Back in Chiang Mai we made two important decisions. First, we would go to my cousin Alejandra’s wedding in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. This meant we had to travel further East. This also meant that I started searching for a decent pair of wedding-worthy pants in Chiang Mai, but after almost ripping the seams (thigh-high) of all the Thai XLs I tried on, I gave up. And second, we wanted to leave Asia on a high note, with a destination “different” from the previous ones. With that in mind, Japan became the perfect exit point from the continent.
– Mount Fuji… it doesn’t get much more “we’re in Japan” than this –
And boy, did Japan deliver. Such a visually stimulating country, that I can’t imagine how people managed to visit Japan in the days of “36-shots-per-film”. It was also the first Asian country where we didn’t find a history of colonies and bloody takeovers by westerners… in fact, Japan was the first alliance in equal terms with the West (we are talking waaaay before WWII times, just in case)… and throughout their history, they’ve defeated Russia and China, annexed Taiwan and Korea … and also had a period of almost complete closure from the rest of the world. Thus, Japanese culture took shape following a path completely different from that of south-east Asia.
In all previous “expensive” countries, we had tackled housing differently … friends hosted us in Singapore, we rented camper-vans in Australia and New Zealand and did house-sitting in Dubai. For Japan, other than a CouchSurfing host in Kyoto, we didn’t have any of that, so for the first time we had to rely on shared dorms and a few capsule-style hostels (and for the first time we appreciated the value of earplugs).
Anyway… being Japan a different universe, I’ll take a different approach… so I won’t describe our 28 days here by following the route we took, but rather by “concept”. Let’s see how that goes.
Some things are unmistakably Japanese, right? I’ll start with those. Here our experiences around some of the icons you probably know Japan for…
The shinkansen (aka the “bullet train”)
Without it we wouldn’t have been able to see as much of Japan as we did. Cruising the country at 300km/h, the shinkansen is only part of an ultra-dense network of railroads, with multiple alternatives to go from A to B. Almost as complex to decipher as Sandra’s morning mood before her first coffee. Thank god for the mobile apps that nowadays do the routing work for you.
– The driver salutes as the train passes by … Sandra replies –
Highlight of these trains are also the controllers, very elegantly dressed and bowing every time they enter or leave one of the wagons. And -Dutch train operators, please take note- here they control the tickets at the exits, giving you the option to run and catch your train if you are late and pay for the ticket once you are at your destination. Clever.
And In case you didn’t realize it from the pictures, it’s quite common for people to take a nap while in the train… 🙂
– I’ll hold my book open and people will think I’m studying –
Life in a capsule
Yes, there are capsule “hotels” everywhere and many hostel dorms also have a “capsule” style. Much better than the usual “bunk-bed’ dorm, let me tell you. More privacy, more sound insulation and most of the times even some extra space to store small items, personal light and even a lockable drawer. Good stuff.
– There’s certain charm about these capsule-style beds –
Pop-culture (on steroids)
One of the most interesting aspects of Japan’s youth culture is their uncontrollable love for Manga (cartoons), Anime (animations), Cosplay (to dress like your favorite character), video-games, vintage toys and, generally speaking, everything “cute” (and weird). Particularly in Tokyo, walking down certain streets can be more entertaining than the latest Cirque du Soleil, and you will come across more childhood heroes than in Disney World.
– Just the facade of a random building –
I could write an entire post about this fascinating topic, but let’s better add some pics and let them do the talking:
It all looks so cute and innocent, right? Well, not too fast. If you ask me, you can almost see a double set of moral standards around this sub-culture … I would even dare saying “fetish”. The amount of young, sexy-dressed female characters you come across is astonishing, in advertisement, toys, collectibles, media and also in flesh and bone. Girls who all look like they are 15 years old, dressed up like maids, nurses, cartoon figures or any other character out of a sexy Halloween costume catalog. Short skirts, stockings and exposed thighs are the common thread (and they aren’t prostitutes, just in case… they are just promoting their respective “maid cafes”, where I believe you can’t even buy booze but, wait for it… you are served by girls dressed like maids!). Piles of adult manga magazines that would make Playboy readers blush are readily available on the shelves right next to Candy-Candy and Pikachu. No age-restricted access. Adult-oriented figures (toys? dolls? I don’t even know how to call them… they don’t even have joints, like my old Gi-Joes, to play properly with them), entire floors dedicated to adult toys, etc, etc, etc.
