Postcard From: Senso-ji

The entrance to Senso-ji temple is the Kaminarimon, or ‘Thunder Gate,’ with the first of three giant paper lanterns, famous throughout Japan. On either side of the gate are large wooden statues of fierce Buddhist gods, who protect the temple. On the right is the god of wind, and on the left the god of thunder. (Photo is from – it was too crowded the day we passed through to take a picture)

On our trip to Japan in March, on our list of places not to miss was Sensō-ji temple. WenYu, YaYu and I had been unable to see it when we visited Japan in 2015, so this time we were determined to go. Not only is the shrine itself a fascinating and imposing site, and the surrounding neighborhood interesting as well, but we also knew we would be sure to find ramen shops there, and YaYu was determined to have a bowl of authentic Japanese ramen before we headed for home.

Located in the Asakusa district of Tokyo, Sensō-ji is the oldest temple in Tokyo. The temple is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin), the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is the most visited religious site in the world, with over 30 million visitors annually. The original temple was constructed in 645 C.E., but was bombed and destroyed during World War II. It was rebuilt following the war and is a popular destination for both Japanese and foreign visitors. Entrance to the temple grounds is free.

The temple area was extremely crowded the day we visited, although we never found out why other than it was a nice spring day. It was difficult to take pictures as well as get through the crowd, and we missed getting to see the temple’s impressive five-story pagoda. Still, everyone visiting was polite and at times it seemed more like we were participating in a festival than visiting a religious shrine.

After passing through the Kaminarimon, we headed down Nakamise, “Center Street.” It’s a long, straight road lined with souvenir shops on either side. There are lots of fun things to look at, but we didn’t buy anything (mainly because it’s mostly geared to tourists and overpriced).

At the end of Nakamise is the Hōzōmon, or “Treasure House Gate.” It contains the second huge, distinctive paper lantern in the center, flanked on either side by two large black and gold lanterns. One the sides of the gate are two more of the large statues of gods -these two are Nio, the guardian deities of Buddha.

Hondō, the main temple hall, is straight ahead and across a paved courtyard after passing through the Hōzōmon.

We passed under a third giant lantern as we made our way into the main hall to view the altar. The lanterns at the temple are replaced around every 10 years.

The interior of the main hall is protected from visitors, but you can still view the main altar. There was a ceremony being performed while we were there, but we could only watch for a few moments as there were long lines waiting behind us for their turn to view the altar.

In the courtyard in front of the main hall is a giant brass urn where worshipers burn incense. The smoke from the incense is wafted over parts of the body that are ailing, while prayers are said.

Because of the crowds, we weren’t able to make it over to the pagoda, which is to the left of the main hall (photo courtesy of Wikipedia).

On the right side of the main hall courtyard visitors can catch a view of the Tokyo Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world. Completed in 2011, the tower is used primarily for broadcasting, but contains a restaurant and observation platform and is a very popular attraction in Tokyo.

Cherry blossoms at the temple were just getting ready to open.

The Asakusa neighborhood is ‘old Tokyo’ and there are many restaurants and shops in the area serving or selling traditional foods and folk crafts. At one ramen restaurant, in an old-style building, a statue of a peasant from the past can be seen perched on the roof with his umbrella.

We saw several people carrying ‘melonpan,’ or melon bread, so called because its shape is reminiscent of a cantaloupe. These large loaves of sweet bread could be enjoyed plain, or split and filled with whipped cream.

The little Inu Hariko figure I bought, my favorite Japanese folk character. He looks like a cat, but is actually a dog.

We walked back to the main road, to get back to the station, down a side road that had the backs of the Nakamise souvenir shops on one side. One of the things I remembered from past visits to Sensō-ji was a wonderful gelato shop at the end of this road, but when we got to the end we discovered the gelato place was no more. The small shop selling folk toys and paper that I remembered was still there though, and I bought myself a small Inu Hariko made of papier-mâché. Back on the main street we found a ramen restaurant, and after standing in line for a while were finally seated. YaYu and Brett both got ramen, and I ordered stir-fried pork and cabbage – delicious!

Our outing was an adventure, a very Japanese one with the crowds of people present, but well worth the effort. We were all glad we had gone, and hope to go back again next time we visit Japan so we can see the pagoda.

Japan Giveaway #2 Winner & Japan Giveaway #3: Ultimate KitKat Tasting Experience

The randomly selected winner of the Japanese Kitchen Set in Giveaway #2 is: UnwrittenLifeBlog – congratulations!! I will be contacting you by email this afternoon and will get your prize off to you as soon as possible. Once again, I want to thank everyone that entered for the lovely comments. I have the best readers, and wish I had a prize to give to everyone that entered.

I’ve saved what I think is a very fun prize for the last giveaway this week: the Ultimate KitKat Tasting Experience! Inside the red cloth pouch above are 13 different flavors of snack-size Japanese KitKats.

