Friday, March 15, 2013

Senso Ji Temple and Asakusa Shrine

If you are coming to Japan for a trip and plan on spending some time in Tokyo, chances are you will find your way to this temple and shrine.

Detail on the side of the Senso Ji.  In case you are wondering, here is a good explanation of the swastika.
Asakusa district is one of the biggest tourist areas in Tokyo.  It is surrounded by outdoors malls full of tourist shops all full of the same souvenirs.  There are also a few nearby shrines, plenty of good restaurants, karaoke bars and even a small amusement park.  

Souvenir shops are still closed in the early morning.
I have been to visit Asakusa Shrine and Sensoji Temple many times during my time living in Japan.  But by far, the best time was this last January.

Tokyo is the biggest city in the world based on population.  This teeming megalopolis is home to 13,000,000 people.  It gets crowded.  Add a bunch of commuters, visitors, and tourists and the result is city crowded enough to drive anyone crazy. 

Because of the major crowds, I suggest you visit popular temples and shrines as early as possible-as soon as they open is desirable.  Dragging yourself out of bed on a chilly morning might be difficult, but the crisp cool air, quiet, and lack of bustling crowds make it worth the annoyance a thousand times over.  

The entrance to Senso Ji early in the morning.  By mid morning, it is packed with people.

The first several times I visited Sensoji Temple, we came mid-day.  It was insane every time.  So crowded you could not move individually-you became a part of a crowd that had to move in unison.  Not for the claustrophobic.  When we went this year to get our omikuji-this year’s fortune-we woke up very early and walked the few blocks from the youth hostel at which we were staying.  We were at the temple at about six am. 

It was stunningly quiet and serene in the light of dawn.  The only thing to be heard was the Buddhist monks chanting from within the temple.  

The temple all decorated for the new year.

Definitely worth the early start. 

And afterwards, nothing beats an early morning cup of coffee and some fat pancakes at a nearby cafe.  

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Japan Travel Tips

K's House Ito Onsen-a fabulous traditional ryokan for a great price.
When I was a kid, I had a paper route.  I walked those Wisconsin neighborhoods everyday but Sunday for about four years.  It wasn’t fun much of the time, but it was a great job for my child self.  One thing I usually hated was getting up at five am on Saturday to get the paper delivered by seven. There were times, though, that I did not mind the early morning walk.  Especially when I discovered (nerd alert) a great radio show on NPR called The Savvy Traveler.

As I walked my paper route, I would listen to people’s incredible stories from all over the world and imagine myself to be there: sipping a cappuccino on a tiny street café in Verona, riding a zip-line through the jungles in Costa Rica, hiking the Great Wall of China. 

Perhaps the seed was planted then.  The seed which sprouted into a great desire to travel everywhere, experience everything, and meet everyone.  I have been fortunate enough to nurture this desire and gain many experiences, though they are few compared to others.   

As someone who has lived, traveled, and worked in Japan for a few years now, I feel obligated to do my part in sharing things I have learned.  I’ve learned an incredible amount during my time here.  One such thing is how to travel. 

I’d been on a few major trips before moving to Japan, but these trips (one to China and one to Europe) were more or less group tours.  Not to knock group tours-they certainly have their own draw.  My point is that group tours are a certain type of travel.  Traveling solo, or without a guide is a totally different story. 

There are so many factors that go into planning major trips on one’s own.  First you have to decide what type of trip you want/can afford.  Japan is known to be an expensive country.  It’s expensive to get here, live here, and get around here.  (Though the exchange rate is now beginning to even out between the Yen and USD…which is bad for us, but great for anyone coming to Japan to travel.)

There are many things I could talk about or suggest for people who have a desire to visit Japan, but I only want to mention two here:

1)    Buy a Japan rail pass.  This is by far the most cost effective way to get around Japan.  You have to buy them outside of Japan though.  Find more information here.
2)    Don’t stay in hotels; Japan does the backpacker’s hostel very well.  I want to  specifically recommend K’s House.  They have eight locations across Japan and they are staffed by some of the nicest people I have ever met.  Also, the facilities are extremely nice and very clean.  They offer private rooms as well as the cheaper dorm rooms.

