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Everything You Need to Know About Japan

By Sandra Sugawara
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 18, 1998; Page E1

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 Language  Getting Around  Money  Hotels  Suggested Itinerary

Japan Map As we were riding the Tokyo subway during my first visit here years ago, my dad suggested we randomly pick an interesting stop and go exploring. We emerged in a neighborhood of small shops, the streets jammed with people. Energetic, festive chanting and the rhythmic pounding of a Japanese taiko drum filled the air. Suddenly an ornate, gold-and-red portable shrine came into view, carried by two dozen sweating men, wearing identical happi coats and stepping in unison. Other groups and shrines followed. Vendors sold grilled squid, rice balls and chicken. We stayed for hours.

Many Americans who come here looking for the "real Japan" of kimonos and wooden and paper houses often are disappointed to find that Tokyo looks like any big city, with high-rise buildings and traffic jams. But if you know where to look you'll see more: colorful festivals heralding Japanese traditions, peaceful gardens tucked behind concrete buildings, lively fish markets with swaggering auctioneers, temples where you can be soothed by smoke alleged to cure all ills, and nightlife ranging from ancient Kabuki theater to techno avant garde.

After 2½ years as a Tokyo correspondent and resident, I've had a surprising number of friends and family come to visit from the United States. While we tweak the schedule according to their interests, the following itinerary contains the sites and restaurants that have generally been the biggest hits. And with the following tips in mind, most of my friends say they are surprised at how easy it is to get around in Tokyo.

The Language: Exploring the Japan that resides outside the tour guides' range can be a bit difficult if you don't speak the language. But not at all impossible. Unlike Americans, who expect everyone to speak English, Japanese don't expect foreigners to speak Japanese. And many Japanese in their twenties and thirties can speak at least a little English.

My husband and I first toured Japan years ago, before we could speak any Japanese. We found that most people were like the street vendor we met one day in Osaka.

We walked up and pointed quizzically at the food he was cooking. When he realized we didn't understand Japanese, he began flapping his arms and cackling like a chicken. As we burst out laughing, he pointed to his chest to indicate that some of the meat was chicken breasts, and his thigh to show ... well, you get the idea.

A few days later, in a tiny restaurant in Nagasaki, the owners spoke no English but welcomed us warmly. After an unsuccessful attempt to explain their Japanese menu, they dialed a friend who spoke some English and put us on the phone with her, and then let us look inside the pots in the kitchen. We had a delicious meal of grilled eel, braised vegetables, rice and soup.

Getting Around: Japan is probably one of the best countries in the world for clueless tourists to stumble around. It's relatively safe: Elementary school kids ride the subway at night without adults. People routinely walk around carrying thousands of dollars of cash. (No one uses checks, and many places do not accept credit cards.)

The biggest problem with exploring here is Japan's address system, in which houses and buildings are sometimes numbered not consecutively, but according to the order in which they were built.

I always arm guests with maps before they venture out alone. One of the best Japanese-English language map books is called "Tokyo, a Bilingual Atlas," published by Kodansha (available in Washington at Travel Books & Language Center, 202-237-1322). But if you're going someplace specific, it's always best to have someone at the place you're going fax you a more detailed map, which you can show the taxi driver (most of whom do not speak English).

The easiest way to get around Tokyo, however, is by subway. Navigating the Tokyo subways is a breeze, as long as you have an English-language subway map. (There is one in the Kodansha map book, and most English-language guidebooks contain one. They are not readily available at subway stations.) The signs in subway stations are written in Roman characters. And luckily, in Japan the trains do run on time. Precisely. That means if you know that your train is scheduled to arrive at the station at 5:07 p.m. and a train stops at 5:02 and takes off at 5:04, it wasn't yours.

Taxis are immaculate, and the drivers generally very professional. I've never been "taken for a ride," and in fact when drivers get lost, they sometimes turn off the meter and apologize profusely. Of course, they don't have to cheat you because they make so much money honestly. Don't be surprised if a trip the distance from Capitol Hill to Georgetown costs $20.