The flavors the winner of this giveaway will receive are:

Top Row: Shinshu Apple, Japanese Strawberry, Dark Chocolate, Rum Raisin, Okinawan Sweet Potato

Middle Row: Matcha (green tea), Wasabi, Cherry Blossom-Green Tea, Sake, Roasted Tea

Bottom Row: Strawberry Cheesecake, Melon, Raspberry

This giveaway will end on Wednesday, April 19, at midnight HST, with the winner announced the following day. The rules for this giveaway are the same as for the first two plus one new way to win an entry:

  • Comment on this page. You can comment every day until the giveaway, but just once a day. The more entries you have, the greater your chances of being chosen the winner! I will post the link a couple of extra times during the week. Commenting in another post will not count.
  • Subscribe to “The Occasional Nomads.” If you are already a subscriber, you will receive one extra entry. Please comment below and let me know that you are already a subscriber or that you just joined.
  • Post about the giveaway on your own blog, if you have one, and receive one additional entry.
  • There’s also an extra way to earn an extra entry this time: Guess which one is my favorite! I won’t answer in the comments, but if you guess right I’ll add an extra entry to your total.

The winner will be announced in the blog and also notified by email. You must respond by comment to the blog or to the email to receive your KitKat Tasting Experience (I will email you back to find out where to send them). Also, I can only mail to addresses in the U.S. and Canada.

Looking forward to hearing from you – you know you want to try them!

Giveaway Winner & Japan Giveaway #2: Japanese Kitchen Set

First, the randomly chosen winner of the bird cookies is Laurel – congratulations! I will contact you via email later today to get your address and will have the package off to you as soon as possible. I want to thank everyone that entered for all the many lovely comments – I wish I had cookies to send to everyone!

But, you have a chance to win again!

This week’s giveaway includes some fun (and useful) kitchen items from Japan:

  • Two hashioki. These blue & white chopstick rests are hyōtan (gourd) shaped. Hyōtan are a popular design motif in Japan – in the past the gourds were emptied and dried and used to carry sake. The hashioki can also be used as knife rests.
  • A set of four chopsticks (called “ohashi” in Japanese). Each chopstick has a different color and design: brown/sliced lotus root, blue/Mt. Fuji, red/hyōtan, green/mosquito coils (a sign of summer). The chopsticks could also be used as hair sticks or decorations.
  • A small floral tea caddy. The small red metal caddy (it’s just 3″ tall) has a tight seal, and could hold a few tea bags, some spices, or whatever you like!
  • A tenugui (Japanese cotton hand towel). The colorful cotton towel is printed with a design of koinoburi, Japanese carp kites. Koinoburi are displayed throughout Japan in early May, for the Children’s Day holiday (May 5). The tenugui can be machine washed, and becomes softer over time, or could be used as a wall hanging.

This giveaway will end at midnight HST on Wednesday, April 12, with the same rules for entry as last week’s giveaway:

  • Comment on this page. You can comment every day until the giveaway, but just once a day. The more entries you have, the greater your chances of being chosen the winner! I will post the link a couple of extra times during the week. Commenting in another post will not count.
  • Subscribe to “The Occasional Nomads.” If you are already a subscriber, you will receive one extra entry. Please comment below and let me know that you are already a subscriber or that you just joined.
  • Post about the giveaway on your own blog, if you have one, and receive one additional entry.

The winner will be announced in the blog and also notified by email. You must respond by comment to the blog or to the email to receive the kitchen set (I will email you back to find out where to send them). Also, I can only mail to addresses in the U.S. and Canada.

Postcard From: The Cup Noodles Museum

Welcome to the Cup Noodles Museum!

This is probably not a museum many visitors to Japan know about, let alone would consider visiting on a trip to Japan, but we had a two-fold reason for checking out the Nissin Foods Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama this time: 1) YaYu loves cup noodles, and 2) I taught English conversation at Nissin Foods from 1981-1983. Our son and grandson decided to join us on our visit to the museum last week, which turned out to be a good thing – without our son along we would have gone to the wrong station!

Cup noodles are a big deal in Japan, and come in an amazing array of flavors these days – there are whole aisles in markets dedicated to them. But, a whole museum devoted to cup noodles? As it turns out, instant and cup noodles are more than a quick and convenient meal in Japan – they are also an inexpensive and easy way to provide nourishment all over the world, especially following a disaster, something I had never considered. Momofuku Ando’s invention has proven to be far more than a convenience food, and has been truly life-saving in some cases.

The Cup Noodles museum is located next to Yokohama harbor, an eight-minute walk from Minatomirai station.

Not everything is as it seems!

The purpose of the museum is not only to tell the story of cup noodles, but to help stir creativity and curiosity in children, and show the power of creativity, invention, and determination in finding ways to achieve your goals and dreams. Ando’s motto, “Never give up!” is repeated throughout the museum.

I loved this interactive exhibit: When you touch the item on the wall, a picture of the item appears above it as well as the thing that inspired it, encouraging children to think creatively. The steam shovel, for example, was inspired by a bird (crane).

One of the beautiful sculptures in the museum. I looked closely and still couldn’t figure out what’s holding it up.

