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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

Japan Mailbag – Part 1 January 31, 2010

Posted by jorkat in Hiroshima, Kyoto, 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. Everything you’re about to read came from actual e-mails sent in by our readers.

1) What cities did you visit and which one was your favourite? – Mark from Toronto

We flew into Tokyo on December 26th and spent our first night there. There was an affordable sushi restaurant right near the famous fish market where staggering amounts of fresh seafood are delivered each and every day. Unfortunately we couldn’t find it and have a feeling its closed since the publication of our travel guide which recommended it. After wandering several blocks in every direction trying to find a restaurant that was open and/or had an English menu, we gave up. Our first meal in Japan was McDonald’s. D’Oh! After overcoming the guilt from eating McDonald’s we ventured to the famous Shibuya Crossing. Regarded as one of the world’s most visually stimulating four-way intersections where the green light given to pedestrians releases a timed surge of humanity.

Here’s a pic from overhead courtesy of Google Images.

The following morning we boarded a high speed train bound for Hiroshima which was our furthest target from Tokyo. We spent one night there and then started heading back towards Tokyo in time for New Year’s Eve. We made stops in Osaka, 3 nights in Kyoto, a day trip to Nara and dinner in Kobe. More on that later though…

As for our favourite city, it was Kyoto by far.

I think I can sum up our 3 days in Kyoto with three simple words.

Temple. Temple. Shrine.

I don’t remember the exact numbers but we saw a staggering number of temples and shrines. Having spent almost a year in Asia, I’ve seen enough temples to last me a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, they are spectacular structures and I appreciate the history and culture attached to them. In Kyoto though, it seems like there’s one on every corner. So after a day spent walking covering most of the major cultural landmarks, it was going to take something special to get my attention.

Cue the Golden Pavillion.

*Courtesy of Katie Images.

Known as the Kinkakuji Temple, it’s a zen buddhist temple built in 1397. Since then its been burned down a few times by a bunch of crazies. Rebuilt, and received a fresh coat of authentic gold-leaf back in 1987.

Not to downplay its cultural and historical significance but it was the structure itself and the surrounding area that were so breathtaking. Everything was in its rightful place. The layout and landscaping were sublime. Even the gift shop was perfectly placed at the exit. It was the Disney World and Augusta National of buddhist temples.

Another thing that we admired about Kyoto and appreciate about ancient cities in general, is their ability to integrate modern architecture and infrastructure into cultural landmarks without sacrificing sight lines or access. Kyoto encompasses this ideal to perfection.

Despite not being overly modern from a visual standpoint, Kyoto has a full subway system, a central train station that’s larger and more modern than Union Station (Toronto) and services a network of local trains, high-speed rail and the subway. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan and is still considered by most as the cultural capital thanks to its rich history and impressive cultural landmarks. We were shocked to learn that the city has a population of only 1.5 million people. I guess it’s sort of like Ottawa, minus the culture and modern infrastructure. Add Via Rail to the list of things that will make us angry when we get home.

2) What was the climate like and how did your packing go? – Chelsea from Montreal

Excellent question. The climate was a welcome change from the colder temperatures in Seoul. On average, it was between 5 and 12 degress celsius which was ideal for the clothing we had brought and the amount of time we spent walking outdoors.

As for my packing, I’m pleased to report that I ended up wearing every single item of clothing that I packed with the exception of one t-shirt. The only bad decision I made was opting against bringing my running shoes in favour of wearing my North Face shoes for the entire trip. This is very unlike me as I like to always have alternative footwear options but we were trying to travel as light as possible. It’s not that my North Face shoes weren’t comfortable, they’re the best and have served me well for almost 4 years now. Unfortunately, for some reason they developed an annoying squeaking sound on both soles with every step I took.

Katie and pretty much anyone walking within earshot wanted to kill me. It was like hearing a duck quack every time I took a step. Imagine walking through some of the most beautiful temples you’ve ever seen, or the A-Bomb museum with everyone in complete silence, deep in thought and prayer, when in comes Mr. Duck Feet. “Quack, quack, quack, quack…”

I kind of got used to it but I would always get a bit angry every morning when we first set out as soon as the quacking began. It got the point where I was trying to walk on heels and avoiding hard flat surfaces. Gravel quickly became my best friend as the quacking would always subside.

I didn’t learn much Japanese during our trip but I’m pretty sure I know how to say “who’s that asshole with the squeaky shoes?”.

Here’s some video of me walking along a cool little alley full of restaurants in the Ponto-Cho district of Kyoto.

3) What are the toilets like in Japan? – Josh in London

Pretty much the same as everywhere else in Asia, although many of the nicer ones were equipped with built-in badai’s. They had the typical squatters in some public bathrooms but overall most of the facilities we encountered were western style.

