Today is our second day (first full day) in Kurashiki, and we walked all over the place. We saw some really beautiful buildings and had some great food. We noticed while walking around town that although this is clearly a tourist destination, it seems to be a local one, geared to the Japanese and not at all to foreigners. There is almost nothing written in English here (as opposed to Tokyo), so Ken and I were feeling pretty happy that we had maybe been visiting something that Americans rarely come to in Japan. While we are here, we are staying at a lovely little hostel called Cuore, with a cute design and decent rates. If you don’t mind sharing the shower and bathroom, it is pretty awesome and the people who work here very nice. Tomorrow morning we head to Kyoto.
Today Ken and I left Tokyo, catching a bullet train to a small town in the south called Kurashiki. Getting to Tokyo station, getting on our train, transferring to a local train from Okayama to get here – all of it was a breeze. I am very impressed how, even though we don’t speak Japanese, all the transport here is so well organized and labeled that it is very easy to figure out and use. Ken and I paid extra for the “green” (first class) pass (which actually wasn’t all that pricey at about 20% more than regular), and I have to say the trains were beautiful, spotless and comfortable. Why oh why can’t we have something like this in the US? One thing that was a bit odd: At the highest speed on the train (about 200mph), Ken and I both felt a little bit queasy, almost seasick. But that quickly subsided when the train stopped. On the suggestion of my friend Alex, we made our way to the town of Kurashiki where we now find ourselves for a couple of days. So far, the place is absolutely gorgeous, it is a historic city of old warehouses and a canal. We will stay here a couple of days and then head to Kyoto. You can see today’s pictures by clicking on the image below:
Today was another day of walking a ton, but Ken and I are very similar in finding it a great way to get to know a city. We first set our sites on the Tsukiji Fish Market, and walked from our hotel down there, about an hour’s walk through parts of Tokyo we had not yet seen. We then headed over to the oldest Buddhist shrine in Tokyo, which sort of dates from the 7th century, except that it was destroyed during WWII and subsequently rebuilt. Along the way we experienced block after block of the urban monotony that makes up the area of Tokyo in between, punctuated by a few interesting buildings here and there. We still can’t get over how quiet the whole city feels, it is really eerie. Aside from that, I have a few more impressions:
– There seem to be almost no homeless people around. We have seen a total of two so far in this city of 13 million.
– Far louder than the people are the crows, which are everywhere crowing.
– For all the traffic, we have not heard a horn honk even once.
– There are not very many foreigners around anywhere we have been. We can count on two hands all the ones we have seen in two days.
– If you should need to find a public toilet in Tokyo, look for a park. Every park seems to have one.
– There are surprisingly few public places to just sit down.
Click the image below to go to the album of today’s images:
Ken and I walked the shit out of Tokyo today, and I can tell you that so far, Tokyo is a fascinating place. Here are some notes and impressions from our first day:
– Speaking of being helpful, everyone here is very nice and really wants to help, whether or not they speak your language.
– Things don’t generally seemed to be open very early. We could not find any restaurant and only a few convenience stores open before 11am.
– In one of those convenience stores (named Lawson) we had a lot of fun buying unrecognizable things in cute packaging to make a sort of breakfast for ourselves.
– The streets are eerily quiet at all hours. No one ever makes a peep anywhere. Ken and I have taken to whispering to each other while we are walking around.
– Ginko trees are everywhere, and this must be the season where they drop their fruits. And if you know anything about these fruits, you know they reek of something not at all dissimilar to human vomit.
– I somehow expected Tokyo to be insanely crowded and chaotic, but it seems very calm and tranquil everywhere we have been at least.
– Architecturally, if I had to reduce the entire place to a short description, I would say that Tokyo is all about the juxtaposition of very large structures next to very small ones, and the tension this creates. There is also a lot of attention to small details, which I like.
– These people love things sold in vending machines, and will stick one just about anywhere they can.
– Probably because we don’t understand the language, but twice now when in search of Japanese food, we have mistakenly gone into a Chinese restaurant (last night) and a Korean one (today). Although to be fair the Korean restaurant was inappropriately labeled “Japanese Grill”. Still, it was delish.
Click the photo below to see the whole Tokyo album:
As I write this, I am currently less than two hours from my destination, aboard an ANA flight to Japan. This is the first time in my life I have really flown first class. (There were a couple of other times, but they were first class in name only, providing only a larger seat near the front and pretty much nothing else. They were also not on an international route, which makes a big difference.)
Here are some things I have noticed on this trip:
- When I first came on, they asked me if I wanted to change into a set of pajamas they had for me, (which made me slightly uncomfortable).
- The flight crew is all Japanese, and although they are all very nice and speak a bit of English, we often misunderstand each other.
- Perhaps this is a function of being so close to the front (Seat 1K) of a large plane (777), but it seems a lot bumpier that previous times I have ridden a similar plane back in economy, especially side to side.
