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Go east, young man, go east...and Yokoso!
By Mickey Charles, Roz Charles / Travel Editor, Photojournalist
Philadelphia, PA -
And make it a point to bring your family with you, those old enough to appreciate a trip such as this one. That is a phrase attributable to Horace Greeley, the great American journalist and political figure of another age, about going east if you are young and presumably exploratory, filled with a sense of curiosity and adventure and prepared to open new frontiers. I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing it a bit and changing direction while, at the same time, encouraging the young man, any man, any woman, to increase the number in the group traveling with him or her and head east, very east, coupled with a hearty "Yokoso" or "welcome" in Japanese.
There is no lack of temples in Japan and all are part and parcel of the land about them, enhancing and embracing it with design and craftsmanship, innovation and imagination.
However, the fact of the matter is that the pattern of this flight actually took us north, over the "top of the world," before settling down in our destination, Japan. It was the same route that Santa might take when he heads out fro his annual trek from the North Pole, only in reverse. Our airline of choice was Continental and their coveted 777 (Triple 7) non-stop to Tokyo and, no matter what you do, how many miles you must give up, the price you must pay, first class is the order of the day for a trip as lengthy as this one. I know, I know, not everyone has the mileage, frequent flyer status, contacts or the bankbook to place their derrieres in the front of the plane so what now? You fly coach, make yourselves as comfortable as possible, pick up snacks and more before boarding, bring a good book, a DVD or two that you can play on your laptop, an extra battery pack or two and some Benadryl, Tylenol PM or Valium. Regardless, the comfort of this aircraft is a nonpareil experience and the absolute prime precursor to arrival in Japan, the first stop of what will evolve into an incredibly enlightening sojourn into what is, for most, their first introduction to a land that, heretofore, was relegated to descriptive passages in geography books, history lessons and the pages of Michelin and Fodor.
Whether you utilize the services of a travel agency or opt to make your own plans, one of the first things you must do is to visit the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) and begin to gather all of the literature, suggestions and advice available from the resources of the JNTO. You will discover that the staff standing by to assist is an introduction to, and indication of, what awaits you upon arrival in Japan. They are courteous to a fault, accommodating, obliging to your needs and attentive to early strategies and schedules. By all means, do call them at (212) 757-5641 or simply stop by their offices (if you are in New York) located at 14 West 49th Street/1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1205 (between 5th & 6th Avenues and 48th & 49th Streets), New York, N.Y. 10020...or just write to them. Also of note in their assistance is the Tokyo Tourism Agency.
On your check list, right near the top, has to be the task (although it really isn't) of obtaining your Japan Rail passes. There is no better way to get around the country, or within the cities proper, than by rail. We thought that the Europeans were efficient in this regard but the Japanese raise it to a new level of competency and effectiveness. Everyone is helpful, from the newsstand operator to the policeman, the casual traveler to the conductor. If you can tell one color from the other and have ever owned a box of Crayolas you can find your way around Tokyo's Shinjuku Station but, for the uninitiated, put on your walking shoes. This labyrinth of walkways, escalators, train platforms, shopping and eateries makes Grand Central, Penn and Union Station(s) seem like studio apartments. For an island the size of California, the Tokyo train station is one of the more complex transportation facilities you will ever encounter but it is every bit as dynamic and prepared for every possible travel contingency. This is the hub of Tokyo and over one million people pass through it daily.
The Shinkansen (Super Express) "bullet train" is the only way to get around Japan in the most advanced, fastest and safe manner so timely that you can set your watch by its punctuality.
Everything runs on time, people stand dutifully on line to board and, during rush hour, there are even cars set aside only for women. We would recommend the "Japan Rail Pass 7 Days" - unlimited travel throughout Japan for that period of time and you will need every bit of it to see the minimum of Japan. Get your hands on a Welcome Card (Culture Card) to obtain discounts and special services at a host of sights.
If you can afford the few dollars additional that it takes to buy first class tickets, do so and make certain that the rail passes purchased are for the length of your stay. You will need them and you will use them.
When traveling to most countries - most, not all - outside of the United States, there is usually an easy decision on the final destination(s) of your choice in the country to be visited - i.e., France and it is Paris, Switzerland has Geneva and Zurich, United Kingdom and where else but London, Portugal with Lisbon the target destination, Russia and the objective is to visit Moscow, Sweden...Stockholm, Norway...Oslo, Austria...Vienna and Greece...Athens. Plan a trip to Japan and your itinerary begins to include Tokyo, Narita, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto and, with enough time, Yokohama and Hiroshima. It is akin to cramming 100 lbs of product into a 50 pound bag and we tried our best so we are now passing the results on to you.
