A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Japan Trip Report

Advice on travelling Japan, on the following cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima

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View Japan July 2006 on GregW's travel map.

The following is a summary of my two week trip to Japan. I flew into Narita Airport outside of Tokyo, and then spent 6 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto, a day each in Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima.

2006 07 05..hinjuku.JPG

I’ll offer some specific impressions and advice on each city, and then some general comments on travelling in Japan. But first a quick note, that I use the incorrect but easy to remember currency exchange rate of ¥100 being equal to $US 1. It’s actually more like ¥120 being equal to $US 1, but math is much easier when you use round numbers.

Tokyo

In Tokyo, I mostly just wandered around and saw the city. It’s an amazingly large place and always crowded, but it can be a lot of fun. I was staying in Ginza, which is a high-end shopping district to the south-east of Tokyo train station, but I don’t think it really matters where you stay as all areas are pretty accessible by Tokyo metro.

In a big city, it’s always a good idea to get yourself up high to get a view of the place. The Tokyo Tower (Eiffel tower look-a-like) or Tokyo City View, both close to the Akasaka / Roppongi area both offer views, but both cost money. Instead, head to the Municipal Building to the west of Shinjuku station, where you can get up high and get a view of Tokyo for no cost. If you’re lucky, you might be able to see Mount Fuji, though I never did due to either overcast skies or hazy smog.

TokyoViewMuniBuilding.jpg

Also to the west of Shinjuku is the Shinjuku NS building with it’s amazing 30 story atrium and the Park Hyatt hotel, which is a good place to go for some expensive drinks with a great view. It’s the same hotel featured in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.

NSBuilding.jpg

To the east of Shinjuku is some great discount shopping, as well as the red light district and the area called the Golden Gai. The Golden Gai is a number of really small alleys filled with bars that many Japanese hit after work. However, a number of places are private clubs or don’t allow foreigners inside. Those that do allow foreigners usually charge a cover charge and pricey drinks. It’s interesting to see, but may not be a great place to drink every night.

ShinJukuEast.jpg

Kyoto

Kyoto’s main attraction for tourists is the large number of temples, shrines and castles that are there. There are over 2,000 sites, and many of them are UNESCO heritage sites. The crowds can be pretty thick, though. The best bet is to arrive at places right at the opening hour, and get ahead of the bus tourists.

Two of my favorites were Nijo Castle and Shoren-In temple.

I arrive right at the 9am opening of Nijo Castle, and am able to walk quickly past the tour groups on the squeaking nightingale floors (ancient alarm system – all the floors in the castle squeak to alert everyone of intruders) and soon am ahead of them and have the place to myself. It has a beautiful large garden with old stone walls, and is very peaceful.

2006 07 08.. Garden.JPG

I arrive at Shoren-in right at 9am, it’s opening time. I think this is the secret, arrive early. I walk in, and I have the place to myself. I kneel on the tatami mat floor and contemplate the waterfall and beautiful gardens outside. Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the sounds call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.

Shoren-in Temple.jpg

Of course, by posting this on the internet, I may have destroyed that peace for future generations of tourists.

Most temples charge an admission, usually between ¥500 and ¥1000.

I enjoyed the Umekoji Steam Locamotive Museum. Umekoji is an old station house that has been turned into a museum of steam powered rail. They have a bunch of old engines that you can look in, some interactive exhibits on how steam engines worked, and a few model train sets. But the big attraction is the chance to ride for 1 km on a steam train (500 m down a spur line and then 500 m back). Afterwards, they pull the engine onto the working turntable, turn it around and fuel it up, then again onto the turntable to put it into the roundhouse for the night. Entrance was ¥400, and the ride on the steam engine was another ¥200.

2006 07 06.. Museum.JPG

I also, I will point out, watched the World Cup final in Kyoto at 3 in the morning at a bar called The Hub near the area called Pontocho. Besides for mentioning this because the Pontocho is a good place to find food and drinks, I wanted to say that I won my world cup pool. I know futbol!

2006 07 10..the Hub.JPG

Nagoya

I spent one day in Nagoya, and during the day had one task in mind - the Nagoya Basho Sumo Tournament at the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium. This sumo tourney takes place for 3 weeks in July (first Sunday to the third Sunday). Tickets are ¥2700 ($US 27), and can be bought at the door. If you go during the week in the first couple weeks of the tourney, you should be able to get tickets without any issues. The last week and the weekends are pretty busy. The 2700 Yen tickets allow you general admission, which means you can sit anywhere someone isn’t sitting. This allows you to get right up close and see the action, plus get some great pictures.

08 Wrestling.JPG

The stadium was a pretty typical stadium, with rows of seats around a center area. But for the sumo, most of the seats had been folded down, and boards with purple pillows were laid on top of the seats, allowing the fans to sit cross legged on the floor while watching the action. The ring itself is a square raised a few feet off the floor. On the ring is a dirt covering with a circular field created using a rope. It is in this circular part that the wrestlers do their thing. Outside the ring, on the floor, sit 5 judges in black robes. Two wrestlers sit on either side of two of the 5 judges (the next two bouts).

2006 07 10..o March.JPG

First, a guy comes out, opens a small fan, and sings to both the wrestlers, turning from one side to the other side half way through his short song. The wrestlers then stand and enter the ring, where they proceed to slap themselves and raise and lower their legs. The wrestlers than stand in the middle of the ring, where they face each other. The guy who was singing picks up a broom and starts sweeping around the edge of the ring, removing dirt from the rope. A referee addresses both the wrestlers by yelling at them. Then the match starts. I think it starts when both wrestlers place their hands on the floor, getting into a 3 point stance, but I’m not certain on that point. The wrestling consists of two large men slapping each other, occasionally pulling the hair of the other guy and attempting to grab their opponent by his underwear. At some point, one guy manages to throw the other guy down or push him out of the ring. At that point both wrestlers return to the ring, stand facing each other, and then the referee yells at one of them, declaring him the winner. The whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes from start to finish, with the bout itself taking maybe 1 minute total. It starts all over again then.

I watched the sumo for about 3 hours, but never really “got” it. I think, much like ice hockey to a person from Mississippi, unless you’ve grown up with it, you probably won’t understand it.

Osaka

Went to Osaka for the baseball game! I watched the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka take on the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Koshien Stadium. Koshien Stadium is the oldest baseball park in Japan, built in 1924 to be host for the high school baseball championships, it has been home to the Tigers since 1936. The stadium has a very old time feel, with ivy climbing the walls outside and a real grass field inside (most ball parks in Japan have astro-turf). It seats 53,000 people, and the field itself is circular, giving a huge foul area. It was interesting to see the game, because while the action on the field is as American and baseball and apple pie, the fans are not. They are much more European soccer fan like, in that they have chants and songs and flags and are pretty much active the entire game.

11 Ballpark.JPG

Outfield tickets to Koshien Stadium cost me ¥1700 (US$ 17). To get to the stadium, take the Hanshin line from Umeda station and exit at Koshien Station. Return tickets for the train cost around $US 5.

