How to See Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo

September 8, 2016 at 3:04 pm

Sumo WrestlersI admit that the idea of seeing a sumo wrestling match in Tokyo was not on the top of my to do list. It took me quite some time to come around but boy am I glad I did. The pomp, the ceremony, the heft! Like so many other things in life, the more you know about it the more likely you are to you enjoy it. We lucked into this fun experience and I’m happy to share some of our tips and hints to get the most out of this Adventure.

Sumo Opening Ceremony

Tickets and Timing

There are six sumo tournaments in Japan throughout the year. Tokyo hosts them in January, May and September. Since we were visiting in May it was perfect timing. The tournaments last for 15 days each and can be an all day affair. Sumo wrestling is to the Japanese what professional football or baseball is to Americans. Nearly every Japanese school boy knows who the top wrestlers are and has a favorite. I started to hunt down tickets a couple of weeks before hand and realized that I was already too late to buy them directly. Tickets are released about a month before the event. These matches sell out early so as soon as you decide you might want to go, purchase tickets. Just by luck, I happened to come across a Viator tour that included the sumo match and Chanko nabe(Hot pot stew) meal. I paid $129 per person which included the meal. Regular non-tour tickets run between $50 and approximately $125, depending on your seating choice, so the tour seemed reasonable.

Sumo fun

Meeting Yuki

Hotel pick up was included in the price of a our ticket, but since we were staying in an Airbnb rental we took public transportation to Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal. We wandered a bit and needed to ask directions to find the tour office, but relative to some of our experiences getting lost, this was pretty easy to find. We were greeted by our guide, Yuki, who made the whole experience fabulous. Yuki spoke perfect English and had an extensive knowledge of sumo. She gave us a thorough introduction into what we were about to see and do and then we were off to the tournament. We traveled to the stadium by rail, with our group, switching trains a couple of times with Yuki watching over us the whole way.

Sumo Hand Print

These guys are huge!

The Center of Sumo

When you arrive at the JR Ryogoku station you realize that you are in sumo country. There are numerous monuments and displays to past and present wrestlers. The Kokugikan stadium seats over 10,000 visitors and is surrounded by Sumo stables where wrestlers live and train. We entered the stadium grounds and headed to the museum first. The museum closes at 4:30 so we needed to pay it a quick visit. Admittedly, some of the sumo history was lost on us. There were photos and drawings of each of the past Yokozuna(Grand champions). We met back out at the entrance where we watched as each of the wrestlers walked to the stadium. It was fascinating to see these huge man accompanied by their apprentices and wearing elaborate kimonos. Spectators line the route and politely clap and discreetly take photos. These men are Japanese heroes and the excitement really starts to mount when you see what they mean to the locals.

Sumo Wrestlers Arriving for the Match Tokyo Japan

The Show

Yuki led us to our seats when the top level divisions were about to begin. We were in the second tier in western style seating so I was quite pleased to be comfortable. The box seating is at ground level on Japanese-style cushions and although they looked cozy and fun, I couldn’t imagine sitting on the floor for the 3+ hours we were there. Yuki prepared a thorough guide for us so we could identify the wrestlers in each of the matches. She included fun details like who looked like Nicholas Cage, who was a rising young star, who was the heaviest(440 lbs) and lightest(297 lbs). We figured out pretty quickly that the pomp and circumstance of sumo is really important. The opening ceremony, purification rituals, and careful positioning of the wrestler before each match create and elaborate spectacle. The actual match is over in seconds! The goal is to push your appointment out of the ring or off-balance. When this process takes more than a few seconds the crowd goes crazy. Many wrestlers are from Mongolia or other locations outside Japan, so any Japanese wrestler is particularly beloved. Like any sporting event, when there is an upset and the underdog wins, the excitement level is through the roof. Our tournament ended with a Japanese wrestler taking an unexpected victory. The crowd went crazy, trowing their seat cushions into the ring and cheering madly.

