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Japan offers lessons in eating, walking and bridging the distance




There’s also a surprising lack of trash cans in public spaces. The local expectation is that you pack your trash, and dispose of it when you get to a place with garbage and recycling bins.


If you can’t stay in a traditional ryokan, consider a business hotel with an onsen, or a shared hotel, essentially a hostel. In Kanazawa I enjoyed my tiny capsule bed with a blackout curtain and locker in HATCHi Share Hotels; $20 for a 20-person dorm room. My experiences with Kanazawa guest houses were very clinical; I never met another person, and let myself in and out via a lockbox. Not a fan.


Sushi and seafood is the main draw along the Honshu coast, but remember, the Tajima mountain region near Kinosaki is where Kobe beef came from. Also look for Stork Natural Rice, grown free of pesticides that killed off Japan’s wild Oriental White Stork population. In Kanazawa, I was thrilled with the pizza and beer at Oriental Brewing, and a tiny ramen shop, Wakadaisho, with an ebullient owner serving up laughs and bowls of goodness late at night on the Asano River.

They looked so innocent: planks of wood that attached to my feet with cloth thongs, like flip-flops. But their contact surface with the ground was two blocks of wood, neither of which was under the toe. I pitched forward with each step and felt like I might launch face first into the ground.

I had spent some 39 years of my life believing I knew how to walk, but click-clacking down the streets of Kinosaki, Japan, in geta sandals, I wasn’t so sure anymore.

Over my clothes, I wore a yukata robe, or lightweight cotton kimono, that had been so complicated to put on, it came with illustrated instructions. A staff member from my traditional Japanese inn, Tsukimotoya Ryokan, tugged and tied it into place. “No, no, no,” said the woman, who was half my height, as she put the right-side flap over the left. Then she reversed them, nodded, and cinched it all together with an obi sash, “OK, OK, OK.”

As I ventured outside, I heard loud, assured click-clacking behind me — two women in the same outfit that I was wearing. They were sisters from Singapore and moved like gazelles in their getas. I wobbled behind them, and then nearly lost my footing as I took in the scene near the lantern-lit Otani River winding through the city. It was a veritable thoroughfare of yukatas and getas, in an array of colours, on visitors young and old, shuffling, striding and practically skipping through the night.

People come from all over Asia and beyond to soak in Kinosaki’s seven onsen, or public hot spring baths, and pretty much everyone does it walking around in a robe all day. The city is one big inn. The ryokan you stay in is your individual room and the streets are like the inn’s corridors. It’s all very romantic until it hails and rains.

I had come to Kinosaki, on the western coast of Honshu, Japan’s biggest island, though, not for dressing up, but on a kind of pilgrimage. As a Japanese friend put it to me in an email, “Don’t they have that Buddha that’s only unveiled to the public every 33 years?”

The morning after I’d arrived, I took the Kinosaki Ropeway (a cable car) high up Mount Taishi to the Onsenji temple, home to the 1,300-year-old Kannon Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy. She has 11 faces, 10 in a crown to signify her wisdom, and was carved from the top of a mystical tree that produced three Buddhas, of which she is the only original one left. This April began her unveiling, which will last for three years, until she goes back into hiding for another 30 years.

Midway up the ropeway, hail had started coming down, and I rushed inside the temple. There, with the help of a translator, I spoke with Ogawa Yusho, the resident monk, who was born in the temple and is now raising his family there. He’d grown up hearing the legend of Dochi Shonin, a priest who came to this very spot in 738 and prayed for a thousand days for the health of the people here — and on the thousandth day, an onsen sprung from the ground. It is said to be Mandara-yu, the oldest of the seven on Kinosaki’s onsen circuit.

Before modern medicine, ill people would trek to Onsenji temple, pray to the spirit of Dochi Shonin, and then bathe, naked, with a wooden ladle in the hot springs. For those too infirm or disabled to make the trek to Onsenji, a string stretches from the arm of the Buddha all the way into town, so you can indirectly touch the Buddha as you pray. Ogawa Yusho gave me a bracelet of the string to bring me luck on my travels.

Once there, the ritual is to strip down, shower while sitting and then soak in those healing waters, surrounded by bodies of all shapes and sizes. (Onsen are divided into all-male and all-female sides.) I was struck with the ease of nudity, how young girls splashed around with their mothers and big sisters and grandmothers, and what an impact that must make on their self-image, to know that bodies are all different and we all have one. The hot spring water warmed away the foul weather.

