Mob Scene or Personal Journey? Choose your own path in Kyoto!


Quick – have there ever been any religious arguments in Japan between Shinto and Buddhist’s? Answer… No!

Our awesome guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum explained that the religions get along so well because they have different mandates. Shinto – the original religion of Japan is about living – births, wedding, celebrations of life – these are all Shinto related experiences. And when you visit a Shinto shrine to pray – you are praying for the continued health and happiness of those you love. Or perhaps you are praying for their speedy recovery. But it’s about living!

Buddhism on the other hand, at least according to our guide’s quick explanation, is about what happens after death, and more importantly perhaps, how you prepare for that. So Buddhist priest have no issues with their congregants going to a Shinto Shrine – and the opposite is also true. In fact, most Buddhist Temples include a Shinto Shrine on the grounds – even the massive training facility at Koyasan had a Shinto Shrine. It was designed as part of the original design in 803 or so and dedicated to the Shinto Gods that protect that area of the world. How cool is that?

All this said and observed, the two religions do have different traditions that dictate how you worship at the shrines or Temples, and one could even comment that they march to the beat of a different drummer.

Shinto Shrines all have Tori Gates — in the case of Fushimari – over 2000 of them. Upon entering or leaving a Shrine, one washes ones hands and mouth, and bows at the gate – upon entering to focus your mind, on leaving to say thank you for letting me visit, and for listening to my prayer.

Shinto traditions place a lot of importance on fortune telling – and there are plenty of options available. Shaking a container with sticks and then picking the fortune that the stick directs you to by number or symbol is very popular. And if you don’t like that fortune – no problem. Just tie that fortune to a nearby tree or post, and then pay again to pick again. Our guide told us that the fortunes are about 70% good, 30% not so good – and it’s considered excellent fortune to get a bad one first – the gods are going to be very happy when you pay a 2nd time for a better fortune.

More costly fortune telling involves a more personal touch – but the idea is the same. Good fortunes go home with you, Bad fortunes stay at the Shrine.

There are also prayer plaques. These are thin wooden objects that you put your personal design on or prayer or both and then hang on boards near the shrines. I loved the ones at the Fushimari Shrine – they were shaped like fox faces, and folks who knew how had decorated them Manga Style.

The Buddhist do it very differently. They chant sutras, meditate, and sound gongs during specific parts of the service. In Shinto, you do your own gong/bell ringing – it’s a more personal approach.

Buddhist monks, like monks the world over, dedicate themselves to their religion, never marrying, and denying their past existence in the hope of reaching nirvana. Shinto priests (men or women) can marry and have children – and choose to live at the Shrine, or just be a day visitor. It’s a much more flexible religion.

But all of this aside – I want to describe my favorite Shrines and Temples!

We happen to adore Zen gardens, particularly the dry stone gardens. So many of our favourite Buddhist places – like Ginkaku-ji Temple (the Silver Pavilion) or Eikando Zenrin-Ji had magnificent stone gardens. Ginkaku-ji actually had both a pond to walk around while meditating, and a double stone garden. The stone gardens were quite small, but very dramatic – and of course hand done.

But Eikando Zenrin-Ji was the favorite of all the Temples we’ve seen. For starters – there were few other tourists – so the experience was a very private one. And the buildings were varied in shape, and we were able to walk inside them to admire the magnificent sliding panels. But the real prize were the varied gardens for meditating. One had a wonderful pond with a waterfall, and places for folks who couldn’t quite do the on the floor kneel to sit and enjoy the place. They even had free hot tea – so you can imagine that the Intrepid Traveler and I took full advantage of the opportunity to just enjoy the space. On the other side of the main mediation hall was a stone garden that along with the curved stone outline, had a water feature. So the sound of moving water was everywhere to be enjoyed.

On the other hand, we have little positive to say about the Nanzenji Temple. It was crowded and unpleasant.

The same thing could be said about the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-Ji. It is not much of a religious experience when you are sharing it with a thousand other folks all snapping pictures and shoving you out of their way. I saw it, but we can’t recommend the experience.

We also tried to visit some of the other Shrines in Kyoto – but in almost every case the sheer popularity of the sites ruined the experience for us. Of those we popped into – the Heian Shrine, the Yaskaka Shrine (formally the Gion Shrine) and even the generally outstanding Fushimari Shrine were just plain mobbed – and not in a nice way. I found the abundance of faux geisha interesting from a photographic point of view, but the giggling, the posing for pictures, the lack of any kind of religious intent just felt wrong. Even the Meiji Shrine that we visited in Tokyo suffered from an overwhelming popularity. Much nicer were several smaller Shrines that we spotted as we walked, and just went inside to pay our respects. Quiet, serene, and peaceful – our kind of religious experience.

Bottom line – do include the Eikando-Ji on your list of must visits when in Kyoto – and spend time looking for smaller, less visited temples and shrines in Japan. You will be glad you did.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Why they do that? (Japanese Curiosities)


We’ve been in Japan for about 2 weeks and I’ve observed some very curious things. Odd enough that I wonder.. is it me, or these things just plain weird. You be the Judge!

