City of the Sublime

When you pull into Kyoto, you could be forgiven for naively thinking that it’s just another industrial Japanese city.

Kyoto skyline

However, the city is actually full of some of the most incredible castles, temple and shrine you’ll ever see.

You can turn corners and find yourself face to face with some of the largest wooden buildings on earth.

Higashi-Honganji Temple

The grounds of most of these buildings are almost completely hidden from the streets and contain their own treasures:

Sanjusangen-do Temple

Traditional Japanese and bonzai gardens can be found everywhere:

Pond at Sanjusangen-do Temple

Bonzai garden at Kiyomizudera Temple

Garden at Nijo Castle

Later you can climb the lush hills, where you’ll pass graveyards on the way to various shrines:

Kyoto graveyard

The hills are dotted with different temples and shrines, each their own charms:

Pagoda at Kiyomizudera Temple

Chion-in Temple

Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Some seem to literally appear out of the hills:

Kiyomizudera Temple

If you explore a little off the beaten path you might find yourself in the middle of a bamboo forest:

Bamboo at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Back on the beaten path, you can wind your way through the wooden houses and granite paving stone streets of the old city:

Ninenzaka steps

Old Kyoto alleyway

If you hunt around, you’ll get a glimpse of courtyards full of rock gardens and ornate fantasy gardens attached to tea houses:

Japanese garden framed in door

Tea house koi pond

When you explore Nijo Castle, you almost expect a samurai to come walking around the corner:

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle with Kyoto Skyline

It’s a beautiful city and should be on any Japan traveller’s agenda.

Here are a few parting shots:

Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Statue at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Incense at Sanjusangen-do Temple

More Great Japanese Food

One of the things I love about traveling is the opportunity to sample great food. We’ve been having some great experiences in Japan.


The Koru-mon Noodle House is a tiny little shack in Shinjuku. They specialize in soba noodles; try the “machine gun” for a slightly spicier dipping sauce:

Broth at Kuro-mon Noodle House

Soba at Broth at Kuro-mon Noodle House


Monjayaki is a variation on a Japanese pancake. The ingredients are brought to you and then cooked (by your waitress or you) on a hotplate built into the table:

Monjayaki in Tsukada

It’s great fun to watch. The waitress organizes all the ingredients into a pile on the hot plate. A lot of chopping ensues. The chopped ingredients are then formed into a ring around the hot plate.

The waitress then pours half the batter (it’s in the bowl, below the ingredients) into the center. Much mixing and folding occurs.

The rest of the batter is mixed in and you let it cook for a few minutes. After that, you simply scrape off the piece you want to eat:

Monjayaki in Tsukada

We had our monjayaki in Tsukuda. If you go down Nishinaki Dori (the main street), you’ll find tonnes of great places. (You should also visit the nearby Sumiyoshi Shrine).


The sister of monjayaki is okonomiyaki. If monjayaki is a pancake, okonomiyaki is a pizza. Except that it’s made of egg, not dough, fried and topped with barbecue sauce and mayonnaise.

Oyshi! (Delicious)



A few months back I read an article in the NY Times about Tokyo’s ramen shops so we had to visit at least one of them before we left. We ended up going to Nagi in Kabuki Cho.

To get there, you walk through the chaos of Shinjuku, dodge the touts of Kabuki Cho’s red light district, walk up a cedar lined alley and then climb the steep narrow stairs into a poorly marked upstairs restaurant. Here’s Wendy trying to leave:

Wendy on Nagi Ramen stairs

The place seats 8, all at a bar. The chef is on the other side and boxed in all night. If you know what you’re ordering you buy a ticket from the vending machine and place it on the counter (don’t worry, if you’re clueless like us you just need to say “pork” or “fish”).

After a couple of minutes, a heap of steaming noodles topped with a few slices of pork appear. As you wait, you can contemplate what else you would order if you spoke any Japanese:

Writing at Nagi Ramen

Diner Food

If you’ve ever lived in Toronto and worked in an office tower or visited a mall, you’ve probably seen an Edo Japan restaurant offering teriyaki. New Yorkers may have been to the lonely states-side outpost of Japan’s Yoshinoya; it’s in Times Square (and the only one on the East Coast).

What I didn’t realize until visiting here, is that these are the Japanese equivalent of a diner.

We went to one in Kyoto and after ordering you sat at stools, just like in a North American diner. It felt quite like a diner, except for the ordering – you did that from a machine (a la ramen above) and then brought your ticket to a stool to get your meal made. The nice thing here is that you could see the picture of what you were buying before you purchased it:


The actual meal was delicious. Miso soup instead of chicken noodle. A variation on the garden salad. An terikyaki with an egg instead of a club sandwich.



In Tokyo we ate at a nice little place in Harajuku called Mother Kurkku. It was the least Japanese restaurant Japanese restaurant we’ve been to yet. The (smoke free!) second floor dining room had a double height ceiling (I think it’s a converted loft) and glass walls.

