Packed with suitcases within suitcases, the Toyota Highlander swung into San Jose’s Mineta Airport while the Japanese phrases ran through my head. “Nihongo ga dekimasu ka?
Wakarimasen.” Do you speak Japanese? I don’t understand. I was ready! That exhausted my Japanese vocabulary, except for a wide selection of food essentials like mochi, senbei and manju.
My father, an American Military Intelligence Service soldier during World War II, knew it might not be a big plus to teach his kids Japanese. Being Japanese American almost got him locked up in the Tule Lake concentration camp with the rest of his family.
Our Asian American family with wife Twila Tomita, adult daughter Annie Kim, and I took our first trip to Japan this May. None of us spoke the language.
We even decided to skip the safety of a group tour. As my daughter always says, “Come on! It’ll be an adventure.”
Annie flew over from Seoul, Korea, where she now lives, to join us. Did you know that Korea is only about 130 miles from Japan? Unfortunately, Japan occupied Korea (1905-1945), along with much of World War II Asia. It indelibly shaped the region.
Our plan? First stop Tokyo, the largest metropolis in the world with 37 million people! We visited five areas (Tokyo, Takayama, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima/Miyajima Island) spanning 650 miles by train over two weeks.
It surprised us to be constantly surrounded by Asians. “It feels very comfortable here,” Twila said.
Compared to the U.S., Japan is incredibly homogenous. As best as I can figure, only about three percent of Japan’s 127 million residents are minorities, mostly Korean, Chinese, Filipino and Brazilian. It’s hard to tab down since Japan doesn’t track ethnic groups once they become citizens.
Here are a few trip highlights:
• The Grand Sumo Tournament, Twila’s favorite: A day tour in Tokyo to see Japanese-style wrestling where huge men try to knock their opponents out of a ring was a big highlight. We saw dozens of quick matches, listening to English headsets.
Capturing his first championship, 23-year-old, 397-pound sekiwake Terunofuji, a Mongolian, defeated Aoiyama, a Bulgarian. Sumo is international. Terunofuji’s humility, as well as the sumo pageantry, impressed us. Respect, honor and tradition are valued over ego, trash-talking and obliterating opponents.
• Visiting Mark Taguma and the Ninja Asakasa Restaurant: Seeing American friend and Tokyo resident Mark Taguma was a special treat. He graciously hosted us during his busy work day, taking us to the “secret” Ninja Restaurant, patterned after the 15th century assassins, plus sharing his insights on Japan.
It was a fun evening in a mock ninja castle, featuring trapdoors, drawbridges, secret rooms, and even a talented ninja magician. The beautiful throwing star crackers, bonsai tree, mini-unagi eel sushi, and gold bar ryo desserts were amazing.
• Takayama Traditional Village: Our overnight trip to the mountain town of Takayama took us 190 miles by train from Tokyo, viewing picturesque valleys, lush forests and crystal clear streams. The rice fields, seemingly everywhere and some a few hundred square feet, squeezed next to homes.
In Takayama we walked the street of “old town,” filled with ancient homes and temples, interspersed with neat shops and craft stores. Hida Takayama Folk Village represented the country life of the 17th century well. We even found a Tomita house, adorned with wagon wheel crafts. Takayama brought back the familiar images from the samurai movies we had seen.
• Nara Deer Park, Annie’s favorite: Our quick 25-mile day trip from Kyoto to Nara, the first capital of Japan, was a fun one. Some 1,200 tame deer, “messengers of the gods,” freely roam Nara Park. They actually bow to visitors in exchange for deer crackers, shika senbei, that you buy from local vendors. We all had great fun visiting them, though one looking for senbei started chasing Twila.
• Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park: Our all-day tour 230 miles from Kyoto to Hiroshima/Miyajima Island took only 1.5 hours by bullet train. A visit to the park and museum was sobering. Some 140,000 people died, mostly civilians, soldiers, 20,000 Korean slave laborers, and a group of U.S. POWs. It had been the only war atomic bombing in history. Of 11,000 Japanese Americans stuck in Hiroshima during the war, 3,000 survived the bombing, according to the Densho Encyclopedia.
• Japan Snack Scene: Travels with “Snack Master” Annie and devotee Andy always include treats. “Some of the cutest snacks are from Japan,” Annie said.
Some favorites? Fresh roasted, flavored (garlic!) senbei rice crackers from Takayama shops. Ume plum favored potato sticks. Shiso-flavored nigiri rice balls from Tokyo train stations. Kinako mochi (moist, fluffy, tasty) and makizushi packs from 7-Eleven!
When we finished our brief trip, we had gained an appreciation for Japan’s rich culture, history, and society, plus thoroughly enjoyed our fun, family adventure. We highly recommend it.
