Sunday, October 29, 2006

Japan - Random Thoughts and Pictures

As I near the end of my trip report (still a few more posts to go!), I thought I'd round up a few of the random photos I took that don't really fit in anywhere else and don't have stories of their own and throw them up here. There are always these little moments whenever I go to Japan where I'll notice some tiny little detail around the fringes of my day that stands out for whatever reason... here are a few of them.

You know, sometimes I worry that the term "Engrish" might be offensive to some people. But there's really no other way to describe this:

The Japanese love to use English whenever they can. It's part fad (there's a "cool factor" to it if you can speak English), part government encouragement to promote business and industry, part the Japanese educational system that forces learning English at an early age.

The problem is, this means most Japanese speak a little English. A little. So you get random English words thrown around the Japanese language, their meanings altered and the grammar mangled. And you get these little, almost poetically funny English phrases in various odd places like public restrooms.

I don't mind most of what's generally called Engrish, because a lot of it isn't really trying to be English - it's Japanese. It's a fourth alphabet for them, and they've just incorporated whatever they can from our language into theirs, and so what if they change some things up in the process? When Americans stop pronouncing "karaoke" as "carry-oh-kee" then we can complain about English words in Japanese. But the sign posted above that urinal is definitely not that. It's trying to be real English, and failing hilariously.

Words aren't the only thing the Japanese have borrowed from us:

Click on that photo and open up the big version so you can see what's for sale.

Now, you can take my pancakes and do whatever you want with them. But I'm a New Yorker, and I'll be damned if I'm going to stand idly by while someone in the world is eating a pizza with hard-boiled eggs on it!

That's pretty tame, actually - I have actually eaten soba noodle pizza and it is not really an experience I'd like to repeat. You can get pretty good New York style pizza in Japan these days (and I mean real New York style, not "New York Style" [or "Brooklyn Style", whatever that means]), but more common is squid pizza, soba noodle pizza, egg and mayonnaise pizza. The Japanese can never just take a foreign food and serve it up authentic... they at least have to give you the choice of Japanifying it up completely.

This works better with some foods than others. Some western foods actually benefit from the Japan treatment - the crepe, for example:

You can buy crepes almost anywhere in Japan these days, and rather than being some sort of highbrow breakfast or dessert treat, they're basically treated like carnival food. They're made to order, but the experience is kind of like buying a funnel cake on Coney Island.

So many flavors!

You buy one and they make it right there in front of you and serve it up like an ice cream cone:

So fresh and so good! Available in sweet and savory varieties. That one right there is bananas and cream - it's actually smaller than most. We got it at our hotel. (Not at the same place as the selection shown above.)

Switching gears now. (How's that for a segue?)

Open that one up. Note how the bicycles continue literally as far as the eye can see. You want to see something even more amazing?

This was the view from the same spot in the other direction. This has to be a mile of parked bicycles, in two rows, all packed within inches of each other. And people wonder why the Japanese are in better shape than we are!

This was in Urayasu, near the train station, where my wife lived for a while. According to her, "the trick is remembering where you parked."

When we were in Ginza, we happened to be passing by the Sony building and I noticed a PlayStation 3 in the window. I decided to go inside just to check it out, and lo and behold, the systems were playable!

I got some hands-on time with Minna no Golf 5 and Gran Turismo HD. To play a PlayStation 3 is to want one - I don't care about the high price, I'll be buying one of these as soon as they're easily attainable. (No, I don't plan to wait in line or anything - I've been down that road before, and it's a road to heartache.)

Food again. Japan is known as a tea nation - and rightly so. Tea is really the only no-calorie drink you can get most places, and green tea is still pretty much the national drink. But coffee is huge too, and Japan has two categories of coffee that I wish were bigger here. The first is the gigantic variety of canned cold coffee:

...including some being marketed by American celebrities:

Any vending machine in Japan - and you can't walk a block without stumbling over four or five - will have at least ten different varieties of canned and/or bottled coffee. It is impossible to ever find yourself wanting for caffeine in Japan. Not every variety tastes very good - as averse to overly sweet things as the Japanese are, their coffees are usually way over-sugared. But a few varieties are both smooth and bold, and not too sweet. (The less-sweet versions are labeled as such.) You'll pick your favorites soon enough after being there for a few days.

