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.

Transit
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.

Lodging
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.

Bathing
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!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Not Your Typical Airport Town

So it's just past midday on the Tuesday on which I leave. After three weeks of eating, riding trains, eating, soaking up culture, and a little more eating, I can say I'm fuller, fatter, and rich with experience.

But no, my friends, the eating tour - which I've proclaimed as being over several times - is not quite over yet. I've dumped my stuff off at the airport and taken a 10 minute train ride into town for one more taste (literally) of Japanese culture.

Narita, the little town that plays home to Tokyo's international transport hub, is famous for one other thing: Unagi. That's freshwater eel, for those of you who've studied the little tabletop placard at sushi joints the world over.



And like in much of Japan, they don't waste any part of the slimy little creature here. So I did what every good traveler does and tried every part of this freshly fileted squirmer. Bones, guts, and all... Each in a separate course.

Unfortunately, I can't find the full video to upload it, but you're probably sick of me eating weird things anyway.

Keep an eye out for a video compilation of my greatest (grossest) hits from Japan. In the meantime, I'm going to drink a latte (yes, they're widely available here), get back to the airport, and partake of some duty-free shopping before taking the long, sad trip home. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Last Night :(

I have to be up in just over two and a half hours. I'd have gone to sleep earlier, but I need to tire myself out for tomorrow evening's plane ride home... that and I've been packing, packing, packing, after shopping, shopping, shopping.

There's almost no better backdrop for doing anything than Kyoto. It's historical, it's beautiful, and it's cosmopolitan. Like an exotic Paris with its grand avenues, its tiny streets, and its old world charm. We went there for none of this. Rather, we went so I could do a final round of consumer masness. I had to pick things up for myself, family, friends - you know how it goes. I wasn't very targeted, and I didn't have a list. Instead, I just explored various shopping areas and thought, "Ooh, so-and-so would love this," and bought up a bunch of random crap. So if you're expecting a souvenir out of this trip, don't get too hopeful - I just took the shotgun approach.

Besides, I mentioned before that I spent a ton of money on myself - particularly on photo-related stuff - so you get to see all the pictures. Alright, so I bought a king's ransom worth of random music-related things for myself, too. But I'll let you make copies, OK??

Today's biggest expense, though, was luggage. I had to get a couple of suitcases to bring back all the crap we bought. This is the most junk I've ever bought on a single trip. My mom, who's using one of the suitcases to haul her stuff back to the States, says it's the least she's ever bought. This doesn't bode well for future trips.

Anyway, I'd best get to bed. We have a super-early start, and my mom has engineered it so we're in Narita by 9:00 AM. Our flight out from there to San Francisco isn't until the 5 o'clock hour, so we're going to have a full day there.

I might have to buy another suitcase.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Back in Kuzuha Town

I'm back in Kuzuha, and despite being in the suburbs and unable to get internet and all that stuff that makes being in a dead zone between Kyoto and Osaka crappy... I love it. I have the choice of spending my last day either in Kyoto or Osaka - my choice - and better than that, I've missed having all my family around me.



Especially Riho. She's adorable, isn't she? Tonight, she taught me a local Osaka children's song, one that proudly counts off the things the city is known for. You know, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, gyoza, battara - and it goes on and on about various Osaka specialties. It's somehow fitting that after almost three weeks of touring around this country, I'm back in the place where everyone thinks with their stomachs.

Maybe that's why I feel so at home here.

Although I barely fit through the doorway anymore. I have no idea how the Japanese stay so slim.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Done With Tokyo

I'm a bit sad that I have to leave Tokyo after only a few nights, but I'm done.

For now.

Roppongi left a bad taste in my mouth, and I spent this morning in Harajuku feeling wholly underwhelmed.

All trip I'd been looking forward to the Harajuku cosplay freakshow, waiting to see people dressed up as gothic lolitas, anime characters, members of their favorite bands - whatever. Instead I saw a handful of kids in barely creative outfits. The few who were dressed to the nines were hiding away from photos because they weren't looking "pretty enough" yet. Maybe I'd come too early. Or perhaps since it's a holiday weekend, most of these so-called rebellious teens were off at Tokyo Disney with their suburban families.

Or maybe it's the fact that I'm just numbed to it all. After all, nobody outfreaks San Francisco. The city is a pride parade, Halloween, and a Grateful Dead parking lot rolled into one - and that's on regular days. It's gonna be hard to shock me, whatever you're wearing. (Maybe a white hood and a burning cross will get me, though...)

On the other hand, Harajuku's a cool little part of Tokyo, overall. Along with adjoining Omote-sando, it's a vibrant little fashion district, with Harajuku's tiny little alleys home to all sorts of cheap streetwear geared toward the youth, and Aoyama's Parisian-styled avenues home to high-end designers who split their time between Tokyo and Paris. Yohji Yamamoto. Hanae Mori. Issey Miyake. All those folks whose clothes I can't afford, which is just as well because they don't fit me. But it makes for nice window shopping, with very little crowd surfing necessary.

Getting out of Tokyo is less than ideal right now, too. Again, with the holiday weekend, all was madness at the Tokyo station, and our normally smooth, comfortable Shinkansen is now packed to the hilt with people, and I get an occasional elbow to the head or bag smacking me in the arm whenever I attempt to sleep. It's like being on a commuter train, only traveling about 400 miles on it.

Luckily, my mom and I lined up early and we were able to snag decent seats, as well as some snacks.


Yes! Booze, cheese, and Mt. Fuji! That makes for a great day after all. Until you get to this stretch:

Depressing, isn't it?

Maintaining Radio Silence - Again

I'm packing up the last of my things and headed to Harajuku before I meet up with my mom to head back to Osaka.

Unfortunately, I'll be in an internet-free dead zone for the rest of the trip, unless I can find a McDonald's or Mos Burger with wi-fi within reasonable walking distance from my aunt's. Wish me luck, and if I don't see you before I'm back in the States, sayonara!

The All-Nighter

So Keith and I headed over to Shinjuku to see the whole "bright lights/big city" aspect of Tokyo, and we got it in spades. Towering megalithic buildings, flashing neon everywhere, and masses of people going in and out of bars, restaurants, and various houses of ill repute.

But it was our quiet time that was the best. Tipped by several guidebooks, we sought out the Golden Gai, an area filled with possibly hundreds of tiny little bars - some seating no more than four or five people - and settled into one in particular, La Jetée. It's a curious, curious thing to go in a tiny doorway, climb an extremely narrow stairway, and open the door to a miniscule bar populated by some French expats and a kindly bartender who is not only well versed in French film (after which her bar is named), but the French language as well. I sipped Ricard through the evening, got to practice my French and Japanese, and we met a few other Americans, as well, who were regulars at this little gem of a bar. How we all fit in there is beyond me, but there are times when you travel when magic happens, and this was one of them.

