First, I’m putting up some direct links to the main parts of our trip. A few posts went up out of sequence, so this will (for example) put all the Kyoto posts together, as opposed to having one at the top of the heap and the rest scattered and/or buried. Following the chronological sequence of our trip, the main “chapters” of this blog are:
Tokyo
Matsumoto (actually just one post on the wasabi farm near Hotaka)
Kyoto
Hiroshima
Beppu/Oita (in northeastern Kyushu)
Kumamoto/Minamata/Kagoshima (in southwestern Kyushu)
Osaka
Mt. Fuji

There are a couple of other posts that don’t really fit into any of these areas–if you really want to see them, you’ll just have to scroll through the whole Japan! blog.

The rest of this post is mainly to summarize and reflect before my memories of this trip fade any further than they already have (but I’ll throw in some random pics that didn’t make it into any of the earlier posts).

giantlilies

tropical lilies at one of the Beppu Jigoku

beetle

Cute little beetle

monkey

Monkey Park resident

hippo

he will open his mouth for potatoes

The basic facts are that four of us traveled to Japan in August of 2010. We started in Tokyo and headed west, largely along the southern edge of Honshu, then south into Kyushu. Then back again to Tokyo albeit following a somewhat different route that included Mt. Fuji. The whole trip spanned sixteen days (Aug. 2-17) including air travel from and back to the US.

We stayed in western-style hotels that were all pre-booked (some were pre-paid). Of the hotels that I booked online in advance of the trip, the cost for these accommodations were mostly in the 6000-9000 yen range (about $68-$100) per double room–considerably less expensive than either Europe or Australia but more than Brazil (all places that we have visited recently). I could have gotten by a little cheaper if we had been willing to forego some amenities like private bath/shower. (The only really hugely expensive lodging that we paid for was the night on Mt. Fuji– 12,000 yen for five hours of sleep on a tiny bunk shared by eight adults.)

Booking hotels online was generally good, with one notable exception. The Tokyo Hilton was booked for us as part of the package with Singapore Air. You know it’s a fancy-schmancy place if even the smoking rooms don’t smell bad (for our first stay this is what we got). Toyoko Inn is a budget hotel chain that is actually really nice, and their online booking is great. My only gripe with Toyoko is that they claim to offer free wireless in their lobbies, but the signal is so weak it’s effectively useless. We used the Rakuten online booking service for Mishima, and that was good. We booked our hotel in Matsumoto directly, and that was fine (and their freespot was excellent). The two bad hotel experiences we had in Japan were the two hotels we booked through Agoda. Both times they couldn’t find our reservations, and we would probably not have gotten a room at all if I could not show the reservation confirmation in hard copy. (I had this for all of the bookings I made, but they were not necessary at the other hotels where they were expecting us and had rooms set aside.) Both times they gave us smoking rooms with a smell that was just flat out nauseating. Don’t use the Agoda service if you can avoid it.

the colonel

Ryo reunites with an old friend

matscastle

Matsumoto castle. I didn't see this one because I went with Ryo to the wasabi farm

onigiri

99 yen at seven-eleven got you a rice ball (actually a rice triangle) with a yummy salmon filling

basashi

horse meat sashimi. very tasty with soy sauce and ginger.

camobuddha

lots of religious doo-dads everywhere. this buddha was mossy and licheny.

manhole cover

Japanese manhole covers are pretty.

The most expensive meal was omakase sushi for four at Sushi Dai, for which the bill was 15,600 yen. This isn’t bad at all, considering there’s no 20% tip to add on (tipping is not part of the culture). Most restaurant meals came in well under 10,000 yen for four (or maybe three, since Ryo often just had a bowl of rice and a coke). I estimate that the prices are about the same as (maybe a little less than) the Japanese restaurants that I like back home (which are very few), while the food was generally much more sophisticated and, well, just better– this shouldn’t be a surprise considering the ready access both to high-quality authentic Japanese ingredients and to highly skilled Japanese chefs.

We also did a lot of eating outside of regular restaurants. Many ramen shops require prepayment at a ticket machine. The tickets you buy (ramen, gyoza, and beer would be three tickets) go to the guy behind the counter who dishes up your food. You eat, you wipe off your little spot at the counter, and then you walk out. Fast, easy, efficient…provided you know enough Japanese to figure out which buttons to hit on the machine. We ate a few times at ticket ramen joints, but usually we opted for a place where someone could help us out a little more.

Street stands selling takoyaki (octopus balls), taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes with sweet beans inside), nikuman (Chinese-style buns with meat filling), and even eel livers were frequent stops for us. Vending machines provided a steady stream of ice-cold beverages through the whole trip.

Ryo developed a strong liking for two things (besides the vending machines): the boxed lunches they sell at train stations (but only the kind with tonkatsu and rice) and the onigiri (rice balls) stuffed with either salmon or canned tuna, which can be bought at a lot of places, but the dependable source was the nearest convenience store–usually a seven-eleven or family mart.

We did not attempt to subject ourselves to a traditional kaiseki meal–that elaborate thing they do with several courses prepared for special visual appeal with all the yin-yang balance-y nonsense. I have a feeling it would have been both very expensive and mostly unappreciated. We did not eat at hotel restaurants, where prices are ridiculously inflated. We did not hit up a Japanese steak house for four huge slabs of Wagyu beef. Missing out on the food options that could have broken our budget, we still somehow managed not only to survive but also eat extremely well.

The Japan Rail pass is a great deal for getting from city to city, and once you’re in a city you can usually get some kind of all-day pass for the local public transportation (bus or subway). We made a few mistakes–getting on the wrong train or bus, or waiting at the wrong stop–all things we would not have done had we been even mildly competent in the language. But despite our linguistic shortcomings we managed to be on the right bus or the right train almost all the time, and I’m satisfied with that.