Plus, the wait and kitchen staff were all female.
Mother Kurkku

The menu is very simple; there are only a few things available (pork, fish and spaghetti – there’s an Italian food fad going on right now [seriously]). I picked the pork, which was described as “pork boiled in broth”. Here’s what it looked like:

Boiled pork at Mother Kurkku

Maybe you can tell from the picture – that’s basically bacon. This is bacon boiled in stock. And it tasted great. I would never think to cook it this way; now I may have to add it to the repertoire.


Japan is not on the backpacker circuit as it’s not known for its low prices. However, you can eat surprisingly cheaply here if you want.

Every city has a set of cafeteria-style noodle houses. You grab a tray, pick which broth you want with your udon noodle and then maybe grab a piece of tempura (friend chicken sounds so much fancier when you call it tempura).

Udon cafeteria noodles

However, these are not crappy udon noodles. For instance, the place that I ate at had it’s own noodle machine in the front. It was only a matter of minutes between when the noodles were made and when they were served to you:

Noodles made at cafeteria

Octopus Balls

The Japanese love their octopus balls. They’re served as a meal by themselves or sometimes as an amuse bouche. They’re also surprisingly tasty – and this from someone who hates most seafood; they’re a nice mix of crunchy and rubbery – great texture.

Octopus balls

But don’t take my word for it; check out how much Wendy loves ‘em:

Wendy eating balls. Octopus balls

Land O’ Engineers

Japan is really proud of it’s industrial heritage and engineering skills. It’s on display everywhere.

You can’t go through any town without seeing a warren of bridges and canals and elevated highways:

Trains on bridge near Ochanomizu Station


Construction sites also have to happen on a massive scale and surround themselves with a bit of mystique:


There are even ads for robotics and machine tooling companies:



But nowhere is it more obvious of how big their engineering culture is than when you ride the Shinkanzen bullet train. We took it between Kyoto and Tokyo, where the N700 rips along at over a kilometer every fifteen seconds.

At that speed you only have a few seconds to take anything in; many things pass by too fast for your eyes to focus on or for your visual cortex to comprehend. You literally can watch clouds change perspective as you whiz by.

But don’t take my word for it; here’s a video of our trip. I particularly like how the rice paddies come in and out of perspective:

As you whip through the Japanese countryside, you also see strange industrial installations. There’s a Fujitsu elevator factor in the middle of nowhere; it has a giant, many hundred foot tower that is presumably for testing the elevators before they ship. You fly by the huge Sanyo Sun Ark, an interestingly shaped solar lab.

Japan’s countryside is also about man triumphing over nature. Power lines come down from the lush, cloud-swept mountains and gingerly step their way across terraced rice paddies.


A great journey and a fitting representation of the country.

Repetition is the Key to…

One thing I’ve noticed about Japan is a love of repeating things/motifs. It’s everywhere as you’ll see from the photos below.

Wen made an interesting comment – in a society where individualism is frowned upon, maybe this is how it’s displayed in design.

Whether that’s true or not, it’s a great visual effect:



Coffe cans

Frog Characters at Construction Site

Shibuya construction site



Colourful barrels at Meiji Shrine



Lanterns near Yasakuni Shrine





The Not So Humble Convenience Store and Vending Machines

When I was a management consultant we would read briefs written from other teams around the world. The Japanese teams were always raving about both the convenience stores and vending machines in Japan as world leaders in retailing.

Given that your average bodega in North America contains questionable food of uncertain age and most vending machines are variations on Coca Cola, I’ve always been a bit skeptical. However, being here has made me a convert.

Kings of Convenience

Your typical Japanese city is dotted with 7-Elevens (do not confuse it with the North American version), Family Marts and Lawson Stations (in Tokyo you also get the more upscale “Natural” Lawson).

In addition to drinks, snacks, etc., these stores sell a lot of fresh food. The triangles below are seaweed-wrapped rice with a vegetable/meat/fish core. Needless to say, you have to turn over your inventory pretty quickly to stock that:

Fresh fish and triangles in convenience store

Same for the fresh croissants, noodles, fried chicken, etc. that can be found in most of these stores.

There are also ingenious heated racks for serving you hot beverages:

Hot beverages at Family Mart

I highly recommend the Boss coffee in a can.

However, the kicker for me was that you can buy Muji in Family Mart stores:

Muji at Family Mart

New Yorkers and Londoners are crazy for Muji and it routinely sells there for outrageous prices across a very limited line of goods. In a convenience store – a convenience store! – in Tokyo you can buy more of their products than you can in NYC. Those are shirts in the lower left; underwear above them. Stationery in the middle. On the right are snacks (delicious cheese pretzels; yogurt-covered cherries) with noodles and sauces below them.

NYC and LDN: eat your heart out.


Because Japan’s so safe, they have vending machines for everything. There are your traditional drinks (and yes, that is Tommy Lee Jones for Suntory; Lost in Translation was not a joke):

Tommy Lee Jones for Suntory

There are also cigarettes:

Winston cigarette vending machine with stupid ad

And my personal favourite, booze:



The fact that a beer/liquor vending machine does not:

a) Get broken into all the time

b) Lead to drunken youths lounging in the streets

tells you something about the national psyche here.

One other cool thing about some of the vending machines here is that you can pay with your cellphone. (Yet another potential line of business overlooked by North American cellphone companies).