Money: Besides the language barrier, most intimidating to American visitors is money. Japan is expensive, even in the midst of a currency crisis, although the weaker yen has made things cheaper. A dinner that might have cost $210 per person two years ago may now cost $150 because of the falling yen. But I just bought a $13 box of dishwasher detergent. And I recently had breakfast at the equivalent of a Big Boy restaurant in which a fried egg, toast, bacon, coffee and orange juice cost about $20. Don't be surprised if dinners at those renowned Japanese restaurants written up in guidebooks cost you $200 a person or more. A taxi from Narita Airport to Tokyo, which can take more than an hour, can cost more than $150.

But there is no need to take a taxi, just as there is no need to eat at the famous restaurants. Airport buses will take you from Narita Airport to the major hotels for about $25. You can have a hearty, steaming bowl of ramen, a noodle soup with vegetables or pork, for as little as $6. And the basements of Japanese department stores are stuffed with takeout goodies, from sushi to teriyaki and sandwiches, priced at under $10.

Hotels: Accommodations very widely, too. The major hotels, like the ANA Hotel and the Imperial, can run $250 a night or more, but there are many advantages to staying there. Perhaps most important for Americans, they have English-speaking staff, accustomed to writing directions in Japanese for taxi drivers or procuring Kabuki performance schedules. More modest hotels, such as the Hotel Ibis (14-4, 7 chome, Roppongi, Minato-ku, telephone 011-813-3403-4411) in the Roppongi district, can cost $175 a night for a double. There are also "businessmen hotels," with tiny rooms and single beds, for less than $100 a night. But generally no English is spoken there, and many lack even a coffee shop.

The place I wish my family and I had stayed when we first moved to Tokyo and were waiting to move into our house is the Kodomo No Shiro Hotel, or the Children's Castle Hotel (53-1, 5 chome, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, telephone 011-813-3797-5677). There is an indoor and rooftop playground, an art room, a music room, a video room and a pool. There are both Western-style rooms with beds, which can hold up to three people for $144 a night, and Japanese-style tatami rooms with futons, which can hold up to 10 people. A family of four could stay for about $200 a night, and it's a great choice for families with small kids visiting Japan for the first time.

Most of my friends come to Japan for a week or less, and, like most visitors, they want to see some of the new Japan and the traditional Japan. So consider the following five-day itinerary, which I've used on many visiting Americans. About the only complaint I've gotten is that it involves so much walking. But walking really is the best way to see much of Japan. You'd miss a lot if you just saw it looking down from tour buses that cart you from temple to temple.

 Day 1: Tsukiji Fish Market, Asakusa Market, Sensoji Temple and a River Cruise
When Americans arrive in Japan, they are usually awake at 5 a.m., because of the 14-hour time zone difference. Most of Tokyo is quiet then — but not the Tsukiji Fish Market (5 chome, Tsukiji, Chuo-ku), Japan's largest. My dad visits every time he comes to Japan. My kids love it, too. It's a wonderful show. Through the night, fishing boats unload huge catches. About 5 a.m., the tuna auction starts inside the terminal, as auctioneers stand over pieces of tuna and ask for bids. The floor is covered with water because it is constantly hosed down, so be sure to wear old shoes.

Outside the terminal are narrow rows of shops where you can buy anything from blue-and-white bowls to sushi. We stopped off one morning to have breakfast at a place called Sushidai, a narrow restaurant with a long bar. It was weird to see customers drinking beer at 8 a.m., although this was dinner for those who had worked through the night.

Another place to get a delicious breakfast is Inouye: Tsukiji Specialty Ramen, a ramen place on Shin-ohashi Dori ("dori" means "street"), the main road outside the market. You can usually spot it by the crowd of people there. For about $4.50, you get a huge bowl of ramen noodles, with slices of pork and delicious broth. Walk up to the counter and indicate how many bowls you want. After paying, find a seat; in a few minutes, they'll bring you your soup.

