FIRE Warning

The following notice is posted in all rooms at the Ziyorat Hotel in Fergana, Uzbekistan.

FIRE Warning

We ask you observe the ruls of fire saftey.

1) Don’t forqet turn off electrical apparatuses (tv set, condition, lamps and otses) when you leave the room.
2) Remember that it is veri strange to cover desk-lamps by material. (inflamail)
3) We hope, that you will not smoice in the bed and leave siqarettes it is strange.
4) Don’t throw iigarettes in the paper baskets.
5) Don’t bring and keep in the room inflamial materials.

Repaving The Great Silk Road

A Primer on Uzbekistan for Travel Agents

Uzbekistan, the most central of the Central Asian republics to gain independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union, sees future promise in its ancient trade routes. “President [Islam] Karimov has made tourism a major priority,” said Sadullo M. Muhammadkulov, Deputy Chairman of UzbekTourism, in a recent interview.

[Read more…]

In Lhasa, Everbody Goes To Dunya

dunya restaurant, lhasa tibet
The terrace at Dunya

The restaurant scene in Lhasa’s old town, such as it is, has taken a decided step upwards with the arrival of Dunya, a sprightly new eatery with an international menu and an international staff to match.

[Read more…]

Nepal Courts Nervous Tourists

An Overview for Travel Agents

Nepal tourism has suffered several body blows in the past year or so. First was the massacre of the royal family in June 2001 and September’s terrorist attacks on America. Then Nepal’s perennial Maoist insurgency spilled out of remote mountain valleys with attacks on major population centers. Tourism officials have been at pains ever since to reassure jittery travelers.

[Read more…]

Is Korea Ready for Prime Time Tourism?

Korea has been making a play for American tourism in recent years. The fiftieth anniversary of the Korean Armistice occasioned a push for nostalgia tours for those who get misty-eyed at the thought of the Chosun Reservoir and Pork Chop Hill. More recently, the Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO) has been encouraging Americans to visit their relatives stationed with the armed forces in Korea.

[Read more…]

Takayama, The Town That Time Forgot

The town that time forgot
Takayama Sanmachi

Takayama is a small town of 60,000 souls nestled in the “Japan Alps” in northern Gifu prefecture. In olden days, Takayama was snowed in for most of the winter and that may be why the ruthless modernization that swept most of Japan had less of an effect here.

Whatever the reason, Takayama is held forth today as an example of “old Japan” and given its relative closeness to major tourist magnets like Tokyo and Kyoto, it has become something of a tourist mecca itself. In other words, don’t expect to have Takayama to yourself. Touristy? Sure, but no more so (perhaps less so) than, say, Italy’s San Gimignano. The place retains its small town charm and is well worth a visit.
[Read more…]

In Search of ‘Lost Japan’

by Kelly Monaghan

Ishikawa-mon in Kanazawa

As someone who came of age believing that Toshiro Mifune in Yojimbo was way cooler than Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, Japan has held a special fascination for me. I also clung to the vague belief that the Japanese were a nation of flower arranging traditionalists who kept alive the samurai spirit even as they whipped Detroit at its own game and slapped Japanese names on every electronic appliance in the American home.

[Read more…]

The Luxury Ryokans of Kyoto

Living well on the road is arguably the most cherished perk of the business traveler. Japanese executives figured this out a long time ago and, in somewhat stereotypical fashion, they have refined the art of executive travel to a level that makes them the envy of their Western counterparts.

If you wish to test the limits of corporate travel policy on your next business trip to Japan, I recommend that you proceed directly to Kyoto and check into the Hiiragiya. This is the perfect way to reward yourself for braving a long journey to one of the toughest markets in the world, impress the heck out of your Japanese clients or prospects and, perhaps not incidentally, induce heart failure in your CFO, when you submit your expense account.

The Hiiragiya is a ryokan, or traditional-style Japanese inn, conveniently located in the modern heart of Kyoto, and yet a few steps through its almost anonymous entryway takes you to a Japan that seemingly disappeared with the Meiji Restoration. This is a world of quiet luxury in which every gesture, every detail is nonetheless exquisite for its radical simplicity. Yes, there are modern touches like mini-bars, carpeted hallways, and (gasp) televisions in the rooms. The plumbing is reassuringly modern. But much of the ambience transports you to a timeless realm of shoguns and samurai, a time when prowess on the field of battle was matched by a taste for the finer things.

