Japan Part San: The Nara Period

There are sort of two ways of approaching the main draws of Honshu (Japan’s “Big Island”): go full urban and experience the modern city life, or try to capture the Japanese ancient history side of things. Luckily, MG and I allowed ourselves time for both, and I’m glad, because the two experiences could not possibly be more different.

Having already survived the neon/cherry blossom jungle of Tokyo and then escaping into the snowy wilderness north of Nagano for a few days, we’d gotten a sense of how Japanese country life is alive and well, but not in that quintessential, “former capital of Japan from 710 to 784” kind of way. So we headed south to Nara.

As I explained in my previous post, I knew before we arrived that there was some sort of wonderful park in Nara where friendly deer roamed freely and ate out of people’s hands. And since I’m a sucker, that’s one place I simply had to see. Turns out that Nara, while indeed very ancient, is a pretty big city these days, well-traveled, and by no means undiscovered. The hotel I had booked was a little hard to find, and once we were settled, a lot overpriced. It was already dark after a long day of train travel, and we were only in town for one night. Why did I make us come here again? I felt bad.

All was not lost, for Nara marked the first OKONOMIYAKI!!!! (emphasis mine, emphasis necessary) dinner that MG and I had. Okonomiyaki is often described as a Japanese pizza or pancake, but it’s more like a savory omelette stuffed with meat/fish/cabbage, and covered in Worcestershire-type sauce/mayonnaise, which sounds disgusting but is just the opposite. Okonomiyaki is a fatty fatty culinary delight, and also a fun word to yell at high volume over and over, preferably in a residential area.

The next morning we checked out of our hotel, stored our luggage at the front desk, and went off in search of the deer park.

The deer are not hard to find. They’re adorable. They have little mouths and tiny teeth and eat very delicately out of your hand (vendors are scattered everywhere selling rice crackers to feed the deer, which they love, though I suspect they’d eat just about anything).

They’re also really used to humans and tend to swarm you once they’ve spotted rice crackers in your hand. A couple of the dudes kept head-butting me, which might have been similar to murdering me with a trident had their antlers not been cut within the last year - apparently this happens as part of an annual festival so that the male deer don’t stab people to death over rice crackers. Instead, little furry antler stumps. Adorable.

The largest Buddha statue in JapanNara’s park is full of more than just deer; its temples are the main attraction. We picked a few to focus on, and as we made our way through hoards of tourists (it was conveniently a Saturday) I had to remind myself that that’s how these things go, we aren’t going to get Japan’s biggest Buddha statue all to ourselves, roll with it, embrace our touring peers, because here we all are, in an awesome place. And we did and it was great.

Next, MG and I hunted down the Harushika brewery for some sake tasting in a old, beautiful part of Nara. It was supposed to be 400 yen for 6 tastings, but we didn’t realize that until after we’d already tasted everything, and because of the language barrier we couldn’t seem to explain to anyone that we owed them money. So we bought a big bottle of the sake we liked the best and drank the whole thing in 24 hours. I’m calling it even.

Sake tasting in Nara

In hindsight, Nara really needs more than a day if you truly want to get a feel for the city and not rush through history. But that’s all the time we had before hopping on a local train into Osaka, and I think we did ok for our first stab (haha, get it? DEER ANTLER JOKE!) at taking in a Japan of yesteryear.

Sorry these updates are trickling in so slowly, btw. I’m drawing the whole thing out specifically to torture you. Hope that’s cool.

Japan Part Ichi: Tokyo Drift

I’m several days into a 16-day Japan trip, and thought you might like to hear about what I’ve been up to. If so, you’re in luck!

MG and I got off the plane at what would have been about 10 pm in San Francisco, except that in Tokyo it was 2 pm the following day. I was already hitting the wall as we waited in world’s longest customs line. After grabbing our luggage and wandering in circles at the airport for several minutes, we figured out how to get where we needed to go and boarded a rapid train from Narita airport into Tokyo.

Narita airport is a lot farther away from the city than you’d think… the train ride was a good 90 minutes to Tokyo station, and the first 45 minutes were mostly spent zipping through farmlands and making stops at smallish suburban outposts. MG and I mostly stayed silent, looking out our respective windows and taking it all in. I’m all too familiar with this time zone fatigue, knowing that it’s only going to get weirder for a while as my body fights to get on schedule as I slowly go insane and that pretty soon I’ll need to start figuring some things out - important things, like I NEED A SHOWER SO BAD WHERE THE EFF IS THIS HOTEL - by gesturing wildly to someone of whose native tongue I only speak several words (because I listened to Devo as a kid and also went through a phase where I taught myself to count to ten in as many languages as possible and Japanese was one of them…this is the type of activity that ‘only children’ like me come up with when they’re out of ideas, btw).

