Tag Archives: Japan

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.



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.






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.







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.






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



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.


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…



…to posh department stores that are equally colorful.


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



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


Japan Part 2 – Tiny, Cute Pieces of Healthy Food in Cute Boxes

I was eating a bowl of kale with chopsticks at a noodle bar in downtown Woodstock, New York, when I thought about how different the mainstream American diet could be. I railed against the typical American way of eating before I went to Japan and, then after nine days in Japan, I experienced just how screwed up we are in the United States when it comes to balanced eating (as well as many other things, but this blog focuses on travel). This is what you usually find at American airports, which reflect what you find in many American neighborhoods.


McDonald’s and Starbucks can be found in Japan, but thankfully they don’t dominate a street corner. In Japan, I ate fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ate seaweed and pickled vegetables with my fish. I ate a few things I couldn’t identify. Instead of a basket of bread while you wait for the main course, we received a bowl of cabbage leaves coated in a light, tangy vinaigrette, which was delicious, and, as Mike noted, a more nutritious alternative than nachos. Many of my meals had a slice of roasted acorn squash, and I got to the point where I so looked forward to this fleshy crescent chunk of food that I was disappointed when my entree didn’t feature acorn squash. Thanks to Japan, I have an acorn squash sitting on my kitchen counter at home, waiting to be roasted, sliced, and added to just about everything except breakfast cereal.




I’d like to say we were among the throngs that waited for breakfast at the famous Daiwa Sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but we weren’t. Perhaps next time. Tsukiji Fish Market has a ton of cheap eateries, so we opted for one without a line and enjoyed some of the freshest sushi, specifically the chu toro, a tasty cut of tuna, and I don’t even think we spent $20 USD. Walking around Tsukiji Fish Market, there’s so much on the chopping block every single day, you wonder if there’s anything left in the sea. Japan accounts for 30 percent of the world’s tuna consumption. After having fish three meals a day, several days in a row, I now think that nothing at the Tsukiji Fish Market goes to waste.




And then there’s that lunch in Kyoto’s Gion District that my daughter refers to as “the lunch with too many eyeballs.” Whole shrimp had been tossed into all of our entrees, and a shrimp antennae was eerily waving from Anna’s bowl of broth. I tried to fish out the rest of the shrimp body before Anna noticed what was floating beneath her noodles, but, failed.



Eyeballs aside, our meals always featured vegetables, even at breakfast where little salads were often served alongside a “Western” buffet of eggs and bacon. Japanese serving sizes were small and always filling. Everything was lightly flavored and not buried in sauces. No one felt gassy, bloated, and bursting at the belt buckle with regret. The Japanese are known for their love of perfection and presentation, and every entree we received, from takeout sushi at Tokyo’s “Family Mart” convenience chain to the Bento boxes on the bullet train to Park Hyatt Tokyo’s bountiful breakfast buffet to the Mexican Bento boxes in Kyoto were thoughtfully arranged. Nothing ever, ever looked thrown together by a cook who had lost his appetite for the job. Even “the lunch with too many eyeballs” was attractive and deceptively appealing (I’m not a shrimp lover, whether it’s just the tail or a tail attached to eyeballs).



I’ve said this on Twitter and I’ll repeat it here: why hasn’t the Azuki bean taken off in America? Ok, maybe Americans don’t associate the word “bean” with dessert. My first introduction to Azuki bean sweets took place fifteen years ago at a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, and after that I was hooked. Why can’t sweet Azuki bean paste be added to the Pop-tart? Americans don’t know what they’re missing. I’m not saying ditch chocolate, but rice cakes with sweet Azuki bean paste are delicious, they go great with green tea, and are the perfect way to cap a meal of fresh fish, rice and vegetables. For folks craving more Western style desserts, Kyoto offered beautifully crafted “Nature Doughnuts,” as they were called, that were too cute to eat, and did not contain Azuki beans. Japanese sweets are always beautifully wrapped and the sweets themselves sometimes looked like dried flowers in glass.



