuzumi) (recap) (pictures)
Tsukiji Market - Tokyo (Tsukiji) (didn't note the name of the sushi bar) (pictures)
Nihonryori RyuGin - Tokyo (Roppongi) (recap) (pictures)
Ansobatakumi - Tokyo (Hirano) (picture)
Azabu Kadowaki - Tokyo (Azabu) (recap) (pictures)
Aoba Ramen - Tokyo (Nakano) (pictures)
L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon - Tokyo (Roppongi) (pictures)
Tokyo Train Station bento box - Tokyo (picture)
Tsubaki Ryokan - Hakone (pictures)
Giro Giro - Kyoto (pictures)
Kitchen Kanra - Kyoto (picture)
Chicken Karaage in front of Yasaka Shrine - Kyoto (picture)
Kanga-an - Kyoto (pictures)
Honke Owariya - Kyoto (picture)
Apollo Plus - Kyoto (pictures)
Kisaki - Kyoto (pictures)
Sumibi Torito - Kyoto (pictures)
Kaga Yasuke - Kanazawa (pictures)
Sushi Mitsukawa - Kanazawa (pictures)
Kanazawa Train Station bento box - Kanazawa (picture)
Sushisho Masa - Tokyo (Nishi Azabu) (pictures)
Ippudo - Tokyo (Ginza) (pictures)
Yakitori TonTon - Tokyo (Yurakucho) (pictures)
Origami - Tokyo (Chiyoda)

Finally, some words of thanks to many people whose advice and writings were invaluable in steering us to great experiences in Japan.
  • First and foremost, Steve Berry, a/k/a "Blind Mind," who provided countless great tips from his Japan trip last year, and whose enthusiasm and passion helped persuade me to take the leap.
  • Kevin Cory, chef of Naoe restaurant, who provided a comprehensive guide to Kanazawa that we could only begin to put a dent into.
  • In no particular order - Chuck of ChuckEats, Dr. Tomo of TomoStyle (who we had the incredibly random good fortune to run into at one of our dinners in Tokyo!), Yukari Sakamato of Food Sake Tokyo, Robbie Swinnerton of TokyoFoodFile and the Japan Times, Litti Kewkacha of sfreelife, Aiste Miseviciute of Luxeat, and Andy Hayler's Restaurant Guide - all of whom provided meaningful insights that helped narrow down a daunting plethora of choices. If you are plotting a visit, I encourage you to read as much as you can from all of these sources.
More reports to follow, hopefully soon.

[1] For instance, the logo of Yamato Transport, a ubiquitous delivery service that seems to be Japan's FedEx, is a cartoon black cat carrying a kitten in its mouth.

[2] On the other hand, cleavage seems to be rarely displayed in Japan, other than in anime and manga. If I sound like a perv, please note these were Mrs. F's observations as well.

[3] We generally could find public trash receptacles in only two places: (1) next to vending machines, where there would usually be recycling bins for glasses and bottles; and (2) in front of Lawson convenience stores. Sometimes there would be one on the subway platform. On the trains, some of the cars would have one. Otherwise, they seemed to be virtually nonexistent. And yet you never see garbage on the ground, including on the trains where people routinely bring packaged food to eat. It's as is people have a sense of personal responsibility for their own trash.

[4] As I understand it, every city is divided into different districts (a "chome"), which are then broken down into numbered blocks, and then each building on a block is also assigned a number. Building numbers are not consecutive, but rather are based on when the building was constructed, and thus are in no particular order. I have no idea how anybody finds anything without a GPS.


  1. Sounds like a fantastic, interesting trip. And great writing, as usual. Maybe you could cross over from food writer to travel writer. Eager to read future Japan reports. Thanks.

  2. This is an excellent roundup of your experiences and observations. Japan is certainly at the top of my list of places I would like to travel to. I'll be sure to file this post for future reference and bookmark your blog too. Thanks so much! =)

  3. Sounds great! I am so intrigued by Japan...I can't wait to hear what else you have to say.

  4. OMG, I'm so happy I found this! I visited Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka last September and you really brought back the smells, tastes, and sounds (or lack thereof - kinda creepy when it's super quiet on a busy street.) Unlike other places I've visited, Japan is the only one that left a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach upon realizing I may never go back. Can't wait to read the rest of your reviews while feeling wistful. :)

  5. Fantastic list! I am going to visit Japan next week. I booked my hotel one month ago. I suppose I will have troubles with wi-fi , too. Thank you for sharing such a useful information! I am sure that google maps will be the most used app when I am there. Best regards!

  6. Thanks for the information. I was planning to visit Japan this year however i didn't know where to start. Thanks for the awesome post of Japan Tour.