Of course, getting the bill wasn't so magical - it was pretty pricey - but worth every Yen for the amazing, unique, and unreproduceable atmosphere one can get here. Sadly, we had to cut out early to catch the last train back to my hotel's neighborhood to ensure we wouldn't spend the rest of the night walking home.

Then again, that might have been a better choice. We came back to my current neighborhood in Aoyama/Akasaka and walked about ten minutes down the road to Roppongi, better known as the gaijin district.

Worst. Place. Ever.

If there's anything magical, mystical, delightful, or enjoyable about Tokyo, Roppongi is pretty much devoid of it. American accents everywhere. Barkers trying to pull you into strip clubs. Hideous girls offering their "massage" services around every corner. I felt dirty. Disgusting. And disgusted. While I'm no advocate of war, I found myself constantly thinking, "If Japan were ever to be nuked again, they just need to throw a few of those tactical bunker busters right into Roppongi." I hated it. Keith said it should be quarantined and cordoned off. I still prefer my idea.

Still, there were a couple of little gems to be found.

First off, there's this amazing all night bookstore that has more design, architecture and art books than even the Design Museum in London. I walked around with a woody looking at all the marvelous books about graphic design, typography, design philosophy - anything my little brain loves about my line of work. Cha-ching, cha-ching, I had to make some purchases.

Then there's the Travel Cafe, which is currently promoting travel to New Zealand. Definitely not the quintessential Japanese experience, but a quirky, odd, and nice way to spend the wee hours drinking beer and yukking it up with an amazingly friendly, young, hip staff. And the best part? Despite the highly gaijin name and theme, we were the only foreigners in there. It was like an oasis of Japanese-ness in an otherwise hideous, un-Tokyo part of Tokyo.

We whiled away the rest of the early morning until the trains started running by walking around and checking out the storefronts and hilariously bad bar names, marvelling at how there are so few signs in Japanese. And by night's end (or day's beginning) we dubbed it Tokyo's Marina district. (San Franciscans will understand this...)

After two or three hours of sleep, I went and hit my hotel's breakfast buffet this morning. And while there were rolls, eggs, bacon, sausage, etc., I opted to go for a pile of rice, Japanese pickles, and natto, the gooey slimey fermented soy beans from one of the videos I'd posted earlier on. I think it helped cleanse the stink of dirty gaijin off of me, but I don't know. I still feel filthy.

If any part of Tokyo has made the biggest impression on me, it has been Roppongi. And not in a good way. I have a foul taste in my mouth, a weird feeling in my gut, and regret making that the last stop on my little tour of an otherwise incredible city.

If you're visiting Tokyo, you still have to see it and understand what I'm talking about. But otherwise, all I have to say is: Fuck Roppongi.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Geekin' Out Again

I had to go to Shibuya. To shop.

That and to see the six-way crossing of humanity, which I decided to cross against. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Ok, maybe being in a civilized mosh isn't the experience of a lifetime, but being at ground-zero of Japanese youth culture is up there.

Shibuya is loaded with record stores, toy stores, and clothing stores. And while I struck out on trying to find some rare vinyl I've been after, and while I couldn't find any good Engrish shirts to bring home as trophies, I did wind up with a load of toys. I hadn't really planned on it, but I found a few things I coveted. The thing that made me nearly crap myself was this:

That's right, I got the Daft Punk Interstella 5555 playset designed by Leiji Matsumoto. Because I am a Daft Punk WHORE.

Spirited Away for a Day

Or half a day...

I just checked into my luxurious little hotel in Akasaka, between the hardcore nightlife districts of Roppongi and Shinjuku. Don't worry - I found a killer deal online. I'm saving my money for buying stuff in Shibuya. My mom's off at her friend's place in the suburb, and I'm gearing up for what'll hopefully be a big night.

But not before going and checking out the Ghibli Museum, an almost theme park-ish museum dedicated to the art and animation of Hayao Miyazaki. My Neighbor Totoro. Spirited Away. Naüsicaa. Laputa. All animated masterpieces under Miyazaki's belt, all imbued with an amazing mastery of ingenious simplicity.

The museum reflects this. It's an extraordinary place on par with Antoni Gaudi's creations in Barcelona, making you feel as though you're inside one of his films. It's not huge, nor sprawling, nor terribly complex - again, it's all the simple little things so meticulously paid attention to that draw you in. It's hard to explain how something so fundamentally childlike can be so fascinating, how one little place set off in a park in a Tokyo suburb can make you feel like a kid again, so like many things in Japan, you'll just have to see it for yourself.

I bought my tickets well in advance for this attraction (you have to, actually), and thought it might be a bit lame of me, going to a shrine worshiping someone who's work I always admired but never fully appreciated. I walked away in love. I'll be purchasing some DVDs in the near future, I'm sure...

Omakase. It's What's for Breakfast.

This is it. The centerpiece of my trip to Tokyo.

We got to Tsukiji Fish Market around 5:00 am and walked up and down the narrow stalls, dodging two-stroke powered carts zipipng by with nary a honk or warning, checking out just about every creature that can be fished out of the sea. There are millions of pieces of seafood here, almost all of which is bought and either re-sold or served right up today.

If there's any question as to how fresh your seafood is in Japan, just make a trip to Tsukiji. And if you want the freshest, tastiest seafood possible, then it's best to just hit up one of the many reputable sushi restaurants in the Tsukiji Market itself. The thing is, you might wait. A lot. For instance, eating at Daiwa - the most famous and coveted sushi bar in Tsukiji and possibly the world - warrants at least a two-hour wait, queueing up tightly with the masses in the morning cold. There were at least a hundred people in line...

Of course, that was when we left, after having had the best omakase ever. It was simple, yes. Nothing too exotic - just ebi, uni, toro, tamago, ika, ikura, etc.... And then there's the tuna, the reason all those people pack like sardines into the line for Daiwa. My piece of maguro was laid in front of me and I thought my sushi had been topped with steak. And it almost tasted like steak. And the toro? Fatty, light pink, and looking like another slab of prime meat. But it was fish. And tender, as such. It was ridiculous. Over the top. And it really made for an excellent breakfast at six in the morning.

And because we got there so early, we weren't in the line pictured above. We waited maybe twenty, painful, saliva-inducing minutes before we struck seafood gold.

