Japan Feb 2011
Trip Report Tokyo.
In February 2011, I went to Japan for Japan Luxury Travel forum. This is a networking event for overseas buyers and the press invited by Japanese government. It is organized by Japan Ministry of Economy, Trade and Travel Industry. From their website, www.jltf.net, they are trying to promote Japan travel. As they say,
" There are countless exquisite "Japan" contents found throughout the country, such as crafts with a long-established tradition, performing arts, culture, gastronomy, advanced environmental technology, modern arts, architecture, and many more. To increase awareness and familiarity with Japan as a destination for international affluent travelers".
After checking through passport control, got my luggage quickly and the driver was waiting for me with the sign. Like Japanese taxis, the car had white lace covers and driver was in white gloves. I was probably alone from the group on this flight. It took 1 hour to get to hotel so I slept in the car too. The weather was mix of rain and snow sleet.
Okura hotel is very nice, www.hotelokura.co.jp . It is member of Leading hotels of the world. Japanese decor. Very nice functional room, Toto toilets with washing equipment - standard in hotel.
I had a voucher for dinner at hotel restaurant so I went to Terrace restaurant and had light meal - chicken rice with omelet on top and melted cheese and corn soup.
Back to room, prepared for tomorrow day of touring and meeting group and organizers.
I looked at the group list and welcome package which was waiting for me in my room. The group demographic was quite interesting. I was under impressions they wanted to showcase Japan to Americans but I am pleasantly surprised when I saw the list of 15 travel professionals and 5 journalists, it was international. The official language of the conference is English.
The group list showed: 2 people from Russia, 3 from France, 3 from USA, 1 from Canada, 1 from Taiwan, 1 from China (interesting that they separated markets from China and Taiwan), 1 from Spain, 2 from Singapore, 1 from South Korea, 1 from India, 1 from Indonesia, 3 from Australia.
I looked forward meeting everyone tomorrow, I anticipated a good networking opportunities as well.
I lingered enough until I needed to go to lobby to meet my group. We made introductions and the guide directed us to the bus. We were supposed to leave at 10am but were delayed for another 15 minutes.
Very unusual for Japan. Finally two guys rushed into the bus and they looked at our unfriendly places and apologized: "Sorry, we are French". Interesting introduction. We were finally on the way to the center to start our sightseeing and our guide Sue told us about the country, politics, city and customs. We learned about life in Tokyo. I've seen in my previous visit Shinjuki - the busiest station which handles 3M people per day and they employ "pushers" to pack people in the cars. What I did not know, Sue explained that people were packed as sardines and they caused sexual harassment of women so government came up with cars which are only for women so they can commute in peace. Very clever.
We've learned few Japanese phrases: "Domo" - thank you. This is in addition to "Arigato" which I knew before, but there is also "Arigato Vazaymos" - thank you very much!
We've learned how to buy and most important, to keep distance so you will not bump into somebody forehead. Small bow for regular greeting, lower bow for superiors in the office or parents, 90 degrees bow to emperor (whom we did not plan to see), or, also, Sue told us - for men who come home guilty to their wife's or girlfriends but in this case, they are supposed to complement bow with small gift. Japanese people prefer small expensive things. We also learned that Kyoto was old capital until 1868 and after that Tokyo became new capital and this is what it means in writing - "New Capital".
Religion in Japan is both Buddhism and Shinto. Shinto is the faith of Japanese people and is very old . Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures like the sutras or the bible. Propaganda and preaching are not common either, because Shinto is deeply rooted in the Japanese people and traditions. "Shinto gods" are called kaki. They are sacred spirits which take the form of things and concepts important to life, such as wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility. Humans become kaki after they die and are revered by their families as ancestral kaki. The kaki of extraordinary people are even enshrined at some shrines. The Sun Goddess Amateurish is considered Shinto's most important kaki.
As for Buddhism, people are get incarnated. I would want to believe in Buddhism because it will be easier to die. If you've been good in your life, in next life you will become someone better (a bird, etc). But if you did not lead a good life, you might become an awful creature, for example, cockroach. So people try to lead righteous life.
We passed a Sky Tree, which is a tall tower is being constructed. It is Japanese answer to Eiffel Tower. It is the tallest building in Tokyo and when it will be completed in 2013, it will be 634m or 2080 ft. It will be the tallest building in the world.