The rooms, each one different, are Japanese in style, which means that the floors are tatami mats. At first it seems all the furniture has been removed. Then you realize that, thanks to an attentive and eerily silent staff, furniture appears magically when needed only to be whisked away when its purpose has been served. You sleep on the floor, although the futons are so thick, the linens so crisp, the comforters so, well, comforting, that you hardly notice. Astonishingly, you begin to notice that the sparseness of the decor doesn’t prevent this from being perhaps the loveliest hotel room you’ve ever occupied. There is art on the walls — not reproductions but real art, the kind you have to go to museums to see in the States. The architectural details are exquisite, with some of the oldest stained glass to be found in Japan. But by far the most stunning part of the decor is the garden which, thanks to the wide sliding shoji screens seems to be part of the room. Among the many things the Japanese do just right, these gardens are shady oases of tranquility guaranteed to soothe the soul of even the toughest road warrior.

Don’t worry about where you’ll go for dinner. It’s served in your room and included in the price (as is breakfast). On your first night you will be treated to a kaiseki banquet, a rarefied cuisine developed at a time when Kyoto’s aristocracy compensated for a lack of ready cash with a heightened awareness of the virtues of simplicity. There’s simplicity and then there’s simplicity, of course, and while the subtle literary and philosophical references incorporated in the meal may elude you, you won’t fail to notice that every dish is a carefully composed work of art served on a priceless example of the ceramicist’s art. You sit on the floor at a low table. Thoughtfully, a sort of cushion-seat with a wicker backrest is available to support Western backs. The graceful and flawless service by kimonoed waitresses merely adds to the experience. On subsequent nights you can enjoy less elaborate but still extravagant sukiyaki or shabu-shabu feasts. Before your morning business meetings you can fortify yourself with a perfectly prepared American breakfast or request a Japanese style repast.

After dinner, relax in your own private bath in a tub deep enough to sink up to your nostrils as you gaze serenely at your private, moss-covered garden, or if you’re traveling with your family, take advantage of spacious, stone-paved bath houses with tubs big enough for everyone.

None of this comes cheap, of course. Rates begin at about 35,000 yen ($300) per person, based on double occupancy. Single travelers can expect to pay more and the room rates vary night to night depending on the menu. If you will be entertaining clients, you may want to invest in the largest room at 80,000 to 90,000 yen per person. If you really want to go all out, the management can show you how to spend 150,000 yen per person. Somewhat less expensive rooms are available in a nearby, newer, annex.

The Hiiragiya is used to catering to Westerners — the Director, Akemi Nishimura, may even show off her prized snapshot of guest Charlie Chaplin — and they accept all major credit cards, so you can’t really use your poor Japanese skills or lack of ready cash as an excuse for not checking in.

If your excuse is that it’s just too darn expensive, you may be able to save some money by walking across the street to the even older Tawaraya Ryokan, where meals are optional. This 300-year old inn, still in the same family, is smaller than the Hiiragiya (18 rooms as opposed to 33) and rather more traditional in look and feel.

Here, there are no carpets on the hallway floors; the bare wood has been burnished to a rich sheen by decades of quietly shuffling stockinged feet. Sliding doors lead to the rooms as well as to the gardens and there are no mini-bars to be found. Low slung easy chairs, which are dotted around the Hiiragiya, are conspicuous by their absence and the Tawaraya has yet to introduce that most Western of innovations (if that’s the word) — the gift shop.

The Tawaraya’s rooms have names rather than numbers and that seems altogether fitting for an establishment in which each room seems to have been carefully crafted to the specifications of different, but equally demanding, clients. The service is on a par with that to be found at the Hiiragiya, perhaps even a shade better. No less an authority than Baron Hilton himself declared the Tawaraya “a lesson to hotelmen on what service is all about.” And the aesthetics of the place just can’t be beat. Perhaps that’s why the guest book boasts names like Richard Avedon, Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, and Michelangelo Antonioni.

The Tawaraya’s pricing is by room rather than per person and ranges from 35,000 yen to 90,000 yen. Two of the nicest rooms, ‘Fuji’ and ‘Midori,’ are 50,000 yen a night. Of course, foregoing those special, in-your-room meals will prove difficult if not impossible. Dinner rates start at 12,000 yen per person (about $100) and go to 30,000 or more. Those with hearty appetites should be warned that the cheaper meal choices may leave them feeling a mite peckish. Breakfast is a comparative bargain at 2,200 to 3,500 yen, scarcely more than what many upscale hotels in Kyoto charge.

