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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Tokyo in Five Days - Day 2 (Part I) - Ikebukuro

If you followed the first day's itinerary, you might find waking up a bit difficult, but slam back a canned coffee from your nearest vending machine and strap on your comfy shoes, because today's itinerary involves quite a bit of walking. Oh, sure--curse my name. You'll thank me later. Why am I doing this to you? Simple--physical exertion is one of the best ways to jetteson jet-lag.

Wake up as early as you can to get started on your day, because there might be a wait for the showers. Be sure to wear sunblock, because Tokyo's UV index can be pretty high, and, out of courtesy for the people around you (and other foreigners who have to live with the impression you make), deodorant. This may seem like a "duh" sort of thing, but you'd be surprised how many people let it slide just because they're on vacation. If you picked up a pack of deodorant sheets from the convenience store yesterday, slip those into your bag--you'll thank yourself later.

By now, you probably know how to get to Asakusa station from the hostel. If not, just ask your friendly Sakura Hostel staff-member for a quick refresher. If you're hungry, trot on over to the convenience store and peruse the prepared foods area. (Hint: sandwiches are a breakfast food in Japan...who knew?).

If you're up for adventure, grab a couple of random Onigiri (rice-balls), but be sure you get the ones in the triangular package, since they have this brilliant form of packaging that separates the crispy seaweed wrapper from the rice, for that coveted CRUNCH.

Remember, kids: there's no excuse for soggy nori. ;)

After the konbini shuffle (the moment of awkwardness after the clerk puts your receipt on your palm, followed by a neat stack of slippery change on top of the receipt, leaving you with the following choice: A) set down your bag and wallet so you can take your change out of your other hand and put it away with the eyes of all the customers behind you boring through the back of your head or B) attempt to tip the precarious stack into the change slot on your wallet without spilling any of the coins. With the eyes of all the other customers on you. Waiting. Judging. This is more difficult than it sounds.), hop on the Ginza line to Ueno, which is roughly four minutes away, and transfer onto the JR Yamanote line heading for Ikebukuro

It's time to hit the concrete jungle.

There are TONS of things to do in Ikebukuro, and it can get a bit overwhelming if you don't know where to start. My suggestion? Sunshine City. This "City within a City links a block of buildings, among them the Ikebukuro Prince Hotel, the Culture Center and a shopping complex. The centerpiece is the 60-storied Sunshine 60--so tall they installed in it one of the fastest elevators in the world. The ground on which the Sunshine City now stands was once the notorious Sugamo Prison where Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, war criminal of WWII, was hanged." (travel.yahoo.com)

There you go: shopping, tourism, and history all in one. There's an aquarium, an observation tower, and tons of quirky stores. If you love Hello Kitty, head to the basement for a sight so pink it would make Paris Hilton bleed out the eyeballs. This is a great place to grab a custom souvenier, like one of the hundreds of cell-phone straps or pens with themed Hello Kitty charms, or an iPhone case encrusted with colored crystals in the shape of Kitty-chan's face. I am not even kidding.

If you prefer culture, check out the Japan Traditional Craft Center for gorgeous displays of ceramics, lanterns, dolls, woodcarving, and a host of other lovely and delicate arts. (MAP/DIRECTIONS)

 Whatever you decide to do this morning, you'll probably be starving by noon. I suggest taking a look at this awesome reference website. Bento.com offers not only reviews and MAPS to restaurants all over Tokyo, it also categorizes them by area and style.

But I gotta say, if you're going to be in Ikebukuro, you CANNOT LEAVE without going to Milky Way. I have been known to base an entire day's worth of trips around this single restaurant.

The shop is well-known to any high school-aged girl who frequents the shopping centers of Ikebukuro, but I've met businessmen who adore it just as much. It's an ice cream shop and cafe with an astrology theme, and though there's guaranteed to be a line, it's usually not too bad. You'll get in faster on a weekday before school lets out. Try to snag a window-seat so you can observe the flocks below. Ikebukuro has just as colorful a populace as Shibuya! It's about a five-minute walk from the station, and you can find a map here.

Ready to walk off all those calories? I thought not. But we're gonna do it anyway.

Check back soon for Day 2 (Part 2)!


