Smart & Cheap Japan Travel

The Fast & The Delicious: Tokyo Swift

July 7, 2011
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Living, working, and even traveling in Japan could be quite hectic. You’ll see that you turn to fast food pretty much everyday in Japan just to keep up with the pace of life there. The truth is, though, that any restaurant food in Japan, even at what you would call sit-down restaurants, is fast. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than 10-15 minutes for my food in Japan. Japanese fast food is a bit different from your synthetic Mcdonald’s hamburger (though there’s plenty of that too). There are plenty of casual and inviting places where you can get great food at great prices and unbelievably quickly.

The most notorious fast food restaurants in Japan (and now in the US as well) are the beef bowl – “Gyudon” – restaurants. These include 24-hour chains such as “Yoshinoya,” “Matsuya,” and “Sukiya.” Yoshinoya is the largest chain of beef bowl restaurants in Japan. The first one was opened in Tokyo’s fish market in 1899. These chains compete heavily for customers, leading to price wars that have brought down the cost of a beef bowl to about $3. Although the beef bowls are prepared primarily with American beef, an import ban from 2004 to 2006 caused a slowdown in production, and either Australian beef or Japanese beef was used instead. Today beef bowl lovers are able to once again enjoy the original taste. Beef bowl chains serve much more than the beef-on-rice delight; you can choose from a variety of beef bowls prepared with different sauces and toppings, or you can go for something completely different like curry-rice. Everything is prepaid for using automatic ticket vending machines at the entrance.

With the influence of Western culture on Japan, burgers have started dominating the country’s fast food industry. McDonald’s does, however, not have a monopoly over the burger and fries market, as chains such as “Mos Burger” serve very respectable grub. Both in McDonald’s and the Japanese chains, the originally American delicacies are served with a unique Japanese twist to them. The chicken teriyaki burger at Mos is to die for.
“First Kitchen” is another fast food joint in Japan where you can not only find burgers, but also soups, pizza, pasta, floats and ice cream. This chain serves fries in eight different flavors!

Burger at a Japanese "Family Restaurant"

Burger at a Japanese "Family Restaurant" - Casual and fast

If you are using the trains to travel around in Japan, which you probably are, you will come across “soba” or buckwheat noodle stands at almost every station. These places offer simple noodle-soup dishes with various toppings. Ordering and payment are usually settled at the entrance with automatic vending machines here as well. Ramen noodle restaurants, though not always located next to train stations, are just as fast and delicious.

Noodles, burgers, and beef bowls have been long recognized as fast food items, but the recent fast food craze in Japan is “Takoyaki,” which are round grilled octopus dumplings. There is nothing new about the food itself, as it’s consumed regularly at festivals and other occasions, but many Takoyaki specialty stores have started popping up around the country, one of them being the “Gindaco” chain.

And when all else fails, there’s always that 24/7 convenience store around the corner.

Japan Travel Destination: Okinawa

June 16, 2011
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The birthplace of karate, home to rich culture and traditions and magnificent architecture, Okinawa consists of a 1000 kilometers long chain of hundreds of the Ryukyu Islands that can be divided into three main groups: Okinawa Islands, Miyako Islands, and Yaeyama Islands. There is plenty to explore and enjoy in this region; its sandy beaches and breathtaking coral reefs offer a both relaxing and lazy vacation and thrilling adventurous aquatic sports.

Okinawa is the home of the Ryukyuan people. The customs and traditions show influences of Chinese, Thai and Austronesian cultures. Karate is one the most infamous cultural gift to the world, developed originally in the Ryuku Islands. Eisa dance depicts the fun and frolic aspect of the culture. Okinawans do not follow Buddhism like most of the Japanese. Rather, they have their own religious beliefs and believe in ancestor worship, and are devoted to the gods and spirits of the natural world.

The Okinawan diet is very sparse on calories. The nutrient rich food, genetic inheritance and environmental factors have made Okinawa a place with one of the highest life expectancy levels in the world. Traditional diet includes of lot of green and yellow vegetables. Sweet potato is also among the main ingredients. Other well-known specialties include the Okinawa “Soba” (buckwheat noodles), mango, a bitter version of a melon called “Goya,” black sugar, sea grapes, and much more. Okinawans eat a small amount of fish as well. The tastes you experience are quite different from what you would get in typical Japanese food.

In Japan, Okinawa is known for its optimal conditions to enjoy water sports. The archipelago in Okinawa is the best diving destination in Japan. Divers and snorkelers find heaven in the waters as they are home to more than 400 types of corals, five types of sea turtles, and numerous types of tropical fish, in addition to manta rays, hammerhead sharks and whale sharks. Surfing is another famous aquatic activity in Okinawa. Surfers come across some quite challenging waves. Offshore fishing can also be enjoyed in the region. Some of the fish species that can be spotted all year round in the waters are mahi mahi, tuna and marlin.