Our plans called for, in turn, Narita (where we landed), Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and Kyoto...all over a span of two weeks with two of those days allocated for traveling to and from. We moved about with the proficiency and preparedness of an Olympic gymnastics team. It was an excursion choreographed with the help of the JNTO and, if we missed a step at all, no one noticed.
Where to stay in each venue was, of course, a prime concern. How do you acquire the essence and spirit of the country, the very characteristics that set it aside, without giving up the customary conveniences that have been part and parcel of your everyday being back home? Easier than you would imagine when you discover that there is a Hilton Hotel in every city on your agenda. Hilton International has had the efficacy to absorb all that is Japan into a carefully crafted American competency and capacity. There is no doubt where you are the moment that you check in but there is also no doubt where you are. That is not a typographical error; it is as true a statement as can be made of our accommodations in every city.
There is also the more traditional alternative for those who wish to appreciate local influences and the simplicity of a Japanese style accommodation - with phone, TV and optional Japanese bath facility.
Hilton knows, and takes pains to understand, the country where it builds and operates hotels; it understands the characteristics of the people and has a penchant and proclivity for incorporating that personality and individualism into its own international trademark for excellence. It also is acutely aware of its visitors and the necessity for providing them with the facilities that are expected in an atmosphere that is distinctively Japanese. It is discriminative while being individualistic and this allows them to cater to the tastes of all concerned in a smooth flow of amenities, protocols and features.
How nice, therefore, to have a Hilton International ideally located in each city visited with a staff at the ready to assist your every request amid a listing of hallmark highlights that typify and define your expectations...high speed Internet access to luxuriant rooms and, often, toilets that require NASA's involvement to operate; restaurants of every variance and taste abound; exercise facilities to rid yourself of the carbs and cholesterol; lounges with Japanese "noshes" to American style, hamburger and french fries serving bars.
Forget about leaving the comforts of home behind. The Hilton hotel group throughout Japan has found ways to improve upon them, as is depicted in this somewhat opulent bathroom.
Narita is your introduction to Japan and your Hilton accommodations, by shuttle bus, just 10 minutes from the airport. Land, board, get there, check in, freshen up and get ready for a vacation after which you will need a vacation but with nary a look of regret back over your shoulder. The best advice we could ever provide prior to and/or when arriving at your destination is to do the following, in no particular order - find a guide that lives there, speaks the language and knows the popular places that every tourist should see as well as those that are not on the normal itinerary - Japan has volunteer guides more than anxious to assist you and, for most, there is no fee for their time, just the courtesy of your paying for whatever meals are taken; make sure you take the bus, boat or walking tour to familiarize yourself with the city immediately; bring your camera, plenty of film and an extra large package of batteries; a pair of binoculars wouldn't hurt if you own them; hit the street running and forget about the pool at the hotel. You are there to see, not relax. This is not the Caribbean.
And, whenever you can, locate the hotel manager or director of marketing. Unlike that to which you are accustomed as a potential world traveler, they are attentive to your needs in Japan and as amiable as if you were a local resident. In Narita, at the Hilton, we were fortunate enough to have Masako Naito as the person who paved the way for us and laid the initial groundwork for the two weeks ahead.
The Japanese treat shopping, at any time but primarily on the weekends, as an art form akin to being expert in the martial arts or gymnastics. Complement that to their dedication to religion and you have an outpouring of humanity on Saturday and Sunday. It is every salmon imaginable swimming upstream and you are caught in the midst of it. You wanted an experience and it is underway. Narita is the tip of the iceberg. Head directly for the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple and the seemingly unending shopping and food area you will have to navigate to get to the entrance. But then, before you, looms the Great Pagoda of Peace, Shotokutaishido Hall (say that ten times fast), the three-storied Pagoda and other Halls that surround it, some 150-200 years old. Top it off with a walk around and through Naritasan Park, 16.5 acres laid out in 1928...quiet, spacious, overflowing with nature and you have just said "Hello" to Japan and she to you.
Traveling in and about Narita one encounters a kaleidoscope of color, architecture, religion and history.
