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2 Weeks in Japan (Tokyo, Kyoto and More) -- Part I

Author: GregW (More Trip Reviews by GregW)
Date of Trip: June 2006



The following is a summary of my two week trip to Japan. I flew into Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, and then spent 6 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto, a day each in Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima.

I'll offer some specific impressions and advice on each city, and then some general comments on travelling in Japan. But first a quick note, that I use the incorrect but easy to remember currency exchange rate of ¥100 being equal to $US 1. It's actually more like ¥120 being equal to $US 1, but math is much easier when you use round numbers.

Tokyo

In Tokyo, I mostly just wandered around and saw the city. It's an amazingly large place and always crowded, but it can be a lot of fun. I was staying in Ginza, which is a high-end shopping district to the south-east of Tokyo train station, but I don't think it really matters where you stay as all areas are pretty accessible by Tokyo metro.

In a big city, it's always a good idea to get yourself up high to get a view of the place. The Tokyo Tower (Eiffel tower look-a-like) or Tokyo City View, both close to the Akasaka / Roppongi area both offer views, but both cost money. Instead, head to the Municipal Building to the west of Shinjuku station, where you can get up high and get a view of Tokyo for no cost. If you're lucky, you might be able to see Mount Fuji, though I never did due to either overcast skies or hazy smog.

Also to the west of Shinjuku is the Shinjuku NS building with its amazing 30 story atrium and the Park Hyatt hotel, which is a good place to go for some expensive drinks with a great view. It's the same hotel featured in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. To the east of Shinjuku is some great discount shopping, as well as the red light district and the area called the Golden Gai. The Golden Gai is a number of really small alleys filled with bars that many Japanese hit after work. However, a number of places are private clubs or don't allow foreigners inside. Those that do allow foreigners usually charge a cover charge and pricey drinks. It's interesting to see, but may not be a great place to drink every night.

Kyoto

Kyoto's main attraction for tourists is the large number of temples, shrines and castles that are there. There are over 2,000 sites, and many of them are UNESCO heritage sites. The crowds can be pretty thick, though. The best bet is to arrive at places right at the opening hour, and get ahead of the bus tourists.

Two of my favorites are Nijo Castle and Shoren-In temple.

I arrive right at the 9am opening of Nijo Castle, and am able to walk quickly past the tour groups on the squeaking nightingale floors (ancient alarm system- all the floors in the castle squeak to alert everyone of intruders) and soon am ahead of them and have the place to myself. It has a beautiful large garden with old stone walls, and is very peaceful.

I arrive at Shoren-in right at 9am, it's opening time. I think this is the secret, arrive early. I walk in, and I have the place to myself. I kneel on the tatami mat floor and contemplate the waterfall and beautiful gardens outside. Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the sounds call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.

Of course, by posting this on the internet, I may have destroyed that peace for future generations of tourists.

Most temples charge an admission, usually between ¥500 and ¥1000.

I enjoyed the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum. Umekoji is an old station house that has been turned into a museum of steam powered rail. They have a bunch of old engines that you can look in, some interactive exhibits on how steam engines worked, and a few model train sets. But the big attraction is the chance to ride for 1 km on a steam train (500 m down a spur line and then 500 m back). Afterwards, they pull the engine onto the working turntable, turn it around and fuel it up, then again onto the turntable to put it into the roundhouse for the night. Entrance was ¥400, and the ride on the steam engine was another ¥200.

I also will point out that I watched the World Cup final in Kyoto at 3 in the morning at a bar called The Hub near the area called Pontocho. Besides for mentioning this because the Pontocho is a good place to find food and drinks, I wanted to say that I won my world cup pool. I know futbol!

Nagoya

I spent one day in Nagoya, and during the day had one task in mind - the Nagoya Basho Sumo Tournament at the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium. This sumo tourney takes place for 3 weeks in July (first Sunday to the third Sunday). Tickets are ¥2700 ($US 27), and can be bought at the door. If you go during the week in the first couple weeks of the tourney, you should be able to get tickets without any issues. The last week and the weekends are pretty busy. The 2700 Yen tickets allow you general admission, which means you can sit anywhere someone isn't sitting. This allows you to get right up close and see the action, plus get some great pictures.

The stadium was a pretty typical stadium, with rows of seats around a center area. But for the sumo, most of the seats had been folded down, and boards with purple pillows were laid on top of the seats, allowing the fans to sit cross legged on the floor while watching the action. The ring itself is a square raised a few feet off the floor. On the ring is a dirt covering with a circular field created using a rope. It is in this circular part that the wrestlers do their thing. Outside the ring, on the floor, sit 5 judges in black robes. Two wrestlers sit on either side of two of the 5 judges (the next two bouts).



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