My trip to Japan, January 1-7, 2000

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Getting there: NW 27 SFO-NRT 01/01/2000 11:35A-4:05P (+1)

My friendly cab driver, Diane, who takes me to the airport on business trips, gave me a free cab ride to SFO as a Christmas gift. My friend Felice Newman and I used it to get to SFO on a beautiful sunny day. We checked in at Northwest's international departure counter, which was nearly empty, 2 hours before our flight. I had gotten together the previous day with a few friends (“johna,” Rick ("flyme2") and his wife Brigitte) from Flyer Talk ( - the Internet Frequent Flyer bulletin board I participate on - and they came up with a great tip for flying in coach on a 747: try to get middle or aisle (but not window) seats on one of the exit rows, where you get tons of leg room. We lucked out and there were still exit seats available, so we had our original seat assignments changed. Then we were off to the Continental President's Club, where I have a membership card, for about an hour before heading off to our gate. Boarding went quickly and smoothly, and we were on our way on time.

We had some good luck right from the start of this trip: the pilot made an announcement that we would be arriving at Tokyo-Narita airport an hour ahead of schedule due to favorable weather conditions. We settled into our seats for the 10 (originally 11) hour trip. The exit row seats were really great - as much or more leg room than a seat in first class (but as narrow as a normal coach seat). We saw the problem with the window seat - it's right behind the door, which protrudes out in front of the window seat and takes away most of the leg room.

In flight service was some of the best I have ever had in coach. The flight attendants were extremely nice and highly professional. They came around 6 or 7 times during the flight to serve drinks. One very pleasant FA, Yoshi, noticed we had our travel guides out and came over to recommend places to visit in Kyoto. One of the movies, The Thomas Crown Affair, was good. (We skipped the other, Bowfinger.) Even the food was fairly decent!

One of the main reasons we made this trip was the low airfare: I had seen a post on FlyerTalk a couple weeks prior in which someone had mentioned that a Continental was offering the round trip to Japan for $256 ($200 plus taxes). A number of other people on FlyerTalk had also seen it and went, too. One of them, "letiole" (Sheri) was on our plane and we had a couple of nice visits during the ride. We had e-mailed each other prior to the trip, bet even so, I was really surprised when I was walking by her row and she asked if I was "dgolds" (my FlyerTalk handle) since both of us had had our seats reassigned. Turns out she recognized me because she had seen my pictures posted in the FlyerTalk Gallery!

By the way, if you're wondering how we ended up flying on Northwest but bought the tickets through Continental: many airlines nowadays have partnerships with other airlines; CO and NW are partners. Partners almost always have "code share" arrangements, in which one partner (CO in this case) can sell seats on the other partner's (NW) planes. So I bought the ticket from CO, but we checked in at NW and flew on a NW flight. Confusing? You bet, and it's not a bad idea when you fly nowadays to check to see if you're on a code share when you buy your ticket or you may go to the wrong check in counter when you get to the airport. You can often spot code shares because of the high (2000 and above) flight number. Our ticket said our flight was CO 5027; NW 27 was never mentioned anywhere, but that was the number of the actual flight we were on.

A note for the mileage conscious among you about how good this fare really was for earning mileage. I got approximately 10,200 base miles, which count towards elite status qualification for 2000. Add to that 12,750 in bonuses plus 256 miles for charging the ticket on my mileage earning credit card, for a total of 23,206 miles for the trip, and making the cost per mile around .011 and .025 per status mile.

For those of you who are not crazy like me and don't calculate things like "cost per status mile," what the above means is that I earned the miles to get a free trip anywhere in the United States just by going on this trip. Pretty good deal for $256.

In addition, I was able to use the Chase “Currency to Go” program to purchase my Yen denominated travelers checks using a mileage-earning credit card to earn another 998 miles. Plus, they sent me the travelers checks via Federal Express, so I saved a trip into downtown San Francisco.

We landed at NRT at around 3 PM and made it through customs quickly with no problems.

