Thursday, November 29, 2007

Japan: The Now de Rigeur Recap

I've been back for a full day now, and my little head is still trying to process everything from the trip to Japan. Not only because of the mind-boggling array of stuff I saw - and ate - from Osaka to Nakamura to Tokyo and every point in between, but also because I'm running on so little sleep.

It's a complete time warp coming back from Japan. There's the whole issue of coming home from the future: I left Japan at 5 PM on the 27th, took a 9 hour flight, and was in San Francisco by 9 AM of the 27th. All the way, instead of sleeping or getting a few quiet moments to read, I also had to contend with the incessant screaming and spoiled demands of some undisciplined little shit of a child, whose parents should be drawn and quartered and served up as a delicacy at some Japanese izakaya, so we can consume these dickweeds, punish them further with our digestive acids, and subsequently flush them down as the human pieces of shit that they are.

Seriously, if you bring kids on a plane - which is totally fine - have the decency to exercise a little discipline and control. Otherwise, you are nothing but human feces. Excrement. Shit that doesn't deserve the honor of being flushed down a super-duper-musical-automatic-do-everything toilet.

Speaking of which, I miss the toilets in Japan. After a couple of weeks, I finally got used to them, and even started to like them. I made a little video the first time I decided to try one whole hog, but I never had a chance to upload it. Be warned - even though the video section of my website has been edited to say, "Watch me my crap on YouTube," you will, indeed, get to watch me crap.

Sadly, all the pooping in the world isn't helping me shed the, umm, shitload of weight I've gained in just a few weeks. It didn't help that I'd just been on feeding frenzies in Europe and Tennessee just before, but having the opportunity to sample all sorts of new stuff like sparrows, locusts, raw horse, akebi and more really put the face-stuffing pedal to the metal.

I thought I'd lose weight being in Japan, what with the whole small-portion thing, and the myth that Japan is ridiculously expensive.

Well, that's exactly a myth. Even though our exchange rate fell a couple of times while i was there, Japan is really not that expensive. Although transit and hotels can be pricey, you can work around that.

For instance, a JR (Japan Rail) pass for foreigners is just around the $225 mark for a week. I used this for most of my traveling around, and it's good for all the trains (except the fastest nozomi bullet trains), inlcuding the JR lines that go through and around Tokyo. And it's simpler than a Eurail pass in that you don't have to validate it each journey. You just walk up to the side of the turnstiles with a little booth, flash your pass, and walk in. No reservations, no nothing.

And trains in Japan are ridiculously on-time. As such, if you do miss the 4:12 to Shinjuku, they are so plentiful that it's not so painful to wait around for the 4:16. Intercity trains aren't quite as many in between, but you'll generally never have to wait more than an hour for a train anywhere which is more than I can say for the CalTrain on which I'm riding at the very moment, a train for which last night I had to run across active tracks and jump in before the doors closed right behind me. That wouldn't happen in Japan, because I'd just kill a few minutes on my keitai (mobile phone) while waiting for the next one.

Oh, and despite the fact that they allow eating, drinking, and sometimes even smoking on the trains, they are devastatingly clean. Not that you'd ever want to, but if you spilled a little rice from your bento box onto the floor, you could probably pick it up and eat it without getting deathly ill. You can't even touch a railing on San Francisco's MUNI system without scheduling an appointment for a shot of penicillin.

I was lucky enough to stay with family for all but five nights of the trip. But should you need hotels, they are plentiful, and pretty affordable. Especially when compared to Europe or the US. There are hostels, of course, and if I were traveling solo through the country, I wouldn't hesitate to stay at one. They tend not to be in the center of cities, but - again - the transit system is so good, it doesn't really matter so much unless you plan on going on a bender until after the trains stop running. Even then you have the option of the legendary "capsule" hotels. But if you're with others or simply can't stand the thought of communal living, "business hotels" are a good option. They're generally small, but fairly decent, and often provide breakfast with the price of lodging. They're also western style, which is great if you're trying to get used to Japanese social norms. However, if you really do want to dive into the Japanese experience, you can stay at a ryokan, where you'll get the full-on Japanese style tatami room, futons for beds, breakfast (and sometimes dinner) served to you, and as is the case with many of them, onsen communal baths, which are the bomb.

Yes, I just said communal baths. Oftentimes, in the western mind, this stirs up images of hiding one's genitals in shame, contracting lice or athlete's foot, or even being cruised by lascivious gay men with handlebar mustaches. As such, it seems like an odd thing to do, but as I've recounted in this blog several times, it's actually very pleasurable, and probably one of the things I miss most about Japan. Even when I had western-style bathrooms at my disposal, I was still happy to throw down a couple of bucks to bathe at an onsen. Besides the ability to get myself nice and clean before dinner or before going to bed, it also gave me a chance to unwind in one of the thousands of geothermal hot springs that are all over Japan. Definitely worthwhile and not to be missed.