Do you have other recommendations for Ikebukuro? What restaurants or shops or attractions did you love? Anywhere to avoid?

Monday, June 6, 2011



The July darkness is heavy and humid, the scent of sun-baked grass, smoke, and river-water threading through trees and silent people. Festival drums, muted by distance, beat faster and more joyfully than the hearts of those ankle-deep in silt, knee-deep in night-black water.

Lamps, warm and white-gold, slide away from outstretched arms, gently bumping their way down a glassy ribbon of water. One-by-one they glide and turn, flame-brightened paper gradually yielding to the river, succumbing with a wisp of smoke, as fleeting as memory. They are a fairy-train, slowly vanishing into the darkness; the stars of the Milky Way gradually winking out; fireflies disappearing with the encroaching autumn. They are spirits - returning to the world of the dead.

Those left on the river-banks gaze out after the illuminations, secretly hoping their own will burn longest, disappear last. As some glowing flames gutter and acquiesce to the embrace of the river, their watchers slip away from the bank. Others remain until the last light gutters, imagine the hiss of the ignited wick meeting water and the disintegration of the taut rice-paper.

It is Toyo Nagashi, the penultimate celebration of Obon.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the Obon celebration, which takes place every year in the middle of July. It is a Buddhist festival honoring the spirits of the dead and, similar to South America’s Dia de los Muertos, it is a time for family and friends of the departed to gather and honor their ancestors by cleaning the family grave, giving offerings of food and prayer, and celebrating with song, dance, and carnival-like festivities.

A few weeks ago, I learned that my friend Momoko passed away in a car accident. Since I was in America and she in Japan, I was not able to attend her funeral, and though I plan to visit her grave the next time I go to Japan, I want to honor her in any way I can. This July, JTA is heading to a Bon Odori festival in our state, and I thought I would use this opportunity to explain a bit about some of the beautiful cultural rituals associated with Obon.

The origin of Obon surrounds the plight of a Buddhist disciple, who peered into the spirit-world and found his mother’s soul suffering in the realm of the hungry spirits. Following the advice of Buddha, the disciple left an offering for the Buddhist monks on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, and they saw the release of his mother’s spirit. Upon reflection of his mother’s kindness, and out of joy for her spirit’s release, he began to dance. This dance is the origin of Bon Odori, the traditional dance performed at the Obon festival.
Bon Odori comes in many styles depending on the region. A few examples include the fishermen’s dance to Hokkaido’s popular song “Soran Bushi” (featured in San Nen B Gumi Kinpachi Sensei 5-7) and Shikoku’s famous “Awa Odori” or, “Fool’s Dance” (below).

Other iconic celebrations, including Kyoto’s Daimonji bonfire, which takes the shape of “Dai/Oh” (the Chinese character for “big”) and lives up to that name by taking up a large part of a highly-visible Kyoto mountainside. Even in the spring and winter, the mountain wears the scar of this annual ritual and has been an attraction for tourists Japanese and foreign alike.

Picture courtesy Kyoto Shimbun

However, the most easily-recognizable ritual for consumers of Japanese media is probably Toro Nagashi. Family and friends of the departed place a candle inside a paper lantern and float them down a river. Always performed at night, this is usually the penultimate moment of the ceremony, and symbolizes the spirits’ journeys back to the world of the dead. As the vessel sinks and the light is extinguished, the soul is said to return to the spirit-world.

When I attend the Bon Odori festival this year, I will be thinking of Momoko, and if there is no Toro Nagashi at the Bon Odori festival, perhaps a few of my friends and I will do one of our own.

What other cultures have traditions like Obon and Dia de los Muertos? What are some more traditions associated with Obon? In what ways do people all over the world honor their passed friends and family? What other Japanese festivals are you interested in attending?

Opening photo by NakeBenihime.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tokyo in Five Days - Day 1

I worked and lived in Tokyo for two of the three years I was in Japan, and I have to say – it’s one of the most interesting and vibrant cities I can imagine. There are thousands of things to do, and even during the span of three years, I still didn’t do everything. I did, however, have the great luck to experience some awesome sights, and made a few accidental discoveries I’m pleased to say worked out for the best.

