Category Archives: Japan

Japan’s Top World Heritage Sites

Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto

I haven’t been to all of Japan’s 21 UNESCO World Heritage sites, but they’re on my list. Kyoto, of course, is king, with an astounding 17 locations that make up the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto World Heritage Site. But Japan’s World Heritage sites are varied and vast, with a list that includes villages, islands, ancient shrines and temples, mountains, a castle, a silver mine and even a bombed-out shell of a building that serves as a somber reminder of Hiroshima’s 1945 atomic blast. What follows are my reviews of Japan’s top World Heritage sites, based on my 30-some years traveling around Japan as author of various Frommer’s guides, including Frommer’s Japan. Whereas some sites are worth seeing if you’re in the vicinity (such as Tokyo’s Museum of Western Art, designed by Le Corbusier and added to the list in 2016), most are worth going out of your way for. And some are so spectacular they’re worth the trip to Japan just to see them.

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Hakone Best Overnight Excursion from Tokyo

Mt. Fuji

Hakone is my favorite overnight trip outside Tokyo, but it’s also a great destination if you’re looking for something to do between Tokyo and Kyoto. Located in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, it’s a well-trodden path for the fearful, yet just adventuresome enough for the intrepid. Traveling Hakone by mountain tram, cable car, ropeway and boat, the journey has everything you might wish for: beautiful mountain scenery, historic sites, great museums, kitsch, and hot-spring resorts. In fact, the entire circular trip is so much fun, I’ve probably traveled this route more a dozen times over the past 30-some years. Sometimes if I’m lucky, I even catch glimpses of Mt. Fuji.

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Places to Visit Between Tokyo and Kyoto

PLACES TO VISIT BETWEEN TOKYO AND 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, there are several places to visit between Tokyo and Kyoto that make 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. In clear weather, you might even be able to see Mt. Fuji.

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 or Sunday, you can also see geisha performing traditional dance at Atami Geiga Kenban theater 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 and the Tokugawa Art Museum with its samurai gear, decorative arts and other objects that once belonged to the first Tokugawa shogun, plus its Tokugawaen Japanese garden. The Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology depicts 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. In fact, Museum Meiji Mura is one of my favorite museums in Japan.

 

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Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul

The Japanese tea ceremony might seem like a simple thing, but as with most things Japanese, it is anything but. In fact, developed to free the mind and soul of worry and thought, it’s a highly choreographed ritual that takes years to learn. Samurai used it to clear their minds during long war campaigns. Aristocracy used it as a form of relaxation. Housewives learn it to round out their education. Businessmen take it up as a way to escape the rigors of business. Simply put, the Japanese tea ceremony soothes the soul, but it also demands patience, discipline and dedication. One of my first experiences with the seemingly simple procedure occurred years ago, when a woman I met at a budget Japanese inn asked whether she could serve me tea as a way to practice what she’d learned. As she went through the many steps, apologizing for being such an amateur, I asked how long she’d been studying. Only seven years, she replied. As far as she was concerned, she had much to learn.

Nothing is left to chance in a Japanese tea ceremony. The way the charcoal is lit, the placement of the tea utensils, the selection of the tea bowl based on the seasons, even the vocabulary–all is strictly proscribed. With time, the movements and the ceremony become fluid, allowing thoughts to flow freely from one step to the next.

Read more about how the Japanese Tea Ceremony soothes the soul in my article, Bucket List: Japanese Tea Ceremony, published July 2017 in Global Traveler.

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Ise-Shima Famous for Japan’s Most Revered Shrine and Female Divers

Ise Shima National Park2Ise-Shima National Park is home to Japan’s most famous Shinto shrine, making it a top destination for Japanese for centuries. Its ragged coastline, protected bays and many islands make it also optimal for the cultivation of pearls and as a habitat for many sea creatures. Women living in fishing villages have been free-diving for edibles for centuries; some have opened rustic restaurants for visitors wishing to learn more about their lives. Easily reached from Osaka or Nagoya, Ise-Shima is worth getting off the beaten track for its beauty, history and attractions geared toward families.