There's also this:

At any convenience store or supermarket, you can buy single, self-contained filter packs that fit over any standard cup and will give you real, freshly-brewed hot coffee wherever you happen to be. (Provided you're near a water source and potentially something to heat it, of course.) This is pure genius, and so ridiculously convenient that it amazes me we haven't latched on to the idea in America. Do we even have this product here? I've never seen it.

A lot of Americans seem to think of Japan as xenophobic, which I think is just bizarre. The Japanese, at least those in the big, modern cities like Tokyo, are probably more westernized than any other country in Asia. Call it a byproduct of the post-WWII reconstruction. They also love to buy our products, though most of them are just a little bit different to suit Japan's tastes:

What? You knew Haagen-Dazs was American, didn't you? Yep, from the good ol' Bronx, New York!

Anyway, what's wrong with that picture? Blueberry ice cream, that's what. Japan's got some crazy Haagen-Dazs flavors that I really wish I'd tried, like "Azuki" (red bean), "Rich Milk", and "Black Sesame". (I actually tried some great home-made ice cream right off a farm in that "Milk" flavor - it's basically like vanilla but a lot lighter. Apparently very popular in Japan.) Haagen-Dazs also has an excellent Green Tea flavor in Japan that doesn't seem to be available here - I would guess that someday it will be. This is a flavor that's gaining a lot of popularity in general in urban areas of the United States.

As some of you might know, I'm a huge PUFFY fan - I was hoping to see and hear a lot of them in Japan, but I oddly enough saw them only twice, on both the first day and the last day. This was actually at JFK airport:

On the last day, I saw them in a Lipton commercial - they've been enlisted to help Lipton celebrate 100 years in Japan. The first time I went to Japan, everybody was dressed like them and they were all over TV. This time... not so much. It was kind of depressing, especially as their music has actually really improved over the years. This time, rather than Amis and Yumis everywhere, it was little miniature Kumi Kodas - that's the popular style now. But I did still see a few obvious Puffy fans here and there. The Japanese, even moreso than Americans, love to dress up just like their favorite bands and artists - down to individual articles of clothing they've seen them wear. They'll go far and wide searching for that one particular armband or shoe or whatever. So it's easy to tell who's a fan of what.

Coming soon: the Studio Ghibli museum!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Japan - Harajuku, Tokyo

While Akihabara may have fallen off its game a bit, one Tokyo neighborhood that does still live up to its notorious reputation is Harajuku. Made annoyingly famous in the west by that idiot Gwen Stefani and her merry band of Americanized pseudo-"Harajuku girls", this area is the center of Tokyo street fashion, and it plays host on Sundays to a parade of what amounts to cosplay as young people dress up in the most outlandish DIY styles possible. It has spawned several fashion magazines, including the famous FRUiTS founded by photographer Shoichi Aoki to show off some of the styles coming out of the area. That in turn has influenced a whole generation of young people across Japan.

Harajuku is technically a part of Shibuya ward, which is probably still more well-known in the west. Shibuya is home to the busiest intersection in the world (as well as the busiest Starbucks) and was known generally as the center of Tokyo street fashion throughout the 1990's - though that always included Harajuku. We didn't go to other parts of Shibuya on this trip - we've seen it before and just didn't have a lot of time. But Harajuku was enough, and as it's also home to the Meiji Shrine, we made a good half-day out of it.

We also didn't go on a Sunday - I wanted to, but we didn't have a free one while we were there. Still, there's plenty of good people-watching to do on any day of the week, and lots of other fun stuff too.

