Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Sayonara, Japan

Posted: September 19, 2013 in Travel
Tags: , , ,

Japan is a great place. Because of the Japanese. They are one of the few cultures remaining with a sense of honor, propriety, and respect for life and property. They are excellent stewards of their environment and take very good care of their stuff. They didn’t always, but they are excellent learners-of-lessons in all aspects of life, and they pass it on to younger generations. Everything is done to a high level of attention to detail, lest one fall into dishonor for failure to provide excellence. Up until the 50s it was still a fall-on-your-own-sword event to cause dishonor, and fortunately that attitude, sans suicide, remains today. But only in Japan.

Why, oh why, don’t other cultures have this? It’s the opposite in South America; it’s viewed as failure or dishonor to ever finish anything!!! In the USA where wearing suits while lying/stealing/cheating/murdering is now a national sport, how I would love to start passing out swords and demanding Seppuku! We have become uncivilized.

It is unfortunate that the Japanese are about to learn the hard way about macroeconomic financial meddling, but hopefully once that damage is done, they will add it to their long list of Never-Agains. That’s if the Japanese remain on the planet in another 300 years. They are not reproducing fast enough to maintain their population, and immigration is tightly controlled and not helping much. It would be a shame to see these islands in the hands of anyone else, because they will be ruined otherwise. Japan must be kept Japanese.

It’s a shame other cultures don’t look here and want to emulate them. In my opinion, the best thing Japan can export is its culture. All the geegaws and shiny blinking electronics, those are nice, but please, PLEASE, export some Honor and Shame and Consequence to the rest of the world!!!

Nonetheless the Japanese do well with what they have, and they want to keep it for a good long time to come. It’s a fascinating place, with everything modern and new right beside things that have been around since the dawn of their civilization. Glowing tacky neon signs next to Shinto shrines, Zen temples across the street from flashy red-light-districts. It’s a crazy mix of art, culture, and technology thrown together, shaken thoroughly, and left to settle. It’s a blend of weird overzealous safety-mindedness right on top of live-and-let-live; volunteer trash pickup corps with uniforms and helmets and flags, with baton-weilding safety-cop escort, march past vending machines that sell beer, wine, and cigarettes to all ages. But it works. And I think it works because of the people and their culture. There are other countries with similar details but different culture, and it’s a failure.

It’s all about the Bushido.

Japan is an easy place to travel. You do not need to know Japanese so long as you know English. But a little bit helps. You’ll be largely illiterate but that’s OK. The locals are friendly and helpful and CORRECT. Meaning, when you receive directions or advice on this and that, or timing of things, or “it will arrive today,” it’s true. Not like some other countries I have discussed in this blog. Because if it turns out not to be true, some poor bastard gets throw on his sword, at least in his head, and the others will never let him hear the end of it. Shame is a powerful thing. Once again it’s all about the Bushido.

Japan also has the most impressive rail network I have ever seen. Not once did I have to use the bus (I did use the bus, but didn’t have to), rent a car, hitch a ride, etc. anything and everything even the intrepid tourist might want to see here can be reached by rail. I also made out like a bandit on my 3-week JR Pass, probably saving double what I paid for it. Maybe we should add the Shinkansen to the list of things Japan should export. It’s excellent.

Really I am beside myself here because I can’t find much to say about Japan that I did not like, and this does not appeal at all to my misanthrope side. I’m actually sort of thrilled at the same time, because Japan really appeals to the side of me that demands excellence, honor, and responsibility, and, well, though it wasn’t called the same thing when I learned it from Grandpa… Bushido. I will really miss Japan. I enjoyed it a lot. Holy crap, ExpatBob is broken! He’s saying nice things!

…for now.

Staying in a capsule hotel

Posted: September 19, 2013 in Travel
Tags: , , ,

Or, as they are called in a derogatory fashion, Coffin Hotels.

My last night in Japan, I decided to cross off a bucket-list item and stay in a capsule hotel. I found one at Shibuya station, where the airport express train departs from, right next to the train station, so I decided to give it a try.

Glad, and not glad, that I did.

It’s a neat idea. You can fit, in the space of 2 small hotel rooms, enough “rooms” for 30 people to sleep. Granted you share bathrooms and showers but so long as they are kept clean, it’s not that much different from staying in a hostel or at a marina, but it’s got more privacy than a hostel. And at $40/night, it’s nothing to scoff at considering the prices of other “real” hotels in the area. You get a locker, bathrooms and shower right next to the room with the capsules, vending machines on every floor, a coin laundry, sauna, public onsen room, and, what rocked the most, a whole room full of massage chairs.

