You're So Good at Chopsticks!

If you travel to China and Japan or any other country that uses chopsticks you’ll find the locals always compliment you on your chopstick use.

It’s like they think no one else in the world uses chop sticks to eat their ethnic cuisine.

They may also race over a fork, even if you haven’t yet picked up the chopstick, because your white skin shouts “I hate the sticks, gimme the metal.”

I’m not a big fan of chopsticks. I didn’t know how to use them effectively prior to my Asia trip. Nonetheless, I have come to appreciate their utility. Certain small nuts are well suited to the chopstick.

Still, all in all, it’s hard to beat the fork and knife combination when it comes to sheer versatility, grip, and predictability.

Day 11: Hiroshima, Japan

Spent an hour at the peace memorial and other than that chained to my hotel room writing my book.

Needless to say, to visit Hiroshima now is special given N Korea situation. The Peace Garden is OK, but the museum inside is moving (and disturbing). It was interesting to be snuggled in with all Japanese people watching a little film about when America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Outside it all there’s a "Flame of Peace" that won’t be extinguished until every last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed. Sadly, that day seems farther away than ever.
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Exploring the Japanese Alps — Takayama — Pictures Galore!

After Kyoto we trained several hours north to a small mountain town called Takayama. Did you know Japan has hikeable alps? Yup, and not only that, but our couple days there provided some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen anywhere.

Openair Our first afternoon there we went to an open-air museum. It was several cottages / houses nestled into the mountain all preserved as they were 50-60 years ago. Not a single nail; all wood, bark, grass, and bamboo. Quite beautiful. Sprinkled throughout were craftsmen carving wood structures or weaving blankets. The best part was the helpful and thorough English signs and materials which really enrich any experience when traveling.Img_1851

My Mom caught wind of a Mexican restaurant down the street from our hotel. We had dinner there. What a nice change of pace from fish! The food was so-so, but kudos to the owner who spent two months in Mexico, loved it, and now tries to make ends meet with this restaurant. I asked him if Mexican food was popular in Japan and he said "Hell no!". Everyone else in the restaurant (four people) were American tourists.

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The next day we took an hour long bus ride to the true Japanese alps. Stunning! We hiked for about five hours. The designated route worked out well. Very few Westerners; almost all Japanese people. Why aren’t the Japanese alps more known?

Mom and I approached the meaning of "lunch" a little differently for our hike. Her approach was to hoard some rolls and hard boiled eggs from the breakfast buffet. I advocated for the procurement of "substance," aka sandwiches and the like. In the end there were food outlets in the mountains and we bought some hot buns.

In the Alps we encountered one other American who seemed to always show up next to us out of nowhere. Kind of like that girl in San Sebastian, Spain. When we got off the bus the first time this American solo mid-30’s traveler magically appeared and asked us, "Wait is this the last stop?" We were as confused as he. For the bus ride back, Mom and I were waiting in line to board our bus, but there was confusion over which line was the right one and whether we had assigned seats. Suddenly the conductor called us over and everyone started speaking really fast Japanese to us. Then out of nowhere this American dude shows up — he was on the same bus back to the town — and asks nervously, "What the hell is going on here?" That’s when I started laughing — stick a fork in me — and Mom had to handle all further communications. Our final encounter was later that night in the town, he showed up next to us and took pictures of the parade. The Mom smartly noted that we only saw him because as some of the few white people in town, we stick out.

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After our long hike we both returned exhausted and headed to dinner. Takayama is known for their sake. I tried a local beer, Mom tried the sake. For food I had only one criteria: no do-it-yourself meal set-up like the people at the other table. I hate do-it-yourself. I ordered something that had no indication of do-it-yourself and sure enough 10 minutes I was presented with a grill and raw meat. Fuck! I spent the rest of the evening bemoaning my choice. The town parade of floats late that night picked my spirits up a bit, but then I had to return to hotel room to work on my book.

Meandma If you like the outdoors and are in Japan, GO TO TAKAYAMA! It kicks butt and isn’t in the tourbooks as much as it should be.

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Bye Bye Kyoto!

We spent the past four nights in Kyoto. Great city. If you visit Japan, Kyoto must be on the list. It’s the only city sparred from WWII bombing and as such its temples and gardens shine. The main tourist attractions are the temples / shrines. We did our fair share. We checked out a big castle that had hundreds of Buddhist statues — very cool — and lovely park outdoors. We checked out some temples that were surrounded with endless lush forest. Kyoto also has its fair share of high rises and neon lights. Finally, Kyoto has local cuisine that is quite tasty. Here are some pictures!

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Try to Pronounce This Street In Kyoto

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The Adorable Japanese Schoolchildren

The most pervasive element of Kyoto’s streets the past two days has been the Japanese schoolchildren, all dressed in their identical uniforms with the yellow hats as identifiable as blue UN helemets in the developing world.Img_1823

Outside some temple this morning a bunch of super short, probably 10 year old girls all dressed in a black uniform with pink umbrellas came up to me, turned around, and posed for the camera. They motioned for me to stay put, so I did and flashed a toothy smile. Afterwards they said in unison, "Thank you!". For the next hour I kicked myself for not asking the teacher to take another picture of us with my camera, mostly so I could track the height differential (I am heightist, after all).

