Japan 2009

Three Weeks of Japan Mania

July 15th-August 5th, 2009

Trip Conception, Goals, and Planning:

I’ve always been interested in Japan. Video games, sushi, manga, samurai, and most recently the Japanese language have all held my fascination at one point or another in my life. Growing up, I lived across the street from a wonderful Japanese woman, and we used to get together to drink tea and discuss cultural differences. And finally, in my Freshman year of college, I was fortunate enough to be assigned a Japanese roommate. Actually, my dorm housed no fewer than seven Japanese students. So, before the year was out, my friend Laura and I had resolved to travel to Japan, visit our friends, and see for ourselves the multifaceted wonders of this easternmost country.

We built our plans around visiting friends and utilizing the unlimited rail travel afforded us by the Japan Rail Pass. Luckily, Laura and I had similar interests concerning Japan and what we would like to get out of the trip. Japan is a large country, and one could easily spend a month or more exploring a single one of it’s many different aspects: the bustling, chaotic metropolises, the painfully beautiful countryside, the traditional culture of geisha and samurai, the modern one of technological wonders, manga, and kawaii (cute). And is it better to go go go, packing as much as you can into a few short weeks, or to relax and enjoy the decadence of hot springs and fantastic views of Mount Fuji?

Laura and I decided to try for a balance, and I think our itinerary reflected that quite well. On the other hand, our itinerary did have certain weaknesses, mostly in the form of lengthy train rides and our budget limitations. We stayed on Japan’s main island, Honshu, the entire time, but reached almost to the furthest ends of it.



Cost: Our budget was approximately $2500, not including food or souvenirs. The main costs involved were airfare ($800 round trip), the JR pass ($600). The JR pass was expensive, but so are the bullet trains – with our itinerary, the pass saved us literally thousands of dollars. We saved money on accommodations by staying with friends in Tokyo and staying mainly in hostels otherwise, so we paid between $25-50 on a normal night. Our two splurge nights were the Ryokan on Miyajima and the temple on Koyasan, at $100 each. Other included costs are bus and subway tickets and admission to museums, temples, shrines, hot springs, etc. Food costs are, of course, highly variable and are therefore not included, (with rare exceptions such as the meals included in the temple stay), but you can eat very well in Japan on even the tightest budgets (see Food for more information.)

Thinking Ahead: The main thing we had to do before we left was order the JR rail pass. You cannot get a JR pass once you are inside of Japan – you will have to order and receive the pass before you leave the U.S., which depending on where you live can be a bit tricky. We ordered ours online through this travel agency, and they took a few weeks to arrive. We bought plane tickets about three months in advance, and reserved most of our accommodation ahead of time as well – recommended if you want to stay in the cheapest places, as a lot of the best value places are small and might fill up.We were only unable to visit one of the places we’d hoped to go – the Ghibli museum, which apparently requires tickets reserved quite some time in advance.

Timing: In late July and early August, the weather in central Japan is considered miserably hot and humid, so it wasn’t the most crowded or expensive time to be there. Since the weather was pretty comparable to summer in our native Missouri, we coped pretty well with the heat, although it did feel good to escape north and to the mountains on some days. It rained often, but usually lightly, so we just carried small umbrellas with us at all times. Two things we were able to do specifically because it was summer time were part of the Matsuri Gion festival in Kyoto, and a fireworks summer festival in Tokyo. Lots of people go to Japan for cherry blossoms in the spring or the fall colours, so things are more expensive during those times. Generally, central Japan is scenic in all seasons, especially gardens that are landscaped to showcase the different parts of the year, and also relatively mild most of the year, although some things might be harder to do in winter.

