(This is part of a series about my recent trip to Japan. See this page for other articles in it.)
We planned our trip this time to coincide with the blooming of the sakura (cherry blossom, 桜) trees around Tokyo. This is really a wonderful time because the amazing natural beauty of the flowers maks Japan that much more special for travelers.
We happened to be at Chidorigafuchi (千鳥ヶ淵) which is a famous place (名所, meisho) to enjoy spectacular sakura scenery. The contrast of the pink sakura blossoms against the yellow nanohana (菜の花) flowers, further juxtaposed against the green grass and deep blue of the sky, make dazzling vistas fit for a calendar. Just be aware that crowds can be quite extreme. At one of the more famous parts of Chidorigafuchi the crowd was so big it took us 15-20 minutes just to cross an area that should have taken only a few minutes.
If you are going to Japan it’s a good idea to do some research when the peak blossoming (満開, mankai) is to occur. Keep in mind it differs by region, and there are also different species of sakura that bloom earlier or later. The purplish ume (梅) flowers are also quite beautiful.
Another place close to Chidorigafuchi where you can enjoy great natural scenery is Ninomaru Japanese Gardens (二の丸庭園) which is near the Imperial Palace (皇居, koukyo) in Tokyo. It’s hard to find such an expansive space in the middle of Tokyo, where things are generally packed together tightly. If you have children, make sure to watch them near the ponds since they are not adequately fenced off from the main paths, especially on some of the bridges where there is nothing but a small bump on the sides to act as a dividing wall.
The Beginning of a New Age
Japan uses both the western calendar years (ex: ２０１８年) as well as a name of an era (年号, nengou) plus an increment, with the increment starting from 1. As of the writing of his article, the current era is 平成 (heisei) which begins in 1989, so 2018 would be described as 平成３０年.
It just so happens that the name of the next area (新年号, shin’nengou) was announced when we were in Japan, on April 1st, and will go into effect on May 1st. The name was declared to be 令和 (reiwa).
There was a lot of hype in the media both and after the announcement of the new era: people guessing what it would be, an explanation for why “reiwa” was chosen by the government, interviews with people who coincidentally had names that matched the new era name, a talk with a printing company who received an influx of orders as soon as the era name was decided, statistics on how many companies had the previous era name as part of the name, etc. People on the streets were talking about it too, for example we spoke with a taxi driver who said the era change just causes a lot of extra paperwork for everyone.
I was really glad to have been in Japan during this important historical event and it showed mw a different side of the country that I would not likely have experienced just from reading novels or manga.
On May 1st, 2019, the year will be 令和元年 (reiwa gannen), which means “the first year of the reiwa age”. A year later (in May 2020) it will be 令和２年。
Museums are generally great places to learn about a specific topic where you can view, and sometimes interact with things to go far beyond written knowledge. However, I’ve found that most museums are usually enjoyable for parents or children, but not both.
During our trip we stopped by the いわき市暮らしの伝承郷 museum in Iwaki (岩城), Fukushima (福島) prefecture. This museum has the long (but accurate) English title “Iwaki City Museum of Folklore and Traditional Housing”.
There are two parts to this museum, which focuses on history from the late Edo period to early Meiji period, roughly 1850-1910. The first is a series of inside exhibits showing items such as shoes, toys, cooking tools, and books from that era. There is also a series of movies available in a small theater space; we only watched the longest of them, and while it was interesting the film had pretty low production quality (not sure if this was purposeful or if the video itself was actually that old). While there is some interesting history to learn in the indoor exhibits, my son got bored quick.
The really great thing about this museum is the second part which is outside, behind the main exhibit building. Here is a small, but beautifully preserved area of land that has things like a small field (somebody happened to be working in it as we arrived) and a quaint pond, but the real highlight is the authentic era houses that you can actually go inside and explore. These were built with straw roofs and other classic elements of the time, and contain things like antique furniture and tools. My son had a fun time walking around these unique pieces of architecture, which I was told used to be real houses back then. There are a few areas that might be potentially dangerous (like some elevation changes) or breakable items (teapots, etc.) so I recommend staying with your child as they explore.