The museum has two interactive areas that cost a bit extra to experience: the Cup Noodle Factory, where you can make your own “custom” cup noodles, and the Chicken Ramen Factory, where you make your own instant ramen noodles from scratch and then oil-dry them to take home to prepare later. The Chicken Ramen Factory looked like a lot of fun – everyone from adult to child was wearing a souvenir head scarf and apron while they worked – but there was a long wait for an opening, so we decided to go to the Cup Noodle Factory. Upon entry to the “factory” we paid our 300¥ admission by purchasing a noodle cup. We were then directed to a table to write the date on our cup (the finished product is good for a month) and decorate our cups with our own design. There were also “menus” at each table with all the choices available to create our own cup noodles. We could chose one of four broth flavors, and any combination of four from 16 dehydrated ingredients. After we were done with our drawings we were sent to the “building area” where we presented our cup, and a cheerful employee created our custom cup noodles. Each cup was then given a lid and sealed in plastic, just like you’d find it in a store, and finally placed into an inflated plastic carrying pouch so that it didn’t get destroyed on the way home. The whole thing was a very Japanese experience and a lot of fun, but Brett and I donated our noodles to YaYu, who was happy to receive them.

The many dehydrated selections to add to your custom noodles

My noodles are done! I chose a seafood broth, and added crab, garlic chips, green beans and green onions.

The noodle cups are lidded and then sealed in plastic.

YaYu and her inflated cup noodles protection bag!

After making our noodles we toured the rest of the museum, and also spent a while out on the museum’s back deck taking in a spectacular view of Yokohama harbor. We enjoyed all the exhibits (our son translated for us), which include several sculptures. I especially liked the Instant Noodles History Cube, a room filled with all the varieties of noodles created from 1958 to the present. Part of the room was dedicated to all the many varieties available in countries all over the world. Cup noodles can be found on every continent but Antartica!

Inventor Momofuku Ando invented “oil drying” for ramen noodles, and in 1958 the first instant ramen was introduced in Japan. It was an immediate hit.

So many varieties of cup noodles these days!

Cup noodles are popular all over the world – these are noodles from Russian and Spain. The U.S. sells the largest variety of Nissin instant noodles outside of Japan.

After our visit to the museum, our son and grandson headed to a large amusement park located across the street from the museum (the huge roller coaster there is named “Vanish” because at one point it disappears underground – no thanks!) while Brett, YaYu and I headed over to Yokohama’s Chinatown, just four more stops down on the train. We met up later at Minatomirai station at Mr. Donut for a snack and then went to the Takashimaya department store to find Hato Sabure.

A small portion of the amusement park across the street from the museum. Our grandson refused to ride either the ferris wheel or the roller coaster – smart boy! There were some other rides that scared me just to look at them.

The entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown.

The Cup Noodle Museum might not be on everyone’s list of “must-see” places in Japan, but it was a unique and interesting place to visit, even if you don’t care for cup noodles. I’d go again!

Japan Giveaway #1: Keep Entering!

(the broken cookie in front is one of ours)

Once is never enough!

You can leave more than one comment on the Giveaway post to increase your chances of winning. The Giveaway is open until midnight HST on April 5.

If you haven’t entered, what are you waiting for? The bird cookies are delicious!!

Treating Ourselves Well in Japan

Strawberries are in season here, so patisseries all over are filled will strawberry shortcakes as well as other delights right now.

It’s not the first thing you think of about Japan, but one thing done very, very well here are sweets and other treats. It’s not hard to find incredible desserts here, as well as tasty cookies, crepes, cakes, and other delights. Starbucks Japan does flavors you can’t find back in the U.S. Best of all is that portion sizes are smaller than are found back in the States, and treats here contain far less sugar than American sweets while remaining incredibly tasty. Add both of those to the amount of walking that’s done here, and it’s OK to indulge once in a while.

Here are some of the treats we’ve been enjoying:

Raisin sandwich cookies, filled with a sweet creme and raisins, are one of my all-time favorite Japanese sweets, but while they were very popular years ago these days they’re somewhat harder to find. So, when we discovered some at the Daimaru department store in Tokyo Station this week, we bought a box of five. For three evenings I enjoyed one with a cup of coffee after dinner (Brett and YaYu had the other two). The cookies were quite small, about 1.5″ x 2.5″ in size, but just as delicious as I remembered them.

Bird cookies! We bought a simple bag with 10 of the delicious, Kamakura-made Hato Sabure for Brett and YaYu to enjoy, as well as a couple of smaller gift packs to send to Meiling and WenYu after we get home. I had a bite of Brett’s crisp, buttery cookie (and it was wonderful), but otherwise I’m planning to avoid them, or will at least try because I could easily eat the entire package without blinking an eye.

Our son suggested an afternoon break at Mr. Donut while we were in Yokohama on Wednesday. Donuts in Japan are smaller than what you find in the U.S., and far less sweet, but still very, very tasty. I was hoping for a green tea donut, but they didn’t have any at the shop we visited so I chose a blueberry and cream filled donut instead (delicious!). Our grandson had one of the pink and white ones seen in the middle of the case, a strawberry creme-filled ring, and Brett and our son both had ones with chocolate. Mr. Donut also sells savory donuts, but they kind of scare me.

