Tag Archives: Japan

“This Scheming World” is a superb short stories collection from Edo-period Japan

One of the best souvenir I have brought with me from Japan is “This Scheming World” (original name “Seken Munasanyo“ – ISBN 0-8048-3339-7 outside Japan), an amazing collection of short stories published in 1692 by Ihara Saikaku and today considered one of the classics of Japanese Literature.

The author, Ihara Saikaku, was born in Osaka in 1642 as Hirayama Togo, a successful merchant that gave up its business and started travelling and writing after he lost his wife and daughter. He is considered the creator of the ukiya-zoshi genre of Japanese prose, where urban lifestyle of Edo-period Japan (1600 – 1867) is usually described through realistically portrayed characters, customs and events.

This Scheming World

This Scheming World is an amazing short stories collection from a very alive Medieval Japan.

‘This Scheming World’ is a collection of stories about New Year’s Eve, a delicate period for the Japanese people living in the 17th Century since it was custom to balance all debits and credits for the year in the last days of December. In this particular period of the year, the drama of life with the contrast between creditors and debtors, their strategies to collect or avoid to pay the involved monies, reaches its climax and it is excellently represented by the author.

The book is amazingly current and provide the reader with a surprisingly clear understanding of the medieval Japan. Reading stories of ancient Tokyo (Edo in those days), Nara and Kyoto where we have been during our stay in Japan made the book even more exciting and interesting.

Definitely recommended even though you might need to get used to some Japanese unit of measure before reading it like “momme”, “bu” and others that I have found in a Wikipedia dedicated page.

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Japanese breakfast at Sukiya Takeshiba – Minato, Tokyo

During our stay in Japan we tried each and every traditional dish we encountered on our way. We haven’t limited our exploration to the most popular ramen and sushi options and we included rice cakes, dried fish, matcha tea products and so on. In order to do so, we booked the hotel without any meal included to avoid the usual “international breakfast” you might find all over the world.

Obviously, the first morning we woke up in the Asian Country, we rushed to the nearest breakfast restaurant and ordered one of the “special” breakfast options (the menu was only in Japanese but luckily was provided with photos of the meals).

If you are used to western food and taste, you might find the Japanese breakfast weird. We have got steamed rice, miso soup (made with green onions, seaweed, tofu and fermented soy beans paste), nori (dried seaweed), tsukemono (pickles) and natto (fermented soy beans) and a raw egg.

The Japanese Break Fast

Japanese breakfast in a common restaurant in Tokyo. Natto (the fermented soy beans) can be disgusting for someone.

Since I didn’t know what to do or how to combine the food together, considering that no one was speaking English in the restaurant, I had to learn from another customer how to deal with the food I had in front of me.

so I added some soy sauce to the natto, I had the miso soup with the spring onions and some rice with the nori. I was enjoying my breakfast when I saw the other customer breaking the raw egg on top of the rice and enjoying it. My partner stopped eating while I managed to have the unusual mix. But the worst moment was when we had to eat natto. 

The taste itself is not bad, but the consistency and texture of the mix is weird. The fermented soybeans are covered by a filamentous and sticky jelly that resembles something really unpleasant. Again, my partner gave up at the first bite, I struggled to have a second. I had to drink an entire glass of iced barely tea to cancel the fastidious sensation from my mouth.

Needless to say that we have opted for a somehow more suitable breakfast option during the rest of our holiday.The service was nice and the food came quick because precooked and ready to eat. Even though it is based on a fast-food philosophy, the quality of the food was good enough.

Funny start of our holiday.

Japan Public Transportation System and the JR Pass – TIPS

Visiting Japan is one of the easiest things to do. Either you want to visit a single city or travel around the Country, you have a countless number of transportation options that sometimes could seem even embarrassing.

The railway network is impressive. Compared to the old one I have back home, a single line railway from Ventimiglia to Genova built around the end of the 19th Century, it seemed to me to have landed on an alien planet. Tokyo is probably the most densely populated city in the world and it would have been a collective suicide to force 30 million people to use their cars and motorbikes to commute every day.