Tickets for baseball games are hard to get overseas, but shouldn’t be a problem to get once in Japan. I would recommend going and getting tickets a few days before the game to ensure you get a seat. The two biggest teams are the Osaka Hanshin Tigers and the team from Tokyo, the Yomiuri Giants, who play in the Tokyo Dome. Tickets can be purchased for a the games from a ticket vendor, ask at the TIC (Tourist Information Center (see below)) where the nearest ticket vendor is. They’ll probably be one close to the major train stations.

I stayed at the hotel booked on the travellerspoint site for ¥2100 ($US 21) a night, which was about the best accommodation deal I got. However, the area was full of hotels similarly priced, so you should be able to just show up and find a place if you want (the only place I found in Japan where I would suggest that, by the way – see more in accommodation below). The area was a bit out, but still right by the subway, and there were a number of hotels in the area. Rooms were small, but comfortable and clean. The area is right by Dobutsu Enmae station on both the Mido Suji line and the Sakai Suji lines. Heading to the north-east there are a number of places in a quiet area from around ¥2100. To the south-east, there were a number of places from between ¥1300 to ¥1900, but the area was a touch shadier.

Hiroshima

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I just popped into Hiroshima for the day after seeing the Hiroshima Toyo Carp fans at the baseball game the day before. Obviously the A-bomb Dome and associated attractions are the big draw in the area, but Hiroshima was interesting for me to see because of the rest of the city that had built up around the A-bomb site. I knew little about Hiroshima before arriving, and must admit that I was shocked to find such a vibrant city built up around the site of the first atomic bomb explosion. Hiroshima reminded me a lot of the other cities in Japan like Nagoya or Osaka, and that’s what was amazing about it, that it’s history was not it’s present.

Interestingly, also, is that Hiroshima was the place I saw the most white people my entire trip. I wonder if it’s morbid fascination with destruction, or nuclear guilt?

General Traveller’s Impressions

I really enjoyed Japan, and could have done a lot more travel there. It’s a great location to see especially if you are a fan of big cities, as Tokyo is the biggest.

In general, I was surprised by both how easy and how difficult Japan was to travel in.

For the easy part, the trains all run on time and have English announcements (even the subways, trams and buses), and are frequent and clean. There is no haggling and most every place has a cash register so you can easily see what you owe. There’s no tipping or additional tax, so prices you see are prices you pay (some places, mostly upper crust places or tourist sites charged a service charge, but it was usually pretty minimal). And many places either had English menus or picture menus, making it easy to order.

In other respects, though, I found it hard to travel around. In fact, someone asked me how I compared travelling in Japan to travel in China or South America, and I said that I felt Japan was harder than either of those places. There were very few people that spoke English, and I often felt myself really struggling to communicate or understand what was going on. In China or South America, I often felt that I understood what was happening, even if I couldn’t understand what was being said. They were, in a sense, simple, in that a meal was a meal and meeting someone was meeting someone. In Japan, though, I often felt like what was occurring before my eyes was part of an elaborate ritual that I didn’t understand at all. Even though Japan is an Asian country with few English speakers, I was really surprised by this.

I chalk this up to two things. The first is that Japan is a G8 country with a long history of ties to North America, and so I expected that it would be easy to travel in. This is further backed up by the fact that many of the things you see in Japan are very familiar to the North American or European – it’s got a large middle class and the infrastructure of the country is very similar to us. The roads are in good shape, and you see many of the same cars as home. People have similar technology and dress the same, and there is a large middle class. There’s even baseball on the TV! But if you dig a little deeper, there are differences in those small things. This can be confusing, because you expect when you see something that is familiar, it’ll be a certain way, but then you find it to be different.

As an example, you see ATMs everywhere, and Japanese people using their ATM and credit cards to pay for things. However, most of these systems aren’t hooked up to the international networks, and so the ATM and credit cards from home won’t work in most places.

So the first point is really that I expected it to be easy, but when I encountered small unexpected problems, they seemed more distressing then if travelling in South America or China, where you would expect things not to work (like your ATM card).

Secondly, though, I think there is some truth to it really being harder in some respects, because in a lot of ways Japan doesn’t need internal tourists as much as China or South America does. In those places, the US dollars you are spending are a big part of the economy, so there is a certain amount of infrastructure that is built up to support the international tourist. This even filters down to the backpacker spending level.

In Japan, however, they have a robust economy that doesn’t rely heavily on the North American tourist dollar, and so there isn’t the same infrastructure readily available to support the North American backpacker.

Tourist Information Centers

The above being said about lack of infrastructure, there is one key thing that every city had that was a godsend for the tourist, and that is the Tourist Information Center (TIC). In most every train station of some size, there will be a Tourist Information Center. Here you will find English speaking staff that can assist you in planning your travels, including booking accommodation. The TICs are hooked into the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, which allows booking of a number of properties across Japan. They can provide directions, and assist me in figuring out how to purchase baseball tickets.

If for no other reason, upon arrival in a new city you should pop in the TIC to pick up the free tourist map of the city. If you can’t find the TIC (sometimes they are hard to find unless you know what you are looking for), go to the nearest international hotel and get a tourist map from the concierge.

Language

As stated above, English is not widely spoken. It is, however, very widely used on signs throughout the country, and many menus and restaurants will have English / Japanese menus (where you can point at what you want, and the waiter can read the Japanese translation).

The TICs will have English speakers, and can help with translations if needed. Also, some of the hotels I stayed at had free access to an English translation service via phone.

Money

The Japanese use the Yen (¥). Currently, $US 1 will buy about ¥120, though I always just used the easy conversion rate of $US 1 = ¥100.

There are both notes and coins. Most likely, you’ll see 1000, 5000 and 10000 yen notes. ATMs (see below), mostly give out 10000 yen notes. Coins come in denominations of 500, 100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. All notes and coins are marked with the denomination of the bill or coin with the exception of the 5 Yen coin, which is bronze with a hole in the middle.

ATMs are plentiful, but most are not hooked up to the International networks, meaning that you can’t get money. For international travellers, the best choice is to find an international bank. Citibank was the most common. Also, the postal service has ATMs that are hooked into the international network, though those are only open during the postal office hours. Look for ATMs with English instructions, or ask at the TIC or your hotel where the nearest international ATM is.

Credit cards are not widely used, and even most hotels expect cash payments.

Getting Around

2006 07 12..o Osaka.JPG

The best deal in Japanese travel is the JR Rail pass. The JR rail pass allows unlimited travel on any Japan Rail service for a period of time (either 7, 14 or 21 day). It is only available to international travellers on a tourist visa, and must be purchased overseas. You will be given an exchange order, and upon arrival in Japan, the exchange order can be exchanged for a JR Pass (once they see your passport and visa type).

The 7 day pass is ¥28300 (US$ 280). Even if you are just planning on travelling between Tokyo and Kyoto (the two most popular destinations in Japan), the pass will almost be paid off. Any additional side trips and the pass is paid for.

There are a number of JR rail services. Of most use to the first time, short term visitor to Japan will be the Tokaido Shinkansen service, which runs between Tokyo and Osaka (including stops at Kyoto). The trains are fast and comfortable, and run very frequently. I never bothered with advanced reservations, and the longest I had to wait was 20 minutes for a departure.

