Monday, September 18, 2017

Kyoto, Japan: 24 Hours Discovering the Thousand Year Capital - September 2017

One day is never enough time to explore any city properly, but if one day is all you have, Kyoto is definitely worth the visit.

Located on the island of Honshu, Kyoto is a two-hour bullet train ride from Tokyo and is easy to navigate by both foot and bus. Kyoto translates to "capital city" in Chinese and is referred to as Japan's "Thousand Year Capital" because it served the designation until 1869.

Kyoto boasts more than 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and countless palaces and gardens. With only 24 hours to explore the ancient city, it's important to build your itinerary to make every minute count.


8:00 a.m. Breakfast at the Kyoto Inn Gion. After a comfortable night's sleep at this centrally-located hotel, grab a bite to eat and head out the door. Gion is Kyoto's most famous Geisha district and also home to numerous restaurants, shops and tea houses. Stroll the narrow alleys to try to catch a glimpse of a Geisha or Maiko, Geisha-in-training, before making your way to the nearest bus station to purchase a 500 yen day pass.

9:30 a.m. Kinkaku-ji, Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Not many establishments in Japan are open early but this top attraction begins welcoming tourists at 9 a.m. Located a bit out of the way in the northwest, the Golden Pavilion with its numerous gardens and reflecting ponds is perfect for a morning stroll. Known officially as Rokuon-ji, the Zen Buddhist temple was originally built for powerful statesmen. It's extensive gold-leaf coating is believed to dispel negative feelings towards death.

12:00 p.m. Lunch at Ramen Sen no Kaze. Head back to the center of the city to enjoy lunch at the number one ramen restaurant in the world according to TripAdvisor. The small restaurant has received well-deserved publicity in recent years so be prepared to take a number and wait for your turn for a seat at the bar. If you have more than a few minutes to spare, pop into the Bengal Cat and Owl Forest located nearby in the Nishiki Market.

1:30 p.m. Fushimi Inari-taisha. After a satisfying lunch, hop back on the bus and make your way to this popular shrine situated at the base of a mountain. Dedicated to Inari the God of Rice, the worshipping spot is a favorite of businessmen, merchants and manufacturers. The highlight of this shrine is the thousands of  torii, or orange-colored entrance gates, that line the path up the mountain. 

4:00 p.m. Kiyomizu-dera. One of the signature UNESCO World Heritage sites in Kyoto, this Buddhist temple in the east is not to be missed. Founded in 778 and with many of its buildings constructed in the 1600s, it is believed that not a single nail was used in the construction of this complex. Before trekking uphill to walk the grounds and indulge in a paper fortune, stop by one of the many shops selling traditional snacks and souvenirs.

6:00 p.m. Dinner at Kikyo Sushi. Following a full day discovering the beauty of Kyoto enjoy a delicious meal served at this family-run restaurant. Fresh fish is their specialty with traditional sushi offerings as well as Kyoto-style.

With its traditional beauty and deep-rooted history, Kyoto is the cultural epicenter of Japan. A day well-spent will invite you into the enchanting city but will most certainly leave you yearning to discover more.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Tokyo, Japan: Seven Step Guide to the Tsukiji Tuna Auction - September 2017

Tsukiji Market is the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood retailer. More than 400 different kinds of seafood can be found at the market from seaweed and sardines, to caviar and tuna. The total value of the merchandise handled on the premises surpasses 600 billion yen or nearly 6 billion U.S. dollars annually.

The market opens daily beginning at 3 a.m. to greet ships, planes and trucks delivering catches from all over the world. Aside from strolling through the market stalls, the most popular visitor attraction is the tuna auction. If you are interested in observing the world-famous auction, follow this seven-step guide to make the most of your visit.

1.) Get your plan together ahead of time. The day you plan to visit will start early. The auction begins before the Tokyo metro starts service so you'll need to either stay at accommodation within walking distance or pre-arrange a taxi service. Check the schedule ahead of time; the auction doesn't take place on Sundays, many Wednesdays and when a tropical storm is looming.