This is Takeshita Street, really the main street in Harajuku. (It's pedestrian-only and there are bigger avenues, but this is the street you walk if you go to Harajuku.) Note the hipster on the right - he thinks he's way cool. Probably thinks he's got the prime spot for attracting the ladies too.

A couple of real Harajuku girls. The fashions worn on regular weekdays are not the outrageous gothic lolita cosplay type stuff you see on Sundays - different groups of people going for different things. On weekdays, Harajuku is the equivalent of New York's East Village, and most of the people you see hanging around like this live in or around the area. This is the way they dress every day of the week.

By the way, Japan as a whole takes its fashion seriously. Harajuku is one aesthetic, but nearly everybody in Japan is absolutely freakin' stylish, whatever style they choose. They really put a lot of effort into it. Coming back to America, it's like this entire country got hit in the head with an ugly stick by comparison.

One of the many specialty boutiques on Takeshita Street. Now, I lived in NYC's East Village for a long time (on 1st Ave, one block from the namesake title of this here blog). I've walked down St. Marks Place - the East Village equivalent of Takeshita Street - many times. This stuff is even crazier than anything I saw for sale there. And there are probably 100 stores just like this on Takeshita Street.

Halloween, Harajuku style. (That skull cap is actually a Halloween decoration - there were a bunch more decorations just out of the shot.) The Japanese don't go trick-or-treating or anything, but they do love to dress up and Halloween was pretty much everywhere there, including and maybe especially in Harajuku.

Now that I've been there, I consider this area pretty much essential for any visit to Tokyo. Tokyo is a city for young people and this is the area that caters to their every whim. It is a microcosm of modern Japanese pop culture, and certainly Japanese street fashion. I'm getting old - I'm in my 30's now - but as a former long-term East Village resident, I totally "get" places like Harajuku, and Harajuku's the East Village times ten. And the fashions are just fun to look at, even if you've got no eye for fashion at all. It's just pure eye candy.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Japan - Akihabara, Tokyo

It's known as the gamer's and anime fan's paradise, with seedy adult-oriented underpinnings holding up its glittery neon facade. Akihabara - officially designated "Electric Town", unofficially and affectionately called "Akiba" by those that frequent it. Land of the Famicom, cheap electronics, hentai and maid cafes. Does it really live up to its infamous reputation?

Not really, at least not anymore. But it's still an interesting place.

It used to be moreso, at least for me. The first time I visited Akihabara was in the heyday of the PlayStation, when the Japanese game industry was at its peak and the anime industry was close behind. Nearly every store on Chuo-Dori, Akihabara's main street, was a small shop catering to one niche or another in these mediums - often selling rare and used goods that you couldn't find anywhere else, and for cheap prices. Back then, it really did live up to the reputation it had at the time.

I found my Derby Stallion "skeleton" Saturn there for 4,980 yen in 2000 - this is the rarest Sega Saturn ever made. They were clearin' em out in Akihabara! (I believe that is the exact box I purchased.)

These days, there is a "renewal" of Akihabara going on. What this means I can't quite figure out - usually that's code for sweeping out the seediness and replacing it with family-friendly big-box fare. And to be sure, that is definitely happening in Akihabara, where whole blocks have been torn down to await replacement, and where a giant Yodobashi Camera has opened up directly across from Akihabara station (easily the biggest store in the ward, but with what amounts to a Best Buy/Circuit City ethos, to put it in terms Americans would understand).

This is Game One - a random store I took a picture of in 2000, one of many like it. Today, most of the stores like this are gone - and I couldn't find Game One (it may still be there and I just missed it, but I remembered this photo so I was looking).

At the same time, though, the curious new phenomenon of the maid cafe has been springing up, apparently in direct defiance of the government's attempts at wiping out the adult-oriented, thoroughly geeked-out theming of the area. You can click that link for a bit more info but the long and short of it is that maid cafes exist to cater to guys with maid fantasies - something that's apparently universal but as in most things gets taken to a weird and completely illogical conclusion in Japan. (The thing is, their costumes are not even what you'd call "sexy" - they're just girls dressed like real maids... save for the occasional bunny ears.)