While we were in Yokohama we visited Chinatown, and stopped at a bakery to pick up five of the area’s famous almond cookies to enjoy later. They are only minimally sweet, but so good. Just looking at this cookie in the wrapper has me rethinking my resolve to avoid carbohydrates.

Starbucks Japan has introduced a new spring Frappuccino flavor: Sunshine Mandarin-Mango, with coconut and mango puree on the top. Can I just say it was amazing (and I don’t even care all that much for Frappuccinos)? YaYu tried one the other day, and after Brett and I each had a small sip we all decided that we wanted one at Narita for our last Japan treat before we board the plane to come home. They’re that good.

All the above treats came from the food section of a Muji Lifestyle store (where I could easily drop some serious money – it’s like a Japanese IKEA that also carries clothing). The very affordable, and all-natural, snacks we purchased, which include a variety of cakes, cookies and miniature chocolate-filled cream puffs, are all for YaYu’s school lunches. YaYu bought her own big bag of savory snacks there as well to share with her friends. The cake flavors above include lemon, chocolate, strawberry, banana, sweet potato, orange and cherry blossom.

And, no trip to Tokyo is complete without having a fabulous crepe on Takeshita Street in Harajuku. Yes, I indulged. There are several shops selling crepes, but my favorite is Angel Heart Crepes, a small shop that offers nearly 100 different varieties of filled crepes in every flavor combo imaginable, with some including an entire slice of cheesecake.

I failed to get a picture of an amazing dessert YaYu bought the other day: a strawberry and whipped cream “sandwich,” with the “bread” made from angel food cake. The sandwich was packaged and looked just like any regular sandwich you’d find for sale at a deli or supermarket. When YaYu saw what it actually was, she said she had to try it and it did not disappoint. Only in Japan.

And, of course there are the KitKats. We visited a KitKat “chocolatory” at Tokyo Station earlier in the week and found four new “Tokyo-only” flavors: strawberry-maple, pistachio-raspberry, butter (yes, butter!), and green tea-kinako (roasted soy flour). We’re not sure what to expect from that one, but will give it a try. We found some dark chocolate KitKats at the Daiso store in Harajuku, but will wait to look for more flavors at Narita, where souvenir shops offer lots of different flavors for travelers to take home with them.

The Walk To Our Son’s Condo

The New Sanno Hotel, where we’re staying while we’re here in Japan, is just a 15 minute walk from our son’s condo in the NishiAzabu neighborhood. We have two choices of how to get ourselves from the hotel to his place: a) turn right out of the front of the hotel and walk along a busy four-lane thoroughfare lined with shops, restaurants and other businesses, or b) turn left out of the hotel and then take the next left onto a narrow residential street that takes us the “back way.”

Both options are quintessentially Japanese, but we always choose the second one, and this is the walk we take each day.

While most of the area is residential, there are also a few businesses along the way. There are also several vending machines interspersed on the road, most selling either hot or cold drinks, or cigarettes.

The street is very clean. There is absolutely no trash, and the sidewalk is swept the entire way. Japanese are master recyclers, and on trash days bags are neatly set out in designated areas with each type of trash/recycling separated for pick up. If there is a large pile of trash, the bags are covered with netting so they don’t spill out into the street.

Occasionally we see an old house among the new. The land the house sits on is extremely valuable, worth millions of dollars. Building a new house would also cost millions, so the owners tend to hold on to their old house as long as possible and then sell the land to a developer.

More older-style homes, probably from the 1970s and 1980s, with a new high-rise condo going up in the background. Almost every house and condo has plantings in the front, or at least some potted plants.

We pass a small neighborhood Shinto shrine on the way. This is one of the things I love about Japan, finding a very traditional shrine or Buddhist temple mixed in with modern homes and condos. Local festivals and services are held at the shrine throughout the year.

Halfway to our son’s condo is the National Azabu supermarket. The neighborhood contains many embassies, so there are lots of foreigners living in the area, and National Azabu carries a wide selection of “foreign” foods, although you will pay dearly for them. A container of Fage yogurt that costs around $4 back in the U.S. is approximately $19 here, and a western-style beef roast, if you must have it, will cost you your firstborn.

A studio apartment in the neighborhood can start at $2000/month, and prices go up from there. Many of the apartments in the neighborhood are larger than a typical Japanese residence, to suit Western tastes, and have amenities like dishwashers, ranges with ovens and such, things not typically found in Japanese homes but that appeal to foreigners. We saw an ad for a 683 sq. foot 1-bedroom condo (new construction) that was selling for $1.25 million dollars!

A sculpture adorns a corner of an apartment building along the way.

Our son’s condo is just nine stories tall, but all units open into an inner courtyard, which is a feature our son and his wife wanted after the big earthquake in 2011. A mixture of foreigners and Japanese live in the building, and there is rarely ever a unit available for rent. An apartment/condo building will always have balconies; a commercial building won’t.