We had two errands to do at NRT: pick up Japan Rail Passes, which Felice had purchased for us in San Francisco, and cash some travelers checks for yen. Felice and I found Narita Airport is pretty easy to figure out. Yoshi had helped prepare us for getting the rail passes by taking us through a map of the airport and pointing out the sign we would need to look for.

We found the office where rail passes are issued. Sheri and friends were there too, also picking up their rail passes. It took about 10 minutes for the agent to issue the passes and make reservations and cut tickets for the 4 trains we wanted to get on during the week. By the way, the rail passes were a great deal. For $280, we were able to take an unlimited number of train rides on Japan Rail and go anywhere we wanted. Considering that a round trip fare Tokyo-Kyoto is about $260 on the bullet train, it was well worth it to buy the pass as it included the hour long trip from Narita to Tokyo. Unfortunately, the pass does not include subways or the fastest of the bullet trains (the “Nozomi”).

We headed for the train station, which is very close to the rail pass office. Then I realized I didn’t have any Japanese currency, which we would need for a cab ride from Tokyo Station to our hotel. There was a policeman nearby, so Felice and I went over to him to ask where we could exchange money. The guy spoke almost only a little English, but we were able to pantomime that we wanted to exchange traveler’s checks but if we did so would miss our train. He helped us get our tickets changed for a train that left 20 minutes later and then walked us over to stairs leading to a money exchange. It was the first example of extreme helpfulness we encountered in Japan. On quite a few occasions, people went out of their way to help us get where we needed to go or figure something out. After that incident, I was able to overcome my male genetic programming of not asking for help with directions, and started asking for help whenever it was needed. What a delightful way to meet people!

We boarded the train for Tokyo at around 4:50 in the afternoon. There were some really fun “billboards” along the way: lighted panels that were sequenced such that as you passed by them at the speed the train was traveling, they gave the impression of being animated. Arrived at Tokyo Station at around 6, and made our way out of the station – not an easy task, as Tokyo Station is immense and we had no way of knowing what street to look for. It was even difficult just to find an exit from the station until we made friends with a little green man (see picture). Everywhere in Japan, exit signs are done in green with a picture of a running man. So we became very accustomed to looking for our “little green friend” wherever we went. He served us well throughout the week.

The cab ride from the station to the hotel was surprisingly interesting. Despite the fact that our hotel was only about 10 minutes from the station, the cab driver got lost on the way. Not only once, but three times. He had to keep circling the hotel and calling for directions, and eventually he zeroed in on it. One of the more interesting features of Japan is that there are no street addresses. To describe the location of a business, you name the intersection or subway station that it is closest to and how far the business is from that intersection and in what direction. If one or both of the streets are obscure, the place will be next to impossible to find.

We spent our night in Tokyo at the moderately priced ($120/night for a double) Sumisho Hotel, located in the neighborhood near Ningyo-Cho subway station. Checked in, went up the elevator to our room, opened the door, and was introduced to the Japanese style hotel. Our room was the smallest I had ever stayed in, with the tiniest bathroom (they call it a “unit bath”), and no closet. No big deal – we did not plan to spend much time in hotel rooms during this trip anyway. Most importantly, the room was clean and the beds were comfortable, except for the pillows. All the pillows we encountered in Japan were fairly uncomfortable. I don’t know if this is the case because we stayed in less expensive hotels, but I was very glad to get home to my nice, soft pillow. We turned out the lights at around 7:00 and went right to sleep until about 4 in the morning.


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A Short Time in Tokyo

We got out at around 5 AM and made the trip recommended for early morning, jet-lagged American tourists by both of our guide books to Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji is one of the biggest fish markets in the world. "johna” showed me his pictures, and it looks fascinating. But, alas, when we arrived, no one was there save a few dealers. Like several places we went to the next couple of days (Ginza, Kyoto Imperial Palace), Tsukiji was closed for the New Year’s holiday. Oh, well. As Felice put it, it would be a good reason to go back to Japan.