If you need to stay in Tokyo on a budget, I highly recommend Sakura Hostel in Asakusa. You can book one of their dormitory beds for super cheap, especially right now, since they’re giving a discount to anyone visiting so soon after the March 11th quake and tsunami. At 1,500 yen per night, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheaper Manga Kisa (the staple sleeping quarters of the budget tourist). If you’re traveling as a pair, you can snag a twin room right now for 5,500 Yen (usually 8,300 yen). Sakura Hostel in Asakusa also has 24-hour reception, English-speaking staff, and super-clean and new rooms.

If you’re landing in Japan in the evening, I suggest dropping off your stuff at the Sakura Hostel and hopping on the Ginza line to Shibuya. You might as well make use of your jet-lag to party, right? Shibuya has some of the best restaurants around, and if you’re really looking to get into the night-life scene, I recommend going out the Hachiko exit and walking straight across Scramble Kosaten (Scramble Cross-Walk). Here, you can marvel at all the glittering, billboard-sized screens, buildings plastered with the latest TV Drama and J-Pop stars, and the eclectic mash of humanity streaming through the station.

If you need a little pick-me-up, step into the TSUTAYA’s Starbucks and grab a drink, head up to the second-floor seating-area and wait for a window-seat to open up. (view here) People watching in Shibuya is fantastic – you’ll see a flood of business suits interrupted by school uniforms, sequened dresses, Sweet Gothic Lolita girls with flouncy pink dresses covered in cupcakes, the infamous Shibuya Gyaru (and their male counterparts, the Gyaru-o) with their deep-tanned skin, bleached hair, and bondage-like clothing.

When you finish your drink, head down Sentagai-dori (the pedestrian street to the left of TSUTAYA, dead center in the above picture) and head toward the HMV sign. Walk past the HMV and take a right at the corner, cutting through the alleyway to the connecting street beyond. Here, you’ll find a lot of the classier shops like Coach and Zara, mixed in with electronics, games, books, and other paraphernalia. 

I wasn't kidding!
Take a left and walk past the funny-looking split in the road (bear left). You’ll see a blue and yellow Book Off sign, and the building across from that is called BEAM (map/street view). On the seventh floor of the BEAM building is J-POP café (alternate English page). Featured in the movie Babel, this futuristic café is a bit pricy depending on how many GLOWING DRINKS your order, but often hosts performances and other events and is well-worth the cost.

J-Pop café closes at one on weekdays, and 5AM Friday-Saturday. If it’s a weekday, head back down to the entrance of Sentagai (by the TSUTAYA) and snag a discount flyer from one of the club hawkers (I recommend Camelot) and get your juices flowing on the dance floor. Studies show that one of the best ways to combat jet-lag is by exercising, so boogie on.

Around 4AM, slip out of the club and, if you’re in heels, change into flats. Try to convince your new club friends to go with you to Tsukiji fish market. The cost of a cab at this time of night might be a little high, but it’s about the only way you’ll get to this world-famous fish market in time for the real spectacle. One bonus of making friends is splitting cab-fare! Be aware that the fish-market is closed on Wednesdays and Sundays. Note: Currently, the Tuna auction is closed to tourists due to the effect of the March 11th quake, but there's plenty else to enjoy!

The Coolest Fish-Vendor Ever
Snag a breakfast of the freshest, cheapest fish you’ll ever eat. You can get breakfast right there in the market, or look around for one of the many sushi restaurants offering a great deal. Once, I accidentally went to Tsukiji on an off day, and was lucky enough to find an open vendor on a nearby street. 

This super-nice guy gave Raven and me free fish and beer, and asked us to come back on an open day to see him. It’s possible to get enough samples to assuage your hunger, but I recommend you take advantage of the cheap prices and stuff yourself on fish fit for a king.

When you’ve had your fill of the fish market, take a walk down the street to Hamarikyuu Garden – a famous park remodeled in the early 20th century on the site of the Tokugawa family villa. 

Caution: friends may try to
throw you into the Sumida River.
From this park, you can take stunning pictures of a traditional Japanese garden, as well as Tokyo tower in the distance. Walk around, and buy yourself a ticket on the Water Bus for a leisurely ride up the Sumida River back to Asakusa. Keep an eye on the cityscape and bridges, and if you've packed yourself a snack, don't be shy about chowing down.