Ladies and gentlemen, I may have just had the best sushi on the face of the planet. If I thought before that this trip was over, that I had seen the ultimate, tasted the most insanely extraordinary, or experienced anything coming close to the be-all and end-all, I was wrong. This was it.

If I lived near Tsukiji, I'd be having sushi for breakfast every morning. All at a cool $35. A bargain anywhere in the world for food this good.

My eating tour is over.

Friday, November 23, 2007

It's 4:20, Dude

I'm still kinda drunk. I got only a little bit of sleep. But I have to be up because I have to hit the Tsukiji Market. More on that later when I'm back.

As for yesterday, damn - quite a full day, even though we didn't cover all that much ground.

We got up fairly early and had breakfast at the hotel before scouting out Tsukiji a day ahead, so we'd know exactly where to go this morning. It's odd to see the biggest, busiest fish market in the world abandoned and at a complete standstill. While there were masses of tourists outside (yesterday was a national holiday, and people have converged upon Tokyo from all over Japan), the only creature stirring at Tsukiji was this cat, on the lookout for fish scraps.

We then headed over to Asakusa, where my friend Keith is staying. He's from San Francisco and is temporarily living in Yamagata as an English teacher, and he took advantage of the holiday weekend to come down to Tokyo and hang out. He had a bit of trouble finding us, so in the meantime I went to sample another local delicacy...



We met up and did the main things to do in Asakusa - like everyone else. Joining about a million holidaymaking Japanese, we checked out the Kaminarimon. Yet another big ol' temple. *yawn* Then we went and shopped for uniquely Japanese housewares on Kappabashi-dori, because I really needed a push-button soy sauce server. Seriously. But the real reason for anyone to hit Asakusa is to see all of Tokyo - through a glass of Asahi. The Sky Room at the top of the Asahi building is free to visit, you can stay as long as you like, and the beers don't cost any more than they do elsewhere. And they look like this:

My mom split to go meet up with some of her own friends, so Keith and I geeked out in Akihabara.

Known as "Electric Town" and a mainstay of discount electronics, we were more interested in the over-the-top manga culture, where geeks get their jollies looking at comics of school girls being sodomized by demons, build models of big-breasted girls in shibari rope bondage, and fantasize about giant robots. The girls, of course, have their own version, with guy-on-guy spoofs of popular comics. And yes, I bought some of this stuff. For posterity, of course. We even went all girly and had coffee and croissants at the Heidi Cafe, a cafe dedicated exclusively to the anime character Heidi, Girl From the Alps. If there are three words to describe such an experience, they're "cute," "cute," and "CUTE."

Keith said as we walked through the Heidi Cafe, "I think I'm going to die of diabetic shock."

Which summed things up nicely - if Akihabara is anything, it's extreme. The extreme cuteness of the more kiddie comics. The extremely graphic nature of some of the adult comics. The extreme sound and lights and flash coming from each store. It's total sensory overload, and after a while, I'd had enough. I was about to have a seizure.

So we hopped on the JR Yamanote Line train and got back to my current hood of Ginza, where I showed Keith around my neck of the woods (so to speak), retreading much of the previous night's jaunts. And that was just fine by me. Because this included the ¥300 Bar, where I'm always happy to return. In fact, it may be my new favorite bar in the world.

After many, many $2.80 beers, cocktails, and shots, we made friends with a Japanese guy named Rich, with whom we may meet up tonight in Shinjuku. Apparently, he and his really-trying-hard-to-speak-English friends want to kick it at an Irish pub. That should be interesting...

As for last night, the most interesting part was after the fact. Being short, I'm used to people taking pictures of me from a top-down perspective. Here's how it comes out when I'm being photographed by someone even shorter than me.

(If you can't figure it out, I'm the shorter, darker guy on the right...)

Takusan Nomimashita

No recap of today's action. Maybe sometime tomorrow.

I'm drunk.

HOORAY BEER!

HOORAY ¥300 BAR!

HOORAY WARM, COMFORTABLE BED CALLING MY NAME!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fascination Street(s)

I'm not doing Tokyo any justice by staying here only three nights.

We went out and explored the area around our hotel and wound up covering a few of the city's neighborhoods: Ginza, Tsukiji, and Shimbashi. One could easily spend a few days on these little areas alone. Around every corner lurked something new and different, and I found myself telling my mom, "Hey, wait, stop!" every couple of minutes, often for a photo opp or because something smelled good. But mostly because I was simply having my mind blown.

For instance, did you know there's a statue of Godzilla in Tokyo?

Well, now you do.

How about a theatre dating back to 1889?


Peek around a random corner and you might find a little izakaya or yakitori stand or noodle bar that only seats a handful of people - maybe even under a railway arch. We opted for a cool little ramen joint - the kind where you pick your dish by buying a ticket from a vending machine, then further customize your order by handing the server your ticket and a checklist. Want the noodles cooked firm? Soft? Want your broth light? Heavy? Greasy? Spicy? How about some slices of meat. Check off what you want and it's yours. And should you want another bunch of noodles added to your leftover soup, you can slip a ¥100 coin into the slot in front of you and someone will drop a serving into your bowl from behind the counter. All that and it tastes fan-fucking-tastic. The perfect bowl of tonkotsu ramen, served up with precision and efficiency.

The ramen was the perfect foil for the chill in the air, and highly necessary for our walk.

We headed over near the Imperial Palace (as in where the Emperor's family lives, not the cheesy casino in Vegas) and my mom pointed out the location of our old house from back in the day. I didn't even know we had a house there. Now you might think that we must've been loo-ho-aded to own a house in Ginza, but my grandfather had bought the house back in the 50's in the post-war rebuilding days. She also pointed out the chanson bar (yes, there's Flench in addition to Engrish!) where she used to sing, a bakery that one of her old friends owns to this very day, as well as the building that once housed my dad's old Tokyo office. All this history I didn't even know about.

In return, I showed my mom the Sony Building, where I would've gone on junkets back when I worked for them, had I had a passport at the time. (Long story, and yes, there was a time when I couldn't get a passport!)

Then I showed my mom what I really know. Or at least, the type of thing I seek out when I travel. Like the 300 (Sanbyaku) Bar. I read about it in one of my guidebooks and thought, "¥300 for every single item on the menu? It must be a dive." Well, if dive bars in Tokyo serve name-brand liquor, make great cocktails, serve small plates, and are paneled with pristine hardwood, then I'm really gonna like this town. Hell, even my mom - who doesn't care much for alcohol nor the places it's served - liked the place. My ¥300 Manhattan was meticulously constructed, my mom actually enjoyed her girly cocktails, and I walked out with a buzz for less than the cost of a single drink at most area bars.

