They served fish on the plane.
To my left and to the right my fellow fliers are tucking in with abandon to the main course of the ANA dinner service. I recognize very little on my tray apart from the package of wet soba noodles and the chopsticks that accompany the platter to eat with. I spend several minutes curiously examining my plate quietly contemplating what is what and which bag of accompaniment sauces goes over and with which item. I’m doing my best to look like I know what I am doing but I am totally unsure of the proper order and way and equally unsure of what it is exactly that I am about to consume. It is some type of fish and it’s proving to be a medley of unfamiliar flavors and equally unfamiliar textures. The entire meal can best be described as slippery. Based on the small collection of lingering bits that I find throughout the rest of the flight on my seat, it is also evident that a greater proportion of the meal made it to my lap rather than my mouth. I have the sinking feeling that this may be the first of several meals to come that I will curse my regression and inaptitude with all utensils lacking tines and likewise begin an internal self-flagellation for a palate that is unsophisticated, unrefined, with a disproportionate predilection for flavors that come from further west. If the airline meal was a test, I failed it spectacularly.
Nothing in my pre-trip read of Memoirs of a Geisha quite prepared me for arrival in Tokyo, followed by what turned out to be a very long odyssey and more specifically, a grand test of patience to navigate the public trains to our outskirts of the central city of Tokyo accommodations. The finding of the train turned out to be the easy part. The purchasing of the actual tickets? An absolute ferocious, confusing, and highly intimidating process. There likely is no better way to signal your arrival and draw attention to yourself as a foreigner than to have a very long line of commuters behind you wanting to buy their rush hour tickets home. Also worth a mention that we were walking on the wrong side of the stairs in the station, a major taboo. Orderly and proper traffic flow is just about everything in the largest city in the world.
The organization of our sixteen days in Japan was largely dictated by our budget and the availability of frequent flier flights. Unlike the other places on our journey where we have pretty much just shown up and winged it, Japan required a more thoughtful curation. Simply put, it is not a cheap place to travel to, or in, or around, though I will say that money is well spent there, albeit very quickly. Kobe beef is as expensive as it is in New York, as is sushi. Though I grant you, the quality and freshness is superior in Japan. I can also vouch for the dumplings and desserts in the 7-11’s, and a lot of the vending machines. They are delicious and more to the point, affordable. Ergo, there are very few backpackers running around Japan.
We touched down in Tokyo for six nights and divvied up the remainder between the former Imperial capital Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Osaka. Each of these cities is different in look, feel, vibe, cuisine, as Los Angeles is to Cincinnati as it is to Albuquerque as it is to Miami, which is to say that they have very little in common with each other at all. And while there was quite a bit we missed in all, in retrospect it would have been unsatisfying to have skipped over any one of them.
Yes, we took in the requisite sites of Tokyo, which were impressive and fully deserving to be on the Tokyo must see hit list. No, we did not go to the Robot Show (go google the ticket prices and see why). Yes, we filled our bellies full of ramen (in fact I’m still thirsty from it). No, we did not go to any cat, hedgehog, bunny, owl, nor maid cafes (that last one is not a typo, go google that one too). We did spend time in an extremely smoky and overbearingly loud pachinko parlor, (which incidentally is fascinating and ranks very high among my absolute favorite experiences), also quite fun was our time spent “researching” local hipster watering holes, and of course chilling out in several branches of Muji and Uniqlo. And no, I still absolutely do not “get” Hello Kitty. At. All.
Just drop me on a corner anywhere in Tokyo for just one more afternoon. I would be happy to sit for hours in this largest and quietest of cities and admire the constant stream of fashionably dressed men and women walking by (in trends that will hit NYC in two years). I’d like another 24 hours to gaze at the elegantly presented packaged goods in all the stores, and I would be thrilled for just one more night time stroll among the neon lights of Shinjuku.
A quick ride on the Shinkansen, speeding at 250 mph past Mt. Fuji (still impressive at that speed) to the next stop. Kyoto, it is the historical heart and soul of Japan and its myriad of temples, zen gardens, shrines, palaces, does not disappoint an architecturally minded visitor. Or that of several hundred school groups. Or senior citizens bus tours. Or just about any other hoard tour you can imagine. Even on a Tuesday. And/ or a Wednesday. Do not misunderstand me, Kyoto is stunningly beautiful but I’ll admit it is challenging to get your proper zen on while herded among throngs of tourists, domestic and otherwise that come to visit. When we were not poking from behind people and their cell phones four deep, we met scores of young and very polite students (in quite possibly the most unattractive uniforms ever designed) tasked with practicing their English with foreigners. By the end of day one we had posed for twelve different proof of interview photographs and could easily recite the answers to student surveys before they even asked the questions. “America.” “Sixteen Days.” “Yes.” “The people.” It is very likely that our faces are gracing the bulletin boards of several middle schools throughout Japan.
Simply put, Hiroshima, the peace museum and the surrounding grounds is the reason to visit the city of Hiroshima and one is deeply rewarded with a deeper understanding of the events and aftermath that shaped a significant portion of the 20th century. More importantly, the lessons and message of the museum are still relevant to the way of the world today.
It was purely the flight track that took us to Osaka. Neither of us knew very much about the city, but like so many other stops on our thusfarandaway journey, it turned out to be the dark horse. It’s got a reputation as a food centric and workers city, not nearly as fashion forward as Tokyo, but nevertheless it is edgy and dare I say, a tad bit gritty, in a particularly Japanese way. I can describe it as a little bit more Brooklyn than say, Manhattan, with a well-established street food and busker scene. There is no better way to pass an evening than to amble into the smallest and smokiest matchbox of a standing bar just to share a round of drinks in a crush of hipsters. Oh, and I cannot forget to mention that cup of noodles and instant ramen was invented here. Yup, there is an entire fabulous museum dedicated to them…