One can get lost and find oneself late at night in the most depressed part of the city without having to worry too much about personal safety. There is really no call to be intimidated into some umbilical attachment to a tour group (and if it were necessary to do this I would never have gone). Japan is a very safe place.

Seeing my old friend Mike Kato again and having our families meet was a great final highlight for our trip. He has found his own comfort zone in the urban sprawl of Tokyo and is looking forward to a quieter, more bucolic experience in the next phase of his life– retirement? I shudder to use the word for someone my own age, and besides, if he is really is going to jump into the game of organic farming, his won’t be an existence awash in leisure time. Not by a long shot.

beetle

A Japanese beetle that is not a Japanese Beetle. Koan that.

Will I go back to Japan for another visit? Nothing planned for now but I think I will. This was an exciting and enjoyable trip– simultaneously the most exotic and the most familiar place that I have been to.

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Kyoto, take two

17/08/2010

tanuki

the tanuki is a raccoon-like dog, famed for its skill in the art of deception as much as for the legendary scrotal endowments of the males

Take one got lost somehow as I was trying to upload it via a crappy wifi connection. This is an attempt to rewrite what was in that entry. (But boy, I’m finding it a lot harder to write about things now, compared to when they were fresh.)

sazae

turban shells (sazae) are a popular summertime food, and tsuboyaki (cooked live on a grill) is the most popular way of making them.

Kyoto for me is about food. I came with a list of things I needed to eat while in the city and was able to cross two off in my first meal here–at a restaurant on the Shijo-dori (literally “4th Street”) near Kawaramachi (literally “riverside”) street, which is about a block west of the Gion district. The local take on nishin (herring, one of my favorites) is a dried fillet that’s been cooked and flavored with soy. I was concerned that it would be too sweet, but it turned out to be very nice. Yuba is the skin that is lifted off the surface of a vat of soy milk as it is heated to make tofu. You typically find it as packaged dried sheets, but in Kyoto fresh yuba skins are another classic. The skins turned out to be much thicker than what I expected (the dried sheets are like a paper-thin crepe once they’ve been rehydrated) and a bit more like tofu than like any yuba I had had before. They were presented very simply–just the yuba in a bowl, with a soy dipping sauce on the side. And they were yummy in all the ways that supermarket tofu is not, i.e., they had flavor and texture, and they were inviting to eat. Sorry, but I do not like tofu. I also forgot to snap any pics.

mochi on a stick

mochi (sticky rice cake), soy glaze, and a nori wrapper...and on a stick! what could be better?

After lunch, our little group split in two to explore the Gion with different objectives: Ryo went with Adri who wanted to look at boring temples and shrines and shit, while Shark and I went looking for good snacks. First thing we tried was a sort of soy-glazed mochi on a stick, wrapped in nori. Mmmm–starchy.

sembei cracker

that's one fresh cracker!

Then we had a very fresh sembei cracker. Sembei is something I generally think of as a packaged snack food, with a shelf life determined only by how long the little bag of desiccant holds. If you’re into this sort of thing, it’s like comparing those packaged pork rind snacks with a freshly made chicharron, still hot from the frying fat.

Somehow we cut a path up to the famous Kiyomizudera temple, where tourists were lining up at kiosks to pay four bucks a head for a look inside. We took a pass on this, opting instead for a cold drink from a vending machine.

That evening (after checking into a posh-looking Ark Hotel where the rooms smelled like old ashtrays–one bit of advice: never, ever use the Agoda online agency to book your lodging) we returned to the Kawaramachi for a “street” fair (actually the fair was along a wide riverside promenade). We were visiting Japan during obon, the national holiday in which the Japanese return to the land of their ancestors–Kyoto-ites who have gone elsewhere to pursue their lives would be back in town for this period. The Japanese community in my part of LA (east side) hosted obon festivals that I used to go to, but I never understood this aspect of their significance. There was always traditional Japanese dancing, carnival games, and street food, but it was really nothing like this.

umi-budo (sea grapes)

the package says "umi-budo"--I was happy to be able to read it

umi-budo (sea grapes)

tiny, crunchy green spheres of intense texture but relatively little flavor

Especially the food. First thing I tried was an alga called umi-budo (“sea-grapes”), which really did look like clusters of tiny green grapes. They really didn’t have much flavor of their own, but they were very crisp and reminded me of kazunoko-kombu (herring eggs that were released into the water by spawning fish and settled onto the kombu alga. This is collected and preserved by salting and later desalted and seasoned with a light soy-lemon-ginger dashi. Very crunchy. This was similar if just a bit softer). It came with a shiso (perilla)-flavored soy sauce.

sazae hat

you've got to trust someone who wears a sazae hat. the mollusks were delicious.

Next we had some grilled seafood at a stand fronted by a guy wearing a sazae-hat (sazae is the turban-shelled marine snail Turbo cornutus). The sazae were so good we went back for seconds. The grilled aji (Spanish Jack) was also excellent.

ayu

live ayu in a tank (pic was taken at a restaurant, not at the street fair)

ayu on a stick

this ayu was skewered and grilled whole--guts and all--and the guts were a surprisingly very nice addition to the dish!

Next we had a grilled ayu (“sweetfish,” Plecoglossus altivelis). Ayu is a highly-prized freshwater fish that is allegedly in the Osmeriformes (smelt order), but in terms of size, shape, and flavor it reminded me more of brook trout than of smelt. This fish is almost always prepared in the most rustic yet elegant way possible: just the whole, intact-with-all-the-innards fish threaded on a wooden skewer (in through mouth, out the side, then back through twice, making the fish appear as it is swimming), salted and grilled-either over a hibachi or by jamming the base of the skewers around a cooking fire.