The experiences offered by these two very special urban retreats have drawn the rich, the powerful, and the famous for centuries. Today, they represent the pinnacle of business travel, not just in Japan but in the entire world. And yet I can’t help thinking that it’s all wasted on businesspeople who are, of necessity more focused on tomorrow’s make or break meetying then tonight’s delicately perfumed miso shiru. On second thought, cancel the meetings, call someone you love and create your own pillow book of indelible memories.

The Hiiragiya Ryokan, Oike-kado,
Fuyacho, Nakakyo-ku, Kyoto 604.
Tel: 011-81-075-221-1136.
Fax: 011-81-075-221-1139.

The Tawaraya Ryokan, Fuyacho,
Oike-Saguru, Kyoto 6094.
Tel: 011-81-075-211-5566.
Fax: 011-81-075-211-2204.

For more information on Kyoto . . .

Contact the Japanese National
Tourist Organization at (212) 757-5640,
(312) 222-0874, (415) 989-7140,
or (213) 623-1952. E-mail addresses include
[], and [].

Note: Information was accurate as of June, 1997.

This article copyright 1997 by Kelly Monaghan. All rights reserved. Editorial inquiries should be addressed to The Intrepid Traveler, P.O. Box 531, Branford, CT 06405. Or email

Kyoto: A Destination Overview for Travel Agents

[Note: This article first appeared in Travel Agent magazine and is reprinted here with permission.]

When the dollar hit an all-time low against the yen in April, 1995, many tourists wrote off Kyoto. Since then the dollar’s yen buying power has increased over 40% and, while official figures are not yet available, Kyoto tourism officials and hoteliers report a sharp rise in leisure arrivals.

The ancient imperial capital is second only to Tokyo in foreign tourist arrivals and is arguably the more interesting of the two cities. Laid out in a regular north-south grid and almost entirely surrounded by low mountains, it is also far easier to navigate.

1997 has seen some striking improvements to the city’s infrastructure. The playfully modern Kyoto Station Building, with its vast and airy Central Concourse, is now open. The controversial complex, designed by Hara Hiroshi, includes The Cube, Kyoto’s largest shopping center, anchored by the Isetan department store; the 539-room Hotel Granvia Kyoto; and Theater 1200, a 1,000-seat venue for international concert and theatrical events, as well as two smaller theaters.

The Karasuma subway line has been extended north to the International Conference Centre, while the new east-west Tozai line offers easier access to Kyoto’s attraction-filled eastern district.

Target Clientele: Although cheaper than it was just a year ago, Kyoto is still a relatively upscale destination that will appeal to travelers with an interest in Japanese art, history, and exquisite contemporary crafts. Clients with a taste for luxury travel will find much to please them in Kyoto’s fine hotels and restaurants.

Attractions: There are enough temples, shrines, and museums to keep the dedicated sightseer busy for months. Perennial favorites include Nijo Castle, a shogun’s residence boasting magnificent fusuma (sliding door) paintings of the Kano school; Kinkaku-ji Temple with its shimmering Golden Pavilion; Ryoan-ji Temple, with Zen rock gardens that virtually define the genre; and Kiyomizudera Temple, a mammoth wooden structure erected without the use of a single nail.

Kyoto’s major sites are often mobbed with Japanese sightseers and chattering school groups, so early morning visits are advisable. The remainder of the day can be devoted to the unexpected pleasures of exploring lesser-known shrines, temples, and gardens.

The Philosophers’ Path offers a leisurely and shady stroll along an old canal past shrines, temples, trendy boutiques, and some of Kyoto’s finest private homes; in April it is ablaze in cherry blossoms.

Gion Corner, in the heart of the city’s famed geisha district, offers nightly performances of traditonal Japanese music, dance, and theater from March through November (011-81-075-561-1119; $28).

Kyoto’s newest attraction is the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (011-81-075-762-2670; free), offering a crash course in quality craftsmanship for the serious shopper. For a change of pace, try Toei Movieland, a samurai version of Universal Studios, where no English is spoken.

Accommodations: The following hotels can be recommended with confidence to clients seeking all the western amenities. The centrally located 303-room ANA (Zen Nikku) Hotel (left) (800-ANA-HOTELS; 011-81-075-231-1155; fax 011-81- 075-231-5333) offers views of Nijo Castle and a health spa; doubles range from $190 to $240. Next to the Kyoto International Conference Centre to the north of the city, the circular 322-room Takaragaike Prince Hotel (011-81-075-712-1111; fax 011-81-075-712-7677; in the US, 1-800-542-8686) boasts the largest doubles in Kyoto for $300 to $350; substantial discounts are available to those attending conventions. The doyenne of Kyoto’s luxury western-style hotels is the 108-year-old, 528-room Miyako (800-336-1136; 011-81-075-771-7111; fax 011-81-075-751-2490), where doubles range from $230 to $430; the hotel’s location in the eastern foothills offers ready access to several major tourist attractions and sweeping views of the city. A moderately-priced choice is the Holiday Inn Kyoto (1-800-HOLIDAY), where doubles are about $150 and the surroundings familiar.