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Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto

Every first-timer to Japan should see Tokyo and Kyoto, but there’s so much more to explore. From the beaches of Okinawa to the rugged mountains of Hokkaido’s national parks, Japan has enough to keep travelers busy for a lifetime. I myself have been traveling around Japan for more than 30 years and have been to more than 60 cities and towns, mostly while writing and updating Frommer’s Japan. But there are countless places I haven’t yet seen.

I have, however, visited all the destinations cited in this advertorial I wrote on Japan that appeared in the March issue of Conde Nast Traveler. Even so, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Conde Nast Advertorial

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John Lennon in Karuizawa

Karuizawa's main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa’s main shopping street is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes

Karuizawa, nestled in wooded hills only an hour’s ride away from Tokyo, has a reputation as a destination for the wealthy, many of whom have summer homes and come to escape the capital’s sweltering heat. So during my trip there a few months ago, I was surprised to find Karuizawa laid back and rather unpretentious. There’s money there, of course, but in the same low-key way that there’s also money in Aspen or the Hamptons.

In any case, there was something about Karuizawa that attracted John Lennon, together

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon's favorite cafe

This photograph of John Lennon hangs in the French Bakery, Lennon’s favorite cafe

with Yoko Ono and their son Sean, back year after year. Indeed, they spent the last four summers of John’s life in Karuizawa, ensconced in the historic but modest Mampei Hotel. I like to think he could spend his days like any other visitor, riding his bike to his favorite bakery, joining friends in Mampei’s bar, walking down Karuizawa’s main street unencumbered by adoring fans. Of course, just being a Westerner–and a tall one at that–would have made him hard to miss. But moneyed Japanese would have respected his privacy even if they knew who he was, just as they did with the many politicians, members of the Imperial family and other celebs in town.

One cafe is infamous for having refused to serve John Lennon, with word on the street that it was probably because the musician’s long hair made him look like a hippie. But maybe he got a kick out of that, too, being so anonymous that a waiter wouldn’t serve him. Maybe that’s why Bill Gates has a summer home here, too.

I wrote Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko, published in www.gonomad.com

Karuizawa, Japan: In the Footsteps of John and Yoko

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Hiraizumi 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

The Pure Land Garden in Hiraizumi

 

Most of Japan’s history–skirmishes and wars between feudal lords, legends surrounding ancestors of the Imperial Family, even the location of its capitals–played out on the southwestern end of the main island of Honshu, so it’s not surprising that most of its historic sights and World Heritage sites are also found there. But in Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu, Hiraizumi is a town I very much would have wanted to visit if I had been alive in 12th-century Japan. It was created as a Buddhist heaven on earth, a place of sprawling temples, pagodas, sutras, gardens and quarters for hundreds of monks. It lasted only 100 years before being sacked by the man who would go on to become shogun over the land, but Hiraizumi’s influence on Japan was tremendous. This article I wrote for BBC.com/travel, A Pure Land Inspired by Treachery, tells why.

 

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Kume & Kobe Refound

Kume Island

Kume Island

Thanks to the Internet, I keep finding magazine and newspaper articles I wrote before the Internet was either born or publications didn’t publish additionally online. That’s fun, because those old clippings are yellow and worn, slowly changing to dust.

Kobe Reborn, published in The Rotarian in 2003 in advance of the Rotarian convention in Osaka, describes how Kobe had changed and grown since its horrific 1995 earthquake in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives.

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Kobe is one of Japan’s oldest international ports and most cosmopolitan cities

Japanese Island is Beauty of the Sea, published in the Los Angeles Times July 14 1985, is about Kume in the Okinawa archipelago, which I had the chance to revisit in 2008 ago and found remarkably still unchanged and undeveloped. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include the photographs I took for the article, which would have been slides I sent via snail mail.

Man, we’ve come a long way.