We continued our walk and I, of course, had to hit up a couple of record stores. While American and European imports are cheaper here, it's the Japanese versions I'm after. Because Japan-printed CDs are ridiculously overpriced, they often come with bonus tracks or artwork that makes them sort of worth the price tag. Unfortunately, the money wasn't only sort of debited from my account, but at least now I can say I have a copy of Daft Punk's Discovery with Japan-only cover art by Leiji Matsumoto.

Another history lesson: One of the music stores was where my mom used to go to back when she was in college. That was a looong time ago. Like, REALLY long, long, long ago. (Just seeing if you read this stuff, Mom...)

It wasn't long before I was hungry again. Ramen consumed in the 5 o'clock hour doesn't really make for dinner, at least not since I was in college. Also a really long, long time ago.

"How about something foreign? Wouldn't you like to try the Japanese version of foreign food?" my mom asked.

No. Nyet. Nein. Iie! "We're in Japan!" I said. "I think we should stick to Japanese food. As long as it's not more fish."

It was at that moment when I saw a place with a cartoon of a Chinese guy out front, along with the lettering, ヤン ヤン (Yan Yan). And behind the window, I saw the guy in the cartoon pounding and stretching Shanghai noodles by hand. "On second thought, Mom... Chinese sounds good."

Good? It was fucking great. We went upstairs and the place was packed elbow to elbow, with barely enough room to squeeze into the table for two that had just opened up. Always a sign of a good noodle joint. The dishes were served super-quickly, as fresh noodles need little time to cook. And the taste? Out of this world. My favorite noodles I had today. And that's a lot of noodles. For lunch in Nagano, we had what they do best: Soba. And they were great. Then there was the delicious aforementioned ramen, which had me going mmm *slurp* mmm *slurp* mmm - you get the picture. And then these Shanghai noodles? I wanted to go home and head to Chinatown - the biggest Chinatown in the world, you know - and slap all the noodle makers across the face, and tell them to go to Japan and learn how to make real noodles.

Afterward, I went downstairs to thank the chef profusely for his awesome noodles. I spoke to him in broken Japanese. He replied in broken Japanese. Because the dude's Chinese. And speaks Japanese as well as I do. Which is to say, hardly at all. That exercise verified that I had some authentic Shanghai noodles. I think. I'll just have to go to Shanghai to investigate.

But before that, I need to immerse myself in more surreal. Here's a good start: A film festival featuring Steven Seagal.

Folks, there are some things in the world you just can't make up. This is one of them.

Welcome to the Jungle

As the Shinkansen speeds its way toward Tokyo, you start seeing skyscrapers, huge apartment blocks, and sign-covered buildings as far as the horizon. You gather your belongings, getting ready to disembark, and then you look at your watch and realize - SHIT - you're still 35 minutes from arrival.

The sprawl is huge. And populous. So what does that mean about the actual city center?

Packed. Although we arrived mid-afternoon and didn't see the 2-million person crush of the station, what I saw was enough. It's crowded. It's hurried. It's dog-eat-dog, all Manhattan style. Only everyone's so much more polite, for the most part. And anyone who's not - well, you can make 'em polite. People don't fuck with you when you're twice their mass. Oceans of people part for you and your huge duffel bag. Bikes swerve out of your way.

Yes, I'm using the rough-and-tumble reputation of the gaijin to my advantage. I know that makes me a horrible ambassador, but I've also got the pronunciation of "sumimasen" (I'm sorry) and the batting of my eyelashes down so well that I can't help but be loved.

Alright, that might not be true, but damn, people are so freakin' nice here. We lugged ourselves over from Ginza and didn't run across one rude person along the way. A few clueless cyclists on the sidewalk, but a mean look here and there resulted in slamming on the brakes and profuse apology. I like this place.

Anyway, we've settled into our digs at the Ban Business Hotel, and I've got my internet up and running. I had to set it up, quite literally. I asked the front desk about internet access and the gentleman handed me a DSL modem, told me he's not quite sure how it works, but he thinks the wires go in here. Yeah, in the jacks. Gotcha, Einstein. Ok, he's old and very kind - I shouldn't be mean. And somehow this jury-rigged DSL connection works and is very fast.

As for the other aspects of the accommodations... you'll just have to watch!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm Dreaming of a White Thanksgiving



Even as a California boy, I've gotten accustomed to waking up to a foot of fresh snow on Thanksgiving morning - largely by virtue of travel. And whether it's in Tahoe, England or Japan, I have a lot to be thankful for.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to give thanks over turkey tonight. Maybe fish? Although I'm headed to Tokyo shortly. And who knows? Maybe there's some American-themed bar handing out turkey drumsticks with every *gag* Budweiser.

Until then, I'm going to enjoy the serene surroundings of the snow...

Good Night

Uotoshi Ryokan is nice. Uotoshi-san himself is super nice. Our room is huge but cosy, with tatami flooring at futons on the floor, wood and paper window coverings, sliding doors, a TV, heaters, tea - everything you'd expect in the quintessential Japanese residence. Plus you get a view of snow falling heavily onto the trees and ground outside - one of my favorite things in the world.

There's the added bonus that he also has the only publicly accessible internet connection in Yudanaka. The next closest would be a 15-minute cab ride to the next town, so I apparently chose the right place as far as getting work done goes. (Remember, this isn't totally a vacation...)

However, Uotoshi falls short in the bath department. This is serious onsen country, and the facilities here - as Mom and Aunt Hiroko found out - are woefully inadequate. Luckily, the hotel that held our luggage earlier is a full-on onsen as well, and I decided to brave the dumping snow to go and bathe there instead.

I say without a hint of exaggeration that this was my best bath... EVER.

Not least of all because it was free. The front desk staff remembered me from earlier and decided my admission would be on the house. That's great, but I easily would've paid double the going rate at ¥1000. Or a hell of a lot more.

The washing up part was routine, but what a good routine it is. I've written before about how the methodical and single-minded Japanese bathing method is - for some reason - a means of centering the self. Of focusing. Of working on one task so vehemently that nothing else matters.

And then there's the soaking, which is the serious payoff. Two days of climbing, walking, hiking, being crammed into trains... it all melts away as soon as you enter the geothermal baths. It goes a step beyond when you're in an outdoor rotemburo, again, as mentioned before.

But throw that rotemburo into a snowy mountain environment and it's incomparable bliss. The moment of unbelievable cold between stepping outside the shower area and into the ultra-hot spring-fed bath is so worth it.

