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Japan 2005

Japan, 2005

For me, travelling is about taking the time to notice the small things. There is no schedule or agenda. Wake up and do what we feel like that happen to cross our mind. Then everything will become an adventure.

June 26th, 2005. My first day in Japan.
We were staying in Shinjuku in Tokyo for 2 days. Shinjuku is one of the few night life district in Tokyo. After meeting up at the hotel we went out to look for food. There were so many choices… which one should we go? After walking for a while we saw a line in front of this place we have no idea what it serves. Whatever it is, it must be good. When it’s our turn a dude in blue uniform came out mumble something. We have no idea what he was taling about. The only word I can make out is “tartarmi”. So tartarmi whatever. Turns out to be a tempura place.

The batter was so light and fluffy, and the little white fish was soft and light, it was like biting into a tiny pillow. We finished them before we get a chance to take a picture ;) We got one piece of everything from the menu. There was three or four kinds of tiny little fish, white rice fish, a piece of squid and shrimp and all sorts od vegetables. It came out to $75 for the 3 of us. which is not bad. The streets were pretty empty by 10:30pm. Probably because it was Sunday… (There was quite a few cute girls tho, including the one sitting next to our table at dinner ;) There is a remote chance that she is reading this and e-mail me right? Not!)

We stayed at the Toyoko Inn. It’s a business hotel and it has a automatic butt washing toilet. Sam was fascinated with it for the first night and keep telling me to try it out. When you sit down to take a dump, it automatically detects your ass and keep cold running water down the bowl. And when you are done, It shoot a stream of warm water directly into your asshole. There is an aiming device and a pressure adjustment too. I double checked just to be sure. The hotel does NOT have a rainbow flag at the door…

June 27th, 2005. Sushi breakfast
Tokyo Fish Market Before heading up to Mt Fuji, we woke up early to see the Tokyo fish market. There were so many different kind of fish I’ve never seen before. Some of them have big scary eyes staring right at you. Guess who is going to be on my breakfast plate now. I felt in love with the energy of that place. People are driving around in natural gas powered fork lifts with skill and speed rival that of NYC cabbies. fork lift The control on those things works like a videogame. You control the thing by a semi circular “steering wheel” that doesn’t turn. You get hold on the round end. Lift it and it moves forward, press on it and it goes backward. You lift the lower left side to turn right. And these thing go FAST. I almost got killed by one. The most fascinating thing is how much fish flow through this place everyday. Ronnie was pondering buying a whole tuna and wonder how long it’ll take for the three of us to finish it? Three meals a day, 7 days a week. I think I’ll never eat tuna in my life after that. These thing are like 10ft long. The workers have this 5ft sushi knife to cut the tuna into managable chunks. Man, just watching it makes me hungry. Off to breakfast. tuna

orderingWe went to have some sushi breakfast right next to the market. These places cater mostly to the fish buyers and usually close by noon. Ordering is an ass, since there is no English menu. Sam was trying to figure out what they are while we sit back and take pictures. You can’t go wrong with the most expensive item on the menu, can you? It turns out to be uni and tuna on rice. We also order a 5 assortment and a unagi don. The unagi was freshly grill on a set of sticks. It was so good. The fish was light and fluffy. When you take it to your mouth you get this charcol and soysauce smell coming at you. The tuna was so fresh it was better than that of Menaki in Seattle, which is hard to do.

June 28th, 2005. Getting trapped on Mt Fuji
We started our hike at the Fuji 5th station. The day was partly cloudy, and the weather was fairly warm. We accent at about 2:30pm. We could see the Fuji 5 lakes on our way up. Some point after 6th station we ran into a bitchy girl asking for direction. 7th station is where there various huts are. Because our accent was 2 days before the official Mt. Fuji season, most of them are closed. But the ones that are open have this little iron stamp that burns a mark on your wooden trekking pole for $2, whcih screams out tourist rip off but we got it anyway. By 5:30pm we got to our lodge the Toyo Inn. The place is still in construction, but the english speaking dude know we were coming and made us Japanese hamburger for dinner.

Sam snores. At about 12:00am we started our second leg of accent to the summit. We were at 10000ft above sealevel. I had gotten 5 good hours of sleep and recovered from my altitude sickness. The weather was as nice as the day before. At about 1:00am we made it passed the last hut en route. Then all of a sudden the fog starts to thicken and all we could see in front of us were our own shadow casted by our headlights. We switch the lights off so we can make out the cliff from the moon. The rain starts to get heavier. At about 2/3 of the way it started to get really heavy and the wind starts to get stronger. Freezing rain hurts, really bad. Ronnie glasses was completely covered with water and he can’t make out more than an inch off his face. We were all completely soaked in and out, all the way down to my silk bugs bunny underwear. Sam was getting hit with altittude sickness too and all three of us were freezing our asses off.