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Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

Staff await at the entry hall of Hoshinoya Tokyo, ready to deposit my shoes in the decorative cabinets lining the hallway to the left

A couple of months ago I was in Tokyo and had the opportunity to stay in two new properties that had opened in 2016. One was contemporary and the other very Japanese. You stay in them for completely different reasons.

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

A room at Hoshinoya Tokyo

Hoshinoya Tokyo is Tokyo’s most posh Japanese inn, a modest-looking low-rise amidst the office high-rises of Otemachi not far from Tokyo Station. But inside it’s an oasis of calm tranquility, with soothing traditional decor like tatami flooring and shoji paper screens. On the roof is a hot-spring bath, a rarity in downtown Tokyo, while on each guest floor is a lounge where attendants pour tea, answer questions and provide individualized service. My room was

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

My breakfast at Hoshinoya Tokyo

gigantic, with a raised platform bed, a table and chairs (where my wonderful Japanese breakfast was served) and a resting area. But because I could plainly see people in surrounding offices, I felt like I was in a fishbowl. I was assured that even though I could see them, my windows prevented them from seeing me. A shy exhibitionist’s fantasy, perhaps, but I opted to keep my shoji closed. Still, whereas you used to have to leave Tokyo to have a Japanese inn experience of this caliber, the Hoshinoya Tokyo now means you can be pampered in true Japanese fashion without leaving town.

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

My room at Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

What a change, then, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho in Akasaka! Here it’s all about the views, with expansive windows from the lobby, the bar, restaurants and my room providing dreamy panoramas of the capital. My room faced over Akasaka Palace toward Shinjuku, with a window-side sofa where I drank coffee every morning. Because of a glass-walled bathroom, I could have looked at Tokyo even from my tub (I haven’t a clue why this architectural design is so popular nowadays), but of course I didn’t, instead opting for the button that made those glass walls opaque.

You can read more about these hotels in my reviews published in Global Traveler here:

Hoshinoya Tokyo and Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

View of Akasaka Palace from my room at Prince Gallery

 

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Japan’s Koban–Public Relations Ambassadors

A Police Box in Ginza

A Police Box in Ginza

Because Japan’s crime rate is very low compared to most other countries, the police officers I see in Japan are not apprehending criminals or breaking up fights. Instead, their main duty seems to be giving directions to lost souls. I myself have been that lost soul on many occasions, but because of Japan’s complicated address system and twisting narrow streets, there are plenty of lost Japanese souls as well. What makes police officers so handy for providing directions is the Japanese system of placing tiny police boxes, called koban, in strategic locations in towns and cities throughout Japan. There are more than 800 koban in Tokyo alone, manned by officers who know their districts like the backs of their hand. It’s kind of like having a tourist office in every neighborhood.

Unlike in most cities in the United States where police officers generally roam the streets in police cars, which physically separates them from the general public, Japanese police officers patrol their neighborhood on foot or on bicycle, making them highly visible to the public. They often stop to chat with local residents. They know which shops have closed and which restaurants have newly opened. Just mention the name of your destination, and they’ll probably know exactly where it is. If not, they have maps on hand to send you on your way.

Police Box, Ueno Park

Police Box, Ueno Park

Most koban are very tiny, with only a front room equipped with a desk and a back room. Some are architecturally appealing, either because of historic features or because they were designed to complement the surrounding neighborhood. I was able to see the interior of a koban—nope, I wasn’t arrested!—when I visited the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum on the outskirts of Tokyo. Among its many thatched farmhouses, traditional Japanese- and Western-style residences, shops and other structures dating from the mid-1800s to the 1940s was a brick koban from the Meiji Period (1868-1912) that used to stand beside the Manseibashi Bridge in Kanda. An employee dressed in period police clothing was in the front room, presumably to give directions to lost souls on museum grounds. The back room contained a small tatami area so that police could rest in shifts.

I know that police officers must attend to duties like helping someone locate a lost pet, arbitrating a dispute, or taking down information regarding lost or stolen property, but most of the time they seem to be waiting just for you and to point you in the right direction.