As I left, I put on my yukata, thinking of the words I’d heard in the ryokan: left-side over right, “OK, OK, OK,” and stepped out into the thoroughfare that seemed like a reversal of time. The onsen were a little hot for me, but I could walk around in a robe forever.

Adventures in seafood

His name was Sushi Tiger. He was 76 and he’d been studying the art of cutting raw fish for 50 years. Why didn’t I come in and take a seat?

I was the only person in his narrow restaurant, breaking a cardinal travellers’ rule to follow crowds to the best food. But I’d already been wandering the streets of Kanazawa, the capital city of the Ishikawa prefecture, for 20 minutes in search of sushi and a kind young man had brought me here, so who was I to mess with fate?

Sushi Tiger, who also goes by Takashi, wrapped a twisted white bandana around his forehead as he prepared my dinner. He spoke little English and I spoke almost no Japanese, so we communicated by writing on napkins, pointing at a sign with pictures of sushi and Google Translate, which is even more hopeless at Japanese than it is at other languages. At one point he brought out a book of cartoons used for teaching English to schoolchildren and taught me a few Japanese phrases, while serving me sake. I was glad to be his only customer.

I am not an adventurous eater, particularly when it comes to seafood; I was a vegetarian for a long time, in New Mexico, which has no sea. But when I set out on this 52 Places trip, I made a vow to overcome my pickiness, which meant eating a few insects and a small slice of wallaby (I still feel guilty). Japan, I thought, would really test those limits.

Under the tutelage of Sushi Tiger and Kawai, another Kanazawa sushi master at Takasakiya Sushi, though, I ate melt-in-your-mouth maguro (tuna) and sucked green eggs from the shell of amaebi (sweet shrimp). I also learned that I do not like eel or squid or anything I have to work hard to chew.

In my Kinosaki ryokans, at lavish kaiseki dinners, the learning curve was steeper. I’d sit down to a tray filled with 20 little plates and no one who spoke English to guide me through them. What order was I supposed to eat them in? Did any of them get dipped in soy sauce? So I’d try first and ask questions later. It turns out I am not a fan of preserved fish eggs melded into a rectangular cake, but I’m OK with tender fish intestines.

The big reason Kinosaki still has such a thriving Asian tourism business in the winter is that snow crab season starts in November, and lasts only a few months. People come for the crab and stay for the onsen. A good crab can sell for up to $300 (U.S.).

I was lucky enough to have a snow-crab kaiseki dinner served to me in my room at Sinonomesou Ryokan, where I sat at a low table on a bamboo floor mat. I had been relying on guidance from young members of the Kinosaki tourism board and invited them in to eat my crab. Nakada Naoki, who had grown up nearby, showed us how to suck the meat out of the claws.

Easier to navigate were sweets and bento boxes. I tried buckwheat-battered red bean cakes and soba-flavored ice cream in the castle town of Izushi, famed for its soba, and became a huge fan of to-go sushi hand rolls at Family Mart convenience stores. What I’ll remember this Japan trip for is trying shrimp for the first time in probably 15 years.

Northern exposure

On my last day, I wanted to see the coastline — which I had heard was spectacularly beautiful along Noto Peninsula near Kanazawa. I didn’t have the right paperwork to rent a car, public transportation seemed difficult, and there were no English-language tours. So I paid $66 to jump on a bus tour that was only in Japanese, hoping the scenery required no explanation.

Our route took us to Shiroyone Senmaida, a set of more than 1,000 terraced rice paddies on the seaside that has been registered as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System; and for a drive along Chirihama Nagisa Driveway, five miles of sea-packed sand, one of the few places where ordinary cars and busses can speed right along the shore.

But first thing was a visit to the 1,000-year-old morning market in the seaside town of Wajima. Locals bought fresh fish, and grilled it over coals in a designated area. I tried yuzu soft-serve ice cream and maru-yubeshi, a local candy made of orange peel, and mostly wandered around in a mute, dazed state. I followed a crowd to a shop called Tohka-doha selling lacquerware chopsticks, a traditional craft, in which the artisan covers a piece of wood with up to 100 layers of lacquer, and then shaves off a portion of the surface to reveal a kaleidoscope of colours.

Before long, the 79-year-old, English-speaking owner, Yatsui Kiyoshi, emerged. When he heard I was on a long trip, he pulled out a weather-beaten Rand McNally atlas and told me he had studied nuclear physics at Cornell, and driven across the United States to spend two years in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

My hometown.

