Category Archives: Japan

Our Story of Stuff

I’ve been jogging more lately, which means I’ve caught glimpses of what my neighbors are up to—and not up to, such as cleaning out their garages. I’ve seen a number of garage doors with boxes packed to the ceiling, stuff spilling into the driveway. Catching someone opening his or her garage door is like witnessing a surgery; the surgeon cuts an opening, and the viscera that’s packed in there so tightly overflows past the barriers of skin.

That’s suburbia. More. More. And then more.

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Japanese minimalism hasn’t caught on here, or, if it has, those folks keep their garage doors closed. My husband often jokes I should earn money consulting as a de-clutterer. I don’t have any books to my name like Marie Kondo, only a decades-long track record of purging stuff. One of my college roommates called me “Spartan” because in our cramped apartment in London, I kept only a few items and didn’t paste my corner of the wall with mementos. Open our garage door and you’ll find about seven things that belong to us: my 1926 iron-cast clawfoot tub I hope to reglaze; our lawnmower, a fire pit; two bags of potting soil food; two vintage-style porch chairs. The rest of what’s in there: wooden planks (no idea why or for what); gardening tools; a very old dining room chair that doesn’t seem to match anything; and interior doors from our 1926 Colonial all belonged to the previous owner, an avid gardener who was from Japan, and who spent more time sprucing her yard than the house. Not knowing what to do with her stuff, we just left everything alone.

I’ve been doing some late spring/early summer cleaning, and while I was doing this, the same college friend who called me “Spartan” sent me a story about compulsive purging. I’ll own this, but only up to a point. I will admit that there’s a little brain chemical rush when the Salvation Army picks up old furniture, or when last weekend, some guy in a white pickup truck took the old barbecue smoker I left on the curb (because no one has 14 hours anymore to stand around and turn meat as it smokes). Purging gives me the same brain chemical rush as eating chocolate or dancing or jogging or yoga. Perhaps I was sparking my own joy before it became trendy. But I’m not a compulsive purger, and there are many reasons why.

Walk into my house and books are everywhere. On the coffee table. On the dining room table. On the desk. By the bedside. Sometimes on a chair. Sometimes left in bed. Sometimes serving as a coaster. These books aren’t organized in any particular way, just splayed out in either the order I was reading them or the order in which I brought them home from the library.

I also keep in plain sight a conch I found last year. It was lying in a pile of garbage and rotting conchs on a beach in the Bahamas. It’s absolutely beautiful, a swirl of pink grooves, and people have asked where I got it. When I say “in a pile of garbage,” they often look surprised, perhaps assuming I bought it at a tchotchke shop in Florida, because isn’t that where shells come from? I have a number of shells from my travels (though none from the Galapagos Islands because that’s illegal, and I won’t take anything from Hawaii, whenever I visit, because I’m told that brings bad luck). So I guess you could say I’m hoarding shells.

Also, I don’t buy something, purge it, and then go out and buy it again, which is what compulsive purgers do, with anything from lamps to toasters. Usually when I buy something, I hold on to it for a long time. I have two dresses I bought in 1993 at the Portobello Road Market that I can no longer fit into (no amount of diet and exercise is going to give you back the waistline you had at age 20). Donating them would make sense, but I never will. I also have a lovely antique-looking (don’t know the exact date) chamber pot Mike bought for me also at the Portobello Road Market when he was there in 2015. Do I keep a chamber pot next to my bed? No. Do I love having a chamber pot sit on my bookshelves next to a century-old Lithuanian typewriter? Yes. Will that chamber pot ever fall into the Purge Pile? Never.

I fall somewhere between wanting that Japanese aesthetic and wanting a Cuban aesthetic, and I recognize that sentence makes no sense, but let me explain. When I went to Japan in 2013, and walked into hotel rooms or restaurants where the only adornment was a single vase with a single flower, or sometimes just a vase or piece of pottery, nothing on the walls, no other distractions, I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Clutter gets on my nerves, space calms me, and Japan calmed me. And then I walked into paladars in Havana where the walls are sensory experiences, filled with color, dozens of paintings often by local artists because Cuba brims with art, fresh flowers, an old record player, and I thought: “I’m home. This is me.” Color and eclectic stuff make me happy, and Cuba makes me happy.

