Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Virtual Vacation: Japan

I always have to remind my American peers that I missed the 90s and most of the 2000s in the U.S. (because I was in China), so there are some major cultural references and attitudes that I'm not familiar with. Zombies, werewolves and vampires, for instance. I remember coming back to the States and thinking the popularity of all that stuff was ludicrous! I'm reluctantly sucked into the Walking Dead now, and I did discover true love in the original Dracula, but it's taken me 5 years to ease into that trend.

Another thing I was totally unprepared for was Japan-mania. Anime, J-pop, Harajuku Lovers, sushi, cosplay - I rolled my eyes at it all. I think I'd only eaten sushi once in my life (in Hong Kong, and I didn't think much of it) before moving back to America. But once again, it's all grown on me, and Japan is now very near the top of my dream travel list.

One of Jonas's best friends, and the best man at our wedding, recently moved to Japan. I'm biding my time, waiting for him to find a wife there, so that we "have to" go for a wedding. While I wait for that to all pan out (haha), I'm planning the rest of our trip. Also, I should introduce my friend Tiffany, who I'll be referencing. She grew up in Japan during the time I was in China, and she gave me some great travel tips, so many thanks to her!

There is SO much I want to do, see, and experience in Japan. There's no way I could anticipate everything I'd want to do, and no way I can cover all the amazing things I AM aware of, but you know me; I'm gonna try. ;) Settle in for a mighty long post....

I want to visit Tokyo and Kyoto mainly, but definitely some countryside as well. As silly as this is, I'm most drawn to the countryside because of depictions of it from Studio Ghibli films. I'm so excited that we know people in Japan and would maybe get to stay in a Japanese home, if we visited, because that's always the best way to experience the culture - first hand! I'd definitely be apprenticing myself in the kitchen to every grandma I laid eyes on.

Japan is one of the most expensive places to visit in the world, but there are some ways to cut costs.
When it comes to travel, the cheapest airfare is available between mid-January and March (AFTER Chinese New Year), but one guide I was reading said it's not always worth it to try and go during that time of year because, although the weather will probably be sunny and dry, it's still quite cold and the sun sets around 5pm, which limits sight seeing. Most greenery is dead that time of year too, which can be one of the main attractions. The cherry blossoms would be especially incredible to see [source]. Jonas' travel idea was to take a cargo ship, which would be an adventure in itself. I'm leaning toward not taking kids on this trip, which means we could afford to do a lot more. Plus, they would probably love a cargo ship, but would be too young to remember much of anything later. So, my vote is fly without them (sorry, my babies!).

Supposedly overnight buses (instead of trains) save money, and rail passes are preferable to buying one ticket at a time, although even the passes seem extremely expensive to me (around $360 for a week!). Both Forbes and ESB had some further suggestions on how to go about traveling within Japan.

I'm sure staying with friends would always be the most cost effective, but if you're not lucky enough to have friends in Japan, the ESB guide recommended you try and find a place to stay by the rail lines in Tokyo to minimize how much travel you have to do within the city. I think this place on AirBNB is pretty cute, and it seems to be in a relatively central location, and 5 minutes walk from some sort of station (haha). In Kyoto, the ESB guide (Sarah) said, "I always stay at Ryokan Nishiyama. It’s a traditional Japanese inn with an onsen (and beer vending machine) downstairs. Stay in a tatami room and don’t miss the Japanese breakfast the next morning."

In my first Virtual Vacation post (Curaรงao), I had a section called "What I'd Bring", complete with pictures of pretty dresses and what book I wanted for the beach. When it comes to packing for Japan, I'd just bring anything our friends wanted from the States, some good walking shoes, a GPS/smartphone, a lot of cash (ESB's Sarah had a good reminder that much of Asia doesn't take cards), at least one empty suitcase to fill on the way back, and at least one empty journal. Maybe I'll write a post someday about my traveling essentials in general (ibuprofen, ahem), I'm kind of an expert....

As to eating... boy, oh boy. I'm going to have to fast for a month before this trip to fit it all in. I can't imagine spending $400 on a meal, but if I had that kind of money, I'd definitely be stopping by Jiro's (from Jiro Dreams of Sushi) place for "the best sushi in the world." Alas, I imagine it would ruin all other sushi forever. I'd settle for a sushi feast if I couldn't get to Jiro's. Another thing I'd really like to try is Okonomiyaki, which is kind of like a loaded cabbage pancake, if I'm not mistaken. I've heard that one of the most common things that people eat in Japan that we don't often see in the States is curry on ramen. Jonas and I actually ducked into a curry ramen shop in San Francisco during our honeymoon, and it was delicious! But I would want to try everything I could get my paws on, taking special care to get some street food (photo), which is one of the pillars of my travel philosophy. A place called Ebisu Yokocho in Tokyo is supposed to be a winding hall of dining places that does a great job at show casing regional food from all over Japan. I also love to grocery shop in other countries, so I'd want to make a stop at Nishiki Market in Kyoto to buy ingredients and special utensils and maybe the Tsukigi Fish Market in Tokyo. 

Sarah says, "My Kyoto party trick is to go to the Gion District for lunch. Dinners in this area can be crazy expensive, but the lunch sets are about half the cost and just as classy. I’d recommend the Shabu Shabu." She also mentioned Japonica Cafe in Kyoto as being ultra ultra hipstery with to-die-for avacado and octopus salad. Lonely Planet made a 10-city guide about food, highlighting each region's specialty, and I could probably spend hours reading Wikipedia's page on Japanese cuisine. Constantly eating out in Japan probably costs a fortune, so many people suggest grabbing pre-packaged meals at convenience stores, which appear to be much better stocked their American counterparts. Tiffany also mentioned that some grocery stores include free gourmet coffee for shoppers, so that's something to keep an eye out for as well. 