Asakusa, a lively open-air market that is a good source for souvenirs and trinkets, is a short walk away. From the ramen shop, as you are facing Shin-ohashi Dori, turn right and walk about five minutes to the Tsukiji subway station. Get on the train going toward Higashi-Ginza, the next stop, where you will transfer to the Asakusa Line; take that to Asakusa station. Asakusa used to be the merchants' quarters, and it has retained its informal style. Walk through the huge red Kaminarimon Gate and you'll be on Nakamise Dori, which is lined with stalls selling homemade crackers, Japanese dolls, oiled paper umbrellas, fans, lacquered boxes and toys.

If you're feeling slightly overwhelmed at this point, you're in luck. At the end of the street, you will come to a large incense burner, surrounded with people waving the incense over their heads and bodies. The smoke is supposed to help cure illness or ward off other problems. So if you have a headache, wave some over your forehead.

Now move on to Sensoji Temple, which is Tokyo's oldest. But first, buy your fortune, at a counter just inside the entrance. For about 75 cents, you shake a wooden stick out of a container, match the number on the stick to one of the wooden drawers and pull out your fortune (written in both English and Japanese). "Your request will be granted," mine read. "The patient will get well. . . . Marriage, employment and starting a trip are all right." If you get a bad fortune, no problem — you can cancel it by tying it to one of the wires you will see.

Once inside the temple, go up the steps to the altar. Toss a coin in the big box, clap your hands to get the attention of the gods and then make a wish.

Time to eat now, so turn back and reenter the shopping arcade. At the second corner, turn left and you will see a short cobblestone walkway leading to a door with a blue-and-white noren, or short curtain. This is the entrance to Imahan Bekkan (2-5, 2 chome, Asakusa, Taito-ku), a relatively inexpensive restaurant offering sukiyaki (thinly sliced beef, tofu and vegetables in a soy sauce-based soup), shabu shabu (boiled, thinly sliced beef eaten with a soy sauce-based soup or sesame-based sauce), sushi, tempura and other dishes. There are plastic models of the food in the window, and it's perfectly acceptable to beckon one of the kimono-clad waitresses outside and point to what you want. (There's also an English-language menu, although not all the waitresses know where it is kept.) The Sensoji special, which includes sushi, tempura, cold noodles and other side dishes, costs about $14.

By the way, if you liked the looks of those plastic food samples in the display window, you can buy them — along with the partitioned, lacquered o-bento boxes used in Japanese restaurants, a noren to hang over your kitchen entranceway, a huge red lantern like those found outside Japanese drinking establishments, and every kind of Japanese cooking utensil imaginable — in Kappabashi, the wholesale restaurant district located nearby. Walk back to Kaminarimon Gate and turn right; it's a 10- or 15-minute walk.

At this point, a relaxing cruise might be a good way to end your day. For about $5, you can cruise the Sumida River , one of Tokyo's main waterways. It is also the site of frequent fireworks and other festivities. To get to the pier, walk back toward the Kaminarimon Gate; the pier is two blocks beyond. One evening last summer, we watched as candle-lit paper lanterns were set sailing down the river out to sea. They were the souls of the deceased floating out to the other world, a woman standing next to us explained. She pointed to a lantern that got stuck behind a pier. "That one is not ready to leave this world," she said, smiling.

You can get off at Hamarikyu Imperial Garden for a peaceful rest. It's a huge park with lots of green, a few times as big as a baseball stadium, featuring a Japanese garden decorated with finely cut trees — mainly pines. The garden is Kai yu shiki-style, meaning that it looks the same from whichever side you look at it. From there, walk about 10 minutes to the Shimbashi Station or take a taxi to your hotel, as jet lag is probably setting in.

