Don’t worry folks. Famous guest blogger Kumiko is still coming. She’s such a big shot that she had to dash across the world and back for work and so her blog-writing time got usurped. I’ll fill you in on our sad Kumiko-less adventures in the meantime.
As I write this we are on a flight from Tokyo to Seattle. Just 7 hours left before we are officially back on American soil. And/but we still have one more day of our trip and are getting ready to party with Rob in Seattle. More to come on that particular transition but first more adventures from Japan!
Since we last posted we have done and seen so many amazing things, I hardly know where to begin. Japan – mostly Kumiko – has treated us so well and we are so grateful that Kumiko’s transfer to Tokyo coincided with the end of our trip. What a gift. And unbeknownst to us (because our not-very-effective M.O. for this trip has been to do precisely no planning at all ahead of walking off the airplane at each destination), our timing was absolutely impeccable for the famous fall colors in Japan. When we left off last we were about to head to the mountainous area of Nikko to check out some temples and fall colors and do a bit of hiking. Which did not disappoint. Kumiko will tell you all about that. After returning to Tokyo from Nikko we had one last day with Kumiko and she showed us another impressive evening in Tokyo. We met her in Shibuya – where we finally found the Tokyo you see on T.V. and did the ridiculous things you hear of visitors doing in Japan. Again, the story-telling on that one is all Kumiko but for now suffice it to say it was super fun and most of the video evidence of the evening will not be released to the public.
On Tuesday, we said a sad goodbye to our amazing hostess and headed to Kyoto and Nara for temples, fall colors, gardens, food stealing deer, the largest wooden building in the world (at least it was until 1998 but they are holding on for dear life to their title), and a giant ass bronze Buddha. The pictures don’t do the colors and scenery any justice (AT ALL) but they do a much better job than I will be able to do to show how truly stunning all of the changing Japanese maples were and the architecture of Japan was. Kyoto was really a cool city with so much beauty on the edges and felt much more Japanese than Tokyo. The buildings, the food, the people, the temples, the scenery, the tourists (omg, the tourists). We walked miles and miles each day wandering our way to and from and through gardens and temples and bamboo groves and shrines and tiny streets lined with the cutest restaurants you ever did see (most of which we couldn’t eat at – again that darn Kangi illiteracy thing – Kumiko we needed you!). We also stayed at an adorable little Ryokan and did the whole sleeping on futons on tatami mats, sitting on the floor chairs drinking green tea before bed, wearing kimonos to and from the shower, and generally feeling Japanese and cool.
Nara was a day trip from Kyoto and we had read about the giant Buddha in the huge wooden building which sounded nice and all, but really we just went for the deer. Around the Unesco World Heritage sites of Nara there are hundreds of tame deer that you can pat, feed, hang out with….or more accurately, push away and try to make it look like patting when they have their face in your backpack, throw food at them so they stop butting you with their heads, and do your best not to trip over them because every time you turn around there is one with its head in your pocket. It was really fun to be that close to deer and fun to watch them chase around and steal from unsuspecting, and sometimes terrified, children with a snack in their hand. And the big wooden building and Buddha and gardens we saw were also nice.
By the way, to get to Kyoto, we (read: I) REALLY wanted to take the bullet train while we were in Japan – it just seemed like an experience not to be missed while here even though it is extremely expensive. And we were so glad (read: I was so glad; Gabe was underwhelmed) we did. A fellow traveler who had spent a lot of time told us she thought it was the ultimate convenience. She was dead-on. First of all, you never ever need to book ahead. The thing leaves at least every 10 minutes, sometimes every four. You walk up to an electronic kiosk, touch the screen and after you insert obscene amounts of money (especially for a 2 hour and 15 minute train ride), it spits out a flimsy little card that gets fed into a couple automatic gates along your way. Then you make your way through the sea of people that is your choice of Tokyo hubs, up to the platform, and wait a nano-second to board your train. Pick a seat, sit down, read a magazine at 300km an hour (that’s 187 mph people!), and you’re there. What you don’t have to deal with: reservations, change fees, planning ahead (our biggest stressor and failure on this trip), security, getting to the airport hours before you actually start going anywhere, waiting, no leg room, and the mother of them all: no stupid, annoying, loud, interruptive, nobody-is-listening-and-nobody-cares announcements! It’s beautiful. The only announcement is what stops are coming up (which are very few – it’s the bullet train after all) and please turn your cell phone to silent (which people actually DO – and they don’t talk on them either!). There’s a power plug in every row, a hook to hang your jacket, a tray table, the train is smooth as silk, and no one is harassing you about your seat belt or tray table or seat back every five minutes. In fact, not only do the conductor ladies and gentlemen not tell you what to do constantly, they smile as they check your ticket (just once and ever so politely) and each time they enter your car and before the leave your car they actually BOW!!! I’m sorry but when was the last time a flight attendant was civil to you, much less bowed (ok, a slight exaggeration and I might be a bit jaded from some unusually bad experiences on U-bite-it airlines – this flight not included as the flight attendant just went up to first class to get Gabe some chamomile tea….but still)?! So me and the bullet train are real good friends now. S.F. to L.A. could realllllly use one.
