11 Things I really love about Japan

Now that I’m warmed up, herewith are some of the many things I love about Japan.

1. Vending machines with hot and cold liquids. Pretty much wherever you go, you can buy a can of hot coffee (which makes a very good hand warmer in the winter) or cold tea, coffee, soda, or any number of mystery drinks – out of the same machine. In the winter, there are more hot drinks than cold ones. In the summer, it’s the opposite. It’s amazing! They also sell this stuff called Calpis, but for export markets they changed the name to Calpico, presumably after someone told them that their beverage sounded like cow piss in English. Here in Japan, it’s still Calpis. Who’s gonna know? Oh, vending machines also sell this stuff they call “genki” drinks. Genki is one of those hard to translate words that means healthy, cheerful, and full of vigor. If you’re feeling logy, these genki drinks are supposed to pep you up. And no wonder, after a time I discovered that the two main ingredients are caffeine and nicotine. So you’re genki until you have a coronary.

Ah, vending machines. The blue items are cold and the red items are hot. How civilized!

Ah, vending machines. The blue items are cold and the red items are hot. How civilized! (I confess I resisted trying “Green Shower” tea on the top row, which sounds like it’s marketed to fetishists.

2. Google maps. They work like a charm. This is particularly important because they really don’t have street addresses in Japan. Your mail is sent to the third block of the third sector of the such and such neighborhood of your city. When we used to take a cab home from the train station, we’d tell the driver to take us to the street next to the noodle shop near the Fukudaya department store and he knew exactly what we meant. Here in Japan, Google Maps also works perfectly with the public transit systems, unlike, say Melbourne. You can find out when the bus or train comes, what the best connections are, and how much it costs. Japanese buses used to be mystery vehicles, but with Google Maps they make perfect sense. This is huge.

3. The Nishiki market in Kyoto – this may be the best food market in the world. The food is, well, perfect, and they have pretty much every good thing that the region has to offer. More than that, though, they encourage you to sample everything, they don’t seem to mind if you take pictures, and they don’t vibe you if you don’t buy anything. You could have an excellent free lunch here.

Some of the wonders on display at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

Some of the wonders on display at the Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

4. Similarly, the Tsukiji wholesale fish market in Tokyo just has to be seen. We lived in Japan for two years and visited Tokyo a dozen times and never got our act together to see Tsukiji, which will leave its funky digs in 2016 for a modern operation in the suburbs, much like the Fulton Fish Market did a few years ago. Tsukiji is the central trading post for Japan’s fish industry and it’s a wonder to behold. Apart from the famous early morning tuna auction, it moves more than half a million metric tons of fish a year and it said to be the biggest fish market in the world. And this is no tourist show. We stood and watched two guys butcher two massive tunas that the fish monger told me were worth between three and four thousand dollars each.

Two guys butchering a pair of $4,000 tunas at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

Two guys butchering a pair of $4,000 tunas at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo.

After gawking at all the fish, we wandered to the outer market, where there are food stalls and cookware shops. We tucked into a sashimi breakfast and I finally bought the chef’s knife of my dreams. The owner of the shop had my initials engraved in the handle, which made me tingly all over.

5. As you may have already figured out, the food is amazing almost wherever you go, and it’s not as difficult as you may think to figure out what to eat. Many places just present a plastic version of their menu in the window or a menu full of photographs, kind of like at Denny’s, except good. All you have to do is take the waitstaff outside and point at what you want. If they don’t have plastic food, just ask them what’s good and they’ll steer you in the right direction and they won’t sell you the most expensive thing – they’re crazy honest. Oh, and no tipping! I mean it. They’ll chase you down the street if you leave extra money on the table, or so I’m told.

6. Did I mention that people are honest here? The other day, as I was making my way up to Utsunomiya, the town we used to live in, the train stopped and everyone got out. Disoriented, I grabbed my shopping bag full of gifts for our old friends and scampered off the train. Another train pulled up to complete the journey, and just as I was about to board I realized that I had left my ipad on the last train. (Just writing this has produced a cold sweat.) Frantic, I had the presence of mind not to get on the train, and instead I ran upstairs to the ticket window, where I was told to check with someone back on the track I had just come from. By this time I’m beginning to leak bodily fluids (how sad that we become so attached to our technology, but whatever), and I spied a metal building that said, helpfully and incongruously, “lost and found” in English. I knocked on the door, but there was no answer, so I knocked again. And again. After what seemed like several minutes, but which was probably only thirty seconds or so, the door opened and I explained that I had left something on the train. The fellow asked me what it was and I said that it was an ipad. “Oh, he said. Here you go,” and he handed it over. Just like that. I resisted the temptation to hug him.