Food: Japan has lots of lovely, delicious food. If you like trying new things, it will be a paradise for you. However, if you have any dietary restrictions, you may end up eating basic things like rice and steamed vegetables, because Japanese food often includes lots of seafood and meat (beef, pork, anything is fair game), even if only for flavoring. If the restriction is merely pickiness, try to have an open mind. My friend Laura went there hating all seafood (luckily she really, really likes rice), but by the time we left had discovered she quite liked dried salmon and many kinds of sushi. Eating in Japan can be extremely expensive or extremely inexpensive. Konbini convenience stores offer a variety of filling and tasty hot/cold meals for about $5, and you can fill up on Onigiri for even less. Even sushi can be had for very reasonable prices!

Getting Around: Most of Japan’s transportation systems are fast, reliable, and remarkably easy to understand given the language barrier (see Language). We found that people were extremely willing to help us if we were lost or just unsure about which buses to take or where to get off the subway. Bullet trains are fast but expensive (to a lesser extent, that goes for all trains), buses can be slow but are often necessary. There is very little room for luggage on any of the public transport, especially getting around Tokyo and Osaka by subway, so pack as lightly as you possibly can – sometimes we had to carry our suitcases in our laps, upright. If you relax, getting around can be half the fun, but if you are in a hurry, it can make you miserable. We enjoyed using a wide variety of transportation during our trip, including private cars, taxis, bullet trains, express trains, local trains, buses, cable cars, funiculars, aerial tramways, bicycles, ferries, subways, and, largely, our own two feet.

Language: There’s no way around the fact that the language difference in Japan is substantial. You won’t even recognize place names on most signs, because they are written in Kanji symbols. Japanese is a language totally unrelated to English, which uses no less than three forms of writing. Many Japanese people, especially those outside of the big cities, and even those involved in tourism, speak poor or no English. Given all of this, however, the language situation is as easy as it could possibly be. Maps and instructions are often very visual, with pictures to help you with the words. People are extremely willing to help you and creative in reaching understanding even when you can’t understand a word they say. My advice is to carry a piece of paper with the names of all the places you are visiting in Kanji, so that you can refer to this or show it to Japanese people if you get confused. Also, carrying a phrase book is very highly recommended – you will not look stupid for whipping it out, (usually when you do the people you are talking to are far more embarrassed about their English ;_;),and since Japanese is pronounced phonetically, you will probably be understood without too much trouble. With all this said, Laura and I both had some slight understanding of Japanese – enough that with the phrasebook, we could usually put stupid sentences together and even understand some basic questions, commands, numbers, etc – and segments of the trip, such as going north to Mutsu or staying with the monks on Koyasan, would have been quite a bit more difficult if we didn’t know any Japanese at all.

Other: We got all of our yen from ATMs, but finding ATMs that take American cards can be a bit tricky with one lifesaving exception – 7/11 convenience stores. These are prevalent, but stock up on cash when you can, since almost no businesses will take your cards.



We left the US on July 15th and arrived in Tokyo on the 16th. In Tokyo we stayed for three days with my former roommate, Mayumi, whose apartment overlooked Tokyo tower. The first full day was a daytrip to Kamakura, where we saw our first shrines and temples, including magnificent Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, the Temple of Hase Kannon, and one of Japan’s most famous Daibutsu. The next day, Mayumi and another Japanese friend, Mitsuki, showed us the city of Tokyo – the Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa, Shinjuku, and Harajuku… then we changed into yukata for a fireworks festival followed by karaoke.

On the 19th, we left Tokyo early for northern Japan. We reached the Shimokita Hanto, the peninsula at the northernmost tip of Honshu, and lodged in the city of Mutsu for two nights in order to visit sulfurous, ash covered Osore-zan (Fear Mountain), the traditional Japanese gateway to hell and place of lost souls, during the Itako Taisai Festival, when blind mediums are said to summon the spirits of the dead.

On the 21st, we woke up early again for the longest train ride of the trip, heading back south and west, through the mountains to Takayama, a lovely town full of old, preserved houses, purple wisteria, and the heady scent of sake. While in Takayama, we took a bike tour up through the Japan Alps (during a solar eclipse, no less!) to see an amazing set of waterfalls, then continued on to Kanazawa, home of one of Japan’s three best gardens, as well as an old samurai district.

