"I Surprised My Husband with a Trip to Japan"

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candy sushi

Some movies are love letters to a place. What would Breakfast at Tiffany's be without New York, or To Catch a Thief without the French Riviera? Watching them convinces you that the first step to falling in love is getting on a plane. For my husband, Jason, and me, that movie is Lost in Translation, and the place is Tokyo.

With Jason's 30th birthday approaching, I hatched a plan to kidnap him and spirit us there. It took hours of undercover planning, an okay from his boss and the will to keep a secret, but there we were: two people boarding a plane, one still a little confused, the other triumphant. We checked into the Park Hyatt Tokyo for a two-night stay. Like many hotels in town, it's perched at the top of a skyscraper like a wonderland. It's modern, but the staff practices old-world etiquette; all the employees bow, smile and call out a friendly Japanese welcome greeting, "Irrashaimase!"

Jason agreed that it would have been heaven even if we'd never left the hotel. From our window, 47 floors up, Tokyo seemed like one giant art installation, with trains swooshing like arrows of light. Every night, we had a drink at the hotel's New York Bar, where Scarlett Johansson's and Bill Murray's characters met. There, we listened to jazz singers and sipped martinis, the city twinkling behind us. We pledged to do the same at home: get all gussied up, sit in a fancy hotel lounge and feel as glamorous as movie stars. This, I believe, is what moves us to travel. Stepping away from our lives makes us reassess the way we live.

The airfare and hotel blew a hole in my budget, but luckily, you don't have to spend much to eat well in Tokyo. We nibbled on grilled kebabs at casual restaurants called izakayas and sushi from the expansive food court at the department store Mitsukoshi. We were even able to take a side trip to Kyoto via bullet train and, following the lead of Johansson's character, visited ancient temples and walked through the city's old red-light district. I was reminded of my first visit to Japan, when I was single and more than a little lonely. The beautiful country alone was my muse.

I went to all this trouble for Jason, sure, but also for myself. I wanted to see Japan all over again, this time with him. Basing your vacation on a movie might seem like a recipe for disappointment -- reality can never live up to the fantasy -- but this trip made us realize that we were already living the fantasy. Before I met Jason, I used to watch films like Lost in Translation and dream of having my own great romance. Now I watch them and think, That's what it's like when things between us are good. It's exactly like that. So I took him halfway around the world to tell him: "Thank you for making my life like a movie." I know that's a cheesy line worthy of a romantic comedy. I wouldn't use it if it weren't true. This time around, getting on a plane was the first step to falling in love ... all over again.

MAKE IT HAPPEN

Timeless tips for booking (and enjoying) a birthday trip

Let Hollywood inspire you. When trying to decide where to go, look for trends in your partner's DVD collection. For instance, if he has a sizable Woody Allen library, New York City might strike a chord with him.

But go with a place you sorta know. That way you can concentrate on having fun instead of freaking out about navigating an unfamiliar city

Don't try to see everything. Keep things simple with just one or two outings a day. A birthday trip is not about plodding through a checklist.