We went back to Tokyo Station to try to find a place to have a bite of breakfast. Everything was closed. Went back to our hotel to see if we could get breakfast there. Since we hadn’t ordered it the previous night, it would not be possible. The front desk suggested Lawson Station, a nearby convenience store (like a 7-11). So we went across the street, picked up a couple of bento boxes, and had our first meal in Japan in our hotel room. Not an auspicious start to the trip, but actually it was not half bad. We headed out, got back on the subway, and headed for the Ginza. Stuck our heads up: everything closed. Headed over towards the Asakusa neighborhood we had read about in our guide books, with its Seno-ji temple, and we finally found some street life.


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Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo's Asukusa Neighborhood

Senso-ji is a big temple, and they were having a festival there in honor of the New Year. We had a great time walking around the shops, visiting the temple, and looking at the many food stalls that had been set up behind the temple. They were burning incense in front of the temple, and religious observers were standing by the sensor and waving the smoke from it in their faces, a practice we saw all over Japan. Tired out from the time change and all the walking around, we found a McDonald’s (the only one of our trip) and relaxed over a cup of hot tea. We stopped for a while in front of the temple to watch a clock with an intricate animated sequence that played at noon, similar to the Rathaus in Munich (but not nearly as grand). By then, it was time to go back to the hotel, pack our bags, and head east to Kyoto.


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The Bullet Train Ride to Kyoto

We took a subway ride from our hotel to Tokyo Station and had a pretty nice meal of sashimi and tempura in one of the many restaurants there before getting on the Hikari bullet train, which goes from Tokyo to Kyoto, at around 2 in the afternoon. Normally, you can buy all sorts of food for the train trip in the station, but most of the stands were closed because of the New Year’s holiday. The ride to Kyoto takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes with only a single stop about 2 hours into the trip at Nagoya. It was a beautiful, clear day, and we had a nice view of Mt. Fuji out the window about an hour into the trip.

The bullet train (the Japanese call it a Shinkansen) is a clean, modern train like you would find in Europe. It’s not quite as fast as the French TGV train. Seating in second class is 5 across; the seats are similar to coach seats on an airplane with a little more padding and a lot more leg room. Attendants come by every 20 minutes or so selling sodas and snacks from a cart. Departure and arrival times were accurate to the minute on all of our train trips in Japan, both on bullet and regular trains.

We arrived in Kyoto Station at around 5 and took a 10 minute cab ride to our hotel.

We spent three nights at this hotel, which is about a 30 minute walk from Kyoto Station and 10 minutes from Gojo Station on the Karasuma subway line. It’s not a particularly desirable location, as Gojo Street is a very busy street (think Geary Boulevard in San Francisco) without many interesting businesses. But the hotel itself was very good. It’s fairly new, very clean, and comfortable (except for the pillows). My room had a closet; Felice’s did not. The Comfort Inn is very reasonably priced. Our single rooms were $85/night including taxes and breakfast every day. You can also book rooms here without breakfast for about $10 less per night. I would definitely recommend this hotel if you need an economic alternative, don’t need to be in the middle of things, and like to walk.

We got a quick bite of dinner at a fast food Japanese restaurant that served noodle soups called Healthy Heartful. The food was not memorable, but the waitress sure was. She was like someone out of a Saturday Night Live skit. About every ten seconds or so, in an extremely high pitched and quite loud voice, she would cry out, “Gozaimashta!” I’m still not 100% sure what she meant, but I was told by some one that it’s a way of saying “thank you.” In any case, after about 30 minutes of watching this spectacle, I started laughing and couldn’t stop. It was a little embarrassing, to say the least. Fortunately, we left the restaurant soon after that.