2.) Get there early. While the actual auction begins at 5 a.m., visitors begin queuing outside of Osakana Fukyu Center as early as 1 a.m. in peak season. Only two groups of 60 visitors are permitted into the auction each day and no reservations or group tours are allowed.

3.) Get in line. When you see a line forming for the auction, get in it and stay in it. Spots are precious, and policemen take their jobs seriously monitoring tourist behavior and regulating the number of visitors permitted. Anyone suspected of being intoxicated is not allowed into the auction so forget about your plans to stay up all night.

4.) Get comfortable on the floor. If you are lucky enough to be one of the 120 visitors granted a spot, you'll be sequestered inside a small building. You'll be provided a high-visibility vest and instructed to wait. Secure a spot on the floor and try to get as comfortable as possible. About thirty minutes prior to being escorted into the market, an experienced bidder provides an orientation about the market, the auction and the tuna trade. Have your questions ready.

5.) Get up close. At 5:25 a.m. the first group of visitors is escorted into the industrial area where the tuna auction takes place. The tuna are put on display for perspective bidders to survey prior to the event. Both fresh and frozen tuna are included in the auction and buyers analyze the fish quality by evaluating core samples placed atop the fish. The auction begins with the ringing of a bell and is an intense display of yelling and rapid fire hand gesturing. Try to finagle your way close to the front to get the best view of the action.

6.) Get out of the way. On your way to and from the auction, your group will be escorted by policemen through a massive industrial warehouse complex. The area is a buzz with motorized carts, wheel barrels and forklifts. The vests are no defense against the moving equipment and rushed workers so watch where you are going and respect the business going on around you.

7.) Get out of there. By 6 a.m. the auction is over and it's time to leave. Most likely you'll have had enough of the fishy smell and noise, but if you still haven't gotten your fix, stop outside the auction area at one of the many seafood stalls to sample a fresh catch.

The Tsukiiji Market and tuna action is an incredible display and worth the time to enjoy the show. Due to its popularity and safety concerns associated with the current arrangement, the local government is considering moving the market outside of Tokyo. Ensure you have the latest information before planning your visit.

Hakone, Japan: Bathing in Coffee and Swimming in Red Wine - September 2017

A two-hour train ride from Tokyo transported us to the mountainous town of Hakone within Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. This area is popular with locals for its hot springs resorts, referred to as onsens, and is home to the world-famous Yunessun Spa and Resort.

Yunessun is a multi-level waterpark, hotel and retail complex situated in the mountains. The main attraction is a number of hot spring-fed pools mixed with popular beverages.

Accommodation is available at Yunessun or neighboring hotels associated with the spa. We elected to stay at Hakone Kowakien Ten-yu and were wowed by the experience.

While English wasn't prevalent, the luxury hotel provided an authentic Japanese experience. The rooms were ryokan style, traditional Japanese accommodation originating in the 8th century characterized by tatami-matted floors, cushioned ground seating, communal baths and public areas were visitors wore yukata, or closed robes, and geta, wooden sandals.

The stay included half-board, dinner and breakfast, both of which may have been the finest, multi-course meals we enjoyed during our visit to Japan.

While in Hakone, we spent an afternoon at the Yunessun Spa. Crowded with families and young couples, we were surprised that there were only a handful of people who appeared to be foreigners.

We flew down the water slides at the park and watched synchronized aerobics in the central pool, before taking a dip in the famous mixed baths. The beverage baths available were coffee, red wine, green tea and sake with each varying in temperature and color. Aside from the overwhelming aroma, the coffee pool was our favorite and left our skin feeling especially soft.

We also peaked into the mori no yu area of the resort where swim suits are forbidden and bathing is segregated by gender.