He loved the mountains and the tequila but thought it was too hot, and he missed Japan and his family. So he came back to continue a life in nuclear physics and carry out his legacy as a fifth-generation lacquerware artisan.

His wife took some pictures of us, which he emailed to me with a note about what a small world it is and how wonderful it had been to find someone with connections to New York and New Mexico. Then he reminded me, for about the fifth time, not to put the chopsticks I’d bought in the microwave.

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Travel & Escape

Dealing with baggage on your trip





(NC)Nothing is more embarrassing than having to unpack your baggage at the airport. It’s common to overpack because you want to make sure you have everything you need for your trip – the right shoes, a jacket in case it’s cold, a bathing suit in case there’s a pool. But you must be mindful of the baggage restrictions. So, how can you be smart with your baggage when travelling?

The first thing to do is talk to your TICO-certified travel agent about the weight restrictions and number of bags you are allowed to take. Some airlines charge per bag, while others may offer one bag for free depending on weight.

You’ll also need to know if there are security requirements for carry-on and checked baggage. For example, there may be prohibited items such as gels and liquids. These limitations vary from airline to airline and depends on if your flight is international or domestic, so you’ll need to check the policy of the airline you’re travelling with.

Naturally, you want to avoid incurring baggage fees, so talk to your travel agent, or contact the airline directly. You can also visit their website to review the luggage policy.

Here are a few more tips to help you manage your baggage when travelling:

  • Clearly label all baggage with your name, home address, and contact information
  • Place an identification tag inside the baggage in case the outside tag is torn off
  • Lock bags with CATSA/ACTSA travel locks
  • Put a colourful ribbon or other identifying marks on your bags so they are easily recognizable
  • Carry valuables in your hand luggage; jewelry, money, medications, important documents, etc.

You can’t carry everything with you, so be smart when you pack. Take only necessary items and focus on your trip.

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Travel & Escape

What travellers need to know if a destination wedding is cancelled





(NC) It’s two weeks before you’re scheduled to attend a destination wedding and then you get the call. The wedding has been called off.

Sure, you’re upset for the couple, but now you’re faced with plane tickets and hotel reservations. So, what can you do?

There’s no reason why you can’t go and enjoy the trip, but bear in mind you may face a price increase, especially if this was part of a group booking. Group bookings often include a minimum number of travellers to get the discounted price, as well as terms and conditions regarding changes or cancellations.

You could ask other travellers to come along to keep the group discount. But name changes often count as cancellations based on the terms of the vacation package and premium charges may apply. If you booked with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour company, it’s better to contact them and ask about options before making any decisions.

While it’s devastating for the couple who planned the destination wedding, the fact is that the cancellation affects all the confirmed guests. So, it’s important to know your options so you can salvage an unfortunate situation. Always book with a TICO-registered travel agency, website or tour operator so you can circle back and find out what they can do for you.

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Travel & Escape

Be safe not sorry when booking travel online





(NC) With so many travel websites available these days, many people are choosing to book their vacations from the comfort of their own home. Many travel websites are easy to navigate, and offer great vacation packages, so it seems to make sense.

But before you hit “submit”, it’s important to know what you’re getting into. Here are a few tips that can make you more aware when booking travel online:

  • Look for the TICO registration number or logo. All Ontario travel agencies and websites must be registered with TICO, the provincial travel regulator that provides consumers with protections if they don’t receive travel services. The registration number or logo is usually found in the About Us or Contact sections of the website.
  • Know where your credit card payment is going. Some websites are only search engines or booking agents for other providers.
  • Review the terms and conditions, particularly those that relate to cancellation, changes to bookings and refunds. Know what the travel agent or tour operator’s responsibilities are.
  • Keep a paper copy of your transactions, correspondence and confirmations.
  • Double check which currency the prices are quoted in. You could be paying in Euros instead of Canadian dollars.
  • Keep in mind that tax amounts can vary in travel advertisements. Ontario travel agencies and websites can display their taxes in four different ways:
    • A total price
    • A base price plus total taxes, fees and additional charges
    • A base price with a detailed breakdown
    • All taxes, fees and additional charges.
  • Research your destination to find out if there are any travel advisories, which can be found on the Government of Canada website.
  • Check the online travel agency’s website for a live-chat feature, email address or toll-free number to talk to a travel agent. Travel agents are a great resource to answer any questions you may have to ensure you are making an informed travel purchase.

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