Eating, Eating, Eating
Yup, in the paragraph above, I mentioned bathing before dinner. This is actually very common in Japan, and I'm guessing it's because dinner can be an event. Take kaiseki for example, the artful, methodical, and absolutely gorgeous multi-course dinner that's as much about presentation and beauty as it is about taste.

Of course, having such a dinner can be very expensive, and it's just as much fun - if not more fun, to share a communal pot of sukiyaki or shabu shabu or teppanyaki, all of which can be found at the dinner table of just about any Japanese family on any given night. Like the bathing, communal eating in Japan can somehow become a magical, fun experience, even though it seems awkward and invasive in the west.

And don't worry - while I've showcased a bunch of weird-ass foods on the video clips about this trip, you won't be surprised by fried locusts or boiled eel guts or smoked fish heads when ordering normal, every day foods. I went to specialty joints for these things. Most everyday Japanese food is very palatable and easy to order.

Then you've got your ramen bars, izakaya, soba bars, fast casual restaurants... The Japanese take all their food very seriously, so even at these - the cheapest of cheap - the quality of the food is generally high. For only a few hundred yen (just a few dollars), you can have a small but very satisfying meal, and often very quickly.

While you may feel like lingering for hours at an izakaya ordering up various grilled or fried items, you can be in and out of a ramen bar in less than five minutes if you so choose. Japan has a huge culture of convenience - if you couldn't tell by all the mobile phones, automated ticket kiosks, butt-washing toilets, etc. And this becomes highly obvious when ordering food at some places. You just go up to what looks like a ticket vending machine, insert money, click the pictures of the food you want, and you get a ticket or two. Hand these tickets to your server or cook, and within minutes you've got your bowl of ramen, your plate of yakisoba - whatever it is whose picture you clicked on the machine.

While tipping is out of the question, service is still excellent at most places, even the ticket-machine ramen shops.

Polite Society
You have to go out of your way for the Japanese to be mean to you. With the exception of Roppongi (have I mentioned I fucking hate Roppongi?) I didn't once feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, or generally that I'm "in the wrong place." If anything, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the fact that so many people were being so damn nice to me without having to profusely kiss their ass first.

The exception comes on the road. And yet again on my travels, the stereotype out there has proven true:

Asians suck at driving.
It seems that once the rubber hits the road, the whole concept of courtesy, politeness, and doing things with honor are straight out the driver's side window - which in this case is on the right. At first I thought getting around Japan by car was odd because of the whole drive-on-the-left thing, but I've driven in England. I've driven in Australia. I've gone the wrong way down a one-way street in the US after one or two drinks. But something here seemed wrong. Then I realized - these people can't drive! In a society hell-bent on following custom and rules to the letter, the roads are anarchic. Stop signs are ignored. Lane markings? Ffff-whatever! Traffic signals? Hey, stop in the middle of the intersection once you notice it's red!

If you want proof that the Japanese suck at driving, all you have to see that over 90% of car sales in Japan are automatic transmissions. And everyone knows that only vehicular morons can't drive a manual tranny. Ok, you can say the same of America. And I say my theory still holds true. Even on this side of the Pacific, you're a moron if you don't know how to drive a stick.

But Japanese drivers definitely trump us in one aspect. While they may not be able to see traffic signals, road signs, or lane markings, they can squeeze their cars through the tightest of spots without a single nick on the bumper. One-lane roads with two-lanes of traffic? No problem. One-lane bridges with no railings with cars going both ways? Again, no problem. Squeezing between a brick wall and two illegally-parked cars? They'll do it in their sleep here.

This strangely acute skill, however, disappears again when riding a bicycle or walking. Neither of which you are allowed to do, apparently, in a straight line. Step out or ride out on the sidewalk (which is the norm here), and just try, TRY, to get somewhere in a logical fashion. Everyone is swerving, or walking around dizzily, or nearly bumping into everyone you move. This is largely because everyone on their mother is on their phone. While that's illegal on the road, no one's stopping anyone from being a jabbering or text-meassaging moron while under foot or pedal power. Walking a crowded sidewalk in Japan can be one of the most maddening experiences in an otherwise orderly, beautiful place.