Chank Japanese Sumo hot pot stew

Chanko

We gathered together afterward and headed out to a chanko restaurant which serves the tradition hot pot stew the wrestlers eat before matches. Sitting at communal tables, we chatted about the experience and eagerly waited for our stew to bubble and boil until it was ready. There was something there for each of us. My daughter loved the variety of tofu and my son appreciated the large chunks of chicken. This was the perfect way to cap off this exceptional evening. What started with my reluctance, ended up as one of my favorite memories of Tokyo.

 

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Sumo wrestling Tokyo Japan

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How to Jump on the Shinkansen with the Japan Rail Pass

August 29, 2016 at 2:59 pm

Japanese Shinkansen train

We read from nearly every source we checked that purchasing a Japan Rail Pass is the way to travel through Japan. This advice turned out to be some of the best we received. The savings were considerable compared to the cost for individual train tickets and it was a relief knowing that even if we screwed up and took the wrong train or missed a connection we would not be charged extra. Japan guide.com and JR pass.com provide great information about nearly every question you could have. These are our experiences with the pass.

Japanese Train Station

Purchasing the Pass

JR passes must be purchased in advance from your country of origin. They are valid for seven, 14 or 21 consecutive days and are delivered to the US in about 24 to 48 hours by FedEx. It is wise to check different sites is there can be a small difference in price. We found the process of ordering them quite simple. We chose the 14 day pass and opted to activate it 4 days into our trip. That meant that we bought separate tickets to travel from Narita airport to Tokyo. We bought a PASMO card  from a vending machine in Tokyo and used it for Subway and bus trips in Tokyo and Kyoto. When we were ready to leave for Kyoto we allowed a little bit of extra time to activate our JR rail passes at the information office. This enabled us to get 14 full days of travel during our 18 day vacation from our pass

HyperDia

We found the best way to plan our routes and time our journeys was to use the HyperDia app. Although, we  could have Google searched one destination to the next and be provided with a variety of travel options, the app allowed us  to separate which routes are covered by the JR pass. For example, you cannot use the Nozomi Shinkansen with the Japan rail pass. On every leg of our journey we found multiple options to get from point A to point B. Some used small local trains and others included the Shinkansen. It was helpful to spend some time playing with the app to work out the best possible route. Some trains left earlier but arrived later due to multiple stops along the way. The app was a huge help in deciphering the best choice.

Shinkansen Train Interior

Hopping On

Whenever possible we opted to take the Shinkansen or bullet train. These high-speed trains travel up to 320 kilometers an hour and connect the country’s major cities. They run on their own separate, really smooth tracks with very comfortable forward facing seats They are timed literally to the second so don’t be late! All of the cars on the Shinkansen are comfortable, but we opted for a first class JR pass to enjoy the Japanese rail experience to the fullest.  Whenever possible, we chose to reserve seats before heading to the platform. This proved to be wise because we were always able to sit together and some of the non-reserve cars filled up quickly even though we weren’t traveling during special holidays. Reservations are easy to make at the ticket office and are free. There was only one occasion when we could not take the train we had planned. We needed to wait an extra hour for the next one which didn’t prove to be too much of a hardship. Unlike our experience with Eurail, we discovered that the Japanese stations were totally easy to navigate. There were English instructions everywhere and the system for finding and boarding a train was consistent throughout Japan. Carriages are clearly marked on your ticket, boarding locations are clearly marked on the platform and the boards provide information regularly in English. 

Pack a Snack

We had heard that food was served on the train, so we didn’t pack a lunch or grab any snacks on our first Shinkansen ride. We learned that yes, food is served on the train, but it is pretty meager. By the time the little cart reached us the only lunch choices were beef tongue bento box and only my daughter was willing to give it a try. My son and I opted for crispy chips and a water bottle. We were pretty envious when the other passengers around us pulled out delicious looking hand packed picnics. We learned our lesson and on the next leg of the trip we packed our own tasty treats.