If you've come here after Googling for an Akihabara map, you're in luck - though I'm not posting it for informational reasons, really, more as an illustration of how creepy the area can still be when it tries. This is an official map of the neighborhood, chock full of maid cafe advertisements (PDF):

My wife and I actually thought it might be fun to try one of these cafes - her idea! We took one of the fliers being handed out by the maids standing outside the train station and headed over to check it out. We were even a little excited to see something so uniquely Japanese geek pop. But I have to admit, when we got to the door and saw that it was the sort of place that sits in a basement with its windows covered up, we chickened out. No doubt that's to protect the identity of its patrons from public shame rather than to hide anything untoward going on inside, but it made us feel a little icky to think we'd even need our identities protected visiting a place like that. Whether or not it's deserved, there's a stigma attached to going to a maid cafe in Japan.

Walking down Chuo-Dori is actually kind of depressing these days, with several blocks just completely gone and more than a few old stores now replaced by coffee chains or other generic shops. Akihabara was never all that big to begin with, but it seems to have shrunk over the years - you can now exhaust pretty much all that it has to offer in about 1/4 mile of Chuo-Dori.

Still, the area around the train station continues to teem with cheap new and used or grey market electronics. There is still a huge Sega game center. There is still a selection of good used anime and game stores, including my favorite, TRADER.

This store is tiny, but it always has things you just never, ever see. This time, I found several new and shrinkwrapped copies of the Nintendo DS Game & Watch collection, the rarest game available for the system and supposedly only available in Japan to Nintendo Club members by collecting a ridiculous amount of "points" from other DS purchases. I wish I'd bought a copy (only 4980 yen), but elected to save my money for other things. Unfortunately, I never found anything else worth buying.

And there are, of course, the stores that may look pretty normal at first glance...

...until you take a closer look:

I guess now we know where the maid cafes get their uniforms.

This was my first visit to Akihabara when I didn't buy a single thing. A big disappointment, especially after my last trip, when I filled an entire duffle bag with Akihabara purchases. My wife thinks I'm getting old and am just no longer as interested in Akihabara's specialties. I don't think that's true - I think it's Akihabara that's changed, and not for the better.

The thing is, there's still a lot of interesting stuff in Akihabara. But Japan is a crazy place, and Akihabara is really no more special than a lot of other areas anymore. Heck, you can buy maid uniforms in Ryugasaki. You can buy used games and anime pretty much anywhere. And big-box stores like Yodobashi Camera are certainly not exclusive. There's no need to go to Akihabara for these things. It used to be that the sheer concentration of niche stores, the sheer number, the massive selection and the cheap prices made Akihabara a special place. But it's lost a lot of what made it unique over just the past six years.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Japan - Hotels (and How to Find One)

First-time travelers to Japan may face some daunting choices in where to stay - in many ways it is a completely alien country, and I've met people who think that all the hotels there force you to sleep either on the floor or in tiny capsules. This is obviously not the case, and in fact choosing a decent hotel is not that difficult. But choosing one that's convenient, has all the amenities you want and has a nice view is as challenging as it is anywhere.

In most parts of Japan, and as in many other things, you have two basic choices: Japanese or western style. Japanese style inns, or ryokan, are becoming harder to find and are generally pretty expensive. The Japanese don't use these much anymore unless they're playing tourist themselves, so most hotels you'd find - especially in a modern city like Tokyo (or even Kyoto) are going to be western style. Western bed, western bathroom, all the standard conveniences.

Most westerners seem to stay in the hotels they know from America - Hilton, Hyatt and other major chains exist there too. The problem I have with these chains is that they know they've got the familiarity in their favor so they charge exorbitant rates - generally $300 a night and up.