I have yet to go to any residence in Japan, whether it’s a house, condo, or high-rise apartment, that doesn’t have an intercom system used to announce your presence, whether you’re family or a tradesperson. Modern intercoms, like at our son’s condo, also have video capability, so you can see who is asking to be let in.

Everyone takes off their shoes in the genkan before stepping up into a Japanese home. When you take your shoes off, you turn them to point out so that all you have to do is slip them on to leave (we fail miserably at this). All homes have a spacious shoe closet built next to the genkan.

What no photo can capture is how safe the neighborhood is. Cars watch out for people walking. You can walk alone at night and not worry about being accosted. You can leave your umbrella or your bicycle outside a store and it will be there when you come out.

But Will It All Fit?

Gifts play an important role in Japanese culture, so any trip to Japan for us means taking gifts for family and others . . .  and in our case this usually means lots of gifts. However, Brett, YaYu and I will only each be taking a carry-on bag, and one additional bag for under-seat stowage (tote bag for me; backpacks for Brett and YaYu), so making sure everything fits and arrives in good condition will be a bit of a challenge.

Besides clothing for eleven days, here’s what we’ve got to fit into our luggage this time:

Gifts for our granddaughter: Two onesies, a Hawaiian-print sundress, some leggings, a stuffed hippo, a feeding set, and some ocean-themed blocks.

For our grandson: Star Wars Lego set (he’s obsessed with both right now), Star Wars Lego t-shirt, six boxes of macaroni & cheese, and two packages of tortillas (for quesadillas). Tortillas and mac & cheese are available in Japan, but are super expensive.

For our daughter-in-law, Kona coffee and Kaua’i made soap.

We’re giving our son some of his U.S. favorites that are unavailable in Japan. He especially loves anything chocolate & mint, and it’s hard if not impossible to find in Japan. We’ll also get him two to three cases of Diet Coke from the mini mart in the hotel while we’re there – you can’t buy it otherwise in Japan, and he loves it.

We’ll probably get together with our daughter-in-law’s parents, so we’re prepared with a small gift of Hawaiian items: Kona coffee, chocolate covered macadamia nuts, and Kaua’i-made cookies.

Because it’s so ridiculously expensive now to mail anything to Japan, we are taking along some of our granddaughter’s first birthday gift: eight board books, a birthday card and gift bag. We’ll buy a couple of other things while we’re there for them to put away until her birthday.

We’re also taking several gift bags, tissue paper and tape, and will assemble and wrap everything once we get to our hotel room. Presentation is important in Japan!

The big question as we start this week is whether we can get all of this to fit into our bags. I think we can – the only “big” items are the box of cereal and the Lego set. Brett is a master packer (and I’m no slouch), and I’m confident will find ways to squeeze everything in. We do have some Space Bags to use if we need them, but I’m hoping they won’t be needed.

Fingers crossed!

Postcard From: Kamakura


The Daibutsu – Kamakura’s most enduring icon

Located 31 miles to the south of Tokyo, the beautiful seaside town of Kamakura is an easy day trip to make from Japan’s capital. Once the capital of Japan itself (1185-1333, the Kamakura Period), this now-small city contains numerous Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and is home to the iconic Daibutsu (‘Great Buddha’). While Kamakura was devastated in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, everything was eventually restored. The city was not bombed during WWII so all historical buildings and statues remain original. Many have been proposed for addition to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The manhole covers at Kamakura Station

The manhole covers at Kamakura Station

Kamakura residents offer a wonderful service to visitors: free guided walking tours of the city given in English and several other languages. Sign-up for these tours is done online where visitors can choose the date they’d like to tour as well as the two or three sites they’d like to visit (two are allowed for a half-day tour; three for a full day). Guides meet their tour members in front of Kamakura station. Members are expected to buy lunch for a full-day guide, and pay any admission fees, but otherwise the service is completely free. One of the great things about having a local guide is that they know all sorts of back ways and interesting routes, and provide opportunities to walk through beautiful residential neighborhoods that might not be seen otherwise.

A walking tour through Kamakura will take through many beautiful residential areas.

A Kamakura walking tour takes you through many beautiful residential areas.

This view should look familiar!

This scene should look familiar!

Along one street we passed an old warehouse that had been turned into a shop. These warehouses, with their thick walls, were used to store rice and other valuables.

An old warehouse has been turned into a shop. These warehouses, with their thick walls and doors, were used to store rice and other valuables.

WenYu, YaYu and I signed up for a tour as part of our Japan visit in March of 2015. We opted for the full-day tour, and chose to visit the large Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine, the small Zeniarai-Benten shrine, and finish with a stop at the Daibutsu before heading back to Tokyo. We met our guide, Kumiko, at the station at 10:00 in the morning; she gave us a brief overview of Kamakura’s history, and then we set out on our way. Brett’s sister had planned to join us, but had an injured foot and chose to stay in the neighborhood near the station for the day.

