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Japan Mailbag – Part 2 February 11, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Hiroshima, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo.

Since announcing that we would be spending a week in Japan during the Christmas Holidays (Dec. 26th – Jan. 1st), we’ve been bombarded with questions about our trip. I’ve responded to some of those questions directly, but I figured I would share some of them here, along with my answers. Please keep in mind, everything you’re about to read came from actual e-mails sent in by our readers.

Click here for Part 1.

8) Did you experience any cool sporting events? – Mike in Ottawa

No. We had some time to kill on New Year’s Day before leaving for the airport so we took a short local train ride to the Tokyo Dome. We had gone almost an entire week in Japan without any exposure to sports and I was starting to get the shakes. The only prescription was a trip to the home park of the Japanese equivalent of the Yankess, the Yomiuri Giants.

Nothing to really write home about. Reminds me of another large blob of concrete with no character formally known as the Sky Dome. I just wanted an excuse to show footage of this home run that David Ortiz hit there over 5 years ago. Watch the replays at the end of the clip to appreciate what his does to this 3-0 fastball.

I’m pretty sure he got all of it.

9) What was the public transportation like? – Darren in Seoul

First class. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Asians do airports and public transportation like nobody’s business. When people ask us what our favourite thing about Asia is, this will invariably be our answer. And the temples.

A few weeks before our trip we took advantage of an offer for foreign tourists for something called a Japan Rail Pass. We paid a flat fee of approximately $300 CAD and had full access for one week to every train on the JR line throughout all of Japan. This included all the highspeed trains (with the exception of the super highspeed Nozomi) between cities and most of the local trains within these cities as well. It can be confusing at first differentiating between the different types of train lines and how they all fit together, but once you figure it out, you’ll never need a taxi again. We actually didn’t take one taxi throughout our entire trip as the starting fare for your typical cab is $15-20 CAD.

Another nice feature of the JR Pass was that we felt like rock stars bypassing lines in every train terminal. We simply had to flash our fancy train pass at any gate and we walked right through without hesitation.

As for the highspeed trains themselves, they were pretty sweet. The thing that immediately jumped out at me was that they weren’t brand new. They didn’t look old or dated by any stretch of the imagination, but there was noticeable wear. I find this surprising because they have clearly been in service for 5-10 years and are still considered the benchmark by which other countries are designing their rail infrastructure and are still operating at peak efficiency.

Even though we didn’t have access to the fastest train (the Nozomi) and had to settle for the second fastest train (the Hikari), it wasn’t exactly a major downgrade. We were still able to travel from Tokyo to Hiroshima (680km) or Tokyo to Kyoto (520km) in under 4 hours and 2.5 hours respectively. Can you imagine taking a train from Toronto to Montreal in less than 3 hours? Or Toronto to New York in approximately 4 hours?

Now forget about the speed. Even more impressive was the efficiency. The entire system was like clockwork. We had to transfer from one train to the other in Osaka and were given a 6 minute grace period between our train’s arrival and the next train departing. When the ticket agent who provided our tickets explained this to us, he seemed as if it was perfectly feasible so I didn’t question him. Sure enough, we rolled into Osaka right on the time printed on the ticket, calmly walked off the train, down the stairs to the main terminal, checked the information board to see what track our next train was boarding on, and were in our seats with time to spare. Try that next time you’re traveling with Via or Amtrak.

Did I mention the extensive leg room and a ridiculous reclining seat?

After settling in for our 4 hour trip to Hiroshima, this was the first thing I noticed shortly after pulling out of Tokyo station. I tried to wake Katie from the coma she had lapsed into to no avail.

Yup, Mount Fuji.

10) How was the food and what was your favourite meal? – Lauren in Montreal

On our third night in Kyoto after spending most of the day in nearby Nara, we decided to take a half hour train ride to Kobe.  We wanted to sample its signature dish for which the city is named – Kobe beef (insert link about Kobe beef). Or maybe the beef is named after the city. Who cares? I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Now I love me a good steak, and I’m not afraid to pay for quality. But I must admit that I was a little worried that the hype and expectations that accompanied the $130 per person price tag would not be met.