Having the guts in the fish actually makes it a better dish, adding a pleasantly bitter funk to what would otherwise be a tasty but comparatively boring little grilled fish. If I remember this the next time I go backpacking with the intention of living off the fish I catch, I’ll be able to save myself the weight of a frying pan and a bottle of olive oil.

shishito pepper

shishito peppers on the grill is something I make all the time at home, and yep, they taste just like these

Other stuff we ate included grilled shishito peppers, yakitori, shochu (basically a 25% alcohol product made with whatever fermentable are available–most commonly barley or sweet potatoes. Shochu has, I believe, overtaken sake in popularity and consumption rates in Japan). We ate a lot and very well and quite inexpensively. (Generally speaking, Japan was not an expensive place to visit–more about this if I ever get to a summary post.)

There were other activities that I did recognize from the obon street fairs that we had when I was a kid: games to win little prizes or goldfish, traditional dancing, and a stage for a variety show (we heard a linguistically surreal rendition of a familiar Hawai’ian cliché “Aroha o’e”). One standard obon festival activity in Japan (that we never did in East LA) is to release floating lanterns into a lake or a river. Usually (as I have seen it in movies, at least) each lantern is little more than a paper boat holding a lit candle. The lanterns here were very elaborate spheres woven from reeds and housing an electric light, rather than one using live fire.

lanterns for obon

I presume that these lanterns would eventually be released into the river, though we never saw it happen

obon lantern

this gives a better idea of the size and set-up of the Kyoto lanterns

It got dark quickly, and Ryo and I decided to sit on the Kamo river bank for over two hours waiting for the lanterns to float, but fatigue and the last remnants of our home tIme zone forced us back to the hotel just after ten-thirty.

Probably just a couple of posts to go after this: a rewrite of one Kyoto entry about food (“Kyoto, take one”) that seems to have gotten eaten in my failed attempts to upload through the spotty and unreliable connections that I have had at some of the freespot wireless sites that I have tried to use. Another will be the product of boredom on the aircraft this evening, which will over the course of nine hours in the air gradually transform into this afternoon by the time we land in “Rasu” (a.k.a. LA–this is the shortened version of how the Japanese pronounce “Los Angeles”), five hours earlier than our departure time.

Our dinner with the Katos was lovely. We met up with Mike and his two boys Stevie and Teddy in Shinjuku and headed over to Kichijoji, where we were joined by his spouse Q for dinner at a grill-your-own-seafood place similar to (and not far from) Uroko, the Nakano restaurant where we dined our first real evening in Japan. Mike and Q ordered up a set that was remarkably parallel to the selection that I had made the first night, including the tuna collar and cheek, the clams, the turban shells (sazae), the squid–all things that Mike and his family enjoys and wanted to share. The food was spectacular, and it really “completed the circle”–at least the gastronomical part of it–for this trip.

kato/ihara meeting,

Kato/Ihara meeting, post dinner in Kichijoji

Catching up with Mike was long overdue. In the time since our high school graduation, we have done our own things along different trajectories yet having parallel results. Along the way we have each mustered up a college education, an education-centered profession, and an intercontinental family–without crossing paths until yesterday. (We also seem to like the same seafood–what more do I need to add?) I look forward to getting together again with the Katos, hopefully much sooner than the nearly thirty years it took us this time.

Mike and Jeff

just before we hopped onto the wrong train!

On the way back to the hotel, we got on the wrong train and ended up far afield from Shinjuku. Kichijoji, it seems, is on a stretch of rail that doubles both as a JR Chuo line (heading west out of Tokyo and for which our passes are valid) and a Tokyo Metro line (not covered by our JR pass). What this means is that it is possible to get into the station using a JR pass and end up on a non-JR subway train that is called “Chuo” but actually takes off in a different direction from the Chuo route outside of the shared part of the rail. For once I wasn’t following our route with the map I have on the iPad. We were just relaxing, talking about the evening and waiting for the announcement of arrival at Shinjuku…which never came. We didn’t realize our mistake until we were way east of Tokyo, and from there we had to catch another Metro train back to our hotel area. Just when I thought I had the Tokyo rail system figured out, I’m slapped with another reminder that this is a complex and sometimes tricky place to get around in.

This morning we pack and do a final bit of shopping before jumping on the airport shuttle in the early afternoon. I’ve got about 20,000 yen left, which together with whatever Adri and the boyz are carrying will have to feed us and get some gifts for a lucky few back home.

Fuji San

16/08/2010

So everything was mostly going according to plan. We got Adri and Ryo checked into a hotel in Mishima, Shark and I then backtracked to Fuji on the slow local train, then north to Fujinomiya via another train. Took the bus (the 6000 yen per person round trip seemed kind of steep, but I had 20,000 in my pocket plus change) to the fifth station trailhead (2400 m elevation), and started up the trail. A guy at the bottom advised us that our attire was inadequate (jeans and a couple of layers for the top half, and I noticed that most everyone else was in full mountaineering garb, i.e., head-to-toe goretex. The weather was looking iffy with mildly gusty wind and low visibility, but I figured this guy was just hawking the goods being sold at sixth station (it turned out that he was just a policeman trying to be helpful). And thus we started up the great Fuji San, at roughly 5:45 p.m.

I don’t mean to brag, but we hauled ass going up the trail. It’s not that we intended to go fast–I wanted to hold a slow but steady pace. The trail is steep and strenuous but not especially treacherous. Most hikers pause frequently along the way to catch their breath, take a shot from an oxygen canister, or have a cigarette (sometimes all three). We paused only once, at eighth station for a snack of onigiri (salmon- or tuna- stuffed rice balls that I had bought at a seven-eleven while waiting for the bus back in Fujinomiya) and water. Draining our water bottle, I was hit by my second event of sticker shock for the day: refilling our water bottle would cost 500 yen (that’s over five bucks)! I had been warned about the 200 yen toilets, but to charge so much for something so vital… well okay, whatevs, man.

