Claire Messud on New York City

August 8, 2006
Derek Shapton

"In my new novel, which is set in New York City, two characters embark upon an ill-advised affair after dinner in an unnamed restaurant on Cornelia Street. The place I had in mind is Home, and the scene for romance lies in its tiny back garden. The restaurant's desserts, especially the chocolate pudding, are particularly delicious, and they do a great chicken-and-sausage thing with fabulous onion rings. (I'm an onion ring fan.) Their quirky American food is enough to make anyone fall in love." --Claire Messud

Messud's new novel, The Emperor's Children, is in bookstores now. Home: 20 Cornelia St., 212/243-9579, chicken $18, pudding $7.

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On Life, Liberty, and the Freedom to Travel

Have you heard about the Cubans staying at the Sheraton Maria Isabel in Mexico City? The U.S. government threatened to fine Starwood, Sheraton's parent company, because, as an American entity doing business with Cubans, Starwood was violating the U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Our Cuba policy has long driven me batty. The embargo is misguided and shortsighted, born of special interests and political kowtowing. Yes, Cuba has an appalling human rights record, but so do other countries (China and Myanmar come to mind)--and we certainly don't forbid travel there. And for those of you about to accuse me of being partisan, please hold your horses. I blame every president--every politician--since John F. Kennedy started the de facto travel ban back in 1963. What galls me isn't the economic sanctions so much as something more selfish. I believe that Americans should have the right to travel wherever we want. Subscribers don't always like it when I write something "political," but if anything, I'm arguing against the institutional politicization of travel. On this count, I'm a libertarian: Every individual must be allowed to make his or her own choices about where to travel. There are countries--and states--that I think twice about visiting because I'm not sure I'd feel welcome there. And perhaps I shouldn't spend my tourism dollars supporting agendas I don't agree with. Then again, I'm hopelessly optimistic that I'll be able to enlighten someone simply by interacting with him. Travelers have long been a potent force of positive change. The thing is, it's my decision. At Budget Travel, we write about all destinations regardless of their policies; we leave it to you to decide if the politics matter. Some people prefer not to think about the issues surrounding a place, and hey, that's their prerogative. Back to the Sheraton situation--undiplomacy at its finest--which soon devolved into farce. Sheraton evicted the Cubans, a move the Mexican government called discriminatory. Local officials ordered the hotel shuttered for code violations, but the hotel still quietly let guests in, and then the city reversed its decision. I wonder if the hotel could've simply not charged the Cubans--what a magnanimous gesture that would have been. It would've been even better if Starwood had refused outright to obey the U.S. policy. But I'm not so optimistic as to hope for civil disobedience from corporate executives. It isn't good for the shareholders.

