09.03.2007 - 09.18.2007 0 °F
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There is a NOFX song about a bar in Tokyo's Rappongi district at which you can pay to be tortured. The first night in Japan a couple of hostel mates and I went to, you guessed it, Rappongi (not for torture, just some night clubs). Since the subway ceases from midnight to 5 am, we had to wait until the sun came up to head back. Welcome to Japan: land of overworked businessmen, over-the-top fashion and overabundance of vending machines. And, I am not going to lie, the most beautiful, friendliest, and coolest (best looking women too) country I have ever been to (sorry New Zealand, Guatemala, and Mexico respectively.)
I wouldn't say Tokyo is a beautiful city. In fact, it is quite ugly, but where else can you have an experience like this: Before my night bus to Kyoto, I decided to check out the Shinjuku area. Think hordes of skyscrapers, neon lights, camera stores, and a massive red light district (Kabuki-Cho). After eating some katsu-don and walking (a bit tired by this point of all the attention I get as a lone white guy in Kabuki-Cho) I hear a sound that is music to my ears: the distinct "ping" of batting cages. Anyone else think it is a bit bizarre that someone decided to put batting cages next to a line of, what I can only assume to be, transsexual strip clubs? Oh well, I had no problem dropping 300 yen on about fifty swings.
Throughout Japan, I traveled with an ex-carpenter from Manchester named Tom. I met him on day one of his year-long around-the-world trip and helped him acclimate to the traveling life. To many people along the way, we were of course, known as the "Two Toms." The first night in Tokyo, I convinced him to split the cost of some beer and sake. After the purchase was made we had the following conversation:
Tom (me): "You drop a shot of sake in some beer and it is called a sake bomb"
Tom (him): "So what does sake taste like?"
Tom (me): "Kind of like sweat"
Tom (him): "Oh, that doesn't sound very good"
To be fair, the other Tom later turned out to be a huge fan of "Pocari Sweat" sports drink.
In Kyoto, I checked into the most bizarre place I have ever stayed: Uno House. Mr. Uno was a crazy guy who threw a bunch of futons in a spare room and registered himself on hostelworld.com. He scolded several people for not keeping their space tidy enough and for some reason wouldn't let anybody stick around between 11am and 3pm. But these crazy places tend to be the most memorable ones and I met several great people to go on beer vending machine runs with. One can spend several months in Kyoto (and neighboring Nara) seeing all of the sights, but the Two Toms knocked out most of the highlights in only four days. I think I will return to Kyoto at least three more times (once during each season) to bask in the delightful atmosphere of ancient Japanese temples, tea gardens, and sudden downpours that soak you to the bone in seconds (unless, like me, you have a purple Vietnamese rain poncho.) I told Mr. Uno I would be returning some day but he doesn't understand English very well.
The first day in Hiroshima was interesting. I met a bunch of guys who lived there and helped them film a movie in the park (it brought back memories of the ridiculous movies we used to make freshman year at USD.) I slept that night in an internet cafe, and it was one of the best night's sleep I got in months. For about 2000 yen, you get a private room with a computer and fully reclining chair and access to all the free coffee, soda and comics books imaginable. You will probably notice that most of the Hiroshima photos are similar. This is not from lack of effort on my part; there is just not a whole lot to see in Hiroshima. But the various monuments to the bombing and the city's dedication to peace make for a truly memorable and moving destination. From Hiroshima, I took a day trip to Miyajima, which boasts several famous sights and very stupid, tame deer; one of which ate my map.
Tom and I tried to climb Mt. Fuji, but a combination of poor planning and bad luck left us stranded in Kawaguchi town. The plan was to catch a bus to the base of the mountain at about 9:00 pm and hike through the night to see sunrise at the summit. First of all, we missed the last bus to the mountain by about eight hours. However, we were lucky enough to meet and hitch a ride with a Peruvian guy who was driving to the mountain that night. Turns out he was about as ill prepared as we were and we all met a closed road about thirty kilometers from the mountain. It is probably better we never got the chance to try the climb because apparently the temperature gets quite low at night and I lost most of my warm clothes in SE Asia. I was actually planning on sleeping on the side of the mountain for a bit, wrapped in an emergency space blanket.
Maybe it is hard to understand, from these stories, why I love Japan so much. Really, it comes down to the Japanese people. The reason they are so successful on a world scale is that their culture dictates that they should never settle for second best. If you need help from someone on the street, they will make sure you get where you need to go, even if it means a long walk out of the way for them. If you order a 500 yen bowl of ramen, they will place the pork, seaweed, and fish cake carefully in the most aesthetic position possible. And for a million more reasons, the Japanese people will make you feel at home, no matter how woefully little you know of their language and culture.
Believe it or not, I was the go-to guy for Japanese language, food and culture at most of the youth hostels. I guess a bit of Japanese rubs off on you when you have spent the better part of three years with a half-Japanese girl.
I am in Hawaii now, trying to gain some weight, sorting through countless photos, and reestablishing reasonable sleep habits. Next week I will be in San Francisco and Stockton, playing in a family golf tournament. After that I fly into Quito, Ecuador and head south from there for the next few months. Habrá muchas más gran historias.
Oh, and finally, I would like to give a tall middle finger to the backpacking community, which seems to be guided not by research and reason, but by trend and hearsay. Countless travelers warned me that I would go absolutely broke in Japan, as it is prohibitively expensive. Yet, no one seems to have a problem spending months in New Zealand and Australia, both of which are more expensive than Japan, not to mention less interesting and exciting. So I raise a tall can of Kirin to my friends in the backpacking elite who were not scared away by the rumors and, like me, experienced a country that is absolutely unbelievable.
Night sky in Rappongi
Your guess is as good as mine...
Rooftops at Sensoji Temples in Tokyo
Night time at Sensoji Temples
After the rain at the Imperial Palace
Perfect gravel mound at Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto
Ginkakuji (Silver) Temple might be the most beautiful man-made place on earth
More from Ginkakuji
Rainbow in Kyoto
You need to wait at least a minute after they drop or they explode when you open them
Nice use of the "macro" setting on my camera
Graveyard near Kiyomizudera Temple
Visitors scooping water at Kiyomizudera
It sounds gross, but tastes like Gatorade
Big stone Buddha (I took this from the outside so as not to pay the 300 yen entrance fee)
Rooftop of one of the thousand or so Kyoto Temples
Maruyama Park in Kyoto
Kyoto's Gion District
Heian Shrine in Central Kyoto
Posing Japanese-style in front of Kinkakuji (Golden (actually covered in gold) Temple)
A huge wooden guard in front of some temple
Somewhere in the outskirts of Kyoto
Also somewhere in the outskirts of Kyoto
Lots of kanji
Bamboo forest near Kyoto
A stag rubbing a tree in Nara
Welcome to Todai-Ji Temple, the world's largest wooden structure
Stone lanterns near Kasuga Taisha in Nara
Tea garden in Nara
River at the tea garden
Some random guy who wanted to take a picture with me in Hiroshima
A man paying his respects at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Sun setting at the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima
A kid playing a guitar by the river
Night time photo from the Peace Park
A deer eating cardboard in Miyajima
Itsukushima Temple in Miyajima
Many lanterns inside a temple
Daishoin Temple in Miyajima
Skyscrapers in Shinjuku (Tokyo)
View of Tokyo from the 45th floor
A parade next to my youth hostel in Asakusa, Tokyo
Late afternoon in Tokyo
The two Toms drinking a whiskey-coke and sake
Urban hiking near Mt. Fuji
Kawaguchi Lake near Mt. Fuji
Tsukiji fish market
Hamarikyu Garden in Tokyo