The decor of our 1926 Colonial swings between these two. I’m not sure it works, but I’m being honest with you in case you visit.

We’re not shoppers. We don’t routinely go to malls or have boxes on our front step from Amazon. We are surrounded by folks who are Black Belts in online shopping. When I’m in Cuba, I think about the Story of Stuff, and wonder what Cubans would think of this, an island where there’s a shortage of just about everything, where I brought a suitcase full of art supplies and baseball gear. How do you explain that de-cluttering has become a middle class American battle cry? Whenever I come back from Cuba, I’m always in shock at the 10,000 brands of toothpaste on the shelves here or the hundreds of shades of nail polish. Do we really need this much?

Research suggests clutter reflects stress, anxiety, and depression, and adds to these feelings. I believe this to be true, though I have my own unique compartmentalization techniques my husband still quite doesn’t understand. I can’t stand the clutter of a pile of shoes (I like shoes kept in their original boxes so they don’t get dusty), but I don’t mind a sloppy stack of books. I can’t stand too many kitchen utensils or appliances cluttering up our small kitchen (really, how many spatulas and frying pans does one need?), but I’ve got a five-foot metal sunflower made in New Mexico that I lovingly dust. A pile of dirty clothes will fray my nerves but a pile of seashells from Mexico, Florida, Jamaica, is okay. It only makes sense to me.

My mother-in-law spent decades shopping herself into poverty, and when she passed away from leukemia in 2014, my husband and I geared up for the arduous task of going through her house and sorting through her stuff. She had countless unopened boxes from QVC, including multiple salad spinners and asparagus cookers (so that you could cook asparagus vertically instead of horizontally in a conventional saucepan). To call the experience sobering is an understatement, and perhaps afterward, my husband came to appreciate my quirky de-cluttering tendencies (or maybe not; you have to ask him).

The death of a loved one, the clearing out of a house, always makes us pause and think about what we really need, what should stay and what should go. Whenever we move out of our 1926 Colonial and away from these overstuffed garages and McMansions, I will feel a huge sense of relief but also, surprisingly, some sadness. We’ve lived in this house for seven years now, and I’ve grown very attached to writing on my enclosed front porch, where I write this blog post. I will miss this porch very much, one of the main reasons we bought the house. I will miss my other clawfoot tub in the upstairs bathroom (I will reglaze its twin someday), where I would soak after a day of skiing in the Catskills. I will miss the backyard Easter egg hunts that we no longer do because kids quickly outgrow such activities (we already donated the plastic eggs we used to fill with candy). I will miss roasting s’mores on the backyard fire pit. We will be eventually downsizing because my husband and I dislike lawn care and we only use two-thirds of our 1,430-square-foot house, which is modest compared with current American floor plans. We are not very good suburbanites. It’s time for a change.

Five years from now, which will happen in a blink, our only child leaves for college. I’ve kept five or six large plastic bins filled with stuff from her childhood: tiny handprints cast in clay; crayon drawings; some baby clothes; some baby toys—items that used to be randomly tossed about our apartment before we bought this old house because back then, they were everyday objects. I remember during those early years, feeling overwhelmed by baby clutter, the strollers, the swing, all the bulky plastic toys before she became old enough to play with small Legos and not swallow them (and then the tsunami of Legos overwhelmed me). Over the years, I set aside the items, many that my daughter made, that I could never say goodbye to (though she was such a prolific artist we did have to toss quite a bit of art). Now, these objects that were once taped to the refrigerator or gathered dust on a table are mementos and memories stored in bins, bins that will follow us no matter where go, no matter what the anti-stuff experts say.

