Sunday, March 9, 2008

Our Japanese Chinese New Year

February brings China's biggest holiday - Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year). At that time, similar to the other two weeks during the year that many Chinese people do not have to work, the country becomes even busier than normal. The migrant masses embark on cross-country journeys, usually by train, to return home and spend their holiday time with family. This makes Chinese New Year likely the worst time to travel within China. So to avoid the misery, but take advantage of our time off, we decided to rendezvous with Justin and Kristi (Matt's brother and his girlfriend) in Japan, on their way back from a China/SE Asia tour. It so happened that Chinese New Year 2008 coincided with an atypical snow and ice storm in China, which more or less shut the country down (you probably saw the news coverage). It was snowing when we boarded the plane in Shanghai, which was why we had to sit on the tarmac for 3 hours before departure; we were just happy we didn't have to spend five days in a train station with 699,998 other people with no food, heat, water, or bathrooms.

Speaking of bathrooms, Japan is far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to toilet technology. Here is a stall and associated signage in Tokyo's Narita airport, which obviously contains both a toilet and a butt-washing device (conveniently built into the same fixture). In addition, there are often seat heaters, variable angle, pressure and temperature water jets, and fake flushing noise buttons in ladies' rooms to offer some audible cover should it be necessary.

Karen and I arrived about four days before Justin and Kristi so we could catch up with some friends in Tokyo and relax for a couple days near Mount Fuji. It didn't take long for me to dig up my very basic Japanese speaking and reading skills so we could at least get around. Our first meal in Tokyo, motivated by curiousity and potentially a longing for US food, was at Denny's. Denny's was Denny's in the sense that the sign looked the same, but beyond that, it had been fully modified to suit Japanese tastes. I had ramen noodles and a beer, while Karen had Sweet Toast and red wine, followed by a dessert dish of vanilla ice cream, gooey rice balls (mochi), and sweet red beans. Essentially, all Japanese sweets contain sweet red beans. Always the survivor, Karen quickly adapted to the lack of chocolate in her new surroundings and vowed to eat at least two red-bean treats per day for the duration of our 10-day trip.

Our first couple nights, we stayed in a twin room on the top floor of a 'capsule hotel'. As the name suggests, most guests, typically business men who work too much, sleep in a pod in a wall of pods, arranged much like a file cabinet - three high and you slide in the long way. Anyhow, we met up with our friends Peita and Miki from Denver (some of you might remember Peita as my singing buddy in the karaoke bar at Mori Restaurant in Denver; he does a mean Maroon 5). We headed to Ginza, a fancy retail and commercial district, where we indulged in $8 beers and wine with the trendy youth of Tokyo. The next morning, we met up again and headed for Asakusa, a temple and shrine complex in the city. We wandered around and checked out the temple and shops - umbrellas drawn like everyone else - but it was snowing too hard and we ducked into a little okonomiyaki place. Okonomiyaki is a sort of fried lettuce pancake, which comes from the Kansai (Osaka) area. We all shared cooking duty on the hot plate in the middle of our table - see the before and after shot of okonomiyaki. It doesn't sound good, nor does it look it, but once it is fried up and the sauce has been applied - it's tasty. They typically put lots of meat, seafood, and vegetables in the mix. After lunch, they gave us the 'Tokyo when it's snowing tour" - lots of retail, restaurants, subways, etc. Thanks for being good hosts guys!

The next day, Karen and I headed out for Kawaguchi-ko, a little lake town right next to Mt. Fuji. We had to connect at the Shinjuku train station, where we ate at one of the menu button vending machine restaurants. Essentially, you pick from a very limited menu out of a ticket vending machine. You pay, give the ticket that comes out to the guy at the counter, and your food is ready in about 30 seconds. This is in line with many things in Japan - efficiency to the point that no communication is necessary. Nonetheless, it is fast and kind of fun.

Up in the mountains, we were surprised to find it was low season and the town was almost empty, which made for a nice, quiet couple days. We wandered around, ate good food, and took a cable car up a mountain for some good views of the town and lake. The clouds opened up a bit so we could pose with Mt. Fuji.