Once in town, most of the cities I went to had subways, except Hiroshima that had a tram system. For subways, the price of your ride depends on how far you are going. There will be a map indicating the cost from the current station to all the stations in the system. Carry your city map with you, as it includes an English subway map and could come in handy if the station’s map isn’t in English. When you enter the subway, you put your ticket in the gate and retrieve it. When you exit the subway at your destination, the gate will accept your ticket and keep it. Don’t worry if you didn’t put enough on your ticket. All subway exits will have a place to add additional value to your ticket so you can exit.

There are day passes and stored value cards that could be of value if you are travelling a lot on the subways.

I took the bus in Kyoto and the tram in Hiroshima, and they had a similar system. You purchase a ticket and get on the bus or tram. Upon exiting, you present your ticket at a machine by the driver and exit.

Accommodation

This is most likely the highest cost of travelling in Japan. In Tokyo, I mostly stayed at the Marriott Renaissance Ginza Tobu Hotel using my Marriott Rewards points for a “free stay.” My free stay, however, included a ¥2500 a day “service charge”, meaning that I was still spending $US 25 a night for the hotel. But that was a pretty good deal considering how much the hotel usually charges for a night (around $US 400 and more). For that price, however, I wouldn’t stay there. But that’s the average prices for international hotels in Tokyo.

Accommodation doesn’t have to be so bad, however. You do need, though, to put some thought into it and think ahead. Just showing up in a place and walking up to a hotel isn’t a great approach. Firstly, not all places accept foreigners. Secondly, it’s hard to know what the rates for hotels will be judging by their looks. I just showed up at a hotel in Tokyo, and ended up spending ¥18000 (US$ 180) a night.

To avoid that, book ahead. You don’t need to book to far in advance (even day before or day of), but it’ll help. Use multiple sources to book ahead. The TIC can book places using the Welcome Inn Reservation Center, and got me a great deal on a place in Kyoto for ¥4000 (US$ 40) that usually charges ¥7000 a night. Also, I found a place on the travellerspoint site for ¥2100 ($US 21) a night. And, of course, there’s always the fall back of the capsule hotel, which run around ¥2500 - ¥4000 depending on the location (not an option for the female backpackers, though, as women are not allowed).

In Kyoto, I stayed at a Ryokan called the Hotel Nishiyama (¥4000 (US$ 40)) that included a private washroom and bath. A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn, where you will find mat floors with a futon and sliding paper doors (though the door to the external hall is a thick metal secure door), and will include a public bath.

In Nagoya, I tried the capsule hotel. There are a number of capsule hotels throughout Japan, and basically have the same structure. The capsule is about 2 meters deep and 1 meter by 1 meter high and wide, just enough to get into and roll around comfortably. The capsule contains a small TV, a radio, an alarm clock and a lamp, all built into the surrounding walls and coated in plastic, making it feel like it could all just be hosed down for cleaning. Basically, the capsule hotel is like a hostel dorm, but for business men in Japan. You share a public bath and will get a small locker, but they will hold a large bag behind the desk. The capsule provides all toiletries needed, including toothbrush and paste, shaver and shaving cream and towels and PJs (actually, most of the hotels provided all these things). As I said above, though, no women are allowed at the majority of capsule hotels.

In Osaka, I stayed at the Hotel Mikado, near the Dobutsu En Mae station for ¥2100 (US$21). There are a number of hotels in the area with similar prices. You get a small room with a TV, and access to the public bath and shower. Women are allowed, and there are separate men’s and women’s hours on the public bath. The shower is open 24 hours a day, with a limit of one person per time in the shower.

2006 07 11..a Hotel.JPG

Food

Food in Japan is great, and needn’t be expensive. Though you can easily run up tabs of ¥10000 (US$ 100) per person in the nicer restaurants, it’s possible to eat really well for a decent price. I found many places offering really good meals with lots of variety for ¥500 and ¥1000 ($US 5 - $US 10) a meal. In fact, many of these meals were large enough that you could get away with only two meals a day.

English isn’t widely spoken, so look for places with English menus or picture menus. Failing that, you can always point.

The fish market is a great place to get a cheap breakfast. In most towns there will be a fish market, and as the workers are winding up their day as you’re getting started, there’s a ton of great sushi and soba noodle places to eat at.

For lunch, I’d often just grab something from a variety store. Most of them will have a large selection of prepared meals, from sandwiches (egg salad, tuna, ham and cheese and vegetable are usually all available) to meat skewers and cold noodle dishes.

At dinner, there are lots of great places around the train stations. You need to try eating at least one night at a yakitori restaurant, where you pull up to a counter and order small dishes and big beers.

For the single traveller, eating in Japan is great, because almost all places have a counter for the single dinner to sit, avoiding the usual embarrassment of taking up a whole table for one person.

Also, there is a strong possibility that as you are sitting at the counter, you’ll get invited to join in the conversation, meal and drinks of other parties. Don’t be surprised if they end up paying for your meal, it’s Japanese tradition.

Drink

Like accommodation and unlike food, finding cheap drinks in Japan is tough! There are places that charge as little as ¥300 for a drink, but many places you’ll be spending ¥600 - ¥1000 for a pint of beer. I found I really had to look around to find places that were both cheap to drink and open to foreigners.

The best thing I can suggest is to fall back on that traditional college trick of “priming” before going out. Go to the convenience store, but a couple 500ml cans of Sapporo Draft One and drink before going out. This will get you primed up for a night out, but easily save you at least ¥1000.

On the plus side, when presented with the dilemma of “should I have just one more drink,” the prices tend you towards the “no.”

If you are in Japan in the summer, for an interesting experience, you need to check out the “beer gardens” that department stores set up on their roof tops. (An English language paper I was reading was making fun of the beer garden in Japan by questioning why putting a keg on a cement surface constituted a garden). They often have “all you can drink and eat” specials (timed for 60 or 90 minutes), and provide you with good beer and a do it yourself grill to cook your food.

Events

I’ve already mentioned the sumo and baseball. In addition, I would suggest going to see one of the “amusement centers” that are very prevalent in every city. These are a combination of video arcade, bowling alley, bar, restaurant and casino. They offer everything from video games to slot machines to Pachinko machines.

2006 07 08..t Place.JPG

Pachinko is a form of Japanese gambling where you turn a little silver knob, and that shoots BBs out of the top of the machine. If you turn the knob too far to the right, the BBs run all the way down and out the one side. If you don't turn far enough, the BBs don't make it to the center of the machine, and fall down the other. If you hold the knob just right, though, the BBs will bounce off some nails, and if you are lucky, fall into a small slot where you will win 5 more BBs. If you win, I take your BBs and exchange them for money outside of the Pachinko hall (due to gambling restrictions).

The other experience is the onsen, or public bath. Most of the hotels have these, or you can head up into the central part of the country where mountain hot springs provide a natural version of this. One enters the onsen, gets naked and then squats on a stool. They soap up and rinse off using a bucket of water and a washcloth, and then, now clean, they enter the bath itself, of really hot water. It is a relaxing and liberating experience, and apparently one of the few places in Japanese society where you are free of rules, as long, of course, as you follow a set of rules in expressing your liberation. It’s basically a unisex public hottub.

Posted by GregW 12:31 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

The Greatest Robot Ever

Tokyo, Japan

sunny 30 °C
View Japan July 2006 on GregW's travel map.