With the wind and light rain and darkness falling (and no flashlights) we figured we’d need to stop at one of the rest houses, but at station 8 there was still enough daylight for us to speed up to ninth station (3460 m) by which time we were cold, wet and wobbly-legged. It was 7:35– total time elapsed was one hour and fifty minutes, compared with the three hours and twenty minutes estimated by the brochure (which we got but did not take time to read as it was in Japanese and becoming unretrievable mountain litter as it blew out of the pocket of my hoodie with the first gust hitting me laterally).

At the ninth station rest house we were first told that they were full, and without prior booking there we couldn’t stay. Then it was decided that we could stay, but it would cost 6000 yen per person for us to share a tatami mat that was smaller than my one-person tent. The mat came with a futon and comforter of the same dimensions, and it was adjacent to other similar mats in a large bunk room packed with hikers trying to rest. This explained why the trail traffic was relatively light on the way up–everyone was already holed up and out of the weather. I guess we may have been really, really lucky to get our little postage stamp of shelter for the next five hours, but at 12,000 yen, this was not only the most expensive lodging we took in Japan, it completely emptied my wallet. Pooling together our pocket change, we had just enough to refill the water bottle three times (or go to the toilet eight times). The return trip was paid for. We just couldn’t eat anything or drink too much before meeting back up with the other two down in Mishima the next day.

Hikers are roused at two a.m. so that they can get to the summit to watch the sun rise. This seemed rather unnecessary, since we were well over halfway to the top (as it turns out, less than three hundred meters of elevation gain, though at the time I thought it would be more). If over half of the ascent took less than two hours, how come we needed three hours more to reach the summit by five? We dallied about for a while, leaving the station only when they announced that the lights would be going back out. We got a mercifully free pass for a morning trip to the pissoire, and headed up the trail.

Anyone familiar with this fabled hike will know just how badly underprepared and underinformed we were, and so my lack of good sense the next part of the story will just seem like a continuation of an established theme. Now everyone who hikes in the dark should carry a flashlight, right? Well no, I actually like to hike at night with ambient light, which in the arid Eastern sierra is plenty for a summertime backpacker. Only this is an old, perpetually cloudy volcano in a wet country, and in the absence of starlight there is complete darkness. A wise person would under these circumstances just stay close to other head-lamped hikers, and this was initially my plan. However, just twenty five meters after starting, our well-illuminated leaders pulled off the trail for a breather, and we decided to lurch forward to catch up with the next group up the trail. I managed to fall only once through this short stretch of hiking by Braille, mildly scratching my left shin and allowing my camera to escape from its pocket in my day pack. I knew about my shin but not the camera. On the way down I asked at the stations if anyone had turned in a brand-new camera in a brand-new case, but no one had. No pics for the remainder of the trip, I guess. Sorry. Good thing I have been diligent about emptying the memory card into my iPad, otherwise there’d be no pics at all.

As we caught up with the next group we began to understand why it was a good idea to allot two or more hours for the morning hike to the summit. There was a huge number of hikers–lighting up the trail (so falling in the darkness would no longer be a problem) but also slowing the pace down to the slowest trail-snail. There would be no passing either– just a barely-moving creep uphill with traffic stopping all together at steep spots, which were very frequent. It took us a long time to reach the next (9.25) station, and it seemed like there would be no way for us to make it to a station twelve by sunrise.

About halfway between stations 9.25 and 9.5, Shark began to feel the altitude and said he’d make it to the next station but not any further. I continued onward figuring that I might not make it by sunrise, but with this extremely slow pace I wasn’t feeling tired or challenged.

When I got to station ten there was a large crowd of people just hanging about between a post office, tori gate and a ramen shop on the left and a big pile of rocks on the right (and a sizable crowd on the rocks as well). I found an English-speaker (Pakistani, I think) and he confirmed that this was the top. It’s only ten stations on the Fujinomiya approach–twelve on the longer, gentler Fujiyoshida approach from the other side.  I joined the group on the rocks, huddling down and looking in the direction I thought was east. The light gradually increased until my English-speaking neighbors told me that sunrise was at 4:58 and it was now 5:05.

So I checked out the ramen shop, but with zero cash the question of breakfast was not an issue–I would have had to wait hours anyway. Headed down the hill and met Sharkey coming in the up direction. He said he wanted to go down, even when I told him that we were close (it would still have been a good half hour to go back up, given the line of hikers).

Fuji San

On the way down, we took this photo near a snow bank using Shark's iPhone

Being a person of crapped-out knees, I was dreading the descent. Taking it slow and using my hands on rocks and the rope-rail helped a lot, and now (a day and a few hours later) I’m just a little tight in the quads and in the calves. We made it down (to station five) before eight thirty and were first in line for the bus back to town. I had time to go to the police station to tell them about the lost camera, leaving my name and address, just in case someone turns it in and they can send it to me, with postage paid on delivery.

So basically we mostly did conquer Mount Fuji, despite being underdressed, ill-prepared, and carrying way too little cash and having no booking at a rest house. It is a very strenuous little trek.

Osaka

14/08/2010

loop line

just like the title of the song...

