Monday, February 18, 2013

11 Japan

No Uno House!
We loved Japan when we visited the first time in October 2009 so we knew at some point a return trip would be in order.  This time we were excited to be free of the $60/day budget from our honeymoon trip.  No nights on the street during typhoons, no subsisting only on bowls of cheap ramen, and no Uno House!  This time we were going to buy a rail pass to explore more cities, stay in interesting hotels, and eat a whole lot more sushi.

We were also able to spend a little more per day while we were in Japan this time around because we were flying for free.  Since the long term solvency of American Airlines seemed to be in doubt, we decided to cash in our frequent flyer miles we’d slowly been accruing one credit card purchase at a time.  We considered a few destinations in Asia to visit using the miles but what finally sold us on Japan was the new nonstop Boston-Tokyo route on Japan Airlines (part of the OneWorld alliance with American Airlines).  No connections plus flying on one of the few new Boeing 787 dreamliners in service?  Sold!  If we had known how many mechanical issues the 787’s would eventually have we undoubtedly would have been far less eager but that is a different story probably not for a different day.

Upon arrival in the land of the rising sun we planned to stay in Tokyo for just a night, so we went with our reliable standby: the Oak Hotel in Ueno.  Not only is Ueno familiar but it is also one of the easiest Tokyo neighborhoods to reach from Narita Airport via the Keisei Skyliner.  At about $25 one way the Skyliner is certainly a little pricey, but the ride is super comfy and takes half the time of most other options.  Once in Ueno, we dropped off our bags in our tiny, spotless room, found some street yakatori, conveyer belt sushi, and had a scenic nightcap at the Sky Room of the Asahi Brewery before finally hitting the jetlag wall.  

The next morning we put our JR Rail Passes to immediate use and headed to Kinosaki.  We took a big fancy shinkansen (bullet train) filled with businessmen to Kyoto and then transferred to the regional line filled with elderly men and women delighted to be off for a weekend getaway.  As they chattered excitedly and snacked nonstop, all we could think was that we were about to see all these people naked.

Katrina ready to spa
Kinosaki is a wonderful little town on the Sea of Japan that has made its mark due to the natural hot springs (onsen) it sits upon.  The whole place is a shrine to bathing and relaxation, and visitors spend their days hopping through town from one onsen to the next in their yukata (robes) and geta (sandals).  Kinosaki is a bonafide tourist destination for Japanese folks from other parts of the country, but buzz regarding the steamy paradise hasn’t seemed to have traveled too far beyond that.  English is scarce and we encountered only one other westerner during our stay.  Which made it awesome.  Though there was certainly a language and cultural barrier, the people in Kinosaki warmly welcomed us to their onsen retreat.  One girls-getaway group even stopped Katrina on the street and insisted on fixing some faux-pas that she’d committed when tying her robe.  Since Katrina clearly couldn’t understand their Japanese instructions they surrounded her and took it upon themselves to redress her from top to toe.  Extreme makeover flash mob edition!

At the onsens, the protocol is that women and men are immediately dispatched to their private side of the spa building.  You then undress and enter a room with a bath in the middle and little wash stations scattered along the walls.  Before entering the steaming waters for a soak it is required that you pull up a stool at a wash station to thoroughly scrub head to toe with soap and then rinse.  Once in the bath it is so hot that you can only withstand 15 minutes before you hop out and find another bath, steam room, or sauna if the spa offers those amenities.  When you are done you dry off, redress, and head to the next spa.  Our personal favorite were the rotenburos, or outdoor baths.  Though it was winter the transition from the chilled December air (naked mind you) made the baths even more inviting, especially coupled with the atmosphere of babbling waterfalls and an occasional snowflake.

One of our favorite parts of Kinosaki was staying at Tsutaya Ryokan.  We had a beautiful, traditional Japanese room with tatami mat floors and futons laid out for us to sleep on nightly.  The highlight of our stay was the elaborate private meals prepared for us every morning and evening. 
Patrick digs in
There must have been at least 10 separate dishes at every meal--not all entirely identifiable, but each prepared elegantly.  They absolutely took care of us at every turn, especially during the crab feast.  Winter in Kinosaki is crab season and a visit to the town is not complete without enjoying crab fresh from the Sea of Japan.  In traditional Japanese fashion this involved enjoying every last bit of the delectable crab, from the mouth-watering crab meat right down to homemade udon noodles and rice immersed in the crab broth.  We were eating crab for hours.
    