1) There are lots of very bent over older people. I mean almost C or U shaped – not just hunched back. We’ve been asking folks and using Google to get an idea about why we see so many folks like this, and have gotten some rather curious answers. As per Google, living thru the war, living thru the hardships of after the war, and diet are all contributors. The tour guide at the Edo-Tokyo Museum agreed that older folks are very hunched over, and told us her mother also suffers from this. But she thinks it’s due to the Vegan Diet that as Buddhist’s, most Japanese enjoyed. And as evidence, she pointed out that as the government put on pressure to change the diet – starting in 1869 with the Meiji Government, the number of severely hunched people decreased. But her mother continued to follow the traditional Buddhist teachings – and her daughter feels that’s why she’s now deformed.

2) Japanese toilets are amazing. Often they even offer bidet functions, and a choice of sounds to cover the sound of you doing your thing. But what they often don’t offer is a way to dry your hands. The better the store or restaurant, the more likely you are to get a hand towel or at least an electric hand dryer. But go a bit down scale, or public – no way to dry your hands. Most Japanese deal with this by carrying small towels at all times – but isn’t this curious?

3) Napkins – the kind you put in your lap when you eat – are also not often provided. And even if they are, they are tiny. Way too small to cover your lap, let alone provide any protection for your clothes. I was told that you should use the warm wet towel provided upon entering to clean your fingers before and during the meal – but how do you protect your clothes? And trust me – when eating with chopsticks – I need clothes protection. Only in one restaurant – a very fancy Teppanyaki place – were ‘Napkins’ provided – and they were in the form of full size aprons.

4) Locking Umbrella stands are the norm. If you go to a museum of any size, you’ll see locking umbrella stands. Since most umbrellas, at least in Tokyo, are similar – rounded handle, with a clear, white and black umbrella part – figuring out which one is yours is a challenge. And there is no question that locking umbrella stands solve the problem – but isn’t it curious?

5) Coloured Hair Clips so you can recognize your shoes. Japanese school kids wear very similar shoes. Black loafers being as much a part of the uniform as the uniform. And since you must take off your shoes constantly – how do you know which ones are yours. Some museums have shelves that have letter and number ids – but we watched a group of high school students solve the problem in a very cute way. They used coloured hair clips to clip their shoes together – and thus there was a rainbow of clips attached to a flood of black loafers. They still had to remember their clip colour and approximate shoe location – but in a sea of similar black shoes – those hair clips really stood out.

6) Japanese business people stand in circles when they chat in a public space. At first I thought – how odd. But when I watched carefully, I noticed that every group of business people I saw always were standing in a circle. We decided that it makes it harder for one person to ‘outrank’ another, and maybe it’s easier to hear each other. But it is curious.

7) Japanese babies are generally very quiet. We’ve seen a lot of young kids out – and I have yet to hear a tantrum. The closest we came was one child who refused her mother’s first offering of food – and the mother quickly gave the child an alternative. The result – quiet and a grateful smile. I wish my kids had been so well behaved. I wonder how they do it.

8) Here’s a real puzzler. In Tokyo, folks always stand on the left side of the escalator , letting folks that want to walk up the escalator do it on the right. I noticed because it is so unnatural to me – and the Intrepid Traveler had to constantly remind me to stand on the left. But in Osaka – and in Kyoto – everyone stands on the right side, leaving the left side to the climbers. How curious is that? Do folks from Osaka feel as awkward as I do in Tokyo? Or do they just automatically adapt?

9) Why do so many young people ‘sleep’ on the subway and buses. The Intrepid Traveler and I think it’s to avoid eye contact with seniors so they aren’t forced to be polite give up their seats. But maybe they really are exhausted.

10) Eating outside seems to be very limited. Folks don’t eat or drink on the street or while riding the subways and buses. We’ve seen folks in parks having a picnic – but there are No Starbucks Coffee Cups, no grabbing an energy bar – no eating at all in random places. And there are lots of ‘take-away’ places. So where and when are folks eating the food they buy that way? We’ve had to search long and hard for a place to sit down and eat lunch – and sometimes never found it. Definitely Curious.

11) Japanese toilet paper isn’t perforated. It took me a long time to figure out why I kept getting toilet paper shreds when ever I tried to tear off a strip – and only after a week (I’m a slow learner) did I realize why all Japanese toilet paper holders have a metal piece across the top. You just hold down the metal piece with one thumb while thought tear upward – and perfect strip of toilet paper results. Isn’t that neat..

12) Kyoto Parking lots are different. Ok – in Canada there’s a gate or an attendant, you drive in, you park, you pay – the gate or the attendant makes sure you have paid before you leave. But here in Kyoto – it’s different. Even a tiny patch of flat cement can be a parking lot – with as few as 3 spaces. So each space is guarded by a device that is sensitive to weight. You drive in to the space and the device pops up – putting a barrier under your car. To release the Barrier – you must pay at the pay station. That action makes the barrier fold back into the pavement – and you drive away. Cool, eh?

13) Last – but I’m sure I’ll think of more as soon as this blog is posted – there are very few public garage cans. Almost none in fact. And this is a society that loves to wrap things up in an extra layer of paper or plastic. You buy a sandwich from a vendor, and it comes in a plastic bag, wrapped in a paper holder – and if you aren’t fast enough – there’s an outer plastic bag as well. But when you finish lunch – where do you put all that plastic. Answer – apparently you carry it around in your purse or pocket until you find one of the extremely rare garbage containers!