For the more adventurous traveler, Japanese-style accommodations are available in Kyoto’s many ryokans and minshukus (see sidebar).

Dining: Major hotels all offer a range of dining options: Japanese, Chinese, and Western, with English menus. Otherwise, English menus are the exception rather than the rule. One such exception is Kyo-Ichi (075-365-0240) near Kyoto Station, offering elegant variations on Japanese home cooking. Many restaurants display life-like plaster models of their specialities in their windows, so non-Japanese speakers can let their fingers do the ordering.

Visitors wishing to sample Kyoto’s refined kai-seki cuisine should rely on their hotel concierge to select the restaurant and make reservations. Make sure to remind your clients that relatively few restaurants outside hotels accept credit cards.

Getting There: Kyoto is two hours, 45 minutes from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Bullet Train. Ultra-modern Kansai International Airport (KIX), near Osaka, has non-stop flights to Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Detroit via Japan Airlines, Northwest, and United. There is direct bus and train service from the airport to Kyoto Station.

Contact the Japanese National Tourist Organization at (212) 757-5640, (312) 222-0874, (415) 989-7140, or (213) 623-1952. Web site addresses include [], [], and [].

Kurashiki, The Venice of Japan

Staying in Style at a Ryokan

Somewhere along the line, in one of those bursts of promotional zeal that periodically wash over the tourism industry, the modest city of Kurashiki picked up the nickname, “the Venice of Japan.”

The moniker owes its slim claim to credibility to a short dog-leg of an old canal in what used to be a warehouse district, in the days when the city was connected to the Inland Sea by a network of these narrow waterways. Today, this block or two of modern Kurashiki is one of those tiny pockets in which, with a touch of imagination and a squint of the eye, you can imagine yourself in “old Japan.”

But if the tourist tag line is a gargantuan overstatement, that is not to suggest that Kurashiki is not worth a visit. In fact, you could do a lot worse than make the town a base of operations for excursions into the surrounding area. Okayama, with its gardens, and Himeji, with its smashing castle are a short ride to the east, Hiroshima is just a bit farther to the west, and Takahashi, with its “hidden fortress” and Zen garden is a short trip to the north. Armed with a Japan Rail Pass you can spend an enjoyable week visiting the many worthwile sights within striking distance of Kurashiki.

What drew us to Kurashiki, however, was the eponymous Ryokan Kurashiki, an old, traditional-style inn that sits just at the crook in the dog-leg of the old canal. Here, for a mere 20,000 yen per person per night, we could, so we hoped, live like lords. It was most deifinitely a splurge but one, we hoped, that would be worth it.

Although the ryokan is listed in big-league guidebooks like Fodor’s and accepts American Express (many traditional inns operate on a cash only basis, despite their astronomical prices), staying there presents some challenges for the linguistically-challenged gaijin. Very little English is spoken. In fact, it would be fair to say that no English is spoken. Fortunately, the reservation had been made by our son, whose Japanese is fluent. When we arrived our room was not yet ready so we decided to leave our bags and take a walk. It took the better part of ten minutes to understand that the inn staff was suggesting we take any valuables with us.

Returning at around tea time, we were ushered along wooden-floored corridors worn smooth with age into a cozy lounge area overlooking a garden. There we were served green tea and a bean-paste goodie by two traditionally garbed women in their middle years who were to be our waitresses and chambermaids during our stay. I couldn’t help but wonder, while guesstimating the median age of the staff, if the younger generation was turning up its nose at more traditional lines of work. We were asked when we wanted dinner. We suggested eight. They gently suggested that seven would be a better idea. Later we learned why.

Gazing at the garden I was reminded of a point that Alex Kerr makes in Lost Japan when he cites the Japanese ability to totally ignore jarring intrusions in an otherwise beautiful scene. The garden was being trimmed and pruned. The workers had left for the day, but rather then remove the protective blue tarpaulins and aluminum stepladders of their trade (a job that would take about ten minutes, max, I figured) so that the guests could enjoy the quiet beauty of the evening garden, it had all been left there, like a glob of paint hurled at a canvas. Perhaps the Japanese guests were content to focus there attention on the unmarred corner of the garden; I was annoyed.

