Monday, May 05, 2014

Japan time

Mixed feelings about jet lag. The level of pre-10am productivity was kind of unprecedented; the fog of exhaustion that hits around 3pm (and the awake-for-the-day feeling at 3am) is maybe not the greatest. Since I'm still on Japan time, since my dreams are still set in Japan, some more Japan recommendations:

-Get the rail pass. (Ours was for one week, so once we got to Tokyo, we didn't travel around anymore - a shame, given the interesting places in that area.)

-Accept that if you take one of the trips recommended in Lonely Planet, you'll in effect be on a group tour with the many other Westerners who have what seems to be the only guide book to Japan.

-Go to Kyoto! This part especially.

-Go somewhere in the area (the train trip was so gorgeous), but maybe not Takayama itself. There's a very cool walking path with temples, but the main streets and side streets are touristy-trinkety, and the town's big attraction is a special kind of expensive beef. As in, you'll walk around in search of lunch and there are all these opportunities to spend $50 a person on Hida beef, and end up spending too much of the day wandering around in search of the elusive cheap noodle establishment where you will notice everything on the English-language menu costs more, which you'll know because the Japanese-language one includes photos of the food, but once you've eaten these noodles, what can you do?

-Go to Nara! If only for the deer, and the Buddha, but these two are basically one activity. And be sure to include a spontaneous pre-lunch yakitori skewer. Then get lunch from the train station supermarket.

-In Tokyo, stay in Shibuya. We went with Shinjuku, no recollection why, other than that this was where there was a cheap-enough hotel. From Shibuya, you can walk to Aoyama, Omotesando, Harajuku, maybe even Ebisu or Daikanyama, the Gwyneth-endorsed L.A.-like neighborhood with maybe as many apricot poodles as people. From Shinjuku, you can walk to... other parts of Shinjuku, including an alleged Koreatown less impressive than the one on 32nd Street (or, for that matter, in Edison, NJ), and a nightlife district (the Golden Gai) where you can't actually enter any of the places unless you're a regular. They just look like cafés, not private clubs, so if you're wandering around the hotel looking to get dinner, this can be slightly disconcerting. But wherever you stay, be near a subway or JR line.

-There are (at least) two big fish markets. The famous one, Tsukiji, is kind of complicated - first you read you need to arrive at 4:30am to line up to watch the tuna auction, then that you should really only get there after 9am when they open up more of the market to tourists. Depending where you're at in your jet lag, I suppose, you can take your pick, but if you're not in Tokyo for that long and want to do things other than watch the large-scale selling of fish, you probably want to choose. The market itself (I wasn't up in time for the auction) is quite something (so many types of unusual seafood! so many fish heads to dodge on the ground!), if a weird tourist activity because clearly the men working at the densely-packed space are annoyed at all these tourists getting in the way. I mean, when I shop at a farmers market, I'm annoyed if a tourist is spending an hour taking just the right picture of an asparagus spear I'd like to purchase; these men seemed, rightfully, that much more frustrated.

But the market is clearly meant to draw tourists, given that there's another attached tourist activity, the "outer market" with sushi restaurants (and this random cheese shop, and opportunities to purchase - practical? souvenir? - rainboots like those worn in the market). These you have to line up for, San Francisco-style, to get your "sushi breakfast," which by the time you reach the front of the line will be your sushi lunch. This we did - sashimi-and-rice bowls, technically, and not sushi - but it may not have been worth it. For the same meal but far cheaper and (I'd argue) better, with relatively little wait, you can go to Ameyokocho, which isn't a giant wholesale market, but more like... a Japanese version of Manhattan's Chinatown? Whatever it is, it's fantastic.

-Drink Yebisu, a beer that may or may not be available elsewhere.

-In Kyoto, eat yuba. And just tofu generally.

-Beware the cover charge. Some restaurants have them - or maybe one is to think of these places as bars with food, since this seems to be a thing in bars. This was true in Tokyo and Kyoto, and it can kind of sneak up on you because all it is is, a place tells you, sometimes after you've sat down, ordered, eaten, that oh, by the way, however many yen per person are added to your bill. Not sure how to avoid this, short of buying meals in supermarkets or department-store basements. So, do that, or get someone better-versed in these matters to show you around.

-Buy the pretty skirt you see on the winding Cat Street because you're not going to find anything like it once you're back home. (Oops.)

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