I asked my friend Keith - who's been living in Yamagata for the last few months - if he bikes, and if so, if he does it on the sidewalk. Both answers were yes, the latter of which infuriated me. Because I'm a cyclist in San Francisco, where we have some serious biking balls, and he's from San Francisco, and should have some serious biking balls. And on only one night, in Tokyo, did I see anyone with serious biking balls, riding along in the slow lane of traffic with all the car craziness. They even have bike lanes in many towns, yet no one uses them. Even the ones on the sidewalk. So I asked Keith, "Hey man, I understand drivers here suck, but how come everyone rides on the sidewalk? Even you?" And he told me that in smaller towns, the gutters - unlike ours - are open ditches and with the crazy way people drive, it's easy to get run off the road and into a ditch. So everyone rides on the sidewalk.

This answer made sense. Even as a ballsy SF cyclist, I'd be pretty freaked out if an evasive maneuver had a 75% chance of landing me in a drainage ditch. But Tokyo doesn't have these, so I still posit that Tokyo cyclists are still a bunch of inconsiderate jerks. And pussies. Big, inconsiderate pussies.

Speaking of pussies...

Drinking in Japan
I knew this already, but the Japanese are a bunch of drinking lightweights. How my inconceivably high tolerance came about despite being born of a Japanese mother is beyond me. I thought maybe my mom wasn't quite representative with her ability to get smashed after a drink and a half (I got her hammered at the 300 Bar with a couple of cocktails), but no, it seems the majority can get pretty schnockered off of a few orders of sake or shochu.

Which is a good thing.

First off, public drunkenness is totally acceptable in Japan, judging by the number of salarymen I saw stumbling through various bar areas and to numerous train stations throughout the country. Or the loud, conspicuous slurring and yelling of young ladies who gather up to get shitfaced after one large bottle of beer shared among them after work.

It's also a good thing (for them) because drinking can get damned expensive if you're not careful. I wish I had the Japanese ability to nurse two drinks over the course of the night and end the evening in La La Land. Instead, I got accustomed to $60 bar tabs for an hour of drinking. Damn my crazy gaijin tolerance. It's bad enough that bars can surprise you with cover charges, seating fees, and other hidden costs. (That girl sitting next to you? You just bought her drinks!) But if you drink like, say, an Irishman, a German, or a Japanese-Iranian-American, don't be too shocked if your bar bill is in the quintuple digits. (That's triple digits in dollars.)

That isn't to say that there aren't good bargains to be found. Drinking at an izakaya isn't too bad with giant beers at around $5 a pop, and then there's the Ginza's ¥300 Bar, which may well be my favorite bar in Japan, if not the world.

But for most westerners, you're going to burn a 10,000 yen (ichi-man en) note or two if you want to get to the point where you're pissing in every alcove on the way to the station.

Which is totally acceptable by the way. While there are signs in some spots telling you not to urinate there, public pissing is the norm throughout Japan. Sure, public bathrooms are seemingly always open, but it's totally normal to unbutton your 501's and let the golden glory fly as you stumble back to wherever. Oddly enough, I've pissed in the street in every single country that I've visited, except for Japan. I just felt bad. I knew it was socially (and legally) acceptable, but I couldn't bring myself to urinate on otherwise pristine looking streets.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness
If that idiom is true, then Japan is pretty much up there with a commanding view of heaven. With the notable exception of *gag* Roppongi, it seems everything in Japan is immaculate. If someone does litter, it's cleaned up right away. Train stations are spotless. Train station bathrooms are spotless. Hell, bar bathrooms are spotless. Except in Roppongi.

In fact, while litter and trash do exist in Japan, it seems you have to be actively seeking it to find it on the streets. Hell, outside of Roppongi, you didn't even see cigarette butts on the ground. Maybe this is because the "pocket ashtray" is a top-selling item at convenience stores. It's a foil-lined fire-proof pouch that you can use as - you guessed it - an ashtray that you pull out of your pocket when you can't find a real one. Tossing butts on the ground is frowned upon.

In fact, in most of Tokyo and busier parts of other towns, it's downright illegal to smoke. This may seem odd in a country that has cigarette vending machines no more than 12 feet apart from each other on any given city block, and where McDonald's has a smoking section, and where any other restaurant IS a smoking section. But walk around Tokyo or parts of Osaka or Kyoto and you'll see a sign of someone walking and smoking with an "X" through it. Even weirder, you'll see - outside - signs for "Smoking Area," with a mass of people huddled around an ashtray.

But it's totally OK to light up while eating dinner at a restaurant, drinking in a coffee shop, browsing through a record store, or even playing games at a video arcade. Yes, there are ashtrays next to the joystick of the Virtua Fighter machine in the local game center. WHAT!?

Other Non-Sensical Bits
There are lots of seemingly paradoxical things going on in Japan, besides peeing on pristine streets and smoking while hanging out with a bunch of five year-olds playing Taiko Drummer.