Make sure that you savor the buffet breakfast served at The Terrace at the Hilton Narita before you head out the next day...it is usually not included in the price of your room but can be depending upon the particular "package" that you book. The choices are everything from a traditional Japanese breakfast (we did not have the courage nor the inclination, frankly, to savor that) right down to egg white omelets or corn flakes with skim milk and bananas or strawberries.
We thought that the Irish were the nicest people we had ever met in our travels - without casting aspersions on the Italians, Swiss, French, Germans, et al - until we met the Scots. And, now, we encountered the Japanese who, from the hotel staff to the guides taking us about and the shop owners to strangers from whom we sought directions and various tidbits of other information, could not do enough for visitors to their country. They are a cordial, warm, courteous and sincere people grateful for those visiting with them and anxious to make certain that you leave with a notion to return at some point in the future.
Yes, you will bow a great deal. You will exchange business cards by offering yours with two hands rather than one and being given others in like manner, you will remove your shoes at many, not all, places visited...particularly temples and tea houses. You will also be told that Japan is expensive. Yes and no. Kobe beef will cost as much as a cow would, maybe more, over here but the local, and very tasty, sushi eatery is right in line with your budget and American pricing. It is said that the Japanese actually massage the cows and feed them daily doses of beer to create the tenderness of the Kobe experience. We tended to believe that after one meal.
The open-air shopping markets in Japan offer a very wide variety of items for both travelers and residents.
Do not be deterred by tales of extravagant and unreasonable purchasing obstacles. The less expensive "made in Japan" tags of your childhood or the one that younger members of the family never encountered are a matter of history and Japan can be a thriving, opulent and inestimable experience but so can an afternoon at Bloomingdale's or Neiman Marcus. Hilton prices are not, for example, double U.S. prices, as many who write of Japan are wont to say, and credit cards are used everywhere. You need not load up with tens of thousands of yen. Cashing in $4-500 at a time is advisable but take it a day at a time when thinking exchange.
After Narita, Tokyo was next on the list so it was a simple matter to take the Hilton Shuttle bus back to the airport (it is complimentary and takes the same 10 minutes it did in coming here) where we were able to board the local train into Tokyo and, from there, grab the bus over to the Hilton Tokyo. A cab is also an option and we learned to do that easily enough in the absence of any shuttle provided by the hotel in a given city. Usually fast and inexpensive.
Momoko Gonohue coordinated details for us at the Hilton Tokyo and, as with all visitors, every detail was attended to under the watchful eye of her staff. If the concierge staff at any of the Hilton Hotels, where we stayed, were more helpful they would have been traveling with us. For all intents and purposes we could have been at the Hilton in Paris, London or Rome. There is an expectancy of guests that are international travelers and Hilton is very tuned into their comfort levels. This luxurious 806-room/38-story hotel in Shinjuku, as with Narita, set the standard for what awaited us in all of the other cities we planned to visit. We were soon settled in and preparing for the next day's tours and travels. A suggestion, when going from city to city: Arrive in the evening, having enjoyed a full day at the prior destination and allow for time to rest and get everything into place with no pressures, if you will, other than where to grab a late snack or who takes which drawers and sections of the closet for placement of clothing. Then, in the morning, you can be off and running again, showered, shaved (for those of us who do that daily), a hearty breakfast (most important meal of the day) under your belt and cameras loaded with film, digitals with fresh batteries. It is the American way.
Of course, quickly noted, you can always rise at dawn if your next target city is reachable within the hour and hit the ground running when you arrive. Your choice. You must, no matter what else is on the schedule, find a tea house. There is nothing more to say about that since they are in every city. Just find one, settle in and "do the green tea." A good place to start would be the Hama-rikyu Gardens, an area that was an official hunting ground for the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century. You can sit and photograph the spot where the Emperor Meiji met with President/General Grant of the U.S. in the garden.
The past and present appear seamlessly as the Osaka Castle of the past reigns among the high-rises of today.
Remember the tours we spoke of earlier? More than a suggestion. We took the bus to the Observation Tower for a Cinerama view of Tokyo and it was fantastic. It is a schematic of skyscrapers and new construction in and around traditional temples of years and centuries past. With only so much time to spend anywhere, notes are taken and targets marked from high above the city.
