Japan

I found the cleanest place in the world I have ever seen, in July 2002… Japan. I toured the southern part and went back six years later, in 2008, to see the northern island of Hokkaido.

Asakusa
After landing at the Tokyo Narita International Airport, we started our tour in Asakusa, seeing a temple. It’s almost like, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Nevertheless, Japanese temples are tranquil places, where beautiful cherry blossom trees flourish and the sound of flowing water is usually never far.

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji

Tokyo
The capital of Japan is what you would imagine but so much better. It’s a high-tech mecca full of business people rushing around, but it’s not like New York City (no offense) — Tokyo is clean, and the people are ultra polite. The Ginza Tower, well, towers over one part of the city. And from our hotel room, we could see Mt. Fuji, the country’s tallest mountain and what I think is the world’s most beautiful mountain.

Yokohama
This pretty oasis of serenity is also Japan’s second largest city, where modern buildings line the skyline and young men (they could have been teenagers) await customers wanting a ride on a rickshaw.

vending machine in Toyohashi

vending machines in Toyohashi

Toyohashi
We took a bullet train from the Hamamachi train station to Toyohashi. Bullet trains are among the fastest in the world, screaming toward you like a white ghost while you wait on the loading platform. You shouldn’t stand too close to the track because the wind produced by the high-speed train is so strong, you might get blown over. The ride, though, was amazingly smooth. Everywhere we went, including in this city, I bought green tea ice cream: from vending machines, from ice cream stands, from cafes. I took full advantage of its widespread availability. We also visited the beautiful Kinkakuji Temple’s Golden Pavilion.

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kinkakuji Temple's Golden Pavilion

Kyoto
Models put on a fashion show at the Nishijin Textile Center, where we saw seamstresses make kimonos, yukatas, and other Japanese clothing.

Osaka
Perhaps my favorite city in Japan, it’s home to the majestic Osaka Castle and Shinsaibashi Suji (a mile-long, outdoor shopping arcade), where I had my first Starbucks green tea frappuccino. I prayed that Starbucks would start selling it in the U.S., but I had to wait a couple of years before this delightful drink made its way to my home country. With several blocks of stores, I indulged in more than just green tea frappuccino; I had green tea, green tea ice cream, green tea frozen yogurt, and green tea slushie. I also fell in love with the Sony store — designed so much more high-tech and modern than computer/technology stores in the United States. Pachinko (a cross between pinball and slot machines) parlors were abundant in this shopping arcade, and there was no shortage of people playing the game. Funny enough, I felt like I stuck out in Japan, especially in Shinsaibashi Suji, because I have naturally black hair, whereas most Japanese young people dye their hair brown or even blond.

Shinsaibashi Suji

Shinsaibashi Suji

Nara
In Nara Deer Park, we got up close with graceful deer. And of course, we visited Nara Temple and Todaiji Temple.

Kobe
Kobe Tower at Kobe Port is an impressive red structure that’s a landmark among other uniquely designed buildings.

Read about my second trip to Japan, during which I traveled throughout Hokkaido, in an earlier blog entry.

England

My high school graduation present (in 1999) was a trip to five countries in Europe. The first stop: England. The country is so often portrayed in movies, it’s almost exactly how I’ve seen it in film and imagined it. We spent most of our time in London and only drove through the English countryside on our way to France.

MUST-SEES:

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

 1. Windsor Castle. The Queen’s home, it’s just one of those places you have to see. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to royalty. Tourists were teeming around the castle when we visited.
2. Buckingham Palace. Another grand estate, this is where official business of the Monarchy gets done.
3. Eton College. Prince William (Princess Diana’s older son) was attending school here at the time of our visit.
4. Westminster Abbey. Princess Diana is buried at this church.
5. Big Ben. It’s the world’s largest 4-faced chiming clock and sits above the Thames River.
6. Trafalgar Square. This beautiful public square is complete with fountains and statues and surrounded by art galleries and an opera house. It’s the kind of outdoor spot in which you’d want to sit down and sip a cup of coffee and maybe read a Jane Austen novel.

over Thames River

over Thames River

7. Harrods. Possibly the world’s most famous luxury department store, Harrods, Knightsbridge is unlike any other department store. Ornate, intricate designs are carved into the ceilings. Every detail is highlighted. The merchandise, no doubt, is expensive, but the experience of walking through the store is worth it. I managed to find a few affordable items.

Harrods

Harrods

And of course, don’t forget to grab some fish and chips at a local pub. Plus, take a subway ride to Picadilly Circus, where we ate at a Chinese restaurant with excellent wonton noodle soup. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name. But I’m sure a local Chinese person who knows his cuisine can tell you. The days are long in London, albeit often cloudy and gloomy, so we took advantage of the daylight until as late as 11 p.m. London is an interesting mix of the royal and modern. I was conceived in London; my husband was born just outside the city.

Next week, my journey through Paris and Versailles, France. And as my Western European tour continues, we’ll venture to Switzerland, Italy, and the Vatican in this blog in the coming weeks.