We also admired Japanese toilets which have warm seats and wash your bottom, also provide music or other noise and deodorization. It is the great invention in the world, and now are being available in USA under Toto brand. Sue told us however that before it was not possible to use Toto in USA because our water is hard and it clogged pipes but right now with new technology, it is working. I personally know someone in USA who bought Toto toilet.
Anyway, we approached to our first destination which was a Cut Glass Studio /www.hanashyo.com/ which uses unique technique to produce beautifully designed glassware. It reminded me Bohemian glass in Prague. There also was show room with items for sale but they were expensive. I seem to be having problems with converting JPY into USD and I was making mistake with one zero. I thought that small cup was $5 but it was $50! So I passed on that. We walked afterwards to our bus. It was nice residential neighborhood with park and dogwood trees, shrines and small alleys. Everything was very clean. Dogwood trees, we were told, were gift from USA and Japan gave to USA instead Cherry trees. Both trees blossom in April so it is a good time to visit both Washington and Japan .
Next stop was to drive to theater for Geisha performance. Usually Geishas perform in the evening but JLTF tour organizers arranged special meeting with them. Before we got there, Su explained to us about Geishas. I've read "Memoirs of Geisha" before and actually am thinking about to create a tour following the steps of heroine of that book in Kyoto. Unlike what people think about them in USA, Geisha is not courtesan but musician, female artist and performer. They were specific heavy makeup, play shamisen (national musical instrument) . Geishas cannot be married and can be any age. Geisha's apprentice called Maiko.
So we arrive to the theater and we were taken to the theater and met geishas. They performed a song for us. One was a player and 3 others danced. They use a lot's of signed language but the song mostly means love. Here is the video.
After performance, we were shown the game which involved to tap the object in music rhythm. Few of us including myself, went to the stage and played game. Then we asked questions and geishas answered about their work. It was very interesting. Afterwards we were scheduled to Asakusa - traditional center of Tokyo on rickshaws and geishas went with us. We paired 2 people in each rickshaw and went. In Asakusa, we saw temples and shrines and stroll through main street. Obviously, geishas never walk during the day in public, because it created a lot's of interested to our little group and many tourist and Japanese tried to take pictures of "Our geishas" we felt very possessive of them. We did take great pictures though with geishas. Afterwards, Su said that Geishas need to leave and our budget is only to have geishas for few hours and we reluctantly bid geishas goodbye. It was great activity.
Next, we went for lunch in to Omotesando-Uka-tej restaurant http://www.omotesando-ukaitei.jp/ which is one Michelin star restaurant.
As for Japanese food, unlike most Americans think, sushi is not the main food in Japan. Probably because it is too expensive. Japanese eat a lot's of fish and seafood, noodles, and not too much meat. In ancient times, Buddhism prohibited to eat 4 legged animals, but in modern times, Japanese introduced beef to their diet. Their steaks are not thick as ours (and smaller, but again, any steak would be smaller than American steak). They also like to eat it sweetened so most steak are thin and cooked with some teriyaki or soy sauce. Sukiyaki is simmered beef in soy sauce cooked on the pot on the table with vegetables and noodles. Shabu-Shabu is also beef thinly sliced and cooked in the broth like fondue. Shabu-Shabu means swish-swish in Japanese which represent noise of cooking. The beef is specially bred, expensive and called Kobe beef. But they eat very little of meat.
Japanese have very healthy diet and generally enjoy long life , average men live 80 years and women 85. They eat a lot's of soybean in their diet (tofu, desserts), soy milk. It has some ingredient which is healthy and prevents osteoporosis.
The restaurant was beautiful and lunch was delicious. It was set tenderloin lunch menu and started with appetizers (shrimps and in salad). Then it was roasted bamboo. Like our artichokes, the top was chewy and not edible but the bottom stalk was delicious. We were told that each portion of bamboo increases life for 75 days :-) . Then it followed with Shellfish Cream soup which only had a delicate hint of seafood. The beef (something like filegh mignon small steaks) were seared on the table top which we call hibachi (no fires, throwing shrimp in patrons mouth, etc ). Then he seared potatoes and served everybody according to the degree of cooking. I love my beef rare.