 Day 2: Shopping at Ginza and Downtown Nightlife
You'll probably want to visit the Ginza, Tokyo's famous shopping district filled with expensive designer goods, art galleries, pearl and kimono shops, and stores with Japanese delicacies. If you take the subway, get off at the Ginza 4-chome exit, in front of the Mitsukoshi Department Store (6-16, 4 chome, Ginza, Chuo-ku). Try to arrive about five minutes before the opening time of 10 a.m. At that time, the doors will be opened, although the entrance will be blocked. At three minutes of 10, two women will begin announcing that day's specials. At 10, everyone is allowed in, to be greeted by sales clerks and elevator operators who will bow deeply and say "Ohayo gozaimasu" — good morning.

Mitsukoshi and other major department stores are good places to stock up on the finer things you might want to bring home — nice teacups, lacquered bowls and trays, teak chopsticks and Japanese pottery. These stores are expensive, but they will refund the 5 percent sales tax for purchases above 10,000 yen ($77, if the yen is 130 to $1) for foreigners with passports.

If you have small children, check out Playland on the roof of Matsuya Department Store (next door to Mitsukoshi), with coin-operated rides, a small train and games.

Now cross Chuo Dori and turn left. Walk past the Waco Department store and cross the street. You will come to Kyukyodo (7-4, 5 chome, Ginza, Chuo-ku), which sells colorful handmade washi paper. There are also frames, photo albums and an assortment of other items covered with washi paper, as well as Japanese mobiles, place mats and stationery.

Ready for lunch? A wonderful udon (noodle soup) restaurant, Kanbun Gonen Do, which prepares the noodles Akita-style, is about a five-minute walk away. It's normally crowded at noon because udon from Akita, in northern Japan, has developed quite a following. It's a bit complicated to get to, but you'll be well rewarded for your efforts. From Kyukyodo, turn right and, at the next corner, turn right again, onto Miyuki Dori. (On the corner of Miyuki Dori will be a building with the Kurosawa stationery shop on the first floor, and Citibank on the second floor.) Walk down Miyuki Dori for two blocks, past Domen, a men's clothing store. Turn left down the next narrow street. You will walk past the Ginza Wine House, a parking lot and a Cozy Corner cake shop. Cross the street, walking past a Swatch shop on the left. On your right is the Ginza flower shop; Kanbun Gonen Do is four doors down.

Here you can order udon noodles in a tasty broth with an array of toppings, including tempura, fish or seaweed. You can also get tempura with rice, seafood curry and more. If you see something you'd like on somebody else's plate, just indicate by pointing. A bowl of udon soup with vegetable tempura and a bowl of seasoned rice with vegetables costs about $7.60.

After lunch, you might want to go sake tasting. Walk back toward Mitsukoshi down Chuo Dori. When you come to the big intersection (with Mitsukoshi, Waco and Nissan Motors), turn right onto Harumi Dori. On the next block, on your right, is Nihonshu Center (closed on Thursdays). There, on the first floor, you can try five different types of sake for about $4; on the third floor, it's 10 kinds for $3.80.

If you're interested in Kabuki theater, Tokyo's most famous, the Kabukiza (12-15, 4 chome, Ginza, Chuo-ku, telephone 813-3541-3131), is nearby. Turn right when you exit Nihonshu Center, and the theater will be on your left. Performances (there are both matinees and evening shows) can run for several hours, but you can buy a ticket for as little as $5.60 if you just want to stay an hour. Check English-language Tokyo newspapers or your hotel for schedules.

If you're more interested in Tokyo's nightlife, there is a wide variety to choose from, including jazz bars, hard-rock clubs and bars the size of living rooms. Japan's biggest disco, Velfarre (14-22, 7 chome, Roppongi, Minato-ku), is behind the Hotel Ibis, a five-minute walk from the Roppongi subway station. The club has a James Bond-like glass staircase and an elevator with flashing lights; around midnight, a machine in the ceiling starts producing "snow."