7. 7/11 in Japan is a great restaurant. You can get any number of dangerously yummy things at the 7/11 for a couple of bucks. There are rice balls stuffed with salmon, sour plums, and any number of other things (Although the packages are usually written in Japanese, natch, so from time to time we get a surprise). That reminds me of the time that I made a miso and jelly sandwich for lunch because I thought I’d bought peanut butter. Oops.) The 7/11 sells a divine carrot and burdock root salad, a dizzying array of pickles, sushi, steamed Chinese pork buns, a salty, umami bomb soup of root vegetables called oden, and all manner of beer and wine. You can also get a pair of gloves for $2.40 and an umbrella for 80 cents. It’s heaven on a street corner. And who says Japan is expensive??

Some of the delectable delights at 7/11.

Some of the delectable delights at 7/11.

8. Japan has now joined the modern world of banking. You can now use your ATM card to get money at the post office or the 7/11. In the old days, I think there was one branch of Citibank in Tokyo that would give you money from a U.S. account. If you traveled here and you didn’t bring cash or traveler’s checks (remember them?), you had to go to a bank and do a bank withdrawal from a credit card. Not only that, but the ATMs used to close for evenings and weekends! When we lived here, we had a Japanese bank account, but once had to hitchhike down a mountain because we ran out of money and all the ATMs were closed for the weekend. No lie.

9. The taxi drivers wear coats, ties, and white gloves. They drive with precision and care. As I said, they know where they’re going. They have a gizmo that allows them to open and close the passenger door automatically. The cabs are neat and clean and comfortable. Amazingly, the taxi rate has not changed in the twenty years we’ve been away, although it was expensive then and it’s expensive now.

10. I like bowing. It’s fun. It shows that you care. I suppose it’s just second nature – people even bow when they’re talking on the phone. Gas station attendants will run out into the street to stop traffic when you leave the station and they will bow as you go. If two cars come to an intersection at the same time and one cars yields to the other, the driver who received the courtesy will bow to the other. In his car. In what country have you ever seen car bowing? When the department stores open in the morning, an army of clerks dressed like the cast of the tv series Pan Am with neat little skirts and pill box hats line the entrance and bow in unison.

11. It’s actually a pretty easy country to visit. Janine has said that Japan may be the most accessible really, really foreign place you can think of, and I agree. People are almost always friendly and helpful, even if they don’t speak much English (and they usually don’t). One evening we even ventured into the district in Shinjuku called Golden Gai, where there are several hundred tiny little bars (some have as few as six stools). These little places are scary because they seem so intimate and unapproachable, but we thought it was worth a shot. We were in search of a quintessentially Japanese drinking experience, and what we got was a hole in the wall joint off a skinny little alley run by a friendly woman who greeted us warmly and showed Japanese professional wrestling videos all night. It was impossible to avert the eyes.

And so there you have it, friends. This was by no means an exhaustive list of things I love about Japan, just eleven that came to mind. We say farewell to Japan reluctantly. As often happens, we quickly discovered that we didn’t have nearly enough time to do the place justice, even though we’d already spent two years here. Every moment in Japan seemed full of wonder, good food, and something ridiculously foreign, even though we actually sort of understand the place.

If you haven’t been, go. You certainly won’t forget it.

Serendipity in Kyoto (caution – this post includes a reference to cod sperm)

It seems to me that good travel experiences require one of the following three things – a willingness to take risks, some modicum of planning or research, and dumb luck. If you get two out of three, you’re in great shape. If you manage all three, you’re golden.

On our first night in Kyoto, we hit the jackpot. After what seemed like hours of wandering down the many dark alleys of the internet, Janine found a ryokan that would take us. Ryokans are basically traditional Japanese inns. We would have gone for one of those fancy pants places in which kimono-clad women appear out of nowhere to bring you your slippers, some shakuhachi master is tooting his flute beyond some hidden paper screen somewhere, and they serve you a meal that takes forty two hours to prepare and eleven hours to eat, but everyone was booked. It’s probably all for the good, because those places ain’t cheap.

Instead, Janine found a perfectly nice joint, called the Ryokan Sawaya Honten on the outskirts of town, but within walking distance of a number of cool temples. We had a nice, big tatami room, and they served a nice Japanese breakfast (not for everyone, to be sure, but when in Rome and all that sort of thing). What they didn’t serve was dinner, and when we arrived we were hungry. The nice fellow at the desk gave us a map of all the places to eat in the neighborhood, pointing out his favorite – a place that serves kaiseki dinners – basically, multi-course affairs that can be pretty elaborate.