Enough Curiosities – Don’t forget to share yours with me!

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid traveler

I’m definitely too noisy for the Japanese


I even got shushed in a museum – and I was talking to myself!

Clearly I am way out of line in the noise continuum.

But in my defence – the Japanese are very very quiet. We took an English tour in the Edo-Tokyo Museum (outstanding) and the tour guide was audible only if you were standing directly in front of her. If you stood even slightly off center – you couldn’t hear her at all. I tried.

And in the subways – as cautious as the Japanese are not to insult foreigners – we’ve been insulted. How do I know? People sitting next to the Intrepid Traveler and I, who think nothing of having a conversation while sitting on the subway, move away the minute another seat opens. This has happened at least 5 times already, and I suspect will continue – since we are unlikely to stop talking just because we’re on the subway.

Speaking of quiet – the subway cars – even if mobbed, are silent. Folks either just stand quietly, or they put their faces very close to those of their infants and whisper to them. There is lot of use of iPhones and like – but always on silent mode. I’ve never heard anyone talking on the phone here in Japan – something that I see and hear all the time in Montreal. And while I have seen (and barely heard) Japanese business people gather in a circle on the station platform to have a conversation, once on the subway – they too fall completely silent.

Even in restaurants – you’ll see a table with folks all using their phones – but you won’t hear any noise. This is less true here in Koyasan, where using phones at the group dinners and breakfast is viewed very negatively by the monks. So folks have no option other than to be silent (impossible for me) or to chat with other’s. Interestingly – we’re seated across from our companions, but closer to the strangers on the right and left. Naturally, the Intrepid Traveler and I have struck up conversations with French, Dutch, Italian and Australian fellow travellers. But I’m definitely the noisiest.

This general sense of quiet makes the occasional noise seem even more startling. I was stunned once when I entered a toilet to the sounds of a Beetle Song, and in the Ginza a police car went by making an announcement that over the general quiet was extremely loud. Today the ringing of bells at noon and 2:00 PM were clearly audible for several kilometres – and the occasionally noisy fellow tourist was disorienting, and frankly annoying. It turns out that even the Japanese get noisy in a cemetery – care to wonder why? We think it’s to scare away evil spirits.

And the rules about being quiet – something we Westerners have never learned – aren’t written down. You have to observe others to understand what being quiet is all about.

But quiet or not – we’re having a wonderful time. And I’ll survive insulting a few Japanese. They probably think I’m just an awkward American anyway.

Signing off – The Soup Lady (with the Intrepid Traveler shaking her head over my shoulder)

Tokyo Subway Primer – It’s not as hard as it looks


A city of 10 Million (1/4 of the entire population of Canada) like Tokyo needs a proper subway system. And boy, does Tokyo have subways.

In fact – there are 3 major companies that run subways under, around, and in some cases above the city. So getting from point A to point B can generally be done several ways – and making a decision about which line, and what route is often a question of price vs speed.

I’ve been using the iphone app maps.me to help me get around – although to be honest, it’s more useful if I’m walking than if I’m on the subway. To use the subway, I must rely on quick reading, and slow walking!

To avoid feeling like a salmon swimming up stream among the bears – walk on the left! And that goes double for riding an escalator. This is not something I’m good at either. My natural tendency is to walk on the right – and I get bumped a lot. No wonder the Japanese think we’re awkward. We keep getting in their way because we walk on the wrong side of – well – everything.

But back to subways – The least expensive in general is the ‘Tokyo Metro System” There’s English on the signs at all the stations, and many of the stations are new. The Ginza line is currently undergoing renovation – so it has the most stations that are a challenge to navigate. The other lines are in much better condition. There are public toilets at all stations (so clean you could eat off the floors), there are well indicated elevators, and most staircases also have an escalator if not two. Clearly this is my favorite system. I particularly like their 24 hour pass – at 600 Yen, it makes sense if you are taking 3 trips or more in the next 24 hours – and that’s pretty easy to do.

The next more expensive is the Toei System – which has 4 lines. This system duplicates a lot of the Tokyo Metro System, and you can buy tickets that allow you to change from one to the other – for a price. We were standing at a station in the Toei System – and the price to go to Ikebukuro was 400 Yen. But if we walked to the nearby station that was part of the Tokyo Metro system, the price to Ikebukuro dropped to 170 Yen. A significant difference. But effectively, unless you realize you are using the subway lines of a different company, you can’t tell when switching from Toei system to Tokyo Metro system.

A note on switching lines. Even within one system – say the Tokyo Metro System – the distances from one line to the other line, officially in the same station, can easily be 250 m or more – that’s pretty far to navigate in a crowded environment. So the better if more time consuming plan is to try not to change lines if possible.

The third system, and my least favourite by far, is the JR Line. Yes – that’s the same company that runs the long distance travel and sells those rail passes. They run a subway system within the city that makes a giant circle with one line that goes out into the islands nearby. It’s not the cheap option, but if you want to go to Tokyo Disneyland, or even out to the Sea Life Park – you will find yourself on these lines. The lines are old, the elevators tiny, and there seemed to only be escalators on rare occasions, and always going the wrong way. Not a winner.