“In Osaka I saw you last…” is the first line from a hot new tune by a group fronted by the guy from Vampire Weekend, and hence this city was an important Japan destination for the boyz, especially the larger, lunkier one. Our first photo stop was for a pic of him next to a subway sign indicating the way to the Osaka Loop Line.

pachinko

no, we really did not get to play pachinko. it smelled pretty stale-smoky in that direction

But really, this is a very cool city, at least from what we saw of it. Definitely greener than other big cities, they actually have tree-lined streets with cicadas buzzing about. We only had an afternoon and an evening there, and spending the night in one of the stinky ashtray rooms at the New Osaka Hotel near Shinsaibashi station. Note to nonsmokers: don’t book hotels through the Agoda online discounters. Both here and in Kyoto the staff first were unable to find our reservations and then informed us that only smoking rooms were available. In the hotel confirmation from Agoda it states that “All special requests are subject to availability upon arrival.” The smell of these smoking-permitted rooms here are just flat-out disgusting, even though these are otherwise snazzier hotels than what I’m used to.

takoyaki

this little storefront in Amemura had the best takoyaki of the trip

Between Shinsaibashi and Namba (and probably beyond–this is all we had time to explore) is a huge network of retail establishments and eateries, seemingly continuously packed with throngs of people. The boyz and I made a quick stop in Amemura for takoyaki (there are dozens if not hundreds of takoyaki stands throughout this part of Osaka)–and this was the best we’ve had so far. Then a longish stop at the Apple store, where the boyz checked their facebooks (no wifi or free Internet access at our hotel) while I asked about my problem with uploading photos to this blog (the guy was not able to help). Then a mission to find what are supposed to be the best nikuman (Chinese meat buns) in Osaka, at the famous 551 Horai shop in Namba. This turned out to be difficult, as I was only able to remember that the shop was called “551” and on a corner somewhere in Namba. After about an hour of walking around, getting directions that we thought we understood, walking around some more, getting more directions (repeat a few more times), we finally found the place. Good buns, yes.

551 Horai

go-go-ichi Horai is the Chinese bun shop that everyone in Osaka knows but is incapable of telling you how to get there

buns

after walking in circles for ages in wilting heat and humidity, these had better be damn good buns

Osaka people actually speak better English than elsewhere we’ve been in Japan (except maybe Tokyo), but when it comes to giving directions to foreigners, there is a significant breakdown in communications–or at least such has been our experience. Maybe if I bothered to learn how to recognize such things as “left” and “right” and “blocks” it wouldn’t have been so bad. I need to make myself a list of these important missing words, just in case I ever make another trip here.

One surprising sight (and photo stop) was a long line of Japanese stretching out over the better part of a city block. There was even a police officer stationed there to maintain order. It turned out to be the line to get into the new Krispy Kreme store, and this was mind-blowing for me. Personally I find Krispy Kremes to be inedible, and it’s not as though I’m a health food freak, either. I like donuts enough, but Krispy Kremes have a nasty flavor that stays in my mouth for hours and I’m pretty sure that it comes from the oil they use. Seeing this made me feel a lot better about having waited for so long to get into Sushi Dai.

takotako king

East LA has King Taco, Osaka kind of turns that around...

takotako king sign

in case you don't know, "tako" is Japanese for "octopus." Takoyaki is an octopus fritter and the specialty of many Osaka eateries

While boyz and I were out covering every inch of Shinsaibashi and Namba looking for and ultimately finding great buns, Adri strolled across the street and found the same buns at a branch of the 551 Horai shop in the basement of an air-conditioned department store. The basement floors of just about any large department store in Japan are made of food shops, and at Dan-maru B2 was all desserts and sweet stuff, while B1 was everything else. I bought some tataki and sardine fillets to snack on back at the hotel.

For dinner we had one special request for kujira, but after finding the restaurant I just chickened out. I don’t know how much of it was the idea of eating whale (and contributing to the future of Japanese “research” whale sacrifice) or if I was just full from having snacked all day and nauseated by the idea of eating that much fat and oil. We went to a different restaurant and splurged for another sushi meal instead (which was still less expensive than what the kujira meal would have been).

Kagoshima

14/08/2010

sakurajima

the big volcano across the bay from Kagoshima city

The initial impression of Kagoshima is that this place is way dirtier than anywhere else in Japan, with a lot of dark gray dust everywhere, piling up against buildings and In the spaces between the bricks in the pavement. Only it’s not dirt. This city is just across the bay from the Sakurajima volcano and receives a constant influx of dust and granules that are either light enough or spewed high enough to be carried across the water to land on the mainland.

squid

this was one of the many tanks that brought on seafood cravings.

bonito

two new bonito species for me. I'm not sure if these are really bonitos based on what's shown in the next pic.

katsuotataki

as shown in this cross section of Japanese bonito, the location of dark muscle is clearly medial rather than distal. This sample was acquired for research purposes only.

This is also a sort of odd destination for us–I didn’t know exactly what would there would be for us to do here except just to walk around among people who might be not-too-distantly related to me. In this very informal retracing of my Japanese roots, Kagoshima is the only part that wasn’t just a train stop along the way to somewhere else (the others are Fukuoka, represented by our transfer at Hakata station, and Shizuoka, where I’m headed today to lodge part of my family while others of us take on Mount Fuji). I also wanted to visit Minamata, and this is only about half an hour south of there on the Shinkansen.

From Kagoshima station, it’s a short walk to the port. The aquarium at Kagoshima is very nice. In the big tank they have a whale shark as well as several thunnids (including a couple of bluefin tuna and several species of bonito that I hadn’t seen before). I suspect that some of these “bonitos” (locally called “katsuo”) may actually be tunas, given the central position of dark muscle in the body.

electric eel

I got to watch electric eel thing stun a live loach several times before eating it

We also got to watch an electric eel hunt. An aquarium staff member dropped a loach into the tank and when the “eel” (not rely an eel) sensed the presence of prey, it blasted out a 180V discharge (which was transduced into audio static and a visual voltimeter display). Only the loach was fast and swimming away from the eel it managed to survive three blasts before it was finally stunned enough for the mostly blind predator to stun it lethally (I.e., at close enough range) and have supper.

Minamata

13/08/2010

Shinkansen

Burret trains go fast.

