delete
Visit to Meiji Shrine

Visit to Meiji Shrine

I’ve started working on videoing many of the special places in Japan. Our first outings with video gave us quite a bit of shaky cam material, so this past trip we dragged along a tripod and definitely got better result. Visiting Meiji Shrine is a standard tourist activity, but few westerners know about the sacred Kagura dance that you can attend, since everything about it is in Japanese. We were lucky enough to have along one of Esprit’s guides who took us to this very special event. Unfortunately, no video is permitted, so all I can say is the 1/2 hour sitting on the tatami mats on your knees is worth the experience – it’s quite unique and very Japanese. In the meantime, we could do video of other parts, so here’s a short sample of the...
delete

“Spring” Trip to Japan

This year I decided to travel to Japan during a different season to get some personal experience of the weather during late April. Most of my trips, of necessity, have been at the end of November, after the season is over. So mid-April seemed like a good middle ground – not early cherry blossom time and before Golden Week.  We landed in Tokyo on April 14th and by the 16th we had snow – after two days of cold, rainy weather. This “Spring” thing isn’t working out all that well. Last year in mid-November we were in t-shirts in Kyushu, which goes to show that the travelers dictum to be prepared for anything goes in Japan as...
delete

Samurai, Swords and San Francisco

While you can travel through Japan with any number of themes in mind (traditional arts, manga, ceramics, contemporary arts, nature and hiking, etc), getting ready for a themed trip from the US can have its challenges. This weekend, however, I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco to attend a Samurai Symposium put on by the Society of Asian Arts at the Asian Art Museum. This was in conjunction with their visiting exhibition called Lords of the Samurai, featuring a wide variety of works from the Hosakawa collection. The symposium was great – with a lot of speakers who managed to make what could have been some pretty esoteric topics accessible to the non-expert. Topics ranged from the history of the family’s collection to how Noh drama is related to samurai culture to a demonstration of sword handling. The exhibit itself is superb – featuring a range of art and artifacts, highlighted by a superb set of samurai armor. There are a number of beautiful sword blades (note that the blades are often displayed separately from the fittings for true historic swords) ranging over a few centuries. There are battle banners, equestrian fittings, calligraphy, tea utensils, screens, sumi-e, tsuba and a wide range of items all from the collection of one family which spans several centuries. Having the opportunity to learn a little bit about some of this aspect of Japanese culture before heading off to Japan is a great way to prepare yourself for a trip and to learn more about what you’d like to focus on when you get there. The fruits of my labor are being put to use in preparing for Esprit’s new trip: In the Shadow of the Samurai, which is open to the...
delete
Cheap Hotels in Japan

Cheap Hotels in Japan

In the current environment, we’re constantly asked by people to aquire hotel rooms in Japan for lower prices than in the past.    The media is constantly going on about how there are all these great travel deals out there – and so now they’ve managed expectations down to zero… and that’s exactly how many cheap hotel rooms you’ll find in Japan. There are a number of factors affecting prices in Japan, and most of those have an impact on the US Traveler.  First, the Japanese travel a lot within the country and they are traveling on their own economy, so they do not have the same price sensitivity as foreign travelers.  Result: hotels (especially the lower priced ones) filled up with lots of Japanese travelers.  Economic reality: if the hotels are filled up, they’re not going to offer discounts. The second factor is the declining value of the dollar against the yen.  The dollar is actually doing quite well against most currencies, but not against the yen.  IT’s actually been hovering in 10-15 year lows.   Result: a hotel that charges the same amount in yen as last year costs about 20% more to the US traveler this year.   Economic reality: the Japanese have no incentive to lower their hotel prices to cover the cost of the lost value of the dollar. The third factor is one of the most mis-understood among foreign tourists, since most of their experience is with Europe, Latin America and even in the US.  There is an assumption that small hotels in smaller towns will by default, be less expensive.  Result: travelers are all looking to stay in the smaller towns in the few hotels available there. Economic reality: supply and demand wins out –  there are many reasonable low-priced hotels in Tokyo and Kyoto, but not in cities where there are only a few hotels to choose from. The final comment on hotel costs relates to something uniquely Japanese – the ryokan or onsen.  These are typical Japanese inns where you sleep on the tatami matted floor in futons and often are served a Japanese Kaiseki meal for dinner.   Many, many travelers assume that staying at these inns will be less expensive than staying at Western-style hotels.  In fact, the ryokans are often the most expensive way to go.  First – they charge by the person (not by the room).   Also, they usually will not accommodate single travelers.  The Japanese often sleep 3, 4 or more to a room that would make 2 Westerners uncomfortable.   From the inn’s perspective, any time they have fewer people in the room, they’re losing money (they charge by the person, remember?).   So they have no incentive to take bookings that don’t fill their rooms and even less incentive to offer discounts.  Result: ryokan prices often shock westerners, as they are almost always more than the nearby western-style hotel.  Economic reality: ryokans will not save you any money. So how to make the best hotel choices if you’re traveling to Japan now?  First, if your budget can afford it and you’re used to staying in very nice hotels, go with the deluxe foreign chains (Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, etc.), who are hurting from lack of business travelers and do not have clients from the local economy.  They’re offering great discounts.  Second, if these hotels aren’t in your price range, plan you trip centered on the cities (Tokyo and Kyoto) where there are many more inexpensive hotels to choose from.  You...
delete

Yes, they really DO run after you

I’ve heard the stories for years about how a traveler or guide in Japan will leave an item somewhere and be chased down by a staff member of the establishment they’ve left in order to return the item.  So I thought if it ever happened to me, it wouldn’t be a big surprise.  And yet, when it does, there’s something innately startling about being the recipient of this level of caring. On my last trip to Tokyo (a VERY large and maybe impersonal city), I’d left the hotel meeting with instructions for getting to the subway station and on to the correct train to my next destination.  I’d been gone for over 10 minutes, making my way down through the bowels of the hotel, across a few streets and through the underground shopping center.   So, needless to say, I was not expecting to have the nice young women from the concierge desk run up to me, out of breath, and tap me on the shoulders as I was about to climb the stairs to the subway station.   And what was it I’d forgotten?? Nothing!  She was coming after me to let me know they’d made a small mistake in their directions and she wanted to be sure I got going in the right direction. In the US I run into a lot of companies that purport to be service oriented, but their service is “trained” into the staff.  One of the most thoroughly different things about being in Japan in that the level of caring and attention to detail that is experienced in every encounter and at every staffing level is almost impossible to describe.  After a while, unfortunately, it just becomes part of the experience and I no longer take the time to notice.  It’s only on my return that the truly profound impact of being so taken care of bubbles to the surface and brings a warm smile of remembrance that they really do run after...