Hey, we didn’t mind at all, as to us it was all part of the show…but it is a little bit bizarre, if you think about it.
– Manga characters are used to promote everything… this is a Gun shop, for Christ’s sake! Imagine something like this in the USA. –
And speaking of manga, what’s with the obsession about round, extra-large eyes? Elsewhere in the West, people would already be complaining about “not being properly represented”. In Peru there was a lot of noise around a Christmas ad showing an “all-white” family (“how dare they! it does’t represent Peru!”, the purists yelled). I don’t see anyone here demanding smaller, “more Asian-looking” eyes in manga, shouting “discrimination!”.
– Eyes, big and round, every single time. –
(By the way, I was convinced the word was “technOtronic”, so thank you, spell-check).
So…is it true? Is it an urban legend? You press a button and a robot comes out and wipes your … part?
Well it’s true. Toilets can be almost intimidating. And not only with that digital control panel and incorporated bidet (to which I could get used to very easily), but also with automated and heated seats (awesome!), ambiance sounds (you know, to cover up your own) and odor-neutralizers. Word of caution though… gotta be careful about the bidet-pressure control. Give it too much power and you risk getting used to it for the wrong reasons.
– this one even greets you with lights and a flush when you come in –
OH, and even since before the age of electronics, many toilets have a water tap on top of the tank, allowing you to wash your hands before that same water is used to fill it up. Simple, yet genius. See the pics.
Sleeping on Tatami floor in Mr. Miyagi’s house
Paper window shades, sliding wooden doors and a simple futon on the floor, on a mat made of straw. We’ve all seen them in movies. In fact, one of the top touristic experiences is supposed to be to sleep in a “Ryokan”, a traditional Japanese “inn” which provides exactly that (plus great food and top-notch service). I’ll make it short… as romantic and as the idea might sound, I’d love to hear anyone say it’s comfortable. It’s not. Minimalism is overrated. Beds and furniture for us, please.
Geishas, geikos, maikos
The culture of Geishas (known as Geikos in Kyoto, the birthplace of of this tradition) and their younger apprentices, the Maikos, is quite interesting. Women devoted to this form of living as an entertainer start with their full-time training at a very young age and have to comply with countless rules and restrictions (can’t have a boyfriend, can’t own a mobile phone, etc, etc). They learn, live and work at highly exclusive “tea houses”. And no, they are not in the sex business (I admit I also believed that was the case). We went to an official Geisha performance in Kyoto. Sandra was the one who insisted. I arrived with very low expectations, to be honest, but left more than impressed. These ladies are SO skilled. Really impressive. Too bad they didn’t allow taking pictures or videos.
There’s a couple of different interesting technology-driven things that we saw (outside of the “toilet” department), but I’ll only mention two which stood out, in my humble point of view. One, traditional, the second one “techier”.
First, the “kotatsu”, sort of a low living-room table, with a heavy blanket below the top (meaning your lower body gets covered) and a heat source underneath. All countries with cold winters should have something like this. Great invention. And once again so simple.
– the kotatsu… pretty simple idea, great for cold days –
But even better, especially for us citizens of Amsterdam, were the automated underground bike-parking machines we saw in Kyoto. Put your bike there, and SWOOSH, it’s swallowed into the ground. Swipe your card, and SWOOSH, in 10 seconds it magically comes back from the underworld.
– Please share this video with any Dutch officers (or investors) you might know. Please. –
And two honorable mentions….the rotating disk to optimize the space to access your parking lot and the washing/drying machine special for shoes 🙂 :
Not so much to say about this one, but Mount Fuji is definitely one of Japan’s icons. We visited the area (known as Fuji Five lakes) and had nice hikes and great views of the majestic peak.