After a week of fish and rice, we all started to crave some familiarity. While strolling Kyoto near Ponto-cho, part of the Hanamachi district there, we walked by a gleaming avocado which turned out to be a sign for Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican. I’m a guacamole junkie so lunch was Mexican Bento boxes, an avocado cappuccino, a broccoli-kiwi smoothie (yes, my favorite color is green), delicious cactus ice cream served with slices of fresh avocado and “Day of the Dead” spongecake with fruit. The place appeared popular among locals; few waiters spoke English though they offered an English menu, as was common around Kyoto, and the restaurant was filled with trendy-looking Japanese ladies who lunch. It was interesting to experience a Japanese interpretation of Mexican food; again, the servings were small, but appropriate, and absolutely delicious and spicy. Anna was relieved to eat something she recognized, and everyone enjoyed the break from the seafood and rice. Our other “Western” caving was a quick evening bite at Mos Burger, which isn’t yummy, but is certainly visually entertaining. I kept a menu as a souvenir.

Cafe Avocado 1

Cafe Avocado 2

Cafe Avocado 3

Back to portion control in America and eating my bowl full of kale. The bowl overflowed with kale and ended up providing three meals over the weekend. Three meals for $11 may feel like a bargain, but I would’ve much preferred half that bowl of kale, which would have filled me up, for half the price. Mike’s chicken entree took up more than half his plate and was swimming in sauce. I know complaints about US food portions tend to focus on fast food chains, but the kale came from a chic noodle bar and the chicken came from a fancy schmancy restaurant. Why do we dish up so much for a single meal? Are these large portions rooted in our frontier origins…are we really that worried about finding our next meal? I longed for Japanese balance on my plate.

Back to Japan, where portions were appropriate and opportunities for walking off breakfast, lunch and dinner were boundless. After filling up on small servings of healthy foods, we strolled Japan’s cherry blossomed streets because everything was in full bloom while we were there. This was the view outside Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican in Kyoto near the canal. This Mexican joint is in a beautiful neighborhood known for geisha houses, traditional tea houses and the preservation of classic Japanese architecture. There are cobblestone streets and small lovely private homes, restaurants, and shops along the way. This area is what you think of when you imagine “Kyoto” for a few blocks away, you encounter more of the urban artery with department stores lining block after block. What you do learn from walking around Japan’s streets is whether it’s a historical neighborhood or a busy thoroughfare, the Japanese take a lot of pride in their cuisine, and just about anywhere you go (except maybe Mos Burger), you’ll find something delectable and thoughtfully, artfully crafted.

Strolling Kyoto

Japan Part 1 – Urban Explorers’ Schlep and First Impressions

Who schlepps in Japan? No one except a trio of New Yorkers hauling luggage, cameras, books and kids toys around Tokyo and Kyoto. Yes, we went everywhere with a giant stuffed “Perry the Platypus.” Locals seemed amused. The Japanese don’t schlepp; they stroll…purposefully, quietly, and the ladies often wear high heels whether they are at a stinky fish market or a smoky cafe filled with hipsters and two curious goats (more on that later).



Japan was sensory overload, and I’m still processing everything I saw, smelled, heard, touched and tasted. I have only been back in the United States for less than 48 hours and already I miss Japanese hospitality, its toilet technology, chu toro bowls, and the obsessive cleanliness that dovetails with the country’s endearing relationship with water (not surprising for a nation of islands). Tokyo felt like a Western city with Eastern touches whereas Kyoto felt like an Eastern city with Western touches. Tokyo’s cherry blossoms were just starting to fall while we were there, whereas Ma Nature flipped the “on” switch during our time in Kyoto, and the city was glorified in bouncy pink spring beauty. Kyoto’s undulating blue mountains, pink petals, stoic temples, and geishas and monks crisscrossing uneven, ancient streets, made it impossible to take a bad picture. Kyoto was the purpose of our trip and did not disappoint. Kyoto and Tokyo offered plenty for the senses, but this quick list doesn’t do it justice.


Mike is right; Japan sounds like a 1980s video game. Auditory cues for train stations, public service announcements, commercials, everything except what the Buddha is up to, cut through the air constantly. To my foreign ears, everything, even useful information coming through a loudspeaker over the train platforms, sounded like a pachinko parlor. Not understanding the language took a backseat to the constant cutesy sounds that I never heard in other major world cities.

