I've been in Japan for just over a week now. Todd and my Japanese teacher, Michiru, just left yesterday. My friend Brian is still here. Michiru took us to a bunch of places we'd never been before, and guided us through the murky Japanese-speaking waters. Todd took a lot of great photos (same camera setup as me -- NEX-5 with 50mm/1.1 lens). While the memories are still fresh in my mind, I'll share a few stories from the trip.
We met in Michiru's hometown, Saitama. While we waited for Brian's train to come in, we visited a small park. Saitama is only forty minutes away from Tokyo by train, but even that small distance is enough to escape the ubiquity of white people. We instantly drew a small crowd of older Japanese people who were running and walking through the park.
As we ate in-season Japanese persimmons and drank tea, we practiced our Japanese and the Japanese folks practiced English. One of them, whose name means "Happy Mountain Climber" took down our addresses and promised to write us.
From there we drove to Nikko, a city I've been wanting to go to for a while, mainly because it's a World Heritage Site, and those never seem to disappoint.
We spent an hour or two at the temple, which was easily the most ornate Japanese temple I've ever seen. Of particular interest is the carving of the three monkeys depicting the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" maxim. There's also a sleeping cat carving which is apparently famous. Mostly it's just nice to walk around such beautiful old surroundings and take pictures.
After the temple we wanted to eat Yuba, a local specialty, which is made from the skins of tofu. We drove around trying to find a good Yuba restaurant until we got very lucky: Michiru stopped into a dessert shop and they called ahead to a closed restaurant to ask them to accomodate us.
We arrived at the restaurant and were ushered into our own private room. No one else was in the restaurant, though, which made the private room a bit redundant. An amazing meal was served to us along with a great fresh Japanese green tea. We had soft tofu; yuba sashimi; cooked yuba; tempura with kudzu salt, green tea salt, and umeboshi paste; soup; weird green tea and seaweed noodles; and probably more things that I've now forgotten. It was one of the more memorable meals of my life... a good mix of interesting, tasty, and satisfying.
With full bellies we headed for the crown jewel of our trip, something we'd been talking about for weeks, an Onsen in the middle of the woods an hour outside of Nikko. We took a few wrong turns and ended up winding at a frenetic pace through the mountains of Nikko, a drive which must be breathtaking during the day. At night it was slightly nauseating.
We finally arrived at the onsen. After paying and renting towels, the four of us headed down the three hundred plus steps to the baths. Unlike most Japanese baths, this one was a konyoku, which means that both sexes can bathe in it. Three baths were carved out of the side of a big hill in a valley overlooking a rushing stream. The hottest bath was too hot for me to keep my arm in long enough to measure the temperature (with my watch). One was 108 degrees, which is hot, but pleasant for a short time, and the third was a nice 102 degrees and was situated in a small cave. We spent most of our two hours at the onsen sitting in the cave, chatting through the steam. Like the restaurant, we had the place entirely to ourselves for almost the whole time.
When we left, I was as relaxed as I'd ever been. After a day of running around trying to pack a bunch of things in, it was amazing to decompress in such a spectacular setting with my friends.
I've had a bit of a Japan-centric bucket list, with one item on it escaping my grasp each trip: eating Fugu. Fugu is the poisonous blowfish that must be prepared properly if you want to avoid death. Fugu shops tend to have tanks of fish built into the street-facing walls, and until now I hadn't seen one that had healthy looking fish in it.
We went to a restaurant recommended by one of Michiru's friends. Sure enough, the fish looked pretty healthy, if not beastly. We went inside, ordered sashimi and some other dish, and waited.
To say that the fish was fresh would be like saying that umeboshi plums are tart. One of the pieces of fish on our plate was still moving, as if it was swimming in the air. I'm not talking about a subtle twitch, I'm talking about a hunk of meat waving at the people who were about to eat it. It was terrifying.
I ate the sashimi, which was peculiarly delicious. It was like eating the best possible fish gummi-bear. The texture was chewy, but not so much that it was tiresome to eat; the flavor was mild and just fishy enough to be recognized as something that came from the sea.
Oh, and we didn't die. No need for dessert when your meal finishes with such good news.
