Skilled in hand forging blades, craftsmen produce knife blades employing Edo Era tools at Takefu Knife Village in Eichizen, an area in Fukui Prefecture in west central Honshu Island. The Takefu smiths produce world class quality kitchen knives by hand and travel the world instructing gourmet chefs on the appropriate use of the wide variety of blades they craft.
Today’s Takefu knife makers benefit from the history of Eichizen blade production that stretches back 700 years. As legend has it, in 1337, a master swordsmith from Kyoto, Kuniyasu Chiyozuru, discovered water suitable in the forging of blades and settled near Takefu. He and his successors smithed Eichizen blades for farmers to use in harvesting grains and for Samurai warriors to wield in protecting their shogun lords.
In the past blade smiths forged the blades by hand. They beat the heated steel with a hammer, laminating iron and steel into a blank that is light and tough and with a keen edge. Today, the Takefu smiths grasp the white hot blanks with tongs and operate electrically powered hammers to pound the metal.
After we helped staff put handles on finished knife blades, we got to help finish our knives. Our tour of the foundry included instruction on the proper way to sharpen the finished kitchen knife blade so that it would cut paper. We came away with a kitchen knife that passed the paper slicing test and, we found to our delight, also sliced and diced veggies in our own kitchen.
What aspects of a knife do you find important? Do you think it would feel different to slice vegetables with a knife you had helped make?
One of the more challenging aspects of travel is finding appropriate souvenirs for all the friends, family, pets, friends of family, and others back home. On my most recent trip to Japan, I spent over $100 just on postcards alone. Granted, Japanese postcards are some of the most beautiful cards on the planet, but some of my friends wanted more. What’s a budget constrained traveler to do?
One option is to buy a pack of something and break it up into smaller gifts. In this case, I found sets of Japanese magnets, and separated them into little packages wrapped in origami paper containing one magnet each. After all, everyone’s fridge is covered in magnets. Your friend probably doesn’t need 10 more, but one is a nice memento.
This divide and conquer tactic works with lots of things–decorative chopsticks often come in sets of 10, local candies often come in sets of bars, and so on. One souvenir we didn’t get but wished we had was Japanese Kit Kat bars. They come in flavors unique to Japan: green tea, wasabi, chocolate banana, grape, sweet corn and more. If you’re still in Japan, Don Quijote, a super discount store probably has the most impressive selection of Japanese Kit Kats as well as lots of other fun souvenir ideas. (Printed dish towels are another favorite item for some of my more culinary friends. )If you’re back in the states and leaving a Japanese Kit Kat, try Amazon, Ebay, or one of the many Japanese candy subscription boxes available.
If you’re traveling somewhere where cute postcards are few and far between, try Touchnote, an app that allows you to turn your smartphone pics into postcards, greeting cards, and other cool stuff.
I used this cute picture below for several postcards. The app let me write a message, choosing a font for my message. I then addressed the postcards and Touchnote let me know when the had been mailed.
The app is most affordable if you buy a bunch of credits so you can send 20 or more postcards. Each can be a different picture and message or you can mass produce them if you have a bad case of jet lag. Another option is to get their professional membership which gives you one credit per month and lets you even customise the stamp.
So what is your favorite souvenir to give or receive? Have you ever received a totally off the wall souvenir. Or had a strange reaction to a souvenir?
For example. Our daughter taught English in China. She brought me back the Mao Zedong picture that most residents there hung on their rear view mirror. So I hung it on mine. Several weeks later, a lady races after me in a parking lot, pounding on my car hood for me to stop. “How dare you display that in your car. He’s a communist.” True. And a dead communist at that. But I had it in my car because it was a gift from my daughter, and every time I looked at it, I thought of her bravely conquering challenges in a land so foreign that our demons were their heroes.
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends” – Maya Angelougav
The Torri gates of Kyoto are a well loved Shinto shrine. The beautiful vermillian gates line the hills in a seemingly never ending parade of requests for the gods to bless companies and families. This Fushimi Inari Taisha (伏見稲荷大社) shrine sells the beautiful gates for anywhere between $4,000 USD (400,000 yen) for a small gate far up the hill to $13,000 USD (1,300,000 yen) for a large one closer in.
The names of the donor companies are inscribed in black ink on the side.
