My Japan Travelogue

Jackson He
September 2018


I made two mistakes before setting my feet out of the airport, having arrived in Tokyo Narita in the afternoon of March 18th, and trying to go to Kyoto to meet up with my sister Eva. I intended to take a short flight to Osaka, and from there a train to Kyoto. Google found many such flights before my trip, but then and there flying to Osaka was not an option any more, according to Google. Instead, it instructed me to go to the Tokyo Station, and take Shinkansen, the bullet train, from there. Particularly, it told me to walk to a different terminal to take a bus. I saw no point doing that. There was a row of booths selling bus tickets right where I was. I went to the nearest one, and asked for a ticket to Tokyo Station. The agent told me something about the time, but I didn't quite comprehend. As it turned out, of the many bus companies on this route, this one was to leave relatively late, in about half an hour.

Tokyo station being close to the metropolitan Tokyo population center, even on a Sunday, the congestion on the road was stifling, figuratively speaking. This jotted my mind out of the jet-lag induced semi-coma: I was on a wrong kind of conveyance, going to the wrong place.

Prior to finding the option of flying to Osaka, I found that I could get to Kyoto by train, via Shinagawa, without going through Tokyo Station. I even took a note of it, in an app on my phone. But after 14+ hours in the air, I completely forgot about this.

Inside of the Tokyo Station, I made a series of other mistakes. First, I did not know where to buy a Shinkansen ticket to Kyoto. Most people bought their tickets from vending machines. But I was not comfortable using them, and I did not know which vending machine to use. I found a Shinkansen ticket office, yet I looked for another, because I thought Kyoto, being a famous and important city, must be named on the window among the other cities, which was not the case. After wandering around a lot more, and asking some young people for help, I came back to the same ticketing office. Once there, it was rather uneventful. When I asked the agent whether she spoke English, she shook her head, and said "a little". When people say they understand a little English, that is good enough for me.

The ticket I bought was scarily tiny, especially compared with the bus ticket I bought earlier, and it was unreserved. A reserved seat is only for a particular train, while unreserved ticket is for any train in maybe 24 hours. The agent gave me a booklet of train schedules on this line, but I did not have the stomach to read it just then. I asked her for the next train's number. She answered that. I then asked for the track number, but she did not understand the question. So I went in search of the train. I couldn't find a display showing train numbers. I asked some young people, again in English, and was told that I needed to follow the sign for Shinkansen. I found a railroad staff there, and was directed through a set of turnstiles, not those near him, but ones around a corner. I couldn't tell the difference, but I was in a hurry to catch my train--even though I could take any train, I only knew this one!

Finally I got to my train, but I couldn't just hop on yet. One carriage after another were all marked reserved. I realized that I couldn't just keep on walking. I could easily miss the train, because I didn't know which direction the underserved carriages were located. And I couldn't come up with an easy question to ask for (or gesture) that information. Darn it!

In my hurry, I entered the nearest carriage, which was completely empty but for this one man. I showed him my ticket. He politely told me I was in the wrong carriage, with words but also by pointing to a sign in the train. Well, I knew that. I just couldn't ask him the question I meant to ask. I kept looking at him with the same stare of pathetic confusion, and he said something more, and – very helpfully pointed his finger in the direction behind him. I was ecstatic. I thanked him. I knew how to say arigato. In Japanese the R is pronounced much like an L, and there is no separate L sound. But arigato is not pronounced like alligator at all, not even the British version, if you're wondering.

Coming out of the carriage, I ran with all my might, minding not to bump into anything or person with my luggage behind me. There were easily more than ten reserved carriages in all, but only three undeserved ones. And the unreserved ones were all at one end. I got into the nearest unreserved carriage, breathlessly, barely in time. Unlike the reserved carriage I got into earlier, this one was almost full. And this was the originating station, I thought.