The 24th found us in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. This is where Memoirs of a Geisha was filmed, and it is home to an overwhelming number of temples, gardens, and shrines. Over two days, we saw Kinkakuji, Ginkakuji, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, Sanjusangendo, the Kiyomizudera, the super modern train station, and even a bit of the Matsuri Gion festival.

On the 26th we continued to Hiroshima to visit Peace Memorial Park and the Atomic Dome during the most sobering day of our trip. Then we took the ferry to nearby Miyajima, waited out the tour groups to see the Floating Tori by twilight, spend the night in a traditional ryokan, and climb Mt. Misen in the morning.

On the 28th we woke up in Osaka and spent the day in Nara, a former capital of Japan, famous for herds of tame deer and the world’s biggest wooden building. On the 29th we paid a quick morning visit to Himeji Castle before working our way up to Koyasan, a mountain covered in temples (including one housing Japan’s largest rock garden), and actually spending the night in one. We woke up at 6 for morning prayers, ate shōjin ryōri, traditional Buddhist cuisine, and very narrowly escaped having to sleep in the ancient graveyard!

On the 31st we headed to Nikko, with it’s golden shrines, the original ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkeys, and the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan. The hot spring resorts and fantastic nature in nearby Chuzenji and Yumoto made this the most relaxing part of our trip.

On August 2nd we returned to Tokyo, with just enough time in the evening to see Tokyo Disney Sea. We stayed for the next few days with Mitsuki, and she and Mayumi continued showing us around Tokyo, including a visit to Akihabara electric town, some cartoon merchandise shopping, a skybus tour of the Ginza business district, museums in Ueno park, and, in Yokohama, a world-fair type celebration of Japan’s 150 years of being open to the western world. The last night of the trip, the four of us watched Ponyo and burned hanabi fireworks in a little park, sad to say goodbye to Japan.


Posts about this trip:

(Check back on this section from time to time – I’ll continue to put up new links!)

Journal Entries:
A Night View of Tokyo (Tokyo, Japan – 7/17)
Sanjusangendo (Kyoto, Japan – 12/8)

Photos: A Sushi Feast, The Smallest Corner, Buddhapada in Kamakura

Notes: Onigiri, Six Funny Things about the Japanese Language, Yuba, Late Night Okonomiyaki

Japanese Shave Ice

Melon Kakigori with Milk Ice Cream - Kanazawa, Japan.

Snow Cones can be refreshing on a hot day, but I’m usually disappointed by hard, course ice that lets all the syrup slide straight to the bottom of the paper cone. In Japan, I found Kakigōri (かき氷), or shave ice – a fabulous dessert which made me reconsider the potential of the snow cone.

Served not only at carnivals and roadside stands but also in nice restaurants alongside ice cream and cakes, most of the shaved ice in Japan is similar in texture to American snow cones, if a bit softer and more like, well, fresh snow. But at least once, in Nikko, I found shave ice that seemed to literally have been shaved from a block – it was as smooth as ice cream, and had a delightful crispness.

Unbelievable Shave Ice in Nikko, Japan!

The syrup that tops Kakigōri is not unlike that used on American snow cones, with familiar flavours like strawberry, lemon, and grape alongside melon, sweet plum and green tea. It is also common to pour condensed milk onto the ice, adding additional sweetness and richness. Many Japanese also like to add mild sweet bean paste, mochi rice cakes, or even ice cream to their shave ice.

Laura and I found some incredible Kakigōri in Nikko. The texture was totally different than that of an American snowcone, or even the other Kakigōri we had tasted – something like a cross between Italian shaved ice and cotton candy, very smooth and delicate. Served with strawberries in thick syrup and condensed milk, this was the most delicious dessert of our trip!