And by the way, if you get lost looking for the Edo-Tokyo Open air Architectural Museum or the bus that will take you back to the station, you can get guidance on the main street near the museum’s entrance—at a koban, of course.

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

Meiji-Era Koban at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum

 

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A Face in the Crowd

My first morning in Japan took place more than three decades ago, but I remember it vividly because of an unexpected act of kindness. Shouldering my backpack, I was making my way from my Tokyo hotel to Shinagawa Station, a sea of people streaming past me on their way to work. A soft, wet snow was falling from the gray sky.

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Meiji Dori/Omotesando Dori intersection in Harajuku

Suddenly, a woman appeared at my side and fell in sync with my stride, holding her umbrella aloft to shelter me from the cold snow. We walked like that all the way to the station, where, to my surprise, she whipped a towel from her bag and proceeded to dry my wet hair. My Japanese back then was limited to phrases like “Where’s the bathroom?” so all I could manage was a polite arigato. But my guardian angel’s job wasn’t over yet. She helped me find the Yamanote Line bound for Tokyo Station, and, finally satisfied, sent me on my way.

Over the years I have been the recipient of so many acts of kindness I have to wonder whether it’s because people in Japan are so nice or whether it’s because I’m so inept (if I didn’t get lost so often, I wouldn’t need so much help!). Strangers have gone out of their way to deliver me to my destination, made telephone calls on my behalf, helped me choose meals from indecipherable menus, and showered me with small gifts.

But no one stands out in my memory as much as that woman who took me under wing that very first day. I was excited to be in a new foreign country, nervous about finding my way, tired from the long flight, and feeling just a tad lonely in the sea of unfamiliar faces. Of course, she didn’t know any of these things when she stepped up to help. I was just a face in the crowd, but when she left me, I no longer felt quite the stranger in a very strange land. Over the years, I’ve tried to pass it forward.

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Hotel Reviews in Forbes Travel Guide

Imperial Hotel

Imperial Hotel

I don’t even want to think about how many hotel rooms I’ve stayed in and/or inspected during my decades writing guide books. With time, it becomes hard to come up with yet another way to describe a Japanese business hotel or nondescript motel, so when a property stands out in some way–even a bad way–the writing is much easier. Like the Japanese hotel with hallway carpeting so outrageously colorful I suggested it might be worth springing for a room on the more subdued executive floor. Or the hotel elevator with such psychedelic wallpaper that I surmised it might give some guests a flashback.

But then there are hotels like the Imperial Hotel, Tokyo, and the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, which stand out for other reasons, including great rooms, impeccable service and great locactions. I’ve covered both hotels for years in my Frommer’s guides. Recently, I also wrote reviews of the Imperial and the spa at the Four Seasons for Forbes Travel Guide.

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Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi

What I find most interesting about the Imperial is its long history, first built in 1890 to accommodate foreign visitors and redesigned in 1923 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Regrettably, the entire hotel was demolished and rebuilt in 1970, with a 31-story tower added in 1983. Now you have to go to the architectural museum Meiji Mura, located outside Nagoya, to see the facade and lobby of Wright’s handsome brick hotel. But the Imperial has a great location, near the Imperial Palace and Ginza and across from leafy Hibiya Park. And although it’s a rather large hotel, with more than 1,000 rooms, its staff is one of the best around. The lobby can buzz with groups and activity, but the concierge does a great job answering questions, making dinner reservations and helping wayward souls.

In contrast, the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi is an intimate property, with only 57 rooms and a spa that offers a traditional hot-spring bath and two treatment rooms with a surprising number of options. Its location is also superb, between Tokyo Station and Ginza.

You can’t go wrong staying at either hotel. In fact, Tokyo has so many great hotels, I wish I could try all of them.

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel at Meiji Mura

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A Fan of Japanese Fans

The warm summer months are almost upon us, which reminds me of the first time I saw a Japanese woman cooling herself with a fan, and instantly I knew: I want one of those!