I've been using Prince Hotels ever since my first stay in Japan - they're sort of the Hilton of Japan; upscale mid-range, popular with business travelers. They're also everywhere - there are seemingly dozens of Prince Hotels in Tokyo. The hotels themselves are western but with a Japanese interpretation - something I always find interesting. The Japanese take on western luxury includes a lot of gold, chrome and glass - it's like being transported back to the 1980's, even in their new buildings.

Prince Hotels are famous for (generally) offering great views. It may not be true of all of their hotels, but it is certainly true of the Shinagawa Prince:

The Shinagawa Prince is almost unbelievable, especially if you've never heard of this chain before. It's mind-boggingly large, and is in fact four hotels in one, plus a major mall and condominium complex. Some visitors to Japan may prefer something a little more traditional; I personally enjoy the total excess that is modern Japanese culture. You want Japan? A gigantic chrome, gold and glass quad-hotel on top of a mall, iMax theater, dual-level bowling alley and condo complex is as much Japan as any ryokan.

I love the Shinagawa Prince because of the view and because of its style. I also love that its rooms are "only" about $150 per night - relatively cheap for "downtown" Tokyo (whatever that means). You can find cheaper, though - as we did a couple trips ago - just by walking down the street. There are a lot of hotels in the larger areas of Tokyo, and all you really need to do is find a smaller one that you can bet probably doesn't deal with a lot of the major travel agencies. If it looks clean, you're probably pretty safe staying there. We found a decent hotel just a block or so from the Shinagawa Prince a few years ago that charged just 9800 yen per night - all it lacked was the view.

One caveat about the Shinagawa Prince: as it is basically four separate hotels, some are newer than others. The "main" building is actually the oldest, and seems to get rented out by class trips and other large groups that probably just want the cheapest rates. The "annex" is a bit newer and a bit more upscale, but still pretty old. It's probably the quietest building in the complex, though. The "new tower" is no longer the newest tower, but is still not old - and it's got the same views as I'm posting here. The "executive tower" is the newest of all the buildings, just a year or two old - and it probably also has the nicest of the "cheap" rooms at the hotel. That's where we stayed this time - though this tower does have some too-modern oddities, like rock-hard beds and these corridors lifted straight out of the Starship Enterprise:

It also has, of course, one amenity standard to all decent Japanese hotels: an electronically-controlled bidet in every bathroom. Another cool thing about the executive tower: you can get a 1,000 yen gift voucher good at any of the convenience stores in the hotel if you choose not to have your room made up on any given day. (You can't do this two days in a row, but you can every other day.) This basically bought us breakfast and snacks for our entire stay.

One thing you've got to consider when picking a hotel to stay at is what you plan on doing. One semi-annoying thing for us about Shinagawa is that there aren't many tourist spots, so pretty much every day started out with a trip on the Yamanote line. At least the hotel is directly across from the train station - always a plus in Japan. But you may want to look for hotels closer to where you're actually going to go - though in our case, it probably didn't much matter because we went in all different directions every day. As I mentioned in my Tokyo Tower post, Tokyo is spread out all over the place, so there's no one area where all the attractions are concentrated as in a city like New York.

So how did we find the Shinagawa Prince to begin with, not to mention the New Miyako in Kyoto? Well, having a Japanese travel agent doesn't hurt - we've used H.I.S. in the past, and this time we used JALPAK. With JALPAK, though, I actually told them which hotels I wanted - it sure doesn't hurt to check for recommendations and reviews. That's how I found the New Miyako.

I've neglected talking about Akihabara so far - one subject I know a lot of you anime and game fans out there are going to want to know about - so I'll do that next. Watch for it (hopefully) tomorrow!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Japan - Tokyo Tower

Our first day in Tokyo began pretty much the same way as our first day in Kyoto - with a visit to the city's designated sightseeing tower. Tokyo Tower may invoke images of the Eiffel Tower but it was built as a radio/television transmission tower first and foremost. Still, it is a beautiful tower and taller than you'd probably think. I'm not sure if it's the tallest structure in Tokyo or not, but it would surprise me if it isn't.