Given this complexity – it shouldn’t be a surprise that each line sells it’s own tickets. And each line sells tickets that will work on the competitors lines (no idea how that works financially), but they won’t sell the discount ticket options that include the competitors.

Now, the nice thing about the ticket machines is that they all have a language button that allows you to pick English. Some just offer English or Japanese – others offer several languages – I’m thinking one might be Chinese. Whatever – English is always an option.

Once in the English option, it’s of course easier to use the machine. And all the machines I saw offered a search by destination station name and often by destination station number. And I have to say – knowing your destination station number is a huge advantage! It’s just one letter for the line, followed by a station number. So rather than remember Ikebukuro- you can remember Y09, F09, or M25. Since you can reach Ikebukuro by 3 different Tokyo Metro lines (Y, F, or M) , as well as it being a stop on the JR line it can be confusing. But still, if you know your station name, and it’s number – that’s a huge help.

Another help when getting around by subway is to realize that most stations have signs every few feet, visible from the metro car, that give you the station name (in English and Japanese), the name of the next station in either direction (both languages) and the station numbers. This make it easy to track your progress thru the system when traveling. And there are announcements – again in both languages giving the next station name and connecting information. The problem is that the way Japanese say the names, even in English, isn’t the way we’d phonetically pronounce them. So it’s a better idea to watch the monitors! Much less confusing.

As for navigating the stations – that can be a nightmare. If you hit a station during rush hour, or even just during a busy time (lunch say), the rapidly moving crowds are daunting, truly daunting. And it is easy to get really confused and turned around. In a station like Ikebukuro there are probably several hundred different stores, not to mention 3 huge department stores and cute pop-up shops as well. Signs are everywhere – pointing you correctly to the destinations, and even giving the distances to the destination, but still – I’ve gotten really lost.

One time I ended up in what can only be called ‘Shopping Hell’. It was a sub-basement of a department store with no apparent way out and the only clothes on sale were size 0 to 3. It was mobbed with young Japanese women, and between the throngs, the garish displays, the flashing signs, and the bowing sales people – it was seriously overwhelming. I think they were as confused as why we were there as we were to be there.

My next piece of advice – learn to hug walls. The Japanese have learned this, and know that putting your back to a wall is the safest option when in a crowded environment. Near the toilets it’s not unusual to see 10 to 15 men all lined up along the wall – waiting we assume for their sig other to exit the ladies room. We learned the hard way that stopping in your tracks in the middle of a passage is a recipe for disaster. At tbe least you are going to get bumped – and I’m not so sure that you wouldn’t get trampled!

And my last piece of advice, and one I gave earlier – walk slowly. If you keep moving, even slowly, the crowds will part around you. And by walking slowly you have the time to visually identify and read the signs. They are extremely well written – giving not only the line, but often several key destinations, so if you are moving slowly, and know where you want to go, you can get there.

Bottom line – the Tokyo Metro System, in all it’s complexity, is a thing of beauty. Use it – Enjoy it – but do it slowly and on the left. Let the folks that know where they are headed flow by – take your time and you too can enjoy the voyage.

Signing off to do more traveling on the Subways of Tokyo – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Edo-Tokyo Museum – A Must See!


We’ve seen hundreds of Museums – seriously – hundreds. So if we love a museum – you have to realize we’re comparing it to some of the best in the world.

And the Edo-Tokyo Museum literally blew our socks off. This is an amazing museum, no matter what your age, your language, your interest level. It is simply stunning.

From the outside, you are already impressed. The first two floors of the massive structure are just the ticket hall, an auditorium, the shops, restaurants, and a special exhibit space. You take an elevator to the 3rd floor – and you are on a massive open air terrace – with the rest of the museum hanging 3 floors above you, supported by just 3 massive pillars.

Stunning.

To reach the permanent exhibit space, you can either take the boring elevator up, or ride an open air escalator up 3 floors to the beginning of the museum proper on the 6th floor.

The interior is simply breath-taking. Directly ahead of you is a vast open space – crossed by a massive wooden bridge 25 meters long. This is a full size model of the original Nipponbashi bridge, but 1/2 the original length. The bridge crosses over the open space – over a full size Noh Theatre on one side and a scaled version of Tokyo from about the thirties to fifties on the other. There are full size rickshaws, bicycles, and similar objects for kids to climb on and be photographed on.

Once across the bridge, there are 3 scale miniatures of sections of Tokyo during the Edo Period. All are done in absolute detail, with incredible precision. Impressive without the explanation, but we had asked for one of the Free (our favourite price point) English guides, and she walked us thru the most interesting parts of the models. I’ve already mentioned the detail – but with her explanation, it was easy to see even more. The rocks holding the roofs down for example, or the tenement housing hidden off the main streets and paid for as an act of charity by the wealthy were just two of the interesting sites to see.

They provide binoculars to help kids (or adults with fading vision) get a closer look at the going ons. The section highlighted is near the famous bridge – which during the Edo Period was a fish market.

Drawings from the period – of which there are lots and lots – spend oodles of time detailing the life of the commoner folk since drawing pictures of the higher court officials including the Shogun and the Imperial Princesses was a crime ending in beheading. So there is ample source material to choose from when doing detailed studies of common life, and the designers of the museum have gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible.