I tried to hurried up to the summit, hoping there will be shelter. But no!! The temple was closed. (I didn’t know temple can be closed) All the doors were locked. We found a place with people in it and ask if we could stay. The bastard kicked back out. Sam thought we were gonna die. While I was contemplating whether to kick his ass and tie him to the pole, we broke out the sake that we thought we were going to celebrate with to warm up. If no one ever tells you, bad idea. It was getting colder standing there. We walked down with a few other ppl trying to find shelter. We arrived at the 8th station at about 5:30am, where there was a hut with their lights on. I barged in and ordered 3 hot steamy Japanese version Nissin BIG seafood cup noodles. The shrimp were huge dude. Sam took his clothes off to dry in the fire, while Ronnie and I were shiffering our asses off. I start to feel sick, so Sam helped me took my cloths off to dry up. I felt better after a while, and we start drying our clothes, money and passports by the fire, a cute guy (Sam’s word) dropped in and hoover around the fire with us. We stayed till about 8:30am and we strat heading down.

tired Wet hairy balls are bad. We almost ran to the 5th-station to get our luggague for a change of clothes. All three of us were tired as hell by the time we were on the bus, and this time, everybody snores. But it was totally worth it. I would totally do it again in a heartbeat, with a better rain jacket this time.

Mt Fuji

June 30th, 2005. A typical 9 course dinner
Takayama is a small town in the mountain region. It sits between Kyoto and Tokyo. Kyoto used to be a samurai city. To get away with all that, many craftsmen choose to resided in Takayama. Houses there are very simple but maticulously detailed. The bathroom floor of our ryokan was lacqured to a sparkling shine. The tourbook also said it is famous for its sake produced from the clean mountain water. How can I let this opportunity go to waste? I bought a masu to sample along the way ;) But by far the most memorable thing about Takayama was the food.

We stayed at Ryokan Sumiyoshi. It was converted from an old residensial house, probably belonged to a banker. The place is operated by an extremely warm couple, who live in the house safe with a giant stone door. We arrived at about 9:00pm. The wife prepared mucha and served us cookies. Mucha was very different than the once we usually have. It’s thick and foamy, a little bitter, and usually served after dinner. After a harsh day at Mt Fuji, I jumped into the onsen–a traditional Japanese bath in a giant wooden tub. A cold dunk after a hot spring bath later, I went to bed.

dinnerThe dinner at Japanese ryokans were usually an ellaborated festaval, but we wasn’t prepared for what’s going to be ours. Ours was a 9 course meal: abalone, fish custard and peas; sweet tofu and fresh bamboo shoots; hida beef and wild mushrooms; marinated wild ferns; tofu and uni; sweet shrimp and squid sushimi; mackeral sushimi; wild mushroom miso soup; grill white fish and vegetable tempura. Every single one of them was amazingly. Their tiny portion makes it really nice for us to sample all the different dishes.

rainThe next morning breakfast was equally as festive. While waiting for them to set it up in our room, I took some time to listen to the rain in our private garden. When I was washing some of my clothes in the sink, the owner offered to wash our dirty clothes and dry our shoes for us. They even folded it for us by the time we were back. When we left, they offered each of us a pair of laqured chopsticks as a gift and walk us out. I’d definitely come back if I come to Japan again.

July 5th, 2005. The sound of rain at Mt Koya

Mt Koya
Mt Koya is a Japanese buddist religious retreat 2 hours away from Kyoto. It comprised of tow main temples and lots of other small temple lodges for people to stay and study buddism. We stayed overnight in one of these small temple lodges. I changed into my monks outfit and slip into a pair of wooden sandals and start walking around town. The rain was drizzling down the tree, and all you can hear is the rain, the callings of the frog and your own breath. The path that leads to Old temple was a mile long cemetery, with tomb stones and fixtures dating a centry back. Some with a fresh branch of pine in their vase and some don’t. Giant pines standing firmly in the forest, with the old tombstones sitting next to their feets, covered in thick moss in a lush saturated green. Each strick of the sandal against the stone path transport you into another decade of history. Who are these people who were burried here? What were the legacy that they left behind? Some were obviously soilders, some were memebers of big wealthy families. What have they done that help shape the world we lived in today? Nobodys knows, or at least my stay was too short for me to find out.

Listenting to the waves at Miyajima

Miyajima is one of the other relaxing stop that we have. There isn’t much to do on the island, which makes time for us to sink ourselves into the environment. We took a long evening walk under the moon in our yukata and wooden sandals. The yukata that our ryokan has comes with a nice jacket. Looking like the grandpas in Japanese cartoon, we stroll down the street to the shore. It was one of the most beatiful scene in our trip. There were two cute chics in yakata. The temple and the giant shine was lite to bright red standing in the middle of the black ocean. We were captived by the scene and sit and chilled for a while. It was one of the few sunny days that we had. The wave was hitting at the rock beach, creating the background music for the summer breeze. We stayed there till 11:00 and headed back to get more film ;)

Getting trapped for the second time

On the way back from Beppu to Tokyo, we got trapped the second time. That’s right. twice in two weeks!! This time it was inside the bullet train. We got hit by, guess what, a rain storm once again. It was raining so hard that the train have to fine a tunnel to hide in. Starting to sound like a cartoon now… Guess we are not the only one that needs shelter. The $9 playing card that Sam bought really pays off. I lost and still owe everyone a dinner.