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Fans for sale at Oriental Bazaar in Tokyo

Over the years I’ve acquired a modest collection of Japanese fans, some of them purchased in souvenir shops, some given to me as presents, some passed out free by companies as advertisements. While I appreciated their practicality and their beauty, it wasn’t until I visited the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts that I also grew to appreciate the work and skill that goes into crafting the slats of wood that form the ribs, producing the paper, and painting the designs that grace the very best.

No one knows exactly how the idea of fans originated (though my money is on a middle-aged woman experiencing her first hot flash), but the Chinese were using flat, rigid fans by the 2nd century B.C. and exported their invention to Japan some time around the 7th century, whereupon the Japanese improved on the concept by inventing the folding fan. Before long, folding fans, made of cypress ribs covered with parchment, evolved from being merely functional to becoming an essential accessory, the rage of the Heian court (794-1192). As the centuries passed, they also assumed an importance in Shinto religious ceremonies, dances, the tea ceremony, and theatrical arts.

Today, Japanese fans range from inexpensive souvenirs to handmade, exquisitely crafted folding fans that can cost well over $500. For me, however, fans remain mostly a means to stay cool (I don’t use much air conditioning at home), and I keep my collection handy to pass out to visiting friends. I also keep one in my purse, and when I pull it out to fan myself in line at the post office, at an outdoor concert, or a baseball game, someone will invariably turn to me and say: “I wish I had one of those!”

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A Hakodate Stopover

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

Commodore Perry in Hakodate

More than a quarter of a century ago, it used to be a long haul to travel from Tokyo to Hakodate, long considered the gateway to Hokkaido. After traveling the better part of a day by train to the tip of Honshu island, you then had to board a ferry for the 4-hour journey onward to Hakodate. I always thought the ferry was a fun change from the usual train travel, though there were also times when all I wanted was to get to my Hakodate stopover as quickly as possible and settle into my hotel. Then, in 1988, the Seikan Tunnel opened for business, with an underwater rail line between Honshu and Hokkaido cutting travel time from Tokyo to Hakodate to about six hours.

Now, of course, 1988 seems quaintly ancient. Last month the Hokkaido Shinkansen made its debut, linking Tokyo and Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in just a little more than four hours. Heck, you could almost do Hakodate on a day trip! But while the Hokkaido Shinkansen is good news for Hokkaido, I’m not so sure it’s great for Hakodate. For one thing, Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station is not actually in Hakodate itself but rather a 20-minute train ride away. Furthermore, the Hokkaido Shinkansen will eventually be extended all the way to Sapporo, with an expected completion sometime around 2030.  In other words, long gone are the days when Hakodate was about as far as you could get in a day’s journey from Tokyo. Bypassed by the Shinkansen, it is also no longer the gateway to Hokkaido. My guess is that many visitors will literally pass it by. And that’s a shame, because Hakodate is a great stopover destination.

Motomachi, Hakodate

Motomachi, Hakodate

In addition to a famous nighttime attraction and an early morning must-see, Hakodate boasts historic districts I love to explore. Indeed, with its old-fashioned streetcars, waterfront brick warehouses now housing restaurants and shops, and broad sloping streets lined with turn-of-the-20th-century Western-style clapboard homes, former embassies and churches, Hakodate retains the atmosphere of a frontier port town. Maybe that’s why more than 60 movies have been filmed here in as many years. For young Japanese, Hakodate is irresistibly romantic.

One of the most romantic spots is atop Mount Hakodate, 1,100 feet high and accessible from the city center in just three minutes via cable car. Although the view of Hakodate’s lights shimmering like jewels on black velvet is impressive, what I most like about the experience is the camaraderie among viewers and the collective oohs and ahs of arriving newcomers (take note: it’s chilly at the top, even in August).