Another section of the museum is devoted to life in the aforementioned tenements – fascinating. There’s information on the omnipresent fire-brigades – a necessity in Tokyo of the period. The fireman were all tattooed- done so that they could be identified if they were killed in the line of duty. And they carried tall poles with horse hide strips that could be spun to keep sparks off the head fire fighters. They had small water buckets – but the primary way of fighting fires was simply to pull down the houses – carefully in the direction that would not incite more flames.

Another section was full of period correct street vendors. That was where we learned that sushi was 5 times larger in those days – and that 2 pieces of sushi was an entire meal. We also learned that almost all Japanese in those days were Buddhist’s – and thus vegan with the exception of fish. The lack of calcium in the diet for over 250 years goes a long way towards explaining the small size and the hunched backs we’ve seen here in Tokyo. Our guide explained that the Meiji Government recognized the problem, and changing the average diet was for them and the Governments after them an important priority.

A small section was devoted to the Noh Theatre – where our guide explained the logic behind the white painted faces. In the days of candle light, it was hard to see faces distinctly – and the Geisha relied on their faces to entertain. So painting them white made them stand out in a room – and the white faces of the actors performed a similar function on the stages of the time.

One more tidbit I want to share before signing off. There was an interactive display with a pole and two buckets for kids and adults to try lifting. Our guide asked us what we thought was inside the buckets. We suggested water – but she said – no – something much much more valuable – human waste. Yup, it turns out that in Edo times, human waste – particularly the waste from wealthy people was used as top quality fertilizer, and the farmers paid dearly for the privilege of taking your waste from your home. So folks would race home if they had to go – keeping the streets clean and putting money in their pockets. Who knew?

So – if you take a day off from shopping in Tokyo and want to do something really informative and interesting – check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I think you’ll thank me for the suggestion.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

The Art of Taking a Bath


Somethings just aren’t quite as simple as one would hope – and taking a bath in Japan is clearly one of those strangely complex things.

I’m used to the etiquette of taking a public bath in Japan – there’s is a space allocated to ‘washing’, and a completely different area used for soaking in the hot water bath. The trick is not to get the soap inside the bath tub. That ruins it for other guests.

But does the same etiquette apply to using a shared bath in an Air BnB?

From the layout of the ‘bathing’ room at Yuuto Village – I’m guessing yes.

The large soaking bathtub is located to the far right of the part of the shower with the hose and the faucets, with it’s own set of faucets. In addition, there is the traditional stool provided – a seat made of plastic intended to be used to sit on while soaping one’s body and eventually rinsing off – before going into the tub. There is even the traditional low mirror, hung carefully so you can see yourself bathing.

This is very nice – but since the guests for the most part are Australians, Europeans and Canadians – I seem to be the only one who realizes that there is a reason for the odd position of the faucet with the hose. All the other guests are trying to stand in the tub to wash…

Maybe this is too much information.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Musings on the Dawn of a new Era


When we were planing our trip – one of the key days that we wanted to be in Japan was May 1, 2019. On the day before the old Emperor was formally abdicating the throne, in favour of his son. And on May 1st – the new Emperor was to be crowned. This would mark the beginning of the Reiwa Era of Japan.

It’s a key moment in history. Nothing like this has happened in Japan for over 200 years – and the planning for this was begun over 5 years ago.

So We were keen to see what, if anything, the Japanese would make of this moment.

And the answer is perhaps not surprising.

Not much is visible to the eyes of a foreigner.

Some Museums honoured the transition by having a free museum day – we went to 2 of them in hopes of there being some kind of something – but nope. Just perhaps more Japanese than normal taking advantage of the opportunity to see their National Museum, but hardly earth shattering impact.

There was a crowd gathered at the automobile exit from the Imperial Palace, we assume in hopes of spotting one of the 2600 invited dignitaries. And there appeared to us to be a bit more of a police presence. Certainly seeing 3 of those big police moving vans was a tad daunting. And there were two helicopters circling the Imperial City air space – I’m guessing either as protection or loaded with news cameras. In the US – it would be news cameras – but in Japan – I’m betting on protection.

And there was a much, much later crowd gathered at the Nippon Budokan – that sports center/music venue. But that crowd of young Japanese women buying fan items for their newest ‘hot’ idol was definitely not thinking of the new era.

So – not much to report I suppose. But at least we were here – and we had a marvellous dinner with the son of the Intrepid Traveler. Which was made more delightful after the challenges of trying to find him in the Ikebukuro Train Station. We’d agreed to ‘text’ each other our locations – but hadn’t figured on the lack of WIFI. I need WIFI to use texting here in Japan – I couldn’t afford a data plan.

After asking several restaurants and tea houses if they had WIFI, I finally decided that the safest bet were the restaurants on the 8th floor of the Seibu Department store. And I was right – they had a public WIFI, and I was able to contact my friend’s son. Whew!

Our dinner, during which the dawning of the new era in Japan was not mentioned – even once – we relaxed and enjoyed completely delicious meat slices cooked quickly over a grill. My favourite – no surprise – the Wagu Beef.

So all in all a lovely day – if not the earth shattering one we’d hoped.

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

2 Down – lots to go!


The Intrepid Traveler and I are museum buffs. Serious museum buffs. So rain or shine, English or no English – we are going to visit as many museums as we can squeeze in while we are here in Japan.