Finding Awe

The word “awesome” has been tossed around so many times by so many different types of people that it’s become meaningless. Even the word “awful,” which can mean reverential, but rarely does, sounds like the disdainful, pilloried word it has become. Yet both words have their roots in “awe,” an odd-sounding word that has a history with the Old Norse languages. And now the New York Times reports that there’s a chemistry to feeling awe, that it’s more than just a word but a sensation that triggers an intricate chain of molecular behaviors that are actually good for us. It’s the latest among a slew of stories focused on the effort to measure happiness, perhaps an indication that happiness is so hard to come by for so many. It’s a story that appeared in the Times’ health section, but should have been published in its travel section, for travel is the business of peddling “awe.”

We feel awe, the body responds. Which got me thinking, in our plugged in, drone-like day-to-day, when do we feel awe? When did I last feel real, true awe, that kind of jaw-dropping, goose bump-inducing, eyes-wide-open moment when your body becomes extremely alert and still at the same time? It’s not something we get to feel enough during the daily grind of deadlines, appointments, what to make for dinner, when to bring the car in for maintenance. Reading this article made me crave it instantly, for awe is like a drug, a rush of endorphins you want again and again.

Watching my daughter sleep always brings a sense of awe; I still recall that moment we both napped together in the hospital bed. She was a day old. We were just getting to know another. I was getting used to her weight in my arms. Flowers had arrived and there was a gap between visitors. I held her and then I dozed off for who knows how long. Nearly eleven years later, I still feel that goose-bumpy giddiness watching her sleep. This would embarrass her, since tween girls are constantly embarrassed, but it’s true. I still look at her while she sleeps and think “Wow! I made you!”

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If my daughter read this blog, she would be relieved to know, however, that most of my moments of awe tend to strike almost entirely outdoors and during vacations. The first time I finally saw Mount Fuji after three cloudy days in Tokyo. I could not take my eyes off it. Majestic sounds trite, but I don’t know what else to say except I felt the humility that is so lacking in America, yet so common in Japan. The dangerous, unguarded coastline that is Big Sur, a drive that made my stomach muscles squeeze so tightly that for two days afterward, I felt like I had performed a thousand sit-ups. The night sky in Taos, New Mexico, so thick with stars that the heavens looked tangled, as if the sky simply needed a giant comb, otherwise it would never be clear and blue and bright ever again. The Grand Canyon, despite all the tourists and signs and guard posts and gift shops, that when you just stood there looking out at its craggy reds and oranges and purples, waves of rock and all that geological history, you felt immense joy and relief; joy that the world could really be this bizarre-looking and amazing, and that you were briefly a part of it, and relief that your daily worries and anxieties were as meaningless as you had always suspected them to be, that you were barely a vowel or a consonant in the endless poem that is Earth, that were you just passing through like the rest of us.

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Hiking the black lava fields in Iceland gave me that same feeling of awe as standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Iceland is the perfect awe-inspiring reminder that Earth remains in charge; humans may be able to carve out a life on a cold, black rock, and not just survive, but thrive, but the volcanoes, the black stony beaches, the dozens of different types of moss clinging to the rocks, the wind-whipping cold, make it clear that again, you’re just passing through something far bigger, and far more powerful than you could ever hope to be. That impromptu visit from a pod of pilot whales that chose to prance alongside our boat as we were bobbing our way from one little island in the Galapagos to another. No organized whale tour. No tour guide. Just a bunch of white Americans getting sunburned on a boat while a bunch of curious pilot whales swam up to see what we were all about before dashing back off into their world beneath the surface.

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Others might find awe in art, architecture, music, even other people, or, God forbid, celebrities. Looking back on it, it’s funny that connecting with the outdoors would prove so meaningful to me. I never thought of myself as a particularly outdoorsy person. I’m not very Gaia-like; I can’t pitch a tent, I’m obsessive about sunscreen, I hate bugs, I’m allergic to hornet and wasp stings and am currently receiving allergy shots to alter my immunity against them. I should be the one who finds awe in creative pursuits and indoor activities.

