Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Read the Haggler on "Travel Protection"

While waiting for me to get my blog on travel to Japan off the runway, check out this link to a really interesting, and important story if you are a traveller, on "travel protection." This story is by The Haggler, David Segal of The New York Times. The Haggler is a new column in the NYT.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Japan, a destination with something for everyone

In July, 2009, my nephew, Bob, and his wife, Tinette, spent a week in Japan. Not surprisingly, they had a great time; surprisingly, it was not all that costly. He and his wife enjoyed a 15 course crab dinner and it wasn't expensive by Chicago standards — 4275 ¥ each, and that included drinks!

Over the past few years, Bob and Tinette had accumulated enough American Express reward points to cover their round-trip flight to Japan and the majority of their hotel expenses. Credit cards, wisely used, can pay nice dividends. I may write more on the benefits of credit cards on Rockin' On: Money.

They flew United Airlines, from Chicago O'Hare to Narita International outside Tokyo. The cost of the 17 hour flight was about $1600 U.S. round trip for two. (I looked at yelp and found 81 customer reviews of United with the airline having an overall rating of two-and-a-half stars — not great.)

Getting from the airport to Tokyo was easy. They took the N'EX (Narita Express), departing directly from Terminal 1 and reaching Tokyo Station in only an hour. The Narita Express departs hourly during the day and every half hour during peak periods. Before leaving home you can check the JR-East website to familiarize yourself with their service.

Suica Card: Keepsake design.

They opted for the Suica/N'EX card, a money-saver also useful in Greater Tokyo and available only at the Narita Airport to those holding non-Japanese passports. Have your passport handy when purchasing cards. The fare to Tokyo in an ordinary car is 3500 ¥, while an upgrade to Green (first class) is 1500 ¥ extra. This sounds like a lot but today it amounts to only $15.38 U.S.

Use the Yahoo Currency Converter to change the amounts given in Yen to U.S. Dollars. I am giving most amounts in yen as the exchange rate constantly fluctuates. For accuracy, do the conversions yourself.

The Suica pass is a JR-East (Japan Railway East) prepaid IC card that allows you to pass through JR-East ticket gates with just a quick touch of your card to a sensor, your fare is automatically deducted. The card is valid on most railways, subways, and buses in Greater Tokyo and can be recharged unlimited times. One warning: you can put the original card purchase on your credit card but later recharging must be done using Japanese Yen. The original design of the Suica card makes it a vacation keepsake and if you return to Japan within ten years, you will find your card still active. One other warning: guard your card — it will not be re-issued in case of a loss. Losing a card is like losing money, in fact the card is accepted as e-money at shops carrying the Suica symbol.

It is always a bonus to know someone living in the country you're visiting. Tinette had a nephew teaching English in Tokyo. He knew the city. The role playing photo shoot offered by the Studio Mon Katsura was well advertised in the major hotels but it was Tinette's nephew's coaching that convinced Bob and Tinette to take the plunge. Using their Suica cards, they reached the studio via the JR Harajuku St. (Takeshita St. exit).

Geisha: Tinette becomes a geisha.

It took an hour to costume Tinette as her make-up was extensive and detailed. In the end, she was a traditional, white-faced geisha. Preparing Bob went faster; he was a samurai and samurai don't wear make-up. The cost was 23,000 ¥, 18,000 ¥ for Tinette and 5,000 ¥ for Bob. This is more money than I spend on holiday silliness but I have to admit that, everything considered, it was not expensive and their final photo is pretty cool.

The studio staff allowed Bob, an amateur photographer, to take pictures of his wife having her make-up applied. The staff was very professional, and it was clear they were used to making tourists feel at ease. They even allowed Bob to take pictures of his wife as she was transformed into a geisha.

Dai-ichi: great hotel, great location

Bob and Tinette stayed at the Dai-ichi Hotel in Tokyo. This is more hotel than I would consider but when I heard the price I was pleasantly surprised — a room for two starts at 20,500 ¥, or about $200. A few years ago, my wife and I stayed right on the beach in Nice. We got a bargain on the room, and we found a fine hotel was a great way to take the edge off a long journey. I can entertain the notion of staying at the Dai-ichi for my first few days in Tokyo, especially if I could find a discount. A little pampering while recovering from jet lag is welcome.