Our plans for today were a bit washed out by the weather, and our own stupidity. Last night it poured – and while our home away from home is lovely – it’s also made of wood with shoji screens on the windows and what I suspect is a tin roof. So while we were safe and dry – unless we were trying to navigate that rickety iron staircase down, the noise of the rain was considerable. We woke a bit sleep deprived – but still ready to rock the world – or at least a tiny section of Tokyo.

After a quick breakfast – with a disastrous attempt at coffee (never liked instant – never will) we headed out – making our first critical mistake of the day. We didn’t grab umbrellas. Clearly overly optimistic – and an error we won’t make again. It poured on and off all day – and we were well and truly soaked by lunch time. I took off my socks and spent the afternoon barefoot in sandals – it was that wet. The Intrepid Traveler fared little better – her ‘rain jacket’ is water resistant – and gave up the ghost after noon.

We navigated ourselves around using maps.me (free off-line GPS map App) and by asking a lot of questions. I’ve gotten very good at showing folks the name of where I want to go in both English and Japanese, and the subway officials are very good at grabbing laminated maps and pointing out the correct locations. We haven’t gotten too lost – I think.

We did wander into the Yushukan Shrine – just 150 years old and dedicated to the war dead of Japan. There was a war relics museum on the site – but we just opted to clap our hands 3 times, toss a coin into the offering box, and make a quick prayer. It was a relaxing interval in an otherwise busy day.

But I digress. This blog is about our first 2 museums in Tokyo.

The Showa Memorial Museum was outstanding. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. While it definitely presents a bit of a white-washed view of what life in Japan during and shortly after WWII was like – it was absolutely fascinating – and featured a free (and extremely well worth it) audio guide in English. The museum itself is just a collection of objects and photos dating from that time period – mostly taken in Tokyo – but the slice of life that is represented is interesting, meaningful, and intriguing. My personal highlight was the rising sun lunchbox. Those who have read “Memoirs of a Geshia” might recall her mentioning it. It was amazing to actually see one.

I also found the sections on how schools were impacted intriguing. At first of course – the changes were made to encourage nationalism – textbooks rewritten to praise the Emperor and to inspire children to become good soldiers. As time went on, the need for children to want to be soldiers became more and more intense, and the schools were told point blank to work towards that direction. Eventually the need for factory workers because even more important than the need for soldiers – and school kids were taught how to operate machines. Towards the end, as more and more children were evacuated from Tokyo, the school system shut down.

After the war ended, and the children returned to Tokyo to find most school buildings destroyed or at least severely damaged. Classes resumed – but outdoors or in layered time periods as less damaged schools were used by multiple classes. Eventually textbooks went back to standard formats – but for a while they were only available in heavily censored 1940 versions. Growing up in this time period – which corresponds to when I was growing up – must have been very challenging.

Another section dealt with what happened to the War Widows. At first they were considered war heroes and given a pension. But when the war ended – that changed drastically. Widows were no longer heroes, they no longer got a pension, and many of them had no career training. Life for them was intensely challenging, simple survival because almost impossible.

All in all – the museum was well worth the visit.

A bit dryer, we now had to walk to our next port of call – the Momat – The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. To get from the Showa to the Momat required us to walk past a lovely garden – but given the rain – we opted not to spend time there. We also strolled past the Nippon Budokan – a huge sports center that today was hosting a K-Pop concert. The crowds were considerable – and clearly out for a great time.

Following my open door policy (if a door is open – go in) – we also wandered into the East Imperial Palace Garden – which was having a free admission day. This is the grounds of the original Edo Palace – dating from the time of the Shogun, and while today it is just a lovely garden, at one time must have been a magnificent collection of buildings and flowering paths that the Imperial Court wandered at their leisure.

But eventually we made it to the Momat. After the highlight of the Showa, I must admit that the Momat was very disappointing. I found that given the wealth of Tokyo, and the intriguing public art that surrounds us as we wander the streets of the city, I absolutely expected more – a lot more – of the Momat. The price however was right – it was free to seniors over 65 – and worth exactly what we paid for it. At least we were dry.

So one winner – one loser – and wet feet. The story of our 2nd day in Tokyo.

For dinner we opted to eat in – Fresh Udon Noodles and Fried Boneless Chicken Breast. It was actually quite acceptable as a meal. About half way thru dinner – the guests that I thought spoke no English joined us – and to our surprise the young guy (Trung) spoke excellent English. His friend Anne spoke only Vietnamese and Japanese (Right – only 2 languages… sigh) We had a completely delightfully fun evening getting to know them.

They are from Vietnam, but are currently living here in Japan. Trung (27) is a student in the north of Japan, and is studying Japanese methods of Site preservation. He intends to go back to Vietnam and work there preserving the shrines and other religious sites that abound – and absolutely need preservation. We asked about getting the funds needed to do such work – and he assured us that religious sites have little trouble raising money – at their hearts the Vietnamese are quite religious.