- I could get used to this amazing menu. One of the highlights was the delicious ramen.
- And the way they set the table for you is beautiful
- The way the mini cabins are setup in first, you can’t really look out the window directly, which is a bit of a shame
- Likewise, I know these are all setup for maximum privacy, but it is a bit difficult to have any friendly interactions with people sitting near you since everyone is so enclosed in their own capsule
- Speaking of the capsules, they are very swank and nicely built. And converted to a bed was very comfortable indeed.
- I have never washed my hands and face with hot towels more often in such a short time.
- The movies are censored in strange ways. For example, a scene that showed two women kissing had their faces blurred, and subtitles with certain words were blurred out.
- We have two bathrooms just for us and the crew, and one of them is quite large and nice.
- The swag (dopp kit, blankets, pajamas) are all super luxe.
- As you might imagine, the 11 hours have flown by. Between my 4 hour nap and reading about Japan and luxuriating in all the perks, it has really gone by quickly.
After taking this trip it is fairly obvious why some people don’t mind air travel. Pretty fantastic way to go, and yet I can’t imagine anyone paying full fare for something like this.
I am writing this from the airport in San Francisco. In less than two hours, I will be on my way to Japan for the first time. This is where the far-flung part of my trip begins, and no telling exactly when it will end, but at this point I expect sometime mid to late February. I will of course be working along the way, one of the perks of doing what I do. This will allow me to continue earning as I go, and still experience these other places and cultures. I really marvel at how lucky I am that I have chosen a career that allows this kind of flexibility. All I need to be productive is a laptop and an internet connection. With the exception of a face to face meeting or site visit here or there, I never need to be physically co-located with other people. That de-coupling of work from place is the basis for a kind of freedom I never expected to have growing up, when this was not an option. So I am grateful for the time and place in which I was born.
Tomorrow I leave for Tokyo. Am I ready? Maybe, maybe not. I’m not that bothered really. When visiting an unfamiliar place, I think it is very difficult to make truly awful choices. That is because when everything is new in a place, all of it is a learning experience. There is no right or wrong thing to see, no right or wrong place to stay, it is all surprising and will teach you something about that place. The last couple of days I have been firming up some plans for various countries I will visit on this trip. Ken and I have picked out where we will stay in Japan (in Tokyo, Kurashiki, and Kyoto). We have our rail passes but not not the reservations, which should be a fun adventure in and of itself once we get there. I am still figuring out where I will stay and what I will do in Seoul which follows Japan on the 5th. And just yesterday, I settled on an apartment in the South Yarra neighborhood in Melbourne for a 15 day stay at the end of November. Little by little, it all falls into place. I’m getting really excited.
It has been a whirlwind of eating and seeing old friends and family and working and eating. The other night we went to Chez Panisse, and last night to Verbena. Chez Panisse is world renowned, and the meal was truly impeccable, there was nothing to reproach it. It was a treat to be there with K&M and their lovely daughters, we had a really nice time. And yet, the meal itself felt…I don’t know, a little boring. For the kind of money we spent, you would really expect to be completely wowed, but at this point I feel that the place is coasting a bit on their name. Verbena, on the other hand, was a creative treat. Each dish was a surprise, and the restaurant itself, designed by Marites and Keith, is beautiful and has great ambiance. On a side note, I have been impressed while here that in all the restaurants I have been to, one is able to have a pleasant conversation with one’s table mates. That is to say, these are not the eardrum crushing environments that invite screaming matches as seems to be the case with almost every New York restaurant these days. What a pleasure and revelation to be able to make dinner a social event where friends can talk to each other again. NYC restaurants really need to get a clue and invest in some sound design and dampening.
My flight was delayed a couple of hours from LA last night, so Marites and Keith took the opportunity to book us a late table at a place that is very difficult to get into, Rich Table. The meal was spectacular, and reminds me why the Bay Area is so special. There is no place quite like it, and Keith & Marites , like me, are total foodies. I can always count on them to pick some amazing places for us to go. It doesn’t hurt that they are architects that specialize in restaurant design, so they always seem to be in the know about the latest and greatest food choices. Today was a playing-hooky kind of day for Marites and me, we went to a yummy breakfast at Local 123, got pedicures, had a fantastic Burmese lunch at Burma Superstar, and ran a couple of errands like getting my shoes fixed and getting a hipster haircut at a too-cool-for-school (but very friendly, I quite liked it) barbershop in Oakland.
Alas my time in LA is at an end. Later today I will head to San Francisco for a few days to see some dear friends, eat some amazing food, do a little work, and mentally prepare myself for my impending trip to Japan. LA has been really great, most especially for seeing old friends. The city itself holds only marginal allure for me, and I definitely do not miss having to drive all over the place. (I will say that the tacos here have any I have tried in NYC beat hands down, but tacos are not enough of a pull for me to uproot myself from New York.)