Desert was well prepared but nothing unusual, more like angel food cake with cream and strawberries. But it was delicious. Since we had journalists in our group, many were taking photos of the food and writing descriptions. One Australian lady did not eat desserts so I became her friend :-) .
After lunch, we met another guide who was an architect and professor of university to talk to us about modern architecture. He explained the neighborhood which is considered Tokyo Fifth Avenue. But the difference is that Omotensando is built by famous Japanese and world Architects and is influenced by designers stores to build buildings reflecting their couture fashion. It is really sleek and futuristic. For example, Louis Vuitton store was inspired by famous Louis Vuitton trunk, Christian Dior looked like it was covered with curtains, there are no mirrors inside, but screens who take video of people and project them on the large wall screen. This and changing lights supposed to create a dramatic effects in the evening.
I loved this tour but unfortunately we only had 1 hr. Actually the architects was very upset and said it is not possible to convey the architecture in one hour. We also visited one modern gallery with contemporary statues which move. It did not do anything to me since I am not that much imaginative to accept modern art but other people in the group said the movement hypnotized them. In any case, the city is and intriguing mix of traditional ancient blended with contemporary/futuristic. They are probably 20 years ahead of us in technology.
Our next stop was to attend a private Nezu museum http://www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en/index.html , which is owned by president of Tobu Railway, Nezu Kaichiro family. It contained traditional art and painting. It was amazing to see such fine details of the painting. Afterwards, we went back to hotel. It was a long sightseeing day but we saw a lot.
We came back to hotel to change and attended official JLTF reception hosted by Japanese government. We learned how to toast ("Kampai!") and talked to officials, hotel representatives and Japanese suppliers.
So we retired for a long day, had a good time and spent good day together as a group.
Today is working day for travel buyers and sightseeing for media professionals. Media professionals went to visit Roppongi, National art center, and see some department stores.
I had breakfast in Japanese restaurant and they brought me whole tray of Japanese food. It was good but some of the dishes I did not understand and I did not know how to eat so I was watching locals. It was delicious though whatever it was.
Our trade show started at 10am. I went about 15 min earlier only to discover that I went to wrong meeting building. I walked into conference room and some people handed me some material in Japanese. I did not notice my familiar people. I tried to explain what meeting I am for and they could not understand but bowed graciously and said something in Japanese. I finally thought to show my trade event info which had some Japanese writing and they called someone and explained to me that I need to go to another south building same conference room. We bowed and parted, I returned Japanese materials and rushed across hotel. Fortunately there are a lot's of employees , mostly young attractive women in kimonos whose responsibility is just to stand in the lobby and direct guests. Very nice feature. I do not know how much they are paid but the woman in our group who is Japanese explained to me that there is very low unemployment in Japan because they use so many people for supplemental activities which are probably unheard in USA. But it was very helpful, she took me to the elevator, pushed button for me, bowed, and I rushed through connecting hallway to the right building. Other people also got lost so JLTF organizer said we will have to start 15 min later and she did not sound happy. French guys again appeared late, but what's new!
Anyway, tradeshow was the highlight of my trip (of course, after sightseeing and food!), since I would never had an opportunity to meet so many incoming destination management companies in one place. True, I attended other luxury travel forum just few months before in Cannes, but this one was only for one country! I found a lot's about geography, attractions, hotels and other interesting accommodations and sightseeing.
I came with misconception that Japan is expensive. In fact, I had a trouble to plan my own trip 2 years ago. But now I learned that there are different ways to put together itineraries, from luxury private tour with a driver, guide, sightseeing, helicopter charters, and special cultural experiences, to more on budget side like walking tour and using public transportation, and even booking people into local group tours. And, local incoming operators were offering us good wholesale rates, so I am getting exciting about planning and selling Japanese trips. There is also city passes which tourist can but in advance and airport bus delivers to the center, so there are ways to make a trip affordable. I would recommend a private guide though, even in Tokyo, while you can many signs in English, still hard to understand basics in stores and restaurants.
As for accommodations, I was for a treat. We've met hotel suppliers from luxury hotel Okura and Royal Park (where we stayed), to traditional country inns Ryokans (we will be going there tomorrow), and even traditional townhouses in Kyoto, which can house a family or few couples, and bring out the beauty of traditional Kyoto living.