When you get off the Water Bus, you can either walk to the historic district of Asakusa or buy the services of one of the many rickshaws. If you speak a little Japanese, try to get the rickshaw-guy talking. The rickshaw-guy Adryn and I had in Hokkaido wouldn’t shut up, and we ended up learning tons of neat local history from this one knowledgeable guy. We also got some great suggestions for restaurants and shops.

The two on the left-hand side,
middle shelves are the best.
Tired yet? I’m betting so. Pop into any convenience store and grab one of the many energy drinks on display. Yes, they have Redbull in Japan, but the local brands are cheaper, taste much better (in my opinion), and work just as well. I recommend Ripobitan D or Oronamin C for flavor and effectiveness. Tokyo summer afternoons are hot, so if you haven’t packed sunscreen, sunglasses, and moist towelettes, pop into the nearest Conbini (convenience store) for an emergency supply. Swipe some deodorant spray or deodorant wipes while you’re at it, to avoid being THAT gaijin.

When Raven and I did this particular tour, we were coming from home in Shimokitazawa, and I hadn't thought to wear sunscreen. By the time we spent an hour in Asakusa, I was thoroughly sunburned.

There are thousands of guides to Asakusa itself, and you should have no problem finding one to fill up at least a few hours of your afternoon. I definitely recommend taking pictures with the statues at Kaminarimon (the Thunder Gate). Raven and I might not have been super-reverent about it, but it got a laugh out of the Japanese tourists, a good number of whom decided to do the same thing. Also, there’s a great soft-serve ice cream shop right next to the main temple in Asakusa, where you can eat such wild flavors like Lavender, Rose, and Soy Milk.

Pop into a ramen shop for dinner, and head back to Sakura Hostel. By this time, you’re probably totally exhausted, so it’s time for a shower and some much-deserved shut-eye. Try to at least say hi to the folks at the Hostel – several of them probably live and work in Tokyo, so you can get some great recommendations from the staff and other guests.

Sweet dreams! Check back next week for Day # 2!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ten Tips for Clubbing in Tokyo

Live Music at WOMB in Shibuya. Photo by Dat (flickr)
Whether you’re heading for clubs in foreigner-friendly Roppongi, fashionable Shibuya, trendy Azabujuban, or classy Omotesando, there are a couple things you ought to know before hitting the dance-floors of Tokyo. I've grilled a bunch of my Tokyo friends about their top tips about clubs in Japan, and added a couple things I found useful. Some of these might surprise you...

Ladies, listen up; the first two are for you. Guys can skip to #3 unless you're planning to wear high-heels. Hey, we don't judge, and you can totally rock the block in Shinjuku Ni-chome.

1. Wear closed-toed shoes: Even if you just spent fifty bucks on a pair of strappy wedges, it’s not a good idea to wear anything with an open toe. Some clubs are super-crowded (see pictures above and right), and after paying the cover-charge, you don't want to skip out because you get stepped on. Try a pair of cute pumps or knee-high boots to complement your style.
2. Bring flats: Most clubs are at least a block from the nearest train or metro station. There's nothing worse than having to limp your way to the first train because you've been dancing all night and there was nowhere to sit. Slide a pair of ballet flats or flip-flops into a tote and check it at the door – you’ll thank yourself at 5AM. (I usually wore my flats to the club entrance, then swapped into heels, cause I’m classy.)

3.Cover charges: Clubbing in Japan can be a little steep, so be prepared to pay a cover charge. Ladies usually pay between 2000-3000 Yen (except on ladies' night), guys between 3000-5000 Yen. Sorry, guys. Usually, this comes with two drink tickets/coins, but you’ll probably want more, so…

4. Bring extra cash: Most places in Japan work on a cash-only basis, especially clubs. Don't expect to be able to use a credit card to pay your way in. Also, while some clubs provide coins or tickets, anything extra often has to be paid for in cash or by purchasing more coins/tickets.

5. Go on an off-day: possibly boring, but the perfect opportunity to make friends with the staff. Sometimes you can get discounts, free drinks, and introductions to cool people.

