Destination: Tokyo

In Tokyo’s Cafes, A Real-Life ‘Hello Kitty’

Looking for love in Tokyo? Why not skip the red-light district and head over to one of the city’s cat cafes, where $9 an hour will get you all the feline affection you crave. Over tea, customers can feed and play with a selection of breeds featured on “cat menus” that list name, gender and birthday. According to GlobalPost, the cafes are growing in popularity among harried urbanites, in part by marketing themselves as great date spots.

Though I’m not a cat person (I grew up with black labs and maintain a love for big dogs), I’d prefer an hour in one of Tokyo’s cat cafés over an evening at a Taiwanese toilet restaurant anytime.

The Telegraph’s Top Hotels on Film

The Telegraph rounds up 10 real-life hotels that have taken starring turns in major films—and from where I’m sitting, it’s a very good list, with a nice mix of classics and more modern fare. My favorite? Tokyo’s Park Hyatt, which played such a crucial role in creating that bang-on sense of travel’s isolation and disconnectedness in “Lost in Translation.”

A Global Rite of Spring

Ah, springtime in the nation’s capital.  I saw my first cherry blossom of the season near the Washington National Cathedral a couple weeks ago, and it immediately lifted my will-winter-never-end mood.  The blossoms are right on schedule here—peak period is expected to be April 1-4—but over in Tokyo, the much admired sakura are early for the fourth year in a row, prompting hand-wringing about the effects of global warming.  According to the Telegraph, Japan’s national “blossoming line”—the latitude at which the trees start to flower—has shifted 125 miles north over the last 40 years. Kind of alarming.

If you missed the window in Tokyo, I’d recommend a visit to Washington’s National Arboretum instead of the Tidal Basin (way too crowded) or a virtual viewing via this web cam.  Of course, there are plenty of pink wonderlands unfolding beyond the Beltway.  Check out the cherry blossom festivals in San Francisco, Philadelphia or Brooklyn.  And don’t forget the sake.

Heard on the Tokyo Street: ‘Yes, We Can’

They loved him in Canada last week for buying maple leaf cookies, but in Japan, they’re hanging on Barack Obama’s every word. It seems the President’s speeches have kicked off the latest language-learning trend among English-crazy Japanese. In the country’s ubiquitous English schools, teachers are urging students to memorize Obama’s speeches line by line, with a passion to match. Reports the Wall Street Journal: “‘The Speeches of Barack Obama,’ a best-selling book that comes with a CD and a glossary for phrases like ‘spin master’ and ‘stop-gap measures,’ sold 480,000 copies in Japan in three months.” I think that qualifies as a trend.

Funny, I haven’t tried this approach in my long struggle to learn Mandarin. Hu Jintao’s speeches somehow lack equivalent ... charisma.

Morning Links: John Lloyd Stephens, the Bob Marley Suitcase and More

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Hillary Clinton’s Peace Corps Bid

Hillary Clinton embarks on her first foreign trip as Secretary of State next Sunday, breaking with tradition by visiting Asia rather than Europe or the Middle East. The Japanese are thrilled that they’re first on the itinerary, and the Chinese are eager to talk climate change, but it’s her stop in Jakarta that’s got me interested. The State Department confirms Clinton wants to discuss reestablishing the Peace Corps program in Indonesia, which shut down in the 1960s after only two years in operation. If Indonesia supports the idea, the move would certainly bolster President Obama’s strategy to improve U.S. relations with the Muslim world and would open another valuable avenue for person-to-person exchange. 

Clinton’s stop in Beijing will likely get the lion’s share of media attention next week, but I’ll be watching the Jakarta coverage to see if she scores a small victory for public diplomacy.

Touring Tokyo’s Underbelly

I’ve been a fan of MP3 audio tours since I discovered the transporting Soundwalk series several years ago. In fact, Soundwalk’s moody MP3 tour of New York’s Chinatown still reverberates in my ears every time I walk down Mott or Bayard Street in lower Manhattan. So I wish Tokyo Realtime’s new audio tour of Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red light district, had been available when I visited the city in 2007. From the preview posted on their site, the tour mixes just the right amount of music, political commentary and local history to make at least one corner of the overwhelming metropolis accessible. And god knows, anything that helps tourists cut Tokyo down to bite-size portions is helpful.