Beatles fans usually get a kick out of the Cavern Club (telephone 011-813-3405-5207), named after the Liverpool club where the Fab Four got their start. The club, also a five-minute walk from Roppongi subway stop, features Japanese bands that perform only Beatles music; the one I saw was amazingly good, except for a few mispronounced words. On weekends it can be crowded, so ask your hotel to make reservations.

Milk in Ebisu (13-3, 1 chome, Ebisu nishi, Shibuya ku, telephone 011-813-5458-2826), a couple of miles southwest of Roppongi, is the place to hear cutting-edge rock music. Or how about a little drag cabaret? Kingyo (telephone 011-813-3478-3000), also in Roppongi, is a nonstop, high-energy dancing show, where costumes change rapidly, from geisha and samurai outfits to 1950s-style beach duds. Admission is about $32, plus the cost of a drink and some food. Reservations are required.

 Day 3: Japanese Yuppie-Watching at Harajuku, a Flea Market, and Meiji Jingu Shrine
Americans usually like to visit Harajuku, a lively neighborhood that attracts a young crowd and has lots of great places to spend money. Get off at Omotesando station and walk down Omotesando Dori, a wide boulevard lined with trees. If by now you're getting a bit tired of Japanese food, this is a good place to stop at one of the sidewalk cafes for a baguette and brie or ham. There are dozens of boutiques, but the place that my friends always love most is the Oriental Bazaar, on the left-hand side of the street as you're walking toward Meiji Dori. It's got reasonably priced kimonos, obis (silk brocade sashes that many people use as table runners), lacquered boxes, bowls, dolls, swords, Japanese chests and tables, and traditional Japanese toys. The prices are among the best in Japan.

Or maybe a flea market is more your style. From the Oriental Bazaar, turn left and continue down Omotesando. If it's the first or fourth Sunday of the month, turn right on Meiji Dori and walk a few minutes to the Togo Shrine. The flea market there is a great place to pick up used kimonos for just a few dollars, Japanese dolls for a fraction of the price you pay in stores, trunks, chests and other items.

Otherwise, continue walking down Omotesando. Cross over a bridge and you'll be at the entrance to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, which is marked by a huge torii, or wooden gate made of cypress trees. This is a popular gathering spot for crowds of teenagers, each trying to outdo one another in outrageousness. Last time I was there, purple and orange hair and Dracula-inspired clothes were popular. If you want to take photos, just motion with your camera and most will strike a "punk attitude" pose. When you're finished, the kids will usually bow and thank you in Japanese.

Walking to the shrine, you will pass under magnificant trees — the grounds include 180 acres of heavily wooded land. The shrine was rebuilt after the original was destroyed during World War II. On Jan. 15, Coming of Age Day, in a lovely custom, thousands of 20-year-old women come here dressed in beautiful kimonos.

 Day 4: Overnight in a Kyoto Inn
 Kyoto's Kinkakuji Temple, or Golden Pavillion, is covered in gold leaf. (Japan National Tourist Organization)
Although I live in Tokyo, my favorite Japanese city is Kyoto, 250 miles west of Tokyo. So I try to get my visitors out there, even if they are only in the country for five days. The shinkansen or bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours and costs about $110 one way. Because the Allies did not bomb Kyoto during World War II, it boasts numerous beautiful temples and shrines and old neighborhoods.

One of the best ways to experience Kyoto — and among many American tourists' most cherished things to do — is to stay at one of its numerous inns. Unfortunately, some can be extravagantly expensive, at more than $500 a night per person. But not all of them. Shiraume (Shirakawa Hotori, Shinbashi, Gion, Higashiyamaku, Kyoto shi, telephone 011-8175-561-1459) — in the heart of old Gion district, one of my favorite parts of Kyoto — is relatively affordable at about $225 a person. It's on the bank of the Shirakawa Canal, on a cobblestone street lined with graceful weeping willows. When making reservations, be sure and have the inn fax your hotel a map that you can hand to the taxi driver at the train station.