Dinner was another amazing experience. It was, one of the best meal I’ve had in japan. We arrived at Tokyo close to 11:30pm. Almost everything was closed. All three of us was hungry as hell, so we ran into a AM/PM. God, they have these microwaved food. They are like heaven man. I got a omlet
rice. The rice was first fried with ketchup and wrapped in a perfectly cooked omlet skin, topped with beef in tomato sauce. I paid 445 yen for it and it came out steaming hot. I am not kidding. I would eat that over a Wollensky anytime … well, maybe Wollensky once in a while would be nice ;)

We end up staying at a capsule hotel for the night.

A culinary journey
One of the most amazing things about the trip to Japan is the food. When we were traveling from Tokyo to Beppu, I couldn’t help but notice the huge differences in the regional food. With a size not bigger than California, it is amazing that these differences are so apparent. One thing for sure is that Japanese, like the French, take pride in the origin of their produces. Even Calbee potato chips have special edition made with salt from different regions.

Japan is an island economy, which means for a long period of time, its population is fairly isolated. And for a long period of time, the feudal social system didn’t really encourage migration of people. So you end up with pockets of economy that depends heavily on its local produces and commerce. That on top of geographical limitation, you get a very interesting mix of food.

One thing we must not forget is the stickiness of cuisine from its origin. Even though Hong Kong is an international metropolis with much of its population coming from different regions of China, its main diet is still Cantonese cuisine. So it’s not surprising to find Tokyo and Kyoto having distinct differences in their’s food offerings. Being closer to the water, Tokyo’s diet (and much of its supermarket shelves) made up of mostly fresh fish and seafood, while vegetable and fruit command an astronomical price. A watermelon can set you back $100 USD, where the same green fruit only goes for $16 in Hiroshima. Arbitrage? Not with a 75lb backpack.

Kyoto on the other hand belongs to the Kansai region. A walk in their market you’ll notice the high number of stores specializing in pickled vegetable. However, they are very different from those in Takayama. Takayama locates between Kyoto and Tokyo in the mountain region. Because it doesn’t have access to sea water fish, their diet consists mostly of fresh water fish, miso, wild mushroom, wild ferns, beef and pickled vegetables. The majority of their pickled vegetables are root varieties. And they are only lightly pickled that much of the original taste remains. In Kyoto you can find pretty much everything under the sun being pickled.

In Kyoto, most of the fish consumed are either cooked or preserved; with the most popular item being broiled conger eel and salt cured saba pressed sushi. Dried fish was very popular too. I am suspecting it has a lot to do with military purpose. Back in the days, Kyoto is a strategic location for west Japan. While visiting the Hemiji Castle I was impressed by the ingenuity they put into incorporating the defense strategy into the building. Being able to control your food and water reserve is a very powerful tool from a military standpoint. Having preserved vegetable as your stable diet would allow greater mobility when deploying your troops and buy you valuable time in a enclosed defense.

Traveling to KoyaSan was not only a nice change of pace, but also an experience in culinary sense. KoyaSan is a Buddhist retreat build in the mountains. 3 transfer and 2 hours from Kyoto later, we arrived at KoyaSan. The air is crisp and clean, so as the food. One of its main diets is tofu, different kinds of tofu. Some are first dried, and then rehydrated; some are creamy and taste like milk; some have the taste of sesame paste. Other vegetables are cook with only a subtle taste, mostly with sake. You really need to clear out your mind to be able to taste it.

Traveling west we reached the China Perfection. It was named so for it proximity to mainland China. One would only expect this geographical proximity brings infusion of culture. You can definitely notice that in the food court. Instead of fresh fish or pickled vegetables, it was filled with pork and other seafood slow cooked in sweet soya sauce. Dumpling and sticky rice is very popular too. The taste of the food is definitely stronger. One of the dish in our dinner in Miyajima was a whole fish cooked in sweet soya sauce, something done very often to Chinese cooking. Later it strick me as strange, because the origin of these cooking usually comes from regions that are not able to get a fresh supply of seafood. Japan, esp Miyajima, being an island would never have that problem. Which further confirm that it has to be an outside influence.

Going further south we reached Beppu. The food…don’t even mention it. It was horrible. Being on a vocanic region, it relies heavily on geothermo energy. Which means a lot of cooking was done by the streams of hot springs. Everything taste like the water that you take your bath in. So they tried to cover up the taste by condiments such as mayo, whcih makes it even worst. The only thing that was good about the food in this place was its fruit. Vocanic soil is pretty much the richest soil you can ask for. But other than that, if you like the smell of sweaty feet, this would be heaven!

If you are willing to take the time to stop and listen to your food, it too will tell you a lot about the history of the place.