In May Emily and I spent 19 days in Japan, Bali Indonesia, and Seoul South Korea.
This was the first time either of us had been to Asia, and we had a great time. A few highlights:
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo
- Seeing Mt. Fuji from Hakone
- Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto shrine in Kyoto
- Our amazing bungalow in Bali
- Hiking to the top of a not-quite-dormant volcano before sunrise in Bali
- Gunung Kawi in Bali
We spent four days in Tokyo, took a train south to Hakone and spent a day there, took a train (the Shinkansen) further south to Kyoto and spent two days there, then took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo for one last night.
The Shinkansen is Japan’s high-speed rail. It was maybe half the price of air travel and took a comparable amount of time (thanks to the lack of X-rays and metal detectors). Much faster than a bus. Smoother ride than a normal train. Less ambient noise than an airplane.
We felt like we could live here. It’s a cool place. It would be important to learn to read and speak basic Japanese to make it easier to get around and order food.
I’ve always felt that people in Europe and Asia dress better than in the US, but Tokyo takes it to the next level. Most people dress business traditional: Men wear dark suits and dress shoes and carry leather briefcases. Women wear blazers, long skirts, and mid-height heels. Emily kept saying she looked frumpy, and that the people dressed like Zooey Deschanel.
Tokyo is a huge city and we wandered through many great places to shop and hang out. For example, the Shinjuku-sanchome area has multi-story buildings selling expensive clothes, and lots of bars (including a huge number of gay bars, a little to the east).
We stayed in the Citadines Shinjuku the first few nights and it was nice. Our last night we stayed at Hotel Ryumeikan and it was impressively high tech. RFID room key. Automatic everything. A button that raises and lowers the toilet seat. An alarm clock that played soothing music, faded on the lights, and vibrated the foot of the bed. I think the bathroom fan may have had a sensor that detected when the air was humid from the shower and turned itself on. And the room was super clean.
So what did we actually do? We spent a lot of time exploring the city by foot and subway, walking down streets, eating food, wandering. We also saw a few sites.
We circumnavigated the palace grounds. This was a good walk and it was pretty, but maybe a little silly since there are a lot of trees and you can’t see much.
A famous Buddhist temple and a famous Shinto shrine next to each other. There are also some pedestrian shopping streets in this area. It was very busy here, with many tour groups and school field trips.
We went to the top of two tall structures. Tokyo Tower is an antenna and Mori Tower is an office building. Our weather was clear and the views were great. It was cool to see Tokyo from above—it’s a huge city. There is nothing interesting near Tokyo Tower and Roppongi Hills is a large shopping area, so if don’t want to go to both of them then go to Mori Tower.
The shrine and the park were both very pretty. The atmosphere is much more relaxing than Asakusa Shrine, which was swarming with people and is closer to busy roads.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
This park is beautiful. It’s very lush. The landscape is varied with a wide variety of mature plants.
We left Tokyo by train for Hakone, which is part of Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. This area felt like a cross between Yosemite National Park and Cinque Terre in Italy. The landscape is mountainous and spotted with small towns interconnected by winding, narrow roads.
We stayed one night at a small ryokan in Gora. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn. They served us what would be considered an amazing meal if you like fish and sushi. I’m not a fan of either… but I tried to eat most of it, so as not to look unappreciative, if nothing else. They had communal baths filled with water from the volcanic hot spring. I thought it was a bit awkward (made less so by the fact that the place was small and mostly empty).
The next day we checked out and traveled around the park. The park features a large number of different transportation systems. We took a train powered via cable, then a “ropeway” (aka cable car), then a ferry boat, then something else. I actually don’t remember how we got out of here. Train? Bus? Who knows.
We were blessed with clear weather and had a great view of Mount Fuji from the top of Mount Hakone. It was really cool to see the snowy mountain standing alone in the distance.
We walked through an amazing section of the old Tōkaidō road here that was lined with cedars. Unfortunately it seems like we didn’t take any pictures.
We took the Shinkansen from Hakone to Kyoto. The city is located in a valley and is surrounded by lush, green mountains. The city is definitely more laid back than Tokyo.
We found some bustling nightlife and a large selection of food and shopping just west of the Sanjō Keihan subway station.
At the suggestion of my monkey-addict friend Renaud, we visted Iwatayama Monkey Park. It was super cool. The park is situated on a hill on the western end of the city. The monkeys are free roaming—you walk amongst them! We walked up the hill along the park trail and saw a few monkeys, and that was exciting. Then we got to the feeding area at the top and the place was swarming with monkeys. It was great. We went inside a cage, bought some peanuts, and feed them through the cage. It’s amazingly creepy how human they are, especially when a leathery hand grabs a peanut from the palm of your hand.
Nonomiya Shrine and the Bamboo Forest
I don’t remember this shrine very well, but the bamboo forest was cool.
This Zen Buddhist temple has a famous rock garden. The landscaping behind the temple is beautiful.
This is my favorite memory from Japan. If you’re in Japan, it’s worth going to Kyoto just to see this. The Torii at this Shinto shrine wind through the woods and up the hill. Emily and I hiked up the steps and back down, and I’m very glad we did. I thought it was amazing.
There are a lot of public transportation options in Tokyo: two subway operators (Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway), buses, and various surface trains (often operated by Japan Rail). For simplicity we chose to use only the Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway.