Interesting sightseeing included but not limited
1. Helicopter sightseeing for example:
• full day tour from Tokyo, 1hr 20 min flight over Mt. Fuji, 5 hr stay at Hakone, and 35 min flight from Hakone back to Tokyo.
• One day charter to Nikko
• Fly from Tokyo to Sapporo 30 min, ski at Ski Resort and fly back.
• Night helicopter sightseeing
2. Special performance by Kabuki Actors or Geishas
3. Cultural experiences:
• tea ceremony
• Ekibana (flower arrangements)
• Japanese style wedding ceremony
• Japanese calligraphy
• Visit with Sumo wrestlers
• Japanese cooking
• Hot springs (Ones)
• Private golf with view of Mt .Fuji (or regular golf)
• Hiking Mt. Fuji
5. Spa and wellness
I also met representative of beach resorts in Okinawa which has tropical climate and is a good time to rest after touring the country.
There were also representatives of my favorite chain - Small Luxury Hotels which had really nice properties in Kyoto.
So it was good and productive day. We also had lunch with Japan Airline rep and he told us now there are some international flights into Haneda from some US and European cities, so it is more flights and Haneda is closer.
After show we went for dinner using our voucher for hotel's restaurant. We went for Chinese restaurant. Some dishes were good but I chose fried chicken and it was not that excellent like the rest. Afterwards myself and two Australians went to Roppongi to see nightlife district. It was lovely. They had skating ring there. Also there were many bars and restaurants catering to Western tourists. We saw beautiful display of fruit in the stores. Few of the blocks however looked very seedy - it was first place in Tokyo I was a bit apprehensive. Few days later we talked to hotel manager and he said he does not let his daughter going there. So one must be careful there. Not that dangerous like in other cities though.
The Journalists group reported that had a good time as well during the day tour. They went to some small restaurant where husband and wife owners served them delicious food. Some men however complained that there was too much shopping!
I had breakfast at Terrace restaurant with other people. It has beautiful view of tranquil garden. The food was buffet with mix of Japanese and Western specialties, very good. They even served champagne.
After breakfast we've met with Okura hotel manager for an inspection tour. We visited different rooms and suites including presidential suite and imperial suite where president Clinton stayed and Indian Prime Minister (was item of interest to Indian member of our group). It is a really nice hotel even for regular rooms. We stayed in superior rooms.
After inspection, we had time for lunch or take out and packed to leave for one overnight to go to Izu - countryside. We were told to leave our luggage in a room, pack overnight bag and luggage will be transferred to next Tokyo hotel. It was very convenient so we would not drag larger suitcase. While I was getting my takeout lunch, I notice luggage shop next door and I splurge with a small cute 4 wheel drive carryon. I just could not pass it. I spend many time in airports traveling and this would be perfect. I still felt guilty spending a lots of money on large suitcase but when I went out, I met a french guy and he looked at it and declared that brand means famous french designer so I bought a cool thing! I enjoyed it a lot, it was a breeze to wheel it in airports.
Anyway, we were off to our next destination - Izu/Shuzenji. Izu Peninsula is located in Shizuoka, it is a famous hot spring resort area. It is one of the most popular domestic and foreign tourist not far (2.5 hrs) from Tokyo. The president of Ryokan collection. Mr. Hiroki Fukunaga, whom we met previous day, stayed overnight at hotel and was going with us for 2 days. He also had guide/translator so on the way, they explained to us about Izu and hot springs and ryokans. We were looking forward to experience authentic Japanese inn and hot springs.
On the way we ate and had some sake, so there was an impromptu concert from French, Indian and international songs. We also stopped at rest area and even rest area was an adventure - so much different food, shopping. There even was electric charge station for the car and I took photo of the car being charged! It is indeed a futuristic country. We tried to figure out what we bought to eat and came to the bus and shared it. Interesting, there was a donut shop called New York donut and tasted like our donut :-). After eating, we talked or napped. In few hours, we arrived to Shunzenu.