Where to begin? If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s wonderful Lost in Translation, then you have a sense of Tokyo’s seductive neon glow. Tokyo IS the cleanest, safest city I have ever walked. I would let Anna eat off the sidewalks there before allowing her to pick up a dropped item on a New York City street. The dedication to cleanliness there is beyond exemplary. Where else can you walk around a city with a population exceeding 13 million and feel completely safe, free from panhandlers and from worries about stepping on someone else’s gum, spilled Starbucks green tea matcha latte or dog poop? Tokyo is a metropolis remarkably liberated from its inhabitants’ detritus. I could wax poetic about Tokyo Tower, the immaculate city parks, the Godzilla statue, puffy cherry blossom trees, and the Zen Buddhist temples (and I will), but the blinding cleanliness of such a busy place stands out. The other sight that stands out is Mount Fuji. I lived near Mount Rainier in Seattle and was always awestruck by it. Mount Fuji is more than 12,000 feet and coyly hid behind the clouds during our first two days in Tokyo. But when the skies cleared…wow.





Three simple words. Spring. Fish. Ginger. That’s what I smelled, and I loved it.


Azuki beans…can’t get enough of them and don’t understand why you can’t buy Azuki bean or red bean sweets here in the United States, unless you go to a Japanese specialty shop, which are few and far between. Americans don’t think of beans “that” way, though I think if you start them out by putting that delicious reddish-purple sweet Azuki bean paste in a Pop-Tart, the Azuki bean would have a fighting chance among Middle Americans. I will confess right now after a week of rice, fish, and pickled things that could sometimes not be identified, I craved cornflakes (Michael Pollan is right, there is way too much corn in the US diet!). I could drink green tea and eat seaweed salads every day, but then again, green has always been my favorite color.


Gelatinous, if I can to sum things up. Gelatinous green tea ice cream or cherry blossom-flavored ice cream balanced on a tiny cone. Or gelatinous fresh fish flesh, which gets sprayed on to you as you walk through Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market; gelatinous items in Bento boxes; gelatinous globs of sticky rice sticking to everything, including your kid’s hair; mushy mounds of smoked salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner; sushi that you squished between your chopsticks yet would bounce back and regain its shape when you accidentally dropped your sushi roll on to your plate, thankfully missing the dollop of wasabi.




My five senses are still digesting the experiences of the past nine days, but I did want to reflect on those first few impressions, which often color a trip. It’s those first few impressions that push us to get off the couch, spend money we probably shouldn’t spend and go somewhere that feels entirely strange and new. Daily routines dull our five senses; walking around New York City I can forget to see, smell, and listen to what’s going on around me because I am too focused on just getting there. Travel invites us to pause and look around, to absorb our surroundings the way children do, with trust and curiosity.




Sprinting Toward Spring Break

It’s hard to write about the beaches in Cancun or along Southern California’s coast when it’s barely 40 degrees out and the sun is ignoring you. But I did it. As we all daydream about where to thaw out this spring, I thought a roundup of some favorite spring break destinations might be in order. You can check out my latest blog posts for CheapOAir, like the one about beaches in Los Angeles or the one about Cancun’s beaches or there’s also Cancun’s newest Mayan culture museum and it’s not-as-new underwater sculpture garden. My tropical wish list includes more of Mexico, and more of the Caribbean, especially St. Lucia. Both have been added to the ever-growing vacation destination list.

What about the Florida Keys? We visited Key West after the annual wave of college party goers had already swept through and locals had swept up the remaining detritus. By the time we arrived in April, we had a clean, quiet island of margarita-sipping grownups who had already partied hard years ago. I love the funky, artsy, “we-answer-to-no-one” vibe on Key West and we look forward to going back and visiting our favorite pools and cafes again.

If you prefer history over the beach, Washington, D.C. is a fantastic spring break getaway because so much to see and do there is free, plus it’s the one time of year the city actually looks like it’s in a good mood (as opposed to humid, stressed-out summers or deadline-driven tension throughout fall and winter as fiscal and calendar years come to a close). How can you be grumpy when everything is blooming pink? Also, the foodie scene is gaining ground and visibility in Washington. Book soon because cherry blossom season is just weeks away.

Speaking of cherry blossoms, our spring break this year will be in Japan, where blossoming cherry trees are treated with the same reverence as Buddhist temples. I’m buzzing with excitement, and really look forward to blogging, tweeting, posting and just spewing giddiness via social media while touring Tokyo and Kyoto. More to come!