Those looking for the peep shows and brothels documented in the tour may be disappointed, however. The Guardian reports efforts are under way to clean up Kabukicho in line with the city’s short-listed bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

Troubles at Tsukiji

Tokyo’s fabled Tsukiji Fish Market is attracting its share of controversy these days. First, the market temporarily banned tourists from its early morning tuna auctions after a drunk British tourist was (bizarrely) caught licking the head of a frozen tuna. Now, Tokyo’s governor has announced the city will move forward with plans to relocate the market to a site once occupied by Tokyo Gas Company. Some of the market’s fishmongers oppose the move, slated for 2014, based on studies that have found benzene and petrochemicals in the soil at the new site.

The move—to reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay—would also make for a longer trek for tourists, 500 of whom visit the market daily. It seems the fishmongers wouldn’t mind fewer tourists. If the government can guarantee a clean-up, the relocation just might work out in merchants’ favor.

On Asia: Points East

On Asia: Points East iStockPhoto
Shibuya, Tokyo. iStockphoto.

If this is indeed the “Asian century,” count me as an early adopter. I’ve quit two full-time jobs to explore the world’s most diverse continent, and they were the two best decisions I’ve ever made. To an Asia hand, the lavender fields of Provence might be pleasant, but it’s the chanting of novice monks, the mystical tinkling of the gamelan, a bowl of spicy dan dan noodles that really get the blood pumping. I’m drawn back, again and again, and I don’t know if I’ll ever kick the habit.

My (unlikely) introduction to Asia began in arid, post-Soviet Uzbekistan in the late ‘90s. As soon as my conference in Tashkent wrapped up, I hopped a bus to the Silk Road city of Samarkand, where blue-tiled madrassas dazzled against an azure sky. They were like nothing I’d seen, a window into an ancient time when Tamerlane traipsed across the steppes.

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‘The Terminal’: Limbo I Can Relate To

airport Photo by Matt Biddulph via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by Matt Biddulph via Flickr (Creative Commons)

This weekend, on a long distance bus ride, I found myself watching The Terminal. (You know, the one where Tom Hanks lives in JFK for a year and makes out with Catherine Zeta-Jones?) Under ordinary circumstances, I probably would have found it sweet, if fairly forgettable—but on the bus, with snowy, nondescript Western New York sliding by, I was surprised by the way the film’s themes, about waiting and limbo, grabbed me. Airport terminals have a static in-between-ness all their own, but long bus and train rides—despite, obviously, keeping travelers in motion—can have that same quality of suspended animation, too. Being in a strange place, surrounded by strange people, dozing and eating in semi-public, I felt much less like someone watching Hanks’ character from the outside, and more like a colleague—or, well, like a fellow-traveler.

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Seven Great Time-Lapse Travel Videos

Jim Benning sifts through YouTube's accelerated videos to find the seven best

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Morning Links: Science Pubs, Staged Plane Crash and More

Morning Links: Science Pubs, Staged Plane Crash and More Photo of a pint of Guinness by Arkangel, via Flickr (Creative Commons).
Photo of a pint of Guinness by Arkangel, via Flickr (Creative Commons).

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Thou Shalt Not Skinny Dip in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace Moat

Photo by douglaspperkins via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Was he unstable or just another British tourist behaving badly? Regardless of motive, a British man was arrested after skinny dipping in the moat surrounding Tokyo’s Imperial palace. The naked shenanigans created quite a stir for nearby tourists and security.

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Foodies Still Bitter About Tokyo’s Michelin Honors

Yeah, they’re still talking about this like it’s some sort of crime. More than nine months after Michelin debuted its Tokyo guide with 191 stars, foodies are still questioning whether Tokyo is indeed the premier city in the world for food.

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Photo by yomi955, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Tokyo Foodies to Michelin: ‘You Still do Not Know us or Our Cuisine’

All those stars Michelin awarded Tokyo restaurants are impressing many, but not a core group of prominent Tokyo chefs and critics. “Japanese food was created here, and only Japanese know it,” chef Toshiya Kadowaki told the New York Times. “How can a bunch of foreigners show up and tell us what is good or bad?”

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