I am back in Toronto now, at the office and already frustrated with work. Sigh. Anyway, just wanted to close out my Japan trip with a few thoughts. In a day or two I'll post a big, long entry full of useful information about what I learned about travelling in Japan, in the event that any of you want to travel there in the near future.

I spent the last few days of my trip in Tokyo. I really love Tokyo, it is a megaopolis city unlike any others I have been to before. It never seems to end, it is just tall buildings and crowded streets forever. Taking the train to Kyoto or Osaka, you'd be hard pressed to determine when you have left Tokyo. It just seems to go on and on.

2006 07 14..hiodome.JPG

I went to a number of different neighbourhoods within Tokyo - Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza, Shoidome (the above picture) and the portlands. Where there wasn't already a tall building, one was being built. And there were people everywhere.

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To fit all these people, of course, you have to pack stuff pretty dense. To accomodate this, they have parking garages where you pull up your car on a platform. The platform then spins your car around to face a door, where you drive into an elevator. You park your car, and the elevator lifts your car into the sky.

The funny thing is that you really don't need the spinning platform. I think it's just there because it's cool technology and can be there. The Japanese love gadgets. Of course, lots of people have mentioned this before, so my saying it almost seems redundant and perhaps even xenophobic, pointing out the differences between US and THEM. But it's hard to miss, and I have a reasons (which will become clear shortly).

2006 07 14..ic Park.JPG

While things like the parking garage and the SONY humanoid robot (seen above) are definately clues, even upon first arriving you'll notice it. For the Japanese hardly ever walk on an escalator. They will walk almost a kilometer to transfer trains in the subway system, but upon approaching an escalator, they will all stand and let it carry them up. No one takes the stairs. It's so strange, because in addition to the walking, they bike everywhere as well. So they aren't lazy, they just won't walk on the escalators. It's almost like they have become subservient to the technology.

I went out to the portlands of Tokyo. In addition to some crazy shopping, a typical city beach and the technology museum, there is the Toyota Mega-Web, which is really a big Toyota showroom. One of the craziest pieces of technology there was the megaweb selector. You press a button, and cars circle around until the one you pressed is in front of you, pulled out to view on a revolving platform.

2006 07 14..Megaweb.JPG

What's strange about this is that the selector is located in a two floor warehouse with nothing but space. Toyota could have easily put every car on the selector on the floor and had lots of room to spare. But why do things the low tech way when an un-nessecarily complex technology exists to provide the same function. Of course, when I was there the selector was broken, and thus no one could look at any of the cars.

The climax of these love of unneed complex technology faced me upon arrival at the airport. I entered the ANA frequent flyer lounge, and went to get a beer. And that is when I met the greatest robot ever. The robot that poured a "perfect beer."

2006 07 15..r Robot.JPG

First, you take a frosty glass from the fridge, and place it on a platform. Then, you press a button asking for a beer.

2006 07 15..r Robot1.JPG

At this point, the platform tilts to exactly the right angle, and the beer is dispensed into the glass to exactly the correct height so none spills.

2006 07 15..r Robot2.JPG

The platform then levels again, and a little extra foam is added on the top to give the beer the "correct" amount of head.

2006 07 15..r Robot3.JPG

You then take your beer and enjoy!

2006 07 15..r Robot4.JPG

While very interesting, it's not really that needed. After all, I can easily pour my own beer.

And, you'll notice that I put quotes around "perfect" and "correct" above. That's because if there is one thing I really learned in Japan, it's that the Japanese don't know how to pour a pint of beer. They put way too much head on it. I went to one place, which was a brewpub run by Kirin, one of the primary beer companies in Japan, and they would present you with a glass of beer that was 3/4 beer, 1/4 head and with another inch and a half of white, frothy, stand up straight foam coming out of the TOP of the glass.

I was going to make a joke here about too much head, but feel it wouldn't be appropriate, as it's possible young'uns might read this, so please feel free to make your own joke now.

Cheers, until the next adventure!
Greg

Posted by GregW 08:34 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Shinkansen Whirlwind

Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka and Hiroshima, Japan

overcast 28 °C
View Japan July 2006 on GregW's travel map.

With only a 7 day unlimited Japan rail pass, and 4 days already gone, in the past 3 days I visited 3 new cities from Kyoto, and finally circled back to Tokyo. I originally only wanted to go to one city, but events just kept coming up that were too good to pass up, and plus it makes me feel like I got a really decent deal on the JR pass.

Kyoto Dining Out

Before getting on the train, however, there is some closure required on Kyoto. I continue to have some interesting dining experiences in Kyoto. For lunch, I had conveyor belt sushi, where every dish costs yen 126 ($US 1.25, approximately). You sit and wait from something to come around that you want. You take it, and at the end of the meal, they add up the bill by counting the number of empty plates. The food isn't great, but the experience is strangely alien, so worth it in that sense. Plus, it would be a good place to take an unobservant friend. You could keep slipping your empty plates onto their pile. At the end of the meal, you would say, "well, it looks like I had two plates so I owe 252 Yen, and you had 20 plates, so you owe 2,520 Yen."

01 SushiBelt.JPG

For dinner one night, I went to "Tonkatsu Yamanka", which is billed by one of the local English papers as the best pork restaurant in all of Kyoto . The meal was good, but the décor is bizarre. The walls have posters of pigs on them, from a movie poster for Babe to a painting of pyscadealically painted pigs with the tag line "a pigment of your imagination" to a poster of Kermit and Miss Piggy dressed as the couple from American Gothic, billed as being from the Kermitage collection. The owner speaks a little English, and upon seeing me reading the press clipping about the restaurant, grabs me by the arm. "Om-age," he says, pulling on me towards the door. Outside, again he repeats "om-age" and points at a neon sign on the exterior. www.tonkatsu-yamanaka.com reads the sign, and I understand. "Home page," he was saying. Finally, the owner pulls me over and shows me another picture adorning the outside of the restaurant. It's a pig with a beard and a stove pipe hat. "Abra-HAM Lincoln," he says, and starts laughing uproarishly. I suppose he thought I was American.

One of the most interesting experiences, though, was at a seafood place called Iori. It was just by my hotel, and I had popped in for post-dinner drinks one night. The owner spoke a little English and was quite friendly, so I promised him I would return for dinner the next night. I entered the restaurant the next night, and took a seat at the counter. I asked the owner for whatever he suggested to eat, and he presented me with a salad with rare looking pieces of meat on it, kind of like a tartar or a ceviche. “Whale,” the owner said. Now, some of you may question the ethics of eating whale meat. I know I did. But I ate it anyway, and then later another dish of deep fried whale. It was meaty and alright, but tasted like pork, and I figure it’s probably a lot easy to kill a pig than a whale. One of the people at the restaurant (you’ll meet them all in a minute) asked him if I had any reservations about eating whale, as some North Americans who have come to Japan have. I told him that in my country, we club baby seals for fun, so who am I to judge the Japanese whale hunt. I imagine this paragraph will be enough for Heather Mills and Sir Paul to get back together to rail against their new common enemy, me.

