Japan is a land of contradictions. It is both ugly and beautiful, wild and controlled, weird and tame. After arriving from Indonesia and jumping on a bus headed for Nara, my initial impression of Japan was “Meh, this is kind of boring”. Unattractive endless cities overwhelm the nice countryside. Uninspired, uninteresting architecture filled up my eyes. No wonder Godzilla is always attacking Japan. I guess that most of the country was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt with a utilitarian frame of mind. But, whateves, we were in Japan – our first time out of SouthEast Asia since the end of November and I knew that we’d find much to like here. And we did!
All of the interesting, lovely and beautiful things I was hoping to find in Japan were there – they were just hiding in the details; in the displays of beautiful food lovingly handcrafted, in the crisp white gloves that the government officials wear, in the respect citizens have for each other, in the cleanliness (a nice change after all the garbage that littered Indonesia), in the amazing public bathrooms (the only place on the trip where I actually looked forward to using them) and their singing, magical toilets (I kept humming “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun” by Pink Floyd whenever I entered a stall), in the sushi, the ramen, the tonkatsu and every other delicious food stuff we enjoyed, in the pride folks take in their appearance – we looked like a pack of rabid hobos compared to everyone else, in the kids school uniforms which mirrored the adults work uniforms – light coloured top and dark bottom half, in the deafening roar of the Pachinko parlors and in the big flashy neon, which I love.
One bonus regarding our Japan adventure was that we had friends in every town that we visited. Not only was it cool to see friends abroad but they were quite helpful as getting around Japan and especially ordering food which was quite a challenge. It was the most difficult country on the trip to eat. One night In Tokyo we walked into a nice-looking little ramen joint. The woman behind the counter points to a machine with a bunch of numbers on it and some Japanese characters. Tami and I looked at each other in a “What the what” kind of way, tried to figure out what to do for a couple of minutes and then just turned and left. We ended up buying beer and food at the 7-Eleven (which wasn’t half bad) and eating it back at our guest house.
More often than not the menus would have photos of the food and many restaurants have fake food displays to look at in front of their shops. I imagine that there’s an entire industry that specializes in fake food models. Sometimes pointing at the menu and ordering worked – we had the best ramen I’ve ever eaten in Nara – and sometimes not so much – what was that squishy chewy thing covered in tempura we just ate, squid or cow eyes?
We spent most of our first days in country wandering around Nara. They have an immense Buddha housed in a huge, beautiful shrine. I kept wishing it would come alive and start destroying everything ala Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. It’s surrounded by a lovely park populated by very tame deer who wander around, get in your way and shit on the sidewalk. We also quite enjoyed strolling through the old part of town where you could check out traditional old timey Japanese houses. Pretty awesome.
In Osaka we hooked up with an old friend, Andrew, who I hadn’t seen since he moved to Japan some 15 years ago. He took us around to many cool spots including a gigantic vintage toy and cosplay shop which had tons of odd things including some robot monster toy that was selling for over $10,000! We spent the day and night traipsing around Osaka eating (deep fried octopus balls anyone?!) and drinking and playing. It was a splendid day. Osaka ended up being my favourite city in Japan. Love to go back.
Kyoto is a lovely town filled with many shrines (“Please Dad, no more fudging shrines” pleaded Swanson) and good food. It was recently voted best city in the world to visit. I’m not too sure about that but it was a pretty nice spot to spend a few days. I wish that we had more time to spend here and get to know the place. Tami had a friend from her library days who we met up with. Again, a day of walking around eating well and checking stuff out. Paul even invited us back to his house to dine with his wife on delicious cold noodles and sushi, all washed down with tasty sake and beer. Good times!
We stayed in a old fashioned guest house and had some pretty good sleeps on thin mattresses on the floor. The people that ran the place were great and they loved Swanson, who would entertain them with his various Adventure Time character impersonations. Lemon Grab was a big hit.
Tokyo was fucking bonkers. I was told that the population was around 18 million and it seemed that they were all near me everywhere we went. It was so damn busy, especially the subways. The novelty of being around that many folks wore off after about 10 minutes. By the time we left (with all of our luggage on the trains Monday morning during rush hour) I was happy to be on my way. But at the same time I loved it. All the neon, the huge buildings, the chaos. It was a great 2 1/2 days we spent there but I think that we tried to pack in a little too much in too short of a time. We saw lots of great stuff but I wish we could have had more time to take it all in.
I could write tons more about Japan (and I might in the future) but I don’t want to bore you so I’ll leave you with a bunch of photos. I hope that you get the picture.