Friday, March 20, 2009

Stretching The Yen (2)

As with all rail passes, the Japan Rail pass is only cost-effective if you plan your itinerary to get maximum value from it. Another way to save on travel costs is to consider entering or leaving the country via airports other than Narita. Tokyo is a vibrant, sophisticated metropolis, but it was so badly bombed during the Second World War that no pre-war buildings remain, although numerous ferro-concrete reconstructions have been lovingly erected during the past 40 years. For a real sense of Japan's past you must go to Kyoto and Nara, easily reached from Osaka's international airport. If you are attracted by the volcanic mountains and semi tropical hot spring resorts of Kyushu, the appropriate international airport is Kagoshima.

While few restaurants have English menus or English-speaking staff, ordering anything from a full meal to ice-cream is simplified in Japan by the display of price-tagged plastic replicas of everything on the menu. These food models were introduced a century or so ago during the Meiji Restoration to help the Japanese understand newly introduced types of food, but they are a boon to today's foreign visitor.

Many Japanese eat away from home and small, inexpensive restaurants proliferate in the vicinity of railway stations. For fruit or snacks combined with local color, ask where to find the local food market, or head for the nearest depato (department store). These worlds within worlds are part of the Japanese way of life, providing at basement level seemingly unlimited free samples of exotic delicatessen items from slices of freeze-dried strawberries and kiwi fruit to seaweed crackers, pickles and salted beans. White-gloved hostesses bow and smile to welcome you aboard lifts and escalators as you travel to the highest level, which is divided into many small and inexpensive eating places.

If you enjoy smoked salmon and caviar, you will probably enjoy sushi. While a few sushi specials are unbelievably expensive, a set platter of assorted vinegar-flavored rice patties topped by a variety of raw seafood is available in most small sushi bars for less than ¥1,000.

Forget about leaving space in your suitcase for souvenirs when you visit Japan. Prices are so high that you are unlikely to do much buying. Nevertheless, most Japanese shops are delightful places to visit, whether they be the clusters of tiny pottery and knick-knack shops hugging the steps leading to Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple and the bustling stalls flanking all approaches to Tokyo's Asakusa, or some of the country's museum-like purveyors of finest lacquer and ceramics in traditional garden settings.

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