'm a huge Hayao Miyazaki fan. I mean... not a big enough fan that I have a Totoro costumer or anything, but I really enjoy his movies, despite not really being an Anime fan.
For those of you who don't know who he is, he directed Princess Mononoke (my least favorite of his movies), as well as a bunch of other movies that are Disney-popular in Japan. My favorites are Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Ponyo. His company is called Studio Ghibli.
Anyway, there is a Studio Ghibli museum in Tokyo, which is somewhat difficult to visit because you need to buy tickets well in advance. Michiru to the rescue again: she had her mom pick up our tickets before we even got to Japan.
What I wasn't counting on was that the little town of Kichijoji, adjacent to the museum, would be so pleasant. By fortunate coincidence, the foliage in the big park there was at its peak, with different trees representing every shade from yellow-tinged green to deep blood red. We spent a bunch of time taking pictures in the area and eating roasted corn, my favorite Japanese street food, while waiting for our ticket's time to come up. The museum is so busy that your ticket is not only for a specific day, but also for a specific time.
And, as expected, the museum was fantastic. My favorite exhibit was the bottom-floor display that had Ghibli style animations in formats other than film. The coolest of the bunch was a big rotating display that looked like nonsense until a strobe light was applied. I wish I had a video for you, but photography is banned in the museum. Also notable was the Ghibli short that they show only in the Museum. You can't see it in theaters or on DVD anywhere. The one we saw was about an egg and a hunk of dough that fall in love. Classic Ghibli.
After leaving the museum my interest in seeing Ghibli movies was renewed. I've seen all the Miyazaki ones, but there are also a bunch of good ones that he wasn't involved with.
Bonus: Abercrombie and Fitch
Last time I was in Tokyo, walking through Ginza, my friend Toby said, "Oh man... we've got to go into Abercrombie and Fitch". What a horror show. From half a block away you can hear the pounding bass. From a quarter block away you can smell the scent that belches out of the air conditioning system. Walk up to the door and you're greeted by a friendly American-dressed Japanese guy who said, "Hey.... what's going on?".
His greeting is normal by itself. Within the context of the Abercrombie and Fitch store, it's horrifying. EVERY employee is required to say that exact phrase to you. Walk from the top of their ELEVEN story building down to the bottom, and you'll hear that exact phrase, squawked in an impressive accent, around a dozen times.
But that's not the only bizarre requirement of employees. Besides lobbing a cookie-cutter English phrase your way, they also have to dance. All the time. They dance with the enthusiasm of the Bluth Company when Gob says, "Everybody dance. Now." Leg twitches and hip thrusts are common, not only while standing around idly, but also when rifling through a rack of shirts, totally unaware that anyone else is watching.
And if dancing employees is you're thing, you're in luck, because on the second floor are a very attractive male and female whose only jobs are to dance. No clothes, no customer service (okay, they still manage to yell "Hey... what's going on" over the club music), just dancing. The first time I went to the store the girl shrieked with clubbing-joy so loud that I almost ducked. Whoooooo!
I could go on to describe the atrocities of the A&F clientele, the gratuitously homoerotic eleven story mural of dudes doing everything except for wearing shirts, or any number of other things, but instead I'll leave it at this: visit Tokyo. And when you do, go to the Abercrombie and Fitch store in Ginza. If you need some amazing food to comfort you afterwards... check out Nataraj on the same block, and order the Sai Bhaji and the Banghan Burtha.
Thanks again to Michiru for all the cool stuff she brought us to do, AND for helping me so much with my Japanese. It's an incredible thing to get to speak Japanese in Japan and after a conversation turn to your teacher and say, "So... did I say that right?"
Ten days left in Japan. Lots more to do, but most of it low-key. Might be time for one more adventure before I go. Electric skateboarding in Tokyo is a dream come true, but the police disagree. Best option: blow by them and pretend you don't understand them when they tell you to stop.
Upcoming trips: Road trip to LA and Austin in early December, then flying to Boston for Christmas from Austin, and making my way back up to SF after that.
Photo credits: Photos that don't have the TYNAN logo on the bottom right are from Todd. He took some GREAT photos this trip. The santa stuff at the top were three random people in Yoyogi park (where else?)
