Teen and Tween Heaven

Harajuku is always popping. It’s the epicenter of teendom, a mind-boggling array of sounds, sights and sensations. Whether you’re into balloons, cosplay, enormous cotton candies, or owl cafes, there is all that and more here.

The entrance to the most famous street in Harajuku
Sweets and food seem to be a big draw
These looked yummy but I think the window desserts were plastic.
Entrance to the owl cafe
We actually tried one of these drinks. They were awesome.
Cosplay clothes up top, hip-hop below
Kawaii (cute) backpacks and styles were everywhere
Giant cotton candies are a thing
Cats and teddy bears are a thing in Japan

So would this be fun for you? I really wanted to go in the owl cafe, but you need reservations.

Takefu Knife magic

Guest blog by Ray Shortridge

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?

Slick Souvenirs

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 Angelou gav

Holy Fortune for Hire

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.

A fun animal statue at the shrine. Foxes are more common but pug dogs coexist.
Before praying, ring the bell to be sure the gods are listening

The earliest structures existed around 711 on a nearby hill but were relocated later. Since 1499, this shrine has accepted prayers to the god of grains. Only later, did it expand to prayers for business success. The vermilion color represents the sun.

10,000 gates stand together like trees in a forest

A fox statue protecting the grains.

Another fox with a key in his mouth
A map to the Kyoto gates shows how extensive they are
Visitors can buy miniature paper gates and hang them here with their prayers

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.

Busses are an Affordable Passport to Japan.

Guest blog by Ray Shortridge

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.

One of the ticket machines
Various types of IC cards

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.

Touring Japan by bus, can be manageable and pleasurable. Better yet, it is extremely affordable.

Japanese Convenience

Guest blog by Ray Shortridge

A sample convenience store meal. These sandwiches are delicious but oddly, always served on white bread with the crusts removed.

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.

Moreover, one can top off public transportation cards there and access the internet on Wi-Fi. Japanese convenience stores are truly a phenomenon.

Buy Anything Imaginable in Tokyo’s Market

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!

The ceiling is colorful

These capsule stations were everywhere for kids. The content varied.