After two days we were feeling incredibly clean and relaxed, so we hopped aboard a train south to Okayama.  Best known, at least to the Japanese, as the setting for the Momotaro folktale, Okayama could be easily overlooked as one whizzes by on the shinkansen to and from nearby Osaka.  The immediate draw for us was Korakuen, one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens.  Though winter is probably not Korakuen at its best, it was still lovely in all its precisely manicured glory.  One could easily spend an entire day roaming the serene grounds, occasionally snacking on kibidango for fuel.  Kibidango you ask?  This peach-flavored mochi-like confection is what the aforementioned Momotaro, or literally translated, Peach Boy, used for sustenance during his epic quest against a band of demons.  So whether it's vanquishing villians or perusing plum trees, kibidango is surely the way to go.  
Korakuen
While in Okayama we also ate delicious ramen at Tori Soba and had an awesome yakiniku experience--where you grill your own meat at the table--at Ichi Ban Kan.  We found Ichi Ban Kan when we were walking down a dark side street and noticed it first for its intoxicating meat aroma and second because it was the first full restaurant we had seen all night.  When we walked in they immediately provided us with a trash bag to protect our jackets from the smoke-filled air.  We were sat next to a table of boisterous and red-faced businessmen who had clearly been eating (and drinking) there for a while.  Then the challenge of the menu: all Japanese and no pictures.  Our waiter found the one person on staff who spoke some English, who then helped us order with descriptions like “gentle taste”.  Beef and pork is what we think we ended up with, though we are not sure about that.  However, we are sure whatever we ate was absolutely delicious!

Cycling the Kibi Plain
We spent a second day in Okayama bicycling through the nearby Kibiji District.  It really was a fantastic way to see the Japanese countryside in a way we couldn’t appreciate chugging through on the train.  Our route took us through endless rice fields to several Buddhist shrines and a gigantic pagoda--and Patrick managed to stay upright nearly the entire time!  That crash course a few years back in Argentina really paid off.  The upside of our journey was we had the route entirely to ourselves but this was mainly due to the downside- it was super cold and windy.  By the time we got to the end of the route we’d turned into popsicles.

Finding ourselves with a few unplanned hours and armed with our rail passes, we decided to check out the nearby town of Kurashiki, famed for its historic mercantile quarter.  About half an hour later we’d determined that historic mercantilism wasn't our thing so we got back on the train and this time took a shinkansen down to Hiroshima.  Though we only had a few hours that was plenty of time to hop on the streetcar and pay a visit to the A-Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park.  Both sites were incredibly moving, especially experiencing them along side Japanese school groups as they paid homage to their fallen ancestors. 

Okunoin
Our next stop on our tour through Japan was Mount Koya: the world headquarters for the Shingon sect of Buddhism.  This small town nestled in the mountains is made up almost entirely of monks and temples and feels about a million miles away from modern civilization.  Upon arriving we took a walk through the darkening woods of Okunoin, a massive ancient cemetery that serves as a prologue of sorts for the main attraction- the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism. Born in 774, it is believed that Kobo-Daishi never actually passed away but rather sits in an eternal state of meditation in the mausoleum.  As we departed the grounds a thick mist danced with the departing sun's rays.  A more mystical setting we cannot remember.

Besides ancient cemeteries and shrines Mount Koya is known for its countless Buddhist temples that also serve as lodging for pilgrims and other guests like us!  We booked our stay at Shojoshin-in rather easily through Japanese Guest Houses but since we hadn't communicated directly with the temple we weren't quite sure what to expect upon arrival.  Pretty quickly we learned that we were in fact honored guests.  We were warmly welcomed by a soft-spoken, exceedingly polite monk who acted as the host for our stay.  The monks served us an elaborate vegan dinner and upon returning to our rooms hot water bottles had been snuggled into our bedding.  We were invited to join them for morning prayer and they even provided space heaters and optional benches for us visitors.  The monks themselves braved the cold and you could see puffs of their breath with every chant.  Katrina wanted to at least kneel on the ground like the monks and learned that it is not as easy as it looks. When it was time to go she needed a few extra minutes to get feeling back in her legs before hobbling back to our room, and even nursed a prayer injury on her foot for a few more days.

Later that day we traveled back down the snowy mountain to Osaka, and once we arrived it was nearly impossible to imagine that Mount Koya existed in parallel to this buzzing city.  There were skyscrapers, flashing lights, and miles of shopping from international names like Louis Vuitton to local specialties like “Womb”--unexpectedly more for the Abercrombie and Fitch clientele than Pea in the Pod shoppers.  We browsed shops full of colorful wigs and santa costumes.  We ran into a candidate campaigning for the upcoming election.  But after the sun set was when the fun really began.