The southern part of Kyushu is served by Shinkansen (burret train), but it starts just south of Kumamoto in Shin-Yatsushiro. In order to cut a relatively straight path, though, they couldn’t actually get to most of the coastal cities located further out on peninsulas, and so the grid was set up with Shinkansen stations along the bullet rail route bearing the “shin-” prefix followed by the nearest major city: Shin-Osaka station is a five-minute ride to Osaka station, Shin-Minamata is just up the hill from Minamata city, and I’m guessing then that there is a city by the name of Yatsushiro somewhere nearby to this northern terminus of the southern Kyushu Shinkansen line.

So in order to head south from Kumamoto, there is a relay express train that connects with the Tsubame Shinkansen at Shin-Yatsushiro, with stops at a lot of Shin- stations, Shin-Minamata is one of them. It’s a significant jog down the hill to the coast and south to Minamata. Buses run only about every hour, and we were lucky to catch one just right for the way down.

Chisso chemical corporation

The polluters and the legacy of their victims continue to coexist in Minamata.

We got off the bus at Minamata station, because it’s right across from the current entrance to the Chisso chemical facility, which plays maybe the most significant and nefarious role in the dark history of this little corner of Japan. There is a sentry guarding the compound’s entrance and a continual bustle of activity within. From this point it is over a kilometer further down the road to get to an enormous park built over the buried toxic sludge that was dredged out of the bay in an gargantuan cleanup project. The park is a happy place today with a bamboo garden, baseball park, jungle gyms and playgrounds, as well as a lot of open space wedged between the Chisso plant on one side and an enormous lumberyard on the other. If you’re familiar with the port of Long Beach, this is like any of those islands created from dredged sediment, another of our species’ modifications to the local topology.

This place’s dark story can be found in almost any ecology textbook. Beginning in the thirties, Chisso began discharging large quantities of methyl mercury, a by-product of their synthesis of acetaldehyde, directly into a river flowing into Minamata Bay. Within a year, sea life started dying, and shortly thereafter cats started dying after suffering through a period of spastic convulsions. In the early forties, mercury’s neuropathic effects started to appear in Minamata’s human population, which was heavily dependent on locally caught seafood.

At the time of the discovery of this new “Minamata disease” its cause was unknown, and fearing a transmissible or genetic cause Minamata people were initially quarantined and subsequently subject to severe discrimination, which continues even today. Chisso scientists, however, knew of the role of Chisso’s mercury discharge, because they had run their own studies with cats during the period before the human cases started cropping up. Instead of doing the right thing of admitting their role and stopping the mercury discharge altogether, they instead kept this knowledge private and changed their toxic discharge point to a different river further to the north, where the mercury would be swept out by currents to affect a much larger area. I wonder if this is why you really don’t see a lot of oysters on menus in Kumamoto.

Monument to Minamata victims

There definitely was a dark weirdness about this whole scene. The silver balls (representing mercury?) seemingly cascading down steps and (perhaps) into the ocean was disturbing.

All told the city of Minamata was hardest hit, with over a thousand certified cases of methyl mercury-related neuropathy with many, many more in outlying cities (one of which, Nagasaki, having its own terrifying day in 1945). Between the cleanup effort and compensation to victims and their survivors, Chisso has paid–and continues to pay–dearly for the nightmare it has caused.

Hotaka rice paddy

We walked through random explosions in rice paddies to get to the wasabi farm.

ryo and wasabi statue

They really need a better mascot--maybe "Wally, the animated wasabi root"?

Shinjuku to Matsumoto to Hotaka is like San Fran to Bakersfield to Lone Pine, up to and including the wizened backpacker crowd joining the commuter school kids for the last leg of the train ride (that is, if there were any commuter trains between Bakersfield and Lone Pine). Matsumoto is a place to eat soba, and that’s exactly what we did after getting into town. From there we split up with Adri and Sharkey staying in town to look for the Matsumoto Castle and Ryo and me taking the next trip north to Hotaka to look for the Daio Wasabi farm.

From Hotaka station to the Daio site was a 2.5 km hike (a bit longer if you make some wrong turns) through town and then through rice paddies. Every so often fake gunfire would go off (or if it was live fire and they were shooting at us, they had really bad aim!). The blasts were coming from random directions, undoubtedly to scare off ravens and crows, a few of which were there but looking appropriately nervous.

Wasabi beer

Wasabi beer. Couldn't pass that up.

Wasabi beer

Yum. It was goood.

Aside from the actual wasabi-growing operation (and this is a very large and active farm) Daio itself is mostly a very weird wasabi-themed Legoland (without the rides). There are various shrines (Buddhist or Shinto–I have no idea how to tell the difference) some of which are in caves. There is a place where you can catch your own trout and have it cooked for you while you watch. And there are vendors of all sorts of wasabi-focused souvenirs as well as traditional Japanese delicacies as wasabi beer, wasabi ice cream, wasabi frankfurters, and wasabi falafel served in pita.

wasabi farm

Underneath the shading is an intricate system of hydrological artifice with furrows precisely raked to capture a slow flow of clean water across the rows of wasabi plants

My kids and wife are afraid of wasabi because of their experience with that familiar condiment that is called “wasabi” in nearly all Japanese eateries in the states. I don’t recall ever having eaten freshly grated real wasabi before Sushi Dai a couple of mornings ago. The real stuff does have a certain sharpness that Is somewhere between a caress and a brisk slap in the face–as compared with the punch in the nose that you get from the fake stuff, which is usually a concoction of horseradish, mustard powder, green color and maybe a token amount of real wasabi powder.

Daio wasabi farm

Plant the wasabi, let wasabi grow, pull wasabi up like carrots. repeat

The real stuff is really nice and I can use it without the “normal” restraint that I exercise with the fake stuff I’m used to. At our Matsumoto soba meal, I got to use all four aliquots of wasabi (mine and those of my traveling companions), and this is not something I would think of doing back home. The stems and leaves of the real wasabi plant are also used, both fresh and in pickled form.