We wandered around the neighborhood and we just couldn’t find what we were looking for, which made a lot of sense, because we had no idea what that was. Finally, almost out of desperation more than anything else, we peered through the window at the kaiseki place. It was really lovely inside – there was a row of stools in front of a beautiful long wooden bar and a tiny room in the back and not much else we could see. A chef was meticulously plating some interesting looking dish for the lone couple at the bar. It looked intimidating, but we were hungry. It also looked delicious. And it looked really expensive. We poked our heads in sheepishly, almost apologetically. These kinds of situations make me kind of nervous. We needn’t have worried. “Hello! Welcome! Come in! Two for dinner?” the nice lady said.

“Yes,” I replied in Japanese, “two people for dinner.” My Japanese is about kindergarten level, but I can muscle through simple transactions like these. The chef wasn’t expecting even that and was visibly startled at my response. This always confuses me. People speak to you in Japanese and are surprised when you understand them. Howzat?

Anyway, the chef, a relatively young looking fellow, seemed charmed and he handed us a menu and explained that there were three dinner sets,with the first one starting at about forty five bucks. Seriously? I asked the nice fellow to please bring us the cheapskate set and he didn’t seem to mind.

Well, forty five bucks bought us nine absolutely impeccable courses of some of the most beautiful fish and vegetable combinations I’ve ever seen. There was a box that had some squid, a thingy of mixed chopped tuna, a shot glass of kelp swimming in some kind of sweet liquid, a little grilled fish, a small bowl of raw fish with pearls of barley, and a gooseberry. It sounds weird, but it was glorious. There was a bowl of fish consumme with a round fish cake dumpling – it was basically a Japanese gefilte fish soup, if gefilte fish soup could make you sing and dance.

Japanese fish dumpling soup - not like grandma used to make, unless your grandma is an audacious 38 year-old Kyoto chef.

Japanese fish dumpling soup – not like grandma used to make, unless your grandma is an audacious 38 year-old Kyoto chef.

There was another clear fish soup that was served in a teapot, and we poured it into little tea cups that we sipped from. We had a tuna sashimi that was pink and unctuous and fatty and so tender that if you had no teeth or gums you could just snort it through a straw. I suspect it might not pass muster with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I will find some way to make my penance later. Oh, and we had house-made tofu topped with a sesame cream and a dollop of sea urchin. It may be one of the best single dishes I’ve ever had. It was perfect in its simplicity and like nothing I’ve ever tasted.

Tofu with sesame and sea urchin. Simple, glorious perfection.

Tofu with sesame and sea urchin. Simple, glorious perfection.

There was more sashimi, steamed fish, and a bowl of slithery white fishy stuff that I really liked that I later found out was cod sperm. Somewhere along the way, we added sake to the mix, and the chef poured us these glasses of flawless sakes that tasted like melted glaciers, then pointed out that the guy who made the sake was sitting right next to us, and he turned out to be a terrific guy as well. It was a party! – serendipity the likes of which we may not experience for a while. The chef started the restaurant when he was twenty seven years old, and he’s been at it for eleven years. I can’t imagine what kind of nerve it took to open a place with this kind of audacity in a city like Kyoto at such a young age, but I’m glad he did. If you’re ever anywhere near Kyoto, run, don’t walk, to Rakuzen Kakinuma. When we left the restaurant, it was like we were leaving an old friend’s house. The staff ran out into the street to say goodbye, and I think they meant it. We liked it so much we brought our friends Paul and Megumi back the next night to recreate the magic, and I swear it was even better the second time.

And so let that be a lesson to us all. Janine’s good research found us a nice place to stay, but there’s no way in hell we would have found this restaurant without wandering the neighborhood and simply poking our head in. It’s on nobody’s list. It has a total of one review on Trip Advisor. But taking the first bite of our first dish is one of the most memorable moments of our trip. So that’s our lesson for the day, kiddies. Bon appetit.

Next time – Some of the many things I love about Japan.

Japan – a place of mystery and joy and…salmonella.

What kind of moron eats raw chicken? This kind of moron. Japan will do that to you. But it will also charm and mystify you, and no wonder people love this place so much.

Twenty years ago, Janine and I packed up and moved to Japan, and I still consider it one of the best decisions we ever made. We learned how to observe the world around us and then adapt to what we saw. We experienced what it’s like to be illiterate and almost completely ignorant of virtually every cultural norm. As fish out of water experiences go, this was up there. You might say it was a raw fish out of water experience.

We made it work. We made friends, learned a little Japanese, and our daughter was born here. I was really excited about coming back.

Our first stop was Kobe, where my friend Paul and his better half Megumi had invited us to visit. Paul and I worked together for several years, and apart from being one of the nicest guys I know, he’s a world class eater. Paul and I ate sheep’s head in Morocco and bushrat in Ghana, so when Paul promises a good time, he means it. Paul had warned that we’d eat our way through Kobe, and while I’d be glad to see him even if he were a celiac vegan, I have to confess I was especially excited.

