Sunday, January 19, 2014

Really Enjoyed Japan

Japan was immediately awesome. Like California, a general "good feeling" washed over me. The high from the train ride (very comfortable N'EX, complete with a food cart just like in Harry Potter, "Anything off the carts, dears?") alone solidified the good vibes. I do have a thing for trains. I rode a train once with my mom and sister, through Colorado I think, when I was around 7 or 8 years old. My pink lambie blanket in hand, I remember being very excited (the trip was probably but rightfully hyped up by my mother, traveling with two youngsters and wanting to instill adventure). I got the window seat and thus have never been the same -- rolling landscapes and the sounds of the tracks will forever be my obsession.

I'm not exactly sure what I expected of Japan. To me, it was one of those places, as clear as continents, that I should visit someday. I was also curious how it would compare to South Korea, both being major Asian countries. The "college rivalry" or "hatred" for Japan displayed by many of the Koreans I have met has historical merits and I suppose fed into my view of the country. My co-teacher was jokingly mad at me for taking my vacation in Japan, or for choosing to spend my money there and not in Korea. There was a lot of curiosity leading up to our trip to Japan, but curiosity aside, I had the best time talking with people, eating good food, drinking tea, walking, and taking photos. 

The People

Let me take a moment to gush about the people in Japan. They are the friendliest, most plainly happy people I have ever met. So sincere and excitable, I felt as though I was making life-long friends. When the ladies at Ryokan Ohanabo, the traditional Japanese inn we stayed at in Kyoto, wished us to come back, I can say that I really meant it when I said I would. I believe she might have been the "head manager" who called out, "Three people! Three people!" when we started leaving, walking down the street towards the train station. She wanted a picture! One of the downsides of speaking different languages, names are often left unsaid.

Outside Ohanabo, Kyoto, Japan

On the Hikari train ride to Tokyo, I sat next to a mother and her two kids, around 3 and 6 years old. There's not a lot to specifically say about our conversations, but it was downright pleasant sitting next to them. The daughter was fiercely independent, expertly reading her sticker book and munching on train snacks. Traveling with their grandparents, it was fun to see a family so close and generational. We all gasped at the clear view of Mount Fuji and we waved good bye as I hopped off the train at Shinjuku Station.

Lastly, I could dedicate my whole trip to Japan to Kuwano, a gentleman I met at the sushi bar. The sushi bar was on the fifth floor of a building in the Ginza area of Tokyo. Steph spotted a picture with good-looking sushi and better yet, good-looking prices. We luckily snagged three seats, as the restaurant seated around fifteen people at a time. I awkwardly made eye contact with Kuwano as I sat down and we politely bowed to each other. Situated around the sushi chef's work area, much like the Japanese sushi place I went in the Twin Cities, we ordered the lunch special, which gave us an array of different types of delicious sushi, all prepared before our eyes. The ginger was some of the best I've ever had, too. 

I noticed that Kuwano and his daughter had folded their chopstick paper wrappers into a chopstick rest or stand. As I have learned to, I quickly followed suit. He and his daughter applauded me and gave a tip to add an extra fold down the center to better secure the chopsticks. The rest is history haha -- asking me where I was from, learning that he and his daughter live in Tokyo, teaching me how to properly eat the sushi ("with your hands!"), and offering me and then Steph and Alex glass after glass of sake ("Please?" he would say before pouring us glasses). He showed me how to order more tea - the exact words I have forgotten, but essentially he would call out to our sushi chef who would then shout out for the "waitresses" to hear. He commented on my reddening face, as does happen when I drink, and I pointed to the sake, commenting on how very good it was. We laughed and I'm glad I asked him his name, because he was awesome. I liked meeting him and his daughter very much. 

Good Food & Tea

The food in Japan was fantastic, so fresh and well-prepared. One of the cameras I worked with in La Crosse had done some filming in Japan, and he spoke about 7-eleven sushi in Japan rivaling the finest sushi anywhere in the U.S. And it was good. And yes, 7-eleven sushi was on my list of foods to try.

We were lucky to have breakfast every morning at our Ryokan Ohanabo. Each morning we headed down to the dining room, and our places were set. Three-tiered trays displayed some of the most beautifully crafted foods I have ever eaten - leaf salads, fish, fruits, and so many other small bites I couldn't name. Served with rice, tea, and miso soup, we started each day with bright, full bellies. The dishware was an aspect I also really enjoyed -- so delicate and pretty; it took me back to my childhood tea party days.

Eleven-course dinner at Kodaiji Doi
Furthering my love for the staff at Ohanabo, they helped set up a "fancy" traditional dinner at a place called Kodaiji Doi, which is near the Kodaiji Temple. Costing around 125 USD per person, it was by far the "fanciest" dinner I have paid for. Eleven courses of pure bliss, our server was crazy-good at what she did, quickly and efficiently setting out each course. We all agreed we have never tasted radish so fine or sake so smooth. 