Late Night Okonomiyaki (Miyajima, Japan)

Mmm... Okonomiyaki. ^^

Miyajima shuts down quickly after the bulk of the tourists leave around 4 pm. The majority of those who spend the night on the island eat dinner in their Ryokans or hotels, so when 6 o’clock rolled around, Laura and I found that nearly all the town’s restaurants had already shuttered for the night. Luckily, the owner of our Ryokan told us that a small Okonomiyaki restaurant a few doors down was open until 8.

I ordered yakiudon with shrimp and Laura ordered yakisoba with pork. As usual with okonomiyaki they put just about a whole head of cabbage in each of ours. It boiled down a lot, but there was still more food on our plates than we could possibly eat. It was good, too – the amount and flavor of the sauce was just right. This wasn’t the best food we ate in Japan, but it was definitely a solid choice for a ‘late night’ meal.

Since the tiny okonomiyaki restaurant we ate at isn’t shown on the map, the best thing to do would probably be to follow directions to Ryoso Kawaguchi, and follow the road it’s located on a few storefronts north. If you’re going there at night, it should be one of the only places open, so pretty much impossible to miss.

<p>— Read more about <a title=”Japan 2009″ href=”https://vandrelysten.wordpress.com/2010/05/01/japan-2009/&#8221; target=”_blank”>Japan 2009</a>.</p>

— Read more about Japan 2009.

Buddhapada in Kamakura

Where: Kamakura, Japan

When: July 2009

Camera: Canon Powershot A550


I found this decorated stone in Kamakura’s Hase-Kannon Temple. It is a stylized depiction of the footprints of Buddha. In early Buddhist art, it was considered taboo to directly depict a being as sacred as the Buddha, so they alluded to his presence by showing his footprints, called Buddhapada in Sanskrit. These Buddhapada are covered with a variety of symbols. Look at the most prominent one, which looks like a sun or wheel. If it looks familiar to you, you may be thinking of the Flag of India, which has a similar design in the center. The wheel shown on both these footprints and the Indian flag is a dharmacakra, or a “wheel of law”, and symbolizes the Buddha’s path to enlightenment. Japan’s many sacred places are filled with items and objects that are often laden with symbolism. Knowing even a little bit about the many cultural traditions that make up Japan can add a lot to a trip through the country.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Six Funny Things about the Japanese Language

Japanese is a fun language to study, for travel purposes or to enjoy Japanese culture from afar. Because the language and the culture are both quite different from those you may be familiar with, it can be a funny experience to study Japanese as well! Here are a few things that always make me laugh when I’m studying or using Japanese.

1.) If you want to say you ‘love’ something, as in, you ‘really like it’, in Japanese, you use the expression ‘daisuki’. This is made of two components: Dai (Big) and Suki (Like). Big Like!

2.) Japanese people worry a lot about being polite, and in Japanese this includes using different words to refer to things you want to honor, and things you want to be neutral, or humble about. Sometimes these ‘honourable’ version of words simply add a prefix. Other times they are completely different words. And sometimes there are even more categories than this, showing different degrees of honor!  For example, when you talk about your boss’s car, you should probably say okuruma, instead of just kuruma.

3.) One way this manifests itself is in the names for family members. Obviously, you can’t use the same word to talk about your mother or your friend’s mother. You want to show your friend’s mother respect, but since you are talking about your mother in connection to yourself, it would be rude to honor your mother (and, by connection, yourself!). So your friend’s mother is (anata no) okaasan — (your) mother, and my mother is (watashi no) haha — (my) mother.

4.) The Japanese word for Manufacturer is Meikaa. Sound it out. This is an import word. Television Manufacturer is Terebi Meikaa. Sound it out!

5.) Japanese uses different sets of numbers to count things with different shapes. These are called counters. For example, one is ichi, but one year – issai, one bird – ichiwa, one dog or cat or insect – ippiki, one person – hitori. Although there is a ‘place holder’ counter for use when the counter is unknown, and some counters are not in common use, unique counters exist for such things as: paragraphs, footsteps, nursery trees (and stocks), bows during worship at a shrine, cannons, and theatrical acts.