If you're interested in visiting, the easiest way to get to the tower (and the most pleasant) is the Yamanote line to Hamamatsucho station. From there, it's about a 15 minute walk - it's pretty easy to figure out walking directions on your own, just look for the tower and walk towards it.

A pleasant surprise for us was stumbling upon Zojoji Temple - we hadn't planned it, but it sits directly in the path from Hamamatsucho station to the tower. Compared to some of the other temples we'd been to on this trip, it's a fairly small complex - still, it was nice to experience some peace and tranquility in the middle of bustling Tokyo. It was also an interesting juxtaposition of new and old architecture that made for some good photo opps.

This kinda brings up a point, which is that the perception of Tokyo (and Japan itself) in the west is a bit skewed. Tokyo is a huge, sprawling city, but it has a lot of quiet areas like this, and it is not particularly crowded - at least to a New Yorker. Obviously, those used to rural areas in any country will be absolutely overwhelmed by Tokyo, but the population density of Manhattan and central Tokyo are pretty similar - and remember that Manhattan has a huge swath of land right in the middle of it devoted to a giant park. The point being, while stories of commuters having to be physically packed into subway trains like sardines abound in the west, Tokyo is really no more crowded than a lot of other cities, and it's got plenty of big open spaces like this.

Almost directly beneath the tower. Tokyo Tower is different than Kyoto Tower in that there are a bunch of other attractions inside the tower itself - it's not strictly for sightseeing (and it's not sitting atop a hotel). There is a wax museum, for example, as well as a few other things that we didn't try. It's a whole big building full of attractions, and it looks pretty new inside - so it's a pretty major spot for tourists.

Here's the English version of the Tokyo Tower brochure - I also have (or had) a Japanese version but I may have given it away already. (Multi-page PDF):

Tons of cool stuff in there. Tokyo Tower's a happenin' place.

Obviously, the more you do there, the more you're gonna pay - everything requires its own ticket (even going all the way to the top observation deck requires two separate tickets).

Part of the view from the main observation deck about 1/3 the way up the tower, looking towards Odaiba. You can see Rainbow Bridge towards the right, with Odaiba beyond. It was really smoggy that day (actually this is not that bad for Tokyo) so we didn't bother paying the extra to go up to the "special" observation deck near the top - on some days, though, you can apparently see as far as Osaka, hundreds of miles away.

One of the only knocks I have against Tokyo is that it does not have a particularly compelling skyline. Part of that is the earthquake zoning provisions that make it prohibitively expensive to build tall - 35 stories is a skyscraper in Tokyo. The "sunshine laws" also restrict the amount of shadow a building can cast on the surrounding neighborhood - though these are now being relaxed a bit as the city runs out of land (it's dawned on political leaders that building vertically frees up surrounding land for parks or other uses). Tokyo is also not a city in political terms, which is one reason why you see wildly varying estimates of its population - it depends on what you're counting. But this means that there is no "center" of the city, really. It's just one big sprawl, with a few smaller city "centers" around the edges.

This is the view of Zojoji Temple from above.

And Tokyo Tower from directly below.

Next up: our hotel, getting around Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine and Harajuku!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Japan - Undokai!

After making our way from Kyoto to Tokyo (and after a little stopover for dinner at La Rochelle, Iron Chef Sakai's restaurant), we visited my in-laws for a few days in the small town of Ryugasaki. This was actually the main reason for the trip - you see, both of my nieces were going to take part in their kindergarten's "undokai" this year, and it would be the only year they'd be doing it together.

What is undokai? From what I remember from childhood, there is no western equivalent. It's sort of a "sports day", although there's also dancing and music involved. It's basically eight hours worth of organized physical activities performed in little track suits for the benefit of the large crowd of parents and families. There are around 25 events, split by class and involving parents' participation in some tasks. It is very cute and fun to watch, and I guess it's intended to promote physical fitness starting at a young age, along with family togetherness and teamwork. It's common to all of Japan.

