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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET? Kinosaki, Japan
December 14, 2005
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Konichiwa! Last week (link to archive) we left off jet-lagged at the Osaka Airport Hotel. This week we travel to my new favorite place in Japan: Kinosaki.
Because of my own stupidity, I was broke most of the trip. The Osaka airport is where I first tried to withdraw 100,000 yen, instead of 10,000 (I wanted roughly $100 USD). The exchange rate is about $1 USD = 118.620 Japanese Yen. But I foolishly had the exchange rate wrong. I kept adding an extra zero, which not only denied me the cash I so desperately needed but even worse put up red flags at my bank (they put a hold on my account). I then learned the hard way that exchanging US dollars at banks in small Japanese towns is no easy task. Even though I was with government workers who vouched for my identity, it still took 30 minutes to change a mere $60 USD (the total amount I scrounged up in my bag). To make matters worse, the stores in these towns did not accept credit cards either, so I couldn’t buy anything. Fortunately, I was on a fam trip. Our group included five travel agents, a representative from JAL and one bilingual tour guide. I could have asked my travel colleagues for a loan, but because my father instilled in me long ago not to borrow or loan money I had to find other ways to get some yen. Finally, I resorted to selling cell phone minutes to my colleagues so they could call home (I was the only one with a Japanese cell phone).
4 TIPS FOR GETTING YEN IN JAPAN
1. Before going to Japan (or any foreign country), inform your bank and credit card companies so they don’t put holds on your account.
2. Find out the current exchange rate before you leave. A good website is www.xe.com.
3. Many ATM machines in remote Japanese towns do not accept international cards, because the magnetic strips are different sizes. However, bilingual ATMs can be found in Japanese post offices. These usually accept foreign bank cards.
4. Bring extra cash or travelers checks, in case your ATM cards don’t work.
The worst part about not having any money came the first night, when I was dying of thirst in my hotel. My in-room mini-bar was a miniature vending machine – bottled refreshment required Japanese coins, which of course I didn’t have. It’s a good thing Japanese tap water is safe to drink. Of course, trying to find that out from the front desk was no easy chore. Most Japanese don’t speak much English (or else they’re too shy to try).
A couple of weeks ago I described how tough it was to communicate in Paris. Now I’m thinking, "Ha! If you thought that was difficult, wait till you get to Japan." At least in France, Americans can make educated guesses when it comes to words (well sort of). In Japan, you’re pretty much screwed. Fortunately, many restaurants have pictures of their food like the restaurant in the hotel where we had breakfast. If they didn’t, I would have starved. Luckily, I just pointed and prayed it would be something I liked. For a basic Japanese quiz and helpful Japanese phrases check out the BBC Language webpage.
OSAKA ITAMI AIRPORT
My first journey in Japan was a short flight to Tajima. Traveling by plane in Japan is a great experience -- similar to pre- 9/11 days in the U.S., but even better. First of all, we didn’t arrive at the airport until 45 minutes before our flight (though I don’t recommend cutting it so close unless you know what you’re doing, or are with someone who does). Second, the lines are orderly -- and they move fast. The first line was for the automated ticket machine to print the boarding pass (this takes some time figuring it out where the English button is located but once you find it -- it’s easy). The next line was for dropping off checked bags. They were screened by machines run by the Japanese equivalent of our Transportation Security Administration. These security guys are friendlier than ours, and they like having their picture taken. The security checkpoint is similar to in the U.S., except with cooler technology. For example, a machine can quickly evaluate an open container of liquid, to see whether it contains a harmful chemical or not.
OSAKA TO TAJIMA
The best part about flying in Japan is the airline workers. They really care about and respect travelers (at least, the JAL employees I came across did). Because it was raining and we were flying on a Saab 340 -- a small plane that required boarding and deplaning outside the gate -- agents wrapped my carry-on in plastic. They then held umbrellas so passengers wouldn’t get wet. How nice is that? To top it off, the flight attendant was very nice and our flight to Tajima was quick – about 40 minutes.
MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA
We were picked up in a van. The driver wore white gloves. I thought that was pretty impressive, until I realized that all professional drivers in Japan wear them. NOTE: To avoid getting picked off crossing the street, be sure to look right, left, then right again. In Japan they drive on the "wrong" side of the road, just like in England.
Midway through our hour drive we pulled over to the side of the road, where a group of well-dressed Japanese men waited for us. I thought the Japanese mob was going to shake us down for yen, but of course I didn’t have any so I wasn’t worried. Just kidding -- they turned out to be a welcoming committee that included the current and ex-mayor of the Hyogo Prefecture, and their staffs. They showed us they were fans of Memoirs of a Geisha (a best-selling book, now a movie) because they know it will bring Japan plenty of attention and visitors. These Japanese guys know how to make money. Interestingly, in Japan the Memoirs of a Geisha comes in two small palm-sized books. That’s because space is very limited in Japan, especially on subways.
YOROI FISHING VILLAGE
We were headed to what is believed to be the first town mentioned in the book Memoirs of a Geisha: Yoroido. The book is fiction, and there is no Yoroido town. Instead we were in Yoroi, a remote fishing village just like one where Chiyo (the book's main character) grew up. I now had a great image in my mind, as I finished the book.
We were in Yoroi for only a short stop. We then drove to Toyoka City, and an awesome Japanese-style restaurant called Zuiem. Outside was a beautifully manicured rock garden. Inside was everything I always imagined a Japanese restaurant to look like, including transparent rice paper walls and tables built into the ground. We had Tajima beef. It’s regarded as the most expensive beef in the world, because the cattle are on strict diets and massaged daily. Most people call it "Kobe beef," because that’s where it is shipped from, but it actually comes from this ancient province of Tajima -- now named Hyogo Prefecture -- of which Kobe is the capital.
At the restaurant we cooked the unbelievably tender beef ourselves, at the same time we enjoyed other courses: soup , salad, rice, tea and dessert. These types of restaurants are normally open only for dinner, because people in rural Japan don’t spend 3,000 yen ($30) for lunch.
In the late afternoon we arrived in Kinosaki (also called Kinosaki Onsen). Onsen means "hot spring," and Kinosaki is full of them. There are seven public bathhouses in this amazing resort town that boasts a 1400-year history. They are so popular because the water is believed to be good for muscle aches, nerve pain and upset stomachs. Kinosaki, situated in northern Hyogo Prefecture, is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever seen. A river (Otani Stream) runs through the center. Along its banks, sweeping willow tress line up one after another. Walking down the narrow streets with so many cute souvenir shops and old wooden Japanese-style inns is something I will never forget. The pictures plus video (below) don’t do it justice; you have to experience this yourself.
Our first stop was to the Kinosaki Mugiwarazaiku denshokan -- a small straw museum (entrance fee: 300 yen = $3). We learned how Japanese straw-work (called mugiwarazaiku) is done. Mugiwarazaiku is unique to this area, and has gone strong for over 300 years. We took a stab at creating something out of straw at the Kinosaki literary museum, just down the road. I made this dragon fly straw card. Okay, it’s not much -- but it was still a fun 30 minutes, and it brought me back to elementary school. We must have done a good job, because our picture was in the Kobe News!
We stayed at a ryokan (a Japanese-style inn). There are over 63,000 ryokans in Japan, they’re the way to go. They offer visitors almost the same living experience as a Japanese family. However, make sure to learn the basic rules for staying in a ryokan beforehand. First, take your shoes off at the entrance, and slip on one of the neatly lined up pairs of slippers. This was a problem for me, because I have size 13 feet, and I don’t think anyone in Japan has feet this large. The slippers were way too small, and I walked around the lobby looking like King Kong. Don’t worry about the shoes you left behind. The ryokan worker assigned to shoe duty remembers which pair belongs to who, and has them ready when you leave. (I have no idea how they do this!) If you’re only taking a short stroll outside, getas (wooden clogs) are available. They make the street sound like hundreds of horses are trotting through.