Luckily, we arrived at holiday time, Coming of Age Day, when all the young ladies, married or single, don their traditional garb with the advent of their 21st birthday. It was not only a joyous occasion but an outstanding photo opportunity with all ready to stop and pose at the sight of a camera lens, especially one being handled by a couple of American tourists, most particularly when one of them stood 6' 4" and very much above most of the crowd.
The Imperial Palace, formerly Edo Castle, is a definite tourist stop and it is still surrounded by the innermost moat, handsome gates and old guard towers set at intervals around the site. If you are fortunate to be there on a day when the main entrance is open to the public, approached by the elegant Nijubashi, or Double, Gate you will thoroughly enjoy the beauty before you with many "oooohs" and "ahhhs,"
On Coming of Age Day, the young ladies of Japan display their entry into maturity by donning traditional garments.
While Checkers at any Hilton is certainly the place for breakfast before heading out, we were pleasantly surprised by their dinner fare, savored in place of a signature restaurant or any eatery recommended in a particular city. One of our more relaxed evenings considering the fact that our "travel plans" that night were on the elevator after coffee, dessert and a nightcap.
One day was spent, because we just wanted to see and compare, taking the train with Disney as our destination at Tokyo Bay. Disney in Japan when there is Orlando and Los Angeles? "Why not?" we thought and off we went. Also, we had heard a great deal about the Hilton at this locale. The fact of the matter is that this Hilton, more than any other, is best suited to conferences with Disney at hand for some time to chill. You do not want to be taking the train back and forth to Tokyo every day. Worth the visit but not where you want to stay on holiday. Do suggest it, however, to the organizers of the next conference you plan to hold, or attend.
Returning "home," there was dinner at Twenty-One, the hotel's showcase restaurant where cooking involves fresh seasonal foods and organic products. French traditional cooking methods feature global flavors with a "twist" in preparation and presentation. Their creative and often eclectic offerings are a gourmet delight.
The faces of the future of Japan. The children are as delightful and accommodating as their parents.
Ah, the Tokyo Dome about which we had heard so much, the place where baseball suddenly became Japan's national sport, where stars now competing in America at the Major League Baseball level - with the Mariners, Mets, Yankees - honed their skills. This is the multi-purpose stadium located in the grounds of Tokyo Dome City where they have everything from baseball to weddings, concerts to other special events and are waiting for their first bar-mitzvah in this huge complex. It is a technological wonder and amazing facility worth seeing and touring. Hold onto your hat and skirts if you are the first one(s) to exit after the tour. Why? Best for you to go and find out for yourselves. Once back on the outside, you have your choice of any one of a number of restaurants where you can enjoy a Japanese lunch... that you can cook at the table, but your best bet is to have a local with you to place the order and do the cooking as was the case with ourselves when we came upon "Unbalance," Konishiki's Restaurant & Music, he being a former Sumo wrestler now serving up Hawaiian, Washoku and Sushi.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku was founded on March 28, 1993 to preserve the historical heritage of Edo-Tokyo, dating back 300 years, and they have succeeded in a first-class manner. The history, culture and daily life of Edo-Tokyo are depicted in a fashion normally associated with a Disneyesque presentation. We, who normally decline museum trips that do not emulate or equal the Louvre or Vatican, encourage you to make the Edo-Tokyo one of your pre-determined stops.
Sumo wrestling at Ryogoku Kokugikan Hall, is an indigenous martial art that was begun in ancient times, some 1400 years ago, as a Shinto-based ritual, much of which remains today. The sumo ring is called the dohyo and is about 18 feet square and 2 feet high although the bout is confined to a circle a little over 15 feet in diameter. A bout is won by forcing the opponent out of the inner circle or throwing him in the dohyo. Blink and you miss the action but it takes five to six minutes of posturing by the combatants before the leviathans in the ring clash with one another. It is hard to believe that one can get into this and sit through multiple matches but you can. Get your tickets in advance, grab some food (on sale there) and settle in for a few hours.
The Tokyo Dome opened in March 1988 as the first domed stadium in Japan. It was home to the Nippon Ham Fighters thru 2003 and is still the home of the Yomiuri Giants. It is a short walk from the Korakuen Subway Station.
A relaxing evening boat ride to see the 12 bridges that surround the city is worth the time it takes to do so without seeking to dash about the city every night. Touristy? Yes. Possibly boring? Maybe. Relaxing? Yes.