Many Japanese innkeepers speak no English, but the Shiraume's Tomoko Okuda speaks it quite well. And she seems more tolerant of foreign sensibilities than many Japanese innkeepers. The inn's rates include an elegant, delicious multicourse dinner served in your room, as well as a Western or Japanese breakfast. Dinner the evening we were there included sushi, tempura and shrimp balls, minced duck and fish balls, and a soup of shrimp, mushrooms and vegetables.

The inn has a Japanese-style family bath. When you enter the bathroom, you will see a shower and bucket. Scrub yourself well and rinse thoroughly outside of the bathtub. Once you are clean, you can get in the hot tub and soak. Japanese worry that foreigners may not understand this routine.

At dusk, you can see geisha and maiko, the younger apprentices, scurrying past buildings preserved as they were more than 100 years ago. The area is filled with o-chaya, or tea houses, where geisha and maiko, in their gorgeous kimonos, white makeup and elaborate hairpieces, go to entertain guests.

If you leave Tokyo in the morning, you will probably arrive in Kyoto around lunchtime. You can drop your bags off at the inn — check-in time isn't until 4 p.m. — and have lunch. One option: Kyoshinzan, where each group gets its own private tatami room for dining. For about $20, you get a lunch of tempura, sashimi, sushi, broiled fish and greens. To find the restaurant, turn left when you leave the inn and cross the street. Kyoshinzan will be on your right.

From the restaurant, catch a cab to Ginkakuji Temple — the Temple of the Silver Pavilion. The shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built the villa and surrounding gardens in 1482 as gathering places for artists and philosophers.

When you leave Ginkakuji, follow the crowd of people walking along a canal. This is known as the Philosopher's Walk and is a peaceful stroll even with the crowds. You will pass through quiet residential neighborhoods, past numerous craft shops and tea houses. At the end of the walk is Zenrinji Temple, with a beautiful park set against the Higashiyama hills.

Then walk on to Nanzenji Temple, a wonderful complex with two lovely Zen gardens. The two-storied Sanmon gate is the entrance to the temple. There is a panoramic view of Kyoto and the nearby mountains from the second floor.

In the evening, Gion Corner (570-2, Minami gawa, Gion machi, Higashi yama-ku, Kyoto, telephone 011-8175- 561-1119), a threadbare theater about a 10-minute walk from the inn, has two one-hour shows that introduce foreigners to the tea ceremony, flower arranging, traditional music, noh comedy and Japanese puppet theater. For $22, it's a quick introduction to many Japanese traditional performing arts.

 Day 5: Kinkakuji Temple
Although checkout time at Shiraume is 10 a.m., the inn will store your bags if you decide to explore Kyoto for another day. This time, head for Kinkakuji Temple — the Golden Pavilion. (Be careful when telling the taxi driver, since the Japanese words for "silver" and "gold" can sound similar.) It's covered with gold leaf and sits on the edge of a pond.

Leaving the Golden Pavilion, turn left and walk along the main street. It's certainly not the Philosopher's Walk, but you will pass some interesting craft shops, including the Gallery Godai, which sells crafts by Kyoto artisans, and Gallery Godo, with woodblock prints.

You will then come to Ryoanji Temple, one of Kyoto's most famous rock gardens. Fifteen rocks, laid out at the end of the 15th century, are surrounded by meticulously raked white sand. You will see many people sitting quietly, contemplating the garden. There is also a large pond, and little secluded gardens and benches where you can relax.

If you're not tired of temples yet, another favorite spot is Kiyomizu-dera — about a 35-minute cab ride from Ryoanji temple, or 10 minutes past the Shiraume Inn, depending on traffic. You must climb a steep, narrow road lined with vendors to get to the temple. Here you can buy green-tea ice cream or traditional crafts. Kyoto potters gravitated to this part of Kyoto centuries ago, and the Kiyomizu-yaki or pottery is well known. There is a wonderful view of Kyoto from the temple.

Then walk down from the temple, catch a cab, pick up your bags at the inn and head to the train station to return to Tokyo.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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