Our conversation was wide ranging – from concerns about aging (another blog) to more political topics. – Trung told us about the Japanese law that restricts building habitation to just 25 years. According to him – and I want to confirm this somehow – After 25 years, homes (I’m guessing new construction only, or perhaps homes that are built quickly – not apartment buildings) are declared uninhabitable and must be torn down and rebuilt. He says that the law was written shortly after the end of WWII – and is based on the fact that there are earthquakes every 10 seconds in Japan. Most are very Mild ones I’m guessing since I haven’t felt any since we’ve been here. Which is a good thing. Anyway – Many homes are built of cheap materials – put up quickly – and just as quickly fall into ruin. He told us that 20% of the homes in Tokyo are currently condemned and thus vacant. And we have seen vacant homes that have clearly fallen on hard times. Even the home we are staying in was in ruins before the current owner (the grand-daughter of the original owner) rebuilt it in 2015. And she has the pictures to prove it.

He also spent quite some time discussing the current history of Vietnam, giving us an interesting if to our minds one sided and clearly a school taught view of the situation leading up to the US involvement. He felt strongly that life in Vietnam was much improved at present – I can only hope he’s right.

Eventually we toddled off to bed. I wore not only my nightgown, but also a long sleeved turtle neck and socks. I’m not getting cold tonight.

Tomorrow is another day.

The Soup lady and the Intrepid traveler – signing off.

Finding Cheap Food in Tokyo isn’t simple


We woke this morning to a sunny sky and warm(ish) weather. Our room hadn’t gotten any larger overnight of course – but the bed was comfy, and the AC worked a treat. So all in all – a nice night.

Breakfast was included in the rate if you recall – and it was well worth it! I was quite impressed with both the quality and quantity of food on offer at the APA Narita.

We’d wondered if they were going to go Japanese on us – or offer a more European take on Breakfast, and the answer was that they did it all. There was a lovely coffee machine with two different types of coffee – robust and mild. And a multitude of ways to prepare the coffee – ranging from plain black to Cafe Vienna – an almost 80% milk version that was quite delicious. I tried several options, and decided the Cafe au Lait was my favorite.

Breakfast included a simple cereal bar and two huge rice pots – one with plain and one with Shrimp fried rice, There was a bowl of orange slices, a bowl of grapefruit slices, and several different kinds of yogurt. There was tofu prepared 3 ways, egg omelets that were delicious, and some fried croquettes of potato. There were slices of smoked mackerel, a selection of salads, and even a European collection of rolls and butter. Something for everyone I suppose – and a hit with all. We took our time over breakfast, and eventually got asked to leave as they were closing the dinning area to prepare for lunch.

We went back to our tiny room, packed our bags and headed out to make our way from Narita to our lodgings in Tokyo. The night before they’d explained that we needed to walk thru one train station to get to the JR line – and they were exactly right. We found an information booth and were able to buy our tickets from them. Signs in both English and Japanese were everywhere – so it was simply a matter of reading them all to decide where we should go to catch our train.

Strangely the streets and the train seemed empty – it was only in mid-afternoon that we realized today is an official bank holiday in Japan. But it is much easier to get around when most folks aren’t trying to get to and from work – so this makes traveling on a bank holiday a pleasure.

Our trip into Tokyo was uneventful – if a tad long. The train travels thru part of the ‘rice’ belt of Tokyo – and we passed rice field after field being planted. Soon enough we started to hit the city proper – it is simply amazing how crowded the area around Tokyo has become. The Intrepid Traveler’s son had told his mom that the population of Tokyo is the same as all of Canada! And I believe it.

Our goal was a stop called Shiinamachi. As is the norm in Japan – if you look lost for even a second, someone is highly likely to come and offer you some assistance! Three times on our trip into the city, a local person would decide we looked confused, and offer to help. Once the help consisted of calling a friend on her phone – and him trying to FaceTime to help us. Amazing the Japanese.

But we were armed with a set of photo directions to guide us to Yuuto Village – an Air BnB listing that is to be our base in Tokyo.

A traditional style home dating back to the 70’s – it was tucked behind other homes, barely rating an address. But our hostess had worked hard on her photo guide, and we found the house with little problem. I just wished she’d told us to walk past the children’s park – that tiny landmark would have made us a lot more comfortable. But I digress.

The home is a single house with 4 bedrooms – not quite built in a traditional style, but of wood. – with sliding glass shoji screens on the windows and a distinctly Japanese feel to the space. There are no ‘chairs’ in the western sense of the word, but there are lots of cushions – some of which pile up high enough so that Jill and I aren’t quite sitting on the floor – a position we would find difficult to get back up from.

The main floor consists of a lovely open living area on the first floor, with 3 bedrooms upstairs – accessed up a rickety and very steep iron staircase. Downstairs, along with the living room area, there’s a small kitchen, a single bedroom, a toilet, and a ‘bath’ room that contains only a bathtub and a shower. A separate sink provides for ample washing up options. Up stairs there’s a second smaller toilet – so at least we won’t have to navigate the iron staircase in the middle of the night.

The upstairs toilet is a design I’ve never seen before – there is no sink in the space – instead the water to fill the toilet when you flush it (up for light flush, down for serious flushing) comes from a spout about 8″ above the tank of the toilet. So it’s an all in one operation. Do your thing, flush, and then hold your hands under the spout to rinse. And don’t forget to bring your wash cloth – or you are wringing your hands to dry them!