And yet, it’s the mysteries of ever-changing landscapes that wow me and confound me. News headlines would have us believe the world is constantly going to hell, and I don’t mean to diminish the senseless suffering and violence that mars us. But the world is full of contrasts. There is awe and beauty in both expected and unexpected places, and it’s worth seeking out. The quest may even be good for your health.

Mount Fuji and Big Sur and New Mexico’s night sky likely tweaked my body chemistry in immeasurable ways. Human beings crave beauty and magic and wonder, even at the molecular level, our bodies want this. I would be curious to know whether scientists could find out if recalling those moments of awe produced the same kind of biochemical reactions as the first experience had. Just writing this blog post, thinking about these places, has lifted my mood, so perhaps there is some evidence to what feels true? I’ll leave that to the researchers. I’m just a writer on the lookout for more awe.

Hotels: Rethink the American Breakfast

Am I the only traveling American who doesn’t want to start her day with a plate of eggs, bacon and gluten bombs? While venturing around the Adirondacks and Vermont these last few weekends, I couldn’t help but notice all the pot-bellied families around me at hotel restaurants and diners eating their high-cholesterol breakfasts. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but America, we’re big. Too big. And I think it’s unfortunate that you have to find a vegan cafe or a five-star hotel to get a breakfast on the road that’s anything besides eggs, bacon and gluten bombs. I don’t expect the world to accommodate gluten-free eating, but isn’t variety the spice of life? Couldn’t the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid–a pretty nice place with a kickin’ view of Mirror Lake–offer more at its breakfast buffet besides what you can find at a roadside diner? Mirror Lake Inn had the usual American breakfast fare, but there was also a plate of smoked salmon every morning, a feature reminiscent of my mornings at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Just one, preferably gluten-free, outside-of-the-box dish in the morning, America. Just one. That’s all I ask.

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(What you are served most mornings at most American hotels)

Hotels are run by companies, and companies cater to the lowest common denominator because the lowest common denominator makes them a lot of money. Nothin’ wrong with that. We’re a capitalist society. But what about eggs, bacon, gluten bombs AND a plate of smoked salmon or other fish? Or some gluten-free rice cakes, for I am not the only gluten-free traveler out there? Or what about some freshly sliced avocado, full of monounsaturated fats, which actually help lower cholesterol? You know how many people eat fish and rice for breakfast? Millions. Yes, they probably don’t outnumber those traveling along Interstate 40 or munching on egg McMuffins at Newark airport, but they’re out there, craving something different, something better for breakfast, just like me.

You might argue, “Hey, the Adirondacks isn’t where you go for fish and rice. That’s mountain country where flapjack stacks touch the clouds,” and I would reckon you are absolutely correct. The flapjack is a likely descendant of cornmeal cakes, which were the popular pioneer breakfast back when corn was not the bastardized, pesticide-resistant plant that’s now found in everything from fruit juice to salad dressing. I’m not saying eradicate flapjack stacks. And I’ll admit here on the Internet I occasionally eat a piece of bacon. And I’m not saying eradicate grains. America is the land of corn and wheat. But on either side of those massive fields of corn and wheat lie two oceans, so dangnammit, can’t hotels and establishments serving travelers think beyond the middle? The only gluten-free option shouldn’t be that abandoned bowl of browning bananas and mushy apples.

And you might also argue, “Hey, eggs and meat and dairy are on most people’s plates most mornings all around the world,” and you’d be correct, there, too. Check out how folks start their day. The human race has plenty of disagreements, but when it comes to breakfast, there’s vast common ground: we all seem to need a little caffeine kick every morning, and we like our breads and spreads alongside all kinds of things that come from farms. Those are some global breakfast staples.

When I’m in England, I enjoy the traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms, and that ubiquitous slice of tomato. Yum. Though I can’t eat that every day. Like the American breakfast, it is too heavy.

In France, I’m now having a tougher time because the French breakfast is coffee and croissants (and usually a cigarette), and gluten-free hasn’t taken off in p√Ętisserie country. Yet.