The Dai-ichi is located next to the Ginza district and it is also within walking distance of the historic Imperial Palace. Although they planned on taking a day to visit Kyoto, they booked their room at the Dai-ichi for their entire time in Japan. This allowed them to travel light when they deked over to Kyoto for a day and a night. Me, I'm cheap. I'd trundle about with my backback or luggage to save some 20 thousand yen.

Ginza: Matsuya

I'm not a shopper and my idea of a great holiday is one where I don't go shopping. But my nephew and his wife insist the famous, upscale Ginza shopping, dining and entertainment district is not to be missed. My nephew, an architect, says just the rich mix of buildings alone makes the district worth a visit. He got up early on a number of days in order to walk from the hotel to Ginza and take pictures of the many varied buildings before the city was fully awake.

If you can pick your day, try Saturday or Sunday afternoon when the central Chuo Dori is closed to traffic, creating a large, temporary pedestrian mall from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. from April through September. The rest of the year the traffic closure ends an hour earlier at 5 p.m. Places to go: Kabukiza Theatre (opened in 1889), Sony Building (latest Sony electronics), plus department stores galore - Ginza Wako, Hankyu, Matsuya, Matsuzakaya, Mitsukoshi, Printemps, and Seibu. Again, the Ginza area is easily reached using a Suica card.

Harajuku: Visit Sunday afternoon.

A true don't-miss-this is the district surrounding Harajuku station on the Yamanote Line. Every Sunday, young Japanese dressed in a variety of costumes congregate in the Harajuku area. The Jingu Bridge, a pedestrian crossing joining Harajuku to the Meiji Shrine area is a main gathering point.

One of the neatest things you'll encounter is cosplay in which cosplayers wearing costumes re-enact scenes from movies, television shows, music videos, and other sources. The cosplayers are quite inventive, often more inspired than imitative. The '50s style greaser outfits, Takenokozoku, were once were quite common but have been waning in popularity in recent years.

The cosplayers don't gather in any number until at least afternoon, so if you arrive early take a detour over the Jingu bridge to the Meiji Jingu Shrine in Yoyogi Park, one of the city's largest parks.
Afterwards, have a crepe at one of the area crepe stands for a sweet treat.

While in Yoyogi Park, Bob and Tinette stopped to listen to an older Japanese gentleman performing.
Unlike park musicians in North America or Europe, this gentleman did not have an open case in front of him or an upturned hat in which to drop donations. He was out enjoying the day and playing essentially for himself. If you wanted to stop and enjoy, you were welcome but no donation was asked for or expected.

Speaking of food, Tokyo is a food lover's paradise. It did not matter where Bob and Tinette were, the food was simply great. In Tokyo they stumbled upon a small restaurant specializing in crab that was tucked away under a railway overpass and over a Mos Burger outlet — Mos Burger is the Japanese equivalent of McDonald's except the portions are reportedly a little smaller.

Their crab dinner beat having a Mos burger but then it did cost a little more. Even though there were about fifteen courses, the bill only came to about 8750 ¥ including drinks.

Kamakura: the Great Buddha

Armed with their Suica car, Bob and Tinette made a day trip to the Great Buddha of Kamakura. The Great Buddha is a short 5-minute walk from the Enoden Railway Hase Station, the third station from Kamakura main station.

The massive bronze statue is more than seven centuries old, more than 11 metres high, and weighs about 93 tons. If you look carefully, you will notice horizontal lines running through the statue body and face. These are the visible joints where the individually cast sections were brazed together. Entry to the grounds is ¥200 for adults, ¥150 for children and for an extra ¥20 one can go inside the statue. It is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., except in winter when it closes at 5:30 p.m.

Shinkansen: Take a Bullet Train.