6.Once you're out, you're out: last trains are often around midnight, and most clubs don't get going until between midnight and one. Once you go out, you'll want to stay out all night unless your hotel is close enough to take a taxi.

7. For those who stay late: clubs usually wind down between 5 and 6, but sometimes you can hang out and eat post-club ramen with your new friends. After 7AM, there's no night charge on taxis, so splitting a cab back home might be a great option at this time of night.

8. Drink the yellow-stuff: Before you go into the club, drink Ukon no Chikara. It's a turmeric-infused energy drink in a tiny gold bottle. Turmeric is known for its ability to absorb alcohol, and keep you from having a hangover the next day. This stuff is liquid magic.

9. Be prepared for smoking: Smoking is still legal inside of most buildings and clubs are no exception. If you are allergic to smoke then you might want to stick to larger, more open club.

10. Nomi-houdai! This means “all-you-can-drink” in Japanese. Some places offer these deals if you arrive before a certain time. You can also pay a little extra at places like Karaoke, and certain private bars are “nomihoudai” only. Just spit out this phrase with a question mark at the end, and the staff will tell you if they've got it.

And now a word from our gurus:

Gender Inequality

Japan favors men in just about every way: higher salaries, more job opportunities, more social freedom, and all the other “usual suspects”. The one scene where guys get the short straw is clubs and bars.

Raven Wei puts it best: “If you're a lady, research which clubs have ‘ladies night’ and things of that nature. You can save major money that way. Not to mention, places like Club Ai do things like ‘if you wear pink every third Friday, cover charge is free’. On the flip side, if you're a dude, just prepare to be screwed. You'll get charged for everything EVERY night.”

In addition, the cover charge at bars and clubs is usually 1000~2000 yen higher than their female friends. Sorry guys. I guess it’s cause you get higher salaries.

How to Get a Stronger Drink

A lot of clubs serve their liquor a little on the light side, especially the clubs with nomihoudai, but if you like your drink to bite back just tell the bartender "tsuyoi me" (strong-ish). If it's still not strong enough? Try "motto tsuyoi" (stronger).

Shabz Cho has a suggestion for finding the clubs that aren't so stingy with their mixed drinks: 

"My rule of thumb: always ask for the "susume" (recommendation) from the bar dude first. If it ain't liquored up enough, chances are I won't be coming back."

That’s no moon…it’s a Host-Club!

A typical Host. (Image by Kongoh from flickr)
You know what’s awkward? No, it’s not Kamenashi Kazuya’s drama ratings (ouch!), but that’s a good guess. Getting persuaded to go to a club, and then realizing you and your friends are standing in the entrance of a Host Club with all the blinged-out dudes in shoes that would make Liberace swoon, and enough hairspray to keep them burning for seven days and seven nights – that’s awkward.

Luckily, I watched enough Japanese dramas that I never had this problem, but I've known a few folks who have. 

Seriously, y'all: MISSION ABORT.

If you're not sure what a Host(ess) club is, check out this Wiki article on the subject

Generally the Host(ess) Clubs that allow foreigners aren’t dangerous, and can be fun for a laugh on an off-night. Just avoid holding a match near anyone’s head.

How Can You Tell? 

Some places like Roppongi or Shinjuku might seem a little sleazy with all the hawkers trying to get you to come to their clubs. How can you tell if it’s a host-club? If they hand you a menu-like flyer with pictures of staff members, you can be pretty confident it’s not a place where you can dance to the latest hit from Big Bang. Also, Host(ess) Clubs tend to have names like "Club Ren" or "Club Keiko", and the hawkers usually wear black suits, silver jewelry, ridiculous shoes, and hair to rival a Super Saiyan ------->

Not even joking.

INTERACT: Tell me about your clubbing experiences in Japan! Are there any tips you find useful? Do you have a club you'd like to recommend? Do you have a fun/funny/awkward story about clubbing in Japan? Leave a comment!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Funk Fujiyama!

So, I received an email the other day asking me about the Japanese song I use in the J-TAC podcast. It's called "FUNK FUJIYAMA", and it's by the popular 1980's Japanese funk/pop band Kome Kome Club. FUNK FUJIYAMA lampoons foreigners' stereotypes of and behavior in Japan. The chorus, which seems to be listing the most common Japanese words foreigners seem to know, illustrates this quite well:

Everybody samurai, sushi, geisha.
Beautiful Fujiyama, ha ha ha!
Konnichiwa, sayonara, kore ikura?
Beautiful Fujiyama, ha ha ha!