Tynan! I loved reading your experiences. I'm a newbie to your site but have been reading and recommending your articles with great fervor. The funny thing is, my husband, myself, and three of our friends also went to Japan in November 2010! That just gives me even more thought that I'm on the right path reading your insights. Keep up the good work, you rock!
Hey, that was a really fun read for me! I was browsing your site and this caught my eye because I was in Japan recently and also visited Nikko, and also in November! The "light up" thing next to one of the temples after dusk was really mind-blowing. I also had some amazing food and onsen experiences in that region, although not as awesome as the onsen exprience you describe! Also, I'm an American male just a few years older than you and I've noticed a lot of common points reading your site. For example, I've never consumed alcohol (or tobacco or marijuana), I'm obsessed with nutrition/food/health/etc, I'm obsessed with optimization of consumer choices and objects and lifestyle design, etc, the whole nine yards. You have a lot of really sensible viewpoints. So I wanted to offer some general praise! It's nice to find a kindred spirit. I'm obsessively private, so I don't have any blogs or anything, but I'm living sort of a parallel life to you! Well, it would be easy to cite major differences too.
Actually, I first browsed your site some months ago after landing there in connection to a health/nutrition topic. At the time I was preparing for my trip to Japan and researching all kinds of efficient packing methods. I had never travelled before at all, so I was thinking about some topics for the first time and I read your ebook, which I found enjoyable as a story about an interesting person and their perspective on life, but also a bit thin on content and not practically relevant at all to my own life for various reasons, including the topic of luggage, because I had already finished designing and packing my bag for three months in Japan, which was a small messenger bag and total weight of 5kg, including a full water bottle. Now I'm back home and the ultra-minimalist luggage and trip as a whole were a big success. I went alone and mainly wanted to practice my Japanese, which was generally adequate, so I mainly wandered around without any plans and had a huge variety of both very rural and very urban experiences from Kyuushuu to Kanto, all on a very small budget. Also, I never had much interest in travelling, and even though I had tons of great experiences in Japan, my desire to travel has only increased from zero to a small amount. So that's one way in which we're quite different, although I do share the attraction to living in "exotic" places for short periods as distinguished from travelling.
The Abercrombie and Fitch thing totally cracks me up. After spending a few weeks in Tokyo, I can totally imagine it. I checked out a bunch of stores in Ginza one day and it was fairly entertaining, though Harajuku stores were much more aesthetically interesting inside and out.
Keep up the excellent thinking, living, sharing!
Have you been across to Korea at all? There is a 3 hour boat from Hakata to Pusan that I took last time I was there. Korea is great fun, I'd definitely recommend making a visit if you haven't already!
Cool stuff Tynan! I wish I could have made it over there too! Keep those stories coming. They are always fun to read!
Wow. Stories like this make me even more excited about beginning my travels. By the way, when is the review of the new smart wool Vibrams gonna be posted? I really want to get a pair before I go to Nepal if they really are as awesome as they seem.
What a day. In an effort to totally avoid paying for hotels we have worked out an elaborate system of only taking night trains, where we can sleep as we travel.
Today that landed us in Aomori, a small city in Northern Japan. After spending two hours researching things to do there, I had found only one possibility: eat apples. The city is known for having good apples, and nothing else whatsoever.
With 14 hours before our next train to Sapporo, we had to find something else to do. To fuel our brainstorming we found a little trendy Italian restaurant called Piccolo. Even one-street towns in Japan have restaurants with beautiful interior design. It's important here. We lucked out - they use high quality ingredients, make their own sauces, and use extra virgin olive oil.
For Tokyo, this is how to get to my favorite sushi restaurant called Standing Sushi:
Otherwise... for general restaurant advice...
When you land in Japan, at the airport, you can rent a mobile WiFi hotspot. This typically operates on a 3G or 4G network, you carry it in your backpack, and then you can connect to it via WiFi to get data.
I highly recommend renting one of these. It should cost $5 or so per day. Bring a USB battery pack, buy an Anker or see what Wirecutter recommends, because these mobile WiFi hotspots tend to lose their charge after a few hours.