I was also mildly irked by our room, tucked away as it was at the back. In a ryokan each room has a “garden,” which is often quite small, but nonetheless an aesthtic statement. Ours was little more than a ledge. That carp aside, the room was spacious. There was a small anteroom with a wooden floor, a large wardrobe for hanging clothes, and western style seating around a small table. The main room was tatami-covered and austere. Beyond the shoji screens at the far end of the room was a narrow bathroom suite with a w.c. at one end and a one-person ofuro at the other. When we arrived, the main room was dominated by the table at which our meals would be served. It was flanked by two legless “chairs” that provide back support while eating. After dinner, all this is whisked away and luxuriously padded futons, starched sheets, and thick comforters are spread on the floor.

One thing, perhaps the major thing, that distinguishes a ryokan from the less expensive minshukus is the food. Elaborate meals are a given, with the evening meal a veritable banquet and breakfast a substantial meal in its own right. Another thing I discovered is that most ryokans adopt a culinary theme of sorts and become known for specializing in a certain style of dining or a certain cuisine. The Ryokan Kurashiki specializes in presenting the bounty of the nearby Inland Sea.

Another thing that draws people to ryokans is the ofuro, or traditional hot baths. Whereas at a minshuku you may find a small hot tub for one down the hall, at a ryokan you will find stone tubs large enough for two and even larger rooms that will accommodate an entire family. These are communal rooms and must be scheduled in advance. And so we bathed, soaked, luxuriated and returned to our rooms wrapped in our yukatas, which are sort of like bathrobes although far less likely to gape open in embarrassing ways.

At seven dinner arrived. And arrived. And arrived. I began to see why our gracious attendants thought eight might be a tad late to start. In fact, as course piled in upon course, I began to wonder if we were being rushed through dinner so the staff could get home early. Later, I was assured that this is the Japanese way, the rapid succession of courses apparently underlining the sumptuousness and sheer bounty of the repast. Besides, my informant assured me, Japanese tend to eat more quickly than Westerners.

Although seafood in vast quantities is not my idea of the perfect meal, the food was terrific. It was all beautifully presented, although I could identify very little of it. Platters showcasing small tidbits of a variety of marine oddities, were followed by more substantial portions of fish or shellfish. Best of all, to my palate, was the tempura, whose rich taste and sweet sauce seemed such a contrast to the sharp and austere tastes of so much Japanese formal cooking. The beautiful and mysterious woman I travel with was enthralled by a green melon served for dessert, the sweetest either of us have ever tasted.

The next day, I noticed a much larger bathhouse in the main garden and asked if we could take our evening bath there. I was assured that, yes, this would be possible. The evening staff felt otherwise, however, and our attempts to use the facilities were rebuffed. My protestations were ignored and glancing down a corridor toward the kitchen I saw a little old lady glaring at me with fire in her eyes. In that moment, I realized that behind the scenes this operation was run with military precision and a hand of steel. I stopped making untoward requests.

All in all, our stay at the Ryokan Kurashiki was less than I’d hoped. But perhaps that was inevitable. I look forward to the day when I will have the luxury of sampling a number of Japan’s finer ryokans and picking my favorite. I will certainly make an attempt to learn in advance each inn’s culinary specialty and choose accordingly. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) this information is not provided in the mainstream guidebooks.

One memory of our stay, however, will remain very special and, if you visit a traditional Japanese inn, I urge you do something similar. After bathing, we shuffled in our yukatas and stocking feet to the entrance foyer of the inn. There we slipped into the wooden gaeta, raised wooden clogs that are provided for guests’ use, and stepped out into the night.

The tourists that swarm this charming old district had long since left. The street was virtually deserted. We strolled out under the cherry blossoms onto the gracefully arched bridge across the canal and paused. The night air was cool but the residual heat from our long soak in the ofuro was held nicely by our yukatas and we were perfectly comfortable. The surrounding buildings with their traditional architecture, tiled roofs, and graceful lines bespoke an earlier era. The street lamps were muted, not a trace of neon to mar the illusion. For a moment I indulged a fantasy that we were a samurai and his concubine out for a moonlight stroll.

The mood was broken when I noticed a man in a nearby phone booth. He was laughing and talking animatedly. I imagined he was saying, “You won’t believe what I just saw!”