(*Note: Fujiyama = Mt. Fuji)

Somehow by the wonders of YouTube, I have managed to scrounge up the 80s-tastic music video to FUNK FUJIYAMA. Watch, be confused, and enjoy!

While we're on the subject of "beautiful Fujiyama", I have a confession to make: in all the three years I lived in Japan, I never went to Mt. Fuji. I always had an excuse, I always thought I would have time, but by the time I  realized I was headed home, I'd lost my chance. Well, that's not going to happen again. I'm trying to make it back to Japan this fall, and when I do, I'm going to conquer Fujiyama (ha ha ha)!

Now for the travel-agenty stuff:

Photo by Miurasat
If you're interested in climbing Mt. Fuji over the summer, consider booking a tour before you go. If you don't speak much Japanese, or you don't have anyone to go with you, it can be a little tough to do it on your own. There's actually a summer special Sunrise Tour called "Challenge! Mt. Fuji 2-Day Climbing Tour" going on for $360 (adults, kids are $348) where you get to climb Mt. Fuji and watch the sun rise from the top. Obviously, you'd be climbing at night, so I'd recommend this tour pretty soon after your arrival in Japan. Might as well take advantage of jet-lag, huh? Or, if you're planning to go clubbing or party late into the night, maybe it won't interfere with your schedule at all. If I were going back this summer, I would totally do it. I wonder if it extends into the fall...

Anyway, this tour is cool because you get to climb Mt. Fuji with two guides: a Japanese-speaking walking guide an English-speaking guide to translate and tell you all the relevant history. Your breakfast, dinner, shuttle bus, and sleeping place are covered in the cost of the tour. Be warned, though: there's no vegetarian option for the meals, so if you're vegetarian, you've got to bring your own food. It can be tough to be a vegetarian in Japan, but I'd recommend checking out the blog Tomodachi of a Vegan before you head out.

If you're not into hiking, check out the other Sunrise Tours. Personally, I like the historical ones, but there's something for everyone, and they range from half-day to 14-day, full-out packages. Here's a link to the Sunrise Tours Digital Brochure.

If you want to know more about rates and tickets, or get an estimate on how much it would cost you, shoot me an email: Lauren@japantravel.com

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Initial D - Loading! Irohazaka IRL

If you ever played the racing game Initial D, you're familiar with Irohazaka - a 1-way switchback mountain road in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. If you ever played the game, you probably know about the 48 hairpin turns along the dizzying ride down, but did you know that each curve is identified by one letter of the old Japanese alphabet? I say old because, while many of the characters are still-familiar hiragana, there are a couple characters that might leave you going "RU~uungh?" and scrambling for the input on your DS.

If you're up visiting the Nikko Toshogu shrine - the shrine at which the bones of Shogun Founder Tokugawa Ieyasu are interred - or the ancient pilgrimage destination of Bhuddist monks, Lake Chuzenji (which now has duck-shaped paddle boat rentals...oh, the hubris...), or kegon waterfall, make sure to keep a look-out on your way down for these funky not-quite-recognizable characters.

My best friend Adryn and her husband Darren, who live in Tochigi, created this awesome Initial-D themed video of their ride down the Irohazaka. Obviously, the video is sped-up. They weren't really going this fast!


Monday, April 25, 2011

Japan Travel Advisor Cast (J-TAC) Episode 2!

Welcome to the second episode of J-TAC: Japan Travel Advisor Cast, a podcast about life and travel in Japan.

J-TAC - Episode Two

In today's podcast we bring you the latest on post-disaster travel updates in Japan, a sightseeing destination submitted by former English Teacher Kathryn Lebda, another lesson on a wasei eigo (Japanese-Style English) phrase, and a special deal for students. :)

You can find Lebda's travel blog at: Lebda Who?

The music for this podcast includes work by Kevin McLeod of Incompetech.com, clips from the KomeKome Club song FUNK FUJIYAMA, and original compositions.