For this reason, Tokyo has a capillary public transportation that easily connects each and every part of the city. There are several levels and options available for citizens and visitors: subway lines, railways, boats trips, monorails and more. The main railway that you are going to use during your stay in Tokyo is the JR Yamamote Line. It is a loop line that connect Tokyo Station with many tourist places and network nodes such as, but not limited to, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Hamamatsucho (the connection with the airport monorail), Shibuya and more as shown in the below photo.

JR Lines in Tokyo

The capillary JR network in Tokyo. In green at the centre, the Yamamote Line. In red the Haneda Airport monorail.

If you would like to explorer Japan further, maybe adding Kyoto, Hiroshima or other cities to your itinerary, you do not have to worry. Japan is famous for the JR Shinkansen lines, particular railways where special trains (known as bullet trains) can travel at almost 300 km/h, rendering a trip Tokyo/Kyoto of almost 470 km a pleasant journey of less than 2 hours. It connects all Japan in a efficient and comfortable way, making your exploring the whole Country really easy.

Japan Rail Pass Map

The JR group is the biggest in the Country and serves all the major cities.

The next question is: How much does the public transportation cost in Japan?

JR Line Tokyo Fares

In all the stations you will find signboards with the fare to pay, if you do not have a JR pass.

The answer is very simple:a lot since they are very expensive, especially the Shinkansen rides. In the train stations you will find sign boards with the fare to pay for a single ride from the current station (in this case Tokyo Station) to your destination.  As shown in the photo, a one-way ride to the next station, costs in average some 130 Yen (more than 1 USD at today’s rate). There are daily passes available for the JR lines only (the Tokunai Pass – 700 Yen) or for all the lines (the Tokyo Free Kippu – 1,590 YEN). We took an average of 6 rides per day in Tokyo, in order to visit different districts in one day and without the JR Pass, getting the daily pass would have been a wise idea.

The Shinkanses is quite expensive, with a ride from Tokyo to Kyoto at around 14,000 Yen (almost 120 USD) and a train trip from Nagoya to Takayama is almost 6,000 Yen (around 50 USD) just to mention two popular destinations that we have visited. Just to have an idea, during our stay we visited Tokyo (4 days), Nagoya (2 days), Kyoto (2 days), Nara (1 day) and Katayama (2 days) inclusive of all the Shinkansen connections we had to take. We estimated a total transportation cost of more than 65,000 Yen (around 540 USD) in order to visit the mentioned cities.

Luckily enough, the Japanese government gives to foreign visitors the possibility to get a JR PASS valid on all the JR lines at the cost of 29,110 YEN (242 USD) for 7 days and 46,390 YEN (386 USD) for 14 days (regular class, seat not reserved). It is not valid outside the JR circuit that, however, is enough to allow you to visit Tokyo and Japan without trouble, limiting at few times the need to use a subway or a different way of transportation.

With the JR PASS we saved some money (around 160 USD each) and a lot of time. In fact, the pass holders are just requested to show it at the gates, without the need to continuously go to the tickets office and buy a ticket.

Note: The JR PASS shall be bought before going to Japan because it can be purchased only outside the Country by foreigners that will be enjoying a temporary Visit/Tourist Visa only.

JR Exchange Order

The JR Exchange Order shall be bought outside Japan and converted with the Pass at a JR point.

The process is very simple. You shall buy a JR Exchange Order (see photo) either online or from an authorized travel agent. There are many website offering this option, the most complete of which is definitely www.japanrailpass.net/en/ where all the possible information you might require are available. Once you receive the JR Exchange Order, you shall exchange it with the actual Pass that can be obtained in the Airports and in the major Train stations. Just note that the appointed JR offices close at 18.30, hence you might be prevented to get your pass if you land after this time.

JR Pass

The JR Pass you can get once in Japan. It will allow you to use unlimited JR trains inclusive of the Shinkansen.

We landed at 23.35 at Tokyo Haneda Airport and had to buy a monorail ticket to reach Hamamatsucho Station (the first stop and also where we booked our hotel Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba). We were then forced to go to Tokyo Station the day after (paying again the ticket) and finally get the JR Pass issued.