The Meiji Shrine is set in extensive, naturally wooded grounds and is the most popular, as well as one of the most impressive, shrines you are likely to visit...dedicated to Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) who is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Japan." It is a tranquil asylum in the midst of the city, one where you might be fortunate enough to chance upon a traditional wedding, priests in the midst of going to, or coming from, Shinto prayer, children who delight in American visitors and the teahouse that we have indicated are a must to visit. You have found it in this, the last of the shogun parks.
The fortune of encountering a traditional wedding and a bride resplendent in her own beauty and the attire of yesteryears.
Ginza is a combination of Michigan Avenue, Rodeo Drive and Park Avenue with shopping to overflowing and some really unique small restaurants...if you can find them - the sort where you either walk up or down a flight of stairs and they only seat eight on stools at a counter. We found such a place in the heart of Ginza and had what we now know to have been Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza (really a pancake). Watching them put together some cabbage, flour, eggs, yam and the filling(s) of your choice (shrimp, squid, pork) topping it on the grill with mayo, sauce, and then again with shaved dried and sliced (paper thin) Bonito and dried powdered seaweed made you wonder whether it was too late to cancel your order. The addition of ketchup and Worcestershire had us thinking, "What the heck, let's go for it." And we did and it was great. Where is this place? Can't remember exactly but just bring the list of ingredients and the name of what it is along. Your guide will take it from there.
Shuttle bus from hotel to Shinjuku Station and JR line to Tokyo Station (15 minutes max) then the Bullet train to Nagoya, the geographical center of Japan, often referred to as Chukyo, or Middle Capital, midway between Kyoto, the old capital, and Tokyo, the new one, about one hour distant on the train. Just as easy, and probably better, thanks to crowds on local transport, to take a cab to the JR line station. Catch a clear day, sit on the right side and you might be fortunate enough to have a view of Mt. Fuji but be patient, the first sighting is not the best...that comes after the low landscape is left behind, only a moment or two after you see it. Have your camera (with a telephoto lens if you own one) at the ready.
For Roz Charles (right center) and her two guides, it was an experience eating Okonomiyaki, or Japanese pizza.
Nagoya is an old castle town and in the center of the city is its showpiece, the Nagoya Castle, originally a residence and military headquarters. The Hilton Nagoya is conveniently located in Fushimi (no, you cannot order it from a sushi menu), the central business district, and five minutes from the JR Nagoya Station.
Nagoya is home to the 2005 World Exposition, Aichi, slated to open in March, on the 25th, and extend to September 25th. It is intended to bring wisdom and culture from around the world to create what they have dubbed a Grand Intercultural Symphony centering on Nature's Wisdom. It is premised upon the communality of humanity's coexistence with nature with Japanese Culture brilliantly combining traditional techniques with cutting-edge technology. Japan's EPCOT and worth noting if a trip is contemplated in 2005. Go to Tokyo and then hop a train to Nagoya or fly into the new Chubu International Airport, scheduled to open in February, 2005, and stay in Nagoya.
The dominating geographic symbol of Japan is Mount Fuji, rising in the distance 3776 meters straight above sea level and dwarfing all that surrounds it.
Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology will take you back, in one of the more fascinating exhibits of growth, to Toyota's beginnings as a spinning and weaving company, The Toyota Group was founded by Sakichi Toyota, the inventor of automatic looms, and his eldest son, Kiichiro Toyoda, for producing spinning and weaving machinery and, later, automobiles...spinning wheels to car wheels. Take the tour and then enjoy lunch at the Toyota Museum restaurant.
Time permitting, especially for the ladies, next on the list (and, yes, we were moving at whirlwind speed) was the Noritake Craft Center and the beautiful world of Noritake china, from modeling, through casting, finishing, firing, hand painting and inspection. There are masterpieces and famous works to enjoy, accomplished over a century of craftsmanship. Be sure to take some time to visit the Noritake Gardens before you leave.
Nagoya Castle personifies Nagoya, as symbolic of feudal Japan, having been built in the 16th century (1612) by the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. It was destroyed in WWII but rebuilt in 1959 and is definitely worth a visit. Today, Nagoya is the transportation and communications hub of central Japan with its international airport and network of highways and railways accessing all parts of the country. It has grown from a castle town of the 17th century to the fourth largest city in Japan.
Pictured is a huge bronze bell (Daisho-Ro) that you do not want to stand under if and when they ring it...108 times on New Year's Eve to drive out the 108 evil desires that man has.