6.) These numbers themselves can be made up from two different original systems – Chinese and Japanese. The basic words for four, seven, and nine, however, are problematic. Four is Shi, a word which also means death. This is unlucky, kind of like our number 13, so they replace it with the euphemism Yon sometimes (and in some cases you HAVE to say yon, such as Yoji (four o’clock)). The same goes for Ku, which means suffering and it often switched out with Kyu. Seven is Shichi, which Japanese people sometimes worry gets lost floating around next to shi (four) and ichi (one), so they sometimes say nana instead!

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Japanese is a fun language to study, for travel purposes or to enjoy Japanese culture from afar. Because the language and the culture are both quite different from those you may be familiar with, it can be a funny experience to study Japanese as well! Here are a few things that always make me laugh when I’m studying or using Japanese.

Onigiri (Japan)

Onigiri on sale in Nikko. The average price of an Onigiri is less than $1.50.

Onigiri, (Kanji 御握り, Hiragana おにぎり), also known as Omusubi, are Japanese rice balls. They are relatively simple to make, especially once you get used to the basic techniques, but you can also buy surprisingly yummy Onigiri in any konbini (convenience store) in Japan.

Onigiri come in many different varieties. The most common shapes are the little triangles, shown in the picture, and disk-shaped Onigiri. Normally, Onigiri are made of plain, white, sticky rice, and have a single filling in the very center. The most popular fillings are Umeboshi (sour pickled plum) and salmon, although any reasonably dry and strong-flavoured ingredient works well… for example, I have made super-American breakfast Onigiri with sausage and egg.

There are also Onigiri that have a topping of fish or ginger instead of a filling, and some Onigiri are formed from rice flavoured with sesame, Katsuoboshi (fish flakes), or other traditional seasonings.

A little bit of dried seaweed is wrapped around the rice ball just prior to consumption. The idea of eating seaweed may be a little bit frightening to the uninitiated, but don’t be afraid! The flavour of the seaweed is very mild – not even my pickiest friends object to it. The main purpose of wrapping Onigiri in seaweed is to allow you to hold it without getting your fingers too sticky. And, it has a delicious crunch!

Onigiri make great breakfasts and packed lunches while traveling. Laura and I started each day in Japan with a nice, filling rice ball or two! Onigiri are easy to eat on the go, although remember that in Japan it is considered rude to eat while walking!

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Kamakura’s Daibutsu

Kamakura's Daibutsu is unusual in that it stands out in the open, not enclosed in a building.

No visitor to Kamakura, or even to Tokyo, should miss this Great Buddha. Housed in the temple Kōtoku-in (高徳院), it is a popular destination and so easy to reach on foot or by bus. Most maps of Kamakura depict the Daibutsu visually, so you need not read Japanese to find your way.

Cast in 1252, this Buddha was originally housed in a wooden temple. Notably, it was built completely with donations – no government funding whatsoever. A 1498 tsunami destroyed this building, and crushed hundreds of Samurai who were taking refuge inside, but left the huge bronze statue standing. Some repairs were done in 1960, particularly to strengthen the statue’s neck, but otherwise it has been standing out in the open, in it’s present form, for more than five hundred years.

The statue is made primarily of copper, with a large component of lead and tin. Even today we are not one hundred percent sure how it was put together. Originally the statue was covered in brilliant, shining gilt, but over the course of 700 years it has worn almost completely off. Specialists have said that that statue’s balance, intelligence, powerfulness, and dignity surpass that of the Todaiji Buddha in Nara.

Among those impressed by the statue’s longevity and serene demeanor are Richard Cocks, who after visiting in 1616 said that the Daibutsu must be larger than the Colossus of Rhodes, and Rudyard Kipling, who, after seeing the Daibutsu in 1892, mentions it repeatedly in verses throughout his novel Kim.