In the mountains here, there's a slightly sulfurous smell to the water, but you get over it the moment you're immersed up to the neck and feeling its magical minerals going to work on your very soul. The snow falling above is not only visually dramatic, but soothing as it lands on your head and your face, and should you be sitting straight up, on your shoulders. The slight chills it sends down the spine are immediately met by the comforting warmth of the bath, creating a brilliant balance that's almost spiritual.

When the bath gets too hot, simply stand up and let the snow fall on your body, letting two of the more extreme forces of nature work you over in ways that are simply spectacular.

It certainly helps when there's absolutely no one else out there with you - standing up buck naked isn't exactly considered fun for most westerners. And the solitary experience of you and only you in the middle of nature (with a little help from humans) is contemplative, exhilarating, and chaotic at the same time. The hot water relaxes you. The cold air chills you and makes you more alert. Flurries of snow swirl around you in the breeze, sometimes falling upon you in clusters when the branches of the scarlet Japanese maple are shaken above.

And to think - those bastard snow monkeys get to do this all day, every day.

Ed-San wo Tabeta

Sorry, kids. It had to be done.

After this morning's taste of buckwheat ice cream, I'd tasted all of Nagano's specialty foods, save for one. You know the one I'm talking about.

We finally checked in to our über-cozy room at Uotoshi Ryokan, and Uotoshi-san himself gave us a few dining recommendations. What he failed to tell us is that just about everything is closed on Wednesday evenings in Yudanaka.

So just as we were downtroddenly walking through the increasingly heavy snow, resigned to picking up something at Lawson Station (a ubiquitous, 7-11-like entity), some guy was turning on his light and putting out his sign that his restaurant was open for business.

It was an awesome Izakaya-type place, with a gazillion different sake bottles on display, bar seating, and the added bonus of semi-private tatami rooms where you gather around a short table on the floor, drink up, watch TV, and order small plates 'til you burst.

My mom pointed out that they have that Nagano specialty dish. The one that whinnies and snorts and makes or breaks people at the race track. The one that you ride, that is your companion, that has this amazing sixth sense... until you turn it into glue. Or dinner, as the case is here...



Sadly, it really is delicious. It's about the tenderest super-lean meat I've had in ages. Low in fat, high in flavor, zero gaminess. In fact, I'd probably eat it again, beyond the whole eating-as-an-adventure thing. Maybe next time I'm in France I'll have horse tartare. In the meantime, I'll never go to the race track and be the same again.

Live from Yudanaka

We made the hour long train journey from Nagano to Yudanaka, and along the way did a few chants, a few dances, and prayed like the bejezus that it would snow.

It's not that it could possibly snow enough for them to open up the ski resorts up here and for me to carve a few pristine runs of powder. I'm not that delusional about my new Buddhist chanting abilities to conjur weather phenomena. It's just that I wanted to gloat to all my friends back home who aren't seeing any damn snow in Tahoe. That and, hey, we're where the '98 Winter Olympics were held. It's only appropriate to see it with at least a dusting of snow.

And that dusting is what we got shortly after arrival. And that's about all we got.

We arrived at the ryokan we'd booked - that's a traditional, home-style Japanese accommodation if I haven't mentioned that before. Uotoshi Ryokan was one of two recommended by my guidebook, or any English-language web site for that matter, and since this leg of the trip is mine, I had to go with what I know. That and this one is way cheaper than the other.

Anyway, back to the point: We got here and there's no Uotoshi. Yes, there's the ryokan, but Uotoshi-san himself is nowhere to be found. In fact, there's no one at the place. Luckily, the hotel a couple of doors down said they'd be glad to hold our stuff until Uotoshi shows up, and if he doesn't, that we could have a room there.

In the meantime, the snow started to fall some more, which meant everything was falling into place. Because I plan the awesomest shit. And believe me, this shit is about as awesome as it gets:

Eating Japan

I swear, that's what I should rename this blog.

We went over to Nagano's famous Zenko-ji temple complex, but I had an ulterior motive: To try the Nagano-only specialty of soba ice cream. Soba are buckwheat noodles, so this is, as you would guess, buckwheat ice cream.

How is it?

It tastes almost exactly like a McDonald's soft serve cone. Do they even make those anymore? Or have they all switched over to pseudo-health-conscious frozen yogurt? Anyway, it tastes just like the stuff Ronald McDonald serves up. Only with a slightly wheaty aftertaste.

Wholly disappointing.

Alright, time to check out of the fancy hotel and move on to a ryokan (old school acommodations) in the mountains.

Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?

We got up this morning and Aunt Hiroko asked me if I was having any nightmares about the ghosts of cute little birds haunting me.

Har har har. So I ate sparrow last night. What's the big deal? I was just partaking of her culture's foodways.

So we go downstairs to the gorgeous restaurant at the Hotel Saihokukan for our included breakfast. Not a meager affair, the choices of Japanese or Western style presented a full tray of goodies. I opted for western so I could have an omelet, bacon, yogurt, toast - all that good stuff.

To add to the outdoorsy feel of the restaurant, they've got a soundtrack of birds chirping - sparrows, it seems like - throughout the place. My mom pointed it out and said, "See? They're coming for you."

Har har.

And then an acoustic guitar version of the Carpenters' "Close to You" came on...

Why do birds suddenly appear? Every time... you are near...?
Just like me, they want to be... close enough to peck your damn eyes out for eating them!


I swear, they are haunting me now.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Feeding Continues

So the restaurant where I wanted to try basashi was closed for the night. Just as well. I took enough crap for eating (and enjoying, natch) whale meat and blubber, so I can't imagine the beating I'd take for digging into a creature people actually own and ride and care for like one of their own.

We walked around the train station area of Nagano a bit, and it's great. All sorts of bars - many with funny themes like pirate bars, Hawaiian bars - you name it. Then we stumbled upon a place that's got an old theme. As in, everything in there is old school. All sorts of toys, ads, and music from just after the war, just as the Japanese economic machine really started cranking.

My mom and Aunt Hiroko immediately felt at home, taking a trip down memory lane. I was taking a trip down the menu, where everything is dirt f'in cheap (albeit tiny) and there are hundreds of items to choose from. It's like a theme izakaya with almost every item imaginable, period music, and period artwork. And the atmosphere is raucous fun.

Being in their element, the Sisters Moriyama started ordering what seemed like half the menu. My mom knew I was bummed about not getting to try raw horse tonight, so she pointed out something on the menu that she found equally cute and loveable. Something she feeds every day, along with the cat and the squirrels in our yard...



Ok, so Hanbey isn't all about off-the-beaten-path foods. We had plenty of normal Japanese pub grub, like yakitori, croquettes, yakisoba with fried egg, musubi rice balls, grilled shiitake mushrooms. All the good stuff that goes so well with beer. When ordering another round, my mom noticed another Nagano specialty on the menu. One less cute and cuddly than horses or little birds...