The beautiful town of Hakone offers much more to see and do besides the spa. We didn't have time to sail across Lake Ashi on a pirate ship, walk across Mishima pedestrian bridge to gaze at Mount Fuji or sample the black hard boiled eggs said to add seven years to your life, but we did make a note for next time before heading back to the big city.
 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tokyo, Japan: Bumping Bellies at Sumo Practice - September 2017

Our last morning in Tokyo, my sister and I wanted to experience something a bit more "traditional Japan." There weren't any sumo tournaments scheduled but we managed to get in on an early morning sumo practice at a local stable. Along with only a few others, we watched for more than an hour as the wrestlers stretched and trained. During the session we also learned about the life of sumo wrestlers and some of their training techniques.

According to our guide, Kiyo, the qualifications to be a sumo wrestler include a middle school education, a height of at least 170 centimeters or 5.5 feet, and a weight of 70 kilograms or 154 pounds. Only ten percent of all sumo wrestlers are white belt wrestlers who get a salary from the Japan Sumo Association. All others are considered black belt wrestlers in training who receive no salary and live in sumo stables that pay for their accommodation, clothing and meals.

The regimen in the stables is structured and highly disciplined. Wrestlers train for hours in the morning and then eat lunch. A common lunch for a sumo wrestler is several bowls of rice and chankonabe, a weight-gaining Japanese stew; the wrestler's bowl is three to five times as large as a normal bowl. Following lunch, it's customary for the wrestlers to take a two-hour nap so that their bodies can use the food to make them bigger and stronger. Following naptime, training resumes.

Traditional sumo training techniques include:
  • Shiko: a sumo wrestler lifts each leg high in the air and stomps the ground with his legs to stabilize his center of gravity and toughen the legs and loins
  • Teppo: the wrestler faces an exercise pillar and slams his hands and feet into it alternately to toughen his upper body and upper arms
  • Mata-Wari: opening both legs wide, the wrestler puts his upper body down to the floor to improve his flexibility and help prevent muscle injury
  • Suri-Ashi: a shuffling walk without separating the feet from the wrestling ring floor also called the centipede
  • Koshi-Wari: a squat that helps improve flexibility and strengthens the loins and legs
  • Udetate-Fuse: push-ups to strengthen the upper body
  • Sanban-Geiko: a row of training matches with the same opponents
  • Butsukari-Geiko: head-to-head training where the wrestler tackles an opponent pushing him to the edge of the sumo ring, followed by the opponent pushing back and throwing the attacker down

During the session we also saw a few mock matches between the junior trainees as the more seasoned sumo wrestlers advised and conserved their energy.

While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. As with any sport, excelling at the art of sumo requires discipline and dedication, and in Japan it is a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby.
 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Only in Japan: Top Ten Extreme Experiences I had this Week - September 2017

I'm in love with Japan. From the tranquil gardens and artistic sashimi plates, to the bullet trains and beer vending machines, it's a land where imagination flows freely.

This week my sister and I set out on the ultimate adventure to take part in as many only-in-Japan experiences as possible. Whether you'd describe them as wild, cute, silly or bizarre, here's the list of our ten most unforgettable escapades.

1.) Cuddling a hedgehog, locking eyes with an owl and drinking pink milk with a maid. Themed cafés are all the rage in Japan right now. The lucrative sub-culture made its debut more than a decade ago with its first cat café in Tokyo; now there are 57 additional establishments where you can sip your coffee while petting a furry feline, along with others themed with bunnies, penguins and snakes. We visited hedgehog, Bengal cat and owl cafés which each provided the opportunity to interact with the animals and take photographs. We also grabbed a pink-colored milk drink at a maid café, @Home World, where the staff dressed in costume, talked with us at our table and performed on stage.

2.) Fishing for Lunch. Why just order lunch when you can catch it yourself? At Zauo Fishing Restaurant you eat what you hook and can have it prepared the way you like. During my fishing expedition I had my sights set on a mackerel that would run me about 9,800 yen, or about $10 dollars, unfortunately the seas were angry that day and I hooked a rather large sea bream setting me back nearly $75 dollars. Luckily my sister helped enjoy the catch which we had prepared half tempura and half sashimi style.