Thankfully, our hotel was a simple metro transfer and a couple shorts blocks down a narrow street in Akasaka, a neighborhood alive with both Japanese restaurants and international cuisine. I say simple because as soon as we arrived at Tokyo station and started studying a subway map on the wall, our expressions gruesomely contorted by confusion and exhaustion, an old man appeared out of nowhere and pointed us in the right direction (this was just the first of several instances now that folks have offered us unsolicited help or advice, simply because they’re being friendly. Japanese people have a reputation for being overly nice and polite… very true. Someone will notice I’m holding a camera and offer to take our picture. I won’t even have made eye contact. Amazing).

The hotel was nice… corner room with huge windows, great shower, and a heated toilet seat (which I now understand is commonplace in Japan, but you can imagine my oohing and ahhing upon first sit). The bed was wider than it was long, and the room came complete with a foot massager that I enjoyed immensely but ended up bruising MG’s huge American feet to the point that he’s been hobbling around for days since. Japan is built for small people. My people.

We ended up eating our first meal at a small noodle soup house down our street, which was simple and delicious and way too much food. The place was packed and nobody else seemed to have a problem finishing their portions. How are people eating this much pasta and sodium in one sitting on a regular basis and not obese, we mused.

Speaking of genetics, Japan is an incredibly homogenous country, which I assume has to at least partially factor into Tokyo’s crazy fashion sense. I’ve never seen so much color and offbeat outfits and crazy hair in seeming attempts to stand out from the crowd, on the subway as much as in and around Harajuku, Tokyo’s “cosplay” (costume play) scene and overall tragically hip shopping area. Which definitely exists, by the way… Gwen Stefani was telling the truth.

Adjacent to Harajuku’s fashion hub lies Yoyogi Park, where we headed to check out the cherry blossoms on our first “full” day in Tokyo, which just so happened to fall on a Sunday, which just so happens to be the day of the week that thousands of people swarm into the park with bottles of champagne, kegs of beer, food, wine, and boom boxes, throw down plastic tarps, and start partying under said blossoms. Young and old, babies, grandmothers…I’ve never seen so many enthusiastic/drunk picnickers. Kind of an exaggerated dichotomy between the serenity of nature and long bathroom lines. And lots of garbage.

Let’s talk about garbage while we’re on the subject. In general, Japan is very clean and there’s a lot of emphasis on better-than-average sanitation and sterilization, which I’m a big fan of in theory. Except that this translates into disposable items being disposed of REALLY OFTEN. For example, every single day when making up our room, the hotel staff supplied both of us with new toothbrushes, sealed in plastic. Every day for four days! That’s ridiculous. Or let’s say it’s raining outside and you walk into a department store - there are tube-shaped plastic sheaths provided at the entrance to stuff your wet umbrella into while you shop, then trash on your way out. You get the idea. Anyone for whom recycling is a way of life will find Japanese rituals like these a bit unnerving.

Tokyo’s metro system is faaaantastic. The trains run often and on time. They’re clean. They cover every inch of the city and are easy to navigate. I’m not sure if the rumors about people being stuffed into cars and women getting groped during rush hour are true, but I never rode in an uncomfortably crowded car… in fact, most of the time I could snag a seat. Although I did notice that during morning commute times, cars on either end are designated “women only”, so maybe I’ve just been lucky.

Before our trip started, MG and I had been joking about doing the Tokyo “Lost in Translation” tour - getting a drink at the New York bar in the Park Hyatt, getting lost at Shibuya crossing, singing at a karaoke bar, etc. - but we actually ran right into a traditional wedding procession at the Meiji Temple on our second day, which was magical.

As for eating, besides one misstep after a long day of walking where we ended up at an Italian-themed joint slurping up seafood pasta in cream sauce with chopsticks (it was actually really good, just not what we were looking for), the food in Tokyo has been outstanding. Freshest sushi ever. Excellent ramen. Lots of soups with rice and fish and tofu and a shitload of salt. I keep overdoing it and going into post-meal food comas. One night we took the metro to Roppongi and ate dinner at the restaurant where they shot the O Ren Ishi fight/bloodbath scenes from Kill Bill Part 1. Well, actually they shot it in a replica of the restaurant because, according to MG’s research, the owner didn’t want Tarantino making a mess in there. Regardless, the restaurant looks exactly like it does in the movie and as Kill Bill fans we thought it was kind of the coolest thing ever.

We spent our final day in Tokyo (for now anyway, we’ll be back there for three more days at the end of our trip) doing some touristy things: taking in the cityscapes from Tokyo Tower, getting a drink in the observatory of the Metropolitan Government building, and marveling at the cherry blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen, which made Yoyogi Park look like amateur hour. I took roughly 5 million photos of cherry blossoms within an hour, though it’s impossible to really get a sense of how beautiful they are in photographs. Blossoms everywhere, in whites and pinks, falling everywhere like snow.

Yesterday we took a Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano, where we transferred to a local train that took us up into the mountains along Lake Nojiri, where we’ve been chilling far away from civilization the last couple days. Well, except for the wifi part. Whatever, it’s 2010.