That's right - the eater of crops became the eaten. Muahahahaha! Take that!

Actually, they were nothing special. Tasty enough, but nothing I'd specifically want to order again. It was just fun.

What was most fun, though, was watching Mom and Aunt Hiroko sing along to really old Japanese songs. They loved the place so much they couldn't stop gushing about it to the waitress, to the maitre d'... so much so that they gave us a bunch of souvenirs to remember the place by. Which made us love it even more.

I know I've said this, like, four times this trip already, but I think this is my new favorite restaurant.

Naganoooooo!!!

Alright, this is where the trip becomes more mine. I picked Nagano. I picked what we're gonna do around here. And I picked the hotel.

Which is pretty frikkin' sweet, even if I do say so myself. It's the Hotel Saihokukan, about in the middle of town, and it's niiiiice. Not super duper over-the-top nice, but I've got a nice working desk, a couple of full-sized beds, a sofa bed, and full-service everything. The full-service part is ridiculous. They've got people with white gloves handing you and taking back your umbrella when the concierge claps his hands n' shit. But then, this is where the Imperial family stayed during the Winter Games. Talk about serious amenities.

And most important of all? I've got internet, glorious internet. This is important as I have some work to do tonight (like, real work) but that's not 'til about midnight.

In the meantime, please do scroll down and enjoy the backlog of postings since yesterday morning.

There's a lot of video, which has been fun to do.

Speaking of fun, we're all a little hungry, and I've got a place with the local specialty, basashi, in mind. Mmm, horse sashimi!

Minor Language Goof

So we're on our second of three legs of a train trip to Nagano right now.

On the third, we're going to meet up with my Aunt Hiroko, who's joining us from Osaka. She's mad for mountains and wants to come up to the Japanese Alps, where we'll hopefully see some snow and gorgeous mountain scenery - this was the site of the '98 Winter Olympics, after all. It snowed on Sunday, and there was supposed to have been a nice dusting today. Keep your fingers crossed!

In the meantime, the announcements on the train are hilarious. First, there's the standard stop, upcoming stops, and destination announcement in Japanese. It's then followed by an announcement in English, only the person saying it has a Spanish accent.

The conductor just stopped by to check our passes, and after looking at my mom's, he asked, "Matsumoto?"

My mom was starting to nod when I cut in and said, "No, it's Moriyama," correcting our Japanese family name.

Then I realized he was referring to our train's destination, where we'd change trains to Nagano.

I feel like an idiot.

Seeking Enlightenment

After a gorgeous hike around Shibakawa - where I snapped about a zillion more shots of Fuji-San - we packed our stuff and got in the car, this time headed for the small mountain town of Minobu, home to one of the most sacred series of temples in Japanese Buddhism. When we pulled up at the base, I was offered to walk up the stairs, if I would like. Mom opted to go up by car, but being a trooper, I figured I'd do it the right way and hike it.



Actually, it's just a new pagoda that's under construction. The set of temples themselves are open, save for one, which isn't quite ready yet. But being in the company of a monk, we were allowed in to see it, on the condition that I'm not allowed to photograph anything inside. Fair enough.

Now, I've been to a number of Buddhist temples back at home. They're small, humble affairs tucked into residential neighborhoods, for use by the paltry number of practicing Buddhists. This is not one of those. It's huge. It's lavish. It rivals most Japanese castles in its enormity and the amount of wood and paper and gold used in the construction. Absolutely stunning.

Of course, it casts Buddhism in a whole new light for me. Whereas before I always thought it was a religion founded on a humble and simple background, seeing Ken's worldly possessions and then this - a temple to rival Europe's cathedrals - makes me believe that even this creed, while kindler and gentler in its rhetoric, pumps a lot of money through its coffers. A hell of a lot.

But people have to have their beliefs, and if you're going to have one of the most sacred sites in all of Japan, you may as well do it up. The place is sacred because the first Buddhist monk in Japan - the gentleman responsible for bringing the religion over from India and China - made his life and his resting place here.

With that kind of sacred power, it's only at a place like this where you can see the sakura (cherry blossom), strictly a springtime phenomenon, alongside autumn foliage. It's absolutely surreal, and technically speaking, more or less impossible. The freaky part is that I only saw this right in front of the temple dedicated to him, and in front of his place of burial.

Alright, the scientific explanation is this. While this is almost unheard of, recent weather changes and an unseasonably warm autumn have fooled some cherry trees to bloom. It's all nature. But it's fun to think otherwise...

Morning Bell

Ding. Ding. Ding. I woke up to the chimes of one of those little bells Buddhists ring to call the ancient spirits. Ding. Ding.

I had forgotten where I was until I heard the gutteral chanting coming from the other room. I'm sleeping at a Buddhist temple, and our host is at work. Ding. Ding. Chant.

My mom got up to go investigate. I wanted to sleep in.

But then I thought how majestic Mt. Fuji must look at sunrise - if she's even showing at all.

Ding. Ding. Ding. More chanting.

My curiosity was piqued. I couldn't sleep in with all this going on in the background. I got dressed, grabbed my camera, and found my mom in the main temple area. Ken was chanting, ringing the bell, and seemed to be in a trance.

Ding. Ding. Ding. (Incomprehensible chanting.)

He then got up and continued the morning ritual by banging on a small taiko drum.

Then he went back to his prayer, which following yesterday's conversation, probably had one purpose...



And here I thought our view of Fuji couldn't get any better. Wow. Just wow.

Anyway, I gotta run. Ken's mother is calling us to breakfast. She's like 900 years old and cute as a button, and bows repeatedly like one of those little spring-loaded bird toys. It's a sight to behold.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Nightcap

After a couple of days of travel, only one thing would fit the bill after that amazing view of Mt. Fuji: A bath. We went to the local onsen where, as we soaked up some warmth in the outdoor rotemburo full of more of that awesome thermal spring water, Ken told me how each city was given about $1 million to spend on some sort of public works. Shibakawa decided to build this onsen. Well worth every penny.

The most fascinating part of this conversation is that it happened in broken Japanese, English, and even Portuguese. Where I couldn't understand a word in Japanese, and Ken didn't know it in English, he'd fill in with Portuguese. Luckily, it was close enough to Spanish that I could understand.

It's at times like this when I can really appreciate what a small world it is.

It's also the first time I saw Ken relax. For people who you would imagine to be slow, methodical, and precise, this monk moves in a blur - often in a hamfisted manner - rushing through just about everything. My mom said after 25 years, he's more Brazilian now than Japanese. I replied to her, "Well then, what does that make you?" We've been living in the States for over 25 years now, after all.