Dusk was fading fast outside the train. I told Eva my ETA. It would be quite late. But she's coming to the Kyoto station to meet me. She assured me that it would be quite safe, even after dark, even for a single woman. I trusted her judgement, since she had been to Japan many times before. Yet I was very touched by her love.

We had a simple dinner in Kyoto Station. She asked our server a question in Japanese, in which I understood two words, namely "English menu". Long ago, in college, I took one year of Japanese, and precious little of it was left in me. But surprisingly the word "English" somehow emerged from nowhere. The word "menu" I've never heard before, but Eva pronounced it much like it is pronounced in English, and our server understood her. This gave me much confidence. Equipped with these two words, and nothing more, I would be able to order food for myself.


The first place we visited in Kyoto is Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a Buddhist temple. Actually, to put it more accurately, Eva was simply showing me around, having been to all the interesting places herself. We passed by some very quiet residential neighborhoods, with some alleys so narrow only one person can pass at a time. Once in a while there were announcement boards, where there were advertisements for candidates standing for an upcoming election.

The alleys became crowded when we got closer to the Kiyomizu-dera temple. Happy women wearing bright-colored kimonos, by themselves or with solemn looking men, abound. Eva told me, quietly in English, that these were obviously tourists. As it turned out, the style of kimonos should go with a person's stage in life. The older a woman gets, the more subdued her kimono should be. The brightest and prettiest kimonos are for young girls. Of course, these tourists, mostly from China, might not know that, and the kimono rental places were most eager to satisfy them.

The tickets for the temple were not expensive, about a couple of US dollars each. But unknown to us, the tickets were only required for the main hall of the temple, which was covered with scaffolding for renovation. We didn't get to see the front of the main hall, but what we did see was of a style that is related to but different from the Buddhist temples in China. Behind the temple, a sign seemed to indicate that there were other temples nearby, but we were not able to find any. What we did find was a graveyard, where many of the graves were marked for families, yet occupying a space smaller than many single-person graves in China. Our guess was that they were only for cremated remains. The temple area had lots of rickshaws, which I mistakenly assumed to be ubiquitous, and consequently failed to take a picture of.

The most impressive places we visited on this trip were the imperial palace and the Nijo castle, within half a mile of each other. The palace is rather modest, with a low outer wall, and not many rooms. I could imagine a ninja scaling the wall with ease. In comparison, the Nijo castle, the Kyoto residence of the first great Shogun, has inner and outer walls each comparable to the ancient city walls in China, and each fitted with a moat dozens of paces wide. Inside, the gates are fancier than those in the palace by far, and there are more rooms than the palace too. This contrast between the palace and the castle illustrates well the relative powers of the emperor and the Shogun. But with Japanese emperors believed to rule by heavenly decree, they were never deposed like their counterparts in China, even when their power was diminished and their wishes ignored.

We also visited Fushimi Inari-taisha (伏见稻荷大社), a famous Shinto shrine, known mostly by the visually impactful torii (鸟居), more than ten thousand strong. The long walks under the torii were awe-inspiring. Each torii is donated by a person, family or organization, for a good wish. There were groups of bigger ones, probably for more money, and smaller ones, and new ones and old ones. The donors’ names and time of donation are marked on the torii, the easier for the gods to recognize and appreciate them.

The other places we visited in Kyoto area include Gion (祇園) and Pontocho (先斗町). Gion is a famous and popular shopping district by day and Geisha neighborhood by night. It was a rainy afternoon when we were there first, and the covered sidewalk was a perfect fixture for some shopping (mostly window-shopping). In the evening we wandered in some smaller alleys, but if it weren't for Eva pointing her out, I would have missed the lone Geisha walking discretely in the twilight, clutching her signature handbag, hurrying towards her appointment. Pontocho is a narrow alley, which is very narrow, and very long. It's for foot traffic only, and there are plenty of restaurants lining the two sides.