As a big fan of Vegas and all things gambling, Patrick was dying to hit the pachinko parlors.  Pachinko is somewhat similar to slot machines but there is a small degree of actual skill involved- guiding tiny silver balls into an incrementally less tiny hole.  He put in 500 Yen and almost instantly lost it all.  Then it was Katrina’s turn.  She deftly maneuvered those metallic spheres to their home initiaiting all sorts of lights, music and announcements of “super lucky”.  In the span of 15 minutes Katrina had seemingly turned 500 Yen into 3000 Yen.  We were so excited to cash out!  
Katrina shows Patrick how it's done
However when we brought our receipt to the Chuck E Cheese-like prize area the cashier took a look at our stated winnings and pointed us to a selection of various trinkets and a shelf of uncooled cans of beer to choose from as our prize.  Crestfallen, Katrina selected a room temperature Asahi and as the cashier placed it in a bag he also handed us bars of metal wrapped in paper.  Somewhat confused as to what to do with said metal, we were immediately escorted outside to a small window where a hand shot out.  Our chaperone placed down the metal bars and suddenly appeared 3000 Yen.  Voila!  Turns out gambling is illegal in Japan so this elaborate scheme was invented to circumvent the law.  Slightly crazy, yes.  But totally awesome.

With our winnings burning a hole in our pockets and fueled by the now surprisingly refreshing warm beer, we made a beeline to a karaoke parlor to book a room.  In Japan they don’t make you embarrass yourself in front of strangers, just your friends (think Lost in Translation).  When asked for how long we’d like to book the room, Patrick responded two hours--which Katrina thought was crazy! How would we even fill an hour with just the two of us singing to each other?  But once we got singing (and calling for more food and drinks on our direct phone line to the kitchen) there was no stopping us.  Over three hours and four renditions of Summer Nights later, we had to tear ourselves away.

Katrina's Capsule
That night we slept in private pods at Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi, a capsule hotel.  Basically a modern version of a hostel, each guest is assigned a private pod with its own lighting and TV with shared bathroom and sauna facilities.  In effect a very novel way to provide quality, inexpensive lodging, but hard to get over that it looks like where they keep the dead bodies on Law and Order.

When we were researching our trip to Japan, we were delighted to discover that the birthplace of instant ramen was located just outside Osaka.  In fact we might have planned around that.  The next day we traveled to Osaka's northern suburbs to visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum.  After wandering through an unassuming residential neighborhood we knew we were in the right place when we stumbled upon a statue of Momofuku Ando himself, inventor of instant ramen, standing on a giant stone Cup Noodles!

Inside, we learned that this museum was built on the very site where Momofuku Ando first invented instant ramen.  Hundreds of historical Cup Noodles containers lined the walls and a map showed annual consumption of instant ramen around the world.  There were some real surprises--we’re looking at you 1.4 billion-worth Nigeria.  But the main attraction was the “My Cup Noodle Factory” where we got to design our own flavor from 14 optional ingredients, decorate our own cup, and they sealed and vacuum packed the product for us to take home!  There was also a class on making your own instant ramen from scratch, but you have to sign up weeks ahead of time and we missed that memo.  We won’t make that mistake next time!
Patrick makes his Cup Noodles
That night we took the bullet train back up to Tokyo to spend our last night before our flight home to Boston.  During the trip we’d already stayed in a traditional ryokan, business hotel, Buddhist temple, and capsules.   What was left?  A love hotel!  These establishments specialize in hourly stays in themed rooms during the day for couples looking for some privacy.  Since night time is their slow time they offer affordable rates if you check in after 10pm.  We knew we’d found Tokyo’s “Love Hotel Hill” when Patrick was solicited while Katrina checked out a store.

We scoped out a few places and were disappointed not to find a really over-the-top themed place (we’d read about jungles, supply closets, and outer space).  Eventually we settled on a colorful French-designed room selected from a touch screen computer menu in the lobby of one of the dozens of establishments on the hill.  No staff in sight--discretion is key.  We got a ticket with the room number and found it on the second floor.  We cautiously opened the door to find a tiny vestibule with a vending machine-like ticket dispenser.   The real room door was just on the other side. Unfortunately, zero English.  Determined, we left our luggage in the hall and spent close to 10 minutes massaging the machine with random button sequences and the occasional 1,000 Yen note.  To our delight our request was finally processed and the room lights turned on.  But to our dismay we heard the first door immediately lock behind us.  We were trapped, and even worse our luggage was still in the hallway.  We started frantically pressing buttons once again until the door unlocked.  Whew, that was close.  But then the lights turned off and a minute later the phone started ringing.  The genial voice on the other end was surprised we had finished so quickly...turns out we had checked out!  After much discussion they were able to reactivate our room and explain that we were locked in until we checked out.  We're not sure why the Japanese tryst-ers prefer to be trapped in their love nests, but we were just happy to finally be safe and sound in our room.

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