I was surprised to see so many boulangeries, or french bakeries, in Japan. I think it was Steph that first commented on all the french-inspired restaurants. On our last night in Kyoto, after a full day of sight seeing and walking, we ate at one of these french-Japanese restaurants. I got this really delicious seafood chowder, Steph had a wasabi spaghetti pasta, and Alex a beef stew. 

The street food in Japan was as mouth-watering as the street food in Korea. I love street food!! Nothing left unfried, a happy addition from my experiences in Korea was all the candy. They had candied everything haha. "No touching!" Come on, man, they're freakin candied fruits! I also had two of the tastiest cookies - the first was a sweet potato cookie, the second a light, rice wafer. Extremely satisftying.
fruits! Like, whole fruits that were candied - a hard candy shell encompassing the fruit. I was awestruck and got yelled at for touching

We had a lot of fun exploring all the Japanese snacks available at the local convenient stores. We must  have spent a good 45 minutes marveling and squealing over the different foods and in-your-face packaging. Family, look out for a box of goodies :) I sent home some of the best! 

Lastly, the tea was a delight. The ladies at Ohanabo brought us tea when we first arrived and when we'd return from a day of exploring Kyoto. Tea is a huge part of every day life in Korea and Japan and is something I have started to incorporate into my every day life as well. We attended a traditional tea ceremony at En Teahouse in Kyoto, which tested our tea knowledge and ability to sit on the floor for an hour. Shortly, tea is much more than simply drinking. It's about respect, zen, and the small sounds of the tea utensils and bowls. Some bits of knowledge I found to be cool were resting ones elbows on the ground to inspect and admire the tea bowls, facing the "best-side" of the tea bowl away from your body when drinking (to respect the bowl and show the host your appreciation), and the tradition of eating a sweet before drinking unsweetened tea. After watching the tea ceremony, we were allowed to mix our own green tea, from a green tea powder, with bamboo whisks. 

"New York is my boyfriend"

A quote I have repinned to my "quotes" board, Japan proved to be something special. There was so much to see and to do. The Kinkaku or Golden Pavilion was one of the more stunning structures I have ever seen. And the area surrounding the gold-leafed temple was itself gorgeous - trees, small bodies of water, and the sounds of nature. Ah, to hear the birds. The Kyoto Tower reminded me of the Needle in Seattle and was a nice addition to the skyline, much like seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The Imperial Palace grounds were immense but welcoming. A pack of school kids ran and played games, a man sat on a bench eating his lunch, and three friends rode their bikes, passing those on foot. And finally the lights and skyscrapers in Tokyo -- there's something about skyscrapers and city lights, isn't there?

It's important to see everything you can; wake up early and stay up late. But I also think a lot of people underestimate slowing down and simply walking the streets of a new city. On my last night in Japan, after sushi and saying our goodbyes, I went back to my hotel, showered, dressed up, and hit the streets with my camera. Date night with Tokyo. 

And beyond the unique sights, a city in a new place is so interesting to me. Here are the things I observed and delighted about in Japan:

1. The lines. I haven't witnessed a line since I've arrived in Korea. But people line-up to board trains and the subway and miraculously don't push but wait in line to pay at the grocery store in Japan.
2. The money trays. When paying, place your card or money in the money tray on the counter. Laced with a rubber-comb pad, it is much easier to pick up change and avoids physical contact with the cashier. 
3. Left-handed. Well, left-sided. I suppose it's because the Japanese operate right-sided cars that this is true. I found myself drifting every so often back to the right side. 
4. Diagonal crosswalks. That's right. No need to j-walk, just use the diagonal crosswalk! 
5. Bike culture. Very true in Kyoto, every one seemed to own a bike. Casually parked everywhere, there appeared to be no fear of bike thefts. Bike lanes were off street, next to the sidewalk. 
6. Urban upkeep. The taxis were these great old cars in pristine condition. The whole city (Kyoto ad Tokyo) had a similar feel. It looked old but a very fit, timeless old.
7. Mount Fuji craze. The Japanese were just as excited and shutter-happy as I was to see Mount Fuji.
8. The climate. Oh hello, sun and blue skies. Korea is notoriously overcast on the clearest of days. It was a nice vacation to visit a land with open skies and a warmer climate.

Japan was an all around good experience. The temples, the parks, the food, the markets, and the landscape - beautissimo. I would love to go back some time soon, ideally for work. I find that I increasingly like getting a working-living view of a city. 

As far as how Japan compared to Korea, it was different. The Japanese are more process-oriented, strict if you will, but are also more open and enthusiastic about speaking English. Being in contact with the people was one of my favorite and most rewarding parts of my trip, which I didn't expect. I practically became besties with the girl from the Family Mart who gave me directions to my hotel in Tokyo and I won't ever forget Kuwano from the sushi bar. But having been to Japan and living in Korea, it's not really a difference between Korean or Japanese -- it's just regional, similar to how Wisconsin is different from California. We're all just people, man. There's my hippie statement of the month. Anyway, I really enjoyed Japan and I hope to return soon!

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