Trip Coach: August 8, 2006

Des Moines, IA: I am a nature and wildlife photographer... What are the best locations for this type of photography in Japan? What are the best months to go? I want to go sometime during the next 15 mos and potentially will spend about 2 or 3 weeks or more if needed. What is the best way to plan the trip? Is Japanese necessary? I am just beginning to study the language. Chris Rowthorn: Hi Everyone, Sorry for the delay. The best destinations for nature photography are the Japan Alps, Yaku-shima and Iriomote-island. The best months for outdoor photography are April and November. In the mountains, the summer months are best. You don't need Japanese ability to travel in Japan. But, learning a few pleasantries helps. Hope this helps! Cheers, Chris _______________________ Los Angeles, CA: I have business meetings in Tokyo in mid-October and I finish on a Thursday evening, with an outgoing evening flight at 1830 Saturday from Narita airport. Could you recommend sightseeing destinations where I might spend Friday with an overnight stay and with convenient Saturday public transportation alternatives to Narita -does Nikko work? Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Sure, Nikko would work, and it's probably the most rewarding destination close to Tokyo. The train departs from Asakusa. You could stay in Tokyo itself, or stay in Narita. I recommend Tokyo. The Yaesu Terminal Hotel is a good business hotel. Hope this helps! Cheers, Chris _______________________ Williamsburg, VA My husband and I fell in love with Japan during a visit in October 2004. We'd like to go back, perhaps to see the cherry blossoms, but I'm reluctant to get swept up in huge crowds (the Kyoto subways at rush hour were culture shock for me!) What would you suggest? Where in Japan should we go and when to avoid the biggest crowds at that time? Also, we loved the temple at Myajima (sp?) outside of Hiroshima. Any other suggestions for sheer beauty and calming settings? Thanks! Bonnie Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I can understand your concern about crowds during cherrry blossom season. However, I still think Kyoto is the most rewarding cherry blossom destination in Japan. Within Kyoto, there are lots of places where you can enjoy the cherries without the crowds. The Kyoto Gosho has some spots with nice cherries and fewer people. You can also head up along the Kamo-gawa River. For scenic beauty, you might try the outlying temples in southern Nara. You might also head up to Kurama and Kibune, or even further up into Miyama-cho, in rural northern Kyoto Prefecture. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Memphis, TN: Next summer a group plans on visiting relatives in Japan from the southern end to the northern island. There will be 12 of us ranging in age from 11 to 72. Are there group rates for traveling to Japan, and what is the best means of transportation once we arrive there? Christy Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I assume you mean that you will go from Kyushu north to Hokkaido. There aren't group rates per se, but you can certainly save money by buying JR Rail Passes, and rail is definitely the way to move around Japan. The train system is among the world's best. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ New York, NY: Hello, We are travelling to Kyoto in the second week of October. We would love to know more about the different neighborhoods. Can you suggest a off the beaten track place to stay? Thanks so much! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. You could try Ryokan Uemura. It's not exactly off the beaten track, but it's hidden down a lovely pedestrian lane. It's my favorite place to stay in Kyoto. You have to book ahead, though, to get a place, as there are only three rooms. Otherwise, Arashiyama is an interesting place to stay. The village of Kibune is another cool spot (literally, as the whole village is air-conditioned by the stream that runs thruough it). Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Pittsburgh, PA: I will be going to Japan as part of a 3 country trip including Australia and New Zealand and want to figure out economically the best order to visit the countries in. I plan to take 4 weeks in total, with approximately 7-10 days in Japan. What are the must see areas outside of Tokyo and within Tokyo itself? Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Outside of Tokyo, I recommend Nikko, which is the real must-see in that area, and the Izu-hanto Peninsula. If you are more adventurous, you might also try heading down to the island of the Izu-shoto group. If you are climber, Mt Fuji is also a highlight. Within Tokyo, you MUST see Tsukiji Fish Market, and be sure to go at 5am for the tuna auction. After that, I recommend Meiji-jingu, Asakusa, East Shinjuku at night, the Tokyo Metro Goverment Office Buildings, and, Shibuya, which is where lots of Lost in Translation was filmed. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ New York, NY: Where are some best value places to stay and eat if you want to shop and see Japanese high tech innovative gadgets? Where is the section known as Electric City? I don't have a trip scheduled yet. I need to know how much to budget and if I can afford it. I saw gadgets on TV. It is not the same as being able to shop for these items. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Japan's two biggest electronics neighbourhoods are Akihabara, in central Tokyo, and Den Den Town, in southern Osaka. Both are on the subways and train systems in these cities, so you can stay anywhere in either city and easily reach them. If you want to stay nearby, in Osaka, try a hotel in Namba/Shinsaibashi, and in Tokyo, anywhere within the loop line should work. Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Seattle, WA: My family and I are planning a trip to Hong Kong for December. My brother and I plan to visit Japan upon the rest of the family's departure from Hong Kong and would like to spend about 7-10 days in Japan. We would like to know where is a good place to stay and explore that is not the tourist or big city areas such as Tokyo. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I strongly recommend Kyoto, with a sidetrip to Nara. If you want to sample urban Japan, Osaka is only a half an hour away from Kyoto by train. And Kyoto is the most lovely city in Japan. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Modesto, CA: Can you recommend a good tour company for a single senior in April to Japan? I am interested in a small group tour that visits fewer cities with more depth rather than many cities of a few days each. Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I offer private walking tours of Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo. My website is If we can't help you, we can surely point you in the direction of someone who can. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Whitehouse, TX: I was planning a trip to Japan as a graduation present for my son. He has been fascinated with everything Japanese since he was 3 yrs old. We wanted to go in March (over spring break) or the beginning of June, 2007 for 8-10 days. We would like to see as much as possible; particularly, things dealing with video games and anime. We have been on some escorted tours, which are very informative; but, we would like more time to explore on our own. Please help us to acheive a balance between a tour and time on our own, plus help us choose which areas would be best suited for our short amount of time. Any help would be appreciated! Thank you, Karan Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. I recommend Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto for you and your son. Tokyo has plenty of high-tech and pop-culture stuff for your son, and Osaka has some as well. Kyoto should be interesting for both of you. The Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum in Kyoto is great for both kids and adults. Please contact me via my website at if you would like more information. Hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Seattle, WA: My wife of 12 years was born in Tokyo. I am trying to plan a 2 to 4 week vacation for next year, a big b'day for her. I want to include Japan and Korea where her parents are from, but every time I check out airfares with both countries in a tentative itinerary, they get out of hand. It seems like we might have to go to Japan one year and then Korea the next. Also, I am looking at either Business Class or a Premium Coach like ANA provides from Los Angeles, I think. I'm 6'2" and need the extra room for the transpacific segments, at least. What would you suggest for us in terms of tour companies, airlines, etc.? Thanks, Hal Chris Rowthorn: Hi, I have flown various airlines between Japan and the States. I prefer JAL in terms of price and service. If price isn't an issue, then I suggest ANA, which is excellent. I hope this helps. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Oxnard, CA: Hi Chris, My finacee and I are certified Disney fanatics, and after hearing all the great stories about Tokyo Disneyland, we have to see it for ourselves. Unlike the Disney theme parks in the US, there's not much help or information out there to help with planning a visit to Tokyo Disneyland. Can you provide any suggestions as far as planning and booking a trip, accommodations, and tickets to the theme park? Thanks! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Thanks for the question. Off the top of my head, I cannot give you detailed information. But, I would be happy to do some research and get back to you. Can you please email me via my site at I hope to hear from you. Cheers, Chris _______________________ Houston, TX: Hi Chris! Three adults and three home-schooled daughters (ages 6, 8 & 10) will be traveling to Japan in March 2007 (arriving Narita 16 Mar & departing same 14 days later on 30 Mar). We are interested in off-the-beaten-track sights between Tokyo & Kyoto. If you were us, what would you recommend for sites & stays? How much should we plan ahead? Should we book all accommodations before arrival (we are interested in staying mostly in ryokans and minshukus)? Or would we be better off using a destination specialist to make all these arrangements for us? Any recommendations? Also, would you recommend the services of a tour guide for such a group as us? Any recommendations? Any suggestions for budget? Is a trip like this do-able on less than US$125/day per person (land only)? Thanks a bunch! Chris Rowthorn: Hi, Seems like time is up, so I am going to ask that you contact me via my website at I would be happy to offer some suggestions and advice. I hope to hear from you. Thanks, by the way, to everyone who sent in questions. I certainly hope that you enjoy your trips to Japan. It is, in my opinion, one of the world's most rewarding destinations. Please contact me if I can help in your planning in any way. I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again, Chris _______________________