But what was most interesting about the night was not the whale meat (as I said, it tasted like pork to me), but the company. After the first dish, the two dinners sitting at the counter beside me started talking to me. Yasou and Koichi, both architects who live in the suburbs of Kyoto were having after work drinks and dinner, and after a few brief words, ordered a dish for me. It was a greenish paste, and tasted salty and smelled of the sea. It was, they explained after, crab roe. After proving to be a good sport about eating this dish, they continued to order food and beer and sake, and we talked about Kyoto and Japan’s imperial history and Canada and where Niagara Falls was in relation to Toronto. They seemed impressed with my map of Canada that I drew to explain the geography, and asked if I could sign it and they could keep it. I imagine that it might be framed right now, hanging on the wall of their architectural firm in Kyoto. Yasou and Koichi had quite a head start on me with the sake, though, and soon they were red-faced and glassy eyed and needed to catch a train to go home.

It is common convention in Japan that if you are invite to dine with someone, that they will pay. And such it was with Koichi and Yasou. They paid their bill and my bill, and wandered out into the night, and all I had to do was draw a map of Canada. I was still thirsty and hadn’t yet spent any money, so I ordered another beer. I was almost done my beer, and debating about heading back to the hotel when a table nearby called me over. Kaisura, an attorney and Matsuda, and importer of Disney goods invited me over. Again the beer started flowing, and dishes started arriving.

“How old are you?” asked Kaisura. I replied I was thirty-five. “How old do you think I am?” he asked me. I hate this question, so I lied and guessed 18, though I figured they were probably in their early 40s. “No,” Kaisura and Matsuda laughed, “we are both 51. Same age as Bill Gates!”

Kaisura then asked why I was not married at 35. I stumbled over a reply about not finding the right girl. “You should marry nice Japanese girl,” he said. I told him, in brief detail, about my experiences with Japanese women ignoring me so far. “Oh no,” he corrected me, “many Japanese girl want to marry nice Canadian boys and live in Canada. It is very popular. So popular, there is a song about it.”

Kaisura and Matsuda then treated me to a few verses of the song “Canadian Boy,” which they said was about a Japanese girl and a Canadian boy who had fallen in love, but were kept apart by the ocean between them. “Very popular song,” said Matsuda.

“Really!” I was surprised. Very few countries I have been to have music about Canada. “Is this song out now.”

“No. It was out in 1973,” Matsuda replied. So perhaps that explained my experience. Back in 1973, Canadian boys were all the rage. A lot can happen in over 30 years.

Pachinko

I played Pachinko, which is a version of Japanese slot machines.

02 Pachinko.JPG

I put in my 1000 Yen ($US 10), and sat there while nothing happened. I tried pressing buttons, but still nothing happened. Finally, a nice Japanese girl who worked their came by and showed me what to do. You turn a little silver knob, and that shoots BBs out of the top of the machine. If you turn the knob too far to the right, the BBs run all the way down and out the one side. If you don't turn far enough, the BBs don't make it to the center of the machine, and fall down the other. If you hold the knob just right, though, the BBs will bounce off some nails, and if you are lucky, fall into a small slot where you will win 5 more BBs.

Maybe there is a trick to it that I just don't get, or maybe I'm just unlucky, but I was done in 5 minutes.

If, however, I had won, I could then apparently take my BBs and exchange them for money. But not in the Pachinko hall, apparently you have to do it outside. Some bizzare Japanese rule about gambling halls, apparently.

World Cup in Kyoto

And now, in a short flashback moment, we’ll see me, not in Japan but across the Pacific in Toronto, back in time over a month ago when I spent 5 minutes randomly making picks for a World Cup 2006 pool. When I checked my email on Friday of last week, I discovered that I was narrowly in first place, with only France and Zidane (a French player) left. The guy in second had Germany and Klose, the German player, both of whom could still get points in the third place game. And further down the list, someone had Italy (who was playing France in the final) and a number of Italian and French players left, so with an Italy win and a few goals he could make up a lot of ground.

So Sunday’s final held some interest for me. However, in Kyoto, the final would not be Sunday night, but rather 3:00am on Monday morning. I looked around, though, and found a few places that would be open and serving beer at that time, so on Sunday night I went to bed early and set my alarm for 2:45am.

I headed to a bar called The Hub, an English pub with large screen TVs. I arrived and the game was already about 10 minutes in, with France already up 1 to nil. The bar was packed, with both Japanese and foreigners. The front part of the bar was filled with Italian supporters, the back half with French supporters. For the first half of the game, I stayed in the front area, but felt uncomfortable being the only French supporter in the area, so I moved to the back. I found a spot by 3 brits, who were lively with their taunts of the Italians, and their bemoaning of the French play. But soon I noticed their were dead eyed drunk, and their taunts became ugly (“damn f##kin French b##tards”), so I moved again, finding a spot in the middle (neutral ground, perhaps), where I could watch the game in peace and be close to the bar.

03 WorldCupFever.JPG

The game went to penalty kicks, and Italy won. I was depressed, seeing my fortune in pool winnings slip away. But cheer up, for I learned later that in fact the low scoring final and Zidane goal was enough to keep me atop the pool. I will be using my winnings to pay down the accommodation costs on this trip. Japan can be an expensive place to travel.

04 BeerForBreakfast.JPG

Sumo

After a few hours of sleep, I wandered down to the train station, somewhat hung over but perhaps still half drunk, and went to Nagoya. I was only spending a night in Nagoya, and during the day had one task in mind - the Nagoya Basho Sumo Tournament at the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium. The stadium was a pretty typical stadium, with rows of seats around a center area. But for the sumo, most of the seats had been folded down, and boards with purple pillows were laid on top of the seats, allowing the fans to sit cross legged on the floor while watching the action.

05 SumoRing.JPG

The ring itself is a square raised a few feet off the floor. On the ring is a dirt covering with a circular field created using a rope. It is in this circular part that the wrestlers do their thing. Outside the ring, on the floor, sit 5 judges in black robes. Two wrestlers sit on either side of two of the 5 judges (the next two bouts).

First, a guy comes out, opens a small fan, and sings to both the wrestlers, turning from one side to the other side half way through his short song.

06 SingingGuy.JPG

The wrestlers then stand and enter the ring, where they proceed to slap themselves and raise and lower their legs.

07 Leg Lifting.JPG

The wrestlers than stand in the middle of the ring, where they face each other. The guy who was singing picks up a broom and starts sweeping around the edge of the ring, removing dirt from the rope. A referee addresses both the wrestlers by yelling at them. Then the match starts. I think it starts when both wrestlers place their hands on the floor, getting into a 3 point stance, but I’m not certain on that point.

08 Wrestling.JPG

The wrestling consists of two large men slapping each other, occasionally pulling the hair of the other guy and attempting to grab their opponent by his underwear. At some point, one guy manages to throw the other guy down or push him out of the ring. At that point both wrestlers return to the ring, stand facing each other, and then the referee yells at one of them, declaring him the winner. The whole thing takes maybe 5 minutes from start to finish, with the bout itself taking maybe 1 minute total. It starts all over again then.

I watched the sumo for about 3 hours, but never really “got” it. I think, much like ice hockey to a person from Mississippi, unless you’ve grown up with it, you probably won’t understand it.