As soon as relaxation time was over, it was back to the rush. It was 6:20 when we left the onsen, we had dinner reservations for 6:30, and it was a 15 minute drive. We were whisked through pitch black, windy mountain roads to a small, traditional looking house seemingly in the middle of butt-ass nowhere.

We entered and immediately there was a cat theme. In the entryway, there was every permutation of the stereotypically Japanese "good luck" cat, including one dressed as a burglar. The door to the main room slid open and I was overcome by the scent of roasting fish... and the reason revealed itself in the middle of the room. There, in a small charcoal pit around which we were seated, three spits of whole fish were smoking over the coals.

We were each served a tray holding a variety of food. Rice infused with kibi (I have no idea what that is), some amazing tofu-type dealie, lightly pickled mackerel, pickled ferns, two types of fish, various plants from the mountains and the trees that I've never seen before in my life, and a crazy soft mushroom in its own consommé that was like heaven on earth. This was followed by platters of unusual tempura (okra, myoga, candied yam - you name it), and of course, the whole fish that had been roasting before us. We were instructed to eat the entire fish - called an ayu - head first, working our way to the end.

Normally I don't mind eating tiny fish in their entirety, but a regular-sized (eight inches or so) full fish? Head and all? I followed our host and my mom's lead and bit in.

De-fucking-licious.

The next bite was even better than the previous, which is why I guess we were told to eat from the head. Then I looked and noticed that the fish had not been gutted. I looked up at Mom and Ken and they kept going, so I shrugged and kept going myself Now normally I wouldn't recommend eating fish innards. They taste, umm, earthy at best. But I'll venture to say that these were the best fish guts I've ever had. In fact, by the time I got to the crispy little tail, I wanted to ask them to roast up some more.

We were soon joined by the chef and his wife - who had been serving us - a highly eccentric couple who run this restaurant serving up ages-old, nearly-lost cuisine one party at a time. The menu varies depending on what they get and what they feel like making. Had we come the next day, it would've been a hot pot of sukiyaki hung over the charcoal pit for all to share.

I would come back if they were only serving white rice and seaweed. The combination of quality, atmosphere, and excellent hosts made me wish we had something like this at home. Serving the perfect dinner to cap off what ended up being a nearly perfect day, it may well be my favorite restaurant at which I've ever eaten. It's called Konjaku. I don't know if it's in any guide book or any web site, but if you're ever in the Mt. Fuji area of Japan, find this place. Go there. You will love it.

Konnichiwa, Fuji-San

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Japan is the Shizuoka prefecture. We're staying with one of my mom's old backpacking friends (back when she used to do this sort of thing), who recently came back to Japan after living in Brazil for 25 years. The bait for me to come along? Ken-chan supposedly has an incredible view of Mt. Fuji from his backyard. Well, I've heard my mom's exaggerations before, so I wasn't expecting much.

Our remarkably quick ride to Shin-Fuji station came to an end, and my mom told me to look out for the bald guy. That would be Ken. And so I look around past all the black suits and notice one bald guy, whom my mom waves down to go give a hug. The dude's a Buddhist monk.

All of a sudden, I was gripped with a bit of fear. While I'm all for new experiences, I began to imagine living a monastic existence for the next day or so, eating raw vegan food and waking up at the crack of dawn to light incense and chant while begging for money in tourist areas.

My fears were allayed when we walked up to Ken's car - one of those rally-inspired Isuzus with "Handling by Lotus" badges, a bumping sound system, and navigation. Ken himself was sporting a titanium wristwatch and Timberland shoes.

My other fear, however, came devastatingly true. Despite being right by the base, Mt. Fuji was a no-show. As with most of the year, Fuji-San was obscured by a thick layer of clouds, and despite the awesome weather around us, the big mountain herself was in hiding.

So what should be an amazing photo here is just alright - Mt. Fuji should be where the big bank of clouds is on the right. Meh.

As consolation, Ken took us to one of the 150 yakisoba shops in Fuji. The going joke is that there are more yakisoba shops in Fuji than there are people. Well, if this one is representative, then they all deserve to be in business. Slightly chewy noodles, a light and delicious sauce, a nice dusting of fish flakes adding dimension, and eating al fresco with what should be the most awesome backdrop in the world. Oh well, you can't have everything.

Ken told us that while yesterday was brilliant, today is awful for Fuji-viewing, and tomorrow's slated to be even worse. There goes my incentive for coming here. But still, I was fascinated to be hanging out with a monk, and hey, the noodles are great.

For further consolation, Ken drove us over to Motosu-Ko lake, just northwest of the mountain. If we couldn't see the mountain, at least we could hang out by a beautiful lake and appreciate the golden and scarlet hues of Japan's famous autumn foliage, right? Again, the clouds are where Mt. Fuji would be.

It was indeed, beautiful, but a short while later, a more beautiful surprise lay in store as well:



At the last minute, just before finishing our round of the lake and driving home, Fuji-San decided to show herself, if only briefly. I, of course, went apeshit on the photos, and Ken did as well, busting out his own digital SLR. I could get used to religious clerics like this. Besides, every globe-trotting rockstar needs some Eastern spiritual mentor, right?

It was back to the car for the long-ish ride to Ken's place in Shibakawa, and we went and parked in his rinky dink garage. In there, he had a bitchin' lightweight road bike and all sorts of cycling gear. Again, this is a monk!?

I guess so, because his house is a temple over 700 years old. The temple itself is beautiful, and the house attached is fairly modern. In the living quarters, Ken has crammed in a high-end stereo system - on which he shared with us a CD of Japanese music recorded in Brazil, in Portuguese - as well as a computer where I was able to fire off a couple of emails, albeit in a limited fashion. (Hence why I'm writing this offline, sitting on the floor of the temple.)

I was told if I want, I could take my camera out into the yard, and what I saw basically made the whole trip worthwhile.

Bam! That's it. Pack my bags and send me home now. I haven't even seen Tokyo yet and I can consider this trip complete. Done. In the books. Oshimai.

#1 With a Bullet

I hereby declare the Shinkansen bullet train the smoothest form of transportation in the world.

The proof? I just went to take a leak and not once did I have to hold on to the railing to steady myself. It's smooth and even, with even less bobbing and weaving on the track than Europe's high-speed trains, while going at higher speeds. Nutso.

I also declare the Shinkansen as the world's fastest transit. I swear, I went from Japan to England in 12.5 seconds...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Alone At Last

If you know me, you know I love traveling alone.