I'm not going to show actual photos of my nieces but here are some general views:

One of the most amazing events was the tug-of-war among the parents - this is serious business!

There was also a full marching band complete with color guard - for four and five year olds!

There is obviously a lot of time put in for practicing all of these events - months, in fact. The kids are very young, and it is a lot of pressure put on them - but they all handled it well and everybody put on a good show. Probably more importantly than that, everybody worked together and had a good time. This concept of pushing kids so young this hard is foreign to Americans, but it's difficult to argue with the results - Japan is a country that believes heavily in teamwork, is largely free of crime and by and large has a population in a lot better shape than we are.

This was the day after the typhoon had cleared, and it was crystal clear blue sky all day long. Sounds great, huh? Well, having grown accustomed to the rain and not really knowing how long this event was ahead of time, I didn't bother wearing any sun protection. Yeah, I got pretty burned. Over the next few days, my entire face peeled off - and it was pretty painful.

Small-town life in Japan is much the same as it is here, so other than undokai, we did pretty much standard family stuff for the next three days. (If you're curious about rural Japan, rent Kamikaze Girls - this movie was filmed in my in-laws' prefecture.)

There is one large temple near my in-laws' house - Narita Temple - and it is nearly as impressive as any of Kyoto's temples. (The architecture is slightly more modern than you'd see in Kyoto, though I'm not sure if that's because the main building itself is newer or just from renovations.)

I've been there several times now - it's kind of a family tradition that we go there every time my wife goes home.

After 3 days in Ryugasaki it was a quick hop back to Tokyo on the Joban line for more playing tourist. Tokyo posts coming soon!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Japan - Getting Around (Part 1?)

Japan is well-known the world over for its mass transit system, but it's almost impossible to convey just how unbelievably impressive it is in words and pictures. You really need to see it for yourself. Still, I will do my best, and hopefully give some tips to any would-be travelers in the process.

Staying in Kyoto and Tokyo, we obviously used the mass transit system in both cities quite a bit. Our hotel in Kyoto, the New Miyako, was in fact right across the street from Kyoto Station - the absolute perfect location, if you ask me.

There are several hotels near the station, so this is not the only choice, but the New Miyako is pretty much as central as it gets. All of the major train and bus lines leave from here, so any of the sights and attractions you'd want to see are within reach.

As I mentioned in another post, Kyoto Station is one of the craziest buildings I have ever seen.

Fans of modern architecture really need to see it; it is almost stupefyingly large and just unnecessarily complex. It is an example of complete architectural excess, and for that reason it is apparently highly controversial in ultra-traditional Kyoto. A modern steel and glass structure, it has a main hall that to my eyes looks larger than all of Grand Central Terminal in New York. It has at least five stories, including a series of escalators that go to nowhere, and a whole bunch of little nooks and crannies that seem to exist for no other reason than to give couples a place to hide and practice a little romance late at night. The mood at night in its upper levels is really quite strange.

But it's here that you'll catch the commuter trains, the subway, the shinkansen out of town, or if you're a tourist, the mode of transport you'll most often be using: the bus. While Tokyo is all about the train, Kyoto, for tourists at least, is a bus city. There's simply no train or series of trains that goes to all the temples and other tourist sites in the city; buses, though, do.

Inside Kyoto Station, there is a tourist office on the second level (just inside the north entrance) that sells an all-day bus pass for 500 yen and will also provide you with an English (or Japanese) map. There may be other, longer-term options, but we found that the day pass worked well for the 3 days we were there. Using the pass can be confusing to first-time visitors - it was even to my wife, who is from Japan. First, entering the bus is through the back door - unlike in the US, where it's through the front. The front of the bus is for getting off, and you pay your fare as you exit. To use your pass, you must insert it into the proper slot in the fare machine only the first time you exit a bus - after that, simply show the date side to the bus driver.

