Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

What Do You Get When You Cross Some Beer with a Massage?

June 30, 2010
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You get a very happy, tasty cow.

If you are a meat lover, Japanese Kobe beef is a must try. When it comes to these elite Kobe beef steaks, all barriers of communication, cultures, traditions, and ethnicity are erased. You may magically start speaking in Japanese. It’s that good. Kobe beef has become very accessible, and the chance to taste different varieties has become easy, especially when traveling in Kobe, the capital city of the Hyogo prefecture situated in the middle of Honshu.

Kobe beef steaks are special cuts of a certain breed of the Wa-gyu (meaning Japanese cows) cattle that are born and raised in Tajima, thus called Tajima-gyu. Cuts are strictly graded according to two parameters:

1. “Yield” – Number of edible cuts obtained from the cow. Graded A (highest) to C (lowest).
2. “Quality” – Cut texture, marbling, color, etc. Graded 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest).

The fat in the A5 Kobe beef is, therefore, so perfectly distributed that it melts already in your chopsticks. In order to reach such high standards of meat, the cows are all born, raised, and processed in the same farms and slaughter houses in Tajima, fed on a planned diet that includes beer, and massaged and brushed regularly with sake. The meat must be only of a bullock or virgin cow. All this guarantees the presence of the most nutrients, vitamins, minerals and proteins in the right quantity. As well as heavenly flavor that outmatches even a can of ice-cold coke after a 10 hour hike in the Sahara.

This specific, highly decorated breed of cattle was introduced to Japan in the second century. The farmers realized the popularity of the beef so they started to hire people to massage the cattle to improve the quality of the beef and made it a delicacy it is today. Over time, isolated breeding started which maintained good quality. Advanced breeding techniques were developed to give it a distinct taste. You are sure to recognize Kobe beef by its perfect marbling, magnificent flavor, and possessed tenderness of a baby’s cheeks.

All this makes it the most expensive meat in the whole world. You could end up paying up to $100 for a mere 100g in restaurants and up to $40 for self-preparation steak cuts (I’m sure you could go higher if you looked). Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide. Although, since prices vary greatly according to grading and type of cut, there are a myriad of options when it comes to choosing which Kobe beef steak you are going to slowly savor every bite of, while praying you won’t ever get to the last one.

Shopping for a Creative Life

June 25, 2010
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Shopping is an integral part of your travels in Japan. If it isn’t in your itinerary, it should be. You do not, however, need to mindlessly follow the horde of Japanese consumers just for the sake of it. Shopping in Japan can also be as cultural of an experience as is ringing the bell in a Shinto shrine.

Calling itself the “Creative Life Store,” Tokyu Hands is a department store chain that houses multiple floors of stationery, gifts, cooking utilities, home decorations, furniture, gadgets, and super kawaii toys. Wandering around the huge complex, you will quickly realize that apart from providing hours of pleasure and making you miss the last train back to the hotel, Tokyu Hands gives you an insightful glimpse into popular Japanese culture and Japanese ingenuity. Their biggest branch is in Ikebukuro and is well worth the visit. Many of the goods make great gifts to take home, and aren’t expensive. Take a look at their brochure too.

Thanks to the invention of the Internet, you can do some online browsing of the Tokyu Hands merchandise without traveling all the way to Japan. Find something unusual, extremely kawaii, or  bemusing? Send in your discoveries as comments for me and the other readers to see! The site is in Japanese, but that just makes it more amusing. Here’s some stuff I ran into when I was there:

What the…

June 23, 2010

Some might say that the Japanese are somewhat deranged, but I argue that they are just much more creative and imaginative than us, regular folk.

I want to share with you a cool website with videos of wild and entertaining footage mainly taken from Japanese game shows:


Japan Travel Destination: Kobe

June 20, 2010
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Situated in the mid of Honshu, the main island of Japan, Kobe is the capital city of the Hyogo prefecture, and is accessible easily by air, sea and land. It is approximately a three hour ride from Tokyo by the Shinkansen (bullet train), making it a worthy candidate for a daytrip from Tokyo. Along with Kyoto and Osaka, it creates a central hub for the wealth of Western regions of Japan. With most of the houses in semi-Japanese and semi-Western style, the city is opulent in exotic atmosphere. Some houses, known as ‘ijinkan,’ which were occupied by foreign traders in the 19th century, are now open to the public to see and are used sometimes as boutiques or restaurants.