The next morning I always get up early to walk through the morning market, convenientlyDSCN0178 located right next to Hakodate Station and famous for its huge crabs. Motomachi, with its churches, former administrative buildings, and vintage homes, is another great place for a stroll, as is the nearby warehouse district with its shopping and dining opportunities. If time permits, you might also wish to take in the Museum of Northern Peoples with its Ainu artifacts; Goryokaku, a park famous for its cherry trees and 150-year-old star-shaped fort; and the hot-spring baths in Yunokawa. There’s also the Seikan Ferry Memorial Mashu-maru, which chronicles the history of ferry transportation between Honshu and Hokkaido from 1908 to 1988.

Although traveling by train is unquestionably faster, I sometimes miss the days of the ferry, when unpredictable weather patterns, vistas of open seas, and passenger rooms filled with families, noisy tour groups, and business travelers made getting to Hokkaido as much of an adventure as being there. But for romantics who still like traveling the old-fashioned way, there is still ferry service between Aomori and Hakodate. If possible, therefore, I suggest arriving in Hokkaido by ferry. Save the futuristic-looking bullet train for the trip back.

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Cherry Blossoms in Japan’s North

DSCN2363There are lots of countries that celebrate spring, but I’ve never been in a country that embraces it so heartily as in Japan. The changing seasons find expression in about everything in Japan, influencing its cuisine, the kimono, artwork gracing a room, haiku and festivals.

The cherry blossom season, which begins in Okinawa and then Kyushu and subsequently races northeast in a glorious fanfare of pink and white flowers, has a tremendous following in Japan, with famous viewing spots throughout the country. But although Kyoto and other destinations are rightfully famous, there are many spots in northern Japan that are equally stunning yet fail to draw international crowds.

This advertorial I wrote for the Japan National Tourism Organization which appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler aims to change that. In any case, international tourism to Japan has increased faster than anyone expected: almost 20 million in 2015 (the goal was 20 million by 2020), more than one million of them from the U.S.

National Geo Ad Feb:Mar 2016 cherry blossoms

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Why Should Aussies have all the Fun?

Japan has long been a mecca for Australians wishing to ski in summer (which in Australia falls during the months of December through February), with Niseko (60 miles southwest of Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido) and Nagano (site of the 1998 Olympics) among the most popular destinations.

With the Japan government’s goal of increasing the number of foreign visitors, it has launched a major campaign around the world, including the United States. This ad I wrote, which appeared in the November issue of Conde Nast Traveler, extols the virtues of winters in Japan, from its ski slopes to its hot-spring spas.

Advertisement in Conde Nast Travler, November 2015

Advertisement in Conde Nast Travler, November 2015

 

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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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Hokkaido Ad in New Yorker

 

Sounkyo in Daisetsuzan National Park

Sounkyo in Daisetsuzan National Park (photo by Beth Reiber)

Hokkaido is Japan’s second-largest island and takes up about 22% of the country’s landmass, and yet it has less than 5% of its population. It’s considered Japan’s last frontier, having been settled by Japanese only after 1868 (though it did have an indigenous people called Ainu, who, like American Indians, were discriminated against and assimilated).

A photo of Lake Akan taken on one of my solo hikes

A photo of Lake Akan taken on one of my solo hikes

In other words, Hokkaido has what the rest of Japan doesn’t have: space. With its dairy farms, expansive fields planted with corn and potatoes, crystal-clear lakes and majestic mountain ranges preserved in national parks, Hokkaido is the place to get away from it all. After all, from what I’ve experienced, foreigners flock to Kyoto and other cultural hotspots in Honshu, while Japanese tend to stick to the tried and true, whether it’s a popular hiking trail or a famous scenic mountain top. For that reason, getting off the beaten trail is easy in Japan, and I’ve had some wonderful day hikes all over the country without ever meeting another soul, but nowhere is that easier than in Hokkaido.

This ad I wrote, appearing in the August 10/17 2015 edition of the New Yorker, extols some of Hokkaido’s virtues, though it doesn’t cover nearly enough. For that, you’ll just have to buy a guide book (like my Frommer’s Japan) or go to the Japan National Tourist Organization website.

Hokkaido Advertorial 1

 

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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.

Ginza

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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