There is also a small gift shop inside the main building with some rare, locally-made items, and some of the informational pamphlets around that area were in English. We ended up spending at least two hours at the museum, and given the expensive entry fee (around $2-3 per person, if I remember correctly) it was totally worth it.
Food and Drinks
There are a lot of things I love about Japan, but food is definitely top of that list. It seems like nearly everything there tastes great and is made with fresh ingredients; even things you find in convenience stores can be surprisingly delicious. Food is generally inexpensive, with a healthy, filling meal easily obtained for under 1000 yen (roughly $9 dollars).
Some popular food types to try when you are there are (of course) sushi (寿司), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), unagi (うなぎ), and various types of tempura (天ぷら). Some of the popular noodle types are soba (そば), udon (うどん), and––one of my favorites––ramen (ラーメン). Deserts are also great and are generally less sweet than their American counterparts. One delicious treat that you can’t miss is parfaits (パフェ), sort of like an ice cream sundae with ingredients like fruit, bananas, corn flakes, and coffee jelly.
As you might expect, international restaurants like McDonald’s and Dennys are also all over Japan. But not only are their menus different, but the quality is generally much better (at least to my tastes). This time I had a delectable teritama burger at McDonald’s, which is short for “teriyaki tamago” (teriyaki egg). Dennys––a restaurant I’ve long stopped eating at in the U.S. for various reasons––was the biggest surprise here. It seemed like an entirely different restaurant!
Not all restaurants are great, however, and on this trip we had two bad restaurant experiences. The first was an Indian restaurant where we decided to leave before ordering due to a combination of factors including a rude waiter and insufficient menu (I have nothing against Indian restaurants in Japan, a few days earlier I had eaten at a great one with excellent service and food). The other was a Ramen restaurant with a very bland flavor, though I might have been biased first after looking at the extremely dirty kitchen.
Japan is also known for its masses of vending machines (自動販売機, jidou hanbaiki, or sometimes abbreviated as 自販機, jihanki) that carry a dazzling assortment of water, coffee, milk, tea, juices, and even hot food. There’s even alcohol commonly sold in vending machines.
Being a pretty heavy coffee drinker, I tried a bunch of different types of coffee available in the vending machines, but soon realized that nothing compares to a freshly brewed cup of coffee. Coffee shops are pretty common in Japan, and the few I tried were all reasonably good. My favorite cup from this trip was actually in a coffee shop in the Haneda airport near the gate called “Cafe 108”. One thing I noticed is that cafe-served coffee drink sizes seem, on average, to be much smaller than their American counterparts, without a corresponding drop in price.
For those that enjoy the occasional drink of alcohol, Japan has a very wide variety of liquors, and Japanese-produced sake is often sold at least half the price compared to the U.S.
Karaoke (カラオケ, derived from the words for “empty” [空] + “orchestra” [オーケストラ] ) is arguably one of the bigger Japanese culture influences to the U.S., and believe it or not I had never tried it in Japan until this trip. We went to (what I am assuming is) a typical Karaoke place with a few people, and stayed a few hours as we drank and sang a variety of tunes.
The entryway of the building had a majestic staircase like you might see in Disney World, but the karaoke room we rented was quite small and cramped, barely fitting ten people with little room to move around.
The karaoke equipment was more advanced than I had seen in the U.S. and had a reasonable selection of popular songs in both Japanese and English. There was even a mode where the menus would appear in English, designed for foreigners. The selection wasn’t that thorough, however, since doing a few searches off the beaten bath revealed no hits. I sang a few songs that night, including one by U2 and another by Utada Hikaru. There were two wireless microphones, configured to have a dramatic reverb effect to enhance the sound. I had actually heard this effect before in a Japanese drama once where the characters sang badly while drinking.
It turns out several people from the crowd we went with had a lot of karaoke experience, and blew us away with superb renditions of Japanese tunes I had never heard before. I don’t pride myself on my singing, but I still regretted not having practiced before going.
The menu had a wide selection of drinks, with much less variety in terms of food. We ended up with an all-you-can-drink plan, which taught me the true meaning of the word futsuka-yoi.
Overall, while karaoke in Japan was more entertaining than the one time I did it in America, unless you are a karaoke fan to begin I wouldn’t say it is a must-do experience.
(See this page for a full list of articles in this series as they are added).