Later, this afternoon, on a public bus, four school children boarded and were feeling goofy. Three girls and one guy. I watched them and got annoyed that the girls were picking on the guy. Tugging his backpack and the like. So being the Benevolant American Policeman that I am, I stepped into the line of fire so the girls would stop picking on the guy. They weren’t going to tug on my backpack. My Intervention saved the day for the cute little boy and the rest of his ride was in peace. Got to help a brother out, you know?Img_1834

Most Interesting Moment in Kyoto Today

We saw an elderly woman picking up trash in the streets using chopsticks. Yep, two chopsticks in her fingers going around picking up different pieces of trash.

Food of Japan

Simply awesome. Always presented in style. I’ll let this picture speak for itself. If you pull open that drawer you’ll find more food. In the bowel on the left there’s steaming rice. Hot sake in lower right hand mini glass, tea in upper left hand corner.

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Experiencing a Japanese Hot Bath

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We waved goodbye to Tokyo this morning and headed for Hakone, a small resort region a few hours outside Tokyo. Our Tokyo hotel room was the smallest I’ve ever stayed in, internet was broken, few of the staff spoke English, and we were the only non-Japanese guests. So, it was nice to head for a more luxurious setting! Our trek to Hakone could have gone better — it totaled four hours with lots of hassle.

But once here the setting takes your breath away. Absolutely stunning! The weather is perfect: clear skies, bright sun, mountain air, fields of green. I went for a run in the national park area. The park is totally clean with tons of trails and mini-shelters for stretching and meditating. True Japanese tranquility.

After my run I went into the hotel’s hot springs baths. There’s an inside bath and outdoors bath. These are famous in Japan and I’m glad I was able to experience one after our unsuccessful hunt for a "sento" in Tokyo.

First, I put on my kimono and walked downstairs to the bath area.Img_1788

Then, I stored my provided-sandals and towel in the locker area and stepped into the shower area. I read in the guidebook that you must scrub thoroughly and with lots of soap and then you must wash the soap off completely before entering the hot spring spa. No bathing suits or towels allowed — they want to maintain purity. I did that and then stepped into the stone bath. Lovely. There were only a couple of other Japanese men and we stayed focused on the relaxation effect.

The hot springs water didn’t strike me as too different from normal hot tub water but the whole atmosphere made it more special.

Afterwards I went to the shower again and washed off, as you’re supposed to do. In the locker, as I re-tied my kimono a 40-something Japanese man started talking to me in Japanese. I just smiled. He asked me another question. I just smiled. Then another phrase. "No Japanese" I said. "Oh! No Japanese!" he responded. And that was the end of it. It was the first time someone ever tried to speak Japanese to me proactively in a one-on-one setting (in restaurants and everywhere else they speak Japanese to you whether you can understand or not, and you just have to smile and nod). I guess I can pass as Japanese when I’m in the flesh!Img_1792

All in all, a Japanese hot springs bath experience is not to be missed on a tour of Japan.Img_1779

A Night at a Japanese Baseball Game

The other night I ate three hot dogs, nibbled on fried chicken, and sat back to enjoy a baseball game. America? No. Japan!

I had always heard the Japanese are obsessed with baseball and that it’s their #1 sport by far. After watching the Tokyo Swallows play their visiting opponent, I can certainly corroborate this rumor and even add to it: Japanese baseball fans far outdo American baseball fans in every dimension.

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First, baseball is baseball, same in Japan as in America. In Japan they use many English expressions (first base, second base, strikeout, catcher, pitcher, etc.) and play by the same rules. The difference is in the atmosphere of the stadium as the game is being played. Both teams had huge bleacher-seating fan sections all of whom cheered for every batter during every inning. This is not just random cheering, it’s highly organized. Think college football games, except pull people from all ages and demographics. Everyone had noise makers and shirts. Businessmen in suits pulled a jersey over their shirt and tie. Old women screamed their hearts out.

The collective nature of the cheering reflects Japanese culture of groupthink, not standing out, etc. I’ve never seen such a highly organized cheering machine in any other sports venue or game I’ve attended. Such a collective fan spirit means many people show up by themselves but instantly join in. The fans cheer while their players are batting. Then they sit down and are quiet the other half of the inning, again reflecting the Japanese value of respect and dignity for opponents.

Some other observations (I took some notes during the game):

  • The cultural-straddling is fascinating. After the ceremonial first pitch the catcher shook hands with the kid who threw out the ball. Shaking hands is unheard of in Japanese culture but they probably adopted an American custom.
  • One reason why the Japanese can invest so much pride in their baseball teams is they aren’t the minor leagues for other leagues. Europe football is the minor leagues for NFL. Since the MLB has its own minor league system, many of the best Japanese players stay in Japan and the fans know they’re seeing some of the best. In the seven innings I watched today I’d say the quality of play is at an MLB AAA minor league level, which is solid.
  • Some of their cheers integrate English phrases, which is funny. "Let’s go" or "Yokurma, Yokruma, He’s our guy". English is obviously an influential language especially since it’s baseball. But in California some foreign phrases have also entered the vernacular (Livin’ the vida loca or "rapido"). In CA Spanish is the dominant foreign language influence.
  • Globalization, globalization, I love it. In Japan, with non-English speaking fans saying "He’s our man," with Enrique Ingelsisas music playing on the stadium stereo.
  • After someone hits a homerun the fans for the Swallows all held up little umbrellas. Nice touch. See picture.

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