10,000 gates stand together like trees in a forest
A fox statue protecting the grains.
For hale and hearty visitors, a walk up the hiking trails among the gates quickly takes you away from the crowds and provides beautiful views of Kyoto. While Kyoto is the main temple, there are sub-shrines around Japan, including one in Tokyo.
Public busses are a convenient way to move about large Japanese cities. Their routes have stops near most of the sites that you would want to visit. Better yet, the busses are scrupulously clean and comfortable to ride in. In general, they are full but not unbearably crowded. Rush hour can be another matter so claustrophobic tourists should definitely avoid public transit during peak travel hours.
The fare is paid with a plastic IC card that is purchased from a ticket machine at a railroad station. The machines have an English option for operations.
The initial cost is a refundable deposit of 500 yen plus whatever amount you wish to credit to the card, typically another 1,500 yen. Using the card saves you from the inconvenience of buying a ticket every time you want to take a bus (or a train that honors the card.)
To use the card, tap it against the panel at the front of the bus near the driver when exiting the bus. In most cities, enter the bus from the side door and exit through the front. Note: because one pays as one exits, getting off the back door is considered theft. Don’t do it.
When working in Cleveland during a summer break from college, I purchased milk and sundries from a nearby Lawson’s convenience store. Lawson stores are no longer found in the continental US, but to my surprise, they abound in Japan. Nowadays, 7-Eleven stores in the US are owned by a Japanese company, and, along with Family Mart, compete with Lawsons.
All told, there are more than 50,000 convenience stores in Japan. And they are convenient, abounding on commercial streets and in railroad stations and offering an ever changing array of snacks, sandwiches, ice cream, fruit and soda beverages, cigarettes, cold beer, candy, and international ATMs. Many ATMs throughout Japan won’t work with foreign ATM cards. Fortunately, this is an area where Japanese 7-11 stores shine. Google maps or a 7-11 finder app can help you find the 7-11 nearest you.
While ATMs at Family Mart, Lawson, and others may not support international cards, they offer many of the same useful services for foreigners as 7-11 stores including: currency exchange, free Wi-Fi, and ability to use credit cards for purchases.
All my friends have been wondering “where are the market pictures?” Well here they are. This is the retail market ( as opposed to the wholesale fish market that is more famous and is moving soon.) I’ll add an occasional caption, but the pictures speak for themselves. Enjoy a quick walk through the market. This is a small fraction of the sites. It is huge!
A commonly held view is that one has to be fluent in Japanese to get around in Japan. After our couple of weeks there, we felt confident that could navigate the train system to travel between cities and towns across the country and commuter trains within urban areas. Here’s why.
The flagship (to mix the metaphor) of Japanese Rail (JR) is the world renowned bullet train and connects the major cities in Japan.
JR owns and operates about 70% of rail mileage in Japan and provides local and express service.
Several private railroad lines complement JR’s service by providing commuter trains throughout the larger metro areas. (For an in-depth look at the railroad system, click on this link.)
Finding the train one wants in the station is easy. An large electric sign in the entrance hall provides the train number and destination in English, as well as Japanese, and the tracks are designated by arabic numerals.
Directional signage within the building are also in English, as well as Japanese.
At the track, the updated arrival and departure signs are in English.
The ticket indicates the number for the car in which you are seated,and markings on the platform show where the doors on the car are located. The trains stop exactly at the door markings. Passengers line up here and enter in an orderly fashion.
Japan is an orderly society and respects queues, so cutting into a line or jumping one’s place is unacceptable. The passenger cars are spacious, tidy, and comfortable.
JR is in the process of implementing wifi service and outlets for ac/dc adapters on the bullet trains.
The commuter trains (and busses) in Tokyo and other metro areas use an electronic pass that is tapped against a reading device, rather than a ticket. There are several versions. The one we used is a Pasmo card which can also be used to purchase things like drinks from vending machines and items in some stores. Tickets can be purchased at machines in the station, and JR also issues passes for multiple trips.
The Japanese train network is extensive. Wikipedia provides an excellent overview.
Fortunately, once a tourist has used a particular type of train once, venturing forth again was straight forward and enjoyable. Foreigners should try to avoid peak travel times for local trains, however, to avoid uncomfortably crowded cars when train pushers are required.