For their overnighter to Kyoto Bob and Tinette used Sunrise Tours JTB which offered two round-trip tickets on the Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, one night's accommodation in a traditional Japanese inn and all meals for only 30,000 ¥ each. If you'd like to forego the inn and stay in a more westernlike hotel, the price drops to about 23,000 ¥. One-way plans are also available. Pretty fair prices. I don't usually use tour companies but sometimes they can be great alternative to being completely independent.

The famous Bullet Train is unlike anything in North America. For Americans and Canadians high-speed rail is only a dream. But, if the Shinkansen is a peak into North America's future, the traditional Japanese inn is a peak back into Japan's past.

Ryokan: traditional Japanese inn

Their inn offered a traditional Japanese tea room experience. In small, intimate groups, guests were taken to the tea house. First, they took off their shoes and then everyone was forced by the entryway design to make a deep bow to enter. In the past this meant that whether you were a samurai or a peasant, all were treated equally and reacted equally.

The brew was a finely ground green tea that was steeped to a slightly thick consistency. Jellied sweets were eaten to prepare the mouth for the slightly bitter taste of the tea.

Kyoto was the country's capital for over 1,000 years and is considered by many to be the historical and cultural heart of Japan. (There is an interesting look at the history of Kyoto on Everything 2.) Bob and Tinette only spent a day in Kyoto. I would spend days. If I'm travelling halfway around the world, I'm going to savour the experience. None of this, "If it's Tuesday, it must be Kyoto," for me. That said, Bob and Tinette packed a lot into their one day.

Sunrise Tours JTB arranged the Bullet Train travel and Bob and Tinette's lodging but otherwise they were on their own. After checking into their inn, they chatted with a woman at the inn, telling her the places in Kyoto that they would like to see. In Japanese, so that any cab driver could understand, the lady wrote down some instructions and each destination; she gave the sheets of instructions to Bob and Tinette. They simply gave each cabbie a destination sheet and they had no problems.

Among their destination sheets was Kiyomizu-dera temple. The temple, high in the hills overlooking Kyoto is perched on 13-meter-high heavy wooden stilts and is nestled comfortably into the forest canapy. There are several other "national treasures" on the grounds, as well as waterfalls and other important historical sites. The waterfalls come as no surprise as they gave the temple its name. Kiyomizu means pure, clear water. Entry to the grounds is ¥300 for adults, ¥200 for children. It is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily all year long.

In the morning they were served a 12 course breakfast. This was a lot lighter than it sounds with the highpoint being specially prepared, individual omelettes. All very traditional. For their return train trip to Tokyo, they got a couple of incredible box lunches.

Personally, I have stayed away from thoughts of Japan. I believed it was out of my reach. After talking with Bob and Tinette, I am rethinking my position. In fact, I've started softening up my wife for a possible visit.



Another day trip from Tokyo was Nikko, famous for its shrines and beer. I think Tinette went to see the shrines and Bob to sample the local brew. They were unable to use their Suica pass on this trip.

Above is a meal the two enjoyed while in Nikko. It's soba, a kind of thin, buckwheat noodle, served chilled in the summer with edible mountain vegetables.

Bob shot all pictures using his Canon Powershot cameras: an SD 300 and a G9. The G9 comes in handy because its zoom lens has a longer telephoto setting than his other, older camera.

The New York Times ran an excellent piece on the town of Kawagoe, a day trip from Toyko, and which does such a good job evoking the Tokyo of yore that it is affectionately called Little Edo, a reference to the ancient name for Tokyo. Check it out.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Excitement to come


I'm surprised that you are even here. I have not advertised this site. As you can surmise, this will be a travel site. Give it time. Come back in a couple of months.


James Reaney, a columnist for The London Free Press, calls the dozens of colourful metal trees gracing downtown London "beautiful." These works of public art were created by Ingersoll artist Bill Hodgson and planted in numerous locations throughout the city core.
To see more pictures of these unique pieces check out Flickr and Wikimedia. For another but less postive take on these trees see From My Bottom Step. The London Free Press also did a short video on the tree installation.