We managed to squeeze in one more museum, Tokugawa Art Museum, where they preserve the extensive holdings of the Owari branch of the Tokugawa family whose legacy encompasses art and a vast array of heirloom objects and furnishings intended for the lord and his household. For the Japanese, this is Valley Forge and worth a stop.
The choices for dinner took us to the Dynasty Restaurant at the Hilton - featuring a seemingly unending menu of authentic Chinese specialties from every region of China. Color this a precursor to your trip to Beijing next year. Cantonese and Szechwan cuisine in a really remarkable setting complete with classical Chinese art, including copies of the famed terracotta warriors.
It was a short train ride to Arimatsu, the town famous for Arimatsu-shibori (tie-dyed cotton cloth called "shibori") fabrics, settled in 1608 along the old Tokaido Highway, preserved in its former state as the old highway to Tokyo. Tie-dying is one of Japan's oldest forms of industry and Arimatsu fabrics are rich beyond comparison in the variety of patterns offered. The technique requires such skill that one must train for three years before becoming expert in the production process.
The natural beauty of Japan is evident everywhere, preserved over the years and seemingly ageless.
As a side note, no pun intended, if you are into jazz music you will find it everywhere you go, competing with rock, hip hop and rap...and winning easily.
Each Hilton hotel offers restaurants to suit any palate and you are likely to find most if not all, of the following awaiting you - Dynasty, Seasons, The Terrace-Brasserie, Checkers, The Gallery, Windows on the World and Genji which is a deluxe Japanese offering set in traditional d?cor where you can sit at individual counters for sushi, tempura and teppanyaki. The bar will have been raised for your return home and comparisons to be made between what you were able to enjoy in the country of its origin versus what awaits at the sushi restaurant of choice in your hometown...steamed egg pudding with snapping turtle and seasonable vegetables, sashimi (globe fish, prawn, fatty tuna and salmon), Ashirai, Papillote of flounder with green noodles (vin blanc sauce), grilled seasonal vegetables, top prime Kobe beef with green pepper sauce, spicy fried garlic sauce. Hmmmmm, yes! No doubt the lady of the house will whip this together as soon as you get back.
Osaka was our next stop and, of course, the Hilton. By this time we were nearing our expert certification for getting around by train, leaving early enough to traverse every station that had a shopping concourse which, in Japan, means just about all of them. As we moved from hotel to shuttle bus or cab, then through the train station, one feels a sudden sense of urgency to stop and write a letter to the person or company that put wheels on the bottom of luggage. It was, of course, the bullet train to Osaka and then taxi from Shin Osaka Station to the hotel (about ten minutes driving time, depending upon traffic) in the center of Umeda, the shopping and entertainment district.
While not the largest of cities, Osaka has much to offer, from the Shitennoji Temple (and, no, you do not really get tired of seeing them, as you might with castles along the Rhine in Germany or dotting one county after another in England); Namba Walk; the underground shopping center, Okonomiyaki; or the Shinsaibashi-Suji/Ebisubashi-Suji for shopping and the Dotombori area for entertainment. After that familiarization foray, we headed to the Osaka Kaiyukan Aquarium. Yes, we have San Diego, Baltimore's Inner Harbor, New Jersey and Sea World but the Japanese can hold their own with this offering. It is simply overflowing (no pun intended) with wonders of the oceans - 39,000 specimens of 580 species of sea life - and is part of a complex that houses the Hotel SeaGull and an absolutely delightful restaurant with a taste-filled menu, La Mer Marusanrou. It is the place to bulk up before heading out to see Osaka Castle, the absolute highlight of the area.
The soft, but striking, beauty of Japan's people is never more evident than among its women.
If you were in Japan in 1496, this was definitely the way to live although the castle was destroyed by fire in 1615. However, new construction began in 1620, the castle was rebuilt by 1629 but, just 36 years later, the Main Tower was hit by lightning and was lost in a fire. Resilient as they are, it was rebuilt in 1931 and escaped the ravages of WWII. Get out your camera and walking shoes. This is truly a sight to behold.
When in Rome...but this one began with an evening premised upon "when in Japan..." and that meant dining at Udon-suki for pot-cooked food with udon noodles. This you have to do. It ranks right up there with purchasing some kimonos for the children or grand-children. Fear not, you will walk it off the next day.