While we’re on the subject of bathrooms though, there’s something I’ve been meaning address and now seems like a good time.

My biggest complaint about the bathrooms in Asia is the urinals. Back home, most newer urinals have remote sensors that automatically flush after you walk away. Well, they have that same feature on some of the urinals over here, but most of them flush automatically at the beginning.

Therefore, if you choose one with a slightly overzealous flushing mechanism, you’re likely in store for an unexpected crotch shower. There’s one in particular on the third floor of our school that gets me almost every day. I have to stand 3 feet clear of every urinal in the place just to be safe, but then I have a crowd of 5-year olds staring at me like they’re using those large binoculars on the Observation Deck of the Empire State Building. I guess I’ll stick with the crotch showers for now. On the bright side, at least you don’t have to wash your hands afterwards.

4) What was the energy drink situation like in Japan? – Sean in Seoul

They had Red Bulls for under $2 in almost every 7-11. It was paradise. I crushed a few Vodka-Red Bulls on New Year’s too, although those ones were about $15.

On the downside, there was no Gatorade. None. Zero. I’m still angry about this.

5) How was the flight and which airline did you fly with? – David in New Brunswick

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. If there’s one thing I’ll always remember from our experience over here, it’s how awesome Asian airlines and public transportation are and how shitty they are in North America. Our travel agent found us a cheap flight with United Airlines and it was exactly what you would have expected. Crappy plane. Crappy food. Crappy service. This was also the day after the Christmas Day bombing attempt in Detroit so they were checking carry-on baggage again before boarding in the skywalk.

We also both ended up with seats on the opposite sides of the aisle so we weren’t right next to each other. I was sitting next to what I thought was a young Asian teenager until she tried to order wine. She of course got carded as I honestly would have guessed she was no more than 15. I told her wine was a good idea and got some myself which prompted her to ask me where I was going. We exchanged pleasantries and she told me she was going to Orlando. Under normal circumstances, the conversation would have ended right around point and I would have gone back to my book or my iPod, but I was somewhat intrigued and asked her why?

“I’m a professional golfer. I play on the Futures Tour and the LPGA.”

Let’s just say that I had a few questions for her and Katie was left to read her book in complete silence for the duration of the flight.

6) What was Hiroshima like? – Jenny in Peterborough

On Monday, August 6, 1945, at 8:15 AM, the nuclear bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima by an American B-29 bomber, directly killing an estimated 80,000 people. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought total casualties to 90,000-140,000. Approximately 69% of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed, and about 7% severely damaged.

Research about the effects of the attack was restricted during the occupation of Japan, and information censored until the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, restoring control to the Japanese.

Since that time, a great deal of information has been shared by the Americans which enabled the Japanese to erect the Peace Museum. It’s very well laid out and gives a balanced account of the events leading up and after the disaster.

Perhaps the starkest reminder of the destruction leveled against Hiroshima is the A-Bomb Dome. Built by a Czech architect in 1915 and pictured below, the building was located at the epicenter of the blast and was one of the very few still left standing. Despite local opposition, a decision was made after the war to preserve the remaining structure as a memorial and a grim symbol of the city’s tragic past.

Here’s what it looks like today…

When the US unleashed Heavy bombing in most major cities across Japan as a response to Pearl Harbor, nothing was directed at Hiroshima which seemed odd given the number of military installations and personnel stationed there at the time. The reason for this was that the Americans wanted to clear picture of exactly how much damage would be done by the bomb and didn’t want their results skewed by damage from previous attacks.

With so much talk of nuclear bombs and terrorist groups and states trying to acquire nuclear materials, I think most people don’t realize the devastation and destruction that one of these weapons can achieve. Walking through this museum and seeing the scope of lives that were impacted by this terrible disaster gives you an even greater appreciation for just how serious a threat these weapons pose in anyone’s possession.

The irony is it doesn’t feel like a new city built from scratch even though every building in the downtown core has been constructed in the past 60 years. Even more impressive is the mindset of the people as a result. They have built this museum and the surronding park in hopes of inspiring peace with the ultimate goal of dismantling the world’s entire nuclear arsenal.

7) Did you take any good pictures? – Amanda in Toronto

At this time, I’d like to observe a moment of silence to acknowledge how grateful I am that we live in the digital age.

Pause for silence...Thank you.

I’ve already discussed the benefits of Skype, Slingbox, etc. but if we didn’t have a digital camera, we would have been bankrupt by the cost of processing all the rolls of film Katie would be devouring. Here are a few more pictures for your pleasure…

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming later this week.