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Impressions of Kyoto

Still adjusting to the time difference, we went to bed around 8 and woke up very early Tuesday morning. Looking out my window, I saw a temple and what appeared to be a cemetery directly below, and numerous other temples in the vicinity. We had a Japanese breakfast at the hotel (piece of roasted fish, a cold, nearly raw egg, some pickled seaweed, and rice), and were out by 7:30. We took a walk to Kyoto Station through some very nice neighborhoods, with temples all over the place. Walking in Kyoto is a lovely experience: everywhere you turn, there is some beautiful old building or ornament. We stopped at a tourist information place near the station to get some questions answered and went to the station to pick up a couple of all day passes for the subway (around $10 per day). We spent a little bit of time in Kyoto Station, which is a remarkable architectural structure, perhaps the most attractive train station I’ve ever been in. Its major feature is a huge open air atrium, around 10 stories tall. You can ride escalators and stop and various levels in the atrium and take in the view.

 Felice had a bad cold for the entire trip, and we wanted to find some cold remedies for her. There was no place in the station to get such things, but there was a department store right next to the station, called The Cube. We spent a few minutes wandering around the basement food hall, then found the part of the store where they were selling non-prescription medicines and Felice picked up a few things. Then we hopped on a #5 bus to take us to Northeast Kyoto.


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A Walk down the Philosopher’s Path

Felice and I had both read about the Philosopher’s Path, which is a walk that takes you through the eastern side of Kyoto past many interesting temples, shrines and sites. We got off the bus and headed down an interesting street with many shops and restaurants. Food was being prepared out in the open and sold as it came off the grill. We sampled homemade rice crackers (yum) and grilled rice dough (yuck) before making our way to Ginka-kuji Temple. This temple is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in Kyoto, but as the grounds are rather large, we decided to forego it in the interest of time.

Sigh. The entire time I was in Kyoto, I had the feeling that there would never be enough time to see all the things I wanted to take in. I would like to go there and spend a couple of weeks taking in all the sights I missed out on this trip because we only had three days there (and one of those was spent in Nara). The guide books make it sound as though you can see Kyoto in a couple of days. I would say it would take a minimum of 5 days to scratch the surface of Kyoto, and a couple of weeks to do it right, with a few side trips like to Nara and Osaka.

We started walking down the Philosopher’s Path. This is a very pleasant walk down the east side of town that takes you through a residential neighborhood but past many temples, gardens, tea houses, and restaurants. The entire walk, starting at Ginka-kuji, took us about 6 hours, including lunch. Highly recommended. I took some pictures of a tea house along the way, of several beautiful smaller temples we came across along the way, and of giant Nanzenji Temple at the end of our walk.


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Our fabulous Kyodo-Ryori lunch along the way

By about 1:00, we were both hungry and passed by a sign for a restaurant. We went down a little path to find a beautiful restaurant at the side of a carp pond. The grounds were beautiful, like you would see in a picture book of Japan. We were greeted at the entrance and asked to take our shoes off. We were so hungry at this point that we weren’t really sure what we were going to get but knew it was going to cost quite a bit, around $33. We went into the restaurant, which was nearly full, and sat on pillows on tatami mats. Turns out the restaurant specialized in a style of cooking called Kyodo-ryori, which is a vegetarian style of food based on tofu. From what I understand, the style of cooking was developed for serving to monks who were traveling. The meal started when they brought us a big, cast iron pot full of tofu and put it on a burner in the middle of the table. Then they brought us a whole bunch of other dishes, including delicious and beautifully prepared vegetables, pickles, tempura, and rice. We weren’t sure what to do with the tofu so I asked one of the people at the table next to ours. Turns out you just grab a piece out of the pot, dip it in a thin brown soy sauce, and eat it. It didn’t look very promising, but it was really delicious, the best tofu I’ve ever had. The tempura was exquisite. Felice had ordered it, so I only got a bite, but it was the best tempura I’ve ever eaten anywhere. It had a slight lemony taste to it. We both greatly enjoyed this meal. It was a completely unexpected pleasure and totally worth the splurge.

Before leaving the restaurant, we both needed to use the bathroom. They have a set of slippers at the entrance to the bathroom and you are supposed to use them so your feet don’t accidentally get wet. (Remember, we had to take our shoes off before going into the restaurant.) This style of restaurant has an “Ally McBeal” style bathroom: men and women use the same room, with the men’s area separated from the women’s area by only a screen.