We checked into an above average ryokan called Sento. Located in the center of Kinosaki, it did not look like much from the street. Inside, however, was a whole other world. I was escorted to my straw-smelling minimalist room (one of 40) by a friendly, non-English speaking, kimono-wearing woman. She politely reminded me (by pointing) to take my 6-sizes-too-small slippers off before I walked on the tatami (straw mat). The place was basically one big empty room, with a connected indoor balcony divided by a shoji (sliding paper wall). For the first time in my life I felt like I was in a James Bond movie (minus the hot babes). I was so tired I just wanted to lie down on the bed -- but there wasn’t anywhere to do that. That’s right: My bed (a futon) only miraculously appeared at night, in the center of the room. I never thought sleeping on the floor could be comfortable, but it was. Before my bed showed up the room contained only a very low table, a cushion, a dresser and a television that got three Japanese channels.
Fortunately, the bathroom didn’t have a hole in the ground like many I read about. This one had a modern Western toilet with a heated seat, and some crazy bidet buttons I was afraid to press. Inside the tiny bathroom was a separate pair of miniature bathroom slippers to be worn only in there. My big toe couldn’t even fit in these, so I just stepped on the tops.
Like the others, my room had no shower. Instead there was a towel, washcloth, and a yukata (robe) which was to be worn down to the hotel or public hot spring. Luckily, I didn’t slip the yukata on right away, because five minutes after the first woman left, in came another with a cup of green tea and manjuu (a sweet bean paste bun). After drinking my tea and trying that nasty tasting bun (must be an acquired taste), it was time to wash up before dinner. I donned my yukata, making sure it was tied correctly. It’s important that the left side overlaps the right. Only dead people wear them the other way, and I don’t want negative karma swirling around. I didn’t learn until later that you’re also supposed to wear underwear beneath them. That was a HUGE mistake, which I won’t get into – except to say those robes don’t stay tied too well.
SPA AT THE RYOKAN
I first walked across the street to check out one of the popular public baths in town. My imagination pictured something totally different. Stupid me expected to see a room filled with beautiful women wearing angel wings as they frolicked around the pool. When I took one peek inside, I quickly put on my shoes and ran back to the hotel. I have no desire to bathe in a crowded, steamy room filled to the rim with naked Japanese men. Instead I went to our hotel spa. It was not only free (well, included in the price of the hotel room --130,000 yen = $130 for two people), but empty as well.
There are more rules, which are good because you don’t want people running in doing cannonballs without showering. Before entering the communal natural hot bath, it’s important to shower. To do this you sit on a 6-inch high, not very wide stool. Who were these things built for? I was so relieved there was no one else in the room, because I kept falling off that darn thing.
At dinner (the most popular dish was crab), the women in our group were complaining that the women’s bath was really small. I thought that was odd, because the men’s bath was huge. There was even an outdoor tub, with a very peaceful mini-waterfall trickling down the rock wall. I must have been in the bathroom when they told the women, "Don’t worry. You’ll get to see the other spa tomorrow, because every day they swap the facilities at the Sento ryokan. Everyone gets to experience both spas." You should have seen the look on the Japanese woman who came strolling into the bath stark naked the next morning, only to find King Kong trying to scrub his arse on the miniature stool. Talk about a deer in headlights! I had no idea I was using the women’s bath. Hey, like I can read the Japanese character in the front that says "Female," "Women," "Ladies" or "Jackasses".
When I told that story at breakfast, everyone (but me) was in tears from laughing. It’s funny now, but the scene was ugly. The poor woman didn’t speak any English, and me speak no Japanese. All I know is we both broke Rule #1 in Japanese public baths: Don’t make eye contact or stare.
Here’s a 1-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Kinosaki. With high-speed the video takes about 2 minutes to load; with dial-up, please allow up to three weeks.
Next week we make our way to Kyoto.
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Pictures From Kinosaki
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