Our first stop was a neighborhood izakaya called Shindo, that had a total of maybe fifteen seats. Izakayas are casual pubs that serve food, and they are generally considered to be places where the drinking is more important than the eating. This izakaya was certainly an exception. We had plate after plate of Japanese delights. There was impeccable octopus, perfect tempura, sashimi of fugu (you know, the poisonous puffer fish), eel, and all manner of other goodies. While the eating was great, so was the drinking. There was no shortage of exceptional sakes – a lot of the sake we have in the states is godawful, but boy do they make some nice stuff here. We had crisp dry sakes and sweet flowery sakes. Paul got us off to a very good start.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn't eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

We kicked off our tour of foods you shouldn’t eat with a little fugu (L), which if prepared incorrectly is poisonous.

Paul couldn’t get a reservation at one of his favorite joints the next night, so Megumi made nabe at home, which turned out to be way better than anything we could have had anywhere. Nabe is a big stew of whatever you feel like throwing in the pot. Megumi’s nabe was simple but spectacular. At the risk of getting it wrong, I think it went something like this: Start with a pot of hot water in which you steep a sachet of dashi mix. Dashi is a combination of dried bonito flakes and edible kelp called Konbu, which makes a smoky, fishy base for the soup. Then you add some miso, aromatics like onion and maybe some carrots, and whatever else strikes your fancy. Megumi adds kimchi and I think some kind of red pepper flakes for spice. Once the soup base has simmered for a bit, it goes in a big ceramic pot that sits on a portable burner in the middle of the table, where you throw in hunks of whatever you find in your fridge, which in Japan can be napa cabbage, shitake mushrooms, burdock, taro root, tofu, daikon, and strips of shaved pork shoulder or some other small amounts of meat. It was simply glorious. I had forgotten how easy and satisfying nabe was and I can’t wait to put it in the rotation when we get home. I may even have to spring for a proper nabe pot for the sake of verisimilitude.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

A glorious pot of Japanese stew, right before we started cooking.

On our last night in Kobe, Paul tried to kill me. We went to his favorite yakitori restaurant. These are humble little places where the main event is grilled meat on a stick. Traditional yakitori places like this one just serve chicken, but others branch out into vegetables, beef, or pork. We had pretty much every part of the chicken – thighs, breast, liver, and heart-stopping rolled up tubes of grilled chicken skin. This was all quite tame when Paul noted that one of the specialties of the house was chicken sashimi. Yes, kids, they serve raw chicken at this place. Don’t worry, Paul advised, the chickens are treated like spoiled children and kept in pristine conditions and it’s perfectly safe. I didn’t take much convincing. There was no way I was passing up the chance to add raw chicken to my list of culinary conquests.

Raw chicken - it's what's for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don't know why.)

Raw chicken – it’s what’s for dinner! (It seemed like a good idea at the time, although I don’t know why.)

So? It was very mild, almost like yellowtail or some other gently tasting sushi. Little did I know that three days later I would spend the night doubled over with cramps and shaking with chills. Was it the raw chicken? I’ll never know (Paul was none the worse for wear), but I’ll always wonder.

On our last day in Kobe, Paul and I went to a preseason baseball game between the local Hanshin Tigers and the Saitama Lions. Japanese baseball is like American baseball being watched by South American soccer fans. They sing songs for each player, spend much of the game on their feet, and generally whoop it up.

There are other things to love about Japanese baseball, like the beer. Well, the beer is lousy, but the beer sellers are as entertaining as the game. Beer is sold by young women who schlep around a thirty pound pony keg on their backs and then dispense the beer at your seat. To market their product, they walk to the front of the aisle, bow, raise one hand, and sing “who would like some beer?” in a particularly nasal tone. I felt bad for them because it was a preseason game and the stadium was mostly empty and the kegs didn’t seem to be emptying terribly quickly. Since the people in our section (as opposed to the boosters’ section in the bleacher) were eerily quiet, as a result, at some points the most prominent sound in the stadium was dozens, if not scores, of young women singing “who would like some beer” in a way that would make adnoid surgeons salivate.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

Lousy beer poured with gusto.

We were situated in prime foul ball territory and our chances of snagging a ball were improved by two important factors – there weren’t many people in the stands, and when a foul ball was hit into the stands, the fans cowered in fear. Nobody seemed to want to catch a foul ball. Wouldn’t you know it, a ball came in our direction and not a single fan made a move for it. Many just stared at the thing, as if wondering what that foreign object was that bounced down the aisle. When it stopped rolling, I just picked it up.

What a country!

What a country!

I love this place!