I was in Japan the week before last, spreading my time between the futuristic wonder (and slight creepiness) of Tokyo and the cultural enlightenment (and slight discomfort) of Kyoto.
The trip was initially planned as what turned out to be an overly-ambitious meeting of Join Me in Tokyo. In the end, that event never happened. Or, if you want to look at it more positively, it happened with only one joinee (me), one sort-of joinee (Eileen), and one non-joinee (Eileen’s brother Joe, whom we had invited on the supposition that this was going to be a group event). I hope—and think—that Joe didn’t feel entirely like a third wheel for the week as a result.
This was all of our first time in Japan. In fact it was our first time in Asia unless you count the 75 minutes I spent in Singapore and Hong Kong airports back in January of 2006. Eileen was in China for the two weeks before our time in Japan, making her the closest we had to a native guide. Aside, of course, from the days on which we had actual native guides.
Japan is best summarized by a sentence from one of our guidebooks: all of the stereotypes are true. It’s at times like this that I particularly regret the common misuse of the word literally, because I want it to be clear what I really mean when I say you could literally set your watch by the trains. We got one-week railpasses for the Japan Rail trains, which gave us a Star Trek-like ability to move from any place in Tokyo to any other almost instantaneously (at least by Irish standards).
The train stations are fun too, for the tiny lengths of time that you need to wait between trains. Every station has its own jingle that they play before announcements, and I swear that some of them were so long they should have been split into movements. One of them (Shinjuku?) was a direct rip-off of the theme tune to ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Vending machines are ubiquitous, though unfortunately the famous “used panties” machines were removed from Tokyo some years ago during a half-hearted crackdown on sleaze. I hasten to add that I was interested in these for reasons only of cultural interest. I fear that even the mainstream proclivities of the Japanese are still a bit exotic for Western tastes.
The disinterested visage of Tommy Lee Jones graces many a machine, but thankfully these proffer only coffee and other drinks, rather than the aforementioned undergarments.
Our first day involved a pleasing abundance of Japanese oddities, taking in as we did the Tokyo Anime Fair. Said fair included the terrifying reproduction of Pikachu (above); skimpily-clad ladies with large-eyed anime heads (not pictured, for your sanity and mine); and advertisements for the best named movie since Samuel L. Jackson’s high altitude snake battle: Turd on the Run.
I’ll allow you some time now to come up with the best “the runs” pun. Feel free to share in the comments.
Done? Okay, I’ll continue.
The following days took in:
- a day in Nagoya in which Eileen and I met Eileen’s school friend Trisha and her husband Max, ate lunch in a 61-story train station, and failed to get a seat in very out of place–feeling Denny’s;
- dinner with Eileen’s old exchange student Saori and her non-Anglophone husband (whose name I didn’t properly hear on first introduction, and then felt too embarrassed to ask later) who apparently met at a UFC match in the Tokyo dome, which I think is the best first-meeting story I’ve ever heard;
- a visit to the Studio Ghibli Museum—monument to such works as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and basically every other good film to have come out of Japan after Akira—where we were treated to a screening of a new short film which from the looks of it I imagine made approximately no more sense if you could understand Japanese than it did to us.
After those hectic Tokyo days, we teleported (i.e., took the Shinkansen, which is the closest thing you can get to teleporting right now) down to Kyoto for two days of relaxing old Japanese culture. Kyoto apparently has a population of about 1.5 million people who felt the need to build 3,000 temples, giving it one temple for every 500 people.
Kyoto is also home to Nijo castle, which I will now describe for you in 1,000 words:
That picture was taken from inside the castle, looking out on one of the illuminated corner keeps. I think my camera found this place to be one of the most challenging of the trip—I ended up with an impressive collection of muddy, dull, underexposed snaps—so I’m quite happy that at least one of them came out reasonably well. Aside from the constant fear of imminent ninja attack, I found this castle quite calming.
We stayed in a different Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) for each of our two nights in Kyoto. I liked these for two reasons. First, I spent the whole time pretending to be Seán Connery in whichever movie it was where Bond was in Japan (You Only Live Twice?) Second, sitting on the floor for all meals, like a child gawping at Saturday morning cartoons, can’t help but make me happy. I recognize that it takes some amount of mushiness of mind to pretend simultaneously to be a child and James Bond. I don’t care. Presumably Bond was a child once.