For a country obsessed with cleanliness, you will rarely find a bathroom that has hand soap. Restaurants are often an exception, as food handlers have to wash with soap by law, but you still won't find soap at all of them. And towels? Some places have air dryers, and even fewer have paper towels, but it's best to do like the locals do and carry a handkerchief or mini-towel with you at all times.

Internet access is another non-sensical phenomenon. Or rather, the lack of it. I hiked around Kyoto with my laptop all day hoping I could find an internet cafe with Wi-Fi or even an ethernet port so I could get online and work. Strike one. Starbucks? Tully's? Doutour Coffee? Strike two. I was finally able to get access at Kinko's, which was barely a base hit because I could've mortgaged a small house for the price. Looking up access on jwire, I found out that McDonlad's has wi-fi. And Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain. Great. Otherwise, the lobbies of hostels and some tourist information centers and maybe some hotels have coin-operated internet kiosks for us lowly foreigners.

So I wondered to myself... "Why the hell is this??? How is it that the most technologically advanced society on the face of this planet has so few internet cafes and wi-fi hotspots?"

It's because that jerkstain who nearly ran into you on his bicycle on the sidewalk was probably surfing the web. Or checking his email. Or putting in an order for some hentai comics. Everyone has email and other internet access on the ubiquitous mobile phone, making net cafes more or less obsolete. Although you can also get internet at 24-hour manga kissa places (comic cafes), which double as crash pads for those that missed the last train. How, I don't understand. Being in any manga shop or cafe is like having a seizure without the joy of shaking around on the ground.

Seriously, there's only so much demons-raping-schoolgirls hentai anime and lactating mom bukkake porn one can look at. At least for me... I have a living, breathing girlfriend.

Which brings me to another point...

Sex in Japan
No, I didn't have any, thankyouverymuch. Although the offers were plentiful in that filthy Roppongi.

I'm talking about the concept itself. It seems everything is contradictory when it comes to sex.

Selling sex is very much out in the open (see: Shinjuku, Roppongi), but people pay more to not have sex. (see: hostess bars charging ¥10,000 a drink)

I'm a former San Fernando (aka Silicone) Valley resident - home of the porn industry in America - and thought I'd seen it all. Well in Japan, here's demon rape porn, tentacle porn, school girl porn, and all sorts of stuff that makes even a hardened pervert like myself blush, or at the very least wonder, "What the hell...???" Yet it's illegal to show pubic hair.

News and public opinion show outrage over sexual assaults (which is great, don't get me wrong), yet there is no age of consent, and grown women are often encouraged by their mates to dress like school girls and take on teenage mannerisms to maintain youthful sexuality - this only blurs the lines. I was on the train with my mom and pointed out some adorable little kids, telling her, "Mom, Japanese kids are so adorable. It's crazy that their moms look like adorable 12 year-olds themselves." Which I meant as a compliment because, well, every damn person, place, and thing in Japan is cute. And my mom replied, "Yes, but that's why you hear about young girls getting raped. There's no line."

I'm no expert on the subject and despite my background in anthro I've not really researched any of this stuff in Japan, but at first glance, it seems there are incredibly competitive forces of repression and perversion at work, making for a cauldron of strange sexual practices and predilections which, frankly, turn me off.

I'm glad I have a western girlfriend!

But if you look past the strange porn, perverted cartoons, horrible driving, drunk public pissing, environmentally unfriendly foodways, human sardine can commuting, and strange toilets, you'll find a people who are as kind, welcoming, and joyful as any other on the planet.

Dig a little deeper and you'll find that - like you or I - we all have the same interests at heart, we just have different ways of getting to them on a daily basis. We love to eat, drink, be with our friends and family, and get our rocks off. It's the variations in how we get about it all that makes traveling a worthwhile experience.

And while this time around I had the unfair advantage of family showing me around and helping me get a closer glimpse at Japan behind closed doors, I advise jumping on any opportunity to travel there, if only to get a little taste of a culture that's got a foot in the past and another one well in the future.

For you experienced Euro backpackers out there who haven't hit up Japan yet, take London's propensity for putting gleaming new architecture next to centuries-old historical points of interest and multiply it by several orders of magnitude. And make it a hell of a lot cheaper. If that's not incentive enough to go, then I don't know what is.

Of course, it helps a lot to know the language. Again, I had an inside track on this, but still, even with my somehwat decent abilities, there were a few times I felt dead in the water - and that was just ordering yakitori at a bar.

So do yourself a favor. Learn a little bit of Japanese. Visit Japan. It is truly, as the natives say, sugoiiiiiiiiiii!

1 comment:

  1. I like the keyword tabs you've chosen for your adventures in Japan! Sounded like it was a blast, I'm jealous.