The coffins themselves were comfortable enough. Enough space to stretch out in, about the size of a single bed, enough height to sit up straight, your own TV and radio, a reading light, and an exhaust fan to keep things fresh inside. The problems come in that you are sharing space with other people. The snoring, miscellaneous noise, etc., especially the alarm clocks in the morning at all hours, will ruin your sleep. The jetlagged people chainsmoking all night was rough as well. The room where the capsules were is nonsmoking, but the toxic cloud of secondhand smoke was being blown into it anyways. Gross.

The smoke was so bad that at some points I wondered why I didn’t just book the hotel nearest the airport for about $5 more per night, and have a real room all to myself. I wondered why I didn’t just pack it in and go there anyways, at additional expense. But… bucket list. Gotta tough it out. That and I was able to hang out in Shibuya for another evening, not out in the boonies near Narita.

I decided to stay another day in Fukuoka and check it out some more. I had wanted to try to squeeze in a visit to Matsumoto castle before I left but the distance and time just wasn’t realistic; basically I’d get there super late and then have maybe a few hours in the morning to see it before hauling to Tokyo to fly back to US and A.

So I started this morning on a search for traditional area arts and crafts; Hakata dolls are famed the world over, and they are made here. What better way to satisfy my souvenir bug than to try and find an effigy of Ebisu, the Shinto God of those who earn their money, so I can add him to my Shrine of Evil Capitalism.

I headed to Canal City mall, a 5-floor monstrosity on the riverfront. Actually it is done quite well, and has a very nice mix of open-air and roofed space. I didn’t find Ebisu despite there being a decent store of local craft items, but I did see a sign for Ramen Stadium, and with a name like that, you just can’t not go in there.

Fukuoka claims fame in its ramen soup, and Ramen Stadium is a place where they have imported award-winning ramen chefs from all over Japan, and put their little restaurants here in one place. So of frigging course I have to go in there and eat. And eat. And eat. And it was truly delicious. And so I left Canal City bloated and with 50 gallons of ramen sloshing around in my gut, and headed north to the Hakata Traditional Crafts center in an attempt to find Ebisu.

Inside Ramen Stadium

Inside Ramen Stadium

I headed north towards the arts center’s location, and seeing a pretty red Japanese bridge, decided “hey, why not,” and crossed it, because it was nice. And lo and behold, the other side brought me smack to the center of Fukuoka’s district of negotiable affection. The whole south side of this little island among the canals is devoted to it. The local specialty is “soap clubs” where the girls soap up themselves, and then you, and then do things to you until you get your happy ending.

And across another small bridge you find the local shrine, which is very nice indeed, and then right across the street from that, is the Traditional Crafts Center. No Ebisu.

So I looked up some more locations on the map and went there, and no Ebisu. Not anywhere. For a God of Commerce, you’d think he’d be commercially available. Not so!

So I wandered the Tenjin underground mall, which sort of interconnects all the surface malls. Having read good things about Tenjin Core mall, I went there to see what it was about. Turns out it’s just stuff for chicks. And here’s the first store you see inside:

Titty! Be sure to read the small print on the bags (on right below sign)

Titty! Just one, though? Be sure to read the small print on the bags (on right below sign)

After that I wandered the surface and came across the ultimate nerd Mecca, Mandarake, which sells anything and everything a basement-dwelling geek wants sitting on his desk and bookshelf.

Mandarake nerd haven

Mandarake nerd haven

 

Odds and ends: Panty-matic

Posted: September 17, 2013 in Humor, Travel
Tags: , , ,

Just in case you run out while you’re walking around town…

2013-09-16 18.10.45

Panty vending machine in Fukuoka

And right above it is one for boys:

Speedo-matic!

Speedo-matic!

I stopped in Fukuoka on the way back towards Tokyo, since it’s here, it’s cheap ($40/night for a hotel right in the best part of downtown), it has reputed good food, and it has reputedly the most beautiful women in Japan. Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, and is called “the gateway to Asia” due to its proximity to ports in China and Korea. The food is OK, not as good as Osaka, or perhaps not as “everywhere” as Osaka, but the beautiful women part seems to be at least partially correct. Maybe I am just partial to Asians. OK fine, I think Asian chicks are hot.