In Iceland, I had fabulous breakfasts of smoked salmon, skyr and shots of cod liver oil.

Eating breakfast in Mexico was a treat because I lived off corn tortillas, rice, beans, guacamole and eggs–all gluten free.

Japan offered “Western” breakfasts alongside their traditional breakfasts, and I gotta say, little servings of fish, rice and miso soup ain’t a bad way to start a day. I haven’t been to India yet, but I think the country’s lentil cakes served with rice, chutney and sambar would suit me just fine.

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(Breakfast in Paris)

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(Ending our trip to Iceland with a morning shot of cod liver oil)

Hotels mirror the culture, and one of the biggest elements of culture is food. Every time a Best Western or Holiday Inn or an InterContinental unveils another plate of eggs, bacon and toast to a guest, it says something about America. To me, it says we lack self-discipline and can’t think creatively. The United States is a melting pot, where Hispanics and Asians are two of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. Why can’t our breakfasts reflect that? Why can’t our hotels be better examples of who we are and what we eat? I challenge Starwood and InterContinental and all the other hotels chains out there as well as the independently-owned bed-and-breakfasts from the tip of Maine to the Hawaiian islands to get imaginative with breakfast. Ok, it doesn’t have to be low-fat, low-carb healthy. Like I said, I’m guilty of occasionally enjoying a slice of bacon. But can’t hotels and what they put on our breakfast plates reflect the diversity America loves to brag about? Can’t we be more than the same-old, same-old? Can we not be the Denny’s Grand Slam?

Places With a Sense of Place

I’ll confess here to my 2.5 blog readers that when it comes to choosing a hotel, I don’t always go budget even though I should. I am willing to pay for a sense of place and a good story. I’ve stayed in yurts, tents, hostels, 19th century farmhouses, cabins, a Jersey Shore hotel that was neither clean nor quiet, converted monasteries, European brownstones, and a five-star urban oasis in downtown Tokyo that left me breathless and amnesiac about the expense. I have yet to stay at a castle, though I will someday. Topping my list of places to stay is America’s (so far) only human nest, which means I’ll get to go back to Big Sur, California, a possibility in summer 2015.

When it comes to choosing a hotel, I probably have too few biases; the place has to be clean, not run down, in a neighborhood where I don’t feel the need to sleep with one eye open, and preferably have a pool (I have chosen hotels based solely on their pools). Other than that, I don’t care if it’s family-owned, boutique, a corporate chain with a loyalty program (I’ve never been brand-driven anyway), 2-star, 5-star, or not even within the galaxy. If breakfast is included, great. If not, chances are there’s a Starbucks somewhere or a mom-and-pop counter with flapjacks and coffee. We have friends who won’t stay in hotels that cost more than $200 per night or that lack a rewards program. We’re not so picky.

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After years of sleeping in monochromatic budget joints, now that I’ve come up in the world a bit, the one area where I don’t like to compromise anymore is whether the hotel gives me a sense of the place. Does it blend in with local color? Don’t think that just because a hotel chain is owned by some white-collared investors living far away that it can’t do local color. Yes, some stick to vanilla playbooks no matter where you stay, but some are smart enough to capitalize on what drew folks to the region in the first place. I found this to be particularly true with InterContinental’s The Clement Monterey, an $80 million redo of prime waterfront space that once housed the old Del Mar Canning Company in the heart of Cannery Row–Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. You can feel it when you walk around the place. Opened in 2008, The Clement Monterey had studied the history of its location and pulled inspiration from the bay, such as the giant, glass sculpturesque jellyfish chandelier-like object in the hallway or the tins of chocolate sardines left in our room. And of course, this being California, there were outdoor fire pits so you could sit outside and think or not think, but stay warm watching sea otters frolic in the bay. Yes, it’s owned by a West Coast management company, but there was a full embrace of the neighborhood’s gritty, early 20th century history that I appreciated.