This Daibutsu has windows on the backside!

“O ye who treated the Narrow Way
By Tophet-flare to Judgment Day,
Be gentle when “the heathen” pray
To Buddha at Kamakura!”

If you go around to the back, you can see that this Buddha in fact has windows!

It is hollow inside and in fact for a time it was a den for gamblers and the homeless.

Now you can go inside for only 20¥ – about 20 cents.




/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Yuba (Japan)

Yuba can even be deepfried, as in this picture from utopiankitchen.wordpress.com!

Yuba (kanji: 湯葉), also known as soybean skim or tofu skin, is a Japanese food made from the skin that forms on the surface of boiling soy milk. The result is a bundle of thin, rubbery layers of a firm, tofu like substance. Yuba can be shaped in order to texturally resembled other foods, such as chicken breasts, and is often fried to give it a firmer skin.

The first time I ordered a dish with yuba, I didn’t know what it was. This is common in Japan and probably for the best. I would have missed out on many culinary adventures had I been afraid to eat some Japanese dishes based only on their not always appetizing English names! My first yuba experience was a clam chowder, and I almost mistook the yuba for incredibly tender clams. After this I took every opportunity to order yuba.

As with other Japanese Tofu dishes, my advice for yuba is to give it a try. Don’t think about past experiences with soyburgers or tofurkey back home. Japan has many soy products in it’s cuisine, and they vary widely by texture, taste, and application. You are not guaranteed to enjoy yuba, but it deserves to be given a chance.

— Read more about Japan 2009.


Kyoto, Japan – July 25th, 2009

Even one of Sanjusangendo’s statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is impressive. Each one stands life sized and is covered in gold leaf, has eleven faces, and twenty one sets of arms to symbolize the goddess’s thousand. Can you picture one Kannon now? Good.

Unfortunately you can't take pictures inside... so I had to rely on postcards and Google.

Now imagine 1001 of them, each one unique and hand carved from Japanese cypress, crowded into Japan’s longest wooden building. A giant statue of the Thousand-armed Kannon sits in the middle of the hall, with 500 smaller (merely life sized) Kannons on each side. The youngest of the statues are almost 700 years old. The effect is mind blowing.

As if the Kannons weren’t enough, the hall also contains the statues of 28 Guardian deities and of Fujin and Raijin, the terrifying Japanese Gods of Wind and Thunder.

I almost hurried off after seeing the statues, but I would have missed the fascinating story of the other side of the hall, which has been used for the Tōshiya archery tournament since the 1600’s. A small but fascinating display lists the truly awe inspiring records of Japan’s best archers.

The temple's exterior, painted a vibrant vermilion, is also worth a look.

In the Oyakazu competition, for example, archers shoot as many arrows as they can within a 24 hour period, hoping to ‘clear’ – shoot the length of the hall without hitting the roof, floor, or pillars – as many arrows as possible.

In 1686, Wasa Daihachiro shot 13,053 arrows in Oyakazu, clearing 8,133 of them. This averages out to nearly 6 arrows a minute for twenty four hours straight.

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania

Night View of Tokyo

A view of Tokyo by night, taken from Toranomon.

Tokyo, Japan – July 17th, 2009

We filled our arms with cans of juice and beer and took the elevator to the top of Mayumi’s building. Our tour book recommended several places for a good view of Tokyo – from where I was standing, this one was hard to beat.

We were shocked to be able to see Tokyo Tower (think: Japan’s Eiffel Tower) from the little rooftop garden. Laura’s sharp eyes also picked out two Ferris Wheels, and Rainbow Bridge, which Mayumi hadn’t realized she could see before.

We tasted Japanese beer, saw the electric energy of Tokyo shining in the night, listened to the bugs hum and buzz in the bushes around us. And I wondered; those poor, lost bugs – how did they get here? How did we?

/Three Weeks of Japan Mania