Eva and a couple of her friends from Canada introduced me to the highly ritualized and philosophical kaiseki dinner (懐石料理). It is somewhat costly, more than $100 per person, but the experience is priceless. The dinner was of a set menu (from a few choices), with about ten courses, using diverse choice ingredients including fish, meat, vegetables and grains, and cooked in a variety of methods including steaming, frying, boiling, sautéing, searing, pickling, as well as uncooked such as sashimi. Each course was small and delicate, came with unique pretty containers, and with rather bland taste, the better for us to contemplate the innate flavors of the ingredients.


From Kyoto, I took a day-trip to Nara. Again, there were two different train lines going to Nara, and again I took the wrong one. The train took me to Nara Station, while the one I should have taken stops at Kintetsu-Nara Station (近鉄奈良駅), which is much closer to Nara Park, where I wanted to be.

There are two places in Nara Park I wanted to visit. The Todai Ji (东大寺)is one of the earliest and most important Buddhist temples in Japan. Its bronze Buddha is one of the largest in the world. Nearby, the Kasuga Grand Shrine (春日大社) is one of the earliest and most important Shinto shrines in Japan. Unlike in Fushimi Inari, in Kasuga there are many ways one can leave offerings behind, from lamps made of stone or metal, to several kinds of hanging pieces. One of the inner rooms is dedicated to eternal lanterns, each dimly lit to slow down the fuel burn rate. In the park hordes of deer roam about freely, with antlers trimmed, likely for the protection of visitors. Sometimes they nagged people with their snouts, when they perceived that there were foods to be gotten. Supposedly they were messengers to the Supernatural world, but I couldn’t figure out whether they were Buddhist or Shinto messengers.

Lunch in the Nara Park was the first meal I had by myself in Japan, and it brought a most unexpected challenge. I saw this interesting noodle restaurant along the path, small and casual, their simple menu written and illustrated on a large billboard. But to the end of my wits, I couldn't see an entrance to the place. This being rather late for lunch time, no guests were going in or out of it. After wandering around for some time, and against my ingrained habit of many years, I approached the building, which was set off on a foot path of some twenty yards, for a close inspection. As an establishment open to the public, they surely wouldn't mind my doing so, I reasoned. Besides, it was very intriguing to have a conspicuous path that led to no door. Only when my nose was about to come into contact with the building did I realize that the door was right there in front of me! The building was apparently enclosed with wooden panels with large glass panes in the upper part, and the door happened to be one of these panels that could slide open, not automatically but with a gentle push!


Next, I went to Kamakura for an international meeting. The Shinkansen ride was most uneventful, except near the end. The place I was to get off the train was shin-Yokohama (新横浜駅), but when we got close Google Maps started to tell me that I needed to transfer at Sanyo Yokohama, a ridiculous name. But I couldn't quite trust my instinct, and tried to ask a fellow passenger, who was equally puzzled by this. In any case, I transferred successfully from shin-Yokohama to Yokohama, and from there I took a train in the direction of my hotel.

Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that. First, the number of trains to Kamakura was very limited. However, on the same train line, there are many trains to a place called Fujisawa. I looked our hotel up, and found that was actually about equal distance from Kamakura and Fujisawa. So I decided to take a train to Fujisawa instead. Second, my shinkansen ticket gave me free transfer to the metro Yokohama area, yet nobody seemed to know whether Fujisawa was considered a part of it. Several young people encouraged me to just get on, thinking that most likely it was covered. Third, I couldn't quite figure out the track info. When I asked a man in work uniform--OK, asking is a much exaggerated euphemism, as in a hurry, all I could say was the word Fujisawa--, he pointed to a particular escalator. Apparently there was no track info to be displayed, as all people going to the direction of Fujisawa (or any point south) were to take that escalator up, and then look for the correct train pulling up on either side of the platform.

The moment of truth was up at the Fujisawa station, as I was stopped by a set of turnstiles. Thinking back, ever from coming off the shinkansen train at shin-Yokohama, I had not been through a set of turnstiles, where the ticket had to be checked by a machine. Now that I was stopped, I went to the ticketing office by the side, where a man scanned my ticket, and lightheartedly told me that I owe something like ¥300, or about $3. I happily complied, and was let out.