Cocktails and Manners

Enjoying a cocktail on the train is not only acceptable but welcomed by most Japanese travelers. No one thought twice about cracking open a beer or enjoying a gin and tonic in a soda can. We learned to savor a cocktail. Like nearly every part of Japanese life, manners and etiquette prevail. While you could enjoy cocktails on the train any rowdy behavior is frowned on. Occasionally we stifled are urged to laugh or call to each other from seat to seat. Quiet indoor voices and decorum are the order of the day.

Throughout our trip we boarded everything from local commuter trains to the Shinkansen and were always happy with the experience. Japan has rail travel down!

 

Visiting Snow Monkeys at Yudanaka, Japan

August 22, 2016 at 2:58 pm
Snow Monkey and Baby

Snow Monkey and Baby

One of the highlights of our trip to Japan was a visit to the snow monkey park in Yudanaka. We absolutely loved getting up close and personal with these darling little monkeys. That’s not to say that we didn’t make mistakes in planning this portion of the trip. If we were to do it again we would definitely make some changes. The monkeys, however, are not to be missed and we lucked out on a few details that I’ll share.

Papa Snow Monkey

Getting There

We made a large loop around central Japan. From Takayama we headed north, past Nagano, to Yudanaka where the snow monkey park is located. Our first mistake was to only schedule one day in the area. The trip from Takayama to Yudanaka is beautiful, but takes nearly five hours and requires switching trains in Nagano. We left mid morning and did not arrive at our ryokan until mid afternoon. This left a very short window of time to get to the park, enjoy the monkeys and head back to town. 

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Adorable Inn Owners

Fortunately, we were very lucky in our choice of ryokans! Purely by chance, we chose to stay at Yudanaka seifuso, a very traditional Japanese onsen inn just a few hundred yards from the Yudanaka train station. The ryokan was built in the Meiji era (1868-1912) and is owned and operated by possibly the cutest, elderly couple in Japan. They greeted us very warmly and immediately offered to drive us to the entrance of the monkey park. The owner explained in halting English that we needed to hurry so we scrambled to load into their car for a 10 to 15 minute drive. He pointed out the famous local ski areas on the way and advised us that the park closes at 5 o’clock and we would need to be down the mountain in time catch the last bus back to town by 5:53. He dropped us off and we were on our way.

Yudanaka, Snow Monkey Park

The Hike

There is a small gift store at the base of the hike where the owners speak English and can answer any questions you may have. The hike to the park takes about a half an hour and is mostly a gradual incline through an amazingly beautiful and peaceful forest. We visited in May and the ground was dry and the temperature perfect. There is one large set of stairs but the hike was easily managed by this out of shape 57-year-old. Entrance to the park cost ¥500 (approximately five dollars) per person.

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Mother and Baby Snow Monkey

Mingling with the Monkeys                                                                                                    When we entered the preserve part of the park we realize how lucky we were in timing this trip. Many of the monkeys had recently given birth and were nursing and holding tiny babies. The Japanese Macaque monkeys are quite small at about 22” tall and spend their day foraging for food and insects and grooming each other. We were able to stand right next to the monkeys without them reacting in anyway. There are Park Rangers throughout the area who ensure that tourists don’t feed or touch the monkeys but other than that you are allowed to get incredibly close to observe and photograph them. A few monkeys were bathing in the hot spring, but as it was Spring, most were foraging on the ground. We spent about an hour with the monkeys and then had to hurry down the trail to catch the last bus back into town.

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Japanese Snow Monkey Pool

The Onsen Experience

When we returned we really enjoyed our ryokan and it’s four separate baths each with a different atmosphere. The sheltered, outdoor spring fed pool soothed us after our hike and prepared us for our night’s sleep on futons and tatami mats. Look for separate posted times for males and females at each bath. I will write a detailed post about onsen etiquette and culture, but it is helpful to do a bit of research before heading off to the baths.  

If we were to go again,we would definitely spend more time exploring the local area. We missed some sites like the nine public baths that are located on the street of Shibu Onsen, Sake breweries and local culture since we needed to hurry back to Tokyo first thing in the morning. The monkeys are the main attraction, but there are plenty of other activities to keep you busy for two days.