We arrived in Kobe around 4pm and were greeted by the first bad weather that we encountered all week. It was raining and we didn’t have umbrella’s. We found the restaurant that our travel guide had highly recommended and made the reservation for 6:30pm. We spent the next 2 hours having beers on a covered patio and debating the merits of spending such a absurd amount of money for a slab of meat.

It was arguably the best decision we made during the entire trip.

The restaurant was called Wakkoqu and was your typical tempenyaki style restaurant, which means that the grill is right in front of you and the chef prepares your meal while you observe or in our case, salivate.

Kobe beef refers to beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict traditional Japanese standards. It’s renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty well-marbled texture.

The roast beef and salmon appetizers weren’t bad either.

Best money we spent on our trip and worth every cent, er..yen. Fortunately the hefty price tag also included a side of vegetables, rice and a 19th century Korean slave.

The other culinary highlight of our trip was our sushi experience. We targeted a restaurant called Pintokona in the popular Roppongi Hills district that combines the convenience of a conveyor belt and microchipped dishes. Every plate in the circulation is embedded with a chip to indicate when the sushi has been in rotation too long and calculate your bill when finished. The plates are also colour coded to identify their price according to a menu provided. You simply stack your plates as they accumulate and when you’re finished a server comes by with a scanner that looks like a pricing gun to compute your total. It’s genius.

Anytime you can incorporate conveyor belts and microchips into a dining experience, you’re going to leave the restaurant satisfied. Add roast beef, tuna, and salmon to the equation and I’m pretty sure you could split the atom. Physics joke! Hey-ooo!

11) Did you see any funny signs? – Dana in Hong Kong

Beware of 7 foot tall soldiers with alien children.

12) Did you see any Geisha’s? – Rob in Vancouver

No, but we saw lots of deer.

On our third day in Kyoto we took a day trip to Nara. Known as the first capital of Japan, Nara is one of the most rewarding destinations in the country. With eight Unesco World Heritage Sites, Nara is second only to Kyoto as a repository of Japan’s cultural legacy. The centrepiece is, of course Diabutsu, or Great Buddha, which rivals Mount Fuji and Kyoto’s Golden Pavillion as Japan’s single most impressive sight. The Great Buddha is housed in Todai-ji, a soaring temple that presides in Nara-koen, a park filled with fascinating sights that lends itself to strolling amid the greenery and over 1200 deer.

Daibutsu-den Hall is the largest wooden building in the world. Unbelievably, the present structure, rebuilt in 1709, is a mere two-thirds the size of the original. Needless to say, there was no smoking in this building. Inside is Nara’s star attraction, the Great Buddha.

It’s one of the largest bronze figures in the world and was originally cast in 746. The present statue, recast in the Edo period (1603-1868), stands just over 16m high and consists of 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold.

Here’s some video and commentary from a very special guest.

This wasn’t the only temple we visited in Nara. Heck, it wasn’t even the only temple we visited in that particular park. We’ve visited so many temples over the past year, that while watching the season premiere of Lost a few days ago, I innocently asked Katie if we had visited the temple featured on the show yet. Due to inappropriate content, I’m unable to share her response, but I can tell you that the first word rhymed with “muck” and the second word is the opposite of “on”.

13) What did you do on New Year’s? – Tim in Toronto

Geronimo’s in the famous Roppongi District.

Katie’s brother Tim, who frequents Japan for business on occasion recommended this bar to us. Initially we didn’t intend to go there but once we arrived in Roppongi, it was one of the first bars we found.

Upon entering, we immediately understood why Tim was a fan. It’s Tokyo’s version of our favourite bar in Toronto, the Underground Garage. A very small intimate bar with lots of character. By the time we arrived, it was already starting to fill up but we managed to find a nice little table tucked away in the corner. We spent most of the evening enjoying each other’s company and reminiscing about our wonderful trip while making fun of the other drunk patrons (mostly young foreigners). We savoured every drop of our $15 drinks and tried to ignore the thick layer of smoke forming all around us  (They still have smoking in bars and restaurants and even smoking cars on trains).

It wasn’t a typical New Year’s for us compared to what we’re accustomed to, but we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

14) Any other cool pics leftover to share with us? – Katie in Brooklin