A store with nothing but Studio Ghibli merchandise on the way to Hachimangu shrine - the girls were in heaven!

We found a store with nothing but Studio Ghibli merchandise on the way to Hachimangu shrine – the girls were thrilled!

Souvenir store full of traditional items and crafts

This liquor store was ready for the cherry blossom season, which arrived in Kamakura about a week after we were there.

Ready to check out Hachimangu Shrine

Ready to check out the Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine

Our first stop was the Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine, just a short walk from the station. Kamakura is a popular tourist destination in Japan, and on the way to the shrine we passed several souvenir and other shops, several which offered traditional folk crafts. The imposing Hachimangu Shrine was first built in 1063, and moved to its current location in 1191. It is the largest and most important shrine in the city, and at one point was located in the center of Kamakura – the city basically grew up around it. We were able to observe a formal Japanese wedding taking place there when we visited, complete with traditional musicians and other accoutrement, which apparently had cost the family quite a bit.

The entrance bridge to Hachimangu Shrine

The entrance bridge (showing modern repairs) to the Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine.

The main shrine building at Hachimangu

The main shrine building at Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu. A 1000-year old ginko tree once stood to the left of the stone steps, but was blown down in a storm in 2010.

Uma board. Uma are small plaques where write their wishes or pleas on the back

One of several boards for hanging ema, small plaques for leaving prayer requests.

Traditional musicians perform at a wedding ceremony that was taking place in a small pavilion outside the main shrine.

Traditional musicians perform at a wedding ceremony that was taking place in a small sacred pavilion outside the main shrine.

After visiting Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu, we began our trek to the Zeniari-Benten shrine, founded in 1185, and located up in the hills that surround Kamakura. In spite of its small size, it is the second most visited site in Kamakura. The hike up to the shrine was fairly steep, but more than worth it once we arrived. It’s tradition there to ‘wash your money’ in the spring that’s located at the back of the shrine – doing so will supposedly multiply your money. Baskets are provided for this activity, and I ‘washed’ 10,000¥ (around $100). The next day Brett’s sister, who had no idea what I had done, handed me 10,000¥ and told the girls and I to enjoy ourselves while she stayed back at our apartment and rested her injured foot!

The entrance to the Zeniari-Benten shrine is at the top of a steep hill, and through a tunnel

The entrance to the Zeniari-Benten shrine is at the top of a very steep hill, and through a tunnel.

Once through the rock tunnel, visitors pass through a tunnel of torii. Torii mark a passage into sacred space.

Once through the rock tunnel, visitors pass through a tunnel of torii. Torii mark a passage into sacred space.

Visitors pray and make offerings before entering a cave to wash their money in the spring (which was too dark for pictures).

Japanese high school students pray and make offerings before entering a hillside cave to wash their money in the spring (the interior of the cave was too dark for pictures).

Our final tour destination was the Daibutsu, with a stop for lunch along the way. Except, we could not find anywhere to eat! Every single restaurant we passed was closed the day of our visit, for who knows what reason – our guide was completely baffled. We finally found a small place that served kare-raisu (rice with curry), and that hit the spot.

Approaching the Diabutsu. We could see the top of Buddha's head in the distance well before we arrived.

We could see the top of Buddha’s head off in the distance well before we arrived. The statue is 43.8 feet tall.

This souvenir stand was across the street from the Daibutsu. The signage includes every Japanese icon, just in case you forgot where you were (actually, Mt. Fuji can be viewed from the beach at Kamakura).

The signage on this souvenir shop across from the Daibutsu includes all sorts of Japanese icons, just in case you forget where you are (actually, Mt. Fuji can be viewed from the beach at Kamakura).

The Daibutsu is part of the Koutoku-in Temple, believed to have been erected in 1252. The statue was originally housed in a large wooden building, but a tsunami in 1493 washed away the building, and the giant bronze image has stood uncovered ever since. The Buddha is thought to have once been gilded as a small amount of gold leaf remains near the statue’s ears. The base was heavily damaged in the 1923 earthquake but repaired in 1925, and measures taken in the early 1960s to strengthen the statue against earthquakes. There is a small door in the back of the statue, and visitors can going inside and climb to the top – doing so is said to bring inner peace and beauty. WenYu and YaYu chose to go inside, and while they did that I was approached by several middle school students who wanted to practice their English with me, which was lots of fun!

Hato Sabure are delicious bird-shaped butter cookies that were originally from Kamakura, but can now famous all over Japan. Hato means 'pigeon."

Hato Sabure are delicious bird-shaped cookies that originally could only be found in Kamakura, but can now be purchased throughout Japan. Hato means ‘pigeon,” and Sabure is Japanese for ‘sable,’ a type of French butter cookie.

The Enoden line runs right through the city on its way out to the shore.

The Enoden line runs right through the city of Kamakura on its way out to the shore.