3 Easy Mistakes to Avoid at the Nara Deer Park

July 28, 2016 at 2:42 pm


3 Easy Mistakes To Avoid at the Nara Deer Park

Before we traveled to Japan I read plenty of blog posts about happy visits to snow monkey pools, rabbit islands and bowing deer parks. They all involved up close encounters with wild animals in a gorgeous setting. Naturally, I was excited to have my own brush with these critters. We had our first chance at the Nara Deer Park when we took a day trip from Kyoto. The over 1200 deer are considered national treasures and are semi-domesticated. You can also see the Todai-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Shrine, both UNESCO World Heritage monuments. The visit turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, but for goodness sake, don’t do these 3 things:

Don’t Get Lost

This turns out to be my most common mistake on nearly every outing we take. GPS, Google maps, paper maps and helpful strangers don’t seem to be enough to keep us from losing our way. In this case the train was packed with Japanese school children on a day outing.  We hopped off the train from Kyoto at Nara assuming the park would be close by. The children stayed on the train. As it turns out we needed to get off at Kintetsu Nara Station. Follow the school children!

Hungry Nara Deer

Hungry Deer

Don’t Immediately Feed the Deer

After a bit of wandering we got back on the train and made it to the correct stop.We’d learned our lesson and followed the children from the station to the park where you can’t miss the deer. They’re everywhere, in the street, on the sidewalk and all over the park. They are cute and smaller than we’re used to seeing with sweet fuzzy horns. I couldn’t wait to give them treats (deer biscuit) and watch them gently nibbling from my hand. I purchased three packs of cookies pronto. One pack for each of us, although my children had drifted off, holding back just observing the deer. Sillies! We were there to have the full experience, feeding deer included. I began to unwrap the biscuits and look for a hungry deer when all hell broke loose. Within seconds, I was surrounded by 8 to 10 hungry, very assertive deer. There was a lot of gobbling and snuffling. Before I knew it one large guy had flanked me and then it got ugly. He bit me on the back! By this time my children were laughing hysterically and I had thrown all three packs of biscuits in the air. School children were snickering and pointing and the back of my shirt was soaked in deer spit. Anyway, just hold off on the feeding until you’ve got the lay of the land and are near only one  or two deer.

Deer at Nara, Japan

Soft Fuzzy Horns

Watch Your Step

Don’t step in deer poop. It’s everywhere. This seems like obvious advice, but I can’t stress enough how much poop there is on the grass, street and sidewalks.

Resting Deer at Nara

 

If you heed these three bits of advice, you should have a marvelous time in Nara. The deer are amazing and unlike any we see in America. You can pat their downy horns and take photos with your arm around them. They aren’t out to get you. They just really like their snacks!

 

Harry, The Hedgehog Cafe, Tokyo, Japan

July 25, 2016 at 3:39 pm


Harry, The Hedgehog Cafe, Tokyo, Japan

In so many ways Japan proved to be one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited. There is an amazing mix of ancient shrines and temples, stunning natural beauty and over the top cuteness. In Japan “kawaii”, the quality of cuteness, is pervasive. Stores carry a huge variety of cute stuffed animals, stickers, key chains and clothing printed with darling images. Young women dress in all manner of cute styles from lacy little anklets to giant, floppy hair bows. In the early 2000’s the passion for cuteness and the inability to own pets due to small apartments and long work hours gave birth to the cat cafe craze. These themed cafes attracted young people who couldn’t enjoy the affection and stress reducing qualities of a pet at home. Quickly, tourists caught on to the fun and all sorts of themed cafes started popping up. Cat, rabbit, owl, goat and hedgehog cafes. Yes, hedgehog! How could we pass up the chance to play with hedgehogs?

Hedgehog Cafe, Tokyo

Hedgehogs Waiting to be Chosen

I booked our hedgehog extravaganza online at “Harry,” the hedgehog Cafe located in Roppongi directly underneath the rabbit cafe. I’ll say even their web site is cuteness on steroids. “Try to gently feel the softness of Hedgehog. Lovely eyes, little hands and legs, fluffy stomach but tingly back, their cuteness could make you so amazed that sometimes you need to pinch yourself.” The hedgehog cafe was too popular to just drop in, so we booked for our return to Tokyo in 9 nine days. The fee was about $9.40 per 30 minutes, per person and included self-serve beverages such as tea. We could bring our own drinks(non-alcohol) and snacks, but honestly it was all about the hogs for us.