While we are on the topic of things of Japan and efficiency, I also wanted to touch on a few things that don’t make sense (to me, anyway) in this blog. The first one has to do with cleanliness. Everything is clean. Like over-the-top clean. People are always cleaning everywhere you go. There are seemingly thousands of government employees sweeping, hosing, pruning, mowing, leaf-blowing, wiping, scrubbing, collecting recycling, etc. What? You hear something missing in this fairly comprehensive list of cleaning activities? Picking up trash, for instance? I am certain trash gets produced in a nation of 126 million (especially a nation that rivals any I have ever seen in the amount of packaging, single-use beverage containers, and plastic bags used – it’s INSANE) . And you would think that every once in a while one of those 126 million people wants to throw something away or, God forbid, litters (by accident, of course). So trash gets picked up, right? The answer is I really can’t be sure. The only thing I know is that the only thing harder to find than a trash can in Japan is, well, nothing. Gabe thinks it’s because Japanese people don’t like to eat and walk. You will be hard pressed to find a Japanese person eating not seated at a table in a home or appropriate public or private establishment. And if you get take-out from a market, good luck finding a place to eat it. In any case, if you produce any trash while in Japan, maybe just plan on packing it in your suitcase and taking it back to your own country because that’s probably the next trash can you’re going to find. I really never got over how my pockets and our backpack were always full of trash in the cleanest place I have ever been in my life.
Second thing about cleanliness is germs. Remember how we marveled at all the face masks in Southeast Asia? People wore those to protect themselves from everything from air pollution to sunburns. But always to protect themselves. In Japan people wear them to protect others from themselves. If you are sick, you wear a mask so you don’t get your germs on other people. Darn considerate, right? There are also other precautions for germs. Automatic buttons that raise and lower toilet seats, automatic flushing, automatic faucets, hand sanitizer at every store entrance you go through, a little dish to put your money in when conducting a transaction so you don’t have to touch the other person’s hands. And oh my, the actual “facilities” in Japan are spotless and it is not unusual to find an electronic Japanese toilet in many public restrooms. If you have never seen one of these, let me fill you in. This, my friends, is like a full service automatic car wash for your backside (and frontside ladies). We’re not talking, “Standard Exterior”. We are talking “The Works”. Water spouting from all angles, temperature adjustment for water and seats, oscillation, settings of all kinds to suit the pickiest and most sensitive of butts. It’s amazing. So where am I going with all this? It’s basic – like the no trash can thing – but mind boggling nonetheless. In 99.9% of Japanese restrooms (public or business) – no soap and no paper towels. Even in the Red Carpet Club at Narita International Airport – no soap! If someone can come up with an explanation for this craziness, I would like to hear it.
Other baffling issues in an otherwise overly convenience-and-efficiency-oriented country, the only ATM’s a foreigner can use are at 7-11 (I have never been in as many 7-11’s in my life as I have been in during our time in Asia) and the Post Office – when the P.O. is even open. Good luck. Cards are not accepted in most places, especially foreign ones. Hard to fathom as a charge-everything-down-to-a-cup-of-coffee American. And if you can’t find a “sevy’s”, you are S.O.L.
To wrap up, after Kyoto, we returned to Tokyo for one last day and hit the Tsukiji Fish Market which blew our minds. We walked through thousands of square feet of cramped stall after cramped stall overflowing with, as far as I can tell, all of the sea creatures that ever were available for purchase. I don’t mean every KIND – though that too – I mean every one of them, period. Like there cannot be any fish left in the sea given what was at that market. The market has an annual sales of $5.5 billion and it looks it. There were gigantic tunas (so many hundreds of pounds they had to be raised to the chopping block with an elevator-type thing), scallops and mussels the size of your hand, octopi of all shapes and sizes, and many, many creatures of questionable identity. It also happened to be quite difficult to stay alive as a human (if you were a fish of course, forget it). That thing I said about Japanese drivers not having homicidal feelings toward pedestrians does not apply to the dudes who drive electric carts through the aisles of the fish market and their feelings toward tourists. You could seriously get hurt. Also don’t wear open-toed shoes or pants that drag on the ground. Trust me.
So that just about sums up our time in Japan minus Nikko and Shibuya coming soon to a computer near your from Kumiko. We had a really amazing visit and cannot thank Kumiko enough for inviting us and for showing us such a killer time. Obviously she is awesome and if any of our blog readers don’t know her personally and want an introduction, let us know. We just can’t promise she’ll invite you to visit.
See y’all on the flip side (or the U.S. side anyhow).
Haley and Gabe
The stereotype that Japanese people run everywhere is exaggerated. But not very much. Also, Kumiko thought I invented this stereotype. Anyone wanna back me up here?
I have precisely zero blank pages left in my passport and was recently counting and convincing myself (so I could convince the customs agent) I had enough legitimate empty spots to get into Japan and back into the U.S. I am barely going to make it.
We left Japan at 6pm on November 17th. We arrive in Seattle at 9 am on November 17th. Finally getting back that day we lost on the way from Buenos Aires to Bangkok all those months ago.
If you want to chill out in some of the most beautiful and peaceful and colorful gardens you have ever seen in your life, oh and hang out with about a gazillion Japanese tourists in each of them, go to Japan in November for the fall colors. I am assuming you would be just as fortunate (on all counts) during Cherry Blossom season in March/April.
Japanese kids are the cutest kids I have ever seen. Along with Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Malaysian, and Indonesian kids. Insane.
There are over 400,000 vending machines in Tokyo alone. They dispense cold AND hot drinks. Extremely nice on a cold November day.
Gabe doesn’t like red bean-filled mochi. I ate dozens of them.
One night we bought dinner at Circle K.