Japanese food is a world in itself. There’s the expected “sushi” universe, of course, which, when bought in a pre-packed box at one of the ubiquitous 7-11 or equivalent mini markets, proved to be one the best options for a quick, cheap meal. But there’s much much more.
We found plenty of seafood, with all markets offering a colorful display of shrimps, crabs, oysters, octopodes, squids, sea urchins, eels, tunas, seaweed and more. Grilled, fresh, fried, baked, smoked, wrapped, salted, in skewers… you name it.
There were things we didn’t have the budget to try, like the crazy-expensive “A5 quality” Wagyu Kobe beef or the 20-Euro, perfectly round watermelons (which I bet taste just like their more oblong cousins).
There were plenty of typical Japanese delicacies, like takoyaki (balls of octopus in batter), okonomiyaki (kind of savory pancakes), monjayaki (like a more liquid okonomiyaki) and all sorts of yakitori (skewers).
– Monjayaki, prepared with love by yours truly, guided by good friend Takefumi-
And then there was “death by carbs”. Rice and noodles, noodles and rice. All colors and varieties. Ramen, soba, udon (all of which involve a slurping contest when eating them) and all sorts of sweets made of sticky rice (and most of the time also red bean paste). You should have seen Sandra’s face when she finally found a place serving plain and simple green salads. Pure happiness.
In the beverages department, it was mostly about green tea. More precisely matcha (its powder version). And Sake, of course. Interesting fact, we heard that the Tea culture started when Monks realized they needed something to prevent them from falling asleep when meditating (before the times of coffee).
Some interesting aspects of eating in Japan, other than the food itself, include the complete sets of replicas or food models mimicking the menu, found in most restaurant windows (the first night, Sandra said: “look, here they sell decorative dishes!”). Also, the wet tissues or towels you get everywhere, the huge variety of food-boxes (called bento) you can buy “to-go” and the fact you get your bill, discretely placed face down on the table, almost immediately after having been served. Details. Oh, and you can almost get a full meal’s worth of food just by sampling along the aisles of any given department store’s food court.
By the way, something that caught our attention (and not really positively) was the exaggerated amount of plastic they use in the supermarkets, with plastic bags and containers by the millions and “individually-wrapped” everything. Such an advanced society and still this? Come on, people!
LA VIE EN ROSE
Sandra wanted to visit Japan before May, with the main goal of trying to catch the “famous” cherry blossoms (called “sakura” in Japanese) in full bloom. I frankly didn’t know there was such a thing. Turns out to be THE main attraction around this time of the year. “Sakura viewing” even has its own verbs in Japanese: hanami (enjoying it during the day) and yozakura (at night). They LOVE it here and the country becomes pink for a few days in every city, as the short-lived pink carpet makes its way north through the land, giving color not only to those cherry trees, but also to clothes, shopfronts, street deco, food, drinks, sweets, souvenirs and beyond. There are daily forecast updates, changing with the weather and making it challenging for so many tourists who plan their journeys with “full-bloom” in mind.
We were a bit late. And weather didn’t help either, as it pulled the full bloom forward in most of the country, so we missed it in Osaka, in Nara, in Kyoto and in Yoshino (supposedly THE place for sakura viewing). But we didn’t surrender and, Japan Rail passes in hand, took about 20 different train rides in 4 days, to go all the way up to Hokkaido. This is Japan’s second biggest island, north of Honshu… you guessed it, the main island, where most of the Japanese cities you’ve ever heard of are located (and that was my Japanese Geography lesson in disguise, by the way). And it was definitely worth it! Once again i’ll let the pictures speak, but seeing so much pink together and how people enjoy it so much was very much interesting.
…and by know I’ve already realized this would be way tooooo long of a post, so I’ll have to split it in two! Come on… this country kind of deserves it. And trust me, I’m trying to keep things short. More to come, shortly (and we are slowly reaching the end of this year-long blog!)
Cheers for now.
Lima-Peru, June 18th, 2018