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Sights near the Nanzenji Temple on the south end of the Philosopher's Path

After a look around the restaurant’s garden, we finished up our walk, got some help finding the subway from two women who had come to town to have lunch at the Miyake, a fancy hotel, and went back to our hotel for a nap. It turned into a three hour nap – I guess we were both pretty exhausted at that point. We took the subway down to Kyoto Station, found a restaurant for some dinner, and turned in early.


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The Kyoto Imperial Palace

Up early again. I tried the hotel’s western style breakfast of scrambled eggs and mystery meat. Bleah. We left our hotel around 8:30 and took a long walk through central Kyoto to get to the Imperial Palace grounds. As usual, the walk was interesting, full of little surprises, such as vending machines selling things like beer, hot and cold drinks, and Haagen Daas ice cream. In order to see the Imperial Palace, you can’t just walk in; you take a tour. We walked through the beautiful palace grounds to the information center, only to find out that no tours were being offered because of the New Year holiday. Oh, well, another reason to come back to Japan.


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Nara: Japan's (other) ancient capital

We decided that rather than risk any other closed sites in Kyoto, it might be a good day to take our day trip to Nara. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794, and is still chock full of temples and shrines. (The capital was in Kyoto through 1686, when it was moved to Tokyo during the Meiji Restoration, the period when Japan was westernized.) We hopped on a train headed in the direction of Nara, unfortunately without checking the schedule. What we discovered halfway through the trip was that the train we took stopped in Joyo, and we had to connect to another train to get to Nara. As the explanations for all this were strictly in Japanese, we had no idea why we had to get off our train at a town called Joyo. (Which must mean “depressing looking little place.”) With the connection, the ride ended up taking about an hour and a half, and by the time we got to Nara, we were pretty hungry.


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Our all-you-can-eat sushi lunch in Nara

We stopped at one of the first restaurants we saw. Felice was intrigued by the sign, which quoted prices of 1,000 yen for women and 1,500 yen for men ($10/$15). We both got a good laugh out of that. Turns out it was an all you can eat sushi restaurant. I guess they figured women eat less. We both got our money’s worth! The sushi comes by on little plates on a never ending conveyer belt, and you take as much as you want. The quality of the sushi was not very good – I’ve had much better in many places in the United States – but it was still a fun experience and not terribly expensive.


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The deer of Nara

We walked through Nara’s interesting streets to Nara Park, which is noted for its tame deer. The deer are all over the place in that part of Nara. They’re really sweet, and they will eat the “deer cookies” sold by many vendors in the area right out of your hand.


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Todai-ji Temple in Nara, with its giant Buddha statue

From there, we walked towards the temple we wanted to see in Nara: Tadai-ji. It’s noted for its immense wooden Buddha statue. This is really an incredible place, and the pictures I took don’t really do it justice. (It was difficult to get good shots because the temple is very dark.) As with other temples we saw, there was an incense burner in front of Todai-ji, and a trough for hand and face washing. Additionally, there was an amazing sculpture of a very evil looking spirit to the right of the entrance. It was explained to us that his purpose for being there was to attract evil spirits to him, thus keeping them out of the temple. The sculptures in Todai-ji – not only the Buddha, but also the two sculptures to his left and right – are enormous, quite a sight, as are the many decorations in the temple, such as huge metal vases with 10 foot tall metal flowers.

We left Todai-ji, walked back through Nara, caught a train (with no stop in Joyo this time), and were back in Kyoto for dinner. We wandered around the Kintetsu Department Store near the station, and found a restaurant in the store for a nice dinner.


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Heian Jingu Shrine in Kyoto

Thursday morning, we headed back to the eastern part of town for some shopping. We wanted to check out 2 places we had heard about. The first was the Kyoto Craft Center in the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto. The Gion is a very fun, very busy commercial district. It turned out that this store was closed because of the holiday. From there, we headed northeast to the Kyoto Handicraft Center. On the way, we had passed an interesting looking shrine that we had seen from the bus two days prior. I asked Felice if she would mind having a look; she said no, so we took an hour to visit the Heian Jingu Shrine, a phenomenal place built about 150 years ago to honor one of the emperors of Japan. The gate that leads into the area of the shrine is immense, towering over that part of town.