By the end of our day it began to rain, so we hurried back to the station and arrived around 3:00 p.m. We stopped at the flagship Hato Sabure (‘bird cookie’) store located there and bought a box of cookies to bring home to Brett, and then boarded the Enoden line at Kamakura Station to begin our journey back to Tokyo. The Enoden line was famous for running its orginal wooden cars long after other trains had been upgraded, but modern rolling stock was introduced in 2005. The line runs along the shore to the town of Fujisawa, and offers beautiful views of the beaches.

It was raining by the time we left Kamakura, and we were exhausted, but we all agreed it had been a terrific day. Brett, YaYu and I are looking forward to visiting the city next March, but will (gasp!) do it on our own next time. We plan to visit the Tsurugaoka-Hachimangu Shrine and the Daibutsu, but will go to the Hase-dera (temple) instead of the Zeniarai-Benten Shrine.

(Free walking tours are offered in cities all over the world. Visitors can search to see what’s available before they go, or check after arrival. Often all that’s required is a tip for the tour guide, but these tours are a fantastic way to see a city, its sites, and its neighborhoods through the eyes of a local resident).

Japan On a Budget

10714010-a-close-look-of-japan-moneyHow much do you think it would cost a U.S. family of three to visit Japan for a week? $7500? $10,000? More?

There is no doubt that Japan can be an expensive place to live and visit (although Tokyo is no longer ranked as one of the top ten most expensive cities on some lists). It’s also one of the most expensive destinations to reach from the U.S. But, there are ways to go and have a memorable visit for much, much less than you probably imagine. Brett, YaYu, and I will spend nine days in Japan next year for $5450, including airfare, an amount many might imagine it would cost for just one person to go. By the time we leave next spring, we’ll have been saving for this trip for nearly a year, and by taking advantage of some of our military benefits, and using our experience and other tips we’ve picked up along the way we’re going to have a great vacation at a very affordable price.

We have family in Japan, but we won’t be staying with them – their condo is too small to add three adults, even for one night. Our son and daughter-in-law may take us out to eat while we’re there, and we’ll probably eat at their home once or twice, but we will reciprocate and take them out as well so our budget wasn’t based on any “family” savings.

When we start planning a trip, Japan included, we break expenses down into three main categories: transportation, lodging, and dining/other expenses. Here’s a look at what we’re spending on our Japan trip as well as some tips for enjoying a visit there for a lot less than you might think:

  • Transportation: Other than arriving by cruise ship, the only way to get to Japan is by air. This is where research becomes vitally important because transportation to and from Japan can take the biggest bite out of your budget. To begin with, and in order to find the best deal on airfare, you have to know what typical round-trip fares are. From Honolulu, for example, nonstop economy fares to Tokyo typically run in the $900 – $1000 per person range, sometimes more (fares are generally a bit lower from the mainland). There are sometimes much lower fares available, but check carefully because often those ‘good deals’ involve long layovers somewhere and a long travel day either coming or going, something we try to avoid. For our trip next year, we set our upper limit for airfare at $900 per person ($2700 total), with upgrades, if any, included in that amount. A few weekends ago I found nonstop round-trip fares and a terrific flight schedule at $750 per person, and we snapped them up. Premium economy seats were $1060 per person at the time and over our maximum, but as I’ve written, I was able to upgrade via the airline’s website for just $158 per person, making the total cost for each ticket $908 per person, or $24 total over our budget, an amount we could live with, especially for upgraded seats. Patience (and a little bit of luck) is key for finding a good ticket price and schedule to Japan, and you have to be willing and ready to jump in and buy when you find a good price that works for you, and then live with your decision. Another consideration when purchasing tickets for Japan is whether to fly in and out of Narita or Haneda airports. Haneda airport is the most convenient for Tokyo, only around 40 minutes away, but flights in and out of there will almost always cost a few hundred dollars more than ones into Narita. Narita airport is unfortunately convenient to nothing other than the town of Narita, but a round-trip ticket on the NEX express train into Tokyo and back can be purchased by international visitors at the airport for a little less than $40 per person ($120 total for us).

    There are lodging bargains in Tokyo: This entire small apartment, located in the posh embassy district near Roppongi, can be rented for $60 per night

    Affordable Tokyo lodging can be found on AirBNB: This entire small apartment, located in the posh embassy district near Roppongi, is just $65 per night

  • Lodging: On our upcoming trip we will be using one of Brett’s earned military benefits and staying at the New Sanno Hotel, run by the U.S. Navy for the exclusive use of military personnel. As retirees, we can stay there only if Brett is along; without him, I can use all the facilities and restaurants, but not stay overnight. Our room (queen bed plus single sofa bed) will cost us $67 per night, tax included, so our entire lodging expense for nine nights will be $603. The hotel is in a great location for us, just a 10-minute walk from our son’s condo. If you’re not eligible for someplace like the New Sanno, business or boutique hotels run around $115 to $125 per night. The rooms are smaller and not as luxurious as the major hotels (which can run $300 to $500 per night), but they’re clean, comfortable and sometimes very stylish. AirBNB in Japan is another affordable option, where you can find entire small apartments for less than $100 per night. The AirBNB rentals we used on our last trip exceeded all expectations for comfort and cleanliness, and our hosts were extremely helpful. Brett and I are planning to use AirBNB when we go to Japan for longer stays in the future, for the savings and the cultural experience.


