さようなら

4
Nov
2014

Ah Japan, it has been great. I will miss many things about you. Things like your perfect showers. Your butt warming, butt washing toilets. Your attention to detail in everything. Your ramen, your sushi, your yakitori. How spotless you are. Ken and I are on our way to the airport in a few minutes, where he will head back to NYC and I will continue on to a new adventure in Seoul. Before I leave, I have one final list of odd notes about Japan, things that I found interesting or strange:

– It is frustratingly difficult to find a trash can here. For a people so obsessed with being clean, there is almost no place to toss the odd drink can or wrapper, I almost always had to give it back to the person behind the counter of whatever establishment I had purchased from, as they saw me wandering around with a bewildered look.

– Many people having photos of themselves taken will flash the peace (or victory) sign with one or both hands.

– There are far too many people wearing Crocs here.

– Google maps walking time estimates are always much lower than the actual trip. If it says 10 minute walk it is almost always 20. Which is really strange because in New York, if Google estimates 10 minutes, I usually get there in 8.

– There are a lot of crows in Japan.

– Horsemeat is on a lot of menus here.

– People seem to eat very early here, even by my midwestern standards.

ramen

Orange and Green

3
Nov
2014

Today’s marathon trip around Kyoto was book-ended by the standout colors of two magnificent places we visited. In the morning we went down to see Fushimi Inari Taisha and the famous walk of orange gates that surround the place, walking the entire path through the hills in stunning morning light. And in the early evening, we made our way to the gorgeous (if over crowded) Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, with green light filtered throughout. In between we added to our sampled Japanese cuisine types with an excellent yakitori lunch at a place called Kushikura, and a trip to the Nishiri market. We are back home now and completely exhausted, but very happy with our day’s adventures.

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Japanese torture chamber

2
Nov
2014

When Ken and I were looking at apartments to rent in Kyoto on AirBnB, we came across the traditional Japanese residence in which we are now staying and were charmed by the idea of it. All the traditional elements seemed to be there: the mats, the walls, the futons, the low table, the intense order, the rice paper screens. It just screamed Japan, and we were thrilled at the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture. Well, I can tell you that after a few days here, the charm of this space has warn off and we are feeling more and more as if we are in some Japanese version of Huit-Clos. The discomfort begins when arriving at the room from the outside. As is the custom, we must remove our shoes before entering. But because of the single large step-up and the location of the door and shoe rack on the outside, we must perform this balancing ritual with the dexterity of an Ebola nurse removing her protective clothing. Once inside for a while, the closed-off nature of the room induces a bit of claustrophobia, and there is a creepy feeling that there could be anything outside the space, or total abyss.  And after inhabiting the room some time, you realize that there is no single place one can ever get comfortable. The table is low and has no chairs, so one must sit cross-legged in front of it. This usually lasts about 10 or 15 minutes before our legs begin to get pins and needles and we are forced to sit in one of the few other approved positions, such as on our knees. This also lasts a punishingly short period of time until the pain forces a move to another position. So we move to the thin futons to lay on stomach or back for a few minutes, but this is hardly ideal for reading or writing. Most of the wall space is made of delicate materials not suitable for leaning against, and even the small areas we can use are likewise painful after several minutes. In the corner of the room is a chair for sitting in, but it is cruelly low and one can never get comfortable in it, one’s knees are always too high and it is too small. At night we sleep on the aforementioned thin yet surprisingly squishy futons, which seem perfectly designed to induce lower back ailments ranging from muscle twisting to slipped disc. The constant inability to get comfortable is leading to frayed nerves and shortened tempers. Ken and I are looking forward to leaving this place tomorrow, not a moment too soon. We are at least able to laugh about it for now, but too much more time and it will look like a seppuku slaughter in here.

Editor’s note: Outside of our apartment choice, I highly recommend Kyoto, it is lovely.

room

Kyoto in the rain

2
Nov
2014

One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is on foot. I like to set a destination or task, and let the city unfold in front of me on my way to it. Ken is much the same, so we travel well together in this regard. This morning we set our sites on Kiyomizu-dera, about a 40 minute walk from our place. Along the way we saw a bunch of cute neighborhoods, some very touristy streets, and a few gorgeous shrines and temples. I was impressed by how crowded everything was, but I suppose this is a Sunday after all, and there were bound to be tourists. The worst crush of them was at our destination, or at least it was until a torrential downpour began and they all seemed to scurry away. We were lucky to duck into a charming outdoor covered food stand for a surprisingly yummy soup bowl of udon with egg. We missed most of the worst of the heavy rain, and then set out on a different path to get ourselves home. The rain continued on and off, and we were a little wet and fatigued by the time we got back, but all in all it was a beautiful walk. And other than the rain, this seems a perfect time to visit Kyoto, because the fall colors are beautiful.

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General things I notice about Japan

1
Nov
2014

We arrived in Kyoto yesterday but have yet to really dig in to explore, just a bit around our neighborhood which is a little out of the way (having been rather quickly chosen on AirBnB) and not exactly densely packed with major sites, as least not that we can tell so far. And since it was raining heavily yesterday, we didn’t venture too far afield. Weather permitting, today we will see some major temples, shrines, and other buildings.  Separately from specific musings about this place, I have been maintaining a small list of things I have noticed in general about Japan and Japanese culture which I will share below:

– This country is shockingly clean. There is no garbage anywhere to be seen, everything is neat and ordered and tidy. Anyone that knows me knows that for this reason alone I am in heaven here.

– Probably not unrelated, the entire culture seems a little OCD about a lot of things. For example, almost without fail we see cars backing into spaces where possible for easy exit afterwards.

– There is a particular way of walking here, especially among the old, but even a bit among the young. They definitely favor many smaller strides over fewer longer ones. Everyone seems to be hopping about a bit.

– Similarly, people always seem in a hurry and are rushing to get places, which speeds up the above small steps routine into something staccato and cartoonish, especially when they are pushing into a crowd of people.

– I have mixed feelings about Japansese desserts involving rice and forms of gelatin. They are not hugely satisfying to me and often represent a choking hazard. On the other hand, the creamy and bready things they make are often better and tastier than their analogues in the west.

– Moist (very often plastic wrapped) towels are everywhere, hot and cold. It feels as though I have wiped my hands with these more times in a week than in my entire life beforehand.

– And they really seem to eschew napkins in general, especially dry ones. Everyone is just so clean while eating that they never need one I guess.

– I really love the fancy toilets here. The seats are warm on a cold night. They lovingly spray wash your ass with whatever temperature or pressure of water you like. And yet, their aim is somehow always perfect, how do they accomplish that? Is there some sensor that judges the exact distance to your asshole from the back of the seat?

– Japan is much less expensive than I had heard about. Granted, we are not in 5 star luxury, but without trying to be budget-conscious here everything is very affordable. The housing, the taxis, the food — all of it surprisingly good value.

– The train system here is mostly amazing in how well setup and modern it all seems, and how easy it is to use, even then you don’t speak the language. And yet, for as advanced as everything is, why can’t you reserve and get your ticket online? Why on earth can’t I have an electronic ticket on my phone and present that instead of the paper one? This seems silly and backward in a country that is so otherwise far in advance of us with trains.

bullittrain

Kurashiki II

31
Oct
2014

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.

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200 mph into the past

30
Oct
2014

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:

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