Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lady Gaga to Promote Japan's Tourism Industry

Given the recent scares concerning the earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear leakage crisis in Japan, tourism has understandably taken a hit.

Well, now it looks like it's Lady Gaga to the rescue! The pop music mega-star is throwing her weight (and various wigs and make-up) behind Japan's travel industry in order to promote tourism to this East Asian jewel.

Lada Gaga visits Japan

Whether or not this will have an effect on people visiting Japan remains to be seen, but it surely is a welcome sign for the Japanese to have the support of somebody who has so many eyes and ears on her.

Get Japan travel tips at: Learn About Japan.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Take A Ride On The Shinkansen (Japanese Bullet Train)

If you plan to spend at least 4-5 days in Japan - either in the Osaka/Kyoto region (Western Japan) or the Tokyo/Yokohama region (Eastern Japan), you owe it to yourself to take a ride on one of the world's fastest and most efficiently-run trains: the Shinkansen, or Japanese bullet train. (The Chinese characters for shinkansen are 新幹線, which together literally mean "new trunk line.")

There are actually a number of different shinkansen train routes connecting various key cities in Japan. To travel between Osaka and Tokyo, you would want to take the Tokaido Shinkansen. This is a JR Central line that covers a distance of about 515 kilometers (320 miles). This route shuttles about 151 million passengers per year. It is the most heavily traveled high-speed train route on the planet, with 4.5 billion cumulative passengers having ridden the train by March 2007.

Three different types of trains run along this line between Osaka and Tokyo: the Nozomi, the Hikari and the Kodama. The fastest, the Nozomi, travels the distance between these two business power center cities of Japan in 2 hours and 25 minutes.

It is important to note that you cannot ride the Nozomi as a tourist using the Japan Rail Pass. You would have to purchase a full ticket at the regular price. But, if you have the time during your next visit to Japan, riding any one of these types of trains - or any of the other shinkansen routes for that matter - is highly recommended.


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Monday, August 27, 2007

Trip to an Onsen – One of Life’s Memorable Experiences

I have lived in Japan for a total of about 5 years of my life, living in four different cities throughout Japan during that time. Now that I live back in my native country, I must say that one of the things I miss most about being in Japan are my trips to onsen, or natural Japanese hot springs. Visiting a Japanese onsen can be one life’s more memorable experiences.

Like many non-Japanese people, when I think of the term hot spring, I imagine a rocky landscape pocketed with natural pools of steamy, mineral-rich water. Often, the image of a spa with natural mud baths also comes to mind. This is really nothing like the experience of a Japanese onsen, however.

Japanese onsen are typically accessed as part of an entire resort experience. Some are small, family-run affairs with only a few rooms, while others are large, modern hotels complete with restaurants and even a gift shop.

Upon check-in, you immediately change into your yukata, or traditional Japanese robe made of thin, loose-fitting material and held together at the front with a loose belt called an obi. From this moment forward, your consciousness begins to shift away from the business of daily life and you begin to fall under the charm of the onsen experience.

After getting dressed in your yukata, pay a visit to the mineral baths before dinner. The bathing areas for men and women are separated (in almost all cases). Upon entering your designated area, you leave your yukata in a basket and step into the main indoor bath area for a quick shower. Next, you will usually have the choice of an inside bath (notenburo) or outside bath (rotenburo). The serenity you can attain by sitting in a rotenburo in the middle of winter, gazing through a curtain of steam emanating from the hot mineral water at nature around you is quite amazing.

Usually, dinner consists of traditional foods. Sometimes onsen food is served privately in your room, while at other times you enjoy it in the hotel restaurant. Either way, you are encouraged to wear your yukata anywhere inside the hotel, thereby preserving that other-worldly frame of mind.

After dinner, I advise going for one more dip in the baths. Then, it may be off to get a foot massage or just quiet time with family, friends, or a good book. Once it is time for bed, you will likely be out like a light. The warm mineral water does something to you that is hard to explain, but it puts many visitors into a completely relaxed state for hours after a soak. No wonder millions of Japanese businesspeople, families, and other groups visit Japanese onsen every year.

To appreciate the full onsen experience, plan to stay at least one night – two or more if you can. I guarantee that by the time you take your second or third soak, you will be hooked.


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Short Trip to Tokyo – 7 Must-See Recommendations

If you are heading to Tokyo in the coming weeks and have no time to read or even buy a thick travel guide, no worries. I have prepared for you a concise, must-see list of recommendations that you can squeeze in during your trip. So, print this out, stick it in your pocket, and go!

1: Harajuku
Known for its street youth sporting out-of-this world costumes, its great shopping and its proximity to the famous Meiji Shrine, Harajuku is eye candy for the intrepid traveler of any age. Walk around, shop a bit, or have lunch while you people watch. Directions: Take the Yama-no-te line and get off at Harajuku station.

2: Kamakura
Okay, technically Kamakura is not in Tokyo at all and is actually about an hour outside of the city. But, as my absolutely favorite place to visit in Eastern Japan, I could not resist including it here. Kamakura is the place to go if you are hankering for a taste of old Japan – Buddhist temples and traditional food - but do not have time to go all the way to Kyoto or Nara in Western Japan. Visiting here feels like you are stepping back in time. Directions: Take the Shonan-Shinjuku line and get off at Kita Kamakura station.