Born Shinto, Married Christian, Buried Buddhists: Religions of Japan

May 14, 2011

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While Western liberal secularism has come to be ridiculed as yet another form of a repressive organized religion, it seems that the Japanese have figured out a way to truly live as they wish. Where else would you find someone who is born within one religion, marries under entirely different customs, and dies as a member of a third religion? Although Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion (or, more precisely, spirituality), with most births registered with Shinto shrines, the population follows Buddhist and Christian practices as well. Japan is a role model for tolerance in our increasingly polarized world.

Shinto in Japan
Shinto, literally meaning “Way of Gods,” is Japan’s indigenous religion. You will come across several denominations of Shinto in Japan. The most widespread is Shrine Shinto followed by Folk Shinto and Sect Shinto. The imperial family of Japan follows its own brand of Shinto known as the Imperial Household Shinto. Much of the Shinto religion in Japan has been influenced by Buddhist practices. Ko-Shinto, or “Old Shinto” aims to follow the original Shinto prior to the introduction of Buddhism.

Buddhism in Japan
In Japan, you will find mainly three forms of Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is most common. Nara Buddhism is practiced in some parts of the country, though not as much as Mahayana. With the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century, both Shinto and Buddhism were practiced in tandem. However, in 1886, the two were separated as part of the Meiji Restoration. In this separation, Shinto got the status of the official religion. Today, when they pass away, the Japanese choose to be cremated according to Buddhist rituals. In general, they use Shinto for events relating to life, while Buddhism is for events pertaining to death and the afterlife.

Christianity in Japan
Christianity was introduced in Japan by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Toyotomi Hideyoshi of the Momoyama period imposed a ban on Christian missionaries, but the ban was withdrawn during the Meiji Restoration in 1873 and missionaries again started spreading their message. Western Japan has been most heavily influenced by Christianity, though Christian weddings are emerging as a prominent alternate to traditional Shinto wedding ceremonies throughout Japan. Wedding chapels are even being designed as churches. The Japanese also celebrate other Christian holidays and traditions such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day.

A Pink Light at the End of the Tunnel

April 6, 2011
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After a disastrous and tragic month of March this year in Japan, among the ongoing efforts to rebuild and accommodate for the dislocated hundreds of thousands, the blossoming cherry trees of April make us realize that life goes on. Impressive large cherry or “ume” trees are covered with mesmerizing pink flowers, their petals occasionally branching off and swaying peacefully in the warm spring breeze. Their breathtaking beauty provides a sense of hope for Japan’s future.

This time of year is most popular for visiting Japan, and for good reason. Locals and tourists alike flock to witness the “Sakura” or cherry blossom. During this time the Japanese host an exceptional nature event that goes by the name of “Hanami,” literally meaning flower viewing or observation. Hanami consists of picnics and feasts held under Sakura or cherry trees. It is said that “Hanami” began back in the 8th century during the Nara period. It was the Heian period when Emperor Saga himself started holding these flower-viewing parties. For a while the custom was limited to the ruling elite, and events were held in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. However, Hanami spread to Samurai society in the Edo period. It was further encouraged by Tokugawa Yoshimune who planted cherry blossom trees in various areas throughout Japan. The tradition continues to this day, and every year families and friends festively gather under Sakura trees from Okinawa in January to Tokyo in April to Hokkaido in May. Hanami during nighttime is known as “Yozakura.” In Okinawa, for example, you will find Sakura trees decorated with hanging lanterns for this occasion.

You will find cherry blossom trees all over the country, though there are few specific places that are notable for holding the Hanami event. One place that should be there on your list is Yoshino-Yama located in the central part of Nara Prefecture. It is a mountainous region with over 30,000 Sakura trees. Also, the castle town of Hirosaki is notable for its Sakura Festival. Finally, if you are visiting Japan in the month of April, you should not miss out on the cherry blossom viewing tunnel at the Japan Mint in Osaka. This week long event draws hundreds of travelers.

True Grit: My Thoughts on the Japanese Crisis

March 19, 2011
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On March 11th, 2011 Japan’s northeast coast was hit by a devastating earthquake causing damage with a tsunami, fires, nuclear reactor explosions, and blackouts. As rescuers dig up bodies and engineers struggle to prevent a nuclear catastrophe, the official death toll rises to nearly seven thousand people, with even more reported missing and hundreds of thousands remaining homeless. The already sluggish Japanese economy has been hit hard, as public transportation and electricity disruptions continue.

I’m not on an expert on nuclear technology. I am neither a seismological expert nor a specialist in crisis management. I can only attest to one thing based on my personal experience in Japan, and that is to the grit, resilience, and decency of the Japanese people. Many have asked why there has not been any looting in the aftermath of the earthquake, and why desperately hungry people orderly line up for food. It is said that true human nature comes out in extreme situations, breaking loose from the chains of society. Well folks, you are now witnessing true and unique Japanese bio-psychosocial nature, and it is quite different from all us other humans even though we are all one species. I can promise to you that Japan will come out of this crisis stronger, and continue to contribute to the world with their technological ingenuity and their message of humility and respect.

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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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