After some relaxed days, it was time to head back to Tokyo to meet up with Justin and Kristi. Of course, Justin and I planned an aggressive itinerary, which required us to criss-cross the country a couple times in a few days' time. The trains are efficient and comfortable and we had a limited amount of time. The first night they arrived, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) across Japan to Kyoto. Shinkansen are fast (about 160mph), quiet, smooth, and almost always on time. The Japanese train system must be the best in the world. Justin and Kristi held up, after having spent the previous night on metal benches in the Bangkok airport, and we made it to the Zen temple before the gates closed.

We were literally staying in a Zen temple called Daishin-in, with monks, raked sand, and all. The accomodations are basic, but comfortable. You sleep on futons (the real ones - mats that go on the floor) in small rooms with rice paper walls and tatami mat floors. In each room the only furniture is a futon and a kotatsu (a table with a heat lamp under it - see Justin warming up). This is a fairly typical arrangement in a home - even today. If you use the table, the futon is folded up; if you use the futon, the table is pushed to the side. Restrooms and showers are shared. We woke up for the 6:00 AM Buddhist prayer session, which was interesting, cold, uncomfortable (you are supposed to sit on your feet the whole time), and entirely unintelligible (the monk beats some drums with a stick and chants gibberish in Japanese - even they can't understand it). Here is a picture of the garden and buildings in the temple - very serene and nice. Daishin-in is located in an area with over 50 similar temples, so it is a quiet neighborhood.

The next day, we toured Kyoto, Japan's ancient capital and home to many cultural sights and temples. We rented bicycles and pedaled all over the city, which is fortunately relatively flat and arranged on a grid. We toured the Shogun (samurai leader) castle, which has deliberately squeaky wood floors as a security system. We rode through Gion, which is the Geisha neighborhood. The guidebooks all say that you are very lucky if you catch a glimpse of any geisha walking around; we saw several, but maybe they were geisha trainees or just random people dressed in what we thought were traditional clothes. Anyhow, these ladies are standing in front of a shrine where the normal prayer process is to go up and ring the bells with the huge ropes (to wake up the gods), throw a few coins in a big box, and pray. This was a really neat area - lots of traditional restaurants, parks, temples, etc. The other picture here is of three things: some guy in white (don't know), a rack of strings with fortunes tied on them, and two typical young Japanese girls. The strings with fortunes are a way that they raise money at the shrines - you pay a small amount (maybe $2) and draw a fortune at random. It could be a good, bad, or medium fortune. If it is undesirable, you tie the fortune to the rack with strings and leave it there. The girls are an example of what most young Japanese girls try to look like. This is a very fashion conscious place. They seem to wear really short skirts, hooded jackets with fur on the hood, and hooker boots - rain or shine, hot or cold.

The next day, we took a day trip to Hiroshima on our way back to Tokyo (a four hour detour in the wrong direction). The only reason we went to Hiroshima was to visit the musuem and Memorial Peace Park at the site of the atomic bombing. Here is a picture of A-Bomb Dome, one of the only structures that was left standing after the blast. This was more or less directly beneath the center of the explosion (they are designed to explode way above the ground in the air). The Japanese government essentially left it the way it was; there is rubble all around on the ground. Hiroshima was a worthwhile stop - the museum contains many things that illustrate the destruction and impact of such an action - certainly memorable.

After re-crossing the country, we spent a quick night in Tokyo and headed north to Kawagoe, the town that our relatives (my mother's mother's nieces and their family) live in. It is a little over an hour out of the city. We were lucky enough to be invited for a huge lunch at Kyoko and Masaaki's house. The lunch was fantastic and huge (thank you again!). In the big group picture, going left to right, the women are Kyoko, Asumi, Kristi, Saori, Karen, Fujie, and Kimiko. The men, from left to right, are Masaaki, Hideaoki, Justin, and I. This is in their living room. The table is a kotatsu - the heat table I described from the Zen temple.