Cellphone-enabled Vending Machine

The vending machines here are also not limited to chilled drink cans. This one will make you a hot coffee or a milk shake:


Here’s a shot of showing just how many different drinks you get in each of these vending machines. Compare that to your typical 8 flavours (two of which are usually the most popular one) back home:

Inside vending machine

Tokyo – Day 2

This morning, Wen and I had our jet lag kick in and were out of the hotel room by 7:00 am. Given that it was so early, we decided to go wing it, and follow the Kanda River around Tokyo.

Kanda river

Railings on Kanda river

The river loops from the west, up to the north, and then runs east over towards Ueno. It turns out that there’s a walking path that runs most of the way along it, passing through many different local neighbourhoods. It’s a great way to see how people in Tokyo live, plus it’s one of the few places where you’ll actually see Japanese people jog!

Tokyo neighbourhood

Shinjuku City sign

The path is great – when you can follow it. Occasionally you have to detour off of it and sometimes it randomly stops for a period of time. There are maps along it, but you quickly realize that the top of map is not necessarily north. It takes a while to get used to.

Me looking at map along Kanda river

One point where it stops is near Takadanobaba Station. We sat in a coffee shop and sipped some iced lattes and ate croissants as we watched waves of people go to work:

Workers on street near Takadanobaba station

Check out this wall of characters near the actual station:

Characters on wall near Takadanobaba Station

Further down the river are the gardens of Chinzan-so. Prince Aritomo Yamagata built a mansion and garden there during the Meiji Era; now it’s attached to the Four Seasons. However, it’s open to the public, so Wen and I went to check it out.

This tree is over 500 years old and 20 feet in circumference:
Goshinboku sacred tree in Chinzan-so garden

This little guy is Jurogin, a god that invites good fortune, keeps away calamities and helps you live longer. He’s also supposed to help you realize a healthy and lively life plus grow old healthily.

Jurogin status

Wishes left at fox shrine

There’s also a three storey, 900-1,000 year old pagoda; not a single nail was used in its construction

Three storey pagoda

Three storey pagoda

On the way from there to Ueno Park, we passed the world’s smallest detached building…

Smallest house ever

…and the strangest subway station (Lidabashi) ever:

Lidabashi station entrance

Around the corner from there are the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens. They’re a well-preserved set of Japanese gardens that the emperor used to visit. Many of the sites are reproductions of famous scenes in China. This is the “Seiko embankment” which reproduces Seiko Lake:

Seiko embankment Inside Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens

The Full Moon Bridge forms a perfect circle in its reflection (alas, it doesn’t photograph well).

Engestu-kyo (Full moon bridge) Stepping stones

Tsutenkyo bridge


Tree marker

Lily pad in bloom

Japanese Maple leaves

Japanese Maple leaves

As we kept going towards Ueno Park, we came across one of the elusive wooden houses that use to exist before the bombing raids of 1945:

Wooden house near Ueno park

Some of the spaces left behind from the old houses have been replaced by some sort of dystopian futuristic architecture. I feel like these inspired Blade Runner:

Crazy architecture

When we finally made it to Ueno Park and its lanterns, we found the pond full of lotus flowers:

Lanterns in Ueno park

Lotus flower in Ueno Park

Lotus flower in Ueno Park

The park itself is full of shrines:

Giant lantern in Benzaiten

Entry to shrin in Ueno Park

Burning incense

Stupa in Ueno Park

Entrance to Toshogu-jinja

Lanterns in Toshogu-jinja

Inside one of the shrines is a flame that has been burning since the atomic bombs went off. Just after the explosion, a man went to Hiroshima to find his brother. Unable to find him, he took a flame that was burning in his brother’s house and tended it for years. It’s now been joined by a flame created by roof tiles from Nagasaki and is a permanent monument:

Hiroshima flame offerings

Further in Ueno Park is the Tokyo National Museum (the subject of a future post). To get there, we needed to pass a mass gathering of homeless men (many live in the park) who were being lectured in return for a free meal. Note the orderly way in which they listen – and that each has a tatami mat:

Homeless people at lecture in Ueno Park

After the park we walked down to the Ameyoko arcade where everything under the sun is for sale. I particularly like the fish vendors:

Fish vendors in Ameyoko arcade

Fish vendors in Ameyoko arcade

We took the subway home (it wasn’t rush hour so it wasn’t too busy). We couldn’t help but notice that every square inch of it has been turned into an ad:

Ads in Tokyo metro

We were also amazed by the service in the subway. We bought a ticked and tried to use it at the attached station. The tickets wouldn’t work and an employee of the subway came over and told us that we’d bought tickets for “the other company that runs the Tokyo Metro”.

I thought this was a great scam, but then she grabbed our tickets, refunded them and took us over to a ticket booth and showed us exactly which ones to buy. Then, she told us which platform to stand on for our train. Unreal! I could never imagine anyone being that friendly at the MTA.

When we popped out of the subway, we found this guy canvassing in our neighbourhood. Seems that the way that Japanese politic is by standing in the streets with megaphones. Quite entertaining.
Politician canvassing in street

Now it’s late and the jet lag is back. Calling it another day.