It was then a bit of a change of pace for epicurean tastes at The Seasons for dinner - haute cuisine in a continental dining blend of classic and contemporary French cuisine with a wonderful selection of wines on hand. Add in an elegant setting with the near end of the trip, a totally relaxed atmosphere where the food is as smart casual as your attire and you are prepared for a gracious dining experience.
From Osaka it is just a half hour trip on the JR Tokaido Line to Kyoto, another must see for any visitor within such a short distance of this delightful city. It was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years and is, today, definitely the place to shop...and to dine, as we discovered at Okutan, one of the more famous Tofu restaurants in the entire country. Its setting alone, pages stolen from the books of yesteryear, make this an eventful respite from the high-speed tempo of the days preceding it. Just sit down, have your Japanese guide order for you or, absent that, leave it to your hosts and enter new worlds of cultivated gestation.
Color is omnipresent everywhere in this nation of diverse religions, monuments, temples and attractions.
As for the shopping, you won't have to look very far. Trust us on that. Kyoto is a day well spent and it might be fun to stop by a Ryokan, a typical Japanese Inn with lodging for a small number of guests...just to see, perhaps enjoy some tea. We would recommend Matsuba Ya Ryokan. Strolling through the Sannenzaka Area and its bustling, exotic atmosphere, you will have plenty of time, in one day, to visit the Kiyomizu Temple, another designated National Treasure, where you will have outstanding views of the rest of the city from the spacious outdoor, cliff-like balcony of the main hall. Another "have to see," not only for its grace and beauty but for the notoriety of portions of "The Last Samurai" being filmed here, is the Chion-in Temple. You will assuredly recognize it if you saw the movie and, while there, two more very interesting sights are the Sanmon Gate, the largest in Japan, and a huge bronze bell (Daisho-Ro) that you do not want to stand under if and when they ring it...108 times on New Year's Eve to drive out the 108 evil desires that man has. You could drive out your hearing as well.
You must see the Kinkakuji Temple, or Golden Pavilion, pictured in this feature, built in 1397 by Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu as his retirement villa. The man had taste. This indisputably lends credence to the statement that "one picture is worth a thousand words."
The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), creates a setting out of history but it is as resplendent and perfect today as it was when finished in 1394. This is a country of magnificent and artful temples.
Because of the distance to be traveled, we did what we are suggesting to you, and went back to Osaka to relax a bit and go on to Narita from there via the bullet train...to the Hilton once again. Our purpose was simple...get there, make sure that everything was in order, do some last minute shopping, get some rest before the ride home, pack and take a deep breath while reviewing all the literature we were going to leave at the hotel, separate it from that which would accompany us home, how many towels, soaps and other things would fit in our luggage (just kidding!!) and not have to experience a hurry up and off to the airport set of circumstances. - relaxing at the Hilton for one day and then heading home.
It is a long way to go but we would return in a heartbeat. Japan is simply a necessary destination for anyone that travels and wants to see the best that this planet of ours has to offer.
Many thanks to:
Marian Goldberg / Kana Nomoto - JNTO; Shelley Winkel - Hilton International; Masako Naito - Hilton Narita; Momoko Gonohue, Shigera (Ken) Takakura, Yasushi Otsuka, Tatsuya Fujii - Hilton Tokyo; Yoshimi Mizuno - Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau; Nao Okagen, Masanobu Shoji - Tokyo Dome; Christian R. Baudat, Markus Schueller, Takami Kimoto, Shizuka Kawai, Mayuko Adachi, Mie Yonezawa, Tadato Yamamoto - Hilton Nagoya; Masumi Arakawa - Nagoya Convention & Visitors Bureau; Inuma Takeshi, Yamanaka Kenji - 2005 World Expo; Shun Sasaji - Aichi Goodwill Guides; Tomio Koike - Tokugawa Art Museum/Nagoya; Heinz J. Schwander, Eiko Niwa, Naotoshi Miyamura, Kenji Wakita - Hilton Osaka; Mitsuo Saito, Asako Shiomi - Osaka Convention & Tourist Board; Shizu Harada - Goodwill Guide (Osaka); Mr. Kajima, Ms. Tokura - Kyoto Prefectural Government; Eri Katsuo - Tour Guide (Chiba); Rie Tokura - Tourism Promotion/Kyoto; Kimiko Hayashi, Japanese Inn Group/Kyoto