The subway system works well—trains are frequent and clean and the ride is gentle. Stations are adequately dispersed through the parts of the city we were interested in. Rides are affordable. Buying tickets isn’t bad… their ticket machines have English translations, but it’s still sometimes difficult to know which ticket to buy. The two subway operators interoperate somewhat, but not completely. We bought the 1,000 yen “Common One-day Ticket” at the start of each day. It’s valid for unlimited rides on both operators. Though you might be better off buying a PASMO or Suica card and putting a bunch of money on it. I think these cards can also sometimes be used at restaurants where credit cards aren’t accepted.
We found it difficult to pay with a credit card—either we couldn’t find machines that took credit cards or we couldn’t figure out how to make the machines accept our credit cards. On one occasion we tried inserting our credit card and it kept getting rejected. Suddenly a small panel opened beside the machine and a guy stuck his head out! Look, I even found a picture:
It was straight outta The Wizard of Oz.
So that was crazy. The guy asked if we needed help, and probably told us that the machine we were using didn’t take credit cards (his English wasn’t great and our Japanese was non-existent). After that we always paid in cash.
The stations often have a few shops. Tokyo Station was crazy—basically an underground shopping mall.
The elderly in Japan were pretty spry! They would hurry to get on the subway and had no problems standing when there were no available seats. Younger people usually didn’t offer their seats to older people, which I found interesting.
The subway station bathrooms did not have soap or paper towels, which I found strange considering that people tended to be mildly germophobic and sometimes wear masks when commuting during cold and flu season.
I saw a fair number of people reading a little book while commuting (and also sometimes while eating at cafes). I’m guessing it was some kind of religious text.
We used subways and surface trains to get around Kyoto. The experience was not quite as good as Tokyo, but still very usable. Trains were a little less frequent and stations were a little more spread out, but we were still able to get everywhere we wanted to go fairly easily.
It was a little hard to find food variety. But that’s partially our fault for always picking restaurants that felt more authentic. Lots of dishes—especially in Kyoto—had a fish component. Maybe row in top. Or a shrimp. Or oyster-based soup. Or raw salmon on top of a salad. Or seaweed. Egg is also popular on top of soup dishes.
In Tokyo there were small restaurants throughout the city and we usually picked one at random. Most of our meals were pretty enjoyable. We had a few good bowls of ramen. We had tonkatsu with super fine breading that was great. We had some tempura that was similar to what you find in the US.
We did have one crazy meal… It’s partially my fault. We walked through an alley called Omoide Yokocho with a bunch of small yakitori restaurants, maybe 6 to 10 seats each. The street was very cool (pictures). The food we got… not so much. The menu at the place we picked had only a little English and we don’t speak a lick of Japanese. I ordered us the “special” meats with the theory that they would be higher quality cuts of meat. That was, indeed, not a good assumption. At some point Emily realized that one of the meats was tongue. And since we hadn’t been able to identify most of the other meats, we didn’t eat much more after that. So that was an experience.
I feel like many people in the US would roll their eyes and be annoyed if a non-English speaker tried to order at a restaurant, but we didn’t experience that at all in Tokyo.
Chopsticks were used for most food, with knives and forks only provided with slabs of meat or non-Asian food (we had pasta one night).
Restaurants are not as likely to accept credit cards as in US.
- It was warm but not hot. Highs in the upper 70s. Lows around 60. Mildly humid.
- It got dark earlier when compared to the US. In the US in May sunset is close to 8pm. In Japan it was usually dark by 7.
- Vending Machines
- I loved buying hot milk tea from vending machines. There are vending machines all over the place. Along streets. In subway stations. In department stores. Everywhere. Mostly containing beverages, but also some food. They tend to have coffee, espresso, cappuccino, a few sodas (often Coke and Sprite—Pepsi was rare), and various teas (green, black, maybe peach). Some of the coffee and tea is served hot, which is awesome.
- Many ATMs wouldn’t let me use my Bank of America debit card. They seemed to want a Japanese-issued card or a fingerprint scan. We had good luck using the ATMs in Japan Post offices.
- We saw many generic commuter bikes with low top tubes, maybe a few gears, basket, front light powered by a wheel generator, etc. People on these bikes didn’t wear helmets. We also saw standard mountain bikes (Cannondale, Giant, Gary Fisher, Raleigh), road bikes (Kuota, Fuji, Giant, Scott, Pinarello), and fixies. I mostly saw road cyclists on weekends. They did wear helmets and mostly rode on roads and not sidewalks.
- We saw some pet dogs, but not a large number. They were almost always small and fluffy. Maltese, Bichon Frisé, Shiba Inu, etc.
- Thankfully there weren’t many smokers in Japan. Maybe a similar amount as California. Some restaurants allowed smoking, but it was usually banned in public areas like sidewalks and subways.
- Lots of Toyotas, Hondas and Nissans. Also some BMWs, Porsches and Lexuses. It was cool seeing Nissan Skylines. Trucks and vans made up maybe 50% of traffic and taxis made up maybe 20%. More motorcycles and scooters than you would see in the US. Traffic wasn’t exactly light, but it didn’t look horrible, either. The Toyota Crown was a popular taxi car. I dig the fender-mounted mirrors.
- Fire Extinguishers
- In our hotels the fire extinguishers were always sitting on the floor. No idea why. In the US they’re usually in a nook in the wall.
- People generally spoke only a few words of English. Transportation signs usually had English translations. Restaurants in Tokyo tended to have English menus.