It was raining hard outside, and it was cold and miserable. I was only the third traveler at the taxi stand, but it took more than 40 minutes to get to my turn. Fortunately I read the message from the meeting host ahead of time, and waited for taxi at the Fujisawa station, because while there was a local train from Fijisawa to Shichirigahama (七里ケ浜), a station closer to our hotel, there was no taxi there, and some of my colleagues had to brave the icy-cold rain, mixed with hails, to walk from Shichirigahama to our hotel.

The meeting was nice. The hotel breakfasts were buffets with plenty of choices. The work lunches were delicate in appearances and tastes. During a break Mount Fuji broke out of the clouds that had enveloped it up to then. I ran down to the beach and got this gorgeous picture of it. That was so fortuitous, as Mount Fuji did not once show its face again during our stay.

The most interesting experience I had during my Japan trip was for the social event, when the meeting host treated all of us with a fancy kaiseki dinner. Well, I didn't know it was a kaiseki dinner before getting to the restaurant. But getting there was all excitement.

Due to an upset stomach, I missed the appointed time to meet our colleagues in the hotel lobby. But I knew that I needed to take a train from Shichirigahama station to Kamakura station. I inquired at the front desk how to get to Shichirigahama, and was told that I should take the special elevator down to the conference center, where our meeting was held every day, and walk along a path for some time, and make a couple of turns after that.

This was not your normal elevator. Oh, no. It travels between two places only, for about a minute and half each way, and goes sideways more than up and down. For this particular ride there were two young women in the elevator with me. I couldn't help but notice their mentioning Kamakura in their conversation. I asked them whether they spoke English, and whether they were going to Kamakura. "A little" and "yes" were their answers. I told them that if they didn't mind I’d follow them to Shichirigahama and then Kamakura. They consented. Along the way, I asked what they were. The taller woman had better English skills, but she never said anything about herself. The other woman was a college student, in Yokohama University, studying Early Education, or "teach babies", as they told me.

By this time my colleagues had realized that I was not with them. A colleague from China sent me a message via WeChat. I wrote back to say I was on my way.

Once on the train to Kamakura, I looked for our dinner restaurant, and quickly realized I was in more trouble. The meeting organizers helpfully Romanized the restaurant's name, which Google couldn't figure out. Instead, it gave me a place that was closer to another train station than Kamakura. Well, that could not be right.

Using her own phone, one of the women found a better match, judging from its location in a map. Now the problem was how to get it to my phone, as I was using a US number. I quickly downloaded a Japanese input method onto my phone, which of course I didn't know how to use. I handed my phone to her, who after quite a struggle learned to use it, and got the same place as on her phone.

My colleagues having by now arrived at the restaurant, my friend from China shared his location with me via WeChat. To my great relief, his location matched the location my new friends found for me perfectly.

At the Kamakura station we parted our ways. It's a good thing that I had the location in Google maps, as WeChat did not do navigation. I told Google to show me the way, and Google, being extra helpful, told me that the restaurant was closed! Well, closed or not, I was going. In about 10 minutes, I was there. Almost. The restaurant was not directly on the street, and I walked past the small alley that led to its entrance. I came back, and again I missed it. On the third try I saw this colleague from China smoking a cigarette in an alley. Hooray! I arrived! After seeing a picture of the young women and me, my colleagues wondered why I chose to have dinner with them!


Arriving in Tokyo on a Saturday, I went to see the Imperial Gardens. But before finding it, I was informed by a friend that the Imperial Palace was about to open for the first day of the sakura season. I was told to look for the line of visitors and join them. Well, there weren't any, at least for the first few minutes. Because of this timely intelligence I was able to get through security in about half an hour, while it's not uncommon for people to wait up to for hours to get in. But the tour, centered on the theme of cherry blossom on the Imperial Palace grounds, with on a straight route in and out of the palace grounds, with nary a glimpse of the emperor's residence. With such a density of visitors, it was not worth the effort to go through the security.

