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I call this tour "Lost in Japan" because if you go to Japan you will get lost. It's virtually assured. They warn you about it but you still will get lost. I felt bad about it until I learned that the locals also get lost. It's not that you can't read the names of the streets, it's that often they don't have names. Addresses work instead by neighbourhoods, blocks and buildings, which are numbered in the order they were built.
In spite of this, you will have a great time in Japan, if you just allocate a little time to spend being lost. Being lost can be an adventure, and adventure is why you travel anyway. You will never be truly lost, for there will always be Japanese who will take extreme steps to get you going again.
Our tour of Japan was inspired by a desire to go to Asia to see the 2001 Leonids Meteor Storm. Various predictions said Asia would have the best show (with 2 big storms compared to one lesser one in North America) though all would far exceed an ordinary Meteor Shower. In particular, Japan would have the best Asian view, short of Guam and other pacific islands with scary weather prospects. To top it off, Sept 11 had caused airfares to be cut to the bone, though unfortunately not local hotel prices in Japan.
While the once in a lifetime Meteor Storm was the instigator, touring Japan was also a great time. We started in Kyoto, the ancient capital, moved to Nara, the ancient-ancient capital, then into the countryside of the Mie prefecture for the meteors. From there we explored western Honshu and Hiroshima, went back east to go up into the mountains to the village of Takayama, and finished up in bustling Tokyo.
You will also want to see the Japan Panorama Page for really-wide panoramas of Japanese scenes.
Here are the pictures and stories, and below you will find even more.
Go visit Japan while the flights are still cheap. You get a first world country with all the amenities, service and safety but a truly different culture to explore.
You will need to learn some Japanese, and you should anyway. At least enough to know how to make reservations at Ryokan and restaurants, and to order food. The Japanese food in Japan is, surprise, much better than that in the USA, even California. I'm not a big fan of Japanese food, mostly because I'm not too fond of random fish parts and flavours showing up in my cuisine, but inside Japan just about everything was wonderful. (Though the squid sushi is not recommended.)
Try to stay in Ryokan, the Japanese style inns, at least part of the time. They can be quite cheap, if you are on a budget, though small. I suggest you make your first reservation in a western style hotel, then try out a Ryokan to see if you like it, and if you do, stay in Ryokan for the rest of your stay. You may miss a bed off the floor a bit, but you're not traveling to have everything the same as home.
Most Ryokan have western style bathrooms now anyway, as many Japanese have come to want them, and even a small hidden alcove with chairs and a table.
Japanese TV is a hoot, even if you don't understand it. The ads are amusing, as is the Japlish. Japlish is the funny English the Japanese use. They can read and know the meaning of many English words, but don't know a lot about grammar, idioms or what words mean together. That's why they can name a popular drink Pocari Sweat. Japanese have nothing but English on their T-shirts and on about half the commercial signs.
You'll even see familiar things like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." The host looks exactly like Regis (who looks just like the British host.) and western shows with added Japanese commentary. Alas, Iron Chef is no longer on the air. The other game shows are bizarre and entertaining.
There are tons of new brands of snacks, chocolate and especially drinks from the vending machines to try. Do you like it when a new brand comes out? You'll have a field day.
For nerds (and that seems to include most of the Japanese) Akihabra is a must. Football fields of electronics stores, many with new stuff that's not out in the USA yet or ever. And a Japanese hi-tech toilet if you want one. (The combine a bidet at rear-end cleanser with a toilet seat.)
It's also nice to see a real working train system, with trains coming every few minutes, and always on time. The Shinkansen is expensive but tourists can buy the rail pass to get unlimited rides. We bought the 2 week pass which was expensive ($350) and probably overkill. A one week pass and staying still at the start and end would have been the best plan. They never check the inside of your pass if you are not getting reserved seats, but in Japan nobody else cheats so you won't want to either. It will be a shame when that innocence is lost -- it is said bike theft is on the rise.
The phrase-books need to include some highly useful phrases, such as:
Try some non-Japanese food made by the Japanese if you have time.
But don't bother with the ubiquitous McDonardu. We went in and tried a Terriyaki McBurger to see if it was much different. It wasn't.
The Japanese have come to love curry, and I had it a few times as a travel fast food, but it's not particularly remarkable.
Even the locals get lost. Our cab driver circled for 20 minutes trying to find a restaurant (running up the fare) and consulting maps in local convenience stores. There are lots of convenience stores.
We met with another meteor watcher who lives in Tokyo and went out to lunch. He took 2 hours and wandered from neighbourhood to neighbourhood in our quest for a restaurant familiar to him.
There are lots of local specialties, and in spite of the small size of the country, you may not find them everywhere, so try them where you see them.
The cameras for this trip were the Canon EOS D30 digital camera, with my 17-35 f/2.8 Sigma Lens, 24-85 Canon lens, 50mm f/1.8 Canon lens and 70-200 f/4 Canon lens. My film body shot most of the meteor shots with the 17mm zoom.
(The D30 is long replaced with a D60 and now a 20D.)
Shots were also taken with a new Canon S40 4 megapixel extra-compact camera, for when I didn't want to carry the whole lens bag around. I got this camera for this trip, and when I got to Japan found it was cheaper there, in spite of being told this would not happen. The camera takes very good pictures but is slow, at ISO 50, and f/4.5 at the long end. It sure is compact though, which is why I got it.
Some shots were taken by Kathryn with the S40. The S40 was stolen and is now replaced with a G5.