The beauty, precision, and presentation that goes into everything in Japan, including food, blows me away. And has me by the heartstrings. Even the bolts in their wooden beams are beautiful, for crying out loud. No wonder everything costs a pretty penny. I'm truly enamored by an entire culture having a work ethic that produces products that show both mastery and love in each item. Photos: Mochi made to look like persimmons, balled sushi (complete with tutorial using adorable cookie cutters for cucumbers!!!), and udon soup

On to what I plan to do and see. SO MUCH. I might need to take more than one trip. :)
I am not a big "sight-see-er" when it comes to historical landmarks, monuments, etc., and Tiffany said she is the same way. There are oodles of shrines to be visited in Japan which Tiffany said fall into that category for her. Sarah agreed that the Meiji-Jingu shrine in Tokyo was the only one worth visiting in that city, and if you go, you should try and make it on Saturday to catch the beautiful Shinto weddings. I would, however, be interested in visiting Fushimi Inari Taisha and Otagi Nenbutsu-ji, both shrines/temples in Kyoto, mainly because of their beautiful and strange distinctive decorations, which draw me and my camera. A walkway of torii pillars and gardens of laughing buddha (rakan) statues, respectively.

One of the things I've wanted to do in Japan for the longest time is visit the Costume Institute of Kyoto. They generally only have a small gallery opened to the public, but I would be beside myself if there was any way to swing getting a more in depth tour. I would love to get some art degrees at some point in my life, and I would be especially interested in studying textiles in Japan, so the closer I can get to anything related to that, the better. That said, the Nishijin Textile Center may be better for getting to see textiles being made, a place to buy some, and even a mini museum of its own. Somewhat related, Sarah says that, "Also in the Gion district, you can dress up as a maiko (geisha apprentice), which I hear is totally cheesy… and awesome." That pretty much sounds like something I want to do. Here are two incredible kimonos (source), and if you're as coo-coo-bananas about them as I am, here are two more pages (1, 2) where you can feast your eyes. And if you're super, super, serious about it, you can buy this beautiful book that I have a copy of and can highly recommend. It's incredible that all the kimonos in that book are part of one person's collection! 

Another thing I think Jonas, in particular, would love, is if we could find some Noh mask makers to watch. Scouring the internet doesn't bring up a lot of options for that, but I did find this tour guide group that says they can take you where Noh masks are made and to see fabric weaving! It looks painfully touristy, but we might have to brave it. Of course, then we'd want to see a Noh play at the National Noh Theater, which happens to also have Bunraku (puppet) and Kabuki (painted faces) shows, which I also want to see!

Two other somewhat random things I'd love to experience are the wisteria tunnel and a cat cafe! The wisteria (photo) is in the city of Kitakyushu, so that may not make it on to our itinerary, but there are some cat cafes (1, 2) in Tokyo. Cat cafes are pretty much just what they sound like - rooms full of cats that roam around and sit with you while you have a nice cup of something. One of their websites has this message at the top,

"It is a cafe in the play Ogikubo of Tokyo, and cute cats. You, ♪ Please come to play by all means."

Yeah, I'm so there. 

Last, but not least, I'd have to do lots of shopping, of course. I'd definitely want to nab a netsuke from Japan for Jonas, since I have a tradition of giving him a new one every Christmas.  I'm also gaga about miniature food ("smaller, smaller, smaller!"), and would probably want to fill a whole suitcase to add to my collection. I think it would make great gifts for kids, too. My impression is that it's available in lots of little trinket shops (you can actually get it in Little Tokyo in LA or the Japan Center in San Francisco too). Everyone suggests shopping at 100 yen stores, flea markets, and thrift stores, to keep costs down. Tiffany says, 
One of my favorite things when I come back, is to go to recycle shops and buy second-hand Japanese dishes. I can usually find pieces that are worth a mon (100 dollars) or more for like 500 yen (5 dollars) because Japanese will receive SUPER nice ornate dishes and things for weddings and such, and sell them to second-hand stores and recycle shops because they want something more modern. Another fun thing is to go to second-hand clothing stores and find blazers. Women's blazers here have some of the best tailoring ever. I can get blazers that are so nice for like 5-7 dollars (originally probably $100).
Sarah suggests , "a Japanese manicure is one of the best (temporary) souvenirs you can get, especially if you ever wanted tiny cats painted onto your nails. Drug stores have aisles and aisles of hair and makeup that your inner 14-year-old girl could only dream of, so stop in and grab some fake eyelashes."

According to Kate Spade's Tokyo guide, some more enticing shopping spots: Koenji shopping district and the neighboring Shimokitazawa for thrift and vintage stores, Tokyu Hands (floors organized by subject, like paper. MY HEAVEN), and Building 109 ("where trends are born").

In the Mean Time... you're probably already aware of plenty of lovely Japanese-esque things you can do from home, but I'll give you some extra suggestions if you're pining away after a trip, like I am. I'd love to get my hands on this illustrated journal, "A Year in Japan". It looks like a fun take on everyday life, and I love that kind of stuff. You may want to eat it while nibbling on a little dish of home made Japanese pickles. If you get really serious, I've heard that Marukai Market and Mitsua Market in Southern California are the best places to get Japanese ingredients in our part of the world.

I hope this dream-vacation of mine has given you some tips and ideas if you happen to be planning a trip yourself. When we get to go someday, I'll definitely have to do a follow up post about what Japan was actually like! I can't wait...

P.S. #ica-aaan'tstop
Lovely kinda-kimono for a baby.
A Totoro bed and cream puff!
An incredible wedding bento box.
Pretty candy that also looks like mini food.
Beautiful lanterns from the lantern festival.
Endearing and cooky things you can only find in Japan.
A traditional Japanese fan, it kind of blows my mind. 

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