It’s a shame I don’t have more time; I’d like to stay here another few days and check it out more. It’s not so crowded as giant metropolitan areas, more elbow room, but all the sort of good stuff and infrastructure you want in a town. Fukuoka has that Goldilocks “just right” vibe to it.

I had recently read the news about Hayao Miyazaki’s announced retirement, on Sept 1, when it occurred. It was a source of discussion between myself and the English-speaking girls assigned to me at the ryokan in Kurokawa; it came up in conversation that I used to work in animation, and inevitably Miyazaki and his films come up, and then his retirement, as well as the recent release of his latest film, Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises). One of the girls had seen it and enjoyed it.

So, by chance, in my wanderings through Fukuoka, I found a branch of the same gyoza restaurant from Osaka, so I had to stop there and eat. Then a few minutes after leaving, I came upon a theater which was playing Miyazaki’s movie. Sure enough, it starts soon… the chance to see one of my favorite artist’s work, his last work in fact, in his home country, in its original Japanese… well, that’s a chance occurrence that I cannot pass up!

Kaze_Tachinu_poster

I was introduced to Miyazaki’s work in high school, through AnimeBob, who ran the local Japanese Animation club. At that time, there was very little material coming into the states from Japan, and any bits and pieces we could get our hands on were devoured quickly. Really bad-quality subtitled recordings on VHS were the norm, copied from a copy from a copy from a copy from a copy that originated with some basement-dwelling Otaku enthusiast who had translated the whole movie and put the subtitles in. The first one that went into my VCR was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and I was hooked.

I ran into AnimeBob many, many years later, in Portland, Maine, of all places, during a hole-in-the-wall showing of Howl’s Moving Castle. He was there by chance as well, on a short assignment to Portland for work, saw the ad for the movie showing in the local arts paper, and dropped in. I spotted him in the lobby and the likeness was far too familiar, so I had to ask him, “Hey, did you go to (crappy high school in Chicagoland)?” and sure enough it was him. What are the chances of that?

Kaze Tachinu is a movie about chance encounters as well. The story revolves around Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M airplane, the next incarnation of which, the A6, was the famed “Zero.” It is not only a story about his inspiration, success, and deep nostalgic moral questioning of technological advancement (as is all so common in Japanese storytelling), it’s also a love story about Jiro and his wife Naoko, who met several times by bizarre chance encounters.

As a conoisseur of Miyazaki films, it’s evident that the past couple of them have been deeper and more nostalgic, telling of an old man looking back at his life and wondering, “what if?” and “have I done right?” Mr. Miyazaki has nothing to worry about; everything he has produced is nothing short of excellent, and the latest is no exception.

So I was wondering just who the hell I would run into at this movie theater, but nothing weird happened. Yet. But I still have 12 hours or so left in Fukuoka. The cosmos is chomping at the bit trying to align my path with some long-lost fragment of my past.

“Yooproresrah!” exclaimed BusTicketBob.

“Huh?”

I was at the bus/train station in Aso, Japan, on the northern side of the volcano bearing the same name. Inquiring as to the proper schedule of the bus to Kurokawa Onsen, a resort of multiple Ryokan-style inns up in the mountains, each with their own unique hot springs. I had asked BusTicketBob about the time table just to make sure I would be on the bus I had reserved, since all the Ryokans were booked full for the weekend and I had (unfounded) fears that I would be riding in the luggage compartment. Siezing a moment to practice his Engrish, and quiz me on my ogre features, he popped out of his office to follow me around.

View from Aso bus station. Aso-san (volcano) in far background.

View from Aso bus station. Aso-san (volcano) in far background.

“Proresrah,” he continued, “Ressu-ring.”

“Ohhhh, you mean am I a pro wrestler? No.”

Pro wrestling is big in Asia right now; there are posters all over Osaka for it, the kids are eating it up, and it also explains the Indonesians’ nicknaming me Boxer and Smackdown.

“How you get so big?” he asked.

“Ah, this? This is just lucky genetics. Really, if I stopped eating crap and took care of myself, I’d be in better shape than Adonis. What you see here is the flabby leftovers from my weightlifting days.”

“Ahh, weirifting. Hai. You body very big, strong. Beautiful,” he commented.

