Tag Archives: Japan

Osaka is No Tokyo, and Doesn’t Want to Be

Osaka Castle is the city's most iconic landmark

Osaka Castle is the city’s most iconic landmark

It’s no secret that there’s a long-standing rivalry between Osaka and Tokyo. In fact, after hearing people debate which city is better, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion. Rather, I like to think both cities and their inhabitants have their unique selling points. It’s like comparing New York to LA. What’s the point?

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

The Grand Front Osaka, next to Osaka Station, is a huge complex containing a hotel, offices, shops and restaurants, plus plenty of green spaces

In recent years, Osaka has been spiffing up its image and its urban landscape, most notably around Osaka Station and the Tennoji/Abeno districts. This article I wrote for Global Traveler, Discover the Hip Business Ambience of Modern Osaka, describes some of these recent developments, as well as some of the most notable differences between Osaka and Tokyo. Most peculiar: Tokyoites stand on the left side of a moving escalator while Osakans queue on the right. In fact, so much is this difference ingrained in the national psyche, that The Japan Times ran an article on April 1, 2015, about a new city ordinance that would require all Osakans to stand on the left to avoid confusion.

It was, of course, an April Fool’s Joke. Osakans wouldn’t stand for it.

Japan's tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

Japan’s tallest building (for now), the 50-story Abeno Harukas contains this observatory on its top floors.

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Tokyo Woos Tourists, Business Entrepreneurs

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

View of Tokyo toward Tokyo Bay

Tokyo’s working climate has changed dramatically since Debbie Howard came to Japan in 1985 and subsequently set up her own market research company. Japan was on top of the world back then, and most Japanese seemed content with their own products and way of doing business. But the 1992 economic bubble burst made it painfully clear that Japan could no longer live without joining the global market. The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown was a wake-up call that Japan also needed international tourists.


The Ginza

After launching an aggressive campaign to increase the number of international tourists to Japan, 2014 brought the largest number of foreign visitors ever, 13 million compared to 8.6 million in 2010. Japan’s goal is to have 20 million visitors by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympic summer games.

Tokyo is also opening itself to foreign investors by creating economic incentives and providing assistance with complicated paperwork. All this and more is in my article Tokyo Focuses On A Successful Future appearing in the June issue of Global Traveler.

Young girl in New Otani Hotel's garden

Young girl in New Otani Hotel’s garden

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Lodging in Japan

Ah, sleep. Does it matter where we do it? Absolutely!

Every country has its share of unique lodging opportunities, from castles and manors in England to eco-lodge treehouses in South America.

In Japan, there are the usual luxury hotels (though there’s nothing usual

The Unzen Kanko Hotel opened in 1935

The Unzen Kanko Hotel opened in 1935

about the wealth of decor and degree of polished service) and mainstream tourist hotels. But there are also traditional Japanese inns, Buddhist temples, love hotels (usually rented by the hour but also available for overnight stays), capsule hotels with coffin-sized accommodations, government-owned lodges in national parks and more.

Information on these and others, as well as where to go for more information, is the focus of my article Japan Lodging: Inns, Temples, Luxury Hotels and More in IndependentTraveler.com.

The Conrad Tokyo provides mesmerizing views of Tokyo Bay and Hama Rikyu Garden from many of its rooms

The Conrad Tokyo provides mesmerizing views of Tokyo Bay and Hama Rikyu Garden from many of its rooms

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12 Best Experiences in Japan

There’s so much to do in Japan, you could write a book about it! But it seems lists are big these days.

The five best luxury hotels in Hong Kong. The best national parks in the U.S. The best beaches in the world.

Here’s my contribution to the world of lists: The 12 Best Japan Experiences, published February 2014 in IndependentTraveler.com. Japanese cuisine, the Buddhist temples of Mt. Koya, biking across the Shimanami Kaido, the art island of Naoshima, hot-spring baths and more are on the list. But seriously, it should be The 100 Best Japan Experiences.

Naoshima combines scenic beauty with cutting-edge art

Naoshima combines scenic beauty with cutting-edge art

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Update on Himeji Castle

A reader asked about the progress being made on Himeji Castle’s restoration, which I wrote about in a previous post published Nov 3, 2011. The reader wanted to know whether it was worth visiting the castle in mid-March, so I thought it pertinent to give an update for people traveling to Japan this year. This was my reply (which appears under the Nov 3 post):

It looks like mid-March is not an opportune time to visit Himeji Castle. The special viewing platform (Egret’s View) allowing visitors to see restoration work up close and personal was taken down January 14. As of now, the scaffolding is being taken down piece by piece, with completion slated for August at the earliest. And the main keep (tower) that has been covered up for the past few years is closed to the public until March 27 of this year.
There are other parts of the castle open to the public, however, and some of the keep may be visible by the time of your visit. You can follow the progress of the work being done by Kajima, the construction doing the renovation, at: http://www.kajima.co.jp/tech/himeji_castle/index-j.html
It’s in Japanese, but I find the videos fascinating.
So I guess it depends on your own interests. There is certainly plenty to see, but mid-March might be a disappointment if your main interest is the outside view of the castle of seeing the inside of the main keep.


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Kobe’s Chinatown

This article on Kobe’s Chinatown appeared in the October issue of Skyward, Japan Airlines’ domestic magazine.

Kobe’s Slice of China

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Places to Visit Between Tokyo & Kyoto

You can zip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the Shinkansen bullet train in about 2 ½ hours. But if you have more time on your hands, these are my picks for easy day or overnight trips along the way. Depending on your interest, you can see castles, shrines, gardens, hot-spring baths, panoramic views of Mt. Fuji, and museums showcasing everything from samurai armor and decorative arts to century-old architecture.