3: Ginza
For those who like flashy clothes, impressive architecture, clubs, and upscale shopping, Ginza is a fun place to spend time. Directions: Take the Tokyo Subway line and exit at Ginza station.

4: Tokyo Tower
The Tokyo Tower was built in 1958, is red and white and is actually 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. Its base and surrounding areas also offer fun activities for kids. Directions: Take the Mita line and exit at Onarimon or take the Oedo line and exit at Akabanebashi station.

5: Imperial Palace
If you are in the mood for a look at the site of the famous ruling place of the Tokugawa Shoguns of the Edo period (lasting until about 140 years ago), visit the beautiful East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. The place has a regal serenity which fires the imagination while it pleasing architecture buffs. Directions: Take the Toei Mita line to Hibiya station.

6: Chinatown in Yokohama
Chinatown in Yokoyama, like Kamakura, is technically not in Tokyo, but do not let that stop you from paying a visit. Stepping into China Town is like stepping into another world. From any of the ornate and colorful gates that greet you to the throngs of people and authentic Chinese food, China Town is a spectacle worth seeing. Directions: Take the Minato-Mirai line and get off at Motomachi-Chukagai station.

7: Shinjuku National Gardens
Shinjuku National Garden, or Shinjuku Gyoen, was completed in 1906 on the site of a private mansion belonging to a Lord Naito. It was later designated as a national garden at the end of World War II. It covers 144 acres and features gardens of Formal French, Formal English, and Japanese styles. Directions: Take the Maru-no-uchi line and get off at Shinjuku Gyoen Mae station.


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Friday, August 17, 2007

Purpose of Japan Dispatch

Purpose of this Blog
I am an American with deep ties to Japan's culture, language, and people, and I am interested in sharing my thoughts and impressions about my experiences in this blog. Those interested in learning my impressions about historical Japan, the Japanese language, and contemporary Japanese cultural and business practices should read on.

My goal in this blog is to provide the types of contextual and historical insights that could shed some light on today's Japan. At the same time, I will explore contemporary issues and trends (as I see them), mostly in the form of my own, personal experiences. I believe that history and the present are inextricably linked, each shedding light on the other.

In this blog, I will strive to be as honest as possible about my true thoughts and opinions about both the U.S. and Japan. I will not sugar coat my words in an effort to protect the feelings of Japanese nationals who may be sensitive to the occasional critique about their country. Nor will I refrain from making any necessasry critical comments or observations about my own country. Ultimately, my deep respect for the peoples of all countries of the world should be evident in my writings. I believe that open dialogue (or, in this case, monologue) is essential in a world where the avoidance of an open and honest look at the challenges we face stands in the way of our making progress.

My Relationship to Japan
I see myself as a rather passive observer of Japan and the Japanese, rather than a hardcore Japanophile. Over the past 20 years, I have strived to strike a balance between devotion to a continual and serious study of Japan on the one hand, while maintaining at the same time a firm sense of my own identity that is decidedly very much rooted in the U.S. culture. In other words, I am not one of those ex-pats who has "gone native" and tries to live, breathe, eat and sleep Japan all of the time. I am what I am: an interested observer, and sometimes participant, in both the Japanese culture and in my own.

I do have some significant first-hand experience with Japan. I majored in Japanese at UCLA from 1989-1993, moving to Eastern Japan to work as an English teacher in the junior high school system of Saitama Prefecture from 1994-1996. After numerous business trips to Japan in the ensuing years, I later returned with my wife and two children to work for Dell, Inc. from 2005-2007 as a marketing professional. Over the course of that stay, I lived in both the city of Kawasaki in Eastern Japan and in the city of Miyazaki on the southern island of Kyushu.

As for the language, after my studies at UCLA I went on to study Japanese intensively in Japan, passing in 1995 the first level (most difficult) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). Since then, I have become fluent in written and spoken formal Japanese, often being mistaken for a native speaker after long telephone conversations with strangers. I have participated in hundreds of meetings, given university lectures and other group presentations, and written and received tens of thousands of e-mails relying solely upon my Japanese. Currently, I am co-translating a book about social systems design from English into Japanese.

And yet, with all of this experience with the Japanese language and culture, there is still so much to learn and so much that I will never be very knowledgeable about. For example, I know surprisingly little about Japanese food (to the dismay of my friends and colleagues in the U.S. who are always asking for recommendations at Japanese restaurants), despite what little has of course naturally seeped in through osmosis over the years. I also have forgotten most of the specific facts I learned at UCLA about the history of Japan, although a sitting with a good textbook would likely bring most of them back.

I remain fascinated with the Japanese language and am now challenging myself to eventually take the kantei, a series of exams aimed at testing the ability of kanji (Chinese characters) that mainly targets Japanese nationals. I also retain to this day a particular interest in Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism, as well as their complex relationship and interplay through the centuries.

I look forward to sharing this space with you and always welcome your comments as we proceed.