After lunch, Fujie hooked Kristi and Karen up with hand-painted flower finger nail polish jobs. Then we went to check into our hotel and wander around town a bit (again, in the snow). The hotel they found for us was kind of a destination hotel - with an onsen (hot spring bath) and a Pachinko parlor. Before partaking in the hotel activities, we met up with the family again for a great dinner.
They selected a place with a variety of food (good stuff) and the added bonus of a one-price-for-all-you-can-drink menu. So, people could order one kind, then a different kind, then another...the only rule was that you had to finish your last one, or pawn it off on someone who would. Dinner was good, the drinks were good, Masaaki got cut off by Kyoko and Kimiko, and we all had a good time. Our relatives also knew that it was Kristi's birthday (tanjoobi) that day, so they thoughtfully had a cake and song incorporated into the evening's festivities (look at the sweet picture of Justin and Kristi cutting the cake).
After dinner and wandering around, we headed back for our hotel. It was an experience. Onsen (hot springs) are a part of Japanese culture and tradition (picture a scenic, outdoor bath with rocks and maybe a nice wood fence). This one was the more modern version, like a variety of hot tubs and swimming pools in the basement of the hotel. As many Japanese baths are, this one was separated - men and women. Karen and Kristi opted to stay in the hotel room while Justin and I paraded around the basement nudo (sorry, no pictures of this), trying out all the different pools for various lengths of time (they have different sizes, temperatures, chemical additives, etc) - no doubt in the wrong order. Fortunately, it was not too crowded and the unlimited drinks with dinner erased a bit of the awkwardness of hanging out with our brother naked.
The other thing the hotel offered, which was good to experience, was a Pachinko parlor. I don't really understand the game, but it is something like a combination of a slot machine and one of those games where the metal ball falls down through a series of metal pins, bouncing around, with an uncertain final destination at the bottom. Pachinko parlors are everywhere, and they are always loud, smoky, and well-illuminated. The one in the hotel was a little different, as it was linked to the lobby, which was linked to a lounge area. This was the weirdest place - lots of old people laying in big chairs, wearing robes (probably nothing else) after having gone in the baths, smoking, and watching a movie on a big screen, at all hours of the night. It was like a combination of an old-folks' home and an airport waiting area (creepy).
The relatives took the extra hospitable step to go down to Tokyo and show us around the whole next day. We went to the Tokyo Museum, which was quite good. Thanks again to you all for being such generous and thoughtful hosts.
Finally, came our last day, on which we were to get up at about 4:00 AM to visit the Tsukiji Fish Market. We briefly contemplated going to the clubs in Shibuya and staying up all night, but fortunately that was nominated as a bad idea. We rested for a few hours, jumped in a taxi, and made our way to what has to be one of the biggest seafood markets in the world. The attraction of this market is the variety of seafood, the tuna auctions, and the fresh sushi and sashimi next to the market. They have fresh and frozen tuna auctions. The fresh one is no longer open to the public. However, we watched some of the frozen one - it is pretty interesting - there is a picture and a movie here. The auction takes place in a damp concrete warehouse with a bunch of big, frozen tuna laying on the floor. Each fish has a number painted on it. The buyers have the chance to wander around for a while before the auction starts, to check out the goods and figure out what they want to bid for. These guys have cargo pants, flashlights, a meat hook device, and a bit of a swagger that you might expect of a bunch of smelly, early-riser, fishermen. They wander among the fish, looking at them, touching them, chatting with the other buyers, and taking notes. The primary means of determining the quality of a fish is to use their meat hook to hack out a chunk of meat from the base of the tail (the tails are cut off - see picture). It's like picking out a canteloupe - some guys smell the meat, taste it, rub it between their fingers, look at it with a flash light, etc. It is fun to watch. Some of the big fish can go for as much as $10,000.

Well, that is it. Too long, again. If you made it this far, at least there was a movie. We had a great trip. For Karen and I, Japan was really a breath of fresh air from China, for several reasons: (1) it has fresh air, (2) it is organized, (3) people are polite...very polite, (4) we can find food we actually want to eat, (5) phenomenally foul smells in the streets are rare, and (6) we did not have to suspect that every public surface is covered in urine or spit. That really paints an awful picture of China - it is not that bad, but there are some things that wear on us. We were glad to have run away from China's crazy time and to have had the opportunity to hang out with our friends Peita and Miki, our extended family the Kanekos in Japan, and Justin and Kristi. Thanks and happy (late) Chinese New Year to all; we hope to talk to you soon. Mata ne.


Hiroki said...

Glad to know that you came to Japan! You stayed at Daishin-in again. That's funny. You did a kind of review of GIM Japan, but not as a leader. Also glad you seems to have really enjoyed Japan this time!

Justine said...

The pic of you both in front of Mt. Fuji is awesome! I assume the lack of random walls of stank suggest that kiddie 'poop slit' pants are not common? Happy St. Patrick's Day!