Foreward: Japan was fascinating. We could write a whole blog post about the cultural differences and rich history (we may do just that). However, it also happened to be a very busy country for us, full of countless new experiences. For our memory's sake, this blog is basically recounting those experiences.
Audra and I got off the plane from Taiwan to Tokyo (Narita) on a brisk Wednesday morning and found the train station just in time to catch the train to Katsuura, where our friend Mike had been studying Judo and Japanese for the past year. We had to switch trains halfway through, but thanks to nice people at the station, we figured it out easily. Mike and his friend Akira met us at the station, and the adventures began!
Japan has everything: great food, good nightlife, unique history and culture, interesting language, amazing transportation, and beautiful countryside. Over the course of the next month, we were to discover this with a little help from our friends.
Part 1: Mike, Ashley, and the Blue Hand Mystery
The first two days in Japan, we met some amazing people. In addition to Akira (a local), we met some Chileans (Nico, Luciano, and Javiera - all practicing Kendo), a Taiwanese girl (Penguin), some Polish guys (Sebastian and Lukasz –practicing Judo) and many other wonderful people from around the world.
We discovered the amazing convenience of Japanese convenience stores (Family Mart and 7-11). You can get Sake, Strong Zero (9 % alcohol), and tons of food (Onigiri or Mochi covered ice cream for the win). We had late nights that lasted into the early morning playing Mario Kart, discussing various world topics, and partaking in the goodies from Family Mart.
The small town of Katsuura just so happened to be famous for many spicy ramen restaurants which we had to try out. As Mike continued to say, “How did the USA go so wrong with ramen?!” Yes, Ramen in Japan is insanely good. We had it probably 10-15 times while in Japan, each time different and delicious.
Ashley arrived in Japan a few days after us just in time for Mike’s graduation. It was her first time out of the country. We spent a beautiful day exploring the little town of Katsuura, hiking, discovering temples, and watching the waves of the Japanese Sea crash into shore.
After Mike left the university, we were invited to spend a few nights with a nice lady named Maria. Maria spoke Spanish and Japanese. The Chileans went with us, along with many of Maria’s friends.
We arrived to an amazing array of more food than could not possibly be eaten by 15 people: Paella, Pasta, Salad, Gyoza, Meatloaf, Peruvian potatoes, etc. We also all went to Karaoke. Unlike what we are used to, all of us just sat in the room, selected songs and rocked out.
The following day, Nico (also a professional chef) and I grilled up 5 whole kilos (about 12 pounds) of beef and pork in addition to about 40 sausages. Add that to some amazing spicy sauce (Colombian?) and we were well fed the second night too! Both nights the conversation was a funky mix of Spanish, Japanese, and English. Anywhere you turned there was someone who wanted a translation of something! Definitely didn’t expect this in Japan!
Here’s also where things could have gotten scary. About a week prior, I was walking around Taipai with Audra and our friend Jyeuru. We noticed my fingertips were a little blue. We joked I was dying, but after moving around a bit and washing my hands (presumably getting the blood moving), they went back to normal. A few days later when we arrived in Japan it happened again. I started monitoring it. The next night it happened and we asked Mike’s roommate (who was a tattoo artist) if it could have something to do with the ink from my new tattoo. He said it might, but all research said it was Cyanosis, a condition that requires almost immediate medical attention (and probably a cardiologist). Audra and I saw the dollar signs adding up (why this, in Japan of all places, where everything’s so expensive). At Maria’s house it got worse. People were concerned, asking their doctor friends, and suggesting this or that: B12 deficiency maybe......
Finally, someone said: “Are you wearing new jeans?” I looked down, rubbed my hands on my jeans, and discovered that my hands were noticeably bluer. Most Japanese bathrooms don’t have paper towels, so I’d been drying my hands on my new blue jeans… Yep, I could have spent tons of money seeing a specialist in Japan over blue dye from my jeans! I felt stupid, but we were all relieved!
After Maria’s, the four of us made our way to Tokyo and stayed at a capsule hotel for the next few nights. I actually held a video interview from the inside of my capsule! We explored the anime part of town, walked through parks filled with beautiful blooming cherry blossom trees and got our first taste of a sushi go-round.
Penguin also met up with us at a cool restaurant where you ordered drinks from your cell phone! And, we got to explore the Shinjuku area (one of the liveliest neighborhoods of Tokyo) before Audra and I said goodbye for the next leg of our Japan trip.
Part 2: Shinkansen Shenanigans
Before coming to Japan, Audra and I purchased two 7-day JR rail passes. This allowed us to travel anywhere in the country on any JR train. This included unlimited access to almost every Shinkansen (bullet train). So, we took advantage of this after leaving Mike and Ashley.
First stop: Osaka.
Upon arrival, we tried a recommended Soba restaurant. These are cold, buckwheat noodles served with multiple types of seaweed, fresh wasabi, other veg, and a raw egg. This was one of the most interesting things we’d eaten in a while. The next day we walked around town discovering Osaka Castle, their baseball stadium, and Dontonburi (a party street). We had a blast walking around with Strongs, trying street foods, and people watching!
Stop two: Hiroshima.
We couldn’t come to Japan without seeing this city. We got to our place after 30 minutes on a streetcar and promptly tried their version of Ramen. It was sesame based, but after we got used to the taste (kind of soapy), we really enjoyed it.
We spent the next day or two going to museums and memorials about the first atomic bomb used on civilians in human history. 150,000 people died in that city in the first 5 months after the dropping.
The thing you don’t realize is that while some died instantly, the majority died days, weeks, or months later from the effects of radiation (often hearing stories of people whose skin had melted off and they clung to life for their remaining days). We walked away with a determination to get involved in any organization whose purpose it is to eliminate nuclear warfare in the future. Similar to agent orange in Vietnam, it’s a weapon that doesn’t discriminate and has effects for multiple generations due to radiation poisoning. While all of this was pretty depressing, the city of Hiroshima has rebuilt and is a really nice place to visit.
On a lighter note, we tried Okonomiyaki (pancakes filled with meat, cabbage, egg, and sauce) before we left. They cook it on a massive flat top grill right in front of you.
Stop Three: Kyoto.
We actually stayed a little outside of Kyoto (Otsu), but since we had a JR pass, it was only 7 minutes away from Kyoto station. Speaking of Kyoto station: the coolest train station we’d ever seen. It has 10 floors, lit up stair displays, and amazing restaurants. The whole 10th floor has 8 or 9 different ramen restaurants. One for almost every regional type of ramen. Of course we had to try that....
Weather was great in Kyoto, allowing us to walk all around and explore. We saw so much during our adventure.
The countless Tori gates shrine to Inari
The bamboo forest
The golden temple (completely covered in gold leaf).
Top it off with a surprise stroll through a “forest” of sakura (blooming cherry blossom trees).
Part 3: Midwesterners Meet Again