Hedgehog Cafe

Number 4 Awaiting Some Snuggles

We arrived about 15 minutes early and there was already a large line of people both with and without reservations. At precisely 11:00 the approximately 8-10 of us who had reservations were called in and given our hedgehog handling instructions. Sanitize your hands with alcohol, select your hedgehog from the 12 or so in large glass habits, sit down on a stool and your hog will be brought to you in a shoe box sized container. You may pick them up, but be sure to hold them securely, over their little box.

Bonding with Her Choice

Bonding with Her Choice

Hedgehog Cafe

A Properly Held Hog

It was time to get personal with the hedgehogs. I picked a fairly active looking little guy. Hedgehogs are nocturnal so many were curled in little balls. My son picked a sleeper and daughter chose a very active hog. The personality of our choices emerged at once. Shannon’s squirmed so much it was challenging to pick up. My son’s slept through the entire experience and that was just fine with both of them. Mine immediately pooped and peed all over me. Yikes. Hedgehog pee is stinky and I was a mess for the rest of the morning. The hogs are definitely prickly. We never actually got to tickle their “fluffy stomach.” They are not cuddly, but darn are they cute! We found that 30 minutes with them was plenty of time to acquaint us with hedgehogs and fully appreciate how adorable they are. I was cured of my desire to keep one as a pet, however. What with sleeping all day and the prickliness, I’m sticking with ordinary house cats.

 

Our 2016 Japan Trip Budget

July 6, 2016 at 2:10 pm

Takayama Village

We decided to go to Japan on a whim when we found a Black Friday sale on Singapore Air. My daughter had been lobbying to go there for a long time, so the opportunity to fly for just $600 a piece was too great to pass up. I had heard that Japan was expensive, but also that this was a good time to go with a strong dollar and weak yen. I purchased first class Japan Rail passes so that we could reserve seats. To be honest, I was excited to experience the Japanese rail system at it’s best and we had 7 cities to visit, so the extra splurge felt justified. I reserved all of our accommodations two to three months ahead and was pretty careful to balance our needs and budget. I decided to spend about two thirds of our time in Airbnb rentals to give us a bit of extra space, the chance to do laundry plus the ability to cook meals ourselves. During the planning stages, my budgeting felt prudent, not too decadent.
When we arrived, as has happened before, I began to worry that I was spending money hand over fist. I seemed to waffle between one minute throwing caution to the wind, because we may never have the opportunity again and other times running constant numbers in my head. I think because the yen doesn’t simply convert to dollars and taking large sums of cash out at a time saves transaction fees, it was easy to feel like we were barreling through money. So, how did we actually do? When I got home I looked at our spending and jotted down some figures.

 

Airline Tickets (Singapore Air, Black Friday Sale) 1900.

Japan Rail Passes (First Class)                             1648.

Airbnb   Tokyo (4 nights)                                         621.

              Kyoto (3 nights)                                           349.

              Hiroshima (2 Nights)                                 233.

              Asakusa Tokyo (3 nights)                          361.

 

Ryokans Narita  (1 night)                                         161.

               Kanazawa (2 nights)                                  272.

               Takayama (2 nights)                                 348.

               Yudanaka (1 night)                                     149.

Sumo Tour (Viator)                                                  363.

Starting Cash                                                             500.

Spending Money                                                     2568.

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Total                                                                     $7989.

My conclusion? This was an 18 day trip for three adults, averaging $444 a day. At $2663 per person, it feels quite reasonable. Granted, it’s not realistic to average all costs because accommodations and many meals were split, but I’m still content with the final figures. I think the important lesson is to do my best to plan wisely, include some extra padding for unexpected costs and then relax and enjoy the experience.