From there, we found the Handicraft Center. This place is definitely worth a visit, even though it definitely falls in the category of tourist attraction. That is to say, it’s not a tourist trap by any means. The Center has 7 floors of merchandise, most fairly high quality but some trinkets, too. They have an entire floor of jewelry, another dedicated to woodblock prints, a third for kimonos and fabric, another one for dolls, and so on. They also have a nice cafeteria on the seventh floor with very good views of the eastern part of Kyoto. We took a break and I had a can of coffee, which came out of the vending machine warm. Now why don’t we serve warm drinks from vending machines? The coffee was actually pretty good. Although it was branded “Georgia,” I looked on the back of the can to discover that it was a Coca-Cola product.

We spent a couple of hours at the Center and saw some very nice things. Felice and I both bought woodblock prints, and she bought a beautiful old kimono, too.


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Our incredible Kaiseki lunch in Kyoto's Gion neighborhood

We walked back to the Gion for lunch. Ever since “johna” had described the Kaiseki meal he had at a Japanese style hotel (“ryokan”), I had wanted to try one. We found a few restaurants that served that style of food and nervously (because of the prices) went in. We took off our shoes at the door and were led to our room, complete with tatami mats covering the floors. We had the whole room to ourselves for most of the meal. Both the food and the service were exquisite. I have rarely felt so well taken care of in a restaurant – the waitress brought all of the courses at exactly the right time. It was as though they were watching us on closed circuit TV. The food was fabulous. There were five or six courses, each with two or three dishes. Some of the more memorable food included something that looked like seahorses with little pink caviar, magnificent maguro sashimi, wonderfully cooked vegetables (turnip, carrot), two of the most sumptuous pieces of fish either of us have ever eaten, a wonderful gloppy rice soup with fish and vegetables in the bottom of it, and finally the best bowl of miso soup I’ve ever eaten, with a slightly cooked egg yolk in it.


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Nijo Castle in Kyoto

I headed off on the subway for Nijo Castle without Felice, who preferred to take a nap. This castle was built in the 1600’s and was where the chief shogun lived. Once again, beautiful grounds, incredible palace and castle, and cool moat and castle walls.

 I finished the day with a subway ride to the immense Takashimaya Department Store in the Shijo Kawaramachi neighborhood and brought back dinner from its huge food halls. This place has everything – fresh fruits and vegetables (including a $38 cantaloupe), pastries, candies, all varieties of prepared foods including sushi, tempura, Chinese food, sausages, etc. It’s a must see in my opinion. We were both pretty pooped by the end of the day, so we just enjoyed the dinner I brought back in Felice’s room, then turned in early.


Getting home: NW 0028: NRT-SFO 01/07/2000 3:05P-7:15A

Coach service on this flight was once again very good. We were not as fortunate as on the flight over – no exit row seat this time – but we did get a 2 seat row rather than a 3 seat row on our completely full 747. The flight attendants were exceptionally attentive once again, but partly because I have a friend, Ken, who works for Northwest and with whom many of the crew had worked. Apparently Ken is well loved at NW, as I was treated very well on the flight. The meal in coach, sukiyaki, was among the best I’ve ever had on any coach flight.

The flight arrived on time at SFO. Customs was jammed – three 747s arrived at around the same time – but we made it through pretty quickly. We caught a cab and I was home and in bed at 8:45 AM.


Impressions of Japan: what you should expect if you travel there

Don't count on running into anyone who speaks English. Japan was the first place I had ever encountered hotel staff that didn't speak English, and since I've traveled quite a bit internationally and stayed in less expensive hotels in many places, I was really surprised. It's really not that much of a problem. A lot of times you can write things down to help explain something, and they'll be able to figure it out. The fact that they use Arabic numerals helps a lot.