The first Ryokan also provided me with the requisite Engrish, its elevator indicating that you should go to the ground floor to find the “robby”. This was supported some time later by a train station directing us to the “escarator”.
For our one full day in Kyoto we met up with Rikako and her three friends. Rikako was an exchange student who stayed for some time with some of Eileen and Joe’s extended family. Apparently she was treated quite well in America, leading the three of us to benefit quite a lot more from the Japanese etiquette of reciprocation than any of us deserved.
Rikako brought us out to lunch; spent the day showing us around two of the most impressive of Kyoto’s absurdly numerous temples; and finished up by bringing us to dinner at a very loud and colorful conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. All of this joined by what appeared to be quite expensive taxi rides. And in the middle of all of this, her mother met us to give us each a gift of some traditional Japanese sweets. I am a fan of Japanese etiquette.
The following day started with drinking samurai tea in Kyoto and ended drinking sake served by ninja in Tokyo. In between it featured the purchase of a kimono, a sighting of the magnificent (and needlessly large) Mt Fuji, and a dinner that felt like an episode of Fear Factor.
Said meal was no doubt my own doing. I ordered a set menu, as did Eileen, giving the chef quite a lot of freedom to push the boundaries in the many courses of the “Chef’s selection of…” variety. The waiter asked us both if we had any allergies or food preferences. Eileen wisely informed him of her distaste for eel, and of her (half-assed) vegetarianism.
I on the other hand responded with the short-sighted statement that, “I’ll eat anything you give me.” If any statement has ever sounded like a challenge to a mischievous chef, that was it. My meal opened with a snail the size of a Buick, so rubbery that after finishing it I’m now confident I could smuggle tyres for a living by carrying in them in my gut. Then followed the brief respite of a delicious (though still essentially raw) beef steak.
And finally came the main event: the chef’s selection of ten pieces of sushi. Two of these ten were the head and body of a raw shrimp, and one of their friends was a discomforting mush that I determined to be sea urchin. I set the magnificent-looking (and as it turned out, magnificent-tasting) tuna sashimi aside, as a potential reward for successfully keeping down the shrimp and urchin. Then I faced off against the shrimp.
To give you some perspective, I’m the guy who used to be delighted when he could find a pizza on an Italian menu that had only one topping that he had to ask them to leave off, rather than the more usual two or three. I once refused to eat my own dinner because someone else‘s contained prawns, which frightened me with their scary insect looks. It’s less than two years since I first willingly ate some tomato. And I still have a list as long as both arms of things that I will refuse to eat.
That’s the guy who was sitting in a Tokyo restaurant, snail in his belly, staring into the face of a raw shrimp. The shrimp stared back. It looked like concept art for a new Predator movie, and it smelled like a fisherman’s boot. As the actress said to the bishop, putting that thing in my mouth was the most daunting prospect I could think of. So I did.
If you’re squeamish, I advise you not to have read the preceding paragraphs.
The following day Eileen had to leave before Joe and me, since she was returning to her Chinese study trip rather than going directly home.
Joe and I took in an origami museum, which featured more cranes than I’ve ever seen before in my life. It seems that in traditional Japanese origami, as opposed to the modern and less Japan-centered art, they really stick to variations of a small set of old designs. Hence the sunflower above, on which every petal and every leaf is a crane.
I would have liked the opportunity to see some of the more impressive modern creations that you see so often online: long-bodied dragons, beetles locked in battle, wizards and dwarfs, and all the other pieces that shatter the self-esteem of us amateurs. Still it was fun to see the older side of the art, and we did get to see the president of the gallery folding some pieces. He had all the speed and precision you would expect from an innocuous-looking elderly Japanese man: i.e., he was clearly some sort of origami ninja.
We topped off the trip with a lazy stroll around a gorgeous Tokyo park, and one last night in a hotel that looked like a cross between the inside of the Death Star and Starfleet Command. All that remained was to survive the flight home, and to spend longer writing this blog post than I spent in Japan.