3.) Dining with Ninjas. Hidden down a dark alley, Ninja Akasaka restaurant provided the ultimate themed fine dining experience. We were greeted at the door by a masked ninja who took us to our own dimly-lit, bamboo-walled room with a traditional Japanese table and floor cushion seating. While various menu options are available, I went with the "All Black" set menu and was treated to eight courses of sublime, black-colored cuisine. The highlights included black soup with black dough shrimp dumplings, chicken cutlet with black panko crumbs and for dessert a custard covered in black berry syrup and garnished with black beans. Aside from preparing much of our meal tableside, the ninjas performed an incredible magic show in our room.

4.) Bidding at the Largest Tuna Auction in the World. We weren't involved in the actual bidding, but we were onsite by 2:30 a.m. to watch the flurry of locals survey and attempt to procure massive quantities of tuna at Tsukiji Market, the world's largest wholesale fish and seafood market. The auction began with the ringing of a bell and was an intense display of yelling and rapid fire hand gesturing. By 6 a.m. it was over and we needed to artfully dodge motorized carts, wheel barrels and forklifts to escape. For a full post on the Tsukiji tuna auction click here.

5.) Renting a Puppy. In Japanese cities, real estate is pricy and limited; most people can't afford to own pets especially those that require outdoor space. Enter the rent-a-dog business. At Dog Heart beagles, poodles and golden retrievers are available to rent so that people can take them on walks to a nearby park or stay inside and play. The day we attempted to walk a rented dog it was raining so unfortunately the puppies couldn't come outside to play but we patted a couple and took a few doggie business cards for next time.

6.) Sleeping Overnight in a Space Capsule. Never have I been so excited to stay at a one-star hotel than after booking at the 9 Hours capsule hotel. Referred to as a human recharging station, this minimalistic accommodation has a futuristic design that includes 43 inch wide by 43 inch tall sleeping pods and lockers accessible by QR code. While the bed was hard and temperature warm, the capsule met expectations and provided for a solid night's rest.

7.) Cheering on Warring Robots. No visit to Tokyo would be complete without taking in a night show at the  Kabukicho Robot Restaurant. An hour and a half of warring robots, psychedelic monsters, animated dancers and blinding lasers will have you questioning if someone slipped something into your beer and which way is up. While we didn't run into many locals, the show was surreal and we left with our heads spinning.

8.) Bathing in Coffee and Swimming in Red Wine. A two-hour train ride from Tokyo transported us to the mountainous town of Hakone within the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The park is popular with locals for its hot springs resorts (onsens) and is home to the world-famous Yunessun Spa. During our afternoon at Yunessun we indulged ourselves in hot spring baths mixed with coffee, red wine, green tea and sake. Aside from the overwhelming aroma, the coffee pool was our favorite and left our skin feeling especially soft. Read more about our visit to the spa and Hakone area by clicking here.

9.) Playing Pachinko in a Retro Arcade. While gambling is illegal in Japan, there's always a way to beat the system. Pachinko is the nation's alternative to slot machines where players win prizes - some of which can be "sold" at neighboring establishments for cash. Pachinko is similar to pinball in that it involves the pressing and releasing of spring-loaded levers to launch metal balls into targeted slots. I didn't win any prizes this time but may try my luck again at one of the many noisy, fluorescent-lit pachinko parlors found on nearly every city street corner.

10.) Bumping Bellies at Sumo Practice. Our last morning in Tokyo, my sister and I wanted to experience something a bit more "traditional Japan." There weren't any sumo tournaments scheduled but we managed to get in on an early morning sumo practice at a local stable. Along with only a few others, we watched as the wrestlers hit each other to allow evil spirits to leave their bodies, and also as they stretched, trained and took part in mock matches. While action-packed, observing the ritualistic chanting and repetitious maneuvers felt strangely meditative. We also learned about the life of sumo wrestlers and some of the sport terminology which you can read by clicking on this link.

While we were together in Japan for less than a week, the time my sister and I spent there was intense cultural immersion. We each now have a greater appreciation for the Japanese people and the extreme interests which truly make them unique.