Another hotel that gave me a strong sense of place is Mirror Lake Inn, where we stayed this past weekend. There’s no point in getting a hotel in the Adirondacks if you can’t see the Adirondacks. Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid is not easy on the wallet, but wow, this place IS Adirondacks history. We woke up to blue peaks staring us down through the balcony doors, looking at us like “Yeah, you, the tiny thing curled up in 500-count Egyptian cotton…just a reminder who’s boss here.” The property began as a lakefront estate hosting wealthy visitors from New York City–a story common throughout the Northeast–but then in 1932, it was invaded by Norway. Or, I should say the Norwegian team rented the entire inn when it arrived for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (the town hosted the Winter Olympics again in 1980). The hotel’s ties to the Olympics continues in the 21st century; when you check in at the front desk, a silver medal from the 2014 Sochi games and a bronze medal from the 2010 Vancouver games are prominently displayed. The medals were won by alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht, who was born in Lake Placid, grew up racing down nearby Whiteface Mountain, and whose parents own Mirror Lake Inn.

Tokyo will host the summer 2020 Olympic Games, and there, hotels will create new stories. Tokyo is not cheap, but it is best enjoyed high above where you can watch the city sparkle at night and the sun rise over Mount Fuji every morning. I spent three nights at the Tokyo Park Hyatt, where I swam across a pristine indoor pool under the gaze of that Buddha of a mountain, and where we had such an amazing time that when we were handed the bill, we didn’t even blink because we knew we would take the bliss that we felt at that hotel to the grave. I’m not joking. I was blissed out at that place. I *get* what the fifth star in a five-star hotel stands for. Yes, this may have been where Lost in Translation was filmed, but that’s not why I picked this hotel. I chose it for the pool and view of Fuji; just remembering how it felt to step out of that pool and see the snow on Fuji turn pink under the morning sun is the best mental image for meditation class, ever. Next time I grip the armrest during airplane turbulence, that image will be my happy place.

In my rambling way (still sipping morning coffee), what I’m trying to say is the hotel is a way to experience a destination. A Best Western in downtown Tokyo with no view at all would not have given me the same memories of Japan. I’m not saying spend stupidly, but if you can swing it, do a bit more research on your lodging options to find a place that has a sense of place. Spend meaningfully. I knew when I was twenty years old and just starting to travel on my own that I would rather lose coin going, doing, and being than losing it on low-grade goods made in China. Looking back on that, I’m going to pat myself on the back for being wise beyond my years even though I was still too young to legally drink alcohol and properly toast my maturity.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps we’ve given the false impression to friends and neighbors that we’re well-off because we cocoon in a spectacular, lakefront inn facing the Adirondacks or we overcome our jetlag at a five-star hotel in downtown Tokyo, but we’re also not spending our weekends dropping a few hundred dollars at the mall or Target or Home Depot. I don’t shop, which, let me tell you, is an extremely popular pastime in the Garden State where there is no sales tax on clothing. Where I live, shopping is a competitive event and the school parking lot is typically buzzing with conversations on who bought what where. Our house is pretty bare and spare compared with the cycles of stuff I see elsewhere. Yet I’m sitting here typing, looking around our lack of possessions (which in a non-shopaholic nation would appear utterly normal; we’re not monks, we’re just not the typical American consumer), remembering hotels in Tokyo, the Adirondacks, California, and all the other places where I briefly hung my hat, and I feel completely, totally content right now. Everyone talks about happiness. This morning, sharing some of my favorite hotels with you, knowing I have to pay the credit card bill charges from Mirror Lake Inn, I feel it. I feel very, very happy.