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Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park: Gateway to a national park at the foot of Mt. Fuji, Odawara is where you disembark the bullet train for a delightful circuitous route via mountain railway, cable car, ropeway and sightseeing bus through verdant mountainous countryside. Along the way you can visit a reconstructed castle, soak in hot springs (Hakone Kowakien Yunessun offers outdoor and indoor baths), ramble the landscaped grounds of the Hakone Open-Air Museum with its 400-some sculptures, and learn how restrictive travel was during the days of the shogun at Hakone Check Point by visiting a reconstructed guardhouse. Although you could conceivably complete the journey in a long day, you’ll get more from the experience if you stay overnight in one of Hakone’s many Japanese inns or in the majestic Fujiya Hotel, established in 1878.

Atami: This seaside town makes for a relaxing day trip, especially if your goal is the beach and boardwalk just a 15-minute walk from the station. There are, however, a few sightseeing options, including the hilltop MOA Art Museum with panoramic views, woodblock prints, Chinese ceramics, lacquerware and other Asian art, and Kiunkaku, a 1919 villa with a mix of Japanese and Western architecture. If you time your visit on a Saturday and Sunday, you can also see geisha performing traditional dance at Atami Geisha and even have your photo taken with one of the performers.

Nagoya: Japan’s fourth-largest city was largely destroyed during World War II, but its castle figures so prominently in history, it was resurrected almost exactly as it was and houses feudal-era swords, flintlocks, paintings on sliding doors and screens and other treasures. Other major draws include the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium; the Tokugawa Art Museum with its samurai gear, decorative arts and other objects that once belonged to the first Tokugawa shogun; and the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology where you can follow the historic progression of the company’s automobile and textile production. If time allows, visit the Museum Meiji Mura with its 60-some buildings and structures from the Meiji Period (1868-1912), including Western- and Japanese-style homes, government buildings, churches, a kabuki theater and the original façade and lobby of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.


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The Wolverine comes to Japan

Although I have seen Iron Man movies (thanks to my sons, though how hard is it to watch anything with Robert Downey Jr. in it?), I’m not much of a superhero fan.

When asked to write a review for The Wolverine, however, I became interested in seeing the new movie when it comes out July 26, for several reasons. Foremost, it was filmed in Japan (as well as a studio in Australia), both in Tokyo and a rural fishing village. I especially like movies set in Tokyo, because it’s something of a game for me to identify exactly where scenes were filmed. Second, it’s more of a character study than the usual action-packed, adrenaline-laced superhero film, with Japan serving as a metaphor for Logan’s tormented soul. Anyway, here’s my review, on the Japan National Tourism Organization’s website.

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AAA Promotes “Affordable Japan” tour with my Articles

AAA is offering a guided tour of Japan, which I think is great (Japan still needs tourists, even two years after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant fiasco devastated the Tohoku coast and sent the economy into a tailspin). This tour will take in Tokyo and Kyoto, plus a stop in Hakone along the way. You can read more about the tour in AAA Traveler’s March/April 2013 issue in my article, The Many Faces of Japan. (Well, maybe; you have to enter a zip code for Northern CA, Utah or Nevada; try 89501 for Reno).

In the same issue’s emag is my spread on Japanese baths and etiquette in Japan called Getting into Hot Water.

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The Adachi Museum’s Picture-Perfect Views

I’m sitting here in my home office, looking out the window at bare trees, neighborhood houses, and a drab winter landscape, but I know of a museum in Japan that has picture-perfect views from its windows every season of the year. The Adachi Museum, in Shimane Prefecture, blows me away every time I lay eyes on its masterpieces.

To be sure, its collection of contemporary Japanese paintings from the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras is top class, with approximately 200 works on display at any given time, shown on a rotating basis in four annual exhibitions that change with the seasons. The museum boasts the world’s largest collection of works by Taikan Yokoyama, credited with harmonizing European and traditional Japanese painting styles, with at least 20 of his works forming the backbone of every exhibition. I especially like his landscapes, with “Autumn Leaves” and paintings of Mt. Fuji among my favorites. The museum also supports emerging artists by displaying their contemporary Japanese-style paintings (nihonga) in an annex.

The main garden incorporates background hills

The main garden incorporates background hills

But what sets the Adachi Museum apart are its stunningly beautiful gardens, which perfectly complement the seasonal exhibitions and are visible throughout the museum through cleverly crafted windows. The effect is surreal, as though the framed landscapes themselves are works of art, a scroll, or even a Taikan Yokoyama painting. In fact, I consider the gardens here among the top landscaped gardens in Japan.

There are several different types of gardens, many with outdoor viewing platforms, including a tranquil moss garden, a white gravel and pine garden (which recreates Yokoyama’s “Beautiful Pine Beach” painting), and the museum’s main garden, a magnificent dry landscape garden which incorporates distant mountains into its scheme of meticulously pruned pines, boulders, cropped bushes, and gravel designed to resemble a flowing river. Like the museum’s paintings, the gardens change also with the seasons, with azaleas lending their fuchsia colors in spring, the sun’s rays reflecting different shades of green in summer, maples blazing red in autumn, and snow providing a delicate blanket of white in winter.

Windows display views of the garden like a work of art

Windows display views of the garden like a work of art

It all makes my own backyard seem pretty pitiful, but just now, for an instant, I was transported right back to the Adachi Museum as I closed my eyes, conjured up my memories of its gardens, and composed this post.

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