    A typical Japanese bakery – those creme-filled coronets in the front left cost just $1.50 each. Some of the rolls above contain cheese and bacon or ham and are a little over $2.00 each.

  • Dining/other expenses: We’ve budgeted $200 per day for the three of us for our meals, in-country travel, and other expenses, plus a couple of extra hundred dollars “just in case” ($2000 total). Our days will start with coffee and pastries – Japan has the most incredible bakeries, and a Paris-worthy pastry and coffee cost around $5 – $6 (less if we make coffee in our room). For lunch we often buy something ready-made from a convenience store or supermarket, for around $8 or less per person. Stores like 7-11 or Lawson carry all sorts of interesting bentos, but there are also noodles, fried chicken (yum!), potato salad (yum!), sandwiches, yakisoba, and several varieties of the girls’ favorite onigiri (rice balls). Another inexpensive lunch option is noodles, such as soba (buckwheat noodles), udon (wide wheat noodles), or ramen (Chinese-style noodles). A big, filling bowl of noodles can be found for around $10. Other inexpensive lunch options are kare-raisu (rice topped with curry) and gyoza (potstickers), and ‘set lunches’ can be found at many restaurants for an affordable price. There’s almost always a plastic model of these lunches out in front of a restaurant so you can see what’s available, and only have to point to it when you want to order. The evening meal is when we typically ‘splurge’ and allow ourselves to spend a little more, up to $18 or so, and the possibilities are endless. Besides Japanese foods, there are restaurants serving almost every type of foreign cuisine you can imagine. Meals in Japan come with water and tea, but you can usually order beer or soft drinks at most places, although they’re not all that inexpensive. Besides dining, in-country transportation is factored into our daily expenses as well, for train and taxi fares. A round-trip train trip within Tokyo can be up to $10 but is usually less, maybe $2 or $3 each way. The most expensive journey we’ll make on our trip next year will be to Kamakura at around $18 per person for a round trip ticket, but Kamakura is located over an hour and a half outside of Tokyo. If we were planning some longer day trips, traveling to another part of the country, or staying longer than two weeks we would most likely purchase a rail pass, which would save loads of money. These passes can only be purchased outside of Japan before arrival though – they’re not available once you’re in country. We don’t use taxis all that often, but they can be very convenient. Taxi fares in Tokyo currently start at 730¥ – around $7.00 – and to go around a mile will add another 580¥, a bit less than $6.00. Your fare will add up quickly though for longer rides, especially if you find yourself stuck in traffic. Other daily expenses can include entrance fees to museums or gardens (anywhere from $3 to $5 per person), but we spend most of our time walking around and visiting places that don’t cost anything, like temples or shrines or parks, and window shopping is also fun and doesn’t cost anything. There are free guided walking tours available in Tokyo (in English), and you can sign up for free, private full- or half-day guided tours with an English-speaking guide if you want to visit Kamakura, the only cost being lunch for your guide and possibly some entrance fees. Free guided tours are also available in Kyoto. We usually splurge for an afternoon treat of some kind when we’re out, like crepes in Harajuku, or some ice cream or another fabulous pastry. There is no tipping in Japan, either for food or transportation. Other than picking up interestingly-flavored KitKats and other foods we can’t find here, or a couple more tenugui for the kitchen, we don’t expect to buy much of anything. Pictures and memories are our favorite souvenirs to bring home. One new expense this trip will be a prepaid SIM card for our phones, around $33 for seven days. They weren’t available on our last trip (we rented a phone), but we want one this time so that we can contact our son or daughter-in-law if necessary. Many AirBNB rentals offer pocket WiFi that you can carry with you for free or a very small fee, and/or you can rent them from your hotel.
A Tokyo train & subway map looks complicated, but is not really, and will help you get around Tokyo cheaply and efficiently.

A Tokyo train & subway map may look complicated, but is actually quite easy to figure out and will help you get around the area cheaply and efficiently. I’ve always had someone offer to help if I seem confused about how to get somewhere.

The absolute best way to save money and see Japan for less is to come with a sense of adventure. Japan is very different from the U.S., from the language to the food to the customs, and even if something looks familiar it will always have a unique Japanese twist to it. But, a visit to Japan is an experience like no other. It’s clean, it’s safe, and the Japanese are courteous and helpful to a fault. If you speak a little Japanese, even a simple phrase, you will be praised to the skies. If you get lost someone will help you. I’ve had Japanese people get on a train with me to make sure I got to the right station, or walk with me somewhere to make sure I didn’t get lost. Trains, subways and sites around Tokyo have plenty of English signage these days, in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, making it much, much easier to get around than even just a couple of years ago. Seeing Japan on your own is only limiting or frightening if you let it be, but armed with a good guidebook and map, you can get around and have one of the most memorable times of your life for way less than you might imagine.