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.

My love affair began on Sunday, June 22, 2008. Eleven flights, four countries, and 15 days later, my husband, my mom, and I had collected enough photographs, full stomachs, and memories to make us yearn to go back to the practically litter-free, modern metropolises and pristine islands of East Asia.

Highlights: the world’s tallest buildings, best night views, and largest Ferris wheels, plus the 2008 G-8 Summit location and a former Winter Olympics site… in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Over the next four weeks, I’ll be taking you on my journey through these thrilling places. Come back each week to visit a new place.

Japan

outdoor shopping arcade in Sapporo

outdoor shopping arcade in Sapporo

My first trip to Japan was six years ago, when I was still single. My mom and I toured cities including Tokyo, Nara, Osaka, and Kobe. Our return to Japan this summer, with my husband, took us to several cities on the northern island of Hokkaido — a slower pace and more relaxing environment than the bustling, high-tech city of Tokyo and the feverish shopping arcades of Osaka.

Perfection

Japanese garden in Sapporo, Hokkaido

Julie sniffing flowers in Odori Park in Sapporo, Hokkaido

In two words, Hokkaido is clean and green. The grass is green and lined with lovely gardens full of lavender. And you can go miles before seeing even one piece of litter. The impressive part is that there aren’t trashcans everywhere, so people truly exercise self-discipline as they look for a place to dispose of their garbage properly. The Japanese strive for perfection. As an American, you can see it in their electronics and cars sold in the U.S. And if you ever have a chance to travel to the “Land of the Rising Sun,” you will see it in almost everything they do. The customer service is the best you’ll find anywhere… and I’ve been around the globe. When you walk into a restaurant, the host/hostess and waitstaff all chime in like a choir, one after another, to greet you with polite words and smiles and bow repeatedly. Store employees welcome you with free green tea in tiny teacups. And when you leave, they send you off with just as many thank-you’s and good-bye’s. Every morning, as our tour bus left each hotel we stayed at, several staff members waited outside for us to board the bus; then they waved to us until we could no longer see them. Persistence and hard work.

fake-food display outside restaurant

fake-food display outside restaurant

We spent two days in Sapporo, home to the 1972 Winter Olympics… and Food Garden in the underground Pole Plaza shopping mall. If you’re like me and enjoy delicately-wrapped sweets and beautiful pastries designed with the utmost attention to detail, then Food Garden is your “heaven.” I felt like I had died and gone to paradise… and I didn’t want to get out. I once again fell in love with the food in Japan — as well as the fake, but very real-looking, versions almost always on display in a glass window near the entrance to every restaurant: the food is perfect not only in appearance, but in taste and quality too. The food and lifestyle are so healthy, they counter the Japanese’s excessive smoking, to give them the world’s longest lifespan. They understand the concept that it’s not only what’s on the inside that matters… the outside matters too. That’s certainly evident in the pretty, petite women dressed

kimono store in Pole Plaza

kimono store in Pole Plaza

like Stepford Wives — made up like dolls and decked from head to toe in tailored dress-suits and cute hats. Japanese women are the epitome of femininity. You’d almost want to pinch our Asahi Beer factory tour guide.

G-8 Summit
We took a pleasure boat ride on Lake Toya, just a couple days before the world’s most powerful country leaders descended on its shores for the 2008 G-8 Summit. We stayed at the official hotel for American staffers and military personnel: Noboribetsu Grand. Speaking of languages colliding, I played translator for my husband throughout East Asia — going between English and Mandarin, Cantonese, and Taiwanese… but I could help with only several words in Japanese.

MUST-SEE

night view of Hakodate from atop Mt. Hakodate

night view of Hakodate from atop Mt. Hakodate

1. Hakodate. Atop Mt. Hakodate, you’ll see the world’s third-best night view, as ranked by multiple sources. If you’ve been to Hong Kong, this night view pales in comparison, but is still worth taking the cable car (Ropeway) up to see the uniquely shaped land mass all lit up at night.
2. Shinsaibashi. We didn’t go this time, but in 2002 my mom and I spent hours shopping in this outdoor arcade in Osaka, which is home to an ultra-cool Sony store. It was where I discovered Starbucks’ green tea frappuccino before they came to the U.S.
3. Hot springs. Most of the hotels where we stayed had public baths with hot-spring water — where nudity was required. Don’t waste your time: You won’t find any naked pictures of me. In the rooms, yukatas (Japanese pajamas) and tatamis (low-to-the-floor Japanese beds) awaited us. At one of our hotels, we even enjoyed our own private hot-spring tub on the balcony.

our tatami hotel room at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

our tatami hotel room at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

4. Green tea ice cream. If you want to travel Japan like I did, you must eat green tea ice cream every time you see it — at ice cream shops and vending machines. I ate the creamy goodness several times a day, although green tea ice cream is more prevalent in the central part of the country, where more tea is grown. In Hokkaido, you’ll find more melon-flavored ice creams.
5. Two canteloupes for $65. Yes, that’s two canteloupes for US$65 — the average selling price. So make sure you get a free sample piece from an outdoor market. It’s not worth paying that much for it, but the melon is mighty juicy.
6. Giant Ferris wheels. Tokyo, home to Tokyo Disneyland, boasts the world’s second- and third-largest Ferris wheels.

Next week, come back to travel with me to the next leg of my East Asia trip… we’ll visit the tallest building in the world in Taiwan. And in the following weeks, we still have Hong Kong and Macau left to visit. Find out why Macau has surpassed Las Vegas as the gambling capital of the world and why Hong Kong continues to capture my heart year after year. Thanks for reading!