While I've had many great adventures with friends - and for the last two weeks with family - there's something to be said for the lone wolf. A certain spirit. A certain attitude. A certain freedom. Such a great feeling that it makes you want to go buy a t-shirt with a big picture of a wolf on it, proclaiming your independence.

Alright, maybe not that last part. But going solo is cool, mmkay?

Tonight, for example, I finally had the opportunity to venture out on my own. As I walked from the hotel to the main business/entertainment/whatever area of Okayama, the usual questions hit me. Will I be able to communicate? Will I stumble when ordering drinks? Will anyone talk to a scruffy-looking Yank? Hell, will I even find a place I'd want to go into?

The answers were to be found at Aussie Bar: Yes. No. Yes. Yes.

Ok, I just heard that record scratch in your head. Yes, I'm in Japan. Yes, I went to an Australian expat bar. Now this may seem counter to exploration of a country and its culture, to eschew its rich traditions of izakaya, dark whiskey dens, and hostess bars. But au contraire, mon frere, I hereby posit the theory that expat bars can be rife with opportunities for cross-cultural exploration.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by the owner, Jason. An Aussie from Melbourne, he's been in Japan for 11 years and running the bar for four. Ok, nothing special there. You can't spit anywhere in the world without running into some Australians. They travel. A lot. But sip your drink as he talks to his bartender in Japanese... with an Australian accent. Then it's become a hell of a lot more interesting. Throw in a big-screen TV showing some Fox talent-show crap from America... with Japanese subtitles. Throw in conversations about traveling and living abroad, and the experiences and lessons from it all. Then throw in some rusty Japanese + Engrish conversation with the bartender to round out the experience.

Ok, all that was an excuse to go and have some Bundaberg rum and Coopers Sparkling Ale, Aussie staples that we don't get in the States.

But like I said in an earlier post - I'm really damn good at rationalization.

And it was really nice to get away for a night, even if it wasn't a fully Japanese experience.

Kickin' it in Ok-town

Our packed train from Nakamura finally made it to Okayama, and not a moment too soon.

I fell asleep and sat funny, got a throbbing headache, and it's like someone decided to drop some arctic weather at the place. Never mind that we're at about the same latitude that we were just a few hours earlier.

The Okayama Business Hotel - our digs for the night - is just shy of depressing. The room's tiny but serviceable, the bathroom's microscopic but, again, serviceable, and BY GOLLY! There's internet! For free! Just ask for a CAT-5 cable at the front desk. w00t!

But this is no time to mess around online. Although I just wanted to take it easy, I wanted to do so in front of a big, steaming bowl of deliciousness. What sort, I don't know - but we just had to get out there.

We walked down the main street, Momotaro-Odori, called such because this is the birthplace of Momotaro-san. Actually, his birthplace is the middle of a peach. Huh!? Ok, Momotaro is a Japanese legend about a boy who was born - honest to god - from inside a peach. ("Momo" is Japanese for peach.) He grew up to be a brave warrior, and his tale has been told to Japanese (and half Japanese/half Iranian) kids across ages. The tale originated here in Okayama, known for its delicious white peaches.

Anyway, where were we? Ah yes, we walked down Momotaro-Odori, checking out the bright lights and big buildings of what was once no more than a middling town - now it's becoming downright urban, and with a population over 700,000, it's catching up with San Francisco in size. This isn't the quaint little transit town I imagined.

We got sidetracked from our quest for food when we went into a shopping arcade that had to be at least a mile long. Or so it felt. Block after block after block of shops selling, food, clothes, and anything remotely cute. If there's one word to describe things in Japan, it's "cute." The puppies, kittens, pot-bellied pigs, and ferrets at one pet store were no exception from that rule. I swear, they even make the puppies cuter here than anywhere else. Despite our growing hunger, the charm of all these stores was too irresistible. Of course, there wasn't really anything worth buying - at least, that's legal to bring back into the states. Until I found a camera shop. They didn't have the Nikon speedlight I wanted, and most of their stuff seemed overpriced anyway... and then I saw it. A shiny new 4GB high-speed SD card for my camera. For one third of the price back home. Cha-ching! I plonked down the cash and walked out of the store, and then it hit me - other than food, all I've bought on this trip has been camera gear for myself.

God, I've been selfish. Here I am in a place where there's a multitude of cutesy, non-sensical, amusing crap I could be buying for my friends back home, and I've been spending my money lavishly on myself and my camera.

Of course, then I realized I share my pictures with all of you, so that's gift enough.

Aren't I good at rationalizing?

Then another thing hit me. The smell of yakitori. Who can resist the allure of flame-broiled chicken skewers? Not I. Nor my mom. We headed into the izakaya (pub/grub place) from which the seducitve scent was emanating. And in it we found heaven.

Now izakaya's not some culinary masterpiece of any sort. But it's a hell of a good substitute. You sit down, order some beer or shochu or sake, and start ordering snacky food as you would at a tapas bar in Spain. First round: Three types of yakitori: breast, skin, and gizzards. Believe it or not, the breast was the weakest link in that chain o' chicken. Next up: kushikatsu better known to you and me as fried meat on a stick. That with a side of fried local fish sort of like sardines. Another giant beer, and then on to kaki-fry or fried oysters. Good lord, these things were HUGE! And tender! The oysters here are so huge that when you deep fry them, the centers don't cook up and shrink like they do at home, so you get a gigantic, moist, tender oyster in each nugget. Then there was the ebi-fry, the same deal with shrimp. I think we had a few other items but the food coma must've atrophied the part of the brain that would remember.

Mom and I walked outside full. Uncomfortably so. But the cold was harsh, cutting through all our layers. So five minutes later, we were talking about how good a hot bowl of noodles sounded... in theory, of course. Definitely not in practice.

Until we came upon a shop window where fresh udon noodles were being pulled by hand. We looked at each other and said, "Yeah, I guess I could eat that." We each ordered the simplest bowls available. Her the kitsune ("fox") with a slice of fried tofu on top, and me the tanuki ("racoon") with bits of fried tempura batter. Forget all the fancy sides. We were just interested in trying the handmade noodles.

My reaction: Ho hum. "Mmm, this is good."

Wait, what? I just spent that time writing and putting up a picture of noodles to which my reaction was so mundane, ordinary, and, well, not worth writing about?

No... it's just that it's really really really difficult to have an orgasm in front of your parents, ok? Had I reacted how I really felt about these ridiculously fresh, tender, delicious, non-pareil noodles, it would've been a recreation of that restaurant scene from When Harry Met Sally.

And really, nobody wants to see that.

Especially not my mom.

So, suffice it to say that the udon was good.