K's House Ito Onsen-street side.

These two things alone will help in planning a fantastic trip through Japan!  Happy traveling, everyone!

Side note: Unfortunately, The Savvy Traveler was taken off the air several years ago due to lack of listener donation during pledge drives.  Sigh. 

Anyone know of any great travel podcasts? 

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013


We live in Saitama Prefecture.  One of the best ways I can described the “image” of Saitama is by saying that Saitama is the New Jersey of Japan.  As most people from the USA know, New Jersey is often looked down upon-especially by the neighboring folks in New York City.

Well, Saitama is to Tokyo what New Jersey is to New York.  Why?

I haven’t the foggiest idea. 

My Japanese friends say that Saitama has an “uncool” image.  That is about the best explanation I have been able to find.  Which isn’t really an explanation at all.

For myself, I couldn’t care less about Saitama’s alleged poor image.  I love living here.  As someone from the vastly huge country of the USA, living in a small country like Japan has been illuminating.  Living in the west of Saitama-considered to be the “countryside”-is lovely.  It only takes us an hour by train to get from our inaka (countryside) to the megalopolis of Tokyo.  This is by far one of my favorite things about living where we do.

About half way to Tokyo on our train line, there is a city called Kawagoe-sometimes called Koedo.  This name refers to Tokyo's former name-Edo.  Just north of Tokyo, Kawagoe was called Koedo-little Edo. 

Ever since moving to Japan nearly three years ago, day visits to Kawagoe have been a favorite weekend activity.  There are loads of delicious restaurants, beautiful shrines and temples, and lovely places to shop.  

Anyone looking for a break from the congestion and fast pace of Tokyo would do well to spend a day walking around Kawagoe.  I highly recommend it. 
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Monday, March 11, 2013

Year of the Snake

This is the year of the snake.  People write wishes on the back of these wooden cards and hang them at shrines.
New Year’s Day is a big deal in Japan.  Many people say that Christmas is the “biggest” holiday in the USA-New Year’s Day is by far the biggest holiday in Japan. 

Similar to the Christmas cards with which many of you are familiar, most Japanese families send out New Year’s cards to their friends and family.  These cards arrive on January 1st.

The Japanese people are known for being extremely hard working and diligent as a people.  Many of the stereotypical Japanese “salary men” work and commute obscene hours six days a week.  New Year’s Day is one of the few days during the year that is a true holiday for almost everyone. 

To celebrate the new year, families gather together and visit shrines and temples.  They pray for health and prosperity and collect their fortune for the year.  Everyone is only allowed one fortune per year.  The fortunes range from the worst (daikyou) to the best (daikichi).  

In line waiting on New Year's Day.  Kawagoe, Saitama.
Kawagoe, Saitama
To collect your fortune, you pay the one hundred yen fee.  You then pick up a cylindrical container that is completely sealed shut save for one small hole at one end.  Inside the container are hundreds of long wooden rods with a number at one end.  After shaking the cylinder around and praying for a good fortune, the slip one wooden rod out to see the number.  The number corresponds with a set of drawers that contain the fortunes.  After finding the correct drawer, you open it up and take out your fortune.  If it is good, you keep it with you.  If not, you fold it over several times and tie it on a rack in the shrine to leave it for the gods. Here is a great blog post I found that illustrates this process with photos.

Karl with his Daikichi fortune.
My three years in Japan have yielded only bad fortunes.  Though my husband has always received the best fortunes.  Our Japanese friends tell us that this creates the perfect balance in our relationship. 

Let’s hope they are right!

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Kamakura: Day 2

After finishing our previous day of sightseeing in Kamakura soaked from an afternoon of rain, we were delighted to wake up to a sunny day.  We caught the bus from our Guest House and after having breakfast, explored the biggest and most important shrine in Kamakura: Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gū.

Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu is a beautiful complex surrounded by trees and water.  After walking up the massive staircase, you reach the main shrine.  If you walk behind the shrine to the left side, there is a very small museum.  We paid the small fee to take a look at the few historical relics displayed.  It was well worth it. 

Purifying our hands before entering the shrine.
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