Capsule Hotel

In Nagoya I stayed at a capsule hotel. For \4100 ($US 40), one gets a small place to sleep for the night. The capsule is about 2 meters deep and 1 meter by 1 meter high and wide, just enough to get into and roll around comfortably. The capsule contains a small TV, a radio, an alarm clock and a lamp, all built into the surrounding walls and coated in plastic, making it feel like it could all just be hosed down for cleaning. Basically, the capsule hotel is like a hostel dorm, but for business men in Japan.

09 Capsule Hotel.JPG

Staying at the capsule hotel, of course, re-introduced me to the dreaded public bath. But I was much better with it this time. For starters, I had just spent the day watching the sumo, and felt that perhaps large, hairy backed men might be viewed as athletes in Japan. It is conceivable that someone even mistook me for some foreign, C-class sumo wrestler. But more importantly, I figured out that one could use the public bath without having to actually soak in the hot water. Instead if you just went in, showered, shaved and brushed your teeth, it was almost like being at the gym back in North America, except with a small stool to squat on. When cleaning, I’m focused on the tasks at hand, and not worrying too much about what others are doing or thinking about me. It’s only in the idleness of the soaking that I am aware of my nakedness. As long as I keep busy, I’m fine.

Afterwards, I lounged in the room outside the bath and watched Japanese game shows. The whole thing had a feel, really, of being at the gym with guys padding around in robes after a sauna, perhaps getting a massage or grabbing a bite to eat in the attached (and very inexpensive) restaurant. That’s exactly what the capsule hotel is, a hostel dorm with a privacy screen mixed with a gym without the actual work out area.

Let’s Play Ball

Next up was a trip to Osaka, to see a baseball game. I got tickets out in left field to watch the Osaka Hanshin Tigers play the visiting Hiroshima Toyo Carp at Koshien Stadium.

10 Ivy Walls.JPG

Koshien Stadium is the oldest baseball park in Japan, built in 1924 to be host for the high school baseball championships, it has been home to the Tigers since 1936. The stadium has a very old time feel, with ivy climbing the walls outside and a real grass field inside (most ball parks in Japan have astro-turf). It seats 53,000 people, and the field itself is circular, giving a huge foul area.

11 Ballpark.JPG

The game itself was very standard baseball fare, at least on the field. The Hanshin Tigers beat the Toyo Carp 2-1. What was very non-American in it’s feel were the fans, who acted more like a European soccer crowd than an American baseball crowd. There were chanting and singing throughout, noise makers and colorful costumes.

12 Carp Fans.JPG

Interestingly about the above shot, is that in the foreground you see Hanshin Tigers fans, but then beyond the rail is a large group of Hiroshima Toyo Carp fans, who were pretty loud as well.

In the sixth inning, everyone blew up balloons, and then exactly as the last out came, everyone released them into the night air.

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16 Balloons 2.JPG

I will say, though very American, it's not all yankee doodle there. I could get beer, but no hot dogs. I settled, instead, for a skewer of grilled oyster and a skewer of grilled octopus. Despite the look on my face, it actually turned out to be quite tasty.

14 Food.JPG

Hiroshima

I had not originally intended to go to Hiroshima. Even as early as the day before, walking up to the ball park, my intent was to head from Osaka to Tokyo the next day, the last day of my rail pass.

But I realized, sitting there in Koshien stadium that prior to coming to Japan, I knew only one thing about Hiroshima. The A-bomb. Even once I bought the ball park tickets for Osaka, I knew only two things, the other being that there was a baseball team in Hiroshima.

But listening and watching the large groups of Hiroshima fans behind me at the ball park in Osaka, I was struck by how joyous they were. I was confused, how could a city that had suffered such a great disaster be so lively in cheering for a baseball team. I pictured Hiroshima, even today, as being a solemn place of reflection on the horrors of war, but never pictured that it was an actual city, with people going about their lives in it. I decided that I needed to see Hiroshima, not for the history, but for the present.

So I went to Hiroshima. I saw the A-bomb dome, the famous building at right under the blast, whose walls were spared from crumbling because the shock waves were directed straight down upon them, and not from the side. The A-bomb dome still stands today as a monument to the bomb blast, but I was struck not by the building itself (though it is moving), but how rising up behind it is the municipal ballpark (home to the Toyo Carp), and also the skyscrapers along Aloi Dori, the main business street.

17 A Bomb Dome.JPG

I walked along Aloi Dori, noting the workers in and out of the offices of the major banks and Mazda (who have the world’s longest assembly line at 7km located in a factory the suburbs of Hiroshima), laughing and chatting as they headed out to lunch. One of Hiroshima’s trams rolled past down the middle of the street, packed with school children and shoppers. The heat was getting to me, though, so I ducked down into the underground mall, full of clothing stores and bakeries and bookstores. You can walk in the underground mall right up to the A-bomb dome, or if you turn the other direction, into the baseball stadium. I had lunch at Mos Burger, a chain of hamburger places in Japan, and watched as school girls giggled while ordering, and a table to pretty women in office attire talked softly, no doubt about the latest office gossip.

18 Busy Hi.. Street.JPG

Hiroshima today speaks to the incredible ability we humans have to pick ourselves up after a tragedy, dust off and carry on. It made me realize how many of the cities I have been to have gone through something similar, and how vibrant and alive the people are today, whether it’s San Francisco’s earth quakes, or damage to Paris during the war, the streets of Chile where Pinochet ruled for so many years with an iron fist, the 30 million Russians killed in World War II or the cities of Japan, bombed during that same war.

It has been noted that visits to the A-bomb site have been decreasing over the years. Every year less and less school children visit, and the Japanese prime minister has stopped going every year on the date of August 6 in remembrance. The youngest of those who would have seen the blast are now in their sixties, and within another generation or two, there will likely not be a person left who saw the blast first hand. In some ways that’s all very sad, because it is important to remember what happened as a lesson as to why we should never take these decisions lightly, as our little friend in North Korea seems to be doing.

But the passing of the A-bomb into nothing but history is also a joyous thing. For some day perhaps people, when they think of Hiroshima, will think only about how the Toyo Carp are doing, talk glowingly about the Mazda factory tour, mention the beautiful and artful convention center, describe the clean and efficient tram system and speak of the happy, laughing, lively citizens of this port city.

19 Hiroshima People.JPG

Posted by GregW 20:59 Archived in Japan Tagged sports backpacking Comments (2)

On Comfortable Trains and Uncomfortable Baths

Kyoto, Japan

overcast 27 °C
View Japan July 2006 on GregW's travel map.

The 6 of July is the first day of my 7 day Japan Rail pass, allowing me to travel anywhere in Japan on the railways of Japan Rail unlimited for the next 7 days. In a country of expensive tourism, it’s a fantastic deal. Leaving Tokyo, I hop aboard the Hikari Super Express Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka, though I am disembarking at Kyoto Station.

2006 07 06..nkansen.JPG

I won’t go on about the train except to say that it is quick, comfortable and easy, and the distance from Tokyo to Osaka is similar as the distance from Toronto to Montreal. It really is a much better way to travel than flying, especially for distances that short.