Daio wasabi farm

Wasabi, nearing harvestable size

Wasabi is a water plant, and Daio has commandeered an entire river, diverting the flow of clear, cold mountain water away from a main channel and through a meticulously tended system of canals and furrows that are hand-raked in the gravelly river bed. Wasabi thrives in the shade, and so the growers at Daio have their riverbed plantation covered by miles of black mesh.

Daio wasabi farm

Miles and miles of river are used here for wasabi cultivation

Daio wasabi farm

Processing the wasabi for market. Leaves and stems are separated from the root.

Daio wasabi farm

One of the many little shrines to various wasabi gods was in this ominous-looking cave

Daio wasabi farm

Really spooky. And I really can't tell you what was inside.

little Musashi statue

this is the little Musashi statue that was in the cave. Definitely the "old" Musashi of retirement (sort of like "fat" Elvis, yeah?)

My mental image for Miyamoto Musashi will probably always be the face of that actor who played the great samurai (not Mifune) in the television serial based on his adventures back in the days of black-and-white TV. Yes, we had color back then, but this was an old series that came on whatever the public broadcast channel was back then–channel 18?–at 10 am on Saturdays. My buddy Mike Yamasaki got me hooked on it–Mike was really into martial arts and swords and nunchuks and stuff. This (and not Godzilla!) was probably my first exposure to Japanese media.

Reigando

landscape near Reigando

The real Musashi must have been a spectacular dude. Not only was he good enough at being a samurai to die at an old age of a natural causes, he was also a prolific artist, writer, and philosopher. After a legendary career of shredding humans, he pursued various retirement activities in different parts of Japan, but this funny little cave in a hillside close to Kumamoto was a spot he favored for meditation.

This spot and Kagoshima are my two main reasons for pulling our Japan trip in the direction of Kyushu, as opposed to something more temperate (e.g., northward where it would be cooler).  A nook in a rock once used by a legendary swordsman and places that my ancestors knew were the draw here.

buddha or something

This was the "attraction" we found a kilometer up the road from the bus stop. Fortunately, there was a sign there that showed the way to the Musashi cave in a way understandable to us.

We got off the train at Kumamoto station and got a little wet walking just a block through some pretty gnarly weather to the hotel.  Unlike most other places we’ve been, there isn’t much in the area around the JR station.  The center of activity is closer to the Kotsu Center, which is also the hub of the city bus system.  From Kotsu, we bought round-trip tickets for the bus out toward Reigando. It’s bus #6 that takes you out, and we were instructed by the ticket gal to pay close attention to the names of the stops, because there is no announcement in English–Iwato Kannon Iriguchi is where to get off after a long ride up a narrow and windy mountain road.

There was no signage in English (or anything in pictures to direct us in the right direction) when we got off the bus–it looked like just another intersection of mountain roads. There was also a light rain falling, and the boys were not especially confident that this wouldn’t be Dad’s most spectacular screw-up as we took the steepest path uphill and started walking (this is usually a safe bet). To be honest, I wasn’t at all sure that this was the right way, but I knew there was something at 1 kilometer in this direction–this much I could get this much from a sign.

Reigando

inside the Gohyakurakkan grounds. The umbrella was a merciful loan from the ticket guy

The promised destination turned out to be a large Buddha statue, but there was also a little map indicating the directions to a place with lots of little buddhas on a hillside–this I remembered as a landmark on the trail up to Musashi’s cave–200 meters down one footpath and about 300 meters up after a sharp right turn. This was it (little sigh of relief)–Dad’s sense of direction wins for once.

Musashi's cave

the cave itself is the size of a small room. there's a shrine and a little statue, and that's about it.

The guy who sold us tickets to Gohyakurakkan (which I think refers to the little buddhas on the hill–500 of them) also took pity and loaned us umbrellas. The last bit of trail was short but steep, with rustic stairs chipped crudely into the stone mountainside and made a bit treacherous by the rain and considerably less treacherous by the sturdy handrails that have been installed–I’m sure that Musashi had handrails as well, right?

buddhas

"Gohyakurakkan" means (I think) five hundred of something, and I'm guessing it's the little buddha statues that are all over the hillside

The cave offered a nice shelter from the elements as well as a beautiful view. There was a shrine with sake bottles (one box had a picture of the samurai) and a little statue of an aged Musashi, round, wrinkled and toothless, looking nothing like the guy on TV I remember.

view from cave

the view from Musashi's cave

The return trip to Kumamoto was another adventure. It was “raining balls” (as my kids say), and we missed the penultimate bus, and this meant we had nearly two hours to wait for the last bus which was due at 5:29. We paused for a while in a semi-sheltered spot on the way down, but with the wind changing direction every so often it wasn’t all that great–not so worried about staying dry at this point (way too late for that), we were mostly concerned about our electronics–iPhone, iPad, and iPods–which were needed distractions for the long wait and protected only by my leather man-purse.

Reigando

we waited for a while in this sort-of sheltered spot, a couple hundred meters up the road from the bus stop.

Near the intersection there was a fire station with a large covered porch, and we waited there for a while, before a fireman came out to ask what we were doing. When I managed to communicate that we were waiting for the bus (“basu”), he let us wait in the station but kept popping over to see what we were doing. He brought us coffee and ultimately said he would call us a cab, at which time we left the station to go wait at the bus stop for the last 45 minutes.  There was a little spider-y shed near a house that gave us some shelter when the rain got heavy. The last bus was precisely on time and we made it back to Kumamoto in time to catch some ramen before bedtime.

Beppu/Kannawa

11/08/2010

Beppu Jigoku

I like the way the cooking station is perched on the little spit of land jutting out into deep boiling water

Beppu Jigoku

I like the way this little fella (the raccoon, not my kid) has a little flame at his ass

Beppu Jigoku

Aptly named "Bloody Hell"

Beppu Jigoku

The steam venting all over the place is really hot.