An exciting thing to do in Kobe is to visit the Arima Spas. It is one of oldest spa resorts of Japan. Its mineral rich silver and gold water is said to treat various skin diseases and digestive ailments. Situated around the spa resort are a wide variety of tourist attractions like Zuihoji Park where a popular warlord, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, held a tea ceremony in the fifteenth century. The Onsen Shrine is dedicated to priests who are considered to be the creators of the spa and Tsuzumigataki Fall. Many souvenir shops and luxurious Japanese style hotels inhabit the premises of the resort.

There is no dearth of historical monuments in Kobe. The exceptional architectural design of the Earthquake Museum is sure to leave you mesmerized for a while. You will also definitely wish to enjoy the panoramic views of Kobe and Osaka Bay from Mount Rokko. It’s easy to get to the peak with the use of cable cars. Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is infamous for being the largest suspension bridge, while the Nada district is famous for its Japanese sake. Top it all off with a quiet stroll alongside Kobe’s shiny white harbor and Meriken Park, where you will also find the Kobe Tower that offers panoramic views of the city.

Kobe Harbor

Kobe Harbor

Kobe Harbor 2

Kobe Harbor

Kobe Tower

Kobe Tower

Some other tourist destinations that you would not want to miss on your Kobe trip are Arima Onsen, Sorakuen Garden, Kobe Harborland, Kitano, and Chinatown.

Finally, you can’t go to Kobe without trying some of this:

Kobe Beef

Kobe Beef

But that’s for a whole other post…

The Modern Geisha

June 16, 2010
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A Japanese “geisha” is someone who is professionally trained to entertain guests at social events like dinners. Geishas go through rigorous schooling and are branded at the utmost high level of class – it costs hundreds of dollars to have a geisha accompany you to a restaurant (that must be luxurious itself). Apart from talking with the guests and catering to their needs (things like lighting their cigarettes for them), geishas are masters of traditional dance and musical instruments.

These types of geishas that I just described do still exist in today’s Japan, especially in Kyoto and in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, but they have made way to a modernized version of this time-honored Japanese tradition. The modern geisha world is officially unrelated to the conventional, highly-esteemed ways of the classic geisha, and I do not mean any disrespect when comparing between them. Anyway, this is what I am talking about:

Japanese Modern Geisha 1

Japanese Modern Geisha

Japanese Modern Geisha 2

Japanese Modern Geisha

What you see before you is a menu (yes, menu) of male entertainers at a club, and no, this is not a strip joint for ladies. The woman in the upper-left corner of the first photo is the “mama” who is in charge of the club’s entertainers. Instead of traditional Japanese tea houses and pricey restaurants at which you can enjoy the formal, upscale companionship of a geisha, nowadays things are much more casual. These modern geishas, called hosts or hostesses, are simply good looking men or women (beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I suppose) who will drink, eat, dance, and sing karaoke with you, and make sure that there isn’t a single down time during your night out. Of course, all expenses are on the customer, and expensive they are – every drink ordered to the table must be ordered for the hosts/hostesses, who don’t get drunk because they are secretly served non-alcoholic beverages.

The concept of Japanese hosts and hostesses is similar to inviting a comedian or clown to a party – they make sure people are talking, laughing, and having an overall good time. That’s why it’s not unusual to see groups of ladies or guys occasionally going out to a club and enjoying the company of hosts or hostesses who lively up the atmosphere. There are also Japanese, however, who form longer lasting relationships with their modern geishas. These customers benefit from partying outside any specific club, and instead are privately accompanied to restaurants, karaoke parlors, etc. Everything for a price, of course.

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    Born in Tokyo. Lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for over a decade combined. Author of the book, "All-You-Can Japan: Getting the Most Bang for Your Yen" -

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