Kyoto Station is a marvel. The platforms are nothing special, but entering the terminal building is amazing. It is 15 floors of shining glass with a massive atrium in the middle. I take the elevator up to the 9th floor to the tourist information center, where they provide a free map, suggested walking tours and book accommodation for the next 4 days for me. I then wander up a couple of floors to Eat Paradise, a floor dedicated to restaurants with stellar views of Kyoto. After lunch, I wander out onto the Happy Terrace to digest and plan my next moves.

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2006 07 06..uilding1.JPG

Map and suggested walking tours in hand, and replenished wallet after hitting the international ATM, I wander through the temples of Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji. Both are beautiful examples of the more than 2000 temples, shrines and castles that make Kyoto famous. Saving the other temples for my future days in Kyoto, I head south for the Umekoji Steam Locamotive Museum.

Umekoji is an old station house that has been turned into a museum of steam powered rail. They have a bunch of old engines that you can look in, some interactive exhibits on how steam engines worked, and a few model train sets. But the big attraction is the chance to ride for 1 km on a steam train (500 m down a spur line and then 500 m back). Afterwards, they pull the engine onto the working turntable, turn it around and fuel it up, then again onto the turntable to put it into the roundhouse for the night.

2006 07 06.. Museum.JPG

The other passengers on the train were mostly young families, the children excited as the steam whistle blows and the train rolls slowly down the track. Looking at the tracks running beside us as we journey, the commuter trains journeying to the suburbs of Kyoto and the Shinkansen bullet train bound for Osaka speeds by, further exciting the children, and the train geek in me.

When I was a kid, I had a train set, and my father knew some people who worked in the rail industry. A few times I got to go out and look at the diesel engines and freight cars up close. And every summer my father, my mother and I would hop aboard the GO commuter train and ride from Burlington to Toronto to go to the Canadian National Exhibition, known as the Ex to the locals, and 3 week long national fair of rides, food and games.

The love of trains was instilled in me then, and it is a bond that I feel strongly with my father. That’s what I was thinking of as I rode that 1km journey down a seldom used spur line, being bitten by mosquitoes and listening to the joyful squeal of children, how much my father would appreciate this.

--

I arrive at my Hotel, the Nishiyama. From the outside, it looks like a standard, 5 story hotel. But upon entering, one is brought into the Ryokan experience. Ryokan is the traditional Japanese guest house, the kind that you have seen in a million kung-fu movies, where the hero sits on the mat floor, painting Japanese script with a thick, black brush.

I am shown to my room, where I put on my Yukata, a traditional Japanese robe. The woman showing me the room explains the rules of staying in the Ryokan to me. Upon entering, I must remove my shoes. You never walk on the Tatami, the straw mat floor, with your shoes on, only bare foot or with socks on. If I enter the bathroom, there is a separate set of slippers to wear in the bathroom, which aren’t to be worn elsewhere. She shows me how to open and close the Shoji (sliding paper screen doors) that cut off the main room from a small alcove with the windows, and the futon lying on the floor where I will sleep. A low table sits with a tea service on it, and a book explaining in further details all the rules. Beside the table is a small cushion with a wooden back to sit at.

2006 07 06..an Room.JPG

The woman leaves, and I flip through the rule book. In addition to the rules my host covered, the book also covers other rules, such as when to remove your shoes in other parts of the hotel, when it is appropriate to wear your yukata robe, how to use a Japanese squat toilet and also what can be stored in the tokonoma. The tokonoma is a small alcove in the main room which, according to the book, is used for hanging scrolls or putting flowers for contemplation, and not to be used for storage. In my tokonoma, however, is a TV, a phone and a mini-fridge, leading me to believe that perhaps the hotel Nishiyama is more of a “minshuku” than a ryokan. A minshuku is a more casual and usually less expensive option to a ryokan. The minifridge in the tokonoma, which I am soon using to store diet Coke, would indicate a certain casual atmosphere.

I sit at the low table and take notes on my day, and write plans for tomorrow in my notepad. I am struck by how much I feel like a shogun, sitting as his table planning a siege of a rival samurai’s castle.

GJW Writing.JPG

--

As mentioned before, Kyoto is home to more than 2000 temples and shrines, and many UNESCO world heritage sites. Many of the temples start to blend together after a while, though, and it’s easy to burn out on them, especially with the crowds of bus tourists and school groups.

Two of my favorites, though, are Nijo Castle and Shoren-In temple.

I arrive right at the 9am opening of Nijo Castle, and am able to walk quickly past the tour groups on the squeaking nightingale floors (ancient alarm system – all the floors in the castle squeak to alert everyone of intruders) and soon am ahead of them and have the place to myself. It has a beautiful large garden with old stone walls, and is very peaceful. The only time my peace is interrupted is on my brief passes of Dan and the German.

I first encountered Dan and the German outside of the main building, heading into the garden. Dan and the German were standing talking as I passed them, and I heard the following snippet of conversation.

Dan, who I am guessing is North American of some manner based on his accent, is telling the German that he is, “the luckiest guy in all the world. I have a household staff of five; a cook, a dishwasher, a gardener, a maid and a nanny…”

The German, rolling his eyes, asks Dan sarcastically, “only one maid?” Dan forges ahead with his story.

“…and their names are Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan and Dan.” Dan stops and laughs at his own joke, before continuing to tell the German how much work he does in his house, what with having to clean it and feed and care for his children. I walk quickly past, head down and out of earshot, not wanting to really listen to anyone complain about how much work it is to live their life. Dan, I am sure you already know, is not the only person in the world that needs to clean their own house and cook their own meals.

I have a peaceful walk through the rest of the garden, only occasionally encountering Dan and the German as I am walking out of an area that they are walking into. Each time, I pass a sympathetic look with German, who trails behind the constantly jabbering Dan. But I am enjoying the peace, and have no time to save the German today.

GJW Nigo Castle.JPG
Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle.JPG
Nijo Castle

The next day I arrive at Shoren-in right at 9am, it’s opening time. I think this is the secret, arrive early. I walk in, and I have the place to myself. I kneel on the tatami mat floor and contemplate the waterfall and beautiful gardens outside. Shoren-in might not be the most beautiful of all the temples in Kyoto, but it is only as I am alone, with no sounds but the sounds call of the birds, the splash of the waterfall and the rustle of the wind through the bamboo that one gets a true appreciation of the peace of mind that meditating at these temples can bring.

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Shoren-In Temple, Kyoto, Japan

2006 07 07.. Temple.JPG
Shoren-In Temple, Kyoto, Japan

--

I am standing on the roof of my hotel, wind rustling my hair and flapping gentle on my yukata robe. Looking like a shogun warrior surveying Kyoto’s defenses, my brow is wrinkled. “Look,” the observer might say, “how Greg is deep in thought. He must be planning a grand adventure.”

GJW Roof.JPG

But no, the observer would be wrong. I am standing on the roof because that is where the washing machine is, and the weather has been hot and sticky and my clothes needed to be washed. And my brow is furrowed not because I am deep in thought, but because I am stressed with worry. Two thoughts trouble me. Firstly, I am wondering how to best stand to ensure that my yukata does not blow up and expose my private bits, for I am wearing nothing underneath.