Buses in Kyoto don't run very frequently, and they can get extremely crowded - especially going to and from the station. Avoid rush hour if you can, but I've found when I'm on vacation that I completely lose all sense of anyone else's schedule - to me, every day is a Saturday, so I never remember to even think about rush hour until I'm caught in it.

If you do what we did and visit both Kyoto and Tokyo, chances are you're going to be riding the shinkansen - flying is possible but not very pleasant, and not really any faster either. Given the central location of both Kyoto and Tokyo stations, it really makes more sense to take the high speed "bullet train". (That's a western nickname, by the way - it's best to simply call it the shinkansen, as the Japanese do.)

There are three classes of shinkansen train service - Kodama, Hikari and Nozomi. Kodama is local service, Hikari is "express" and Nozomi is "super express". Basically, Nozomi makes the fewest stops, though neither Kodama nor Hikari is what anyone would call slow. If you have a Japan Rail Pass (which wasn't worth it for us but may be for you), you can ride either Kodama or Hikari, but not Nozomi. No big loss, really.

Yeah, this model shinkansen looks like a duck.

We were on the 10:26 Nozomi service from Kyoto to Tokyo, in a reserved car. Our travel agent set this up for us, but you can buy a ticket in the station if you need to - just try to do it in advance. I do advise getting a reserved seat, as the non-reserved cars can be standing-room only at times, and if you do get a seat, they're worse than economy class coach on a domestic flight. Reserved seats have a much longer seat pitch - even I, at 6'4", was quite comfortable. There are also "green cars" - basically first class - but the difference in comfort level is probably not enough to justify the extra cost. It is not like the United States, where first class on a train means a private bedroom. (Of course, who needs a bedroom when you can traverse an entire country in less than a day?)

There are stores in every shinkansen station that sell nothing but bento boxes like this. They also sell them on the train. There are no more "restaurant cars" (as they called them in Japan), but JR employees do come around with a little cart every once in a while that has stuff like this that you can buy. By the way, just as an indication of the amount of legroom, that's actually a suitcase on the left side of the above photo, resting behind the seat in front. You can see the guy across the aisle has his legs comfortably crossed.

Here's what a shinkansen ticket looks like - the top is the ticket for the base fare, bottom is the reserved seat express surcharge ticket:

The line from Kyoto to Tokyo is the Tokaido line, and it was the first shinkansen line to open in the 1960's. It's the line that famously goes by Mt. Fuji, so you can catch a glimpse of it if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, it did not for us - a typhoon raged as we blasted through to Tokyo. JR shuts down train service if the winds get too bad, so I was more worried about that than I was about safety, but there were definitely a few wind gusts that jolted our train to one side or the other in a pretty unsettling manner. Traveling at 160mph, the last thing you want to feel is your train swaying from side to side in the wind.

This was not my first time on the shinkansen, but it was my first long trip and my first sustained high-speed ride. (My only other experience was riding from Tokyo to Yokohama just for the heck of it - a journey of about 15 minutes.) The shinkansen system and trains are even more amazing in person than what you've probably heard. First, during rush hours, they run about every 4 minutes on some lines. They're everywhere. And they're always on time, down to the second. Unlike the TGV or other European high-speed trains, there are many different shinkansen types, so if you like trains, there's always something interesting to look at.

If you're wondering what rocketing through the Japanese countryside at 160mph looks like, it looks something like this:

As smooth as it is, and as quiet, it almost seems kind of sedate. But it's not - the 230 mile trip (as the crow flies) from Kyoto to Tokyo only takes a little over 2 hours. That's including two stops, and a routing around the mountains.

Well, this is turning into an epic post, so I'd better continue it a bit later. Getting around Tokyo is a whole other adventure unto itself, so it probably deserves a post of its own anyway. I'll revisit it after touching on some other subjects, though. Coming up: Tokyo Tower, Harajuku, Akihabara and more!

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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