Since Ryokans are small, we were split in 3 properties and it was planned to inspect them all. First stop was Ryokan in town, traditional Japanese, Yagyu-no-Sho, http://www.ryokancollection.com/eng/lrc/ryokan_story.htm?ryokan=yagyu which breathtaking scenery set within bamboo forest. The owners husband and wife team met us and proudly showed around. Many rooms had private onsen (hot spring bath). One suite had also pond with beautiful fish. All rooms are set up so you do not see neighbors when you look at the window. It is very serene and tranquil. The beds are futons which are taken in and then taken away. Chairs are low so you seat on the floor.
We bid goodbye to our 5 members of the group and continued to second ryokan, Asaba
We dropped off other members there, we will come to inspect it tomorrow. It was in the center of town.
We finally arrived to ours which is called Arcana, http://www.arcanaresorts.com/en/ which was the largest of 3, we had about 7 people stayed there. Our Ryokan was actually not traditional but contemporary and westernized and more resembled luxury french auberge. Therefore there was not futon bed, but western beds in the room. But it also had private hot spring tub on the deck. It had wi-fi (free), and came with pajamas (Yukata, very comfortable soft cotton). No TV, means relaxation. The wall was glass and it was dark but I could hear some waterfalls outside.
We were told to come to dinner at 7 and I went to enjoy hot spa.
Dinner was French with about 10 courses, very creative. We were seating at the table kind of counter facing the chefs. It was interesting experience. Unfortunately my camera was charging so could not take pictures . It was beautifully presented. One of the dishes was a composition of vegetables created from miniscule cut vegetables - raw, marinated, dried and cooked. It was 60 of them! The vegetables were drizzled with kind of balsamic vinegar sauce and below was something dark like chocolate. When we finished, the waiter removed glass flat holder where vegetables rested on the plate and below under the holder was soil - dirt... He explained to us it is part of composition so we would not think to it! This was incredible. The dinner was long affair for 3 hours and was a feast to the eyes and palate.
We talked, and after dinner did not want to leave, so there were songs again. It is a lots of singing in our group! Finally we split going to bed. I fell asleep immediately. I woke up early (still leftovers of jet lag) and used the time to sit in hot springs.
It is a great experience. In 45F degree weather, step out of shower outside on the deck and sink in onsen (hot tub) of mineral water. If the water too hot, you can add cold water from the tap. When I got too hot, I sat on the edge and it was not cold at all . The body heats up. The skin felt very good afterwards.
Onsen is a part of Japanese experience and life. In most places, it is public bath and people take it naked. Therefore public baths are separate men and women. Some expensive inns like ours had private bath so it is possible for a person or a couple to enjoy it in privacy. Some luxury inns also have private rooms in ryokans for couples. I personally love hot springs and wherever I travel, I never miss an opportunity (Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, USA, etc). If you ever will have an opportunity, I urge you to try it in Japan. It is very enjoyable.
In the morning, after taking onsen bath and then shower, I went for breakfast. Same chef did not disappoint. It was a tray with same different samples of toy food to play. They explained to us and then brought the picture of description of food on the tray. It was so much fun. After breakfast the rest of group arrived to inspect our ryokan and we went to pack and take carryons to the bus. Our next stop was to go into town to see the temple and inspect Asaba Ryokan. The temple was as other temples we've seen in Tokyo but it was a private visit and also they opened a door in the back to show beautiful rock and pond gardens. It was very relaxing. We also see preparations for dolls festival when all girls and women bring their dolls on display and it was beautiful collection. Afterwards we inspected another Ryokan (second) where part of our group stayed. It was also part of Relais and Chateaux and it was beautiful and serene.
Another feature of Ryokan, is that the concept is to serve delicious traditional food. It was designed as destination restaurant with hot springs (most of them). So they serve delicious multi-course dinner (kaiseki) and breakfast in the morning and guests do not have to leave, they eat, rest, sleep and leave rejuvenated. We very much enjoyed this experience, even though our dinner was french, but most ryokans serve Japanese kaiseki dinner. I highly recommend just to spend one or few nights there for this special experience.
After inspection of Asaba, we went to town for short time, but shopping was not interesting. We also had soba noodles lunch in local place and then went to our bus for ride home. Weather permitting, there was planned stop in one place to get a good photo of Mt. Fuji, but unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate. We stopped again for snacks at rest area on highway and slept the rest of the trip. We arrived Tokyo to next hotel Royal Park hotel around 4pm.