“Wow, uh… I haven’t heard that since I was in art school. Thanks. Perhaps not the appropriate word, though the problem back then was an exit-only issue, and here and now it’s just a simple matter of vocabulary. But I appreciate your comment nonetheless.”

So then was all the polite bowing and arigatogozaimas and whatnot, and he left me alone to wait for the bus. I was one of maybe 5 people on it. So much for those reservations.

Kurokawa Onsen is about an hour’s drive from Aso, along a beautiful winding road up through the mountains. And once you get there, you are treated to real Japanese country hospitality. The spa hosts are surprised to have a foreigner here, and wonder how I ever heard of the place. It’s reputed to be some of the best onsen in Japan, and I’m staying in the ryokan reputed to be the best here, among the best onsen in Japan. It does not disappoint.

Checking in, I was offered a pair of slippers but none of them fit. Source of many giggles from the spa hostesses. Then my surname, which, when said in a proper Japanese accent, can be directly translated to mean alcohol-induced unconsciousness. Many more giggles. So DrunkenStuporSan, the beautiful ogre, wanders the halls in bare feet.

I wish I could take photos of the outdoor pool, but the naked people lounging around in it would not appreciate it, and I don’t think that the spa management would either. So, I’ll rip one of their website photos off and repost it here:

yamamizukiSo basically, you can sit in a shallow pool of steaming mineral water, which trickles down over the rocks into the rushing river below, which is sourced from a waterfall which you can watch and listen to, about 20 meters upstream, while you gaze at the stars above and contemplate your Zen. The waterfall is tastefully lit at night, too.

Then you show up to dinner spreads where they bring you tea and various neat little dishes, and your eat and eat and eat…

Needless to say, it’s an awesome all-around experience.

Appetizer course

Appetizer course

Sashimi course

Sashimi course

Fish and snail...

Fish and snail…

All of these photos were from dinner last night, and they don’t even cover half of it; because I was so excited to be eating all this crazy stuff, I forgot to take photos. There was also soup, and a sabu-sabu (where you cook your own stuff in hot broth), and other miscellanious little things. It seemed like there were 50 dishes left over just for my meal. But the presentation was superb and the flavors and care in each little dish amazing.

For $11, you can purchase a pass (actually a slice of wood) at the visitor center, which gives you access to 3 onsen springs of your choosing in town. Each place you visit removes a sticker from the pass and stamps it with their unique seal. Having visited other reputedly good and recommended springs, I am glad I am staying at Yamamizuki, because it really is the best. It requires a free bus ride from near the visitor center but it’s worth the time it takes to get here.

First place: Yamamizuki. The outdoor spring pool, awesome staff, and quiet natural environment away from the crowd makes it the winner.

Second place: Noshiyu. Right across the street from the visitor center. It’s got smaller pools but it is surrounded by thick vegetation and the temperatures are perfect for long, relaxing soaks.

Third place: Kurokawa-so. Nice facilities, large pools, several pools to choose from, and a cooldown pool as well. However the water was uncomfortably hot at times, its proximity to the highway (traffic noise), and the blocked-off view to the river (which was paved in that portion anyways) bring it down a notch.

The Hosokawa-Gyobu clan Samurai mansion is impressive. It is rare to see one at all, let alone one in good condition. Most were destroyed or repurposed in the civil wars of the Meiji restoration.

This particular mansion was built by Hosokawa Ositaka, originally as a rest house and then added onto bit by bit over the generations until it became the grand, swank crib it is today.

Located on the northwestern edge of Kumamoto-jo’s grounds, it’s not as easy to find for the tourists, and it’s off the beaten path so it’s not as heavily visited. The 95-degree heat with 95% humidity killed off the weak and the sick, leaving me the only intrepid visitor this afternoon. I had the whole place to myself!

360-degree Zen Garden entrance along 2 sides of the mansion

360-degree Zen Garden entrance along 2 sides of the mansion give you plenty of time to impress (or slay) visitors as they enter.

Nice front porch

Nice front porch. Lots of curb appeal.

Several interior gardens

Several interior gardens for your Zen moments.

Roomy flex-space tatami areas for all your visitors

Roomy flex-space tatami areas for all your guests, ninjas, and samurai warriors.

Separate den for receiving gifts, bribes, swords to the chest or neck...

Separate den for receiving gifts, bribes, swords to the chest or neck…