Coming into Beppu on the train from Kokura station, we were all reminded of Liguria (yeah, the one in Italy)–the landscape and seascape, the ports, the seaside little cities were very similar to Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Chiavari, and of course Sestri Levante (our town). Maybe it was this sense of familiarity, but I found this part of our trip to be the most comfortable so far (despite the fact that there is practically no English spoken in these parts, even by train station and hotel staff).

At Beppu station, we stashed our luggage in coin lockers and hopped a bus to Kannawa, which is really an inland suburb of Beppu. Kannawa is mostly known for its many “hells” or jigoku. This is an area with intense geothermal activity, and many of the houses here are plumbed to make use of natural steam vents or hot water springs for heating, cooking, and bathing. Those who are not lucky enough to have such resources in-house are able to take their food to public steam kitchens and bathe in public onsen. I could sort of envision a similar burg going up in Wyoming at the site of another famously geothermic hotspot.

The jigoku are the big tourist attractions of Beppu, and you can visit the hells individually for 550 yen per person, or you can buy a book of tickets for eight hell entries for 2000 yen. Those of us old enough to remember Disneyland ticket books may have a moment of geezer-ish nostalgia at this. Six of the hells are located near the Kannawa bus terminal, and the other two are 2.8 km away, which means another bus ride.

Beppu Jigoku

Feeding the hippo means dropping potatoes into its open mouth

Beppu Jigoku

Water lilies take advantage of the warmth--not that it was needed. I don't think the temp dropped below 30°C the entire time we were there

There is definitely a carney side-show feel here. The year-round availability of free heat makes it possible to keep tropical plants and exotic animals. For 100 yen you can buy crackers to feed to an ancient-looking African elephant. There’s a hippo that comes and opens its mouth for you so that you can drop in potatoes.

Beppu Jigoku

Eggs cooked in the jigoku were a great bargain--100 yen for two eggs, which tasted just like regular hard-boiled eggs.

Public Kitchen near Beppu Jigoku

You can bring your food to cook in the steam (conveniently there is a store behind selling lots of different steamable items)

Continual hot water near Beppu Jigoku

Water comes out at just the right temp to brew tea (or coffee or mate).

Eggs cooked in the hot water are popular snacks for visitors of the hells, as are buns cooked by the steam, which is venting everywhere. Some of the hells are muddy and gray or red, some clear and azure. Lots of heat, lots of shrines, lots of tourists–though very few westerners, compared with most places that we’d been up to this point. It seems that this area gets a large number of tourists from Korea, as much of the signage is posted bilingually in Japanese and Korean.

A trip to Kannawa would not be complete without a visit to an onsen, though finding one that would accept “tattoo-guys” required the help of the tourist information office. While in the rest of the world everyone an their grandmothers have tats, here in Japan it’s still something that is associated with organized crime. And apparently no one wants to bathe in the same water as someone who snuffs people out or who would cut off his own finger to demonstrate his toughness. Gangsters are considered bad for business for owners of onsen and sentou, and the easiest way to keep them away was to institute a general ban on body art.

Mr. Helpful-Man at the information bureau located the ink-friendly Hyotan spa within walking distance and gave us a coupon for 50 yen off the regular entry price (score!). The routine of shoes off before entering was predictable, except here you carried your shoes inside and stored them in a shoe locker. Then purchase tickets from a machine for spa entry (700 yen), towel (180 for a small, cheap onsen towel you keep or 100 for the rental of a bath towel), and for the yukata (robe) to be worn in the sand bath area, which is the only coed part of the facility (and costing another 200 yen). Tickets and shoe locker key go to attendant (we also got back money for the coupon that we got from Mr. Helpful) and we get back another key for the changing room locker, towels, and yukata.

Over in the men’s changing room one strips starkers, and everything except for the towels gets stored in the locker. Some people bring their own toiletries, but this isn’t necessary because shampoo and body wash are provided at each of the washing stations. Now the Japanese are adamant about having you perfectly squeaky clean before entering the shared water of the bath–obviously the point of the bath is not about getting clean. They are also adept at self-washing while seated on a tiny footstool and using a spigot and a small wooden basin for rinsing. For the rest of us, this onsen has graciously provided a hand-shower.

Beppu Jigoku

It would be very dangerous to bathe in these waters (and it would be highly inappropriate for me to snap pics while at the onsen...)

Beppu Jigoku

The thought of mud bathing occurred to me, but I didn't see any establishments...

In the men’s bathing area there were six baths: a “pebble bath” which was really a walk-through footbath a couple of inches deep, a rock bath, an outdoor garden bath (it looked like a heated koi pond, except for the naked people), a waterfall bath, a bath lined with wooden panels (like a giant sake cup, with naked people), and the onsen’s signature hyotan bath in the shape of a water gourd. This was also the hottest bath, and after just a few minutes I needed to get out and take a rest on this wooden chaise lounge using a four-by-four as a pillow. This was the best part for me.

The sand bath is this gigantic indoor sandbox divided into four sections by concrete footpaths. It’s dry sand, so I suspect it must be using radiant heat from steam-carrying pipes under the sand. The protocol is pretty simple. Rake out a flat depression to lay out in (more four-by-fours provided for headrests), lay self down, cover self with sand. They warn that low-degree burns can occur if you stay for more than twenty minutes.

Afterwards, though, you end up with a lot of sand sticking to your skin, so another trip to the washing station and a Hyotan bath took care of that, but then I needed another rest on the chaise lounge. Bathing is hard work. On the way out I felt rather parched, and–goodness forbid–there he was, the beer guy selling frosty mugs of nama-biiru! Another happy moment involving an amber beverage.