That was last day in Tokyo and the trip and the last impression should be the best. And it was! On arrival Royal Park team was meeting us at the entrance. By this time, we understood, it is a custom to get out and meet guest - anywhere - at hotels, stores at the opening. Very welcome tradition. Makes you feel great and welcome. On Tuesday trade show, they told us that we are booked in executive floor with drinks, hors d'oeuvres, separate check-in, fitness center access and internet. So they took us to the executive floor to check-in. We had cocktails and then we went for inspection. They broke us into 3 groups by region (Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific). Journalists also went with us. The hotel is also 5*, not that fancy as Okura and different type, kind of low key, but I liked it a lot. It is much better value. For Okura price, you can get better room category like executive floor and have a lot's of features included. It is also located in very nice interesting neighborhood while Okura was a bit isolated next to American embassy. The airport bus comes right to the hotel and the staff comes to pick up your luggage, so it is a big plus. IN addition, the metro station right in the basement of hotel, so if it rains, you do not even need to go outside. It is very convenient location and a lot's of traditional shops, restaurants and shrines within walking distance. We had a party afterwards and thanked the hotel management for making us so much welcome. The food at the party also was great.
My luggage was in the room which was transferred from Okura. Interesting observation: I brought 2 "extra pairs " of my old shows just to wear them once and leave in the country. That's was I usually do with my old comfortable clothes - I am disposing it eventually all around the world. It frees space in suitcase for new purchases. In Okura, I left two pairs of shoes in the room. outside of my suitcase. But they were thought as forgotten items, packed in separate bag and delivered to Royal Park. This is first time my disposed items followed me. I left them in second hotel and wrote on them that these I am not taking with me. Another thing which sets apart Japan and Okura hotel employees.
After party, we said goodbye to some members of our group. We split in parts, some of us went to Roppongi, I needed to finish my shopping and went together with Korean and Indonesian women to the stores. We arrived to Mitsukoshi department store but unfortunately it just closed at 8pm. We also walked into some book stores. The girls still bought some staff in supermarket but I decided will go alone tomorrow last day since I had a morning.
After that I packed and went to bed. The room was somewhat a small suite and they had in each room a computer! When I was hungry, I went downstairs to take out dinner with my voucher coupon provided by JLTF. I love this hotel, the employees were so friendly and happy!
My flight was at 5pm, so I had morning. I enjoyed good location of hotel so I went out to walk, visited park, stopped in some stores, got some small souvenirs. It is a pricey country, but quality is so good.
I saw a baseball team practice and asked to take their picture and the boys posed for me.
I came back to hotel, finished packing and went to check out in executive lounge with some tea and pastries. Then I went to the lobby and the car was already waiting (15 min earlier). So I went to the airport, 1 hr drive again. At check-in I was happy to find out that my upgrade request was granted so I was flying back in first class. I went to executive lounge to use internet and again get some snacks (better food then in Houston). But the lounge was crowded. Probably Narita is busy airport. I also did my last minute shopping in the airport store and honestly, it was the most convenient shopping because there were explanations in English and many salesladies to explain things. I completed my shopping and was on time to board. The flight was very comfortable, the first class seats decline 180 degrees into flat bed and there are some additional lights to read. I do not remember when I slept so much, and I arrived Houston refreshed. Again, Houston was very orderly and pleasant airport (much better than NY and Chicago). I rechecked my suitcase at customs, went through passport control, spent 30 min in Houston lounge, checked again my messages, made some calls and flight to Tampa was on time and uneventful. First class to Tampa is not worth it but since they upgraded me on both, that was fine. It is just seats are wider but they do not recline much. They served chicken salad and drinks but I did not want to drink. I slept a bit more and arrived home town. All flights to Japan were on time so it was a good trip.
So it concluded my trip to Japan.
This was my second visit to Japan and it keeps amazing me. It is so exotic, Unlike Europe and Americas. Unlike other Asian countries, it is civilized, cultured, clean. It might sound expensive, but there are ways to do it at reasonable cost. Some cities are less expensive than others. Public transportation is excellent.
I would definitely will come back to see more. I fell in love with Japan.
In conclusion, I would like to thank Government of Japan and JLTF forum to give me this special opportunity to see and experience their country as their guest.