17 tips for newer Japan travelers
By ANDY NOGUCHI
Newer Japan travelers up for an adventure will be able to explore with a little patience and planning, even without Japanese language skills or a tour group. Here are a few tips from the experiences of my wife Twila Tomita, daughter Annie Kim, and I in our first trip to Japan this May.
1. Talk to friends for travel tips: Recent travelers and non-Japanese speakers were a great resource for us, along with seasoned traveler friends.
2. Use a travel agency to create an itinerary: They’ll helpfully book hotels, flights, local transportation, day tours, and sites with many knowledgeable suggestions. Tomoyo Seo of Kintetsu Travel in San Jose was our skilled adviser.
3. Plan travel hubs for your trip: Twila located us mainly in Tokyo and Kyoto, taking side trips to Takayama, Nara and Hiroshima. Having two familiar bases of operation worked out well.
4. Consider flying in and out of different cities: We came into Tokyo and flew out of Osaka saving 200 miles of travel, backtracking and new lodging spots.
5. Pre-book day tours for challenging destinations: Our day trips to the Grand Sumo Tournament going through multiple transportation systems and stadium traffic, Kyoto temple tour through masses of clogged sites, and Hiroshima/Miyajima Island were all well worth it, plus having knowledgeable guides.
6. Pre-purchase a Japan Rail (JR) Pass: If you’re planning a lot of rail travel between cities and even some within Tokyo, the JR pass (seven days unlimited for $235 or 14 days for $325) is a bargain. JR is the major national rail system running the shinkansen bullet trains at up to 200 mph. The Japan Rail Pass must be purchased in advance in the U.S. through a travel agency.
7. Choose well-staffed English-speaking hotels: Their ability to answer your many questions will be priceless!
8. Locate your hotel by a major subway / train station: Subways are the main way to get around big Japanese cities and you’ll use them daily unless you wish to spend hundreds of dollars on cabs.
9. Check your credit cards in advance for costly foreign transaction fees: Many credit cards have a three percent fee for use in Japan. That can add up quickly.
10. Plan your luggage handling: Major hotels have a luggage delivery service where you can send a bag ahead to your next hotel or airport for only about $15. Hauling big bags on a busy train can be tough. Friends also recommend packing a medium suitcase within a larger suitcase for extra souvenir space for your return home.
11. Using subway/train stations: There are many overlapping transportation systems especially in Tokyo: Japan Rail, private rail, local rail, subways, buses, taxis, shuttles. Major depots might have three levels of tracks and three different train services. Look at the station signs carefully and note if JR, private, or local system. For a non-JR line, you’ll pay separately through ticket vending machines.
12. Navigating around town: Try to get both a street map and a transportation map to compare as you navigate. If you can get a hotel business card plus your destination in Japanese and English you can show these to people for directions. This is great for taxi drivers who often speak limited English. By the way, taxis at about $7-8 a mile, are a great deal for a group.
13. Eating at restaurants: Major subway/train stations are great spots for a wide variety of foods. Pointing at menu pictures or the realistic looking plastic food in windows to order works. Don’t worry. You can always find American food. At Nishiki Food Market in Kyoto we had a great lunch of hot dogs, spaghetti and sandwiches. Also, check out the local cafes that feature reasonably-priced Japanese and “American” breakfasts.
14. Finding fresh fruits and vegetables: Our family has really gotten spoiled with the abundance in California. Besides the Japanese vegetables, selections we saw in grocery stores were pretty slim. We bought a $5 apple, admired the $20 melon and window shopped the grapes. Only at the end of our trip did we see grocery store fruit (grapes, peaches and tomatoes!) packed in Jello cups.
15. Connect with friends or Goodwill Guides in Japan: Local friends are your best resource plus day tour guides very knowledgeable. Another option we didn’t get a chance to try was the Goodwill Guides of the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO Website). They are English speakers, often students or retirees, who volunteer to show people around. It’s customary to cover their travel, meals, admission fees, etc.
16. Think about WiFi access: For those usually connected by smart phones, tablets, or laptops, free WiFi in Japan is sometimes spotty. You can still get free WiFi in major airports, JR rail stations, many hotels, convenience store chains (including 7-Eleven), Starbucks and posted stores. An alternative is renting a mobile hot spot device for multiple devices for about $5 to $10 a day. You order them online at places such as http://japan-wireless.com/ or https://www.sakuramobile.jp, and pick them up at the airport or major hotels.
17. When in need of help, just ask: Many Japanese are quite willing to help foreigners and are polite. When lost in the Gion District in Kyoto, we saw an older Japanese man on the street with a line of three foreigners. We got in line, too. He very patiently gave us directions in English to the Gion Cultural Corner.
Good luck on your Japan travels!
Andy Noguchi of Sacramento is the co-president of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League and serves as the JACL’s Northern California-Western Nevada-Pacific (NCWNP) District Civil Rights co-chair. Contact him at: AndyNoguchi@hotmail.com.