The myths about Japan being a horribly expensive place to travel are greatly exaggerated. We were able to find reasonably priced hotel rooms in both Tokyo ($120/night for a double, not including breakfast) and Kyoto ($80/night for a single, including breakfast). Meals were not terribly expensive either. We took most of our meals in small restaurants offering typical Japanese fare such as noodles, noodle soups, and tempura and spent between $5 and $10 for most of our lunches and dinners. You can also get pretty good take out meals from convenience stores for about the same price. You can also spend a lot of money for food if you want an especially good meal or are not careful. Our Kyodi-ryori style lunch was $33, but it was a terrific meal and an incredible experience. Ditto our Kaiseki meal, which was the most expensive lunch I’ve ever had ($100, with no liquor) but an experience not to be missed. As a generalization, I would say that prices in Japan are about what I would expect to spend in a big international city like New York, San Francisco, or Paris. You can have a great experience without spending a lot of money in Japan, but there are many opportunities for blowing a bundle there, too.

You can pick up a pretty nice meal at a department store. The basements in the two department stores I went into had many stalls with various different kinds of food. Prices are reasonable – I bought dinner one night for around $5, choice is excellent, and quality is relatively high. Plus, it’s fun seeing all the different kinds of food they put out, and many are available for sampling. If you’re a “foodie” like me and luck into a fancy department store with a huge food floor like Takashimaya in Kyoto, you’ll be in hog heaven. We’re talking 3 or 4 times the size of Harrod’s food halls!

Before going to Japan, it would be a good idea to learn to eat with chopsticks if you don’t already know how to do so. That’s what restaurants set the table with. Since Felice and I knew how to use them, we never asked for silverware: it was one less hassle to deal with. I am not sure if restaurants even have knives and forks there, and since so many servers don’t speak English, knowing how to use chopsticks makes the going a little easier.

Except for a few Italian restaurants, nearly all of the restaurants we saw served Japanese food. Perhaps in Tokyo, where we spent only a little time, the situation is a little different. But if you don’t like Japanese food, you probably will not enjoy eating in Japan. I saw all the styles of Japanese cuisine that I was familiar with from Japanese restaurants in the United States: sushi, sashimi, tempura, yakitori, udon, soba, etc., plus a few that were new to me.

People can be extremely friendly and helpful. After our experience with the unimaginably helpful policeman at Narita, Felice and I lost all our inhibitions about asking for help, and we did so many times during the trip. In every case, the Japanese were willing to help us out, and in a couple of cases actually went out of their way to escort us to where we wanted to go.

Cities can be extremely difficult to navigate, because places don't have street addresses. Place locations are usually given as being a certain distance or number of stores away from the corner of two streets. Our cab driver was unable to find our hotel in Tokyo from Tokyo Station: he ended up circling the neighborhood a couple of times until he eventually honed in on our hotel. (And he gave us a discounted fare on the ride so we didn't have to pay for the miles he spent looking for the hotel).

Tipping is not done in cabs or restaurants in Japan. I think they're insulted if you offer them a tip. I did it once - actually just offered the small amount of change I got back on a bill in a restaurant (common practice in Europe, where tipping is not expected) - and got it handed back to me with a sour look, like I had done something offensive.

In some hotels, you can get single hotel rooms for just a little bit more than half of the price of a double. We got single rooms in Kyoto, since we discovered in Tokyo that Felice likes to sleep in a cool room with window open and I prefer a nice stuffy heated room when it's cold outside. It only cost a little more than the double we had reserved, and it was nice to have the privacy. Be prepared for very efficient (fancy word for “small”) but clean and comfortable hotel rooms with uncomfortable pillows.

Some but not all restaurants take credit cards. ATMs are readily available in the major cities, but not everywhere, like in the US. As we didn't know what to expect in this area, we both took a large amount of yen denominated travelers checks with us. If I were to go back to Japan, I would exchange a few hundred dollars for yen at the airport, then use ATMs and credit cards the rest of the trip.