Secondly, I am deeply troubled for I am about to enter the onsen, or public bath. The onsen is the traditional public bathing area in Japan. One enters the onsen, gets naked and then squats on a stool. They soap up and rinse off using a bucket of water and a washcloth, and then, now clean, they enter the bath itself, of really hot water. It is a relaxing and liberating experience, and apparently one of the few places in Japanese society where you are free of rules, as long, of course, as you follow a set of rules in expressing your liberation.

It is a traditional Japanese practice, and so, in the spirit of using travel to expand my horizons, I am going to enter the onsen. But I am not comfortable at all with the prospect of public nudity. I have a fear of public nudity. Not other people’s public nudity, mind you, so girls keep going wild, just my own. I am hairy, chubby, lumpy and pale, kind of like a sickly brown bear with the mange. It’s not, in my mind, a very pretty sight, and I don’t like to put my body on display. But, I’m going to suck it up and do it.

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I enter the onsen, and I am alone. I store my yukata, shoes and room key in a storage bin, and enter the bath room with just my little towel and a grimace. I squat on one of the 12 inch high stools, and start to soap myself up. I am trying to get as clean as possible, because it is extremely bad form to enter the onsen while still dirty, but I want to get into the water before anyone else might enter. There are mirrors on either side of the room, so I catch a sight of myself squatting on this small stool. It’s not a pretty sight.

I rinse off, and slip into the bath. The water is very hot, but the bath is nice. It’s like a hottub, but without the bubbles, and with a view through the window of a waterfall. I actual feel myself starting to relax, enjoying the hot water circulating around me, loosening muscles tired from days of walking around the temples of Kyoto.

Then, the door slides open, and a naked Japanese man enters. My peace, suddenly is shattered, and my muscles tense up again. The man squats and starts to wash up. I find myself watching him wash himself, noting how he uses the bucket and soap in a much more efficient and practiced way than I did. I’m taking mental notes on his technique when he turns to soap his side, and our eyes lock, and I am suddenly acutely aware that I am watching a naked man wash himself. I turn away quickly, and am confronted with the mirror reflection of the naked man. I turn the other way, trying to watch the waterfall through the window, but I keep catching the man’s movement in my peripheral vision, and natural instinct swings around my head to again watch the man.

I try looking down. The water is crystal clear, and I can clearly see my naked body through the water. I am suddenly very aware of my nakedness, and feel embarrassed and ashamed and queasy. I think I know how Adam and Eve felt upon realizing they were buck naked.

The man is nearly done washing himself, and soon will slip into the tub. Sweat is pouring down my face, my stomach turning circles. I can’t take it, I get up and quickly exit the room, trying, in vain, to use the small washcloth to cover myself.

No more onsens for me. The only way that I can imagine that I will end up naked in a vat of hot water anytime in the near future is either if I am drunk and accompanied by naked co-eds, or being boiled alive for someone's dinner.

Posted by GregW 19:05 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (8)

The Slow and Contented: Tokyo Driftin'

Eating and crushing in Tokyo, Japan

overcast 27 °C
View Japan July 2006 on GregW's travel map.

Tokyo. Nice place. Shame that the North Koreans are lobbing missiles at it. I guess no place can have everything.

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I once read advice that said that one should never talk about what they ate or how what they are eating is impacting their digestion when travelling. It is just boring, and in many cases gross. So I will refrain from talking about what I have eaten, except to say that it is all delicious. Walking out of Tokyo station after taking the Narita Express from the airport, the first thing that hit me was the smell. Everywhere I walked, I could smell delicious food in the air. The neon lights and throngs of people I expected, I’d seen all the pictures before. But the smell was an unexpected delight. And it confirmed what I had expected in coming to Japan, that I would be treated to some really tasty food.

I won’t talk about what I ate, but I will spend a moment on the experience of eating. The first night, after checking into my hotel, I walked back towards Tokyo station and soon found myself sitting at the counter of a Yakitori restaurant underneath the JR rail line tracks. I sipped Asahi beer and ate skewers of chicken. Every two minutes or so, the clickity-clack of steel rail wheels passing over the joints of the rail lines overhead could be heard. At tables surrounding the counter, Japanese business people chattered away, drinking and eating and laughing after a hard day at work. Off in the distance, the neon lights of Tokyo flashed. I was Deckard from Blade Runner. I kept expecting that Edward James Olmos would walk up behind me and tell me that I had some replicants that needed retiring.

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Every meal since that first one has been a special experience, whether it was the sushi at 8 in the morning at the Tsukiji fish market...

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...the wasabi covered nuts and Sapporo beer on the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel (the same one from Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation)...

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...the noodle counter where you order from a vending machine that gives you a ticket that you exchange for food or the egg salad and something I couldn’t identify sandwich I had on the run to catch my train. They have all been tasty, but more importantly, they have all been adventures. Every meal has fed my gut, and every meal has fed my spirit.

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I am a giant oaf. This much I knew before going to Japan. I am constantly crashing into things, breaking things and otherwise making a fool of myself.

Being in Japan, however, has heightened my awareness of this fact. The Japanese people are so dainty, small and graceful, and they interact with each other in a structured and ordered way. I am trying to be polite and follow the rules, but I am afraid that I probably mess up more than I should like. I am in constant fear of doing something that will offend all the Japanese, and by extension will embarrass all Canadians.

In general, though, I think I have done alright. Most Japanese people ignore me. It’s a strange change from most places in the world. In most countries I have been to, a tourist is seen as a source of income with, likely, more money than knowledge or street smarts. Touts and scammers lunge upon you, whether it’s tour guides in Tanzania, Cuban pimps or three-card monty scammers in New York City. Here in Japan though, there is little interest in tourist. They are free to roam around without bother. It’s nice, in one sense, that you don’t always have to be watching out for someone trying to take advantage of you. But it’s somewhat sad in another. After all, I just travelled half way around the world, at least someone could acknowledge that fact?

The service people, though, are beyond reproach. They are friendly and attentive, and yammer on and on when serving you. Of course, I speak no Japanese, so I have no idea what they are saying. But it’s nice to have that acknowledgement. However, I’m suspicious of their friendliness. Makes me think they want something from me. I’m afraid that their cheeriness might hid a complete and utter distain for me.

I once had two friends, one from Denver and one from Toronto meet up with me for drinks. Sharing nothing in common except having me as a friend, the talk invariably turned to how stupid and oafish I was. Specifically, they started talking about my love life, and how I had such poor luck with women. I tend to only chase after the ones I can’t have, and ignore the ones that like me.

Further to this, it was pointed out that I had a physical type. I never realized I had a type of girl before this night, but apparently, I do. I tend to go for slim girls with “athletic” bodies, which my friend translated as “built like a 12 year old boy.”

In Japan, where the majority of the women are slim with no curves. And not a single one of them shows anything but indifference at my existence. Those that are forced to deal with me, for example if they are waiting on me at a restaurant or checking my ticket at the train station treat me with nicely, but I am sure they really feel nothing but distain for me. I even read in my guidebook that the strip clubs and brothels of the red light districts are off limits to foreigners. So, I am in a country where the entire female population is built like a 12 year old boy, ignores me half the time, hates me the other half and I cannot get laid. It is like the entire country is filled with my ex-crushes. I have never been more dysfunctionally in love with so many women at once!

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At least the food is good.

Posted by GregW 20:14 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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