With and without my friend, I enjoyed cherry blossom in a few parks. This was a very popular event, with people in droves, either with family or with friends or both, wandering around taking pictures, and taking picnics either on the grass, or if not available, on either side of a paved road (inside the park).

I happened upon the graduation of Hosei University (法政大学). I was fascinated by the way the young women partly covered their kimonos, including the knots on their kimonos, with fancy pieces of clothes. To my eyes, the clothes looked pretty from the front, but not so much from the back. My friend asked a few beautiful young women whether they'd mind being in a picture with me, and they happily complied.

A long time ago my grandfather studied in an arts school that eventually became Tokyo University of the Arts (東京藝術大学), in Ueno (上野), which was one of the places I wanted to visit. But the university was closed to visitors, except for a graduation exhibition, housed in a building on the south campus. Unfortunately the path to the exhibition building was very short, and everything else on the campus was off limits. We talked to the guard to inquire if I could see a little of the north campus as well, but he was not moved by a guy looking for his grandparent's long faded footsteps. This being a Sunday, I asked whether the campus would be open to visitors on the following day. No, he said, that would be their graduation day.

So I went again the next day. There were happy people galore, mostly at the entrance to the north campus, waiting in lines to take pictures with the two plaques of the university. Happy parents holding cameras, and happy and beautiful young people holding and wearing flowers. Without the help of my friend, there wasn't much possibility for in-depth discussion. I wandered around the north campus somewhat, but seeing that all the parents and graduates were congregated around the few buildings near the entrance, I didn't feel prudent to go deep inside. Besides, I didn't know what the school was like in the eyes of my grandfather, and consequently had no particular buildings or places to visit.

One other thing I looked for in Tokyo was Zen Gardens. This was nearly a mission impossible, as the Chinese translation of the words Zen Gardens turned out to be Buddhist Gardens, not quite the same thing. After a few failed attempts I did some research, and came to this understanding: in Chinese (and Japanese), the term to use is 枯山水, literally "dried mountain and water", or ossified scenery; and the vast majority of these, including all the best known ones, are in the Kyoto area. What a bummer! The best Zen Garden we could find in the Tokyo area was in Hotel New Otani, where a garden half way up a hill nicely packaged many traditional Japanese garden elements in a small area. It was a work of art, an oasis in a big and noisy metropolis.


Japan posed an interesting challenge to me linguistically. Most signs in Japan are bilingual. I found that Japanese, particularly the kanji portions of it, was in most cases easy for me to understand. Some might take a little effort, as the kanji, nominally "Han" characters, is not always used in the same way as in Chinese. For example, the word for vegetables is 野菜, which in Chinese literally means wild vegetables. But that's not a big deal. One gets used to that quickly.

The problem is that kanji is usually pronounced in a very different way than in Chinese, usually with more syllables. Therefore, the shared characters are only fit for written communications, and to communicate verbally one is much better off using English. The place names are transliterated and easily understood, as well as many nouns. For example, our meeting hotel is called Kamakura Prince Hotel. Its Japanese name is not a translation, but a transliteration, even though all three words have Japanese counterparts. This is a very good thing. One can pronounce the hotel name, possibly with a rising tone as a question marker, without any additional grammatical elements, and be directed to the hotel by any Japanese!

Overall, Japan felt like a very safe place to visit. Not only in terms of one's person and property, but also in terms of food and water. I never felt the need for bottled water. Meals in a noodle shop for a few dollars were as safe as food in a fancy restaurant. My friend did warn me about some small joints near Ueno train station, though.

Credit card was not as widely accepted as in the US. Getting cash was also a problem. Most ATMs didn't accept international cards. Even in a popular place like Kyoto Station, I was directed to a 7-11 to withdraw cash.

Now that I've been there once, I feel I can do Japan. I look forward to my next opportunity.