Japan Part 3 – Tokyo, the Cleanest, Safest Place on the Planet

I like contrasts so it should come as no surprise that I booked a five-star, $600 per night hotel for our weekend in Tokyo and then spent the weekend searching for free things to do. This wasn’t hard given Tokyo’s plethora of immaculately kept public city parks and gardens. Tokyo IS the First World, folks. The United States has a long ways to go to catch up to Japanese efficiency, cleanliness and orderliness, which can be found in abundance throughout city parks, the subway system, restaurants, shops and public bathrooms, and that’s just the beginning. Even Tsukiji Fish Market wasn’t as gross as you would expect considering all the vital organs getting tossed about. New York City has a lot going for it, but Tokyo buzzes with 13 million people and yet I didn’t see a scrap of food or an emptied condom wrapper lying on the sidewalk or along the train platforms (I have nearly stepped on both along the Jersey Shore). Let’s put it this way: I won’t wear flip-flops in New York City, but I’d walk barefoot around Tokyo. I could gush senselessly about Japan’s toilet technology–their porcelain buses are superior to American cars. Even public bathrooms had warmed seats.

We stayed at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel near Shinjuku Station not because a decade earlier that’s where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson filmed Lost in Translation, but because the hotel has one of the best pool views in the world, according to Travel and Leisure. I’m a hotel pool junkie and base hotel choices not just on price or location, but on the quality of its pool. The 20-meter “sky” pool at Park Hyatt Tokyo was amazing, although you can’t see Mount Fuji while swimming in the water. You need to get out of the pool and, bam! there’s Mount Fuji staring you down from about 60 miles away. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this magnificent mountain. The only other people I saw at the pool were middle-aged Western male executives getting in a workout while I did a half hour worth of strokes in my bikini. Total bliss.

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While enjoying five-star amenities (we get what the fifth star stands for–unparalleled awesomeness), we sought free family-friendly fun around Tokyo. Five words: public parks and window shopping. Neither costs much except the squeaky-clean subway ride to get around, and both yield plenty of cultural stimulation. Our hotel and a nearby playground provided a lot to see and do without going very far, plus even our room had a view of the great mountain, which made the hotel even more worthwhile. After poking around the hotel area, we ventured farther afield to a number of parks and shops.

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Tokyo Tower and the aquarium in its “basement” below the foundation aren’t free, but adjacent Shiba Park costs nothing. Statues of “Jizbosatusu,” said to protect the souls of stillborn children, line the grounds. It’s spooky, yet peaceful and pretty, like many cemeteries even though no one is buried here (that we know of). The statues are decorated with knitted caps and baby clothes, and many hold pinwheels that spin in the breeze. Zojo-ji temple, a Buddhist temple, stands near the rows of statues and gardens. Walk in, make a donation, light incense and say a prayer. We did.

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Ueno Park is Tokyo’s oldest public park, created in 1873. It is near Ueno Station and home to temples, ponds, water fountains, nearly 9,000 different types of trees, hundreds of plants and flowers, and several cultural institutions including art, science and natural history museums. Ueno Park embodied Japanese austerity and botanical whimsy, with cherry blossom boughs waving to people from everywhere. You could easily spend a day there, but since we only had three days in Tokyo, we breezed through Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum in about two hours, plus our feet were sore. We perked up with ice cream for about $3 USD that came in cool Japanese flavors, like sweet potato, cherry blossom, and green tea, in addition to traditional chocolate and vanilla.

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Around downtown Tokyo…not sure how dreamy this shop is for ladies since it was closed.

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Everyone’s favorite mutant lizard can be found in another hygienic city park near a Starbucks and a bridal shop selling white Western-style gowns.

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There’s plenty to look at around Tokyo, especially the people watching and fashion. Shopping opportunities are boundless. When it comes to priorities, it’s “shopping for clothes, food, and then paying for housing,” says a friend of Mike’s, who has been living the ex-pat life in Tokyo for the past decade. You can wander all over Tokyo, not spend any yen, and return feeling visually overwhelmed, from the colorful, never dull Tsukiji Fish Market…

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…to posh department stores that are equally colorful.

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You will find tons of color as well as funky mushrooms at KiddyLand toy store, a strange, hypnotic, noisy place.

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And, of course, Hello Kitty, hawks everything from doughnuts to attitude, because next to Godzilla, she rules.

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