As you might imagine, our noodles weren’t done as quickly or as evenly as the instructor’s. It was a easy-sounding process in theory: lean the knife into the dough, cut, repeat. In reality, not so easy.
The soup can be served hot or cold. In this case it was cold. While I much prefer it hot, cold soba soup and eels are considered cooling dishes for hot days.
I love to travel but I also get tired and cranky about the details from time to time. So these are some tips and apps that really help.
Often on foreign soil
If you do a lot of international travel, the Global entry program is definitely worth the money. For $100 for 5 years, a bit of paperwork, and a personal interview, you can breeze through US customs, and simplify security at lots of airports. You also have the option of expanding your pass. U.S. Citizens enrolled in Global Entry may use the Smartgate system when entering Australia without registration. With a little more work, U.S. Citizens may apply for the Dutch FLUX program, the Korean SES program, Panama’s Global Pass or the Mexican Viajero Confiable program for expedited entry into those countries. Additional fees and enrollment interviews will apply.
Usually a domestic traveler
Run, don’t walk, to get TSA Precheck certification. For just $85 for 5 years, you will minimize your security line hassles and time. You will have to go to a local TSA office for fingerprinting, but if you fly even 1 or 2 times a year, it’s worth it for the much shorter and simpler TSA Pre lines. You whiz through security without taking off your shoes, removing electronics or liquids bags from suitcases. It’s heaven. I’m notoriously cheap and this is a service I will continue to renew for eternity.
One caveat. If you fly a lot, you may occasionally randomly be selected to go through regular security. You’ll know, as your boarding pass won’t say TSA Pre. It will remind you of why you want to stay in this program. Also, some airlines don’t participate in the program. I flew American Airlines/Japan airlines in a code share to and from Japan. Since American was a TSA partner, I had Precheck for my American Airlines flight to Tokyo but did not have it for my return flights on a Japan Airlines plane. This was annoying, as Dallas/Fort Worth airport makes you go through security again after exiting customs to take your domestic flight. No TSA Pre might mean you don’t make your connection. Fortunately, we had plenty of time but we had to go through an extensive check of the sake we had purchased at duty free.
Not quite enough for Global Entry
If you don’t travel enough internationally to justify applying for Global Entry, you’ll definitely want yo download the Mobile Passport app. It will whiz you through US customs faster than you thought possible. I still think you should just commit to traveling abroad more, and get Global Entry, but this is a good stopgap.
As you probably already know, most US carriers charge an arm, a leg, and more for coverage in most foreign countries. There are several options to bypass that. 1) if your card uses a SIM card, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for your destination 2) rent or buy a cheap burner phone with data for your destination (downside: your information won’t be on the new phone unless you use Google and log in on the new device) or 3) my personal favorite – rent a Wi-Fi to go option. In Japan, you could reserve a Pocket Wi-Fi to be picked up at your Japanese arrival airport and returned as you departed. The fees were reasonable and it gave you great coverage in rural areas. Combined with leaving your regular phone on airport mode but turning on free Wi-Fi in hotels, metros, etc. it was a reasonable solution. Use Wi-Fi calling for phone calls and you’re all set.
Maps and more
When it’s available and not in beta, citymapper is my favorite app for getting around big cities. Here are the covered cities, but they are always adding more. It does a superlative job of combining all forms of travel: bus, train, subway, on foot, taxi, rental bike, and ferry.
Usually, I carry a really good camera (a big bulky canon with several lenses.) This trip had such tight packing requirements that I opted to just use my smartphone (an LG G6 with really excellent camera optics.) I also opened up this blog, so I could share this adventure with friends and family who want to go to Japan but cant go right now. The smartphone was ideal for blogging on the way, and I was thrilled with the surprisingly good photos and videos it created.
When I want to play with the photos before posting, the Pixlr app is easy to use and has amazing options. Honestly, I didn’t use it as often as I should because we were always on the go and somewhat sleep deprived.
Another app, PicsArt, gives the option of creating collages with your photos. The few times I used this option, I really liked it.
Filmora Go was my video editing app of choice. And if you are starting a blog, WordPress is the blogger’s tool of choice for good reasons.
I hope these tips help. The other key tips will be covered in future posts. Always travel light, and take a mini pharmacy along especially for countries with unusual alphabets (Greece, China, Japan, Morocco, etc.) But more on that later. For now, Bon Voyage!