Airport Review – Haneda International – Tokyo

If you are planning to visit Tokyo and from there visit some other areas of Japan, you might be asked to chose between two possible airports: Narita and Haneda. Narita is the new international airport and it seems to be exceptionally designed. I have a couple of friends that flew to Narita and they all said the same: great airport but it is 40 minutes by train from the City.

By chance we had to fly to Haneda, the former principal airport and now the reference point for domestic flights and some selected international ones. The airport is extraordinarily close to the city that could be reached in 10 minutes with the available monorail, which links the airport with Hamamatsucho Station where the Yamamote Line (a circular JR line that connects almost all Tokyo neighborhoods), other JR Lines and subways are easily reachable.

We flew from Dubai to Tokyo with Emirates and landed in Haneda whose arrival terminal is very minimal but efficient. Indeed, we landed, passed through immigration and collected our baggage in less than 20 minutes. A high speed WiF is also available, which I successfully used to call home with Skype without any trouble.

The Airport staff are very polite and available to offer information and indication and almost all of them speak English in a suitable way (rare thing in Japan).

Haneda airport facilities

Haneda airport doesn’t offer the entertainment that Narita does, but it is very efficient. – photo from http://www.haneda-airport.com

The departure terminal is al-right with a check-in process efficient even though not really as fast as expected. Compared to Emirates Terminal 3 in Dubai, Haneda seems really small, however,  it offers enough souvenirs shops and restaurants to spend easily 1 or 2 hours while waiting for boarding. just note that some shops close at 10 p.m., hence you might miss that nice bag you wanted to buy “after a quick bite” as we did.

The monorail is perfectly integrated in the airport and is easy to reach. Note that since it is operated by JR you can use your JR Pass to access it. However, if you have bought a JR Exchange Order in advance and need to exchange it with the real Pass, remember that the JR office in Haneda Airport closes at 18.30 Tokyo time and you will be asked to pay for the monorail ride if you land after that time.

The use of the JR Pass can seem quite complicated and its high cost can discourage from buying it but it is a valuable tool if you plan to visit more than Tokyo. This detailed JR Pass guide shows you hot it works.

Hotel Review – Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba – Tokyo

When we decided to travel to Japan and to spend few days in Tokyo, most of the best hotels in town were already fully booked or with only super expensive suites available. Among the ones with rooms available at an affordable price, we opted for Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba hotel that is conveniently located at 7 minutes’ walk from Hamamatsucho Station, which offers links to the major JR Lines (Yamamote in first place), the airport monorail and subway system.

It’s location is superb if you land at Tokyo Haneda Airport, especially at night, since the hotel can be easily reached in 20 minutes from that airport. Moreover, the hotel  is close to Tsukiji Fish Market and Hinode Pier from where you can get a boat and explore the bay or cruise the river up to Asakusa district.

The hotel is a bit anonymous, with very little decorations and the main entrance is tricky to be found. Just remember that the lobby is located at the 4th floor, hence you need to get the elevator from the 1st floor (note also that the ground floor does not exist in Japan. They start counting from 1).

Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba

The hotel is conveniently located close to Hinode Pier and Hamamtsucho Train/Metro Station – photo from Google Images

The hotel staff was very helpful but no one speaks a fluent English. However, they managed to handle a simple discussion about timings, rules and basic information.

As common in Tokyo, the room was very small with enough space for the bed, a tiny desk with chair and very few amenities. We had issues in managing our luggage since there was space to open only one bag at a time. We are 1.90 m tall and found the space just enough to survive even though the bed was surprisingly big enough.

The bathroom was minimal with a smart toilet, sink and shower. A hair drier and some toiletries were available as well as towels. Both bathroom and room were always very clean and in order.

When I booked a standard double room with city view, I was optimistically hoping to have a superb view of Tokyo. Unfortunately, our room no. 715 offered only close buildings and the elevated train rail.  The room is perfectly sound-proofed and we did not get disturbed by any noise coming from outside. However, you might prefer to try a bay view room for a hopefully better view.

The hotel offers a free WiFi connection that works perfectly in the lobby but has sometimes problems in the room. We did not have any meal at the hotel, therefore I cannot provide any comments.

The hotel accepts credit cards (useful to specify in Japan, since many commercial activities accept only cash).