To many people in the West, Tokyo IS Japan. The culture, the food, and the unique style radiate to all corners of the world. Visiting here, it is most certainly easy to see why. The city seems to stretch forever, and every district seems to pop with its own style. Tokyo, meaning "Eastern Capital", officially refers to both the very small central district containing some skyscrapers and the Imperial Residence, and the entire metropolitan area that, together with downtown area, houses close to 20 million people. Below are some of the more well known districts and sights in and around Tokyo.
Shibuya, Tokyo at dusk. [HDR]


       The term "neon jungle" is often overused as a catch phrase, but to sum Shibuya and the other shopping mega-districts of Tokyo, there isn't a better description. The number of lights and advertisements and the variety of images and colors on one street is more than you'd see in a month outside of Tokyo.  This street in Shibuya (one of the more "hip" districts of Tokyo) could keep a shopper contained for weeks. Advertisements abound for everything from shoes to comics, to fuzzy stuffed pets.
          Though generally a popular shopping and night life district for all ages, on any given Friday or Saturday night you might think that it was inhabited solely by the under 25 generation. Its a little expensive for my tastes, but I'm confident that you could buy any designer item in the world without ever leaving Shibuya.


The Mt. Fuji Experience

        "No one climbs it from the bottom..." people told me, Japanese and foreign alike. But for some reason, while sitting Shinjuku Station on the afternoon prior to the climb and deciding which bus to take, saving the 1570 Yen (~$20) and hiking straight from Fuji Yoshida station sounded like a good idea. I had also heard about this "awesome" trail, called the Yoshida Trail. This trail is the old trail used by Japanese pilgrims making the journey to the top of Mt. Fuji before there ever was such a thing as the 5th station road. I figured seeing the old shrines in the woods and climbing Fuji the old style would be great, and 21 km before sunrise wouldn't be too much of a challenge if we started early enough the night before.

    The mystery at hand is お好み焼き or okonomiyaki. Does it belong in the pancake or omelet category? Or maybe its more of a pizza? The loose description of the basic batter is a combination of:
  • flour
  • eggs
  • a type of Asian yam
  • water
  • shredded cabbage
  • baking powder
but you can usually choose from a variety of different mixes. The popular additions include pork, cheese, squid, shrimp, onion and/or other vegetables. Two toppings I saw tonight that made me curious were "beef nerves" and "giblets". Keep in mind that the translation from Japanese is not always ideal, but even so I might be hesitant to try these additions.


To begin with, I have never seen such a remarkable contrast between the new and the old in my life. As a resident of Boston, MA (very young compared to most places in the world, I know) I have come to appreciate and love the mix of new and old architecture, the fast paced world and the puritan historical roots. But taking the founding date of Boston to be 1630, Kyoto is more than double Boston's age (taking the "founding" of Kyoto to be sometime in the 8th century, when the Shimogamo Shrine was established). This makes for unrivaled contrast between the ancient streets that still have many ancient tea houses used to host Geisha entertainment, and the modern streets of today, filled with overpriced merchandise, BMW's, nightclubs and restaurants. This contrast was evident throughout my entire time there and makes Kyoto an absolute must see for anyone looking to experience "old Japan".

Traveling to/in Kyoto

    Please look into buying a guide book before you make extensive travel plans. I highly suggest Lonely Planet's Japan, as it covers the WHOLE country, and is in depth enough to give you the all the information that you need and want. At the bare minimum, familiarize yourself with the Kyoto subway system.

    As usual in Japan, the trains were quite enough to get me where I wanted to go, quickly and for a (err...somewhat) reasonable price. Keep in mind that there are private railways in Kyoto in addition to the JR railways found throughout Japan. The ICOCA (rechargeable electronic money) card will do you just fine and is extremely convenient. In a later post I will write about Japan railways in detail, but for now let it suffice to say that they are efficient and when you get there you can easily figure them out. So lets total it up here. In Kyoto, in the absence of a personal car, you have the following options of transportation:
  • JR Railways -- very quick and efficient for getting you TO Kyoto, but they run through the city; not throughout the city, such as the subway; so not easy to rely on for 100% of travel.
  • City Bus -- Some of these are local buses stopping at every stop. Some of them are tourist buses that take you right to your destination. Inquire at Kyoto Station (from which most of them leave) 
  • Subway System -- AWESOME. Very efficient, fast,  extensive, and well labeled (assuming you speak English or Japanese).
  • Private Railways -- I was confused about this at first, but they really work just like a subway or JR train line. Tap your ICOCA card and head on in! In some cases they are slightly more expensive than the equivalent trip on the subway.
  • Taxi -- Please: make it your last resort. The are most likely more expensive here than your home city. They WILL however be a necessity if you miss the last subway train at 12:00 a.m. and your hotel is more than a few blocks away.

[Please keep reading after the slide show for more awesome info!]
All pictures in slide show I took myself.

    In Europe, you often find that you break out your most refined sentence in German, Spanish or French only to find to your dismay that they speak back to you in English. Some people may look at this as blessing. "Yea, I already know English! I don't have to learn another language!" But for those native English speakers who are looking to climb the latter to proficiency in another language, progress can be difficult when no one beside your Spanish teacher will give you a chance to actually try conversing. In Japan I've found that people are also eager to use English, but are most of the time more than happy to speak in Japanese with you, especially if it means making the communication a bit easier. Additionally, Japanese is both the language of state of the art technology, and ancient scriptures at the same time. How could you pass that up?
     If you're interested in starting on the road to learning Japanese, read on. If you already know the outline but would like some suggestions on learning/reading material; skip down Next Steps.

日本語: An Introduction

If you asked me "How many kanji do you know?" six months ago, I'd have given you a blank stare. Because I know this the case for too many in the Western World, let's start briefly from the beginning.

    The Japanese language has three scripts, all of which are important. What do I mean by "script"? I mean three different sets of characters that are used for different things throughout the language. The first, called "hiragana", and the second, called "katakana" (no not "katana" as in the samurai sword) are extremely similar to each other; we'll discuss more below. The third script, called "kanji", are somewhat different than the first two scripts.

  1. ひらがな - Hiragana - This set of 48 characters you may think of as a phonetic "alphabet". Five of them represent single vowel sounds like "a" [あ], "i" [い], "u" [う], "e" [え], "o" [お] (not so different right?). The other 43 hiragana represent combined sounds. We can think of each of these sounds as a combination of of a consonant and a vowel, such as "ka" [か],"ri" [り] or "ne" [ね]. This set is used primarily for native Japanese words (more on this in a bit), and to help Japanese children (and Japanese learners in general) to pronounce other words (such as "kanji words"). Hiragana are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  2. カタカナ - Katakana - This set also consists of 48 characters and is symmetric to hiragana with respect to the sound set. The only way that katakana is different from Hiragana is the actual drawing of the character. The lines used in katakana characters are somewhat straighter than the rounded lines used in hiragana characters. Katakana too are really just simplified versions of kanji.
  3. 漢字  - Kanji - Kanji literally means "Chinese character". Look here for the full history, but let it suffice to say here that they were imported from China and are exactly the same as the kanji used in Chinese script today. This website claims that a massive, ancient, Kanji reference book called the 和辞典 (daikanwajiten) contains 51, 109 kanji characters! In Japan however, knowing 2042 characters will allow you to read newspapers, decent books, and most names. 
So lets sum it up: