Trip to Japan finds a nation pampering tourists
Visitors to Fushimi-Inari Taisha pass under thousands of orange gates en route to a shrine near Kyoto, Japan.
Maiko, geishas in training, are sought after by tourists for photos as they walk through Kyoto.
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TOKYO, Japan -- Even before we left American soil, a Japanese friend now living in the States was excited about our trip.
"As a Japanese person, I'm so thankful that you're going there," Shiori Iinuma told us, hastening to add with a laugh, "not that I speak for all Japanese people."
And yet she easily could have. Throughout our 10-day stay in Japan, which included visits to Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone, we encountered similar sentiments.
It's been six months since the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked northeast Japan, followed by a nuclear crisis. Japan's tourism industry has not recovered. Just about everywhere we traveled in Japan in late August and early September, we were among a small number of Western visitors. We encountered only two other Americans: a student studying in Japan and his visiting brother.
We never ventured farther north than Tokyo, but even there the impact of the crises was obvious. Some electric signs were darkened at night; and train stations operated with limited air conditioning. Each morning, the lobby of the Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel was stuffy from the A/C being turned off overnight, and a fountain in front of the hotel was not running. At Tokyo's Disney parks, hand dryers in restrooms were turned off in an effort to conserve electricity.
But these minor inconveniences did not distract from a trip highlighted by the extremely helpful nature of the Japanese people.
Upon arriving in Japan we took a Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Traveling at speeds of up to 186 mph, these speedy trains are clean, comfortable and put rail travel in the United States to shame. Riding in them takes a little getting used to.
Imagine sitting in a jetliner just before takeoff -- but instead of taking flight, your vehicle continues that speed on land: That's what it's like to ride in a Shinkansen train, whipping past the landscape so quickly you barely have time to appreciate the scenery before you're past it.
The trip to Kyoto takes less than three hours by train; it would take more than six hours by car. And the trains are frequent. Miss one and another will be by in just a few minutes. During our entire stay in Japan, our longest wait time was 6 minutes. One tour guide told us the Shinkansen trains run on schedule most of the time, and when they are delayed, it's usually by just 30 to 90 seconds.
Passengers are unfailingly polite -- when their cell phone rings, they leave the passenger compartment to take the call -- and the trains are climate controlled and comfortable, a welcome respite from the summer heat.
At 90 degrees most days, Kyoto was hotter than Tokyo, and with humidity around 80 percent it felt warmer still. Anyone visiting Japan during these months should be prepared to sweat and plan to take multiple handkerchiefs for wiping away perspiration. (Bug spray, like Off, would also be a useful accessory.)
Kyoto was less chaotic than bustling Tokyo, but despite being farther from the earthquake, it was still impacted. Mie Tamada, a guide who gives tours in English of Kyoto's Gion district -- home to Japan's famed Geisha entertainers -- said 90 percent of tours were canceled in the immediate aftermath of the quake.
"People just don't want to come here," she said as we waited for additional tourists to arrive for the tour. No one else showed up. "Thank you very much for your decision to come here."
Ms. Tamada showed us around the Gion and explained the nature of geishas. They are not prostitutes, she said, but entertainers who train for four years as maiko before advancing from apprentice to geiko, another name of Geishas in the Gion.
In addition to a tour of the neighborhood where geishas live and entertain, Kyoto offers many opportunities to visit impressive Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Kiyomizu-Dera offers a view of Kyoto; Fushimi-Inari Taisha features a winding path up a hillside featuring thousands of orange torii gates -- traditional Japanese arches -- that visitors pass beneath en route to a shrine.
On our way out of Kiyomizu-Dera we encountered a Japanese student wearing a University of Pittsburgh Panthers T-shirt. We asked him about it, thinking maybe he studied in Pittsburgh. Like most Japanese people we encountered, he did not speak much English, but we eventually figured out he had no idea what was written on his shirt; he just liked the American design when he found it at a second-hand clothing shop.
From Kyoto we set out on a day trip for Nara and Osaka.
At Nara, a sign at the train station for free English-language tours led us to meet guide Mami Yoshikawa and guide-in-training Keiko Ueshima. This turned out to be a smart choice and the best day of our trip. Having people to communicate with while wandering through Nara made a huge difference.
Nara Park is known for free-roaming deer that bow when you feed them crackers. They'll also chase you hoping to find a hidden second course. We saw one Japanese toddler collapse in tears when the deer chased her mother a short distance. Deer are revered in Nara as messengers of the Buddah.
Nara Park is also home to the amazing Todaiji Temple, the world's largest wooden building even in its current state that's two-thirds the size of the previous temple, which was twice destroyed by fire.
Osaka is the polar opposite of peaceful Nara. The Dotombori neighborhood bustles with young people, especially at night, as neon signs cling to the sides of buildings and bathe those below in flashing astringent light. Vendors sell Takoyaki, a ball-shaped dumpling filled with pieces of octopus (pretty tasty).
Even in Osaka, which is supposedly famous for its gruff citizens, according to a Lonely Planet guide, the Japanese people we encountered could not have been more helpful. A janitor at the Osaka train station saw us looking lost and came over to offer guidance. What Japan lacks in signage understandable to Westerners, its polite people make up for in their willingness to assist.
A day trip from Tokyo, Hakone National Park offers views of Mount Fuji. The best bet for getting around -- travel requires trips on a railway with switchbacks, a funicular and a gondola (or buses) -- is the Hakone Free Pass ($50 per person for a two-day pass).
An early start is required -- later in the day the lines for assorted modes of transportation can be counted in hours, not minutes -- which also gives better odds for a good view of Mount Fuji. Optional stops along the course include a sulfurous mountainside. The trip also features a ride across Lake Ashi in a Disneyland-style pirate ship.
Hotels are plentiful in and near Hakone, an area known for its relaxing hot springs. Some hotels, including Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita, offer their own hot spring public baths.
Japanese people are generally slim and fit and after a summer visit, you understand why: The combination of heat and walking saps the appetite. There may be no better quick weight loss plan than tourism in Japan during its hottest months.
After Kyoto and Nara, the shrines and temples of Tokyo were of less interest, although a trip to the Imperial Palace East Gardens in the spring with trees and flowers blooming would be a must. If you don't make it to Kyoto, Tokyo's Asakusa neighborhood offers a temple worth visiting, Senso-ji, alleys filled with restaurants and shops, a sad amusement park and an excellent view of the Tokyo Sky Tree, a 2,000-foot tall observation tower that's expected to open next year.
But most of our wandering in Tokyo was through assorted famous neighborhoods, including the Ginza (upscale shopping), Aoyama and Harajuku (teenybopper shopping), Tsukiji Market (early-morning fish auction) and Akihabara (geek ghetto with shops devoted to electronics).
In the Ginza, you can smell the Abercrombie & Fitch store halfway down the block. It's worth visiting just to hear every employee greet you with the same perfect English phrase: "Hey, what's going on?"
If you've been on your feet touring for a week, be sure to stop at Ishimaru, an electronics department store in Akihabara. Make a beeline for the fourth floor and surrender to the wonders of the technologically advanced massage chairs on display.
On our last day in Tokyo, we met up with Yoshi Kurosu, a friend of a friend, who attended an American boarding school for high school and graduated from Portland State University in Oregon in 2010. He returned to Japan three months ago and said he's noticed differences in peoples' way of life since the quake.
"Japanese people are trying to save electricity. They're trying not to use lights or air conditioning, trying not to drive cars," he said. "Some people are afraid of the food because of nuclear worries. And some people think the media exaggerate and talk too much about the earthquake and nuclear disaster."
Then he quickly added, "I'm really glad you came to Japan."
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am