By Wayne Harada
Moshi moshi from Japan.
On my first trek to Japan, I’ve quickly learned that the Japanese commute, shop, eat and work with efficiency, precision, and dedication.
A 10-day visit to Kyoto, Tsukuba and Tokyo — with stays in three hotels and commutes by taxi, bus, subway, bullet train and foot — opened my eyes to a culture and lifestyle that is inspired and welcoming. The people are warm; made up for the brrrrrrisk 40s/30 temps and one instance of snow flurries.
The Japanese take pride in their temples, which they visit like out-of-town tourists; they eat simply (and sometimes with kaiseki grandeur), with food served with exquisite eye-appeal; and they shop everywhere they go, like visitors — in the heart of town, in villages, at train stations, at pedestrian-friendly sectors offering rows and rows of little boutiques, eateries and everyday pharmacies.
They pray openly and frequently at unexpected temples tucked within busy shopping zones, finding a zen moment for reflection and inspiration.
If you’re lost or feel disoriented, stop and kindly ask someone. He or she will pause to point you in the right direction— or even walk a block or two with you to find what you’re looking for.
In Japan, there are worlds to explore, examine and experience.
Ten things you might want to do:
1 — Catch the bullet train called Shinkansen, the high-speed railway that supposedly transports 375,000 people daily. We caught it from Kyoto to Tsukuba. Opt for reserved seats for ultimate comfort; if you get hungry, a vendor rolls in a cart, airline style, selling snacks and drinks. Or bring on your own bento bought at the train station. The Shinkansen flies at 186 mph, with impressive comfort and ease; you see both rural and city sights, offering quick snapshots of the land- and homescapes.
2 — Explore the Ginza in Tokyo. At night, it throbs with neon signs galore, with jazz and karaoke clubs scattered amid business highrises and retailers. During the day, visitors and working folks form a sea of moving bodies on the busy corridors. There’s plenty of shopping, but people-watching is a particular joy. Signage is an issue; most places don’t have English names so if you’re looking for a specific store, get the address.
3 — Ride a cab. The taxis queue at hotels, but you can hail one from the roadside. Fares start at under 700 yen or under 800 yen, depending on the city, and short hops cost between 1000 and 1200 yen. The attraction here: the cabs have rear doors that shut automatically on the left side of the car. Remember, in Japan, they drive on the “other” side of the road.
4 — Experience ocha. That’s tea. Hotels make it easy, with a ready-to-dispense hot water in the room. Push, presto, hot water emerges from a hot pot, with tea bags readily available. Such a wonderful concept; I bought a dispenser for home use a few days upon return. (Go to Don Quijote or Shirokiya).
5 — Visit a department store, like Seibu or Mitsukoshi. Think Shirokiya with six, seven or eight floors. The street level area with food stations — fresh and packaged —boast counters galore, each hawking mochi, manju, candy, baked treats, senbei, bento lunches, sushi, ala carte entrees such as fish and oden and more. I trekked through the Seibu in Tsukuba, but it’s in Tokyo, too. You’ll be tempted to buy something with the baked goods particulary enticing. And yes, you can taste samples, too.
6 — Shop till you drop. In Kyoto, head for the quaint specialty shops along Shijo Dori and in Kawaramachi Dori. The covered arcades boast trinkets, food booths, clothing, lacquer ware, tea shops, and many other specialties. In Tokyo, you shouldn’t miss the Harajuku area right out of the Harajuku Station on the Yamanote subway line in Shibuya; this is a destination for hip and funky, where Lolitas and Little Bo Peep-dressed girls in Kawaii frills and candy-colored hair, and Goth guys parade in street garb that is fashionably young and manga or anime-inspired. — Stores you might enjoy — Tokyu (cq) Hands (called Ginza Hand in Tokyo), an emporium of housewares, wellness goods and services, DIY tools, stationery and more; and Muji, another pleasurable store noted for its minimalism designs and “green” wares, from clothing to kitchen and bath goods, from travel bags to stationery, all with simple and clean looks.
7 — Explore a palace. Reservations are necessary; we explored a pair: the Kyoto Imperial Palace in Kyoto and the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Tokyo. You can’t imagine the grandeur and the history, till you get inside the manicured grounds, with incredible edifices from Japan’s fabled past. The Kyoto palace tour includes the Shinshinden, the hall for state functions, and the Kogoshi, or court room. The guided tour allows for numerus photo ops of historic buildings erected without nails, some in persimmon-hued columns and beams; most with traditional roofs of layered cedar. The gardens are gorgeous, even if only the plum (not cherry blossoms) trees are now flowering in its dark pink dress. The Tokyo palace, on the site of Edo Castle, is home to the emperor of Japan; visits are restricted to exterior tours of some halls, like the Chowaden reception hall, where a ritual with male officers and women in kimono was under way during our visit. The family’s residence is not open to the public except on Jan. 2 and Dec. 23, the emperor’s birthday.
8 — Take in a kabuki play at the Kabuki-Za, the key theater in the Ginza area dating back to 1889. “Rush” tickets are available only from an hour before curtain daily, for the “makumi” tickets — four floor balcony seats for one-hour programs. If you want to see the second hour, you line up again. Don’t let the “scholarship section” space bother you; as a visitor, you can’t score orchestra seats anyway; subscribers already have ’em. Rent the earphone guide for English translation, though listening to the cadence and rhythm of the kabuki actors has its own charm. The hour-long, three-scene segment of “Genroku Chushingura,” the samurai drama about the 47 ronin based on a real-life incident about a lord attacked in a shogun’s palace and sentenced to ritual suicide — an exploration of samurai values. This is the real deal. The theater utilizes a mammoth revolving turntable to change one sce ne — larger than the Broadway version’s for “Les Miserables” — and
you should try to witness this classic stage attraction, since there are plans to demolish the historic theater in 2010, with a new complex expected by 2013.
9 — See historical temples, particularly in Kyoto. If you have time for only one visit, don’t miss Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple in Higashiyama; statues abound, in awesome numbers. This is an unusual destination — a temple that’s a walk-through, a longhouse with columns and 1,000 statues of the Thousand Armed Kannon which flank Sahasrabhuja-arya-
avalokiteśvara or the Thousand Armed Kannon, the main statue in 10 rows and 50 columns. There are 28 other statues of deities. No photography is allowed, but this is an eye-filling army of figures to behold. Oh, you may also pause for worship; there are no pews, however, for seating.
10 — Sit on a warm toilet. The Japanese know what comfort and cleanliness demand. The hotels we stayed at had bidets; one had a toilet seat that was eternally warm and heated. The potty has an armrest-like gizmo with controls for the special features. On the other hand, beware: at many ‘traditional” places, like temples, you’ll find the squat toilet; choice is offered at malls and some temples, with the old type and the “western” convention we all prefer. I suppose it is an adventure to try this, too.
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... To University of Hawaii professors — Andrew Werthheimer and his wife, Noriko Asato, a Japanese native — for their kokua in navigating the trains, subways and buses of Japan, and for translating Japanese signs, menus and restaurant communiqués.
Werthheimer and Asato are UH colleagues of my wife; they attended educational conferences in Kyoto and Tsukuba.
It helps to have folks acclimated to Japanese ways and means, to figure out yen coins and store or street signs. One wonderful element of Japanese restaurants: they either have pictorial menus or storefront looks-like-real replicas of entrees, so pointing is an option.
— Wayne Harada