I haven’t described our room. It’s fairly large, with 2 futons on the floor and 3 huge windows for plenty of light. There is no storage – none. There is a shelf which we’ve decided to use for our suitcases – although getting to it means stepping on Jill’s bed. I think two of those folding suitcase holding thingys would be greatly appreciated. But it’s large and airy and has AC. Not that we’ve needed it – but good to know I suppose.

We have arrived too early – and housekeeping is still working on our 2nd floor room. That means we must leave our suitcase in the living area – and check out the neighbourhood. I brought prunes with me from Canada – which I put in the fridge on the shelf with our unit number – and we head out.

The neighbourhood is decidedly residential – and as I’ve never seen a residential area in all my trips to Japan – quite a lovely surprise. The nearest roads – if you want to call them roads – are one and a third car widths wide, with ‘pedestrian’ sections – can’t call them sidewalks – on each side. It’s quite lovely strolling. There’s a fairly large children’s park nearby – and it is being well used.

We find a Yakiton – a very small, very local restaurant that serves grilled Pork meat on skewers. Options include heart, tongue, colon, meatballs, and kidney). We try 2 of the offerings, but our favorite is the egg roll. Not a Chinesse egg roll – this is an omelet – and it is delicious. But despite the casual look and feel – this super light repast costs us 840 Yen. That’s a lot on a budget trip – we are going to have to be super careful. The problem was the tea – 2 glasses cost us 400 Yen. That’s pricy for hot water…

After that refreshment, we decide to head back to the train station. While the local station is just that – a train station, we’d gone thru a huge station called Ikebukuro just one stop away. There we’d spotted a department store and a lovely noodle restaurant. It costs 150 Yen one way per person to go just one stop – but we figure it will be worth it. We know that this station is open, and around our Air BnB – lots of things seemed closed for the bank holiday.

Ikebukuro doesn’t disappoint us. It’s bustling and lively – and while not packed – thank goodness – it’s fun to wander. There is a huge double supermarket on the first basement level – actually 3 huge supermarkets joined by a serious of corridors. We wander the one called ‘The Gardens’ – it is a very upscale shop, with lots of free tastes. I love the sautés meat that one gal is handing out – and there is another gal with two different kinds of cakes. You’d think that we’d be easily identifiable – we’re almost the only Westerners in sight – but at least the cake gal is willing to hand out tastes every time we walk by.

We select about 1300 Yen worth of food for dinner – a pre-cooked chicken cutlet, two different kinds of breads (one turns out to be gently stuffed with ham and cheese, the other is sweet. (Oops)). Plus I spot a lovely looking sponge cake loaf. We search the veggie section for something reasonable – but 3 Asparagus are almost 400 Yen, and a single ear of corn on the cob (which admittedly looks perfect) was another 300 Yen. I’m worried about my normally veggie oriented diet. I think that lettuce might be the only veggie we can afford.

We leave ‘The Gardens’ and realize that there are actually 2 more supermarkets attached. One is a ‘premium’ 7-11 – and the only thing 7-11 about it is the name. It’s huge. There are a line of people waiting for something, but with all the signs in Japanese, we can’t figure it out. We wander all the isles of this store, then head into the third supermarket. This is a ‘fish’ store – selling all kinds of fish and seafood – and seaweed. Piles and piles of seaweed. I think they might have been offering tastes – but I’m not that interested… Silly me really.

We finally decide it’s time to head home – but I can’t resist asking what the line-up is for. Turns out that at 5:00 PM every day they sell sliced Roast Beef at half price. You get a ‘card’ from the guy holding the ‘this is the end of the line’ sign, and tell him how much you will be buying. He deducts this from the total available, and lets you join the line if there will be any left. No – I didn’t learn how to speak Japanese overnight – a kind lady in line explained all this to me – along with a mention that the Roast Beef is delicious. Not ones to miss a bargain – the Intrepid Traveler and I join in. Eventually it’s our turn to order our mini portion – we are now down another 460 Yen – and it is definitely time to head home.

Back at Yuuto Village – our fellow guests finally appear. There are two guys from Germany who speak quite excellent English, 2 younger ladies from Australia (a mother and a daughter) – plus a couple of Asians who speak no English at all.

We spend a bit of time discussing who has done what that day – and then eat our independent dinners. The Intrepid Traveler and I decide on our plan for the next day – we’re going to hit the Showa Memorial Museum – a history museum focused on the effects of post WWII, and a neighbouring garden – assuming weather permits. It is at this point that I discover that the Prunes I carefully put in the refrigerator have disappeared. I’m shocked. Who would steal Prunes.

Turns out that the cleaning lady, as part of her duties, cleans the kitchen. And since the guest in 201 had checked out that morning, and despite her knowing that we’d already arrived – she assumed that my prunes were left overs and removed them. I’m disappointed of course – but what can I do. They are well and truly gone.

I’m definitely going to have to buy more veggies.

Our cash expenses for day, mostly for food – and a bit for travel are almost 40,000 Yen – that’s $40 Canadian – and right at the tippy top of our budget. There’s enough food left for maybe one meal – but we are going to have to find a way to get food for less. But that is a struggle for another day.

Tonight we climb the steep staircase to our traditional room – 2 futons with comforters and not much else. One of the German gentlemen carries both of our bags up the stairs in one go.. (sigh – to be young and strong) – so at least we are saved that challenge.

Tomorrow is another day.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler